Trip Start Sep 28, 2012
11Trip End Apr 09, 2013
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I vaguely knew what I was signing up for when I chose Quest Overseas, but the expedition phase was one area perhaps a little more grey than the rest :)
At the end of February, we began our expedition through Peru, Chile and Bolivia, but instead of the five people we were during our other phases, we had adopted eight other gap yearers. These few were the Rio Brazil volunteer group and were joining us for the next six weeks. Uh oh! Switching up the group dynamic can be dangerous! Luckily a giant family-like BBQ in Lima broke the ice and we were all fast friends about to take on some amazing adventures.
Week one brought us through the Peruvian desert, sand buggying and idiotically sandboarding down the ginormous dunes on our bellies (whilst getting sand everywhere including underpants!). The record holder for distance was Carina followed shortly by Bobby who almost took the trophy.
We then experienced the city of Arequipa before we set off on our first trek through the Colca Canyon. Said to be two times the size of the Grande Canyon, we hiked our way up and down the valleys camping every night in small villages. The views from some of the miradors were extraordinary also enabling us to have close encounters with the famous condors of the region.
Some days during the trek we were walking five hours, others eight, but we found it all to be worth it. On the final night we scored luck when we reached the Oasis, a camp area that had a pool to dip in - a much appreciated surprise! The final day was a crazy steep ascent directly out of the canyon. We didn't have to face the sun's beating heat, instead we had pouring rain and we pushed through, defeating any personal limits we once had despite getting a bit numb. A few tough hours later and we made it out, all in one piece and freezing cold, ready for a good night's sleep in a cozy bed and proud of our accomplishment.
Towards the beginning of March, we made our way into Chile to spend a few days there prior to entering Bolivia from the south. The interesting part about traveling now as part of a group is that there is always something happening or going down. It was no different as we reached the border, for in one day, one of our backpacks got stolen (that contained a a macbook computer, camera, iphone, cash, and a passport), someone lost their Peruvian immigration card resulting in a cuffufle with the border patrol, and I got quite ill sending me to the first Chilean hospital we found! Our group had to temporarily split as a new passport had to be obtained, but the majority of us made it into northern Chile. Turns out I had a form of tonsillitis that was somehow causing me crazy stomach pain but an adventure through the Chilean medical system (which was surprisingly quite good), got me some meds and I was on my way to recovery. Unfortunately I missed out on outback horseriding but rest was needed after the countless hours of buses we had taken to get into the country!
After our brief stay in Chile, we wandered towards Bolivia and entered the wilderness through a border control station that was literally a hut in the middle of nowhere! For three days we whipped around in jeeps, one we called the 'Life Bus', the other the 'Death Bus.' Why so? Essentially half the group became ill (Lets just say the street food took its toll on a few!) while the other half was still happy and healthy. I was amongst the victims on the Death Bus however with tonisillitis as my killer :) We visited pink and green lakes during these few days as well as geysers, rock trees, volcanoes, and more, set amongst some of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen.
Our next stop was the Bolivian Salt Flats (where they do actually harvest table salt!), a place where its awfully difficult to differentiate between land and sky. The shimmering white seems to continue infinitely! This place is famous for the perspective shots taken there for example when someone is in the foreground the size of a normal person, and they look like they are holding a wee little shrunken person in their palm who is really standing 50m behind. Challenging to describe, but hopefully future pictures will give you a taste!
We then journeyed by night bus to La Paz, where we began acclimatization for the anticipated Bolivia Mountain trek. I'll admit I had some fear around this, hiking at high altitude whilst still on antibiotics was not my number one recovery plan, however I did not want to miss out on the chance of a lifetime and pushed through to see if I could manage.
Running around La Paz we got all the necessary equipment needed which included full snow gear and ice climbing equipment before the big day came to set off into the Condoriri Range 4 hours north. After all-you-can-eat pancakes at our fabulous La Paz hostel, we set off in search of adventure!
Day 1: What would normally have been a walk in the park hike, turned into a hike of doom for me as altitude hit me like a brick wall. Walking up inclines of 15 degrees resulted in gasping for breath and we were only at 3800 meters at this point. I had never felt so weak in my life. It felt like the mountains had swallowed me up as tears, dizzyness, nausea, and headaches took, over. The feeling of something taking control of your body, like alititude did mine, is something I never want to experience again. Because of all this, fear was racing through my head the whole day, me doubting my ability to continue never mind survive the next 5 days at even higher elevation. However with the extraordinary motivational pep-talks of Rowan, one of our team leaders, I pushed through to our camp at 4600m (ready to pass out!).
Day 2: We woke up to learn altitude had taken a few more victims. Still though, we wanted to push ourselves and break any previous physical boundaries. Today we found ourselves crossing two mountain passes at 4800m each, fighting through not only altitude now, but also the elements as we got our first taste of snow and sleet. Highlights of the day included passing across a river (in bare feet! Eeep!) fed by glacial water, and racing down a 600m screet slope, some of us falling on our tushies in the meantime. I could feel acclimitization occurring, but the simplist of uphills still took me down at this point. I found changing my mental game aided tremedously though as I transitioned from self-pity mode from the day before to the attitude of: 'I KNOW I can do it'.
