Quindío Botanic Garden: Week 256

Aerial view of the butterfly garden at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

The butterfly-shaped mariposario is the most iconic building at the Quindío Botanic Garden, but it is just one of many sights to see. The 10 hectares of subandean forest is located in Calarcá and is easily reached by bus or taxi from the bus terminal in Armenia.

It’s not possible to walk through the gardens on your own as several of the buildings are only accessible with a guide. Therefore, the 20,000 peso entrance fee includes a 2.5 hour guided tour.

We began in the palm garden where Laura, our guide, pointed out several native palms and their uses. One had a tangle of above-ground roots that she said were perfect for catching unfaithful men in the night.

Mother-in-Law's Hug parasitic tree at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

Another tree on the tour was predatory and grew around an established tree until it smothered it and cut off its nutrient access. After Laura pointed out the dead trunk squished in the middle, like a layer of cake frosting, she laughed. “I don’t know why, but it’s also called mother-in-law’s hug.” (abrazo de suegra)

Suspension bride at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

On that note, we crossed a suspension bridge to a viewing hut behind a two-way mirror. We saw a humming bird singing, another one fighting itself in the mirror, and a small mammal whose name I promptly forgot. Colombia is celebrated for the diversity of its bird life. So while there were many signs with bird names, the furry little vertebrates don’t often get a mention.

Small vertebrate at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

We went back over the bridge and climbed up an observation tower. It was a nice view, but I could feel the structure sway quite a bit at the top and that was when I decided it was a good time to make haste.

Learning center and cafe at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

There were two coffee shops at the botanic gardens. One was at the entrance and the other was by the bathroom and learning center. There were interesting displays on palm fiber art and a cactus garden with hummingbird feeders.

Palm root chairs at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

I also saw an interesting sort of organic chair that is made after a palm tree has been cut down. The remaining stump and roots are pulled out of the earth and resemble, on their own accord, the kind of chair that Beetlejuice would have liked.

After a short break, we learned about a civil engineering project that is connecting two sides of the Cordillera Mountains. Then we wound our way into an insect display where Laura pointed out a type of ant that was traditionally used for punishments. Imagine putting on gloves filled venomous ants!

Butterfly garden at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

The very last stop on the tour was the butterfly enclosure. Two professional photographers followed us around and took photos that were later displayed when we returned to the info center. I was terrible at convincing butterflies to rest on my finger, but one of the photographers rounded one up and stuck it on my nose.

Photographer inside the butterfly garden at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

Most people probably consider the mariposario to be the highlight of the Quindío Botanic Garden, but for me it was the tour itself. The guides were friendly, the information was interesting, and it was great for Spanish practice too.

About: Quindío Botanic Garden

Close up texture of a spiky palm tree at Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

Salento & Valle de Cocora: Week 227

View of Carrera 6 in Salento: Colombia

Colombia has a lot of three-day weekends. They are called puentes, which means bridges, and when my first one came up I leapt at the opportunity to get out of town.

So early Saturday morning Barret was squished in the back of a small buseta while I sat next to a woman in a blue cardigan and torn jeans. Ten minutes into the trip she pulled out a multi-colored rosary and began crossing herself every time we passed a church, went over a bridge, or stopped at a tollbooth.

She got off at a bus station in Pereira and on the way out of the parking lot I noticed a glass display case with the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus. It made me wonder who decided that was the right pose for a bus station statue.

It was mid-afternoon when Barret and I arrived in Salento. We ate at a restaurant overlooking the most popular and photographic street in the city- Carrera 6.

Architectural detail in Salento: Colombia

Only after our stomachs were full did we start the search for accommodation. The first guesthouse we visited was on the outskirts of town. The garden was filled with toys and sunflowers and the foyer was actually a living room with an overstuffed couch. It was an odd juxtaposition of private versus public.

The place was completely booked though, and the only thing they could offer was a tent on the porch with a thick sleeping pad and some blankets. Barret and I declined, but after a disparaging walk around the city, we quickly realized that the tent was our only option. If there is anything I have learned from traveling on a puente weekend, it’s that reservations are imperative.

