Edge of Empire

It’s fair to say that whilst the Wandering Wainwrights did come home last July quite glad that they could stay put for a bit, it’s turned out they’ve felt just a teeny bit confined to base this year. Imagine their delight, then, at hearing that their plan to walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall by way of a summer outing had been sanctioned by the authorities. Let’s hear how that went, shall we? 

Newcastle, a Friday night in August. We’ve rendezvoued with lifelong friends Mr and Mrs Derbyshire, braved the Metro out to Wallsend, whose station boasts smart signage in Latin; we’ve taken the obligatory photo with the metal centurion statue, and hiked the 7 km back into the city. It’s a balmy night, and we’re enjoying pre-dinner drinks outside and watching the world go by.  A group of pink mini-skirted ladies tumble out of Wetherspoons dressed for a hen do: the leader proudly wears her banner, “No longer a Mrs”. Day progresses to evening and the heels get higher and the skirts get shorter. We’re kitted out for hiking – Mr Derbyshire is carrying a rucksack which is worthy of a minor emergency in the Lake District, while Mrs Derbyshire is wearing a waterproof map case; we’re sweaty and disheveled, and we start to feel underdressed – but that word is redefined by the next young lady to totter past us, as her minidress has a front and a back, but no sides. 

Saturday’s walk begins with a visit to the actual castle of Newcastle, from where you have a splendid view of this wonderfully solid and architecturally splendid city. The golden stone and warm red brick of yesteryear are punctuated by bursts of modern metal and glass, all striving skywards, with the glittering ribbon of the Tyne at their feet. Following the river westwards, we marvel at the succession of bridges – the graceful white arc of the pedestrian Millenium bridge; the 5000 tons of iron that make up the engineering triumph of Stephenson’s High Level bridge towering above the ancient low, flat swing bridge, sitting on its artificial island in the middle of the river; the airy metal metro bridge popping in and out of its tunnels; the strangely floaty concrete Redheugh road bridge; the King Edward VII railway bridge that provides the traveller with a marvellous view on arrival into Newcastle’s glorious station; and of course the iconic New Tyne bridge, sister to the Sydney Harbour bridge. By late afternoon we’ve left the city 20 km behind, having learned much about the industrial history from the information boards along the way, and feel that we deserve our drinks in a pub garden looking over a broad sweep of Northumberland as we await collection from our obliging b&b host. 

Before the walking begins in earnest we make a brief visit to the railway-side cottage where George Stephenson spent his illiterate childhood watching horses haul coal wagons to the city, and began to dream of better ways of propelling carts. He paid for night school education whilst working his apprenticeship in the pit; learned to make shoes and mend clocks; invented a miner’s safety lamp known as the Geordie lamp and from which the townspeople take their soubriquet; designed his locomotives, and fathered and educated Robert, of bridge, tunnel and locomotive fame. The day’s walk takes us through glorious countryside with a few glimpses of sections of Roman wall to give us a taste of what is to come, to Corbridge, where the Roman town ruins and museum of treasures impress and educate. The next two days take us through increasingly wilder, higher and spacious landscapes, with the wall now our constant companion. We’ve surveyed breathtaking views from a succession of milecastles and turrets, and marvelled at temples. We’ve learned to recognise where the wall still runs buried beneath pastureland, and can pick out where the fortified ditch ran to the north, and the line of the Vallum, the perplexing huge earthwork that ran along the south side of the wall, possibly acting as a demilitarized zone. 

By Wednesday we’ve clocked up 100 km, and it’s officially our rest day: we’d thought of using the bus to get back to Housesteads, but the day dawns bright and clear, and the views are too enticing, so we decide on walking. It’s only three miles, which would normally take an hour, but that doesn’t account for the uphill stretches or the need to take a photo every five minutes. Happily, there’s also a slightly easier, flatter route – the Military Way – and on that we make a dash for our allocated time slot into Housesteads. This beautifully well-preserved structure perches high on the edge of the escarpment and gives you scope to imagine the lives of soldiers and civilians living in and below the fort. We particularly liked the granaries, with their raised floors, with spaces for dogs to get in and chase the rats. Pleasingly, my phone, in its efforts to label every picture with its location, has decided to label today’s collection ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’. 

The hike from Housesteads to Vindolanda is especially charming, the land rising and falling in waves away to the south, as if shaken out like a giant bedspread. Vindolanda is an archaeological work in progress, with new finds every year changing the way Roman life in Britain is understood. Significant finds include a huge number of shoes, including many leather children’s and women’s shoes, some intricately carved into decorative patterns and with complex studded sole designs. Bead necklaces, hairnets and a midge-repelling wig made of moss are some of the more extraordinary items pulled from the anaerobic mud, but it is the Vindolanda writing tablets that really overturned the understanding of the society of the time. These wafer thin, postcard-sized wooden fragments bear witness to the day-to-day concerns of military personnel and their families: a birthday party invitation, a gripe about a colleague, a request for supplies of grain, and information from someone’s mum about a consignment of socks and underpants. From the collection of tiny treasures I’m particularly taken by the soldier’s ring inscribed ‘mum and dad’.

Our day off thus turns out to have covered 17 km and to have been particularly exhausting, but nonetheless the next day we’re sprinting back up to the Wall immediately after breakfast, ready for the challenge of a crazily undulating section of the wall. The morning mist hasn’t lifted yet, and all of yesterday’s glorious views are obscured in white. A lone figure appears out of the mist, clutching half a toothbrush. Dexter was supposed to be setting off on the Pacific Coast Trail, and had packed in his job and bought the kit for a five-month trek. With his plans cancelled he’s consoling himself by covering the Pennine Way in 13 days. Travelling fast and light, he’s wearing his only set of clothes and carrying nothing but sleeping bag, tarp, and food. His rucksack is smaller than Mr Derbyshire’s day pack. 

