Posts Tagged With: bus

Atlas Drove

…and drove, and drove. Today was a travel day, and we spent a total of 11 hours working our way from Fez to Erfoud, the gateway to the Sahara. The distance is about 260 miles, but we made some stops along the way, and at no point did the road resemble an interstate highway. We were in addition slightly slowed down by another one of our group falling ill and requiring a number of impromptu pit stops. Everyone takes this in stride, recognizing that it literally goes with the territory, and happily she is already feeling somewhat better. But the bottom line is, that there was not a whole of jam-packed activities today other than watching the scenery go by (which I will describe in a moment). 

We headed due south towards the desert, our first geographical landmark being the Middle Atlas Mountains, which are only a few thousand feet high (they peak at about 5000′). That is more than enough to notice a significant change in climate, though: the air is much cooler and drier, and the hills forested with cedar and pine. Indeed, this region is rather incongruously referred to as the Switzerland of Morocco, a metaphor made even weirder by the fact that there is in fact a ski resort. They don’t get an enormous amount of snow, but it is apparently enough to ski on; we could see a couple of trails and lifts on the hillsides. It was in this area that we made our first rest stop/coffee break in the town of Ifrane, whose architecture, signage, and heavily German tourist population indeed suggest that we somehow stumbled through a wormhole into some bizarre Islamic corner of Bavaria.

Once we crossed the crest of the Middle Atlas, we were on a high plateau, the plain between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains; the Sahara is on the far side if the High Atlas. This plain is a rocky desert with scrub vegetation, the road mostly straight and way too narrow: a single skinny lane in both directions with no median strip, guardrails, or shoulders. It was clearly built in an era when this region had no traffic at all, but now that the Moroccan government is investing in a number of southern towns there is a steady two-directional flow of passenger cars, trucks, and buses like our own. The narrow highway and generally marginal road conditions make every oncoming encounter — and they are frequent — an opportunity for terror, as the clearance between northbound buses and our own is about 6″.

All in all the terrain closely resembles much of the American Southwest, albeit with more terrifying roads. However, the Southwest does not have nomadic tribes shepherding herds of sheep and goats across the rocky scrub. The nomads construct makeshift-looking compounds of varying permanence out of a wide variety of scrounged materials, and these constructions are visible on the hillsides every hour or so as we drive. We stopped at one, that you can see here.

The ground surrounding the structures was rough with coarse grass and stones, and littered with animal bones. Dung beetles about 3/4 of an inch long wee all over, diligently rolling up balls of animal dung about the size of acorns and popping into their burrows when our footsteps alarmed them. The rocks were peppered with pretty little orange beetles with geometric hourglass patterns on their backs, looking like robot ladybugs.

The compound itself consisted of a few dimly lit rooms — they do have electricity, courtesy of a solar panel — adjacent to some corrugated metal paddocks variously holding turkey’s and sheep. Seven people live here, from two families; that’s one mother and child in the photo, and there was a grubby looking second child running around on his own. The families vacate this compound in the winter, leaving two of their number behind to keep squatters from occupying it. They return in the spring. They are illiterate, unwashed, and of low life expectancy: the woman above was 22 years old, looked about 40, and had been married since 13. But she baked a mean loaf of bread: she shared some with us that was still hot from the oven, and it was delicious.

Now here’s the strange part: completely belying this otherwise primitive existence is the fact that they have television. A modestly sized TV with one of those ubiquitous pirated cable boxes was fed by a small satellite dish and powered by the solar panel. They probably only have enough juice to operate the TV for a small part of the day, but sure enough, she turned its on for us and we could see the channel guide from the satellite (which she, of course, does not know how to read). But she also flipped through a couple of stations with some kind of soap opera going on, which kind of put a dent in my personal mental image of the isolated nomad.

We crossed the plain between the two mountain ranges and ascended into the High Atlas, where the road became twisty as we climbed and not any wider. There were at least guardrails, although frequently damaged or broken through by what we can only assume was some prior horrific accident. The terrain also became even more sparse, the soil turning redder and the vegetation becoming even more sparse. But there is enough water to be found in wells and the occasional shallow river to allow the construction of bricks and adobe, and the architecture in the towns by the road reflect this. Take a look at the image below: the town is made from adobe, and if you remove the tall structure at right, which is the town minaret, the scene could very well be somewhere in northern Arizona. 

If you’re not altogether in agreement with that statement, then check out the next image and tell me that it couldn’t equally well be in Arizona or New Mexico.

