Hiking Windsor Great Park during Winter

Where: Windsor, UK

When: 12-14th January 2017

 

It’s a cold Friday evening in January, and we’re sat in London pub complaining. Our gripe? We needed to get outdoors. We need fresh air, and to swap the depressing city skyline for some greenery. Mostly we need exercise. Unfortunately, I’m no die-hard all-season outdoor adventurer. I hate being cold for a start, so it’s a struggle to motivate myself to pile on layers and forgo the comforts of central heating to get muddy and wet. But what I try focusing on over a G&T is the fact that when I do force myself outside for a hearty walk, I almost always feel much better for it.

We agreed to wake up early the next morning and formulate a plan. Over cereal and Google Maps a destination is randomly decided – Windsor. Home to the World’s largest inhabited castle (The Queen’s weekend pad), the famous Eton College (where Princes William and Harry went), and a historical royal parkland. Just south of the quaint Old Windsor town, Windsor Great Park provides over 4,800 acres of open space. With easy access to London, you might recognise areas of the park for the backdrops it has lent to dozens of films, including Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Windsor Great Park. Windsor Castle sits just north of The Long Walk.

Wearing copious amounts of warm winter layers, we pull together two hikes to explore a large proportion of the park.

Day 1:  Long Park Loop (11.6 miles)

Setting from our hotel 0.6 miles outside the south-east Blacknest Gate, our route would take us north along Duke’s Lane, up to Queen Anne’s Ride, until looping back down The Long Walk just before reaching the castle.

Given the wide open spaces, my cheeks burned in the wind, so we marched away to keep warm as if taking part in SAS training. Aside from horses and cyclists, most of our walk along the western side of the park seemed pretty quiet. The outlook was largely grazing fields full of sheep, with some enclosed ‘private’ land, and a few seemingly random pockets of housing. Who is lucky enough to live within the walls of Windsor Great Park (aside from Prince Andrew) I wonder?

Blacknest Gate Lodge

Around 4 miles in, after a brief detour to The Village – a square of houses with a Post Office – we come across the only statue of our current Queen on horse-back. The monument was commissioned to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. She gazes on towards Windsor castle, keeping a watchful eye on Prince Philip. A keen equestrian, apparently she still rides today in her 90s!

Queen Elizabeth II on horse-back overlooking Queen Anne’s Ride

From the statue, our walk took us down the long, mowed Queen Anne’s ride, which we tred  trying to avoid the odd pesky mole hill. Due to the neighbouring deer park, the ride is enclosed by a wire fence, meaning once you are on it there is no way to cut across eastwards. We found ourselves mostly taking established paths all day, which meant a lot of the time we had to dodge bikes and horses. At the end of the ride, we opted to forgo visiting the town (and castle), and turned back south-east, crossing through a tall gate into the deer park. Once inside, the resident heard of red deer could be spotted grazing in the distance.

Upon joining The Long Walk, the number of people grew. The 2.65-mile tree-lined avenue was originally planted in 1680 by Charles II. I like to think the view of Windsor Castle hasn’t changed much in that time, although since Charles’ time the castle has found itself right under the Heathrow airport flight path. If I had a pound for every low-flying plane roaring across the sky during our walk, it would have been a lucrative day!

The Long Walk, with Windsor Castle on the horizon. By the look of the distant flag, it appeared that the Queen was home!

The best view of Windsor Castle came once atop the hill at the foot of George III’s Copper Horse. If you haven’t seen the castle, it’s worth a visit. Home to a large amount of the British Crown’s art collection, these days it opens part of it’s enormous campus to tourists – for an entrance fee. The statue itself is very imposing. Much grander in size than the Queen’s one seen earlier. Years ago a rumour circulated that the statue’s sculptor killed himself because he was so ashamed that he forgot to include stirrups on the horse. This myth has since been disproven!

George III depicted as a Roman Emperor on The Copper Horse statue
Howdy. Got my mittens on and I’m still cold.

Our remaining route followed mostly straight paths towards Virginia Water. We past Guard’s Polo Club, which was all shut up for the season. By then, feeling tired, and in need of a hot drink we headed back towards Blacknest Gate, forgoing the lake for the next day. Given the number of visitors to the park, one thing that had surprised me was the serious lack of refreshment and toilet facilities. We didn’t pass a single public toilet all day! I would suggest packing your own snacks if you plan on spending a lot of time in the park.

Horses passing The Prince Consort statue

 

Day 2:  Virginia Water & Valley Gardens Loop (7.2 miles)

The air was even cooler on Sunday morning, and with just a few hours to kill before a customary English roast, we returned to the southern end of the park. Unfortunately we were not alone. It seems that Windsor Great Park, and Virginia Water in particular, is THE place to go on a Sunday morning!  Whether walking the dog, pushing a pram, cycling, or taking part in the organised race going on, the new year exercise resolutions were in full swing.

Despite the crowds, I really enjoyed exploring this area of the park. It has far more landscaping than the northern section, and greater areas of interest to peruse, plus a visitor centre (toilets, food etc.) With further time we would have taken the small diversion north to Savill Garden (free entry in Jan-Feb), to see the horticultural designs.

Virginia Water

Joining the ultra-busy 4.5-mile footpath that circles Virginia Water, we headed counter-clockwise under a white-out, sad sky. The lake dates back to 1763, when it became the largest man-made water pool in Britain. Conscious of our limited time, we set a decent marching pace, but still found ourselves side-stepping for the runners and cyclists. Staring at the calm body of water was not as peaceful as it could have been. I had to remain mindful of the crowds. There were a couple of near-misses with passing cyclists, and one total wet-dog face-plant into my legs that left me covered in mud. Thanks for that.

Almost hidden away from the lake’s southern shore something caught my eye. What looked like the ruins of a Roman city, inside Windsor Park? The tall, crumbling columns and archs look like they belong in ancient Greece – and that’s almost exactly where they came from too! Some information panels dotted around revealed that the stones were shipped to England from the Mediterranean, and re-constructed during the Georgian era. They once made up the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna on the shores of Tripoli. It seems that Georgian England, (just like the Victorians who followed), had a fascination with ancient architecture, and this ‘folly’, was erected for no purpose other than decoration.

Similar in intent to the ruins, we next came across the ornamental waterfall. The cascades were constructed by George III in 1780, and originally included a grotto, which has long since washed away. There is something whimsical about casting eyes on such man-made sites after witnessing incredible natural waterfalls all over the world! But then again, hundreds of years ago, how many people got to travel like we do today to see such wonders?

The Cascades

Passing the Pavilion guest centre, (and a giant carpark), we next reached the very distinctive Canadian totem pole. The 100-foot high pole, erected in 1958 to mark the centenary of British Columbia as a Crown Colony, was carved by Kwakiutl tribesmen out of a single trunk of red cedar. I should have taken a picture from further away, because I couldn’t do the monument justice. OK, so the paintwork could do with a touch-up, but the colossal mast sits so proudly looking out over the water, that it serves as a magnificent tribute to the UK’s relationship with Canada.

At this point in the hike we decided to divert from the main lake trail. As soon as we did, heading up into the Valley Gardens, the crowds slipped away. The undulating woodland, contains a maze of small trails, and an assortment of plants and trees, some of which are labelled. Whilst getting a bit lost, we spotted a dog, who after trotting past us twice in two different directions, we noticed was travelling solo. The little lost tike got away from us, (we tried to get a look at his collar), so we reported his location to the park warden, who dispatched a search team. I hope he managed to get reunited with his owner in time for lunch!

