Sunday, 30 December 2007

Beauty and the beast

In Norse mythology Valhalla is the hall in which Odin entertained the slain heroes of battle for eternity. One night was long enough for me! The only people that appear to stay in this pink monstrosity are groups waiting for transfer to Cotopaxi or preparing by climbing Illiniza Norte. Luckily we only needed to spend one night there before making the transfer ourselves. Our fellow guests in Valhalla were Mike and Jim, my climbing partners for Cotopaxi. In both cases they had significant climbing experience in the UK and had just come back from an acclimatisation climb of Illiniza Norte. Even Mike and Jim seemed nervous on the morning that we left for the refuge on Cotopaxi. The previous night's victims returned to Valhalla at around eleven looking shell shocked and physically exhausted. Stories of snow storms and altitude sickness were dismissed with optimism as we sat down to a large plate of pasta and beef.

The trip into the Cotopaxi National Park gave us a first taste of the high altitude environment that is home to several of Ecuador's high peaks. As we reached the high altitude plain that sits at the base of Cotopaxi it immediately reminded me of two of my favourite landscapes from our previous travels: the Deosai plains or Pakistan and the Morai plains of Ladakh. The sparse, low growing, alpine plants cut through by the flood plain of a seasonal river, separated Cotopaxi (5897m) from Ruminahui (4722m) and Sincholagua (4900m). As we began the climb from the flood plain up to the car park below the refuge I could tell that the altitude was beginning to affect Sarah and the steep climb up from the car park to the refuge was a stark reminder of the challenges of climbing the highest active volcano in the world. The eroded sand, six inches deep and a vivid ochre, sapped our energy with every step and over the 300m of ascent, reinforced to Sarah that the altitude would prove too much of a challenge.

After a brief walk on the glacier with our guides and a run through of the various techniques that we would need, we returned to the refuge for some food and fluids to fuel the climb. We were in bed by 7.15pm for a fitful few hours of sleep before our alarm call at midnight. I felt strong as we gathered our kit together for the climb. As we sat down for breakfast all three of us seemed to have the mixed emotions of excitement and trepidation as we heard the wind whistling through every gap in the refuge and saw the ice formed on the windows. By 1am we were on the mountain. At 4800m every step is artificially slow and deliberate to avoid oxygen deficit and to make the overall pace of the climb uniform. Within 15 minutes we were donning our crampons and roping up to our guides. As we crossed the first tongues of the glacier the lights of Quito were competing with the stars for my attention. Each step pierced the icy crust that only hours before was ankle deep snow. The visual tranquility of the mountain was firmly at odds with the whistling wind as waves of cloud passed above and below us.

As we approached the top of the first section the glacier began to get steeper moving from 30-45% gradient. Our easy, overstepping traverses turned into a series of vertical alternating front point kicks with deep plants of the ice axe for stability. Thirty minutes turned into an hour of steady, hypnotic climbing. My headtorch was focused on the feet of Robinson, my guide. Each footstep repeating, each plant of the ice axe providing the stability and reassurance needed to ignore the exposure. After and hour and half we stopped for food and fluid before tackling a particularly steep section of ice that led round a rock arrete.

Climbing in the dark is more mentally than physically challenging. Your whole world is shrunk down to the one metre diameter of your head torch. Your only points of reference are the other climbers above and below you, but it is impossible to tell how far way they are. As you embark on each section, you may know that it is 200 vertical metres but you can never see the top. The climb almost takes you into a zen like state. All I could think about as the wind bit into my cheeks an nose was the specific action of swinging my right foot over my left, planting all ten spikes of my crampon and shifting my weight from one foot to the other. This was repeated every ten seconds, hour after hour. The combination of the altitude, the wind and cold made conversation sparse. An hour would pass without any words being said. Time seemed to shrink in the enormity of the mountain, the repition of movement.

As we approached the ridge at 5400m we had been climbing for almost three hours and the conditions had deteriorated further. Robinson, my guide, told me that the we would have another three to four hours of climbing to summit. It seemed like we had been climbing for five or six hours but in reality it was only three. Sunrise was still several hours off and the temperature was dropping. My watch recorded -15 degrees without wind chill and my carefully managed water source had frozen. Everything rational was telling me to turn around but all I could think was that the descent would be easier and two hours more of purgatory would be justly rewarded by the summit.

"Vamos" was my only word. Let's go. For the next hour the ground conditions got steadily worse. The crisp crust of ice had turned into 6 inches of soft snow. On the steeper sections each step regressed by a foot. As the altitude increased this constant slipping weighed on my mind and taxed my lungs; my breathing became deeper and more frequent. The frozen material covering my mouth and nose began to inhibit each lung full of air. My fingers on the hand carrying the ice axe were beginning to lose sensation and I could feel myself entering energy deficit. With 300 vertical metres to go to the summit and having crossed a dangerous snow bridge spanning a crevasse I asked Robinson to stop so I could get some food. Thankfully my bottle of Gatorade was still liquid. Unable to stomach sweet food I opened a packet of savoury crackers with my mouth as I couldn't feel my index finger and thumb on my right hand. The dry crackers soaked up the remaining saliva I had, so I went to take a drink of Gatorade only to find that the plastic safety cover was still on. A schoolboy error that led to five minutes of fiddling with my numb fingers to access the sorely needed liquid.

