Saturday, August 20, 2011

Final - Friendships

End of the trip at the Equator Monument

From my previous experiences on Hot Rock Africa, I knew that we would build strong friendships on the truck. The people that you travel with, live with and suffer with, will be friends for life. The fun times brings you together, but when you suffer together, that's what brings out the strong bonds.

And there has been suffering, which we have tended to gloss over in this blog. The hardships, the hunger, the cold, the dust, the wind and accidents, even including a death. The death was not part of our group, but we were closely involved in rescuing a drowning boy, but we could not revive his father even after several hours of trying.

Truck bogged badly on the Salt Flats

Sometimes the grind of the trip has brought us close to leaving the truck. But leaving the truck is not so easy - you can't just hail a taxi to the airport when you are camped in the middle of nowhere. The truck tries to keep a hold of you through the hard times so you can move forward to the good times. Even when we work hard, can be good times, like when we got bogged on the salt flats.

Rebecca and Bob finding the critical fence posts.

We had been bogged several times before, but getting bogged on a salt flat is different. You break through the hard crust into bottomless soft mud. The wheels dig down until the body of the truck rests on the hard crust and you are going nowhere. I expected it would take a large tractor to pull us out and in the 10 days we'd spent around this region we had seen none.

Me digging ramps for the wheels

It took teamwork and a bit of luck to drag the truck back onto solid ground. I started digging ramps to lift us back onto the hard crust; Simon jacked up the truck to lift the body; Jonny, Tim and Ken dug out clearance for the diff; while everone else scouted around for useful items. Our luck came in the form of a pile of rocks and fence posts 200 metres away. Everyone gathered rocks in whatever container they could find: shopping baskets, bar buckets, even our cooking pots were put to use.

Boys digging out the diff.

The critical component was the two fence posts that we placed under the main bogged wheels, then filled all the remaining spaces with the rocks. Finally with Andy's driving skills, learned from several previous boggings, along with everyone rocking and pushing the truck, we just managed to extract the truck the 5 metres onto hard ground. I felt that day we all came together as a team. If anyone had not helped, we would have been stuck on the salt flats for days. That's the type of incident that brings us all together.

Everyone helping with rocks

So we had no choice but to stay on the truck. We muddled through the hard times and events changed for the better.It binds us together and makes us feel it was right to make the commitment to keep on going. But we can't wait to get off the dammed truck, to have hot showers on demand, a real kitchen to cook in and a plush couch to sit on and to spend time out of the dirt.

The final push to get the truck out.

Check out our final video for the last drive day.

Friday, August 12, 2011


The cold Antarctic waters of the Humboldt current running up the west coast of South America makes this section of coast one of the driest regions on earth. We had been heading north for several months in this region and stuck in this endless desert. It was still cold and dry right up to 3 degrees south of the Equator.

Then we crossed over into Ecuador and within a few hours driving, the landscape had changed into rich jungle. Here the Homboldt current had finally met its match from the warm waters decending from the North. We drove pass km after km of banana plantations, Ecuador's major export, and then up into the steep forested mountains.

We visited three small climbing crags in Ecuador. The first, a small sports crag high on a ridge up a tight winding road where we had to jam our camp into a tiny switchback next to a fast flowing creek. Now in the tropics, it rained quite a lot and the truck soon gathered a good layer of mud. When the rain held off we managed a few days climbing as the rock would dry quickly in the hot sun.

The second crag was under the watchful eye of Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest mountain at 6,310 meters. We camped at a lazy 3,600 metres which gave us access to good sport climbing and a selection of trad cracklines. Again we worked aroud the rain to maximise the climbing oppuntines.

Our final crag was a huge sports climbing wall next to a raging river. The was one of our best camping spots. We camped on the river's edge and it was an easy, if a bit muddy, 5 minute walk to the base of the crag. We managed a day climbing and there was potential to do more, but after 7 months we had just about had enough of climbing. So we enjoyed the excellent campground while Ee Fu baked cinnamon scrolls on the gas cooker.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hatun Machay

The stone-walled enclosure at Hatun Machay is supossed to keep the cows out of the camping area. However, the cows seem to believe in the saying that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. By morning, all the cows are inside the enclosure. Luckily for us we had secured a small alcove off to the side of the main enclosure and with a little rock work it turned out to be cow-proof.

