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Loz & Steve: Stamp Collecting

¡Hola nuestros amigos! Well, nearly 6 months down and we have finally jumped 'the gap' and made our triumphant entry into the great Southern Continent. So where to now? The Galapagos? The Amazon? Machu Picchu? Stayed tuned. And we still love those messages from home - keep 'em rolling in...

Diary Entries

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Location: Mendoza, Argentina

To be honest, there wasn't a whole heap going on in Mendoza. Or maybe I'm just at the stage of my trip where I can't be bothered doing a whole heap. Either way, there aren't any particularly fond memories from our 3 days in the Argentine 'wine-capital'. We did manage to hire a tandem bike (!) and peddle ourselves around a half-arsed winery tour, but that wasn't wonderful because:

(a) The Mendoza wineries are set in smack bang in the industrial area of town. There are no sweeping vineyard vistas a la the Yarra or Hunter Valley here; and
(b) No matter how much fun tandem bikes look at the start, it wears off after the first 15 minutes with the realisation that you're not moving very fast despite peddling like crazy.

We did manage to score ourselves an excellent bottle of choc-banana liquor, so our efforts were not completely wasted.

On the overnight bus to Buenos Aires, we were able to tick off one of our big Argentine ambitions - bus bingo! We'd heard the rumours and I can now report that they are true: some of the buses do actually offer 'in-flight' games of bingo to keep the punters occupied. Swampy narrowly missed scooping first prize of a bottle of wine. Shame, it would have made for a nice change from drinking it from a cardboard box.

Expecting big things from Buenos Aires...

Monday, 13 August 2007

Location: Península Valdés, Argentina

Puerto Madryn - my first ever glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean and the jumping off point for seeing the whales off nearby Península Valdés, and let me tell you, they did not disappoint!

We jumped on board the standard tourist effort which took in other sights and sounds of the peninsula (a lone elephant seal, seal lion colony, wild guanacos), but it was the huge population of southern right whales that stole the show. We didn't have to venture too far offshore before we were literally surrounded by a pod of these amazing 16 metre giants. They migrate annually to the food-rich waters just off the east coast of Argentina to mate and give birth. An estimated 500 whales were cruising around the peninsula during the time we were there. Thanks to deft maneuvering by our captain and genuine curiosity on the part of the whales, at times they were in an arms length of the boat. It was one of those times you wish you had the SCUBA gear on board to jump right in with them - an unforgettable wildlife experience.

It is such a shame to think these beautiful creatures are hunted, slaughtered and are becoming endangered all in the name of 'science'. But I can't be too mad at the Japanese considering "Mysterious Cities of Gold" was the whole reason I came to this continent in the first place.

Speaking of that - Mendoza, here we come! (Far and away my best lead-in yet...)

Friday, 10 August 2007

Location: Bariloche, Argentina

Woo hoo! What a relief to finally set foot in Argentina! And we only had to take 2,000 or so kilometre detour to get there! Good thing we were going that way anyway.

We arrived in Bariloche a little stiff-legged, but relieved. Especially after I thought I'd lost Nick at the border with an extremely meticulous customs official. Bariloche is set right in the heart of the Lake District – think stunning mountain backdrops reflecting in clear alpine lakes. Easily rates as one of the prettier spots in the world that I've been fortunate enough to visit.

After so much word-of-mouth hype since I left Mexico City seven months ago, I am pleased to say that the Argentinean hostels exceeded expectations. Heated, clean, hot water, flushing toilets, big kitchen, good crew - this is how hostel life should be! Our first proper meal in Argentina was the full 'parilla' or the good old-fashioned BBQ. I am even more pleased to report that Argentinean affinity for a thick, juicy steak is 100% true. These people allegedly consume their body-weight in steak every year. This is my kind of country.

Bariloche is very much a tourist town - mostly where the rich and famous Argentineans come to live it up, but also with a smattering of the unwashed, foreign types (i.e. us). It is nice to walk the streets at night after all these months and know that the guy behind is not going to mug you because he is probably carrying more cash than you anyway. As a population, the Argentineans are all rather easy on the eye too.

