Saturday, 27 June 2015

Magnetic Island

After my whirlwind introduction to Australia in Cairns it was time for me to see what the east coast has to offer and the first stop was at Magnetic Island, or Maggie as it's so affectionately called by locals. With a population of only 2,500 people there is plenty of room for nature to blossom; almost half of the island is National Park making it a haven for wildlife like wallabies, possums and koalas.

Even though the island is small it is common to hire a 4x4 to explore, so $25 later we were on the road cruising in the brilliant sunshine. Magnetic has a sanctuary for rescued animals which we visited first; it is possible to pay to hold a koala and have a photo with it meaning it is quite the attraction for tourists! Aside from the koalas, we saw a whole host of mainly native animals including salt-water caiman, possums, snakes and turtles. As this is a place for rehoming animals following injury, loss of habitat and abandonment , it is possible to hold them as they are used to human contact which was a great experience... if not slightly nerve-racking when the snake was placed on my shoulders!

During breeding season a section of the forest turns into a butterfly playground as hundreds of thousands of Blue Tiger butterflies flit through the foliage, sometimes making trees look abundant in leaves as they perch on the branches. It was a really special moment in the quiet forest with all these beautifully decorated butterflies flying all around.

For many reasons Magnetic Islands most popular walk is the Forts Walk. The 90 minute round trip cuts through Northern Australia's largest koala population and once at the top, 360 views of coast and Coral Sea are the reward and as the name suggests the walk leads to historic WWII infrastructures.

Welcome to Australia - Cairns

Almost 24 hours, copious time zones, one day of my life lost in the clouds somewhere and a complete culture change later, I arrived in Cairns, Australia to begin my month long journey down the East coast to Sydney. Cairns is a destination where travellers tend to begin or end their trip lending to a transient atmosphere with a constant flow of people coming through the city. 
After a day trying to shake off the jet lag it was time to get the ball rolling with my first activity... Skydiving! It is possible to skydive all over Australia but I chose the beautiful Mission Beach as my location, a decision concreted by the fact that it is possible to see the Great Barrier Reef from the plane too. After lots of nervous waiting around at the dropzone, it was time to get harnessed up and make our way to the aerodrome where a tiny propeller aeroplane was ready to take us all the way to 14,000ft. Once we had broken through the cloud cover we were rewarded with extraordinary views over the glimmering cobalt blue sea dotted with beach-lined islands. 
The heart-stopping moment came when the shutter opened exposing us the the rush of wind and roar of the propellers as you're face to face with an entirely unnatural experience of throwing yourself out of a plane. Thankfully my divemaster gave me no time to dwell as we shuffled down the plane, perched on the edge and tucked our legs under the aircraft door and tumbled out into a euphoric state of nothingness for 60 seconds as we fell 10,000ft. Once the parachute had deployed and it was possible to get a very small hold of your bearings, the adrenaline kicks in and flows through every vein in your body as your marvel at the wonder of the beautiful nature laying below you so majestic in its glory. 
All too soon the landing is becoming a reality so after some stomach-churning swoops in the air to control the descent, the beach was upon us. The landing is dangerous in itself if done properly so somewhere in my boggled mind I had to remind myself of the safety instructions and thankfully we made a clean landing onto brilliant yellow sand. The feeling of absolute ecstasy when you realise what you've just accomplished can never be matched and I definitely felt a sense of achievement and pride for being brave enough to complete it! 
Absolutely without a doubt the best thing I have ever done in my life. I hope to do a second (third, fourth...) but I know that nothing can be quite as special as my first skydive.
After an exhilarating first day, the second day had a lot to match up to. Luckily I had chosen to scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef so I was quite confident that it would be another great day. 
The boat that would take us on the trip was an impressive 30ft catamaran which swiftly took us the two hour journey to our destination on the world's largest coral reef system. As I had never scuba dived before, I had to take part in a safety briefing detailing everything from the basics of breathing with a respirator and mask to the hand signals needed for life underwater. Our intended 
depth was 10m below the surface so it was imperative to learn how to 'equalize' or in other words learn how to 'pop' our ears on a regular basis to accommodate for the changing pressure the lower we got. Once kitted out in wetsuit, weight belt, oxygen tank, respirator, breathing apparatus and tools, mask and flippers we were struggling to stand beneath the weight and walk in the flippers but were reassured those troubles would disappear once in the water. The weight belt is used to keep us from surfacing so upon first entering the water we dropped to one meter below to become accustomed to breathing through a respirator and to adjust the weight balance. Before us the reef loomed like a big black mass which was a little daunting for someone who is not so keen on the open water! However as we slowly descended into the underwater world the reef suddenly became sharp and clear infront of us and for a second, my breath was taken away (not such a good thing 10m below the surface!). The Great Barrier Reef is absolutely magnificent; the further we went the higher it rose around us until we were completely surrounded by a living breathing natural wonder. Everywhere you turn, fish are eating, scavenging, idling, fleeing, playing, cleaning... you name it, they're doing it! I have never seen or known such a variety of life in one place. The fish alone are abundant in species in colours from every palette and then there's the reef itself. The hard coral sits rigidly whilst the soft colour wafts in the waves all around it, in a spaghetti-esque fashion. In amongst the coral are clam shells that were bigger than me, some with fluorescent colouring on the crusty waved edges. And then to top off the already superb experience, a Loggerhead turtle floated serenely past me in a particularly nonchalant fashion. This absolutely was the highlight for me to see this magnificent, special, important creature in its natural habitat, just as it should be. 
I couldn't believe how incredibly lucky I had been to witness all that I had. Climate change is perhaps the biggest threat to the reef amongst other potentially harmful influences, sadly most created by man. Whilst it is not too late to make a change, awareness is definitely key so people know just how important this wonder of the world is. 