This central section of the Wall, hugging the great igneous Whin Sill that extends out to Bamburgh Castle, is the iconic, photogenic part, and these are glorious miles to hike. But coming down from the tops, much more archaeology awaits. Mile castles, turret towers, bridge abutments that now sit in fields, the river having jumped its course, and the fort at Birdoswald – a Victorian homestead so beloved by its archaeology-obsessed owner that he named his son after it. Sadly the ungrateful Oswald sold his father’s collection of archaeological Roman artefacts, but the remains of the fort are still there, with evidence of a soldiers’ training ground.  Milecastles were built exactly to plan every thousand paces, even if that meant building on a 45 degree slope immediately to the east of a piece of completely flat land. They are formulaic in layout and have a gate facing North, South, East and West even if the topography renders them completely unusable. We pass a signal tower that pre-dates the Wall. It’s built at 45 degrees to the line of the Wall and I can imagine the Roman centurion in charge of the building getting to that point and experiencing the same quiet despair I feel about the many and various apostrophe crimes on the sign boards. 

On a detour into Gelt Woods we see a curious riven sandstone pavement, and a sandstone gully carved with the names of Victorian visitors. Rejoining the Wall path we meet cheerful old John, raking leaves. He leans on his rake and tells us how the house has been in his son-in-law’s family for generations, the extension built re-using stones from a collapsed barn. Since much of the Wall was cannibalised for building material, it’s likely these stones originated there. Outside the house is a Roman-carved upright stone serving as a money box holder for the honesty box drinks and ice cream stall run by his grandson for years. His face fills with pride as he tells us how much money his grandson raised for the NHS with this, and an end-to-end single run of Hadrian’s Wall; but then his bright blue eyes cloud as he tells us the motivation for the fundraising – his granddaughter’s successive bouts of cancer. He talks about his flowers, tells us of his career as an inspector with Rolls Royce, and how he lost his index finger cleaning his motorcycle as a young man. 

Now we’re heading out, downhill through rolling Cumbrian fields, with broad, sweeping views across to Helvellyn and Blencathra on our left, and the giant wind turbines in the Solway Firth and the Grampian mountains to our right. It’s a big day and we’re wondering if we’ll actually make it to Carlisle, so when we stop for coffee in the village hall in Walton we investigate possible public transport links. The village turns out to have a bus once a week on Tuesdays, but the bus shelter fulfils a more useful role as a marvellous book exchange. Our route in through suburban Carlisle was enlivened by cocktails at a newly opened spa, which probably hadn’t visualised Wall walkers as its target market. The smartly-tuniced spa girl asked us had we walked far. “From Newcastle”. She looked bewildered for a moment as she considered where Newcastle was, then asked, “What time did you set off?”  “Last Friday.”  

The final days take us out of Carlisle along the river banks through overgrowths of Indian Balsam, and out into increasingly flat countryside. A minor diversion off-route leads us through some moss wetland (which is either an SSSI or a midge-infested bog, depending on your viewpoint), with waterlilies, heather and bulrushes as well as a great deal of moss, and squelch our way out of that towards the Solway Firth where we spot egrets, herons, oystercatchers, and a short-eared owl hunting. We don’t know what the brown birds are, but I spy a man in a van, and the fact that his van contains a stove with a chimney out through the roof leads me to believe he spends long days bird spotting, so I amble over to seek bird-identification tips. “I’ve no idea,” he says, “I’m a builder.” His name is Tim, and he lives in his van, going from job to job. “I used to work the ski seasons, and you know, all over, but then I thought it was time to settle down.” When he wants a shower he puts a tank of water on the roof and hopes for some sun to warm it up. 

It’s been a long time since we said goodbye to the last of the intact sections of Wall that were so prevalent earlier, but the evidence for its existence is written into the 18th century architecture: enormous country houses, row cottages, and simple farm barns, all made from stones gathered from the Wall. Some bear witness to the past with inscriptions written by Roman soldiers. Then, suddenly, our ten day voyage through history, culture, regional accents, friendship and landscape is at its end. We’ve managed 127 miles on a path of 84 miles, we’ve had the wind consistently at our backs, we’ve only been rained on twice, and we’re all still talking to each other. But we never did get to find out what Mr Derbyshire had in his rucksack. 

Hablar (vb): to talk, to speak

Hablamos: we talk

Nearly seven months after landing back in the UK Andy and I still talk about our trip every day. We’re immensely proud of ourselves for having had the bravery and resourcefulness to even set off, and very pleased that we had developed a reasonable ability to communicate in Spanish. At some point during our stay in Peru we had transitioned from effortful translation into just understanding. So, although I felt that I had very much got travelling out of my system for the time being, in November Andy anticipated the toll five months of solid British gloom would have and booked us a week in Nerja, Andalucia, and so I’m saying goodbye to my Science classroom and we’re heading off to the language classroom.

No estaban hablando : they weren’t talking

We flew at the tail end of Storm Dennis on what could be described as a Very Bad Day for Heathrow. Trying to work their way through the previous day’s cancellations, beset with difficulties. As we queued in a melée for bag drop – normally a swift and efficient process – it became apparent that the baggage carousels weren’t working. We were eventually asked to take our bags through to first class. We wondered why those were working – perhaps in first class the bags are carried by little men in white gloves instead of trundling down a belt? We also discovered that travelling first class means you can help yourself to a free apple after checking in. Why? Through to security – more queues: the barcode scanners have gone down. Into the concourse… and a steadily increasing crowd staring hopefully at the display boards – but the information is hours old: the boards aren’t updating. Periodically an entire family charges past at top speed, tugging bags frantically through the stationary crowd. We choose a departure gate more or less at random to get out of the way, and hunker down for what turns out to be a four-hour wait. Memories of our quality three-day family holiday at Gatwick Airport one snowy Christmas of yesteryear inspire us to chat with the kids while we wait: it occurs to them to look at our flight info on the internet and thus we discover that our flight is boarding: the Heathrow PA system has also gone down. Still, Heathrow even at its worst is a fabulous example of multi-cultural Britain, with every member of staff we encountered smiling and in command of their role.

Hablad: talk, you lot!

On day one I’m seated next to Hugh, a twinkly-eyed silver fox, and language class begins with ice breaker ‘introduce yourself’ conversations. The trouble with this is that until your brain powers up you only have access to the limited vocabulary that chooses to rise to the surface. This results in personal revelations that you wouldn’t necessarily choose as your starting place with a total stranger:
Hugh: I’m divorced but I have a girlfriend!
Me: My favourite hobby is drinking gin and tonic.