The next hour of the climb seemed like a neverending battle with the wind and soft snow. As we approached the final steep incline to the summit Robinson turned to ask me if I wanted to continue. With only an hour of climbing separating me from the summit I couldn't justify to myself turning around. I asked if he thought I could make it and he affirmed with a silent but deliberate nod. We ploughed on through the steep snow, digging steps with our crampons whilst anchoring ourselves to the slope with our axes. As we approached 5800m I saw Jim descending towards us covered head to toe in wind blown ice and snow. I looked into his eyes and all I could see were the white frozen hairs of his eyelashes as he blinked. He had had to turn back 50m from the summit due to a metre and a half of accumulated snow creating an avalanche risk that the guides would not ignore. That was all the encouragement I needed to turn around. I didn't feel defeated, just elated at the prospect of descent. I had accomplished everything that I had wanted to. I had experienced the world of high altitude mountaineering in the most extraordinary circumstances and struggled through. I had won the constant battle with my rational mind and yet made the right decision when it counted.

Exhausted, tired and slightly elated I traipsed into the refuge and slumped down by Sarah. I had given everything and gained a heartfelt respect for the privileged few that excel in those conditions and worse. I hope that I will don crampons again, but will need the soothing sun of the Galapagos to reflect on my experience and take stock of what was a unique, crushing and yet self affirming experience.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Moving on to Cotopaxi

Christmas away from home was always going to be a bit of a strange affair, but the combination of the warm climate and the knowledge that we will be away from home till May gave Christmas a somewhat melancholy tone. We decided that on Christmas Day we were going to rest and recover in and around the inn, but in retrospect, that probably gave us a little too much time to reflect on what we weren’t doing; the usual Christmas rituals. Having said all that, it was great to have access to Skype and to be able to phone home and the dinner in the evening certainly lifted our spirits.

On Boxing Day, we decided to go back to what we know and headed out for a walk. In total the walk took about four and a half hours, taking us down into the gorge and along the river to a great little suspension bridge. Just as we began to climb back out of the gorge the heavens opened. It hasn’t really rained heavily since our arrival at the Black Sheep Inn, but yesterday more than made up for it. The rain accompanied us all the way to the top, a head down drudge. On the bright side, both of us seem to be acclimatising well. The climb was very similar to the climb out of the valley on Christmas Eve when we went to the Laguna Quilotoa, however, this time it didn’t feel like my heart was going to explode.
At the top of the climb we reached an Italian Mission that has set up a woodworking cooperative that makes furniture, boxes and carving. We were shown to the workshop by a shuffling man and his two dogs, one of which was almost as tall as Sarah. The small showroom was an Alladin’s cave of beautiful craftmanship. Mirrors were carved with images of indigenous men and women working in the fields, a large box was carved with representations of Cotopaxi and Chimboroza and the tables and chairs mixed modernist design with rustic charm. We walked away with a beautiful carving and a small picture frame, both small enough to post home.

The final walk back was 3km uphill, which in retrospect we should have tackled after eating. By the time we reached the Black Sheep Inn we were running on empty. The combination of altitude and low energy reserves made the final kilometre a real battle. As we traipsed into the lodge we made our way straight to the coffee counter for some sweet, milky coffee to give an instant energy boost.

Today we will make our way to the Hostel Valhalla, close to the base of Cotopaxi. We will spend the night there before meeting up with our climbing party and guides to head up to the refuge tomorrow during the day. We will spend some time familiarising ourselves with the ice before spending the night in the refuge and leaving at midnight to attempt the summit. Even with good acclimatisation, Cotopaxi is going to be a real challenge. Climbing at high altitude is as much a mental as a physical challenge, especially when you are climbing at might to make the most of the best ice conditions. Neither of us know how we will deal with the challenges that Cotopaxi poses but are conscious that we are only a few weeks into a long trip, so safety will always be the prime concern, even if that means sacrificing the summit. It is all about the experience, not about the outcome.

One benefit of the time we have spent at the Black Sheep Inn is that I have bee able to get the camera out and then process the images. Having the Macbook with us has been really helpful in that regard. As a consequence I have been able to upload all my images to Flickr and get them to render on my Ecuador photo page. I am now up-to-date but I suspect that I may fall behind a bit when we get to the photographer’s paradise that is the Galapagos.
We will probably be without internet access until we get to Quito on Saturday evening, but we will update on Cotopaxi then.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Cloud Forest

Half an hour in the back of a truck and 600m of vertical ascent brought us out on the top of the hillside that overlooks the Black Sheep Inn. From there it was just a short walk under the watchful eye of our young guide Rodrigo, to reach the entrance to the cloud forest.

The landscape at the crown of the hill is a good example of the local high altitude Parámo. In many ways it reminded me of Dartmoor or the Quantocks, the low growing grasses punctuated by pine and low growing shrubs.

As we dropped down off the far side of the hill we were almost immediately enveloped by light cloud. The damp mist still allowed a good 50m or so of visibility and rendered the forest with a magical tranquility. The old growth forest was dripping with moss and lichen, pendulous tendrils reached for the floor, obstructing our path. Every so often the shrill call of an iridescent blue bird would cut through the silence. At each turn of the path we came across a different orchid, nestled into the damp bed of moss at the crux of a branch or covering a fallen log. For the most part, the orchids were out of season and the only evidence of flowers were long bare stems. However, we were lucky enough to see three separate orchids in flower, most of which seem to have been Oncidiums, although one of them may have been an Odontoglossum (anyone who can identify them, I’d be interested to know).

After a brief stop for lunch we began our climb to the top of the hill. Unlike yesterday, the walk was more manageable; it looks like the acclimatisation is beginning to pay dividends. As we began our descent on the far side of the hill, the clouds began to clear and we were treated to another breathtaking panoramic view of the gorge and plateau. The cloud level seemed a little higher today and more broken, so the fields were positively glowing.

