Around the “Nagelfluhkette”

The chances are that you’ve never heard of the Nagelfluhkette – at least I’d be somewhat surprised if you have ! The unusual name refers to a compact mountain range at the northern edge of the Allgäu Alps in South Eastern Bavaria. These mountains reach their highest point at the peak of “Hochgrat”, 1,834m above sea level – located at the western end of the highest ridge and overlooking the pretty spa resort of Oberstaufen. The Nagelfluhkette as a whole, comprise of a series of parallel ridges which run to the south west of the Illertal, the main valley of the Allgäu Region, where the settlements of Sonthofen and Immenstadt lie.

So how exactly did the Nagelfluhkette get it’s curious sounding name ? Well, in Scotland, where I come from, we have the rather more fun (and appetising) sounding “pudding stone”; a soft conglomerate rock made from many smaller, rounded stones which have been compacted together under huge geological pressure. Indeed, this type of stone is quite common along the edge of the Highland Boundary Fault in Central Scotland, particularly around the Aberfoyle and the Trossachs area. In short, “Nagelfluh”, equates to “pudding stone”; the German name deriving from the rounded pebbles which are visible in the rock and which are said to resemble the heads of nails which have been hammered into the stone.

Coming back to Bavaria; the whole of the Nagelfluhkette area is now designated as a Nature Park and it was the first cross-border Nature Park created between Germany and Austria. The primary objective is the protection, care and development of nature and landscape. Nature parks generally aim to integrate nature conservation objectives with the promotion of local tourism and sustainable development. In that respect they differ from National Parks in Central Europe, which normally give a greater overall priority to strict nature conservation.

We visited the area in the autumn holidays in 2021 and despite predicted bed weather (which fortunately only actually materialised for one day) and the ongoing Corona Pandemic restrictions, we had a great time. The highlight must surely have been the view from the Hochgrat ridge itself, which is accessible by characterful vintage gondola, followed by brief a 20 minute hike to the summit. Like some Scottish peaks, the view, in all directions, is surely out of all proportion to the height of the peak itself. On this occassion, it was further enhanced by an unseasonably early fall of autumn snowfall.

What a great vantage point !! The scenery round about is just beautiful; alpine – but not in any kind of threatening “North Wall of the Eiger” way (maybe more like softer “Sound of Music” terrain; though we never actually caught a glimpse of Julie Andrews this time). From the Hochgrat, it’s possible to undertake a long panoramic hike, right along the undulating spine of the Nagelfluhkette, in the direction of Immenstadt; with optional overnight breaks in characterful mountain huts to enjoy Kaiserschmarrn, Apfel Strudel and Rösti (of course washed down with some local Allgäu beer or “Almdudler”) – sounds good to me – bring me my Lederhosen immediately !

See the gallery photos below for a few highlights from a very pleasant week; we’ll be back there soon…

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Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The ancient hilltop town of Rothenburg is famed far and wide as being the quintessential medieval town, with perfectly preserved timber framed houses, winding closes, soaring spires and ancient town walls. In fact, Rothenburg could be straight out of a Germanic fairly tale of Brother’s Grimm vintage. It is located along Bavaria’s famous, and much travelled, “Romantic Road”. Along with lesser known Dinkelsbühl and Nördlingen, it is one of three amazingly intact walled cities on the route.

Not surprisingly, Rothenburg is popular with visitors from around the World. We went there on a weekend in late October, and expected to find the place somewhat overflowing with tourists; however we were pleasantly surprised. We decided to stay overnight in one of the many old inns around the town. That proved to be a great decision as, in the evening and morning (up until about midday), the winding closes and squares were really pretty quiet, allowing us ample opportunity to just soak up the atmosphere.

Overall, despite its rather touristy reputation, it’s hard not to to fall in love with fairy tale Rothenburg; it’s just a beautiful old place, set in a gorgeous landscape overlooking the Tauber Valley. You can easily pass a few interesting days there; just exploring the maze of narrow closes, walking the town walls, exploring the many small museums and quirky shops or accompanying the night watchmen on his evening rounds (quite a theatrical performance indeed).

Treats and visual delights abound around every corner. In particular there are some items of special interest, including the amazing “Holy Blood Altar” carved by medieval master craftsman, Tilman Riemenschneider and the spectacular and beautiful Altar of the Twelve Apostles by Friedrich Herlin. Both are to be found in the impressive, gothic St. Jacobs church. Other treats include the gory, but fascinating Medieval Crime Museum and the impressive Town Hall.

Rothenburg remarkably survived the Thirty Years War, and in part the decline in economic activity following this catastrophic period of European history was partly responsible for the towns stagnation and ultimate preservation. The town was less lucky during World War II however, when allied bombing destroyed a large part of the City. Fortunately the town was lovingly restored after the war through generous contributions received from all around the globe. For that we should be extremely grateful that the unique treasure of Rothenburg was saved for us all to enjoy and appreciate.

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Wine Villages of Alsace

The glories of autumn are only just starting to fade now as we head into the more changeable and darker days of November; nevertheless, when the sun shines it can still look wonderful at this time of year. Vineyards in particular are looking gorgeous during this season, especially when the morning or evening sun illuminates their full splendour in glorious technicolour. Although we’re not in a wine area here, the grape harvest is never very far away in this part of Europe.

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One area that is particularly beautiful in the autumn is the Alsace Wine Route. This winding trail along the foothills of the Vosges Mountains in eastern France, stretches for 170km from Thann in the South, near Colmar, to Cleebourg in the north, located not far from Strasbourg. The Trail passes through countless and unfeasibly picturesque, flower-bedecked villages and walled towns, of ancient, half timbered houses. Alsace is a fascinating fusion of French and Germanic culture, although these days, French is the most widely spoken language of the inhabitants.

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Wine making is an long established tradition in these areas, dating back to Roman times, with Riesling being the king of Alsace vintages. Other notable wines from the area include Sylvaner, Pino Blanc, Pinot Noir and the rich Gewürztraminer.

We spent an autumn week around the towns of Kaysersberg and Kientzheim. Back in the mists of time, I’d been dumped there for a day as an undergraduate Geography student to carry out a day’s fieldwork – I never thought that nearly 35 years later, that I’d be back again with my own family in tow. We had a great few days exploring the pleasant uncrowded surroundings of the old Alsace wine villages and surrounding countryside. I love the sense of history in this Region and the picture postcard setting of the villages – a scene seemingly straight from the Middle Ages.

Not far away from Kaysersberg, the crest of the Vosges mountains, provides a superb vantage point to survey the landscape, with extensive views out over the Rhine Valley to the distant ranges of the Black Forest and the Alps. Here, it’s possible to climb out above the mists of the lower valleys and to enjoy some fine autumn sunshine and the bright colours of the heathlands, particularly the orangey-red tints of the blueberries (or the blaeberries for you Scottish folk). The view, looking out over the cloud inversion was really quite spectacular and reminded me of Casper David Friederichs iconic romantic masterpiece “Wanderer above a Sea of Cloud”. My son even posed as a Casper David silhouette just for the occasion.

One destination not to be missed in the area is the spectacular Chateau Haut Koenigsbourg. This spectacularly located stronghold, perched high on a hilltop overlooking the Rhine Valley was occupied during the Middle Ages, before being abandoned during the Thirty Years War. Around 1900 it was lovingly restored at the request of Kaiser Wilhelm II, to be the embodiment of a romantic medieval castle from the High Middle Ages. Although the restoration was somewhat fanciful to say the least, it does somehow capture the spirt of the time. In that respect Haut Koenigsbourg will fulfil every child’s dream of how a medieval castle really should be, even if that’s not entirely accurate.

With half a million visitors annually, don’t necessarily expect to have the place to yourselves. However, we were lucky to find it relatively quiet on such a fine autumn day. The view from the battlements over the golden vineyards of the Vosges foothills to the distant Black Forest was really quite breathtaking – easy then, to transport yourself back in time to those heady days of knights, dragons and maidens in distress…

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Above the treetops: In the Bayerischer Wald

I always love to find ways of exploring, appreciating and experiencing nature and forests from new perspectives. One of the best places I’ve been to recently in this respect, must surely be the “Baumwipfelpfad” (Treetop Walkway) at the Lusen National Park Centre in the Bayerischer Wald, which is located in the south east of Germany on the border between Bavaria and the Czech Republic.

