Friday, 12 April 2013

Patagonia: somewhere in the middle of nowhere

As I sat hunched up in a culvert pipe under the road as a storm raged above I did start to question what I was doing with my life

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Tierra del Fuego: Guanacos, Gauchos and Gravel

I felt a gnawing emptiness within me as I left the sanctuary of the campsite perched high up on the hill of Ushuaia overlooking the frigid waters of the Beagle Channel, surrounded by mountains whose peaks just a week earlier had been bare with a postcard prettiness about them, yet now seemed menacing, daubed in snow, shafts of light piercing them through a squally sky
. I was not meant to feel like this. I was leaving the 'end of the world' and a whole continent and another 12,000km lay ahead of me, I had to be up for the challenge yet all I felt was dread and apathy. 

I struggled with my thoughts as I made my way to the waterfront to take the obligatory photograph of Ushuaia's 'fin del mundo' sign. Cruise ship passengers in pastel jumpsuits and large sunglasses swept past me in a fleeting cloud of duty free perfume, jewelled knuckles clutching garishly expensive handbags, spare hands frantically patting down stiff lacquered hair as the Fuegian wind raged. In a hustle of people I felt so very alone and this isolation and loneliness crept up on me and before I knew it I was engulfed: no-one smiled at me, no-one spoke to me yet why should they? I made no eye contact: I was sullen, detached, afraid. What was I expecting? champagne corks popping, beatific faces, lingering embraces and encouraging words as I set off to cycle my 4th continent?

Evidently I did . 

As I left the crowd and cycled to the outskirts of Ushuaia along a littered highway lined with drab and dusty container yards, trucks thundering past sucking me in then spitting me out on to the gravel shoulder my mood suddenly changed from an unexpected source..

Sunday, 10 March 2013

New Zealand: the Pinball Cyclist

Rather than one of my usual tales about a Honey Seller's bottom or a near mental breakdown in China  I thought it may be a pleasant change to try and sum up almost 6000km of a journey through New Zealand in one blog post with a few pretty pictures and a few words.

Looking at my map on Social Hiking one may wonder if I had no clue where I was heading in New Zealand and I can safely say yep, one is absolutely right! I sometimes feel a bit inadequate when I've peeked at other cyclist's blogs and seen magnificent spreadsheets detailing their plans filling me with admiration.. and fear! Yet I decided to not let it bother me and as I had a few months to explore this country while waiting for extortionate air fares to South America to lower I set off with a view to get to the south island and well.. just go where the wind took me.

What I learnt very quickly is that there is a reason people 'plan'. Planning would have been good for Tajikistan - arriving to cycle up to 4655m in the Pamirs at the beginning of winter could have been avoided with foresight yet  it did turn out to be a great adventure despite having to get rescued

Saturday, 2 March 2013

New Zealand: Helmets, Hitchcock and Binges

Having not looked at a mirror that morning I peered into his aviator shades sheltered under a peaked hat and in the sepia reflection self consciously readjusted the bandana covering my head. The policeman interrupted my preening with a slight cough and my eyes were drawn to his lips, the upper remained taut in a permanent smile yet the lower did the moving above the cleft chin.  His skin perfectly tanned. 
Good god you look like one of the Thunderbird puppets I thought as he continued
"Do you know why I have stopped you?"
Now which one do you look like? Scott or the one beginning with V? it was Scott wasn't it? Scott Tracy? yep must be..
"No, I'm sorry no idea at all" I lied having watched him pass me going the opposite direction in his patrol car on the deserted road as I'd left the Marlborough Sounds on a sunny but frosty day and winced as I watched again as he returned, pulled into the side of the road and flagged me down.
"You're not wearing a helmet. It is the law in New Zealand to wear a helmet, you know that don't you"

I am shockingly one of those people who feel they have a right to choose whether they wear a helmet or not. It's not a big, clever or insightful statement, it is just me being me and you can throw all the statistics you want at me and I know wearing one has saved people's lives, friend's lives even. Maybe having cycled from an early age an eon before people wore helmets or squeezed lumpy flesh into unflattering lycra, where mending a puncture in the back garden was a thrice weekly pastime at the age of 10 is my reason, but this is not a discussion for this blog post. It is just me. 

