Monday, January 27, 2014

Our Holiday Evolves

Lava fields of Volcan Chico on
Isabella Island
Created by volcanoes, the tiny young islands of the Galapagos were born of fire. Eruptions on top of eruptions built these islands one at a time from several hundred thousand years ago, and still forming, to millions of years ago. Initially dark, lifeless and isolated (1,000 km from Ecuador), species still managed to find their way here. Some flew, or were blown across by winds, others swam or became trapped on vegetation or other material and found their way across raft like. Slowly life found its way over; most died, some survived, adapted and evolved to fit the islands' unique environments. This is why many species in the Galapagos cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and even differ between the many differently aged islands.
Seals on North Seymour Island

Giant Tortoise on Isabella Island
In 1835 Charles Darwin arrived on the islands to collect biological samples and document the geological environment. Despite his religious education (he had studied for holy orders) Darwin realised the significance of the distribution and variety of species and developed his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Today 97.5% of these islands are a protected national park and 70,000 square km of surrounding ocean are a marine reserve thanks to the Ecuadorian government. This was a long standing bucket list item of mine from way back, for its historical and scientific significance as well as the vast number of species you can see here in one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet.

Puerto Ayora

Seal relaxing in Puerto Ayora
We based ourselves in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, which is a fairly central island and has the most developed town for tourists. It is a bubbling energy filled town with lots of atmosphere and opportunities for things to do. We came without a plan, avoiding the cruise ships because, well, they were bloody expensive and deciding to wing it and find day trips. This turned out well because in 14 days we spent only a third of what an 8 day cruise would have cost. And staying on the island allowed us to be immersed in the atmosphere of the town and gave us a lot of flexibility.

Cooking the fish fresh from the boat
and cleaned behind them.

Eating the just caught grub.
Every night after our day trip to another island or other activity would be spent wandering the town and soaking in the activities and sights. These included nearly nightly volleyball games near the pier, where they were clearly playing for sheep stations, or at other times it was used as a skate park by the locals and occasionally by Elizabeth riding cardboard down a concrete wall at the insistence of some cheeky children. You could watch your dinner coming in by boat, cleaned right on the dock, cooked and on your plate while the pelicans and seals fought over the left overs. Or stroll along the jetty coming across the occasional sleeping seal and watching the underwater ballet in the clear waters which included sharks, seals, small fish and the occasional ray, right from the dock.

Swimming with seals
Blue Footed Boobie
The town and all the animals, birds and fish were amazingly non threatening and safe. In the water snorkeling, sharks ignored you, seals swam around you, crabs ran away from you and sea turtles swam with you. Similarly the birds let you come so close binoculars were redundant, iguanas would just look at you and giant tortoises would quietly stretch out their long necks and chew another mouthful of leaves. But don't touch; we are mere observers here and the islands have strict rules about going off the tracks and touching the animals.

Bartolomei and Santiago Islands
Lava Tunnels on Santa Cruz
Frigate Bird

The day trips were fabulous and I can merely give a brief taster here and show some pictures; it needs to be experienced. Bartolomei Island with the picture postcard view after the small trek up its volcano overlooking Santiago Island. North Seymour for the birds, so many birds, from the Blue Footed Boobie to the Frigate bird with its bright red 'balloon' out front as well as the many iguanas and seals. Sante Fe Island for the snorkelling with sharks and the 10 minute swim with a sea turtle and much more. The memories will linger far longer than the experience.

Candelabra Cactus on the lava fields
Then there was Isabella Island...and my continuing battle to see a live volcano, and their success at avoiding me. We specifically went there to trek up the Sierra Negra Volcano, which is one of the few active ones and had a small eruption in 2005. Even though the weather had been fantastic, hot and humid since we arrived, today the sky decided to cloud over and rain, and rain and rain. By the time we got to the crater we were soaked through (having come to Isabella unprepared for rain). We kept going and saw the amazing lava fields, felt the heat coming out of holes in the ground and witnessed the amazing colours that the lava came in. But the shy volcano kept its innermost secrets hidden. The search continues...

Beautiful colours on the lava rock
Pink Flamingo

Pier at Puerto Ayora

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Stumped Again :-(

That damn volcano is still haunting me, now 2-0. It all started about a week ago, when we first arrived in Pucon, Chile.

