Sunday, February 25, 2007

16th - 25th February (My first week in Santiago, Chile)
The terrorists here have gone back to more conventional forms of weaponry.....

I had pre-booked a two week hostel and language course together online for $399 U.S. Hostel de Sammy is a little shabby, the showers run boiling hot and freezing cold and if you want to go to bed early and get a good nights sleep you will be woke up around 05.00 by people coming back from the clubs. The owner is ok but he is a very loud American who seems to annoy a lot of people in a Basil Fawlty kind of way.
People are drinking on the patio until late every night so there is always someone to hang around with and it's a really sociable place. There is also a crappy pool table, table footy, free internet, a good tv and dvd player and free breakfast. My first night out, a club where the dance floor was packed from start to finish, ended around 06.00. My main problem here is that my Spanish lessons are monday to friday 10.00 - 13.30 so I am burning the candle at both ends. My first two days of Spanish lessons were pretty horrible, after a little one on one session I was thrown into a group of five who already knew quite a lot (there were no other absolute beginners to put me with). I thought maybe this would make me learn a lot quicker but after day two where I understood virtually none of what had gone on I was thinking of complaining and demanding more one on one sessions. The lessons are not like how we learnt languages in school, ie. translating between English and German, they speak no English so if you are not getting something they can only try to explain in Spanish. I decided to stick with it for day three expecting that I would say something afterwards but somehow a lot more of the lesson made sense. Sometimes the school organises things in the afternoon or evening, so I have socialised a bit with the other people at the school. I attempt to converse in Spanish but most of the time revert to English pretty quickly. We went to an Italian restaurant where I spoke to a nice girl called Rebeccah from Bristol, I also attempted a Salsa lesson which was a good laugh. I have homework every night!

The money here is very easy to convert as there are roughly 1000 pesos to the pound. Everything seems pretty cheap here - I am drinking every night but a 2 litre box of wine costs under 2,000 pesos so why not? You can eat good food at the restaurants for about 5,000 pesos and I have eaten some lovely paella and some fantastic salmon with seafood.

There was a norwegian guy called Kim here in my first week. I went with him and some others to watch the local team 'Colo Colo' play a league game. We were with the home fans, the atmosphere was good but a little scary - Kim told me not to take my camera out of my pocket and to keep hold of my wallet. Colo Colo won 4-2. The fans were singing and dancing for the full ninety minutes. The stadium looks smaller and less impressive than the county ground but apparently can hold up to 65,000. The ticket cost only 3,500 pesos.

A few days later, River Plate (from Buenos Aries in Argentina) came to play in the early stages of the Copa Libertadores (their equivalent of our Champions League). Kim is a fan of River Plate so an Argie staying at the hostel called Nicolas, Kim and I went in the away end. The tickets cost 5,500 pesos, I imagine a Champions League game costs at least ten times that. For some reason we went really early, we and the other River fans spent three hours getting abused in Spanish by the Colo fans with a lot of gestures involving crotch grabbing. There was lots of stuff being thrown our way including a coin that hit me in the head and a bag of nuts that hit Kim in the face. Once the game kicked off the atmosphere was amazing, there were fireworks and flares and lots of singing and dancing. It quietened down for a while in the second half when River went 2-0 up but soon got going again when Colo got one back and when River had a player sent off. It finished 2-1 and the home fans were held back to let the away fans escape, we ran to the exit as we were bombarded with more stuff. I have attached videos of the River fans and of the goals. The quality of the football was fantastic - loads of great one and two touch footy. Definitely the best live game I have been to and don't forget I have been to the County Ground!