I thought back to the helmet I'd bought for this journey while I prepared my reply. It had ridden with me for 12,000 km on the back of my bicycle. I'd worn it twice, once with James a cycling buddy for a week in Turkey for a steep downhill after we'd consumed 4 beers then found out we couldnt camp at the top of the hill we were on and once in Hungary when camped in the countryside I watched with alarm as 2 wild boar stampeded past within a whisker of my tent. My slumber reassuringly more comfortable in the knowledge I was tucked into my sleeping bag wearing my helmet should these beasts return and have no night vision. In the end my helmet and I parted ways in a small town in the Taklamakan Desert in China, confusing an old man in a ramshackle bike shop by thrusting my helmet upon him as there was no room for it with all my winter supplies loaded onto my bike nor on my head with all my layers on for cycling in -25'C . Arriving at Auckland airport I saw the sign "$200 fine" for not wearing a helmet. I bought one immediately.

Ok, deep breath and Oscar performance. "Oh gosh" I said patting my head, "where is it?" His perfect chiseled chin lifted slightly in a 'don't try and pull this one on me' confrontation. I blundered I flustered I pleaded as I undid the helmet from the back of my bike and plonked it on my head leaning towards him for another glance at my aviator shade image to ensure it wasn't askew. 

"Do you often cycle without a helmet?" 
"well for the last 26 countries yes! (hmm.. too aggressive). Until I arrived here and I bought one and I've worn it every time but today I visited Pelorus Bridge and I went for a walk and forgot to put it back on. "

That was the truth apart from the 'forgetting to put it back on' bit. I just wanted a day without it. What I didn't mention to him was the relief I'd found in wearing a helmet in New Zealand

The first assault on my head had scared the life out of me. Cycling along a quiet road in wind and rain and then something hit my helmet. I continued, a little unsettled, but dismissed it thinking it must have been a twig or something in this high wind. 2 minutes later my head jolted again and so the assault continued at regular 2 minute intervals for 5km. A few cars passed me but did nothing. Surely surely they can see what is happening I thought as once again I was hit and I stopped to confront my aggressor.

Nesting territorial magpies: the bane of my cycling life in New Zealand during spring time. The worst attack was a 30km stretch before reaching the town of Bulls (incidentally a remarka-bull town where they have insisted on coining everything in the town with a bull attached. The police station "const-a-bull" ,the public toilets "reliev-a-bull", the estate agents "Move-a-bull"..) where these evil Hitchcock film re-enactment birds attacked relentlessly. There was evidently some Magpie Neighbourhood Watch in place as once I'd finally escaped the territory of one nesting pair the residents of the next 3km had been alerted and would begin their attack. I turned to rather aptly named Twitter for assistance. "Turn and face the bird", "wear sunglasses on the back of your helmet", "stop cycling", "Just come home" were some of the helpful tips. Probably the best solution to the problem I saw was a girl on her roadbike, tanned, slim and streamlined in red and black lycra and sporting a helmet with what looked like her grandmother's stash of knitting needles poking out from the top. 

Realising the policeman was not going to wallop me with a $200 fine I succumbed to the fact his face was actually rather agreeable and he asked about my trip and wished me good luck for the rest of my journey. As he seated himself into his car he leaned out of the window and said "Enjoy the rest of your chocolate!" and drove off.

Chocolate? I hadn't mentioned chocolate. I'd babbled a lot but I hadn't mentioned chocolate and certainly not the secret compulsive consumption of the 750g of Nutella I had finished that morning after only 2.5 days. Oh no surely not..

