Surf’s Up

We were quite relieved to put The Hill Club behind us, after our disappointing venture into Sri Lanka’s colonial past and we ended up paying over the odds for a guy to drive us to our next location. Luckily it was worth it! We spent a night at a great place called Kalu’s Hideaway (randomly owned by Sri Lankan World Cup cricketing legend Romesh Kaluwitharana) on the edge of Udawalawe National Park. As dawn was breaking the next morning, we took a jeep safari into the park itself. There are approximately 550 elephants in the 119 square mile reserve and we saw them right up close, which was amazing. Many of the elephants we’d seen in Nepal had been chained up, so it was lovely to see them wondering around freely.

That afternoon we set off for the coastal town of Tangalle for a whole week of surfing. We stayed in a place called Nugasewana Eden which had its own tree house! We slept up in the tree for a night, but the lack of air con forced us into a more conventional room for the rest of our stay…!

Rob & I both describe ourselves as ‘surfers’ but I have never before attempted to surf for 7 days in a row so I was slightly worried I wouldn’t be able to move afterwards…! Our surf instructor / guide, Bandula picked us up bright and early the next morning along with his driver, Samantha (a man). We drove to the imaginatively titled ‘Blue Beach’ (!) and proceeded to demonstrate to Bandula how we normally ‘popped up’. This essentially means trying to get to your feet quickly when a wave’s coming. He said Rob & I both followed the ‘Western’ style surfing technique and he showed us his own tried and tested method. This he described as the ‘chicken wing, lizard leg, Robin Hood’. I kid you not! Basically, think about the shapes you would make if you were trying to imitate having chicken wings or a lizard leg or doing a pose like Robin Hood. Then imagine throwing those shapes on a surf board and you’ve pretty much got it! I have to say it actually proved very effective for me, although I think it was a bit too basic for Rob! Meanwhile, Rob was slightly preoccupied with a phone interview for a new job. We were nearly at the end of our trip and that interview certainly brought it home…! But despite being in holiday mode, he still managed to impress them enough to be asked in for a face to face chat when we returned to the UK πŸ™‚

After a couple of days surfing at the Blue Beach, Bandula took us to Unakuruwa Beach. It means ‘U-Point’ and it’s a perfect right hand point break. Incredibly, we had it to ourselves for five days! If this had been pretty much anywhere else in the world, we would’ve been fighting for waves. After several days of non-stop surfing, we were both aching from the paddling and had very bruised ribs and battered knees. But Bandula was such a fantastic, patient teacher and a throughly nice guy and he made it his mission for us to keep improving. Anyway, following in Coldplay’s footsteps, we knew we were in good company….that’s right – did I mention he taught Chris Martin to surf?!

While we were in Tangalle, we also visited the nearby Rock Monastery, a giant golden Buddha statue and a natural blow hole, where sea water shoots into the sky from a cave below. But the trip we’ll remember most fondly happened after dark… Along with a lovely German couple called Sarah & Matthias, we piled into a tiny taxi and went a nearby beach where the turtles lay their eggs. It’s a pretty strange sight; we were part of a group of about 20 tourists, all slowly creeping along the sand. For obvious reasons you’re not allowed torches, so you feel a bit silly! Then, when instructed by the guide you just wait. And wait. And wait. Eventually, the turtle is deemed to be in a ‘trance-like state’ and one by one you can come and see her laying the eggs. What surprised most is the size of these turtles. They’re as big as a wheelbarrow or a smallish kitchen table! They’re very impressive and unusual creatures and I will always remember that strange night on the beach!

On our last day Bandula invited us over to his house for lunch and to meet his family. His wife Imalka cooked the best Sri Lankan curry we’ve had and it was lovely to feel so welcome – they truly made such an effort. Bandula was pretty much the pioneer of surfing in the Tangalle area back in 1991, when he was given a board by some Australian lifeguards. He’s now in his early forties (although he looks about 25) and really seems to want to give something back to his community. He’s trying to raise money for a community pool to teach the local kids to swim and he obviously wants to encourage more tourists to an area badly hit by the Boxing Day Tsunami more than a decade ago. After a week we considered him a good friend and I hope one day we’ll be back πŸ™‚

J & R xx

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Little Britain

Although small, Sri Lanka is a very varied country – and that includes the vast changes in temperature. When we arrived in Colombo it was almost unbearably hot, so after our stay in Kandy, we headed for the hills to cool off. The Hill Country rises up in the centre of Sri Lanka to about 2,000 metres above sea level. With the gain in height, the temperature significantly drops. The temperate climate, combined with Sri Lanka’s colonial past and the miles and miles of tea plantations means the area is now known as Little England. We were quite excited about our few days in what we assumed would be vaguely familiar surroundings.

