Part 6 Aberdeenshire… North coast

Next morning we entered the Cheese Pantry to find an Aladdins Cave of cheese treasures.So many beautiful cheeses, including their own which are made on the premises.The very friendly staff were keen for us to taste as many as we wished! We were happy to oblige! We came away with 4 delicious cheeses and a smoked Salmon paté made with their own cream cheese, for less than half of the price of a night on a campsite…and our fridge was re-stocked!First stop this morning was Cawdor Castle, built in 1372 and still lived in by the Campbell family.It was wonderful. A comfortable, homely feel in the rooms was offset by doors that opened onto stone staircases and secret dungeons.I have never seen twin four posters before!The first part of the castle to be built was a central keep, and the legend is that when the Thain of Cawdor wanted to build his castle, he sent his donkey to wander with a panniers of gold. Wherever the animal rested, he would build. It stopped under a Holly tree, so he built his keep around the tree. The holly tree is still there, and when it was carbon dated, it dates to the late 1300’s, when the castle was built!Around the castles were beautiful gardens and a maze, and we decided it was one of our favourite places.We were disappointed not to see Osprey at Loch Garten, and we had been told of a secret location near the castle to see them. We headed there on foot, in quite heavy rain, and saw the nest with a parent bird hunkered down, presumably sheltering the chicks. Hurray!Next, onto Lossiemouth where, as the rain had stopped, we did two walks. The first into the coastal forest, the only place we have ever seen where lichen carpeted the ground, looking like snow!Then, literally in the middle of nowhere, is a hidden corner where bird feeders are set up and regularly replenished. We sat on the bench there, literally feet from the feeders, as birds came and went, including coal tits feeding young. Suddenly, a flash of yellow, and a family of yellowhammer arrived, which were delightful. What a treat.Next a walk to Loch Spynie for some more bird watching, before returning to Lossiemouth, and, in particular the Lossie fish and chip shop!Supper purchased, we drove to the car park at the west beach where we could stay the night.Parked looking across the beach, two birds appeared, hovered and then dived into the tidal lagoon right in front of us. They were Ospreys, and we were treated to a few hours of them fishing! Every time they caught something they were mobbed by gulls. Amazing to watch.Then at 7.45 a jet took off from RAF Lossiemouth and disappeared towards the horizon. A lady passing said ‘There goes the 8pm fly past’ Sure enough, at 8pm exactly the Typhoon jet came roaring towards us and as he reached the shore, pulled into a lightning fast vertical climb, before spiralling down and vanishing!Another treat… and a regular occurrence apparently!The final treat was a super sunset!We both woke at 4am, and peeked out of the window. What a sight. The tide was in, the sun was beginning to rise…. and the Osprey were back fishing!And the cost of that campsite… free! Wow…so lucky! We even went straight back to sleep!Next day was forecast sunny, so we decided to do some walking!! Firstly, a visit to beautiful Elgin Cathedral… built in 1224, but left for ruin after the reformation in 1560, it has been a tourist attraction since the 1800s!On the Bishops house next door, these interesting house shaped gable ends caught my eye.Next door is the peaceful Biblical garden.Then an 8 mile coastal walk from Portsoy to Cullen (home of Cullen Skink… not an animal but gorgeous smoked haddock chowder!). We had parked Boris in Cullen, then caught the local bus to Portsoy to walk back. Sadly, Chris’ English bus pass was not accepted! If we had been on bikes (anyone who knows me should now be laughing loudly!), there was a super bike service point provided in the town square!This was an exhilarating walk.We also saw some beautiful orchids.Lots of beautiful scenery, cliffs studded with birds, sandy beaches and even an impossibly sited castle ruin – Findlater castle.We completed the somewhat hilly trek, and had an award winning ice cream as our prize!Back into Boris and a journey 10 miles along the coast to the RSPB reserve at Troup Head. Another few kilometres walking here was amply rewarded by the views of Scotland’s only mainland Gannet colony… 2000 beautiful birds, which we could see, hear and definitely smell!From the cliffs we were at eye level with these magnificent birds as they flew effortlessly by.The gannets are still mating and laying eggs, so no chicks yet. Gannet chicks are amazing. They turn into fat fluff balls, and their way of fledging is to literally fall out of the nest to the sea far below, cushioned by their fat. They are too fat to take off again, but their fat sustains them until they can!Lastly a few miles along a narrow twisty lane to St Drostan’s beach, our stop for the night, backed by sandstone cliffs.We spent an hour walking to explore some huge caves and rock pools before watching an even more amazing sunset, and then sleeping like logs… we didn’t wake up until after 9.00 am… unheard of for me!

A proper Bimble with Boris.. to Scotland Part 1. Heading north!

So, we are on a proper Bimble WITH Boris! I wasn’t planning to write a blog, but 2 different people today asked “Where is the blog?”, so here it is! In big chunks!!

‘To bimble’ means to wander, and we set off from home with nothing booked at all except supper and a pub quiz with Peter and Tracy in Bracknell! Our goal was to head north for Scotland, but with unsettled weather ahead, our itinerary would be flexible to try to chase the sun. Or the bright days. Or even the drier days. Or even the days with a few gaps in the rain!

