About Fiona Trott

I normally stand somewhere cold for BBC News. Off round the world for a year for beasts, pistes and feasts. Follow @thefionatrott

Australia: WWOOFing Again

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It’s hard work, but somebody has to do it. This is Thompson’s Farm at Batchelor in Australia’s Northern Territory. The last time I was WWOOFing, I was picking buds off vines. This time, I’ve been picking watermelons off vines. They’re slightly heavier. 12kg heavier in fact.

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The trick is to look for one that’s already caught the sun. There should be signs of a yellow patch on the skin. You then give it a tap. If it makes a noise like a ‘ping’ or a ‘bounce’, it’s good to go. If it’s dense, it’s overripe. If it’s hollow, you have to turn it around for a closer look because something else has obviously got there first. Watermelons are a delicious feast for white ants, cockatoos and wild pigs. I’ve had to chase off wallabies who love the shoots.

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You can understand why these ‘sugar babies’, (as they’re affectionally known) are so popular. There’s nothing better than sitting on the back of a truck after a hard morning’s work and eating a slice of sweet, juicy melon warmed by the sun. We’ve called it ‘testing’ although that doesn’t really make sense, because the rest of it can’t be used. Do you see the cunning nature of our work?

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We’ve also been picking bananas. They’re covered in plastic to keep the moisture in and the moths, rats and spiders out. The first step is to feel for a full fruit. Then, if you open it up and it looks like some of the bananas are turning yellow, it’s time to cut off the bunch.

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You leave a few inches on the stem so that there’s enough room to hang them and get the bananas fully ripe.

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Once the fruit is picked, it’s time to cut down the entire tree. This is because one tree can only produce one bunch. It’s surprisingly easy – the trunk is fibrous and mushy. You just have to get out of the way when it falls.

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Laying down irrigation lines is dirty, dusty work on a hot and windy day – and it has been hot, with an average of 34c. I love the rich red colour of the soil but up until three years ago, some of this couldn’t be used. Years of chemicals had taken their toll. That’s why the Thompsons started using organic farming methods instead. They now use soil enhancers like gypsum, agralime and chicken manure. The main pesticide is neem oil. They also use potassium silicate, which feels like small shards of glass. The results are good. The watermelons can now grow up to 12 or 15 kilos. Five years ago, they only reached 8. The yield from courgettes has tripled.

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They’re a favourite with the cows here. Any bad fruit or vegetables that we’ve picked has gone straight to them. They’re the happiest beasts you’ll ever meet.

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The farm shop has been another satisfying part of the volunteering – proudly displaying the produce you’ve carefully planted, picked or packed. Customers talk about how much better they taste than the fruit and vegetables they buy in the supermarket.

The farm manager and his wife are expecting their first baby in November. He wants the soil to last long enough for his own children to grow vegetables here. That’s why the organic way works for them.

Australia: Catching up with the Expats

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They look like a group of ants on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I was one of them – 134 metres up in 37 kmph winds. There’s a good view up there but peering down at the traffic below your feet is an unusual feeling. The climb was a gift from one of my relatives in Richmond, NSW. I hadn’t seen him since I was three years old. That’s the problem with Australia – it lures people away. In his case, he left Britain after reaching retirement age in the RAF. The former Spitfire pilot wasn’t ready to give up flying just yet, so he decided to join the RAAF where he could take to the skies for a few more years. Of course, not everybody’s family came here by choice. I heard a story about a woman called Mary Reibey from Lancashire. In the late 1770s, she disguised herself as a boy to try and get on in life and was arrested for stealing a horse. Apparently, that was enough to be sent to Australia on a convict ship. She married a junior officer from the Britannia and as the years went by, they made a fortune in property and cargo. After her husband passed away, she took charge of everything and even set up the Bank of New South Wales in her own home. Mary Reibey’s now on the back of the $20 note.

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Not bad for a horse thief from Bury.

I learned something else during my first week in Australia – kangaroos are huge. I spotted my first one hiding in the woods:

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He was scratching his bottom against a tree. It wasn’t the scenic first encounter I was hoping for.

