Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Last Days in Peru and return to the UK

A day was spent sorting out the Hyundai after our four weeks on the road, disposing of items that would not be worth returning to the UK and enjoying a few days of rest and relaxation. We dropped in to Cajamarca and explored the lively market, took time to enjoy the natural thermal waters at a local health club and enjoyed a couple of excellent meals out with all the team and family before on the final night Suzy cooked us a superb three course meal which we shared in the large dining room of Dave's property.

An early taxi ride had us at the airport in time for the one hour flight to Lima - clear weather offered us views of the remote mountainous areas I hope to visit one day before we landed in the chaos of Lima once more.

Guillarmo was waiting to whisk us away in his taxi to Miraflores and our hotel but first we had to return a slightly frantic Canadian customer to his hotel as he had forgotten his phone - we are all too dependent on these fragile and easily mislaid devices but all was well and after an hour or so of the demented traffic we were in the quiet hotel once more.

That evening a final meal in the Haiti restaurant included for me delicious scallops before we retired early in preparation for our flights home.
Another white knuckle taxi ride saw us at the airport in good time and we departed on schedule at 11am.

The twelve hour flight passed reasonably well - I worked on photos and video clips as the hours ticked away before we emerged bleary eyed in to a clear Spanish dawn.
The two hours to Gatwick were a breeze and for once the Epassport gates were working and before long on a grey blustery morning we were returning to the Sussex countryside.
Chris and I then began the plod west arriving in Brecon around 6pm after some 36 hours travelling and I was pleased that the trusty bus fired up first time - Crad had kindly turned up in case of problems but I was soon on my way to the family home in Shropshire.
There, as is usually the case in my simplified and slimmed down lifestyle, there was almost no mail and no unexpected developments in my life or Mum's so I am now adjusting to the change in temperature, planning for Christmas and looking forward to catching up with many friends both old and new.

 It would be appropriate to thank Chris,Dave,Franco,Horje,Mario and Suzy for some wonderful memories - it was sad to say goodbye to most of the team but there is a chance that we will all meet up one day, I very much hope so.

The trip was a useful introduction to South America and has inspired me to return for longer one day, although this will not be for some time. However there are plenty of plans afoot and I will remain as determined as ever to enjoy the good fortune and opportunities presented by my survival of and recovery from a heart attack exactly four years ago to the day.

It is so much more than a cliche to say that every day is a bonus and I have been very fortunate to have been able to visit amongst others 

Ireland, France, Belgium ,Holland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Australia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia

over those years and remain optimistic that most people are warm, generous, friendly and helpful wanting only to share life experiences and do as well as possible by their families.

Last of the South American piccies sit here

and whilst in the UK Spotty Spot will be at best random - here

Monday, 30 November 2015

Ecuador Again and Back through Peru

Heavy traffic in Quito - something we had experienced ourselves prevented Mario from joining us that night as planned - even on a powerful BMW 650 so we dined well in great comfort as the party had indeed dispelled as promised.

Early next morning the random chirps and bleeps of the Hyundai's alarm woke me but it was only Franco who had decided to replace his front tyre and was busying himself in the hotel car park.
Mario arrived after breakfast
 and after a photo shoot with the vivacious receptionist we set off north initially and then turned west heading for Esmeralda and the coast.

As we dropped in altitude the temperature and humidity soared and we were soon in valleys almost inundated by the lush green vegetation of a tropical zone.
Bananas, coconut and date palms, mangoes and pineapple all grew freely and we enjoyed good local ice creams after a friendly military stop from an adjacent shack.

Whilst always polite and open it was amusing to see how the soldiers sharpened up their act when Mario produced his military ID and we were soon away to stop in a local village where the kids thought we had dropped in from space. They were all really good and friendly and asked politely to sit on the bikes and in the van - again I was reminded of times away in Morocco when I had allowed the local youths to jump in and experience the van which for all its modest comforts is a world away from their impoverished homes. We drank the ice cold milk from fresh coconuts, rapidly prepared by a huge fellah with a top notch machete before heading down to the coast where the heat almost knocked us over.

Overnighting in Pedernales gave us a chance to walk in the slightly cooler evening before finding a good place for dinner and as we left being entertained by a street act - a young lad on a unicycle juggling burning torches - all very clever but not a brilliant source of income for his partner and toddler who were alongside. Earlier we had met a young Argentinian couple living in a Type 2 VW air cooled van and selling handmade trinkets which again seemed a precarious existence.

The two bikes roared off in tandem as we continued to follow the coast south stopping to enjoy views of the vast Pacific Ocean before pulling up at a viewpoint just before a long bridge over the Rio Chone to Bahia de Caraquez which looked like a mini Manhattan on its distant peninsula.
By late afternoon after a lofty viewpoint outside the village where the buildings seemed in imminent danger of collapse we pulled in to Montanita and took rooms in a central hotel with secure parking and access on to the long sandy beach. The place had a real buzz with lots of bustling narrow streets lined with trinket and fast food stalls that were popular with the numerous young American travellers.
I took a long walk on the beach as the hours in a vehicle were playing havoc with my fitness and waistline - after a summer of exercise and dieting I had lost a fair bit but this trip will have undone all my good work.

 We found an excellent Italian for dinner where although the service was slow the food was good and a Charlie Chaplin film on the huge TV screen had us in fits of laughter - silent movies neatly surmount the language barrier in a noisy situation.
On our way back we noticed the remarkable sight of swifts or similar perched for the night on the power cables in huge numbers.

Our final day as Mario's guests took us towards the border with Peru with a visit to the large city of Salinas en route. Here in the posh bit we admired the hotels and marina where pelicans amongst others shot vertically in to the water just yards from the shore. Two guys painting the upper floors of a hotel dangled precariously on ropes whilst I gave an elderly Argentinian camper bus the once over.

A final diversion to a barren headland marking Ecuador's most westerly point at La Chocolatera involved passing through one of the bases that Mario had served at - plenty of soldiers were milling around but from what we could see there was no imminent threat of invasion from the vast expanse of ocean before us.

A light drizzle and descending dusk caused us to review our plans and we soon turned in to Hotel Jeshua that promised much and failed to deliver - a noisy pentecostal service in an adjacent building went on for hours, traffic thundered by on the road and my 3 neighbours seemed incapable of sleep.

The shower had another of the lethal looking direct shower heads I had seen in Montanita, again the earth wire was missing but this one did at least work and left the body tingling and clean - a good job as it was still hot and the fan was too noisy to leave on overnight.

A few mozzies were dealt with and I was glad to have shelled out a fair bit for anti malarials as this coastal part of Ecuador is a high risk area.

