Saturday, 18 June 2011

And so, home.

Before I went on the HotRock trip somebody asked me if I was nervous about going on such an undertaking with a bunch of strangers, to which question I replied, no of course not. They will, I said, be all of a kind -  anyone who signs up to live on a truck for months, travelling about unwashed, unkempt and under-fed through remote and potentially dangerous terrain, climbing in remote areas, and capable of putting up with the others in the close confines of the truck will be a decent sort. How wrong I was. They were (and, assuming the truck hasn't come off the road above some Peruvian ravine, still are) the most excellent sorts, now good friends, with whom it was a great privilege to share the journey.

Some were on the truck for ever, some only for a few weeks. Some enjoyed a light ale or two (or in some cases, twenty two), some were teetotal (we forgave them this - just). Some were proper climbers, some (like me) bumblies. Some (in fact most) were from Britain, some ( a few) were not (some were Australian, unfortunately, but we forgave them this - just). Some were loud (they know who they are), some (but not that many) were quiet. Some were in pairs (either arrived as such or formed during the trip), some single. Some took every opportunity to wash, some simply revelled in the grime and squalor. Some were tidy and organised, some had all their stuff put in the Shit Box. Some shared their biscuits, some simply ate those of others. But all added something to the group, to the atmosphere (in a number of ways, some of these - courtesy of the lentils - unfortunate), to the expedition, and to my time on the truck. And I am pleased to have met them all.

At one point, I think it was at Serra do Cipó in Brazil, there was on the truck a slightly drunken late night discussion (Hot Rock late night that is, about half nine) about how the Hot Rock experience might change those who go on it, especially those on the truck for a long time. Confidently I asserted that, being an old git, it was unlikely to change me - but I now suspect I was wrong. I suspect also that it is too soon for me to identify any way in which I might have changed, and that (if I have) others will notice it first before I do. I hope any such changes will be for the better.

There are some things that I either took with me or acquired over there but which have been left behind, and similarly there are some things I have brought back with me. These things are listed below, in no particular order of importance.

Things I left behind

- A cheap pair of approach shoes, Karrimor by brand, bought from TK Max, that fell apart after only 10 days.
- A tent, bought from Go Outdoors, that fell apart after about 50 days.
- My then-new headtorch that was lost after 5 days.
- Most of my enormous First Aid kit, the most useful items of which were the Imodium and rehydration sachets.
- An ancient and uncomfortable Karrimat sleeping mat, taken because of the advice from Duncan that Thermorests are rubbish as they are bound to get punctured.
- My best wishes to all still on the truck for the remainder of their respective journeys.
- A very smelly pair of fancy Brazilian trainers I bought by mistake in Rio de Janeiro.
- 'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins. I noticed that nobody else wanted to read it. They were all reading that Stig Larsen nonsense.
- Most of my clothes, donated to Simon and Owen.
- Two camaras, both Sony, one destroyed by mistake, the other pink, broken and shit.
- The oldest piece of outdoor gear I owned, a yellow plastic bowl I bought at college in 1987.
- My single rope, ruined.

- 5.5 kg in weight
- some underwear...

- Some fancy souvenirs, including Rio beach tighty whities and the object of desire.
- A re-affirmed view that for most things in life, less is more.
- A new and very pricey pair of walking boots to replace the crap Karrimors.
- A new and very pricey Thermorest to replace the crap Karrimor sleeping mat,
bought because of the advice from Duncan that Thermorests are rubbish as they are bound to get damaged.

- A small patch that repaired the Thermorest puncture. So Dunc was right after all. But also wrong, as I slept so much better after I bought it, and they can be repaired.
- A sufficiently strong dislike of lentils to make me chuck those I had in my cupboard in the bin.
- A determination to remain (relatively) thin.
- A determination to return to South America to explore those areas I have not yet visited - Equador, Colombia, Paraguay, Venezuela.
- A great respect for the people of South America, who (generally) live lives more difficult than ours with, generally, greater openness and generosity than we have in the West.

- A desire to learn to surf.
- Many new friendships, some of which will, perforce, only be transitory but some of which will, I hope, be enduring.
- A nice new little Panasonic Lumix camera with which I am very pleased.
- A little in excess of 25,000 photographs.
- Having enjoyed writing this blog very much, both a re-awakened pleasure in writing and a desire to carry on doing so.
-An embryonic short story, which may or not get finished.
- A somewhat hairier appearance
- An absence of syphillis (what the hell is this all about, I hear you cry).
- Gratitude to Roger, Simon and Andy for having run the trip so well - we always got there!
- A big credit card bill.
- An intention to purge the Facebook Friends list, an activity that has now been carried out.