What with all the study and socialising I haven't really explored Santiago much yet. The area where I stay (close to Republica Metro station) has a faded European charm to it. Many of the buildings look like they were once very grand but now need some tlc.
Towards the centre there are lots of grand churches, museums etc which are in a much better state. On my first day here, there was some rain and strong winds were blowing the leaves from the trees so it felt like Autumn, but every day since has been incredibly hot and clear. The streets generally feel pretty safe and I have no problem walking around at night. After a week my Spanish is still rubbish and when the assistant at the supermarket asked me something I had no idea what she said, but I did have a succesful trip into town where I managed to buy a plug adaptor and an alarm clock using a little Spanish and some made up words like 'electrica' (if in doubt take an English word and add an 'a' or 'o'!) On Saturday I spent four hours on the patio doing revision and I feel like some progress has been made. I also got my shoulders a bit burnt. A heavy night out last night and today is Sunday, I watched the Coca Cola cup final, lounged around a lot and caught up with my blog. I'm still not sure where I am going next but I'm looking forward to it.
12th - 16th February (Farewell New Zealand)

Saw this stroke of godlike genius...
Hitch hiked back to Auckland. Didn't do a great deal but did bump into the girls again and went up the skytower with them. Managed to sleep ok despite the fat american snorer! Hitch hiked part of the way to Waitomo but after getting dropped on a motorway junction with nowhere safe to stand decided to go back the other way. A big friendly Samoan giant called Paul took me all the way into Auckland even though it was past his junction. I walked to the harbour and took a boat to the island of Waiheke. It had been hot all morning but of course by the time I got to the beach and put sun cream on a huge cloud came across. The bloke running the hostel is on something. It's a bit of a party zone with seriously loud music. There were no beds available but there was a tent which I managed to sleep for eleven hours in on the first night.
In the morning I set out on a long walk in some scorching sun, eventually I crashed on the beach which prompted clouds and a few spots of rain but God was only playing with me, spent the rest of the day on the beach, and most of the next day on a different beach which I had to walk through a nudist section to get to - not pretty! Considering I have done nothing but laze around it came as a surprise when my back spasmed whilst walking up a hill - it hurt like hell for a few days. I also managed to miss a big patch on my back with the cream so that burnt and peeled.

Back to Auckland yet again. After killing time all morning I went to catch the bus to the airport and was told I would need a taxi as the traffic was so bad the bus wouldn't get there on time. I only had $28 left and hoped I could get by without going to the ATM again. The taxi driver accepted the $28 having started out at $40 because it was on his way home. The eleven hour flight to Santiago was really tedious as the entertainment selection was pretty poor and I didn't have an aisle seat so I couldn't get up and stretch my legs much, also I couldn't sleep. The highlight was the film 'Little miss sunshine' which was very amusing. I put my watch back sixteen hours and landed five hours before I took off!

So the New Zealand adventure was over and the South American one had began. Despite some crappy weather I enjoyed New Zealand and will look back on all the really cool stuff I did there with happy memories - ice climbing, bungy jumping, sky diving, dolphins, penguins, mountains, lakes. Fantastic.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

5th - 11th February (Whitianga to Paihia)

What a day! I asked the hostel owner where to hitch from and he managed to get me on the bus over the bridge to an area called Bethlehem. From there it took me another eight lifts to get to Whitianga. About seven hours to travel a little over 100km with a few rain showers along the way. When I finally arrived it felt like I hadn't got past Bethlehem as there was no room at any of the hostels. The thought of hitching on again straight away wasn't a pleasant one so luckily I managed to get a $60 room above a pub restaurant for $40, there were three beds but I had the room to myself. Spent the rest of the day wandering around the small town, had a couple of beers in the two fairly dull pubs and watched some of the rugby sevens.

The weather was still miserable the next day so I decided to give the local walks a miss and hit the road again. A short walk, a hitch from an old guy who came here from Oz to avoid arrest for tax evasion and never went back, and then from 3 young lads from Thames (where I was heading) with a car thick with the smell of dope smoking and Rage/Nirvana playing from a laptop. It only took about an hour and twenty to get to Thames and the weather was no better. I wandered around the small town, ate at the bakehouse, did the $10 tour of the disused gold mine, met a 47 year old canadian called Tim at the hostel and went down the pub with him for a game of pool. In the evening I went to see the Borat movie (with only four other people in the cinema) then ate at the hostel, drank wine with Tim followed by whiskey.