The horses are queueing up for lunch at the neighbouring Fox & Hounds pubs!

Additional Park Info

  • Most of the space open to public is free of charge from dawn the dusk (except car parking and the Savill Garden). Our walking routes were completely free!
  • The Park is accessible from London by car, or by trains from London Waterloo in around an hour
  • Cyclists and horse-riders are particularly well-catered for in Windsor, with dedicated routes and plenty of long, easy-grade track. There are many local stables and bike shops nearby

 

Itchy butt!

 

The Sacred [Shorter] Inca Trail

Where: The Sacred Valley, Peru

When: November 2012

Want all the drama and beauty of Peru’s famous Inca Trail, but don’t have 4 days free to hike it? Or perhaps like us you’d rather opt out of camping? Well fear not, there is a less publicised alternative option – The Sacred (or Royal) Inca Trail. Given the 6.3-mile (10km) trail can be hiked in a single day, it’s surely a no-brainer for getting a taste of the ancient Inca civilisation, without any camping involved!

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A map of The Sacred Valley to show the main Inca Trail (green/yellow) verses the shorter version

In 2012 our trek began as the early morning Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes Peru Rail train came to an abrupt stop at a seemingly nothing piece of track. There certainly wasn’t any platform, as we jumped straight onto the sidings of the narrow track that snakes through Peru’s Sacred Valley. Only 6 people got off the crowded train – Conrad and I, our guide Oscar, and another couple also with a guide.

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Departing Chachabamba into the clouds

After crossing a hanging footbridge over the Urubamba River, I was surprised to see two men sitting in a tiny palm-rooved kiosk in what appeared to be a deserted forest. They took their time inspecting our paperwork before stamping the permits. Once through, we somehow skipped over the archaeological complex of Chachabamba, a site dedicated to water with various channels and fountains, eager/ anxious to get going before the sun really heated up.

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This is apparently what Chachabamba looks like (photo not my own!)

Starting at an elevation of 2,170 meters, we progressed along the narrow passage etched into the steep valley. The views were expansive, with the river below becoming increasingly faint, and distant peaks coated in heavy clouds as far as the eye could see. I’m not going to lie, the first part of the hike was arduous in the humid conditions. The trail offered no real shade – hence our cringe-worthy ‘on-trend’ headwear – but luckily Oscar coached us to take it slow. At this elevation, the first miles felt tougher than I had expected.

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You can just make out the faint trail leading to a rare shaded viewpoint
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Fantastic panoramas of the Andes mountains all around us
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Wow I look rough!

As we hiked Oscar entertained us with stories from the World of the Incas (most of which I have now helpfully forgotten!) But what I do remember is that the [full] Inca trail to Machu Picchu was originally intended as a religious pilgrimage. This made it almost unique, as unlike most of the thousands of miles of Inca trails stretching across the Empire, this one had no commercial use and hence was referred to as the “Royal Road”, “Royal Sacred Highway” or “The Road of the Inca King”.  Whilst citizens completed their 26-mile pilgrimage, the shorter route we now treaded was believed to be reserved for nobles and religious leaders to access the royal city in relative ‘ease’, the ancient equivalent of travelling first-class!

After over 3 hours of hiking through verdant cloud forest, having had a brief rest stop at a waterfall, we arrive at Wiñay Wayna. The concave mountainside site is supposedly the second most important Inca Trail ruin. It consists of multiple agricultural terraces steeply cut into the mountain, and is believed to be the place the Incas used as a final rest spot before reaching Machu Picchu. A number of stone baths where Incas would have completed ritual cleansing before arriving in the sacred city are still distinguishable, and probably provide the symbolic meaning behind the name “Forever Young”.

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Wiñay Wayna terraces leading down into the Scared Valley

At this point in the day we break for lunch, sat with our feet dangling over the suddenly vertigo-inducing terraces. But there is a problem. Our porter Eranjelio, who is charged with carrying lunch is no where to be seen. He had taken a later train because it was cheaper, but it’s only when we quiz Oscar about it that we discover the train in question was due to depart nearly 2 hours after our own! I instantly regret not packing some snacks in my day-pack (what an idiot!) So we take a few more pictures and patiently wait. Less than 10 minutes later a tiny dot appears further down the trail. It seems to be moving rapidly. As it gets closer Eranjelio can be made out, and he is an astonishing sight. The small-framed man glides along at a joggers pace complete with towering backpack, and a radio playing Peruvian folk music tied around his neck! Happy to see him, we eat a lunch of sandwiches, fruit and crisps, baffled as to how he had caught us up in little over an hour!

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After running the trail to catch us up Eranjelio is somehow still smiling!

From Wiñay Wayna our path joins the main trail. As we pass through the camp where those taking the full Inca trail stay on their final night, a swarm of relief follows. I observe all the things I hate most about camping, such as being made to sleep in close proximity to toilet facilities, in dirty conditions whilst surrounded by other noisy people. I’m so happy to not be sticking around.

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Permit checkpoint next to the last camp where we join the main trail

The remaining 4km of the hike felt less physically demanding, with the majority of the elevation gain past us. The landscape also changed quite drastically. The temperatures became cooler, the vegetation greener, and at times it felt like we were walking through a moss-covered jungle. It was a welcomed change after the hot temperature and dryer landscape we had experienced earlier in the day. That is until we reached what felt like a never-ending stone staircase. We crawl up the 50 steps, passing through the Sun Gate (“Inti Punka”) and it appears. In the distance our first glimpse of the one-time hidden City of the Incas, Machu Picchu sat saddled in the mountains below.

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The “Monkey Stairs” leading up to the Sun Gate
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Covered in sweat at the Sun Gate, 5.6 miles (9km) and 1800-feet into the day
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Taking a moment
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The Sun Gate once we pass through it

The last mile winding down the royal flagstone walkway to the citadel must have taken us an hour to complete, because each step brought even better views to photograph. Our pictures of the entire hike fail to do any of it justice – not only were we TOTAL photography ammeters, but during our tour around South America we travelled with a pretty cheap point-and-shot camera which washed out and over-exposed everything! Cameras have come a long way in the last 5 years.

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First glimpse of the hidden city of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Built over 500-years ago, Machu Picchu provided a sacred religious site for Inca leaders. Yet historians believe the site was only occupied for around 80 years before mysteriously being abandoned, some time in the sixteenth century during the Spanish Conquest. The site remained unknown to the outside world until Hiram Bingham, an American academic and explorer, ‘discovered’ ruins after stumbling across an overgrown section of adjourning trail in 1911. Today the site is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and draws visitors from all over the world.

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From a distance

Gazing down on the city as we inched closer, what struck me most was the dramatic surroundings. The city sits perched between two mountains, framed by steep, expansive valley drop-offs on either side. It began to make sense, in such a seeming isolated place, how over the course of a few hundred years of vegetation growth, an entire city was reclaimed by nature, and hidden from the unknowing eye.

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Getting closer…

With a tour of Machu Picchu planned for sunrise the next day, we didn’t hang around to explore that afternoon. It was hot, and after hours of hiking we felt tired and hungry, so we departed for the bus into town happy in the knowledge that the night would be spent in a hotel bed and not a tent!  For now I wanted to share this hike because until I spoke to the tour company about the 4-day trail I had no idea that this route was even an option. It was hands-down one of the most spectacular hikes we have ever taken, and made all the more special by the comparative lack of foot traffic on the route.

