Author: cora and cw

:: staring into the deep ::

Are we going down there? Even the donkeys seem to be struggling. Standing atop the crater rim and looking down at the mineral infused water there were only three options – down, around, or back to the car. Though the waters beckoned, the whipping wind and impatient toddler led us back to the car. A well-measured decision.

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Quilotoa stands on the western edge of the Andes and its crater lake is hypnotic. Looking down on the green waters and pondering the depth of over 250 meters, all the while surrounded by the parched rocky soil at the top, makes you realize the violent history of this place.

It is yet another place drastically affected by the seismic and volcanic upheavals under the earth’s surface. In 1280, Quilotoa erupted for the last time, further carving out the existing crater and creating the nearly symmetrical expanse of the current lake. Now you can swim, kayak, and wade into the peaceful waters. Some believe Quilotoa is the last resting place of Inca Atahualpa, so to some indigenous peoples it is sacred.

We didn’t spend much time right at the crater, but rather made our way to the cozy little retreat of Black Sheep Inn. There we settled into a diet of delicious brownies, cookies, endless tea and coffee, and the best high-altitude pancake recipe. The room was cozy, the fire powered sauna was warming, and the views were stunning.

It wasn’t all over-indulgence however, as we enjoyed the Skywalk – a hiking route around the surrounding crumbly hillsides that takes in much of the ever-changing scenery. We started in near sunshine and ended in fog, but thoroughly enjoyed the scrambling, climbing, and insight into the countryside.

On another hike, we explored a little known queseria, or ‘cheese factory’, hidden in the hillsides above Chugchilan. Here a couple of men were working hard, using traditional cheese making techniques learned by some Swiss missionaries. We explored the three room house that was the cheese factory and learned a bit about their process. We left with a round of cheese that we thoroughly enjoyed on our other hikes.

Cora returned again to Quilotoa with Piper and our good friend Ruth from the UK and was treated to a much kinder day in terms of weather, at least initially. The three of them climbed down into the depths of the crater and relaxed in the Ecuadorian sun along the turquoise waters. The hour long climb back up on foot was grueling, especially with a 30lb pack, but it was worth it to feel so close to this magnificent crater lake.

Many people do long distance hikes in this region – travelling from village to village – and it is easy to see why. Quilotoa is the main draw but the rolling hills, interspersed with rocky mountain outcrops, lend themselves to exploration. Little homesteads tucked away in forgotten nooks and crannies give evidence of a lifestyle unchanged over the centuries.

Quilotoa is the perfect place to unplug, unwind, and detach from the hustle of modern life. Bring your energy for the strenuous hikes, and your appetite for a decadent brownie to finish!

:: charming cuenca ::

If there was any doubt about Ecuador’s Spanish colonial history, all you need do is look at the squares that dominate every city, town, and village across the country. The curving paths around fountains, lush trees and blossoming flowers, colorful buildings with cast iron balconies and large windows, countless domes and archways are reminiscent of the many cities of Spain.

Nestled in the southern spine of the Ecuadorian Andes, Cuenca is a city of spires, squares, and exquisite colonial architecture. It is smaller and more laid back than either Quito or Guayaquil but still a bustling place in its own way.  It’s a wonderful place to stay a few days, or even years as is the case of many expats who have decided to stay. With a nice and compact city centre that is easily walkable, Cuenca lends itself to aimless meandering walks.

If you give yourself to the freedom of having no where to be, then Cuenca exposes great little wonders from the cobbled alleyways to the small artisanal shops and colorful street decor. The simple pleasure of an ice cream cone in the park can be fully appreciated for the slower pace of life. It is what travelling is meant to expose.

We admittedly didn’t spend a lot of time in the city itself, preferring to explore the wilds of Cajas National Park and the surrounding artisanal villages, but it was clear how one could find a quiet peace in the city; and stay.

 

 

:: notes from lesotho ::

We love to spread the news about how wonderful Lesotho is.  Thanks to the wonderful network of Foreign Service bloggers, we were able to do just that.  Ania at The New Diplomat’s Wife blog has a great little side feature called Notes from the Field in which she highlights a different post around the world every so often.