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Look closely at this door. It’s down a side street in Melbourne. It looks like the exit from a restaurant kitchen but it’s actually the entrance to a swanky bar. Experiencing Melbourne nightlife is a bit like being Alice in Wonderland. You can go through random doors and walk up several flights of stairs before finding a rooftop terrace with fantastic views or exotic bars with eccentric themes. The friends who showed me around this city also left Britain for Australia. No horse stealing, just looking for a new way of life.

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When I arrived in Queensland some very trusting friends let me drive on the beach at Cooloola. It felt amazing touching the waterline and not being entirely successful in missing the bumps (I helped clean the car afterwards). Miles later we reached the cliffs. We climbed to the top and I heard a loud exhaling sound:

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It was the first time I’d ever seen a whale playing in the ocean. A pod of dolphins then arrived wanting a piece of the action and it let out a moan. It was magical.

We then took a walk around Noosa National Park. It’s amazing what you can find when you look hard enough:

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And it’s amazing what you can discover when you’re hungry enough. Think of all the dockland areas you know that need to be redeveloped and then take a look at this:

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This is Eat Street Markets in Brisbane where rows and rows of ship containers have been transformed into mini restaurants and the pallets and reels have been turned into tables and chairs. Here, a forkful of food can transport you to France, Singapore or Mexico and you can listen to live music under the stars.

My next stop was the Great Barrier Reef.

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This was a very nosy Maori Wrasse at Miln Reef. It was a privilege to meet him and hundreds of others after turning up uninvited:

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It’s breathtaking but it needs to be protected. The latest threat is from a huge mining development. Read this: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/great-barrier-reef

Cairns was my final stop before heading up to the Northern Territory for a month. It was time for more WWOOFing – this time, in the Australian bush.

Beautiful, Hospitable, Unpredictable New Zealand

Sunday 15th June 2014 – that day was stolen from my life somewhere over the Pacific. So once I arrived in New Zealand, I thought I’d better make up for it.

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A few seconds of sinus pain were followed by a few seconds of serenity. Then came a few seconds of bewilderment – on the river below my head, staff were shouting up at me and telling me to grab hold of a pole, (apparently it helps them pull you to safety). Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown is the site of the first commercial bungy jump in the world. It marked the end of a three week trip where I’d met some of the most hospitable people in the world and seen some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world.

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It all started on the North Island. I battled the jetlag by taking a long walk around Auckland. I started at the Wynyard Quarter, strolled around the fish market and went up to Victoria Park Market for a coffee. After my second, I climbed up Franklin Road and into Ponsonby. There were dozens and dozens of coffee shops, (can you see a pattern emerging in this part of the world?) boutiques and beautiful wooden villas. The best views were from Mount Eden (above) which is the highest volcano in the city. There are beaches too. The next day, I took a bus down to Mission Bay and looked out towards Rangitoto Island. Auckland Art Gallery is also worth a visit, just for Lindauer’s and Goldie’s Maori portraits alone.

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Have you ever seen anything like this before? It’s the Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu. The geothermal landscape around Rotorua is so unusual. Almost everywhere you look there are plumes of steam coming out of the ground and when you get closer, you can actually hear bubbling and belching as the air escapes from the hot mud. The hydrogen sulphide makes it smelly too – sadly for Rotorua, it’s a bit like rotten egg. On a Thursday night though, all that changes when you’re seduced by the aroma of hot pies, paella, crepes and cakes. All the local traders hold a market on Tutanekai Street.

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It’s where I tried my first cronut – a cross between a croissant and a doughnut. Delicious.

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As I was on the North Island, it only felt right that I should go to the final test match between the All Blacks and England. So, I went back to Hamilton and endured the hardest eighty minutes of my life – a minority England supporter drowning in a sea of black. Despite the outcome, seeing the home side in action was a privilege. (Besides, there’s always the World Cup …)

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It was time for more coffee and Wellington was the city that converted me to flat whites – microfoam poured over a double shot. Cuba Street was the best café spot for this taste of Kiwi culture. To learn more about Maori history, I spent twenty minutes inside a vault. I went to Archives New Zealand and scanned the faint signatures on what remains of the Waitangi Treaty. There was water by the door, so that people who believe in tapu could sprinkle themselves and leave the spirits of their ancestors behind. I was the only one inside that room and in those few minutes I felt closer to Maori history than I did after three hours at the Te Papa Museum (as brilliant as it is). I then carried on down to Parliament House and dipped into PMQs. The Speaker threatened to throw out one of the MPs. It seems that wherever you are in the world, it can always be a source of entertainment.