We had heard about a place called The Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya, which was built and owned by Brits connected to Sri Lanka’s colonial past. Unfortunately we discovered it’s a bit of a novelty. The Hill Club is a throwback to a bygone era where men wore dinner jackets and women weren’t allowed to participate in social occasions. Unfortunately the hotel has kept rather too many of the ‘traditions’ and has refused to modernise with the times. Rob was made to wear a jacket and tie to dine in the restaurant, which he obviously didn’t have with him as we hadn’t had many occasions to be smart during our 5 months of travels! However, he was shown to a room and told to pick something to wear from a various collection of old fashioned garments. I had one beach-type dress with me, so together we looked pretty funny πŸ™‚ However the strict dress code for the restaurant is particularly ironic as the food itself is pretty terrible. It reminded us of bad English restaurants 20 years ago – or school dinners! Everything was overcooked. Unfortunately many of the staff were also rude, and whereas I respect that the club has a history which didn’t include women, surely in the 21st Century things have moved on a bit?! I got pretty fed up with being ignored as every question was directed at ‘Sir’. It was as if I didn’t exist. I am absolutely not a raging feminist (!) but it’s just common sense that you’re polite to all your guests, male or female.

No trip to the Hill Country is complete without going to a tea plantation, and we hired a driver who took us to a tea factory, surrounded by miles of green leaves. It really was a tea lovers paradise. The factory itself was pretty old school; many of the machines hadn’t been updated since it opened more than 100 years ago and I’m sure health and safety would’ve had a fit. But the smell of the freshly rolled tea leaves was divine – and we even got a free cuppa afterwards! On the way to the factory, the driver insisted on taking us to what seemed like every known waterfall in the Northern Hemisphere (!) but some of them were admittedly spectacular.

One of the redeeming features of The Hill Club was the fact that they had a huge DVD collection (mostly of copied DVDs….!) and so after our last faux fancy dinner we ended up watching The Queen. Even if the old colonial hotel hadn’t lived up to its past reputation, we still had HRH to make us feel at home πŸ™‚

J&R xxx

Earthquake

The last few days have been very sad and very surreal. We’ve been travelling around Nepal for nearly a month, meeting many of the amazing local people and climbing some of the highest peaks. Nothing prepares you for an earthquake.

We were very fortunately in the best place – out in the open. After our climb to Annapurna Base Camp (which we will write about another time) we headed back to Nepal’s second-largest City, Pokhara for some R&R. We were very lucky that we had booked to go on a white water rafting trip which left Pokhara on Saturday morning.

We were just about to get into our raft on the Kali Gandaki river when the 7.8 quake struck. We were about 100-150km from the epicentre, about 3 hours north of Pokhara at the time. It felt completely surreal. The ground – which a minute before had been rock solid – felt like it had turned to jelly. Vehicles nearby were shaking from side to side and we saw lots of rocks falling from the cliffs down to the waters edge. I can honestly say it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

We felt an aftershock at our lunch spot, but it was only when we got to our camp for the night that we turned on our mobile phones and received worried messages from our families – that’s when we realised how bad it was.

The next day we went past several funerals being held on the riverbank (in Nepal they traditionally cremate the bodies of their dead next to the river) and that was a very sobering site.

We are definitely not in the worst-affected area so we haven’t witnessed that much damage. But almost everyone we’ve met knows someone who’s been affected. One of our guides on our rafting trip said his whole village – not far from Pokhara – had been completely destroyed. A young woman who works at the hotel where we’re staying in Pokhara is originally from the historic city of Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. Her family are ok but her home has been completely flattened.

Our thoughts are now with those who have died and the huge challenge the rescue teams face. Obviously Kathmandu has been badly affected, but some of the worst hit areas are actually remote mountainous villages, which rescue teams haven’t even reached yet. In many cases even helicopters can’t land. There are reports from a senior official in the Gorkha district, which was at the earthquake’s epicentre, that 70% of houses there have been destroyed.

Here in Pokhara, which hasn’t been badly affected, many people are choosing to camp outside instead of sleep in their homes or hotels. We did stay in our hotel last night, but I have to confess I didn’t get much sleep and I felt another tremor early this morning. Apparently it was 4.5 on the Richter Scale and it was worst felt near Kathmandu. I expect many people will be sleeping outside again tonight.

Since we got back to Pokhara, we’ve been reading every article we can get our hands on to find out the latest information. The United Nations estimates 8 million people have been affected. The latest figures show at least 4,400 people have died and more than 8,000 have been injured. But, officials are warning those numbers may rise dramatically as rescue teams reach some of the more remote mountainous regions, where it’s feared whole villages may have been buried in rockfalls.

As you can imagine it’s pretty devastating and there is a very sombre atmosphere in Pokhara. Rob & I are trying to work out the best way to help but as yet the rescue efforts seem very uncoordinated.

Thank you so much for all your kind messages. We will keep you posted.