And so it is now time to bring this blog to a close. Thank you for reading it, I hope it was an enjoyable experience. I certainly enjoyed writing it. Genuinely, if you have any feedback (good or bad) on its quality, please let me know. Now, off to plan the next adventure...

Hair, beard and poncho
Things I brought back.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

La Paz (2)

La Paz (Continued)

The politcal centre is the Plaza de Murillo, bounded on one side by the Assembly (or parliament building), and on another by the Presidential Palace and Cathedral. The Plaza is a popular spot for the South American sport of sitting, and the paceña (i.e. from La Paz) sport of feeding pigeons, (which are all obese and probably diabetic). Just up and left is one of the remains of colonial times, Calle Jaen (somehow preserved in very good condition, with typical Andalusian pavement designs still present), which holds a number of museums including the house of Murrillo, one of the leaders of the failed independence revolt against the Spanish in 1809. A bit touristy though, this street, with arty shops everywhere. Could be Totnes. Or Hebden Bridge.
The main attraction of La Paz, though, has to be the street markets, even for those who don't enjoy the retail experience. They are everywhere, crammed with people, selling everything, absolutely everything, full of undoubtedly Chinese-produced fake branded goods (favourite brands seeming to be Levis, North Face, Adidas, Wrangler, Puma, Nike - what a globalised world we live in), foodstuffs of all kinds, entire shops or stalls devoted solely to a single product: door fittings, padlocks, gaudy cholita skirts, or what appeared to be popcorn, this latter sold from gigantic bags about three times the size of the average Bolivian. It was really too difficult to take pictures and anyway I doubt these would have given the experience justice. One wonders how all the stuff is cleared away at nights.

La Cuidad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz, to give it its full name - such a amazing, colourful, vibrant place, and (touch wood) so far no experience of the troubles and scams described in the Lonely Paranoia - sorry, Lonely Planet - guide. It was worth leaving the truck in Oruro a couple of days early to experience it. Oh, and I should consider myself fortunate - the bus in which I travelled was involved in only one road traffic accident during the 4 hour, 20 Bolivianos (£2.00) journey.

La Paz (1)

'Paz' is Spanish for peace, and a more inappropriately named place than La Paz it is hard to imagine. From first sight from the descent from the altiplano the city overwhelms the senses. The altiplano, home to the newish city of El Alto, La Paz's poor relation and one-time suburb, ends abruptly at the canyon's edge and the city pours down the steep sides, a landslide of red brick washing up against and around the world's highest high-rise blocks in the city's centre 400m lower. And the mountains Illimani and Huayna Potosí loom over the city, snow-capped and brooding sentinels both.

La Paz is not a rich city (there is, for example, no branch of Betty's Tea Rooms here) and it may not have much in the way of beautiful architectural sites, wide open green spaces, famous institutions or fashionable boutiques (these may be in Zona Sur but I feel no need to find out) but what it does have it has in bucketfuls. It has teeming crowds, dressed in all styles from the traditional women's Cholita attire of the altiplano to the latest (almost certainly counterfeit) designer fashion, sported by the younger generations, thronging its streets; it has a myriad of buses of all sizes plying the busy and pollution-choked roads, their 'conductors' constantly shouting the route from the open doors to drum up business; countless taxis too, mostly shared; it has street vendors of all kinds,with offerings ranging from a few pathetic scraps spread on a blanket by an elderly Aymara lady, to llama-patterned lap-top cases, western consumer goods, and telephone calls; it has more markets than one might imagine possible, with competition fierce, there being many vendors of the same, nay identical, goods all crammed into the same stretch of street; it has innumerable eateries, from the barrow-and-gas ring stalls selling unidentifiable, and possibly noxious, mixtures to outlets of the multinational fast food chains, ubiquitous chicken-and-chips outlets, elegant tea and coffee shops, and the occasional fancy bistro; it has a community of drivers who are pathelogically and perhaps genetically unable to stop to allow pedestrians to cross, so much so that the 'zebra' campaign (running for at least 3 years that I know off) seems to make no difference at all; it has an army of shoe-shine boys and men, all sporting balaclavas to protect them a little from the dreadful pollution levels, who offer to polish, for the equivalent of about 40p, any sort of shoe, even those (such as my Converse All Stars) that their experience should suggest are completely unsuitable for such treatment; and it has police, everywhere, usually in threes, toting great carbines outside banks and other cash-holding premises, from at least three different forces. All of this gives La Paz an air of frenetic and constant activity, a continuous buzz, that if one is to get anywhere at all one must throw oneself into without restraint.  (Continued)