Happily, coffee breaks and beachside paella lunches facilitate some more normal getting-to-know-you conversations: and in class our language skills come on swiftly, so that by the last day we’re constructing a ‘hotel complaints desk’ role play that we’ve turned into a Fawlty Towers hommage (“What did you expect? A herd of wildebeest? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon?) which is almost certainly lost on the highly serious German and French class members, but we are finding ourselves very entertaining.

Están hablando : they are talking

Nerja has for many years maintained a seasonal population of grey-haired people escaping the grey skies of England, and the background chatter in the cafés and restaurants reminds me of Alistair McGowan doing his ‘tour of Britain’ accents. It seems ironic that we’ve come here specifically to learn Spanish whilst so many who have come to live here refuse to attempt to do so. I wonder whether the people who complain about immigration into the UK ever think about the impact a population of healthcare-consuming cerveza-swigging retirees might have on a country. There’s also a rather classier winter-resident population from Sweden, so much so that corner shops stock FinnCrisp alongside pasta and tomato sauce. Southern Spain is slowly waking up to the idea that a diet of meat and fried things might not be the best, but I suspect they are still bewildered by the existence of rye bread.

Hablarémos: we will talk

Nerja has a monument to the European Union formed from 16 blocks of stone fetched from each of the (then) member nations, commemorating Spain’s entry into the EU and symbolising the unity of Western nations. It’s simple, beautiful, and poignant: the block labelled ‘England’ sits firmly attached near the bottom of the column. I want to shout “Stay where you are! Hold on!” at the rock. I realise that one of the motives behind my ongoing Spanish study is a tiny one-woman protest against Brexity isolationism: I want to declare, even if only to myself, my broader allegiance to the wider world.

Hablábamos: we were talking

Hugh drives us up the hill behind Nerja to show us the old mill complex he bought/ inherited from his parents: he’s taken stewardship of this group of buildings and is working to finish the job of rescuing them from dereliction. Having not felt especially inspired by Nerja itself, we’re both entranced by the views from this height; the steep hillside studded with olive trees and skyward-pointing cypresses; gleaming white-washed houses splashed with geraniums, harmoniously topped with uniform terracotta tiled roofs, draped with bougainvillea and flanked by lemon trees; in the distance, the sparkling sea stretching out towards Africa, and behind you, the Sierra. Hugh’s retirement project would have been a worthy subject for a Channel 4 programme, and his love for the place is infectious. He shepherds us gently further up the hillside to Frigiliana, a quaint narrow-streeted town, where we eat award-winning tapas and discuss (inevitably) potential consequences of Brexit – without the concession afforded to EU citizens of offsetting property expenses against tax, Hugh can’t see how he can balance his books. He offers an educated viewpoint that Brexit will leave us poorer, but less complacent, which might be a good thing.

Reach for the Stars

It is now five months since we landed back into Heathrow and plunged ourselves headlong back into first-world life. Reintegration has, apparently, provided more challenges than travelling in the developing world ever did. We have experienced huge cognitive overload and a general sense of bafflement that has lasted for months. Missionary friends commiserated, assuring me that standing in front of the chiller cabinet in Waitrose and saying out loud in a helpless voice, “Why is there so much cheese?” is, in fact, quite normal.

Having travelled for eleven months with a steadily decreasing ‘capsule wardrobe’ (rags, essentially, by the end) in my 60 litre backpack, I’d been looking forward to shopping for new clothes as well as being reunited with existing favourites. However, in reality I was taken aback by my visceral reaction to what now seems a vast store of unnecessary belongings, and found the choices overwhelming. In an attempt to lessen the daily cognitive demands, I followed some useful advice and packed away almost everything; thus I went to work in the same trousers every day for six weeks. Nobody seemed to either notice or care. I still question the role of possessions in my life, and it is with some reluctance that I manage to have a viewpoint on what I might actually look like when I leave the house.

The joy – and relief – of being reunited with family and friends was tremendous. Eleven months was a long time indeed to be apart from our children, and it was a surprise to discover that they do not, after all, have the enormous noses that feature in a WhatsApp video call. The summer was a magical time of rediscovery and reconnection, but also an inevitable reinstatement of responsibilities towards the wider family. We’ve celebrated my parents’ diamond wedding anniversary, holding onto the belief that my mother knew why we were there. Carpe Diem had been a major motivation to take our trip, and remains a strong theme in making sure we use our time meaningfully now.

Returning to work meant learning to move and think with a decisive swiftness we hadn’t needed in a year. On day 1 I sat in front of a computer screen, certain that somewhere inside it would be all the vital information I needed to accomplish my job, but unable to recall how to even switch the thing on. It didn’t help that over the summer a Windows upgrade to Baffling 3.0 had been performed, so nobody was able to find any of their existing files; plus a photocopier reboot of such fiendish complexity that colleagues gathered despairingly round the machines wailing “I just don’t know what you want from me”, swiping cards and jabbing wildly at an incomprehensible touch screen. Four months on you can still be certain that if you hear somebody bellowing “What have you done that for? I didn’t ask you to do that!”, the ire will be directed at a photocopier, not a child.

We did, of course, hope that the whole sorry mess of UK politics would have resolved into something resembling a plan in our absence. Travelling through countries where political and police corruption are rife has given us a gratitude for the stability that does exist here; but having witnessed the widespread effects of Venezuela’s economic collapse prevents us from holding to a naive first-world belief that It Will Be Alright. Once I’d regained my ability to function within the walls of a supermarket I set about stockpiling against the possibility of a Brexity food-supply disaster. The nonsense has now been going on for so long that I may never need to shop for rice again.

At this point, if you’ve not come across the excellent poem A Martian Sends A Postcard Home by Craig Raine, you might want to go and look that up before reading my infinitely less worthy pre-Christmas offering, expressing a small portion of my musings on a baffling season in a baffling first world.

A Tesco is a room for plastic and food, where the people must collect more than they can carry, to fill the creatures that lurk outside their homes, lids flapping greedily.

Shops is when the people who already have too many things choose more, and those without enough sit in doorways.

Traffic is a place to go slowly, and work is a place to go fast. Both of these cause the people to complain.

Christmas is a two-thousand-year old baby who loves tinsel, lights and jumpers, but decrees that turkeys and trees must die. Since he cannot eat, the people must eat double.

Phones and keys are for carrying everywhere, so the people do not forget their busyness, their treasures locked away. But sometimes, when their hands are empty, they embrace each other, and discover that their hearts are full.