Adios South America

So after five months of experiencing the traditions, cultures, people, food, nature and sights of South America it was time to leave for the next chapter in Australia. When this trip was planned five months seemed like such a long time but in reality, the time has flown by as we enjoyed every second of the days on the continent. 
From 40 degree heat to snow and hail, 7000m volcanos to the worlds biggest salt flat, wonders of the world and serious contenders for that crown, South America has met and exceeded my expectations. Far from being the 'dangerous' place that so many people assume it to be, it is a welcoming place where backpackers like us can slip into daily life to live like locals whilst seeing and experiencing things like no other before. 
Hasta luego Sudamérica, ciao x

Elqui Valley

For our last proper excursion of South America we decided to hire a camper van and head north from Santiago, where we had arrived overnight from Mendoza, to Vicuña and the Elqui Valley. With an average of 360 cloudless nights a year, Northern Chile is one of the best places in the world to stargaze and home to some of the worlds most powerful telescopes, so having planned our trip to avoid the full moon and have clear skies, we took the van for a four day camping experience under the stars. The drive to Vicuña was expected to take around six hours but took almost nine after a exploding tyre on the motorway which we fixed only to find out, after a short lived celebration, that the battery had died! After joining the Ruta del Estrella or the Route of the the Stars, we found an area of land available for us to camp on so had the fun task of learning how to set up in the pitch black! After cooking dinner and setting up the fire and camp, we enjoyed a few classes of wine under the incredibly stunning stars that were sprawled above us, and enjoyed an evening of playful bickering over which constellation was which.