But our main reason for visiting Bariloche was to get amongst the white powder. I know that you are probably thinking "Geez, didn't these guys get their fill in Bolvia? At this rate, they'll be coming home with a grand-a-day habit…", but it was the WET white powder we were looking for. Maybe I should just cut the crap and say we wanted to go skiing. On the outskirts of Bariloche was the very serviceable Cerro Catedral resort - 20-something lifts, alright conditions, chorizo in bread at the end of the day and only half the price of Aussie resorts. Score!

After swooshing down the (icy) slopes for a couple of days, we took a break, hired bikes and pushed around some of the most amazing mountain/lake scenery ever! On the eve before we returned to the slopes for our final 2 days, we were treated to (I kid you not) a METRE dump of fresh snow. Needless to say, conditions were just out of this world. Being from Australia, Swampy or I had never really been treated to decent snow so had bugger all idea how to stand up in it. Heaps of fun when you crash though.

Speaking of stacks, there were some memorable ones. My best effort was probably when I came flying down the hill making some tidy, tight turns and I was cut-off by this old Argy-dude who I clipped and sent us both sprawling down the mountain. It was 'technically' my fault (I maintain that I was in the right) and he didn't waste any time giving me a full serve in Spanish that ended with "...and if you can't speak the language you should go back to your own country." Ouch. Swampy's best effort was falling flat on his arse in the carpark while queueing (stationary, mind you) for the bus. I'm sure the 150-odd Argentineans who also witnessed it would agree. On the slopes, he wiped himself out in 3 foot of powder and then had to spend the next 25 minutes 'chopping' the snow to try and find his lost ski. A passing snowboarding finally 'found' (read: stacked on) the errant ski and Nick was on his way.

We are well and truly in the land of big bus rides now. Next stop: 20 hours across the continent to Puerto Madryn.

Thursday, 02 August 2007

Location: Santiago & a heap of buses, Chile

We bounced out of Bolivia and into Chile and BAM! Never have I crossed an imaginery line in the sand and experienced such a dramatic change. Asphalt roads (heaven), comfy buses, customs - and this was all in the first couple of hours. What was perhaps most impressive were Chile's stringent customs checks. Hardly surprising given we were a bus load of backpackers leaving the cocaine capital of the world.

Turns out the smooth sales routine we were fed on the Bolivian side of the border left us high-and-dry in San Pedro de Atacama without a way to get to Argentina. After frantically running a full five laps of the town trying to charter anything with 4 wheels and a driver, we decided to cut our loses (i.e. Northern Argentina) and head southbound and cross into Argentina from Santiago. A 100% fool-proof plan...

... or so we thought! Chile is a very narrow and deceptively long country. It took us a full 24 hours on a very comfortable overnight bus to make it to el capital. With no immediate onward transport into Argentina, we found a very chill Kiwi-run hostel (x-box, pool table, foosball, table tennis) and settled in. Unbeknownst to us, the road across the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina is often closed due to bad weather. As our luck would have it, it was well and truly one of those weeks. On the third day of closed road, we decided to cut our loses and head a further 20 hours south to the more reliable crossing near Bariloche. Failing that, our contingency plan was to hire a team of dogs, a sled and going it alone across the Patagonian glaciers. You would think it would be far easier to cross into a country that shares so much border. Pesky Andes.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Location: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Touched down in La Paz and our first and only mission was to get the hell out as soon as possible. Thanks to yet another transport shortage (curse you, Red Ponchos!), we couldn't make it to our preferred destination of Sucre, so we opted to head straight to the salt flats of Uyuni instead. Getting there involved overnighting in Oruro and connecting with a southbound train. Oruro was largely forgettable unless you have a particular affinity for freezing cold weather and crap market food. We ended up venturing out to some nearby thermal baths which killed the morning waiting for the train nicely.

There were no seats left in cattle class, so we had to cough up the extra to travel first class. Not the end of the world - at least we were moving in the right direction and that is more than half the battle in Bolivia.

The train ride was surprisingly good. We rolled oh-so-slowly past some stunning lakes and wetlands that were home to many birds including a few flamboyant flocks of feeding flamingos. The train finally chugged in Uyuni after dark and we while the night away with a quiet drink at the local which quickly turned into several louder ones while playing dice games with a couple of Bolivian students.