After months of feeling like a fish out of water, it’s the pre-Christmas events – things that make no sense in themselves – that have somehow served to connect me back to a sense of belonging into my workplace and community. Come with me first of all to our large, historic and beautiful parish church, where parents, staff and hangers-on have gathered for the annual school Carol Service. A nervous year 7 boy bravely tackles the obligatory solo first verse to Once In Royal David’s City, while the choir shuffle in, holding plastic LED candles at jaunty angles and assemble untidily at the front. Mothers all along the length of the church wish they’d made their child clean their shoes. It’s nine lessons and carols, with readings allocated to staff and students, and I’m overjoyed to be reading number 8. The initial formality dissipates as the congregation decide to clap the lower school choir item, performed by some as if their lives depend upon it and by others as if they’ve never seen it before. The congregation is in fine voice, with a soaring descant from the upper school students providing a convincing Sing, Choir of Angels. Big Dan, who’s worked at the school for 27 years and has recently discovered that he’s accidentally become the headmaster, stands at the front to read the final scripture of the night, remembering that his mum told him not to put his hands in his pockets. In the beginning was the word. Let’s all go and have a mince pie.

Follow me now to the school hall on a Friday night, gamely demonstrating that a bit of tinsel and a couple of inflatable reindeer can make a party venue out of anywhere. It’s early, the room is freezing, and everyone’s huddled in their coats eating pizza, but the disco DJ is persevering and soon a few people get up to dance. It’s tentative, but then Jared the caretaker takes to the floor with a persuasive siroc (who knew?), exhausting one partner after another and attracting an appreciative audience. Everybody gets a rest while Big Dan and his long-standing trusty sidekick Pete from Humanities hand out the staff awards of the year: we’re a big staff team, it’s hard to get to know everybody, but laughing each other’s foibles, stupidity or plain bad luck seems as good a bonding exercise as any. The DJ pitches his next segment well: the Macarena and YMCA are performed with gusto, and S Club never fails to please; Jared progresses from siroc to a spirited, space-filling solo; but the evening truly comes alive with 130 mildly tipsy teachers jumping up and down with their arms in the air, bellowing “open up my eager eyes, I’m Mr Brightside”. Sweet Child of Mine inspires a wild air guitar ensemble performance from Beardy Jack the head of year 7, Steve the science coordinator, and Martin who runs the D of E. Martin’s wife has just given birth to their second baby, and he knows he’s not going to see a night out again for a while, so he’s giving it his all – but Jared is down on his knees flanked by Susie the lab technician, leaning over backwards to commit fully to their imaginary guitars, and the crowd go wild. Eleven o’clock arrives, and that’s pumpkin time for teachers (well, we can’t afford to annoy the neighbours; they already have to put up with a lot after all). The DJ’s final selection is Angels, which by some unspoken agreement is designated Whole Staff Hokey Cokey, which goes so well that a shout of “One more song” is rewarded by The Pogues, thus the evening concludes with a spectacularly disorganised ceilidh.

Britain (along with much if the planet, really) might be a complex and upsetting disaster on the macro-scale, but look closer: the kids are great, people are fun, and nothing unites a disparate group like exhorting one another to reach for the stars and follow your rainbow.

Season’s Greetings: may peace and love surround you.

Turn Around, Bright Eyes

Did we mention we saw a total eclipse of the sun? We’ve talked about it to everyone we’ve met, had our photos published on an astronomy website, and my blog post has been widely read via a Facebook group I encountered. As a consequence Bonnie Tyler has stayed with me, I’m taking her classic lyrics as blogging inspiration.

Once upon a time I was falling in love

Iguassu is at the northernmost tip of Argentina, bordering both Paraguay and Brazil, and is the location of the most extraordinary set of waterfalls. This was the obvious destination for the four-day weekend created by Argentinian Independence Day. You could imagine the Waterfall Design Working Party, having completed several successful projects together:

~I really like clean, simple, minimalist. You know – that long single drop, on its own over the rock, like Angel and Yosemite, that looked so cool.

~They were pretty, but I think it looks much better when you do a wide curtain of water, like Niagara. Curtain is much more impressive. The people will just love to drive boats into the spray. That’ll make them so happy.

~But if it just falls, straight, there’s not so much to look at; remember when we did Gullfoss, and we put two levels, and it drops one way then the other? I thought that worked out really well.

~Yeah, we made Niagara actually a bit boring, didn’t we?

~Well, remember when we did Victoria, we made that really huge river, super-flat, and got the waterfall bits all separated out and sunlit? That was really good.

~Me, I’m just all about the rainbows. I want the people to see rainbows in all different places, different times of day. I need the water to fall in every direction.

~Oh, so, I’ve got this fab idea, you know like Horseshoe, but tighter? – what if we make a U shape with the rock and get the water to crash together from two sides, inwards, that would be amazing! It would be so exciting to stand at the top!

~And at the bottom!

~Okay, so if we do that, we can do the curtain thing, and a bit of crazy thundering and a huge amount of spray, and we can put some levels in as well at the side.

~Don’t forget a few single full-length drops!

~We’ll need to use volcanic rock as the base, then, to get big chunks and square edges.

~Oh! Wait! I know – if we make the river really really wide and flat, what we can do is – let me draw it for you – take one side of the U shape, and extend it, maybe 2 kilometres, or a bit more, down the river…

~What? Make the cascades fall parallel to the river direction? Like it’s falling off sideways? I don’t think that’s been done before!

~It’ll be so pretty! And the people will be able to build walkways and platforms out over the water, to look over the edge.

~And halfway down the cliff, to look up.

~Can we go back to the rainbow idea? Bright colours work so well against the white spray. There’s something I’d like to try; if we make it so the river dries up quite a bit in summer, then we can get plants to take hold and grow on the rocks, and then it’ll be bright green as well as white in the cascades.

~Okay, so we need a big annual variation in water levels. Looks like we have a plan. Any more suggestions?

~A bit left-field, I know, but I’ve got a mate on the Rainforest Project, he says they’ve got some really cool animals planned. Can we hook up with them and get some monkeys and birds and stuff?