The van was well equipped for the five of us with a tent on the roof which simply unfolded to provide sleeping quarters for all of us meaning our first night under the stars was a comfortable one. 
The following day we ventured to Pisco Elqui which is where the liquor Pisco is made. We went to Fundo Los Nichos distillery and learnt how it is made; a process similar to wine. Pisco is made from a grape which once processed is heated to around 90 degrees. The evaporated liquid is then cooled down instantly to produce the 60% spirit which is commonly mixed with Coca Cola, or with egg whites and syrup to make the famous Pisco Sour cocktail. 
That afternoon we whiled away the hours driving around the valley and soaking in the stunning views and warming rays before finding a camping spot by the river on the outskirts of a village. As all the settlements in the valley are small, light pollution is practically non existent which promises a nights sky twinkling in all its glory.
For our last night we made reservations at Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca, a popular observatory high up in the valley. Although the telescope is only 30cm on diameter, we were able to see both Saturn and Jupiter clearly which was a mind-blowing experience when the distances are explained - 588 million km and 1.2 billion km away, respectively. With the naked eye we were able to see Venus which was lying low to the horizon and also the Southern Hemisphere constellations. In Peru we learnt of the Llama constellation which the Incas introduced and have been trying to map it out ever since. Only here at the observatory did we learn that this constellation is actually made with the negative black space in between stars. Another example of the ingenuity of the Incas! As the sky was clear of clouds or light pollution we were even able to see the formation of the Milky Way, the black hole it centres around and three dimension star clusters. 
Being able to see all of this so clearly puts everything in perspective when it dawns on you how minute our existence is in the grand scheme of things. This was a humbling, out of this world experience (pun intended) which I will never forget! 


Mendoza is arguably the most popular wine producing region in Argentina and quite possibly the whole of South America. Following a 24-hour bus journey from Cafayate we arrived excited for what the city could offer us. As with many Argentine cities, Mendoza has a relaxed atmosphere as the people meander their way down the leafy avenues lined with cosmopolitan restaurants; with memories from Bolivia simplicity still in our minds, this was like stepping directly into Europe. 
Following an evening drinking the free red wine at the hostel, we set off the next day for a half day tour around the satellite town of Maipú which would include visits to an olive oil factory and two bodegas. 
Because grapes are so easily grown here, it figures that olives would also enjoy the micro-climate and it is a lesser known booming industry in this region. The oil is made using an archaic crushing wheel moving in a rotating motion to create a paste which is then hand-spread over large discs pressed on top of each other to squeeze the oil out. There were two different types of 'plain' oil, one with all the skin and pulp in giving a cloudy appearance, and a clearer one with everything removed. My favourite was the more opaque of the two; as most parts of the olive are still in the jar, so is most of the flavour giving it a tasty simplicity. 
The next two tours were an amalgamation of small versus large scale production, information on the processes and tastings. The smaller family run bodega interesting harvests the grapes at night - (Spanish version). As the summer temperatures can soar to a sticky 40+ degrees, harvesting during the day would encourage overly fast ripening of the grapes - something the bodega wants to control in order to maximise flavour. This is possible at night once the temperature has dropped and the pickers have a longer vineyard-to-distillery time period.
As in Cafayate, we were told all about the different barrels and the affect the oak has on the flavour. Whereas most vineyards cultivate the same type of grape, they each have their own influence on the outcome with the chosen barrels, the control of the distillation period, how the grape is actually grown - it is a much more complex process that I had ever thought!
During the tasting, we were taught how to properly evaluate the characteristics of each wine. A swirl of the glass is crucial to release the different scents which can give you an idea of the flavour (although not always as for example the Cafayate Torrentes has a floral smell but is dry on the palette). By swirling, you can also see the 'tears' which are basically the drops of wine falling down the inside of the glass. If the 'tears' are thin and fast, the wine is a young wine kept only in a concrete pool whereas if the 'tears' fall slower and are thicker, that indicates a reserve or grand reserve which has been aged in barrels.
It was really interesting to learn just how much goes into producing wine and how seriously it is taken. What I enjoyed the most though was the Argentinian approach to it all - serious dedication to the wine which is a huge part of their culture, but without letting the fun get lost amongst the vineyards. 

Saturday, 20 June 2015


Aside from Mendoza, Argentina's most prominent wine-making region, Cafayate is the place to go to try the world famous local wines, whether you're a vino connoisseur or just appreciate a good tipple. Although Cafayate is a tourist destination it has managed to keep hold of its small-town feel with many bodegas a short walk from the central square, which is lined with restaurants and artesian fayre. 

