Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Planet Earth

Isn't Google Earth just about the best piece of software you can slap onto your hard drive? Got my broadband connection back now, so I can go zooming around the planet once again. A favourite fly by is through the volcanoes of the high Andean Altiplano.

See that white area in the central west of the South American continent. That's the Salar De Uyuni in southern Bolivia (an area I'll explore with Sam in August). Have a tour of the snow capped stratovolcanoes there. Surely one of the best landscapes on our Earth. This is where Lauca and Isluga national parks are. Still no firm clues as to how to do these parks off the Lonely Planet forum, but reckon I'll start from Arica in northern Chile (as there is a memorial plaque to one of Sam's ancestors there, who died whilst building the railway from Bolivia to Chile).

Today is the 40th birthday of my brother Paul. Happy birthday Paul Culley!

Saturday, 24 February 2007

This Is Me, Mini Culley

The following blog entry was written by my son Sam

When I found out about my mad dad going away I was extremely shocked, I always knew he was very rearing to go yet never thought that he would ever do anything on the scale he is. Like my dad I am very anxious to see the world. And as you can see I have started my life well with a fair share of great holidays. But I still have a long way to go to be able to state the words 'I have done the world. A few months after the news of dads departure, I was starting to get over the fact I wouldn't be seeing him for a year minus a few weeks. But was all shattered when I had a phone call to say he had booked his flight. I suppose it brought it down to earth that it was actually happening. I don't show it but am living every day as if it is my last with him. This has been helped by lots of fun events before he goes, this includes a trip to the island of Anglesey in my half term, whilst there we would be going to visit a friends of dads who look after animals. These include: Owls, Rabbits,And other amazing types of birds of pray. As you can imagine it was really cool and I have some great pictures to proof this. It goes to show that some people will do anything for what they love. A bit like dad, but there is a consequence for everything good in life. This, in dads point is leaving everyone behind, including me. But I have to think what I am getting out of it, and not the opposite. So what am I getting out of it? For one it will free up the whole of my Saturday. This means that as I am getting older I feel the need to spent more time with friends, and that is exactly what it will do. It is also important for my mum, as we don't get to do much together because the only day I am free is spent with dad, this means that we can go and do something on a weekend. But I feel the main point that is great is some amazing holidays, yet I come back to what I was saying before, the best things never come without consequence, and in this case it is the matter of two return flights over this summer, and next Easter, on my own with no company but the air hostesses. It may sound easy enough, many children go and visit their relatives abroad all the time. The difference between them and me is that they go for pennies on Easy jet, I am going over the Atlantic and then over thelargest river in the world, the wonderful Amazon. To be precise around thirteen hours in a tin can. Trust me it is nothing to boast about. But there is a Light at the end of the runway, 'no not the spot light but dad.' doesn't sound very exiting but after not seeing him for around five months it is kind of special.

Friday, 16 February 2007

The Start Date Is Booked

Most of my packing has now been done, as has most of the painting I want doing before departure. Still no news on the renting the house out front, although I spoke to BMW man from the agency grumbling that the absence of viewings was totally contrary to his total confidence that finding a tenant would occur shockingly fast, so it was agreed to drop the rent to the maximum recomended by the other agents, alter the "cottage" decription and include an advert in the Chester Chronicle again. Just bought that paper and scanning through it does look as if the pricing is right (in fact there's a two bedroom place just up the road in England going for the same rent - and they don't have a weather vane!). Still very frustrated though.

I sat at my laptop the other day thinking that it was probable that any tenant would only want the place for the statutory minimum period of six months, meaning that whilst away it could be vacant. So with my frustrated mind, I thought "Why not bite the bullet and book a flight?". Being at the laptop made the next part simple. Cheap Easyjet flight from Liverpool to Madrid, and then connecting to an Aerolineas Argentinas flight to Santiago via Buenos Aires. My finger poised over the "Buy" button for quite a while, and then bingo I hit it excitedly.

