Tag Archives: Multi-day Hike

El Altar, Sanjay National Park, Ecuador

Nearly two years ago, the government of Ecuador changed the laws regarding multi-day hikes. Because so many people were getting lost or dying, all hikes in the national parks now require a certified guide. Peru has a similar law, although it doesn’t police it as stringently as Ecuador does. And at US$50-80 a day for a guide, my dreams of doing a multi-day hike in Ecuador came to a screaming holt.

My companion and I caught a bus to Riobamba, a city six hours south of Quito and set about finding a hike we could do without a guide. After some investigation we found one – El Altar – an overnight hike into an area of mountains only policed one day a week.

Day 1
We were up early and waiting for the taxi. A crazy drive through the mountains followed to Hacienda Releche, the ‘trail head’ of the hike. We met the owners of the hacienda who quoted us 5-6 hours to their lodge in the mountains and at $12 per person per night it’s far cheaper than a guide.

We began climbing along a dirt track following a gully. On either side was a thin line of trees and beyond were fields; one containing rows of flowers, the other grazing cows.

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For the first two hours of the walk the trail climbed steeply up the side of the hill with the occasional short area of boggy mud. While the skies were cloudy there was no rain. A look back along the valley gave great views of the surrounding hills. By the deep green of the hills, I’d suggest it rains here fairly regularly.

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As we continued climbing, the trail grew less steep, but the mud increased dramatically. As the easiest way to get to the lodge is by horseback, this churns up the mud. In many places, it was difficult to pass without squelching our way through. Luckily, waterproof leather hiking boots have no issues with mud and we waded our way through, trying to fall over as little as possible. This is only a problem if the mud is soggy and wet, which for the most part it wasn’t.

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We stopped for a late lunch with a view of a road across the valley, before marching on. As the afternoon wore on, the rain began, and we decided to rest out of the rain for a bit, so following a short path we found a pair of large pine trees as shelter.

While we were waiting, we heard hooves on the track. I went to have a look in the rain and discovered around ten large horned, cows trampling along the trail. When they saw me they stared for a few moments before bolting back up the trail. A few minutes later, we heard hooves again, this time it was a group of riders leading the cows. Two of the cows had climbed the bank and charged through the area where we were sheltering, scaring the wits out of my companion.

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By this stage, we’d already walked 5-6 hours with no sign of the lodge. We continued on, crossing through gullies and the occasional stream. As darkness began to fall, we still hadn’t found the lodge and my companion began making suggestions of roughing it, as we didn’t have a tent with us. So under the light of our head torches we kept an eye out for sheltered spots but continued walking.

An hour and a half after dark we rounded a hill and could just make out buildings ahead in the vague moonlight. We reached the buildings and found the first one open. It was a dorm room with bunk beds and a bathroom. We dropped our packs and investigated the other four buildings. Two were locked dorms while the others were dining areas with kitchens and fireplaces. We found a bunch of candles and set up our room, cooked some dinner and collapsed into our sleeping bags.

Day 2

The next day we were up and after breakfast, we cleaned up the room, packed our bags and stowed them away in a hidden room off one of the kitchens. We then headed out across a stretch of soggy, rocky ground towards The Altar, a collapsed volcano surrounded by peaks. The valley is at about 4000m above seas level, and even with a slight grade crossing it was a struggle because of the altitude.

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At the far side was a tough climb up the valley wall. While the sky was cloudy and mist covered many of the mountains, we could just make out a snowy peak above us as we climbed. My younger companion raced ahead while I struggled with the altitude, even without a pack. During one of our regular breaks, we discovered another pair of guys close behind us. This pushed us on and eventually we came over the ridge to see the large crater lake and the bottom of the mountains surrounding it. El Altar.

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We waited up there for almost two hours, watching as the clouds came and went. I noticed more than a dozen kinds of wild flowers growing in the area so set about taking photos of as many as I could.

At about 1pm, the sky began to clear and I was able to take a panoramic shot – something I’d not done before on my new camera.

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On the way back we passed two other groups of people totalling 10 between them, before arriving back at the lodge to meet the lodge owner’s father, who was also the caretaker. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak english and our spanish wasn’t enough to get across that we had already paid for the previous night. The message finally got across with the help of one of the other guys and we booked another night. This time, we had a more luxury room – one of the locked ones.

Day 3

After breakfast, we packed and headed down from the lodge.

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The climb down was fairly uneventful. There was the occasional rain, but nothing worrying. Most of the trail was dry mud but we also passed through several different levels soggy levels of it as we went: dirt, wet dirt, hard mud, soft mud, sludge and water pooled mud. For the most part, we found little of the last two and mainly plentiful soft mud. When climbing down a dirt or rocky trail, it can be hard on your knees, even with walking poles. But soft mud cushions your footsteps without swallowing your boots totally. As we walked, we saw more of the wild flowers…

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We finally reached the owner’s hacienda just as the rain began. After a lunch prepared by the owner’s mother, we waited for the bus that didn’t come before talking the park rangers into giving us a lift back to Riobamba. This was ironic because they would have stopped us from doing the trek if they had caught us at the beginning. We arrived back to the hotel we’d been staying at and the luxury of hot showers.

Summary
Overall, the trek was a lot longer than we expected, but we still had an awesome time and saw one of the few sights available without a guide in Ecuador. While the trail was muddy, it made the trek more of a technical challenge than an annoyance. For the views and the lodge, I would recommend this to anyone looking for an overnight and cheap hike in Ecuador.

Next we are off to Cuenca in Southern Ecuador to see Ingapirka, the most famous Inkan ruins in Ecuador.