Vineyards are synonymous with beautiful mountainous scenery set in a balmy environment due to the micro climate necessary to grow the grapes. Cafayate is famous for its Torrentes white wine which although dry still has a floral flavour upon initially tasting; many bodegas in the area produce Torrentes with their own slight influence on the taste but any good bottle is perfect to sit in the sun with - something we did quite regularly during our time in Cafayate!

The bodegas range in what they offer here but typically for a small fee or sometimes even for free, you can take a tour which includes entry to the production factories, a short introduction to the wine making process and most importantly, tasting the wines. 

Wine is made through a fermentation process which differs in longevity depending on the colour of the grape as red wine producing grapes taking on average twice as long as white. There are three different types of wine made in Cafayate; young, reserve and grand reserve. The difference comes from the process after fermentation. Young wine will sit in a 'pool' which is essentially a concrete block meaning the flavours remain quite simple, reserve wine is stored in oak barrels for a short period whereas grand reserve is left in the barrels for upto two years. The barrels themselves used in Cafayate are either French or American oak which is has a huge impact on flavour. For example a wine stored in an American oak barrel will come out with hints of coffee and vanilla meaning the flavours of a wine aren't solely down to the grape.

*Interesting fact: white wine can be made with red or white grapes. The difference is that when making white wine the skin of the grape is taken off and separated hence the light colour; it's the skin of the grape which gives red wine its dark plummy colour.*

The wine hype extends even further than just the liquid form - here in Cafayate vino helado or wine ice cream is a popular artisan treat and is definitely worth spending a little extra to give it a try. Thankfully it is more like sorbet than ice cream which works really well as the icy consistency cleanses the palette after every mouthful so you can fully appreciate the prominent wine flavour.

If wine is not your thing then Cafayate might be worth missing out as for three days that was all our time seemed to be spent on, but it is a secluded gem of a town which can offer a little slice of relaxation with delicious wine to top off the perfect experience. 

Tuesday, 2 June 2015


From Arequipa we set off for Puno which would be our last destination on Peruvian soil. Puno is a rather unmemorable town however it's location on the shores of Lake Titicaca means that it is a must on the itinerary. Although we had read it was possible to visit the islands on the lake unaccompanied, we were unable to find a public ferry so ended up as part of a guided tour. Our first stop was to a floating island, synonymous with Lake Titicaca. The islands are made purely from the totora, or reeds, that grow in the lake. The foundations of the islands are made with the root filled soil from the bottom of the lake then the reeds which can grow up to four metres are constructed in a crisscross format. All the huts are made with reeds, as are the boats they operate with just a long stick like a gondola. The native people, all in the traditional dress, live off a diet of fresh fish, coots and you guessed it... reeds which also act as a natural remedy to most ailments however it is common for older locals to suffer with rheumatism from the damp conditions living on a lake brings.

Our next stop was to Taquile, a land mass island that bore similarities to those found in the Mediterranean with stone built houses, colourful flowers and cobbled streets. As there are no cars, the village is so peaceful and quiet except from the happy cries of the children playing drifting in the breeze.
Lake Titicaca - pronounced Titihaha - is where Manco Capac, son of the Sun God, and Mama Occlo, daughter of the moon, rose before creating the Incan capital of Cusco in Peru. In the native tongue of Quechua 'titi' means puma and 'kaka' means grey. If you tilt a standard map upside down, the lake appears to be a puma in pursuit of a rabbit - hence the name 'Lake of the Grey Puma.' It is shared by Peru and Bolivia, it being of great importance to the latter as it is a landlocked country and the snow-capped mountains towering on the horizon provide a natural boundary. Often called the highest navigable lake in the world sitting at 3,812m above sea level, it stretches for 190km and is the life source to thousands of people. We were lucky enough to have good weather on our day trip and when the water is glimmering in the reflection of the powerful sun, it is clear to see that Lake Titicaca is much more than just the highest lake in the world. 

