San Pedro de atacama has changed a lot in the 20 years since I was last here. In essence it is still a tiny village of 2500 people, but it is also the most visited tourist town in chile. Every door front is a tourist agency, a restaurant or a souvenir shop. It’s nice, but it was nicer before. We are here to acclimatise at 2600m before heading over to Bolivia to the altiplano which is at 4500-5000, and I have learnt the hard way to make sure that I acclimatise first. And San Pedro is a lovely place to spend a few days.
We spent the first afternoon wandering around adjusting to the altitude and finding the best empanada in the town. We also tried to ignore all the tourists – but it was hard. It’s been a long time since I have travelled with this many tourists (one of the upsides of travelling in Africa is you don’t have to see tourists with too short shorts and bad tattoos).
Avoiding christmas like the grinches we are…
It was Christmas Eve, and the hotel were somewhat surprised we didn’t want the eight course celebration menu. I love how we celebrate Christmas – we basically ignore it – no gifts, no stress cooking for lots of people, but we use the money to go and have amazing holidays :-). We had eyed up a burger place for dinner but sadly it was closed. We tried a bunch of other places, all were full or closed, and ended up at the Adobe which was overpriced but fine. Hubby* had a healthy poor mans steak (steak, fries for four, and two fried eggs) and I had steak pilpil (with garlic and chilli). After that we hit up Heladaria Babalu for good local ice cream (although we had been ruined by Valparaíso where the portions were twice the size for the same price). We had quinoa and chanar ice cream – not bad, and hit the bed! Altitude makes me sleepy.
Mountain biking in the devils throat
After huge breakfast with some bizarre raw croissants, but excellent bacon and bread, we summoned our courage and borrowed some bikes from the hotel and headed up to Catapre. It was a nice cool bike ride along some rough tracks, and when you get there, its an excellent mountain biking track through a long gorge (the devils throat). Anyone who knows me, knows that I am as uncoordinated as can be (‘unco’ as we say in NZ), so I have never been great on a mountain bike. Blissfully I didn’t take any major spills though did get some impressive skids in. At the end of the throat, there was a stunning hike up to a great look out point. At 2600m, it gets hard to breathe!
We cruised back down the throat and then popped up along to river to see the lovely chapel of San Isidro. It’s definitely different travelling with hubby as he takes time to take beautiful photos….. I lost him for ten minutes as he was taking photos of the reflections in the puddles :-), and he also takes photos with me in them, which is kinda odd
Checking out the Quitor de Pukara
After Catapre we went to see the quitor de Pukara – and old Inca site. It was a nice well graded 20 minute hike to the top, and for entertainment, I ran down the 1.6k in 10 minutes. Even running downhill at this altitude had me out of breath. We came back to town in search of an empanada, but sadly Emporio Andini was closed so we had to make do with Super empanadas (twice the price and half as good).
Tour to the moon valley
A quick trip back to the hotel and then we were back with the tourists to take a tour to the Valle de la Luna.
The tour was my idea of hell! Too many people and too slow, and it was when I wished we had rented a car. The guide was terrible, and spent ages explaining completely irrelevant facts in truly terrible English. Honestly! I got told off at one point for not staying with the group – group tours are not for me. Fingers crossed we have a different guide tomorrow!!!! Having a scramble through the caverns was quite interesting
We did have a lovely time at the top of the big dune in the park watching the light as the sun went down.
We got back to the hotel late so had a sandwich and ice cream for dinner and hit the hay as we had a 6am pick up booked.
Off to the altiplano lakes at 4200m
Early the next morning we were in a van with more or less the same folks, but thankfully a much better guide to head 100km south to the lakes Miñiques and Miscanti at 4200m. The light was lovely and the lakes were stunning. We were the first tourists there (though hordes more arrived later). Felipe whipped us up an outstanding breakfast of eggs, avocado, ham and local toasted breads. We strolled around a bit, but the local people are doing an excellent job keeping tourists out of the ecosystem. You have to stay on the paths, and while it is mildly annoying for a second, I am actually very happy with how well they are protecting the landscape (though locals had told me Conaf was more worried about the mining companies than the environment, as 40% of the worlds lithium comes from the region).
Flamingos on the salt flats
From there we went to socaire to see the ancient irrigation system and a church, stopped by at the Tropic of Capricorn sign for some obligatory Instagram photos, and then headed to Laguna chaxo to see the flamingos and the salt flats. I love flamingos!!!!
Icecream, empanadas and burgers…
We then headed back to San Pedro via Toconao (for quinoa ice cream). It was a lovely easy day in the back of the van, and tours here are pretty cheap – we paid 40 usd each including a great breakfast. We had a late lunch at Andino – another excellent empanada, and then we made use of our lovely hotel room by lying down for a couple of hours doing nothing until dinner time.
The burger joint was back in business- and it was a great burger
Next step the salar de uyuni in Bolivia- the reason I wanted to come back, as I am pretty sure the hubby will love it
December 27, 2018, San Pedro de Atacama
To get there fly to calama airport and then get a transfer with transvip for 12,000 per person or 75000 for a private
All hotels are overpriced, especially at Christmas. We stayed at the Noi which was fine, but we paid twice what it was worth for similar hotels in chile
Best empanadas and cake at Emporio Andino, Burgers at the burger garden were excellent
There are multiple day tours. If you don’t want stress or navigation just take some of those tours. There are lots of places in biking distances but it is hot :-).
*Note for new readers to the blog, hubby prefers to keep a low profile, so he doesn’t ever get named on the blog….. though I have finally started putting pictures of his face (versus the back of his head) on the blog.
