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After a 3 day journey from Ecuador to New Zealand (Quito to Lima to LA for 15 hours to Auckland… because of the Chilean earthquake) we arrived in need of a meal, a shower and food..in that order.

A couple of days acclimatising in Auckland and we were ready for the next adventure.  It felt very strange to be back in an English speaking country and we all spent the first 48 hours still speaking Spanish to everyone. We were constantly trying to find the hitch with things too. “What do you mean the bus is actually going to where it says it is on the front of the bus…what’s the catch?!” ….that and the fact that there were no chickens or goats on the bus. Man…we really missed them!

It was kind of nice having Western food again….mmm marmite, baked beans, proper tea, Guinness, but also a bit strange too. Where’s the rice and quinoa? What, no mystery meat floating in my vegetable soup?

So….we decided to try and create our own new adventure as soon as possible. We began by heading to Paihia in the Bay of Islands. Our intention was to swim with dolphins here, but nature had other plans in store.

We were all togged up and ready to go on the boat. It was a lovely, warm day and we were hopeful of finding a suitable pod to swim safely with. We became excited as we saw a large group of dolphins in the distance, but then quickly realised that they were swimming at lightening speed. In fact they were swimming for their lives as a group of Orcas (adults and babies) sped hungrily after them, looking for an early lunch.

It was one of those moments that was both amazing and very sad. To see the orca hunting was amazing. They have such skill and determination, but to see it actually catch and eat the dolphin and her baby was both outstanding and sad too. The great circle of life right in front of our eyes, an amazing biology lesson for us all.  Orca usually don’t hunt dolphins, there is much easier prey to catch out there in the ocean. Vanessa (the captain of the boat) said it was something they saw only once every few years. There it was, another absolute National Geographic moment right in front of our eyes.

The news made front page of the local newspaper and was even published in the UK press too. The photos they show (much better than ours) demonstrates exactly how amazing yet grotesque it was. The dolphin was thrown into the air, spine snapping on the end of the orca, and fell right into the Orca’s mouth. The dolphin had a small calf who also became lunch too. After their meal the orca were happy to hang around and play by the boat, giving us all an excellent view of the group, so close that we all got sprayed by them.

Take a look at the link, the photos are excellent (and sad too, see the baby dolphin watching it’s mother being eaten).

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1261276/Orca-dolphin-killer-Families-astonishing-attack-enjoy-nature-trip.html

Needless to say, after that, we weren’t allowed into the water to swim! Also, we didn’t see much other marine life as it had all ran and cowered in fear…can you blame them?! We were lucky enough to see another small pod of dolphins later that day but they too had infants so we didn’t swim with them.

But, you know what? We didn’t care at all. We all felt so fortunate to have witnessed all that we had, that we were more than content to forgo the actual aim of the day.

In between adventures in the the Amazon,  the cloud forest and Galapagos etc, we spent our time in and around Quito doing much less exiting things like getting our laundry done and exploring Equador’s capital city.

Quito certainly keeps you on your toes, it’s not the safest city in the world – in fact I think we were the only travellers in our hostel not to be mugged and robbed at some point during our stay! It’s a great shame as Ecuador is otherwise so beautiful and amazing.

So, one of the obligatory things you have to do whilst in Quito is visit the Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World). Yes, we went and stood on the equator line – step into the northern hemisphere – then  into the southern hemisphere – then put a foot in both hemispheres. It is cheesy and tacky, but it had to be done. 

We visited the Teleferico and rode a cable car to the top of Ruccu Pinchincha. It was pretty cool, the views over Quito are quite stunning – it gives you an appreciation of the cities sheer size.

Just before leaving we caught a ‘chicken’ bus (once again we were the only gringos on board) to Otavalo, a town famous for its artisan market. It’s a nice little place and the market was excellent – we all bought tagua jewellry. It was great being able to stand and watch the locals hand making bracelets and necklaces at great speed seemingly without much effort.

And so that brings to an end the Ecuadorian and South American portion of our journey. It’s very sad, none of us want to leave, we have had a fantastic time here on this continent. We will return one day (soon hopefully).

Adios South America, it’s been a blast! New Zealand here we come, you have a tough act to follow!

I think it is safe to say that Melody had a great 7th birthday!

