Despite all your suggestions to keep traveling given "The Second Great Depression", we decided to be stubborn and not listen to you. You know we are good at that... and of course we missed you all too much...;-)
So we confirmed our last fligths and will be arriving on Schiphol on May 27th at 06.50 am on Cathay Pacific flight CX0271.
Looking forward to seeing all of you again soon!!
Lots of Love,
Mischa and Thomas
After a short flight from Fiji we arrived safely in Sydney Australia (with our luggage this time)! Initially we thought about taking a bus to Melbourne as this was where we were supposed to meet Marco and Nik, our good friends from Amsterdam, who decided to come visit us at the other side of the world. However, when we landed in Sydney we had a look around for immediate flights to Melbourne and found out that this was not at all expensive. So a couple of hours later we boarded a late flight to Melbourne!
However, our joy turned out to be premature..... because as we arrived in Melbourne, we waited for our luggage... Mischa's bag arrived...and we waited...and waited some more...and then waited even more...to find out that Thomas' luggage did not arrive. "Not again" was our first and most prominent though!!! Remember Fiji? Grumble!! We went to the left luggage desk and were told that this was oh so very common. The baggage handlers in Sydney were on strike and they advised us to wait for the next flight from Sydney, because maybe Thomas' bag was on the next flight. So we waited...and waited...and waited for about two and a half hours, covering the arrival of 4 more flights from Sydney...but no bag!! Bigggg grumble!! Eventually we gave up, tired and exhausted and left our info details at the Qantas counter (were we did get a very nice overnight sleeping pack, of which Thomas still very proudly wears the Qantas short....) and grabbed a bus towards the city centre, in a rather foul mood.
Backpacking wise, Australia is completely and utterly different from all the other places we have been to. Most strikingly, all the hostels were almost always fully booked. We basically called ALL the hostels in our guidebook and were told off, even the dorms were completely booked!! Australia started to have a negative feel to it. Finally we found a place called Greenhouse Backpacker (www.greenhouse.melbourne-hostels.com.au/index.jsp) with about 600+ beds, where we ended up in a dorm with 10 beds. WE HATE DORMS!! Mischa is just too much of a prima Donna for it & Thomas just loves his privacy!! The next morning we had breakfast with about 200 other people in a huge kitchen area, in true industrial style, total pandemonium. Now you have to realise that we had just spend 6 weeks in paradise, almost always being the only guests with our owl kitchen facilities while overlooking the big beautiful sea. So we really felt horrible and quite depressed. Guess what: first thing on the agenda was to find a better accommodation. Luckily we found a double room in a nice place called City Centre Budget Hotel (www.citycentrebudgethotel.com.au) which was also located right next to the Windsor hotel where Marco and Nik were going to stay (www.thewindsor.com.au). Furthermore Thomas' luggage was found and delivered so we were more than ready to go out and enjoy the city!!
The next morning was D-day. Finally, after almost 9 month we were going to see two familiar and very longed for faces!! Actually we were a bit nervous as we took the early morning bus to Melbourne airport. And there they were!! Yichaah!!! Looking oh so white and tired, contrasting sooo heavily with our tanned and rested demeanour. Hi, hi... no, it was really great to see Marco and Nik again, especially as we had been planning it for such a long time (Marco and Nik, we really had a great time and already miss you guys!!).
After a quick clean-up session, the four of us hit downtown Melbourne and went for a great lunch on the South Bank. Obviously, the vino was flowing rapidly, which would set the standard for the next three weeks...;-) In order not to bore you here follows a short recap of our activities during the next 4 days:
- Melbourne Acquarium (http://www.melbourneaquarium.com.au/);
- Shopping & great diner in Fitzroy;
- next morning more shopping in St Kilda (Thomas says: "oooooh no, not agaaaaain!!!") & great lunch in St Kilda (Kangaroo burgers!! Mjummie);
- Coffee and funny time at St Kilda Peer;
- Another great diner in Fitzroy at Little Creatures Dining Hall (www.littlecreatures.com.au) where they had the largest mussels that we have ever seen (see below)!!!
- Lunch at Southbank again...
- Shopping in Chinatown (Thomas says: "noooooo, not again, it huuurrts!!!");
- Drinks at Rooftop Bar and Cinema (www.rooftopcinema.com.au);
- Shopping (Thomas says: "pleaaase kill meee, kill meeee!!" & lunch in Fitzroy again, where we discovered the Bubbly Shiraz (pronounced: "Shyeraz" in Oz...;-));
- Picknick at the open air Moonlight Cinema were we watched "Marley and Me" (yes, the one with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson...sob sob) in Melbourne's Royal Botanical Gardens together with about 2000 Melbournians, which was great fun!!
The next day we set of in a rented car for the Great Ocean Road, Victoria's famous southwest coastal road, which was build at the beginning of the 20th century with the idea of constructing a scenic road of world repute, equalling California's Pacific Coast Highway...hmmm, yeah right!! The first hoax is that it actually does not always follow the coastline so we spend half of the time driving in a forest area, making us double check whether we had actually taken the wrong turn and had ended up on "The Great Forest Road"...;-)) The main highlight of the Great Ocean Road is "The Twelve Apostles, the dramatic rock formations which sit out to sea beyond rugged cliffs". This is the second hoax...In fact, you can only observe 8 Apostles at any time, because the rest are apparently hidden (??!!), at least that is what the sign said. Furthermore, it was probably the touristiest natural sight that we have seen in the past year. In general, bus-loads with tourists arrive here each day as all of them gather on large platforms constructed on the cliffs, trying at the same time to get a nice picture with the 8 Apostles in the background....in addition to this, we had really bad weather with lots of clouds, wind and just freezing cold. All in all, we were a little bit disappointed, although the pictures would make you think differently...;.)
By now, it was 5 o'clock pm, we had been driving for almost 6 hours straight from Melbourne and still needed to drive 2 hours to Lorne were we were going to stay overnight in a beautiful little hostel called Erskine River Backpacker. This is when it hit us: Australia is huuuuuge!!! What seems like a tiny distance on the map is often many hundreds or even thousands of kilometres. Very deceiving!! Up til now we had only done the width of one or two fingers!! Our initial plan was to slowly drive up the East Coast towards Sydney (we had 3 days for this). However, as we entered our first intended stopover, Malacoota (which is not even halfway to Sydney), in our Garmin, we found out that it would take us at least 15 hours to get there (!!!)... none of us was looking forward to spending the next 3 days full time in a car!! So, we needed to drastically revise our plan and over diner at BB and Grill in Lorne (www.bbarandgrilllorne.com.au), we had an epiphany, opened the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide and started looking for nice stopovers along the highway that runs from Melbourne to Sydney straight through the Australian wilderness. It did not take us very long to decide on the first one... exactly at halfway point is a wine region, situated around the town of Rutherglen. Tataaah, this was where we would go!! We left early the next morning and arrived in Rutherglen around 0100pm. Very conveniently, we had booked a 4 person apartment on the Rutherglen Estate winery (http://www.rutherglenestates.com.au/) and after a couple of hours in the pool, it was time to do what we came for: wine-tasting!!
We ended up buying a number of great wines including a few fantastic bottles of Marsanne, Zinfandel and of course the bubbly Shyeroz. The estate also featured a gourmet restaurant (included in the price of the apartment) with an all you can drink winebar...Though tempting; we kept it quite relaxed and had another lovely evening with the best company!!
The next day, we covered a lot of ground and spend the night in a town called Huskisson, right on Jervis Bay, an alleged highlight of New South Wales (see below). And although it was a pretty little village, the place was deserted and we somehow had the feeling that it had had better times. We ended up staying the night in the hostel linked to the largest pub in town called the Husky Pub (www.thehuskypub.com.au), a huge pub with beer-tables, game-rooms (so called TABs), casino-slots, TV's everywhere and a big signs saying that you should watch out that nobody puts GHB pills in your drinks...dodgy...very dodgy...but lots of fun (and typical Australian as we later found out). We suspect that they normally don't rent out rooms to tourist but that the rooms are mainly used by drunken regulars who cannot drive home anymore after a night of slamming away the brewsky's. The floor in our room made you believe that some of them had not quite made it to the communal toilets after getting sick... Dodgy as it may be during high season, we were the only guests together with a couple of spinsters and the bar actually closed at 11.00pm. By pure luck we stumbled on a restaurant that night called Seagrass (http://www.seagrass.net.au/) which had been chosen the best restaurant in New South Wales (including Sydney) in 2006 and we indulged on another great gourmet meal!!