During an uneventful drive up the M1 and A1, it was decided that our first stop would be Northumberland.

We never seem to make it past this beautiful area without stopping for a few days. Plus the weather there was lovely… less so further north. Having had a few problems with Boris prior to leaving, we wanted the first few nights on campsites just to check everything was ok.

Now winging it is great fun… but this was late May Bank holiday weekend, and the start of school half term… how would we fare getting a pitch?

All the big sites were full or, understandably, wanted a minimum stay of 3 nights. However, we were very lucky and had 1 night at Pippin’s Park, a 5 pitch Caravan and Motorhome club certificated site in a great location about a mile from our favourite place, Low Newton.

Or do I mean our favourite pub… the Ship Inn, with it’s own microbrewery. The pub was fully booked, but Chris’ soulful expression meant they squeezed us in for a fabulous dinner, followed by a glorious evening walk along the cliffs.

The best night’s sleep I have had in ages was followed by a visit to 600 year old Alnwick castle.. a place we had never visited before. Our HHA membership gave us free admission! A true castle residence, it is home to the Percy family, the 12th Duke of Northumberland. We took the free guided tours, and each one was fascinating.

Today’s top trivia… Harry Hotspur was Henry Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland. He was a medieval superstar on the battlefield, and got his nickname because he rode into battle so fast his spurs got hot!

When a certain football club was formed in 1882, Harry’s attacking spirit saw the north London Tottenham side adopt the term Hotspur in their name.

Alnwick castle has also been used extensively in films and TV, most notably as Hogwarts in Harry Potter… Chris wouldn’t let me have broomstick lessons which were on offer… he said I didn’t need them…..!!

It was also used in series one of Blackadder… no coincidence that Blackadder’s hapless friend was Lord Percy?!

Downton Abbey, Transformers, Robin hood Prince of Thieves… the list goes on.

Next stop was the amazing, huge, Barter bookshop in Alnwick. This is the largest secondhand bookshop in Europe. It is converted from the old railway station, and, much to Chris’ delight, had model railways running round above the shelves!

Not only great books, but a super little cafe, armchairs and open fires means this great spot is busy all the time, and yes, you can take in your old books and barter for replacements! Another claim to fame is that, in a box of books bought at auction, the owner found the original wartime KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster that has since been reproduced in thousands of formats!. The original is on display in the shop!!

We had managed to get 2 nights on the Glororum caravan park, a mile from Bamburgh, so after checking in, we caught a bus to Budle Bay, and did the wonderful coast path walk back to Bamburgh.

The castle towered ahead of us, with amazing carpets of pink campion all around.

Next day, and we had booked a boat trip with Billy Shiels from Seahouses, to travel out to the Farne Islands just offshore. We have done this trip several times before, but each time it is sensational. The Farnes are home to literally thousands of breeding seabirds. Even if you are not keen birdwatchers, you cannot fail to be amazed at the spectacle. We sailed past cliffs where every inch of space was occupied by a nest precariously perched on a minute ledge. Their eggs have pointy ends so they roll in a circle and dont fall out!!

Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwake and Shag jostle for space, and fill the skies and the water.

Then, there are the seals… huge and imperious, resting on land, then slipping into the sea and gliding past like rockets!

Finally, the trip lands on Inner Farne, where Arctic tern are nesting everywhere, even on the footpath, and protective parents fly up and pack at the heads of passers by.

Past experience means a) We were a hat. b) the hat was lined with cardboard!! Very effective peck protection. The stars of the show are always the puffins, and standing feet away from these stunning birds is such a privilege. I even managed a photo of one with sand eels in it’s beak!!

On our way back in the boat we were thrilled with what we had seen, when suddenly the captain asked if perhaps seeing some dolphins might be nice! Suddenly a pod of 5 were alongside us, racing the boat. What a brilliant end to the trip.

Our last day in England (!), we visited Bamburgh castle, again free with HHA.

More austere than Alnwick, it is owned by the youngest generation of the Armstrong family, although they no longer live there. Essentially a Victorian reconstruction, on an ancient castle site, pretending to be an ancient castle!

For us, the most fascinating part of the visit was learning about the first Lord Armstrong. He was an amazing inventor and pioneering industrialist.

He built Newcastle’s Swing Bridge and the hydraulic mechanism that operates London’s Tower Bridge. He created Cragside in Northumberland, the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. He was the Armstrong in Armstrong Siddeley and Armstrong Whitworth, and was involved in designing aircraft, cars and ships.

He was also a great philanthropist, and this role is carried on today.

Leaving Bamburgh, we drove north, crossing the border into Scotland and driving to St Abbs Head.

We then hiked the 5 mile circuit along the beautiful cliffs, again watching colonies of seabirds. There were a lot of ups and downs, and we were walking into a very strong headwind, so by the end we felt as if we had done at least 10, albeit very exhilarating, miles!