Halfway down the descent we came across an old lady milking her three cows. As we said hello, she beckoned us down for a taste of the milk. After decanting a pint or so of the warm, frothy milk into a metal container she intimated to me to have a taste. Slightly tentatively, I raised the bowl to my mouth and took a gulp or two. Although deliciously warm and creamy, I thought I’d adopt a cautious approach and hand it back. She wasn’t having any of it! A pint and a half, some small unidentified floating bits (grass I hope) and a milk moustache later I handed back the bowl. It managed to illicit a toothless grin that was more than enough reward.

It’s strange to think that it’s Christmas tomorrow, although we hear many ‘Feliz Navidads’ when we are out walking, it just seems too warm and a long way from home, family and friends. Tomorrow we will take a day off from hiking and relax around the lodge, playing games and gorging ourselves on banana is Christmas after all!

Crater Lake to deep gorge

We were thrown left and right inside the pick-up truck as the driver skillfully negotiated the rutted and potholed dirt road to Laguna Quilotoa. The fifteen of us were moving in unison, the scouts at the front looking out for low hanging branches. As we climbed the 700 vertical metres a sensational panorama opened up down the valley. The hills ran down to a plateau and then into a 400 metre deep gorge. Along the roadside small one or two room farmhouses appeared with the children often running out to wave as we rumbled past. As we got higher up the valley the concrete block houses were replaced with traditional adobe walled and grass thatched buildings. Even the steepest sides of the valley are under cultivation: potatoes, broad beans and surprisingly, lupins. It is odd to see a staple of sub-urban gardens being cultivated in huge fields. The blue flowers evolve into maroon seed pods that are harvested, shelled and mixed with broad beans, onions and aji chillis to form a dish called chuchos.

On arriving at the top, we piled out of the back of the truck, settled up with the driver and made our way to the crest of the crater. As we t
urned the corner through a gap in the rocks the ground fell away several hundred metres to the crate lake below. The lake itself is fed only by rain and has no run off, so the water is heavily alkaline, leaving salt deposits in rings around the crater. After a brief stop for photos we began to weave our way down the side of the mountain, past small sandy beaches and quinoa trees. After a couple of hours we reached a small area of pasture with a ramshackle farm where we stopped for lunch. As we began to tuck into our packed lunch a small group of kids emerged; a young girl of nine or ten carrying her baby brother in a sling across her back and a little girl of four or five in ragged clothes with dusty black hair arranged in bunches. After handing out most of my lunch to the little girl the rest of the family emerged with the father disappearing into a barn to put on his stereo with strange Ecuadorian reggae. As the music came on, the little girl began to dance and didn't stop until we left.

Over the next hour or so we dropped down to the level of the plateau trough pine groves and Eucalyptus. As we approached the plateau the cultivation became more intensive and the flowers more sub-tropical. Beautiful, iridescent blue salvias lined the path with fuschias and what looked like agaves with flower spikes reaching several metres above us. Soon after walking through the village of Guyama we approached the deep gorge cut by the La Morita river. From the top of the gorge we could see the path traversing down the steep sides of the gorge, through deep cut slits barely wider than a shoulder width and several metres deep. At the bottom of the gorge we crossed a rickety woden bridge and began the climb. Within minutes we realised that the we are still acclimatising to the yet higher altitude at 3200m. The path became increasingly steep and it felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. Beads of sweat turned into rivulets that stung my eyes and to add insult to injury Rodrigo our guide was barely breaking a sweat. After a couple of stops to catch our breath and regain my sight we topped out just below the village where a fiesta was in full swing with a band playing Mariachi style numbers.

Today we are off to the Cloud forest with Rodrigo our guide from yesterday to try and catch some of the orchids and bromeliads. More on that later this afternoon when we get back...

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Into the Highlands proper

A light rain began to fall as we were boarding the bus. With our bags stashed on the roof we took possession of our seats in anticipation of a full house. Gradually over the next hour a constant stream of indigenous families joined us having deposited their copious baggage on the roof. Thud followed thud as bags of onions, hi-fi systems, televisions and eventually an ornate, but thankfully empty coffin, were deposited on the roof. Eventually the driver called time and climbed onto the roof to cover the bags with a tarpaulin. The last of our fellow travelers were shepherded into the aisle, bridging boxes of eggs, bags of mangoes and the odd small child.

The first hour or so of the journey was smooth sailing as we passed from the relatively flat river valley that is home to Latacunga into the rolling hills to the west. As we passed over the first pass at 3300m the landscape changed from rolling hills to an increasingly precipitous series of valleys. The road, cut into the sides of the valley, twisted its way round the valley, sometimes dropping down to the river or cresting the passes to enter a new complex of peaks and valleys. Within half an hour the road had transitioned from potholed tarmac to lightly corrugated mud as the soft verges eroded away and deposited themselves on the road. As we reached the base of our second valley system I cast my gaze across the valley to see a road zig-zagging its way up the other side. As my mind reverted two years to our cycle tour in India the road transitioned from mud into cobblestones. All I could think about was how our friends Cass and Cara would be in their element touring around the Quilotoa loop. The cobblestoned climb must have been 15km in total finally bringing us out in the village of Sigchos.