I arrived in Punta Arenas as tired as you would expect after 18.5 hours of flying and made my way to the lovely ilaia hotel.
The next morning I started my journey to Torres del Paine. The road adjoins the Magellan straits at the beginning and the wind literally howls off the water. The landscape is endless plaines, windy and stunted trees, with the rare house made of corrugated iron and blasted wood. Further north the landscape softened with beautiful roadside lupins, mountain views and flocks of guanaco. It was desolate but quite beautiful. The voyage was made entertaining by my companion Lorenzo – a 78 year old Italian who has been everywhere, and was hilariously charming with his pickup lines.
After three buses and 7 hours, I arrived at the welcome centre for the Torres park. I wanted to leave immediately. There were way too many people!!!. I had a quick Diet Coke and found the trail head and set off as fast as I could.
Blissfully I saw no one for the 13k to Camp Seron which took a little over 2 hours. But, the landscape was uninspiring, like a farm in NZ. The only thing interesting I saw was a herd of horses, and much of the trail followed a fence line. Part of me was worried that I had made a huge mistake and I was going to have a crap few days hiking. Oh well. Things got mildly better at the end when the trail opened up in a river valley.
The campsite was much flasher than I expected. There were flushing loos, showers, and there was food available (at appropriately high price points). Posh people had dinner inside with three courses. Dodgy campers had dinner in a drafty tent (park rules limit the locations where people can cook. While this is annoying, I understand it, as the park has twice had massive sections burn down as a result of hikers cooking fires). In case you wondered, I was with the dodgys eating instant mash potato.
I went to bed early and was serenaded by the howling wind wearing all my clothes
Day 1 Camp Seron to Camp Perros (33k 6 hours)
I was up early with the wind noise. It was freezing so I illegally made breakfast in bed (cooking up coffee from my sleeping bag). I didn’t head out particularly early for me but was the first out at seven. I didn’t pass anyone en route to the guard post at cordiron, and I was the first to check in with the guards (a mandatory procedure on the O circuit). The route was relatively flat and meandered along the Rio Paine. Nice but nothing spectacular. But at least I had the trail to myself.
I was delighted to head over the ridge to see the lovely camp Dickson (after 19k) at 10.30, but surprised to to find people still hanging out finishing breakfast – honestly how long does it take to get up in the morning! I was starving so had some pasta and coffee and then headed out again through a lovely bush trail. I put some good music on and amused myself by counting how many hikers I overtook (31). The highlight of the day was the glacier at Perros about a km before Camp Perros. The glacier feeds a pale green lake which is stunning. As you crest the ridge to see the lake the wind was so strong it blew me several metres backward.
I arrived at the campsite far too early at 2pm, and passed the afternoon drinking tea in the cooking room and listening to all the young kids talking about their big OEs (gap years). I am feeling so old. I also found two ‘kiwi’ guys (actually a Brit who lives in Nz and an American who used to), to entertain me. I strolled back to check out the glacier as the sun had come out, still stunning. More tea, some pasta and chocolate and then in bed by 8.30 listening to the wind howl
Day 2 – Camp Perros to Refugio Paine grande (34k 7 hours)
I had wanted to sleep in as it was raining, but lots of people were up early talking so I gave up and made myself a coffee at 5.45 and hit the trail out of perros at 6.30. I passed two surprised people at 7 and then had the trail to myself for the three hours to Camp Paso. It was a freezing windy misty rainy morning heading up the pass, in and out of the trees (which were blissfully warm) and then back into the howling wind on the rocky scree slopes. I had my hardcore mountain gloves on but was going full kiwi in my shorts. I have a cold so it was a bit of a slog going up the hill, trying not to sweat too much as that sweat would make me cold when I hit the top and the wind. The hills was dotted with orange trail markers which are very reminiscent of Nz.
I took some photos near the top, and put on an extra layer and my hands froze. As I went over the pass I had no feeling in my fingers and it took me ten minutes of heading down hill to make my hands work to get the camera out. Which was a shame, as the view was astounding. As you come over the pass it looks like there is a huge white lake below you, except it’s a glacier. I have never approached a glacier from above before and it was amazing.
I bombed the steep slope down the hill, willing my fingers back to life and hoping I didn’t fall as I wouldnt be able to use my hands! I was happy to arrive at camp paso at 9.30 to make a coffee. The ranger wasn’t impressed that I woke him up, but it is mandatory to register when you pass and he hadn’t left the book out. I was amused to find at least half a dozen occupants in camp still packing up
From Camp Paso it was an easy two hour stroll down to Refugio Grey with the trail popping in and out of the trees to stunning views of the glacier. There were three awesome suspension bridges, and some excellent rocky rooty sections which reminded me of home
I got to Camp Grey at 11.45 so decided to have a lazy lunch, and the ‘kiwi’ guys from the night before rolled up (it turned out two of them had left perros an hour before I had, and had made it to Paso ten minutes before me but were too nice to wake up the ranger). We had a long gossip with three cups of tea and some tuna and then I decided to roll on. Grey was a bit of a zoo with music and a shop and too many day hikers
From Grey to Paine grande was not my favourite. This is where the ‘O’ circuit (which is one way and requires you to actually carry stuff) intersects with the W circuit and the day hikers, most of whom haven’t learnt basic trail etiquette of saying hello and letting faster hikers go by. But I had quite a lot of fun in my shorts and T-shirt (everyone else was heavily rugged up) body surfing the howling winds along the ridge line.
