Our Lips Are Sealed

IS it possible to be a fish out of water while actually in water?

It would certainly appear so, given my flailing around off the Argentinian coast in a wetsuit, flippers and snorkel.

Graceful was not exactly the word to describe my time in the water, unlike the local inhabitants we had come to see.

To walking with lions, being charged in a bar by an elephant, a cheetah eating my flip-flop and being knocked over by a gorilla, you can add another thrilling personal wildlife experience -snorkelling with sea lions.

If, by snorkelling, you mean floating about with very little control over which way you were moving or even which way up you were.

That would be me, not the sea lions. They are rather more agile in the water. It is closer on dry land.

Being in the water, let alone so close to such remarkable creatures, would have been pretty much unthinkable in the deep south of Argentina at Ushuaia, even with the help of a couple of wet suits.

But the weather improved as the miles rattled up on the long journey north, the warm clothes we have been wrapped up in for the past few weeks gradually disappearing to see out the rest of the trip in the depths of our locker as shorts, T-shorts and flip-flops again took over as the truck uniform.

Not that we could discard them immediately as we began the journey north in a truck newly festooned with Christmas decorations.

Our departure from the world’s most southerly city coincided with an abrupt end to the remarkably friendly weather we were served up in Patagonia.

It was cold at times – particularly one or two evenings under canvas – with the odd downpour, but none of the horror tales of gales and four seasons in one day we had been served up in the build-up to the southern leg our South American odyssey.

Right up until we left Ushuaia.

By the time we reached the day’s first intended border crossing – there is no way back to mainland Argentina via road without heading in and out of Chile – the wind was howling but with little sign of the problems it was about to create.

For the final time we went through the Chilean custom of unloading, scanning and reloading our bags – including those belong to the people missing in Antarctica, Buenos Aires and wherever else they might be across the continent, which at least provided plenty of room on board through several long drive days – and headed for the day’s other major hurdle.

Crossing a narrow strait of water had been fairly straightforward on the way down, but that wind was about to make the return journey a whole lot more troublesome.

By the time we arrived at the Bahia Azul ferry crossing at 2.30pm, a line of traffic was forming and the ferries could be seen anchored offshore, going nowhere as conditions had been judged too rough just half an hour earlier.

And so we waited. And waited. All the time, watching the clock with the day’s second border crossing – about an hour’s drive away – due to close at 10pm.

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At which point, we were watching cars being loaded on to the first ferry to dock when conditions were judged good enough to sail again.

The intervening eight hours had seen us do… well, not a lot really. There was not a lot we could do, bar sit it out and occasionally brave the gale to visit the nearby cafe to use the facilities and search in vain for hot food.

We did convince them to reheat our big pot of chicken soup which we scoffed down on the truck as hope rose of our vigil finally coming to an end.

When it did, it was still not plain sailing – the 20 minute crossing taking twice as long as we watched the ferry and the surrounding waves from some very strange angles.

With the border closed until morning, we had little choice other than to park up amid the trucks waiting to cross and set up our own refugee camp for the night, bar those who opted for the safety of a night on the truck.

Our early-morning border crossing was smooth enough, although our mood was not eased by a sign declaring it would be open 24 hours just two days later.

A quick stop for cook group shopping and we were heading north again, eating up the largely featureless miles as the temperature began to rise.

It was mainly long trousers and hoodies for our bush camp on a rocky beach, but by the time we rolled into the Welsh village of Gaiman for tea, cakes, ice cream and reliving my years on the western side of the Severn Bridge, we were into what could only be described as a glorious summer day back in Wales.

And it was distinctly beach weather as we hit Puerto Madryn – where the first Welsh settlers arrived, on the cliff by our campsite in 1865 – which was pretty handy, considering we were at a beach and signing up to take the offshore plunge.

Which was how a group of us were up bright and early – very early for those of us on cook group duty – to splash around with the pups of a seal lion colony.

Having never snorkelled properly, nor worn flippers before, perhaps my less than graceful performance was to be expected.

Who knew it could be that difficult to keep your feet underwater?

But my struggles aside, it was a truly magical 45 minutes or so as the curious pups swam and played around us, letting us stroke them as they nibbled at our flippers and wetsuits.

