Going down Patagonia’s Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

We head onto Ruta 40 as we leave Bariloche. In the morning sun, the cold lakes’ water evaporates and creates thin, smoke-like clouds on the surface, veiling the snow-capped mountains that frame the water. We peek at them through the thick forests as Gus – our truck – starts her drive south. Rocks gleam against the see-through blue of streams and the white of the surf. It looks mysterious and a little magical, like a scene out of an Arthurian legend.

Going south the landscape turns to steppe and it’s like stepping into The Lion King. Guanacos, the local llamas, run wild everywhere. Too often, their carcasses can be spotted through the window, usually caught in the fences that separate pieces of land and border up the road. Sometimes we slow down to let a rhea wobble across the road, its long neck bobbing forward and back. Fauna and flora come first in Patagonia.

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Down south it’s all burnt yellows and washed-out algae greens; bucketloads of ocres – dust and sandy hills, sometimes turning rusty red or almost bright pink. Scattered piles of rocks cohabit with prickly evergreen. In the distance stands the solid deep purple of the mountains – here they are low and flat-topped, tracing a perfect line against the blue sky.

The wind ties it all up together. It’s shaped the land. Trees are bent and shrubs grow sideways. Huge clouds of dust follow everything and everyone, everywhere. It sticks to your clothes, your shoes; covers your face and settles in the lines of your hands, and its ashy taste is part of most meals.

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

We bush camp twice along Ruta 40. The first time, we find a large meadow-like spot away from the road, surrounded by trees. We build a fire surrounded by animal bones picked around the area. We’re up late drinking, hidden from the wind, warmed up by the fire.

The second night, we pitch our home close to a stream, and the few trees are this time no good at providing any refuge from the wind. It follows us everywhere – as we try and drape our flyovers on our tents; as we find a discrete spot in the bushes for a bathroom break; as we attempt to get rice and beans from our plates into our mouths. The one thing it comes handy for is drying our dishes.

And we’re back in the truck. Gus swirls around bends, braving trail roads as well as the endless asphalt, sometimes a little shaky from the gutsy gusts of wind. Off we go.

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

What’s overlanding? Travelling Patagonia with Dragoman

Have you heard about overlanding? I hadn’t until I travelled Patagonia on Gus, a sturdy orange truck who drew looks everywhere she went and provided a homely if a little drafty home for our group.

The idea of overlanding is to travel off the beaten track, as a group, with your own truck. I travelled with Dragoman, a company who’s been in the business since the 80s, and has routes covering Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Indian sub-continent. I joined the group in Santiago – like most in my group, although some had been on the truck longer – and we set off for five weeks on board Gus.

Overlanding trucks become your home for the time you’re travelling on them. Gus was our vehicle, but also our kitchen, our DJ, our workplace, our living room, our late-windy-night hangout; it housed our bags, food, tables and chairs, tents and somehow also fitted 24 grown people.

Packing up after a windy dinner

Being studious and updating our travel diaries

Jacolien loves nothing more than flapping dishes to get them dry

You’ll need to be flexible, adventurous and ready to get your hands dirty if you want to enjoy life on the road. A driving day goes like this: you’ll get up at the crack of dawn, zip up your bag, pack your tent, eat a quick breakfast, get in the truck and drive. You’ll get one or two breaks in the morning to stretch your legs or wee in a bush. Lunch will be on a sidewalk by a supermarket, or cooked for you by one of the cook groups and served on the side of the road, eaten on well-loved low stools in the cover of the truck. Then off you go again, perhaps with a shopping stop to pick up groceries for the evening, all the way until an appropriate field is found to camp in. Then tents go up (more or less easily depending on the wind), bottles are cracked open, the cooking team gets to work, a bonfire is lit up and you’re soon eating fuming spag bowl in the pearly evening light.

There are bad days: we found ourselves entering Tierra del Fuego in graying weather. A few hours later, as we stopped for lunch, rain was falling hard. We parked up by a seemingly abandoned administrative complex, struggled to get a pair of hobs on in the rain to boil the kettle for some hot drinks, while we dined like (fallen) kings on cold pasta so compact it felt like cake and cold tomato sauce straight out of the packet.

You’ve got your insufferably stuffy, long driving days when even the breeze coming through the open windows is hot and leaves your eyes dry with dust. You’ve got nights so windy that you wake up every hour or so to check that your fly sheet is still attached to your tent. You’ve got lunch stops at services where the only option is a sandwich filled with a tough chewy slice of beef. You’ve got miserable evenings, flapping wet dishes in the drizzly wind after yet another version of spag bol.

