Creating A Pong

Beach boys and girls

WHEN the list of great British sporting achievements in 2019 is written, Ben Stokes will be a prominent figure for his efforts in the World Cup final and his astonishing match-winning Ashes innings.

Over the next few days and weeks, the Rugby World Cup and World Athletics Championships could well throw up some major candidates. And Lewis Hamilton will earn credit for having the best car.

But one sporting success is unlikely to receive much recognition in any end-of-year reviews.

Granted, beer pong is not a high-profile sport but having discovered some form of natural aptitude, am going to celebrate victory in our campsite tournament. Especially as was not even meant to be in it until roped in as a late replacement.

What I missed out on

The tournament was one of the highlights of our stay at our campsite near Banos, at least for me as a need to stay near the facilities limited opportunities to get into town, seize the perfect photo opportunity on a swing with a huge drop as its backdrop or soaking up the hot springs which give the town its name.

Or canyoning. But did anybody really have me down for that one?

Did manage to make the short walk to get soaked by the Diablo waterfall and to sample the excellent empanadas at a local cafe. Twice.

But much of my time was spent back at base where the camp dogs seemed to spend as much time dealing with bodily functions – always a key topic of conversation in overland groups – as me. They were just less fussy about where.

Which added jeopardy as we gathered in the communal area for an Argentinian barbecue provided by our hosts – huge piles of meat with the odd bit of salad and bread to break it up – and the first sporting battle of the trip.

Had opted out, but found myself in the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) place when somebody was trying to hand her place to someone else. Just had to bend the rules slightly, downing disgusting mouthfuls of water with rehydration salts rather than beer.

Champions

Alongside partner Robby, our Anglo-American team became the ones to beat and charged to success, rediscovering our top form just in time to close out a final interrupted by the need to use the table to house piles of meat.

Having tackled the early morning job of packing the tents back into their bags, transporting the kitchen equipment back to the truck and dodging the final obstacles left for us by the dogs, it was back on the road for the drive to the city of Cuenca.

Arriving at the hostel was very welcome for all of us – the discovery of a happy hour for much of the group and a comfortable bed for me after a difficult day fighting off what, thankfully, seemed to be the final symptoms of whatever laid me low.

Come morning after the best night’s sleep of the trip, was considerably brighter than several others as several of us headed out on a walking tour of the city.

Lunch

It is a very attractive, interesting city, littered with churches – 72 evidently – and pretty buildings. Which is why the picture most of us fought over was the whole pig in the central market which provided our tasty, cheap lunch.

While most of us were discovering Cuenca anew, for two of our number – my beer pong partner Robby and wife Becky – it is familiar ground as they have an apartment there and they opened the doors to us and a load of pizzas to soak in the spectacular sunset. And a few drinks.

It was our final fling in Ecuador, until we return to complete the circle in April, as we made the run for the first border and headed into Peru.

And having bounced around at varying altitudes and temperatures, our arrival in country number two has seen the heat rise as our height dropped to sea level, which is pretty easy to gauge when the waves are breaking yards from your tent.

Our time at Walkato Beach has given us time to draw breath, relax, get sunburned (just one knee bizarrely), down the odd drink or two and spend a couple of evenings around a campfire on the beach.

We did break camp to head down the coast to the bustling resort town of Mancora – think Spanish beach town with less neon, chrome and Brits (assorted other nationalities) on the piss. Well, apart from our day in and around a bar on the sand run by a guy styling himself as James Bond.

There was a diversion for cook group shopping which crowded into the back of a minibus with 14 of us for the ride back to base and another night around the fire on the beach.

No doubt the fire will be lit one last time tonight. Before or after the pizzas cook group has ordered arrive. Before then, there is a pool to be led around or a tent to be napped in.

It’s a tough life.

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An Extra Ticket To Ride

My first proper view of Quito

DAY seven, apparently, of this meander around South America and the first chance to draw breath, sit down and take stock of what has happened over the opening week.

It is not the intended chance, should be down the road in Banos with most of the others but for the need to stay within sight of the facilities.

