Archive for March 2012

Namibia (Mar 19 – 29)   5 comments

The Namib Desert

 

Finally, we have arrived in Africa. Our first stop was the former German colony of South-West Africa, now known as Namibia. After a few days in Windhoek we got our rental car, which was a Nissan Micra (small car which was an upgrade) with driver’s seat on the right and gear shift on the left. We headed out on the main highway, but after an hour of driving the road turned to gravel. Four more hours and we arrived at the small desert town of Sesriem in the heart of the Namib desert – oldest desert in the world; 50-80 million years old. The drive itself was very nice and we encountered a unique African scenery that we had yet to experience. We went from rolling hills to vast plains covered in small african trees.

Upon arrival we set up camp and headed out to a nearby gulch known as Sesriem canyon. It was formed by a flow of water that runs rarely, but during the rainy season.  This 1km long canyon was mostly dry with cliff walls reaching up 10-20 meters on each side. The bottom had a bit of plant life, but the most interesting part of the walk was looking at the walls which were made of clay and stone or solid rock with smaller crevasses carved through them.

That night as we camped outside the park gate we saw the best night sky we have ever seen. It seemed as though every star visible to earth was in the sky with the long blurry line of the Milky Way dividing the night sky in two. The next morning we entered the national park and headed to Dune 45 (above) where we climbed the steep ridge to sit on the pinnacle of the dune for the sun rise. As the sun came up the surrounding desert caught fire with the bright orange-red dunes that spread in every direction. As the sun rose higher we were in awe at the landscape of deep red dunes rising as high as mountains that were juxtaposed against the bright clear blue sky.

Farther down the trail we came to Sessusvlei where an ancient river used to flow through the desert and into the middle of the dune sea creating an ephemeral pan. While this was an impressive sight we were eager to see the next attraction, Deadvlei. After hiking 2km through a few more dunes we arrived at a large white clay pan dotted with dead acacia trees. Surrounding the flat pan are the tallest dunes in the world, measuring up to 300-400 meters tall. The colors of the white pan, dark brown trees, tall deep red dunes and bright blue sky merge together in such a surreal way that you feel as though you have been sucked into a Salvador Dali painting, missing only 200 foot tall elephants and clocks melting from the trees. After our trip to the desolate yet extremely beautiful desert we were ready for the wild animals of Etosha.



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Etosha National Park

We arrived in Namibia at the end of the wet season which is not the best for viewing wild life because of the high bush and ample water that makes watering holes superfluous. We had intended to stay for 3 days and 2 nights, however, we were cut short to 2 days and 1 night because of a flat tire. None of this mattered because the first day we saw an astounding number of animals.

As we entered the park we were greeted to our right by three giraffes grazing in the bush only a few meters from the road. Continuing on we set up camp and headed out where we saw many species of birds including one that looked to have a 6 foot wing span. As we drove through the park we would stop and scan the horizon often with the binoculars in search of animals. On one stop while looking in the distance we happened to catch a glimpse of a hyena about 10 meters from our car. We weren’t able to get a photo because it soon disappeared into the brush. Later, while looking in a tree at a large bird, I saw a brown mass bobbing through the tall golden grass which turned out to be a female lion walking toward the tree – again, no photo because she was out of range. A few hundred more yards up the road and we spotted a large adolescent male lion crossing the road. As we watched from a couple of feet away he walked to the side and stood there grunting. Later, from a couple of kilometers away we also saw a full adult male lion.

It was getting late so we headed back to camp for lunch. Along the way we saw the occasional springbok, zebra, gemsbok, ostrich and wildebeest, but when we arrived at a watering hole near camp there were scores of them all gathered in one place. Back at camp there was another watering hole where herds of these animals were all meeting to drink. They would stand around and wait for their turn. Once one herd would move out the next would flood into the watering hole a few feet and drink.

After lunch we headed back out, this time to the opposite end of the park. Here we saw large herds of zebra, springbok and gemsbok. As we drove they were scattered about the road giving us great pictures. We even came upon a train of 40 or so zebras walking in the middle of the road. Farther down we found a couple of zebra carcasses being devoured by groups of ravenous vultures. If we had been an hour earlier we could have seen a great show.

As we headed back for the night we came upon three female lions laying a few meters off the road. After watching them for a bit we headed back to camp where we grilled up some steaks (of one of the animals we saw that day, I have no idea which one) with some green beans and had a nice meal. The next day we saw giraffes and more zebra, springbok, gemsbok and wildebeest, but also some gazelle and kudu before our flat tire. Even with our bad luck the animals we saw the first day were amazing and worth the trip.