But the good days more than make up for it. One night we stopped Gus right at the border between Chile and Argentina. The wind was so intense we had six people putting up the one tent and a seventh running after a flying peg bag. Then the sun came out, the wind slowed down, and a rainbow came up as we sipped on mulled wine. The cooking team got to peeling potatoes, some went for a walk, a big few sat down to retrace the last few days in their travel diaries, and I sat in the truck, typing away. Overlanding has its own rhythm and if you manage to get onto it, you can get filled with such happiness that it gives you that: this, now this is why I’m travelling.

We found this abandoned house in the Tierra del Fuego and decided to make it home. The Ghost House was the location of some of the trip’s most memorable moments: a dinner cooked inside, a dance party to the light of head torches, and an “actual” bathroom – as seen below

On days without driving, you’ll be stationed in a town with time to go and explore on your own. Depending on the country you’re in, it could be museums, day trips, hikes, sporting activities, or just a day off sitting in a coffee shop to update your blog… You’ll share a hostel room with your truckmates, alternating taking over the kitchen to cook yet more pasta, or heading out for the first vegetable in sight in weeks.

I mentioned Gus being our workplace. For me, stop days meant getting to work on cleaning the truck. Each in our group got given a job to do during our time travelling: some were in charge of security, others of setting up our kitchen sink and handwash station, others still of loading and unloading our backpacks into the back locker.

One of the parts of overlanding that seems to most confuse people is the kitty. It’s not a truck pet, but rather the common fund that all passengers contribute to at the beginning of the trip and that serves to pay for group spends: lunches and dinner while camping, mostly, plus campsite fees and the occasional team punch. It’s an aspect of overlanding that helps it be a relatively cheap way to travel, as a lot of the spending is spread across the group. And with all cook groups being keen to shop cheap, there is sometimes money leftover at the end. We had enough for a tango show and a few bills each!

But like so much when it comes to travelling, I’d say the most important, and undoubtedly best part of overlanding, is the people. This mode of travelling isn’t for introverts. Like I said earlier, the truck can get a little cramped, so I’d end up falling over people and asleep on their shoulders before knowing what their day job was. I would get stuck knocking knees for 10 hours with truck mates and shared a tent with someone who was barely more than a stranger. But that’s a quick and easy way to make great friends real fast. We shared snacks, jokes, stories, photos and clothes; we experienced together some of the most beautiful places on Earth and some of the best moments of our lives. Such as taking a walk with a dozen people through fields and streams, with sheep loudly bleating as we walked around the few tombs of the smallest cemetery I’d ever seen, placing sheep bones by headstones and sharing one white wine cup between most of us. Or sitting down for a lunch of empanadas, sweaty and exhausted, at the foot of Mount Fitz-Roy. Or dancing around a bonfire to Macklemore’s Downtown like it’s the last night on earth.

On our way to lunch by Fitz Roy 

The cemetery mentioned above

The gang at Torres del Paine

If you’re curious about overlanding, don’t hesitate to leave your questions in the comments – I’d love to get more people to experience life on the road, is a big orange truck…

Snapshots from Bariloche

Bariloche was my first stop in Argentina. But it took me a while to realise that it was Argentina, and not Switzerland. Because San Carlos de Bariloche – as is its actual full name – has got a lovely little stone church on its main square, is surrounded by mountains and lakes, and is famous for its chocolate. (And rightly so, I must admit.)

But no, Bariloche is truly part of Argentina. We stayed there for a couple days and I spent them with my pal Mia walking around town, dutifully tasting each chocolate shop’s products to ensure overall quality, and hiking through Nahuel Huapi National Park to make up for it.

Mia found out that Argentinian winds are INSANE

Starting our hike through Nahuel Huapi National Park

La Cascada de los Duendes 

Cerro Catedral – a busy skiing resort in the winter, and a magnificent viewpoint in the summer

The view that was worth the pain – turns out Mia is terrified of heights

Next up… We drive all the way down Patagonia’s Ruta 40!

Extreme Patagonia: climbing volcanoes and glaciers

I’m a city girl. I was born on the outskirts of Paris and grew up taking the metro weekly to go visit the capital’s museums. When we moved to the west of France, all I wanted was one thing: move to London, the biggest and busiest of Europe’s cities. And when I did, I loved it. I love walking city streets, taking public transport, going to busy little bars and walking through markets.

