I know, I know, I've been really bad at keeping this blog up to date, but I've set aside a few days now so here goes...
Last time I wrote, I had just changed trucks, driver and guide in Rio, and also half the group left to be replaced by a new group of people. I am pleased to say that the organisation of the tour immediately improved considerably under the new guide, Mark. He was a lot better organised than Jo, and it probably helped that he was a 6ft 6 tall ex-professional-rugby-playing skinhead, so he immediately earned our respect. Little things like not stopping for toilet breaks every hour, instead waiting for someone to ask for a stop, and not getting plates and chairs out during our lunch stops meant that we wasted a lot less time during the day. However, my first impressions of some of the new people were not so good - it was a struggle getting a smile out of most of them for the first couple of weeks, and although I did eventually make some new friends, I missed some of the original group a lot.
After a couple
of long drive days, we arrived at Porto Seguro on the east coast of Brazil. The group was staying there for 3 nights, but I only stayed for one, as the following day I flew to Salvador to meet Susana. We were both very much looking forward to seeing eachother again, but for some reason things didn't work out as well as they had in Buenos Aires, so I ended up a bit confused! We are still in touch, but I'm really not sure what will happen between us now. The old part of Salvador was beautiful, with lovely cobbled streets, but it was very rough and we were lucky that we were staying in a hotel a few miles outside the centre as it wasn't a place in which to wander around at night.
I rejoined the group the day they left Salvador, which I was not looking forward to at all. It had been nice being away from the truck for a few days, so the prospect of long drive days (some over 10 hours) in the stifling heat on a packed truck was not particularly enticing. Most of the next few days involved long drives to
beach towns, where we either camped or stayed in fairly decent hotels. For the most part, there wasn't a lot to do in these towns apart from wandering around getting bitten by mosquitoes. We did visit an ecological reserve in a lovely town called Praia Pipa, where we saw marmosets (monkey-type animals), turtles and tortoises, and the following day we saw dolphins playing in the sea, but other than that, there is not a lot to report for a few days.
The highlight of Brazil was undoubtedly the Amazon. We spent a couple of nights in Belem, a large town at the mouth of the Amazon river. A few of us visited the zoo there, where the condition of the animals left a lot to be desired. The jaguar, in particular, looked very distressed as it paced backwards and forwards in its small cage.
We then had an amazing 6-day ferry journey across the Amazon. This ferry is not a tourist boat, it is used by locals to reach the various towns situated along the river, so conditions were far from luxurious! Most people sleep on a hammock, which are packed together very closely at different heights, which
Praia Pipa, Brazil
makes for a colourful, if rather uncomfortable experience. If the person next to you moves during the night, it starts a kind of domino effect along the next few hammocks, which is not conducive to good sleep! There were a few 2-bedroom cabins, which I shared with a couple of other people on a rotation basis, which meant I had a bunk for three nights and a hammock for two, which was a godsend as I didn't sleep a wink on the hammock.
The food on the boat was surprisingly good, although there was little variety, being mainly beef stew, rice, spaghetti, beans and a bit of salad, for lunch and dinner, and a roll and fruit for breakfast. On the third day, the boat stopped at a town called Saint Elem, which meant we could walk around for a couple of hours. I took the opportunity to use the toilet in an internet cafe, as after three days, you really didn't want to use the toilets on the boat unless you had to.
We also docked at a few smaller towns, and it was great to see families paddling out to meet the boat on their canoes,
hoping for some food or gifts to be thrown overboard to them. It's amazing to see how these people live, although I was surprised to note that most of the huts at the side of the river had a satellite dish in the garden!
Life on the boat inevitably got a bit boring after the inital wander wore off, consisting mainly of sleeping, reading, chatting and just looking at the scenery. There was surprisingly little wildlife, apart from the odd dolphin leaping out of the water, and large stretches of the riverbanks were uninhabited.
Several people in our boat got quite ill during the journey, probably due to a combination of the heat and cramped living conditions. I was fairly lucky, in that I wasn't ill until I literally walked off the boat to our waiting bus and nearly fainted. But as soon as I slumped in the seat, I felt better.