The weather on the east coast was deteriorating, so we decided to head inland and find some indoor pursuits for the next day. Filling up with fuel, we realised we were definitely in Scotland!

We drove to Dryburgh and found a super spot to wildcamp… a tiny, hidden car park near a huge statue of William Wallace. Not a sound all night!! Fantastic.

South America Post 15 Lakes and Legends

Next morning dawned cloudy and showery, so our view was still hazy.

We descended to town and boarded a boat to take us out through the massive reed beds to the Uros Islands.

The Uros people were persecuted in the 19th century, and fled from their shore settlements in their Reed boats. Gradually they evolved the idea of building floating Reed islands, using floating mud blocks containing reed roots as a base, then laying 2 – 3 metres of reeds on top.

There are over 100 islands, and 40% are fully inhabited, with a floating school and health centres. Many of the others are mainly there for tourism. The islands were small, with 5 -8 small huts on each, and between 10 and 20 people from the same family.

The surrounding water is 18 metres deep! We jumped on the reeds, and they were remarkably solid.

The top layer is supplemented every 2 weeks. Fish and bird eggs are primary foods, but they even grow crops on the island- usually potatoes! Reeds are used for everything, including the water tower, and symbolic condor!

Family feuds sometimes occur, and when that happens, the simply saw the island in half!!

A fascinating way of life.

Onshore, we visited the tiny Puno museum, which contained pre Inca, and Inca artefacts. The pottery was mainly Pre Inca,

as was this remarkable weaving.

This amazing gold neck plate was retrieved from the only Inca tomb that was not looted, as were these mummified bodies, buried in a foetal position, in reed wrappings, with food and essential possessions, ready for rebirth.

We next caught a local bus for a 3 hour drive to Bolivia at one end of Lake Titicaca. The lake is the highest navigable lake in the world, and is huge. It is over 120 miles long, and in parts nearly 1000 feet deep!! Jacques Cousteau came here in the 1970’s, and found giant frogs up to 20 inches long, that never left the water. Sadly they are now critically endangered due to pollution, often from illegal mining operations using mercury.

The border crossing is strict. After exiting Peru, we had to walk 200 metres into Bolivia, which was strangely exciting. Bolivian customs were quite grumpy, but we were allowed in. We saw our first bowler hated Bolivian lady!

Adopted by the locals in the 1920’s, when worn by British railway workers, they are now made locally to a variety of designs!

We were staying 1 night in Copacabana, a seaside village on the Bolivian shore, which gave Rio’s Copacabana beach it’s name. It was charming.

Our hotel was the unbelievably quirky Las Olas. 9 very individual rooms, Gaudi style. We were in a huge egg, with a circular bed, a spiral shower, and a great view!

Alpacas and Llamas wandered around freely! This is blurred as it was at night!

Next door, La Cupola restaurant was charming and we enjoyed a lovely supper. Next morning we took an all day boat trip to the Islands of the Moon and Sun. (Our boat was a bit bigger than these!)

It was a gloriously sunny day, full of fascinating history and dramatic landscapes.

These islands were of huge cultural significance to the Pre-Incans, and Incans. There is a legend that Lake Titicaca was once a dry, fertile land where people lived in peace, but they started to argue, and get greedy, so the Apus, or mountain Gods, decided to punish them, and sent Pumas, to destroy them all. Just 2 people escaped, and Inti, the sun God, cried so much that his tears filled the Lake. The two that escaped were the first Incas!

The Island of the Moon contains a temple to the moon goddess, built around 1450.

This was inhabited by Virgins, some of whom would be chosen to be sacrificed. The Incas believed in life after death, and to die in this way was considered honourable (presumably mostly by those who weren’t about to experience it!) The Incas abolished human sacrifice in the 16th century, but today some still sacrifice a black Llama on certain feast days!

This was a very atmospheric place. 3 delineated areas were for worship to the Moon Goddess, and Mother earth – Patcha Mamma.

The Andean cross was adopted by the Incas from earlier civilisations, and represents the Southern cross stars. It is deeply significant to the ancient and modern people. It appears everywhere in ancient Inca ruins, pottery, and in Christian churches and modern art. The four x 3 steps represent the 12 core precepts of Andean life, and the 4 outer sides are the compass points, the 4 major elements found on this planet, earth, air, water and fire and the 4 stars in the constellation. The centre point is Cusco.

We then moved on to Isla de la sol, Sun Island, where an early pre Incan temple survives, with Inca building on top.

Inti, the Sun God, was their most important. This temple had 3 openings. At each equinox, and solstice, the sun would shine directly into a specific opening, signalling to the people to start their new season of harvest, or sowing etc.

800 people live here, and tourism mixes with a traditional way of life.

We watched the donkeys clatter down the steep steps to the shore ready to carry the provisions that were arriving by boat, up to the top of the town.

We climbed high, and the views were stunning.

Returning to Copacabana, we visited the enormous 17th century Basilica which sits proudly above the town.

It was beautiful, but again Inca symbolism was part of it.

A few last evocative images from the town before we had to leave. We loved the humming bird at the flower stall!