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“Machu Picchu” means “Old Peak” in the Quechua language

I would classify the hike as ‘moderate’ if taken slowly. The route certainly follows an established path with no scrambling skills required. It also helped enormously that we only had to carry small day packs with our water, a few sundries such as suncream, and some toiletries for the overnight hotel stay (once again, I should have packed snacks!). So if you are running short on time, or feel the full trail maybe too physical, take a look at following the [shorter] route of kings!

Important Trail Info

Hiking independently along any part of the Inca Trail is no longer permitted, so bookings must be made through a registered trekking agency who for a fee will provide a registered guide and usually also arrange permits. Our permits, guide, and porter were all included in our wider Peru tour that we booked with the company Amazing Peru. If booked separately I believe that the approximate price of a basic group service is between US$320 and US$380 per person, with the price for a basic private group of just 2 persons about US$450-500 per person. It’s also worth noting that the Inca trail closes for a number of weeks each year for maintenance, so plan ahead. And lastly, remember to carry some cash to tip your porter and guides – they work hard for it!

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Snapshots from Winter in the British Lakes

Amidst a fresh sprinkling of mid-December snow, with piles of warm clothes, we braced ourselves for a long drive. Nearly six hours north of London, nestled close to the Scottish border, and the Irish Sea, lies the English Lake District.  Lakeland as it’s been coined, has provided the inspirational landscape for centuries of literary greats, with the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, and the children’s writer and creator of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter being some of the most famous.

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As one of a limited number of UK National Parks, I had wanted to visit the lakes for years, but as British roads are not the best I just couldn’t face the drive. And every time it came to the crunch of booking a trip I faced the sad dilemma that in same travel time – and with the help of a plane – I could instead reach the sunnier climes of Europe, and a small stretch further the Caribbean! Oh and the weather ‘Up North’ (what Londoners call anywhere north of the M25) is noturiously iffy.

December is certainly not a peak period in the Lakes as it’s not a ski destination. But I love visiting places when they are considered out-of-season, because sharing wild adventures with hoards of other tourists dampens the appeal. So our photos may look a little bleak, but they show a snap-shot of one of Britain’s most rugged protected lands in the middle fo winter. Unfortunately I was experiencing a nasty cold that annoyingly hit just the day before we left London, so what we expected to be 5 days of hiking, turned out a little more chilled. I thought I’d share a few snapshots from the trip to give people a taste of a part of Britain less often seen in Instagram.

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Castlerigg Stone Circle, just outside of Keswick, shares the same mysterious origins as Stonehenge. It is thought to be over 4500 years old
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The north shore of Derwent Lake as the mid-afternoon sun slowly recedes. A very calm place.
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Looking down on Tarn Hows, most of which was frozen. I didn’t know before this trip that a ‘tarn’ is a glacier-made mountain lake or pool – I guess I missed that lesson in geography class! You can just see the 1.6-mile trail that encircles the water with no one on it to the right.
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There are around 3 million sheep living in Cumbria, so herds are a common sight throughout the park. We saw this loner up high on Kirkstone Pass. He stood in a small patch of grass chewing away happily, completely unfazed by the falling snow and biting wind.
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We named him ‘Eddy’

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The ferocious (and very loud) Aira Force waterfall – seen from the bottom (here), and top (right). Packing waterproofs was essential!

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Completely alone on the short trail to witness this impressive falls in the North-Eastern Ullswater area of the park. Thundering rain is probably why.

Most people tend to visit and stay in the main areas of the park – namely Lake Windermere, Grasmere, and the northern town of Keswick. Whilst we drove through these areas and found them beautiful, we wanted to experience a retreat, so based ourselves in the Great Langdale Valley further west. In reality though with a car, nothing feels that far away!

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A Winter Wonderland for two. There are so many hiking trails throughout the Lake District, from gentle grades encircling lakes like this one at Tarn Hows, to difficult technical mountaineering. You can find more information here.
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The Lake District is a National Park, but unlike in many other countries there is no physical border with entrance stations, so the park gets funded partly by charging for car parking. After making a quick calculation, we opted to become members of The National Trust (£65 per year). This made all National Trust carparks free, and includes access to hundreds of other properties and sites across the UK. Alternatively there is a decent public transport system of buses to get around the park, which is useful for hikers.
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Slater Bridge in the tranquil Little Langdale Valley area of the park.
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Leaving the bridge we follow miles of meandering Cumbrian stone walls as they disappear up and over the hilltops.
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One very happy-looking hiker – probably because he isn’t carrying the backpack!
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Colwith Force, a pretty multi-tier waterfall system on the River Brathay, which we stumbled upon after traipsing through ancient moss-coated oak woodlands.
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Another tier of Colwith Force. I was surprised to see a light on and movement in that tiny stone building (not sure who occupies it?)
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Elterwater village green in the Great Landgale Valley. The Lake District is full of picture-postcard worthy tiny villages and hamlets made from local stone, and of course brilliant pubs!
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Little Langdale Tarn sits nearly hidden away at the foot of Wrynose Pass. Seen here from the public bridleway on the south shore – there is no public access to the water, as it sits within private farm land.
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The Great Langdale Valley, the day it rained and rained and rained… somehow we managed to get wet even with full waterproofs on!

Car journey aside, I found myself captivated by the Lake District. I couldn’t quite believe that the lofty peaks, so perfectly framing the lakes beneath were English. I definitely hope this to be the first of many return trips – maybe the next one at Easter-time, or early summer. And much to my surprise I learnt from a local down the village pub, that next time I could take a fast-track Virgin train from London Euston to Oxenholme in little under 3-hours! Well who knew?!

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Off to the pub.

The Power & Beauty of Nature: Iguazu Falls

Where: Iguazu Falls, border of Argentina and Brazil

When: November 2012

 

The largest waterfall system in the world is nestled within a diverse, lush ecosystem straddling Brazil and Argentina. Where the Iguazu River spills over the edge of the Paraná Plateau, roughly 275 discrete falls create a magnificent spectacle nearly twice as tall as Niagara, and more than three times as wide.  Add to that the jungle setting, and Iguazu beats Niagara hands-down.  No casinos line the dramatic gorge, instead they feel fittingly secluded, surrounded by a landscape home to colorful toucans, butterflies, and curious monkeys.

No pictures can capture the majesty and splendour of these cascades. Visiting them is an immersive experience, where you’ll feel their cooling spray on your face whilst hearing the waters powerful roar. It’s an almighty display of nature.  And utterly worthy of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to behold. Conversely, you can expect all subsequent cascades to be ‘ruined’ after the trip, as they pale in comparison!

Viewing platform on the Brazilian-side

The falls are shared between the two distinct National Parks, both of which were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the 1980s. You might recognise some of these images, as many films have leveraged the other-worldliness of the cataracts powerful mystique, including the 2008 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Looking into the abyss of Devil’s Throat – La Garganta del Diablo

We based ourselves on the Brazilian side, flying into Foz do Iguaçu, a 20-minute taxi ride to our hotel within the park. Most other hotels are located in the town of Foz do Iguaçu, just on the other side of the airport.

Rainbows are a common sight in the afternoon
Looking wet.
Taken from the main viewing platform on the Brazilian-side
Looking across to Argentinian lower circuit platform

Brazilian Side – Parque Nacional do Iguaçu

Cost pp: 64 R$ (approx $20 US)

The Brazilian park is a small, simple set up, with one main access road to the visitor centre, where visitors board the internal eco-friendly bus service. The buses ferry people a few miles along the serene jungle road, to reach a handful of short trails and walk-ways, each providing views of the falls. The main walkway extends into the lower canyon floor, arguably providing the best view of the highest, deepest, and most iconic of the falls – the Devil’s Throat.  This giant horseshoe-shaped curtain of gushing water is simply incredible.