I got to Paine grande just after three and was shocked by how many people there were. I contemplated briefly ordering a pizza in the restaurant but decided instead to retreat to the campers kitchen where I belong. Am sitting here surrounded by various nationalities cooking up a range of freeze dried delicacies (I had mug shot pasta), and drinking more tea with some alfajores I treated myself to at the mini market
I tried to go to sleep early but the tourist neighbours weren’t great at their camping etiquette and kept talking until 10.30, well after hiker bedtime
Day 3 Paine Grande to Chileno via Mirador Britanico (38k, 8 hours)
I woke up without the alarm at 5.30am and decided to get moving. I was planning to do the up and back hike from camp Italiano to mirador britanico and by all accounts it can be heaving. I was in luck as I had a solo stroll from Refuge Paine to the Italian camp. There was a crowd there about to start so I got going before them. I did get overtaken the first time on the trip, a guy who was running the 60k w circuit in a day. I used the motivation of being overtaken to speed up and I tailgated him to the top. The mirador (lookout) was amazing. Stunning views of the glaciers frances on one side and the Torres de Paine (from the back side) ok the other. It was a magical morning!!!
Coming back down I started to hit the legions of hikers, so was glad i had made it up early. I was starving and hadn’t had coffee so stopped to cook up an odd breakfast of couscous and coffee and then headed out along the side of Lake Nordenskjold to Los Cuernos refuge. I stopped for a quick dip in the lake (bloody freezing) and then stopped into the refuge for a Diet Coke and some biscuits and a chat with an international bunch of hikers I had met the day before
From there it was a meandering 16k to the campsite at chileno. It was hot so at each stream I came to, i took my shirt off, dunked it in the water, squeezed it over my head and put it back on again. Bliss – it’s hikers aircon
I arrived at chileno at 3.30pm and was planning to head up to the towers but was told I couldn’t as the closed the path further up at 4pm. Oh well, I was always going to go in the morning anyway, but it would have been nice to see the evening light.
To make up for it I had my first shower in four days (the other places had cold showers and there was no way I was doing that). I was probably overdue as I noticed that the people walking past me smelled of soap today, which is normally a signal that I don’t smell great. I am really putting icebreaker to the test on the ‘no stink’ promise on their clothes.
As Chileno doesn’t allow campers to use cooking stoves, I ordered a big arse pizza, it was so big I could only eat half (the rest I had later for second dinner and breakfast). Then I had several litres of fluid (Diet Coke, tea, hot chocolate and rehydration fluids) and couldn’t resist paying $10 for the WiFi. Of the 247 emails I had, only about three were urgent. Off to lie in the tent and hope for quiet neighbours.
Final morning walking out
All I had to do today was wander up to the famous towers and then stroll out of the park to get the bus. Most people go up very early in the morning to get there before sunrise, but I had heard stories of people getting really cold in the dark so decided to sleep in and head up later. It was a good decision. I left at 5.30 and didn’t see a single person for the first 40 minutes of the hike up, and then the last 20 mins there were lots of freezing people coming down. The walk took me just over an hour but would have taken longer in the middle of the night in the dark with a head torch and lots of people in the way. The view was lovely but I met some Belgians who had headed up at 1.45 am, it took them two hours to get there and then they sat freezing for over an hour until the sun came up. The view wasn’t that lovely that I would have been happy to freeze my butt off.
I stayed for 15 minutes and then strolled back to chileno refuge for coffee and cold pizza for breakfast. It was only 3km to get out of the park so I wasn’t in any rush to get out as the bus wasn’t until 14.30. It was amusing watching the day hikers struggling up the hill even at the very beginning of the trail. Some of them were even taking a break in the first km. Good on them for giving it a go, but I did wonder if all of them would make it
I found a posh hotel at the base of the hill and rolled in for a coffee and some strawberry tart and caught up on my email. I got chatting to a fascinating Aussie guy who had been tracking puma in the park (you can follow him at chris canguro on insta), he had the most amazing pictures and it was good to know the pumas are being looked after.
After that, more cake and Diet Coke and the bus to Puerto Natales.
Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas
I had a free afternoon wandering around Puerto Natales and most of a day wandering around Punta Arenas waiting to get back to Santiago. While neither is a worthy destination in their own right, they were both friendly towns, with a good vibe, decent coffee, lovely street art and interesting buildings.
Next stop meeting the hubby in Valparaiso and then off to the Atacama
To get to Patagonia, Fly to Santiago then take a Three hour flight to punta arenas. From there take a three hour bus to Puerto Natales (Fernandez) then another two hour bus to Laguna amarga, and then you can hike the dusty 7km to the park entry (on the road) or get the shuttle which takes 5 minutes
Don’t bother with a water filter, it was fine to drink everywhere
If money is no problem you can underpack food as there is chocolate and biscuits at every refuge, but there are no good dehydrated meals so bring those
If I did it again I would probably pay more for a private transfer to the park from the airport at Punta Arenas, as all the bus trips take a lot of time. I would also do more each day, as three days is more than enough.
I stayed at hotel ilaia in Punta Arenas and vendaval in Puerto Natales- both were good
I was off to Dubai for work, and so figured out how to sneak in a weekend in the Seychelles while there. Hubby wasn’t super keen to come as it is a bit far for a weekend so there I was, solo on a flight jam packed with honeymooners and couples! Flying into the Seychelles, you can see stunning beaches, wild rainforest, and huge rocks that seem to be falling from the mountain tops into the ocean. The island survives on tourism, and rightly so! I was first off the plane, and picked up a wonderfully dodgy rental car. A crapped out Kia Picanto that last saw it’s clutch in 2015, and I was going to rue the crappy engine more than once over the weekend.
