Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2



Okay then,

I have now come to the end of my travels across a sample of South America, with a smattering of Polynesia. As you have no doubt gathered from my earlier mails I have had a great time and been very fortunate to see many of the things I have seen.

To cap off the previous newsletters, since I last wrote from Puerto Natales in the south of Chile I have done lots of nice things. On the bus to Puerto Natales from Punta Arenas I was chatting with a decent Belgian called Ronny. Arriving late in Puerto Natales and chatting with some other residents at the place we were staying we got up late the next morning to find it was a lovely day, apparently the first nice day for some time. We had been talking with a guy who had spent some days in the Torres del Paine National Park, just nearby and hadn’t seen a mountain the whole time due to the rain and cloud cover. So, we decided to club together and hire a car to see the park whilst it was clear. We got a four wheel drive thing and as I was the only one with a licence here, I was the driver. The adventure started before we even got into the park though, when what appeared to be solid ground at one point turned out to be soft mud and the side of the car just dropped into it. Thankfully we were out again when a good Samaritan truck driver extricated us. As we approached the park the views of the mountains were already very nice and as we had the freedom of the car we could stop to appreciate them and take photos. All afternoon and early evening we drove round, covering just about every accessible part of the park and getting some great vistas. Apart from the mountains, we were also able to see the Gray Glacier. A nice glacier that pours down a mountainside into Lago (lake) Gray, where chunks break off to form icebergs, that all somehow seemed sculpted.

It was a successful day, covering a lot of ground and so the next day I took it easy, the weather wasn’t so fabulous anyway. I managed to find out about getting a flight to Antarctica. A day trip costs two and a half thousand Dollars, for two days / one night costs thirty-eight hundred, anyone feeling generous.

The day after I took an organised trip to the Perito Moreno Glacier which is in Argentina. This meant getting up at a ridiculous hour and getting a bus for five or six hours over the Andes and through the Chile Argentine border to El Calafete. After half an hour there we got back in the bus for another hour and a half to the glacier. At the glacier itself we spent a little over two hours. It is a really impressive and attractive chunk of ice. It is about four kilometres wide at the snout and it advances about one and a half metres a day. This advance means that the ice at the front breaks off from time to time crashing into Lago Argentino below. Considering that it is like a sixty metre cliff of ice when the larger chunks fall it is very dramatic. I was lucky enough to see several sheets collapse off the end, one of which must have been about thirty metres wide, sixty metres tall and several metres thick. This means that the thing must have weighed hundreds of tonnes, so as it separated the noise of it cracking away was impressive not to mention the sound of its grating against the rest of the ice before its impact with the water. This then sent massive ripples out which lasted for about half an hour, encouraging other bits of ice to drop off. We were lucky that when we got to the glacier the weather which had been very cloudy recently cleared up wonderfully revealing a crystal clear sky and some impressive mountains with the glacier, the river of ice pouring down from them. This is also a very blue glacier, allegedly due to high levels of Nitrogen in it, so with the bright sun, the clear sky, the beautiful mountains and a bloody great blue chunk of ice it made for a spectacular view. Making it well worth the travelling, despite spending something in the region of thirteen hours in a bus to spend two hours on-site.

After another day of taking things easy, when the weather was pretty poor again and recovering from excessive travelling I then took a boat trip with Navimag. It is a cargo shipping company that also takes passengers on its boats as it cruises through the Chilean fjords.

The boat is not particularly luxurious, having a number of cabins and a simple reception area, which is also the canteen at meal times. In this area films and documentaries are shown and lectures about Chile, it’s geography, people and points of interest are given in Spanish and English. The lectures were generally very interesting, the films and documentaries varied. The main purpose in undertaking the voyage however was to get a look at scenery and marine wildlife. On a previous voyage apparently one person spotted blue whale, sail whale, humpback whale, southern right whale and Orcas, in my opinion he was either incredibly lucky or more likely lying. Unfortunately we saw no whales.