The ABC

After our week of ‘training’ with Jude & Simon, Rob & I were keen to do a longer trek. Along with Mum & Harry we took a travel-sick inducing minibus to Pokhara and stayed at The 3 Sisters Guesthouse. It’s owned and run by Lucky, Dicky and Nicky Chhetri, who are also pioneers in providing female trekking guides in the Himalayas. It’s a simple but very homely place and we ended up staying there on and off for about two weeks. Mum & Harry had a couple of days of their trip left so we explored the local highlights; hiking up to see the Peace Pagoda overlooking the lake and heading up to the little village of Sarangkot for sunrise, to see the incredible view of the Annapurna mountains. We waved Mum & Harry goodbye as they drove away to the airport in a typically tiny Nepali taxi. Rob and I were going to have to rely on each other’s company again…..;)

But we didn’t have time to dwell on their departure; the next day, we began our long hike to Annapurna Base Camp….!

Day 1: Phedi to Landruk (6 hours)
– there’s no easy start; the trail climbs steeply from Phedi to Dhampus, then up through forest to Pothana.
– we missed the views promised on the map as we climbed up to Pittam Deurali then down through Bhedi Kharka and Tolka, because the mist came down and it rained!
– stayed in Maya Guesthouse in the Gurung village of Landruk (1565m) where we were the only customers!
– spent the evening being tormented by the owner’s young daughter who kept showing off while we were eating; dancing on tables, etc – not very relaxing!

Day 2: Landruk to Chomrong (4 hours)
– set off before 7am and walked down to the river past grazing cows and jumping goats.
– crossed over the fast-flowing water on a very long, extremely rickety wooden bridge, before going through the hamlet of New Bridge.
– climbed steeply up to Jhinu, then up even higher to Chomrong (2140m) where we got a room at the International Guest House.
– met an Aussie lady called Judy who managed to scare us into thinking we weren’t prepared for the higher altitude!

Day 3: Chomrong to Dovan (5 hours)
– neither of us felt very well so it was a difficult and slow climb down to another river and then back up to Sinuwa.
– walked through a Bamboo forest to get to a village called Bamboo!
– we were made to feel stupid here by several guides who said it was really busy further up the trail (with one group of 44 people) and we should’ve booked a guide (!) to ensure we had a place to stay…!
– despite that we managed to get a room at the Tip Top Guesthouse in Dovan (2505m) which was good because it rained all afternoon.
– the staff insisted on showing WWF Wrestling on an ancient TV all evening!

Day 4: Dovan to Machapuchre Base Camp (5 hours)
– both woke up feeling horrendous but decided to get a bit further up the trail, especially as it was good weather.
– whizzed through the village of Himalaya, spotting monkeys en route and then surprisingly arrived at Deurali about an hour ahead of schedule (it was 10am).
– we bumped into a group of Malaysian doctors who we’d met the day before (Ana, Ana, May, Sheila & Puven) and decided to carry on to Machapuchre Base Camp, or MBC (3700m).
– after navigating some avalanche-prone gullies, we made it to MBC before the afternoon rain set in and stayed in the Ganga Purna Hotel.
– met a lovely Canadian girl called Hye-Yeon (originally from Korea) who gave us some antibiotics for our upset stomachs – the perfect traveller gift!

Day 5: Machapuchre Base Camp to Annapurna Base Camp – then back to Dovan! (6.5 hours)
– the big day had arrived; we set the alarm for 4.45am and set off for Annapurna Base Camp, known as ABC (joined by Hye-Yeon and two Swiss girls called Jasmine and Manwella).
– it was dark when we left but you could just see the shadow of the huge mountains surrounding us. The climb wasn’t that steep but difficult under foot; we mostly trekked on snow and ice.
– about halfway up we met a large group of male and female porters coming down – one was wearing flip-flops so we couldn’t really complain!
– reached ABC (4,130m) at 6.45am and just in time to see a stunning view as the sun rose over Machapuchre (also known as the Fish Tail Mountain).
– we were surrounded by these incredible peaks with a natural amphitheatre (carved out of the rock by a glacier) below. Annapurna South and Annapurna 1 made a very brief appearance through the high clouds before the mist crept quickly up the valley. Within five minutes we found ourselves in a whiteout! But we’d seen what we came for, and we slipped and slid our way back down to MBC for a welcome bowl of porridge feeling on top of the world πŸ™‚
– the adrenalin helped us to trek on down the trail and we arrived at Dovan again by early afternoon, not quite escaping the rain…!

Day 6: Dovan to Ghurjung (6 hours)
– around the communal breakfast table, one Nepali guy insisted on telling us about every person who’d died doing the ABC trek. I’m extremely glad we didn’t meet him on the way up!
– unscathed, we set off with Hye-Yeon to Bamboo, then down through Sinuwa, before climbing up the very steep and long flight of stone steps to Chomrong.
– we’d been dreaming about a so called ‘German Bakery’ there which sold real coffee, so that’s what we had as our hill-climb reward (along with a rather stodgy chocolate danish).
– said our goodbyes to our Canadian friend (what is it with us and Canadians?!) and turned right to Ghurjung, getting to the Green View Lodge in time for a late lunch.