Feeding the cheetahs at one of our camp sites before the park

Gemsbok

Wildebeest

Ostriches

Watering hole just outside the camp

Zebras walking down the road

Three lions laying in the tall grass

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Posted March 31, 2012 by Magan and Brenden in Africa, Namibia

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Amazon Cruise (Mar 8-13)   3 comments

Brazil

The Amazon

Our journey down the Amazon began in the jungle metropolis of Iquitos, Peru. This is the largest town in the world you can’t drive to and is situated in the deep Amazon jungle on the edge of the Amazon basin. The streets were flooded by moto-taxis taking people where ever they needed to be for 2 pesos as well as the continuous rain that followed us. Travel tip: If a country has an entire season dedicated to rain, don’t go then. From Iquitos we took a fast boat down the river for a 12 hour ride to the border with Brazil and Colombia. Once through their jungle interpretation of border formalities we settled in a lovely hotel (probably Magan’s favorite) in the Brazilian town of Tabatinga.

Our first goal was to get a hammock and passage on board a boat that is heading to Manaus. The hammocks were no problem and we were lucky that the Voyager III was heading out the very next day. That day, however, turned out to be a long day of waiting and walking in mud and rain. Never the less we were soon in a mass rush to get through security (looking for colombian bam-bam) and on to the boat to find the best spot for our hammocks.

After our hammocks were hung and we had settled in amongst the scores of other hammocks hanging around us we began to feel relaxed. That evening we departed for a 3 1/2 day journey down the Amazon swinging in a hammock and finishing off a bottle of rum. The down side of the trip was, of course, the people. At various ports more people would join us and try to put up hammocks directly above ours. But with a little persuasion, they would move on. Despite a few annoyances the trip was great.

We spent our days gently swaying in our hammocks feeling a slow breeze blow past us keeping the bugs at bay. As we floated down the large ( at some points very wide) murky brown river we were surrounded by the beautifully green dense Amazon rain forest. The knowledge that we were floating in the largest river in the largest and least explored forest in the world gave our trip an air of adventure. At random points along the river we would see small huts miles from any town that would force us to wonder just exactly what it is they do.

The end of our trip brought us to the international port city of Manaus (hundreds of miles from the Atlantic) where two
rivers, the Negro which is a dark black and Solimoes which is a muddy brown, meet, but stay separated for miles because of their different speeds and consistency. Here we left our boat and prepared to leave the city for some much longed for clear weather.

Other Activities in South America

Potosi Mines

 

Potosi was once the richest city in the Americas thanks to its silver mines. Today, however, the silver is gone, but locals continue to mine what precious minerals are left. The working conditions (heavy lifting, toxic dust, high altitude, etc…) are such that our guide informed us that he knew only one miner in his 50’s.  Before we went we stocked up on small supplies to give to the miners as “gifts”. These included soft drinks, coca leaves and a Timothy McVeigh starter kit (dynamite,  ammonium nitrate and a fuse with blasting cap).

Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru

 

On the way to Lima we stopped in Huacachina for a couple of days and went sandboarding in the desert there.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

 

Before heading to Africa we spent about a week in Rio de Janeiro relaxing on the beaches and taking in the beautiful city. Above is the large statue that overlooks the city, Christ the Redeemer.

Inca Ruins (March 1-5)   1 comment

Inca Ruins

Arriving in Cuzco, Peru, after a brief layover at Lake Titicaca, we begin our exploration of the ruins from the once vast Inca empire. They were the strongest and largest group in South America, until the Spanish came and put a molly-woppin on them.

Starting in the area surrounding Cuzco we first came to the site of Saqsaywaman (pronounced: sexy woman, means: satisfied eagle) with it´s tall walls of gigantic stones. The entire area, which is only 20% of it´s original size, is covered in bright green grass with tall gray stone structures arranged on a hillside overlooking the city. Llamas, or alpacas, graze on the terraced hills that make up the main structures. We are impressed at the time and man-power it took to move the large stones to the hill they now rest on. Moving on we came to Qénqo. This is another ruin near the city, not quite impressive as Saqsaywaman, but interesting none the less. It is a large rock formation, with stone structures built up around it. All throughout there are passageways  carved through it´s heart, the main passage has a couple of chairs that seem to have grown out of the ground, made of solid rock.

Moving on, into the Sacred Valley, we travel down winding roads and through an area that looks very similar to Tuscany. Farther along we wind into a steep valley with tall mountains into the town of Ollantaytambo. The town itself is a great example of Inca city planning, and has been inhabited continuously for over 700 years. The stone streets line the valley floor flanked by small moats for run-off rain water. On the hills surrounding the city there are multiple structures perched overlooking the city. Climbing toward the ruins the steep path forks. To the right, a series of houses and squared off stone walls, to the left a large three-tiered building still very much intact only missing it´s thached roof. After reaching this building and looking down with a great view of the valley we wonder how often the former inhabitants made this trip up to their dwellings.