The scenery one passes through along the channels in the Patagonian fjords is lovely, although the weather needs to co-operate in order to get good views, something it didn’t do too much of the time. At times the weather on the Port side was overcast and grey, with very limited visibility, whilst to Starboard it would be much less cloudy, with bright sunshine. There are attractive glaciers and mountains rising from the water and a wide range of birds to keep the ornithologists happy. Pretty much every one appreciated the seals, dolphins and penguins. We didn’t appreciate the cold and wet weather though, particularly when we reached the Golfo de Penas. This is a gulf reputed for its stormy seas, when we approached it Phillipe the guide gave us all a talk explaining the weather conditions ahead. It went something  along these lines. "Wind coming from the west [not a good direction, for us] at gale force eleven, fog, low clouds, rain, sea conditions bad, with large waves. In summary, very stormy." We entered the gulf at about dinner time. For the only time on the voyage the food was not good at all, giving several people upset stomachs before the storm even
started. Then this great big boat started lurching about going almost airborne as it left the crest of one wave, crashing several metres to the water below only to lurch back up the following wave. This coupled with the dodgy dinner meant that it wasn’t long before people were spilling their guts all over the place. When I popped downstairs to my cabin, the American couple I was sharing it with were looking like death, lying in bed with the fowl aroma of vomit hanging in the air. I made a sharp exit and sought refuge in the reception area as it was the one place people weren’t ´crying
Ruth´, even the outside wasn’t safe as one guy got completely covered by someone chucking over the railing above. Thankfully he was wearing waterproofs, but still not a nice thing to happen. I finally went back downstairs at about two in the morning, the theory being that everyone would either be asleep or dead by then and the aromas would have cleared, which turned out to be correct. The following morning over breakfast, most of the passengers were comparing stories of how ill and close to death they had felt, but there had actually been no fatalities although to hear people you
would have thought it was a miracle anyone survived.

The last day was a bit clearer and as we were now back in the channels the waves were generally unnoticeable. We arrived in Puerto Montt early the following morning and disembarked after breakfast. The boat trip was pleasant although not fantastic, although I met some really nice people as a result, to get the best from it, it is weather dependent and the weather in those parts is not dependable.

After disembarking I headed to Pucon with Iris and Lennert, a Dutch couple I had met on the boat as this is the closest town to Villareca volcano. The volcano is snow-capped and active, with a constant stream of sulphurous smoke emanating from its caldera. It makes quite a spectacle on the horizon and although the three of us had previously agreed none of us had the intention of climbing the thing within a couple of hours we were booked to climb it early the next morning.

Up early the next day to the office to get kitted up for the climb which would involve icy ascents, necessitating crampons and ice axes, as well as warm, wind and waterproof clothing. We headed out to the foot of the volcano which is 2,840 metres high. At this height it would only be classified as a small mountain, if it weren’t for the snow and ice which gives it high mountain classification. The first bit we used the ski lift that was thankfully in operation and then began the ascent, up steep switchbacks in the snow. We stopped at one point to have bite to eat and put on out crampons (spiky bits that attach to the boots). Typically I had been supplied with crampons that were old enough and consisted of enough leather straps that it was quite possible Torquemada would have rejected them as being a bit too nasty. Everyone else’s crampons took a couple of minutes to fit, mine involved three people (myself getting a cold arse sat on the snow, a Swiss bloke in the group and Joaquin the guide) and still took more than half an hour to get on. It was then we started the tougher bit of the climb. Anyone who has climbed in crampons will know that it makes walking more laborious as one has added weight on ones feet and also that the technique when walking with them is to do a combination kick / stamp for each step. In addition to this, the snow was quite loose at points making it necessary to use the ice axe to stop oneself sliding down the mountainside. After about four hours we finally reached the top, hoping to be able to see the lava bubbling at the bottom of the crater (as we had been told we might well be able), to find that apart from being extremely cold and windy, (which it had been for the most of the ascent, only on the peak it was more so) one couldn’t see much of interest in the caldera, firstly because the sulphurous plumes of smoke obscuring one’s vision and secondly because nothing was bubbling away at the bottom. After quite a bit of work getting up there, it was quite a let down. Even the views had been better at other points on the ascent than they were at the top. Some of the views had been lovely and I also found some of the windswept ice formations quite attractive as well.

As we began to descend, one of my crampons came off so I put it in my bag, walking down in a somewhat lopsided manner. After just a short descent, we then tobogganed a fair way. This was done without a toboggan, simply by sliding down on our bums with faith in the waterproof trousers. The idea was to keep ones feet in the air (to avoid the crampons catching in the ice and spinning one head over heel) using the ice axe as a brake. Having watched several people speed off before me I started my slide keeping my feet crossed (I only had one crampon on, so I kept the crampon less foot on the bottom). I thought this would be a good method of descent, if only I had known how good. Within maybe twenty metres I was going extremely fast and when I tried to use the ice axe as a brake the abruptness of its contact with the ice snatched it from my hands. Now I was gaining speed without a brake, overtaking people who had left before me including the Swiss bloke that left at least five minutes earlier. I managed to steer by twisting my body in the desired direction whilst keeping my balance by spreading out my elbows to use them as stabilisers. When I felt myself going over some smallish rocks I decided it was about time I stopped, which I managed by sticking my elbows down and slowly pushing my heels into the snow. Miraculously I came to a safe halt without any somersaults, but with a lot of snow on and in my clothing, luckily I had been wearing gaiters so at least inside my trousers was dry. It was actually good fun, although neither particularly safe or warm. After Joaquin had recovered my ice axe on his walking descent, he spent another half hour with the Swiss bloke putting the detached crampon back on, only for it to come off again within three minutes. There was another toboggan bit, which I did manage to control properly this time and then more trudging until we finally reached the minibus that was to take us back. I was thankful to take off the boots and much of the clothing I had been wearing as the boots they had supplied me with didn’t fit properly so my feet were not feeling great and most of the rest of the clothing was designed with practicality taking precedence over comfort. Back in Pucon I had several bits to do, including a much needed shower before getting on a night bus to Santiago, on which I fell asleep within minutes, only being woken by the attendant with a small breakfast as we approached our destination.