Salar de Uyuni

Our time in Bolivia is almost over so our next stop was the famous salt flats or Salar de Uyuni. At approximately 12,000km, the salt flats are the result of two dried up lakes leaving the sediment to bake under the South American sun. Legend has it that once there was a beautiful girl that the locals were envious of. In their jealousy, they killed her and masked it as sacrifice. However the gods were angry by this so turned the girl into a mountain where she then shed a single white tear - drying the lake up and turning the whole area into a barren, salty no mans land. 

The majority of the salt is used for construction and shipped across the country and continent; our first nights stay was in a hotel made solely of salt and markets pop up in the most random places selling a variety of salt-made wares. 
Because of the vastness of the flats, perspective photos are hugely popular with visitors. We were able to create images where toy dinosaurs were big enough to eat us, and one person was able to hold five people in the palm of their hand.

During the course of the three day tour we made stops at lagoons, thermal springs, geysers, volcanic rock formations, aged coral from over 400 years ago when water was present and saw three different species of flamingos grazing in sulphuric steamy water. In an unexpected turn, we woke up to snow on the second day which ended up covering the landscape in a two-foot deep blanket. The white covering turned the views from brilliant to breathtaking as the natural colours became diluted to produce a neutral palette of purples, light oranges, greys and browns. The original plan was to finish the tour at the border and cross into Chile. However because of the snow the Chileans closed their side meaning a return to Uyuni was on the cards; this could have been annoying but because the area of the Reserva Nacional De Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa which we passed through was so impressive, we couldn't complain. Salar de Uyuni has to be the highlight of my Bolivian adventure.


Potosi is only a tourist destination because of its silver mining history and present day culture; the city itself is easily forgettable and is rather run down. For over 400 years the mines here have been in working order and supporting the local community. However dangerous the conditions of the mine are, it is common to take part in a tour of the mine which I was equally nervous and excited for. In a running theme of our bad luck in Bolivia, we arrived to find out that the tours were not operating as the miners were celebrating Fiesta del Espíritu, an annual celebration for Pachamama or Mother Earth. Still desperate to witness the mines, we cadged a lift with a bunch of musicians, bought some beers as a present for the miners and hot-footed it out of town. When we arrived, at an elevation of 4400m, the sight we were greeted with was so bizarre. As countless llamas are sacrificed during Fiesta del Espíritu, wheelbarrows filled to the brim with llama offal with delicately scattered confetti resting on top, were scattered around the camp. 

The blood of the deceased animals is splashed all over the entrance to the mine which had turned the dusty brick a crusty deep red colour and the floor into a bright red swimming pool. Holes are dug all around with which the offal is buried in, along with alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves to appease Mother Earth; llama skulls from last years celebrations are amongst the dug up earth.

Whilst the women prepare the unappealing looking meat on open fires, the men make it their sole achievement to drink as much alcohol and chew as much coca as possible. The cheeks of the miners protrude with coca leaves so much they appear to have deformities. 97% proof homemade spirit is the liquor of choice capable of inducing them into a drunken stupor; before drinking anything, a dash must be poured on the ground which is again homepage to Pachamama - the earth eventually becomes boggy and strewn with empty beer bottles adding to the dirtiness of the dusty area. 

Children run around avoiding the open fires and staggering men, and play on the pipes that provide the mine with oxygen with total innocence. Most are filthy and the hair on some of them is turning into dreadlocks from lack of washing which was quite difficult for us to see - the child raising culture here is a far cry from what we are used to in the UK.
As the day wears on the men get more drunk, the women more sullen and the musicians more raucous - by this point one miner in particular had taken a great shine to us gringos. Alfredo has been working in the mine for 22 years and wouldn't dream of another job despite the dangers - most miners have a life expectancy of only 42 due to silica poisoning; only once they have lost 50% lung capacity is it acceptable for them to retire. However as it is a cooperative, the men run the mine themselves meaning if they stop working then they lose their income. He couldn't tell us an exact amount of friends he had seen die but it is in the hundreds. 