We were sad we did not have more time in Bolivia, as we climbed onto the bus to return to Peru and our high up hotel!! We had both experienced the usual difficulties with altitude, shortness of breath and fatigue, but nothing more serious. However I think were both ready to return to sea level!!

Our last morning was spent at Sillustrani, 35km from Puno. En route we saw traditional reed thatched farms, with the rooftop Inca bulls as good luck charms.

We had come to see the Chullpas.

These tall chimney like structures were pre-Inca, and Inca burial towers, which had been looted by the Spanish many years ago. As we saw at the museum, the deceased were buried in the foetal position, with food, drink and treasures… and possibly a few members of their family who were killed and buried with them. Rough stones were pre Inca, smooth were Inca.. but you know that by now!!

Each tower had a small opening to the east, through which their spirit would be reborn to the God of the Sun. This opening was surrounded by a half Andean cross. When the sun rises at the solstice, the shadow makes a full cross. Each Incan leader would have his symbol carved on the tomb, as they had no written language. This is a lizard.

These Incan, and Pre-Incan troughs of water were used to reflect the stars.

It was a fascinating and moving site, perched on a hill above Lake Umayo.

From here we headed to Juliaca and our flight to Lima, for the last day of our amazing trip.

South America Post 9 … Waterfalls!

Our next destination was Iguacu Falls which mark the border between Brazil, Argentina (Iguazu). Both sides are worth seeing, so we were spending one night on each. They had had unseasonably heavy rain which was set to continue, so we knew we were in for 2 very wet days!

We flew into the local airport in Brazil, which didn’t inspire confidence!

It was being rebuilt. Subsequently, the equivalent local airport on the other side, in Argentina looked the same. A huge case of keeping up with the Jones’ maybe!!

Staying in an agri eco hotel meant a cabin in lovely gardens, and fresh organic food.

And we saw our first Toco Toucan! The Guiness variety!Gorgeous bird.

Next morning we visited the Parque des Aves, which was next to our eco hotel. It is a conservation project which rescues injured or sick wild birds of Brazil, and rehabilitates them, and runs breeding programmes for endangered species. A great way to get a close up view of birds we had seen at a distance, as we walked through huge, high aviaries.

Then onto the falls. The rain had started, but it did not spoil the falls! In fact, the volume of water was so huge, the spray was soaking everyone anyway.

These falls comprise over 200 separate waterfalls, stretching literally for miles, plunging down into the river below.

We took a path and walked alongside them, then out over one cascade into the spray and wind generated by another! The noise was indescribable.

Then, in an act of madness, we decided to go on a high speed rib ride. There was a choice of the dry ride – viewing the falls from a distance, or the Wet ride, which would take us under…. not behind, under the waterfall! Well, we were already wet!! Leaving everything dry in a locker we set off, whizzing and bouncing over white water to the foot of the falls.

From here, the power was visible everywhere around you. Then, the boat turned and we went under. It was one of the smaller falls, but the force of the water hitting your head was huge. It took your breath away. He took us in and out 3 times, then we sped back… sodden but feeling rather chuffed we had done it! Not surprisingly, my phone was not out taking photos!!

Back to the lodge where we changed, collected our bags and took a taxi to Argentina and our Air BnB, the Secret Garden. 3 simple rooms at the bottom of a very verdant garden! The owner, John Fernandes, was a famous photographer, but was sadly ill in hospital. We were well looked after by his friends, including Caipirina cocktails and nibbles on the terrace before we headed out for dinner!

I had booked The Argentinian experience some months ago, due to it’s great reviews. It was fab! A group of us were taught how to make Argentinian cocktails, told about the history the food, and the amazing steaks, made our own empanadas, and treated to a 4 course meal that was really delicious, including a divine, and huge, fillet steak each.

Argentinian wine accompanied each course (sadly not for me as I still cannot drink wine), but Chris loved it, especially the Malbec. We slept well!

Next day we went to the Argentinian side of the falls, which were equally good. A series of walks give you a different perspective, and a mini train ride takes you out to the river that feeds the waterfalls. You walk across 1km of bridges to the Devils mouth, where one of the biggest concentrations of water pours down. On both sides of the river. Unbelievable!

The magic was enhanced by many hundreds of Great Dusky Swifts whirling and swirling up and down in the spray. Unbelievably, they nest on the rocky face behind the torrent. Magical!

Coatis prowl everywhere, ready to pounce on a discarded sandwich. Although cute, apparently they have a bad bite.

It had been a wonderful few days, and we were awestruck by the power of these amazing falls. Sadly, time to leave, as we were off to the airport for our flight to Buenos Aires!

South America Post 6 The Amazon Rainforest.

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‘Amazon Rainforest’ evokes wonderful images of a huge, fast flowing, muddy river surrounded by towering, dense rainforest teeming with life. We knew we had to visit. Although the fact that the teeming life includes a vast array of insects, spiders and snakes was slightly disconcerting.

The Amazon basin is vast, covering an area nearly equal to the whole USA. It extends into 8 countries. The Amazon river is formed from several main rivers and many small tributaries, all originating in the Andes.