And when they opted for dry land, we were able to bob (or thrash around in my case) just off the beach where the giant bull kept rivals and youngsters in check and the colony went about its morning routine.

Which largely consisted of lying around, occasionally making the odd strange grunt.

A lot like a long drive day on the truck.

  • Next time: When overland trips collide, sweating it out in Buenos Aires and a little bit of politics. Just in case you hadn’t had enough.
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Ever South

CHANGES in direction are taking many years, endless arguments and, quite possibly, another unclear election result back home.

But for the inhabitants of our big yellow truck, our whole journey takes an abrupt about face when we climb aboard in the morning.

After 11 weeks heading south from Quito we can go no further and day 80 will see us roll back out of Ushuaia and set out north on the long road back through Patagonia.

We will do it with the truck festooned in Christmas decorations (met with a variety of responses from delight to, well, mine) but shorn of a large chunk of its passengers.

Three have not had enough of heading south just yet and are somewhere on a boat en route to Antarctica, one has been forced back to Santiago by a passport issue while a growing number have opted to fly to Buenos Aires early to miss out a series of long drive days and bush camps along the Atlantic coast with what could be some of the most inhospitable, least exciting conditions Patagonia has thrown at us.

Not that anything it can serve up can wash away the lasting impression the whole region has made on us over the past couple of weeks – it is simply stunning.

It is difficult to keep coming up with superlatives for the constant stream of extraordinary scenery, so just take it as read that anywhere mentioned throughout this post is breathtaking, beautiful, dramatic, picturesque, unique, memorable and any other adjective you want to add to the list.

Often a combination of several or all of those things all at once.

The view from our campsite in Torres del Paine National Park. The bird hopped into view just before the camera clicked

And, considering what we had been warned could lie ahead, we have got away with the weather so far.

We have had the odd rainy day and a fair few clouds, while a couple of camping evenings have got a little bit chilly if you were not properly wrapped up in a sleeping bag or under a couple of blankets.

But the weather has played its part in helping us savour this remarkable part of the world, albeit wrapped up in a variety of layers – bar those strange people who seem able to wear shorts or a T-shirt in all weather.

When you left us in El Chalten, the weather was very much playing ball and it held firm as we headed around the neighbouring lake to El Calafate, enabling a group of us to dine al fresco in the pretty main street.

So deprived were we of winter conditions, we headed for an ice bar to cool down – dressed up in thick gloves and hooded winter capes for half an hour of unlimited drinks (always a dangerous thing to offer an overlander) in what was basically a large freezer.

It paved the way for a birthday celebration at a nearby restaurant – almost inevitably in Argentina featuring great piles of meat – and another one of those nights in a nearby bar which drifted on a fair better later than originally expected.

While we had been enjoying sun and ice, several of our number had done the same thing at the Perito Moreno Glacier in perfect conditions.

Which was not what we got the next morning for our trip, via a couple of interesting stops at a bush – yes, seriously, got off the coach in the rain to look at a bush in the middle of nowhere – and a ranch which was supposedly notable but all we saw were the puppies which curled up, shivering, between my feet.

By the time we arrived at the glacier, the heavens had well and truly opened but it remains a mightily impressive sight, especially when it calves off large chunks of ice – even more so when we got up close under clearing skies during an hour-long boat trip.

Our relentless journey south bounced us back across the border to Chile – a common occurrence which we will do for a couple of hours tomorrow before leaving for the final time – and the town of Puerto Natales.

It is, to be polite, functional rather than pretty but serves as the jumping off point for Torres del Paine National Park for which pretty would be a remarkable understatement.

Shorn of four of our number – rather quicker than anticipated – who were heading off for the four-day W Trek, we tucked into takeaway pizza and steeled ourselves for three nights under canvas this far south.

Our first port of call was the same as our intrepid trekkers, to the point that we bumped into them on the trail of the Towers trek which ranged from sheer hell to people with a bad knee (the muddy, uphill early bits) to a fun stroll through Middle Earth.

Was regularly expecting a hobbit to pop out as we meandered our way through the forest and while most headed up the final steep section, some of us put discretion above valour – it was snowing after all – and headed back down the trail for what was still a long, rewarding trek.

Even more rewarding were the views which greeted us en route and around our campsite deep in the park on the edge of Lake Pehoe which deserved the toasting they got deep into the night. Maybe too deep in some cases.