After three days, we were finally back in Sydney. Marco and Nik had booked a room for us in the same hotel they were staying, called Quest Potts Point (www.questpottspoint.com.au). Although the price was well above our budget, it was wonderful to savour in the luxury that we were used to from another life, with a nice, clean and comfortable bed, ensuite bathroom, cable TV (and on demand movies - we watched 5!) and air-conditioning, just great!! So here follows a short summary of the highlights of our 4 days in Sydney:
- Night-stroll through Oxford Street, Darling Harbour, The Rocks and Circular Square;
- Diner at Bar Reggio in Sydney's little Italy (www.barreggio.com.au) where you had to make a reservation at the entrance and they would call you when your table was ready and beers and live rockmusic at The Porterhouse (http://www.porterhouse.com.au/)
- Daytrip to Circular Square and Manly (20 minutes by ferry) with diner at a beautiful place called the Kiosk, right on Shelly beach (http://www.lekiosk.com.au/)
- Daytrip to the famous Bondi Beach, Tamarama Beach and Bronte Beach (although there was no way we dared to enter the water given that 3 swimmers and surfers had been attacked by sharks on Bondi beach the weeks before...) followed by drinks on our own rooftop terrace;
- Daily fitness sessions at Fitness First (lots of gays around getting in shape!!) which featured beautiful views over Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.
One of the main reasons that we choose to visit Sydney during this specific time was that the weekend of 7-9 March is the finale of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festivities. Mardi Gras started in 1979 as a political march commemorating New York's Stonewall riots. It has evolved into a month long arts festival that culminates in a fleshy street parade on the 7th of March. The parade begins on Elizabeth Street around 7.30pm and cavorts the length of Oxford street. Gays from all over the world and lots of people from Sydney gather in the area to witness the spectacle. And so did we!! Obviously we were used to the lavish Gay Pride Parade on the canals in Amsterdam, which is all about being as extravagant as possible. In the past, the Mardi Gras parade had also been all about extravaganza. Unfortunately, the organisers of the parade this year had decided to make it more political, hammering more on human and gay-rights issues, abortion, euthanasia, you name it. Of course we did support this with all our heart. However, we feel embarrassed to say that it made the parade a bit lacklustre...
The next day, we all went to Toybox, a huge daytime after-after-party lasting from 01.00pm to 08.00pm in Sydney's Luna Park. Toybox is a very exclusive party and tickets are hard to come by. Luckily, Marco was really sharp and managed to acquire tickets for the four of us. Toybox is also a very gay party. To give you an idea: imagine 3000 men (and just 150 girls), most of them bare-chested and super-muscular (not the girls of course), in a big dark arena, dancing really closely together, most of them on drugs, rubbing their sweaty bodies against each other in excruciating heat with a mind-altering lightshow synchronised to a hypnotising trance beat...get the drift? Obviously, Mischa was thrilled by all the good looking men around her ;-)) (but only had eyes for one man!!) and Thomas...well he felt better at ease than he had thought beforehand and not so neutral witnesses confirm that he was spotted with his shirt off at a certain point (!!!??). Actually to be honest we both had a great, unforgettable and exhilarating time and Nik and Marco: we sure are looking forward to go to the next Rapido with you guys!!
The next day it was time to move on. In our horrendously ugly Red Holden station-wagon we made our way to the famous Blue Mountains. We booked two rooms in a super cosy little hostel called Kurrura Guest House (www.bluemts.com.au/kurrara), which had already been in operation since 1905 (!!!). Obviously anxious to see all the highlights of the region, we quickly checked in at the guesthouse and hopped back into the car, off to view the famous Edge Point. This is the big ticket drawcard of Katoomba, where a series of allegedly sensational viewing platforms are supposed to transport your gaze over Jamison Valley and more importantly the alleged impressive Three Sisters rock formation which towers over the scene (freely plagiarised from the Lonely Planet). That was the theory. In practice, it is here that we were struck by the sobering realisation that our journey through South America has truly spoiled us. Although Edge point is beautiful by any standard, with the risk of sounding blaze we must admit that we just were not that impressed. In the South American Andes and Patagonia, beautiful views are the norm. They are everywhere, you wake up with beautiful views and you go to bed with beautiful views...in between you have lunch with beautiful views...and while savouring these beautiful views, you are often all by yourself without a human presence for miles and miles and miles...Now in Australia, they build special platform (and of course a Visitors Centre) for the one beautiful view in an area, which on top of that attracts bus-loads of daytrip tourists from all over the world ...it just felt very organised and touristy and we really miss the ruggedness and the simplicity of South America. This is probably when we decided to want to skip Ayers Rock, the famous but oh so touristy rock formation in the middle of nowhere...we don't want to risk being disappointed once again.
However, if you can't beat them...join them!! So we quickly set all our snobbish objections aside and bought 4 tickets for the most touristy attraction in the region: Scenic World (www.scenicworld.com.au), where we did everything from Scenic Skyway to Scenic Cableway to Scenic Railway to Scenic Walkway (we are not inventing these names, check the site). And oh did we have fun!!! As the pictures demonstrate...
That night, we had dinner in the Rooster Restaurant (www.jamisonhouse.com), which boasts to be the best French and European Restaurant in the Blue Mountains. Well actually, it is the ONLY French and European restaurant in the Blue Mountains...;-)) Anyway, they were just shooting a film to be used in a promotion for the Blue Mountains region and asked us whether we had a problem with appearing in the film. Of course we answered in choir: "of course not!!!" and ended up having lots of trouble maintaining our composure or in fact behaving like grown ups altogether the next 2 hours, joking like teenagers and laughing out loud and with lots of exaggeration (including the mad scientist laughs of course) whenever the camera would zoom in towards us. They must have hated us and we hope that they still were able to make a good film... hi, hi!
The next day, the weather sucked. A mist had settled down in Katoomba so there was really nothing else to do than to hang in the TV room of the guesthouse, read trashy magazines and watch classic films (Et Dieu Crea la Femme and The Witches of Eastwick). Diner at Avalon (www.avalonkatoomba.com) was a great way to top off the day and the owner/waitress possessed a natural ability to make us feel happy and at home. We will never forget her Liquorice Cheesecake and are currently working on a business plan to franchise it in Europe.
We drove back to Sydney the next morning feeling quite melancholic. Our Journey with Marco and Nik had come to an end. We travelled three harmonious weeks together and we will always cherish the fond memories and miss the fun and the laughter. Marco and Nik: thanks for a wonderful time!!!
The last three days in Sydney were spend updating our blog, posting lots of new stories and pictures, as you may well have noticed. More importantly, we have been updating our CV's and have actively started looking for jobs...Yes, life goes on... and it will be a wonderful challenge now that The Second Great Depression has finally begun...;-)
Given that a storm ravaged Australia's East coast at the end of March and an oil-spill has hit some of the most famous beaches, we decided to fly to Perth and visit some of the worthwhile beaches on the West Coast and to learn to surf! Of course, we will also travel to Coral Bay to dive on Ningaloo Reef.
Lots of love & see ya later,
Thomas and Mischa
So we left French Polynesia with lots of great memories, setting the bar high for any future travelling. However, the next destination was not too bad either: Fiji!! Here it would be "bula" instead of "lorana".
Our trip to Fiji was probably the most stressful we had so far. Our flight was going to take us from Papeete to Auckland, New Zealand, where we would have a two-hour stopover before taking another flight to Fiji. Trouble started in Papeete already, where our flight was delayed by more than an hour and a half, time we would not make up once we were airborne. When we finally landed in Auckland, it took us another 10 minutes before we could dock the gate. So that left us with a trivial 20 minutes to check in, get boarding passes and reach our departure gate for an international flight to Fiji...that meant...running!!! At the transfer desk, things got frantic. As it turned out, most passengers on our flight had a connecting flight. However, their Qantas flight to Sydney was scheduled to leave before our connecting flight to Fiji giving them the right to claim boarding passes ahead of us. We can tell you that the layer of civilisation in mankind is very thin...Fortunately, our Air Pacific flight to Fiji ended up being delayed as well, so we caught our flight easily although we had a few more grey hairs...