My trip to South America will commence on the 14th of March.

I have been studying my recently purchased guidebooks and now have mapped out a rough route through the continent, following the good weather and hitting the wildlife viewing places at the optimal times. So here's the plan:

Starting in Santiago I will then head over the Andes to Argentina, visiting the wine growing area around Mendoza, including the western hemisphere's highest peak. I will then drop south along the Andes to Argentina's Lake District. From here I will head back north to visit some weird and wonderful multi-coloured rock landscapes in uppermost Argentina. Crossing back over to Chile I will do my high altitude Altiplano visit, continuing this theme into southern Bolivia. From here I will head south east towards the Iguazu waterfalls on Brazilian/Argentinian border (no doubt passing through Paraguay). Then heading north westerly to the Pantanal in Brazil, crossing back into Bolivia and onwards to southern Peru.

I am aiming to get to southern Peru for July, ready to pick up Sam at the end of that month, and then heading initially to Machu Pichu (he has announced he is desperate to see this fantastic sight) and then down to Bolivia once more for our adventures there. After seeing Sam safely onto his flight home, I will explore northern Peru, crossing into Ecuador with the prime goal of experiencing the Galapagos islands. Then it will be into Colombia, Venezuela and amazonian Brazil. Salvador and Rio are the cities I want to see in Brazil. Journeying south along the Atlantic coast, Buenos Aires will be next (with a quick jump over the river Plate to Uruguay), followed by an extensive visit to Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego, before heading to pick up Sam once more, this time in Santiago. The trip's grand finale will be our tour of Easter Island, before travelling back to Britain together.

Of course the best laid plans of mice and men etc............The routing is just a rough plan that will enable me to experience my chief goals. It will be a wonderful luxury to have the time to deviate from this path as whims and circumstances dictate. I cannot wait. How easily frustration can turn to outright excitement.

Sam is still very much on my mind. He will be fine, but I do know I shall miss him terribly, and he me. Despite the ease of communication abilities we have now, I will not be there for him, as I am now. Time to departure is ticking, so I am making sure we cram in as much fun as possible before the 14th.

We were lucky last weekend as the snowy weather continued into Saturday, so it was out with the sledge. He got soaked (as predicted) but it was brilliant fun.

Here are the pics:

Friday, 9 February 2007

The Thorn Tree

Posted a question on the Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forum the other day. The first of many for this big trip I suspect.

It's the only question remaining totally unanswered and is regarding how to get to Lauca and Isluga national parks in the far northern altiplano area of Chile. Looks like even in these days of gap years and general global exploration my goals are still a tad off the beaten path.

Watch this space for future reports on Lauca and Isluga, for me defo must sees.

Twit Twooh

Dashed over to John's on Anglesey on Thursday night for supper and few glasses of wine. Been a rubbish day as my cold hit hard, as did the snow. Felt a lot better by evening time, and could even taste the Mmmm & Ssss food; peppered Aberdeen Angus steak, Pommes Lyonaise and Sugar Snap Peas.

John was heading off on the train to Edinburgh in the early afternoon the next day to attend the Wales Scotland Six Nations rugby match, and had booked the day off work. I had a treat as a result. During his Career Wales work he had met a local family that have an owl sanctuary at their home, looking after abandoned, orphaned or disabled birds. He had arranged for us to have a tour round. Their place is not open to the public so I was hoping this would be a little different to a bird park visit. I was not disappointed.

The couple that run the place are clearly animal mad. We were greeted by a young Husky who left her paw prints all down the front of my fleece. Rabbits of all types and sizes were kept in various outdoor cages. One enormous floppy eared specimen loved have his chin tickled.

The first owl we saw was a young injured barn owl, fast asleep on her perch. She sat above a cage full of juvenile hedgehogs. Further down the path in a greenhouse were kept a buzzard, a Harris hawk, an American eagle and a small inquisitive owl who had lost the power of flight. I asked of could don a glove and have some of them perch on my arm. If you don't ask, I thought, you don't get. I was told maybe later..............