There is some dispute as to which is the longest river in the world between the Amazon, Nile and Mississipi. The Amazon is over 4000 miles long. What is not disputed is that in terms of volume of water, the Amazon wins hands down. It’s estuary is 205 miles wide, and it discharges over 200,000 cubic metres of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean PER SECOND!!

Our easiest access point was in Ecuador. Easy being a relative term.

We took a local flight over the Andes to Coca. There we were met by the wonderful staff from La Selva eco lodge. It was Carnaval fiesta day. The locals were enjoying themselves, spraying foam and water everywhere!

For us, the next 4 days were to be some of the most amazing travelling we have done.

Firstly, 50 miles down the huge, brown, fast running Napo river in an open sided motorised canoe dodging sandbanks and floating trees!

Then a walk through jungle to a still and silent chocolate brown creek, where paddle canoes waited to take us on a mystical 20 minute ride into a huge lagoon.

Our lodge was at the far end. This is the only way here. No roads. Everything, supplies, water, fuel, laundry is transported by boat, 3.5 hours to Coca.

I will confess that after reading horror stories of people waking up with tarantulas on their pillows in the budget rainforest accommodation, I did go for something a bit more comfortable, but didn’t realise how super La Selva would be.

All staff were Ecuadorian, and many were from the local community. Our room (and loo!) had no windows… just mesh to let air in and keep bugs out. Temperature is between 75 and 95 degrees F all year round. Humidity is 80% plus.

The food was amazing, and locally sourced. Everything was quietly organised like a well oiled machine. We were issued rubber boots which hardly left our feet for the next 3 days.

The high humidity meant we got used to a permanent damp feel to both us and all our clothes!

The solitude and silence were immense. Especially at night. It was almost overwhelming. Then it would be broken by bird song or the eerie sound of the Howler monkeys, or warring Caymans in the lake.

Every day, and night, we were taken out in our small group of just 7. Us, and 5 lovely people from Massachusetts, USA. Hello ladies!!

We had Edwin, a Naturalist, plus Medardo, an unbelievably eagle eyed native guide, with us all the time.

They pointed out things we would never have seen, and constantly explained fascinating details about the wildlife, and also the plants and trees, and their uses, especially in natural medicine. This fungus is peeled apart to reveal a cool gel used to treat burns.

This black sap heals wounds.

This seed case is a comb, and the leaf below can be folded and twisted without it breaking. One use is to wrap food before cooking.

This is a place for people who can be ‘Wowed’ by tiny things and details. There are relatively few mammals, many of which are highly reclusive, so sightings are unlikely.But the tiny things are incredible. Tiny frogs and toads with amazing leaf coloured camouflage….

Then turn them over and WOW!!

We loved the fact that nothing was stage managed. There was no point where we felt that we saw something because it was enticed by food. Medardo would swiftly pounce and suddenly be holding a frog, but never harmed them at all. Everything was wild and natural. The guides were as excited as we were when something was spotted.

I had to curb my natural desire to jump up and down and squeal with excitement!!

We started in at the deep end with a night walk. Head torches and bug spray on, we set off.

Our photos often don’t convey size, but believe me, some of the insects were HUGE… just as many frogs were tiny.

These bugs were 4 inches long!

This was the weirdest Caterpillar ever!!!

We saw capuchin monkeys, too fast to photograph!
The highlight was 2 Tarantulas. The bigger one scuttled into it’s hole, but this one was more obliging!

At about 5 inches across, I mentally thanked myself for booking the better accommodation. Phew!

The next few days were spent doing various jungle walks and canoe rides. Here are pictures of some of the creatures we saw.

This is a Howatzin, a large and very unique bird. No links to any other species, they eat semi toxic leaves, and therefore exude a terrible smell! They can dive underwater to escape predators, and young birds have hooks on their wings so they can climb around in trees!

The great Tinamou is very elusive. This one was asleep…with eyes open.

These were Howler monkeys, hanging on with long prehensile tails. Their eerie calls could be heard echoing around the forest.

The Great Potoo…

A spectacled owl!

The jungle is a place of survival. Camouflage is one defence. This is a toad!

Large numbers and team work are another. These ants worked as a team to carry this insect leg.

Some ants were huge. The bullet ant is feared. It is an inch long.

This Is a huge Owls eye butterfly…. confusing to predators

Or Maybe have viciously sharp spines….

Or enough poison to put a human in hospital, although you are less than 1cm long….

Or Just be horribly sneaky… this fungus seeps in through the insects pores, grows inside it, reaches it’s brain and turns it into a sort of zombie. The insect then walks to the sort of location which is ideal for the fungus to grow, and dies. 😱

Or just walk away! This is the walking tree. It apparently searches for light by casting fast growing roots in the direction of the light. It then loses the roots on the darker side and literally ‘walks’, possibly up to 8 metres in a year.

The lodge has a tree top tower which was so much higher than I expected, and every step and landing was metal that allowed you to see down.

My vertigo screamed NO!However I used NLP and somehow got up all 120 feet of it. We still weren’t at the top of the canopy but it was sensational.