In Sigchos half the bus disembarked, only to be replaced with around half as many again. As the conductor rounded up the last of the passengers two young brothers ended up in the aisle next to me. They couldn’t have been more than 7 and 4 years old. The youngest wore an oversized blue fleece jumper and ragged trousers all topped off with a grubby blue cap. As usual, I initially got a stunned stare that turned into a shy grin. As he became bored of staring he continued to lick his bright orange, mango lollipop that was gradually depositing sticky saliva all over his grubby hands. Within minutes of setting off he began to nod off whilst standing, wedged between me and his brother. He must have been standing asleep for ten minutes before a brief respite in the squeeze saw him gracefully flop to the floor at my feet. As the inspector negotiated his way down the aisle his brother yanked him up by his collar to avoid him being stepped on.

One thing that has amazed me over the last week is how hardy and self-sufficient the kids are in Ecuador. We have seen kids as young as four or five working the buses selling candy and CDs. Kids will be working the fields when they have finished school or helping their parents in the kitchen. That said, the family unit is very strong and the parents are far more tactile with their children and education is taken very seriously. In the mornings and afternoons you will see the children making their way to school with crisp laundered uniforms and backpacks fully laden with books.

We finally arrived in Chucchilán at around 4pm and were dropped off at the end of the drive to the Black Sheep Inn. First impressions suggest that we have fallen on our feet with our choice of location for Christmas but more on that in the next post.
One real bonus is that we have wireless internet access here so we will be able to be contacted over Christmas. We also managed to fix Sarah’s troublesome blog this morning so that should be working fine. I’m off to enjoy the wood fired sauna...

Friday, 21 December 2007

Latacunga, a diamond in the rough?

Latacunga doesn´t look like much from the Pan-American. A collection of non-descript concrete shops catering for the passing buses plying the route from Quito to Ambato and onward to Baños or Cuenca. At best, it is seen as the staging post for people interested in the completing the Quilotoa loop; and if we are honest that is pretty much how we saw it. However, once you cross the Rio Cutuchi from the Pan-American into the Old Town Latacunga shows a side that is altogether more interesting.

The town is dominated by Volcan Cotopaxi to the East and its history has been shaped by the volcano. The town was destroyed three times in the space of 100 years by eruptions of Cotopaxi and the current town is a product of the mid-19th Century. Unlike Baños, the architecture is more authentic with wonderful Baroque style public buildings, interesting churches and low slung domestic buildings with terracotta roof tiles. In some cases, elaborate wooden doors give way to open courtyards with wrap-around balconies on the first floor. The town acts as the central market for all the villages to the West and as such has three large market areas that are the antithesis of Otovalo; you won´t see a poncho or hammock in sight.

The most refreshing aspect of Latacunga is the fact that tourists are very much in the minority. In fact, over the day and a half that we have been here we could count the number of westerners we have seen on two hands. This is a town run by locals for locals. As you walk down the streets you will pass a leather maker stitching chaps, a hat seller catering to the indigenous market and food stalls selling chugchucara, a mix of: fried chunks of pork; hominy; fried pork skin; fried potatoes; banana and corn, all topped off with popcorn and a cheese empenada.

The one downside of Latacunga is that the accommodation options cater for the local market. Our hotel of choice would have failed a building inspection in the 1950s, the decor would have been fashionable in the 1960s and the hot water last worked in the 1970s. It reminded me a bit of the hotel in the film The Shining. Fortunately we only have to sleep there as we managed to find a new hostel (the first to cater to the backpacking market but opened after the last edition of the Lonely Planet was published) that serves a decent breakfast.

Tomorrow we head off to the Black Sheep Inn. Sarah and I are both looking forward to getting into the countryside for some fresh air and relaxation. In the meantime, check out some of the pictures from Latacunga to get a feel for semi-rural Ecuador.

Thursday, 20 December 2007


After the storms in the morning our canyoning trip was put back until the afernoon. As it happened, this was the ideal outcome as by midday the menacing storms had blown down the valley to be replaced by blue skys and the occasional fluffy cumulus. After collecting our moth eaten and battered wetsuits and tasteful footwear we were shepherded into a waiting flatbed pickup with our canyoning companions. After a bumpy ride down the Rio Pastaza we were dropped at the head of the trail to begin a short but vigorous ascent to the top of the trail.

After cooling off in a small waterfall we were attached to our first rope descent and left to work it out for ourselves. Over the course of the next two hours we made five exhilarating abseils down progressively bigger and more slippery waterfalls. After some initial nerves Sarah took to canyoning like a proverbial duck to waterfall. You´ll see from some of the pictures on my Flickr site that Sarah rarely lost her broad grin as she edged her way bravely down. After a short wait at the base of the falls for our ride back to Baños we were whisked back up the valley to shower and get ready for dinner. Despite the cold that I seem to have picked up over the last couple of days the food at Casa Hood was the best tasting so far (a chicken and coconut milk curry).

This morning we have been busy packing bags for a short trip back up the Pan-American highway to Latacunga before we head West to the Black Sheep Inn for Christmas. We should be able to check our email in Latacunga but the week after may be more tricky as we will be in a fairly remote outpost.

I have noticed that some of my Photos are not rendering properly on my Photo Pages so you may need to go directly to my Flickr page.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Walking above Baños

Initial reports of an imminent eruption were greatly exaggerated!

On our return from the internet café we thought we would swing by the tourist information office to find out what the prognosis was for the re-opening of the paths that were said to be shut. “Eruptions like this happen every week; it’s nothing to be concerned about. Everything is open as usual” came the reassuring response from the lady behind the counter. That was all the reassurance that I needed to re-embark on the initial plan to walk a loop up above the town, higher on the slopes of the volcano, to the Statue of the Virgen de Santa Agua and onwards to the Bellavista de Runtún.