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The Baumwipfelpfad is one of the longest treetop trails in the world and winds for around 1,300 m through the forest canopy, at a height of between 8 to 25 meters above the ground. En route there are numerous interpretation panel, kids activities, wood sculptures, picnic stops, view points and places for visitors to simply “chill out” and immerse themselves in the wonderful forest environment – or “forest bathing” as it’s known in today’s hipster speak.

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The real highlight though, must surely be the “Baumei” (the Tree Egg), a marvel of engineering and timber construction, which is located near the end of the trail. A broad and gently ascending gallery slowly winds it’s way gently upward to the exposed top of the Baumei itself. From there, visitors can enjoy unique sweeping views out across the unspoiled natural and cultural landscapes of the Bavarian Forest, with its beautiful valleys and mountains – on clear days these views extend as far away as the Alps to the south.

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The Bayerischer Wald is indeed one of Germany’s most extensive nature areas, but remains largely off the radar for visitors from outside the country. It is an area of extensive forests, rolling uplands, colourful meadows, hidden valleys and scattered rural communities. Much of the area is protected as the Bayerischer Wald National Park; the country’s first and one of its most extensive. Here, nature has largely been left to follow its own course, through the result of deliberately non-interventionist conservation and forest management policies.

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As a whole, the region offers endless potential for outdoor exploration, hiking and mountain biking – including excursions to the higher peaks of the Großer Falkenstein, Lusen, and the Großer Rachel. Due to the unexpected intervention of the Corona pandemic last summer, we ended up visiting the region more or less by chance, after cancelling our planned trip to Scandinavia.

We were not certainly not disappointed and loved exploring the natural sights and hidden corners of this relatively unknown and unfrequented part of Bavaria. We spent our time walking, mountain biking, canoeing and exploring some of the area’s many historic and cultural attractions. We had a ball – It is certainly on our list of places to go back to…

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In Alpine Meadows

We tend to associate biodiversity with some of our great, undisturbed wilderness areas of the Earth like the Amazon Rainforest or the Rockies. In Europe, however, many of our most species rich habitats are cultural landscapes which have arisen as a complex symbiosis of man and nature over millennia, achieving a healthy balance between the needs of both.

Nothing typifies these cultural landscapes more than the splendor and colours of alpine meadows. Living on the Continent over the last 10 years or so, I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to visit many of the high mountain ranges of Europe; from the Picos de Europa and the Pyrenees in Northern Spain and Southern France, to the Eastern Alps and the Tyrol.

In no particular order, this collection of photos gives an idea of the natural and cultural diversity to be encountered across Europe’s mountains – I love exploring these places, whatever the season:

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Trees and People in the City:

Normally when you think about the cultural heritage of a city you tend to think about famous buildings, public squares and streets rather than about greenspaces and trees. However this needn’t be the case. Trees in urban areas are increasingly gaining significance for the ecosystem services that they provide. These include softening the impact of development, filtering pollutants, noise reduction, providing shade and protection from floods and excessive summer heat.

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Some years ago, I worked in the City of Dundee in Scotland as the City’s “Woodland and Greenspace Officer”. This was an interesting job which got me out of the office regularly and out and about into the City’s Greenspaces.

However, trying to protect the City’s trees could also be frustrating at times. Often it seemed that many people in the City of Dundee (including political leaders and senior council officials) didn’t really value their trees as much as they should – sometimes even regarding them as obstacles to progress that needed to be removed for new infrastructure development. There was often also a lack of knowledge about how the trees and woodlands contributed to Dundee’s environmental and heritage.

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To counter this issue, we came up with the idea of a project to explain Dundee’s rich arboricultural heritage to residents and visitors alike and to create more of a sense of pride in the City’s trees by local people. Central to this was the production of a small book entitled “Dundee’s Tree and Woodland Heritage”.

The guidebook looked at how the present distribution of trees and woodlands in the City closely mirrored the main phases of Dundee’s historical development and social history. It went on to show how much there was to discover within Dundee’s woods and provided some background knowledge as to why they are as we see them today.

P1000027It was a really interesting project and involved a lot of work in different parts of the City; collecting information, photographs and anecdotes from local residents. Dundee’s woodland story is indeed a fascinating one; it is as much a story about people almost as much as it is of trees.

In the eighteenth century, for example, there was the highly unpopular Lord Provost Riddoch who was ‘encouraged’ to dance around the ‘Tree of Liberty’ by an angry mob of disenchanted local citizens. Later came Admiral Adam Duncan of Camperdown House. Camperdown Estate is the home of Dundee’s greatest claim to fame in terms of trees; the Camperdown Elm. This naturally mutated form of Wych Elm was first discovered growing wild near to Camperdown House by estate forester, David Taylor.

P1000022The original Camperdown Elm tree still survives, grafts from which have been cultivated in gardens and botanical collections all around the world – indeed we frequently received calls and emails from as far apart as New Zealand and Chile, reporting discoveries of Camperdown Elm cultivars.

Some wonderful living examples of this iconic tree could also be found nearer by in the ancient “Howff” cemetery, tucked away within the City Centre of Dundee. These gnarled and otherworldly specimens contribute to the special gothic atmosphere of the City’s ancient burial ground.

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During the Industrial Revolution, Dundee became a major center for textile production and particularly for the jute industry. Mill owners like the Cox brothers imported and planted exotic tree species, such as giant sequoias and monkey puzzle trees, from around the World as a backdrop for their grand houses or so-called ‘jute palaces’. Meanwhile successful entrepreneurs such as Caird, Baxter and Dawson gifted parks and greenspaces to the people of the City, many of which have remained treasured resources to this day.

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Nowadays, Dundee’s residents continue to participate in the development of the city’s woodlands by being involved with community woodland groups, by joining ‘friends of’ organisations and by identifying and assisting in woodland improvement projects. Dundee’s rich green legacy lives on.

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All in all, the project was a good way to focus attention on the City’s trees and to get Dundonians to appreciate the woodlands, that were previously merely taken for granted. If something is valued and local people have a sense of ownership, then it will be more likely to be protected in the future. More than ten years later, it’s good to see that the guide still features on the Dundee City Council website and that it’s doing it’s job to make more people aware of the Heritage value of the City’s Trees.

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To view and download the guide visit the Dundee Council Website: https://www.dundeecity.gov.uk/service-area/neighbourhood-services/environment/dundee-twig/dundees-tree-and-woodland-heritage

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Dedicated to the memory of Eric Hamilton, Dundee’s Forestry Officer for many decades. Nobody possessed more knowledge, or cared more about Dundee’s trees and woodlands than Eric; a veritable legend of his time: https://www.trees.org.uk/News-Blog/Branch-News/Scotland/An-appreciation-of-Eric-Hamilton

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Green Shoots from Old Roots – Reimagining Eifel cultural landscapes

Given its proximity to where we live, the upland plateau of the Eifel, located to the South of Aachen is one of our most popular choices for day trips. In recent years it has become increasingly frequented as a tourist destination, particularly since the recent creation of the Eifel National Park. However this wasn’t always the case; even in relatively recent history, the Eifel was best known for its long harsh winters, biting winds, high rainfall and featureless misty moorlands. Known locally as the “Venn”, parts of the Eifel, therefore acquired a dark and sinister reputation, making it the favourite haunt and setting for crime writers.

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However, these same harsh conditions have been responsible for the creation of a fascinating and unique cultural landscape, which has endured for the last 300 years or so. Desperate to protect their fields, homes and livestock from freezing winds and winter snows, local people, planted a dense network of hedges, thereby creating the distinctive “Monschauer Heckenlandschaft”. Following many years of neglect, the inhabitants of the region are now once again beginning to see the potential of the “Heckenlandschaft” as a valuable resource for sustainable development – including for woodfuel, ecotourism, biodiversity and environmental education.

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One of the best places to appreciate the characteristic landscape of the “Monschauer Heckenlandschaft” is the small village of Eicherscheid,  which is situated at 550m on an upland plateau, close to the regional center of Simmerath. In many respects, Eicherscheid typifies the characteristic cultural landscape of the region, with half timbered houses which are protected by high beech hedges, known as “Haushecken”. In addition there are numerous small fields surrounded by beech boundary hedges, or “Flurhecken”. These include many hedgerow trees which were managed to provide shelter and protection for livestock and as a source of raw materials. Within the community there are over 70 high hedges around the village dwellings and over 100km of field boundary hedges, many of which go back hundreds of years.