Despite all the stress we had in Auckland, we arrived safely in Nadi, Fiji. Unfortunately, our bags did not...both of them!!! Okay, okay, this was bound to happen, if you take 25-30 flights in one year, but it could not have happened at a worse time. Here we were in 30 degrees Celsius paradise at 9pm wearing our hiking boots (with thick socks), long sleeved shirts and just one pair of underwear each. In addition, our plan was not to stay in Nadi, but to travel the same evening to Pacific Harbour, a 2-3 hour drive away. Nothing could be done as we hopped onto a cab to Pacific Harbour. On our way we could clearly see the effects of the cyclone that had passed over Fiji only two weeks earlier, flooding most of Nadi. There was a huge mess everywhere and the road was horrible because it had been inundated for most part of the weeks before. Nevertheless, the nature was quite lush and stunning.
In Pacific harbour we stayed at Pacific Safari Club, which came highly recommended by Rafael (remember Rangiroa??) and Nadine (his girlfriend) who had spend some time here the year before. This is where Rafael perfected his shark feeding skills. In fact, Pacific Harbour is known amongst divers as THE shark-feeding diving paradise. And we were going to experience this the very next day...
At Aquatrek (http://www.aquatrek.com/), our dive centre, we could not fail to notice the next day that that things operated completely different as compared to the dive operations in French Polynesia. First of all, there were about 20 people on our boat, while we were used to boats with max 6-8 people (hail to mass tourism diving!!). Then, most people on the boat were backpackers from Australia and New Zealand, most of them with hardly any diving experience. We had not seen those before. Third, the briefing was quite chaotic and nobody really listened...surprisingly, considering that we where about to be surrounded by more than 20 ferocious man-eating sharks!! When we got into the water things did not get any better...total chaos! However, once everybody settled on the bottom behind a little wall at 20 meters depth, the show started and everything was forgotten.
Ahead of the dive, the dive guides had lowered four waste dispensing bins (NL: groene kliko's) to the bottom, filled to the brim with fish waste...more than 250 kilos in total!!! Total madness!! Sharks were lured in by opening these containers and throwing fish waste up in the water. By the time we arrived at the bottom they were all there: huge nurse sharks, lemon sharks, grey reef sharks, silvertip sharks, whitetip reefsharks and the very impressive and huuuuuuge bullsharks (which are known for killing people...!!).
On top of that, there were massive schools of fish (mainly mackerels) who circled around the kliko's as well. The dive guides would continue throwing fish waste around as the sharks and the fish went totally berserk. Other dive guides protected the fish handlers by keeping the sharks at bay with long metal sticks. However sometimes, the bigger sharks would come so close that they had to be pushed away BY HAND...WOW!! Although the water was very murky and visibility was limited to no more than 15 meters, the whole view and spectacle were very impressive and it was one big, amazing, adrenalin rush. The sharks were everywhere and we had to duck regularly to let them pass over (you could actually see their teeth!). We were told not to stick out our hands, since the sharks could mistake your arm for fish bate and just snatch it off... brrrr!! This was a truly unforgettable attraction, although it had nothing to do with diving.
Just as reminder: at this point our luggage had still not arrived and the two dives were done in our underwear (we arrived at the dive shop once again in our hiking boots). Much to the embarrassment of Thomas who was wearing a bright pink boxershort, which really works well in a male dominated macho society such as Fiji... In fact, Air Pacific is well know for loosing its luggage (one in every three bags gets lost) and the airlane is often referred to as Air Pathetic! Fortunately as a consequence, they have also become experts at retrieving bags (phew!) as no bag ever gets lost. However this can sometimes take up to one week!! We just had to hang in there. We had become very creative with the garments that we did have, for example Mischa had started to use her PLO shawl as a skirt, while Thomas opted for commando style under his new pair of shorts.
The next day we went diving in the Beqa lagoon off the coast of Pacific Harbour (again in underwear (pink underwear in Thomas's case...)). This turned out to be one big disappointment as the water was very murky (probably thanks to the cyclone), the corals very dead and colourless and the dive guide in a very bad mood. Although we wanted to leave Pacific Harbour, we could not as our bags had not yet arrived. The next day however, at 7 in the morning, we heard a very quiet knock on our door and were happily reunited with our beautiful huge and filled to the brim backpacks!! Jippie!!
Although Fiji's main island Viti Levu is beautiful, the archipelago consists of more than 300 islands and there was more country to be discovered. In setting our itinerary on Fiji we picked (taddah!) the best diving sports and went to Kadavu's Great Astrolabe Reef in the south and Taveuni' Somosomo Strait in the north. Given our excellent experience with flying in French Polynesia, we decided to board another little turboprop aircraft, which took us to picturesque and remote Kadavu in 1.5 hours.
There, we hopped on a small boat with all our luggage and took a 3 hour ride to our final destination: Waisalima Beach Resort, basically located in the middle of nowhere but recommended by the owner of the Pacific Safari Club Inn.
Shortly after we arrived we heard that the owner of the place, some weird Australian woman had been trying to sell the place for years. Given that the resort is pretty much run down and is desperate need of repair, we imagine that this will be a huge challenge. The bures had big holes in them, there was no warm water, no electricity and the cyclone had washed away most of the once splendidly beautiful beach in front of the resort. The owner had left to Australia and had asked a young American/Fijian couple to run the place, although they had no experience whatsoever in that field (actually no guests were expected during the more quiet months). So we were pretty sceptical upon arrival. However, that proved to be premature. We truly had a wonderful time! Since there was nothing else to do, we basically spend our days diving (which was fantastic) and relaxing by reading books in a hammock.
Furthermore the food was wonderful (thanks to an Indian influence on the Fijian kitchen, almost 50% of the Fijian population has Indian ancestors) and we had the whole place to ourselves given that we were the only guests around (all marketing efforts for the place had stopped). On the last day, they organised a Kava ceremony for us. Kava is a slightly narcotic drink, made from either the dried Kava roots or tree. It is a very important part of the Fijian culture. It used to be a ceremonial drink whereby villages would gather around the chief, drinking Kava and discussing anything that needed to be discussed within the village. As it goes, nowadays most men in Fiji spend large parts of their day drinking Kava, getting stoned, while the women work...sounds familiar? If somebody offers you Kava, they would find it very offensive if you say no. So we obviously accepted their offer. With some reluctance though because the taste of Kava is comparable to...well mud...yuk!! It was a great night!! Kadavu was really our little paradise and we left with much regret.
On our way to the airport, our luck ran out once again. The boat's engine broke down and it started raining like crazy (there was no roof or anything to hide under). The boat was only creeping forward and at that pace we would never make it on time to the airport for our flight to Nadi (and Taveuni the next day). We were starting to become a little nervous. The fact that we slowly were getting soaked to the bone did not help.... Fortunately the father of our boat driver was a mechanic. So we detoured to a little village on the coast where the engine was quickly reassembled. We arrived at the airport just in time...to find out that the airplane was an hour delayed...what's new...FIJI TIME!! ;-))
In Nadi, we spend the night in a real hotel, called Aquarius Fiji (www.aquariusfiji.com), drinking a nice cold glass of white wine (no wine on Kadavu) and a spicy hot curry as we celebrated our return to civilisation...only to leave it again the next day. On the agenda: the famous Somosomo Strait in between the islands of Vanua Levu and Taveuni.
Another turboprop flight of about 2 hours brought us to the island of Taveuni. From there it only took a mere 15 minute boat-drive to our final destination: Dophin Bay Divers Retreat on the island of Vanua Levu (http://www.dolphinbaydivers.com/). The biggest shock for us was that they actually had other guests!! Bleh...so we had to be social again...;-)
Luckily, the people in the group (an elderly American couple Graig and Annie and Sabine and Simon, a young Swiss couple on a world tour like us) were very nice and we ended up spending the best of 5 days together. Furthermore, the owners of the place, Viola and Roland were really sweet people who would sit with us during breakfast, lunch and diner and amuse us with their stories about Fiji, Fijians and running a dive resort in the Pacific. The diving was simply great. We have seen quite a lot of places already in the world but Somosomo Strait really ranks as one of the best spots we have ever seen. Here, you hardly see any sharks or big fish. No, Somosomo Strait is known for its hard and especially soft corals and the sheer abundance of fish. And we were not disappointed!!