After a poor night's sleep we were away early as Mario had a long journey back to Quito - he had kindly bought us all a memento of our trip to Middle Earth and was grateful for his bottle of Scotch from Cali in Colombia where it is a third of the price. He was a very likeable guy and I hope to meet him again on a return trip one day - local contacts count for so much in a foreign land.
The Ecuador/ Peru border process was very efficient taking under half an hour - a sign of the approach to things came when a security guy yelled at us to use the pedestrian crossing but took no action when a car and van nearly ran us down by failing to stop - hey ho.

Near Mancora we pulled off the main road and followed a rough and dusty track to one of the nicest places we have stayed in. La Caprichosa has been raised from a dry dusty valley over the last 8 years by a Swiss Austrian couple whose attention to style and detail was a true credit to them. A number of stylish detached villas spread out over the land with a central dining area overlooking a salt water pool surrounded by palms. It was, sadly, almost empty and apparently they are losing around £5000 a month - a huge amount in anyone's books let alone by local standards and like El Hato and Madre Tierra it would no doubt be up for sale in the near future. However it served our purpose very well and we enjoyed a good meal outside before retiring to the spacious and well appointed rooms - my bed was larger than the whole of my living space in the van!!

After a refreshing dip in the pool we headed the few miles in to Mancora itself and pulled in to Las Pocitas which lay a couple of miles down a dusty and rutted track - an unpromising start. However the place itself was superb. Simple paja (palm) roofed shacks lined a stunning beach which stretched for miles with the sea no more than 30 yards away from our doors. There was a slight swell so the waves rolled in regularly and a breeze kept it bearably cool, however the sun is so strong here that I resisted the temptation to swim until later in the afternoon.

We enjoyed relaxing in hammocks and the swim when we did go in was sublime : warm, invigorating and good exercise. The rough track shook us up as we returned to the town for a meal in an Asian restaurant - the busy Pan American ran as usual right through the centre and carried the usual mix of long haul bus services, heavy trucks, local taxis and tuc tucs all blending in to a by now familiar mix. The various stall holders tried to entice us in but were never pushy or offended when we declined their wares and we enjoyed the mix of cultures, art forms, food styles and music.
Returning to the peace and quiet of our rooms we again tackled the track which now thronged with half lit tuc tucs, stray dogs and wild scooter riders.
Early next morning three of us walked south for an hour or so watching the pelicans skimming the waves, a fishing boat dragging in its nets and avoiding the stench of a bloated seal carcass. After another swim and reading I walked north past the new fishing jetty under construction and in to the village again. Birds of prey were attacking another carcass in the blistering heat and despite wearing a wide brimmed hat I was reddened by the sun's rays reflecting off the almost white sand.
Later that evening I walked back up again to avoid the road to hell and joined the others for dinner in an open fronted restaurant for grilled pork chops and ice cold beer. It looked hot and sweaty work over the charcoals but the end result was delicious - it is surprising how the hotter countries also favour the peppery and spicier food and I think over the last month I have become accustomed to the heat of various accompaniments.

What was to be our final day on the road started well with an early departure after a good breakfast on the terrace and a final traverse of the tortuous track. We deviated briefly to see the turtles at El Nurro but declined the opportunity to swim alongside them and headed off to Piura which had been the venue for a very noisy night 3 weeks earlier.

 We then tackled the long Sichura  desert where unfortunately one of  the Trans Alps exhausts began to smoke ominously in the middle of nowhere. A stuffed piston ring seemed the likely culprit or head gasket as oil was seeping from the head and there was little compression. It was a hot, dusty and dangerous place on the narrow hard shoulder so we decided to try towing Franco if only to get to a safer spot. Any faster than 20kph was too dangerous and it soon became apparent that to cover the remaining distance to Chiclayo could take all night - not a realistic possibility so in the slight shade of a tree we reviewed our options. Whilst discussing things two other bikes stopped and turned out to be Brits from Bath on a South American tour. They were very friendly and we chatted as Franco and Horje removed one of the rear seats from the Hyundai, the panniers and wheels from the bike and then between us all we just got the 200kg plus frame and running gear in to the back. Some luggage and the now redundant seat were piled in to the remaining space and the rest strapped on to the roof rack before we said goodbye to the Brits and jammed five of us in to the tight available space.
It was a relief to get going again as it was by now 5pm and we had many miles ahead of us - but at least we were all safe and together. It is a constant concern for me when away as breakdown cover is very much a western luxury and following the fun and games in Morocco earlier this year when I faced a 1500 mile journey across Morocco and then Spain with defunct suspension our predicament had a sense of deja vue. We stopped in Chiclayo and again in Chilete to revive the supremely stoical Jorje who by the time we reached Cajamarca at 2am had been driving for 18 hours - apart from a couple of police checks and some crazy lorries it was a largely uneventful ordeal although a few vicious mozzies had jumped in and took advantage of the tight spaces to attack my legs.

Suzy had the gates open and after extracting our bags we left the bulk of the goods to be dealt with in the morning and all headed off for a much needed sleep.

So today we have been right through the van sorting out things after almost a month on the road, whilst Suzy fussed over us. Ozzie has been hard at work in the grounds, the chicks have trebled in size and it was good to sit back and reflect on what has been a revealing and informative journey.

The APM lads have been amazing company looking after Chris and I throughout and always in good humour. Dave's unique approach to life has provided many memories - his 69th birthday at La Caprichosa put many a younger guy to shame - and for me it has been a remarkable introduction to three rewarding, welcoming and friendly countries that I very much hope to return to in the not too distant future.

Over the next couple of days we will relax, prepare for the journey home and put warm coats at hand for what will be a rude awakening as we return to the poor weather we have been reading about. Coastal SA has El Nino warnings for the next few months which if they materialise may devastate some of the amazing place we have seen but judging by the tenacity and resilience of the many people we have met they will survive - somehow.

A final post covering this next week will be posted from the UK so in the meantime

photos here and our progress here will have to do!

Sunday, 22 November 2015

A Week in Colombia

The lobby painting in the Hotel Panorama rather failed to capture the reality of its location above a busy junction but it had suited us very well and whilst the others set off in search of bike parts I dived in to the enormous market soon losing myself in a maze of narrow aisles where stalls were laden with produce and goods of every description. It reminded me of the souks of Morocco and thrilled every sense - it is always difficult to capture the atmosphere in a picture as I try never to be intrusive and of course stand out anyway as a fair skinned, white haired gringo.