I drove into town looking for the Larue apartments. There are no street numbers here, but thankfully google maps knew where I was going. The kia picanto couldn’t make it up the very steep wet driveway, and I was very embarrassed when I had to call the owner to come and get me – he drove my car up!. Apparently it happens every time a guest arrives (and don’t worry I got up fine every time after that). The Larue apartments are basic but lovely – it’s high on the hill in bel air with stunning views overlooking Victoria. Accommodation is ridiculously expensive here so I was happy to find a whole apartment for 80 Euro a night, it actually had three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
The afternoon wasn’t sunny so went down to check out the bustling metropolis of Victoria. Its tiny, lovely and indisputably African. I checked out the ‘sights’ – a cute Hindu temple, the church and a replica of the clock tower in London. And then I followed the local ladies to the market to buy food for the weekend – eggs, avocado, beans, corn, tomatoes and eggs. I couldn’t resist the bakery either and ended up with some delicious deep fried fish cakes that were so spicy my nose started running, and a ‘coconut gateau’ that was halfway between the consistency of a scone and a rock, but surprisingly good. I had an early dinner of veggies and eggs, and then passed out as the jet lag hit me like a rock
I slept a solid 12 hours, and roused myself at 8am to get some hiking in. I was staying at the edge of the national park on purpose as I prefer hills to beaches. I had lined up three hikes, which should have taken me about six hours. The first – Trois freres – named for the ‘three brothers’ – huge rocks which overlook the town of Victoria. It was supposed to take 2 hours return, but took 30 mins. It was a lovely view though.
Next up the ‘casse dents’ (broken teeth) which was sadly closed due to too much rain eroding the track. So I headed next to Morne Blanc. I picked up some local girls hitching on the way. They were hilarious, as they were ‘hiking’ with their university, but effectively they were walking on the road for the whole day. They were a bit tired going up the ‘big hill’ so I gave them a ride. I have to say the Kia picante didn’t do well with four ladies on a steep incline – it was first gear all the way.
I stopped at the trail head for Morne blanc and tried not to worry about the two blokes with machetes hanging around the trail head. That ’90 minute’ trail took 30 minutes, but was wonderfully steep up and down, so it was a nice jog. To round out the morning, and as I was finished early, I also ran a few km on the Mont d’or trail for good measure (accessed from Port Gilaud). All of the trails are well marked, but you can find them on the Gaia app.
I then headed to the top of the island. I passed a big resort and a crowded beach and kept going until I found a delightful private beach to myself for a swim. Afterwards, clean and restored, I drove to the end of the road to Cap Ternay, and then turned around to head back to a nice posh resort for lunch – Constance Ephelia. It was a nice place but overrun with kids and pink tourists, and out of my budget but I did have a very good lamb kebab!
I had no plans for the rest of the afternoon, so I put some good tunes on the car stereo and cruised down the west side of the island, stopping frequently to take photos or to jump in the water to cool off. Driving here is not for the faint hearted. Your rental car is bound to be rubbish, mine ground the gears every time from second to third. The roads are narrow, slippery, and windy! I rarely got above 40km, and spent most of the time in the mountains in second gear. Add to that the local kids and dogs who will randomly dart in front of you from nowhere. I narrowly avoided running over a dog fast asleep in the middle of the road. Don’t drive here if you have a weak heart!!! The old local buses belch out black smoke, and you don’t want to be stuck behind one going through the interior or you might suffocate, I pulled over a few times to get further away from the buses and try to breathe.
It was a brilliant afternoon, I loved the drive. The west side of Mahe island is much quieter than the east side, and highlights were Grand Anse and Anse Takamaka. It was a strenuous afternoon driving with one hand on the wheel, and one arm hanging out the window ……with the music blasting I looked just like one of the locals. I rewarded my effort with an icecream and a nap on Takamaka beach. After that I cruised back into town, and had another stroll around before dinner. A perfect day as a tourist 😃
I would highly recommend the Seychelles for a weekend, and if you love beaches there is tonnes to do for a week – I am just not great at sitting on a beach all day!
That was the last lovely country of the 197…., thanks Seychelles no. 186, just 11 more to go
I am on an instability and poverty roll on this trip – next up Comoros – the third poorest country in the world and they have had over 20 coups since they got independence from France in 1975. It was stunning flying over Comoros…. verdant green hills with few buildings, volcanic black rock and stunningly blue sea. I had flown in from Addis, the plane was heaving until we dropped 90% of the passengers off in Dar, then the few of us remaining winged our way over the ocean, and only three gringos (the two others were guys in construction). Comoros is not a tourist destination!!!
Arrival was the usual chaotic African madness, I got to the front of the queue like normal, forms all ready to go, and was physically bumped out of the way by several VIPs. I held my ground and managed to get my passport through after six of them by physically refusing to move away from the immigration desk.
My driver found me while I was waiting for them to issue my visa – 30 euros for the privilege – and he showed me to one of the least road-worthy vehicles I have seen in a long time (and I just got here from Juba), but the car was enhanced by a stunning faux fur leopard print steering wheel cover. We wound the windows down to cope with the heat and the pungent aroma of the two police men who demanded a free ride for the 26k to town, and cruised along the coast to the capital of Moroni.
The hotel was small and sweet! I had a small wander around town, and organised my hike for the next day, mildly grumpy that the tour man insisted I get up at 5am!!! Oh well. Dinner of steak and veg, and excellent ginger tea and early to bed.
I didn’t need an alarm clock, the friendly gents at the local mosque sorted me out by getting going at 4.30, and the lovely ladies at the hotel had left me some boiled eggs and a jug of hot coffee. Hassan was there on time and we headed up the road to meet Djire the guide. Friends had told me they started the hike up the mountain from 1600m so I was somewhat surprised when we stopped at a village at 550m. Oh well – must be the long version!! Off we went.