They also had a cage of wonderful red squirrels who clearly loved munching on walnuts. They are wonderful little characters, with their tufted ears. The youngest of the family of squirrels was actually black rather than rusty red. I didn't know that could happen.

The larger owls were kept in aviaries further down their garden path. There were a pair of snowy owls hissing away at us, one of which had lost an eye. Next door were the rather massive Bengali eagle owls with bright orange irises, these hooted their greeting in classic owl style. We also saw rescued tawny owls and a number of Australian owls whose name I cannot remember.

We were joined by the father, Robin, who we were told flew most of the birds. He took us over to much larger aviaries beyond the small pond teeming with ducks of various types, and strutting geese. The first aviary contained two European eagle owls. Larger than their Indian cousins these majestic creatures observed us with interest. Again their piercing orange eyes were captivating. They suggested danger. I was asked if I was afraid of birds, of course not I replied. So in we went. John declined. He is not an animal man, and said later that I could have had my eyes pecked out. He's been reading too much Daphne Du Maurier!

These pair are tame and used to human contact. Robin stroked the breast of one so I followed. Gazing into those orange eyes close up was stunning, as was looking down at their massive sharp talons that surely could have lifted a large buck rabbit.

In the next aviary were a pair of what I recognised to be the owls that live in Lapland and Siberian Taiga, great greys. These were amazing creatures, and were again very tame. They are actually quite small birds, but with their deep feather covering, were only marginally smaller than the European eagle owls. I felt the air move as they flew close to my head, but I heard not a thing, as their feather design makes them silent, yet deadly predators. I had seen these owls on a TV documentary. It was a privilege to meet them in real life, albeit a long way from their natural habitat.

Back to the greenhouse I was handed a leather glove to don on my left hand. The first out was the Harris hawk, clearly a killer. He looked at me with his determined yet cruel eyes as if to say "I'm the boss". I knew he was. All my life I had wanted to hold a bird of prey. Today it happened. It was magical.

Next to hold was the American eagle. He did not seem to want to settle so I had only a short spell feeling close to him.

Here are the pictures:

Harris Hawk

Great Grey Owl

European Eagle Owl

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Doing the garden

I resigned from my job in January and so since February 1st I have been on "gardening leave". I have been using the free time to a) prepare for my trip and b) prepare for my trip (which has included tidying up the garden/courtyard - had a brilliant bonfire - us blokes love those, so I guess that weird employment term is semi accurate).

Resigning from the job was the easy part. Deep down it's a great feeling to literally stick two fingers up at the corpoate world and say "I'm off to do what I want to do". Wonder if I'll still be saying that when I return in April 2008, unemployed, carless and broke (but with a great sun tan). However telling those I am close to of my decision was hard, particularly with my son Sam.

Sam is twelve going on thirteen, and I love him to bits. My decision to go was one of those rock and a hard place ones. I could wait until he goes to university and then head off exploring, but then I would be fifty. Would I still be able to climb volcanoes and sleep in hammocks in the jungle then? Mmmm I guess by then five star accomodation would be preferable. Other factors I thought of were that Sam is now well settled in his fantastic school, has a superb Mum and extended family support, and a solid group of mates (whom he may well soon prefer to spend his Saturday's with as opposed to his grumpy father). I figured this was the least bad time to jaunt off: no exams, no huge teenage issues.

He was a little upset when I sprang the news on him, but once he heard he would join me for five weeks in summer and for his Easter holidays 2008, and thought carefully about it, he actually became quite excited about it for me. Bless him.

Sam now has a ticket to fly to Lima (as an unaccompanied minor) to join me for a high altitude/Amazonian adventure in Bolivia. KLM, you have been warned, your stewardesses are going to be charmed off their trolleys!