 Eventually I emerged in to the approach road that thronged with horse drawn carts, old Ford trucks, well worn Japanese pick ups, barrows and trolleys all vying for space and caught up with the others who had sourced a sackful  of Suzuki spares after a trip to the mechanic's home.
We followed the Pan American north with the scenery changing as we dropped out of the hills but a heavy tropical storm soon had us pulling in as it was unpleasant and dangerous for Franco  to keep riding.The small cafe provided some respite as we took an early lunch - the owner's children and parrot seemed equally absorbed in a TV cartoon as we waited for the deluge to subside.

Later after some memorable roads sweeping through endless mountain ranges we approached the large city of Cali where some 20km short we pulled in to Lago Grande Resort. This was spread out over sloping land full of mango trees and comprised a number of villas, a reception and dining area and a few rooms in a separate block of which we occupied our usual four. Unfortunately they claimed that their internet was down and insisted on cash upfront so Franco was despatched to an ATM with Dave's card as we settled in to the comfortable rooms. Hot water is not provided as it is normally very warm and whilst by current UK standards it was warm the cold shower was still something of an ordeal initially.
After Franco's return we dined outside whilst watching an international soccer match before retiring for a good night's sleep although thin walls did little to obscure the snoring of one team member who shall remain nameless. The hotel's groundsman also decided to fill our adjacent outdoor water feature from 6am with a huge pipe that tormented already primed bladders - as it is almost an exact 12 hour day here year round the rhythm of life begins early and thus so did ours.

Breakfast was the usual eggs, bread and coffee after which Dave and Chris took to the pool and sun-loungers whilst I went off to look round the extensive grounds which contained rather surprisingly a large well kept dog cemetery - moving but also slightly odd given that the vast majority of the population have so many challenges meeting life's basic needs.

Later we took a rather tedious drive through the busy traffic in to Cali where we enjoyed a couple of beers, bought some souvenirs and dined out on a busy street - at one point a large brightly coloured chiva ( the local old fashioned buses) drove past with a loud but merry party in full swing on board and later we enjoyed good Colombian coffee in the large square. Amusingly when we got back to our supervised parquedero the Hyundai was surrounded by a hundred or so scooters, most of which the attendant had to move to enable us to get out for the slightly quicker journey back to Lago Grande.
Here the sleepy night watchmen at two separate barriers let us in and we slept well.

Not long after leaving the next morning we were stopped by the police at a routine check point and again they were very polite and friendly and we were soon on our way south following the PA through the remarkable mountain scenery. Most of the steeper slopes were planted with coffee as apparently it doesn't tolerate its roots being waterlogged.
Again every bridge and tunnel was manned by the military and we stopped at one for a photo opportunity as twenty or so Suzuki 650 bikes were lined up - an impressive sight.

 After a long hot day we pulled in to a long hot village for a break and decided to stay in Hotel Paraiso - somewhere the Trades Description Act has never shined any light whatsoever. Located behind an all night filling station we waited for ages for keys before effecting entry via the windows to find no hot water, towels or working fans - as it happens the heat was such that cold showers were a blessing and whilst towels and keys did arrive the fan was replaced with one that was too noisy to use. Don't wish to sound like a whinging westerner but these really are only the basics and the places could do so much better if only they made a little extra effort.

In the relative cool of the late evening I went off for a long walk and soaked up the lively atmosphere as kids played in the street, dogs searched for scraps amongst the refuse, small stalls churned out delicious smelling snacks and shop keepers manned their tiny shacks. Officers at the police post were very friendly, pulling over the occasional truck for a cursory inspection with the odd pair dashing off on their bright green Suzukis with the pillion always bearing a rifle.

Back at the room I had a pretty poor night's kip as although around midnight the adjacent bar finally turned off Colombia's largest loudspeaker the trucks rolled in for fuel all night, the cockerels were off from 3am and families living in the assortment of shacks were on the go from 5. The temperature never fell below 70 either so I was somewhat grumpy next morning - sorry chaps.

Our aim for the day was to cross back in to Ecuador but en route we left the Pan American which again despite its glamorous title was no more than an A road equivalent and at times less than that busy with the chivas full of people and luggage, lorries of all descriptions, overloaded buses and taxis, pick ups with families sitting astride goods for market, cattle and pig trucks and at intervals chaotic roadworks as the challenging terrain leads to landslides, ruptured roads and washed out bridges. However it was all fascinating and we made good progress with just the odd near miss as trucks and taxis refused to give way once committed to overtaking.

The reason for our diversion was to see Las Lajas properly and we were soon swaying gently in the capsule of a ski lift that would transport us across a deep river ravine to the stunningly situated church below. This sat on a bridge spanning the river and was an impressive sight - we enjoyed a couple of hours looking round and inspecting the museum before returning to the lift which has been open 3 years but does not appear on Google maps hence my Spot location for the day places me randomly in a field half way down the ravine's side.

A Colombian girl was grateful for a lift to the border where our immigration and custom's procedures went very well and we were soon in to Tulcan which is a rather busy border town but suited us as our other option lay a couple of hours away and would entail riding after dark for Franco.
The hotel located near the bus terminal was fine and seemed well finished and whilst my room was perhaps a tad tight it served a purpose. We walked over to a small cafe full of locals that did a set menu of ham soup and then a thin but tasty steak with rice and veg - five of us eating well for about £10. Ecuador uses the $ so it took some adjusting from the millions of Colombian pesos we had been working in.
An ice cream from a corner shop rounded off a good day before we all retired to bed - the basement disco failed to keep me awake this time - must be getting used to local ways.

The next morning I followed the stairwell up to emerge in to the unfinished top floor of the hotel and then the roof from which there were views over the workaday town - I also got a close up of the alarming power supply arrangements at the pole and noted that  two thin cables jammed in to a socket were powering a welder, scary stuff.
Breakfast in the same cafe was very good and we watched as the day's supplies were brought in by various urchins - gas bottles, baskets of bread, bundles of herbs and at a rough count almost a thousand eggs on trays.
Thus with the team refueled we stopped at a garage to tank up the van and bike - diesel again now costing 60p a gallon - before heading south once more for Ibarra where we are due to meet Mario the retired colonel who was heading up from Quito to join us for a few days.

Chris was troubled again with stomach woes and during a hasty stop in a simple food shack we sat and watched the world go by noting the subtle changes between the people and cultures of two different countries.

Down at Ibarra the Hosteria El Prado on the approach to town seemed inaccessible as there were cars and pick ups parked everywhere. It turned out that the local power company were putting on a big day for employees and their families with perhaps 200 people enjoying good food in a large marquee that had Ecuador's largest speakers on full whack. We were assured that it would all be over by 7pm and were shown to some of the best rooms of the trip so far - an added bonus was an excellent heated pool, Turkish bath, steaming sauna and jacuzzi which we all enjoyed ; a chance to feel really refreshed after a few weeks on the road.