The initial climb to the Statue de Virgen de Santa Agua was a lungbusting set of steps that rose 300 vertical metres from the western edge of town to the viewpoint for the summit. As we laboured our way up, one flight of stairs at a time, we were passed by groups of teenagers positively bounding up the steps.

“Cotopaxi isn’t going to be as steep as this, is it?” exhaled Sarah.

“No...nothing like this steep” I replied. Only 3000 metres higher and with snow and ice. I think we need to get some more acclimatisation walks under our belts before Cotopaxi and the Inca Trail.

Even though the skies were gloriously blue over the town to the south, a stubborn blanket of cloud obscured the view of the summit. So, having caught our breath we started the traverse across the face of the slope to the viewpoint on the other side. The path was thin and dusty, cut into the side slope with fantastic views to the south over he town. To either side of the path was a mixture of papaya trees, tree tomatoes (that is the literal translation from Spanish), Eucalyptus and bananas. The hardwood trees were draped with lichens a what looked like bromeliads growing from the crux of the branches. At ground level vibrant orange crocosmias grow over the sides of the path. As we walked along the path we were constantly accompanied by butterflies of all manner of shades of brown, red orange and black. At one point we came across what looked like a group of giant wasps, almost 4cm long and with bright flashes of orange across the back of their abdomens.

In the full glare of the sun we were starting to wane by the time we go to the Bellavisa de Runtún. After a brief stop for lunch and an opportunity to record our first video podcast we made our way back down into town.

Today we are due to head of for half a day of canyoning (abseiling down waterfalls). As I write this a thunderstorm is just breaking over head so I had better make a dash for breakfast.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Rafting and an aborted hike

The last couple of days have been great fun. I think that we are now starting to settle into the rhythm of the road. It does take a while to get used to living out of your rucksack and eatingall your meals in restaurants. So far we´ve been really lucky with the rooms and food (read Sarah´s blog to find out more about our room booking exploits). The Petit Auberge is our current place of abode and is a great example of how you can find nice places on a decent budget. The hostal is set well back from the road with lush sub-tropical gardens wrapping around the property. It´s really unusual so see familiar garden plants mixed with what we would consider to be houseplants. Bright yellow day lillies Hemerocallis) sit alongside Amaryllis under the shade of avodado trees. Bananas hanglong, laden with fruit, over fuschias and ginger lilies. The sides of the hostal are covered in sweet smelling bouganvillia in various shades from magenta to orange. I have already taken the opportunity to get out into the garden with my Macro lense; hopefully I´ll have some more photos to post on my photo pages soon.

Yesterday was spent doing our first really adventurous activity, rafting the Rio Negro further down the valley towards Puyo. When we turned up in the morning the motley crew of local river guides looked severly worse wear. The night before was the big annual fiesta and they had been out prtying until the early hours. As it happened, our lead guide was the spitting image of my brother Martin (if he had been born and raised in the barrios of Quito) he even had a similar manner about him. We were shipped down river in a beaten up old Chevy van and dropped by the river to change into our wetsuits and get a safety briefing in almost indecipherable English. We were soon on the foaming Class IV rapids of the Rio Negro carving our way through the steep, lush valleys. I almost came a cropper as I was distracted whilst negotitating a particularly violent stretch of eddies and back waves. A giant kingfisher darted from the left bank and skimmed the water to our left. As I turned to get a closer look I was blasted by a wall of water that put me off balance and pushed me over the side. Luckily I had my right foot wedged under a flap of fabric that kept me from toppling over the edge. I think that it is fair to say that we will be rafting again...though maybe I should read Sarah´s blog to find out how it went down wth her!

Today we were meant to be hiking up the mountainside to get a better view of the volcano. However, we heard this morning that there was a decent sized erupton last night that has led to the paths being closed. We spoke to someone this morning and they said that the eruption had gappened at 4am and sounded like a jet taking off. As usual, I was totally oblivious to the fact. Hopefully we´ll get a decent view as we head out down the valley this afternoon on a quad bike. The skies a re a little clearer today so hopefully there will be some more pictures to post.

Arrived in Baños

This morning we were woken by birdsong and some sinister scratching on the roof of our room. Sarah gave me a nudge as it sounded ominously like our ratty friends that scurry across the roof space in North Wraxall. Like any husband worth his salt, I dismissed the scratching to avoid having to investigate. In the end, the scratching became to persistent to deny so I admitted defeat and got up to investigate. As it happened, it was just a large bird walking across a corrugated plastic skylight in the roof. I knew that all along!

Baños is a small town located at the base of an active volcano, Tunguruhua. As we approached the town of Ambato where we turned off the Pan-American highway we could see the caldera of the volcano peeking through the top of the cloud layer. The volcano is constantly spewing out a stream of volcanic gas into the slate grey sky. Tungurahua is probably the most closely monitored volcano in South America and the activity levels are constantly posted on the Smithsonian volcanic activity monitoring website if you’re interested.

The valley that is home to Baños is carved deeply by the river that runs along the base of the valley so that the sides rise steeply up towards the volcano. As it happens, the valley is so steep that you can’t see the caldera from the town itself. Tomorrow we plan to do a day hike to an area up above the town that affords us a fantastic view across to the cone.