The Trail Wanderer

Santa Cruz trek, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

While there are many hikes in the Cordillera Blanca, the Santa Cruz hike is the most popular, and is usually done with a guide. Hiking with a guide doesn’t feel like true hiking, especially when they carry half of the equipment, set up tents and prepare your food. So, I decided to do it without one. As it happens, four Americans at my hostel were also planning to go guideless. And while I prefer to hike alone, I wouldn’t be totally alone in the mountains… We booked a bus to the start and prepared to leave early the following morning.

Day 1

Not having a good night’s sleep the night before a hike is a bad thing. I discovered this on the Colca Canyon hike and well, it seemed to happen again!

The bus trip to the beginning of the hike is five hours on a local bus. Unlike the five of us lads, peruvians have short legs, so there was not a lot of room in the bus. The cramped first two hours of the trip was on a sealed road and then the last three hours was to be on a very rocky dirt road. Five minutes onto that dirt road, however, the bus gave up and with black smoke pouring out the side, the transmission fell out. The pool of red transmission fluid under the bus is not obvious in this photo, but it’s there…

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After an hour the bus was fixed, but only enough for it to return to base leaving us to wait for another one. Three hours later it arrived and we were on our way again. Three hours of jaw rocking dirt road meant no napping for me!

We were delivered to the small village of Yanama and discovered a group of three girls and a french couple who were also doing the hike without a guide. While the french couple were quite typical of many french people I’ve met in South America so far – they treated us like we didn’t exist and totally avoided us – the three girls decided to join the group. With eight of us, and two particularly chatty girls, my hike was going to be noisier than I wanted. So, I let the other seven head off and dropped to the back to walk alone.

The first part of the hike leads out of Yanama and down the hill via a steep dry track, crossing one dirt road on the way and eventually the river via a concrete bridge. I headed left as the trail widened leading through a couple of villages where every small child ran up and demanded bon-bons. Never give the kids bon-bons!

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Finally, I came to my first climb of the day. It wasn’t a large one but my lack of sleep caused me to struggle up it. I met the others at the top and stopped for a rest as they headed off again. I was hoping there wasn’t going to be many more climbs as the direct sunshine on top of my tiredness was draining. But there were a few. Eventually, I rounded a bend in the valley and saw a group of tents a couple of kilometres away and figured this was my companions. I set out towards them, making slow progress across some small hills.

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I was getting close to the tents when I came across a pair of cows on the trail, staring me down. Did you know that more hikers are killed every year by cows than anything else? It’s true! Google it. Not wishing to be trampled to death for getting too close, I went around, through a boggy area of ground. Exhausting!

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I finally made it to the tents to discover it wasn’t my group but a guide and his party. He pointed me further along the trail, so I struggled on. After another kilometre I still hadn’t located my amigos and with the trail leading up some hills, I picked a spot for a camp near the river and set up my tent. After cooking dinner and getting ready for the next day, I slumped into my sleeping bag and slept.

Day 2

From my planning, I was aware that Day 2 was the most difficult day of the hike. From my camp at 3,800 metres (above sea level) I would walk 13 kilometres and climb nearly a kilometre to a pass called Punta Union at a height of 4,750 metres. Followed by a further 3 kilometres down the other side.

While The Choro trek in Bolivia began 50 metres higher, I only had to climb 100m total before descending on that hike. If that 100m was hard because of the altitude, this one was going to be a very difficult day indeed fighting the altitude the entire way.

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I packed up and left my camping spot. After a fairly good sleep, I had more energy, so I set off along the trail with more vigour. But while climbing hills was still hard, it was easier than day 1.

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After a kilometre, I found the empty campsite where the other seven had camped. I headed along the valley slowly climbing as I went. As the day progressed I climbed higher along the valley. I consider any height above 3,700m to have a thin atmosphere – with less air pressure. Being a large framed, large lunged person, the higher I went the more trouble I had getting enough air and spent a lot of the time out of breath. There was a point where I had to take a break to catch my breath after every 10 steps; but only when climbing.

I climbed slowly over small knolls and past several tarns – small mountain lagoons, with towering snow covered mountains and glaciers across from me. I came over a knoll to see the ridge line I still had to climb, with the small gap at the top that was the pass.

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I continued on and the higher I went, the harder it became. Every five steps I had to take a rest to get my breath back. I even took my pack off every 100m or so for a longer break. As I climbed, my rate got slower and with only about 50 metres to the gap I slowed to only 3 steps before resting. Then for the final few metres it was only one step before resting. So…slow… But I did have a good view back along the valley.

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When I finally went through the gap, I passed an altitude marker and slumped down on the other side in the sun, taking my pack off and uttering, ‘Thank f**k for that!”

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Down was a lot easier and I powered through the switchbacks below a massive white glacier…

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…and above an azure mountain lake.

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I could see tents in the distance and marched on feeling more energised that I was no longer climbing. I stopped only once before I arrived at the tents 2-3 kilometres from the gap only to find it was another tour group. So, I walked on across the flat river plains following the river.

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Eventually, passing another guided group, I found the tents of my group and set up camp.

Day 3

The main part of Day 3 takes only 3 hours, so to extend it most people climb to Laguna Arhueycocha.

We started the day climbing slightly to a higher valley. Slightly is still difficult at 4,000m.

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On reaching the valley we left our packs with covers on as it had rained overnight. Even walking along the high valley without packs wasn’t easy and after a couple of kilometres I arrived exhausted at the base of the wall that climbs up to the laguna. The rest of the group decided to climb it, but I opted to stay at the bottom. I’ve seen plenty of glacier lakes in this trip, so decided to save my energy.

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There were some buildings nearby, so I decided to investigate those instead. They were only 50m away, up a climb of about 5 metres, but even that was exhausting. The buildings were empty, but looked to have been a camping area with a place for donkeys. While I was there it began to snow a little.