Which may have explained a slow start to the next day which largely consisted of too many cooks doing their best not to spoil a variety of dishes being cooked on an open fire to mark Thanksgiving for our American contingent.

Our final day in the park brought more walking, although for some of us it was little more than a stroll up to a waterfall and around the edge of the campsite, but even that was enough to test the superlatives.

Especially with the local wildlife more than happy to put on a show for the cameras, right up until the gloriously clear final morning as we rolled back out of the park and back to Puerto Natales.

Reunited with our trekkers – with around 100km banked in their legs – we kept on rolling south, not without mishap as a coach opted to cut a bit too close to Spongebob (remember, big, yellow, square and hard to miss) as we were parked up waiting to board a ferry.

Black and white dolphins bouncing around in the wake were enough to keep us entertained, as were the king penguins at a colony which provided an interesting backdrop (and soundtrack if you listened carefully) in the distance to our bush camp for the night.

Our final few hundred kilometres heading south took us back into Argentina and on to Ushuaia – the end of the world.

And we feel fine. 

It is a landmark stop, providing not only a welcome bed (and we have managed to shed five roommates to Antarctica and Buenos Aires inside 24 hours), ample opportunities to shop, eat and drink (which may have seen a couple of us locked out of the hostel and forced to sleep on the truck) but also to get lost on a relatively simple trek up to a lake.

Not to mention its significance in the trip.

In the morning we head north through possibly the longest (and Welsh) few drive days of the trip which will begin to take on a new shape as the terrain changes, big cities return and layers of clothing are consigned back to our lockers.

But until then, we will continue to savour southern hospitality.

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My Favourite Dress

WE may all have packed our bags as individuals – some a lot better than others – but a form of uniform inevitably becomes the norm on an overland trip.

Some may fight against the inevitable and stick with their own stab at individuality, but a look around the truck on most travel days will reveal a reliance on the same style of clothing.

There will be an array of T-shirts, normally one of two of the trip design (mainly in black) since their arrival in Cusco, with the main debate on how many days in succession you can get away with wearing the same one. 

That number will get longer as the trip goes on and in relation to the number of consecutive days we are camping.

They will normally be matched with shorts and, in the mornings, the odd fleece or hoodie which is usually discarded around the time of the first comfort stop. After the pockets have been stuffed full of snacks if the stop is at a decent petrol station.

Some persist with long trousers, usually of the zip-off trekking variety, while others will fight against whatever the weather throws at us and stick with shorts regardless – the only concession to a fall in temperature being winter shorts which come with added pockets.

Footwear will be largely flip-flops or, to please our Australian brethren, thongs. Thankfully the lack of native Kiwis has stopped jandals becoming a realistic alternative name.

Amid this, there are variations. Mainly worn by Cam who has mastered wearing items of clothing in multiple ways – the right way, back to front, inside out and both inside out and back to front.

Others have tried something similar with certain items of clothing when clean laundry is running short.

But over the past few days as we have headed south through Patagonia, that uniform has changed out of necessity.

There’s still plenty of T-shirts being worn, often more than one at the same time. But they are buried under fleeces, hoodies (two at a time in my case) and waterproof jackets, while the trousers have grown in length and thickness, the footwear has become closed and sturdy and wooly hats have appeared from the depths of bags.

Even socks have been dug out of our lockers – or, warm and fluffy, bought at supermarkets and worn night and day.

The fashion choices have been made for us at times as the nights have got cold, we have been hit by a few downpours and keeping warm in our tents has moved to the forefront of everyone’s minds.

The weather is not all bad. We’ve had a pretty glorious couple of days in El Chalten to complement the stunning surroundings.

And it was still pretty nice when we rolled into Bariloche, our entry point into Argentinian Patagonia after another stunning drive day through the country’s version of the Lake District.

My main issue after a relatively quiet night around camp was not rain but a water bottle leaking all over my sleeping bag, pressing my alpaca blanket and moose onesie – an impromptu pillow until Lisa took pity on me and bought me a proper one – into service in a bid to have a warm, dry night.