Initially, the town was best known for its thermal baths. There are a number of the mineral springs dotted around the town with pools that range from scorching to baltic. We plan to sample the restorative waters before our walk in the morning. In recent years, the town has become something of a mecca for outdoor activities. Small agencies have appeared all over town offering guided activities that range from canyoning to multi-day jungle adventures. Given Sarah’s natural predisposition towards bugs and creepy crawlies, I suspect that we will stick to rafting and abseiling down the numerous waterfalls (the bike embargo has remained for the time being). Today we are heading off to do a half day of rafting on some class IV rapids half an hour down the valley. It will be Sarah’s first time rafting so there is a mixture of excitement and trepidation in the air.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Daytrip to Otavalo

Otavalo Otavalo Otavalo!

The shrill tremolo of the bus drivers assistant as he hung out of the door soliciting passengers. Our fellow travelers were a mixture of mestizos, indigenous people and tourists. Saturday is market day and the magnetic draw of Otavalo, the biggest and probably most commercial market in Ecuador brings traders from far and wide. As we trundled through the barrios of

Quito dodging cars and buses we picked up an assortment of people all bound for Otavalo.

To make up for the slow progress through Quito was more than made up for when we hit the Pan American Highway. Any vehicle traveling less than 60 mph was fair game for our fearless driver. Oncoming traffic and bends in the road were little distraction for the man on a mission. The combination of intricate curtain trimmings and frame to frame transfers meant that we got to see little of the countryside; probably just as well because Sarah was cutting off supply of blood to my hand.

Otavalo is much as I imagined Ecuador to be. The streets arranged in neat criss-cross patterns around large market squares and a Plaza Major were teeming with indigenous families. The ladies adorned in fantastic puff skirts and embroidered white cotton blouses, all topped off with a felt trilby. Many of the ladies were heavily burdened with shopping, goods for sale or young children tightly bound in large swathes of blue cloth. Most of the market stalls were firmly aimed at the gringo market. However, one section of the market gave us a feel for what a true country market would be like. Several rows of stalls, overseen by mostly elderly indigenous ladies, sold fruit, vegetables and the staple crops of maize and quinoa. Next to these rows were food stalls selling fried plantain, potatoes and whole fish.

This morning we head off to Baños a small town at the foot of the Tunguruhua volcano. The guide books suggest that it is an Ecuadorian mecca for outdoor activities: rafting, hiking, quad biking an downhill mountain biking.

Did I say biking? Well we almost managed a week sticking to Sarah's no bikes rule...

Daytrip to Otavalo


The shrill tremolo of the bus drivers assistant as he hung out of the door soliciting passengers. Our fellow travelers were a mixture of mestizos, indigenous people and tourists. Saturday is market day and the magnetic draw of Otavalo, the biggest and probably most commercial market in Ecuador brings traders from far and wide. As we trundled through the barrios of Quito dodging cars and buses we picked up an assortment of people all bound for Otavalo.

To make up for the slow progress through Quito was more than made up for when we hit the Pan American Highway. Any vehicle traveling less than 60 mph was fair game for our fearless driver. Oncoming traffic and bends in the road were little distraction for the man on a mission. The combination of intricate curtain trimmings and frame to frame transfers meant that we got to see little of the countryside; probably just as well because Sarah was cutting off supply of blood to my hand.

Otavalo is much as I imagined Ecuador to be. The streets arranged in neat criss-cross patterns around large market squares and a Plaza Major were teeming with indigenous families. The ladies adorned in fantastic puff skirts and embroidered white cotton blouses, all topped off with a felt trilby. Many of the ladies were heavily burdened with shopping, goods for sale or young children tightly bound in large swathes of blue cloth. Most of the market stalls were firmly aimed at the gringo market. However, one section of the market gave us a feel for what a true country market would be like. Several rows of stalls, overseen by mostly elderly indigenous ladies, sold fruit, vegetables and the staple crops of maize and quinoa. Next to these rows were food stalls selling fried plantain, potatoes and whole fish.

This morning we head off to Baños a small town at the foot of the Tunguruhua volcano. The guide books suggest that it is an Ecuadorian mecca for outdoor activities: rafting, hiking, quad biking an downhill mountain biking.

Did I say biking? Well we almost managed a week sticking to Sarah's no bikes rule...

Friday, 14 December 2007

First stop


I am writing this in a jet lagged state in our hostel room in Quito. Sarah is asleep and my body is crying out to do the same.

An early start from Gatwick on Thursday saw us arrive into Houston (or as it is more grandly known, 'George Bush Intercontinental') at around 2pm. After a two hour turnaround we ere onboard our second Continental flight, this time to Quito. Or so we thought. On approaching Quito, it was becoming increasingly bumpy and the pilot decided to take the prudent option of diverting to Guayaquil 30 minutes flight south of Quito. Unfortunately this meant arriving at 10pm and not being able to source hotel accommodation. As such, Sarah and I proceeded to spend the next 12 hours perched precariously on the banks of customer seating in the terminal, listening to Ecuadorian Cover Versions of famous Christmas Carols. Just as I was about to start digesting my own internal organs, we were told that the flight would leave at 9am and that we could pick up a free sandwich for our troubles.

After a fitful night grabbing 10 minutes chunks of sleep between Bing Crosby and he Jackson 5 Sarah and I are now firmly ensconsed in the Magic Bean in Quito and chasing some sleep before heading out to see the Otavalo market tomorrow. Hopefully this will produce a panoply of photographic opportunities as the indigenous locals ply their various wares. I'll post as soon as I have something else to report. Now....sleep...

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Finally on our way...

After weeks of preparation we are finally on our way. Last week ended up being a manic rush to clear up loose ends at work. Inevitably that spilled over into this week and I finally finished the last task on my to-do list this morning. It feels bizarre to have severed the link with my mobile and email. It seems amazing to think back to the days of post restante and the novelty of direct dial international calls.