Now I’m only falling apart

So, we’re finally at the end of our trip. Apparently, yes, you can live with the contents of one rucksack for a year, but we look extremely scruffy, and there have been some casualties along the way. Madagascar was hard on my old faithful Derbyshire hiking boots, and I replaced them in New Zealand, handing the old ones on to a girl we met who had lost all her luggage, and Andy replaced a backpack that underwent a catastrophic fail, along with the chief casualty, his camera lens. Thank you, insurance. In Taricaya we lived in wellies, and meanwhile my shoes went mouldy and had to be thrown away. Sandals with socks is, according to the American teenagers we met, so on trend. My leather watch strap simply disintegrated in the Amazon damp, and the battery went flat anyway in sympathy. Several t shirts became cleaning rags in the Taricaya animal kitchen, and were later replaced with lovely Galápagos designs. Let’s gloss over the underwear situation. In Córdoba Andy’s been renovating a house, getting almost as much paint on himself as on the window frames, so those clothes have hit the bin, along with two pairs of shorts that had begun to resemble doilies. I gave away socks to a girl with cold feet in Ecuador, and my sweater to a lady on the street in Cusco, replaced it with fake alpaca from the market, and have now turned that into a winter bed for the outdoor guard dog in Córdoba. This gets Andy’s luggage down to 16kg and mine to 14kg, which includes a beautiful but hefty mahogany bowl that Andy made for me in Taricaya; surely everybody’s must-have travel item.

Every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by

It’s been an extraordinary year, obviously. We’ve seen the ice fields of Patagonia and the lava fields in Galápagos; the fjords of New Zealand and the high Andean plateau. We’ve held snakes, monkeys and parrots, helped train a puma, measured baby turtles, and hand fed a bear. We’ve swum with sealions and sharks; seen humpback whales migrating, penguins in their burrows, and elephants at their watering hole; climbed a 5000 metre volcano, waded through an Amazon swamp and an Ecuadorian river, kayaked in a Kiwi marine reserve and snorkelled on the reefs of Australia and Galápagos. We’ve got to know people from all across the globe – Japan, Korea, Belgium, Norway, Gibraltar, Guatemala. At times we’ve longed for our lives in the UK; the comfort, the ease, the cleanliness, the safety, the predictability. We’ve missed the simple pleasure of sharing a bottle of wine with friends, the reassurance of a longstanding colleague’s presence, and the humdrum details of other people’s joys and concerns. On our journey there have been many interesting people and places, many beautiful sights, but the most beautiful sights in our lives are our children’s faces, and we have much to look forward to with them as adult friends. So, Bonnie, thanks for your input, but we’re pretty sure that the best is yet to come.

Photo credits:

Eclipse time lapse, La Silla Observatory, Chile.

Iguazu Falls and Coatis, Rebecca

Hummingbird, Andy

Thanks for the ear worm, Bonnie

My initial elation on discovering that we were going to see a solar eclipse in Córdoba on 2 July with 99.98% of totality rapidly turned to dissatisfaction. How could we miss out on 0.02%? Happily, on Sunday we discovered that a tourist agency was running a tour: thus on Tuesday morning we find ourselves up long before dawn, heading into the city. The group assembles in the office downtown, wrapped in jackets, hats and scarves; it’s winter here, with clear, dry skies, near-zero morning temperatures and two hours of searing heat every afternoon. Our group includes a seasoned eclipse-observer who has, incredibly thoughtfully, had the presence of mind to order glasses for everyone from the USA, which his small daughter hands out with great solemnity; a determined old lady who has taken her grandchildren out of school for the day; a rather overexcited young tour guide; and a man with a huge camera bag and a worried expression. He tells me his name is Walter, he’s read everything he can on eclipse photography, and has three cameras with different settings, but he doesn’t know if he can do it right.

Our bus takes us up and over the Sierras, with views of mountains, cliffs, aged rock formations and a rather lovely perching grey and white eagle at a coffee stop, to La Poblacion, a picturesque spot popular with wealthy homeowners and hikers. This tiny mountain village has pulled out all the stops. On its sports field above the village, there’s a main stage with a live band in evening dress, dance troupes are performing, a big screen is displaying images of the sun filmed by a man standing on the roof. Stalls are selling ponchos, dream catchers, organic soap, wooden bowls. There’s balloons, and the police are jolly. One woman has made a vast dustbin-sized vat of locro, the Argentinian corn stew, heated over an open fire; the local breweries have barrels set up, and the local sweet-treats factory is selling alfajores and pastelitos from towering piles. It’s a beautiful spot, apparently designed specifically for eclipse-viewing – the Sierra mountains to our right, the sun in the north tracking leftwards through a clear, crisp Argentinian sky, to set eventually over the vast plain that meets the bottom of the cliff to our left.

I’m drawn, naturally, to the field set aside for the photographers, who need to set up and test their equipment ahead of time. I meet a family who’ve pulled their kids out of school and driven for six hours, equipped with welding goggles and optimism, hoping to pick up tips from experts. I meet the expert, who is able to settle the question of ‘where is the moon right now?’ with a couple of hours to go before the eclipse starts. (The answer is ahead of the sun, moving on almost the same trajectory, but a bit slower). I meet a man who’s made his own filter housing out of kitchen foil and metallic gift wrap, since he couldn’t buy one that fitted his massive lens. I meet a French family who’ve bought thick black glass and duct taped it inside a cardboard box: I learn that after six months of Spanish I can now only produce French one painful word at a time, and we all nearly cry laughing. I meet Ivan and Alan, who remind me pleasingly of the Big Bang Theory episode where Leonard and Wolowitz bounce lasers off the moon. They’ve brought their night telescope, which they’ve rigged with a home-made device two years in the making to track the sun’s movement, avoiding the need for readjustments. The sheer size of their telescope attracts a constant crowd, and they are gracious and enthusiastic in sharing knowledge and their amazing pictures from previous events. (Their Instagram feed @mateconestrellas includes a video of Saturn peeping out from behind the moon.)