Cora reached out about featuring Maseru and Lesotho, and Ania was more than happy to give us a slot.  It was great to be able to write about this fantastic place that we love so much and hopefully help other people, both in and out of the Foreign Service, to learn a little more about this hidden gem!

Check out our feature on her blog here: http://www.thenewdiplomatswife.com/2015/10/notes-from-the-field-maseru-lesotho.html

:: visions of namibia ::

For two weeks we ventured through the vast expanse of Namibia and though we covered around 5000 kilometres of the country, we still don’t feel like we really saw the place.  This is a country that takes your breath away at nearly every turn and will leave your brain desperately trying to make sense of the awesome size, beauty and richness of the environment.  Two weeks, two months, two years, none would be sufficient to truly experience this vast country.  All we really know is that we will find a way back here to find new adventures out in this awesome wilderness.

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Search our blog for keyword Namibia to read about some amazing adventures in this gorgeous country.

:: to the edge of the abyss ::

If there is anywhere that truly encapsulates the awesome expanse of nature in Namibia, it is Fish River Canyon. Standing on the edge of the world’s second largest canyon, you can only stare out with wonder over the chasm stretching before you.  There is little vegetation, or water most of the time, and therefore all you see is the curving gash of the earth below rocky plains and ancient mountains.

All the way in the far southern part of the country, the Fish River, like many rivers in Namibia, only flows when there are heavy or persistent rainfalls.  This was not always the case obviously and much of the canyon was formed millions of years ago when the African and South American continents split apart, causing a massive shift in the topography of this part of Namibia and allowing the then very full Fish River to carve its way through the terrain.  Standing atop the rim near the tastefully designed visitor centre, you can’t help but gaze into the open space and wonder at the power of water to affect the natural environment.

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Not far from the visitor centre is the start of a four day hike through the canyon, a rite of passage for many hard core distance trekkers as once you descend, there is no way out until you reach the end 85 kilometres later (unless you want a helicopter evac!).  We did hike into the canyon from the end point of this monstrous hike, the Ai-Ais hot springs, and literally just going a couple of kilometres into the sandy, sun-baked terrain made us appreciate the achievement of the full hike.

Our campsite at Hobas was quiet and had lovely little pitches nestled under a few trees, perfect for escaping the harsh daytime sun.  Plus it had a swimming pool, perfect for cooling off and meeting people.  We had the good fortune to spend a few hours with Peter and Marijke, a Dutch couple with a similar spirit of adventure.  It is amazing how you can meet people from far flung corners of the world in other far flung corners and have similar interests, especially having both decided to venture off into the wild.

Fish River isn’t as popular a destination as many of Namibia’s other sites, but that makes the experience all the more incredible.  You aren’t jostling people out of the way to see nature at its finest.  You are there, almost alone, with nothing much to do other than sit and stare out at something that makes you feel truly insignificant.

As the sun sets over the canyon and the light turns from the deepest gold to the darkest of night, you wish that the moment could last forever…

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:: sands of time ::

Nature is unrelenting.  Wind, sun and sand never stop their detrimental efforts to erode, erase and retake space humans have altered.  Sometimes we only see the after effects centuries later and can’t fully comprehend the process of nature’s will.  But sometimes, we can have an audience with the power of Mother Nature and see exactly how she works her magic.  Kolmanskop is such a place. 

Not far from the Namibian coastal town of Luderitz, Kolmanskop is an old mining town, once home to wealthy diamond miners and the families of the mine workers.  It was built during the German colonial era and therefore has the architectural and cultural influences of Germany, including a ballroom, theatre, skittle alley and casino.  

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Today the clapboard houses and buildings are being inexorably overwhelmed by the sands of the desert surrounding it.  Everything from the grand mansions to the tiny row houses of the workers have sand, wind and sun damage.  Walls have holes, floors have caved in and sand dunes reach up to ceilings. 

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It is a surreal experience to walk into a room through a perfectly normal doorway, albeit a little worse for wear, and see a slopping pile of sand filling up one whole corner of the space.  There are even reminders of the life left behind, with bathtubs, bed frames and other pieces of everyday life left scattered through the ruined houses. 