That night, after considerable delays due to mud-slides, we take a train up to the town of Agua Calientas where we catch a bus to the pinnacle of Inca ingenuity – Machu Picchu. The mountains in this area are even steeper than those in Ollantaytambo giving them the look of karst peaks. After a long road of switch backs we arrive at the cloud veiled entrance to Machu Picchu. Sitting at 2,430 meters it is easy to see why this place was never discovered by the conquistadors. It was built around 1450 at the height of the Inca empire, abandoned about 100 years later due to the conquistadors and discovered in 1911, considered the most complete and best preserved ruins in the western hemisphere.

When we arrived everything was veiled in cloud cover giving it an eerie feeling and the thought that we were alone on the mountain top. For the first hour we didn´t see many other tourists at all. We walked down trails feeling like we were the first ones in hundreds of years. At one vantage point called the House of the keeper of the Funerary Rock we saw the former city mapped out below us. Although the fog hindered our ability to take good photos it enhanced the feeling of adventure.

As we walked along the path ways through the city we would turn corners and see whole new sections open up before us. The grass was a bright green and sat in stark contrast to the gray stone work or buildings, temples and terraces covering the mountain. This is truly a marvel of engineering and man´s ability to create. We sat for a long time at the Funerary Hut pondering the reasons of Cloud City. Why was it built? More interestingly, how was it built? More intriguingly, why was it forgotten after the invasion of the conquistadors for hundreds of years? Finally, where was Lando Calrissian? Regardless, it is truly an amazing site.

(Saqusaywaman)

(Qénqo)

(Odd looking dogs)

(Ollantaytambo)

(Machu Picchu)

Posted March 17, 2012 by Magan and Brenden in Peru, South America

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World’s Most Dangerous Road (Feb 28)   3 comments

El Camino de la Muerte

(The World´s Most Dangerous Road)

The World´s Most Dangerous Road was built in the 1930´s by Paraguayan prisoners of war and winds down the steep Andes mountains from La Paz to Coroico. In 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank gave it the name “The World´s Most Dangerous Road” because of estimates that 200-300 people died annually while driving on the road. In 2006 a new road was completed by a Brazilian company that was much wider and took most of the traffic off of the old road. Only around 20 tourists have been killed on the road since 1998. The most recent, according to our guide, was a French girl (last May) who took the tour with a budget company. Coming around one of the hairpin turns her disc brakes came off her bike and she went sailing into the wild blue yonder.

The tour is a total of 64 kilometers, the first 20 of which are on the new paved road. This allowed us to get used to the bikes and adjust to the sharp turns that were to come. 90% of the trail is down hill and begins at an altitude of 4700 meters. We would descend from cool alpine forests down to tropical rainforests at 1200 meters, a total of 3.5 kilometers down from where we started.


At the start the views that surrounded us were amazing. Tall jagged mountains covered in dark green grass and low clouds interspaced with waterfalls rise up like walls around us funneling us toward our long anticipated road. After a quick blessing of the bikes with Pachamama (mother earth) and alcohol (96%) we head out. Zooming down the trail, passing the occasional car or truck, we come to a large turn and are met with a stark wall of white reducing our visibility to only a couple hundred feet. This serves as a good wake up for what is in store for us. Farther along we glide, through a drug check-point, and finally to a long dark tunnel (which we aren´t allowed to go through since someone ran into the wall and went into a coma for a few weeks) which serves as the starting point for the old road.

The old road is certainly narrower. Rough gravel, ravines, and baby heads (large 3-7″ diameter loose rocks) litter the road that is only about 3 meters wide on average. There are no guard rails and the previous night´s rain ensured a slick surface. As we begin our descent down the road adrenaline rushes into the blood stream. Flying down at what feels like 100 mph you are tempted to look over the edge where you see a sheer drop of over 600 meters. You know that death is assured, but would certainly be one of the better ways to go. At each turn you run the scenario through your head that one wrong turn, one large rock, or one second heading in the wrong direction could be your last.

The first few sections of the road were the most intense. We stopped a few times for pictures, horror stories and a couple of snacks, but most of the time was spent riding down the road. The group was quickly divided into two groups (three). The boys up front, a few seconds later the girls (followed by one girl who went about 5 mph the whole way scared to death). At one point we passed under a waterfall, soaking everyone, where the road whittled down to around 6 feet wide. At this point it began to rain making the road a nice wet and muddy trail interspaced with flowing streams testing your ability to handle the bike. As we gained confidence, and speed, the road seemed to get a little wider and the cliff face a little less steep.

Finally at the end we were ecstatic from the great views and large quantities of adrenaline still flowing through our veins. Magan and I agree that this was probably the best thing we have done so far. At the end we went to an animal reserve where we saw toucans, cockatoos, and monkeys. Here we had a nice pasta meal before heading back to town. All-in-all this was a great experience and should be on any itinerary for Bolivia.

Water fall over the road.                           River through the coca fields

Toucan and Cockatoos

Monkeys