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Eicherscheid is well known for its active community. In 2007, the Community was awarded the “European Village Renewal Award” in the competition “Our Village has a Future”. Since then, the village has also frequently been a competition winner in State and National competitions. The unique conservation status of the landscape has contributed significantly to the area. The hedges providing a valuable cultural asset and an attractive backdrop for hiking, cycling and green tourism related activities. The community were fortunate enough to recognised this unique landscape as an underdeveloped resource for education, sustainable development and for the promotion of green and cultural heritage tourism. Consequently, it was decided to develop a project with the aim of promoting and enhancing the cultural landscape.

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The community therefore developed a plan to create an 8km interpretive trail to promote the cultural and natural heritage of the “Heckenlanschaft” to visitors. The resultant “Flurheckenweg” provides a series of interpretive “stations” with information about landscape history, land management, natural heritage and human activities. The aim was also to create an interactive learning experience for kids and families which would encourage children to explore the landscape through creative play. For this reason the route includes an “outdoor classroom” area and special themed child-friendly interpretation panels.

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The project is part of a wider initiative looking at the sustainability of the landscape, with consideration of how the Heckenlandschaft might provide, for example, renewable energy through provision of biomass and also community growing space for organic production and cultivation of traditional, local fruit tree varieties. Attention has also focused on retaining the traditional landscape character and features of the urban area through the management of the high “Haushecken” around dwellings which is quite labour intensive in itself (woe betide the incomer or local resident that wants to plant a Laurel or Thuia hedge).

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The cultural landscape is not just restricted to the hedges themselves. The community of Eicherscheid also contains many other interesting heritage features associated with the natural environment. Most notably, in front of the Parish Church of St. Lucia, near the centre of Eicherscheid, is a 400 year old lime tree which forms a distinctive and much loved local landmark within the village. The three stemmed tree is one of the oldest trees in the Aachen area and is known to the Eicherscheid locals as “Ar-Lengd”. There are also many old traditional orchards in the area with distinctive local fruit varieties which are characteristic of the region. In addition to maintaining the hedges, the community are also trying to restore and promote the use of these old fruit trees to maintain cultural traditions and preserve local agro-diversity.

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In addition, cultural landscape elements include species-rich meadows, small broadleaved woodlands and copses, landmark trees and ancient trackways or “hollow ways”. These have been worn down by countless generations of travelers, peddlers, soldiers and pilgrims through the  millennia and have provided important routes between towns and villages long before the invention of motorised transport. Along these ancient routes, there is also a rich human heritage including many wayside crosses and shrines, old mills, dams and historic healing wells. Many of these features have been restored by the community as part of the larger project to interpret and promote the historic cultural landscape as a whole to visitors. There are also many interesting old folk tales and legends associated with these routes, which the locals are bringing to life for new generations to enjoy.

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Although many of the hedges themselves are the responsibility of individual owners, there is also now a concerted effort underway to restore these and bring them back into active management. Left unmanaged for too long, the ancient trees would start to deteriorate and the hedges themselves would no longer provide benefits for the protection of livestock or for sheltering unique local plant and invertebrate communities. The proactive management of the hedges also provides a steady source of timber which can be used for small construction projects and for firewood. The community have been looking at the from the perspective of providing biomass energy on a larger scale.

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The plateau areas of the “Heckenlandschaft” are incised by several deep river gorges of the River Rur and its tributaries. These are characterised by extensive tracts of regenerating semi natural beech and oak gorge woodlands, although some of these were replaced by conifers, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries.

Many of these unique woodland areas on the steeper slopes are of high nature conservation significance and are consequently designated as Natura 2000 sites, forming part of a Europe wider network of important conservation areas. By comparison with the more exposed uplands, these ancient woodlands provide sheltered and secluded microclimates suitable for a whole range of specialist species to thrive.

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IMG_0031In other parts of the Monschauer Heckenlandschaft, localised rewilding initiatives are under way, through the felling and clearance of non-native conifer trees and the damming of previously planted areas to create new extensive zones of wet moorland suitable for colonisation by damp loving species.

These initiatives are being given a helping hand by the growing population of European beavers found across the area. Although small in size, these creatures can exert a huge impact and effectively engineer the whole landscape through construction of dams – thereby raising water tables and creating new types of habitat. Usually the beavers are most active in the morning and evening which makes that the best time to spot them going about their business.

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Beaver: Per Harald Olsen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

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All in all, the best way to enjoy the hidden delights of the Monschauer Heckenlandschaft is to get out and about on foot. In addition to the ever popular Flurheckenweg, which circumnavigates the village of Eicherscheid itself, a whole series of routes have been developed as part of a partnership initiative between the local community and the tourist authority.

Many of these routes are more testing in nature with significant changes in elevation and will take walkers into hidden gorges, past waterfalls and through native woodlands; well away from the more frequented routes close to the village. The dramatic contrast between the steeper gorges and the network of small fields and hedges on the plateau makes these walks all the more fascinating and enjoyable.

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A great time to explore the Heckenlandschaft is in April when days are warming, the woods are filled with bird song and a carpet of spring flowers brings life and colour to the landscape after the dreary monochrome months of winter.

Just last weekend (over Easter), in nearby Mützenich, we enjoyed walking through superb meadows filled with brilliant, wild daffodils; so characteristic of undisturbed parts of the Eifel region. Later this month, the vibrant green leaves of the beach trees will come bursting out, in a veritable explosion of life.

Now, who said that the Eifel was a dark, sinister and barren wasteland ?

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Hell & High Water: Ecuadorian Andes to Amazon – Part 2

This post covers part 2 the “Sangay’89” Research Expedition – The expedition surveyed the natural ecosystems and biodiversity of Volcan Sangay National Park in Ecuador, from the High Andes to the rainforests of the upper Amazon Basin.

In Part 1 of this story, I covered the background to the University of Wales expedition to Ecuador in summer of 1989 and the first challenging couple of weeks in the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes. These were spent in the high altitude páramo grasslands, at around 4000m in altitude, in the shadow of the the soaring, snow-capped, volcanic peak of El Altar.

As explained previously, things didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned though during the first part of the expedition. After experiencing some really challenging conditions, withstanding the elements and one or two other unpleasant surprises (including most of our fuel being stolen), we returned to the City of Riobamba, battered and bruised, to lick our wounds and catch up with some much needed rest and relaxation. This is where I once again pick up the story again:

The first part of the expedition had certainly been tough, without a doubt. However, although things had been pretty dire at times, in an exposed and boggy campsite, we’d managed to collect a lot of data and vegetation specimens from the high altitude páramo grasslands and also from one or 2 freshwater lakes in the vicinity. On the way back to Riobamba we’d also surveyed one high altitude area of native forest known as “polylepis” woodland. The awkward fact remained though that there was a lot of work to be done, if we were to fulfill our aim of surveying forest study plots all the way down to the upper Amazon Basin – over 3000m lower in altitude but only 40km or so away as the crow flies.

The Sangay National Park Rangers suggested that we might find it possible to get to the montane forests on the Amazonian side of the Andes range by following the valley of the Rio Palora, an remote easterly flowing river valley. We had previously tried in vane to descend to the headwaters of this river, from our previous campsite, but had found our way continually blocked by impenetrable terrain comprising of cliffs, steep ravines and dangerous slippery ground. It had proved an impossible challenge.

The park rangers however claimed that access was possible to the Rio Palora via another valley called the Aloa Valley. They informed us that from there it would be possible to cross a saddle and descent via a “proper” trail to a location called “El Placer” which was considerably lower in altitude at 2,700m and would give us access to a diversity of different forest habitats. Being gluttons for punishment and not wanting to go home empty handed, we decided to give it a go – even though the “once bitten, normally twice shy” rule applied also to us as to everyone else.