It didn’t start the way she wanted – a 5:30am alarm call and a trek across an awesome, unspoiled volcanic landscape – but it got better.

After opening some presents over breakfast our first excursion was to a white sand beach where we got to snorkle and swim with schools of tropical fish and a few sharks also – not bad for a 7th birthday!

After lunch we took a trip in the zodiac to the mangroves and were fortunate enough to see many beautiful sea turtles swiming around. Apparently sometimes they just hide and visitors see nothing. It was extremely hot that afternoon and the mangroves were full of mosquitoes, but it was a small price to pay for what we saw.

When we returned to the boat the crew had decorated the galley with colourful happy birthday balloons and the chef prepared Melody’s requested meal – hot dog and chips. He even baked an enormous, delicious chocolate cake all iced and ready to go with candles. The cake was wonky because when it was baking in the oven the boat was listing to one side!

After dinner Melody, Naomi and Taylor ran around the boat playing until they were exhausted and literally fell into bed – a great day indeed! I’m not sure how we can top this for her 8th birthday.

The Galapagos, one of the most unique environments on earth – a place where you can actually see living evidence of the process of evolution with your own eyes.

This was one part of our trip we had planned in advance and we were all looking forward to it. We had five days on board a boat to tour the islands, it was going to be fun and we were ready to make te most of it. Melody was particularly exited as it was her 7th birthday whilst on our voyage.

It was incredible and fantastic and all those other words people use to describe this place. Just as an example of what the Galapagos can be like – on day one we awoke, came down from our cabins and stood out on the dive platform on the rear of our boat to take in the stunning view, the morning sun and shake the sleep from our eyes, when suddenly two enormous sharks emerged from under the water just a few feet away, swum around for a couple of minutes and promtly disappeared back beneath the glistening blue waves. Our guide Diego told us that we were very lucky to see them, as at the time we were anchored in fairly shallow waters and it was unusual for them to be swimming that close to shore.

All our wishes came true while we were there! We swam with sharks, sea lions, stingrays and penguins which was very cool – in fact Naomi trod on a stingray by mistake and only realised when it swam off. A lot of things just happen in ‘the moment’ and you have to be content with seeing things with your own eyes and not getting a photo; nature happens when it happens, it doesn’t stand and pose for you. For example, one afternoon whilst relaxing with a beer on deck we saw an enormous tuna fish (6 – 7 feet long) come bursting out of the water into the air, it arced over and splashed back down into the ocean and vanished. The whole event lasted maybe three seconds but it was an awesome site to see.

Other unexpected sitings included flying fish (very cool) and hammerhead sharks. But Naomi’s favourite were the dolphins – they just appear, swimming along the side of boat while it’s sailing.

Melody really loved seeing all the lizards and iguanas, and they were literally everywhere, and she wanted to stop and talk to them all (we had to stop her from picking them up and hiding them in her bag). Walking up the dock on our way to the Darwin Institute there were perhaps a hundred marine iguanas playing and taking in the sun. Just like all the wildlife on Galapagos, they aren’t bothered at all by human prescence.

The sea lions are also everywhere, they even sleep on the dive platform at the rear of the boat. On a visit to a sealion colony Amanda and Melody were chased out of the water and up the beach by a fiesty male who had taken a shine to them.

We had the pleasure of sharing our Galapagos adventure with our new friends – Karl, Leigh and their daughter Taylor. It made our trip extra fun and it meant that Melody had a play mate.

It was a fantastic experience, but by the end we were glad to be back on terra firma as the previous night the sea was particularly rough (an after effect of the second earthquake in Chile) which brought on a serious bout of sea sickness…we won’t go into the graphic details, but it was messy!

We took hundreds of pictures, none of them really doing  justice to what we saw, but here’s a link to a selection of them.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/43583549@N02/sets/72157623600887721/show/

Naomi’s Jungle:

On the first day when we swam in the black water lake I was a bit nervous because it was filled with piranhas, but when I got in and started swimming I thought it was fun. There were also needle fish and caimens in the water too. I had a mosquito bite on my toe and because I scratched it a lot it started to bleed and a piranha bit my toe – it hurt. You could see the piranhas jumping out of the water catching flies.
We went fishing for piranhas a couple of days later and I managed to catch one. It was slimy, sticky, very, very wriggly and it had tiny razor sharp teeth. I asked the chef to cook it for my dinner and so I got my revenge. There was not a lot of meat and it did not taste of much and it had lots of bones. It’s skin was very crispy and it had a long spine.