Up bright and early to find a tour. The tour agent we chose ended up convincing us that it would be a really good idea to end our tour in San Pedro, Chile as this would be the best place to find onward transport to Argentina. We both got a good vibe from this agency, and obediently forked over our cashola and were herded into an old-school Landcruiser jeep. (We have since learned that the same agency recently had a jeep roll out in the salt flats. So much for our vibe detectors.)

From the get go it was clear that we didn't quite get what we bargained for. We were promised (as most prospective male clients probably are) that we would be in the jeep with 3 female British students. We ended up being stuck with the Swiss-family Robinson - Dad, Mum and two teenage girls. They were really nice people, but not the sort of crowd we were hoping to share the small confines of a jeep with for the next 3 days.

To top it off, it was painfully obviously that it was our guide's first day on the job. It wouldn't have surprised me if someone threw him the keys on the morning and said "you're driving today." To make matters worse, he had a shocker of a stutter, so understanding his Spanish was nigh on impossible. As a result he didn't really talk that much during the tour - only when he had to stop and ask for directions on one of numerous accidental 'detours'. Strangely enough he found his voice alright when collecting tips at the end of the tour.

Despite these setbacks, we rolled through some absolutely mind-blowing landscapes. First was through the blindingly white salt flats of Uyuni where we were all herded off the jeep for the obligatory trick photo. As we ascended higher on the altiplano, the landscape slowly changed to mountainous deserted punctuated by the occasional flamingo filled lake. We stopped in a few spots only long enough to jump out of the jeep, snap a few pics and freeze our butts off. It was so strange - the desert is THE coldest place I have been to (up around 4,800 metres), yet it is one of the driest places on earth. Weird.

Up and the crack of dawn on the final day of the tour to drive past the steaming, bubbling geysers, stop for a quick dip in the thermal pools before heading out the backdoor of Bolivia and into Chile.

So what is the final verdict on Bolivia? Hard to say. We had a very love-hate relationship. It was often an incredibly frustrating country to travel in and unfortunately the majority of the tourism is about making a quick buck rather than sustainability. It is perhaps unfair to expect more from the poorest nation in South America, but it can become a little wearing after almost a month. And I have never been so cold in my life!

Friday, 27 July 2007

Location: Rurrenabaque & Bolvian pampas, Bolivia

This is how the Bolivian pampas should market itself:

"If you hate animals and love watching them tortured, come to the Bolivian pampas - have we got the holiday for you!"

OK, so perhaps that is a little extreme, but honestly (and scarily) not that far from the truth.

First things first, the flight from La Paz to Rurrenebaque was fan-bloody-tastic. Rurre is located in the Amazon Basin in the east of the country, so to get there we had to fly over the Andes in all their glory. Well fly 'through' the Andes was a more accurate description - our tiny plane zoomed through the second highest mountain range on earth, amidst the hulking 6,000 metre plus peaks. The pilot spotted his landing perfectly on a seemingly invisible grass landing strip in the middle of the 'broccoli' forest. Stepping out of the plane - ahhhh... the heat. Now this is more like it!

The big attraction out here is wildlife watching in the nearby pampas (plains), home to a variety of species including alligators, caimans, monkeys, river dolphins, river turtles, anacondas, birds, etc. The standard tours out into the pampas cost the startling low amount of US15 per day and, let me tell you, you well and truly get what you pay for.

Here are a few of the low-lights we encountered on our 3 days in the pampas:
- Feeding wild monkeys and encouraging them to climb in the boat and over the passengers.
- Tracking down an anaconda and dragging it back when it was clearly distressed and trying to escape, so it could be passed around as a 'scarf' for gringo photos.
- A guide catching a 10 day-old croc and hauling it into the boat for the group to see.
- Catching and eating piranhas that would have barely been 10cm in length. Upon returning to Rurre, we actually found out that piranhas are protected...

It was sooooo dodgy. Talk about the anti-Galapagos! 'Conservation' and 'sustainable tourism' are dirty words around these parts. Some of the more astute tour operators were smart enough to tack an 'eco' in front of their name, but there was no guarantee that their practices were any better. It is such a shame too because the wildlife on display here is so abundant and incredible. At this rate, it is safe to say that it won't be around for all that much longer...