We spent the first half of the evening watching a very untalented caricature artist and the second half in a small cafe listening to excellent live music. We weren’t in a rush to make it back to the tent, but when we eventually did, we slept well. The only exception being the return of a group of drunk Colombian tourists. Upon seeing a row of tents on the patio, one of the guys yelled out. Look at those gringos! What are they thinking?! 

Horses outside the trail head of Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

The following morning Barret and I woke up very early to begin our hike to Valle de Cocora. From the main square in Salento, we caught a jeep to the trailhead. There was an option to hire horses, but Barret and I decided to walk the whole circuitous route.

Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Valle de Cocora is famous for its sweeping views of the wax palms- Colombia’s national tree. This is in no small part thanks to the herds of grazing cattle that nibble all the vegetation around the wax palms. The trees are already slender and insanely tall, but when viewed unobstructed, they are even more impressive.

Rutted trail through the Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Bridge crossing in the Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Several hours into the hike we stopped at the Aicame Natural Reserve. It was a small hummingbird sanctuary located at the end of a seemingly never-ending ascent. There was a fee to enter the reserve, but it included a beverage. We also discovered that the reserve had a very basic but insanely cheap lodge. Beds were available for something like 10,000 pesos (USD$5) and the cost included food!

Hummingbirds at the Acaime Natural Reserve: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

We weren’t prepared to rough it another night, so after viewing all the hummingbirds we double-backed and continued walking the full circuit. An hour or so later the trail came to a head at a lookout point named Finca La Montaña.

The lookout point had a flower garden and a small building with a covered porch. An open door led from the porch into a small dark kitchen where a woman was making traditional Colombian hot chocolate over a wood-burning stove.

Woman making hot chocolate at the Finca la Montana: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

In its raw form, the chocolate comes in hard blocks that are dissolved inside a metal jug. Once prepared, the hot chocolate is served with a thick slice of queso campesino (a soft, spongy, and slightly salty cheese).

Hot chocolate and cheese at Finca la Montana: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

I was initially reluctant to drop cheese into my hot chocolate, but it actually tasted delicious. The cheese softened and the saltiness balanced well against the sweetness of the chocolate. I felt like that was a good metaphor for the weekend- the salty frustration of lugging our backpacks around town in search of a room was tempered by the charm of the city and the beauty of the valley. Having the one makes you appreciate the other so much more.

How to get to Salento: Direct buses are available from the bus stations in Armenia and Pereira.

Callala & Kiama Beach: Week 197

Walkway to Callala Beach: Jervis Bay, Australia

One of the first things I notice as we walk down the beach is the hermit crabs. They pop up from the white sand and retreat with the tide, head over heels, back into the ocean. All down Callala Beach, hundreds of crabs somersault back into the ocean.Hermit crab on Callala Beach: Jervis Bay, Australia

Close to shore, in the waters of Jervis Bay, a chartered tourist boat motors around in circles. A young couple from the UK kayaks out in front of them to get a better view. The boat maneuvers around the kayak and the tourists on board continue photographing a pod of dancing dolphins.

The sun is high and my hair is a teased pouf of sea spray and sand. Barret suggests I wrap my towel around my waist to keep from getting sunburnt. It is a good idea, but perhaps too late already. Barret and I walk back to the small sandy parking lot where a mom is loading her kids in the car.

“Mom,” her son gleefully declares. “Remember that time you said the s-word?”

Mom looks exasperated. “Yes. And every time you remind me, you lose an ice cream.”Shore of Kiama Beach, NSW: Australia

Heading back to Sydney, the drive winds north through eucalpyt forests and small towns with busy cafes. Barret and I stop in Kiama for dinner. One of the only restaurants open on a late Sunday afternoon has large, open windows to catch the sea breeze and the sounds of two pink cockatoos. There is a guy upstairs playing an acoustic guitar.

Boy cliff jumping in Kiama, NSW: Australia

After dinner we walk along the coast to the lighthouse. There is a blowhole nearby, but the tide is out and there’s nothing to see but jagged lunar rocks. Before we continue driving Barret decides to jump into the ocean one last time. I sit in the shade of the surf club building; the sunburn on my legs is starting to show.