The whole spectacle definitely gave us a flavour of real Bolvian life; at first it felt like we were intruding on a sacred ritual but by the time we left on a collectivo packed full of drunken, cheering, singing miners it really felt like they'd welcomed us to join in appeasing Pachamama - not because they were being paid or forced to entertain the gringos but because the Fiesta del Espíritu is so important to their beliefs that they are happy to celebrate with similar likeminded people. 

La Paz

Out of all the major cities we have visited, La Paz probably has the worst reputation. Lonely Planet writes "For years, we’ve been saying that crime in Bolivia is no worse than large US cities. Today, this is no longer true, and travelers should exercise caution while in La Paz" and warnings are abundant to backpackers entering the city to be careful of fake police and express taxi hijackings. A good piece of local advice to follow is 'camina lento, toma poco…y duerme solo’ or 'walk slowly, drink little…and sleep by your lonesome.'
Needless to say, by the time we had finished weaving our way through the chaotic central traffic and made it to our hostel, my nerves were a little jangled! However we had no time to dwell on this as we were whisked off to the Cholita Wrestling. 
Cholita, once a derogatory term now suggesting empowered, proud women of Bolivia, describes the women who wrestle in traditional dress, inspired by American WWF. Historically the wrestling is a way of releasing female frustrations in a male dominated world and also to provide an opportunity to earn for the cholitas who typically come from low-income broken homes. However as the spectacle, focused more on performance than skill, increases in popularity, the cholitas are becoming an icon in their own right complete with a devoted following from the crowd, who are encouraged to get as involved as possible; orange peel, popcorn and litter flies past our heads as the comedy sketches in the ring unfold before our eyes. Emerging into the ring dancing seductively in intricately designed traditional clothes of multilayered skirts, colorful shawls and bowler hats, this 'butter wouldnt melt' appearance is quickly lost as they pitch themselves against each other in the aim to be crowned winner. Whilst it is clear that no actual fighting is involved, the staged performance is a testament of their dedication to the cause. Aside from a few saches of fake blood, the cholitas come out of the ring apparently injury-free and infact can be seen once the evening is over collecting empty glasses and clearing rubbish; real 21st century women!
We chose watching the cholita wrestling over a home game for La Paz's team, The Strongest and it definitely was the right choice - a must see when in the governmental capital of Bolivia. 
The city itself can take your breath away; literally as it sits at a dizzying altitude of 3660m above sea level and visually as from the teleférico, cable car, a panoramic view shows how La Paz sits within a canyon with neighbourhoods clinging to the steep banks. In the centro, the hustle and bustle can be all-consuming as all your senses are assaulted by daily Bolivian life. It is worth taking the time to find the witches market located in the winding streets just off the main avenue - here you can find a whole host of wares including real silver jewellery and leather goods.
On our last day we had arranged to meet a man affectionately named 'Crazy Dave,' an ex convict of the notorious San Pedro prison in the centre of the city. Having spent 16 years inside for drug smuggling, Dave now educated tourists on the realities of life inside a prison which is essentially a community itself, complete with shops and restaurants and ironically, successful cocaine-producing laboratories. Prisoners have to buy their way through life including renting their own cell, some of which inmates convert to family houses as women and children will freely move in with their incarcerated loved ones. 
In Daves words, 'money walks and bullshit talks' explaining how some convicts are able to live a life so comfortable they have no interest in escaping, even when they are illegally allowed outside for 24 hours (after a healthy tip to the prison officers of course).  
The scars and permanent disfigurements he had was a sharp reminder of the dog-eat-dog world that is the norm behind the imposing walls of a prison that sits so oxymoronic with real city life. Typically on a free tour monetary donations are made to the guide - however Dave made only one request of toiletries and other necessities instead, on the basis that he was trying to kick his cocaine addiction that is inevitable in a prison notorious for drug offences.  
It was the first time I had ever come into contact and learnt from someone with life experiences from behind bars; it was a real pleasure meeting Dave and heart warming that after paying the price, he is cleaning up his act and finally straightening out his life.