After 5 days of hard core diving and great food and fun, we had to get back to Nadi. The last night we had diner with Sabine and Simon who had followed our advice and booked a room in the Aquarius, like us, and ended up in the room next to us. So we spend the night reminiscing the diving and our stay at Dolphin Bay Divers retreat and enjoying a big dancing and fire-dancing event that had been organised by the hotel.
Next it was time to move on to Australia. We were very exited and looking forward to see Marco and Nik in Melbourne. Finally some familiar faces again!!
Lots of love!!
Thomas and Mischa
Salut a tous!!!
After a great stay on Easter Island it was time to move on again. A real goodbye to the Spanish speaking world! A short flight brought us to a new world: French Polynesia (FP), simply THE dream destination and our first impression was...that it sucked!! Papeete, FP's capital, is horrendously ugly. The Japanese in WWII bombed it and the French did not do a good job rebuilding it. Another thing that struck us immediately was that it was ridiculously expensive. We knew it would be expensive, but prices just beat our wildest expectations, like we have never seen anywhere in the world (and yes, we are Dutch!)! The common argument is that it is so expensive because it is so remote.... We did not buy that argument, as we have been to many remote places in the world where prices were maybe 50% to 80% less than the ones in FP. No, the main reason for it being so expensive is that the economy is very much supported by France. Salaries for the municipal employees (accounting for 30-40% of the workforce) are equal to the ones paid in France with the difference that people do not pay income taxes in FP, resulting in very high net disposable incomes and consequently high prices. Wow, how's that for an economic analysis...are you bored yet?...;-)
Anyway, we immediately felt it in our wallet. Our first taxi ride from the airport to our hotel of around 7 minutes cost us more than 30 euros while we were used to pay max 3 euro taxirides in all of South America. The first two nights we stayed in a place called Teamo Hostel (http://chez.mana.pf/~tahitihostel/en_situation.htm), the only real low budget hostel in Papeete. We ended up in dorm paying 40 euros for the night while a comparable dorm room would have cost us maybe 15 euros in South America!! Initially, we intended to stay a few days in Papeete but after only one night in the very hot and very smelly dorm (Yuk, yuk, yuk!!! There was this guy with the most terrible body odour ever - and he did take 2-3 showers a day!!!!), we decided we had had enough of it and would leave as soon as possible!! But first we had to change our mind set. If you really want to enjoy FP you have to accept the fact that you will spend an awful lot of money, no matter what. So we swallowed hard and deeply a few times (we actually thought about leaving FP immediately and travel on to Fiji...), checked our savings several times and decided that we would double our intended budget for the four weeks we were going to spend there. That actually took a big burden off our backs and made planning our trip a lot easier (it's funny how the mind works, ey?).
The other thing that struck us in Papeete was the limited opening hours. It was sheer impossible to find anything to eat after 8 o'clock in this freaking town.... On the first night we ended up getting take-away pizza and we still had to wait more than 45 minutes for that. All shops start closing at 5 o'clock during weekdays and roughly everything is closed during the weekend. We really missed South America where almost every other person would run a little shop on the street, keeping the city up and running well after midnight!
There are two ways to travel to the different islands of FP. You can either take a boat or go by plane. Of course taking a plane is way more expensive. However, you have to keep in mind that FP is about the size of the whole of Europe (including the now bankrupt states of Eastern Europe)...so going by boat is not really an option unless you intend to spend a couple of days each time in cockroach infested bunkbeds...which just is not our idea of a holiday! After concluding that planes were our means of transportation, we had to set our itinerary. This turned out to be pretty easy. Visiting FP without passing through the well-known paradise islands of Moorea and Bora Bora is simply unthinkable. Furthermore as a diver you can not take yourself serious anymore if you haven't been to Tikehau, Rangiroa and Fakarava. So our choices had been made. It is actually rather simple to travel around FP as Air Tahiti offers so called air-passes (we got the red Bora-Tuamotu Pass), which gives you the possibility to fly to all these islands on one pass at a significantly reduced price in comparison to booking just one way tickets.
The following morning we got up to fly to Moorea, the bounty Islands where the actual Bounty and its crew spend a couple of years after the mutiny...It was going to be our shortest flight ever, circa 5 minutes from Papeete in a twin otter (6 seated tiny little cute aeroplane) to the airport on Moorea. We sat behind the open cockpit and witnessed how the captain landed the plane with just only one hand on the steering wheel...whuaaaahhh!!! From the plane we got a brief glimpse of what Moorea actually has to offer: beautiful bays, high mountains covered in forest and lush vegetation surrounded by the bluest of blue water!
Unfortunately it was the rainy season, so shortly after our arrival, it started to rain and the island turned into something quite different: misty bays, high mountains hidden behind grey clouds and a hint of forest through the heavy rain. Mmmm, this was not what we signed up for! Fortunately, we had quite a nice apartment in a place called Albert's Motel in Cooks Bay (http://ile-tropicale.com/motelalbert/us-presentation.html), which although a bit old and up for a makeover offered great value for money. As it continued to rain for almost 4 consecutive days, we ended up spending a lot of time here...
Albert's Motel is the also place where we had the now infamous "Cockroach Incident". It goes as follows. During our second night in Moorea and after a day of just rain, the sky got greyer and the rain showers intensified to a point where we thought that we would never ever leave our little apartment. We were actually praying that a big landslide would not erase our bungalow from the face of the earth... However, as morning came, we woke up to a little drizzle, giving us the opportunity to go out and to discover the island. Mischa stepped into the shower (not wearing her flip-flops or glasses - normally, she is not completely at her qui-vive in the morning) and turned on the tab when suddenly....everything around her began to move. We found out that around 50 cockroaches in different sizes had crawled up the sewer pipe into our shower, probably because the rainwater flooded the sewage and forced them to do so. Of course, total pandemonium broke out!! She started screaming and shouting and calling her hero (this is of course Thomas), who also started screaming and shouting like a little baby. We went for the insect repellent and tried to kill the nasty bugs, but only managed to get them even more energised. In fact, they were crawling up the shower curtain and out of the shower basin, running into the room at this stage. So there was only one thing to do: kill them, kill them all, one by one with our Havaiana's flip-flops!! It was quite a spectacle, we kept banging away for ten minutes or so trying to get them, running frantically after them all across our apartment, shouting "no, no, no!!!". In the end we got them all but we both ended up with a severe posttraumatic stress syndrome.
This of course had only one cure: diving! Moorea itself is not very interesting for divers. The corals are basically dead and the water is polluted by the silt that is washed down from the island thanks to erosion caused by deforestation and palm plantations. However there is one great lure and that is that dive centres conduct shark feeding. Now you can have all kinds of moral issues regarding shark feeding (with which we of course totally agree!), however it does attract sharks and is just good old fashioned FUN! We actually found a diving operation that does not feed sharks, but as the animals are so accustomed to being fed, they will respond to the sound of the boat engine and approach divers the moment you hit the water. In this particular case they were Lemonsharks. Pretty big dangerous looking bastards, which swam around us during the whole dive. Lots of fun!!
While on Moorea, we also noticed that the financial crisis had hit home. In fact, two huge hotels in Cooks Bay (The Holiday Inn and Club Med) closed down due to an immense slow down in tourism. Many locals told us that if nobody would buy these hotels that they would inevitably run into financial trouble. Everybody was very concerned about the future. Obviously, FP has a marketing problem since almost all the tourists that we encountered on the islands were French! No Americans, no English, hardly any Germans (which you normally see everywhere), almost no Dutch (quite unique since Dutch tourists are infesting the world all over), no Italians...no, only French! Of course that does not work in these times of crisis and it gave us the idea that we probably had some bargaining power, which would help us talk down prices of the hostels we would be staying at. And with success, we negotiated quite a bit in the weeks thereafter getting 10-20% or sometimes 40% of the offered prices anywhere we went. The fact that Thomas is almost fluent in French did help, since almost no-one speaks good English and everything had to be organised by telephone given that internet is nearly non-existent and again ridiculously expensive in French Polynesia...