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This was a sight I wasn’t used to. Those lovely leafy vines in sunny California suddenly seemed like a distant memory. It was winter here in Marlborough, but luckily the cellar doors were still open. I tasted some of the best Sauvignon Blancs of my life at Cloudy Bay and at the organic Rockferry winery. But it’s not all about the grape. It’s also worth stopping off at the Makana chocolate factory (the macadamia nut brittle is delicious) and the Moa Brewery, just for something different (who knew that warm, spicy beer could actually taste quite nice?)

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It’s been three years since Christchurch’s fatal earthquake. I was surprised to see the odd squatter hanging out in the remains of an old business block or bar which are still waiting to be saved or scrapped. It made me realise just how devastating the earthquake was. I was advised to skip this part of New Zealand because there was ‘nothing to see’. They were wrong. Beyond the bridges and between the broken bricks you can still see signs of a beautiful city and a visit to the brilliant Re:Start mall is time well spent and money well spent to help the city get back on its feet.

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This is what a pit stop looks like in New Zealand. I thought that travelling by bus would limit my options in such a beautiful country, but as car park views go, this spot at Lake Tekapo wasn’t half bad. The drivers even point out landmarks or seal colonies for you along the way.

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Doubtful Sound is one of New Zealand’s last remaining pristine wilderness areas. It took two coach rides, two boat journeys and about four hours to reach it, but it was totally worth it.

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This is the view from one of Wanaka’s hiking spots – Mount Iron. The township is a more laid back version of Queenstown. I loved it. Sadly, no skiing at Cordrona because the weather wasn’t up to it, but that didn’t matter. I had a great time. This is because I was with a group of people who’d welcomed me into their homes. It wasn’t the first time either. Thanks to some friends in the UK, I met some legendary New Zealanders who went out of their way to help me make the most of my time here. What’s more, I’ve never been offered so many lifts by complete strangers who genuinely just wanted to help.

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Beautiful and hospitable. Unpredictable too – with it’s steaming pools, volcanoes and earth tremors, I felt like anything could happen at any moment. Sadly though, not a hobbit in sight.

Santiago – in Pictures

After Peru, Chile was a shock to the system. It was so cold that I took a salsa class just to keep warm. Another tactic was to keep walking…

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Student protest. The tear gas and water cannon made me walk faster. Despite the streaming eyes, a good result.

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View of Santiago from Cerro San Cristóbal.

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‘Chile Before Chile’ exhibition at the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino.

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Spotted at one of the university buildings. This is a city where you have to keep looking up. You might miss something.

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I wouldn’t think of visiting the Cementario General, but I’m glad I did. The architecture is stunning. I was accompanying a friend who was a clown – strange but true. There are special areas where people are buried according to their profession and her fellow payasos had a mausoleum in the shape of a Big Top.

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Ricardo Mesa’s raised fists door handles at the Gabriela Mistral Centre. I was told they were turned upside down during Pinochet’s military rule.

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There are stray dogs everywhere. Apparently, over 2,000,000 in Santiago. They’ll happily follow you from A to B – I even saw them running around with the protestors and the police. Some of them look quite healthy and have doggy coats because people look after them.

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This isn’t a wardrobe – it’s a lavatory. Who knew that Narnia was at a restaurant in Santiago? Peluquería Francesca is worth a visit just to check out the quirky antique interior. A good hot chocolate too, on a cold day.

Next stop – New Zealand.

Hats of Peru

More ladies than men seem to wear them – perhaps for modesty, perhaps it reflects the region where they’re from. That aside, if you’re not keeping the sun off here, you’re having to keep warm – often in the same day …

TOP HAT:

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Older ladies seem to wear these. Fancy.

BOWLER:

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If it’s good enough for a London City Gent, it’s good enough for a Cusco City Lady.

PANAMA:

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An Ecuadorian influence perhaps.

FLAT:

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They create a lot of shade. Baby Alpaca is optional.