Cooling down

A precarious walk down a long spiral staircase (hopefully now decommissioned), took us to the boat loading dock for Macuco water safaris.  The small inflatable rafts seemed popular with the tourists. Yes they are a tad gimmicky, but great fun.  Transporting you a short way along the river to experience the falls from another angle – underneath! Suffice to say we got soaked.

During our stay, we returned to these viewpoints numerous times to witness the changing environment at different parts of the day. We were able to do this on the recommendation of a friend who had honeymooned in Brazil. He convinced us that it was worth the expense to stay at the sole hotel INSIDE the park, which is now called Belmond Hotel Das Cataratas. It wasn’t really in-line with our budget travel plans, but I’m so glad we took the hit, as outside the limited park opening hours the falls felt like they belonged entirely to us. This made the trip all that more special.

Taken late in the day with no one else around
Brazilian-side Park Map

Argentinian Side – Parque Nacional Iguazú

Cost pp: 500 ARS $ (approx $28 US)

An hour’s drive from our hotel – but a ‘stones-throw’ across the ravine – it felt a bit more like Disney. Having shown our passports at the border, we entered the Argentinian park which is much larger than it’s neighbour, with more facilities. From the commercial area at the entrance, complete with gift shops and over-priced food outlets, we joined the long queue for the ‘ecological’ train that travels through the forest to the top of Devil’s Throat. [I should note that it is possible to hike and avoid the train ride, but given the searing heat, and distance involved we made the decision to reluctantly queue instead!]

We headed straight for the Paseo Garganta del Diablo – a 0.6 mile-long trail that brings visitors directly over the falls of Devil’s Throat. We got soaked by the spray, but the feeling of being so close to the water as it surges over the edge was exhilarating!

Devil’s Throat from above

We spent the rest of the day wandering along the array of established trail circuits, many of which follow elevated metal walkways to get different perspectives of the many falls. It really was incredible, and I can easily see how people can spend multiple days in this side of the park, but to be honest our enjoyment was hindered by the frustratingly humid, buggy climate! Maybe it was the time of the year, but the mosquitos were rampant – perhaps it was our accidentally matching yellow t-shirts – and the heat made all the walking very taxing.

Looking downstream in the mist (Sheraton Hotel is just visible on the left cliff)
Sweating!
Watch out for the monkeys. (And the mosquitos)!
Forest walkways

The Argentinian park also offers boat services, and contains a hotel – I think it is a Sheraton.

Argentinian-Side Park Map

Tips

  • Although the Brazilian park only comprises less than a third of the entire falls, you’ll find the view from this side to be much more panoramic than the view from the Argentinean side. However, if you have come all that way to see Iguazu, you will ideally want to see both aspects. For that plan to spend at least 2 full days.
  • Remember your passport when travelling between the two parks!
  • Pack inspect repellent with high DEET, and drink lots of water because it is very humid.
  • Both parks are generally less busy by the mid-to-late afternoon, once all the tour groups have passed through.

PCT 2016 Gear List

At the point the decision was made to hike the PCT neither Conrad or I owned a single piece of the kit that we required.  Fully unqualified as backpackers – that none of our family took seriously – we therefore had to discover from Google searches and fellow blogs what lays inside the ‘average’ pack these days.  It wasn’t easy.  As most of the crazy thru-hikers who take on the trail and blog about it do so with far more hiking experience, the trend of research seemed to lean towards the bare necessities and full into the ‘ultralight’ philosophy.  A lightweight backpacker (LW) carries a base weight under 20 pounds (9.1kg). An ultralight backpacker (UL) carries a base weight under 10 pounds (4.5kg).

Conrad and I struggled to find a balance between ‘light-enough’ to carry a long distance, and the ‘comfort’ factor, knowing that we would need to adjust to living night-after-night in the wild.  I knew our bags were never going to fit into any ultra-light range!  The one thing we did have going in our favour was that despite some cold nights, we only hiked during the summer months. Had the hike extended into the fall our weight would have been higher, as our tent and sleeping bags were designed for only 3-seasons.

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My colourful gaiters + useful silver tape & band-aids

Below is our list of kit.  It is a slightly complicated by the fact there were two of us, meaning some items we split between bags, or we decided to share just one collectively.  The overall base weight of our packs fluctuated as some kit was actually added along the way – after deeming the item worth the extra weight trade-off (see green coding).  Every single item was painstakingly researched.  Without the luxury of time to test kit extensively beforehand, we simply went with the reviews on most items, and brought the bulk in our first 2-weeks in the US.  Much of this stuff didn’t come cheap – we spent somewhere in the region of $3500-$3700 US – despite doing everything we could to buy items on sale.

Base Weight (kit without food/ water/ fuel) therefore averaged around:

Me: 9.3 kg (20.5lb)

Conrad: 9.5 kg (21lb)

[Maybe this is obvious – but it wasn’t to us – food and water is very heavy! Water weighs 1kg per litre. Most of the time we carried 2 litres each & started out with 5 days of food after each resupply stop!]

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Kit all laid out in Ashland ready to be packed for the first time!

My Kit List

Shelter + Pack + Sleep System

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Tent Big Agnes Fly Creek UL3 3-season, 3-person tent, but really only big enough for 2 people with pads. Lightweight + simple = did the job! [1496g total]

I carried poles & pegs only 574g

Pack Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 (S with hip belt) Loved this pack for large hip pockets & many external pockets. Comfortable up to 16kg, not really designed to hold more than that! 870g
Sleeping Bag Nemo Nocturne 15 (Reg) Chosen for the spoon-shape design because I’m claustrophobic. It’s a good bag, but I didn’t LOVE it – my feet tended to get a bit cold with so much space, & the ‘blanket fold’ bit stuck to face. Definitely only 3-season! 1060g
Sleeping Pad Nemo Astro Insulated Air Lite (Reg) Good for insulation, & lasted well, but could be less noisy! 590g
Pillow Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight (Reg) I needed this to support my heavy head! Good non-sticky material. 56g

What I Wore

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Hiking Shoes Merrell Moab Ventilators Loved these shoes! I started the hike with La Sportiva trail runners, which were in pieces after less than 400 miles! The Merrells offer good cushioning & breathability. [NOT WATERPROOF] 726g
Insoles Superfeet Orange Replaced standard shoe insoles with these for added support. Highly recommend. 136g
Gaiters Dirty Girl gaiters Great for keeping small stones/ dirt/ sand, out of shoes, & colourful design got lots of compliments! 40g
Trekking Poles Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Used them everyday – so practically ‘wore’ them. Helped with stability & my back so much. I liked the adjustable flip-clip design & cork handles. 510g
Socks Darn Tough Quarter Cushion Hiker (2 pairs) Great socks & have lasted beyond the hike. 65g (per pair)
Top Nike Dri-Fit Knit short-sleeved top Stayed pretty cool & dry + still looks brand new! 200g
Hiking Skirt Purple Rain Adventure Skirt (black with grey waist-band) I had never hiked in a skirt before, but this was recommended by a friend who hiked the PCT in 2015. I loved it for the practical pockets, light-weight & ease for a quick bush toilet break! Always looked clean too. 127g
Bra Patagonia Barely Sports Bra Super comfy. Non-wired, but sportive. I’m still wearing it! 57g
Undies Exofficio bikini briefs (X2) Tip: Buy black underwear for the trail! Great pants. 35g (per pair)