Our next stop was Bora Bora.
It is said that Bora Bora is the most beautiful island in the world. That's a lot of BS! However, the flight into Bora Bora is quite spectacular and from above it definitely looks awe-inspiring. The airport is on the outer ridge surrounding the island so you have take a 15 minute boat ride to the island itself. Most hotels are located on Matira Point. This is also the spot where all those famous photos and films of Bora Bora are shot. And although it always looks great in those shots when you are actually standing on the beach and walking around at Matira Point you may feel like you have been famously fooled. In fact, there are hotels and hostels on every stretch of beach around you and there is really nothing, nothing, nothing idyllic about the place. It's basically packed to the brim. Furthermore, the streets are filled with stray dogs which will seriously harass you all the time making you mad with anger and annoyance. Thomas got attacked by two stray dogs from behind and they almost ripped his T-shirt from his hunky chest. Really scary! Luckily, our hostel Pension Maeva - Chez Rosine Masson was absolutely fantastic. Right on the beach with its own little stretch of sand where you could relax or have your diner while watching the sunset. Just great!!
The weather turned out to be way better than on Moorea as well. Then again, as a side effect the place was infested with mosquitos with the picture below showing Mischa the morning after!
Stupidly enough we chose Bora Bora as the place were we would go onto the internet to buy a new camera with underwater case (so we could once again make all those beautiful underwater pictures - remember: our camera broke down in Ecuador!). In about a month time we would meet Marco and Nik in Sydney. So we had limited time to buy stuff and get it to them before they would leave Amsterdam. Bora Bora left us two options: 1. go to the nearest hotel and pay 20 euros for an hour of internet usage (about 1-2 dollars in South America... moan, moan!!) 2. rent a bike for a day and bike down to the main village at an hour drive to use the internet there at a price of around 15 euros per hour. We chose the latter as it would also give us the possibility to explore the island. However, internet in the village was soooo slow that we spend almost 3 hours just TRYING to buy a camera and an underwater case and eventually failed at it. Problems with the connection, our paypall account and the online sites we were using resorted in us just sending emails to the helpdesks and asking them how on earth we were going to get this done within the given timeframe! Frustrated we cycled home...The next day we went to the Marriot which had superfast internet and got everything sorted out in 30 minutes...grumble!!
After Bora Bora, we took a 1.5 hours flight to a little paradise island called Tikehau, with 300 inhabitants, in the Tuamotu Islands archipelago (no internet, banks, ATM or anything here!). Funnily enough, there were only 10 passengers on the twin turboprop aeroplane which can carry more than 50 normally and when we touched down on Tikehau, we were the only people getting off the plane. A bit of a strange idea to have an aeroplane land just for you!! We had booked a nice hostel called Pension Panau Lagon, where we had a beautiful little bungalow right on a stunning deserted beach.
The thing here was that we could only book half or full pension given that there is precisely one little shop on the whole island and no hostel or hotel offers kitchen facilities. Panau Lagon is were our negotiation tactics quite severely backfired. We were able to talk the price per person down from 75 euros per person per night to around 50 euros per person per night, not realising that this would result in them cutting down on the quality of the food, which SUCKED!!! On the other hand, we felt quite safe at Panau Lagon, given the fact that the "father of the house" was the local police chief....
Tikehau is famous for its diving, so we quickly contacted the only diving operation on the island where the very friendly French divemaster Thierry booked us for the next day. The diving was ok, not great but still much better than on Moorea. Nice corals and lots of fish. This was also the first time that we came across a first glimpse of the French or CMAS way of diving. For example, the surface interval between the first and the second dive was only about 45 minutes, while Padi advises 1 hour or more. Later on we talked to divers that told us that their surface interval was only 30 minutes. Now this in itself is not necessarily more dangerous if you take the short surface interval into account during your second dive, but it just showed us that things were done just a little bit differently here. One of the main perks of diving with Thierry was that the dive school was actually located at the Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort (www.pearlresorts.com/tikehaupearlbeachresort/main.php), the best and most luxurious 5 star resort on the island. After the second dive of the day, we could stay over at the hotel for lunch and just hang around the pool for the rest of the day. And so we did!! Here we were on a paradise island spending a minimum on lodging during the night while living the life of the rich and famous during the day. Excellent!!
Unfortunately, that night, the wind picked up quite dramatically and it started raining. It continued to do so for the next 3 days and nights and we literally spend 3 days in bed hanging about and reading books, there just was nothing else to do on the whole !@#$%^& island... We were invited by Thierry and his wife to drink an aperitif and did spend a lovely afternoon and evening at their home, talking about diving and all the little funny things the locals do! When the night was over, we cycled home in the headlights of their squad, as it was too dark to see the road (and the entire island for that matter)!!
Our next island was Rangiroa. This was the place we had been dreaming of in the last year. Known for its world-class diving, we were bound to see lots of sharks, mantas and dolphins - bring it on! We booked a room in the Rangiroa Lodge (http://www.rangiroalodge.com/) located right on the beach and right next to the diving operation.
We ended up diving 7 days in a row and really did some of the most spectacular dives we've ever done.
On the first dive, our dive master Rafael took us to Avotoru pass. Diving in the Tuamotu Archipelago is mainly done in the passes to the atolls where you have very strong currents when the tide comes in or goes out. This attracts lots of wildlife. Rafael took along a couple of fish-heads, which he hid under the coral. Soon, 6 huge Silvertip Sharks appeared, attracted by the smell and just trying to get hold of the fish-heads. They kept on circling us, coming so close to you, you can actually touch them...and they are huge (3-4 meter)!!! Then after about 30 minutes we drifted off over the coral which was in a fantastic shape. A great start!
The second dive, Rafael surprised us when he asked us if we wanted to go see " The Wall of Sharks", which (surprise, surprise!!) is located at 60 meters (!!!) in the infamous Tiputa Pass. For the crazy French, 60 meters is nothing.... For us, being Padi divers, 60 meters is simply a no go depth. As the divers amongst you will know, you have to realise that nitrogen narcosis kicks in at around 30-35 meters and gets increasingly worse as you go deeper, creating tunnel vision and making you lose judgement which can result in a feeling of carelessness and ease which has made divers spit out their regulators to take a nice deep breath of...water...resulting in...death! Moreover, oxygen turns poisonous at around 50 meters, which can cause sudden spasms which result in a total loss of control and eventually...death. So obviously Thomas immediately said: SURE, why not!! Mischa, always the wiser in our relationship thought differently and shouted out: NO WAY!!! A long and vivid discussion including arm throwing and finger pointing followed...yes, tears were shed...
After a while we agreed that doing these long deep deco dives would be an important addition to our experience as divers and eventually make us better divers. Furthermore it was the only way to see "The Wall of Sharks", which by now sounded more and more appealing. We told Rafael that we would love to do it but slowly build up our depth experience. So during our first dive, we went down to 45 meters (our record till then had been 40 meters and something) and hung about 10 meters above the rest of the group. Mischa, as always a bit more scared of new things, consumed way more air than normally and had to face the embarrassment of - as an instructor - requiring the octopus of our diveguide Ornela to get back to the surface (Mischa says: "the shame, the shame", while Thomas needless to say continues to rub it in). Furthermore...no sharks...In fact, there was no current at all keeping the sharks away at depth. Over the next days, Rafael made it his personal project to teach Mischa how to feel relax at depth. Raphael, being a free diver for years, introduced the Japanese torpedo (arms stretched in front) and manta ray (arms wide to the side) position under water to limit one's air consumption. We had the best time ever.... Copying these two positions under as well as above water! Every day we went deeper and deeper until finally we did one dive of around 55 meters every day feeling totally at ease. The current also picked up as the days went by and finally we saw "The Wall of Sharks": hundreds and hundreds of grey reef sharks swimming up and down in the blue...magical!
Nevertheless, the regular dives were also great. We saw Mantas on almost every dive, we saw the spawning of surgeonfish, the corals were in fantastic shape, the fish abundant and the group with which we dived (mainly German babyboomers which were a lot of fun to be with) was great!