Whilst I prefer the simple life in the van as a method of travel and accommodation I have always over the years enjoyed the odd night of luxury but would not want to travel as extensively as I have just moving from one hotel to another. In fact as we came in to town I had spotted the only evidence of any organised camping as an aire sign pointed down to the lake - a while back I had also seen a German plated T5 camper as well as a large Swiss plated expedition truck so clearly there is a fledgling 'camper' presence as well as the scattering of well loaded motorbike travellers we had seen.
With confirmation that Mario was en route but running late we dined in the excellent restaurant before turning in and are now awaiting his safe arrival.

Tomorrow we head for the coast and will probably be back to Cajamarca in Peru in a week or so before the return to Lima for flights home and no doubt a rude and wintry awakening.

Other photos available at this link

 and our progress here.

The recent glitch with the |Spot seems to have been resolved and was no doubt down to user error.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Crossing the Equator

 Quito is the second highest capital city in the world after La Paz and stretches for some 40 miles along a valley and spreading up the surrounding hills to accommodate its 2,000,000 plus citizens. Whilst much of this is unavoidably noisy, crowded and chaotic the historic centre is very different.
A central square with on one side the still occupied presidential palace, and on another the main cathedral sits amidst a host of streets containing further churches, museums and other grandiose architecture with the streets forming an easily negotiable grid pattern.

We walked at random enjoying the warm afternoon air - our centrally located hotel being ideally placed although the adjacent trams caused the fittings in my room to shake and other occupants were at times inconsiderately noisy.
Many people were walking the pavements and roads trying to sell fruit, veg, bread or other necessities in dollar bags and the shops ranged from tiny shacks to large department stores, whilst the shoe shine boys, occasional beggars and ever present but friendly police and security guards all combined to make for a fascinating atmosphere.

Later that evening we met up with two friends of Dave's - both retired colonels from the Ecuadorian army who were good company. Mario had served around the world including London and as an attache in Iraq for 18 months. He has a son currently serving deep in the Amazon on the border with Peru but has himself now retired and is a keen motorcyclist.

We dined well in an exclusive restaurant tucked away in government buildings off the main square before walking down to a beautifully restored street in old Quito that reminded me of rural Spain at its best. Here in a lively bar we enjoyed a local fermented sugar cane brew and appreciated local musicians both indoors and out on the street before returning late to our rooms.

Mario kindly spent the next day showing us some of Quito's highlights which included the museum and monuments that mark the historic battles to achieve independence from Spain, a stunning basilica and then after meeting his wife at his comfortable home we headed to the Middle of the Earth.
No this was not a return to my Hobbit home but a visit to the park and monument that marks the line of the equator a few miles north of Quito. The monument contained a number of excellent displays explaining the science of the solar system, gravity, hemispheres and the like whilst the top level provided a good vantage point for views across to the higher peaks of the Andes. On our way back we visited a 'Scottish' bar where the enthusiasm for a TV football match added to the already lively atmosphere - I was by then somewhat tired and it seemed a long haul back to the still shaking hotel.

Our departure the following day was slightly delayed as Chris and Dave had a pants crisis due to the launderette not opening until 10 am - we had missed closing time last night - but eventually with Franco leading the way on his trusty TransAlp, Horje keeping up despite the random driving of most other vehicles and me providing some reassurance as to the route we were heading north. Before coming away I had downloaded to my phone the Maps.me app which has proved remarkably useful - it is free, contains no advertising and yet gives accurate offline street level mapping plus route finding in any country - I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone traveling at home or abroad as it really is a map in your pocket at all times.

 A nasty and presumably fatal accident as we approached Quito airport held us up - a Coca Cola delivery lorry had misjudged a sharp bend at the bottom of a long hill and the crumpled cab was surrounded by thousands of bottles and debris.

Eventually however we were out of the city and following well engineered and largely well maintained roads that tended to follow ridges before the occasional alpine style descents and climbs in to larger valleys.

The mountains rippled on for ever and we looked across to small seemingly inaccessible farms and dwellings each surrounded by small cultivated fields.  One region looked so much like mid Wales, particularly as some of the tops were shrouded in cloud - amazing considering that we were effectively on the equator but largely due to our elevation at around 10,000'.
By late afternoon we were at the border with Colombia and were soon stamped out of Ecuador.
The immigration process for us was very quick but customs paperwork for the two vehicles took longer - we were the only ones in the office as locals can pass freely and the young girl was pleasant but thorough. The van and bike's chassis numbers were both rubbed with carbon so they could be imprinted on to sellotape that was attached to the documents and the driver and owner details recorded and copies kept.

 Once through we then had to stop at the small SOAT office to buy the required TPF&T insurance - a month cost £10 for the van and £15 for the bike. The friendly girl told us of a good local hotel as by now it was dark and it would have been a dangerous ride for Franco and we were soon booked in to comfortable rooms for much needed showers. We dined well in the restaurant - fortunately able to pay by card as we had decided not to change dollars in to pesos at the border as the rates were poor.

The next morning the SOAT girl's mother appeared as she worked at the hotel and had been in the office the previous night - she wished us well with our travels as we left in a heavy downpour, OK for us but hard on Franco. En route for Popayan we missed a turning but were rewarded by views down to the church on a bridge at Las Lajas which looked worth a visit, however as there was a big cycle event on it was rather busy so we decided to include it in our return journey.
Colombia's scenery changed as we gradually lost height and became more tropical. Coffee and banana plantations were dotted around, bamboo was grown for use in construction and the people were much darker in complexion - many of course from families historically part of the slave trade. It became very hot and we were grateful for the aircon as we passed through lively villages where mini festivals and events were marking the Sunday of a holiday weekend. Roadside shacks were offering delicious hot food or selling melons and mangoes and at each bridge and tunnel there was a military outpost where the soldiers would give a cheery thumbs up which had to be acknowledged as we flashed by. We were pulled over at one and asked to give a small donation but still had no pesos so a few Peruvian soles (about 10p) was given.