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For us it was a dream to wander through these unique spaces and take photos of changing light, shifting sands and fading colours on pock marked walls.  Neither of us have a lot of experience with locations of decaying manmade structures like this, and it was truly magical to spend a whole morning investigating this mesmerising location.

 

 

:: wild horses ::

In the middle of extremely arid plains in the centre of the Namib Desert is a herd of wild horses of Namibia. These wonderful creatures are thought to have their origins from horses released from nearby farms and camps during World War I. Regardless of where they come from, these hardy survivors still exist in a herd that ranges from 80 to 150 members depending on conditions. They are left to roam free, but they like to congregate near a man made watering hole close to Garub, on the road to Luderitz. 

Standing there, blissfully in the shade of an observation hut, it is hard not to be amazed at these animals’ ability to survive in the suffocating heat of the desert. But there they are, acting like any other type of horse we have encountered. We gave them a a bit of love and took some photos before moving on, feeling amazed at how so many animals have found a way to survive in this arid corner of the world. 

:: rolling red dunes ::

Sand makes a special whistling sound when it is being blown off the edge of a 150 meter tall dune. It is the sound of an inexorable force altering an inconceivably immense structure; one minuscule grain of sand at a time. It also pelts the heck out of any exposed skin.

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I think it was this part of the trip that we were most looking forward to – finally seeing Deadvlei and the towering sand dunes surrounding Sossusvlei. Tucked in the middle of the Namib-Naukluft National Park of Namibia, Sossusvlei is a famous pan surrounded by enormous reddish, orange sand dunes. Vlei is an Afrikaans word for a small shallow lake, and in the deserts of Namibia, that more often than not means a dried lake bed – or pan. Sossusvlei itself is occasionally filled with water following exceptionally heavy rains that allow the Tsauchab River to flow all the way into this dead end pan.

Though the area is referred to as Sossusvlei, it is actually Deadvlei that is the most famous pan, at least from a photography perspective. Most people have seen pictures of dead trees in the flat shimmering white earth with the orange dunes around. However, sitting atop the impeccably named Big Daddy sand dune and looking down on Deadvlei as the sun rose behind us, was the culmination of a decade of longing. We couldn’t contain our excitement any longer and charged down the enormous dune, twenty minutes up and no more than two down!

Unlike Sossusvlei, Deadvlei never receives water, unless it actually rains on the pan. The ground was deeply parched and crumbled with every step we took. The trees, long since petrified, stood like quiet sentries watching over the lifeless scene. It was exactly what we had hoped it would be! Rarely do you look forward to something for so long and then it lives up to your hopes and dreams. For us, Deadvlei did. We could have spent all day there, but considering it was meant to be 40+ degrees, and there is no shade, we decided that lunch in the shade near Sossusvlei would be in order.

Sand dunes are amazing because the outer layers are constantly in flux and yet the very middle of the bottom layer might not move for thousands of years. Certainly sitting atop Big Mamma, the dune that overshadows Sossusvlei, it was easy to dwell on the dichotomy of these fascinating geographical features. From up here the sand was constantly being blown off the top and yet looking around at the sea of sand dunes, it seemed implausible that these mountains of sand ever disappeared from their current locations.

There are sand dunes throughout the entire 60 kilometre drive along the dry Tsauchab River. Some, like Dune 45, are famous, most others are not.  The scenery along the way is spectacular, with dunes rising up on both sides and the sun casting strong shadows making them appear almost black in places.

Anyone can drive the tarred road from the entrance gates to the car park, where tractors will take you the last five kilometres to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei. Or, you can try your own luck if you have a 4×4.

Being adventurous souls, and recalling our sandy exploits on the other side of the continent in Mozambique, we of course went for it. Not a problem. However, the second trip later the same day we were really struggling to make headway and after perhaps 2 kms, we got bogged down. So, we got out, and started letting a bit more air out of the tyres and I got back in the car. At that point I realised the reason why we were stuck – I had forgotten to switch on the 4×4 when we left the tarred road! So, 4×4 engaged and Bob’s your uncle, we were out and on our way again. Moral of the story, driver error is almost always to blame!