Nasty Piranha...ha ha ha, I'm going to eat YOU!

  

Melody and her River Turtle:

While we were in the jungle I found a tiny baby river turtle – it was small and cute. It hatched in the day but it was supposed to hatch at night so it was lost. Our guide Daniella said, “We should not rescue it, because it’s nature and we should let it get eaten”. But I thought it was sad, so I rescued it anyway and put it back in the river so it would not get eaten.

My tiny turtle

…And here is a link to a video of some of our favourite bugs that we saw.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivcSREHcd1g

It was a dream of ours, whilst planning this trip, to visit the Amazon rainforest. That isn’t difficult, there are lots of entry points into the secondary, shallow, peripheral forest. But… we didn’t want that. We wanted to go as deep in as we could go into primary rainforest. After a lot of research and a last minute booking (24 hours before we left), we settled on La Selva Ecolodge.

What can I say? Words fail to adequately describe just how mind blowingly amazing it was for all of us. There were so many adventures that it’s difficult to recall them all. We will all take different memories and cherish them forever.

The journey began in the first class lounge at Quito airport – a very unexpected bonus of booking last minute. Then followed a 20 minute flight to Coca , 3 hours travelling at high speed down the Rio Napo in a motorised canoe , a 20 minute walk through the jungle and finally a further 20 minute voyage in a dugout canoe across a black water lake. Finally we arrived – to the flattest, most dense green area that you have ever seen!

Let us all tell you about our favourite bits:

Amanda:

* The environment. We have visited several patches of jungle on this trip and I’ve always thought “is this jungle then? It just feels like hot forest.” But this REALLY felt like jungle. It was just like standing in one of those National Geographic photographs. The air was steamy, the trees were huge, all stretching and competing for sunlight in the high canopy. Vines hung from every inch of space and rotting vegetation coated the earth – all absolutely alive with bugs and insects.

* The storms. They don’t call it the rainforest for nothing! Every afternoon around 5pm, the rains would start. There is ample warning, the landscape is so flat that you can watch lightening fork miles in the distance, the light growing in intensity as it approaches. And the thunder? I’ve never heard thunder like it. The ground practically shakes, it’s deafening and amazing at the same time.

Coats/ponchos are useless when the rain begins. It’s so heavy that you are soaked to the bone in seconds – but who cares! Melody danced around in it for an hour, happily jumping in and out of newly formed puddles and streams. Pure childhood innocence in the middle if the Amazon rainforest.

* The night sky. Those posters you can buy for bedroom walls, charting the constellations? I feel like I’ve been in one of those. On a clear night you can see EVERYTHING, it’s amazing. No light pollution, absolute dense darkness, just bright shining stars as far as the eye can see. An overwhelmingly beautiful sight.

* The sounds of the jungle. It is never, ever silent. In fact, it’s usually deafening, particularly at night. The near sounds – the bat clicking away in the roof cavity, the insects scurrying across the cabin floor, the geckos chasing the insects across the cabin floor and the flying bugs buzzing constantly. Then there’s those further away sounds – the howler monkeys…well howling; the squirrel monkeys jumping branch to branch screeching as they go and the frogs and cicadas seemingly in competition to see who is loudest. 

* The Children. Watching Naomi and Melody play with Kichuan children – absolutely no similarities in their daily lives at all, yet they played together joyfully for almost 2 hours. Games of chase and tig, no words required. A boy of 6 years old who could hunt with more skill than I have ever seen. The 18 month old girl crawling around the forest, self sufficient – again, amazing! 

Friendship in the jungle

John:

The primary Amazon in Ecuador; the densest and most biodiverse section of the rainforest outside of Brazil. I’m afraid my brain is ill equipped and my vocabulary woefully inadequate to properly describe this awesome spectacle of nature. It is a constant, humbling sensory overload of life, colour and magic.