Clothing I Carried

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Camp leggings Patagonia Capilene thermal weight leggings A bit see-through & thin, but warm & light-weight. Put my skirt over the top to walk around if other people were about! 140g
Camp top Icebreaker Oasis long sleeve crewe Great wool top, non-itchy, but has shrunk in the wash. 193g
Warm jacket Rab Alpine microlight down jacket (hoodless) Good choice for weight:warmth. 330g
Waterproof jacket Mammut Methow Jacket Not the lightest waterproof on the market, but I was happy with it for the cost & large hood. 476g
Waterproof trousers Outdoor Research Aspire pants Great product! Not the lightest choice but the Gore-tex fabric is quite tough, & has zippers all the way up leg, making them easy to pull on mid-hike. 277g
Long-sleeved top Nike Element half-zip running top I feel the cold, so had this polyester half-zip as an extra hiking layer. Often wore it first-thing as I preferred to sweat in this than my down jacket. I’ve worn this top so much, on & off the PCT = good value! 198g
Hiking leggings REI base-layer leggings [Not sure about exact details, as emergency end-of-line purchase from REI Medford when I felt cold in Oregon! Kept them until Washington] 200g
Camp shoes Teva Verra sandals Comfortable, great in-town & for water-crossings, but a bit heavy 453g
Camp socks REI Merino Wool Hiking Socks Another ‘luxury’ item, but I especially hate having cold feet! Slept in them too. 85g
Sun hat Brooks Sherpa hat Really great light-weight cap. Have purchased another one since. 25g
Gloves Outdoor Research Outdry mittens Keeps cold wind off & water-proof. 28g
Warm hat Arc’Teryx Rho LTW beanie Love this. Light, warm, & non-itchy wool. 30g

Conrad’s Kit List

Shelter + Pack + Sleep System

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Tent Big Agnes Fly Creek UL3 [See above] [1496g total]

Conrad carried fly sheet & inner tent parts:

922g

Pack Osprey Exos 58 (size L) Conrad struggled in choosing a backpack. He got on OK with this one, but it frustrated him that the hip belt pockets were so small, & because it was designed to be light-weight like my pack, when fully loaded the bag didn’t offer much in the way of cushioning. 1050g
Sleeping Bag Nemo Salsa 15 (L) Not as warm as the Nocturne. Conrad complained it often felt cold in foot box & got condensation on the material. 1190g
Sleeping Pad Nemo Astro Insulated Air Lite Sleeping Pad (L) [As above] 652g
Pillow Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight (L) [As above] 74g
Ground Sheet Gossamer Gear polycro footprint (L) Looks & sounds like walking on thin plastic, but didn’t rip! 45g

What Conrad Wore

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Hiking Shoes La Sportiva Wildcat Trail-Runners Lasted about 800 miles. Non-waterproof. Not overly cushioned, but wider in the toe-box. Would try another brand next time. 709g
Gaiters Dirty Girl gaiters [As above but more ‘manly’ design!] 42g
Trekking Poles Black Diamond Alpine Ergo Trekking Poles  Would recommend for tall-frames. 567g
Socks Darn Tough Quarter Cushion Hiker (2 pairs) Also liked these socks, but occasionally added a pair of liners for extra comfort under-foot. 70g (per pair)
Toe Liners Injinji Run 2.0 Lightweight no-show socks Conrad used these as a thin liner when we got blisters between 2 toes. 50g
Hiking Trousers Columbia ‘shants’ [Old pair, details unknown]. Light-weight, fast-drying & convenient to have convertible shorts / full length 400g
Top Nike Dri-Fit Knit short-sleeved top Good choice. 200g
Underwear Jockey Microfibre Active Trunk (X2) Switched to these after the ExOfficio Give-N-Go boxers started coming apart. Loved them, but apparently don’t sell same ones anymore?  65g (per pair)

Clothing Conrad Carried

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Camp trousers Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight bottoms Found these warm & light, but they are easy to snag, so not good for sitting along on logs in! 129g
Camp top Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Crew Same as above – warm/ light, but see-through & easy to pull. Designed as an under-layer though, so work well to just sleep in, or under a jacket. 129g
Warm jacket Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket (hooded) A good choice weight-wise, as very light, but the compromise was a thin filling & a fabric that sounded like garbage bags. Did the job for a long-hike, but haven’t worn since. 221g
Waterproof trousers Outdoor Research Helium Pants Very light-weight, & neatly fold into their own pocket for storage. Good choice. Very thin fabric. 160g
Waterproof jacket

Marmot PreCip Rain Jacket

Not the lightest jacket, but great hood, and under-arm zippers. Stood up well. 312g
Long-sleeved top Nike Element half-zip running top [As above] 226g
Camp shoes Xero Shoes Barefoot-inspired Sport Sandals Light-weight, but fell apart quite quickly. Would not use again. 312g
Gloves Outdoor Research Gripper Gloves Quite thick choice for a thru-hike, but Conrad wanted extra-warm! More wind-stopping, than waterproof though 88g
Sun hat Columbia Bora Bora Hat Wide brim and SPF50 protection, with neck toggle (good in wind). So the sensible choice – as opposed to the stylish one! 80g
Neck Buff Buffwear – original buff Instead of a warm hat Conrad packed this last-minute. Can be used around the neck, or on head. Ended up shedding it from our pack after realising his down jacket hood was sufficient. 35g

Additional Kit We Carried Between Us
Camp Kitchen

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Stove MSR Pocket Rocket Replaced our alcohol stove with this one a week into the hike! Compact & easy to use. 85g
Cook Pan Snow Peak Titanium Trek 1400 Good enough size for 2 people. Could have done with rubber gripper as burnt myself on the handles, but otherwise good choice, & lid serves as extra pan. 210g
Spork Snow Peak Titanium Spork Good, but if buying again I would have chosen a longer handle for eating out of foil packets. We started with one each, then ended up sharing as only had one pot anyway! 17g (each)
Mug Snow Peak Titanium Single 450 Cup (X2) Decent mug, with foldable handle so easier to store. [Had one each as made cooking oatmeal easier] 68g (each)
Fire lighting Lighter and waterproof matches Disposable lighter; a few waterproof matches in plastic ziplock (for back-up); some homemade firelighters – cottonwool dipped in Vaseline.
Food Sacks Ursack Minor Critter food bags (X2) Made with Kevlar, so very strong. A bit on the heavy-side, but as we didn’t have bear canisters, used these to carry food & hang from trees, (Had one each – one for camp food, & other for daytime snack food) 150g (each)
Water filter Sawyer Squeeze original (X2) Used standard size (instead of mini) & by far the most popular filter on the trail. Needs looking after, but good choice. Started sharing one, but due to time added another. 85g (each)
[Dirty] Water reservoir Evernew 2L water bladder (X2) Did LOADS of research on this & had to buy online. Great because the threads screw directly onto the Sawyer Squeeze & can be hung up (with help of some cord) to create a drip gravity filter. 42g (each)
[Clean] Water bottles Smartwater 1L plastic bottles  (X4) Added the sports cap push-top lid from smaller Smartwater bottles. Threads also compatible with the Sawyer. Did the job. 42g (each)