Camping encloure with out tent on the alcove to the left.
Those unlucky Hot Rockers in the main compound had to suffer restless nights with cows tripping over their guy ropes ripping their tents. Having cows keeping them awake with their noisy chomping of grass and doing that other thing that cows tend to do that you don't want to stand in.

Hatun Machay is one of the best crags we have climbed in South America. The rock is sandstone of excellent quality with wind-blown delicate features. The crag is nestled in a small valley adjsent to the main valley down to Huaraz. The main valley is cut with a fast-flowing river with impressive snow-capped peaks to the east.The colours of the rock and the high alpine sky make my photos jump out with impressive detail. It's what you'd expect that South American mountains should look like.

The crag is located at 4200 meters above sea level which is just below the snow level at this latitude. However, once the sun goes down we have to put up with washing our dishes in water that turns to ice before our eyes and all our tents have a thick coating of ice in the morning. But the sun rises early and the temperature is excellent for climbing by 9am.

But we have some luxury here as there is a well-built refugio with bunk beds for 20, and a good kitchen and living area. We can cook out of the wind and there's a fire to keep us warm before we retire to our tents. This makes the hours after sundown much more enjoyable and we stay up well past HRBT (Hot Rock Bed Time of 9pm) to enjoy the fire.

The first day we arrived was Marese's birthday, so we climbed the nearest peak to 4800 metres to give us spectacular views down the main valley and picnicked on a warm rock out of the wind.

As for the climbing, it is exceptional. There are enough well-bolted sports routes to keep any climber happy for weeks and there is huge potential to put up thousands more routes. Everyone enjoyed the climbing as you can see in the video. We can see that this will become a major climbing destination in the future and we can enjoy it now while it is not so crowded. Maybe in the future they will make the stone wall higher to keep out the cows!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Donde esta la fiesta?

South America, land of the siesta and the fiesta. While we'd often been at the mercy of the former when desperately seeking groceries, postage stamps and truck parts, we hadn't, in 6 months in Latin America, managed to glimpse so much as a sequin. Where was the music, the colour, the sparkle...cue the dancing girls already!

We missed the Oruro Carnaval by two days in our effort to make our Machu Picchu train booking on June 19, which we'd managed to time precisely to miss the winter solstice festival scheduled there for June 24.

So imagine our delight when we arrived into Cusco from Machu Picchu around midday and saw a massive hairy spider and a towering warlike hombre brandishing a weapon... We followed the trail of freakishly large evil-looking things to their natural source - a parade!

Never has viewing a parade been easier - we had a good foot on anyone in the large crowd of spectators in their ponchos, bowler hats and colourful blankets. We watched the parade from the side of the street, then from the lovely main square flanked by ornate colonial buildings, then from a restaurant balcony overlooking the square where we ate lunch as the parade paraded below us. After lunch, we reluctantly left the parade to check into our hostel.

An hour or so later, we returned to the square where the parade was still in full swing with brass band after brass band enthusiastically belting out the same four bars of vaguely discordant music. Left to explore the town for a couple of hours and returned to a continuing stream of still-enthusiastic brass bands and dancing folk in colourful costumes.

Later that evening, we ate a leisurely dinner before making our way back to the main square - and the continuing parade. Sheepishly we wandered back to our hostel, comprehensively outdistanced by chaotic groups of small children in oversized hats and shiny prickly costumes who, judging by the number of parade entries still lined up in the side streets, would be up past midnight, well after we were tucked up with our bunny rugs.

Next morning, we were greeted with the groggy sounds of a city awakening. The low rumbling of early morning truck deliveries, the feeble crowing of learner roosters, and the dull clatter as the city stirred awake, accompanied by the blare of trumpets and clash of imperfectly timed cymbals...cue the dancing girls....

A few photos until we have time to write a blog entry..

Haraz Peru.

Nasca and mud

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Happy Trials

Our hostel in La Paz, Bolivia, was an oasis of walls and plumbing after many days of camping, It was in a top location - near the town centre, a great mixture of cosmopolitan captial city and traditional Bolivian town, and overlooked a lovely plaza where locals milled about, practiced dance routines, and bussed in to see their incarcerated loved ones in the large grey prison directly across the square from our hostel.

Enjoyed La Paz so much we didn't want to leave...and nearly didn't. I had finally surrendered to an inevitable bout of stomach ickiness that made the planned 6 hour drive to Puno, in Peru, seem...ummm...unenticing. So Martin and I decided to wait a day for me to recover before taking an express bus all the way to Cusco and meet the others there - a 12 hour ride.