When the group returned, we headed back down the valley – an easier walk – donned out packs and climbed back down to the main valley. For the rest of the walk, we followed the valley and river along, firstly through a dry river bed thick with sand.

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Sand is difficult to walk on carrying a pack. We climbed about 10 metres up the other bank and followed the trail that undulated as it went. We passed along the side of a large laguna and took a break for lunch at the other end as we looked along the valley.

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We were to pass another laguna, but it turned out to be little more than a marsh. Perhaps it’s larger in the rainy season. Cows, ponies, horses and donkeys were everywhere as we walked along the sometimes sandy, sometimes rocky trail. Eventually I saw the campsite ahead and marched off, arriving to a set of rocky walls at a place called Llamacorral. I pitched my tent as the others arrived and we began preparing dinner when we got a visit from a pony who decided he didn’t want grass for dinner.

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Later, we made a fire in a deep rocky fire pit and sat around talking for the evening.

Day 4

The sky was clear the next day, so after breakfast I packed up my things and headed off, walking ahead of the group for a change. Most of the day saw me walking the rocky track along the side of the valley as the river snaked its way through the landscape. There wasn’t much to see as I walked and after 90 minutes I took a short break off the trail. When I was putting my pack back on, I saw the group go past.

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I marched after them, I saw a waterfall opposite which marked the halfway point of the day. For the rest of the walk, the trail descended following the river down through the gorge. With the sun high in the sky and the sandy trail, it was very hot. A distinct contrast from the day before with its slight snow.

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An hour later, I rounded a bend to find my group stripping down to their underwear at a nice spot in the river. The gingerly got into the freezing water. I was steaming hot, so I stripped down and threw myself into the river. No wading here, boys and girls, the only way into a freezing river is as quickly as possible. I was out just as quickly though and drying on the side.

Then, we were off again and 20 minutes later arrived at the end of the trail after passing a group of larger people heading back the other way. I wondered how they were going to manage the climbing. They were part of a guided group, so weren’t carrying much gear, but they didn’t look as fit as my group, and we struggled at times.

Five minutes after we’d signed out of the trail, we were walking past a house and the owner rushed out offering us cold soft drinks and beer. He told us he’d call a Collectivo – mini van – for us. It would take us to a larger town where another Collectivo would take us back to Huaraz.

As we were driven away in the van, we could see the gap from which we’d exited the hike and the surrounding landscapes.

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Conclusion

Because the trek was at such altitude, it goes down in my books as being the most difficult hike I’ve ever done. With day 2 being the most difficult day’s hike, even more difficult than day three of the Colca Canyon hike. Did my week in Lima at a low altitude cause me to lose the acclimatisation I’d previously gained in Bolivia and Northern Peru? Probably. I should have given it a couple of extra days in Huaraz before I did the hike. But these are the things you learn.

Next, I’m off north to the beach city of Mancora in far northern Peru before crossing the border into Ecuador. I’ll see what adventures await me there.

The Trail Wanderer.

Colca Canyon, Peru

Colca Canyon is the third most visited destination in Peru and is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. The canyon itself is just a massive yawning gorge in the middle of the vast tall mountain landscape of Peru. It’s an amazingly picturesque wonderland and a great place to spend a few days hiking.

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There are many tours into the canyon, most of them visit the same place, the tourist destination of Sangalle, also known as the Oasis. It has plentiful hotels and entertainment for those who wish to pay for a guide to lead them down the massive face of the canyon wall. And for those who can’t or don’t want to climb back out again, there are mules for hire. The Oasis…

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But a guided tour isn’t necessary. You can catch a bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde, the township at the top of the canyon, and from there just walk into the canyon at your own timing and direction.

There’s actually quite a lot you can do in the canyon; numerous little settlements dotted across the other side, several archaeological dig sites, a waterfall high up in the mountains and a set of hot pools right on the river. You could spend a week here exploring. Plus, you don’t need camping equipment, cooking equipment or food, as it’s all available in the settlements (including beer). So, grab a couple of hundred Soles and get down there!

Day 1 – Arequipa to San Juan de Chuccho
Being picked up at 3 a.m. followed by a 7 hour bus ride is a god awful way to start a trek. Trust me on this! Especially when you’ve only managed 3 hours sleep the night before.

The bus arrived at Cabanaconde at 10 a.m. and in the heat, everyone else headed off with their guides to do their tours while I tried to find the start point of my solo hike. With the quality of the maps in general being poor and with no topographic ones at all, this was one of only tow navigation challenges I had. I asked one of the locals and was pointed out along the road the bus had come in along. A few hundred metres outside of town, I waved down a policia on a bike and he pointed me further on. At least I was on the right track. I eventually reached the San Miguel Mirador and looked back at Cabanaconde…

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…and across at a couple of the settlements on the far side of the canyon. These two are, Malata and Cosñirwa. These are just two of about ten scattered along the canyon.

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From the mirador I continued along the edge of the cliff following the wide trail to a large shelter with no walls. I stopped for lunch out of the heat. While it’s the middle of winter it’s still hot, reminding me of summer in Victoria, Australia, or late winter in Central Australia. Like those areas it’s dry, dusty and the sun shines brightly off the light coloured dust, making it annoying to discover that my sunglasses are broken. Yay! And I haven’t even started yet! Cheap Brazilian rubbish!

The trail is about 2 metres wide here and stays near the top of the cliff for a while. This path was recently closed because of rock slides blocking the path and while it’s officially open again, I’m still cautious.

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The trail continues on, always heading slightly downwards and I can see where the trail has been repaired in several places. The direct sunlight is very draining, not that I had much energy to start with. I come across some workman having lunch in a shelter and they point me the right way when the trail forks. The other way no longer functions, I guess.