The tour wasn't all bad. It was great spotting and swimming with the Amazon river dolphins. They aren't as friendly as their sea-faring cousins, but apparently their sonar does keep the crocs and piranhas at bay. It was also exciting to see so many alligators lazing around on the banks. We were happily snapping away for the first 5 minutes, but the novelty quickly wore off for the remaining 2:55 of the boat journey.

We also met up with a great group of people on the tour which actually served us quite well in the days to come. Because of the aforementioned grass landing strip, the Rurre airport has the unfortunate habit of closing at the slightest hint of rain. Of course as our luck would have it, it did rain. Hard. In fact the second night of rain was the biggest, loudest and scariest electrical storm I had ever seen. It was amazing.

Aside from several beverages and games of un-even pool with our new friends at the Mosskito Bar, there ain't a hell of a lot going on in Rurre. Thankfully after 3 days of being stuck, the airport finally did reopen. Problem was, in our infinite wisdom, we didn't actually have an 'official' ticket and there was now a backlog of 3 days worth of flights to get through. After some highly effective maneuvering and pestering of the appropriate officials in the airline office, we somehow scored the last 2 seats on the second flight back to La Paz. Sometimes travelling in the third world doesn't feel much different to the Amazing Race: "Teams must now travel to La Paz where they should avoid being mugged, scammed or pissed-on by the local vagrants, and eat a highly questionable serving of salchipapas from a seriously dodgy street vendor to receive their next clue. And a mild case of salmonella poisoning." Loving it!

Friday, 20 July 2007

Location: La Paz, Bolivia

Back in La Paz and this time we stayed in a brewery! Seriously! Strike another entry from the list of life's ambitions. We can verify that it was in fact a bona-fide brewery as we received an impromptu tour of the facilities after volunteering to lug a keg from the basement up four floors to the rooftop bar. Ended up not being the wisest idea on account of our collective scrawniness, but it was all in the name of a free beer.

Contrary to what people may have said about us in the past, we WERE actually able to organise a piss-up in the above said establishment. Twice in fact. So there.

So... we were back killing time in La Paz, waiting for a flight to the jungle that could be (and was) cancelled at a moment's notice. As Nick had finally kicked the ill-effects of the altitude, we made the most of this time by getting out and exploring the best of La Paz after-dark. Highlights were the self-proclaimed 100% fake English pub, the full Run DMC-style Bolivian break battle at a random local hip-hop club and the seriously questionable steak sangas that started and ended our nights out. It is amazing how alcohol gives you the courage to face even the dodgiest of street vendors.

We finally received the green light on our flight to Rurrenabaque... BUT... as our luck would have it, La Paz was in the midst of a massive show-stopper of a strike. Apparently the Government is trying to move the capital from La Paz to the more appealing Sucre, the Paceñas (people from La Paz) are none too happy about it. Personally I think moving the capital from La Paz to anywhere would be a step in the right direction.

The good news is we eventually tracked down a taxi, made it to the airport and are on our way to the jungle.


