Tag Archives: Road Trip

Cuenca, Ecuador – Adventures

Cuenca is a city of half a million people nestled in the southern Ecuadorian Andes. The city is only four hours south of Riobamba by local bus (US$2.50) and the main attraction of the area being Ingapirca, the largest Incan ruins in Ecuador. This was the major reason I decided to travel here, but hoped there’d be more on offer.

Cuenca City
It seemed to be raining everywhere in Ecuador when we arrived in Cuenca. But then Ecuador isn’t large, only marginally larger than New Zealand. On the bus, my friend and I ran into a woman we’d met in the hostel in Quito a week earlier. So, as the light began to fade and the rain continued lightly, the three of us wandered the streets and discovered plentiful examples of excellent architecture. Like many places in South America, the architecture is great, but they aren’t well looked after. The Basilica…

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The next morning the rain had eased and we wandered around some more. The central plaza has a statue, and yes, a fountain too, hidden away in one corner.

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We also found two small Incan ruins that had been surrounded by the city. This one is just a small lot, while the other is more spread out and is part of the local botanical gardens, although only the foundations of the ruins are still visible.

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The next day we booked a tour of Ingapirca, but as part of the tour we had to book a train ride down the Devil’s Nose.

The Devil’s Nose – Nariz del Diablo
After a three hour van ride north, we arrived at the town of Alausi where we boarded the train that would take us down the Devil’s Nose – a hill that looks sort of like a nose.

When building a railway through the country, the Ecuadorian government had to find a way to connect a station at the top of Devil’s Nose with one 800m below. Unable to go around, they decided to build a switchback system where the train goes back and forth down hill.

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Thirteen thousand locals took part in the creation of the switchback, of which 2,500 were killed during the process through dynamite explosions, apparently.

At the bottom station there’s a small museum, some traditional dancing and a cafe.

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Ingapirca

After the train ride back and another 2-hour van ride, we arrived at the largest ruins in Ecuador, Ingapirca – a thousand year old pre-Incan fortress. Like most of the Incan cities, the spanish destroyed it, using the bricks as foundations for some of the buildings in the surrounding cities, including Cuenca. The only building left standing was the sun temple, set to catch the sun four times a year on the solstices and equinoxes.

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It was raining, so we didn’t spend a lot of time in the ruins, but the guide was very knowledgable. This stone below was used as a calendar. There are 28 holes cut into the rock, one for each day of the thirteen lunar months of the Incan year. It’s said that they could tell the date by which of the holes the moon was shining in.

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The sun temple has two sides, so it can catch the morning light and the evening light.

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Then it was back in the van for a 90 minute ride back to Cuenca.

Overall
Cuenca and the surrounds is a nice area of the Ecuadorian Andes and worth a visit if you are travelling through from Peru or as a nine hour bus ride from Quito.

Next, I head back to Quito for a couple of days to plan my way north into Columbia.

The World Wanderer

Campo Grande and The Pantanal, Brazil

The Pantanal is one of the world’s largest wetlands. It’s situated in Western Brazil with a very small portion stretching over the border into both Bolivia and Paraguay. I decided to visit The Pantanal for a couple of reasons, firstly it’s known for its animal species and secondly, it was a stop off on the way to Bolivia. The bus ride from Rio de Janeiro to Campo Grande is just under 22 hours. To continue on to Santa Cruz in Boliviawould mean at least another 16 hours. 38 hours on a bus isn’t my idea of fun.

Campo Grande is a city of nearly 800,000 people, but it looks fresh and not run down like Rio. I stayed in the creatively named Hostel Campo Grande, although in all fairness there aren’t many hostels in the city. The hostel looked to be a rather large and nicely set up place, with many rooms and a swimming pool – it gets fairly warm out here in the middle of South America. I did have one major issue with the hostel, though, when I went to cook in the kitchen, I found a single pot, no pans, and nothing else but an old wooden spoon. Thankfully breakfast was absolutely amazing, with fresh rolls, many types of fresh fruit and good coffee.

The thing about Campo Grande is its access to The Pantanel. I was planning a 3 night stay in the hostel, then to make my way into The Pantanal on a tour and hope to get dropped off at the Bolivian border afterwards. At breakfast on the day after I’d arrived the owner told me of a group of English university students who were coming from Foz do Iguaçu and were planning an overnight stay in the Pantanal before being delivered to the border of Bolivia. If I went with them my night’s stay in the hostel would be free. With 90 minutes before they arrived, I raced around packing, buying strong insect repellant and cooking the last of my food.