There was a beautiful double toothed kite building a nest in the Kapok tree we had climbed, and we saw lots of birds around us! Magical. Getting down was accomplished by following Chris and singing ‘Walking on Sunshine’ to myself! My mantra song!

When rain or land slips occur, they sometimes expose mineral rich seams in the clay riverbank. These ‘Clay licks’ are then frequented by hundreds of parrots, who use the minerals to counter digestive disturbances brought on by consuming certain seeds and fruits.

We were lucky enough to witness this, and also stunning Macaws visiting a freshwater spring. Beautiful but unbelievably noisy and argumentative!!

We also visited the local community, and amongst other things, tried blowpipe blowing!

Our lodge leases land from them and supports their education and health programmes. Many of the lodge staff are from the village.

Our final night included a canoe paddle in pitch darkness to see night fishing bats and the Caymans, …or at least see their eyes reflecting back in the torch beam. The largest can grow to 9 feet long and they hunt at night. Rotten picture but you can see the body outline and the eyes!!

The lake also contains Pirhanas. We tried fishing for them, with beef as bait! Despite lots of nibbles, and a nearly catch for Chris, I have to show you the one caught by our guide! Eek! Those teeth!

Now we are being paddled silently along the chocolate creek for the last time.

Everyone seems lost in their own thoughts, genuinely sad to leave this magical, faraway place.

(Our remoteness was brought home to us when, after nearly 4 hours boating upstream, we arrived in Coca to find our flight back to Quito was cancelled due to storms. Edwin organised a bus, and within 30 minutes we embarked on a 6 hour road trip across the Andes!!

Our transfer to our next destination, in the cloud Forest, had waited at the airport, and then drove us through torrential rain and lightening for 2.5 hours. We arrived at 9pm after 14 hours of adventure!!! )

South America Post 5 The Galapagos Islands

Leaving Cuba, we had a stopover in Bogota, Colombia where we sampled some traditional food and beer!

Then, off to the Galapagos Islands……. What can I say? Well, being me, lots, of course!!

Our desire to visit was mainly fuelled by awesome documentaries, and impossibly close up photos of unique birds and animals made famous by Charles Darwin among others. There are really just 2 ways to visit. Water based on a cruise, or land based. Anyone who knows me will know that, despite having the best travel sickness pills ever, 9 days on board a very small boat (many have just 8 or 10 small cabins), in notoriously rough seas, 24/7, is a step too far! Water based tours also start at about double the price of land based, so it was an easy choice. We chose a smaĺl, locally based company – Guiding Galapagos and together planned an itinerary mixing geography, local culture and of course wildlife.

We were based on 2 different islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela, a 2 hour high speed ferry ride apart. The ferries are somewhat cramped,

On transfer day we had 2 sudden tropical cloud bursts. One as we were going to the boat on Santa Cruz, and one as we arrived on Isabela island. Everyone, and their luggage, were drenched both times!

We were shown to our new hotel room as the staff were mopping up a large pool of water from the floor, smiling and saying “The rain sometimes comes in!!” Trying to dry our clothes was tricky in 80% humidity, and we were a bit fed up, until we saw this sign in the beach bar.

So true, and it put a few wet clothes back into perspective.

Our accommodation was in small locally run hotels, both clean and comfortable. On Isabela it was the Volcano hotel, almost on the beach, renowned for sunsets. It did not disappoint!

The Galapagos archipelago comprises 21 islands, mostly uninhabited, which straddle the equator, so tropical insects can be a problem. There were actually very few! Another invasion of minuscule ants in true Tom and Jerry style lines was passed off by our hosts with… ‘Don’t worry, they are not offensive’. Well, true, they weren’t hurling abuse at us, but we didn’t want them in our bags, so we used our Boots non deet eco friendly insect repellent at the entry point which seemed to deter them!! We also had the tiniest in room gecko on patrol. Spot the gecko!!

It is amazing how something so tiny can make so much noise!

The islands are in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 1000 km east of mainland Ecuador. They are heavily influenced by prevailing sea currents. The cold Humbolt current coming from Antarctica brings many fish, and this encourages the birds etc. El Nino years are disastrous here, because it prevents the cold current reaching the islands, so there are many less fish, birds cannot breed, and the food chain is in trouble.

There is no drinkable freshwater on Galapagos at all, which is probably why it was not really settled until the 19th Century, despite being ‘discovered’ in 1535. All water here is either bottled or purified.

Darwin came in 1835, and his observations that the animals and birds were unique, and appeared to have adapted and evolved according to their island environment, led to him proposing the theory of evolution, and writing The Origin of the Species. And the rest, as they say, is history!

The islands are now a National Park, full of wonders. Not always the most colourful or dramatic creatures on earth, but definitely unique. For example 15 species of little Darwin finches, each adapted to have a different food source and habitat to ensure survival. This is the nest of a cactus finch.

There are few natural predators here, so many creatures are fearless. We were standing within a few feet of many of the birds and animals we photographed.