Electronics

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
 Headlight (me) Petzl E+Lite headlamp The elastic pinged me in the face a few times as it quickly retracted, but super light & compact. Would not recommend for night hiking, but for getting around camp in the dark/ in the tent it worked fine. 27g
Headlight (Conrad) Black Diamond Storm headlamp Much heavier, but brighter light & more comfortable to wear. We really just relied on this light most of the time. 110g
Camera Canon PowerShot G7 X Digital Camera Really great piece of kit for a compact camera. Large sensor, 4.2X zoom. Spent ages researching a decent camera and glad we chose this one. 278g
Phone (me) iPhone 6S with Lifeproof FRE case This was a newish phone so I wanted to protect it, hence the relatively heavy case. It did keep it protected – both from being dropped & dirt! 143g + 100g
Phone (Conrad) iPhone 5 Old phone, so he didn’t bother with a case! The camera wasn’t so good on it, so Conrad generally used the Canon. 112g
Headphones Bose in-ear (X2) [Just took the headphones we already had.] Wireless would have been better, but due to battery life, probably wouldn’t have practically worked! 18g
Camera Mounting Clip StickPic Nifty piece of kit, that acts like a monopod, by utilising your trekking pole for selfie shots! 18g
Battery Pack Anker PowerCore+ 13400 Provided enough charge for 2 phones & our camera in-between stops. Heavy for 1 person! [Also required a micro USB cable] 306g
Extra Cables Lightening cable + Lightening memory card + Adaptor for camera’s battery (annoying) + USB wall plug Approx 150g

Miscellaneous Kit

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Stuff sacks Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Nano Dry Sack (2L) Probably a luxury item, as used to compartmentalise our packs – 1 for clothes & another (below) for sleeping bag. Some hikers just throw everything into pack, but liked to keep things easy to access & ‘clean’ separate from dirty. 16g
Stuff sacks Exped Ultralite Waterproof Compression Bags (13L) Used for our sleeping bags – maybe excessive, but helped create space in our bags! I liked them, & have used them since. 40g
Multi-tool Leatherman Style CS Multi-tool We ended up returning this because the scissors were not very good. 41g
Pocket Knife Gerber STL 2.5 pocket knife I carried this (unnecessarily) as it made me feel safer! Great light-weight, 2-inch knife. Never used it though… 42g
Head Net Coghlan’s Mosquito Head Net (X2) These were relatively cheap, simple nets, that did the job, but did have a habit of sticking to faces because they didn’t have a structure/rim. Still, I’m glad we decided to buy them! 20g
Waterproof Pack Cover Osprey Ultralight Raincover Large & Extra Large. A bit expensive, but good light-weight rain cover, with easy to fit elastic, & most importantly, kept water out. 90g
Paracute Cord REI PMI 3mm Utility Cord (50 ft.) Used this bright orange cord for hanging our food (and a bit for making a gravity water filter). Strong stuff. 113g
Seat pad Therm-a-Rest Z-Seat Pad Totally a luxury item! Added these after finding camping with no seat so uncomfortable! Doubled as a porch mat for the tent, & inside tent when kneeing to do things like get dressed! Not much weight really for the practical uses! 57g
Carabinas Gossamer Gear mini (X2) Small & handy for hanging things (like wet washing) on the outside of my pack.
Shoulder Pouch Zpacks Backpack Shoulder Pouch Added to the shoulder strap of my pack. Very handy for keeping things like phone & sunglasses. Weighed next to nothing.
First Aid Kit Misc. Zip-lock containing selection of dressings, band-aids, antihistamines, ibuprofen, silver tape etc. Approx 80g
Water Purification Katadyn Micropur MP1 Purification Tablets Emergency back-up in case filters failed. Never used these, but last a long time! 20g
Towels  PackTowl Ultralite Towel (L) I added this after realising I had nothing to use when I reached a shower. Luxury item.  99g 
Towel PackTowl Ultralite Towel (S) (X2) Handkerchief-sized. Used as my ‘piss cloth’ & Conrad used his to wash with. Ultra-light & super-super-absorbant. 14g
Soap  Dr Bronner’s Peppermint Liquid Soap (2oz)  Recommended this bio-degradable, natural soap on-trail. Loved the tingling, fresh feeling – only needed a drop to feel ‘clean’ again.  57g 
Hand Sanitiser Purell Advanced Naturals 2oz pump bottle Both carried these in hip pockets & used religiously before eating/ water filtering & after bush toilet duties. Fragrance-free, so bear-friendly! 57g
Moisturiser/ Sunscreen Neutrogena Healthy Defence Daily Moisturiser with SPF 50 Non-greasy & did the job. Decanted into smaller bottles & posted into re-supply packages. 28g
DEET bug spray  Ben’s 100 Max Tick & Insect Repellent 3.4oz  Potent stuff, but much needed. Made plastic & rubber melt, but worth it for any mosquito respite.  96g 
Toilet Paper & Sanitary items [Posted in each box, or whenever needed] 
Pack Liner Waste Compactor Bags [+ lots of Zip-locks for carrying food items] 
Passports/ Permits/ Maps [We carried paper HalfMile maps as back-up, posted for each section]
Credit cards/ cash
Sharpie pen [Useful for writing signs when hitch-hiking] 
Sunglasses Cheap polarised ones! Essential kit. Brought ours from Walmart. Mine unsurprisingly broke towards the end.

Travelling offbeat: Rapa Nui aka ‘Easter Island’

When: Nov 2012

I associated it with the Moai stone figures and knew it was pretty off grid, so in an attempt to go somewhere ‘different’ whilst travelling through South America, we booked flights on a whim over two-thousand miles across the Pacific ocean.

easter_position
Image Credit: WorldAtlas.com

Easter Island is tiny – just 15-miles at its widest point – with a single shabby, but charming town called Hanga Roa located on the south-western shore. The pace of life here is certainly different. On Sundays the entire isle seems to sit still. It’s a place of contrasts between old and new: at one end you can feel part of the wider world thanks to wi-fi connections in many spots (albeit a slow satellite speed), yet it’s common to see locals riding horses down the street to do their shopping, and no underground drainage system means toilet paper gets disposed of in waste bins. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888, yet practically Rapa Nui has maintained a lot of its heritage, and the native clans still weald a great deal of authority. All the local people we met during our stay were spirited and friendly, and we received great kindness when our luggage failed to arrive on our flight!

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Luggage reunion at the airport four days into the trip

A volcanic landscape framed by dark rugged coastline, where wild horses and stray dogs roam freely, Easter Island is no Hawaii. The flora and fauna is rather barren thanks to a historical deforestation hundreds of years ago. Efforts are being made now to promote a more diverse ecosystem, but these kind of ventures can take many years to come into fruition. And unlike many other Pacific islands, Rapa Nui can’t really be considered as a ‘beach destination’ either.  There are only a couple of beaches scattered across the entire island, and they have little to no facilities.  But what draws visitors here is the mysterious remnants of ancient times.  Stone-carved Ahu (ceremonial platforms) and caves offer glimpses into the island’s past, and can be enjoyed in relatively tranquil settings compared to more ‘mainstay’ tourist traps.

All flights to the island are hosted by LAN airlines and leave from either Santiago (most frequent and technically ‘domestic’), or Lima in Peru. Alternatively there is a weekly flight connecting to Pape’ete, Tahiti, but this was really expensive when we looked into it!  Due to travelling via Peru, we had a long stay of 8 days on the island (which at the time operated just two flights), so arrived early on a Sunday after the 4.5 hour flight, and left on the same flight in the evening a week later. Most flights to the island seem to land, reload, and then return the same day.