We still had a few days in Riobamba though to recover from the last excursion and to make preparations for the next one. This time we wouldn’t be caught out: we’d travel much lighter, carrying everything we needed in our backpacks and without the benefit of awkward porters and their temperamental mules to deal with – both of which might go on strike without warning. Our food would also be more appropriate and include much more in the way of dried and lighter-to-transport ingredients. And as for the 30kg of computer paper for pressing plant specimens – well that could definitely stay behind this time…

However, before we left Riobamba, we were able to use up a good quantity of the computer paper supply in the hotel lobby, for pressing and drying the plant specimens that we’d collected from the páramos, which mainly consisted of unimpressive looking mosses and liverworts – many of which, it transpired later, were previously unrecorded by scientists. It did strike me as rather odd though to set up a plant pressing production line on a hotel landing. I couldn’t really imagine doing that in a “Travel Lodge” in Britain – but then in Ecuador, it seems that anything goes (and it did somehow blend in with the rather “lived in”, fading grandeur of the hotel surroundings).

So a few days later, fully refreshed and ready for action, the park rangers took us along a tortuous winding mountain road in their 4 x 4 jeep, first south and then towards the east and into the Aloa Valley. It was a rather damp and drizzly spot where they dumped us, bidding us a hearty farewell and bon voyage. However, despite the drizzle and the ubiquitous cloud, undeterred, we packed up our gear and readied ourselves for the hike in to the Rio Palora Valley. It was certainly easier to get moving without complex negotiations with porters this time.

Our route took us along the valley which runs initially in a northerly direction. Near the end of the valley, the path veers off to the left and then climbs progressively, at an easy incline, to an obvious saddle – the location of a mysterious lake known as Leguna Negra. The lake has a misty and rather eerie atmosphere about it and has many legends associated with it. Locals say that its dark waters conceal sinister secrets and that care must be taken in it’s vicinity, lest the water spirits try to rob you –  it all sounded rather like the Scottish tales of  kelpies – majestic water horses that carried victims to their doom through drowning them.

Other legends say that the Inca inhabitants of the region, threw their gold and treasure into the lake to avoid it falling into hands of the Spanish Conquistadors. Whatever the truth, I have to confess I didn’t really like the lake very much and found its dark waters and billowing mists rather oppressive, eerie and unwelcoming.

Passing by the lake unscathed, however, we reached the edge of the saddle and peered over the other side. Albeit for a fleeting moment, the mists parted and we caught a new vista open up below us to the mysterious east; this time down towards the headwaters of the Rio Palora, a minor tributary of other still greater rivers which eventually flow into the mighty Amazon and beyond to the Atlantic Ocean  – some 3000 miles away on the other side of the South American Continent.

The rangers were better informed this time; there was a clear path down the steep valley for us to follow, which would take us into the cloud forest below. Whilst the valley looked more lonely and forbidding than attractive, there was indeed a route and no other option other than to follow it. We headed off down the steep slope, in the direction of Amazonia and whatever might befall us next.

It was a long, tortuous descent down the valley of around 1300 metres to reach the Rio Palora valley. It wasn’t long before the first shrubby growth, marking the edge of the cloud forest, came into view. Slowly the shrubs became stunted bushes and then finally trees as we progressed down the hill. The temperature also became noticeably warmer and the chilling effect of the wind lessoned as we lost altitude. At times the path became quite overgrown suggesting that this route wasn’t used quite so often.

After what seemed like an endless descent, we eventually reached a small grassy clearing at a place called El Placer in the river valley itself, at an altitude of 2,700m. This would be our camp site for the next few days. Compared with the campsite in the páramo, this seemed like the ultimate in luxury. The site was sheltered from the wind and it was located below the oppressive layer of  semi-permanent  cloud which had dogged our pervious location. In fact, it was almost even a bit of a sun trap and the weather was noticeably brighter here. Best of all however was that there was a basic shelter for cooking and generally for “chilling out” without the need to constantly stay in a small and claustrophobic tent – it was open at the sides and with a corrugated iron roof to keep off the rain; luxury indeed !

The “basecamp” at El Placer gave us convenient access to a number of varied survey sites, spread over an altitudinal range of  a few hundred metres. The forest here was quite varied, with some mixed montane forest on the slopes and some single species alder stands on the lower, boggier ground. We soon set to work to identify, mark out and survey some sites. These were certainly challenging from a logistical and practical point of view. One of the plots could only be accessed by walking along a partly submerged log to cross the river, which was always an interesting activity. It reminded me of Robin Hood and Little John but nobody actually got a soaking.

The work involved, first marking out the 60m x 30m plots with chord and then recording the tree girths, heights and the spread of the canopy in each instance. This was accompanied by details of species present (where possible), the total number of tree species found, the ground vegetation and the soil conditions present.

Survey work also had it’s own share of occupational hazards; in one of the plots we were constantly under attack from very large and aggressive horseflies which had a painful bite. Dealing with this menace, required an improvised veil tied around hat brims, to keep the irritating protagonists at bay. Another of the plots by contrast was situated over particularly rough and rocky ground, where at any given  moment, you could find yourself suddenly disappearing into deep subterranean  hollows, where the mossy ground was prone to giving way beneath your feet..

There was plenty of interest to see in the area from an ecological perspective. Along with the trees, there were other interesting plants to look at, particularly bromeliads. These are colourful parasitic plants that grow on the trunks and branches of other trees. The bromeliads are in fact like small pitchers and often contain miniature water worlds in their midst, sometimes with a host of other wildlife present, such as insect larvae and small tree frogs

The tree frogs themselves were most active at night, when they produced a harmonious chorus of bright chirping and “binging” sounds; overall a bit like the effect of a gentle breeze blowing through the suspended crystal elements of a chandelier. Curious to know more about the perpetrators of the frog symphony, we decided to go on a night time safari with head torches to try and collect a few of the noisy creatures.

Blinking in the torchlight, it proved fairly easy to track down and round up a good few frogs from following the direction of their night time chirps. The following morning we set up a “film set” comprising of a tree branch to take a few pictures of some of the frogs that we’d collected. It has to be said, that most of the frogs, though certainly vocal enough, were in reality quite tiny; being little bigger than the size of a finger nail. Following their fleeting moment of fame in our outdoor studio, the frogs were then released back into the wild to continue their froggy existence.

The mood and general morale of the whole team at El Placer was generally a much happier one that the previous campsite and certainly made all the more so, by the fact we could move around in dryer and more comfortable conditions. From El Placer, we had hoped that we might be able to head further down to Rio Polora valley to access the subtropical rainforest at lower altitudes, however a couple of recces revealed that the valley below here really was impassible and without any kind of trail that might provide any suitable access route. We therefore had to content ourselves, for now, that 2,700m was the lowest altitude we could attain on this leg of the journey.

Having finished our forest survey work at El Placer, we decided to move back up the hill to undertake work on a couple of plots at intermediate altitude nearer to the tree line, in the so called “elphin” woodland. Although this didn’t offer quite the same high standard of accommodation as lower down in the valley, it was fine for a couple of nights and allowed us to gain access to new areas of the cloud forest. As ever there was the constant business of collecting plant specimens which would later be pressed and stored safely for transit back to the UK some weeks later.

After another couple more days and having then finished our work on the Eastern slopes, we made our way back over the top of the pass. We past the brooding and mysterious Leguna Negra and once again entered the Aloa Valley on the other side, where we wanted to identify and record, yet another, forest survey plot. We had no prearranged pickup from the National Park staff this time and so our plan was to hike down the valley to the village of Aloa and from there catch public transport, of some variety, back to the “Big City” of Riobamba.

That night, instead of camping, we found a rustic herder’s hut to stay in, somewhat reminiscent of a west highland black house, with a roof made of straw and an open fireplace in the middle of the floor, from which smoke filtered up through the roofing itself. This was certainly very organic accommodation indeed, with turf and brushwood walls (if just a little bit smoky at times). Still, it kept out the elements and was certainly more comfortable than being in the damp confines of a small tent. In the Aloa Valley there was generally much more evidence of human activity all around, including some cattle pens and signs of burning of the pasture by agriculturalists.

Following a couple of nights in the herders hut, we finished our survey work in the area and it was then time to head back to Riobamba for another few nights of rest and recuperation before planning the final phase of our work. After packing everything up, we hiked down the Valley to the small village of Aloa. As we nearer habitation, the landscape showed more signs of human influence, with a patchwork of tiny and attractive fields in an assortment of mottled hues carved into the hillside.