What you will not find in Arizona or New Mexico, however, is groves of date palms like you see in the picture below. The trees sit in a strip of land a few hundreds yard wide in a valley below the winding road, and they follow it for miles. Dates are a major part of the economy here, and the are a number of varieties with a wide range of quality and corresponding price. At the top of the line are Medjool dates, which are quite expensive (and not the ones in this grove).

We arrived at our hotel in Erfoud at a little after 7 PM and upon entering it immediately felt like desert travelers encountering an oasis. Below is the courtyard. You can see the pool in the middle of the photo; what you cannot see is the white camel that they keep on the grounds. This place is nice, and will doubtless in retrospect stand in sharp contracts to the more primitive lodgings that we will have for the next couple of days. We head out into the Sahara for real tomorrow, leaving behind most of our luggage and abandoning our bus for several 4 x 4’s that will take us to our tented camp for the next two nights. There, we will be riding camels into the dunes, meeting desert Berber tribes, and — my astronomer self smiles — enjoying some truly spectacular night skies. What I will not be doing, however, is transmitting any blog posts for the next few days, as we will be well and truly off the grid. I hope to be back online with suitable Rich and Alice of Arabia stories in a few days.

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The Answer is Hikin’ in the Wind

Today was mostly a riding-in-the-bus day as we made the several-hour semicircle around the mountains to get from Torres del Paine National Park in Chile to the Argentine town of El Calafate. This involved driving back across the park in conditions that were noticeably gloomier and windier than yesterday. We passed by the mountain range again, past scenes like this:

Torres del Paine in the wind

The wind was ferocious today, clocking in at 56 mph. You can see the ripples and some whitecaps on the lake in the picture above. But hey, they don’t call it adventure travel for nothing, and Julio promised that the threatened hike would be through a valley that was sheltered from the wind. Uh huh. And so it was that we found ourselves hiking through a high valley that, if this was what they call “sheltered”, I don’t want to see “exposed”, as we were basically sandblasted every inch of the way. Here we are making our way through the valley, looking for our lost Sherpas:

We paid good money to do this. Auntie Em’s house blew by a few moments later.

It is possible that at some time in your life you have wondered what it would be like to hike through a hurricane in the lower Andes mountains. If so, you probably concluded that it would not be physically pleasant. You were right. 

This guy should not have hiked on this path

It did have its rewards in the form of the view, the proliferation of interesting plants and rock formations, and the occasional gaunáco carcass such as the skull and fur at left. There were forensic artifacts like that all over the place: rib cages, vertebrae, mostly-intact bodies.  Seems that there is a population of pumas in the area, and we were walking through their happy hunting grounds. Happy for the pumas, anyway. For an awful lot of guanácos, not so much.

The hike was blissfully short — less than an hour — and we gratefully re-boarded our bus at the far end for the trip across the Chile-Argentina border, both sides of which were manned by bored-looking guards who stamped our passports. The Argentine guards in particular looked pretty miserable; their station was a windowless shack whose only power source was a generator that had failed, leaving them to inspect our visas in the cold and drafty dark. (Julio had cautioned us to say as little as possible if they asked us any questions at all, not because they were hostile but because they were starved for human contact and would keep us their for hours for the sole purpose of engaging in conversation.)

By the time we reached the border, an hour or so after our hike, the weather had gone full-blown (and I do mean blown) Patagonian Nasty, with the previous intermittent cold drizzle replaced by a hard blowing snowstorm that rocked the bus as we drove. We nonetheless stopped for a few minutes at yet another shrine to Gauchito Gil (remember him?), it being an OAT tradition to thank him for having had non-miserable weather during the trip, at least up to this point. This was more than a little ironic since both we and the shrine were being torn apart by gale-force winds and blizzard-like snow at the time.

We continued on to the 20,000-person town of El Calafate, whose primary economic base is tourism for the Perrito Moreno glacier, our destination for tomorrow. That will mark the end of the Patagonia leg of the trip; on Tuesday we return to Buenos Aires for a day before heading up to Iguassu Falls, where, mirabile dictu, it will be tropically warm.

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The Windiest National Park Anywhere (Oct 11)

A few hour bus ride brought us to Chile’s Torres Del Paine National Park, and we spent a good part of the day hiking around, so this post will be longer on pictures than words…lucky you.

The park is pretty big, a little under 900 square miles, and is dominated by a spectacular craggy mountain range that looks like it should be part of the Andes but actually isn’t. (It’s a younger range than the Andes and runs east-west instead of north-south.) Here’s the view as we approached the park; the buildings in the foreground are a ranch.