The biggest predators were, and are, man himself and his introduced creatures… rats, dogs, cats etc. 35,000 people live on the islands, and balancing their needs with the protected National Park status is tricky and at times, controversial. For example local people are resentful that they are no longer allowed to fish from their own islands due to the protected status, so must pay high prices in the shops.

The wildlife are the stars. Giant tortoises are incredible.

He is eating apples!! Some live to be 150 years old. However they have a managed breeding programme, because in the wild less than 1% of eggs will reach maturity, mainly due to the predators I mentioned. Amazingly, eggs incubated at 28°C will be Male. 29.5°C, female!! Large Male tortoises can be 4ft long, weigh up to 350 kg, and walk several km a day!

The Galapagos islands are volcanic, and are moving eastwards by 5cms a year, as the Nazca plate drifts. Some Volcanoes are active. We climbed to the rim of Sierra Negra, the 2nd largest Caldera in the world. It erupted just last year, for 54 days, and fumaroles were smoking on our visit.

We visited 6 islands, using boats every day. Sea lions are everywhere, literally!!

We also did some hikes, and kayaking, with sea turtles popping up around us!

Amazingly, my vintage 1990’s swimsuits were worn almost every day, and I gradually became more adept at snorkelling. I jumped off the side of boats and RIBS, and paddled around in deep, open seawater, with big waves! I even swam around an island…. with a life jacket on! The fish were lovely.

but we also snorkelled with huge Sea Turtles, 1.5 m sharks, Rays, Sea lions, and even saw an incredibly well camouflaged Sea horse. It was fantastic.

This is a trench where sharks come to rest during the day!!

Some of the most astonishing creatures are the Iguanas. Living dinosaurs. Marine Iguanas blend in with the black lava rock, or grey stones.

They sleep a lot, often in bunches! They sound as if they are hissing at you, but in fact they must regularly sneeze out salt!

Land Iguanas are golden yellow. They frequently shed their skin, so look rather threadbare, but I thought they were stunning.

They have no predators as adults, but are prone to dehydration…. this one literally dried out in the heat. 30°C most days.

There are some gorgeous beaches – Tortuga and Bachas were our favourites, complete with fresh turtle tracks, and newly hatched eggs.

Crabs abound and are a food source for the super seabirds.

One of the most unlikely is the unique Galapagos penguin which has adapted to live, not in Antarctica, but on the equator!

There is also a Galapagos flamingo. Both sexes of bird have the amazing capability of producing milk to feed their young.

We never tired of watching Brown Pelicans, Blue footed Boobies, Noddies and Terns diving into the sea a few metres away.

On Isabela island, we visited Los Tuneles, an other world landscape of hollow marine lava tunnels and cacti!

There we encountered a female blue footed Booby a few feet from the path. She was singing for a mate.

Amazingly, a Male arrived and did his courtship dance right in front of us! It obviously wasn’t good enough, because she didn’t respond, so he flew away dejectedly (we assume!!).

The next day, this encounter was topped. North Seymour island is home to the Great and Magnificent Frigate birds. Last season’s young were everywhere, being fed by parents who regurgitate food for them.

It was breeding season. The males spend 2 hours inflating a huge red neck pouch, and boom with it to attract a mate. It is exhausting!

They were everywhere, and remarkably were within feet of us. Breathtaking!!

Our visit to Galapagos was wonderful. We had good food, (especially fish), met some lovely people from many countries (hardly any fellow Brits!), and were blown away by the wildlife. There were some quirky things… the in car phone for example!

I even managed to take a Turner-esque sunrise shot!

One word for Galapagos… Incredible!

South America Post 3 Cuba – Vinales and Bay of Pigs.

Leaving Havana we drove along the Malecon, the sweeping Atlantic seafront that once was home to the best hotels.

We stopped at Fusterdoria, a suburb where the Cuban artist Jose Fister decided to create a tribute to Anton Gaudi as a way to rejuvenate his impoverished village. The result is a Gaudiesque mosaic art park, and also, all the front walls of his neighbours properties are decorated by him too!

Driving west, the lack of cars became increasingly noticeable, even on the highways. Bikes, and ponies pulling carts were common sights. As were hitchhiker’s… loads of them. Whole families sometimes with no other way to get from A to B. Bizarrely, on the highway, there were spots where a sign suddenly reduced the speed limit from 100 kph to 60, often at bridges where hitchhiker’s waited in the shade. Frequently police lurked here, giving speeding tickets. At other spots, there were fake inspectors, trying to scam a fine from unsuspecting tourists.

Our next stop was Las Terrazas Biosphere reserve, a vast area of forested hills created after the revolution to provide homes for poor hill farmers. After the revolution in 1959, **** trees were planted and homes built. It is now a wonderful place, and a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

This tree is called the tourist tree because it is red and peels!!

We visited an old coffee plantation and saw some beautiful birds, including the Trogon, Cuba’s national bird.

A great lunch at Buenavista cafetal was followed by locally grown coffee at El cafe de Maria, overlooking the village, watching Emerald humming birds to our right, while Turkey Vultures landed on the grass to our left to scavenge the chicken feed!

