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South America (in a big blue truck)

This page has a a couple specific stories from my trip to South America...


It was as we approached the Pantanal wetlands that I realised something was up... For the first time in 6 months on the road, the windscreen of my truck was covered in splatted insects, a bee had just flown up my shorts and a dragonfly was sitting on my arm.

I had started my training on WAMM, by joining a group that had just left the Pantanal, and all they could talk about was the 6am starts, crashing through thick reeds, knee deep in muddy water and the myriads of insects as they scratched the mozzie bites on their arms. Despite their suffering they all seemed strangely fond of this place of water and wildlife. I was about to find out why...

Before we even parked the truck at the entrance to the National Park, we had lost count of the number of parrot, macaw and toucan that had flown past the truck, some close enough to touch, flashing the bright greens, reds and blues that make them such prized posessions in the west. After transferring to jeeps, we continued into the wetlands, alternating between open thick bush, hiding some of the more exotic specimens to be found here, and grassy plains speckled with birdlife and cattle. It is a great mystery to me how these farmers can co-exist so peacefully with the dense and varied wildlife, when in the amazon jungle, the wildlife flees for miles from the nearest human settlements. In the Pantanal, I could feel the buzz of life all around, something that I have only ever experienced before in Africa.

On our way to camp, we crossed numerous small streams and ponds, and many of them had several aligators or caiman lying on the bank, sunning themselves with a naughty grin frozen on their faces. Upon reaching camp we were shown to our "dorm" - a large thatch hut with about 15 hammocks strung up in a line. I decided to camp instead, and about half way through putting up my tent, I was interrupted by a huge Blue Macaw that swooped down onto my tent and proceeded to try eat the tent pole I was putting together... It wasn't long before he was sitting on my shoulder trying to eat my ear! This one turned out to be the local camp pet, and he took the place of the family dog, hopping about the dinner table, finishing off unwanted dinner.

In the morning we were woken by the sound of a generator early in the morning, and as we emerged from the hut I wondered why they had chosen to place the generator high in the trees. Further investigation revealed that the source of the noise was in fact a Howler monkey producing a bizarre growling sound as he marked his territory. After breakfast we headed out across the plains to see what we could spot. An armadillo, a group of about 12 racoon-type animals (I forgot the local name), several deer and capibara and a large variety of birds, including the giant Jabiru (red throated) stork with a 2m wingspan. It is entirely possible to forget that people even live here as you watch the show.

In the afternoon on a game drive, our jeep suddenly screeched to a halt, and in a flash our guide Alex was running across the open grassland toward a clump of bush shouting something that sounded like "Cheetah". I was the first after him and plunged into the bush behind him, following the sound of crashing ahead of me. The rest of the group waited outside on the grass, wondering what was going on, and then suddenly Alex appeared in front of me, out of breath, asking "did you see him?". At that moment I did see something and pointed at a dark shape in the undergrowth. Then it was gone, as Alex tried to chase it back out into the open. I could hear others shouting: "What's going on...?" when suddenly they broke out into shrieks of delight as the unknown creature emerged in front of them onto the grass.

When I managed to extract myself from the thorny mess I had got stuck in, I was astounded at the vision before me. The "Cheetah" turned out to be a giant anteater, a bizarre looking creature as tall as a large dog, with a long pointy nose, looking for all the world like a cross between a racoon and a porcupine. On a high, we all piled back into our jeep and headed off to try our hand at piranha fishing.

When we saw where we were supposed to do this fishing, we started wondering whether we had passed into a parrallel universe where nothing is as you have learnt. All around the lake were large alligators, that we were supposed to walk past, before wading waist deep into the water and fishing for the famous meat eating fish. But this is exactly what we did, and started pulling the fish out on a regular basis. After a quick swim, (just avoid the alligators by looking for their eyes above the water) we were on our way back to camp for a well-earned meal.


I realised after my idea of visiting Colombia fell through that I needed something to keep me busy for the 2 weeks I was here in Quito. So while paging through the Lonely Planet I found a trek called "trek of the Condor" that sounded interesting and challenging. It was described as a wilderness trek, needing navigation skills in mountainous terrain without paths or proper routes.

I picked up 4 maps from the military map studio in Quito. My only worry was that the only route description I could find was in the LP, and it was pretty brief.

It starts from a small hot springs town about 60km east of Quito. I arrived there at about 8pm, and stayed overnight in a small hotel. Going over my maps, I realised that most of the mountain and valley names mentioned in the route description were not on the maps I had. So I decided that I would simply take it one step at a time, and if I found myself lost, I would backtrack. The next morning, I opened my curtains at 7am to see nothing. A blanket of cloud covered even Pappallacta at 3600m, so the trail starting at 3800m wasn't even an option. So I trekked up th hill 2 or 3 km in the mist to the hot springs resort, and checked into a small hostel, that had it´s own hot pool. What a relaxing day, lying in the hot pool, with the rain drizzling down, and the mist swirling around... aaaahhhhhh.

