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Feb 24, 2014

Ziggy Stardust and The Travellers from Tooting!
It was the night of The Brit Awards back in the UK, I could tell as my Facebook News Feed was lit up with photos of starlets and comments from a plethora of friends in attendance - The Good, The Bad… and The Blaggers! Bowie, the original Starman, was up for an award, which was somewhat poetic in its timing with our own evening’s interstellar adventure!

We to were heading out for a star-studded-event, no red carpets nor Champagne, but we had a trillion stars to see! We were off to a small private observatory high in Chile’s Coast Range mountains.

It was 9pm and we ascended the mountain dirt road in darkness, with only the 4x4s headlights illuminating the way. Up here in the mountains it gets dark quickly and as it only rains but 5 times a year, the limited few into the darkness offered only dust and desert, populating almost exclusively by a cacti, locally known as Mother-in-Law’s Chair, or to give it’s Latin name: Lynnus Situs Ouchus Maximus!

After 45mins of twists and turns we arrived at the observatory, perched high in the mountains surrounded by darkness like a launch pad for Major Tom, it was protected on all sides by other mountain ranges. It is this topography that makes Chile one of the World’s best places for stargazing, no clouds, isolation and no light pollution. 

We then spent 3 hours with our heads in the Heavens! We saw so much more than we expected: our guide and owner expertly maneuvered his 20cm lens telescope and picked out distant galaxies lying incomprehensible distances away; nebula just born; planet clusters that had died and left a black hole in space; Andromeda, The Southern Cross, Jupiter and it’s 4 moons; we could pick out Jupiter’s 3rd moon Europa - forget Life on Mars, Europa is the most likely place in our solar system to be able to sustain life!

Even without looking through the telescope the view above was stunning, a symphony of stars that offered us constellations we never see in the Northern Hemisphere. It was absolutely incredible and reminded us that we don’t look up enough! Stood there gazing up at countless stars and their movements far away, it really does put ones existence into perspective, and makes the thousands of miles we’ve travelled in our Grand Tour seem so meagre!

This Space Oddity was the perfect way to end our trip, prompting us to contemplate our years circumnavigation of Planet Earth, our journey and the trillions of other worlds glistening above us. It made us excited and curious to see what on earth we would be doing, and what our world would be like when we journeyed home to our own red-carpeted return to the UK next week!

Feb 9, 2014

Salsa Verde
It was our last night in the bohemian port town of Valpo, it had been a week of Cerros & Cervezas (hills and beers…) and tomorrow we’d be heading 6 hours north to the beach town of La Serena, for a week of beach-based chillaxing! 

We decided on partying the last night away with our new Norse friends Camilla and Gunstein. So after an exquisite dinner, several Piscos, wine, beer, then more Pisco in the old sailors’ bar Cinzano, we headed to the local 4 floor club - which boasted a range musical genres from Eighties and Nineties to Cuban and Trance! 

Let’s just say we sampled them all and eventually arrived on a sofa, at the edge of the 2nd level dancefloor, taking notes in awe of the locals winding their flowing Salsa moves, a few fast beers later, we were up and attempting our versions…. needless to say the dancefloor emptied fast, and the Anglo-Norse Salsa Extravaganza proved highly entertaining for the growing audience of mildly amused locals! 

Feb 7, 2014

Chile con Horsey
We last rode a horse 4 years ago in Argentina, so it seems to have become ‘our thing’ when in LatAm! 

We drove an hour out of town with our host Rene and our new Norwegian friends Camilla and Gunstein, for a half day’s riding at the family ranch of Rene’s friend Sebastian.

What I love about doing activities outside of the UK is there’s, well lets say, less formalities! Within a few minutes of meeting our host and horses, we were trotting off towards the beach. Without a half hour safety briefing, video and waiver, you don’t have time to fixate on the ‘What-Ifs’, you just get on with it! It gives you a huge amount more confidence, feeling that people believe I you so much - however misguided - it’s rather freeing! Of course I took this opportunity to push my comfort zones, so when offered, I took, with both reins, the fastest horse!

Fastforward 15mins and we are trotting along an endless beach, wet sand under hoof, the mighty Pacific to our left and huge red sand dunes and The Andes to our right. Rene says to the group “I’ve a question… do you want to gallop?” 5 seconds later we are galloping, at Warp 9, the sea spray passing me like starsfields, I’m trying to remember what each of my flailing limbs are supposed to be doing, i manage to pull my head forwards off my back and at that point wish I’d given due care and attention to the placement of my nuts! 

I manage to steady myself into the rhythm as we continue fast paced along the beach. Against the G-force I’m able to turn my head slightly and spot Carlos (Charlie) a length behind me, eyes wild with fear and adrenaline, tongue out and hair trailing behind her!