Mission partially achieved, kept largely dry if not exactly warm as a small group of us headed out on a yacht for a fairly leisurely few hours crossing the lake alongside our campsite before heading into town for a few early drinks and an evening birthday celebration over fondue which, in various different ways, dragged on into the early hours.

Which was when the heavens opened. And continued to do so for hours, ensuring a quiet morning as people sought refuge in their tents or in the only covered area at camp.

Thankfully, the rain was not an issue for our trip to an escape room which lightened the mood considerably, especially when we got out with 18 minutes to spare and did our best to make the most of the spare time by finding a bar.

Not so easy in the world of siesta when you have to get back for cook group.

The rain returned just as we rolled into our next stop, one border crossing, a search of all our bags and more spectacular scenery later at Futefeulu in Chile, which meant the chances of our little group emerging from our cabin for long when we had wine, cheese and salami to keep us company were slim.

When we did emerge, it was to stunning surroundings (you may be spotting a trend here) of mountains, waterfalls and a fast-flowing river – too fast for the proposed rafting route, but not enough to stop those brave enough to take on the alternative.

Another birthday was marked by a Patagonian lamb roast supplied by our hosts, more wine and, for some reason, an impromptu transatlantic rugby lesson.

That remarkable scenery and rain dominated the next couple of days as we racked up the miles glued to the passing views on the road to Coyhaigue – a touch of tree surgery enabling us to enter our camp site ready for an early start to miss feared protests.

The start of a two-person bid to watch every episode of The West Wing before the end of the trip later, we were back out on the road, this time with little to see as the rain blocked out any scenery – handy to catch up on some sleep without feeling guilty at missing something.

The rain was still hammering down as we reached Rio Tranquilo and the only campsite still open in the conditions, so what could make more sense than getting even wetter on a boat trip?

The Marble Caves are supposedly much more spectacular in the sunlight, but it proved a more than enjoyable diversion before heading back to dry land and our more normal habitat. The bars over the road.

There were no bars the following night as our home after a long drive day and another border crossing was on cliffs above a salt lake, although still managed to be on the truck with a couple of bottles of wine until fairly late.

Which brings us via, you’ve guessed it, more spectacular scenery to our current stone in El Chalten which has the feel of a ski resort but rather than winter sports enthusiasts heading off to the slopes, it is walkers hitting the trails into the surrounding countryside. And then apres-walk rather than apres-ski.

Most of us donned a different uniform of trekking gear and headed out in small groups up a trail to a viewpoint of Mt Fitzroy and its surrounding peaks which rise above one end of town.

The walk was fairly straightforward up a few rises, through forests, across streams (which at times masqueraded as the path) and besides lakes for the first nine kilometres before a steep rise up the final stretch to the best viewpoint.

A creaking knee made by decision to skip the final stretch but it was still a lovely walk, topped off by a rapid, painkiller-fuelled descent back to town. Which is where things went a bit awry.

Plans to head straight for a shower, change and wait for others to return were derailed by a welcoming party in the bar next door – our base for the next 11 hours, bar a quick switch of venue to the nearby waffle house.

Which is beginning to beckon again.

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In Patagonia

MY A-Level English reading list featured a lot of the usual suspects – Shakespeare, DH Lawrence, EM Forster and some Philip Larkin poetry we perhaps did not take as seriously as we should have done.

Somehow managed to cobble together a decent grade without reading all the books in full – could not begin to tell you anything about Lawrence’s The Lost Girl – but one more modern addition to the list had me hooked.

Bruce Chatwin’s On The Black Hill, the tale of twins spending their entire lives together on a Welsh hill farm through much of the 20th century, was devoured and pretty much guaranteed to be my choice of essay come exam time (although had some pretty exhaustive answers worked out for Hamlet and Passage to India which suited most questions).

And while ignoring the stuff which would have come in handy to pass exams, went searching out more of Chatwin’s work.

Which took me to his travel book In Patagonia.

Sorry to say, remember very little about it except its unusual structure – a series of sections, some just a single paragraph – and could not find my copy when moving out of my flat before this trip.

But it did plant Patagonia in my head as a place that needed visiting.

And having spent most of the last fortnight heading south through its amazing landscape spanning the Chilean and Argentinian borders which we have been criss-crossing, it begs the question of how it took me so long to get here.