Previous attempt.
The idea was to start the new year in a different country and let the adventure unfold from there. The weather was bad, raining most of the time; we checked the weather apps and decided to book in the volcano on Friday the 3rd Jan, the first fully clear beautiful day forecast. Tuesday was a generally fine day so we went to the National Park (Huerquehue) for a 5 hour trek up the mountains to the three lakes at the top. We thought this would be good training as we had done very little trekking for over a year. All of our plans for weekend treks fell by the wayside under the pressure of real life.

That night the rain seemed to set in and we thought New Year's Eve would be a bust, but at around 10:30 the sky cleared and the rain stopped and we went to the 'Grand Beach' for the celebrations. NYE in Pucon is a festive family affair: cans of foam and streamers and funny hats were the order of the day. The fireworks were brilliant; every time you thought they were finished they would start again. My first NYE in a foreign country in 52 NYE's, a nice start to the year. Pucon is a really lovely place, very relaxing: beaches, boat trips, forests, hot springs, water sports (kayaking, rapids etc), lovely town, friendly people and THAT volcano, overlooking everything like butter would not melt in its mouth. Friday cleared up as forecast and it looked like lady luck was upon us...

The luck seemingly continued as we arrived at the base of the volcano: the chair lift was going, saving us around 1.5 hours of steep uphill walking. The very basic chairlift (no bar in front) spilled us out at the base of the snow line. It was time to put on the crampons and suit up for the cold: jacket, wet weather pants, helmet, unclasp the pickaxe; oh yeah, bring it on.

The long slog began. Very soon it was one foot in front of the other, don't look down, as we traversed uphill in a criss cross manner. Sharp left, change side of pickaxe to high side, walk 50 steps, sharp right, change side of pickaxe, walk 50 steps etc. It's slow going and all uphill; luckily we were prepared for this, we had done it before, so up we went. After about 45 minutes we took our first break: time for some food, check the amazing view, nothing like looking down and seeing clouds and lakes beneath you and other volcanoes in the distance. Off we go again for another hour and so forth.

Then our luck changed. The wind started to pick up, we went over one ridge where the wind was particularly fierce and I grabbed hold of Elizabeth, shades of the TV show 'The Flying Nun' came into my head.

Then they started the 'we might not get to the top, the wind is getting worse, the snow is too hard etc' story, trying to prepare us for failure. Apparently the problem was mainly the fact that it had rained the day before (and most of the last week). The top third was hard ice; it was getting more and more difficult to punch our crampons through the ice to get a grip. They were communicating by walkie talkie with the other groups. Nobody had made it to the top; some groups were waiting at the final ridge for the wind to die down to give it a go.

Most of our group had already given up. We were losing people and guides as we went; they would stay behind at certain points and wait for us. Elizabeth did not want to give up; one of her many impressive qualities, her courage and determination, if Elizabeth makes up
her mind, it is very, VERY hard to stop her. We seemed to be the last two still walking in our group (could not see anyone else) when one of the guides ran up from behind to talk to Elizabeth. "Yes," he was saying, "I can see you are determined, but even if you get up to the top we cannot slide down, the ice is too hard, you would need REALLY strong legs to clamber down, and that will be the dangerous part, one slip and it's all ice for 500 metres."

Elizabeth and Spock
very unhappy
We relented and went back to where the last of our group were, to lick our wounds and look up at how far we had left. Again at the 2400m mark, only about 400m to go, we could see the smoke coming from the top of this active volcano, apparently a two-pack a day one. Yes, we must have made the volcano gods angry, Adrian, they don't want us up there. We were able to still do some sliding down the volcano once we had gotten to softer snow 100m or so below us. Elizabeth does not want to try again; I would be willing if some benefactor paid for a month in December to train and wait for the perfect day. Our hope now is Mt Fuji in Japan, in July. Hopefully she will be kinder, she is family after all, so put in a good word for us, Mariko (daughter-in-law).
Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work I go...

Still an amazing experience, still brilliant views, but when they ask me on my deathbed, "What's your one regret?" I will probably say, "Not getting to the top of that bloody volcano."

A word from Elizabeth:
"I sit on beautiful Playa Blanca on the shore of Lago Caburgua under an umbrella with alternating panels of purple & orangey gold. Families are all around me sunning, swimming & sitting under equally colourful umbrellas. We're nestled among mountains & green forest and surrounded by the sounds of noisy happiness. The highest peak to the east still has remnants of winter snow on it. Gotta be one of the prettiest places in Chile. A perfect 27 degree day with the lightest of breezes & the lake water cool enough to make the skin tingle. Beautiful blue blue sky untainted by clouds. An idyllic end to a wonderful week. So glad we decided to start our year in Pucon."
Playa Grande with its black volcanic sand