Friday, 10 June 2011

Into Obolivian

Seven of us decided to mount a mountainerring expedition within the rock climbing expedition and so headed off independently from the truck to make their own way to La Paz, from where they would attempt Pequeño Alpamayo and perhaps something else afterwards. Meanwhile the remainder of us, delayed in crossing the border out of Chile by the day trip to Calama (perhaps better named Calamaty, it being a shithole), camped out on the Salar de Atacama about 10 km from San Pedro, with the intention to return to the immigration office as soon as it opened, and thence head up to the Bolivian border. But the Salar was having none of that, giving way under the wheels of the truck on our departure as it did; a team effort of digging, stone collecting (these being needed to increase traction in the flour-like mixture of salt and dust in which the truck was now partly buried), and pushing eventually loosed the truck after two hours effort.

The road to Bolivia is the same as that into Argentina for 30 km uphill, then heads left. The road to Argentina continues into the distance, paved and smooth and comfortable. The road to Bolivia ceases to be a road some 20m after the junction and degenerates quickly into a rough, bone-jarring track that leads one to the border outpost. Which is a desolate place, windswept, under the slopes of the disputed volcanic cone of Linkankabur. How one can argue over who owns a volcano I'm not sure. Perhaps it will only erupt on the owner's side - or perhaps better still on the other.

Never mind the ramshackle outpost with its ruined bus, tattered flag and two Bolivian women in traditional dress in the building's lee practising the national sport of sitting. The crossing was quick and painless, the border guard pleasant and helpful. And this time no confiscation of lentils - which was a bad thing, probably.

What a place is southwestern Bolivia. A large part of it forms the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Flora and Fauna Reserve, home to vicuña, vizcacha, andean gulls, flamingos and the very rare Andean cat, which is possibly on the verge of extinction. There is almost no habitable land here, there being volcanos, high salinity lakes, almost no fresh water and virtually no rainfall. It is indeed like driving into oblivion. And yet, after a drive to some hot springs where we bathed in the warm pools and were told off for drinking beers whilst in the water, and a further drive in increasingly heavy snow to 5020m where, bizarrely, the Bolivian Customs post is in the middle of sodding nowhere, we arrived at the Laguna Colorada hostal, big enough to accommodate 400 people (apparently) in several buildings, some of which are caves with windows and front doors. Here we spent an unexpectedly comfortable night, having expected a bone-splittingly cold bush camp.

Laguna Colorada is aptly named. Getting very excited by the sight of 5 flamingos, we stopped the truck and all dashed down to the lake, the waters of which were turquoise green with pink tinges here and there. Much frenzied camera activity. We returned later in the day after a detour (during which we suffered a puncture to one of the front wheels) to see the árbol de piedra (a rock in the middle of sodding nowehere - not worth the effort) to see the lake almost totally red, with more flamingos in sight than you could shake a stick at. More rushing about with the cameras.

Uyuni is a dusty town of 20,000 people with no apparent reason for being. But it did have a restaurant in which some of us lunched on Pique a lo Macho, a bizzare dish of beef, onions, sliced hot-dog sausages and chips all mixed together, served by the most laidback waiter I have ever seen. He followed the admirable policy of never clearing a table unless a new customer wanted to eat, and everything he did appeared to happen in slow motion. Welcome to Bolivia, where I read in a newspaper than Bolivian time officially has a built-in delay.

Uyuni has, for the visitor, two main attractions. The first, and by far the smallest, is the railway graveyard, a collection of rusting locomotive hulks and containers surreally and inexplicably abandoned in the desert just outside of town. We caught a dramatic sunset here, boilers and stacks sillouetted against a firey sky. The second, and somewhat larger, reason for Uyuni is that it is the gateway to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world, some 12,500 sq km. of salt. And nothing but salt. In all directions. For miles.