The next morning dawned with spectacular crisp blue skies, and in the west, lay the impressive snowcapped peak of Volcan Antisana at 5700m. A few km up the road I was attacked by a ferocious horde of American evangelists on a mission to work at a local school, all thinking that I was "walking across south america" as they put it. You´d think they had never seen a trekker before!

After being told by the locals that I was "loco" and that the route was "muy difficul" (and that was only to 1st campsite!), I located the start of the trek. About 200m up from the road the path turned to shin deep mud. Very glad that I had followed local advice, I took off my trekking boots and pulled on my new gumboots that I had bought...

And so it went, from there I climbed a fence, and had to find my way to a lake that I knew existed, but wasn't even marked on my map. All I knew was that it was in the next valley. Sludging through deep mud, thick reeds up to my armpits and long grass, I fought my way forward. Eventually, I caught sight of a glimmer of water below. As I approached I found myself entering a deep gorge, and slowly from walking on my feet, my passage was transformed to sliding on my bum through heavy plantation. At last I was standing on the edge of a deserted lake "laguna vulcan", all of 4km from my start, and 5hours later!! It may have been only 2pm, but I decided to stay the night there, to consolidate my enthusiasm.

At times my notes were anything but clear, and the route from the lake was a hilly ascent through cloud forest, impossible without a trail. My notes were hopelessly misleading regarding finding the promised trail, so I decided that if I find it, I carry on, otherwise I would return to the hot springs (spot the most attractive option here!). The afternoon at the lake was very peacefull and I found a lot of good photos. During the night, the slightest breeze made my tent rustle, and I imagined hordes of teethed savages coming to get me in the otherwise silent night.

Again the day dawned bright and clear and it is amazing the enthusiasm you can derive from nothing more than a bright clear day. So I started off and found the faint trail up the ridge without problem. I also found several sets of large, fresh Puma tracks in the mud... As I crested the rise, volcan Antisana came into view, crisp and white. Suprising indeed considering the amount of cloud that had formed. My notes on 2 occasions mentioned passing Antisana on the East, and I decided that it was simpy somehow wrong, so ignored the notes, finding the lake mentioned, on the western side.
NOTE: Upon my return to Quito I checked the guide book, and found that my photocopied notes faded into black on the edge, and on both occations, this caused the word Antisanilla, to appear as Antisan... which I assumed was Antisana (ie I was supposed go east of Antisanilla, a smaller peak not named on my map anyway!!). I have learned to trust my instinct on so many occasions now, that printed or not, it´s probably wrong if it feels wrong. And so it turned out.

While I was sitting at the edge of this lake, a shepherd came wandering down from the hill and we had an interesting lunch together. Afterward I headed down the hill, aiming for my next target, Cotopaxi, Ecuador's most famous volcano, due to it's perfect cone. However I have passed this volcano several times, and have never seen it through it's permanent bank of cloud. Things didn't look optimistic as I headed into a thick black cover of clouds. For the rest of the day at least, the going was easy, over open plains of grass, crossing streams, and hopping over spongy lumps growing over the marsh's. I found a nice quiet campsite at the bottom of a valley and passed out after about 18kms. However the campsite was't so quiet, as all night I could hear the teeth gnawing at the corners of my tent...

In the morning it was still overcast, and still no sign of Cotopaxi. It was a hilly walk over a number of bumps, and a long slog up a sloping marshy valley to the bottom of a steep climb past another peak hidden in the clouds. As I reached the top, the clouds closed in, and I was glad to find a cattle track to follow around and down the other side. All the way down the hill into the beautifull Cotopaxi National Park, everything was visible except for Cotopaxi itself.

It was along here, down the final valley that I realised for sure that cows are the world's most stupid animal. As you approach them, even from 300m away, they start to walk away from you. Never to the side, but always in the direction that you are going. As I walked down the valley, about 4 different groups started running down with me. One group only saw me after I had passed about 200m to their right. Even they, instead of running AWAY from me, ran "away" alongside me, until they were ahead. Eventually I had a single large herd of about 40 of these stupid things trotting down the valley ahead of me. For 40mins I pushed them 3km down the hill until they eventually ran into another valley, where their owner will likely never see them again. Their stupidity is absolutely unbelievable.

So I finished the day's 20km walk at the entrance the Cotopaxi NP. Then I still had to walk for another 9km to get to the main road before I could get a lift back to civilization. In all it was a great walk. The scenery felt truly remote, and by starting at on the eastern Quito road, and ending on the southern Quito road, it feels like you really are crossing a part of the Andes.

Look at my postcards, numbers 23 thru 34.

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