FLOPPY:

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All the children (and some parents) wear these. A bit like Paddington Bear.

CHULLO:

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They look cool on the slopes, but you saw them here first.

Mystery and Majesty

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“Urubam, Urubam, Urubamba!” Shouted the driver. I’d just arrived in Peru and decided to spend a few days up in the Andes. I wedged myself between a man balancing a child on his knees and a woman sucking the life out of an orange. I suddenly caught the driver taking my rucksack and putting it on the roof. I decided to get out and supervise. “It’s OK!” he shouted, “Safe!” I handed him my chain lock just in case. As we made our way through the Sacred Valley, the mental images I had of Peru suddenly came to life – snow capped mountains, women carrying children in their mantas and even the odd alpaca.

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Once we arrived in Urubamba, I found myself in the middle of the Señor de Torrechayoc festival. Hundreds of people were parading through the streets carrying an image of Christ. Apparently, it celebrates a time when travellers in the town experienced weird dreams near the site of a cross.

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I wondered if that was why some of the dancers wore weird masks. The festivities lasted for days but my dreams were no stranger than normal.

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In the morning, I’d walk into town and go to the market. It had the best tomatoes and avocados I’ve ever tasted. I turned down the guinea pig.

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The women here are fit. I don’t know how they carry their children and their groceries up those hills. The altitude made me feel like there was an elephant sitting on my chest, but it was good preparation for what came next.

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What little breath I had, was taken away at this point. Hidden high in the mountains, Machu Picchu is mysterious and majestic. The questions about why this city was designed with such definitude are only replaced by more questions about how it was all achieved.

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Can you make out the condor with its open wings on the rocks behind it? This temple represents the ‘upper world’ inhabited by superior gods. It’s thought the head may have been used as a sacrificial altar.

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These reflecting pools were used to watch the sun and the moon.

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It was then time to spend a few days in the historic capital of the Inca Empire. I wasn’t expecting to see a Starbucks and a McDonald’s in Cusco, but I suppose that’s a positive side of being in a busy travellers’ hub – there are places that have treats. And when I say treats, I also mean fresh green vegetables. I made up for lost time in the cafes around Plaza de Armas and San Blas. The odd salad, milkshake and cake may have been scoffed more than once at places like Green Point, Cafe Morena and Jack’s Cafe. (By the way, Green Point does a brilliant four course lunch for just S10.00 / £2).

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For the more traditional side of Cusco I went to San Pedro Market. You can by-bass the tourist gifts and go where the locals go. There are lines of stalls making any kind of juice that you want …

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… or any kind of food that you want. All of it fresh and all of it local.
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Is there anything cuter than this? It was one of many parades in the city. I picked the right month. June is apparently Cusco’s anniversary month and all these events lead up to the Festival of the Sun.

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I wish I could have stayed on to experience it. Peru is such a beautiful and mystical place and I only saw a small part of it. Next stop – Chile.

Surprises – Good and Bad

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This is the man I came to see – President Rafael Correa. Whilst in Quito, I was told that he always comes out onto his balcony for the Changing of the Guard ceremony. What surprised me, was the response.

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Hundreds of people were waving flags and shouting, “Viva Ecuador!” The national anthem then started up. Not surprisingly, I didn’t recognise the tune and the older woman standing next to me took the cap off my head and told me to show some respect.

Minutes later, this happened:

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Ecuador’s World Cup football squad arrived. Hundreds more packed into the Plaza Grande to cheer them on. The atmosphere was fantastic. I tried to work my way through the crowds to get a better view, “Let her through” I heard someone say. People do make you feel welcome here. The day before, I went into a shop to ask for directions and the woman gave me her telephone number just in case I got lost.

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Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a beautiful city to walk around. I got a great view from the Vista Hermosa restaurant one night where I tried Canelazo for the first time – an alcoholic drink served in a teapot. What’s not to like?

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The Virgin of Quito can be spotted from most parts of the centro histórico, which is a great place to explore on a Sunday when the streets are closed to traffic. I was drawn towards the gold interior of la Compañía and found that a classical concert was about to start. It was the longest time I’d ever spent in a church.