The organizers had bought glasses for 1000 people, handed out along with stern instructions for safety, and sharing, since the crowd was more than 3000. Even with the glasses, you can’t look for more than a few seconds at a time. First contact at 4.30 nibbled a bite from the lower left edge of the sun, growing steadily over the next hour, the excitement mounting. The last tiny shred of orange sun seemed to linger forever – long after the countdown – and the crowd held its breath, wondering if there’d been a mistake. But then, suddenly, a brief, bright flash of the perfect diamond ring of ‘Baily’s beads’ as the last of the sunlight found its way between mountains on the moon, and – at last! – an abrupt shift in the quality of the light as the moon finally found its spot: totality. A huge gasp went up from the crowd, collectively stunned by the beauty of the corona revealed as the sunlight was blocked, and everyone tore off their glasses to see with the naked eye, ten million times less intense than the sun itself. At the centre, the blackest black; surrounding the moon’s disc, the corona flared bright white in all directions, the tendrils of plasma extending raggedly over a huge area, with a soft, gentle texture and a wispy edge.The sky, having dimmed imperceptibly over the previous hour, turned a deep sapphire, fading at the horizon over the distant plain through yellow and orange to red. A powerful emotion rippled through the audience (suddenly we’re an audience, not a crowd): a profound and strange humility, a sense of gratitude and privilege; the peculiar kind of pride you experience when you watch your child perform on stage and are amazed to see the familiar loved one creating something new, unexpected, and magical.

Two minutes of wondrous totality ended with a reemergence of the Baily’s beads at the opposite edge, with more gasps, glasses hastily reattached, and a spontaneous round of applause. There was hugging, excited comparison of photos, and exchanging of social media addresses. Something interesting has happened within the group: we’re friends now, we lived through this together, we are connected. There’s dancing, and more food, a party atmosphere. Over the next hour, the sun and moon, having met, amble off towards the horizon together, the moon lagging steadily further behind, so that as the sun sinks into the red haze at the horizon they are just about to part company, as if nothing ever happened. Back on the bus, Walter is a happy man. He did it right.

Photo credits:

Eagle, Rebecca in glasses, box man, wall – Andy

Pastries, Alan with his telescope, totality – Rebecca

Totality on the screen within the frame – Alan and Ivan, see Instagram @MateConEstrellas

Baily’s beads – Walter Stein, see more of his incredible photos on his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/walter.stein.359

Can we build it? Yes, we can

Our time at La Hespería has come to an end; time to take stock and see what we have achieved. The Hespería estate is a collection of buildings – a family home, a tourist guest house, the volunteer house, a small farm, a ramshackle ex-dairy unit – halfway up a small mountain in the cloud forest south-west of Quito, in a considerable portion of protected cloud forest. Its aims are somewhat nebulous and a tad self-contradictory, encompassing forest protection, reforestation, coffee and chocolate production, biodiversity, education, tourism, and sustainable high-altitude agricultural development. So what did we do during our five weeks?

Andy is a committed machete enthusiast and likes nothing better than hacking back plants to ground level. We’ve been repeatedly astonished over this year to see how much of conservation involves chopping things down! At Hespería he’s cleared paths, felled trees galore, and cleared out an entire unproductive banana plantation to make way for a butterfly garden. The blisters on his hands tell their own story. I prefer less destructive activities, and enjoyed mixing concrete and repairing the farmyard. We were happy this week to have got the medicinal plant garden renovated (the tree-felling here involved a chainsaw and ropes as well as a lot of macheteing, very exciting), complete with freshly painted signs for the plants.

We’ve been part of a team building a new camping hut at the top of the mountain – previous huts have been made of bamboo, and after these were consumed by campfire-gone-wild not just once but twice they decided to rebuild out of metal. Made entirely out of scrap, welded on site into usable sections, working from a photo of a model with no measurements or instructions, this was an eye-opening exhibition of practical intelligence from our Ecuadorian colleagues. The initial level was established using nothing more complex than a length of clear hose pipe filled with water, nails and string. We dug holes for the vertical sections, and concreted them into position, using a spirit level and a rock tied to a bit of string to ensure they were upright and aligned with each other. The high horizontals were a challenge: there was only one ladder, and when it became obvious that three people needed to be able to work at height simultaneously, a barrel to stand on was found, and Andy constructed what became known as ‘la escalera inglés’ out of random bits of planking, which, with a token nod towards health and safety, was held in position with a bit of rope.

Throughout the construction of the wall frame, it seemed that nobody had any idea how the roof was going to be built. But the plan evolved, and one day we found ourselves building what looked like two enormous football goals, which we suddenly understood were going to get welded together and ‘planked’ to make a scaffold. The roof was then held up by brute strength and optimism, and welded together in situ, which involved an extraordinary display of intuitive thinking from Enrique who perched at the top of a ladder with his arc welder, commanding the rest of us to pull on ropes in various directions to haul the metal sections into the exact locations for him to weld. The whole structure was finished the day before the tourist group from Canada arrived, including a fireplace and benches made from tree trunk sections hauled up the hill and set into huge holes. The building will eventually have walls and a raised floor as well as a solid roof, but the frame and plastic roof in the picture are the final product for this year.

On several days we had to hike to the building site in the morning: a beautiful walk through stunning scenery, with mist rolling gently through the valley between the mountains, and butterflies everywhere. But since it was a 45 degree slope, we were glad enough when we could get a lift in the Land Cruiser bringing building supplies in the trailer. This vehicle reminded me of the Monty Python dead parrot sketch, having shuffled off its mortal coil some time ago. Nailed to its perch by its owner’s refusal to admit that it is composed of absolutely no functional parts, it has to be rolled downhill to get it to start, and the two cylinders that still cooperate with the accelerator may or may not be enough to get it up the hill, so you might have to get out on the steepest bits – which you do via the window, because the seat won’t move to let you out the front. Since the exhaust fumes flow directly from the engine to the interior, the lack of glass is thus a double bonus.

Up You Get!

The iconic snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi rises 5897 metres from the middle of Cotopaxi National Park, south of Quito. It’s the second highest volcano in Ecuador, and the second highest active volcano in the world. With our tiny, feisty guide Maribel we decided to attempt the climb. Luckily, the obligatory 4×4 jeep batters its way over a bumpy, pitted road to get you a significant way up this mountain, so you start the ascent just above 4000 metres. It’s a steady, steep zigzag path up the dusty ash scree slope dumped by the last eruption in 2015. Wearing all the warm clothes we possess, breathing heavily, with leaden legs and hearts pounding, we were kept going by the views of the glaciers glinting in the sun and the beauty of the wide expanse of páramo alpine moorland stretching out towards Rumiñahui.