A visit to an artisan paper maker was followed by a stop at a beautiful Orchid garden.

We drove on, finally reaching Vinales, a pretty village in the heart of Karst scenery… large, and rare outcrops of limestone rock forming dramatic hills, just as we had seen in Vietnam.

We also discover that here, we are as far from southern South America is as we are from London.

And we chose not to go for a ride on the bull!!

Being a communist country, Cubans have had little access to world news until recently, and have obviously been told a lot of things about how great their country is. So we are frequently told that things are the biggest in the world, the first in the world, the finest in the world. We weren’t sure if Tony was a bit upset that we had seen Karst scenery somwhere else!

Staying at Nenita’s bnb, we had a good supper, then walked into town where the main street was cordoned off for Saturday night festivities. There was a definite theme to all the stalls!

Night times are interesting here. Loud conversations, often accompanied by music, can go on into the small hours. Dogs bark whenever anyone comes close to their patch, and ignite a chain of barking up and down the street. Nearly everyone has chickens, which start crowing around 4.00 am. The room fridge gurgles and rattles, and the aircon or fan whirrs and clicks. And of course, there is the tiny, but dreaded sound of the whining mosquito. Walls and windows are thin and sound carries. Oh where are noise cancelling headphones when you need them? Chris of course sleeps blissfully through most of it. However I am never a good sleeper, and in the 5 days we have been away, have already finished 4 books on the kindle! Luckily, I’m usually quite awake the next day, even after just 4 or 5 hours sleep!

On Sunday, we explored the area, starting with a boat trip in some dramatic caves – Cueva del Indio.

Then we visited El plaque de Los Cimarrones, caves where escaping slaves would go to hide. Then to a huge (120 metres x 180 metres) outdoor mural depicting prehistoric life, in honour of all the fossils and early remains that have been found in this area.

All the while seeing local farmers driving their horse drawn carts, and using oxen to plough the fields.

Another super lunch at a local restaurant, La Carreta, (we had been warned that the food was not great in Cuba.. we beg to differ!)

Then to an organic farm, which grows fruit, vegetables and tobacco. We were taken through the whole process of cigar making. 90% of their leaves go to government factories, but they keep 10% to make beautiful handmade cigars.

The wrapping leaves are marinaded in lemon and honey, and the mouth end of the cigar is dipped in honey before you smoke it. Chris smoked one… well a little… he will bring the rest home for special occasions! With that beard he just needs a green uniform and he could join Che Guevara’s rebels!

A last walk into town for a light snack of some tapas at Olivos cafe….well ‘light snack’ just doesn’t exist here! The diet is heavily centred around rice and black beans, but there is meat and fish and loads of fresh fruit and veg.

The weather has been great 27 – 30 degrees but with a breeze. Very few mosquitos, but we still used our amazing bed net as it only takes one to cause havoc!

Tomorrow we head to southern Cuba, where the mosi count will increase, preparing us for what lies ahead in South America.

So, a 400km drive to the South through farmland and plantations to our first stop at Playa Largo. Tony, our guide is excellent company, providing an entertaining commentary of explanations of the things we are seeing, and funny stories. He is very knowledgeable, and proud of his country.

We have left the Atlantic coast and are now on the Caribbean Sea coast. Our knowledge of Cuban history was very limited, so we were interested to hear the Cuban version of the Bay of Pigs incident. After the revolution, many wealthy Americans lost their homes on Cuba. Eisenhower ordered a force of mercenaries, some of whom were Cuban themselves, to invade Cuba, landing at the Bay of Pigs, a quiet, undefended area. However there was a spy amongst them who got word to Castro. He moved army units down in secret and was ready for them. He himself rode in a tank, and claims to have fired the shot that sank the ship. Every town here has huge signs claiming ‘This was the first time Americans were defeated in the Americas’, or ‘The invaders only reached this point’.

It was over in 72 hours, and there are memorials everywhere to the Cuban people who died.

Castro never let on that it was a military operation. He claimed it was just the Cuban people rising up to defend their land. Interestingly, Kennedy did not support the invasion.

However it was enough for Castro and Russia to decide to bolster Cuba’s defences…with nuclear missiles which precipitated the Cuban missile crisis, where the world literally teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

Nowadays this an area for recreation, with good diving, and a gorgeous natural pool, 70m deep and full of fish.

And of course, time for another lunch… this time with local crab and lobster! We are not splashing out .. the meals are all included in the tour.

Chris had his first sight of the Caribbean sea, and Anne paddled in the Bay of Pigs. They have mass crab migrations here in breeding season, blocking the roads. The crabs are black and orange. We saw one, which was too fast for a photo! Wild pigs used to congregate here to eat them, which is what gave the bay it’s name.

Our final stop was in the Zapata forest where we met Orlando. A local man who led us into the forest, and with eyes like a hawk spotted birds where you would swear there was nothing. It was wonderful. The greatest prize was seeing a bee humming bird. The smallest bird in the world. Just 5cm long.

My favourite was the ridiculously pretty Tody.

Another great day.