When the English group arrived we were packed in a van with a bunch of others and driven several hours into the country with a single stop off at a Brazilian per kg buffet restaurant. We were dropped at a road crossing where we boarded an off road truck and driven along a bumpy dirt road. As we drove we could start to see the wetlands beginning around us…

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We continued on, driving over wooden bridges that creaked under our weight, until we came to this large metal bridge across the river with riverboats anchored along its side…

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A little while later the truck had a flat tire and we hung out watching chickens and dogs until it was fixed. About a kilometre later we sighted the first set of Caimans – members of the Alligator family. There are apparently more than 40 million of them in the Pantanal.

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As we travelled along the road the sun went down and the 15 of us on the back of the truck reapplied insect repellant and hunkered down as it went from hot to cool in the space of 30 minutes. In the dark we eventually arrived at a river where we could see houses lit up on the other side. We waited as several boats were sent to collect us and our luggage.

Once we arrived and were assigned rooms, we were taken to the food hall where dinner was waiting: several different salads and Piranha stew. It’s quite strange seeing the mean looking heads looking back at you from the stew… It tasted pretty good though, although it does have quite long bones.

After dinner, we were taken out on a boat in the darkness to see some of the wildlife. We saw several types of birds sleeping in the trees, many bats flying around the river and on the way back, many brief sightings of shiny Caiman eyes.

After a night’s sleep in the heat, I woke to the these views outside my room.

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Then back to the main building for breakfast…

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After breakfast we were taken back out on the water…

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To look at some of the wildlife again… I put some of the features of the camera I’d bought in Pucón, Chile to good use – the 21x zoom and close up mode. This Caiman’s head is only as long as my hand.

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We then settled in for a spot of Piranha fishing and between the six of us managed to catch four. Not as awesome as I’d hoped but some is better than none.

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We then headed back for lunch and as we’d just come ashore, we were alerted to a Yellow Anaconda that had been spotted near the shore. We were gathered around to look at it when one of the locals walked up in his bare feet and in one swift movement grabbed the snake just behind the head and dragged it onto the land. The Anaconda wasn’t happy and tried to slither back to the river but the local held it by the tail pulling it back so we could get photos.

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After a while it was released and slithered back to the water where it just sat there showing off. This snake is only 4 metres long and is as thick as my arm at its thickest. The largest Yellow Anaconda to ever be measured was just over 5 metres and just under 100kg.

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After lunch, they deep fried our mornings catch. Very tasty. The English group and I were then driven on the back of a truck further along the rocky dirt road towards the Bolivian border. Along the way we spotted a Capybara, the worlds largest rodent. For perspective this one is almost a metre in length. I’d say nose to tail but they have no tail.

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Towards the end of the journey, we drove up into the hills and I could see back towards the Pantanal.

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Overall, while my Pantanal experience was rather short, there isn’t really that much out there in the world’s largest swamp. It turned out to be rather cheap, including 2 nights accommodation, saving the cost of another bus from Campo Grande to the border and several meals. However, for every extra night the price would have skyrocketed. I was yet another adventure in my travels.

Next I’m off into the lower plains of Bolivia, to the city of Santa Cruz.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Mendoza, Argentina – Adventures

My bus trip from Bariloche took 19 hours. For such a long trip there are two different seat types on the bus: semi-cama, similar to airplane seats, and cama, which means ‘bed’ in spanish. For the overnight trip I went for the more comfortable cama seats, although while better than the semi-cama was nothing like a bed.  Comfortable as it was, I only got half a night’s sleep I arrived in the desert city famous for its wine.

Mendoza is a city of 850,000 people and my hostel, Hostel Lao, was a few blocks from the bustling city centre. After spending so much time in Patagonia, with its small towns and cities, to come to a big city bustling with people was a shock to the system. But once I got used to it, the jewel that was Mendoza began to sparkle.

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Still exhausted from my bus trip, I went out clubbing with a group from the hostel until 6am. The night life of Mendoza on a Friday night was certainly good, although beyond the smelly fact that smoking is allowed in their clubs, there were few issues for our little group of ‘gringos’ and an awesome night was had.

After spending Saturday quietly recovering, on the Sunday a small group of us headed out to Auga Termas. 45 minutes from the centre of town, the thermal hot pools were set in a beautiful location, hidden in a gorge between rocky ridges…

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There were many different pools of varying temperatures. Inside, there was a mud pool where you cover yourself, let yourself dry before washing it off in the blast showers. Included in our visit was a huge buffet lunch, Argentinian style. We ate and ate then enjoyed a couple of bottles of fine Mendoza wine outside in the sun, before heading back to the pools. Before we left, three of us had full body massages. A fantastic day.

A couple of days later I moved to Hostel Mora, a cheaper hostel just around the corner. While Hostel Lao was supposed to be the best hostel in Mendoza if not the continent, in my opinion, Hostel Mora did it better. Pretty much all hostels in Mendoza offer a free glass of wine each night, while Hostel Lao offered it five nights a week, on arrival Hostel Mora opened this 4.75 litre bottle of Malbec…

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The weather in Mendoza was brilliantly sunny. It is the desert after all and after 3 months in the colder south, it was nice to feel warm again.