Nothing inspires confidence like following a guide with worn military fatigues and fake prada sneakers into the dark bush at. 5.30am while he smokes a cigarette and lights the way with his mobile phone. It was hot, rocky and slippery, but I saw the wisdom of Hassan’s advice later when we had stunning views the whole way up and it wasn’t too hot. Weirdly two wild dogs followed us from 20 minutes after we started until we finished. They never got too close as the guide kept chucking rocks at them. The climb to the summit, with stunning views over Moroni, took us three hours, we had to stop once so Djire could rest and have a cigarette.
The view from the summit down into the main crater was stunning, a big sandy flat hole surrounded by steep cliffs with almost fluorescent green trees hanging on to the sides. Djire confessed he was a bit tired so we stopped for a banana.
Then we scrambled down to the crater floor (followed by the dogs) to check out second caldera from the 2006 eruption. Stunning!!!
We had a wander around poking into holes with steam coming out, checking out the monitoring equipment, and admiring the hardy moss growing near the steam holes!
After that we headed up to the rim to find the clouds had well and truly rolled in! We managed to avoid the rain until we were about half way down, and then the torrent opened up, it was like standing under a fire hose! So I had a good African shower for about an hour, until the sun came out and the water started steaming off us. Heading down took the best part of two and a half hours as had done something to my knee, and it was steep, rocky and slippery. Definitely worth it!!!!
I headed back for an excellent lunch of steamed fish, veg and more ginger tea, and some excellent local fruit!
In the afternoon I strolled around town, well hobbled is a better word as I my knee was still not working, so got a few strange looks as I limped round town. Tripadvisor has just two sites in Moroni, and they are both the same place – the grande mosque. It was nice. You can’t walk far without passing a mosque in Moroni, on my 2.5k circuit this afternoon I counted 14. They are a pious lot these comoriens.
The rubbish in town depressed me. At least the goats were helping recycle.
It’s hot! Really hot! So I retired back to the hotel to sweat in peace.
I slept in, aided by the earplugs to keep the early morning muezzin from my ears! I had a full day to explore Moroni before my flight back to Addis, but sadly had already ticked off the major tourist site – the old grand mosque – yesterday. Oh well, perhaps it would look different in the morning light.
I wandered down, and yes it did look different. Or maybe it was because it was already so hot the sweat was blurring my eyes. I thought I better go see the new mosque also to compare and contrast – and then I made my best mistake of the day. I wandered down an alley and ended up in the Medina. It was blissfully cool(er) in the dark shaded alleyways with all the walls crammed together. I stopped and chatted to a few ladies, making sure to tell them I wasn’t French (they aren’t fans of their former rulers here), although we all speak French (though arabic and Swahili are in common usage too).
I found the new mosque, it was new!
And then I found the Friday market. I love African ladies in markets. And the Comorien women bought together the best of French, Arab and African ladies. All the bright colours of Africa, with the voluminous draping of the Arab world, and the ‘soigneuse’/careful arrangement of their look, just like French ladies. They sway while they walk, I wish I had a derriere like these women. It was loud and raucous as everyone stocked up for the weekend. A few ladies were out and about with their beauty cream caked on, apparently it makes them look more ‘clear’ i.e white. Hmmmmf!!!
I checked out the port, and the downtown, there isn’t much going on in Moroni, but most of the people were friendly, though a few of the guys a bit more friendly than required.
It was a lovely stroll, and then I retreated back to the guest house for lunch – more amazing steamed fish and vegetables. I then headed out to the airport. I had an amusing moment in security, I set the machine off, and the security lady yelled ‘oi, musungu’ at me (literally ‘oi white lady’)….., I get called ‘musungu’ regularly in the street here, but its not polite!!!!. I wonder how she would have felt if I had yelled ‘oi, black lady’ back at her….., but I figured I was outnumbered.
I would recommend a visit to the Comoros, and next time would stay a bit longer, rent a car and head round the island. There isn’t much to do here, but it is remote and peaceful. There isn’t much in the way of food here, I was craving cheese, and didn’t find any in the six ‘supermarkets’ I went to, so bring stuff with you.
I stayed at the Jardin de la paix. Namsa, Adjia, Moinamina and Madame Raenfati were lovely and looked after me well. I stayed in the ‘simple’ room which was €20 per night, though perhaps I should have splurged the extra €10 on the aircon as it was pretty hot. Their food was the best I ate in town too – really good fish and fresh veg. I also organised the guide for the mountain through Namsa at Ylang tours. Or if you have gpx, you can follow my strava link up and down
I had a wonderful time in the Nelson Lakes Park last year, but sadly the weather was pretty crap so I didn’t get to see much. Given Papa Scout and I had got out of the Richmond Range well ahead of schedule, we decided to continue on and do a variant of the Travers Sabine circuit which is spectacular in good weather.
Day 0 – St Arnaud to Lakehead Hut 10km/ 2 hours
After scoffing our burgers and cake to celebrate completing the Richmond Range, Manu and I realised we were already done with being in town and around other people by 4pm, so we decided to head out and stay in a hut rather than the backpackers. Lakehead Hut is a delightful flat stroll around Lake Rotoiti…. even more delightful when your legs are toast after four days of non stop up and down. We shared the 24 bed hut that evening with four other french people and a lovely kiwi mum and daughter who were out tramping. The frenchies did make quite a bit of noise playing cards, but like always, when the clock hit 9.30pm, everyone was in bed.
Day 1 – Lakehead Hut to West Sabine Hut 30 km/ 7.5 hours
We kicked off the day strolling up the Travers river valley with the songs from the Lion King running through my head….. it was easy to imagine lions running around in the long grass, and it was a fantastic morning with the sun bleeding through the mountains. Eventually we started a gentle ascent up to the top of the Travers saddle…. We paused briefly at John Tait Hut to take off a layer and then continued up the hill to Travers Hut for lunch at 1300m.