Soon I reach an area where the trail begins to zigzag down the mountain. I stop for a break and take off my boots to dry my feet – good practice on a hot hike. Looking down, I see the settlement of San Juan de Chuccho, my target for the day.

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The trail zigzags steeply the entire way down the canyon wall and is long, hot and arduous. As I descend I see the bridge across the Rio Colca still several hundreds metres below that I’m aiming for with San Juan de Chuccho 50 metres up the hill beyond it.

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Finally, after hours in the sun I reach the bridge and take another rest. I see an arrow and the word Roy’s pointing off along the trail, so I when I muster the energy I follow. It heads further along the canyon then begins climbing to eventually come to the small set of clay huts that is San Juan de Chuccho. Roy’s, it would appear, is the name of a hotel here, the first one. I find the owner’s son – perhaps 8 – who takes me to a room. His mother appears moments later and takes me to a better one with a double bed, bathroom, hot shower, and a bay window looking directly across the canyon to the trail I’d just climbed down…

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And high up on the trail, the tiny figures of the workers fixing the trail.

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The price of the room? 20 Soles or about US$7.50. Less than camping fees in many places in Australia. I bought a large bottle of beer, a large bottle of water for tomorrow and booked dinner, each for 10 Soles. That’s expensive for the beer and water, but they have to carry it in by pack mule, so I wasn’t complaining. It was a couple of hours to dinner, so I took a nap, then after dinner I collapsed into bed.

Day 2 – San Juan de Chuccho to Llahuar
After 12 hours of sleep I was made pancakes for breakfast! Hell yeah!

After breakfast I packed and was off. It was already hot when I left, heading up past another three hotels and onto the trail that would take me the length of the populated canyon face to the hot pools at the far end. The trail meandered its way along the side of the canyon for 30 minutes before rounding a corner and heading up a gully. Along the gully a water channel had been created sending water from the small stream directly back to San Juan de Chuccho. Further up the gully, the trail crossed a bridge and began zigzagging steeply up the bank. I climbed, stopping regularly in the heat. 30 minutes later I arrived at the top and into the village Cosñirwa (the first of the twin towns I showed 6 photos up).

From here a dirt road led through the village, but I don’t see a soul as I walked. On the other side of town, I follow the road up a little to the second town – Malata – a couple of hundred metres further on. I also don’t see anyone until a truck came rumbling up the road carrying passengers in the back. I guess this is the only form of bus in the canyon. I walked on and the trail forks, the road continues on, while an old trail leads up to it. I decide to follow the trail and about half way along, the footing becomes so precarious I couldn’t continue, but instead of heading back and taking the road like a normal person, I decide to climb up a rocky gully instead, about 30m with my 15kg+ pack. This was difficult and took time, but I got there with only a few scratches. I’m thankful for all that time I spent indoor rock climbing. Useful!

The road continued until I came to a small dugout in the rock wall where I was able to take shelter from the sun and again take my boots off. From my vantage point, I could see some of the ‘Oasis’ below and the steep zigzag trail leading down to it…

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And while I watched I could see several groups climbing down it, including this laden mule caravan…

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Heading off again, I continued along the road as it slowly climbed towards mirador Apacheta, the highest point I’d climb on this side of the canyon. This gave me a view further along the canyon, with my destination down near the river.

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After a break, I headed off again down a dusty path that I consider to be rather dangerous, not because of the long fall of the side of a cliff, there is that but because of the potentially painful fall into one of the three varieties of spiked cacti here. Ouch!

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As I headed carefully along the trail to a road and then along it, I passed two small communities, stopping at the second one for a refreshing bottle of Coca Cola. After a zigzagging climb down the next short bank, I crossed the river and headed briefly up the trail to my destination, Llahuar – pronounced ‘ya-oo-ar’ with a rolled r at the end. Two Ls together is a y sound, so Llama is pronounced Yama.

I stopped to rest and cool off with a cerveza – beer – before being shown to the aguas calientes – hot pools – belonging to the hostel, where I soaked right next to the river chatting to a solo french trekker who was doing the same. A perfect way to end a hot dusty day of trekking. Tomorrow I climb the zigzagging trail up the 1000m tall bank to the top of the canyon and back to Cabanaconde to end this little adventure. While it’s going to be difficult, being under the constant sun the entire way will make it worse.

Day 3 – Llahuar to Cabanaconde
After another 12 hour sleep, today began overcast and with pancakes for breakfast. I guess it’s difficult to bake or keep bread here… After packing, and donating some money to the French guy who hadn’t brought enough, I set off. The code of the hiker, always help other hikers in need. I climbed back up to the settlement I’d bought the coke from the day before and looked down the valley to the bridge that would mark the beginning of the hardest part of my hike.

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I followed the road down to the bridge and found a small natural geyser bubbling away next to the river.

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Then it was off up the trail and after climbing for 20 minutes I discovered I was going the wrong way, so had to head partially down again before finding another trail that lead me back up to the right trail. I didn’t need the extra work, but you get that. I began climbing and while it was generally overcast, and I was thankful to not be under the full sun, it was still warm. A way up the trail, I looked back down the valley to the tiny settlement of Llahuar and the pools at the edge of the river.

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A short time later, an aging local man casually comes climbing past me like he was walking up a slight hill. The trail was long and hard, and I stopped on many occasions for breaks. At point high on the canyon wall, the trail wound in along a deep gully, the first part that actually went slightly down before crossing a bridge at the top of the gully and again heading up the side of the mountain.

I finally reached the top of the canyon to discover the trail continued on along the top of the cliffs for another couple of kilometres, up and down several small hills before arriving in Cabanaconde. With the town finally in sight I quick marched to the centre plaza and found a hostel. It was a little crumby, but all I needed was a shower and a bed behind a locking door.