In Santiago I met Sabrina, who I had previously met in Prague in January whom I was to stay with whenever I was in Santiago. I had a wander around and saw some of the nice old colonial architecture including the government buildings, Cathedral and various plazas. The pre-Columbian art museum in Santiago has some excellent exhibits with quite of lot of items I would like to steal, so if anyone has the time and inclination I’ll supply them with a brick and a list. Just over from Sabrina and Karen’s (Sabrina’s sister) flat is Santa Lucia a small hill with some old colonial buildings including a little fort with a viewpoint that gives good views across the city. From there one can see the Andes, although slightly hazy due to Santiago’s smog.

That evening we went to her family for Seder Pesach, a Jewish festival which was very nice as her family were all very hospitable and tolerant of my Spanish.

Next day Yasna and Francisca a couple of mutual friends whom I had also met in Prague showed me around more of Santiago and then Yasna drove us into the mountains near Santiago which was nice. After that we all went to a friend’s birthday party, where I couldn’t drink due to religious constraints, but met some interesting people.

From Santiago I flew to Calama, in order to get to San Pedro de Atacama, in the north of Chile. In the few days I had in San Pedro I had quite a busy schedule as there was quite a bit I wanted to see. On my first day I took a trip to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the moon). This included visits also the valley of death (where not so much as a blade of grass or a cactus grows, hence the name), the Three Marias (rock formations that kind of look like three women praying) some nice salt and rock formations and then for sunset climbed a large sand dune to watch the valley change colour.

Next day I went to the Geysers at Tatio. These geysers are supposedly the highest in the world being at over four thousand metres above sea level. Unfortunately they are most dramatic at dawn, so being a couple of hours from San Pedro it meant a four o’clock start to go see them. They were very nice and the mineral formations around them is also very nice in places. Some were just bubbling water, some just dark holes, some gushing steam and a few real fountains of super heated water with the associated steam and spray. In the small plateau where the geysers are there were several dozen gushers of different sizes, giving an impressive vista. On the return journey we saw Llama and Alpacas, foxes and falcons.

On my last day in San Pedro I took a trip to the Altiplano lakes and the Salar. The Salar is the worlds second largest salt flat, with some interesting salt formations and a couple of small lakes where flamingos fish for tiny shrimp. From there we went through several picturesque little pueblos. Before getting to the Altiplano lakes. These lakes are at over four thousand metres and have nice mountains and volcanoes surrounding them, giving some lovely views.

My time done for the north, I headed back to Santiago the next morning for just one night. The next day I was back at the airport to fly to Easter Island (Isla de Pascua or Rapa Nui, whichever is your preference). At the airport I met up with Max and Marco, the Swiss guys who I had met on the ascent of Villareca volcano, and Helene, a Dutch woman who had been on the Navimag boat. We all caught up on things gone by and waited to board the plane. Then there was a slight delay, followed by another, followed by the plane we were to use being removed and replaced by another. All this meant we were four hours late, so we would be arriving on Easter Island at around midnight local time (Easter Island is two hours behind Santiago time). After an uninteresting five hour flight we circled the island for half an hour before landing. A theory was that the circling bit was to wake up the locals to give them time to get to the airport to tout for business. Max, Marco and I negotiated with several hoteliers before finding an sufficiently cheap one. In the airport once people were met by the hotel staff they were given flower garlands, like those in the Hawaiian films. One could tell the price being paid by the quality of the garland. Some of them had beautiful flowers and wooden and shell beads, ours were some pleasant although beginning to wilt flowers strung together with fishing line.