From the village of Aloa, we hoped to find some transport back to Riobamba. However, on arrival, the locals assured us that no vehicles were going that way in the near future and that we might effectively be waiting for a while. After sitting around disconsolately for an hour or so, however, an old truck pulled into sight and a small crowd of people, mainly woman with goats and chickens started to congregate around the vehicle in expectation.  Paul spoke to the driver who informed us that indeed he was going to Riobamba and could take us all along for a small fee, with the other passengers. He did however warn us that there would also be a “small bit of cattle” accompanying us on the journey. This seemed like the best chance of getting back to Riobamba that day though and so we decided the “small cattle” would be a minor inconvenience, which would be worth suffering for a good night’s sleep in a hotel.

And so in we got into the back of the cattle truck with the local ladies, some kids and an assortment of goats and chickens. The back door was sealed shut and we headed off down the bumpy gravel road – so far, so good ! After 5 minutes of so, however, the truck pulled to the side and the back door was opened yet again; there in front of us and staring us right in the face was the “small bit of cattle” as described. The extremely large bull was led into the truck with its owner and the door was closed behind us, effectively sealing us in – this could prove an interesting trip !

It did ! Once again everything was quite calm initially until the bull decided to lick the face of one of the goats. A peasant woman who owned the goat then, very cleverly, decided to chastise the bull by whacking it one the in the face – unfortunately though, the bull wasn’t very pleased about this ! So here we were, stuck in the back of a sealed truck, on a winding mountain road, with an assortment of other animals, people and a very irate bull.

The bull started stomping its hooves angrily and head butting the side of the truck, rocking the whole vehicle from side to side on the narrow road, with it’s precipitous drops – it was terrifying and we were all trapped. Eventually it took a gang of several men to push the bull against the back wall of the driver’s cab and to keep it there for the duration of the whole journey by leaning with their backs tensioned against the roaring and squirming beast. Never have I been so glad to get out of a vehicle when we emerged relatively unscathed from our ordeal in Riobamba a couple of hours later.

So back in Riobamba and all still in one piece thankfully ! We had a couple of days to work out our next plan in between more bouts of eating, sleeping, drinking and pressing collected plant specimens. Although we had now surveyed 6 forest plots successfully (a considerable achievement given previous progress), the lowland rainforest of the National Park had so far eluded us, because of the rough terrain and the difficulty of access. The Plan was then to take a bus around the edge of the Park to the eastern boundary and then to proceed back into the Park along the Rio Palora River from that side.

It turned out that the Sangay National Park Rangers had a large dugout canoe with a powerful outboard motor and that they would be willing to take us up the river to a suitable site where we could successful survey the lowland forest of the Park. This sounded like a practical and exciting proposal and a way of at last accessing the so far elusive rainforests of the Amazonian side. And so a few days later we packed up our gear and boarded a bus for the next leg of the trip, which would hopefully see our fieldwork completed in Sangay National Park.

The journey down the northern boundary of the Park was quite spectacular and followed the gorge of the Rio Pastaza, a large and high volume river, tumbling down from the Central Andes. An interesting and beautiful place to visit en route was the spa resort of Baños de Agua Santa, located directly under the volcanic peak Tungarahua. Baños is famed for its hot springs and many beautiful waterfalls. We spent a bit of time enjoying the lovely and lush surroundings there.

To the South of Baños, we encountered significant evidence of deforestation on the steep hillsides along the side of the highway, with many small sawmills cutting timber unsustainably to supply the fruit packaging industry. The consequences of this damaging activity were all around, with many landslides on the steep slopes and resultant soil erosion turning the silt-laden tributary rivers a dark, muddy brown colour.

After some delays, caused by the landslides themselves blocking the road, we eventually arrived at the burgeoning City of Puyo – one of Ecuador’s expanding frontier towns in the Amazonian region. From there we took another bus heading south, roughly parallel with the Sangay National Park boundary.

Bus travel in this part of the world is certainly interesting – most of the time we had the chance to sit up on the roof rack with the luggage. This was great for taking in the view, although at times you had to watch out for overhanding tree branches, or even rocky overhangs on mountain roads, which could cause you quite an injury, or quite likely, death. Reassuringly the mountain roadsides are often lined with a succession of white crosses, where vehicles have gone over the edge and into the abyss in years gone by.

Much of the rainforest immediately to the east of the park boundary had previously been cleared for agricultural development and the region was already being extensively colonised. However, the road infrastructure to the East of the Park was not well developed, with the buses fording the rivers when the water was low in the dry season. Otherwise all the payload (people included) would have to be taken across rickety wooden suspension bridges, (the bridges not being strong enough for the buses themselves to cross). On another occasion, we did have to get out and had to cross a major river using an areal ropeway suspended just over the water – I must admit though that was quite good fun, even though it didn’t make for the quickest journey time.

Our plan was to head back up the Rio Palora from its confluence with a larger river.  Two of the park rangers had access to a large motorized dugout canoe and were willing to take us up the river, for a day or so, to a suitable location where we would be able to undertake our survey work. The trip however involved a bit of shuttling to and fro to get all up us and our gear up-river to the suggested location.

The trip was certainly not all plain sailing and there were rapids along the way, which involved taking gear out of the canoe and having to push the heavy craft up through the white water. This was exciting, but also exhausting and dangerous as the craft was extremely heavy and could easily crush a trapped foot in the strong current. It has to be said though that the rangers were expert boatmen and made the best of a difficult job, with us all joining in the hard graft of pushing the boat through the rapid sections.

One night was spent in an intermediary camp by the riverside. However we certainly leant our lesson that night, when due to heavy rains in the mountains, there was a flash flood ! This required us to hastily move our camp in the middle of the night as the dried up river bed quickly filled up to become swiftly flowing torrent and a channel of the main river. The next morning, unscathed and largely dry we continued further up the river until a suitable location for our survey work was identified. This would be our real “jungle” experience of the trip, with the tree canopy reaching up to 40m above our heads with cathedral like splendour.

Our survey camp in the lowland rainforest could not have been in greater contrast to that on the páramos, up near the snowline, in the early stage of the expedition. For a start, it was about 30 degrees or so warmer and hard to believe that this might be a mere 30km of so away from where we first started our research. Despite this, it wasn’t hugely more comfortable in the rainforest camp, as we were effectively sleeping on the forest floor, under just the covering of a tarpaulin to avoid drips cascading from the tree canopy high above.

Although we had mosquito nets to offer some basic protection from “bugs and beasties”, there were certainly no shortage of creepy crawlies about, particularly in the night time. Our somewhat basic and makeshift camp certainly gave us little protection from these. Interesting bugs encountered included some rather large and threatening looking spiders. One expedition member in particular was quite happy to let these crawl about all over his arms – however, I must admit to being a little more cautious and squeamish about these things. In the meantime I just practiced being “Tarzan” by swinging from suspended lianas, becoming quite an expert at this.

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However it wasn’t all work and no play – we had our forest survey plot work to undertake here – the last of seven plots which would give us a relatively good overview of the changes in forest structure resulting from altitudinal change in the Park (although admittedly there were gaps in the middle of the Park area where access was literally impossible). The survey work in the lowland plot went relatively smoothly and we were able to undertake the process fairly quickly by this time through experience already gained on other sites. This left us some additional time to explore the lowland rainforest of the area.

Not far from the location of our research plot, we surprisingly encountered an example of illegal forest clearance within the protected national park area – a reminder of the serious threats of colonization and deforestation which exist in such protected areas. Interestingly, however, the cleared area seemed to be for the establishment of a “forest garden” – somewhat similar in appearance to those I had seen cleared in the rainforest, by shifting cultivators, on the Indonesian Island of Seram.

We didn’t find those responsible for the clearance activity; perhaps they would have wished to maintain a low profile to avoid the attentions of the park authorities. Arguably however its impact upon the forest ecosystem would have been light and sustainable at this low level – the real threat comes form larger scale colonization as witnessed through gold mining and mass resettlement for subsistence agriculture  in large areas of the Brazilian Amazon. Usually, small scale indigenous style agricultural practices have posed little threat to the rainforest, however it could become a problem if left unchecked.