Fortunately in fact at a toll booth Dave found some crumpled notes to pay the £2 fee - about 10,000 soles!- otherwise Franco would have had to be sent off to find an ATM as bikes were free. Thus in the next large town (Pasto) we stopped to get some currency out. The ATM was located in a large supermarket which was as well stocked as any UK megastore and I decided to withdraw 300,000 pesos - about £60 as we are only in Colombia for a few days. I reflected on how much easier traveling is today - when I cycled India and Nepal in the early eighties there were no ATM's so obtaining cash entailed hours queuing to cash travelers cheques, no mobiles so calls home required pre booked time in booths, certainly no Skype which makes keeping in touch with loved ones so easy and of course no internet to provide blogs or do the research. In those days I kept a diary and was restricted to the number of rolls of film I could carry and keep safe - nowadays it is so easy to shoot piccies, share them and save them - something I spent yesterday evening doing.
 Anyway the store's cafe provided lunch before we set off again following the Pan American north aiming for Popayan. The sight of two small lads on bikes tagging on to a slow moving lorry belching out black fumes provided amusement - particularly as one was simultaneously texting...
Whilst stopping for a coffee break we watched locals gearing up for a football match - the pitch had long drops either side so kicking in to touch was best avoided.
To avoid traveling at night we decided to stop at El Bordio where a huge bamboo structure provided shade from the sweltering heat - at least 90 degrees - and at one end wood fired stoves were providing delicious hot food. The place was a mini resort with a few cabins in the tropical gardens  and rooms in the main house plus an enticing pool so we were soon booked in. It was so hot that only cold water was provided in the shower and I decided to stay indoors with a large fan keeping it bearable as I reviewed and backed up all the Go Pro clips and photos.
After some time swatting all the mozzies I actually slept very well although the huge lorries rumbled past all night. The others all went off for a swim but with no sign of any filtration or chlorination equipment I decided to stay out, choosing instead to try and photograph the colourful but elusive bird life and buying two melons from the roadside stall - 4000 pesos being under a quid.

 The road north to Popayan was stunning - a few heavy lorries loaded with tractor units provided some hairy moments on the corners and another crash - this tine a gravel lorry misjudging a corner - kept us all alert. The roads were kept well but clearly this area gets torrential rain at times as there was much evidence of landslides - one section was awaiting repair but an old couple were risking death by straying in to the road brandishing shovels and asking for money.
At a coffee break we chatted to the local police who ride two up on bright green Suzuki motorcycles, the pillion holding his rifle at all times. Again very friendly as were the local civilians who were intrigued by the APM badged van.

Finally in Popayan the centrally located Hotel Panorama provided a large basement garage to keep our transport safe and we took up the usual four rooms before heading off in to town as Dave and Franco were after some spares for a couple of Suzuki bikes back in Cajamarca. They are cheaper here because the police ride the same bikes but it was a holiday Monday and all the outlets were closed.

Later we walked in to town and found an excellent pizzeria, downed slightly too much beer and were sobered up on the walk back by coming across a smash between two lads on a moped and a car. Neither had been wearing helmets but it looked like they would survive and we were impressed by how quickly the ambulance and police arrived and how professionally they dealt with the scene.

Anyway today the bike shops are open and I will visit the large market before we head north to Cali. The trip is going very well and it seems surreal that this will all change in a fortnight as we return to a stormy and wintry Britain - however until then we will enjoy this amazing opportunity which you can share via the  pictures at this link .

For some reason the Spot seems to struggle at times reporting on our location but have a look here anyway.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Traversing Ecuador

Sunday morning in Loja began with us watching a family cycle event set off from the square - the enthusiasm of the toddlers a delight to behold.

The Bomberos were fundraising as well with their immaculate historic fire engine and the huge indoor market was a hive of activity. The surreal City Gate dominated the main avenue as we left town heading south through stunning mountain scenery part of  which contained a large cloud forest national park.

Near Vilacabamba we booked in to very up market accommodation - Madre Tierra (www.madretierra.com.ec) where I chose a brightly coloured room with sunken pebble lined shower and plenty of comfort - it was soon nicknamed the Hobbit House as the others chose more lofty and spacious alternatives. However for me it was more than enough as I am used to far less space whilst in the van, talking of which I am now convinced that one day I will return to South America with my own vehicle for an undetermined and possibly unlimited time. The scenery, people, culture and living costs all appeal - here we are paying 60p a gallon for diesel and no that is not a typo !

We dined well on the terrace that evening which was beautifully decorated and surrounded by sub tropical plants, with water flowing in pools, streams and miniature cascades before we all slept soundly. Franco our motorbiking guide and Horje the driver are good company and enjoy the chance to improve their English whilst Chris and I get by with our limited Spanish. Dave is more or less bilingual having run his business over here for about a decade and was intrigued to hear that the whole resort was on the market as the American owners wished to retire. With a successful sales introduction fee of $10,000 we figured the asking price would be substantial and although judging by the number of other guests turnover was at present limited it had a great deal of potential.

The next day I walked up the valley beneath the mountain of Mandango for a couple of hours before looping back and reaching Vilacabamba itself which had a pleasant square surrounded by small restaurants mostly full of visiting Americans. Apparently locals are renowned for their impressive lifespans and since the 60's various people have settled here in search of the secret to eternal life.
The village is also the starting point for walks and rides in to the cloud forest so will certainly merit a return visit, but this time I was content to return to the tranquility of Madre Tierra and enjoy a chance to catch up with folks back home.

That evening the three gringos walked back in to the village for an excellent meal on the terrace of  a corner bar - the warm air and relaxed atmosphere proving very enjoyable. White crew cab pick ups (with a green side strip) provide the local taxi service and as a soft tropical rain had set in we paid less than $2 to be returned home long after dark - the sun setting here very quickly as we are near to the equator at around 6pm.

We could have lingered longer but on the Wednesday we headed north bypassing Loja and taking the road to Cuenca  stopping at El Hato hacienda located down a steep bumpy half mile track.
Whilst again very well appointed it seemed to be struggling and we later learned that since the owner's wife had had a major stroke  they had been shut for several months and were now also hoping to sell. It also had enormous potential and was in a tremendous spot but being at around 10,000' was quite chilly although the cavernous and quirkily decorated dining area had a roaring fire that we all appreciated.

 Thus we decided to move on again and entered Cuenca where we stopped only briefly to view the impressive cathedral and enjoy the local police who were on a big PR exercise - lots of officers around keen to be photographed and a generally relaxed atmosphere.

I have been surprised both here and in Peru at how many police and security guards are around  in every town and along the roads - it adds to an overall atmosphere of security and against expectation I have never once felt threatened or vulnerable - something I also experienced in Morocco. Chris and I also nipped in to the Panama hat museum as he wanted something to fend off the hot sun - at these altitudes it burns the bonce very quickly and we were both intrigued by the old presses and assorted moulds that combine to create this iconic headwear.

A long afternoon passing through wonderful mountains on well engineered, well maintained and largely empty roads took us towards Quito - the second highest capital city in the world. In one area there were dozens of small wood fired kilns churning out bricks and blocks and in another people were crushing limestone by hand before similar kilns were producing lime for construction and agriculture.

 It will be good to take this area more sedately one day as some side trips up to the even more remote villages would be rewarding. Franco coped well with the night riding as many other vehicles were poorly lit and returning herds of cattle and goats appeared at random out of the blackness with their owners.