The day after we arrived at Manaus, we had an early start for a 3-day trip into the Amazon jungle. I think it would have been better to allow us an extra day in Manaus to recover, as a few of us really were feeling
bad. I hadn't slept a wink as I was up all night with the runs, and I was very close to cancelling the jungle tour, but Mark talked me into going, and I am very grateful that he did. After a bus ride, we took a boat along the river and then had a long hike to our jungle lodge which was situated on the banks of the river. It was a very basic lodge, although it did have proper toilets and showers which we were not expecting, and again we had to sleep in a hammock, although this time there was plenty of space.
On the first night, after a very good dinner cooked by the staff at the lodge, we took a boat trip to spot wildlife, and for a while it looked like we wouldn't see anything, until our guide leapt out of the boat, put his hands in the bush and came out with a baby alligator. He brought it into the boat and we all had a turn holding it and stroking it, making sure one hand was clasped firmly around its mouth, as despite being small, it was very feisty and had a
Praia Pipa, Brazil
lot of teeth. We also saw a small snake eating some fruit - it's amazing how the guides spot the wildlife as all they can see are 2 pinpricks of light reflecting off their eyes.
The following day we went for a boat ride, then a long walk to another site where we were to camp for the night. This site was a little more rustic, basically a shelter built from palm trees with a roof made of banana leaves, under which we strung our hammocks. I was on the outside, and just as we were settling to sleep, it started to rain, so the guide had to move my hammock over somebody else's, which didn't go down too well! During the walk, our guide chopped open the branch of a tree and took out some large white maggots, which he later skewered and roasted on the fire. They were still squirming a good twenty minutes later, but were quite tasty with a nutty flavour. During the night there was a bit of a commotion as the guides had found a huge alligator in the creek and brought it to the camp to show us. They quickly took it
Praia Pipa, Brazil
back to where they found it before it got too angry, and it took three men to hold it down.
After a surprisingly good sleep, we had another long walk back to the boat, with a stop for lunch. Whilst we were on the boat, the heavens opened and down came the heaviest rain I have ever seen in my life. It was actually quite scary, as the boat quickly filled with water and we had to bail it out using plastic bottles. The storm lasted for over half an hour, and when we got back to the lodge, the owner was looking very worried as I don't think even he had seen rain like it.
The last morning at the lodge was spent sitting around making jewellery out of jungle berries, and making blow-pipes from bamboo stalks. We then took a boat and bus back to Manaus, where I spent a couple of days relaxing.
We had a long drive to Boa Vista, which took 14 hours due to the poor pot-holed roads, before we arrived in Venezuela. The scenery as we entered the country was stunning, and we camped at a very basic site in
Salto Kama, where we had to wash in the river as there was no running water. Again we had a torrential downpour, this time just as we were about to eat. Fortunately, this was the last night of camping on the tour. Whilst I have really enjoyed the camping, it does become a chore putting up and taking down the tent, especially when it is wet and muddy.
We then drove to Ciudad Bolivar, from where we took a flight over the Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world at 979m. The flight was great fun and the scenery was amazing, although the falls themselves were a little disappointing as there was not a lot of water there (it was the wrong season). The falls are so high that the water evapourates before it hits the ground. Also, you can't get a feel for how high they are when you are flying over them. Still a really good day though, which included a boat trip to some other falls, which we were able to walk behind, getting absolutely drenched in the process.
Next stop was Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, which has a reputation for being rougher
than Rio. Although I didn't experience anything bad there, I can't say I liked the city. People there clearly resented rich, white tourists, who they assumed to be American, and they were very rude. We had a final group dinner at a cheap Mexican restaurant, and said our goodbyes, which was quite emotional, although a few of us had mixed feelings as we were quite glad the tour had come to an end! I spent a couple of days in Caracas, but there wasn't much to do there and couldn't wait to leave.