So after a couple of nights in the lowland rainforest it was time for us to leave and to head back down river. Our reliable boatmen once again returned at the allotted time and ran us down the river with our gear. Going downstream also wasn’t without it’s challenges due to the intermittent patches of white water (Grade 3 perhaps). The risk of capsizing the boat and getting it submerged was high – full of water, the heavy dugout canoe would have proved impossible to move. We therefore had to unload and reload our cargo at intermittent intervals to avoid the worst of the rapids and the possibility of a capsize. Soon though, we had reached calmer waters and were drifting back to our starting point.

We had achieved our goal and returned with a portfolio of scientific data documenting the Park´s complex ecosystems from an altitude of 4000m to just 900m. We had collected diverse plant samples which would be transported back to the UK for identification and analysis.

In total the forest surveys had involved some 35 person days of work (not including access to the field) and the recording of nearly 5000 separate measurements involving the girth of the trees, the extent of the canopy, the height and base of the crown and information on the diversity of species present.

In undertaking this work, I was extremely grateful for the assistance of my fellow expedition members, without whose help, the study would not have been possible. There was however, still much work to be done in terms of processing the data and sorting out our botanical collection; all of this would occur in good time. I would also have to write up and complete my MSc Thesis (which was duly done and submitted the following year).

However, for the present, our travels in Ecuador were not quite over – indeed, there was still some exploring of the country to be done (though more as tourists this time and not as scientific researchers). We boarded transport back to Riobamba, happy in the knowledge that, despite considerable set backs and difficulties we had achieved our key objectives in Sangay National Park. For now though we could be confident in knowledge that we had survived “hell and high water” and come out the other end with our heads held high and still smiling; if only just at times…

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Hell & High Water: Ecuadorian Andes to Amazon – Part 1

This post covers part 1 of the “Sangay’89” Research Expedition – The expedition surveyed the natural ecosystems and biodiversity of Volcan Sangay National Park in Ecuador, from the high Andes to the rainforests of the upper Amazon Basin.

 

With a few exceptions,  such as a couple of ill-fated hillwalking expeditions in the Scottish Highlands, it’s not often that I remember a trip more for what went wrong, than for what went right – when suffering, extreme conditions and physical discomfort were the overriding memories. However in 1989, I went to Ecuador on an ecological survey expedition to the high altitude páramo grasslands and cloud forests which straddle the transition zone between the high Andes to the upper reaches of the Amazon – although this was a fascinating region to explore, at times, the trip can only be described as a trip to hell and back !

Two years previously, I’d participated in the Operation Raleigh Indonesia Expedition to the Island of Seram, which focused upon comparative studies of altitudinal zonation of the World’s rainforests. This was a wonderful all-round learning experience, working with remarkable venturers and scientists on a remote tropical island in the Moluccas Region of Indonesia. I was therefore really excited to have the opportunity to join another expedition, this time organised by the University of Wales in Bangor, to Volcan Sangay National Park, which is located almost on the Equator,160km to the South of Quito, the Ecuadorian Capital.

My aim was to use the opportunity to undertake research for my Masters degree in Natural Resources Management at Bangor University, through focusing upon the ecology of forests at different altitudes and investigating management issues affecting the Natural Park. In comparison with Operation Raleigh, it was a very small team, comprising just seven postgraduate and undergraduate students, with a research emphasis upon grasslands, uplands, freshwater habitats and cloud forests.

One remarkable feature of Volcan Sangay National Park is the diversity encountered. In fact, the Park contains the whole range of life zones, from the snow capped peaks and glaciers of the high Andes at over 5000m, to steamy tropical jungles at just 900m above sea level. This remarkable transition occurs over just 30km as the crow flies, resulting in exceptionally high biodiversity. This has earned the Park a UNESCO World Heritage designation. These rich ecosystems are a home to a variety of mammals including the rare spectacled bear, the mountain tapir, jaguars and pumas. Fifty species of birds are found within the Park, including cock-of-the-rock and scarlet and blue macaws.

The Park is named after the volcanic peak, Volcan Sangay, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Along with Sangay, a number of other peaks, including El Altar and Tungurahua, rise above the permanent snowline. Another characteristic feature of the park is the huge variation in rainfall. The western part of the Park lies within the Central Valley of the Ecuadorian Andes, the Valley of the Volcanoes. This is a rain shadow area, with only 600mm or so of annual precipitation. However, just a few km to the East, largely due to the condensation effect of moisture from the steamy Amazon jungles below, the precipitation can be an unbelievable 5000 mm per annum. To put this in perspective, the average precipitation in Glasgow, in rainy western Scotland, is a mere 1200mm by comparison, or just over one fifth of the amount of Sangay National Park.

It’s fair to say then that Volcan Sangay National Park is a pretty damp place indeed by any standards. Added to this, the precipitation falls mainly as snow over the higher ground (above 4000m or so), where freezing conditions are frequently encountered, despite the fact that the Park is located almost “slap-bang” on the Equator. Conditions are such then that the Park is certainly not the  place for a casual Sunday hike; in reality it’s a very harsh place indeed given the constraints of climate and terrain !

We started our expedition from a base in the medium sized town of Riobamba. The town is located at an altitude of around 2,700m in the Valley of the Volcanoes. From Riobamba, the view is dominated by the huge snow-capped mass of Chimbarazo, Ecuador’s highest mountain at 6263m, a currently inactive volcano. Chimborazo’s summit is also the farthest point on the Earth’s surface from the planet’s center as it is located on the equatorial bulge. It was made famous by early British explorer Edward Whymper (also one of the first people also to climb the Matterhorn) in his famous book, “Climbs Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator”.  The opposite side of the Central Valley, adjoining the boundary of the Volcan Sangay National Park, is fringed by the iconic serrated outline of “El Altar” peak – another extinct volcano, the center of which collapsed following previous eruptions, leaving behind only a distinctive ridge, which once formed an edge of the volcanic crater.

Our initial plan was to head to the high altitude páramo grassland to the South of El Altar. With some assistance from the Sangay National Park staff, a park jeep would be used to ferry equipment and expedition members to the start point, thus allowing access to a high valley leading in an easterly direction. We would hike along this valley towards a mountain pass, which would permit a relatively easy approach on foot (and using porters) over the watershed separating the Central Valley of Ecuador from the Amazonian region. An expedition “base camp” would then be established on the other side, in a strategic location which would allow a number of different research projects to proceed simultaneously.

Local porters with mules were to be hired to carry expedition supplies (including camping gear, provisions and scientific equipment) across the pass to the proposed base camp site on the other side. This would be accessible to a range of sites including the páramo grasslands, glacial lakes and the upper parts of the cloud forest. From the study sites, we aimed to collect voucher plant specimens and lake water samples. A special drying kiln (using woodfuel obtained from the forest) would be used to dry the collected plant specimens, which would then be pressed, documented and packaged (using recycled computer paper) for transport back to the UK . Paper for pressing the plants wouldn’t be and issue as we had, optimistically, brought 30kg or so specifically for this purpose !

After finishing the work,  expedition equipment would then be carried back out by ourselves (as the load would be much lighter without food) to the prearranged rendezvous with the park rangers vehicle. The food itself consisted largely of healthy, but bulky, fresh ingredients such as potatoes, carrots and other vegetables. It was decided that the volume would not be a problem though as the porters would be taking us directly to the base camp location and we wouldn’t need to move much in the way of heavy supplies.

It all sounded just too good to be true ! The route to get over the pass, apparently involved little ascent and would be an easy hike – although no topographic maps actually existed of the area to be able to confirm this or not; there would be a reliable team of experienced porters to get us to the base camp site. Furthermore, we would have a good sheltered location to work from where we could undertake a range of projects simultaneously. What could possibly go wrong ?  Well… almost everything as it later transpired !

It didn’t take long for the cracks in the plan to show. I started to have my doubts as soon as we were introduced to our head porter and guide, a somewhat shifty looking individual who we came to know as the “Shadow”, during our brief period of acquaintance. He gave us an inspiring introduction…

See this !”, he said, pointing to some random vegetation, “We don’t touch this !  We move like shadows, effortlessly over the land – like the wind through the grass; taking nothing and leaving nothing behind us – not one single trace of our passing…

Whilst Chief Seattle himself (had he existed) might have been proud of this environmentally charged speech, the actions of the “Shadow’s” team didn’t quite concur with this. In fact, one of the “Shadow’s” men, in the meantime, was busily doing his best to set fire a perfectly innocent bush with some kerosene and a cigarette lighter, as a seemingly arbitrary whim; expressing whoops of delight at the small but meaningful blaze he’d just managed to kindle. Perhaps then the Shadow’s environmental claims, like many of his other statements, would be rather open to question.