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Recent Messages

From swampy
Dude - the pampas was six weeks and three countries ago - what has happened to the updates? Surprised my mum hasn´t been on your case.
Response: I'm slowly getting my act together. I have no excuses will all this time on my hands. Like you can talk anyway!
From Jon
Shave your head mate. It feels great!
Response: No way dude, it took me a full 16 months to grow that hair... It's too cold in Argy to go sin pelo.
From Linda (Lauren's Mum)
Hi Steve & Nick,
I will be so pleased when you are in the UK... talk about scary.. bike riding along death road?.. am glad my little girl is in 'safe UK' !
Sounds like you are really enjoying your last few weeks of 'freedom'.. looking forward to seeing you the end of Sept.. am assuming I will know you as by then you will have far less hair ?
OK.. keep enjoying.. Love Linda
Response: Trust me, it sounds much more scarier than it actually was. The UK is a far more dangerous place than the majority of South America! Yeah, am actually thinking about 'de-hairing' in Buenos Aires next week. Will be heaps cheaper than getting a haircut in UK.
From Michelle
An update - terrific! You and Nick are clearly having a fantastic time. I am impressed to hear that you are still in touch with the local footy also. Go the Hawks!
Response: A long time overdue... sorry. More on the way. You betcha I am still in touch with the footy. Even stayed up til 2am the other night to watch the live commentary of the Brissie game online. How is that for dedication?!?
From Gary
Must be having too good a time to update the site now that Loz and I have left.Where are all the pic,s?? Glad that you are out of Boiliva.Big troubles brewing,watched Foreign Correspondent last week.I c that a jet over shot the runway in Santa Marta,the same crowd that we flew there with.Well keep enjoying and don,t do to much damage whilst skiing the slopes of the Andes in Argentina. Take Care Dad x
Response: It certainly has been a 'different' trip travelling with Nick. I am glad to be out of Bolivia - it is so different here too. More like home than anywhere else I have been on my travels. A good bridge between Sth America and the UK! Shame our flight to Santa Marta didn't overshoot... we could have hit them up for a discount. Skiing was excellent, had our last day in knee-deep powder yesterday. Heading to the Atlantic Coast this afternoon for a spot of whale watching. Hope things are alright in Oz.
From Meredith
What has happened to Steve & Swampy..............
Response: Would you believe we are having far too much fun to keep the website updated? More updates and pics coming soon!!
From Ab
No photos? No blogs for ages? Will have to check Nick's site... Have fun - will see you soon! xoxo
Response: Don't bother checking his site - he is even more behind than me! :) Hopefully by the end of this week. We have been very busy boys.
From Gazza
Come on slack one. Where is all the updates???? Must be having too good a time now that Loz and myself have departed! or is it because the last entry went in on black Friday?? Where,s the Machu Picchu and the road block pic.s?Watched Foreign correspondent last nite and there is alot of trouble brewing in Bolivia,A good place to be out of.I see a plane over shot the runway at Santa Marta, the same crowd that flew us there. Continue to enjoy, take care Luv Dad
Response: Yep, loads of problems in Bolivia. There is a plan to move the capital from La Paz to Sucre. Naturally the people from La Paz are none to happy about it. Personally I think moving the capital from La Paz to anywhere would be a bloody fantastic idea. There was also some stuff going on down south with the miners, but didn't catch much of that. Very glad to be out, it was starting to get really frustrating. Loz has been a bit slack uploading the pics. It might have to wait until I make it to the UK... which isn't really that long now...
From Neha
B'jour M. Lecerf

Had a look at some of your pics. Man, they look great. Seems like you guys had an awesome time. I especially liked the galapagos ones. Not that I wanted to be there amongst all that wildlife, scares the life out of me but would give one an adrenalin rush if one is into that kinda of stuff. For moi, seeing them through your camera was good enough. Say hi to Lauren from me and hope you guys keep having a great trip. Look fwd to catching up with yous in UK.
Response: Bonjour yourself! No worry, those animals were all completely harmless. Except the sea lions that occasionally bite tourists. And of course the sharks and sting-rays. The birds were friendly enough! Not long to go now... looking forward very much to catching up for a drink when I arrive.
From Loz
hey! A little slack on the updates! Hope you had a great time in the jungle. Not much happening here although the boys are on holidays on Wednesday - looking forward to taking them a few places. Connor has already managed to get a promise of pizza hut all you can eat lunch out of me.

Keep having fun.

Love

Loz

xoxo
Response: Thanks. The jungle was an interesting experience to say the least. I know I have been extremely slack on the updates. Will hopefully get around to it this week, in exchange for all-you-can-eat pizza in the UK.
From Lauren
ok Lauren...where is the blog update!!!!!
hope London life is fantastic. will u b there in Sept when we r back in London? love to buy u a dinner.
meredith (N's mum)
From Ab
Dont worry Steve - your fans are still reading your blogs and looking at your pics even though Loz is in UK now.
Hope your well. Cya soon. xoxo
Response: That is a relief. I was expecting my readership to drop by at least 70% because Lauren has more friends than me after all. Finally cracked the 2,000 hits - it was a long time coming.
From meredith
glad he arrived sleepily but safely. keep out of mischief you two.
meredith (Nick's mum)
Response: Of course we will stay out of mischief... Or at least we won't be writing about it here! :)
From JOANIE
Little Stevie - get off that damn bike - you'll fall over the edge!! Has Gary Left yet?
Response: Yep, Gary left last Sunday. Sad to see him leave, but time for him to venture back to the real world.
From Xiao
Heya Steve and Lauren!