I searched frantically in my handlebar bag for my mirror and found it wedged between my journal entries of 8th and 9th September. I held it up before my face and - with no sepia tinge to hide behind - there it was, the tell-tale chocolate smile from a frenzied spooning of 250g into my mouth that morning. Yet worse was to come as I saw the results of a succession of failed footballer's nose blows leaving a snail-like trail from my nose, across my cheek, before coming to a glistening finale on my right shoulder. 

I had to face the truth I would never have the same etiquette and class as Lady Penelope..

A birthday cake I made from my 2nd 750g jar of Nutella

Like a painting. exploring the marlborough sounds

camouflaged camping
Exploring Queen Charlotte Sound

Pelorus Bridge: scene in the Hobbit where the dwarves escaped in barrels down the river

Friendly locals helping me with dinner..
and the washing up
Marlborough Sounds. Sailing across to New Zealand's south island

The Police Station in the quirky town of Bulls

Note: I am still wearing my helmet on busy roads here in South America

Friday, 1 March 2013

New Zealand : Avalanches and Arrests

As days go this was turning out to be not one of my best ones. I was wedged up to my chest in boulders of ice and snow. My right arm forced aloft, high above my head, hand clutching my walking pole as if in some excalibur re-enactment, a hand rescuing it from misty waters. Damn. The fall into the snow had caused my rucksack to ride up my jacket and it now pressed into the back of my skull, its straps digging into my armpits like a pair of  helping hands trying to prise me out of my icy hole. My right foot was in mid-air, a gap between the snow and the river whose roar I could still hear beneath the avalanche debris field I was on..or should I say in! My left foot was on something solid, a rock, maybe. I shifted my right foot across to join its companion and stood there, encased in snow thinking hmm this is rather misfortunate.

There is something to be said about travelling alone. I never really seem to panic that much. When there's only yourself to contend with things just need to be dealt with instinctively without all the drama that 2 heads may create and my mishaps (to me) become amusing rather than frightening, (or maybe that's just the way I cope with coping) and as I stood there hapless and encased - yet fairly cool and comfortable (apart from the strangling rucksack) having worked up a bit of a sweat on my ascent - I wondered why the 2 young men I'd seen hiking in the opposite direction hadn't warned me there was an avalanche field to cross. At that moment I heard more rocks and snow crashing down from the gully above and then it slowly began to dawn on me, the avalanche had just happened and was still happening. Ok time to get out of here.

I recalled my uncontrollable giggles once watching Harry Hill's comments on BearGrylls trying to get out of an ice hole and with that I, with a swimming action, a flurry of arms, a kick of the legs, belly slapping and intermittent grunts in a manner as cumbersome as the fur seals I’d seen lumbering over the rocks of Kaikoura, flopped out of my icy tomb on to the cold surface and cautiously slid and scrambled over the snow blocks to the safety of the tussocked slope.

The exertion had made me hungry. I sat looking wistfully at the avalanche debris and the Blue Lake beyond, so close yet it now seemed unattainable but maybe after a bowl of pasta I'd feel reenergised and could find another way to cross that was not going to result in me falling through the snow again and deposited this time into rapids for a white water adventure. I’d hiked for 3 days through mossed forests of beech, tripping over the roots, wading through streams, clambering over rocks, keeping warm at nights chopping logs for the woodburner stove in backcountry huts - shared once with a hunter and his gun and the other with a family of mice - to see this remote Blue Lake in the Nelson Lakes area of New Zealand's South Island. A lake so pure and clear that there is a visibility of up to 80m.

 It was thanks to being 'arrested' that I’d had this opportunity to leave my bike and explore by foot...

“Yes, we’re arresting this girl. Interpol have been after her for illegal camping around the world for over a year and half” boomed the stentorian voice of Greg from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation to the confused young German man in a striped beanie who watched as my bicycle and panniers were loaded into a pick up truck.