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Another nice surprise was being invited up to Mindo by some friends I’d made on the road. The town is located in the foothills of the Andes, about a two hour drive from Quito. It was beautiful. I hiked up to the Cascada Reina and felt like I had the entire canopy to myself. Maybe this was why:

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Getting to the waterfalls involves a ride in a cable car high above the treetops. I say cable car, but it’s basically a platform on a pully. It’s not for the faint-hearted. When the attendant dropped me off he said, “Just kick the cable when you’re ready and we’ll know to come and get you.”

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The antidote was a visit I made to a local chocolate factory. They take you through the whole process from fermenting to tempering. Obviously, the best part was the tasting. We tried a 100% cocoa liquid and gradually added sugar to make it more palatable, then some nibs, ginger syrup and even a barbecue sauce. Chocolate is used a lot in the meat dishes here.

After the hustle and bustle of Quito, Mindo was a really relaxing place. This was my favourite spot:

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With good surprises, come bad ones. I’d planned and prepared for credit card fraud on this trip, but I wasn’t expecting it to be inside a bank, during a face to face transaction. But – I prefer to leave Ecuador remembering the kindness of others. One driver I got to know dropped me off at the airport. He gave me a big hug and said “Goodbye my friend!” With any luck, the investigation will be dealt with quickly. The nice surprises will stay with me forever.

Island Hopping in the Galápagos

image For somebody who get’s seasick, it was an ambitious task – taking photographs whilst sailing around an archipelago. In a quiet moment, I wept into my lifejacket.

But it was the Galápagos Islands and I’d wanted to go there since I was a little girl. Here’s why:

image When you meet a giant tortoise, it’s very clear who’s in charge. As they plod down the path, you soon realise you’re in their way. If you accidentally get too close, they hiss at you. It takes you by surprise, especially when they’re hiding at the side of the road. This picture was taken on Santa Cruz. I was told that the females here walk 15km down to the sea to lay their eggs.

image This tortoise on Isabela was one of many rescued by helicopter when the Cerro Azul volcano erupted in 1998. It’s housed at a local breeding centre. They’re trying to get the numbers back up and successfully bred 200 in the first couple of years. The new generation have gradually been released back into the wild. image With their funny little dance and bright blue feet, you can understand why the blue-footed booby is a star attraction on the Galápagos. I spotted this one at Academy Bay. Conservationists here say the population has decreased by two thirds since the early ’90s. They believe it’s partly due to overfishing in Peruvian waters.

image As you wouldn’t expect tortoises to give you the right of way, don’t expect sea lions to give up their seat for you either. Here at San Cristóbal I learned just how cheeky they can be. After finishing the vounteer project, I went down to La Lobearía for an early morning swim. Suddenly, a sea lion pup popped up next to me as if to ask, “What are you doing here?” He then started to roll around in the water. He did it a few times and I copied him. His Mum then appeared, which made me a little nervous, but we played for a short while and the two of them swam off.

image They’re usually the first thing you see when you arrive at any of the islands – a wonderful welcome party. Sadly, the El Ninos in 1988 and 1998 have had a drastic affect on their numbers. Conservationists say about half the population was lost and has yet to recover.

image The Galápagos penguin has also been affected by weather events. The species is endangered – there are now fewer than 2000 living on the islands. That matters, because they’re the only penguins who live north of the equator. I found these ones at Floreana. I was surprised by how small they were – about 49cm long.

image Charles Darwin described marine iguanas as ‘hideous-looking creatures, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in their movements’.

image This little family at Santa Cruz certainly look quite sinister, don’t they! Their white faces look ghostly. At Las Tintoreras, they were overtaking me in the water. It seemed strange to see these reptiles swim.

image I came across yellow land iguanas on a hike up to the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela. Pink ones live in the northern part of the island, but the area is closed to travellers.

image I love these Sally Lightfoot crabs. You can spot them out at sea because their red shells are so bright against the black rocks.

imageThey crawl all over the marine iguanas, who don’t seem to mind.

image I was so busy watching the wildlife, that I almost forgot about the beaches. This is Tortuga Bay, about an hour’s walk from the harbour at Santa Cruz. It was a great place to relax. There were more iguanas sunbathing, than people.