Galloping along the beach through the surf on a stallion with wind in your face, i felt like Hasslehoff in the opening credits of Baywatch!

We head off the beach and cross over some old rusty, but still in use tracks. It feels like a Western, I half-expected to see a native Indian with his ear to the rails, and cowboys planting sticks of dynamite ahead of the train’s arrival!

We canter through tundra and into a thick forest, the sunlight cutting through the branches illuminates the dusty haze between the trees, we carefully make our way through avoiding decapitating ourselves, until the view opens out into a grassy plain. We arrive at the base of the huge dunes. We have to sit forward and gallop as fast as we can to get up thick sand dunes, which look like an endless barrier between us and the sea - it makes you think how tough it was for early tribes then explorers coming from the Argentina, having to negotiate the Andes, then desert, then dunes to reach the Pacific!

We slowly made our way across the deep sand dunes, at points we were surrounded by sand and in this 35’c heat it felt we could be in the middle of the Arabian desert! Eventually we arrive back on the beach, with the cooling Pacific breeze on our faces we struck out for home at a fast paced gallop, and a nut flattening and teeth chattering 20mins later we were back home at the ranch for lunch.

Two days later, after all that horsing around, our bodies are still aching and we are all walking around like John Wayne! Proper Cowboys!

Feb 6, 2014

Chile con Doggy
So we are in Chile, we spent 4 days in the moderately-sized capital, Santiago, mostly catching up with jetlag and bathing by the hostel’s pool!

We hopped onto a bus and arrived at our destination, and home for a week, Valparasio - the once glamorous and now raggedy and bohemian old port town. In its Day of Hay, it was THE stop-off point for ships traveling from Europe to California via the treacherous Cape Horn. Unsurprisingly, upon arriving in port the sailors were rather keen to alight from their battered coffins and partake in as much glutony and vice as they could carry, aka investing in the local economy! However, as is the way of things, the high times were explosively brought to an end once the Panama Canal had had its last few meters dynamited, creating a new significantly faster and safer shipping route. Thus the city of Valparasio was more or less cut off from the world, and today offers an interesting mix of the old and the odd.

Upon arriving, the first thing to strike me was the realisation that maybe we had made a mistake, and should have booked into a nice clean hostel/hotel in the holiday resort town down the road, Villa del Mar. The town was rundown, cheap and covered with part-baked dog shit.

This first impression was of course misguided, apart from the faeces. We have lived high up on the beautiful Cerro Alegre in the family home come hostel La Nona, with Rene and his wife, plus a rotating number of other guests. The hill is part of the spruced up area of the city, so we are getting a slightly idilic and polished form to experience, however reality is never too far away. It’s an easy slow pace of life here - we have no responsibilities or meetings to attend, save for the odd Skype call with recruiters back home - the sun is hot and the sea breeze, breezy.

The town is full of art, dogs and kids. The art mostly takes the form of graffiti, in the main they are colourful and interesting. No Banky’s, although my Spanish is limited to ordering “Dos cerveza, por favor” or at a stretch “Dos mas cerveza, por favor”, I haven’t spotted any ironic political street art as yet. Unlike the rabid children of the earth mother and artsy ‘Boho Set’ here, the dogs look surprising well-bred. Bowie, featured above, is one such example. We were confused at first, thinking owners were lax as many dogs have collars, but we’ve learnt that these are tags showing they’ve been inoculated and sterilised - not sure if that’s as cost efficient as boiling them down and reforming them into tourist souvenirs, but someone on the council must love dogs, or own shares in a poop picking up company! 

Food and drink-wise, we head downstairs every morning for a healthy fruit, yoghurt, museli, bread, meats, jam, coffee-based breakie, after an exploritory walk, lunch takes the form of ‘Menu del Dia’ (menu of the day) a 4 (lightish) course affair with copious amounts of wine, with a late supper of sandwich and beer. The call supper Elevenses but it’s not at 11am orv11pm, just a light meal. They have some delicate and honest food here, plus traditional grub that looks like it was concieved in a Spanish truckstop - given the port’s history, i guess that’s actually quite accurate! One such example is the Chorrillana: take a large platter, pile with chips, caramalised onions, chopped steak, then chopped sausage (of unknown origin), and finish with two fried eggs… The beer is light and refreshing, the red wine (vino tinto) consistently great whether we spend £3 or £30 on a bottle, and my previously daily Hendricks and Tonic has been replaced by the Chilean (by way of Peru…) ‘Pisco Sour’ - basically 46% alc lemonade! 