Our hiking rhythm is now pretty well established. We wake up with the sun, we get up at 6.15am (any earlier than that is a bit rude to fellow hut users), and we are out and walking no later than 6.45am. Papa Scout sets a cracking pace and doesn’t require any sustenance apart from a few peanuts around lunchtime.
I require quite a bit more food, but given neither of us like taking breaks, I shove food in my face as we go, while making sure I keep concentrating on my feet so I don’t fall over. We do normally stop for a lunch break, which never lasts more than 30 minutes, and typically will not stop hiking until 4pm or later….. I like it, but I don’t think it is for everyone.After lunch, we climbed up to the saddle and were not blessed with a view. The wind was freezing, it was below zero, and visibility was down to about 50 metres at the top.
After that it was a rough and tough slippery descent down a neverending steep hill to the Sabine River. I remember the descent being tough last year, but it turns out the diverted the path to minimise the risk of avalanche and now the path is even more ridiculously steep, muddy and it goes straight down the hill. I fell over six times, adding to the already numerous bruises on my butt. I clapped loudly when Papa Scout fell over – his first fall of the trip. He told me that this descent was the worst he has ever done in his many years of hiking and running – not a surprise. The trees were barely hanging on to the mountain, so it was no surprise we were sliding down. The descent was interminable, but we were blessed at the bottom with a gorgeous view of the Sabine gorge, and then another 3-4km through the bush before we got to West Sabine Hut. The hut was reasonably full with a mix of nationalities. We were delighted when the Swiss Lion turned up unexpectedly – he was pushing to use the one day of good weather to get through the Waiau pass. It was a lovely quiet night in the hut with surprisingly only one snorer – sadly for Papa Scout she was next to him.
Day 2 – West Sabine Hut to Lake Constance and then back to Sabine Hut 34km/8 hours
We were up and off at 6.45 to head up to the legendary blue lake/Rotomairewhenua – the lake with the clearest water ever measured in the world. It was a rocky rooty ascent up to Blue lake, but much better than when I came up last year and had to go through numerous stream crossings up to my thigh. Blue lake was magical!
We then continued up to the pass to sit in the sun and enjoy the view of lake constance! It was a glorious day to be alive!!!
After that, time to head back down to West Sabine to pick up our gear. Unsurprisingly, after several hours with no falls, I took a major fall in a stream on the way back to the hut. Not quite sure how, but I managed to fall on my throat on a big boulder that I slipped on in a stream. It took me a while to get out of the stream as I wasn’t sure I could breathe, and I sure as hell couldn’t speak. My usual responses kicked in of ‘can I breathe?, do I have all my teeth?, can I get out of the water? can I put one foot in front of the other?’. I was pretty sure I couldn’t speak or swallow as my throat was in agony, but I could breathe and I could walk. So I got my butt up and started walking. I realised about 15 minutes later I was shaking with cold, so I put all the gear I had with me on (my main pack was in the hut) and kept walking. I eventually made it to the hut an hour later, where Papa Scout was just about to send out a search party. I had a cup of tea, figured out swallowing was possible if painful, and managed to get a few painful words out. I decided we may as well keep walking to the next hut, where I could get a water taxi out if needed, as I was pretty sure I wasn’t broken enough to need a helicopter (which I could have also sorted out as hubby has me well equipped with a delorme).
Needless to say, it was not a fun 15km walk. Papa Scout kept an eye on me, and although my legs were more or less ok, my throat was not. After thirty minutes I put my headphones on, put my head down and just kept putting one foot in front of the other. When we arrived at the last sign before the hut, saying we had 30 minutes left, I started running! I was smelling the barn big time. I got there, had a quick wash in the lake, ate some food and then took two ibuprofen and an anti inflammatory and was asleep by 7pm with instructions for Papa Scout to cut my oesophagus open with a knife if I stopped breathing in the night. Thankfully I did not!!!
Day 3 – Sabine Hut to St Arnaud 23km/ 4.5 hours
Still alive the next day, and the throat, while sore, is in much better condition. So it was time to see what else was a bit bust – I have a spectacular bruise on my left arm and a huge one on my right knee. oh well, never mind. The upside, I feel much better today than yesterday.
We had planned to walk up the ridge today to see the view from Angeles before returning to St Arnaud, but the weather was not our friend. So instead we took the low path through the forest via Speargrass hut to Roberts Range. It was Papa Scout’s turn to be grumpy today, and there were repeated calls of ‘f@ck’ or ‘putain’ from up ahead, typically when he was required to go up a steep rooty hill, or go through a stream, or go through some mud. Kiwis are used to having perpetually wet feet, but French people are clearly not. I left him alone most of the morning.
I enjoyed the walk through the forest as I love the green of the moss and the ferns, and the way the sun dapples through the trees, and we busted out our 23k pretty quickly to hit the carpark by 11.20am. In true kiwi form, I walked around the carpark looking for someone driving the 6km to town and found a nice Czech guy to give us a lift. Straight to the burger shop!!! And then it was time for my first shower in eight days!!!!, amazing! next stop – the Motatapu Track.
Hubby and I compromised on another hiking trip….half my usual distance and twice his! We planned to join up the popular tongariro northern circuit with the lesser known ruapehu round the mountain track, and we almost made it happen!