After my third 12 hour sleep in a row, I was on the bus and back to Arequipa, stopping briefly for a photo of the plains at the end of the canyon, before heading off again. On the way back, over the highest points – near 5000m above sea level – it snowed and I’m glad I wasn’t still in the canyon.

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Colca Canyon is a hikers’ wonderland, with so much to see. It’s not an easy walk, but for the fit there is plentiful places to visit and see, if you don’t mind climbing some pretty heavy trails with just a touch of altitude.

Next, I head north to the city of Ica, where I can gain access to the Paracas National Reserve, the Red Beaches and sand boarding.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Arequipa, Southern Peru – Impressions

Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru with 900,000 people next to Lima (with 9 million) and is the capital of the south. The centre of Arequipa gives a similar impression to that of the ancient Incan capital Cusco, a ten hour bus ride away. A beautifully set up cobbled main plaza with cathedral on one side…
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…and many tour agencies and restaurants trying to hawk for your business on the others.

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Peruvians seem fascinated by fountains and while there aren’t as many here as their was in Cusco, there are plenty. Along one side of the plaza is an open air mall with plentiful shops restaurants and the like.

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On the horizon outside the city is a tall range of mountains, and a solitary volcanic cone called Misti Mountain that’s said to spend most of the year surrounded in mist. Although I’ve been here a week and have yet to see it shrouded. It’s a two day climb up and down the 6000m cone.

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Between the city and the mountains is river where several groups host rafting, and while it’s only a short experience – 90 minutes max – the level 3 and 4 rapids are fun, although not as intense as my previous rafting experience in the Waikato, New Zealand.

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There are plentiful museums and monasteries in the city, one hosted an exhibition known as the Ice Girl. In the time of the Incans she was sacrificed to the angry mountain gods. At 11 years old she had to walk 170 miles from Cusco before climbing Misti Mountain to die and ascend to live among the gods. She went willingly and it was seen as an honour to be sacrificed. Many similar sacrifices were made along the mountains from northern Argentina to Peru. Her preserved body is on display in a special glass freezer case.

The most popular reason people come to Arequipa is for Peru’s third most popular tourist attraction, Colca Canyon. Colca Canyon is said to be the second deepest canyon in the world, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US. I managed a 3 day solo hike through the canyon and it was amazing. A post of its own is coming shortly.

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Next I’m off to the city of Ica, south of Lima to see the Red Beaches of Paracas and do some sand boarding.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

El Choro, Bolivia

The El Choro Trek is a three day trek that’s easily accessible from La Paz in Bolivia. I wanted to do different trek here in Bolivia, but without my own transport, many of the treks are difficult to get to. And while I tend to like hiking alone, the easiest means to do this trek is via a tour. This means I wouldn’t be carrying any food or a tent, as there will be a porter along with us to do that. This is the first time not having to carry all of my own equipment and it doesn’t feel quite right.

DAY 1 – La Paz to  Challapampa

The agency I booked through picked me up at 9.30 and I met the two other people I’d be hiking with, a french guy who spoke spanish well and some english, and an argentinian born girl who had been living in New Zealand most of her life. She spoke english and spanish perfectly. The guide with us only spoke spanish and his porter english and spanish. So, spanish became the spoken language of the trek and with my meagre understanding I decided hike alone for the most part.

The trek begins very near the start of the Death Road in a snowy mountainous area at a altitude of 4,800m. It was freezing that high up with an icy wind, so we couldn’t wait get started.

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The first 100 metres of the trek climbed to the highest point of the trail, 4,900 metres. This was the hardest 100m I’ve ever climbed in my life. With such thin air, I barely got 10 steps before having to stop and get my breath back, and I was only carrying half my usual weight! Eventually, we crossed over the ridge and the cold winds ceased. Ahead of us along the valley we could see the trail through the valley and a set of ancient Incan ruins at the base of the slope. The ruins were once a rest stop for travellers on the trail. Food and shelter was always offered for free.

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The trail weaved down the side of the mountain towards the ruins and it began to slowly get warmer, so we started shedding some of our warm weather clothes. At the ruins we stopped for a rest and watched as a Llama train came by. The Llamas and their master were returning from a delivery earlier in the day.

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We pushed on along the trail that from time to time was obscured by low cloud, through fields that housed other ancient ruined buildings and walls.

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Eventually, we came to a pair of newer buildings that were being used as farms raising Llama’s and drying several different kinds of small potatoes… We stopped for 30 minutes before pushing on.

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Much of the rest of the day was spent walking through the low cloud, so visibility was only several metres, meaning the focus went on the ‘road’ we were trekking along. We were told that it was originally built by the Tiwanaku, a race of people who would eventually become the Incans, and had been repaired by the Incans, so it was difficult to tell which was which. In the clouds, the stones get very slippery.

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Our day ended upon reached the very small settlement of Challapampa, where our guide and porter set up the tents and cooked our dinner. From the high point of 4900m, we had descended to 2400m. And while it rained during the night, it was a lot warmer.

DAY 2 – Challapampa to San Francisco
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Today we hit the Cloud Forest, a fairly untouched area of the valley which is usually covered in cloud. For only short periods of the day the clouds parted, but for most of the time, we could see the cliff edge, but beyond it only cloud.

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The trail meandered along the side of the valley for much of the day, climbing and descending small hills as we trekked along the thinner ‘Incan road.’

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The valley disappearing in cloud…

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…and opening up again.

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One wonderful part of the day was the plentiful different species of wild flowers that were growing along the sides of the trail. My super zoom camera getting great close up shots of most of them.

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We stopped for lunch at a small set of huts and rested for a while. Most importantly they served cerveza! Beer, in spanish.

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The rest of the trail was fairly straight forward, again with plentiful wild flowers. We eventually reached San Francisco, a tiny collection of huts, where the guide and porter erected our tents and cooked our dinner.