Climbing mountains? Not really my style.

And yet, here I was, crampons on, ice pick in hand, slowly and very unsurely dragging myself up Volcán Villarrica in Pucón. Villarrica is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile, with its latest eruption dating back only two years – so not only was I climbing a volcano, I was climbing a bloody active volcano.

But that’s Patagonia: fire and ice, volcanoes and glaciers, and mountains, mountains, mountains. If you’re going to travel all the way there, you’d be foolish not to put your fears aside and attempt something you’d never thought yourself capable.

So I told myself as I put one foot after the other, more slowly each time, as we continued our climb. We were zigzagging our way up, pushing hard against the icy slope to find our footing. We’d passed the protection of some nearby peaks and the wind had come rushing in, making the air around grey and opaque, and here it came: I’m never going to make it, I thought.

This is no Hollywood story, guys. I didn’t make it. Rather, the weather turned, so our guides decided to head back down. There was no point in risking our way to the top to not be able to see the volcano.

So this is the story of how I nearly climbed an active volcano, and ended up sledding all the way down said volcano on a little piece of plastic (nearly impaling myself on my ice pick-cum-brake in the process, though – even sledding is extreme in Patagonia).

I apparently took to crampons and ice picks, because two weeks later, I signed myself up for a glacier trek in the splendid town of El Chaltén. (More to come on its out-of-this-world-beautiful hikes).

El Chaltén is situated on the edge of Los Glaciares National Park, itself a part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. It’s the third largest ice field in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland, covering over 12,000 km2. Little of the glacier is open to visitors, as it’s a moving body of ice (that’s what characterises a glacier – the more you know!), so we explored only a little area, while still getting to see tunnels and miniature lagoons, and walking across narrow ice bridges.

And cherry on top, we even got to try our hand at ice climbing!… A wall that, granted, was not even 10m tall but quite the thing to tell the grandkids someday.

If I had to do it again… I’d definitely give the volcano another try. That’s a unique experience that is truly challenging and worth every single penny (more so if you can actually get to the top), and in my opinion, a must-do while in Pucón. However, I might give the glacier a pass in El Chaltén. Too much time on our excursion was spent waiting around while people climbed up the little ice wall, and I’d rather have been exploring the stunning trails surrounding the town. Instead, hit up the Perito Moreno glacier in nearby El Calafate – also part of Los Glaciares NP – where you are better able to take in the scale of the ice field, and see its activity first hand.

Snapshots from Hampi

Two weeks into my time in India came the real reason I wanted to go visit the country: a reunion with my best friend! She lives in Bombay, where I flew to meet up with her, but we soon hopped on a flight south to go check out the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Then we spent what felt like a million years on trains and met up with two of Shambhavi’s friends to be on our way to Hampi, a village in Karnakata famous for its ruins – those of what was the capital city of the Vijayanagara Empire, between the 14th and 16th centuries. But Hampi is also well loved by travellers for its island, whose main road is tightly packed with hostels and cafés where it feels good to chill for a day or two. Here are a few photos from my time there…

Hampi India

Hampi IndiaCrossing the river to Hampi island

Hampi India

Hampi India

Hampi IndiaSakina inside Virupaksha Temple

Hampi India

Hampi India elephantMy BFF Lakshmi, temple elephant at Virupasha Temple

Hampi India

Hampi IndiaThe other BFF, Shambhavi, total casual

Hampi India

Hampi India

Hampi India

Hampi IndiaInside Vittala Temple complex

Hampi India

Hampi India

Hampi India

Hampi India

Hampi IndiaSpent nearly 10 minutes sat, staring at this tree. I have a thing for trees and this one is a stunner

Hampi India

Hampi IndiaVirupasha Temple at sunset

Hampi India

Rajasthan, land of kings

My first two weeks in India were spent travelling around Rajasthan. The province, which shares a border with Pakistan in the west of India, bears the name ‘land of kings’ for its rich history of Rajput, Maratha and Mughal kings and emperors.

Today, it’s one of the most popular destinations in India for both domestic and foreign tourists, thanks to countless palaces and forts – plus a few natural spots such as the Ranthambore National Park and the desert of Jaisalmer that I unfortunately didn’t have time to visit. Rather, I went on a tour of its cities.