Sam now has taken possession of my Bolivia Lonely Planet Guide. We want to explore the Salar De Uyuni, take time time to go pirranha fishing in the jungle, and cycle the "world's most dangerous road". (Don't worry Mum it's the truck drivers who disappear over the edge - I believe!). It is a bit weird that Sam has a ticket to travel and right now I don't! During Easter 2008 he will again come over and help me explore the Lake District area of Chile (hopefully including a climb up another active volcano this time with crampons and ice axes and possibly a gas mask - he and I loved going up Pacaya in Guatemala) and then head out over the Pacific to Easter Island for my trip's grand finale. What other thirteen year old can claim to have come face to face with a Moai, and sit and think "this is one of the remotest corners of our planet and I'm here". I just know Sam has inherrited my wanderlust - he had better return the favour and invite me out during his gap year - Myanmar appeals hint hint.

Here's a pic of Sam on Pacaya volcano, in Guatemala. I had to wait till I was 42 to see flowing lava, he was eleven.

Telling others was also hard. The next worst was the bellringers at Mold. I am a committed member of the band there. My year long departure will mean team ambitions are lowered unless the young ones come on strong. So you hooded youths - go for it. Fill that vacancy.

I took up bellringing when I was about ten. By thirteen I was dinging Stedman Doubles, then the hormones set in, and other things started to become more interesting (blame 35mm films on puberty) and I gave it up. I was so pleased to become re-accainted with this historic old art twenty five years later. I had to re-learn most of it, but took a lot a pride in passing my old milestones of achievement. Thank you Mold. I will be back, having fully studied Yorkshire Surprise Major on the bus to Ushuaia.

Here's Mold's new tenor bell prior to being installed late last year. Got my initials on it.

The reaction of most folk I know has been interesting. Some have been shocked : I'm quitting a good job; others think I am totally mad. However, though most have not expressed it aloud, I see in their eyes envy. Why didn't I do this? I couldn't do this, but wish I could. I wish I had followed my heart not my wallet. Young people of course think it is totally "cool". There is hope for the future of our world!

So the preparations are on going. Been doing a lot of painting, mainly gloss stuff which stinks to high heaven, despite the low odour label on the tin. Been packing up my stuff, ready for storage. Have fully discovered EBay, and sold all my old guide books to the previously visited places. At the same time I have been buying stuff: guide books to Argentina, Chile and Brazil. I have also invested in an Ipod (definately could not go one year without a dose of Abba/Muse once in while). Also I've gone digital. Lord knows what my binary bit rate is but my new SLR digital camera seems to be upping my snap happy attitude. Here's one of my first dSLR experiments. Church Bay on the north coast of Anglesey.

House to let

Three weeks ago I had four of the Chester letting agents pop out to work out how much rent to charge the lucky tenants who would occupy my house whilst I am away. I chose the one who drove a soft top BMW (lovely car!) and wanted to charge the most rent.

Here's the blurb they are using to market my den.
"A cottage full of character which is located in a rural village location approx 5 mins drive to the Chester business park and Chester city centre. The accommodation comprises porch, dining hall, living room, breakfast kitchen, three double bedrooms and 4 piece bathroom. The property benefits from parking for several vehicles, GCH and rear courtyard."

Don't you just love estate agent speak? Four piece bathroom I guess is the polite way of saying I have a bidet. Very important for storage of the week's dirty socks. Describing it as a "cottage" too is a bit odd. In some respects they've got this right, but really the place is just "quirky", although not a great marketing word, this would be more accurate.
Anyway here's the pictures.

Anyone want a quirky house next to a fab pub? Yep, no takers yet, which is frustrating as pyschologically I ready to hop on the plane. The rent has now been reduced to be closer to what the non BMW driving agents recommended. So fingers crossed for quick action. There are still cheap flights out of Madrid heading to Santiago. Just know my name's on one of their seats. ( I will Easy Jet it to Madrid from Liverpool) .

More posts later as I need to blow my nose (shocking this bird flu outbreak isn't it?)