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On the western side of the city is the massive Parque General San Martin and on the far side, another 45 minutes walk, is Cerro de la Gloria.  After a rough ten minute climb I made it to the top for good if not a little hazy views across the city. All trees in Mendoza are hand planted and watered using an irrigation system based on the snow melts of the Andes.

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You can’t come to Mendoza without going on a wine tour. Some choose to be driven around but for the keen, bikes can be hired for next to nothing and a self-guided tour done.

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I’ve been particularly enjoying the Malbec, a type of red wine that is very popular in Argentina. Riding bikes around the roads of the wineries after many glasses sounds dangerous, but it was actually rather refreshing. So too was sitting at the bodegas drinking wine and enjoying the view…

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After eight days in Mendoza it was hard to say goodbye. I had such a fun time, drank an awful lot of wine and met some great people from all over the world.

Things to do in Mendoza:

  • Walk through Parque General San Martin
  • Climb the towering Aconcagua, highest mountain in The Americas
  • Cycle a wine tour around Maipu wine region
  • Cycle a wine tour around Luján de Cujo region
  • Visit one of the other 12 wine regions
  • Explore Witches Cave
  • Have a steak dinner in the city

Next I bused to Córdoba, the city at the centre of Argentina.

The Wine Cycling Trail Wanderer.

Naracoorte – South Australia

On the road from Kangaroo Island to the Grampians, I stopped at Naracoorte, a town famous for its world heritage listed fossil caves. Naracoorte has a system of 26 caves of various sizes and is one of the major – but not the only – caving systems in South Australia.

The day before I arrived, I had pre booked an adventure caving session. Luckily a couple had also booked, as there is a minimum number.

After a brief bit of training, we decided on a cave called the Blackberry Cave, because to has a lot of crawling around and tight spaces.

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The three of us and our guide climbed into rooms of amazing rock formations. While it’s a short cave and not for the claustrophobic, there’s enough room to crawl around although even with the knee pads, I still sustained some bruising.

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We got to the bottom of the Blackberry cave after a 45 minutes where we were told of a short tunnel that circled back into the chamber. It was tight and I went down first. I slid in head first as per instructions and prepared myself for the next part. I pushed through a tight gap, but my thighs caught and I couldn’t get through. Not prone to panic, I pulled back a little and tried from a slightly different angle. I was eventually able to shuffle through and up out the other gap.

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Caving can be sweaty work even though there is a sustained 17 degree temperature down there. We scrambled back to the surface. A lot of fun. I’m looking forward to my next one.

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The three of us were able to wander unassisted around a larger cave system known as the Wet Cave.

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There will be the first of several instances of spelunking I’ll be doing on this trip, with plans to do some in every state.

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The Cave Wanderer

Road Trip! – Brisbane to Adelaide

As the first part of my three month adventure around the lower states of Australia, I drove across country to Adelaide, South Australia. To get there, I traveled 2,058km and set foot in four different States, all over the course of 3 days.

For the trip, I bought what I call a sleeper van. Henceforth known as the Pointy Brick.

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It’s a ’96 Mitsubishi Express kitted out with a bed in the back and storage under the bed for all my needs. I bought the van from a backpacking couple that had just driven from Darwin to Brisbane without issue. I picked it up 2 months early so I could get the feel of it, and get it prepared for the trip. Over the course of these prep months, I took it to various national parks around South East Queensland. I put it through its paces and it survived. 2,058km is a long way in an old van, so I had it serviced before I left, just to be sure. The one thing I’m aware of in the Pointy Brick is its small gas tank, meaning I’d have to manage my fuel and fill up often.

Day 1 – Brisbane to Coonabarabran

I headed out of Brisbane on the morning of November 10, 2012 in the pouring rain.

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Yeah, goodbye Brisbane, I know it’s sad that I’m leaving, but you don’t have to cry about it… I headed out onto the Ipwich Motorway, pointed myself west and drove. The motorway was pretty quiet as I headed along a familiar stretch of road heading for the Main Range mountains. The rain slowed as I passed through Cunningham’s Gap and headed on to Warwick. The spires of the Main Range were some of the few mountains I was to pass on this journey and I took a last few pictures as I drove through.

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I passed Warwick shortly after and continued west along a road I had not travelled before. While the weather kept up its farewell the Pointy Brick had no trouble dealing with the wet weather and didn’t leak. With music blaring, I continued on the Cunningham highway to Goondiwindi on the New South Wales border. By this time the rain had stopped, but the clouds still remained. The entrance to the border town had a yellow blossoms strewn across the road. I filled up and headed back out and across the border.