Eventually after passing through Riocabamba we reached the best accommodation so far - Hosteria La Andaluza ( www.hosteriaandaluza.com) which had grown out of an old hacienda. A sumptuous dining room and comfy lounging areas were linked by numerous beautifully decorated corridors to the various rooms - we were accommodated in the old part which was a quadrangle of well furnished rooms overlooking a fountain and pond with plump rabbits contentedly grazing the neat lawns. Although it was late we all decided to eat in the restaurant and enjoyed delicious well presented food in a memorable setting. Local musicians were entertaining a large group of Australians in an adjoining area which made for a great atmosphere all round.

After a substantial buffet breakfast today saw a short hop north on a road that seemed full of suicidal maniacs whose overtaking defied belief at times. Slow moving lorries and smaller trucks contained produce, livestock, human passengers and building materials amongst other items, overloaded buses stuck rigidly to the centre lane and we weaved a cautious path as Franco also contended with some very random late decisions by other drivers.

En route we passed Cotopaxi a large and still active volcano and indeed our plans to visit the surrounding National Park were thwarted as it has been erupting gently since September but something more dramatic is expected.

Quito sits in a large valley with the city also running up the surrounding slopes and across various ridges and is the second highest capital city in the world. We were heading for the compact historic centre which sits above the modern sprawl and before long were squeezing the van in to the basement parking of the Plaza Del Teatro hotel. This old building is in the heart of old Quito and will be our base for two nights - however the fixtures and fittings shake whenever a tram passes so I am awake early despite a late finish last night. This was as a result of dining out with two retired Ecuadorian colonels and then heading to a bar for sugar cane punch and local music - all this and much more in the next post.

Photos are here.

Locations are here.

And I am off for breakfast - which usually consists of scrambled eggs served with fruit salad ... ?

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Over to Ecuador

To avoid possible complications at future border crossings it was decided that Franco should nip back to Cajamarca to get a legal declaration of ownership of the van for Dave which would allow it to be exported temporarily- this was necessary as the change of owner had not yet worked its way through the Peruvian vehicle database. Thus he tackled the 6 hour return trip which gave us an extra day to enjoy Pacasmayo. Whilst having coffee on the balcony looking across the Pacific ( Sydney was 9,000 miles away on a line that would touch no other land mass) we heard a brass band approaching - this was following a brightly decorated coffin surrounded by relatives who seemed to be in a cheerfully respectful mood and I guessed they were celebrating a life well lived and that in their eyes their departed was going to a better place. In front of what was presumably their family home they stood for a few moments in quiet reflection before the trumpets and drums picked up again as the surprisingly uplifting cortege headed off up the hill to the cemetery.

I decided to walk out the few miles to the lighthouse so set off through increasingly poorer and dustier suburbs which eventually became a desert wasteland of half built concrete and adobe homes with swirling rubbish, piles of fly tipped waste and a very desperate air. In the distance the vast cement works added to a sombre scene and it was difficult to envisage this ever being an easy place to live.

However out at the headland the local kite surfers were enjoying good waves and the strong wind and a couple of local tuc tuc riders were forcing their hardy little machines around the dunes. Both were absorbing sights and as the sun set over a retreating tide I was able to make my way back along the shoreline where Franco had returned safely with the all important documents.

Thus on a hot Friday morning we headed north to Piura which involved crossing the Sechura desert, a vast arid plain of some 70 miles with temperatures in the high thirties.

Piura is an important regional city and as such was busy and chaotic - the traffic was as deranged as ever, the horns, bells, sirens and yelling seemed even louder than ever and we weaved a nerve wracking path through the throng to our hotel. Whilst clean and well staffed it was very central and the noise continued almost unabated all night giving Chris and I very little sleep whilst Dave claimed not to have heard a thing. Franco and Horje had also slept through it all and were cheerfully loading the van beneath my window for an early start.

As Chris was having gastric troubles we walked round to a pharmacist but the language barrier resulted in one Gaviscon tablet instead of the hoped for bottle of liquid so he will have to make it last!!
We were away earlier than usual as the planned crossing in to Ecuador could take some time and by mid morning had arrived at Macara which is generally regarded as being quieter as it is off the Pan American highway.
The Peruvian passport and customs controls were soon dealt with - during which time we met a young Swiss couple, also on a Trans Alp, who had ridden down from Canada and were heading for Tierra Del Fuego - awesome.

The Colombian formalities were a little more protracted as the van and bike needed fully documenting but in under two hours in total we were done and dusty (!) and were off in to the mountains.

The scenery had changed as we left the desert area and we now passed banana palms, mango trees, paddy fields and bamboo plantations. Ecuador was also clearly a more affluent country than Peru with a better standard of housing, less rubbish lying around and in the villages and towns more of a sense of order with less traffic chaos, fewer horns and most vehicles actually looking roadworthy.
The routes through the mountains tended to stay high and contour along the extensive ridges and with little traffic were a joy to follow - I plonked the Go Pro on the bonnet and rear hatch to capture some clips that will go in to a promo vid for APM tours.

A military check point involved a cursory check of our bags and then handshakes and smiles all round plus a photo opportunity before we dropped over many miles in to Loja, our base for the night.
Again there were marked contrasts with Peruvian cities with much grander architecture, more sophisticated transport arrangements and smarter retail outlets.

With Chris still not feeling too good the rest of us piled in to a taxi and had a memorable evening in a pizza parlour - good local beer and wine washed down fresh baked food and we returned to the very quiet Hotel Libertador for in my case at least a very good night's sleep. It is early morning now - we are 5 hours behind the UK and will shortly be meeting for breakfast to plan our onward journey. The small size of our group has made the logistics easier and we can be very flexible in our planning.
Watch this space to see the outcome and review our progress with photos via this link
and the usual eye in the sky here.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Cajamarca and down to Pacasmayo

Our one hour flight from Lima gave us impressive views of the Andes as we flew north to Cajamarca where a few miles in to the countryside Dave has based his business in a lovely 3 storey house that looks out over small farms and simple homes. We met Franco and Horje who will accompany us and were soon settled in to the comfortable accommodation - Dave was pleased with his new support vehicle - a flexible Hyundai people carrier and we took the opportunity of the Dias Del Morte celebrations (our Halloween) in town to go out for a meal and visit the stunning cathedral in Cajamarca itself. A christening was taking place and the cavernous interior enhanced some very emotive singing as we stood respectfully at the back.