Anyway, it is a lovely place to relax, the food is great (although I’m not always sure what I’m eating), alcohol cheap and I’ve found a long flat road to run on, so all is good. Oh and I’ve cut my beard as Carlos The Dictator wasn’t happy, Viva la Barba Verda!!!

Feb 4, 2014

Beardless Cowboy…an ode to a lost Murkin:

I once had a Beard of pure Carrot;
Some said I’d pass for Pat Garrett;
I looked an old Goat for sure;
Charlie The Kidd cried “No More!”;
So she put a price-on-my-head;
I choose to cut it instead;
Now all the Cowgirls say phwoorhh!

Note: As you can see, my creativity as not evaporated with the removal of my Creative-type’s Beard…!

Feb 1, 2014

A Little Extra Sugar with your Coffee!
Chile! What a fun place! We found out today something that to my mind, gives a taste of this crazy place: Coffee, but not just your standard coffee intrepid reader, oh no, ‘Coffee with Legs’!

Back in the 70s an entrepreneur tried to start a coffee bar in Santiago. Chile didn’t (and as far as I’m aware, still doesn’t) produce coffee so he imported some crappy quality stuff. Surprise surprise, it when down like a surprise appearance from Cilla Black at a ‘Strawberry-Blondes against the Promotion of Ginger Haired Presenters on Television’ demonstration march… ie not terribily well. 

Our entrepreneur needed to regroup and rethink his business model… and like most men, a thought of an attractive young lady popped into his head…

The business was relaunched, but this time the serving staff were all young ladies, they wore short skirts and low cut tops, and would make a particular effort to come and engage with the, mostly male, clientele.

However, as the business thrived and spawned copycats, innovation was needed to keep a competitive edge, the next generation needed something new…Techno and Bikinis. Now the cafes had their windows blacked out, the girls were scantily-clad and the music hardcore, but still only (bad) coffee was served. 

And again the market thrived, and again it evolved, to a point where certain cafes offered what was termed as a Happy Minute, where for just 60 seconds, at the Manager’s discretion: the door was locked, the music pumped, and the girls de-robed! 

Alas this caffeine-based pick-me-up was short lived and became outlawed in all but a few lesser known underground spots. Today, ‘Coffee with Legs’ is either a place where attractive girls serve coffee and chat to you, or a place where behind blacked-out windows techno and bikinis is the theme. They only exist in the CBD, can only operate within office hours and can’t serve alcohol. Either way the coffee isn’t that great, but I can’t think that matters!

Anyway, as is the fashion worldwide, aspiring writers tend to camp out in coffee shops slowly drinking their Latte and nibbling a Danish while using the free wifi, as I have - but I see the look in the manager’s eye, it’s time, no not time to leave, time for The Happy Minute! Tarrah!! :)

Jan 29, 2014

Goodbye West Pacific!
The Ocean to the East of NZ is called The South Pacific, well I don’t like it, surely it’s the West Pacific and Chile, our next destination, is the East Pacific! 

Well here we are on our 12hr flight from the West Pacific to the East Pacific… 4 weeks in NZ felt like a long time and looking at Charlie’s detailed budget, looks like we spent a few months budget there too!

I must say that NZ is certainly one of our favourite places we’ve lived, and we’d like to live here in the future. It has everything from outdoors to city living, great food and comfort food, excellent wine and a varied climate! It’s expensive to travel but if you are earning money there then it could be the perfect work life balance! It’s a lot smaller than Oz but it’s far less gaudy and more personal a culture. 

We’ve driven 3,000 miles around it, raved in valleys, swum in cobalt blue lakes, climbed snow-capped mountains, jumped from 5,500m above it, burnt it’s driftwood, drunk it’s wine, eaten its lamb, got soaked in its downpours and burnt in its sun and even dived a Rainbow wreck!…

…But after 4 weeks of looking we found no Hobbits, not even an Orc! That said, on a daily basis, we did see locals, young and old, walking around EVERYWHERE barefoot, so maybe they were right under our noses after all! :)

Jan 22, 2014

Sealed with a Wiff
This post exists solely for those animal lovers out there who, well, like pictures of cute animals!

Here for your viewing and liking pleasure we have NZ Fur Seals! Sunbathing and chillaxing on rocks on the North East Coast. 

Very cute I know but they stink - think of that next time you click Like on a cute animal! :)

Jan 20, 2014

Wine Not: Sloshed-up Abroad!
Ahh Civilisation! Not a huge amount to report here, as there wasn’t a huge amount achieved other than the inebriated cycle rides and repetitive consumption of wine and platters over a two day period! 

I must say though that it was certainly more personal and pleasant than our wine tasting experience of the Hunter Valley, no hills for a start which certainly made for an easier cycle!