The crossing of the Salar de Uyuni is an amazing journey, surreal, awe-inspiring, impossible to describe. And threatened by the fact that the salt is part of Bolivia's immense lithium reserves, reserves that are beginning to be exploited to satisfy the world demand for lithium in batteries, particularly those in electric cars. So go soon, before it's too late, and see if the waiter has speeded up his performance, and don't forget to ask the price of the pollo a la brasa (spit-roast chicken) in Uyuni before buying otherwise you too will be stung as a dumb gringo by the 'ladron de los pollos', as Ee Fu and I were. £8.00 for a chicken in Bolivia, I ask you. He's probably now enjoying an early retirement.


Tierra de roca, sal y fuego

So, an unexpectedly early return to San Pedro from the excellent canyon of Socaire

(Can't get the bloody picture to line up as I want)


(where I managed two days easy climbing in the fierce heat of the high altitude sun) meant I had a day to fill, which I chose to do by accompanying Martin and Marese on the tour of the Salar de Atacama lakes. This, at a bargain price of 12,000 pesos, included a swim in a lake fed by hot springs of lithium salts, a look at the Ojos del Salar de Atacama, and pisco sour cocktails at sunset at a lake whose real name eludes me but it translates as 'The lake where we feed the llamas'.  The first of these experiences was moderately iinteresting for about 10 minutes, the second for about 10 seconds. We were, therefore, somewhat sceptical about the last. But how wrong we were. After an inauspicious start, the sky began to colour until it was aflame, fire streaked across the gathering darkness, so much so that we thought "That's it, it can't get any better", but again how wrong we were. I think it was, and remains, the most dramatic sunset I have ever seen, and (given that we drank about 7500 pesos worth of pisco sours) it made the net cost of the tour (about £5.00) a real bargain.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

San Pedro de Atacama

What an incogruity San Pedro de Atacama is, in the desert of sand, gravel, multi-coloured rock, wiry desecated plants scarcely clinging to life, close to the Salar de Atacama, a dead salt plain with upwellings of water so saline that one can float in them unaided by artificial means, surrounded by volcanos some of which have wisps of steam and smoke, reminders of their deadly intent. There are endless open spaces threaded by scarce water, yet here is a town with trees, squabbling dogs and chirping sparrows, small boys playing football in the whitewashed square with its formal garden.

Visitors throng the narrow uneven main street of Caracoles, beset on all sides by offers of all kinds: food and drink in the many smart cafes and restuarants; tour companies offering excursions to all sorts of places; activities of desert mountain biking, sand boarding and skiing, trekking; boutiques offering indigenous multi- coloured handicraft at extortionate prices, ponchos, jewellry, artworks, tat; money changers raising suspicions; a North Face shop selling expensive Western goods; and somewhere to stay, from cheap hostels to expensive luxury hotels, all flattering to deceive with their rough adobe exteriors hiding well appointed interiors. And the plaza, simply called The Plaza, with the Church, the town hall, and, of all things in this the wilderness of the driest desert on Earth, free WiFi (which, in the best South American tradition, doesn't work).

These visitors, mainly young, travellers from all parts of the World, come to see the amazing wonders of this inhospitable place. For don't let the patina of civilization fool you, this is an inhospitable place. The scare water is toxic really, thanks to the arsenical deposits in the surrounding hills and volcanos, and to the mines high up in the Andes, and those who can afford to do so buy bottled water, leaving the poor to the effects of the poisons. Travel beyond the confines of this little marvel to smaller, more remote, settlements such as Tocanao and Socaire and the evidence of long-term consumption of the local water, combined with in-breeding, become very evident indeed.

San Pedro is an odd place in an odd place; it is a fusion of chic and sham, Chamonix Mont Blanc fused with Totnes and Sitges, an oasis of cool in a hot place,
¡que guay del Paraguay! but you come here, play and move on, leaving the local people dependent upon the next wave of tourists, for there appears to be little else for them to do.

Iglesia de San Pedro de Atacama
Caracoles, San Pedro de Atacama

Monday, 30 May 2011

To and over the high Andes

Three drive days from Los Gigantes to Tuzgle, with the first overnight stop in the northern town of Salta, where we partook of the eponymous beer, camped next to the largest swimming pool anybody had ever seen. It must have been 500m long by 100m wide. We would have done some lengths, held a swimming gala, a diving competition - but the pool was empty and the only activity  we managed was Rolf pitching his tent in the deep end.  Durng our second overnight Bob 'Dancing Master' Barnes held the highest swing dance lesson in the world, pirouettes at 3500m.  And it was cold that night: -10C inside the tents.  But those sleeping in the truck enjoyed balmy, almost tropical, conditions at -2.5C.  I know because I was there.  Somebody spotted the fresh paw print of what was undoubtedly a large cat...