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DAY 3 – San Francisco to Chairo
We left San Francisco just after day break and headed away down the hill towards a river.
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As we slowly worked our way lower through the forest, we met a couple of wild donkeys who, after being initially fearful of us, just stood there and let us go past as if we weren’t there.

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We arrived at the river and crossed on a fairly new wooden suspension bridge. We were alerted to the carcass of a horse in the river under the bridge. We stopped on the other side and prepared ourselves for the climb to come, known as Subida del Diablo – the devil’s ascent.

The Subida del Diablo gets its name because it’s a very difficult climb up slippery Incan paving stones at a fairly steep incline that just keeps climbing.

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Once at the top, we stopped for a break at a place owned by an old Japanese man. Stories say he is a war criminal fled to South America after World War 2, but who knows. There is a camping spot at the back of his property next to the cliff line giving wondrous views along the valleys until the clouds again came rushing in.

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The trek continued for some time along the trail high up in the mountains. From time to time we could see the river below us, but clouds would race in to cover it quickly. Eventually, we started our decent until we could see the village of Chairo below us. It didn’t take us long to get down to the village where the guide ordered us lunch from the local cook house and we sat eating until our van arrived to take us to Choico, where death road finishes.

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We waited in Choico for an hour before catching a minibus back to La Paz. 3 hours later I was delivered to my hostel for a well deserved shower.

Overall, El Choro was a good hike where we spent much of our time climbing down. By the end, our calves were sore from the constant descending. While the low clouds meant that much of the view was hidden from us for parts of the hike, it was still good to get out into the wilderness and away from the city for a while.

Next, I head down to southern Bolivia to the Salar de Uyuni, one of the largest salt flats in the world.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Cerro Catedral, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina

After a week studying español in Bariloche it’s time to get back out on the trail. This weekend, myself and a companion from my hostel are planning to climb Cerro Catedral (yes it’s spelt correctly) to Refugio Frey, where we plan to stay the night and do some day walking around the lakes.

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Our original plan was to do a 3-day hike, walking on to the refugio after Frey, but the amount of ice on the higher trails meant the climb beyond Refugio Frey would be too dangerous.

We packed and caught the bus for the 20km trip to the township of Catedral, a town set up for the ski slopes above it. The weather was beautifully clear when we headed out and remained that way for the entire weekend. A rare weekend for this time of the year in Bariloche and perfect for the hike.

We headed out along a wide dirt road away from the huge car park for the ski fields. After a short walk, we left the road and walked up a short thin trail to the official beginning of the trail and a wooden hiker…

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The first part of the hike meandered south along the base of the rocky edifice of Catedral Norte, heading away from the chair lifts and the ski fields.

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Along some parts of the trail sat snow from an earlier snowfall, although much of it had melted leaving a thin layer of mud.

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The trail continued on its fairly flat way across the southern base of the mountains heading towards Lago Gutiérrez…

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The trail crossed many small arroyos flowing down from the mountain, many flowed beneath a layer of ice. This created some very beautiful natural icy sculptures.

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The trail rounded the base of the mountains, with a clear view of the lago as we headed west up the gully towards the refugio. The trail became icy as we walked and we had to watch our steps to ensure we didn’t slip off the path. There were sections of the trail that looked like normal dirt but you could occasionally put your foot right through it leaving a 10 cm deep hole. Ice forms in layers beneath the mud, pushing it up and making it fragile. Some places it was obvious, but other places you didn’t know it was there until your foot went through it. Beneath the ice was more dirt, so it wasn’t dangerous, just strange to walk through the icy mud. The ice itself hardens into layers of hexagonal rods about 3cm thick, and there always seemed to be three layers of the ice.

Walking through a cold forest gully, we avoided as much ice as possible. The climbing began across some muddy tracks until we came to a flattened areas where an emergency hut had been built under a massive boulder. The boulder slants down making the inside back wall of the hut. Inside there is a flat platform to sleep perhaps 3 people and a fireplace.

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With the light starting to fade, we pushed on along the gully, sighting the roofs of buildings at the top. As we walked, the top of the Cerro Catedral range could be seen off to our right with a light dashing of snow around its jagged peaks. We continued climbing up through some slippery mud until we came over the crest and crossed an icy arroyo to see the refugio ahead of us.

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Refugio Frey is expensive to stay in and provides little more than a mattress upstairs and no heating. We cook our food in a tucked away corner and settle in for the night with several other people including 3 young and rather noisy preteen boys.

It wasn’t too cold for most of the night, but as it headed towards day break it began to grow a little colder. I arose just before sunrise and headed outside with camera to catch the sun upon the mountains at the back of the valley beyond the frozen laguna. I watched the sun shine pink on the mountains opposite before lighting them up in a golden light.

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We decided to climb the wall of the valley to Laguna Schmoll. To get to the other end of the valley we decided to walk across the frozen lake. This was rather fun as it was fairly solid. The children at the refugio got out on their ice skates and stayed there for much of the day. At the far side of the laguna is the arroyo that feeds it, we walked across the ice but this wasn’t as solid and I broke through on two separate occasions. Thankfully, my trusty boots are waterproof, so it wasn’t too much of a worry.

The climb up the rocky wall of the valley was fairly easy, although there was snow in several places and some ice. This part could have been climbed with packs, but it was the next part that we weren’t supposed to do without crampons.

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Another pair of hikers had also climbed to the laguna, but they couldn’t speak english and I’m not totally confident with my spanish yet, so I left my companion to chat with them while I investigated this new valley.

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After stopping for lunch, my companion and the two other climbers decided to climb the icy wall without crampons (or packs). I scouted it a little and decided against it and let them go. On the other side of the lower valley is a ridge that leads to another set of peaks. This is sun drenched and has no snow or ice on it, so I decided to climb this instead.