 I'd returned to my tent hidden in the trees of St Arnauds magnificent lakeside to find a message pinned to my tent
My temporary home had been spectacular while it lasted. I was unused to rules and regulations in New Zealand having always had to wild camp where possible on this journey and in need of free accommodation more than ever now that my bank account was empty. Yet it wasn't just about it being free, it was about being among the nature, the solitude and away from the ubiquitous white campervans and boggy campgrounds

I wasn't proud of my reaction to the "stop squatting on our land note" nor for my frustrated plea interlaced with a rant about trying to cycle round the world on a budget of zero when Greg came to check if I'd moved. I knew it was my fault and problem and not his of course but he saw my desperation and said look I know a place where you can freedom camp, let me drive you there. After my bicycle and panniers were loaded into his van we left the young German still standing there perplexed with his uneaten bowl of spaghetti in hand. Greg was silent for a while as we drove away from the lake then
Look I cant let you camp the weather is going to be bad. Come and stay with me and my family.

And so it was that I stayed in the garage of this wonderful family who fed me, washed my stinking muddy clothes, shared their lives with me and then lent me some tramping gear so I could make the most of the area when the weather improved and showed me the route I could take to reach the mysterious Blue Lake.

Pasta I need pasta! I was feeling the cold now and probably a little shaken from my snow hole encounter. I reached into my rucksack for my other food bag having split the supplies in two: for the journey to the Blue Lake and for the return. There is one thing I can't abide and that is people who are ill-prepared for a hike, mountain trip whatever. People who forget vital clothing, run out of food, rely on others for a rescue that they themselves could have so easily prevented. Digging deeper I found nothing only the empty bags of my walk-in supply. Panicking I emptied my rucksack. No food bag. My vocal reaction was lost to the deafening roar of the Sabine River that hurtled past beneath me. Idiot I muttered more audibly as I recalled trying to clear up my pannier explosion in the garage as I packed my bags for the trip. I must have packed my food supply into my pannier.

Unable to reach the Blue Lake hut due to the avalanche and realising it was folly with no food too, my other option was a hut across the raging river yet, as luck would have it the river had washed away the bridge! I stared at this torrent of water through the beech trees knowing I could not attempt a river crossing alone at this point so I reached for a few leaves, stuffed them in my pocket and dejectedly began to retrace my steps.

If you've ever wondered, chewing on beech tree leaves is, I imagine, similar to popping a hardened piece of chewing gum that you've had to chisel off a pavement outside of Tesco's into your mouth.

I was fortunate to meet 3 guys in a hut the following night who - trying hard to hide their 'what an idiot, shouldn't be allowed out in the hills' expressions - generously shared some couscous with me, yet were unable to spare any further food for my walk-out.  It was 2 days later that I reached the village of St Arnaud.

"Hey Jilly is steak and sausage and chips ok for you tonight" boomed Greg handing me a beer as I came out of the shower..

Oh go beech leaves any time...

Eternally grateful to the lovely Carter family!

Sunday, 10 February 2013

New Zealand : Tongariro National Park & the 'F' Word

'Wh' is pronounced 'F' in Maori which until I discovered this and in addition to me either anglicising every Maori place name or giving it an inexplicable Italian twist meant that no-one understood where I'd visited, nor where I was requesting directions to and when someone asked whether I'd been to "X" I had no idea if I had or not

After this revelation I impulsively decided to cycle to an unnamed ski village some 7km uphill from Whakapapa on Mt Ruapehu (2797m) the highest mountain of New Zealand’s North Island. The word became my mantra as I battled a relentless headwind of ascent in freezing temperatures, sharp fingernails of rain tearing at my exposed face. I shouldn't have been that surprised, this was New Zealand and I was already losing count of the severe weather warnings I'd cycled or camped in

With visibility at 10 metres a car slammed on its brakes in front of me just before my turn off to the high mountain road. In what had now turned into horizontal hail I saw the shape of a lady wrapped in cerise emerging from the door, hurriedly pulling a jacket over her head.

“You ok?” she shouted above the volcanic roar of the wind. “Where are you going? Let me give you a lift, you'll catch your death.” she said peering at the 35kg of my life stuffed in 6 bags strapped to my bicycle.