The pass over the eastern Andes to the altiplano took us up to 4500m, then down to 3800m to the elegant, spacious, almost regency-like town of San Antonio de los Cobres, which has endless facilities for the discerning visitor, cafes facing gracious tree-lined avenues, fashionable shops, manicured public lawns, blazing flowerbeds rioutous with colour. Or not. Seldom had anybody seen a more desolate wasteland in which to build a place to live.  Passing through this hell-hole we carried on to our climbing venue, a canyon in the altiplano at 4200m, under the dark brooding cone of the Volcan Tuzgle after which the site is named. The first climbs had been put up by the Petzl Climbing Team and by virtue of its isolation ('s in the middle of sodding nowhere) it's very likely
we were only the second team to visit. So it's very likely the routes we did in traditional style were all new routes.  So when you go look out for such new classics as 'Gibson's Corner' (HVS 4c) and 'A bridge too far' (6b), both new routes by Nathan 'Ginger Lanky Bastard' Gibson.  Lots of bouldering too, on huge pink boulders scattered by some giant hand. And llamas, loads of them, herded by llama-dogs, running across the plain with only one thought in their minds: "Llamas, llamas, llamas". Only to round a corner to see a bunch of gringos: "Mierda, people, what the hell do I do now? ... I know, bark ... Mierda, they're not going anywhere ... I'll bark some more ... Nope, no good ... " and so they disappeared to get their llamas by some other route.

Tuzgle was distinguished also by the cold and the wind, the former being intense at night with hard clear skies letting the temperature drop to -10C, and the latter being ever-present and strong, strong enough to drive us away from the cliffs and boulders.  So four days here was enough, and we headed back to San Antonio and thence the Chilean border, seeing the occasional group of the rare vicuña and a single lonely rhea, prepared for a lengthy border crossing.

And we got one.  There is, at the Argentinian side of Paso de Sico, a whole series of canyons lined up one after the other, about 12 in all, all destined to be unclimbed as the isolated border outpost makes this sensitive territory.  Now, we all expected the entry to Chile to be difficult and time-consuming and the exit from Argentina to be swift and trouble-free.  Not a bit of it.  Consider this: you are a bored and career-frustrated immigration officer in the middle of sodding nowhere and a red truck full of grimy gringos turns up.  You are forced to interrupt your busy afternoon of doing sod-all to process them.  Do you:

A.  stamp them all through without delay - after all, once they're out of Argentina they're no longer your problem, let those bloody Chileans deal with them

B.  be really officious, read your immigration regulations and seek to delay the border crossing for as long as possible; after all, they've ruined your afternoon so why shouldn't you ruin theirs?

You are about to select option A when you spy, hanging from its hook in the corner, your peaked cap.  This decides you: option B it is.

And so it took us 2 and a half hours to get out of Argentina.  The wait did, however, give us a chance to watch the Northern Branch of the Argentinian Amateur Desert Watering and Flattening Society practice their activities in preparation for the next National All-Argentinan Desert Grooming Championships. It was either this or God knows what.  But they're very good at it - hardly a ripple to be seen under the desert sun.

So into Chile in the early evening, the setting desert sun turning everything pink around us, and a bitterly cold wind driving sand and dust ahead of it.  The first few kilometers passed without incident until we arrived at the SAG post of El Laco.  Which really is in the middle of sodding nowhere.  SAG is the Chilean organisation responsible for the defence of the Chilean Nation against all things malign related to plants and animals.  And so the chap practically emptied the truck, conficating such things as feathers, untreated wood, raw dried beans, and lentils.  When these last were confiscated a resounding cheer went up from the team, huddled in a shed out of the bitterly cold wind, a cheer that you might have faintly heard in Britain and thought "What was that? Was it lentils being conficated in Chile?"

The final hurdle in crossing the border was to pass through Chilean immigration and Customs some miles inside the Chilian border in the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, a reasonably swift process nearly ruined by Sam the Really Aged Canadian being too polite about pushing in front of a crowd of dwarfish Paraguayans who all made Gareth 'Stumpy' Thomas feel tall for once, something he was enjoying hugely.  Once through we headed for the hostal, which turned out to be a somewhat rustic affair made from (well, parts of it anyway, those parts not being part of the organic growth made from practically anything she could get her hands on) adobe brick and run by an enterprising middle-aged Chilean lady called Monica who called me 'hijo'.