I had hoped to go to the 'spectacular' pinnacles walk in the morning but the shuttle bus wasn't going due to bad weather. I hung around for a while considering wether to hitch hike out or not, played some pool and drank some beer and eventually decided to take the $24 bus to Auckland, this felt like a defeat but I couldn't be bothered to stand around getting wet although the weather brightened up as soon as I booked my ticket. The bus was boiling hot and there was a lot of congestion on the way into Auckland. My first impressions were not great, too many cars, tall buildings and people. The 'Surf and Snow' backpackers is big and decent enough although there ia lots of traffic noise at night. I phoned the police about some abandoned suit cases in the street and walked to the pier area which although only a short walk felt like a nice relaxing spot with nice bars and restaurants. Back at the hostel, a 21 year old Japanese lad had managed a half bottle of J.D., I knew from experience that this has consequenses. He later fell out of bed, made lots of thrashing about noises and ended up under my bed. I was worried that he might chuck up under there so me and another English lad in the dorm lifted the bed and lifted the Jap back into his bed. Earplugs helped me to get a decent nights sleep.

My morning visit to Qantas went much easier than I had expected, all the dates I suggested for my South American internal flights were okay - the only problem is I almost picked the dates at random because I have little idea of where to go or how long it takes to get around. I decided to head north to Paihia, in an area known as the bay of islands. Thirty minutes of walking towards the motorway junction and thirty minutes of waiting followed by a lift from an old American tourist called John, the two hour journey went by quickly as he was quite a talker. A middle aged woman took me a bit further, then a lorry driver took ne the rest of the way, stopping for a while to unload some roofing off of the back. I arrived in Paihia at 16.00 with lots of thick cloud, light showers, some blue sky and strong sun. Cap'n Bobs is a nice hostel with nice views of the sea. After visiting the supermarket I cooked steak and jacket potatoes for dinner followed by triple choc ice cream, all accompanied by $6 plonk - lovely! I spoke to some people including Conor from Ireland who just happens to be on the same flight as me to Santiago. Unfortunately Cap'n Bobs was booked up for the following night so I carted my stuff down the road to the pleasant Mayfair Lodge where George the owner is very helpful and chatty. I spoke to Mum, Dad and Carly on the phone. The weather was still humid with showers but supposed to get better tomorrow so I booked an $85 boat trip with the hope of swimming with dolphins. Walked to Waitangi where the treaty between the white settlers and the local Maoris was signed before continuing on to the Haruru falls, nothing too exciting but it was something to do. I watched a Maori cultural show at Waitangi for $12, the sun came out so I lazed around for a while before heading to the supermarket.
At the supermarket I spotted a cute girl (Jen) who turned out to be staying at the hostel, in my dorm with her hot mates Sian and Caz. I spoke to them for a while, they recently graduated from Nottingham Uni and are also heading to South America. Girls like that were never in my league and when one of them said I would probably like the Thomas Crown Affair becaude her dad likes it I realized they never would be. Still, it was nice to spend time with fit, intelligent young women. Sian looks like the girl from smack the pony.

Hurrah! Perfect weather for the boat trip.
The catamaran was a bit overcrowded, especially when we were all trying to photograph the dolphins. We weren't allowed to swim with them because they had a baby. I burnt some bits of ny back that I didn't manage to reach with the suncream - this would peel a few days later. The trip was pleasant, a little snorkelling, a walk on an island and hot dogs for lunch.
When I got back I fell asleep on a patch of grass by the sea, only to be awoken by a hen party who wanted group photos with me before abducting me in their tour bus as far as the bar for a drink before leaving for their next port of call - good fun. Later went to a couple of bars with the girls from the hostel.