On the Sunday we went in to Los Banos Del Incas to get the van washed and cleaned and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of this colourful town - I was very much reminded of Morocco with the half finished houses, multiple small stalls and shops, roadside repair shacks and scruffy streets and took to it all immediately. Traditionally dressed locals mixed with hip youngsters in the hot sunshine whilst I remained amazed that, despite the total disregard for any rules of the road, the melee of minibuses, tuc tucs, taxis, trucks and scooters all seemed to progress safely. Horns were obligatory and roundly ignored by all and I would have relished the challenge of negotiating the chaos in the van.

Monday saw us heading for the monthly livestock market which is an important regional event and provided a heady mix of sights, smells and sounds as farmers from miles around had descended with their families and stock on the hot and dusty market ground. It seemed chaotic but good natured and we managed to avoid bidding on anything before returning to Cajamarca and chasing up a number of pre trip tasks including corporate and safety signage for the Hyundai, some paperwork and food shopping.

That evening we went to a local club and enjoyed relaxing outdoors in the natural thermal pools that had attracted the Incas thousands of years ago - sunset is around 6.30 and it was a sublime experience to be in a steaming pool under the stars.

A trial run with the van up in to the hills introduced me to the Ventanillas of Otuzco which are old Inca burial chambers carved in to the rock face. On a rough track seemingly miles from anywhere we came across a large trout farm in a valley and had soon bought ten of the slippery, shining fish for supper that night - with over a million reared there at any one time it was a substantial operation. We climbed higher to Combayo with more of the carved out graves - some seemed impossible to reach and at an altitude of 11,000' I found walking up the steep slopes quite tiring despite a few days already acclimatising at 8,000' in Cajamarca.

The rough track passed remote and simple homes  where mostly women were herding small flocks of sheep and the odd cow as we descended in to a small town before returning via tarmac roads to Villa Buena Vista where Franco's partner Sue cooked the trout expertly.

So today we finally set off on our trip for real with Franco leading the way on a Honda TransAlp and the four of us seated very comfortably with our kit, spare fuel, tools and tyres jammed in the back beneath a mountain bike that will soon be augmented by two more on the roof.
As we left town a routine police check caused some amusement as it was the same transport official who had stopped us  yesterday - he waved us on and we soon stopped again at a panoramic viewpoint above the city which gave us a chance to orientate ourselves before we descended some 3000 metres towards the coast. The harsh steep mountains surrounded us and small farms and houses clung to the less vertiginous slopes with terraced fields reached by narrow paths that would be many hours walk from any road or other vehicular track. We stopped at a roadside timber store to price up some eucalyptus poles for a project Dave had in mind and guessed that it was all cut and carried by hand or donkey from the distant slopes - a remarkable achievement.

As we reached lower altitudes the vegetation and crops grown changed with mangoes, rice and maize replacing the sparse livestock grazing of the higher slopes.

In Chilete we stopped for a break giving me time to wander through the shady market - the low tarps slung above the stalls kept things cooler as it was nearly 80 in the streets and I was impressed by the variety and quality of fresh fruit, veg, nuts, herbs and spices on offer. Prices were a quarter of those back home,  as was the case with diesel, eating out and accommodation.

The driving was at times erratic with some interesting overtaking manoeuvres on all sides but Horje seemed competent enough and there was little I could do other than distract myself with taking photos and Go Pro footage - the suction clamp proving very capable of also clinging on for dear life.
Lunch was taken above a large reservoir with fish from the blue tinted waters washed down with in my case a blue tinted drink and we were grateful for the cool breeze as it was still in the high 70's.
We took a short section of the famous Pan American highway which differed little from other local highways down to Pacasmayo on the coast where we booked in to an old, traditionally built hotel right on the beach. We enjoyed coffee on the wooden balcony as the sun set over the Pacific which I had last seen from Australian shores before retiring to our rooms for a rest before dinner. I took advantage of reasonable wifi to catch up with events back home after which we strolled through town before dining well on Chinese style food as outside the streets hummed with activity. A slight hiccup with vehicle documentation may require Franco to nip back over the tops but it will be no hardship if we have to stay another night - or ten.

Anyway a selection of photos can be found by clicking here and you can see via Google Maps and the trusty Spot where we are lurking here.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

South America - the journey begins.

Leaving Brecon on a sunny morning we headed across southern England to arrive at Dave's quirky property in rural Sussex where final checks on bags and paperwork were made before we retired to the pub for Guinness and freshly caught mackerel.

A leisurely morning saw us through to 2pm when we were delivered up to nearby Gatwick for check in - my paltry 10 kilo bag helped offset Chris's that seemed unfeasibly heavy and we were soon passing through the usual security pavlova where Chris was relieved of a suspiciously large tub of cocoa butter - this also relieved Dave and I as lord knows what he had intended using it for.
A short two hour hop to Madrid then gave us time for a good steak washed down with red wine to dull our senses for the 12 hour overnight to Lima. As we descended over rural Spain the orange street lights of the small villages looked like cobwebs on a dark moor.

Lima is 5 hours behind the UK so it was dawn as we arrived at 6am to pass uninterrupted through Immigration and Customs to be met by Guillermo - a taxi driver contact of Dave's - which required a convivial coffee break before we launched in to the chaos of Lima's rush hour.
Having driven in similar frenzies in Morocco this was of no great concern but it was a relief to be in someone else's vehicle as we jostled with beat up buses, delivery vans and a sprinkling of elderly Beetles.

Hotel Castellana ( www.castellanahotel.com ) in Miraflores took care of our bags as our rooms were prepared and we took off to find breakfast near Parque Kennedy, home to a large number of feral cats. The Spanish signs, menus and conversation were reassuringly familiar even if still largely unintelligible but we were soon tucking in as outside the city came to life.

A quick visit to the local airline office saw tickets to Cajamarca booked and we also changed sterling and dollars in to nuevo soles with one of the many authorised street dealers who offer better rates than the hotels and banks - fully legit but it still felt slightly clandestine.

The Museo de Chocolate was full of temptation but we resisted and even Chris decided not to restock on his confiscated contraband but the samples were delicious.

Back at the hotel we were shown good, clean rooms and rested for a few hours before heading to a bar for beer and chips to watch the rugby play off and have - in my case - an early night.

Today we fly at 2pm giving the others time to watch the rugby final whilst I will head off and explore the area - Cajamarca will be our base until Wednesday as we need to check out and load the new vehicle - a Hyundai people carrier- that will be our transport for the next month.

As it is early days the piccies are yet to materialise but this link here will take you to a large selection of some of my favourites from the last decade since leaving the farm.

My daily location can be seen at this link as we head north through Peru to Colombia and then Ecuador with our return planned for early December - this year a substantial El Nino is forecast which may dictate our itinerary and indeed we have decided to factor in 2 nights at the end back in Lima to allow for any disruption to internal flights.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

MOT, LCB and the BBC

Following a very enjoyable week's farm sitting north of Brecon in unexpectedly good weather I welcomed Jan and Ian home after their successful jaunt to Iceland which looks worthy of a visit some time and is certainly on my list for the future.