Easter Island (which is part of Chile) is the most isolated population centre in the world. It is three thousand seven hundred kilometres from Santiago and four thousand kilometres from Tahiti. The closest other population centre is Pitcairn island where about half a dozen people are living. The Rapa Nui people, culture and language are Polynesian, with more in common with Tahitian, Hawaiian or New Zealanders than Chile. The island was formed by three volcanoes and their merging in a triangle. At only one hundred and eighty square kilometres it is very small, yet culturally quite rich. Easter Island is home to the Moai, statues of various sizes carved from the local volcanoes, some adorned with red topknots (hairpieces) from the other local volcano. These statues are both a representation of esteemed ancestors and of Maki-Maki, their high god. These Moai became more stylised and larger over time. Whereas one of the earliest found is only a little over two metres high and shows a kneeling person, they later became much taller (some as much as  twenty metres tall or more) and more stylised with very erect posture with a paunch and stern heavy brows over a pursed mouth. Some had the red top-knot added which shows the hairstyle of the
aristocracy, which looks more like a hat. However after producing these things for centuries and placing them all around the island, there was a rebellion of sorts when all the Moai were pulled down and as a result many of them broke in the process. Archaeological teams have re-erected many of them, although most are still fallen and broken. The current estimate is that around a thousand of these monoliths were made, carved straight from the side of the volcano and dragged across the island and erected on a platform known as an Ahu. Some of the Ahu’s that are still intact show good workmanship as huge blocks were fitted together, similarly to the Mayan constructions. There are also petroglyphs (rock carvings) to be found on some of the Ahus and in other spots.

So, on our first real day on the island Max, Marco and I walked about, saw some Moai in and near Hanga Roa (the only town on the island) as well as finding out about guides or hire cars. Finally in one shop we were offered a good deal to rent the peoples car, and managed to get them to give us the first afternoon free. So we headed up to the Orongo volcano, which is one of the highest points on the island. It is also there that some of the old style buildings have been restored and rebuilt. Once at the top of the volcano, one gets a feeling for how small the island really is, as one can
see the ocean all around it. There are also some nice petroglyphs there and the volcano crater, which is rather large, now has a lake in it with banks of reeds that make it rather picturesque.

On the way down from the volcano we gave Lauren and David, a couple of Canadians a lift down. We all went to a couple more Ahus, one at the end of the very long runway (the runway was built by the Americans as a standby runway for the Space Shuttle to land on if it needs to land in the Pacific. Due to this it is one of the worlds longest runways and goes from one shore to the other). As we were checking out the fallen Moai at this site, we noticed that the sky was turning blood red on the other side of the island, so we attempted to get across the island in order to see the sunset in all its splendour, unfortunately though by the time we got to the coast the colour had gone and the sun was just disappearing over the horizon. It had been a really spectacular sunset.

Next day the Canadians joined us as we explored the island some more and saw some good Ahus and Moai. We decided to try and drive across the northern corner of the island, past a couple of volcanoes. The first part went well, although the volcanoes were not very dramatic and there was nothing of historical interest around. Then we managed to hit a rock that tore though the brake line (no I wasn’t driving) and we got stuck for a while. After half an hour we got ourselves back on the track, but had no brakes. We managed though to get back to Hanga Roa safely, where we had a temporary repair done. At one point on the beach at Anakena, where there are several standing Moai with topknots, a Tahitian school group gave us a Polynesian dance demonstration (cheaper than the ones they do at the hotels). These kids had come on a school trip from Tahiti, when I was at school we were lucky to go to Bath, little jammy buggers. The sunset that night was not as dramatic as the previous nights, although it was nice. The next couple of nights we waited for a sunset like the first nights to no avail.

Next morning we went very early in order to see the sunrise behind the island which was nice and also meant that as we went around the other sites we were almost totally alone (not that there were so many tourists on the island, but it would still be annoying to bet there when one of the guided groups arrived getting in the way of photos etc.). We went to the quarry where the Moai were carved, two of which were never finished and are still embedded in the cliff. In this area the side of the volcano is littered with the statues, mostly in a good state. They are also on the inside slope of the volcano where they face another small reedy lake. By the end of the day we had seen almost every Ahu on the island and the associated Moai and were happy to have had such a complete tour, despite not having had a guide.

Next day we had a more relaxing day and did a couple of dives which were pleasant, where I saw puffer fish, moray eels, lots of trumpet fish and various other marine fauna, including a massive single coral. Next morning we got a plane back to Santiago.

Once again I stayed with Sabrina and the next day Yasna, Sabrina and I went to Valparaiso, the port city a couple of hours from Santiago. The city is set on steep hills facing the bay and is quite picturesque. We visited Pablo Naruda’s house (Chile’s most famous poet and a Nobel laureate) and generally wandered around the town.

The day after that I flew back home via Buenos Aires and Paris on uneventful flights, bringing this chapter of my travels to a close.

To try and pre-empt many of the questions I have already received and am bound to receive more of. I don’t as yet know whether I am going to go off travelling again imminently or not, or if I do go, where. I am not sure about what work I want to do either. At the moment I am more concerned with just getting several things sorted out, including my web-site which I intend to update in the next couple of weeks.



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