Day 7: Ghurjung to Ghorepani (7 hours)
– we thought we’d done the hard bit but this was the most difficult day by far as we climbed up for about 6 hours!
– after about 2.5 hours we reached Tadapani and were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the mountains we’d been so close to a couple of days before.
– I had a bit of a sense of humour failure when the map proved to be inaccurate…!
– after going down and up through yet another valley we reached a seemingly never ending hill; up and up following a river and then along a ridge. Rob threw his poles out of the pram (!) but we eventually made it to the top and spotted Ghorepani ahead.
– collapsed thankfully with a welcome Dhal Bat at the Snowland Lodge.

Day 8: Ghorepani up to Poon Hill then down to Nayapul (6.5 hours)

– our ‘good nights sleep’ didn’t happen – mainly due to paper thin walls and a very noisy family!
– got up at 4am and walked up to Poon Hill (a local lookout point) to see the sunrise over the Annapurna region. Luckily the view was worth it, and we were down again in time for breakfast.
– we’d squeezed what could’ve been about four days into two and by this stage we were running on adrenalin and mars bars.
– it was 95% downhill today, which was a good contrast after the previous day, but our knees were not best pleased! We sped down the mountain trail and by the time we reached Nayapul we were fairly euphoric.
– really fancied a good meal to celebrate but after waiting an hour for food at one place, we gave up and settled for some dusty crisps and a bottle of fanta to share!
– it was heaven to arrive back at The 3 Sisters Guesthouse in Pokhara; have a shower, eat a pizza and drink a beer!

I’m not going to lie – the trek was tougher than we both thought. But the challenge was worth it. There’s something very satisfying about completing an extended hike to the base camp of a proper mountain – following in the footsteps of so many adventurers and pioneers. I think this may be just the start of our ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ phase (to quote the legendary Tina Turner…!) πŸ™‚

J&R xxx

Crocodiles, elephants & a charging rhino

We left the high-tech, spotless and highly efficient Japan and headed for Nepal. Our long-winded journey involved going from Tokyo to Abu Dhabi airport (where we sat on the runway for about 2 hours) and then back to Kathmandu (which was about twice as far as we needed to go)! But it didn’t matter because we were meeting my Mum and youngest brother Harry πŸ™‚

Kathmandu is an assault on the senses; it’s noisy, busy and has a lot of interesting smells. The drive from the airport to The Kantipur Hotel was pretty hairy. Cars, buses, motorbikes, cyclists, pedestrians and cows all vie for space on the narrow dusty roads and there is a wilful abandon of road safety. But eventually we arrived at the hotel, run by the infamous Dr Shakia. He’s a friend of Rob’s brother-in-law, John and seems to be a bit of a local celebrity. He’d already given Mum & Harry the grand tour of the city and they in turn showed us around the local area. It was so great to see them! We hadn’t really spent long periods of time with other people in Japan – partly due to the places we stayed – and it was lovely to see some familiar faces.

Mum & Harry had just under two weeks in Nepal, so to try and cram in as much as possible, we boarded a bus to Chitwan National Park the following morning. Six hours later, with matching bruises on our lower backs and sweat pouring off us, we hopped out at Chitwan and into an open-top jeep which took us to the Rainbow Safari Lodge. We had no idea what to expect, but we’d been told you can see all sorts of animals if you’re lucky. They gave us lunch and then we headed straight out on a nature walk. This also took in the government’s elephant patrol centre. The huge animals are mainly used to frighten off poachers. They’re all male elephants with massive tusks and our guide, Roshan proceeded to point out the one that had killed six people and another elephant recently. We kept our distance. Further down the trail (and very near several cafes and lots of people) there was a crocodile casually lying on the bank. In the water, another lay still with just its nostrils visible – lying in wait for an unexpected tourist. “Don’t worry” we were told, “only one or two people a year get eaten”….! A beer watching the sunset soon chilled us out. Later that evening, we piled into the jeep again and were whisked away to a cultural evening of dancing and music. It was great to see the traditional moves and we even got on stage at the end to join in! But the highlight was when a man dressed up and performed a peacock dance; hysterically funny and also very realistic!

At the crack of dawn we had breakfast and then all got into a very dangerous looking canoe. They’re hollowed out from huge trees and they look beautiful. However, they sit very low in the (crocodile infested) river, so you constantly feel like a giant mouth full of razor sharp teeth is going to leap out of the shallows and drag you into the water. Despite the threat of crocodiles, it was absolutely stunning paddling downstream and watching the wildlife. The tranquil illusion was once again shattered though when we got out the canoe to find a massive croc sitting on the bank. I am pleased to say we escaped with all our limbs.