The couple of days in Sossusvlei were fantastic and exactly what we had hoped. We even had the rare experience of seeing a chunk of meteorite streak across the sky not more than a few hundred feet above our lodge while we had dinner. It was truly spectacular to watch the arch of light against the inky blackness and it was another reminder of how wild and unexpected this beautiful country can be.

:: skeleton coast ::

I now know where NASA practices moon landings.  Along the northern Namibian coast lies far and away the most remote, forsaken place I have ever been; the Skeleton Coast.  In a country renowned for open expanses, this barren landscape sends even the most comfortable traveller into fits of agoraphobia.

The Bushmen called this region “the land God made in anger” and it is truly not for the faint of heart.  Stretching northwards from Swakopmund all the way to the Angola border, this thin band of desert is home to some seal colonies and a couple of remote fishing outposts and nothing else – unless you count the shipwrecks.

The freezing cold Benguela current sweeps the Southern Atlantic Ocean along the sun parched deserts, creating an almost daily fog that leaves sailors at the mercy of the waves and rocky shores.  Historically, sailors shipwrecked here had next to no chance of survival.  If they were exceptionally lucky they would wreck near one of the dry river beds and follow it upstream until some mountain rain run off could be located.  From there it would be a continued trek inland over the mountains to hopefully find one of the few settlements.

In fact, that is probably still the case since even car traffic is sparse along the coastal road.  We drove from the eastern gate through to the southern gate and only came across four cars in about six hours.  Further north is even more remote as the tracks take you onto the beach with the cold forbidding Atlantic on one side and 100 ft wind swept sand dunes on the other.  It is not a place to take lightly.

Still, we had a fairly uneventful trip through this unique landscape – stopping at a couple of shipwrecks, an old oil rig and even coming across a seal colony – complete with stench!  We wound up camping along the seashore much further south and saw firsthand how significant the fog can be as our little tent was quickly swallowed up as the sun went down.  We, and our car, re-appeared the next morning so thankfully we didn’t have to test our survival skills!

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:: searching for desert elephants ::

Namibia spoils you for space. We had already been across a vast swath of the country seeing landscapes so devoid of humans and human structures that it was hard to believe anyone actually lived in the country. Spending time in Etosha only made this more of a reality, as the animals far and away outnumber humans in this massive expanse of wilderness. And so we felt prepared to move onto the even more remote northwestern area of Kaokoland. We weren’t.

We left the flat open scrublands south of Etosha and headed through rugged rock-strewn hills to Palmwag. Maps in Namibia are helpful and not helpful. They show places like Palmwag and you could logically think it is a reasonably populated place. You would be wrong. Palmwag is a small collection of huts and an animal control fence to keep cattle, sheep and other animals out of the huge wildlife concessions that make up most of Kaokoland and Damaraland.

Of course the most important information on maps of Namibia is petrol stations. Palmwag had one and we stopped. It was two pumps, a tin shed and a Himba woman selling jewelry. That’s it. Fuelled up, we headed north into territory that makes you realise how insignificant humans really can be.

For a couple of hours the only company we had was a bull elephant making his way up from a small water course. We gave him plenty of space, making sure we stopped in a place we felt would allow him the opportunity to walk straight up in front of us. He preferred to go behind the car. Admittedly, since this is an area much more wild than Etosha, we probably should just be happy he didn’t come through the car! It was a lovely, intimate experience however, in the fading light of the day, between the rocky hills, with just us and him.

Our destination was Khowarib Lodge, an oasis of simple beauty and welcoming peace along the Hoanib River. This part of the river has permanent water, a rarity in this dry corner of Namibia, and a collection of luxury tents perch within the trees on the river’s edge. The dirt paths are marked by rough wood railing leading you to the welcoming embrace of the reception, bar, dining area. This interlinked, thatch covered area opens onto the natural splendour of the Khowarib Gorge, with the towering rock faces catching the setting sun’s rays. Sitting there with a drink in your hand and the comforting coolness of evening descending, you are literally and figuratively miles from anywhere.