But between the runs to the loo (nothing too major and, until today, not one that has stopped me) and application of sun cream, anti-mosquito spray and more cream once it clearly has not worked, we have crammed plenty in.

What we have learned over the last seven days:

  • The names of our 17 fellow passengers – a mixture of Brits, a liberal sprinkling of Americans and a few Aussies complemented by a Belgian, Spaniard, German, Japanese and a Venezuelan, together with tour leader Danny, South African driver Will and truck Spongebob (it is big, square and yellow).
  • If it leaks, 100 per cent Deet spray melts your bag (not mine).
  • Spaniards have excellent reflexes.
  • It is pretty much impossible to say hello to anyone called Bert without sounding like a character from Sesame Street.
  • You can have discussions about Brexit, politics and religion, but nothing causes more consternation than expressing a dislike for Queen (the band, not the monarch).
  • Don’t wee in the Amazon.

What we have been reminded about overlanding:

  • Mosquitoes – or any buzzy, bitey little thing – love me.
  • Every campsite should have at least one dog.
  • No matter how organised and well packed you think you are, it is impossible to keep track of where you put all your stuff.
  • You will cast jealous glances at how well organised and equipped everybody else appears to be.
  • Give a bunch of overlanders a hint of WiFi and they will be glued to their phones.

In many ways, this opening week has been very different from my previous experiences of overlanding.

Spongebob

We have not really started living off the truck, the first cook group rolling into action last night but with Spongebob parked across the campsite and the contents of the kitchen carried down to the kitchen.

Until we rolled in to our current campsite at Rio Verde – around 20km from Banos (the Ecuadorian version of Bath, only with fewer Roman buildings but more waterfalls and cloud forest, probably got a better rugby team as well) – we had enjoyed the relative luxury of beds and proper facilities.

Compare that to Africa – have promised not to do that too often, but it is worth the comparison – when we spent much of the first week learning about the delights of bush camping in a cork forest outside Rabat and a bed did not arrive until an upgrade in Ghana, three months in.

While we have not been bush camping and living off the truck – even the drive days have been relatively short – we have been cramming in plenty since we all came together in Quito.

The first challenge was getting there, the lack of an onward flight or dated bus ticket out of Ecuador stopping airline staff from allowing me through check-in without buying one – for far too much money from Quito to Bogota which needs refunding as soon as the camp WiFi kicks back in.

Having sailed through immigration – without any hint of asking to see the ticket – a taxi ride making full use of every lane dropped me at the Secret Garden hostel to start a weekend of shrugging off jet lag, seeing some of the sprawling city and perfecting that look of panic the English display when somebody speaks to them in a foreign language.

My Spanish is pretty awful. To be honest, non existent beyond buenos dias, gracias and una cerveza por favor. Clueless when spoken to, finding it possible to identify enough words in signs to have a vague idea what is going on. Sometimes. Helps having several native/fluent Spanish speakers in the group to help out.

Quito’s old town

Did not need their help on my mission to find a shop selling a towel, finally located just off the Plaza Grande in the middle of Quito’s old town which is all very pleasant as are pockets of a city which is largely a bustling, capital with all that entails.

Draped between and across several mountains – walking at this altitude provided some crucial acclimatisation for what lies ahead – it provides serious views which were soaked in from the terrace of my hostel (spent plenty of time there) and from the top of the TeleferiQo.

A cable car up to around 4,100m, it provides stunning vistas and a real test on the lungs having met up with a few fellow travellers before the official starting point and trekked up a bit higher to around the same height as the high point of the Inca Trail which lies in wait in the next month.

Given my record at much lower altitudes in ski resorts, was presently surprised at how well my body coped with that and the long walk back across the city, although the Inca Trail does not come with a cable car to take much of the uphill strain.

So having sampled the delights of Quito, slightly acclimatised to altitude and repacked (again), it was a quick hop across town to meet my fellow travellers, go through a few formalities and begin the job of getting to know each other.

We’ve got plenty of time ahead for that and have been kept busy starting that process.

More of that next time.

View from on high

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