The big peak is called Almirante Nieto

The weather today was uncharacteristically sunny, at least to start out with since conditions in Patagonia are astonishingly and notoriously changeable. (The locals like to say, with unfortunate accuracy, that weather forecasts are useless here since every possible weather condition representing all four seasons will occur at least once every day.) But the clear skies brought out some very exotic visitors: Andean condors, the second largest flying bird in the world. (The “flying” codicil excludes ostriches, which of course are enormous but flightless; the largest flying bird is the wandering albatross.)

One of 36 Andean condors that we saw today

Andean condors are normally sighted in small numbers, but we saw groups of up to five of them soaring all over the place, a glorious and exciting sight. In the end we counted 36 of them including a juvenile, a huge number that amazed our trip lead Julio. Here’s one of them at left.

Although the weather was sunny — a condition that son changed, as promised — the winds were gale-force. Stepping out of the bus was stepping into a wind tunnel, and the was at least one viewpoint where the driver would not even let us out of the vehicle for fear that we would be blown off the lookout and into the valley below. Sounds unlikely but his concern was not unwarranted; during our long hike later in the day the woman I was walking with — a fellow photo hobbyist who like myself lingered behind the rest of the group — literally got blown over onto her back by a strong gust. In short, winds are a seriously big deal here.

(I asked Julio whether any serious efforts have been made to capitalize on wind power to satisfy Chile’s energy needs. The short answer is no: though very strong on average in this part of the country, they are also unreliable, and nearly disappear altogether for about half the year.)

The wind also ensures that fires can get very quickly out of hand, and there have been a couple of serious wildfires that have damaged the extensive beech forests in this part of the park. One fire, set by a careless Czech backpacker who knocked over a camping stove in 2005, burned 20,000 acres. A second, started by an even more careless Israeli camper who decided to burn some trash, burned 40,000 acres in 2011. Both accidental arsonists were fined $200 and kicked out of the country. Interestingly, both became very active in the reforestation effort, raising money and planting trees (and eventually being allowed to return in order to help, and to educate the public to the dangers).

“Hey, I ordered by beech trees rare. These are well done.”

The upshot of all this is that our hike took us through some seriously blasted landscapes. The burnt areas used to be the home of herds of guanácos, who,love to eat beech bark. You may remember them from my posts for the Atacama desert: they are camelids, closely related to llamas. This is about as far south as they are found, and we saw large numbers of them grazing on the hillsides as we drove into the park. To our surprise we encountered one moving hesitantly among the burnt-out beech trunks; I left the hiking trail to stalk him for a couple of minutes to get the shot that you see at right.

The park has a number of lakes of various sizes, and they host large concentrations of Cyanobacteria. Those are very ancient and primitive organisms which back in the day (the day being billions of years ago) helped convert the Earth’s atmosphere from carbon dioxide to oxygen. The other thing about them is that they are a striking blue color, and so the lakes practically glow with a deep cerulean blue. There are a number of small waterfalls in the area too, so the effect is striking, as you can see in the three photos below.

Blue lake, happy non-campers

Striking contrasts in the terrain

Postcard scenery amidst devastation from wildfires

The happy skies in the above pictures did not last; they never do around here. The clouds rolled in and we got the authentic Patagonian variable-weather experience, which is to say that it started to snow. Not very hard, and not for very long, but…c’mon. The temperature eventually climbed to about 50 but the clouds stuck around, and of course the wind never left.

We arrived at a hiking trailhead at about 2 PM and set off over an occasionally rocky path through the burnt out beech forest, towards some peaks collectively called Cuernos del Paine. (“Cuernos” means “horns”, from the shape of the peaks.) the goal was not the peaks themselves, which are high and forbidding and many miles away, but rather a lookout point from which to view them. We covered about 4.5 miles in total, fighting a howling wind for much of the time. The clouds moved in and swirled around the jagged peaks, giving us the sense that we had undertaken some quest through Mordor that no one had told us about. Here’s a scene from along the way:

Did someone lose a ring?

Notice how the branches on the tree have grown: the wind blows pretty much all the time here, and it is never a gentle breeze.

We are spending the night at one of a small number of rustic but comfortably appointed hotels (with wonderful mountain views) that are within the park boundaries. They’re hard to get into because the total number of rooms is small and so reservations must be made far in advance. But thank you, OAT, and here we are. 

Tomorrow is mostly a travel day. The are no roads over the mountains so we will be taking a lengthy roundabout bus ride on a counterclockwise semicircular route around them, south to north, to reach the city of El Calafate where we will be spending the next two nights (hopefully with wifi again so I can actually post this).

Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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