Fortunately, the very recent general strike on transportation out of La Paz had ended. Unfortunately, Canada had, inconveniently, chosen this time to remove large tracts of Peruvian soil, and the Peruvian government had chosen to let them, against the will of many folks who were perfectly capable of building sturdy roadblocks by way of registering their disapproval. So we bought bus tickets as far as Puno via Copacabana with no guarantees the roads would be open beyond that.

The 3 hour bus ride to Copacabana dumped us near the Bolvian-Peruvian border, and we readied ourselves for the next 3 hour bus to Puno. Er...the next 3 hour bus to Puno? Not today, folks. No one was getting through the roadblocks but you could bypass them with a mere 10 hour boat ride on Lake Titicaca the next day.

Discovered a couple of stray HotRockers, Rolf and Nick, who were similarly stranded so the next day we all bundled aboard a bus to the border then a minibus to the boat. The minibus disgorged us at the edge of the lake where a gaggle of confused gringoes lingered on the shore watching locals bailing out the dilapidated wooden rowing boats that we were to climb aboard for the trip out to a couple of alarmingly small day-tripper boats. Once the boats had been loaded to capacity and, to boroow from Buzz Lightyear, beyond, we set off for 10 hours on a small boat, rarely in sight of land, with no onboard entertainment and no food service. We split a packet of Pringles and a couple of packets of biscuits between the four of us for the 10 hour journey. It was...long.

Nine and a half hours into the trip, another boat pulled up next to us under cover of darkness. Our excess passengers were moved steathily to the adjoining boat, which was lashed to our boat and stayed there as we quietly motored in, without running lights, to the dock. We were met by touts who helped us collect our luggage and melt into the night.

Two hours in Puno to get money, eat and use the bathroom before climbing aboard yet another bus for the 12 hour overnight bus to Cusco, usually a 6 hour drive. We arrived in Cusco, two hours too late for our train to Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes). What to do? Martin recruited a very accomodating, although non-English-speaking, tourist policeman who was more than happy to advise us and insisted on having his photo taken with me as he diligently pointed out where to go on the city map.

A mere hour and a half hair-raising downhill taxi ride to Ollantaytambo, followed by a 2 hour scenic train journey on the Machu Picchu choo-choo and we made it. Hiram Bingham had it easy...

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Slam Dunk

Dry Dusty towns

We left the vast sparkly whiteness of the salt flats, destined for Oruro, a dusty brown mining town of 250 000 at 3700 m above sea level. En route, we passed through several small towns, invariably ramshackle affairs with dirt roads and earth-coloured adobe buildings in various states of decrepitude, some with a small brown town plaza but few other signs of public life and little movement or colour. Everything was the same dull grey-brown as everything else and the towns seemed almost deserted, melting into the desert that surrounded them.

We noted with surprise that the first town we passed through had a basketball court in the centre - an odd addition to a town that lacked any other discernbile services. As we drove on, town after town each presented us with a shiny new basketball court, pristine and, as far as we could tell, unused. I later pointed to one of the courts and asked a local if basketball was popular in Bolivia - it seemed odd for a nation of people who would be dwarfed by the average Australian 12 year old - he shook his head, "no", he said, "everyone plays soccer"...

Camping above the basketball court

We hit Oruro in the afternoon and it was bedlam - colourful, busy, bedlam. Pimped out minibuses with bling hanging from the mirrors trundled through, horns bleeping, while women with long black braids wearing bowler hats perched atop their heads sold all manner of items from brightly coloured blankets by the side of the road. We wound our way through the bustling town to the climbing area near the mine and ended up camping on a small exposed platform directly behind the inevitable basketball court.

We were adopted by three sisters who lived, with their ninos and their two brothers, across the road from the basketball court. They were so sweet and generous, inviting us back to their small living room afternoon after morning after afternoon, plying us with Bolivian treats and enthusiastically accepting our clumsy manglings of their native tongue - they were something special...amigas para siempre.

Oruro town

In fact, the entire under-18 population of the town embraced us, with an ever-increasing number of kids gathering around the smelly gringoes in the big red truck. Each afternoon, kids would drift up to the truck, the braver ones trying out their English and venturing to the doorway of the truck, while the timid types stood apart, jostled each other and giggled. The friendship was solidified with an intense high-altitude soccer match where a bunch of panting gringoes were trounched by a gaggle of 4 foot tall youngsters. The game was played, naturally, on the basketball court.