Man, I dug up the link from my email archives and boy oh boy! Love the photos, love the words. Hope you guys continue having a whale of a time and catch you both later!
Response: Thanks Xiao! Lozza has left now, but I will do my best to keep churning our the blog.
From Ab
Oh Lauren, .... Not long no-ow!! Sooooo excited you will be in Engyland too!!!
I spoke to ur Bro ovva day - he reckons u hav no plans when you get here which is cool coz Im sure we will sort somefin out. Either I come down to see y'all or you come up here for a bit (Im kinda on call with work in the next 2-3 weeks so might be a bit difficult to get to Crow). xoxoxoxo
PS - Hi to Steve!!
Response: I'll field this one on Lauren's behalf. She is staying with you now! Have a nice week together.
From Hallie
Hi Steve,
Hallie here, just looking at pics of your travels,how jealous i am. hope you enjoy the photos of the wedding. :) xx
Response: Yep, still going along nicely here. Got the pics... everyone looked lovely. Happy birthday Jess!
From TBone
Zoo keeper Zoo keeper!!
Response: I know, who said the Galapagos is rated PG? I forgot to mention that it is actually 2 males going for it! I guess 'prison rules' extend to the animal kingdom too. The video is hilarous - complete with grunting and drooling.
From JOANIE
Keep 'em coming Stevie, just sitting at my desk drooling... News on Breezie Rose's wedding - coming soon Cheers
(I didn't get to go so you'll have to wait for Jen) xx
Response: Heard the big wedding went ahead last weekend. Hopefully Mum can come through with a couple of pics. Loz is dying to see the dress. (Must be a girl thing.) More photos coming as soon as we can find a decent connection.
From TBone
You'd be suprised by how many boobies are attracted by the big silver SUV!
Response: GOLD!!! Or should that be SILVER! Yeah, so I hear....
From Ab
PS - Look out for Fossils!! It's more like you should call your page Fossil Finding, instead of Stamp Collecting! ;)
From Ab
Wow, am almost (!) speechless at your photos. They are amazing and the geology and animals you have shown are brilliant!! I think you chose out of your 1500 pics really well.
Gosh, it makes me think of all this concrete and smog and pollution and increasing carbon mainly from deforestation is just so futile; and what the hell are humans doing to the planet they live on????
On another note - Loz cannot cannot WAIT to see you. Am so bloody excited it's not funny.
Love Ab. xoxoxo
Response: Hey cous!!! The photos are great but even looking back at them, I think they did not do our trip justice - that is how amazing is really it was. You and Rob should really start saving for a trip! I am getting excited about getting over there too! It is only two and a half weeks now until I am in that air. I can hardly believe it! Another chapter of my life almost over :) Am really looking forward to a trip to Chesterfield and meeting the much acclaimed Rob! See ya soon lovely :) Love Loz xoxo
From Tight Reigns
I'm looking at your Galapagos photos , then looking out my bedroom window down Macleay St Turner, on a windy winter's day...i'm thinking that your not missing out on much, but we are missing you guys. Enjoying your site heaps and living vicariously through you guys. Keep taking it easy.
Response: It feels like we are missing much... just hanging out - hoops, dinners, drinks... it's all part of it! I hear you and your bro are off to the States soon. Should be an awesome trip... but out of season?!? What gives?
From Joanie
Hi Loz Hi SteveCongratulations you 2 on 8 exciting (!!?) years. Keep at it. Well volcanos and ruins might be better than Pastles and Calaces (ask ya Mother, it's a UK thing)though some things you never get sick of. Steve where do you stash your gear in between. And are you asking around as you go to find all these good places.
Cheers Joanie
Response: Thanks! It has been quite an achievement. We are also very much looking forward to checking out the Pastles and Calaces in UK and Europe... might need to earn a bit of extra cashola first. Most of the places we pick from the 'bible' (a.k.a. guidebook), but there are also quite a few that are word-of-mouth from other travellers.
From TBone
Awesome!! I've been wanting to get me a new turtle for ages. I'll call him Nathan.

Great talking to you both! Can't wait to see this next set of pics!
Response: Still working on the turtle dilemma - they are damn heavy so carry on luggage is out of the question. There is an animal Nathan would like even more than turtles over here - Blue Footed Boobies!