“Going to..”- I hesitated - “Fuka.. Fak..Fakapapa” I stuttered .

She gave me a strange look. “Where?”

 ”Fak.. National Park Village” I lied and feigning cheer continued “I'm ok, all downhill from here.”

With a nod and the uncertain smile of someone who is not sure if they have just been insulted she returned to the warmth of her car and drove off.

I shivered and looked around. The stunning view of Tongariro National Park was out there somewhere. I'd seen it just 2 days before when complete with ice axe and crampons I'd traversed the Tongariro Alpine Trail, closed half way due to the previous month's eruption of Mt Tongariro. In fact I did it the following day too having been fortunate enough to be invited back as a mountain guide for a group of clients for the day.

Frozen directions to the Summit

 This was Lord of the Rings territory: Mt Doom (Mt Ngauruhoe) dominated the view with its perfect conical shape; the volcanic rock and craters now under a scape of hard ice and snow. This lava plateau wilderness was surrounded by swathes of flax and tussock, alpine herbs and flowers straining to be seen in early spring on the edges of black beech forests.

Some 2 hours of crunching gears uphill later and on the verge of hypothermia I finally saw shelter in the form of ‘Tussock Bar’ as I entered the ski village of Whakapapa. People turned their heads and stared as I entered. “Are you ok?” ventured one. “We passed you” chipped in another “You're mental!”

I nodded in agreement and walked towards the open fire to wait for Tom, the mountain guide, whom I'd convinced to let  me stay in the ski lodge he was custodian of as I'd decided cycling the height of Ben Nevis was quite enough for one day. Having agreed with the barman that I could leave my bike in the bottle store for a day and while waiting for Tom I thawed out by the fire and wrote a few words in my journal.

A few days ago while reading my journal for some tales to tell on my blog I was amused to see my journal entry for that day was simply "Cycled up to Whakapapa. Whaking soaked!"

A huge thanks to David, Tom, Karlee & Josh of Ruapehu for some great memories and the members of the lodge for making me so very welcome

Saturday, 9 February 2013

New Zealand and Indonesia : Fallen fruit

The roads in New Zealand have the same surface as a cheese grater: hmm this is going to be interesting I thought the split second before I hit the tarmac at 30km an hour.  My bicycle on top of me,  a front pannier some 10 feet away teetered on the edge of the bridge.  I winced as I peeled my knee from the road. I looked at the lumpy patch of red left behind and watched intently as it shrivelled and darkened on the warm tarmac. An irrational craving for black pudding entered my thoughts .

I moved quickly - alert now to the blind corner with the cluttered array of warning signs I’d chuckled at as I sped downhill and hit the bridge - retrieved my indecisive pannier from its own adrenaline fuelled freefall into the glacial river below and began pedalling as blood poured from my knee before coming to a sticky rest between my toes. I had been fond of that piece of skin that used to cover my knee and my thoughts were dragged back to a previous cycling accident I’d had some years earlier when I’d landed on my face: my mouth had been open at the time in a ‘look at me I’m flying’ wonderment and I remember the nurse shaking her head in disbelief as she plucked out gravel embedded on the inside of my mouth and tongue. The tarmac on that day had claimed part of my right nostril and skinned the bridge of my nose and I had fought the urge to return to the scene of the accident to search for those missing bits of flesh and to have them stuck back on..

After 20km I spied a lake, pitched my tent, bathed my wound in the water, extracted some gravel and got out my first aid kit. Bandages, where are my bandages? It was then I remembered the incident with the Durian fruit in the Harau Valley, Sumatra..

I’d crossed the Equator that day in Sumatra as I snaked my way up the 900m pass. I'd studied pedantically my GPS, I had to find the exact point of the equator, even retracing the last few metres until my geographical co-ordinates fetish was entirely satisfied as I watched my SATMAP Active change from N000.00009 to S000.00006.  Marvellous I thought then I looked up from my handlebars and saw a globe marking the spot on the side of the road, entirely unexpected in this untouristed hillside village. This concrete structure had adhered to all the architectural  rules of Sumatra: stained, crumbling and graffitied. They'd even ensured that the concrete surrounding wall  had been ceremoniously knocked down by a wayward truck. 