In addition to all the above, Tiputa pass is also world renowned for its school of resident dolphins, which live here all year around. In fact, we would either see them jumping in front of our boat or in the waves that were created by the ingoing tide as we went for another dive. Very often we would hear them under water and on one magical occasion we actually ran into them underwater and they came up to us to play. Now this is about as rare as seeing pigs fly...so we felt very lucky.
If anything, we decided that this would be a place were we wanted to come back to for diving.
Too soon our time was up in Rangiroa and we had to fly on to the next destination: Fakarava.
Originally we had not intended to go to Fakarava but on Easter Island we met a dive guide who had worked there and had told us that we absolutely had to go there, or regret it for the rest of our lives. On Rangiroa this was confirmed by basically everybody we encountered. So our expectations were pretty high. The first 3 nights we spend in a very nice, clean and friendly hostel called Relais Marama (www.relais-marama.com). Obviously, being a small incesty island, the owner of Relais Marama was also the father in law of our diveguide at Te Ava Nui (http://www.divingfakarava.com/). The last 3 nights we spend in a more luxurious hotel, pampering ourselves for a last time at Pearl Guesthouse Havaiki (www.macrohead.com/Havaiki/), which also housed a pearl farm and whose owner was happy to show the guests the process of pearl farming.
The diving was mind boggling. As compared to Rangiroa, the corals were in even better shape and there was way more fish. Also, we saw once again mantas on almost every dive. We will not even start telling you about the famous "Grotte de Ali Baba"... On our last diving day, we took a 3 hour boat trip to the South Pass in Fakarava. This is the narrowest pass of any atoll in FP and known amongst the diving community for the best shark dive in the world. Although we had an excellent first dive (seeing a group of more than 100 grey reef sharks), the conditions for the second and presumably more spectacular dive were not that great: murky waters and very little current. However, it did give us an idea of what could have been: over 400 grey reef sharks passing through the channel and all around us and fantastic corals of a quality not seen anywhere before. We were told that if the current is stronger you can have up to 1000 sharks in the pass, blocking the views like a regular wall. We will come back for sure to see that!!
Although diving on Fakarava was great, there are certain dangers that lurk in the deep. After our excellent trip to the South Pass, Mischa had a small minuscule black dot on her biggest toe. Given the size of the thing, it was given no second though. The next day however, she was not able to move her toe anymore and her little foot hurt like hell, up to the point were walking from our little hut to the restaurant seemed like a marathon. Some little bells started ringing. It was when we saw the veins in her right leg swelling and turning red, that we raised the flag! By chance, one of the people staying at Havaiki was the head of the biggest medical emergency unit in Papeete and a well trained doctor (keep in mind that there is no doctor on the whole island and medical assistance is at least a few hours away...). She looked at Mischa's toe and after feeling her leg and groin concluded that she was bitten by a vicious animal who poisoned her and the poison was slowly but surely moving towards her hart..... brrrrr!!! That of course freaked the hell out of Mischa!!! She needed to start taking antibiotics as soon as possible. If no results were seen after 1-2 days, the doses needed to be increased.... more brrrr!! Of course, being well prepared world travellers, we were equipped with a 5-day antibiotic treatment - which turned out to be a correct one - and Mischa was thrilled that she could take the first tablet. Her toe felt already better the next day and her health was completely restored after 5 days. Mmmm, so much for the ocean.
After 4 wonderful weeks, our trip to French Polynesia came to an end. We returned to Papeete with amazing memories and the promise that one day we will return. In Papeete we stayed in Teamo once more, but this time opted for the air-conditioned and more luxurious double bedroom, which was a bit more expensive than the dorm but oh so much more comfortable!!
After three weeks of hardcore diving, we really felt like diving a lot more. So Fiji, here we come!!!
Mischa and Thomas
On the 3rd of January we said goodbye to the mainland of South America (snif, snif, snif) as our journey took us to the remote, but oohh so lovely Easter Island. As Easter Island is part of Chile, we checked in one hour before our flight at Santiago International airport. However, it turned out that we were very fortunate that we still had a seat as the flight was...well totally over-booked!! Mischa ended up into a nasty fight with one of the other passengers to make sure she could still sit next to Thomas! Around midday we arrived at the airport and were greeted (with flowers!) by Erica of Hostel Chez Erica (a lot of places are called chez something....no idea why....French is not really spoken here).
Our hostel turned out to be a charming little place with a beautiful and lush garden and close to Easter Island's biggest town Hanga Roa. This would be our home for the next 5 days.
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is just a tiny little speck of land and one of the most isolated places on earth: the flight from Santiago took a whopping 5 hours and the closest piece of land is Pitcairn island (and we all know what happened there!!). The island is famous for its monumental and oh so familiar statues, called moai, created by the Rapanui people with their unusual rapa nui language. After 7 months just using "hola" and "gracias" we had to switch "lorana" and "maururu" now, that was fun! In general, the people living on the island are very relaxed and laid-back. The main street in Hanga Roa felt like a small little town and the number of tourists running around was very small. Yes, we would definitely enjoy ourselves here!
The next day we woke up early to pick up our little jeep (roads can be pretty rough!) and set off to explore the island. For some historical background we started at the Museo Antropologico Sebastian Englert, which contains a wealth of information about the island, its history, culture and of course its moai. There are more than 880 moai on Easter Island, which measures considerably less than the bigger Amsterdam Area... as such, the "little" creatures can be found just everywhere and the whole island to us looks like one big open air museum! Moai come in different shapes and sizes - from 2 meter up to 10 meter in height. Some moai have been completely restored, while others have been re-erected but are almost completely eroded. Many more lie on the ground, toppled over - usually face down and some wear hats, the so called topknots: very cute. Surprisingly, all moai face inland!
After our necessary intake of info, we went to discover the island and drove to the Rano Kau crater. Here, we gazed open-mouthed at the mesmerising scene. The crater is at the edge of the island and gives a 36-degree view of its emerald-green lake down below and of the inky-blue ocean. Wow!!
Close to the crater is the Orongo Ceremonial Village, our next stop. Although the site was a bit disappointing (just a heap of stones leaped together) it did give us an amazing view of the ocean and its petite offshore islands including the dive site Moto Nui, which we were set to visit tomorrow.
At 9.00am sharp we were at the dive shop (http://www.seemorca.cl/) to do a two-tank dive in the crystal clear but very cold waters around Rapa Nui. Although there are no swarms of fish in the waters surrounding Easter Island, the area is world renowned for its gin clear visibility, which can reach up to 60 meters, and dramatic seascape. We were in for a treat!! Moto Nui, our second dive, is the prime dive site. At a depth of 35-40 meter, we could see the waves rolling in, while the bottom of the ocean floor at 100 meter was also still visible. Nice! The water temperature was as expected cold and after a warm and long shower we enjoyed a fine dinner in one of the local restaurants.
The next day we drove to the other site of the island to finally see some of the Moai "in the wild". The first thing we noticed as we headed north was the sheer amount of horses on the island and it turned out that they have been breeding like rabbits!! At the moment there are more horses that people inhabiting the island!! They tend to cross the road unexpectedly, which did not really add to our comfort driving the winding roads around the island. On our way to one of the beautiful beaches at the other tip of the island, we passed the Ahu Tongariki, a famous row of 15 moai, re-erected by a Japanese company in 1995.
When reaching Anakena beach, we encountered a typical scene of some heavy overweight locals running a little shag selling fruit, drinks and BBQ-ed meat on the beach!! Yes, of course we had some companied by one or two Crystals (the local Chilean beer)! Mmmm!
Anakena beach is THE beach where the locals gather to enjoy an afternoon in the sun and cool off in the water. It also forms the perfect backdrop for some more moai, seven in total, some with hats others without. All in all, it represented a perfect spot to eat our freshly BBQ-ed sausages and potatoes.
Our final destination, and in hindsight the highlight of Easter Island, was the "nursery" of the moai, the Rano Raraku volcano. This is the place were all the moai were carved out before being moved to their final destination. It is very captivating as though you are stepping back in time, wandering trough the landscape among the different moai in all stages of progress. Some moai are partly burred with their head sticking out from the grassy slopes, while others are still very much attached to the mountain.
We just fell in love with the little creature and at the local mercado artesanal, we put a dent in our wallet and bought one of the woodcarved moai statues (no hat though!!).