I spent a sublime night at the sailing club a mile or two upstream of the old Severn Bridge with a superb moon and one of the highest tides of the year filling the pill with a mirror like calm. We walked up to the Oldbury Power Station to work off fish and chips enjoying the late evening views across to the Forest of Dean.

Sunday saw a circuit of the upper reaches of Cheddar Gorge starting at Charterhouse and following Velvet Bottom, the highlight of which on our return leg was spotting an adder which slowly took off in to the longer grass as the temperature was dropping.

On the Monday at the grand old age of 16 years and with 320,000 miles on the clock the trusty bus passed its 13th MOT for the sake of a £10 brake light switch which was good news.

However mindful of the possibility of a return to Morocco in the New Year and anxious
to avoid a repetition of this years trials (see January and February 2015 posts) I elected to have the steering rack and some coolant pipes replaced as the former had cropped up in a couple of advisories. I had planned to build on the success of the Way of the Roses bike ride a few weeks back and follow Sustrans routes up to London and back whilst the work was done but thanks to the rugby the garage could only do the work on the Thursday which did not leave me enough time.

Thus I dropped down to the Mendips for a couple of days instead to enjoy a ride around the lanes and tracks of the Somerset levels including a route through Glastonbury where the many devotees of the spiritual side of life provided an intriguing sideshow. A walk across to Crookes Peak was rewarded with crystal clear views across the Bristol Channel to South Wales and the Brecon Beacons after which I returned to Bristol for the precautionary work to be done.

This gave Bill and I the opportunity to cycle out to Bath and return via Bradford on Avon with its stunning tithe barn. Returning along the cycle track I picked up a slow puncture so the only solution was coffee and cake at the Avon Valley Steam Railway whilst glue dried.

 Anyway the van was all done on our return and I set off in due course for a weekend in Carmarthenshire staying at Church House Farm near Llanstephan. A coastal walk gave us wonderful views across to Laugharne and east to Gower which were enhanced by the low tide and shimmering sands. On the beach dozens of large stranded jellyfish awaited the return of the water, one in particular eerily resembling the ghostly sea spirit from Pirates of the Caribbean. Llanstephan Castle occupies an impressive spot above the village and on our return route the views changed again as the sun set.

 A good walk in Brechfa forest finished off a busy week and saw a change in the weather as a low swept in from the west so I decided to stay at the Rhandirmyn campsite and get some laundry done.

An email from Greg however persuaded me to make a random dash for rural Cambridgeshire to inspect a similar van with only a quarter of the mileage that looked to be in exceptional condition so I headed off in torrential rain for my first foray ever in to the Far East. A random red dashboard light whilst on the Midlands motorway network indicated alternator trouble but I carried on to Ramsey south of Peterborough where a rather shady dealer seemed disinclined to answer any questions and nearly had a fit when I donned my boiler suit, head torch and bright inspection light before disappearing under the chassis. Suffice to say all that glitters is not gold so I was soon on my way to a small Certificated Site where a temporary repair to the alternator trigger wire was undertaken and the battery recharged thanks to hook up.

Wednesday saw me heading to Sheffield with the journey pleasantly enlivened by said wire parting again on the busy A1 - another repair thanks to a Little Chef car park but the heavy rain seemed to enter my right ear and exit my left without interruption - somewhat worrying. Finally as I hit Sheffield the wire parted for a third time but this time was repaired in the sun outside Penny's house.
Thursday saw a good 30 mile plus bike ride around the surprisingly quiet and rural roads east of the A1 and south of the M62 covering Sykehouse, Yorkshire's longest village. The Indian summer made for perfect conditions and allowed for another two days of riding, one around Bradfield and another based north east of Mansfield in again surprisingly quiet rural lanes. A good walk with a friendly crowd in the Peak District on Sunday rounded off a cracking trip.

So after a few days up north I headed back to mid Wales for an intriguing assignment. My involvement with the Mountain Bothies Association stretches back 30 years but the organization is this year celebrating its 50th year and has received the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service which has attracted some welcome publicity. Thus the BBC approached the Publicity Officer and asked to film a small item for the breakfast news - mid Wales was selected as being convenient to both the reporter based in Bristol and the cameraman based in Salford and arrangements were made to meet in the Elan Valley to use the recently rebuilt Lluest Cwm Bach Bothy.
I wandered in early on Monday morning and to my surprise woke 3 slumbering medical students on their first ever bothy venture - as the building was in good order I returned to the van and considering the likelihood that the Beeb might not fully appreciate the principles of bothying headed to Rhayader to pick up some bits and bobs for supper.
Our Chairman Simon arrived mid afternoon followed by Phoebe who has written a book about bothying and eventually John the reporter and Tim the cameraman.
After a brief orientation for the newcomers we walked the mile or so across the bogs to the reservoir edge keeping a close eye on Tim as his camera and kit carried a cool £50,000 price tag.
The rest of the day was fascinating as the experts set up shots, conducted interviews, inspected rucksacks and traced the history of the occupation, abandonment and eventual rebuilding of this magical place. The weather again stepped up to the mark and Tim set up a tripod mounted Go Pro to capture the stars before we retreated indoors to a crackling fire, jacket spuds, corn on the cob and garlic bread as yes they had no bananas.

After more filming of the interior, night sky and Phoebe's backpacking gear I retired to the relative comforts of the van enjoying the stars and silence as I tramped across the bog.
Back in the bothy bright and early next morning I caught the hard core team stirring gently and our work was concluded with final sequences and interviews before we trudged out with Craig Goch looking idyllic as the sun rose from behind the hill. We said our goodbyes and I headed down to Brecon delighted to find the red light on again but an hour of spannering at Jan's saw I hope a more permanent fix and the power steering plus alternator belts tightened.

Today I nipped up Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons on an absolute cracker of a day, joining a young soldier not long back from Afghanistan for the start and finishing late in the afternoon with meeting a couple of Ozzies from Melbourne who were enjoying the unusually fine conditions - tea and biscuits were devoured as we exchanged stories before they head off to the Lake District for the rest of their stay.

Anyway I am off to waddle round the badminton courts before a boys weekend at Rhandirmyn where there is no phone signal to interrupt a couple of days of activity and merriment - the South America trip is fast approaching so malaria tablets and travel insurance are in place  - BE WARNED it gets very expensive once you've had an MI so look after your health to protect your wealth.......

Piccies at this link and locations at this one.

Hope to post again before departure.