I made my way back down the rocky wall and around the side of the laguna towards the short ridge, with the refugio across the lake.

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Then in the warmth of the sun, I made my way up the side of the ridge. It was an easy climb and standing atop it could see down both valleys. This is the mountain Pico Bara at the end of the ridge…

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The climb up Pico Bara was fairly easy and there were several different ways to climb it. It was a lot of fun, crossing from the back side with some snow, to the sunny side and back again. The views from the top were pretty impressive, both looking back along the valley…

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…and down upon the refugio a couple of hundred metres below.

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After a brief stop in the chilly wind, I headed down again. It didn’t take me very long to reach the bottom, where I met up with my companion and donning our packs we headed off back down the mountain.

The trip down was a lot quicker than the climb, as you can imagine. It had taken us about 4 hours under pack to climb to Refugio Frey and 2 hours and 30 minutes down again. We were really pushing it, but still missed the earlier bus by 15 minutes. We waited another hour over a couple of beers and caught the next bus back to Bariloche for a well deserved shower.

The Trail Wanderer

Bariloche, Argentina – Impressions

Nestled in the foothills of the Andes and alongside Lago Nahuel Huapi is San Carlos de Bariloche.  While there were no direct buses from Pucón in Chile, I took a bus for 4 hours across the Andes and south to the city of San Martin de los Andes.   There I waited for several hours before catching another 4-hour bus south to Bariloche.

Somehow I’d messed up my booking at the hostel and there was no room for me when I arrived.  But they were kindly able to arrange a room in an empty hostel nearby for the night.  I returned the following night when my booking was actually due to start.

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While Bariloche is set up for hiking, mountaineering and skiing, there’s more to the city than just the standard Patagonian wonders.  With a heavy Swiss influence, Bariloche has become famous for its chocolate with more than a dozen boutique chocolate vendors in the city.

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The mountains near Bariloche have plentiful hikes, but as it was nearing winter many of the longer trails were closed. I chose a couple of shorter hikes to work in with a two-week spanish course I’d booked, to revise what I’d learned and to help with my confidence.

Booking the course was easy, the hostel manager rang for me and that afternoon I went down to meet to the director of the spanish school, took a placement test and sat in on a spanish cooking lesson.  Beyond the lessons there were additional means to practice the language such as the cooking class, a city tour and going out for drinks.

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My hostel was 41 Below and was owned by a kiwi guy, although he’d retired from running it. There I met a lively bunch of people and enjoyed several dinners and nights out with them – just not so much on school nights!

Because of the Swiss influence in the area, the city’s architecture has a European feel, especially the cathedral – which was actually built in 1946 to resemble the buildings of Europe a thousand years earlier.

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The state buildings around the city centre also have a European feel…

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Worked around my spanish course:

  • I had great steak and red wine meals at Alto el Fuego restaurant
  • I climbed Cerro López to Refugio López on a day walk.
  • I hiked up Cerro Catedral for an overnight stay at Refugio Frey
  • I tried chocolate from each of the different vendors
  • I caught a bus south for 100km to the hippy town of El Bolsón

Other things to do near Bariloche:

  • Sail on Lago Gutierrez in summer
  • Ski Cerro Catedral in winter
  • Hire bikes and ride the 60km Circuito Chico
  • Explore Llao Llao peninsula

After returning from my foray in El Bolsón, I headed north out of Patagonia to the wine region and the city of Mendoza.

The Trail Wanderer

Puerto Natales, Chile – Impressions

Three hours by bus north of Punta Arenas is the port city of Puerto Natales. Puerto Natales was originally a beef producing fishing port, but over the years has embraced tourism based on its proximity to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, the most popular and most expensive national park in Chile.

Because of the number of people coming to walk the ‘W’ trek – the most popular hike in the national park – the city has expanded rapidly. While it still has a small town feel, the plentiful hostels, tour operators, adventure stores and restaurants makes it feel bigger.

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There are multiple main streets crisscrossing the city, a restaurant square, a tourist triangle and a brand new supermarket. Along most of the north and eastern horizons are the fantastic mountains of the Andes, including Torres del Paine Massif, while along the north and west of the city is the harbour.

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Puerto Natales is all about Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Every hostel and many convenience stores – not to mention the adventure stores – hire out equipment, arrange tours and organise bus trips to the national park. And every day at 3PM at a bar called Base Camp there is an hour-long free lecture about the hike.

The hostel where I stayed, Backpackers Kaweskar, was set up specially for the hike and can provide everything you could need, even discounted transport fees. While its owner, Omar, is crazy (in a good way), is very knowledgable about the hike and definitely loves his football. While I was there he spent two solid days playing FIFA 2012 on the X-box with one of his friends. It was the low season and he did pause when needed by someone, but it made the place feel down to earth. Definitely a recommended place to stay.

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Puerto Natales is also the southern port of the Navimag ferry. The ferry wends its way through the Patagonian fiords for five days to Puerto Montt in the lakes district at the northern end of Patagonia.

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Puerto Natales is in a class of its own and should be on everyone’s visit list if they wish to hike anywhere in Patagonia.

From Puerto Natales:

The Lone Trail Wanderer

El Chaltén, Argentina – Impressions

El Chaltén is a small town at the northern end of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in Argentina. It’s a town bred purely from the tourism generated by the National Park and Mt Fitz Roy.

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El Chaltén was quaint and had plenty of hostels, although many were aimed more towards the hotel end of the market than to backpackers. There were plentiful tour operators and adventure stores selling the big named adventure gear for both hiking, ice climbing and glacier expeditions. There was also a small cafe/bakery scene in the town which was great, as the hostels don’t provide breakfast.