On our last night in Easter Island we had another romantic tete-a-tete and indulged on a good meal at La Taverne du Pecheur... it would be one of our last as prices would soar as we moved to French Polynesia.
Mischa and Thomas
Oufff, it has been ages since we last wrote something on our blog.... In fact, our last real update was more than 2 months ago and time has flown by since then!! Right now, we are in Sydney and our adventures in South America seem to be sooo far away already. Despite this, as promised we would love to fill you in on our peculiar, funny and unforgettable escapades and encounters in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego - The end of the world.
After leaving Torres del Paine, we travelled to El Calefate to visit the world renowned Perito Moreno Glacier and we must say it was breathtaking to see such a ginormous "chunk" of ice!
El Calefate, the little town closest to the glacier where we stayed, was a bit disappointing and very touristy but as is was probably our last stay in Argentina, we indulged once more on steaks and wine at a local restaurant.
When we left Torres del Paine, we intended to do a few more days of hardcore hiking around the Fitz Roy mountain. However when we arrived in El Calefate we realised that we were totally fed up with walking and hiking, so we took a bus the next day to Ushuaia. Although the distance between the two cities is just a 6-hour drive, numerous border crossings between Chili and Argentina and the need to take a ferry increases the journey time to more than 13 hours, if you are lucky! To give you an idea about the bordercrossings:
So, we decided to cut our journey in half and stay an extra night in the glamorous Rio Gallegos. Here, tourists were still regarded as a rarity and we were gazed at as if we came from Mars (especially Thomas with his long blond hairs) and you saw everybody thinking: "What the @#$% are you two doing here!!" An other phenomenon that we observed in Rio Gallegos, was the so called "floggers" - guys that look as gay as can be, but are not (a huge trend in Argentina)!! Floggers wear these really bright (and tight) jeans along with v-neck t-shirts, huge sunglasses and abnormally funky haircuts (think gel in extreme), while their faces tend to have a lot of piercings. Just google "flogger Argentina" and you get the picture. But just for you to get an idea:
In Rio Gallegos we stayed in this cute, but bit ramshackle motel/hostel and as such we were more than glad to leave the following day to Ushuaia, the self-proclaimed "Fin del mundo - the end of the world".
Ushuaia is at the southern tip of South America and the main port, from which all the vessels and cruises to the South Pole depart. In addition, it is the gateway to the Tierra del Fuego national park, which has - surprise, surprise - some great hikes and walking trails (right up our alley... jippee)!
Ushuaia is a great small city surrounded by some dramatic mountains and the bluest water. Views from all angels are unique and we were happy that we would spend the next few days here including Christmas!
At first, we stayed at the cutest place called La Casa in Ushuaia (http://www.silviacasalaga.com.ar)/, run by the very charming Silvia (she is an architect and designed and built her own house, which she turned into a B&B). We felt right at ease! Unfortunately, we had to leave earlier than we wanted to (she was booked out). Luckily, we found a still charming but less homy hostel across the road.
The weather changed dramatically when we went from El Calefate to Ushuaia. Were we still wearing shorts and t-shirts in El Calefate, in Ushuaia we needed all our gear, including heats and gloves to keep us warm and protect us from the gushing winds and blistering cold. In general, the climate in this region is very inhospitable and there are very few days without rain, slush, hail or snow! It felt just like Holland! In fact, the day before Christmas it snowed, turning Ushuaia and its surrounding mountains into a white Christmas-like setting. The one thing that is different and rather peculiar is that the sun rises at around 5am and sets at 11-12pm... bizarre!
Of course, we could not leave Ushuaia without visiting the world-renowned Tierra del Fuego national park. So we packed our stuff and headed for another day of hiking. There are several trails one can do; some follow the riverbanks and seashores while others lead into the forest. We opted to do a few with a good mix of everything and, more importantly, which would limit our hiking days to one! We were lucky that the day we went it was sunny with just a few drops of rain. The park is nice, but cannot be compared to Torres del Paine, which we found overwhelming, more rugged and less touristy. However, we enjoyed ourselves, saw a beaver colony, had some striking views across the bays and had another good workout!
However, the next day resulted in the one things we will remember most about Tierra del Fuego. Some kind of very small, but highly aggressive and ferocious animal had bitten Mischa's eye, resulting in a abnormally large oedema in her eye!! Initially, she was not able to open her eyes and when walking on the streets people would look at Thomas like he had beaten the crap out of her (a bit like Cris Brown hitting Rihanna)! So, she just put on her most charming and biggest sunglasses and headed to the nearest pharmacy to get some heavy drugs to reduce this THING on her face (even the assistant in the pharmacy went like: "Wow!!" and was a bit scared of her (and Thomas of course who she must have thought needed some anger management sessions!!). Luckily, the swelling reduced, but as we went for dinner later that evening, the waiter recognised Mischa and told her she looked much better.... Very embarrassing!!
We had a few very good dinners in Ushuaia, including a very romantic and divine Christmas dinner in supposedly the best restaurant of Ushuaia, Kaupe (http://www.kaupe.com.ar)/. We munched on some exquisite king crab and some lovely sea brass in "papillote", while drinking a bottle of our favourite Zuccardi "Q" (remember Mendoza?). In addition, we soaked up the atmosphere at Bodegon Fueguino and enjoyed another excellent steak at one of the local eateries. We also spend some hours at cosy Tante Sara (Dutch??), drinking coffee, having nice lunches, while reading La Nacion (one of the largest newspapers in Argentina) and the local gossip magazines.
And then we were off back to Chili, to Punta Arenas, the city where we would spend New Year! But the bus ride to Punta Arenas turned out to be an adventure by itself. Again, we had to go through two border-crossings and a ferry to pass the Mallaghan Straight. After leaving Ushuaia at 5 in the morning, the weather turned viler and by the time we reached the ferry at Porvenir, the wind had picked up and 5 to 10-meter waves made it sheer impossible to cross the channel. So there we were: packed together with literally hundreds of other stranded travellers in this little bistro with no idea whatsoever when we would leave and reach our final destination. The little bistro had anticipated the numerous people and stocked up on food, water and drinks. The very nice sandwiches with meat were to ones first to be sold out followed by all other sandwiches (cheese, tomato etc.), leaving just cookies, chocolate and water to eat and drink..... brrrr... Luckily, after a more than 6 hour wait, the sign "all clear" was given and the ferry service came back to live. At 12 in the evening we were thrilled that we could finally lay our heads to rest in our Hostel al Fin del Mundo (www.alfindelmundo.cl) - mmm, we thought we just came from there?!?!?!
Punta Arenas is a city known for its large air force base (men in uniforms were seen across the streets) and - more importantly for us - its still very vibrant reggaeton scene. Large groups from all over Chile flock to this southern city to go for a night of Latin hip-hop and reggae infused partying at one of the many café's, bars and discos. We knew what to do here - P.A.R.T.Y!!! Unfortunately, we totally mistimed our partying. In fact on the day before New Year's eve, we decided to go for a small drink. We soon found out that we had chosen to have a drink at one of the most popular cafes in town. We were the only tourists there as the bar filled with more and more people, dancing on the tables and in the mood to sing along with all the to us unknown songs played by the band. They had the best time ever. And so did we!!! Eventually, we ended up at the Kamikaze Club, the local reggaeton dancing hotspot where we danced until the whee hours. The next day was New Year's eve and we had a legendary hangover!! We ended 2008 and entered 2009 in bed and fast asleep......
On the 2nd of January, we flew from Punta Arenas back to Santiago de Chile, where we had another nice dinner and spend another night at the Rio Amazonas hostel. On the 3rd our adventure took us to the remote and far away Easter Island! Our last chance to savour South America....snif snif.
Lots of Love and Hasta la Pasta!
Thomas & Mischa
Yes, we are still alive and kicking... and have finally found an internet connection... so it is time to give a super short update of our adventures. When we find faster and better internet, we will beef up this story with some more juicy details and upload some more pictures.
After leaving Torres del Paine / Puerto Natales we did the following:
- Visiting the huge 6 story high Perito Moreno Glacier in Calefate - very breathtaking
- Travelling to the end of the world - Ushuaia and celebrating Christmas in a "Dutch" environment, i.e. cold, windy, snowy and lots of rainfall.