The real reason for our foray into this area was to track desert elephants up the Hoanib River. As the river heads northwest from Khowarib, it dries out and becomes a sandy track leading towards the extreme remoteness of the northern Skeleton Coast. There are some isolated pools that retain water most of the year and within these pockets of moisture the largest animals on land exist in a precarious balance of nature. It isn’t just elephants that live here, there are lions, giraffe, gemsbok and ostrich to name a few.

The drive up to this area took us past Sesfontein, an old German fort turned hotel. This was a relic of the troubled colonial past of Namibia, once called South-West Africa and first German controlled and then a part of apartheid era South Africa. From this fort, the colonial powers were able to control native ethnic groups such as the Himba and Herero. The fort isn’t much to look at, more like a country estate in southern France, but its presence must be an uncomfortable reminder for the local population descended from some of the oppressed groups of the past.

Not far from Sesfontein, we turned into the river system, a series of interconnected dry stream beds that allow the rare rain water to run down from the mountains and head towards the Atlantic. We bumped and bounced through these sandy tracks and then crossed a huge open rocky plain surrounded by shimmering mountains. The heat was impressive but the roof of our vehicle pushed up to allow a breeze so it was bearable.

We crossed a small bit of water with a sign warning about the dangers of going forward without first informing someone of your intentions. Basically the authorities were taking no responsibility for finding and helping you if you got stuck out in an inhospitable environment. It set a promising tone for the rest of the experience.

We made our way up the river bed, snaking between the mountains and around sandy islets. Not far from the ‘entrance’ we came across a patch of bright green reeds reaching over the top of the vehicle. Within them came a rustle and then a grey trunk and ears emerged through the vegetation. An elephant cow was chomping her way through the water fed grasses, content to eye us up and then continue her meal. With little space between us and elephants much less accustomed to human interaction, we moved off.

There were two other elephants in the reeds that we could see behind us, but not fifty meters further along, we saw a mother and young calf. They were digging in the wet soil of the river bed, snorting air into the sand to bring up salt rich water from below ground. The young one was learning some tricks of the trade from mom and we were able to sit and admire the peaceful family teaching session from remarkably close distance.

Desert elephants are very similar to other elephants, but have smaller body masses, longer legs and seemingly larger feet. The latter is so they can cross sand dunes to reach the water. They eat vegetation with a high concentration of moisture to offset the lack of drinking water and usually live in smaller family units of 2-3. These gentle giants we got to spend a day interacting with are the only desert elephants besides another small group in Mali.

We were careful to not engage the elephants too closely, but they seemed to be content with our presence in their territory. This was common throughout the day as we encountered further groups of desert elephants, giraffe and the elusive lions, often mere meters from the animals.

It was a day filled with intimate encounters amidst the sandy river bed, crumbling hillsides and occasionally thick vegetation. A picnic lunch in the shade with a journey of giraffe having their own meal just along the riverbed was a wonderfully remote experience. This whole corner of Namibia is ridiculously remote and starkly beautiful.

It is also not for the faint of heart or unprepared. We had no intention of going out into the sandy unknown on our own, but we did see some people who were heavily kitted out for the adventurous routes. These vehicles had extra tyres, petrol canisters, dig out kits, water tanks and top-notch suspension and tyres – all an absolute necessity and impressive to see.

About an hour after leaving Khowarib heading back south the following day, we hit a dip in the gravel road and our left rear tyre exploded! Literally the wall of the tyre ripped apart and Cora did a great job controlling the car at 70kph on a gravel road with a quickly shredding tyre. So, in 40+ degree heat, with the sun beating down, we got our first taste of changing a tyre on our car. It was not smooth sailing. We had to unpack the back of two weeks of camping stuff and tools to even get the tools out and then the bolts wouldn’t budge, not even a little. Nothing like nearly wrenching your back out in the beating down sun, but at least the view was nice.

We were saved by the one car that came past us in the entire hour we were out on the side of the road. They had a can of coke, which when shaken and sprayed over the bolts, did the trick (take note – a can of coke in the car is an extremely practical thing). Before long we were cautiously back on the road.

Our trip into the great remote northwest had given us a wonderful taste of the beauty and harshness of this enchanting area. Both the good and the challenging. We only wished to have more time to explore.

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