The packed day also included going to an elephant breeding centre, where we saw some gorgeous babies. They’re currently trying to extend a project where more of the elephants can wander around freely instead of being tethered. I highly approve. In the afternoon we crossed the river in another canoe (!) before getting in a pretty smart-looking jeep and heading for the more remote areas of the park. There are deer hiding in every bit of undergrowth, peacocks perched on the trees and within half an hour we’d already seen a wild rhino bathing in a pool. That was exciting enough, but a bit further on we spotted another rhino behind some scrub. Just at that moment, a patrol elephant being ridden by his trainer walked past, startling the rhino. In a split second we were in its path and two tonnes of rhino was bearing down on us! Our jeep driver jumped in to start the engine and at the last minute the rhino swerved and careered off through the bushes. That’s an experience we’ll never forget!

The lodge packed in the activities and the next morning after breakfast we rode an elephant! They are amazing creatures and up close don’t really seem real. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about riding elephants but I think you should try everything once. Our elephant was just about the biggest of the lot. You get on by climbing some wooden stairs and stepping onto her (all the tourist elephants are female) back. The four of us sat in a little wooden box (!) and it felt like we were miles in the air. I have to say the ride wasn’t very comfortable, but it was an amazing experience. Our first safari experience was pretty action packed and we were very pleased we could share it with Mum & Harry. We then got on another bone-shaking bus and headed north to stay with some long lost relatives πŸ™‚

J & R xxx

Hiroshima; the unexpected city

Across the world, Hiroshima is known for being the target of the world’s first atomic bomb. The name instantly conjures up those black and white images of the mushroom cloud that hovered over the flattened city, almost exactly 70 years ago.

At 8.15am on 6th August 1945, the USA dropped the A-bomb (as the Hiroshians call it) which detonated 600 metres above the centre. The entire city was virtually levelled; the blast demolished almost everything in a 3km radius from the hypocentre. Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed, because the after effects of the bomb are still being felt, but around 140,000 had died by the end of 1945. So, we arrived on the bullet train with some trepidation. But seven decades on from the devastating event, Hiroshima is now a vibrant, buzzing city, with tree-lined boulevards and welcoming people.

All the sites commemorating those who lost their lives are pretty much directly below where the bomb exploded. We wondered straight to the Memorial Park, which is beautiful; full of poignant shrines and statues, dotted in between gorgeous trees and flowers. In the centre of the park is the eternal flame. The plaque explains that it’ll keep burning until all the world’s nuclear weapons have been destroyed. Just across the turquoise river is the A-dome. It’s one of the only buildings that remained semi-intact following the blast and it now stands, charred and hollow – a stark reminder.

However, although the events of seventy years ago won’t ever be forgotten, there is a positive and happy vibe in Hiroshima that makes it hard for you to be sad for long. As we left the Memorial Park, there was a guy on a bridge with a sign offering free hugs (we politely declined). The rivers that run through the city are all lined with cherry blossom and the locals seem to spend most of their free time picnicking in the sun.

On our first evening, we ended up at a rock & metal bar called Kobe, run by a guy called Bom (yes, that really is his name). He gave us some tips about where to eat and when he found out we were on our honeymoon he gave us free Sake!
He also showed us a rock magazine from the year I was born, featuring a blonde Ozzie Osbourne on the cover. Surreal.

Hiroshima’s most famous food is its own style of okonomiyaki. Imagine a noodle and cabbage pancake. I know – it sounds awful but it’s actually delicious! Searching for a well-reviewed place called Hassei, we came across another more ‘local’ eatery, where people were queuing to get inside. Once sat down at the counter (where you essentially get your own hot plate to finish your okonomiyaki exactly how you like it) we realised what the fuss was all about. If you find yourself in Hiroshima you must try this dish!

The Peace Museum opens at 8.30am and the next morning we were pretty much first in line. Although it’s totally harrowing and shocking, you feel compelled to read all about what happened to the city and the people living there on 6 August 1945. The photos and accounts from survivors are pretty graphic but the information is well presented and I’m glad we went. We were both pretty sombre when we left, and I couldn’t help thinking how and why did they rebuild everything? Seeing the photos and models of the area after the blast really hammers it home that there was literally nothing left. How is it that humans can be so unbelievably cruel to one another, yet also find the strength to move on and create something good following such a terrible event?

What you probably didn’t know about Hiroshima is that it’s surrounded by great places to visit and we spent the rest of the day at the nearby island of Miyajima. It’s a short bus-train-ferry ride away and is well worth it. The island is beautiful, with pretty beaches, green and wooded mountains and cheeky deer who love to pose for the camera! However the star attraction is the Floating Torii which marks the entrance to the Itsukushima-jinja shrine. The ‘gateway’ is completely surrounded by the turquoise seawater, and frames the mountains behind. We hiked up the island’s tallest mountain, Misen (530m), where you get a fantastic 360 degree view. It was boiling hot, especially for March and we were pretty sweaty by the time we reached the summit. However it was definitely worth it and we headed back to Hiroshima feeling very relaxed (absolutely nothing to do with the beer on the beach).