Day 3: Today was supposed to be easy, 3 hours and we would be at base camp, however those 3 hours into it, we knew it was going to be a longer day and one where we would have to push ourselves to the limit. We climbed amongst cliffs of freightening elevation (good thing I don't have a fear of heights!) , those of which we would be toast if took one wrong step! You could feel the air getting thinner as we approached 5000m, leaving any greenery behind and saying hello to snow fields and glaciers. We took pride in our accomplishment of reaching the saddle of the mountain and peering over the other side to see the red tents of our camp. It was here that I leaders casually mentioned that we weren't headed there yet, we were actually about to summit the mountain we were relaxing on. Ahhhh!!!! I was terrified! Even so, we slowly made the push to the top stepping in snow that came up to our wastes and feeling the wintery blizzard snow whip our faces. I kept to my own zone, in my head chanting positive thoughts over, and over, and over again until I found myself amongst the 14 others, staring out at the extraordinary view from the top of Mount Austria. We had summeted our first mountain at 5200m! WAAAAHHHHHHOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! This was the exact exclamation I shrieked at the top, quite a liberating feeling that was!
On the descent we took full advantage of the snow and bum slid our way down bringing smiles to everyone's faces prior to going to camp. 9 hours of trekking total today we were exhausted!
Day 4: Today was practice ice climbing day. We had a rather mellow morning (time to recharge from the previous day!) before we headed out with a group of Bolivian guides to the nearby glacial field. We all donned heavy duty jackets, pants, boots, crampons, helmets and gloves and set off with ice pick in hand. A few hours practice and it was early bed for the morning to come.
Day 5: The big cahoona! Its climbing day. We set off at 3:00 am, head torches lighting the way as we returned to the glacier. We set off in small groups and it was an amazing sight to see glowing rings of light on the icy backdrop make their way upward. The sun rose as we came to the halfway point, shining light on the views of the mountain range around us.
We trudged on for hours taking our time due to altitude and a necessity for snack breaks :) Before we knew it we'd reached the saddle and had one last upward push to go. Although our bodies were struggling to maintain momentum, our guides kept us going as we inched forward. By 10 am we had reached the summit of Mount Tareja at 5300m covered in snow and had another celebration to acknowledge the accomplishment. Sitting atop this glorious mountain I'd like to say we could see the rest of the world below us, however, silly clouds got in our way giving us a stunning view of white nothingness.
One of my fondest memories of this trek was our returning back to base camp this day. Instead of stepping our way down in the crampons, we took to the slope on our bums, absolutely whizzing down the glacier! I was part of a group of three, all tied together by a rope which created an enormous amount of momentum getting us down to the bottom within 1.5 hours and causing all if us to shriek and laugh (including the guide!). What a wild adventure!
Day 6: A relatively easy walking day as we returned to a meet point to get our ride back to La Paz. By this point I was far more acclimatized which limited my struggle and allowed the fact that we were trekking in the famous Bolivian mountains be realized. Wow! Surrounded by snow capped peaks and mossy valleys (filled with many alpacas!) was an extraordinary feeling.
I felt very lucky to have experienced the trek despite the challenges faced. I learned how to push my limits and face fears in an environment unlike any other I've been amongst. Thank you Bolivian wilderness! ;)
The day after surviving the Bolivia trek, we hopped on a mini bus, heavy duty Kona bikes on top, all of us inside biting our nails for the activity of the day... biking the Death Road! Jeepers! As one can presume its called the death road for a reason, and my heart was pounding as we began the descent. We were of course amongst one of the best companies and guides La Paz has to offer with secure equipment, but even so I knew for the next 40 some kilometers my life was still in my own hands!
Putting faith in the bike and my hopeful ability to steer, I began to feel more and more comfortable racing down the mountain despite the ridiculously steep drop down the left side. We started at over 4200m, eventually ended at a mere 1000m and were changing clothing layers accordingly as we made our way down. A few close calls on my part had me absolutely shaking but the spills were taken by others (all minor luckily). The road had us crossing rivers and under small waterfalls getting happily soaked along the way. After many skids, shrieks, and hearts jumping out of chests later, we made it to the bottom each of us all in one piece and were officially labelled Death Road survivors. Whew!
After a rest day in Coroico, we set off early (3am!) to experience the dreaded Bolivian bus journey to Rurrenbaque. Why is it dreaded? When explained, this bus journey is said to take somewhere between 18 and 54 hours, a very wide window of time. The duration completely depends upon road conditions and whether sections of the road remain open if landslides or heavy rains occur.
After a few hours waiting, we finally found our bus and began the bumpy, cliff side journey. Bolivian buses don't have the greatest quality reputation, however I think the one we were on was extra special ;) During our time aboard, the roof was leaking when rain came pelting down, the seat windows didn't shut properly making the ride a mighty chilly one, the whole back row of seats broke when a bump was taken at an extreme speed, and the entire front window of the bus fell out as we were driving. Needless to say the bus needed a little TLC :) The great news is that we arrived at our destination after only 24 hours! Olay!
The next two days we spent working on a reserve that Quest supports hauling rocks and sand, clearing old farm land, and cobble stoning. We also made a huge english dinner for all the other volunteers there, and I got to try my first Yorkshire pudding! The following three days we journeyed into the Bolivian Pampas where we spent every day wildlife spotting from boats seeing alligators (big ones 4m long just an arms length away!), capybaras, squirrel monkeys that came so close they were jumping off our knees!, howler monkeys, tortoises, toucans, macaws, and other birds galore. We also had opportunities to swim with pink river dolphins and go piranha fishing with success on both accounts. It was an amazing few days in the jungle as we topped it off with a game of volleyball in the mud.
And the Expedition continues!
Love and hugs to everyone back home! See you in April!