image Getting from one island to the other is easy to do. There are plenty of tour companies around the harbours who sell tickets. Some of them offer last minute deals. The average price is about $100. Allow yourself time for the authorities to search and tag your bag – they need to check that nothing organic is transferred from one island to the other. Theoretically, once sealed, you can’t get anything out. If you do have to break in, make sure you keep your tag to show them at the other side. It’s best to put a rain cover over your bag, because it will get wet on board.

image Once on the islands, you can find these white taxis everywhere and they’re inexpensive. The most I paid to get to a local hotel was $2.

image I was very sad to leave the Galápagos. One day, there’ll be a tablet strong enough for me to enjoy the manta rays and dolphins out at sea, instead of quietly acknowledging them out of the corner of my eye!

Cute Crawlers and Creepy Crawlies

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They’re famously slow, but it’s surprising how quickly Giant Tortoises can move once they’ve spotted their breakfast. This was feeding time at the Galápagos National Park and I was lucky enough to volunteer there as part of a conservation project run by the Jatun Sacha Foundation on San Cristóbal. I like this picture. With that backpack on, I look like a tortoise myself.

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The volunteer work has been one of the toughest on the trip so far. It’s based at a biological station in the middle of the forest. Mosquitoes are rife. There’s 90% humidity too. Using a machete is like trying to swing a golf club in a swimming pool – but it’s necessary. Conservationists here say some birds are extinct or endangered because trees like Scalesia have gradually disappeared. So, we’ve been cutting down invasive plants like mora (blackberry bushes) so that endemic trees can be planted instead. The only problem is that these thorny thickets tower over your head. It’s a challenge. Another challenge is getting up close and personal with all the wonderful creatures that nature has to offer. Let me introduce you to my roommate:

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It was the largest of the little gang that was awaiting my arrival. I asked another volunteer if there were any poisonous spiders at the station. “No,” she replied, “although they did find a type of black widow in somebody’s boot.” That would be a ‘yes’ then, surely?

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The conservation project also works with local landowners to help them develop organic farming methods, so that they can sell their produce to restaurants and hotels. It also promotes sustainability by growing its own fruit and vegetables. We’ve been picking pineapples, passion fruit, oranges and bananas but some fruit is best left alone.

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This is one of the smelliest you’ll ever find. Its called noni fruit and it smells like rotting cheese. Despite it’s aroma, it’s loved by many. It’s said to have medicinal or anti-ageing properties and this little specimen apparently costs $60 in the shops.

So, in the middle of a forest, with no shops and temperatures of 80f, how did they manage this?

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It was my birthday last week. It may have been one of the hardest projects so far, but I felt very lucky indeed.

Beyond Bikinis

Beautiful beaches, endless sunshine and Don Johnson’s pushed-up jacket sleeves. That was my mental image of Miami. There’s more.

ART DECO ARCHITECTURE

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The Colony Theatre opened in 1935 as part of Paramount Pictures’ cinema chain

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The Delano was once the tallest building in Miami Beach. It forms part of a show-stopping line of graceful hotels on Collins Avenue

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The Raleigh is another one. Its sculpted pool and waterfall were a backdrop for some of Esther Williams’ movies

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The Carlyle hotel on Ocean Drive

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The nearby Cavalier

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Portholes at The Tides hotel on Ocean Drive

 

ART

The Sagamore hotel owned by the Taplin family on Collins Avenue displays some of their private art collection. It’s a gallery in its own right:

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This is Tony Oursler’s Talking Heads. Look familiar? He directed David Bowie’s Where Are We Now? video

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Roxy Paine’s Amanita Virosa Wall #4, 2001

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Garry Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful series

Anybody visiting Miami must go to the Wynwood Arts District. A playground for street artists and dozens of galleries, studios and cafés:

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Ron English

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Miss Van

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Interesni Kazki

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Meet the lovely, talented Ryan The Wheelbarrow. He’s also the man behind Wynwood Mural Tours.

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Shoefiti – it’s not just the walls

 

The Perez Art Museum in downtown Miami:

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It has a great exhibition on at the moment – The Caribbean: Crossroads of the World. There’s the city’s Art Basel in December too. International art and winter sunshine are a tempting combination.