10 Tips for visiting Rapa Nui

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A long way from anywhere!

1. Set your expectations

Firstly remember you are visiting a remote island, so the choice and price of food and basic commodities are high. The food was nothing to write home about, with limited ingredients, but fresh fish such as mahi mahi and tuna.  In one restaurant we paid $12US for a local beer! For an average meal in town expect to pay somewhere near $25-30 for a main course and $4 for a soft drink.  It may have been a wise move to have brought a few snacks with us.

2. Hire a local guide

It’s a great idea to start your trip with a local tour. We took a semi-private tour with Peter, our Swiss B&B host, and another couple who were also guests. The tour provided an excellent insight into island life, as well as setting the historical background to the Maui, and also gave us pointers for other places to explore. There are hotels that offer larger minibus group tours but these seemed less personal / flexible.

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The only ones at Ahu Tongariki – and I’m wearing Conrad’s shorts due to lost luggage!

3. Hire some wheels

If you have more than a couple of days it’s a good idea to rent some wheels.  A handful of places in town rent out bikes, but be warned that the roads are ‘rustic’, and when it rains a bike isn’t so great!  On the advice of Peter we hired an SUV – which was a very informal arrangement involving an on-the-spot exchange of cash for keys – but Insular Rent A Car now have a website where they take reservations for cars, ATVs, and dirt bikes.  The car gave us the means to reach the main Anakana beach, which is 12 miles from town on the north shore, and to drive up the Rano Kau volcano – which could also have been reached by a tough day-hike if we had been less lazy!  We hired the car for 3 days at a cost of $60 per day, plus fuel.

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Our squeaky jeep rental
Traffic jam

4. Stay in boutique or homestay accommodation

It’s probably obvious to say, but not only are there no Four Seasons in Rapa Nui, there wasn’t even any chain hotels last time I checked.  Personally I think this very fact is part of the charm. There are some hostels dotted around town for the budget-friendly, and on the other end of the spectrum, a handful of hotels which seem crazy-expensive for what they offer.  I recommend looking for independent b&bs, or self-cattering arrangements, many of which come with detached bungalows. We choose Hare Swiss, located down a dirt track of a road, approx 20-25mins walk out of town. Our experience there was excellent – a fairly simple, but clean and spacious room, with a sea view, and very helpful local hosts. More and more hotels are opening all the time though – a new 5-star ‘eco resort’ recently opened, which charges over $800 per night!  Hotels offer packages with tours and possibly meals included (for which you will likely pay a high premium), but what’s the point of travelling all the way to Easter Island to choose the ‘easy’ option?!

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Hare Swiss holiday suites

5. Sightseeing the Moai

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Rano Raraku Quarry

Not everyone realises this before they arrive, but the Rapa Nui had toppled all the original Moai figures by the mid-nineteenth century due to internal rebellions. This means that the statues you see today are either reconfigured, or in some cases rubble. The largest standing are at Ahu Tongariki, and are quite a sight! It is best to go in the later afternoon after the main tours have passed through for a better photo, or at sunrise to capture their majestical qualities. Other must-sees are the quarry where the Moai were mostly carved from at Rano Raraku, and Orongo where you will learn about the Birdman cult practised until the 1860s. If you like caves there are many dotted around open to explore, but be warned there is no safety equipment provided so be careful – Ana Te Pahu was fairly vast. You will be requested to show a Rapa Nui National park pass to enter Rano Raraku and Orongo. These are easiest to purchase in the airport arrivals, and cost $80 US for adults and $40 for children (valid for 10 days).

6. Remember that Easter Island isn’t really a ‘Beach holiday’

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Anakana beach

There are technically just three beaches on the island, and water access elsewhere is extremely difficult due to the jagged coastline. In reality there is only really one main beach at Anakana, and you may still have to pay to use the rest rooms. There are a few food stalls that open at lunchtime. There is another smaller but charming beach at Ovahe a few minutes away, which requires a short climb over rocks to access (not great in flip flops). These are really the only options as the beach in town is tiny and not more than a playground for small local kids, I wouldn’t plan on spending a day there.

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Ovahe beach

7. Evening entertainment is on the light-side

Apart from eating out, the only other evening entertainment on offer during our stay was offered by a couple of companies that hosted dance shows. Not typically our thing, we went along more to support the local industry, but ended up enjoying it much more than expected. Kari Kari in the centre of town provides a 1-hour native dance show which felt like a highly energetic cross between the Hawaiian Hola and the New Zealand Haka. It doesn’t take place every night, and is a good idea to book in advance. Our tickets cost $20pp.  There is another company that collects you from your hotel and provides food and a show for around $70pp. on alternative days. Both companies receive very good reviews on Trip Advisor. Other than these options, perhaps pack some evening entertainment of your own!

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Yes they pulled Conrad up on the stage TWICE!
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Kari Kari ballet

8. Pack for all weather!

A word of warning here – it rained A LOT during our time on the island, at least 3 days were full of torrential rain.  Therefore when packing remember to bring some waterproofs, sensible outdoor shoes (as the coastline is largely rough terrain), and a sun hat for when it’s hot and exposed. Note that basics such as sunscreen and toiletries are pricy to buy locally (there is a pharmacy in town but closes on Sundays and for siesta). A small flashlight or head torch would be useful if you plan on walking outside the main strip of road at night.  Add to all that a good book, and some ‘back-up’ entertainment such as already-downloaded pod-casts – just in case the weather lets you down – and you should be good!

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Exploring Te Pahu cave

9. Don’t rely on a credit card

The local currency is Chilean pesos. Generally it is cheaper to pay for goods in pesos due to shops offering varying exchange rates, but US dollars are also widely accepted. There are three cash machines – one at the airport, and two attached to banks that dispense pesos, but two of these were out of service at different points of our stay, and one only accepts Mastercard. Some hotels and restaurants accept credit cards, but not everywhere, so bring some cash as a reserve. The tipping etiquette in restaurants seemed to be a standard 10%.

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The crater of Rano Kau Volcano

10. What’s the ideal length of stay?

This depends on the amount of activities you want to do. If you are limited for time and have a car or tour you could see the most significant sights in 1-2 days. If you prefer to spend time hiking, on the water, or just adjusting to the slower pace of life I would recommend 5 days – that way if bad weather hits you don’t miss out!

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I’m glad we made the trip to this quaint, mysterious island. It took a few days to adjust to ‘island time’, and I did find some amenities and choices limited, but we were in one of the remotest inhabited islands on earth, and I appreciated the unique ‘unspoilt’ experience.

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Parliament building
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The intricate stone Holy Cross Church

2 Days in Yosemite

Where: Yosemite National Park, CA

When: Late May 2011

We unexpectedly arrived in Yosemite in complete darkness after a monster drive from Vegas.  What should have taken 6-hours in our shiny red convertible, ended up more than double that – pulling up at our motel in pieces at 1:30am!  We learnt a key lesson that day: Always check ahead with US Highways Department for road closures.  Our intended route into the park through the west entrance was still closed in late May due to snow.  We only discovered that key information mid-afternoon once at Mono Lake.  The diversion?  Well the Sierras are not overly navigable in snow, so we had no choice but to head hours north, up nearly as far as Lake Tahoe, circling far beyond the park’s borders to get west.  Having left Vegas that morning in t-shirts and sunglasses, our surroundings changed dramatically, and taking it in turns behind the wheel we completed the journey with windows open in the frigid night air, filled with gas station coffees fighting to stay awake.  It wasn’t a good start.