 Jaipur

Jaipur Palace of the WindsJaipur’s Palace of the Winds

Jaipur

First up was Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan. The Pink City, as it’s known, was painted pink in 1876 in honour of the visit of Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales as a sign of hospitality. It’s apparently now law for inhabitants of Jaipur to maintain the pink hue.

The city was founded by Maharaj Jai Singh II, a keen scientist, mathematician and astronomer, which I felt was evident I walked around – from the logical, square way that the old town was built around the main bazars; to the Jantar Mantar, a larger-than-life observatory in the middle of the city.

Jaipur

Jaipur

Jaipur

Jaipur Amber FortAmber Fort

Jaipur Amber Fort

Jaipur Amber Fort

Jaipur Amber Fort

Jaipur Amber Fort

Jaipur Amber Fort

On the outskirts of town, Amber Fort is worth a visit for its Mirror Palace (above) and its beautiful gardens, but it was when getting lost around Amer town itself with new friends that I had the best time. We wandered around until we stumbled upon Panna Meena Ka Kund (below), a small stepwell of sorts that a local told us used to be a religious site, but is now used as a pool.

Jaipur

Jaipur

He said that thanks to it, people from the area know how to swim – something that’s rare in India. A little up the road from there, we found Hanuman Sagar Lake, and from there watched the sun set over the Fort up the hill while monkeys played all around us. Let me tell you: that’s worth travelling for.

Jaipur City PalaceInside Jaipur City Palace

Jaipur

Jaipur Amber Fort

Jaipur Amber FortThe view of Amer Fort’s gardens from the top

Jaipur Amber Fort

 

 

Jodhpur

Jodhpur

More than any other in Rajasthan, the city of Jodhpur stole my heart. On my first night, I found myself watching the sun set over the Blue City from the old walls of Mehrangarh Fort and had a little ‘pinch me’ moment. Blue’s a colour that feels like home to me, somehow, and I felt instantly at ease in Jodhpur. Compared to the other cities I visited in India, Jodhpur felt a lot more welcoming. I’ve never said ‘hello’ as many times as I did on the day I walked around the narrow market lanes of the old town. Everyone had a smile and wave for me; and not in the sometimes obtrusive way I experienced in other places.

Jodhpur

Jodhpur

JodhpurMehrangarh Fort

Jodhpur

Jodhpur

Jodhpur

Jodhpur

Jodhpur

Jodhpur

Jodhpur

Jodhpur

And I ate pyaj kachoris – fried onion-filled pastries – feasted on Rajasthani lamb stew eaten with fresh, warm rotis; and rounded up meals with fleshy, sweet chikkus. Jodhpur ain’t bad if you’ve got an appetite.

JodhpurKayalana Lake

Jodhpur

 

 

Pushkar

I spent just two days in Pushkar, most of them in a hammock recovering from a bout of delayed Delhi belly – so I don’t even have photos of the town to share. A shame, because it’s worth seeing: Pushkar is known for its holy lake, where Hindu pilgrims from all over the world travel to. The town is also home to one of very few Brahma temples in the world.

I spent a little time walking around, watching the puja, a prayer ritual, without quite daring to take part. People would queue to enter the temple, where they would ring a bell before approaching the temple priest. They would pray and give an offering, and in return receive a blessing, physically represented by a coloured dot on their forehead. It was one of those cases when I didn’t know where to draw the line between getting to know the culture and staying at a respectful distance, so chose the latter by default.

 

 

Udaipur

Udaipur

Finally, I travelled to the White City (Rajasthan’s got its colours down), renowned for its imposing and beautiful lakes, and its palace. They are best seen from the top of the little Manik Lal Verma Park. From there, beer in hand if you remembered to bring one along (I luckily did), you can watch sunset fall over Lake Pichola, the palace, the peninsula of Cheerwa village, and on the other side of the hill, the lit-up town of Udaipur.

Udaipur

Udaipur

Udaipur

UdaipurUdaipur City Palace 

Udaipur

Udaipur

UdaipurThe view from the top of Manik Lal Verma Park at sunset

Udaipur

Udaipur

What I loved best, though, where Udaipur’s ghats – points by the water where people can bathe, wash clothes or enjoy the water. Some were busier, with tourists walking past and youth jumping in the water in the afternoon sun. Others were quieter; I found one near my hostel with a little tree to sit by, where I spent some time saying goodbye to Rajasthan before heading south.

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Udaipur

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