We had a brief respite at 4864 metres at the refuge cafe/ hostel – where the serious ice climbers sleep before attacking the 12-hour summit loop round the volcano cone, an activity incorporated into Everest training regimes. Then we went onward and upward to the foot of the glacier, finishing at 5100 metres. For reference, this is the height that gliders and small planes typically fly at, four times the height of Ben Nevis. (Putting a link in here because a man called Rhys asked me to! https://bennevis.co.uk/ )

This is as far as you can go without ice boots, ice picks, shovels, and several days acclimatisation. The effect of the altitude is immense: Maribel walking in front of me appeared to be moving at snail’s pace, but my heart and lungs were telling me I was racing along and would I please stop. Legs simply refuse to cooperate, having decided that they are made of jelly as well as lead. Even when the end was in sight, with a big red ‘do not pass’ sign at the glacier foot, a distance that my eyes told me I could cover within a couple of minutes’ walk took more than ten, and required three rest stops along the way. A great sense of achievement, a rapid descent back to the car park, and the humbling experience of meeting the guys who do the climb every day carrying the supplies and gas bottles needed to stock the refuge.

For our second day’s Cotopaxi adventure we chose a horse trek in the northern park of the park. On our beautiful sturdy horses we followed our guide Elias across the boulder-strewn plain below the volcano, the enormous lumps of rock spread several miles around the cone giving testimony to the power of an eruption. The last one was not huge, but long-lasting, and resulted in the national park being closed for a year, devastating the livelihood of the families that depend on tourism: every member of the family who run this hotel also work as drivers and guides, and they were evacuated along with the rest of the village, with a complete loss of income. We selected our authentic ponchos from the shed more as an atmospheric fashion statement than for warmth, but we were glad of them nonetheless: it’s cold up here. I also loved my horse’s stirrups, hand carved from wood. Our trek took us through rivers of sparkling glacier melt water, and across wild moorland with a carpet of alpine flowers beneath our horses’ hooves, and fleeting, exciting glimpses of that elusive snow-capped peak swirling in and out of the cloud behind us!

Creatures part two!

How could I have forgotten to include the leaf cutter ants? My favourite forest creature, these tiny things march stolidly across the forest floor day after day, chopping and gathering their chosen leaves and tramping back to their nest with their personal leaf section held high. As if trying as hard as possible to provide metaphors for motivational workplace speakers, industrious and unstoppable, they work tirelessly on their shared task, a column of empty-handed ants going the opposite way, but not impeding their colleagues’ progress. Bafflingly numerous, their tiny feet wear pathways in the forest out of all proportion to the size of their bodies. They take the leaves underground and add them to their garden of cultivated fungus, which provides their food.

Our last day in Mindo we took a guide and set off into the cloud forest at dawn for four hours of birdwatching. His ability to gaze into the forest, flip his telescope up make a minute adjustment then stand back and say ‘look’ was incredible. He treated us to an endless stream of beauties: red-beaked parrots, lemon-rumped tanagers, swallow-tailed kites, chestnut-mandibled toucans, and even the male Andean ‘cock of the rock’ – the one from the David Attenborough programme that gathers to display its extraordinary alien-shaped head at the other males while the females largely take no notice because they’re all home raising the kids. Ecuador comprises just 0.02% of the earth’s landmass but contains 10% of the biodiversity, and this particular bit of cloud forest might just be the richest bird zone on the planet, according to the ‘Christmas count’, a worldwide bird-monitoring initiative.

Now back at work, today we were path-clearing. Having had my eyes opened by that one extraordinary caterpillar, and inspired by a book I flicked through whilst sheltering in a coffee shop from a downpour at the weekend, I took the opportunity to look out for more of Ecuador’s gems. Whether you like your caterpillars weird, wonderful, cute as a kitten, or venomous, there’s something there for everyone.

Photo credits: all Rebecca Wainwright, largely with nothing more exotic than an iPhone, but the bird pictures were taken down Danny’s telescope, and with significant help from him; I did however press the button all by myself.

All Creatures Great and Small

I glanced up from the pages of To Kill A Mockingbird and saw, crawling up my leg, a creature so far outside my ordinary experience that I struggled to categorise it: about eight centimeters long, sporting lichen-like fronds which sprouted in every direction, in restful tones of red, green and orange. Overdosed as we are on natural beauty, the glorious clouds of colourful butterflies for which Ecuador is famous, and which surround our daily work here, had failed thus far to make a significant impact on us, but this caterpillar brought me to my senses. My instinct to poke it with a stick until it fell off turned out to be a good one: it was a saturniid moth caterpillar, highly venomous!

This weekend we’ve been in Mindo, a small town in the cloud forest with a tourist population roughly equal to its permanent inhabitants, who fall into four categories: the indigenous descendants of Amazon tribespeople, still the guardians of rainforest lore; the inhabitantes, born and bred; afuereños, outsiders, settling into Mindo from elsewhere in Ecuador and bringing newfangled notions of restaurants that serve something other than rice and a slab of tough meat, and the hippies, who came from all over, live in the hillsides, and wander round the town in a weed-haze selling bracelets and unskilfully constructed crystal jewellery. We took the tiny yellow cable car across the ravine to hike the Way of the Waterfalls, a forest region filled with birds – and giant red millipedes. A rainy day was spent happily at the butterfly house, marveling at the huge morpho butterflies that seem too heavy to fly, an eye-catching blue in flight and when stationary disguised with owl’s faces on the undersides of their wings. The racks of cocoons waiting to hatch were particularly fascinating, some disguised as leaves, others vividly metallic.

We did a night hike with a relocated Canadian called Eric, who describes himself as the resident herpetologist. Ploughing through the forest by torchlight, he showed us katydids, spiders, bats, bioluminescent fungus, big frogs, medium frogs, small frogs and tiny frogs, and a ‘graceful snail-sucking snake’ doing the thing its name implies. Out of the goodness of his heart he catches snakes that have wandered into people’s homes by mistake, and at the end of our tour asked ‘does anybody want to hold this?’ Don’t mind if I do.