Day 1 – Whakapapa to Oturere – 24km
The advantage of starting at whakapapa is you miss the legions of day trippers hiking the tongariro crossing who start from Maungatepopo. On a busy day there can be 3000 people, most of whom are unfit, ill prepared and too many of them leave rubbish on the mountain (I picked up a lot). If you leave whakapapa late morning, by the time you head up the hill most of these guys are gone. It is spectacular!
After the stunning red crater (which one of the hikers described as an angry red vagina) and the gorgeous emerald and blue lakes, we descended to Oturere hut – a fabulous kiwi experience with 13 kids and 6 parents, and a few foreigners – rare these days. Graham the hut warden was a delight who regaled us with the joys of paekakariki.
Day 2 – Oturere to Rangipo- 23k
We headed off early and saw no one in the two hours it took us to walk to waihohono. Sections were quite eerie, like walking on the moon with Ngauruhoe glowing in the early morning sun beside us.
After breakfast at Waihohono, we left the northern circuit trail and wandered south towards ruapehu. There were some wonderfully hairy sections, my favourites being those with signs telling you not to stop in case a volcanic mud slide starts
We saw three people on the trail that day and arrived at Rangipo hut at 1pm to meet a lovely man and his autistic daughter who had been up for the night. He had told her Santa had left her some presents on the mountain and she had persevered up the trail to find the presents in the hut. Adorable!!!! They left and hubby and I had the hut entirely to ourselves so we lit a fire and enjoyed the view
Day 3 Rangipo hut to Ohakune mountain road
A glorious morning and a lovely undulating walk through the forest to Mangaehuehu hut. Three hours and not one person. We then headed out to Maungaturuturu hut hoping the rain would hold off
It was chilly but the views were stunning and all went well until the descent to Waitonga falls. In typical fashion I fell over on the well formed boardwalk part of the track. I roll my ankle frequently, but this time I managed to smack the bone against a rock. Ouch! I actually had tears in my eyes…
I got up and started walking hoping that would sort it out, but figured out pretty quickly that it was not in great shape. So we hoofed it to the road about an hour further on… weirdly I walk faster when I am in pain as I figure I may as well get it over with, so we overtook a tonne of day hikers on the way. Fortunately my lovely brother was in Ohakune so he came and picked us up and got us fully restored with cake, coffee and fritters.
We did think about trying to finish the route the next day but it turns out I wasn’t able to put weight on the foot until five days later! Next time!!!
I have met many wonderful people on my travels who want to come to NZ, and have asked for my top tips on where to hike. Apologies for the tardiness, but here are my favourite places to run and hike in the worlds best hiking country
The Great Walks
There are nine great walks in NZ, and they are justly named as they are some beautiful tracks (what we call trails in NZ) – including the Routeburn, Kepler, Milford, Abel Tasman and Tongariro. I would no longer do any of these walks as hikes, as there are too many people on them and you have to prebook the huts. However, if you are new to hiking, and/or want to be sure of company, then you will be happy walking any of these Great Walks.
If you are a trail runner, I can highly recommend running some of the Great Walks as the trails are all beautifully groomed, my fave runs are:
Routeburn from the Glenorchy carpark end up to the Harris Saddle or onward to Conical Hill, and back down to the carpark
Abel Tasman from Awaroa back to Marahau or vice versa using the water taxis to transport you one way – about 4-5 hours (tide dependent and with some paddling stops), 30k and pretty easy
Heaphy as a two day run, with an ultra light pack as you only need a bit of food and a sleeping bag
Rakiura is an easy 4-5 hour day run around Stewart Island
Terrific multi day hikes which are not ‘great walks’
New Zealand is a land blessed with wonderful hikes, and ones I would highly recommend are (* means trails are extremely runnable)
Hilary trail which is a lovely stroll along the west coast of Auckland
Matukituki valley tracks near Wanaka with some wonderful shorter walks based out of Aspiring Hut
Rees Dart circuit * – one of my absolute favourites, simply a stunning run/hike up the rees valley and down the dart. This can be joined up with the Matukituki valley tracks in good weather with a traverse over the Cascade Saddle into the Aspiring national park. Note the Dart part of the track is currently closed
Greenstone/Caples track *- two easy day runs, or a tough one day round trip, much less crowded than its popular neighbour the Routeburn
If you are feeling super energetic you can join up the Wanaka/Glenorchy trails in a big long loop – hiking from Arrowtown to Wanaka on the Motatapu Trail, hitching a ride from Wanaka to Makarora to walk the Wilkins Gillespie, and if you have alpine experience traversing the Rabbit pass directly from the Wilkins to the Aspiring Hut (near Wanaka), and then taking the Cascade Saddle over to the Rees track to come out at Glenorchy. This is a pretty epic route and I am looking forward to seeing if I can make it work this summer
Near Te Anau
Hollyford track – a wonderful walk and you get to see the seals at Martins Bay. This can be a bit tricky, as the ‘demon trail’ is aptly named. If you want to go a bit upmarket and take a boat around the tough bits you can pay for a guided tour and they also chopper you out from the end
Tuatapere Humpridge* – a very good track, privately run, which means you can upgrade to a private room if you don’t want a dorm. You can also buy food in the hut, so you really don’t need to carry anything. And they have hot showers!!!
If you are looking for somewhere to base yourself for these hikes, I would recommend the quieter bases of St Arnaud, Motueka, Wanaka and Glenorchy. I tend to avoid Queenstown these days as it is too busy!
There are hundreds of other hiking opportunities in NZ, including considering embarking to Te Araroa – the long pathway which runs for 3000km from the top of the country to the very bottom, I have only picked my favourites, and I am sure others would prioritise different hikes
If hiking, you can get a great value pass from Doc for $122 which will allow you unlimited nights in back country huts for a year (excluding Great Walk Huts)
There is lots of good free camping in NZ, and I use the camping NZ app to find free campsites – many of these are pretty basic and administered by DOC.