On my way to New Zealand, I had a stopover in Santiago, so I met up with Susana for the afternoon and had a lovely day, very similar to the first day we met, walking in the same park, going to the same cafe. I think we needed the familiarity after what happened in Santiago. I ordered a taxi from my hotel to the airport, which was about an hour late and got me panicking a bit. Whilst we were waiting in reception, an elderly Canadian guy asked me where I was going, and when I said New Zealand, he asked me if they spoke English
My first stop was Auckland on the North Island. Last time, Auckland was my least favourite city in NZ, but it just goes to show that first impressions don't always last, as this time I loved it. It helped that the weather was hot and sunny, and I spend a lot of time walking round the harbour, which I didn't even visit last time for some reason. I packed a lot in in my 4 days there. My first stop was an English bookshop as it had been a struggle finding any decent books in South America once the truck library had been exhausted. I took a harbour cruise, visited the museum and took a boat to the other side of the harbour where I got some nice pics of the Auckland skyline at sunset. I also went up the Sky Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere at 328 metres, which gave amazing views of Auckland and its volcanoes (the city is built on around 50 volcanoes). Whilst I was at the top of the tower, I took some photos of a few people doing the sky jump, which is basically jumping off the top
Packed like sardines
Amazon river, Brazil
of the tower attached to a wire, the significance of which will become apparent later in this blog.
After Auckland, I picked up the Magic Bus, a hop-on, hop-off backpacker bus that runs along a fixed route of your choice, which is a cheap and easy way of covering most of NZ, and is the way I travelled last time and absolutely loved it. First stop was Rotorua, one of my favourite places, due to the geothermal activity going on all around the town, throwing up bubbling pools of mud and creating a strong smell of sulphur, and in the evening I went to a traditional Mauri concert.
Then it was on to Taupo, which sits on the shore of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. Last time I was here, the weather was awful and I didn't have fond memories of the place. This time, the weather was good for the first couple of days and it was a lovely town to walk around. I was debating whether or not to do a famous walk called the Tongariro Crossing, which passes the slopes of a couple of active volcanoes, including those used in the Lord
Amazon river, Brazil
of the Rings, but a combination of laziness and stupidity led me to delay my decision. Instead, I went for a walk with and Irish girl called Aimee and an English girl Vicky, and the route took us to a bungy site, where Aimee decided at the spur of the moment to do a jump. There was no way I was going to do one, so I just took the photos.
The following morning I regretted my decision not to do the walk, as the weather had changed dramatically. Aimee and I hired a car and drove to the volcanoes, but it was so cloudy and rainy that we couldn't even see them! It was ironic that pretty much the only day where the weather was bad on the North Island was the one day I wanted it to be good, but it was still an enjoyable day and it was nice driving again for the first time since August. At one stage, we stopped for coffee and I showed Aimee the pics I had taken of people jumping off the Auckland Sky Tower, and unbelievably, one of the people was her! I promised to send her the pics
Life on the Amazon
Amazon river, Brazil
but I lost her email address and she never did contact me... I think she thought I was stalking her!
Next stop was Wellington, the capital. I had a nice walk around the harbour and went to the fantastic Te Papa museum, the highlight of which was the detailed explanation of how volcanoes are formed. I also spent about 5 hours in the botanical gardens taking loads of photos. I like the city, but didn't find the people there particularly friendly. Maybe I was just feeling a little lonely, as I'd made some nice friends already in NZ but they had all gone their separate ways and I couldn't find anyone to talk to for a few days.
The following day I got the Inter-Islander ferry to the South Island. The weather was beautiful and the scenery between the 2 islands is stunning. We arrived in Picton and I immediately got a train south along the coast to Christchurch (called the TranzCoastal), something I didn't do last time I was here. Again, the scenery was amazing, but I was so tired that I fell asleep for a while so missed a lot of it!
Christchurch is another
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of my favourite places, and I spend a couple of nights here. I met up with Haley, a girl who was doing a similar tour to me in Central America, so our 2 groups met at several places along the way. Bizarelly, I didn't talk to her until the last day in Mexico City, but we exchanged email addresses, and she happened to be in Christchurch for a job interview, so we had lunch together.
I then got the train from Christchurch to Greymouth (the TranzAlpine), a journey which is regarded as one of the top ten train journeys in the world. At least, it is when the weather is good. But once again, the weather let me down when I needed it most! Normally you can see stunning mountains, but the snow-capped peaks were shrouded in a layer of cloud. It was still an amazing experience though.