We ended up having an early Christmas at Sarah's parents this weekend and had some friends around for drinks on Sunday. Monday and Tuesday were spent chasing down last minute bits and pieces and finding out that we had inevitably over estimated on the capacity of our rucksacks. I ended up popping into Mr. B's book emporium yesterday to buy the next book for the North Wraxall book club. I am not sure how easy it will be to source the next book in South America so this may be the last. This installment is Paulo Coelho's 'The Alchemist'. It seems great so far, but more on that later as I have promised to blog some thoughts when I have finished it. Given how much travel time we have over the next few days I suspect that I'll be posting sooner rather than later.

Tonight we are staying the night at a hotel near Gatwick so that we can get to the airport for a 9am flight. We will be transferring in Houston for Quito and are due to arrive at 11pm local time. We don't have too much planned for the first few days as we acclimatise but I'm sure we will be able to find something fun to do. The next post will be from the Magic Bean in Quito (no sniggering please).

Friday, 30 November 2007

One week and counting...

One more working week...still lots to do to wrap up but things are systematically dropping off the to-do list. Sarah and I have both developed coughs and sore throats over the last couple of days. Hopefully these will resolve themselves before we go. Next week I will try and catch up with most of my clients to make sure they are all aware of what is going on before we head off. Oddly, the reality that we will be in South America in less than two weeks still hasn't hit home.

On an entirely unrelated matter, Dad sent through a link to a great blog by a Philosophy Lecturer at Corpus Christi Cambridge. On that blog I found a brilliant Monty Python Sketch from You Tube...

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Busy week...busier weekend

I have just come back from a couple of days up in Manchester seeing a client. That will probably be the last trip that I will be making to sunny Warrington before we head off. Tomorrow we will be heading up to London for a weekend of seeing our respective Godchildren and delivering Christmas presents. I have a couple of busy days at work updating people on the opportunities present at my client in Manchester and completing performance reviews for the people that have worked for me so that I can help them towards promotion.

I am particularly looking forward to seeing Edward when he gets his new bike. S

arah and I got him a fantastic Rothan bike from Isla Bikes last year but he has now grown out of it. So last week Sarah and I got the next bike up in the series the CNOC 14. Unlike the other kid's bikes we have bought, this one is more like a miniature adults bike. Sometimes they are ridiculously heavy but this one is nice and light and looks like it could be really quick...and I'm loving the back pedal brake.

Next week will be my last week at work. I still have a load of things to do but I think I will be in good shape when I need to be. We still have a few things that we need to get and jobs that we need to do around the house. In the meantime, back to work...

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Weekend of preparations

This weekend was the last weekend where we had an uninterrupted couple of days to sort out the main things remaining on the to-do list. This week and next weekend we will be up in London seeing various Godchildren before Christmas and the weekend after will be taken up with substitute Christmas dinners and our going away drinks. Given how much there still is to do, the one silver lining to emerge this week is that I will be stopping work at the end of the week after next. This will give us two and a half more days than we had planned to finish the remaining to-do's.

This weekend also saw the last of our trips to watch Bath at the Rec. Our season tickets will be going to Kathryn and Nick until we get back. I guess that it is Sod's law that the year we decide to spend the winter overseas is the year that Bath are making a fantastic run in the Premiership. We will certainly keep up with the rugby over the internet whilst we are away; hopefully we will catch Bath in the play-offs when we get back in May.

Today and yesterday have been taken up with various chores and final decision making on photography kit. Sarah is currently round at her folks washing the sleeping bags. I have been busy preparing my tax return and am about to head over to my folks to get the hard top put on the Mazda. There is still a series of jobs that need to be done in the garden to avoid chaos when we return but these will have to wait until the final week I suspect.

The last remaining decision in the photo kit saga is whether to go for a combination of the 50mm 1.8 lense and a 105mm 2.8 Macro or a 35mm 2.0 and 60mm Macro. Oooh...decisions...decisions. I suspect that it may be made for me by the cost!

Anyway, back to the grindstone. In addition to the preparation for the trip I have the small matter of an all day workshop to prepare for tomorrow.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Building out the content

The last few days I have fairly busy closing up a piece work but I am now able to make a little progress on the site. Sarah is definitely holding up the fort in terms of the practicalities of preparation for the trip (booking doctors appointments to get antibiotics, organising banking arrangements, etc.). This weekend we have deliberately not planned too much to make sure that we break the back of the big tasks before we enter the last couple of weeks. On task that I never look forward to is preparing my tax many documents and mind numbing form filling...still, it needs to be done before we go.

On the website front, I think that both Sarah and I are almost there. We have had a few teething troubles along the way but I think we are now almost there. The site is up and running and the content updates are almost complete. It will be good to have it in a state where all we have to do is make blog updates and upload photos.

I hope to close out the photographic equipment preparation soon as well. I am keen to make sure that I am able to take HDR ready images even if I have to wait until we get back to process them. The trouble is, it may require a more robust tripod and I am reluctant to traipse around South America with the
strapped to my rucksack. We have bought a vary cool
(sounds less practical than it is). I will try and take some test shots on it to see how well it works. I am also trying to work out which pst processing software package to go with. There are a number of options but it seems to be down to
. More on this later.

Back to work...

Friday, 9 November 2007

Trippermap as a navigation aid

I was wondering how best to structure my photo galleries and stumbled across Trippermap. Given that we will be using RapidFlickr to structure the country by country galleries with direct links to Flickr and nice little embedded Flash slideshows, I thought that it would be good to make the most of having the photos on Flickr. Trippermap allows you to take photos that are uploaded onto Flickr and render them on a map of the world using a Google Earth API and a series of Geotags. It seems pretty simple to do and it adds a nice little interactive navigation element to the site.