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In NSW, I followed the Newell Highway south and straight away noticed the change in road conditions. For the most part, the roads are good in NSW, wider and better maintained. The speed limit on the highway is also 110km – which is something I had only seen on 2 Queensland Motorways. 110km/h is a big number for the Pointy Brick. I’ve had it just over 120km/h, but since I didn’t buy it for speed and power, I was not worried. On either side of the road are large fields of wheat for as far as the eye can see. There is the occasional tree, but otherwise wheat all yellow and wavy. This is pretty much how it was for more that 200km as I drove through Moree to Narrabri. Near Narrabri are some mountains – Yay! – but only a couple. And if I was ever back this way I wouldn’t mind climbing Mt Kaputar.

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This is Australia and of course you see a lot of kangaroos. They are everywhere and I think I must have seen more than a hundred of them. It’s not as cool as it sounds, though as I only saw two that were actually alive. That’s right. The rest were roadkill. Some were months old, others only days. All of it sad.

After Narrabri theres a large forest and nature reserve, which was a change of scenery.

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I eventually arrived in Coonabarabran at 7pm, which is after dark in Queensland, but not so in NSW because of day light savings. I cooked dinner and settled in with a glass of wine and watched something on my laptop.

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Day 2 – Coonabarabran to Hay

One thing to know about small towns, the coffee is generally crap! Some coffee is better than no coffee though, so I put up with it. I headed off along the Oxley Highway towards Gilgandra and then back onto the Newel Hwy to Dubbo.

Today the weather had cleared and became warmer, plus the wind picked up. The thing about driving in a vehicle shaped like a brick is it gets blown around by the wind. And when you are screaming along at 110km/h and a road train goes past the other way, you have to hang onto the wheel to keep it steady. Don’t forget the constant fields of wheat.

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Dubbo is a pleasant large town in Mid-NSW although its coffee is crap too. Not long out of Dubbo I came across a sign that told me I was entering Bland Shire. It wasn’t kidding, between Dubbo and West Wyalong there’s not much to see: wheat fields and road trains. I travelled through Peak Hill, Parkes, Forbes and kept myself busy on the way to West Wyalong listening to an audiobook by Robert Rankin.

Beyond West Wyalong, the next sign announced I was entering The Outback, NSW. From there the landscape changed dramatically. It became wild and desolate. Hardy plants grew, but not much else in this wasteland.

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With it, the heat increased and as I shot across country in the Pointy Brick the air rushing past my window was hot. I continued nervously, watching my temperature gauge and it did increase, but not too much.

I arrived in Hay, mid afternoon and quickly located the Caravan Park, cooked myself a pork yellow curry before setting myself up for the night.

Day 3 – Hay to Adelaide

I set out early the following morning in hope of avoiding the heat, but the heat got up before I did. I headed across the barren Hay Plains along the Stuart Highway. The heat was high and the wind hot as I charged across the land. The temperature gauge sat warmer than usual, but still below half – I’d checked the water levels before leaving and all was good.

Past Balranald, the massive wheat fields appeared again. To the north beyond the horizon was Mungo National Park with its twin peaks, shame I would have liked to have seen it. Oh how I longed to see mountains. I filled up at Euston and continued along the Victorian border to the beautiful city of Mildura after crossing the Murray River.

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Coming in to Mildura there is plenty of colour in the trees and the surrounds, no doubt because of the river.

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I stopped for lunch in Mildura and found an amazing pastry shop. Then I was off again, across the Victorian countryside. The land to the south of the Murray river was still warm and had large crops of Lavender but was otherwise more of the same. The temperature gauge held steady and after an hour, I reached the South Australian border and was stopped at Quarantine where they looked through my food – of which I had little – but still confiscated my small bag of potatoes. You can’t bring fruity items into SA. I didn’t think my spuds would count, but they did.

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When you enter Renwick, just over the border, you know you’ve arrived in wine country. With the Murray River going through it, there are massive vineyards everywhere. The road wends its way through the lush green land. It becomes cooler too, with a cool wind refreshingly going past.

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The last couple of hundred km into Adelaide passed quickly in an obviously more fertile area. I was pleased when the hills of Adelaide appeared on the horizon, something not flat! There was a couple of interesting trees that I wish I’d had my camera ready for. The Shoe Tree with about 30 pairs of shoes hanging from it. Then about a kilometre further on was the Bra Tree. There must have been more than a dozen bras of different colours handing from the branches…

In Adelaide, Apple Maps sent me on a tiki tour of the central city – stupid Apple maps, bring back Google maps! – and I eventually arrived at my friends’ house. Overall, the Pointy Brick and I arrived safely with no issues. A good beginning to the adventure.

Next, after a couple of days in Adelaide, I’m walking the Yurebilla Trail, three days in the Adelaide Hills.

The Lone Road Tripper