Next day, I took the ferry to Russell, ate fish and chips before walking to flagstaff hill and long beach in the hot humid weather. Russell is a quaint little place. Back to Paihia for a walk to a lookout point. Used the hostel internet to book the inca trail for April and put some photos on the blog. I watched 'The fastest Indian in the world' a good NZ film starring Anthony Hopkins.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

1st - 4th February (The Bay of Plenty)

On the road again. Walked five minutes to a decent spot where I was picked up by Ted, a retired guy doing a limosine transfer in his people carrier. Ted dropped me in Rotorua, I then walked for about 50 minutes in the midday sun to get to the right road (not easy with a big pack on my back the day after the Tongariro crossing!). I was about to find out what Rhys was talking about when he said that hitching allows you to meet much more strange and interesting people. I was picked up by a pair of Maori bad boy gangstas in a Honda space wagon with adjustable hydraulic suspension. The baseball bat in the back was a bit worrying but they seemed like nice young lads (Pet and Andrew) and after talking to them for a while I found out that they were up and coming hip hop artists, they played me some of their stuff which was really good, Pet did some freestyle rapping and at a car park/lookout point Andrew (complete with bling and silver 'grills' over his teeth) showed me crumping (I think that's what he called it!), an aggressive dance style that I wish I'd filmed. They explained to me that the bat was in case they get trouble from Samoans when they go to Auckland. When we arrived at Whakatane (FA-KA-TA-NEH) they bought be a KFC and wouldn't let me pay, and although they were really cool I was on my guard having memorised their number plate in case they drove off with my stuff while I was in the KFC toilet! I really enjoyed meeting these guys who I would probably have avoided under normal circumstances. Whakatane is a pretty little quiet place and the Karibu backpackers is small and homely. I did my laundry, booked a trip for tomorrow, sat in the sun and talked to Ninka from Holland, she made too much pasta and like the nice guy I am I helped her out! In the evening I watched Shallow Hal while drinking a $5 bottle of Hardys Cab Sav.

The alarm went off at 08.15, it was raining hard. The boat trip to White Island was put back from 09.15 to 10.00. The rain started to die off and the sun came out just before we set sail and the weather stayed perfect all day.
I got my $150 worth just from the journey to the island; loads of dolphins came out to play, swimming alongside and behind the boat - they are incredible to watch but difficult to photograph. White Island is the most active of the three active volcanoes in NZ. It's last eruption was in 2000 and although they weren't expecting another one soon they went through all the safety procedures for an eruption or a landslide.
I thought it was a bit like a reverse lottery - the chances of it happening are very slim but you have to be in it to win it (ie. get flattened by flying hot rocks!) The whole island was fascinating, a huge green steaming crater that would dissolve any part of your body that you dipped into it, lots of sulpher, steam and odd rocks plus the remains of the doomed sulpher mining operation.
The guides were very good and full of information and tragic tales of the people who had died on the island. The water was choppy on the way back, I felt a bit queasy but there were several pukers much worse than me. We were back around 17.00 for a quick sunbathe before walking into town. Some nice fish and chips and sunset over the harbour to finish off a fantastic day.

Information and pictures of white island can be found at if you are interested.

The next day I aimed to get to Mount Maunganui, only about an hours drive away but without any cardboard I relied on the thumb. I was picked up by an old scouser called John who just took me to the next junction (taking me away from all the Rotorua traffic), two middle aged ladies, Ruth and Donna took me to Te Puke stopping for a sandwich and a coffee, a twenty minute walk before getting picked up by another middle aged lady who took me to the outskirts of Maunganui. With 6km to go I decided to walk but it was hot so after twenty minutes I stuck the thumb out again and got picked up by a nice young girl from Chile with her two kids in the back, we drove past the backpackers so I still had another five minute walk. It was quite a fun day but too much walking in the heat so after checking in to the nice hostel I walked to the beach which was very nice. It was very busy with it being a Saturday and the school holidays coming to an end. I stayed and soaked up some rays but the factor 30 stopped me from changing colour much. In the evening I walked through the town with lots of nice cafes, restaurants and bars but couldn't find a supermarket so had to eat a huge burger from an American diner.