- Celebrating New Year in Punta Arenas - party capital of Chili....and so we did...J
- Easter Island: one big mysterious open-air museum with its more than 300 statues scattered around the island - unbelievable!!
- French Polynesia: expensive, expensive, expensive, but ohhh so beautiful! Lots of diving with manta's, dolphins, and hundreds of sharks all around us - our favourite so far!
We are now in Fiji and we will be leaving to yet another remote but idyllic place tomorrow with (no surprise) no internet, ATM, or electricity. So, you will hear from us again when we hit Australia in two weeks time. Until then,
Hasta la pasta & lots of love!!
Thomas & Mischa
As we mentioned the last time, we really loved Santiago. The weather was great (around 25-26 degrees) and it was really sunny. One evening, we took a cable car up San Cristobal hill, which is known for its beautiful sunsets over the city. Of course, we did it in style and took a bottle of champagne with us and half a kilo of cherries. The view and the sunset were indeed spectacular and we spend a couple of romantic hours up there, just looking into each others eyes..... ;-)
The next day, we took a bus to Mendoza in Argentina. It was an 8 hour drive straight through the Andes, quite spectacular. Mendoza, of course, is well known for its wines. The first surprise was to see that Norton (a commonly available brand in Dutch supermarkets) was situated next to a huge factory spitting out dark fumes all over the region...we will never drink that stuff again!! The only way to really enjoy Mendoza was to accept the fact that we were about to spend obscene amounts of money on wines, wines, wines and some carne...
After our indulging lunch, we bought one of their best bottles and had another ‘drinkgelag´ in the evening, going to one of the local restaurants in town where you could bring your own bottle of wine. The next day we did the same thing all over again, gaining all the weight we had lost over the last few months.
From Mendoza, we travelled to Buenos Aires. We heard many great stories about the Argentinean capital but found ourselves to be a little bit disappointed. Main reason was probably that it was burning hot as the city was suffering a heat wave. This meant +35 degrees Celsius which due to the humidity of about 100% felt more like 40-45 degrees...suffocating and not the climate that makes you want to do a lot. Added to this, we booked a room in a hostel that did not have a window, which made us feel like sausages being cooked in an oven. Fortunately BA has really good restaurants so we tried to forget our disappointment by... well... drinking more wine and eating more carne and - big surprise - that worked quite well...
From BA we took a direct bus back to Santiago - a 22 hours ride, a record for us. Fortunately, the busses in South America and Argentina specifically are quite unlike European busses. In general, they offer two different classes, semi-cama and cama. The lowest class, semi-cama, provides huge 80% reclineable chairs and with about a meter of legroom (!!), which will get you through the night quite comfortably. However, the price difference between semi-cama and the highest class - cama - is often only a few euros so cama is our drive of choice. In cama you have even bigger leather chairs which are 100% reclineable (we ended up having this biggg matrimonial bed). Moreover, they have stewards that will help you with your every need, show movies and serve breakfast, lunch and diner (including - of course more wine(!!)). All in all traveling in these buses is more comfortable than flying business class in an airplane...although it does take a big longer...
We spend one more day in Santiago where we visited the well known fish market and indulged ourselves with a complete King Crab for lunch and of course more wine (do you see a pattern emerging??). No need to get your hands dirty, a guy actually comes to your table and patiently extracts all the meat the Crab has to offer, wonderful!
The following day, we took a bus to Pucon which is located in the Chilean lake district. The lake district is known for its lakes of course, as the name suggests, set in farm land and overlooked by snow capped volcanoes...spectacular! The town of Pucon itself is the center for outdoor adventure sports such as wild water rafting, speed boarding and climbing. Lots of people only stay 2 or 3 days, but the moment we arrived we decided to stick around longer because it was such a cute village, lots of German styled wooden houses, a beautiful lake shore and Villarica - an impressive snow capped volcano - always in the background.
Unfortunately we had to drop the first two activities on day one when the guy at the counter of the outdoor shop started laughing out loud when we asked him if it was ok to do rafting or speed boarding 6 weeks after breaking a collar bone...so we settled for hiking.
Didn't we mention that we would never ever ever ever (!!) climb a mountain again after the traumatic experience of Villanaraju in Peru. Well - guess what - the first thing we did was exactly that...we climbed the Villarica, a very active volcano that still spews out fumes every day. Fortunately it is somehow connected to the same magma field of Chaiten, which exploded last year and covered most of Patagonia in ashes. We were told that if one volcano is active the other one isn´t and vice versa. So it was considered quite safe to climb Villarica. The climb was pretty hard, going from 1500 meters up to 2900 meters above sea level, which is more than the height difference of the Villanaraju climb for example. However, the relatively low altitude makes a huge difference, because the air is much denser and you don't have to stop every 5 meters to regain your breath.
Just when we got to the top, huge clouds of phosphor fumes engulfed us, making us cough like mad and reducing our live expectancy by at least 15 years...The biggest treat was still waiting for us - the way down is...sledding (!!)... on your bum with help of one of those little plastic sleds that you see little children use in the French ski resorts. Think about it, that´s a sled ride covering 1400 meters of height difference and going straight down at ridiculous speeds in the tubes that were carved out by the many sledders before you... just like bobsledding. It was an amazing experience and in itself worth another climb up the mountain.
Two days later, we did the so called "tres lagos" trek, taking us about 6 hours through one of the most spectacular sceneries of the lake district and offering beautiful views on the Villarica.
After a week, we said goodbye to Pucon and took a five hour bus trip to Puerto Montt, the capital of the lake district but otherwise quite unspectacular, although we did enjoy a very nice dinner at the seafood market overlooking the harbor. The reason we stayed here was because this was the departure port for our 4 day boat-trip on the Navimag, a huge cargo boat that nowadays also caters to tourist, taking them from Puerto Montt through narrow channels flanked by snowcapped mountains and the open sea to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine. There is not a lot to do on the boat but to take in the landscape, read a book or two and have fun with the other passengers. Which is exactly what we did. While waiting to board the boat we met Sjoerd and Pär, a Dutch guy and a Swedish guy, and we had a really good time with them, hanging on the deck, drinking a couple of wines and spending the nights playing cards.
The last night on the boat, the crew organized a big party with bingo (!!) and lots of dancing, great fun! Our mechanic repair guy was the star of the evening singing several familiar songs.
The arrival port of Puerto Natales is the main town to organize trips to the world famous Torres del Paine national park. This park offers the essence of Patagonia, rugged snow capped mountains, rivers, forests, lakes, great views and of course glaciers. We decided to do the so- called "W" trek, taking us from one refugio to the next for 6 days in a row, spending between 4 to 7 hours every day walking with big 10 kilo backpacks. (Mam, pap, wedden dat jullie vroeger nooit gedacht hadden dat ik ooit zoveel zou wandelen!) It was pretty tough, especially after a couple of days carrying a big backpack on your back, but it was lots of fun.
The second night, in refugio Chileno, we met a Dutch couple, Thomas and Merel, and found out that they were walking the same route as we were. So we spend the next four nights chilling in the refugios and sharing our stories of pain and endurance. The third night we met Sjoerd in refugio Cuernos (remember from the Navimag) who was also walking the "W", but in opposite direction as ourselves. We hooked up and had Dutch evening, the five of us drinking and eating in the refugio.
In general, we were surprised by the sheer amount of Dutch people walking around in this part of the world, you literally see and hear them everywhere!! Particularly, Torres del Paine seems to attract an awful lot of our fellow countrymen. In the last refugio, Grey, we ended up with 5 Dutch couples (!!) and only 5 non-Dutch people, pretty bizar. The very last day we did a walk on Glaciar Grey, which was very very spectacular - beautiful sceneries, great blue and white colors and some thrilling climbs up and down the crevasses (yes, we were wearing crampons, but no ropes....). There are complete rivers floating on top, through and below Grey Glacier, some of them up to 30 meters deep.
All in all, Torres del Paine was definitely one of the highlights of our trip (so we have some understanding what all the Dutchies come to do here...). We are now off to El Calefate in Argentina, to do even more hiking in Patagonia (although Mischa is having second thoughts already...).
Leaves us to wish you all: A HAPPY CHRISMAS AND THE VERY BEST FOR 2009!!!
Lots of love, Mischa and Thomas