I stayed at the Hostal Pioneros del Valle. This large and fairly cheap hostel had plenty of rooms, most set up with 6 beds. But as it was low season when I stayed I had the room to myself. Splendid!

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High season is December to the end of March and outside of these times more than half of El Chaltén’s businesses close down. The several restaurants in town are reasonably priced restaurants, including the local micro-brewery, which is good considering the town doesn’t have good facilities for buying your own food. While there are supermarcados, they aren’t very ‘super’.

The National Park had great day walks and several longer hikes – some very intense indeed. Being short on time, I only did a 3-day hikes. It doesn’t have an official name but I called it the Mt Fitz Roy Triangle. The other great advantage of the Parque Nacional is it’s cost. It’s free. Something different in a land of expensive national park entrance fees.

Here are some of the other walks:

  • Cascada Margarita
  • De las Vuetas River Canyon
  • Piedras Blancas Glacier
  • Punta Norte – Hito Limítrofe

Next, I head back through El Calafate to Puerto Natales in Chile to catch the Navimag Ferry

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Gold Coast Hinterland Great! Walk

The Gold Coast Hinterland Great! Walk is a 54km, 3-day hike across both the Lamington and Springbrook National Parks with a 5km road walk in between.

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Day 1 – 21.4km: Green Mountain O’Reilly’s retreat to Binna Burra

The day began in Brisbane at 5.30am.  After much driving I dropped my car off at the Settlement Campground, the endpoint of my hike.  I was delivered to the beginning by my good friend and her lovely but exceedingly strange adult daughter – at least the long drive wasn’t boring!

I headed out from the Green Mountains O’Reilly’s Retreat at 10:30.  I’d estimated the walk at about 6 hours plus breaks with an ETA to Binna Burra at 5pm.  I started later than I intended, but that’s the price you pay for a ‘car shuffle’ on a linear hike (where the start and end are not the same place).

Thirty minutes into the walk and I came across my first snake – a young red bellied black – which slithered quickly away.  It was the last I was to see for the day and only one of two this adventure.  The track overall was fairly easy-going with no steep climbs or descents and the initial 300m climb was not terribly apparent as it was a slow climb over several kilometres.  The hardest part of the day was that much of the track was a muddy mess, meaning traction wasn’t good.

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The waterfalls of Conondale National Park are not repeated here, with only small creeks and run-throughs.  The lookouts over the border of New South Wales were pretty fantastic though with Mt Warning standing out among the hills.  The track continued and after a while, more lookouts, this time out towards sea and the Gold Coast skyline.  Unfortunately, not so clear in the photos.

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As it was the Saturday of a long weekend, the track was very busy.  I saw at least 40 other walkers on trail doing one of the numerous side tracks or day walks.  Then, as I headed downhill towards Binna Burra, my first campground, I saw wallabies!  It was a wonderful surprise but unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough with my camera.

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Binna Burra isn’t a walkers camp, but it’s the only legal camping location in the area.  Just make sure you book a spot in advance.  It’s a full camping park with washing machines, hot showers, fantastic pizza on Saturday night and happy hour!  It’s not really wilderness but a couple of quiet beers after a hard day’s walk never hurt anyone!

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Day 2 – 24km: Binna Burra to Woonoongoora Walker’s Camp

I left Binna Burra along the Lower Bellbird circuit trail and headed quickly back into the forest along a gentle downhill.

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I passed a couple of lookouts which gave great views of Egg Mountain protruding out from the forest in the distance.  As I walked I passed several small waterfalls and a series of awesome cliffs.  At some points along the trail things became a little precarious as I literally had to hang on to a tree to get around one corner.  But that’s what I was there for… adventure!

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To get to Egg Mountain, I had a massive downhill slog.  Steep downhills are the worst as they put a lot of pressure on the knees, ankles and feet.  Weaving down the trail can make things easier, although dry dirt trails can make things slow going, as care must be taken with placing feet to avoid sliding.  I passed Egg Mountain and followed the fence line of Numbimbah correctional centre for a couple of kilometres before arriving at Nerang-Murwillumbuh Rd where I stopped for lunch at the river.

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The trail followed the road for about 5km before coming to the Numinbah café where I stopped for an ice-block and coke.  After walking 18km with a 22kg pack, the last 5km in the open sun, who could resist?  As there is no water at the next camp, I took supplies here for both my cooking requirements and for tomorrow’s walk.

After the cafe, the trail cut back into the forest up a steep hill towards the walker’s camp.  The climb was tough, made tougher as it was at the end of a long hot day and because I was carrying extra water.  I finally arrived at the walker’s camp, a field set out for camping with only a camp toilet and nothing more.  The grass was knee height, which made pitching my tent a little more difficult, but it did make for a softer sleeping spot.  After setting up camp, I settled in for a cool evening.

Day 3 – 9km – Woonoongoora Walker’s Camp to Settlers Camping Ground

Nine kilometres doesn’t sound far, but this part of the walk has multiple steep climbs and descents.  The first climb apparently has 900 steps, about 82 floors of a building, or so the sign said.  I only counted 829, but after climbing with a heavy pack I’m surprised I could still count by the end, so I could be wrong.

A quick stop at a park for a snack after the climb and I was off again into the forest.  The trail follows the Nerang River for a fair distance, crossing it on several occasions and has many small waterfalls.  I knew I was getting close to the end of my walk when I started to see people on the trail again.  Lots of people.  But then it was the Monday of a long weekend.  I must have passed 100 people as I headed towards Purlingbrook Falls.  The falls are spectacular from both the pool at the bottom…

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…to the top, and is the major reason so many people were visiting, although the climb was long even though it only had only 290 stairs and was all concreted.

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Settlers Camp Ground was not far from the top of the falls. I arrived at midday and drive the 100km home.  Overall a Great! Walk indeed!

The Lone Trail Wanderer