I knew that two days in Yosemite wouldn’t do the park justice; an area roughly the size of the US state of Rhode Island!  It was to be a whirl-wind tour, and hopefully a place we could return to in the future to discover the back-country trails.  Due to the weather conditions of prevailing snow, the northern Tuolumne Meadows section of the park was off-limits, accessed by the main Tioga Road (Highway-120).  We therefore decided to split our two brief days accordingly.

 

Day 1: Yosemite Valley Highlights

Due to the cost of staying in the park over-night we based ourselves at Yosemite View Lodge, a simple but adequate motel a couple of miles outside the eastern Arch Rock entrance.  From there it was a slow, windy drive into the main valley area, passing through the famous narrow passageway that gives the entrance station its name…

Arch Rock

Yosemite valley is renowned for spectacular waterfalls, dramatic rock formations, and crowds of people!  In late May, due to rapidly melting snow, the waterfalls really were in their full glory.  If only I had been more skilful/ patient with the camera I could have perhaps captured their ethereal quality better.  Only a short (and accessible) half a mile wander from a car park, took us to Bridalveil Fall.  One of the most-viewed of Yosemite’s wonders, the fall plunges 620-feet, famously wafting a mist in the breeze that resembles a bridal veil.

Bridalveil Fall

Given to the ever-increasing number of visitors to Yosemite, the main road through the valley is one-way.  Slowly making our way along it headed west, we were struck with the monolith El Capitan granite peak, which looms prominently into the valley.  A world-renowned hot-spot for rock-climbers, we peered up bewildered at the very idea that people could climb such a vertical rock-face.

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El Capitan

At the Happy Isles trailhead we joined the Mist trail – Yosemite’s signature hike.  Our intention was to make the 2.4-mile round trip to the top of Vernal Fall, and then if feeling fit, continue onto Nevada Fall (5.4-mile round trip), OR even take the intersecting John Muir trail back to the trailhead to make a 6.5-mile loop.  This did not pan out.  I blame the crowds.  But the constant up-hill climb up the ever-increasingly slippery trail didn’t help!  What we covered of the Mist trail did offer spectacular, up-close views of Vernal Fall, following along the scenic Merced River.  Most people turned around after reaching the footbridge 0.8 miles in.  Probably a good move because that was a great ‘photo point’.  But we didn’t take much pause, eager to reach the top.

Vernal Fall
The Mist Trail

The trail soon became a steep granite stairway, with little to no place to hold on, and living up to its name, spraying us with a fine – but very wet – mist.  After a slow couple of hundred feet past the footbridge I chickened out (lame I know), and retreated.  I was feeling uneasy with the slow, precarious footing, with people squeezing past.  I didn’t know this at the time, but according to the Park’s website, more people die on the Mist trail than anywhere else in Yosemite.  Statistically this is probably something to do with it being so well-trafficked, but ultimately the deaths were due to the often deceptively strong currents.  Less than two months after we walked that very trail three people in their twenties fell to their deaths together in the cascade of Vernal Fall. The group had disregarded safety fences and signs to cool off, before two slipped into the water and a third tried to save them.

Half Dome from the Valley floor

Feeling hungry we headed to Yosemite Village, where a group of deer were roaming the parking lot.  The place is not exactly what I would call a ‘village’; the site is home to the park’s headquarters/ visitor centre, residences for park workers, a post office and a few concessions.   After a deli sandwich lunch, we gave the exhibits in the visitor centre a quick browse, then  watched the short Spirit of Yosemite film in the auditorium.  It proved a good introduction to the park, and more importantly, a nice little post-lunch rest stop.

Completing our tour of the village, we popped into The Ansel Adams Gallery to look at the collection of photographs – old and modern, then headed across the street to Yosemite Cemetery.  Home to the Pioneer graves that were originally scattered across the Yosemite Valley before the national park was formed in 1864, Native Americans – including a tombstone that simply read’s “A Boy” – and more recent park visitors and dignitaries.   Cemeteries hold a certain morbid curiosity for me.  I always wonder what the lives of those whose remains rest there held.  Good or bad, they certainly ended their time in a tranquil, natural place.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached Yosemite Falls, one of the world’s tallest cascades.  The falls are made up of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet).  Short of time, we took the 1-mile loop trail that took us to the base of the lower fall.  The ‘strenuous’ all-day hike to the top would have to wait for another trip!

Yosemite Falls

We ended our visit to the park that day with a drink in the Ahwahnee Hotel (now renamed The Majestic).  The grand, historical hotel is famous for providing interior inspiration for the sets of the fictional Overlook Hotel in the horror film The Shining.  The giant Grand Hall fireplace and huge tree-truck vaulted ceiling definitely felt familiar!  Having spent a decent amount of the evening (after a few drinks) posing for predictable tourist photos around the place the unthinkable happened… we lost the camera!  Many of our Yosemite shots were therefore never seen again, including all those from that evening in the hotel.  It wasn’t an overly expensive camera – a simple point-and-shot – but the loss of so many memories is something that still kicks me today!

 

Day 2: Mariposa Grove

The next day we were destined for the Park’s southern borders.  According to Google Maps this was a simple 1 hour-15 minute drive into the valley, before turning south along the Wawona Road.  In reality it was a painfully slow drive that involved lots of single-track sections where construction workers patched up the winter-beaten road.  Over 2-hours later we arrived in the parking lot of Mariposa Grove, and instantly felt like we had left the sun in the valley behind us!

The Grove is home to about 500 mature giant sequoia trees, which by total volume are the largest known living things on earth!  The parking lot was much less busy than those in the valley, but with a handful of families – and carrying very little by way of supplies – we hit the shaded Lower Grove trail.

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The California Tunnel Tree

As the trail slowly progressed in elevation, the number of fellow visitors dwindled, to the point that Conrad and I found ourselves completely alone.  Aside from the truly monstrous trees – including ‘Grizzly Giant’ – the thing that struck us was the ever-increasing amount of snow!  By the time we reached the [closed] museum 2 miles and 1000 feet in, the air was biting.  We sat on a wooden fence (because the picnic tables were buried under snow) and ate some crisps and Pop Tarts in eery silence.

The Wawona Tunnel tree which collapsed in 1969 due to a record snowfall that took down its weakened base

We continued uphill towards the Wawona Point Vista, which I think we got to, but am not certain due to the amount of snow on the ground.  Regardless, the trail got steeper as we switch-backed our way upward and I couldn’t help but feel very alone.  I was on high-alert for any sounds that could possibly have indicated bears!  Yosemite is famous for its Black Bear population, thought to be around 300-500 strong.  Signs throughout the park warn campers and hikers to be vigilant with food and disposing of rubbish safely, but sadly people can be stupid and not follow rules.  This can led to bears becoming conditioned to associate humans with food.  When this happens and the bears get a little too ‘friendly’, rangers have no choice but to follow protocol and kill the animal for public safety.  So hiking that day, we made sure to take all rubbish with us, and kept talking so we didn’t startle any animals going about their business.  We didn’t see a single bear in Yosemite, but from our other [limited] experiences so far we have found black bears to be curious but skittish.

I came away from Yosemite wanting more time.  It is spectacular, and despite a few closures, we felt lucky to visit during the less busy season.  Yosemite is notorious for being the most frequented park in the Summer months, and I prefer to enjoy nature with minimal reminders of humanity.