The garden round the hotel swimming pool has been planted to attract hummingbirds, and it is wonderful to sit eating breakfast and watch these tiny creatures dart in, feed, hover, feed again, and zoom away. Rufus-tailed, white-bellied, lilac-headed: different species have different wingbeat speeds and so sound different as they whirr past you, and they joust competitively in the air, even though there is nectar enough for everybody. They have co-evolved with the plants from which they feed, so their beak shapes match the curve of the orchid or bromeliad flower that nourishes them. Andy has been a very happy photographer! Now let’s just go back a step here. “The garden round the hotel swimming pool”. What?? We are hugely grateful for the existence of our tenants, whose financial contributions have funded our weekend jaunts and such fripperies as helicopter flights over New Zealand glaciers and Galápagos cruises. But let’s not forget that we are fundamentally volunteers. We are living in a hut halfway up a mountain, we eat rice and beans, we spend our days macheteing things, we go to bed at half past eight because it’s dark, we’re freezing, and there’s nothing to do. Everything we own smells of mould, we both have fungal scalp infections from being damp all the time, and no, you don’t get used to washing in cold water.

Where was I? Oh, okay, the hut halfway up a mountain in the cloud forest. After lunch last Wednesday the monkeys came by, clambering around in the tree that overhangs the volunteer house, feeding from the fruit. The male supervised the feeding session, keeping a close eye on the volunteers gathered on the balcony, asserting his dominance through repeated displays of branch-shaking. Since it’s our house, we felt we had the right to remain, though mindful of the fact that he had sharp teeth and irrationality on his side. They were fluffy, beautiful, and entrancing. Every now and then, with a jolt, we remember that we are living in an extraordinary place, and that we are extremely lucky to have this opportunity to experience something incredible. After that, we tuck ourselves up in our mosquito net and go to sleep, knowing that the first thing we will do in the morning is sweep up the bat poo that’s accumulated outside our bedroom doorway in the night.

From the Middle to the Edge

Arriving into Quito from Galápagos we entrusted ourselves to a tour guide for a ‘cultural and historical’ week in Ecuador before heading to our next project. Our first stop was just outside Quito at the ‘mitad del mundo’ – the ‘centre of the world’ equator exhibition. This is the most bizarre confection of indigenous artifacts, natural history, and oh-so-sciency equator fun, where you are whirled through a basket-making demonstration, past a set of shrunken heads, a bunch of canoes and some stuffed animals, through a display of totem poles from round the world and down to the ‘line’. Here your guide competently demonstrates that water (left resting in a bowl) pours itself straight down the plughole when on the equator, and spirals in opposite directions when a metre or so either side – which indeed it does, whatever the mechanism for that is! You’re then lined up in a row one metre south of the equator and made to hold your hands up making an ‘o’ between finger and thumb, and your guide attempts unsuccessfully to pull them apart: you’re so strong! but if you stand on the equator, you have no strength, because of the Coriolis force making the gravity stronger, or something, or is it because the earth is wider at the equator and that creates more force? Who knows, he springs your exhausted fingers apart with practiced ease, and before you’re done laughing at that one you’re made to walk the line with your eyes shut, and look! You can’t do it, can you? The Coriolis forces have cancelled each other out. And then you have to balance an egg on a nail, which is apparently only possible exactly on the equator, and if you succeed you get a certificate. Hoorah! And your guide gets a tip.

From there we were driven through wonderfully lush landscapes, a patchwork of different coloured squares – pale green lettuce, dark broccoli, vivid grass, soft purple quinoa – so restful on the eye after the dazzling, relentless intensity of the Galápagos black lava rock/ blue sky/ white sand. A day’s hiking in Cotopaxi national park was a very enjoyable botany lesson, the flowers striking us as exquisitely beautiful after six weeks of cactus. We were reliably informed that a stunning snow-capped volcano lay behind the thick cloud. We’re fully attuned to Latin American building styles now, and are no longer surprised that the majority of houses are half-finished piles of cement block and rebar, so a particular delight of this trip was a night at La Ciénega, a historic hacienda mansion, with Italianate fountains, antiques in the hallways, wonderful gardens complete with llamas, a plaque commemorating Humboldt’s stay, and a huge candlelit bedroom with a roaring fire in a giant fireplace. We climbed to the top storey to look at the cloud in the direction of the stunning snow-capped volcano.

We finished our tour in the historic city of Cuenca, where as well as learning how to make Panama hats we visited a local market to see the ancient Qechua women carrying out the traditional healing ceremony. Clients are first of all whacked all over with a bundle of aromatic herbs, including one that brings you out in a rash, supposedly improving the circulation. The healer then takes an egg – whole – and rubs it vigorously all over the person’s head and body, before cracking it into a jug and inspecting the trails and flecks in the egg white. Having absorbed the person’s ailment, this provides the diagnosis. The healer takes a mouthful of water and expertly sprays it all over the person, tells them what herbs they should purchase from the market upstairs, and charges them three dollars. The family we chatted to had flown down from New York and expected their two-year-old daughter to show an improvement in her slow speech development within the week.

This weekend we’ve taken a trip to Baños, a spa town on a tiny plateau high in the mountains. The bits of Ecuador that aren’t especially hilly look like the Lake District, so to picture the mountains you need to imagine Avatar-style vertical cliffs, but clothe them in fertile soil and thus either forest or agriculture, right up to 3000 metres above sea level. It’s a beautiful combination. The Ecuadorian inter-city coaches are clean, safe, well regulated and ridiculously cheap, the pricing structure being $1.50 per hour’s travel. There’s even a poorly-dubbed movie on a big screen to keep you occupied, and at intervals the bus stops and someone climbs aboard selling packets of peanuts, fried food (is there any other way to cook food in Ecuador?), bottles of cane juice, chocolate bars, and strangely, sunglasses, watches and headphones. Baños is famous for three things: the healing powers of its volcano-heated mud-infused waters, the hand-stretched cane sugar toffee made there, and the adrenaline-pumping bridge jumps, near-vertical canyoning and ‘flight of the condor’ cliff leap. We tried out two of these three, and you can decide for yourselves which. Climbing a remarkably steep hill gets you to ‘the swings at the edge of the world’, which are tremendous fun, and from there we had a fabulous view out across the valley, with the stunning snow-capped volcano to our left, behind the cloud.

We’re down from our mountain for the weekend enjoying functional WiFi, real food, and hot showers. Hoorah! Enjoy the photos.

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