Things are starting to come together...

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Photo Update from Blogger

With a bit of luck this will work as well..but it looks like there may be a little bug in so far as it doesn't account for the size of the picture in the sizing of the post. The default must be to insert the next post when the text ends and not when the photo ends. I guess that i can work around this for the moment by making sure that there is enough text to wrap around the post. In reality, when we are on the road, the photos will be incidental to the text and therefore this won't be a concern. The secret is to make sure that the photo is large enough to displace the text...and don't end the post with a picture. Now to check that the comments work...

Test run with a picture


So here we go with a local picture update..

Comments almost sorted but now a pubishing issue

I managed to solve the comments issue with an upgrade of the RapidBlog Plug-in to version 1.25 to make it Leopard compliant. But now I seem to have a problem with publishing as it cannot connect to my ftp server. The username and password are definitely correct...will need to chase this down. In the meantime I will try and make sure that I can embed pictures in the blog (locally and remotely using blogger).

No comments or content in the side bar

Todays problem to fix is the absence of comments. I have signed up to Haloscan to manage all the comments but the HTML for the blog page does not seem to include a link to Haloscan to offer the ability to leave a comment. I think that I have ticked the right boxes within the setup area of the editing section in Rapidweaver but no joy. I will investigate later. I am also lacking content in the sidebar such as an archive and category list. Let's see what can be done...

Monday, 5 November 2007

We are up and running...with a few niggles to iron out

Well...the publishing issue was down to version 3.6.4 not being fully Leopard compliant. I think that there are still a few problems for Realmac to sort out before it is truly Leopard ready...especially with the blogging and photoposting functionality. These should come through with version 3.6.5. It also looks like Version 4 will be coming before the new year.

Anyway, after working through some setting questions on the FTP side (I needed it to operate through a 'public_html' sitepath) we are now up and live on the web.

Given that noone knows the address, there isn't a problem with the content being undercooked. However, the next few weeks will be about pulling together a good suite of content and making sure that we have full blogging, comments and photoposting solutions in place.

I appear to have solved the remote blogging to solve the comments issue.

Having problems publishing

The blog seems to be coming along nicely in RapidWeaver but now I have found that there appears to be a problem with publishing the new site to my host. I hope that it is just an issue with settings and not something more fundamental. I have contacted the 'support ninjas' at RapidWeaver for help. Love the title...I need a job title like that...

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Please work...

So this is the first test message for the RapidBlog plug-in in Rapidweaver. In order to be able to update the website whilst on the road I needed to find a way of updating the content from a remote location. Rapidblog transposes content, as entered in a Blogger blog into the RapidWeaver website. If this does indeed work (with comments) then that is one to-do off the long list.

Now how many still to do 25...26...27...


So...6 weeks and counting but no website.

Unbelievably it's now only six weeks until we leave for South America and there are still dozens of things that need to be done. The last couple of days I have been looking into the website options and have settled on RapidWeaver. A couple of months ago I started looking and took the option to ask Sarah to buy a copy of Dreamweaver whilst she was eligible for an educational license. However, I severely underestimated the level of HTML, PSP and ASP coding knowledge that was required. I certainly won't rule out using it in the future, but given how much there still is to do I needed to look for a more user friendly and accessible tool that would provide the right balance between simplicity in the user interface and workflow and a good look and feel. One other pre-requisite was the ability to update content remotely and have a dedicated URL (without the accompanying Wordpress or Blogspot addition).

The simplest option would have been to continue to use my randomride blog at Blogger. You certainly can't fault Blogger for it simplicity and Workflow. It also has the benefit of accessibility pretty much anywhere. However, on the downside, you can't host it on your own URL and webserver and there is little flexibility over structure and look and feel. So the next port of call was Wordpress. I downloaded the most recent version of Wordpress and purchased a URL and hosting package with Heart Internet. With a little help from the Wordpress support group I got the Wordpress package installed on the website. This should have been a doddle, however, the content management system that allows for remote updates required an upload to a mySQL server...this one was beyond me.

With Wordpress up and running I began to play with the look and feel but ended up frustrated by the relative complexity of the updates that were required to get the right look and feel. None of the the themes that were supplied or available from third parties really did it for me and I wanted to update elements of the template. Unfortunately that next step required another level of coding and HTML & CSS knowledge. Even something as simple as changing the header picture became a battle with the syntax. It felt like 1985 all over again...tapping at the Acorn Electron...10 go to 20...

So the next option had to be something more powerful and flexible than Wordpress but more user friendly than Dreamweaver. That was when I came across RapidWeaver. This software bears remarkable similarity to iWeb but is more powerful and flexible. There are multiple themes to choose from and plug-ins that allow increased functionality. Over the last couple of evenings I have just started to get the hang of the workflow after watching a series of Screencasts from Screencasts Online. These give a great introduction to the how to and will give most of the information that is needed to build a basic site. I now have a great looking theme and can begin bulding something that is fit for purpose for the trip. The one concern that remains is the ability, or otherwise, to update content and manage content remotely. I am hoping that a plug-in called RapidBlog is going to save the day but I still have a little way to go before I can say categorically that it will work. Still, luckily I have six weeks to figure it out.

This weekend, Sarah and I are heading up to Tunbridge Wells to visit my Godaughter. It's been a few weeks since I last saw her...can't wait.

More on the blogging complexities later...and hopefully some more content on the website front.