After a rather tense departure we set off slowly up the valley. My sense of foreboding was indeed soon proved to be justified; in reality and in complete contrast to our plans, the trail barely existed. Conditions under foot were rough, slippery and difficult, eventually causing one of the mules to stumble with its full load and roll down a steep ravine where it lodged upside down in a tree. Fortunately the poor beast was ok and could be extracted, albeit following a complex and time consuming rescue exercise.

The route to the pass was certainly not flat at all, but climbed steadily for a good few hundred meters towards the summit of the col, above steep drops. It seemed that the information we had received on the feasibility of the route was incorrect, to say the least. To make matters worse, the porters staged periodic strikes, demanding higher pay for their work. Following a few tough periods of negotiation by Paul, the expedition leader, the journey continued onwards in fits and starts with repeated standoffs with the porters. Progress was slow and painstaking indeed. Things finally came to a head, just short of the summit at around 4000m, when after one final strike, and yet another tense and failed negotiation, the porters finally walked out on us.

Oh, the best laid plans of mice and men…

And so, following the dramatic and untimely exit of our porters; that’s where we found ourselves – abandoned at the top of a desolate pass, in the middle of the Andes, with several sacks of potatoes, 30kg of computer paper and a huge heap of miscellaneous expedition detritus at our disposal. There was no way that our small team of 7 could possibly move all this equipment, either very far or very quickly. The location at the top of the col, made Rannoch Moor in my native Scotland seem positively inviting by comparison. Just about 100m above us was a permanent snowline of the forbidding and unassailable looking El Altar. In short we were definitely up shit creek without a paddle (or a porter) in sight !

We desperately needed a plan and sat around to thrash one out. Going back didn’t seem much of an option and would have been decidedly counterproductive given that we’d come this far already.  Our one concession to anything resembling a map, was an aerial photo of the terrain, which must have been taken on one of the couple of clear days per year in that neck of the woods. It showed a couple of small glacial lakes in a hollow not too far from the top of the col, down on the other side.  We decided that the best plan would be to recce the nearest of the lakes and find out whether it might be possible to establish a camp there; preferably before dark which was fast approaching.

Leaving a big pile of gear at the top of the pass, we went down to check out potential sites. The lake shore, whilst not altogether sheltered, certainly offered a little more protection from the elements that at the top of the col. The ground was pretty sodden, however we found a little area on a rise which was somewhat less boggy than the surrounding terrain and was just about “doable” as a camping area. The lake had a slightly mysterious, Arthurian quality about it in the fading evening light, which seemed oddly appealing. However, no hand bearing Excalibur, or any Inca equivalent, appeared from the murky waters.

So with sterling effort that evening, we did what we could to make the most of a not-so-ideal situation. The tents were pitched, more gear was brought down from the top of the pass and a hot meal was cooked using freeze dried camping food on a small Trangia stove (the fuel for the big stove still being still in “transit” at the top of the pass). Eventually, tired and reasonably happy we crashed out for the evening, secure in our tents. The rest of the gear could wait until the next morning…

That morning we awoke to find a minor “blizzard”, a layer of heavy, wet snow blanketing the tents and the surrounding landscape (much of which was oppressively shrouded in low cloud). After emerging from our tents, unenthusiastically, half the group headed off to ferry some more luggage from the top of the pass; including our large cooking stove, some sacks of potatoes and fuel for the stove. Meantime the rest of us did the best we could to make the place shipshape and prepare a basic breakfast, in less than pleasant conditions. It wasn’t long before the portage team returned from the top of the pass laden down with gear. Long faces in the distance indicated yet more potential woes – this proved a correct analysis.

All our fuel had gone ! It had seemingly vanished into space overnight ! We considered the possibilities – most likely, it been stolen by someone who’d been watching our movements the previous evening. Whilst it might be easy to draw snap conclusions about who that could be (particularly given the tense standoff with the porters and the “walkout” the previous evening), the fact is we had nothing concrete to go on. More importantly, we had no fuel whatsoever and pointing the finger of blame for our predicament at this time didn’t seem particularly useful. At least we were still here, we hadn’t been murdered in our sleep. Maybe it could be worse…

However, positive thinking aside, we were in a tricky situation: seven people, in an exposed location and with only one small and inefficient Trangia stove to cook with and a heap of slow cooking, bulky provisions to rely upon for the next couple of weeks. In addition there was very little shelter and access to many of our proposed study sites looked problematic due to the tricky terrain and conditions under foot. Nevertheless we decided to remain positive and to progress with whatever work we could undertake in the circumstances.

The next couple of weeks certainly proved to be challenging. Despite the awkward situation we put a brave face on things and started to get under way with our research work as far as was possible. Firstly, work was started on the collection and analysis freshwater samples from the lake using a small inflatable boat, brought there specifically to collect samples from different depths across the lake. This involved looking at aquatic life, micro organisms and the chemical composition and PH of the lake water. It was relatively easy to undertake this research given our location next to the lake, however it didn’t really provide a huge amount for labour for most of the team to involve themselves in.

In addition, the plants and ecological habitats of the of the páramo grasslands were surveyed. Samples of characteristic plants were gathered including mosses, lichens, liverworts and various grasses which would later be packaged up, dried and brought back for identification at the Botanical Gardens in Kew, thus also creating a small income stream to help finance the project. In addition to these small and unobtrusive plants, there are some highly distinctive and characteristic species found in the páramos of Ecuador. These included giant puyas, strange erect, triffid like plants surrounded by a rosette of prickly leaves around the base.

During the course of our stay by the lake, we made several attempts to get down to the headwaters of one of the main river valleys where we would be able to undertake surveys of the upper cloud forest and where, potentially, we might  find a more sheltered and attractive campsite. Every attempt however ended in failure, causing us to turn back frequently due to tricky terrain, steep ravines, cliffs and wet slippery conditions underfoot, all which all rendered further forward progress impossible without too higher degree of risk in this remote location far from help. The lack of any proper topographic map also made navigation next to impossible in the thick. Indeed, on one occasion (even with a compass) we found ourselves just going round and round in a circle, such was the level of disorientation in the featureless, misty terrain.

From my perspective, I felt somewhat underemployed and took to sulking morosely in my sodden tent, behind an ever growing pile of empty tuna tins.  It seemed frustrating that I wasn’t able to start work of my masters project, it being simply impossible to access the forests on the slopes beneath us.  Rather strangely, one day for a bit of a distraction, if nothing else, we even tested a telescopic high pruning device – designed for collecting samples of fruit or flowers from high up in the tree canopy. This seemed altogether slightly surreal and ironic on the desolate paramo far from the nearest trees. On another equally strange occasion, a group of about 15 smiling youths, dressed in casual city clothing suddenly appeared out of nowhere, asking directions for somewhere beautiful and “chilled” to go for a “nice picnic” – they wandered off, vanishing again into the mist towards a ravine as mysteriously as they had appeared – or was that just perhaps a hallucination (fortunately nobody was singing “Brown Girl in the Ring” by Boney M at this point…).

Worst of all though by far were the the tricky cooking arrangements. These made it difficult to prepare any proper meals, as cooking potatoes and other vegetables on a tiny Trangia stove was just about impossible and completely inefficient (even more so given the high altitude) when precariously balancing a heavy and oversized pot full of vegetables on its edge. I remember one particularly bad evening when, after battling to cook the reluctant ingredients for about 3 hours, the nominated cook knocked the whole pot and all its contents over onto the grass, rendering them pretty much inedible. Although nothing was said, it’s fair to say that looks could kill !! That evening, we ate cold tuna alone in our tents from what I remember; such was the tension and the remains of the meal being unsalvageable.

Work also proceeded slowly. The situation was compounded when my camera also fell into a bog and was completely submerged. I was mortified; however, lucky enough I had a bombproof manual Olympus SLR with me. Amazingly, my trusty old friend survived the ordeal and still managed to produce photos despite its underwater adventures (it still works more than 30 years or so later). Immediately following the submersion, my long suffering camera managed to capture some marvelous and surreal “art-house” style compositions which somehow caught the atmosphere of the situation far better than “normal” photos might ever have done.