It is increasingly remote (averaging two people per square kilometre across the southern extremes of the continent) and wild as we have battled bouts of torrential rain and cold, but it is spectacularly beautiful.

The sheer distances involved have meant some long drive days, often on some less than user-friendly roads which at least have served to shake us awake to savour the extraordinary scenery passing by the truck windows.

Every corner seems to open up another remarkable view of snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, lakes and rivers while the most recent border crossing carried us back into Argentina and an instant change to an arid, rocky desert landscape. 

At least it was dry.

Well, it was arid right up until we stumbled across another vivid blue lake, complete with icebergs – the source of which is next on our places to visit – and we found ourselves face to face with more towering mountains above the town of El Chalten which has seen us exploring its trails, bars and waffle houses.

But that’s what’s happening now. What have we been up to since dodging the anti-government protests in Santiago?

Eyes cleared from tear gas and opened to the extent of unrest which has left huge scars on the Chilean capital – and would continue to pop up as we retreated to the countryside – we got out of town early in the morning, the truck rather fuller with the arrival of five new inhabitants.

Their first experience of truck life was one of the longest drive days to date, albeit on some of the smoothest roads as we headed to the lakeside town of Pucon.

Anyone not paying attention could easily have awoken from a nap to think we had emerged in Switzerland, courtesy of the alpine scenery and the type of tidy little town you would expect to find in ski resorts. Sort of a smaller version of Banff in Canada.

The one thing you could not miss – bar the ice cream parlours and cake shops lining the main street as it swept away from the lake near our campsite – was the snow-capped volcano looming over us which meant various photo stops for anyone out hunting for that night’s dinner.

A group of us got as far as the supermarket, loading up on wine, cheese and probably a bit too much meat – we were finishing it for breakfast – for an impromptu barbecue back at camp.

The onset of the cold which had been threatening for a few days prevented me from spending the next morning throwing myself down rapids on a body board and an evening hot springs visit, but was not enough to stop a trip into town which yielded cake, hot chocolate, ice cream and a pair of Homer Simpson Havaianas which just refused to stay on the shelf.

The cold did not stop me joining the hike up the volcano the next morning. A decision based on common sense ruled that one out, although those who made the journey and slid back down through the snow came back glowing. 

Literally in many cases, courtesy of a few missed patches with the sun screen.

Not that it looked like the sun was going to be a problem from our perspective back in town with the entire volcano blanketed in cloud and invisible from down below.

Right up until we wandered into a coffee shop, came out again half an hour later and it was bathed in clear blue sky.

Not that we were looking too closely, our attention taken by what was going on at ground level as the protests which had been such a key part of our Santiago stay crossed our path again.

This one, however, was on a slightly different level.

The march of maybe 900-1,000 people through the main street, stopping outside the municipal offices for 10 minutes before heading off on its merry way, was more akin to a carnival than the running battles of the capital.

There was little shouting or signs of trouble – police either applauded or videoed, filming me at one point, but kept their distance as the crowd kept up a relentless, catchy beat on whatever they could find to hit.

It made for an interesting way to while away some time following the crowds.

They have a series of demands but the uniting call seems to be Dignidad Para Todos – Dignity For All. Which seems a fair request.

They were back in the evening, blocking the junction with the main road near camp. We wandered up and into the crowds for a closer look as they let cars through if the driver got out and danced for them.

And who can fail to appreciate that as a way of solving unrest?

Especially in countryside this beautiful.

  • Will get some photos up as soon as WiFi is good enough not for it to take ages.
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Everything Is Coming Up Milhouse

WHILE taking you to parts of the world you would not normally see, overloading has a tendency to keep you away from the real world.

The appearance of WiFi has people scurrying for the sports results and, if it holds up long enough, possibly some actual news.

We have checked on the latest Brexit news – and tried to explain it to our non-British travellers – but not sure we have been able to report anything concrete in the last six weeks without getting more confused than them.

Far more interested in the rugby scores.

But every so often, the real world impinges on our journey – and all around us South America is getting very real.

Behind us, riots broke out in Quito which forced the Ecuadorean government to backtrack on proposed fuel price increases.

Lima was in a state of flux with road blocks and threatened protests against the Peruvian government while Argentina – not many miles away once we have pulled the truck out of the river bed we are camping in – and Uruguay headed to the polls today.