I was tired, the night before I'd pitched my inner tent on the seating area of a roadside shack at the start of the hill climb. It was peaceful as the sun set, and as the family broke their Ramadan fast I settled down to sleep. Peaceful is not a word I usually associate with Sumatra and it was soon disassociated. Throughout the night the tinny radio increased in volume, I would open bleary eyes and see, above my mesh ceiling, a display of toothy smiles from the truckdrivers in a haze of smoke as they sucked on clove cigarettes and gathered around to see the curious sleeping foreigner in her mesh abode. "Hello Mister" they'd shout just centimetres from my face. Resisting the urge to say "will you shut the.." I would lift my arm in the weariest manner I could muster and feebly wave back at them before feigning the deepest slumber again

Finally I reached the top of the pass and began a cautious descent as they'd decided to blow up the mountain on the other side. 2 dogs leapt at me from a shack and began chase while I dodged debris, trucks and mopeds as I fumbled for my dog dazer.

It was then I noticed the dancing policeman. The road beneath me was now clear of trucks and there on the next hairpin was a policeman looking up at me excitedly, wiggling his hips and doing that stirring a pot motion with his upper body. "Hello Mister!" I reached for my camera and he wiggled his hips with gusto and gave me the thumbs up. However frustrating the travel and the noise was in this country, every encounter made my heart smile.

After the 100km and 1500m of climbing up then down I'd reached Western Sumatra. The fabulous Minangkabau architecture of timber framed houses adorned with buffalo horned roofs were surrounded by deep green palms and vibrant  paddy fields. 


I decided to head towards the Harau Valley and relished in the changing landscape and the blissful reduction of noise

I found a delightful bamboo hut to stay in deep in the valley and it was there I met Ollie a 20 year old fellow Brit, the first westerner I'd seen in Sumatra.  We chatted for a while until I was overcome by the day's exertion and retreated to my bed for a short nap.

I was woken from my exhausted state by the cry of Ollie. The words Durian, accident, child, face, first aid, filtered through the bamboo slats of my hut and I leapt from my bed, emptied my pannier, retrieved my first aid kit and sped over to the small crowd that had gathered some 20 metres away. A man held a young girl, about 5 years old, in his arms, the right side of her face lacerated by the fallen fruit of the Durian.

Durian: a notorious fruit, both revered and abhorred, the Marmite of the South East Asian fruit world. The soft creamy pungent fruit emits an odour akin to my hiking boots mixed with rotting roadkill to some and an irresistible exotic fragrance to others. The fruit that is often banned in public buildings and on transport  is encased in a formidable thorny husk and should this 1-2kg of fruit fall from the tree and hit you in can result in a nasty injury.

Ollie had seen it happen, he'd picked up the screaming girl and ran with her back to where we were staying, the only tourists in the stunning Harau Valley. Do something for her please the workers had insisted. I washed her wounds, pulling out two thorns embedded into the side of her face as she lay there brave with not a murmur, fearful yet trusting ebony eyes never leaving mine. With two first aid kits we disinfected and clumsily bandaged and the girl was carried away on a moped to be reunited with her parents.

After sunset and a meal of nasi goreng Ollie and I sat under a blanket of stars, sipping a local beer, watching a performance of fireflies and shooting stars, surrounded by towering 100m cliffs of granite in this narrow valley: amplifying and reverberating every sound of the jungle from cicadas to gibbons and macaques, night birds to frogs and the dull thud of ripe falling fruit.  In the twilight we saw a man approaching us with something in his hands. He was the father of the young girl and to express his gratitude he'd brought us a gift. Ollie and I peered at it, glanced at each other, silent in the irony as we looked down again and saw an offering of durian before us.