For a second night we attempted to go to the elusive Hassei restaurant, but ended up in a completely different place by accident! It served rather fancier food and there was a bit of an awkward moment when the waitress plunged her tongs into the serene-looking fish tank, picked out an unknown spiral shellfish and then minutes later presented it to us as our final course….! It was all a bit too much, but I suppose that’s what happens when you can’t speak Japanese and you have no idea what you’ve ordered! It was definitely a case of Lost in Translation πŸ™‚

J & R xxx

Snow, Sake & naked greetings

The incredibly accessible snow in Japan feels like the country’s best kept secret. We left Tokyo at 6.30am and by 11am we were on beautiful mountains covered in heaps of the white stuff. We headed to Nozawa Onsen, and our first bit of excitement involved the Shinkansen (bullet train). It looks like the Bloodhound (the supersonic car being developed and built in Bristol) when it pulls into the station and it feels like you’re riding in a plane rather than a train! They go up to 320km/h (!) but they feel super smooth. We were in love.

We stayed in Villa Nozawa, run by an Aussie called Mark, who moved to the small mountain town 24 years ago and never looked back. The place is super friendly, comfortable and provided us with excellent breakfasts (especially the banana pancakes). Mark’s got a great set up and also runs a hire shop as well as several other hostels. We booked a quick lesson (more for me than for Rob) as soon as we arrived and within an hour we were on the slopes with our guide, Jerry. We were both a bit nervous as we’d never skied alone together and are at very different levels, but Jerry was pretty laid back and we soon found our feet on the mountain. We skied for 4 days and the snow got better and better. One morning at breakfast, a guy from the hostel announced we’d had half a metre of snow in the past 24 hours! It was without a doubt the best snow either of us have ever experienced. They don’t seem to really treat (piste bash?!) the pistes much in Nozawa Onsen and the result is that they often feel more like off-piste. I almost disappeared coming down one steep slope (with Rob in stitches at the bottom). We also managed to find a Japanese girl’s phone buried in a snow drift! I heard it ringing as we whizzed down a slope and we dug it out and managed to return it to her. Good deed = tick πŸ™‚

Rob is an excellent skier anyway, but the amazing snow and the incredible scenery helped my confidence no end and by the last morning I even tackled a few black runs (Kim & Belinda you would’ve been proud)!

As the name suggests, Nozawa Onsen is an Onsen town! They’re essentially public baths where all the locals (and a few brave tourists) get naked and get scrubbing. The water is piping hot and it’s meant to be frightfully good for you – in a sort of bracing British walk kind of way. The main rules are: take your shoes off at the door (and don’t put them in the same locker as your clothes, as Rob got sternly told off for doing), then leave all your modesty behind, make sure you’re completely naked and scrub yourself vigorously while sitting on a little plastic seat. Once sufficiently clean, plunge into the scolding hot water and sit there for as long as you can bear, before having a rinse, drying off (BEFORE you step back into the changing area) and leaving feeling tingly and relaxed.

There are 13 Onsens in the small town and we went to a little local one just round the corner from Villa Nozawa. It was pretty rustic and clearly didn’t get many tourists. The male and female baths are separated by a high wooden panel, so you can’t peak but you can hear what’s going on. I heard Rob tell the 8 other men in the male bath that he was on his honeymoon and they all went wild, cheering loudly. He told me afterwards they’d all stood up and shaken his hand – completely naked, obviously!

The food in the town is also excellent and we ate a lot of great Gyoza (dumplings) at a place called Sakai, washed down with Sake (rice wine). It was tiny and we sat at the bar, which separated the ‘restaurant’ from the kitchen. The couple that ran it epitomised the local people and were really sweet and friendly. Our lunches in the mountains were also really tasty. They serve Ramen (noodle soup) everywhere and it’s the perfect skiing food! French Alps – take note. We would’ve loved to have stayed in Nozawa Onsen longer and we definitely could’ve got used to the amazing snow, followed by steaming hot Onsens and delicious dumplings. What a life!

Here’s what we love about Japan so far:

1. Super friendly and incredibly helpful people (including really polite kids)
2. The history; there’s roughly one temple for every person in Japan (our guesstimate!)
3. Amazingly efficient public transport system, especially the Shinkansen (bullet train) 4. The food; especially sushi, dumplings and Ramen
5. Vending machines that serve everything, including dinner & beer 6. The awesome skiing
7. Onsens (public baths) where you can get some high quality naked time 8. The fashion; crazy patterns, impractical shoes and dogs in coats 9. The number of Samuri swords on display
10. Heated toilet seats!