The climate certainly didn’t play out in our favour. Everyone was constantly soaked to the skin and there was simply nowhere to dry clothes or equipment in our small and damp tents. Problems of damp were compounded by the fact that some of the team had down sleeping bags which immediately lost all there thermal insulation value when saturated. The rainy and misty conditions during the day were accompanied by night time temperatures which dropped below zero, when the sky would miraculously clear and it would stop raining until first light when the deluge would once again continue. Fair to say, this was completely soul destroying.

Although dramatic starry skies and views of the snowy bulk of El Altar in the moonlight were impressive, the climatic conditions were a disaster in terms of keeping, already chilly, team members at a reasonable temperature. In the end, a few of the team had to share sleeping bags just to avoid the worst excesses of hyperthermia – a real threat in this situation. Meanwhile our campsite was reduced to something resembling a muddy World War 1 battlefield scene with random pieces of equipment strewn around everywhere across the bog – nobody having the motivation, or the willpower to do very much about it, given the oppressive cold, windy and damp conditions. There were times nobody wanted to come out their tents at all – really things were getting pretty dire by  this stage.

After a week or so of existing in such unpleasant conditions; having survived spilled pots, constant damp and freezing nights, we were finally blessed with some clear and sunny weather. With theatrical unpredictability, the clouds suddenly rolled back to reveal the dramatic “Middle Earth” landscape of snowy peaks, rocky crags and impenetrable ravines. Most striking of all, the enormous pyramidal bulk of Volcan Sangay, hovered ominously above the horizon, as if somehow suspended upon a thin layer of cloud, in the manner of a ghost castle from a maritime mirage.

This was a harsh and an uncompromising  landscape and certainly not anything resembling a cosy Lake District scene, where a National Trust tea shop (or even better, a pub) might be lurking conveniently just around the corner. Indeed Volcan Sangay itself seemed the very essence of Mt. Doom, and about as appealing.  Though for one of the most active volcanoes in the world, we observed no signs of eruptions – perhaps resulting from the fact we couldn’t see very much of anything for most of the time.

Having endured 2 weeks in “Camp Hellhole”, the team finally agreed it was time to make a tactical withdrawal, to altogether friendlier terrain and climate. The freshwater team and those looking for mosses and grasses on the páramos, also decided that they had also had enough and had collected enough data and specimens to justify the Calvinistic suffering of the preceding days. I must admit to feeling rather happy about this decision and looked forward to getting the hell out of there asap.

The plan was then to go back across the col, ferrying gear and equipment over the pass in stages and then to establish a camp down on the other side of the watershed, where conditions were more favourable. This would also allow access to some fragments of high altitude forest which were characteristic of the Central Andes. So, instead of the threatening bulk of Volcan Sangay to the east framing our view, it would now be the lofty heights of Chimborazo to the west, silhouetted by the light of the dying evening sun. This view seemed altogether more appealing.

Immediately we crossed the col to the other side, conditions improved dramatically and the sky was clear instead of the constant cloud and mist that we had experienced over the last couple of weeks. There was now no more rainfall to speak of – it was a different world altogether, all the stranger for the fact that it was only just a few km away as the crow flies. Getting the gear over the ridge was a different story though.  This mammoth task requiring endless exhausting shuttles to get everything over, with one team taking everything to the top on the eastern side and another group shuttling it down on the Western slopes. There were tents, survey equipment, bulky food, personal baggage and yes, of course, the computer paper… (hmm yes, the computer paper…). Eventually after a day of hard portaging, we’d managed to get the bulk of the gear over onto the friendlier side of the mountain and to get our new campsite established.

The contrast couldn’t have been greater, we had a nice dry camping spot and were even able to get a campfire going which we could use for cooking. This seemed like luxury indeed compared with past days. Even better, I was able to start work on my first forest plot survey with much appreciated assistance from other team members. The valley was characterized by a special type of high altitude woodland called Polylepis, a family of shrubby plants which only grows at such high altitudes in the Andes. The composition of the woods is unusual,  with a tortured and twisted form of also single species stands. After familiarizing the team with the essential measuring equipment, we got to work – it felt good to be getting on with something positive for once and progress increased rapidly following a sharp learning curve.

There was though a small hiccup here too. We had brought  along1000 aluminum tree labels for our survey work, to enable the tress to be marked and then identified at a later date. These were all organised in a numbered sequence on a wire, for simplicity of access. Tree number 1 went just fine, followed by the next 50 or so, until some overzealous team member (to remain nameless) dropped all 1000 onto the ground in a beautifully chaotic and random heap – perhaps like the incident of the spilled potato pot all over again. This time though, there was no get out clause, the culprit having the unenviable task of sorting out all 1000 labels into the right order again – a challenging task indeed, guaranteed to test even the most patient.

And so, following a day or 2 of intensive recording of the research plot, our work in the area was finally finished. It was time to collect up our gear again (in stages of course), hike out and make for  our prearranged rendezvous with the National Park staff, who were fortunately waiting for us as planned. As we bumped and jostled back down the unsurfaced mountain roads to Riobamba in the park ranger’s vehicle, it was a good chance to reflect upon our experience. It had certainly been a long 2 weeks or so; at times bounding on sadomasochism and pushing the margins of what might be reasonably tolerated in the name of scientific research. Perhaps we emerged stronger from the experience though and certainly just a little bit wiser when it comes to expedition planning – particularly when it comes to not taking the information of others at face value.

It’s fair to say though that when we got back to the hotel at Riobamba, a proper bed and a good night’s kip had never seemed so appreciated. Normal food and drink in the town’s various eateries and emporiums also had never, ever tasted so good ! We enjoyed some well- earned days of R and R, taking in some local cultural highlights, like when the police brass band try to outperform the army band in the Town Square (ear protection essential).

The fact remained though that the expedition was certainly not over – we had only surveyed one of the forest sites at around 3,800 and still had several more to do at different altitudes down to the tropical forests of the Amazon Basin. Nobody was going home just yet or even simply going AWOL – though I must admit the inviting thought of the latter did occur to me at this point ! A couple of things were certain though;

i)  What was to follow certainly couldn’t possibly be worse than the previous couple of weeks and;

ii)  I will NEVER, EVER go back to that lake again as long as I live !!

 

Follow the next chapter of the story – coming soon: “Hell & High Water: Ecuadorian Andes to Amazon – Part 2”

 

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Hiking the West Coast Trail – Vancouver Island

After writing a couple of long and challenging posts about the Spice Islands of Indonesia, I thought it would be a pleasant relief to write something rather more short and simple – something that might take only 15 minutes to write (well, in reality, no post actually takes that amount of time). As with writing though, sometimes the most spontaneous and least planned trips can be the most fun…

The West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island certainly fitted into this category. I’d never planned to walk this route. However, backpacking around Western Canada one year and staying in a youth hostel in Victoria (the Island’s capital) I unexpectedly bumped into a German guy who was off to walk the Trail with a local Canadian radio presenter. They were heading off the very next morning: so throwing caution to the wind and without thinking too long about it, I decided to join them. I already had all the gear I needed with me, except for some essential provisions to bring along.

The 75-kilometre West Coast Trail from Pachena Bay to Gordon River in the south western part of Vancouver Island in British Columbia follows an ancient trail which was used for travel by First Nations people such as the Huuay-aht, Ditidaht, and Pacheedaht. The first European sailing ships started to arrive along the coast over 200 years ago. Over time, the coastline became notorious for shipwrecks and drownings and became known as “the Graveyard of the Pacific.” The trail was also constructed and used for the rescue of shipwrecked sailors – this was fortunate indeed for us, as the coastline is also one of incredible beauty for hiking.

We had to get to the start of the trail at Pachena Bay through using a combination of local buses and hitch hiking. On the way, merchants of gloom and doom, told us that the weather in September would probably be stormy and unsettled – we would surely live to regret it (if we lived at all that is !).

As things worked out though, it was a wonderful few days of perfect, settled weather. We hiked along empty stretches of wild coastline, through magnificent tangled forests of towering cedar trees, camped on empty, unspoiled beaches and watched fiery Pacific sunsets whilst sitting around driftwood fires. Out to sea there were frequent sightings of orcas, dolphins and seals.  For such a randomly and hastily assembled group, everyone got along just fine – it was a great few days. The photos I think speak for themselves:

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