And Venezuela, officially still on our route, is in such a state the option of heading down the Amazon to Colombia – remarkably, a bastion of sanity – is on the map on our tour T-shirts.

Far more to the forefront of our minds is the situation in Bolivia and Chile.

Both have been hit by protests, road blocks and turmoil which has already forced one rethink to our schedule and has us keeping a watching brief on what lies ahead with several crossings between Chile and Argentina ahead on the way south, not to mention departures and arrivals due in Santiago.

All that was a long way from our minds as we made our way back from Machu Picchu to our Cusco base at Milhouse Hostel.

Top of our agenda as we headed back via train and minibus from Aqua Calientes was getting dry, laundry, a shower, getting to the bar and staying awake on the journey as part of the 24-hour challenge to stay awake for a day after our 3.30am wake-up call – some with more success than others.

Dry, clean and laundry crammed into bags for delivery, the final climb of the Inca Trail adventure carried us up the steps to the hostel bar to a wide selection of happy hour cocktails, shots won by throwing bottle tops into a bucket above the bar, chocolate cake, a variety of silly hats and a beer pong tournament which never reached its conclusion.

Strangely, by the early hours the bar staff were not too keen on letting a couple of Anglo-Aussie survivors stay behind to watch the Rugby World Cup quarter-final – my 24 hours awake ending watching the game on Twitter while my roomie fell asleep five minutes from reaching the target.

Not surprisingly, the following day was not too action-packed – a hefty late breakfast (try the Gordo at Jack’s Cafe if you are ever in Cusco, you will not go hungry), a massage for aching muscles after the trek, some more sleep and a group trip out for a curry at the Korma Sutra.

Very pleasant and pretty restrained amid the first stirrings of trouble ahead. At least for most of us – those on the top bunks in our dorm were glad to be well clear from the fallout of one person’s night out.

Morning came a bit too early for the late-night reveller as a convoy of taxis reunited us with the truck to make the way to our next stop in Puno, our base on the banks of Lake Titicaca.

Not that we stayed there too long – at least at this point – as we headed out the next morning on the world’s highest navigable lake. Very slowly.

Our boat chugged along, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the views over the next two days, soak up the sun, catch up on sleep, attempt to throw corn into mouths between decks, sample the local wine and work out how soon one of the children playing on the roof was going to fall in.

Our slow boat to nowhere in particular did have a few stops to get us on dry land as we headed slap into the heart of the tourist trail.

Well, sort of dry land – first port of call taking us to a floating reed island to meet the local Uros Indians who talked us through how they built the islands – interesting, once our rather long-winded guide had let them explain – before trying to sell us stuff. 

And transporting us to another island on an even slower boat.

Back on our normal sedate transport, we chugged across to Amanturi island, our base for the night where we were dished out in groups to our host families.

After fears of minimal facilities, our group – most of the Inca Trek veterans plus tour leader Danny – were pleasantly surprised as we found comfortable beds (if you did not move too much), a toilet and good food served up by our Mama for the night.

Meals were interspersed with a walk up to a temple at the top of the island – a steep incline which suggested the Inca Trail had left its mark, interspersed by another lengthy lecture by our guide on the meaning of an Inca Cross.

Something to do with things in threes evidently.

We were beginning to switch off before discovering a bar and alpaca on a stick on our way down, despite his claims the islanders were largely teetotal and barely ate meat.

The local falling drunk into the barbecue and the men drinking in the local shop until late rather ruined his argument as we headed back to our home for the night and either headed back up the steep slope in traditional dress for a party or up the slightly less steep stairs to bed.

Our guide had another couple of chances to tell us more than we needed to know as we headed to the neighbouring island of Taquile for another steep walk and a rather less strenuous stroll around the island before heading, slowly, back to Puno.

Which is where the problems on the road ahead started to get more real – a group meeting at the hotel outlining a plan to stay another day to monitor events in Bolivia with a potential second round of voting in their election.

News of problems in La Paz – our first major stop – and road blocks drifted through as the wine flowed and more people descended, clinking, on one of the rooms.

We headed to bed with heads slightly spinning. Partly from wine, partly from altitude and partly from the prospects of what lay ahead – a run for the border or an alternative route via land or air.

All we could do was sit and wait.

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