J & R xxx

Weathering Patagonia

Fellow travellers warned us that Patagonia can often experience four seasons in a day, and they were soon proved right. We flew from Santiago, which is roughly in the centre of Chile, down to Punta Arenas, which is almost at the southern tip. The flight takes about four hours, which gives you some idea of the length of the whole country.

Early the next morning, we crept out of our guest house before anyone was awake to get a lift to a boat. It was a chilly start and they packed us in like sardines. Pretty apt really, as we were off to see penguins! We skirted an island first which housed a sea lion colony. They’re fascinating (and smelly) creatures to watch. The huge male sea lions spend their time basking on rocks while the females dip in and out of the water catching their dinner. Typical πŸ™‚

The boat landed on the nearby Isla Magdalena, which was completely packed with penguins! Obviously there are strict rules about not getting too close, but they’re certainly not afraid of humans and they don’t really bat an eyelid when you walk past. They’re definitely one of my favourite creatures; they mate for life, which is very sweet, and you can spend hours watching them walk/waddle, which is hysterically funny. I could’ve spent all day on that island, although I suspect Rob wasn’t quite as keen on the little black and white birds who’ve forgotten how to fly.

That afternoon we took a three hour bus to Puerto Natales and stayed at Hostel Amerindia, which was a very welcoming and cosy find. Our guide for our Patagonia hiking experience, Victor, picked us up the next morning. We headed to Torres del Paine national park to do The ‘W’ Trek, so called because the shape of the hike spells out the letter on a map.

Stepping out of the van in the park, we were hit by Patagonia’a infamous wind. We hiked up through a valley with incredible views, although several times the gales threatened to push us over the cliff! Rob wasn’t feeling well again and just as we reached the toughest ascent of the trail, he suddenly and violently threw up on the path. Luckily he managed to power through and we made it to the top, where we got an absolutely breathtaking view of the three towers which give Torres del Paine its name. Their jagged shapes contrast with the beautiful turquoise pool below; it’s a complexly striking and unique view – absolutely incredible.

We stayed in a refugio, which is essentially like a hostel. Although we were in a six-bed dorm, it was far more luxurious than we expected and the staff provided delicious and plentiful food; essential for hiking!

After a speedy trip in a catamaran across a crystal clear lake, we began our second day hike. In contrast to day one, the weather was hot. We trekked along a gorgeous trail, drinking the best water we’ve ever tasted from mountain streams and watching condors soar overhead. We met an awesome Canadian couple, Lana and Steve, who were hiking with their seven month old baby. Impressive. After crossing an incredibly fast flowing glacier river, we climbed high over rocks and slippery tree roots to reach the summit. It was worth it; we had the huge French Glacier to our right, the back of the towers (Torres del Paine) to our left and a stunning lake in front. The scenery in Patagonia is truly amazing.

We stayed in a different refugio that night, which was slightly more rustic than the previous one….! Although at the sunset the weather was lovely and still, the wind dramatically picked up overnight, rattling the windows violently and ensuring we got very little sleep! We had been pretty lucky with the weather up until this point, but the heavens opened on the third day. As we hiked towards our final destination, we were drenched within a couple of minutes. Victor was a fantastic guide, but he certainly went at a fair old lick and we were pretty tired. However, the bad weather cleared briefly as we reached Glacier Grey at the end of the Grey Lake. Magical.

We absolutely loved Patagonia; it was a real highlight for us. Combine some of the best scenery in the world with some fantastic trekking and that should give you some idea of the uniqueness and incredible unspoilt nature of the place. Patagonia; we’ll be back.

J & R xxx

Tally Ho, Santiago…!

Rob has never really liked horses and has always refused to ride. However, following the passport debacle l think he thought nothing could be worse…! So, when I suggested we go horse riding in the Andes, to my surprise he agreed.

We signed up to Horse Riding Chile (does what it says… etc, etc) and were picked up from Santiago by a very erratic taxi driver. By the time we reached the Parcella, which is essentially a small farm, we were both feeling a bit sick. We were greeted by an English couple – Ellen & Harry – who run the place. They moved over to Chile about 8 years ago and randomly her family also owns a holiday cottage in East Prawle in Devon – a stones throw from where we got married! It’s a small world.

They were very chilled out (which helped Rob stay calm) and introduced us to our Arriero, Leo. An Arriero is essentially someone who works with horses and understands how to ‘load the mule’. The concept of the ‘mule train’ – linking mules together, laden with goods and leading them over the mountains – is still alive and well in the Andes. The animals are exceptionally strong and we had a mule with us who carried the tent, bedding and food. I can’t remember his name but he wasn’t called Muffin.

Before we knew it, we’d donned our cowboy hats and mounted our trusty steeds (Rosaro and Lucero). They’re much smaller horses than I’m used to riding in the UK; very strong, stocky and amazingly sure footed. Leo didn’t speak any English and our Spanish doesn’t really extend past Hola and Gracias (!) but somehow he signalled that we were off and we followed behind his horse and the mule up some of the steepest and rockiest terrain I’ve ever been over. Rob was doing well and looked confident and luckily the horses were absolutely incredible over the difficult terrain, so we made good progress.