I highly recommend that you DO NOT rent an RV and drive around the south island – our roads are not terrifically well designed for big slow vehicles and it is much more sensible (cheaper and easier) to rent a small car and stay in hostels or camp
Doc – the department of conservation is a wonderful source of info with track maps and the local office can advise you of trail conditions
Good too maps are free to download from http://www.topomap.co.nz
If I was a bandit hiding from the law (especially pre drone and heat sensing technology) I would head straight to the Needles in Canyonlands! The terrain is bizarre, endless numbers of sandy canyons interrupted by giant red rock formations needling straight up from the ground.
You could hide out (or get lost) in these canyons for days. This park gets my vote as the loveliest national park so far – not the stunning views of Bruce or the fear inducing climbs of Zion, but endless lovely trails looping around the canyons with very very few people on them! The Rangers were the friendliest to date also!
We stayed for a few days, hubby under duress trying out camping for the second time since we got together 17 years ago (suffice to say the first outing ended in a hotel after one night). I love camping, especially in the back country! It’s quiet, you are outside, and there is nothing to worry about! Hubby is less persuaded and wasn’t entirely ecstatic this morning, after his night in a huge luxurious borrowed tent, sleeping on a top of the range thermarest – he reckons it was like sleeping on a plank. Oh well! There are no hotels here and he signed up for one more night 🙂
The hikes are all splendid and interconnecting, so depending on how energetic you are you can do as much or as little as you like.
At a minimum I would recommend hiking out to the Chesler Park viewpoint and doing the Chesler park loop (18k round trip). This includes a stunning part called ‘the joint trail’ which is a 500m section traversing a narrow crevasse.
You can camp in the park, in nearby BLM campgrounds, or the the privately run needles outpost. All the sites were more or less the same. We stayed at the outpost as they took advance bookings rather than first come first served. They also had an overpriced shop and paid showers. Water is free at the visitors centre so stock up there versus paying in the camping.
Given we were in the vicinity, we popped by the Grand Canyon. We first visited 16 years ago, and have been a few times since, and it hasn’t changed much. It’s still stunning and there are still way too many people. But I would still recommend going, and applying my standard advice of ‘go early and go further’, ie hit the trails by 7am and head out on a long hike and that way you will see very few people*
I had a lovely morning running the 16 mile loop trail from the South Kaibab trailhead to the Bright Angel campground on the Colorado river, and then back up to the rim on the bright Angel trail (1500m down and then back up). The Rangers recommend against trying to do it in one day (including posting graphic signs on the trail of people barfing to try to dissuade you) but if you are fit it is an easy day hike or a great run. You don’t see as many people as you would expect, though you start to hit crowds in the last 2-3 miles uphill. One day I am keen to try the rim to rim to rim where you add an extra 28 miles to my itinerary by visiting the north rim also – but given it is a 12-14 hour mission, I am looking for company so let me know if anyone is keen
We also had a lovely stroll along the rim from the village to hermits rest – given most people take the shuttle buses everywhere, you will have the path to yourself, especially at 8 am. The canyon views are stunning!
Heading out to the canyonlands national park, we also stopped over at Monument Valley, which is worth the $20 entrance fee (which goes to the Navajo nation :-)) to drive around the valley, especially at sunset. It is a few hours drive from the Grand Canyon and another few hours from there to Canyonlands
– we stayed at the budget maswik lodge at the Grand canyon. I’ve stayed at the El Tovar and the Bright Angel lodge before and neither is worth the premium
– at Monument Valley we stayed in a tipi at the Tipi village, run by the delightful Bob – highly recommended
*Side note – where are the people?
While I think the US national parks are overcrowded with 4wds and Rvs, there are surprisingly few people in what is described here as the ‘backcountry’ (what we would call the bush in NZ). Maybe it is because they don’t like walking much, but as a percentage of population you will see way fewer people on most long trails here than you would see on comparable trails in Europe or NZ. If you like hiking, definitely come to the US, just make sure you do the longer tougher trails and you will likely have them mostly to yourself
It is easy to understand why Bryce is one of the most popular parks in the US. Most other parks in the US make you work hard to see the best they have to offer – at the Grand Canyon, you really need to go to the river to get the most of the experience (a beautiful but tough day walk down and back up 1500 m of elevation), at Zion you need to wade through the river up to the Narrows or sweat a bit to climb 500m up to see the views from Angels Landing. Not Bryce, Bryce just puts it all out there for you, and for the majority of visitors that just walk the 100m from the bus to the rim, they are rewarded for their minimal efforts with the best view the park has to offer. Bryce is not playing hard to get.
So, if you want to do it the easy way, Bryce is for you. However, of course I am going to recommend you do a bit of hiking as well. The trails are short and relatively easy, and we did them all (Queens, Fairyland, Navajo, Peekaboo and the Rim) – some walking, some running. Some of the climbs were breathtaking, as we weren’t quite acclimatised to the 2500m altitude. There are more people on the shorter trails so make sure you hit the long ones. I ran fairyland at 8.30 and apart from a few people near the trail head I only saw two people in an hour.
Most of the guide books say you don’t need more than a day at Bryce, and that is probably right – even covering all the hikes, we needed less than 24 hours. But what a 24 hours!
Food options in and near the park are limited and largely fried. We came prepared with vegetables, salad, cold cuts, fruit and yogurt
Lodging options are relatively limited – we stayed at the Best Western outside of the park as it had wifi, a fridge and a microwave. It also had a pool and gym. If you are really bored it had an incredibly tacky giftshop. The lodge in the canyon is nice but basic.