So, where to start? What can I tell you? What did we see? In no particular order: squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, pygmy marmosets, tamarinds, , toucans, river turtles, caimens, stinky turkeys, hawks, eagles, ospreys, mot-mots and dozens of other jungle birds, fishing bats, lizards, tarantulas (we shared our cabin with a couple of them), vipers, scorpions, poisonous tree frogs, the largest worm in the world, crickets, beetles, caterpillars (including the rare and poisonous bumblebee caterpillar), millipedes, many moths and butterflies, piranhas, sardines, huge dragonflies, some enormous wasps and flies, praying mantis, ants (including the very nasty bullet ant whose sting can incapacitate an adult for 24 hours), many mosquitoes (all of whom wanted a piece of me), so many flowers and trees I can’t remember, several full on rainforest storms and the biggest, brightest night sky I have ever seen. Phew! My apologies to any jungle creatures I may have forgotten.
For me it was all about the wildlife, especially the monkeys – I just love monkeys and I wasn’t disappointed. Before we had even reached the jungle lodge we were treated to lizards, colourful grasshoppers, a troop of squirrel monkeys and several species of colourful birds.

Our stay in the jungle was made all the more fun as we made new friends there, the Marr-Laing family from Red Deer, Canada – they were great company and I hope we see them again soon.

Our expeditions each day were amazing and we were expertly led by two great guides, Daniella our academic naturalist guide who could name everything we saw and Raul our native guide who could spot the tiniest creatures from many feet away.

The other highlights for me were swimming with piranhas each day in a black water lake, this is a little scary at first and then you realise that they don’t want anything to do with you (unless you are bleeding that is). We also spent a wonderful and fascinating morning in the home of a REAL native Amazonian family; we learnt about their customs and way of life -our host even explained and demonstrated how he constructed his home as well as sharing his quite mind blowing home brew with us. But the real treat came when he took us outside and taught us how to fire a hunting dart through a traditional blow pipe. His six year old grandson could hit the target every time – I missed by a country mile each time.
I did not want to leave the Amazon, it was such a great experience in an utterly inspiring environment.

Monkey and me!

 

And here’s a video of some of the things we got up to:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ve2qElPG3dA

Ok….so we told you all about how beautiful and tranquil Mindo was, which is true, but we also had a blast seeking adrenaline rushes there too!

For the modest sum of around $12 each you can climb high into the cloudforest canopy, strap yourself to a bit of wire and throw yourself from one tree to another on HUGE ziplines….13 of them over 3650m of cable! We were fairly sure that at least Melody would be too small to participate (dumb western thinking again). No…this is Ecuador…anything goes!

The girls were fearless as usual, happily throwing themselves off very high ledges (around 500ft at times) and speeding headfirst towards the trees and platforms at the other end, whilst Amanda stood quaking and offering to go last. John, in super hero mode (again!), obviously had to try zip lining headfirst and upside down too. He escaped without injury, further supporting his ‘immortality theory’. We all had a great morning, and being with the Goodins meant that we all had lots of motivation and teasing from the sidelines too…a team event!

(We’ve got to admit, at this point in the journey we are becoming almost concerned at Naomi and Melody’s lack of fear. Surely it’s not completely a good thing? We’ve created small adrenaline junkies and need to find them an outlet for this when we return to the UK!)

We have some fab videos from the ziplining but we can’t upload them at the moment. Here’s some photos though:

The truck ride up to the canopies

'Gringo Man' the travelling super hero

Team Firth/ Goodin!

John soaring away

The girls flying (with a guide) down the fastest line....dangerous (in retrospect!)

El Nomo The Fearless

Amanda completely terrified

Melody preparing for take off

 …and then the next day…

The Terabita, an engineering miracle (in everyway!). To access some walking trails at the other side of the forest you must take a cable car over a 500m deep gorge. Ok, that doesn’t sound too bad does it? What if I tell you it’s an open carriage on a line driven by an old car engine? There’s no escape exit if it breaks down either! It was so ‘Ecuadorian’ that we had to laugh…and try it out. We survived the journey there and took a hike to a waterfall before braving the journey back – a fun morning. 

We  took photos of this engineering miracle just for our fathers!

The highly trained operator and his rigidly tested, high spec equipment!

Do you dare? We do!

Don't look down!

The Goodins

Random funky lizard eating lunch

So there you go…the fabulous Mindo. We loved it here and would return tomorrow given the chance.

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