We went up through a valley and then down through a river and climbed across what seemed like a cliff face. They haven’t heard of well maintained bridlepaths in the Andes…! I wouldn’t have even wanted to walk on some of the trails, and my horse at home would have run the other way if I tried to get her to attempt them. (Cowboy) hats off to those Chilean steeds.

Just when we were getting used to the horses navigating their way over boulders and clinging to paths with vertical drops to a rocky river hundreds of feet down, there was a crash of thunder and a streak of lightning! I would count myself an experienced rider and yet I’ve never ridden in an electrical storm. The jagged forks looked like they were touching the mountains and the thunder rumbled and crashed directly overhead. I was scared. However, Leo kept going, smoking a cigarette casually as he rode into the eye of the storm. At least Rob was distracted and totally forgot that he was riding! He did brilliantly – it certainly wasn’t a novice ride.

Thankfully we arrived at our camp for the night and the thunder, lightning and rain stopped. The ‘wild camp’ was literally some trees next to a gorgeous river. Leo was the perfect host; he caught fresh fish and cooked them on the campfire. Delicious. We also ate a ridiculous amount of meat – the Chileans certainly know how to barbeque – and got through a bottle of wine each…

We were pretty merry by this time and despite the huge language barrier, we managed to have a 5 hour conversation! At one point, Leo asked if we sang and we tried to think of something we both knew. We ended up singing Jerusalem (Nick Hodgkinson you would have been proud)! Definitely one of the most hilarious and random nights we’ve had.

The next morning we braved the freezing mountain river for a (very) quick dip before climbing back in the saddle (with a few groans from Rob) and setting off for the Parcella. It was like a different valley; the weather was glorious. We needed our cowboy hats to shade us from the strong sun (not rain) and we thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

I’m not sure when I’ll get Rob back on a horse, but I’m pretty sure it won’t involved thunder, lightening or cliff edges. He’ll be a pro!

J & R xxx

Phallic cacti & two pot-smoking lesbians

We were slightly relieved to arrive in San Pedro de Atacama. Despite being located in the ‘driest non-polar desert in the world’ (source: Wikipedia) it’s a bustling vibrant little town. We had booked a place to stay called Lodge Tatais, which was about 1km out of town, with comfortable beds and actual taps where we could wash our hands with real water….!

Lodge Tatais was pretty chilled. There was a ‘restaurant’ attached, which had particularly random opening hours; they essentially started serving whenever they felt like it. One evening we just let ourselves into the kitchen and cooked for ourselves as nobody seemed to be about!

After sitting in a 4×4 for several days on the salt flats tour, we wanted to do something active, so booked a hiking and biking day to Canyon de Guatin. It was led by Edgardo from the Lodge – who incidentally also flipped pizzas in the ‘restaurant’. He met us with his girlfriend, Paulette, and two other girls, who couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

I’m not sure we expected to walk through such an incredible landscape. We navigated our way by following the river through the Canyon, jumping across at various points and scrambling down rocks. We trekked past the biggest (and most phallic) cacti I’ve ever seen, and in some places it felt as if we were almost bouldering; clinging onto the edge of mini cliff faces. We all plunged into the water to cool off and found a small waterfall you could put your head through, arriving inside a watery cave. The scenery was spectacular.

As we hiked out of the Canyon, we stopped to check out some ruins and the two lesbians rolled a joint. We declined a smoke – I actually thought I might fall off my bike if I had a toke (!) but they puffed away, and needless to say it took them a long time to climb to the top of the hill…!

We got on the bikes and, fearing I was going to have accident number two (following my crash in September), I peddled somewhat sedately towards the sunset. The view was stunning, but I kept my eyes firmly on the menacing gravel….! With the slow pot-smoking pair and my wobbling wheels, we ended up cycling the last few miles into town in absolutely pitch darkness. I bizarrely became more confident on unfamiliar terrain once I couldn’t actually see where I was cycling and we arrived home tired, dusty but without mishap. An awesome day.

After our desert triathlon (!) we spent a chilled out next day on a bus tour to Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). Incredibly it does actually look like the surface of the moon in places. It has weird and wonderful stone and sand formations which have been carved by wind and water over many years, and the colours are beautiful. There are also dry lakes where the salt deposits have left a white covering layer. I’m told the valley is considered to be one of the driest places on earth, as some areas haven’t received a single drop of rain in hundreds of years. Our guide also told us NASA tested a prototype for a Mars rover there, because of the valley’s dry and forbidding terrains.

After a hot, dry and relaxing few days, we were all set for Argentina; the home of steak and red wine…but you never know what’s round the corner, do you?

Stayed tuned πŸ˜‰

J & R xxx