With plans for a half day walk followed by some more lazing on the beach, the downpour that lasted all morning was not good. So, I spent all morning on the internet and burning a cd, and I thought summer had finally arrived, especially as I am now in the part of the country that generally has the best weather, the north east of the north island. Oh well, it could be worse, I could be in England! The rain stopped in the afternoon, long enough to go on a walk around the mount. In the evening I went to the cinema to watch 'The pursuit of happyness' with Will Smith which was okay.
27th - 31st January (Spurting geysers and naked geezers!)

I didn't wait more than ten minutes before a young builder picked me up on his way to do a job for a mate. He was nice enough to stop at the bubbling pool of mud en route before dropping me in the centre of Rotorua. After visiting the supermarket I cooked up some pasta - straight back into the old routine now Sasha has gone! I read half of 'The five people you meet in heaven' by Mitch Albom having left Shantaram for Sasha to finish (will have to pick that up elsewhere otherwise it will be on my Christmas list). My first impression of Rotorua is the smell of rotten eggs, caused by the sulpher of all the geothermal activity around here. I spent some time in the late night internet cafe.

The following day, I took a bus to Waiotapu. At 10.15 every morning, in front of a seating area packed with tourists, a man empties some biodegradable soap into the Lady Knox geyser which then bubbles a bit before a surge of water leaps twenty metres intop the air and continues for a good few minutes. Then, with Kee, an American girl on the bus, I walked the 75 minute track around a strange landscape of green pools, rocks of various formations and colours, steam and smelly sulpher. When we got back I left my camera on the bus but soon managed to get it back after a phone call to the bus company. In the afternoon I walked to the polynesian spa pools, at the edge of lake Rotorua where several pools of thermally heated spring water range from the pleasant 36 degrees to the uncomfortable 43 degrees. I sat there, relaxed, finished my book and got shat on by a seagull. The sun was shining, so on the way back I stopped at the local festival where I supped ale, ate barbecued salmon and listened to the local musicians. Watched Shrek 2 again.

The weather forecast for Taupo was looking better so I decided to hitch back there. I checked out, walked for ten minutes then waited fifty minutes for a lift, dropped halfway to my destination by a dodgy dreadlocked dude in a campervan and quickly got picked up by a bloke with a little girl listening to a cd story read by Baldrick. I checked in to a really shabby hostel, then went to town to arrange the bus to the tongariro crossing ($45) and the two night hut pass ($40). I went for a swim in lake Taupo, the water was ice cold but in some places you could dig your toes into the little stones and find unbearably hot streams - weird! The sun was hot, the wind was cold. I went to bed quite early but slept badly.

The alarm went off at 05.15. The 05.45 bus was 15 minutes late. It was raining hard when I awoke but seemed to be gradually improving and after about an hour on the bus it realy looked quite promising, however, the driver got a call telling him the winds were too strong in the mountains and we turned back. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise; I hadn't managed to get any waterproof trousers and the driver said i had the least amount of gear he'd ever seen for a three day crossing. So after a little nap, I moved into the much nicer Rainbow lodge, got a refund for my hut pass and booked the bus for a one day crossing with the weather forecast for tomorrow looking very good. Didn't do too much of interest for the rest of the day but played cards with a canadian, a fin, a welsh lad and some germans.

With my alarm set for 05.15, a girl in the dorm, also doing the trek, set hers for 04.40 so I got up then feeling rubbish. The weather was glorious all day. The crossing is quite hard work in places, particularly the 'devil's staircase'. I also went off of the track to climb up Mount Ngahoue (Mount Doom) which was quite steep and mostly loose gravel meaning that at times I was taking a step up and sliding half of it back down again, this also made getting back down interesting, the best bet is to kind of run and slide at the same time, good fun but quite hard on already aching knees! Altogether I think the route took about eight and a half hours including 45 minutes of breaks.

Some of the sights were fantastic; emerald lakes, the red crater etc., but the strangest thing was the naked guys at the top of Mount Doom where the wind was extremely cold. A fantastic day where, yet again the weather (on the second attempt) came through when I needed it. I managed to stay up until midnight with the strange concoction of nationalities despite feeling very tired.