Jan 18, 2014

Where Eagles Daren’t 
After a few days of sitting in the sun drenched lakeside campground, mostly participating in gin and wine-fuelled reading and relaxing - we decided it was about time we took some exercise. 

In NZ walking, or rambling if you are so inclined, is termed ‘tramping’ - NZ is litered with tramping routes, many ‘world class’, but being NZ they are extreme! The nearest official route was the other side of the lake, and just to attempt the relatively swift first section takes 4hrs… each way! We just wanted a strole, so after speaking to the helpful young girl at the camp reception, we found out that there was an easy 1hr return hill track that led up from the camp, and rewarded trampers with superb views of the lakes and mountains. She also added that one could push on up much further if one passed the “Trail Ends Here” sign. 

Armed with local knowledge and the adventure of an off-piste climb beckoning, we filled a water bottle and set off up the hill. The start was steady and the trail well trodden, we passed through the dark and dense sub-canopy of bracken and rotting leaves. Onward up the path we climbed over a recently felled tree, a small stream and mud crossing, but the now grass-lined ascent was gradual and after 25mins we’d made it to the lookout. After a brief pause for air, water and photos, we continued passed the “Trail Ends Here” sign.

Almost immediately, the still clearly identifiable path greeted us with a much steeper gradient as it followed the wandering ridgeline. The path would undulate from steep to plateaux to steep, and with dense forest either side we had no idea how far the summit would be. Buoyed by the receptionist’s knowledge we pushed on, but 30mins hard going later, no end was in sight. We paused to take stock, we’d no water left, it would be at least 40mins descent, and we had no idea how much longer it was going to take. Still, determined we pushed on like Hansel & Gretel through the woods, up steep climb after steep climb for another 10mins, stopping, we noticed what looked like surveyor’s orange marker tape and a fork in the path with a discrete sign indicating one route led down to the next bay along. I wanted to push on up, to me the toughness of the path indicated a rewarding prize must surely await the summit’s conqueror! However Charlie, having experienced several misguided follies masquerading as adventures, sensed a mounting ‘Mountain Farce’ and opted to descend and leave me to conquer ‘Mt. Rather Quite Steep and Densely Wooded’ alone.

I continued onwards and upwards, at this altitude I could hear and feel the wind as it swept over the hills. I noticed birds not far from the path, their sideways glaces made them look somewhat confused by why anyone would have troubled themselves to come this far.  The path was still visable and still steep, like if on some evil gym machine, I now had to push on my thighs with my hands to keep going. A further 30mins dragged by, my throat was dry and dusty from the pollen and the path didn’t relinquish it’s tough incline, I presumed this track must be the old hill passes or hunting trails. 

Eventually after a total 1hr50m tramping up a near vertical incline, it leveled out under foot. The summit was still a dense green of small and great trees, however the shelter and flat ground had allowed grass and Foxgloves to thrive so I found myself in a hidden forest corpse just like the one in the Ridley Scott fantasy film Legend (1985), minus the Unicorns - maybe they’d been scared off by the fearful noise of my approaching huffs-and-puffs! 

Still I’d made it to the summit, but there was no view, the epic panorama was blocked on all sides by the trees. After all this effort I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t going to let this end in failure, I resolved to climb a tree - I’ve plenty of experience at tree climbing, however this only enters my Cv between 1985-1996. After trying my luck on a few trees - which turned out to be dead and wouldn’t take the weight of a Sparrow, let alone an eager 100kg Englishman - I found one that stood about 30-40ft and had enough moderately sized branches to clamber-up. A few seconds later I was 20ft up above the canopy that had blocked my view, precariously balanced, I could see forever, an amazing vista across the lakes and mountains, almost as far as Mordor or Morden! 

Without a Union Jack to signify my conquest of the newly renamed Mt. Greenlegendstylecorpsepossibilywithunicornsatop, I fired off a few photos of the view and of me as evidence! I looked across the tree carpeted valley and I could see the wind was sweeping down the opposite side, making the trees look like a stormy green sea, and disappeared into the valley below, a second later it whooshed up my side of the valley and my top-heavy tree swayed and creaked dramatically. I didn’t need to see anymore, I quickly descended, trying not to impale myself in the rush! 

The return home was significantly faster, but quite scary on the steep stages as I had no choice but to run with gravity, I returned after just 30mins. I popped into the camp reception to find out from the girl where I’d gone wrong. As it turned out she’d never actually ventured passed the ‘Trail Ends Here’ sign, but had once been told by an exercise-mad hill runner, that the path did in fact continue, but there was no amazing viewpoint! So much for local knowledge!