My memories of Greymouth from my last trip are that it was one of the grimmest places on earth. Once again though, first impressions aren't always right. It was actually far worse than that! Even on a Saturday afternoon, absolutely nothing was open and I was bored out of my
Amazon jungle, Brazil
mind. Luckily, there is a brewery tour you can do there, so I signed up for that and met some nice people who I ended up bumping into several times on the rest of my tour. The beer was great (I'm not a huge beer drinker but the NZ beers really are nice) and we had a BBQ included in the price. I only stayed one night in Greymouth, but one guy I met was staying for three... god knows what he found to do there!
Next stop was Franz Joseph, home to a fantastic glacier. People ask me why I went back to New Zealand when I've already been there, but if they saw some of the scenery they would know why. This is another of my favourite places, and I spent a couple of days walking, chilling and drinking with friends who I'd met in the past few days. Another wonderful thing about this place is the clarity of the sky at night, amongst the clearest I have ever seen.
Then it was onto the town of Wanaka, which sits on Lake Wanaka, the 4th largest lake in NZ. Again, it is an absolutely beautiful location,
made all the more lovely as the weather was great. The hostel I was staying at was lovely (in fact most of the hostels in NZ have been great, albeit a little quiet sometimes). I had a bit of privacy for the first time since I can remember as I was the only person in my dorm. We went to a place called Puzzle World, which is an unusual building containing lots of optical illusions, and a cafe where you can try lots of different puzzles. I loved it!
Next stop was Queenstown, which is the party and adventure capital of NZ. I loved this place last time I was here, but this time I was only staying for 1 night as I was running out of time and there were other things I wanted to do, so a few of us went out for a great curry and some drinks. I had an early start the following morning for my trip to Milford Sound, one of the most beautiful places on earth. It rains for over 300 days a year there, and last time I was there was no exception. Fortunately, the weather was lovely this time which
Amazon jungle, Brazil
meant I could see it in its full glory. The drive to Milford Sound is an event in itself, passing through amazing mountainous scenery and several glaciers. This is followed by a couple of hours on a boat cruising around the sound, passing mountains and waterfalls, a truly spectacular sight.
After a night in Te Anau, situated by yet another lovely lake, I got a couple of shuttle buses and then a ferry across the Foveaux Strait to Steward Island, NZ's third largest island but which is actually tiny. Because of the introduction of the winter timetable, I could either spend one night here or three, and I chose the latter. Two would have been better, as there really wasn't an awful lot to do on the island, but it was a lovely place to unwind for a few days. I spent a surreal hour or two on the first night lying in the road with Lizzie, a girl I'd met at the hostel, looking up at the night sky counting shooting stars (I saw two, she saw four but I'm sure she cheated). This is what I love about travelling, doing random things like that! The following morning,
Walking in the jungle
Amazon jungle, Brazil
Lizzie and I went for a walk before I took a water taxi to Ulva Island, a bird sanctuary, and saw some lovely rare native birds, but unfortunately, not the elusive kiwi, which is nocturnal although has occasionally been sighted during the day.
I then went back to the South Island and did a day tour of the Catlins Coast, which runs along the south east coast from Bluff round to Dunedin. The scenery was lovely, although by now the weather had again turned rainy. The highlight of the trip was seeing some yellow-eyed penguins, which are native to NZ.
I spent one miserable night in Dunedin (both the weather and the curry I had were very disappointing) before heading back to Christchurch for a couple of nights, saying goodbye to the Magic Bus and having some farewell drinks with a couple of friends.
I was quite sad to leave New Zealand. It is one of my favourite countries, full of wonderful scenery, lovely people and good food. And I thoroughly enjoyed travelling on the Magic Bus again. It gave me the freedom I didn't have in South America whilst allowing me to see all the major
sights. I will definitely come here again one day, maybe hire a car next time to see all the places the bus doesn't go to.
I am now in Melbourne, having been in Australia for 3 weeks, but I'll write about that in my next blog, which hopefully won't be so long in coming as this one was.
Hope all is well back home.
Love me x
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