Fishing wharf in Kiama, NSW: Australia

About: Jervis Bay

About: Kiama

The Outback: Week 171 Part 2

View of Mt Connor from Curtin Springs: Northern Territory, Australia

107.2FM was the only radio station on the Lasseter Highway. There were no DJs or advertisements, just a collection of obscure American albums that someone cared enough about to share with whoever might be passing through the dusty red landscape.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached Curtin Springs. It was a motel with a gas station and a shop that had as many functions as a Swiss army knife. Jars of pickled snakes and small wooden plaques lined the shelves behind the counter. A TV in the corner of the room was blaring part two of an annual rugby game called State of Origin. The first time I heard the tournament’s name I thought it was an important political address by the Prime Minister.

Although we were in the middle of nowhere, the young staff were all foreigners extending their Working Holiday visas. Citizens of certain countries can stay another year in Australia if they spend three months working in regional Australia. If it wasn’t for this program, places like Curtin Springs would have a very difficult time finding employees to wear their trademark blue and yellow shirt: Ugly staff but top service.

The facility itself was surrounded by a million acre cattle station, all of it owned since 1956 by the Severin family. It was easy to forget the arid land could support a working farm. In fact, the only time I heard a cow was before dawn. A pack of dingoes had surrounded the frightened creature with barred teeth and howls like electric chimes.The parking lot emu at Curtin Springs: Northern Territory, Australia

Barret, our friends, and I pitched a tent in the Curtin Springs campground and built a small fire to cook our dinner. A tame emu strolled by, pecking around the fringes of our site.

“Hey you guys, guess what band was playing on the only radio station in the outback!”

“You’ll never believe it,” Barret added, “it’s so random.”

It was impossible to guess, so Barret finally shouted out, “Coheed and Cambria- the entire album!”

Turns out there is no ‘underground’ cattle station, only our American friends driving behind us with their iPod radio adapter. I was a little disappointed to hear that.

Uluru at sunrise: Northern Territry, Australia

Just south of Curtin Springs and the Mobil gas station, a large plateau the color of dusty rose punched out of the flat terrain. To the unsuspecting traveler it looked like Uluru, but it was actually a beautiful red herring named Mt Connor.

The real Uluru was smooth, worn, and patterned like a tiger with dot-dot-dash stripes. When the sun began to rise, the bush landscape became two-toned. The tips of the vegetation were rosy-lime-green while the lower portions were blue-jungle-green. A ray of sun struck the monolithic rock and warmed it up like a glowing stove top.Receipt from Ayers Rock Resort: Northern Territory, Australia

This beautiful landscape first became a national park in 1950. Eight years later the land was taken from the traditional owners, the Anangu, and ownership was only returned in 1985. Since then, ‘Ayer’s Rock’ and ‘The Olgas’ are officially recognized as Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Longstanding cultural traditions, which had been suspended during that period, have also since resumed and contentious issues such as the ‘right to climb Uluru’ are being addressed. While it is legally possible to climb Uluru, it is culturally insensitive and heavily discouraged. The route up the rock is a sacred path taken by a few select Aboriginal men.

Uluru at sunset: Northern Territory, Australia

Photography is another thorny issue since ‘avoidance tactics’ are traditionally practiced after the death of a person. In the past this meant the deceased’s name was not said, but today it also encompasses photography and film. Obviously this is practiced to varying degrees within the community, but there are a few sacred points around Uluru where photography is prohibited.Polaroid of Kata Tjuta: Northern Territory, Australia

Instead of climbing Uluru, our friends and I spent the rest of the day on a circular hike around Kata Tjuta, which means ‘many heads’ in Pitjantjatjara. Unlike the sandstone-composed Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a mosaic of pebbles and rocks cemented together by sand and mud. One of the boulders next to the footpath looked like a geodesic meatball.Polaroid of Valley of the Winds walk at Kata Tjuta: Northern Territory, Australia

The name of the walk was The Valley of the Winds and it cannot be overstated how beautiful the view was when we reached the top of the valley. The hidden oasis was a refreshing pause from the unrelenting sun, and that was the middle of winter!

Polaroid of the King's Canyon rim: Northern Territory, Australia

The following day we drove to Kings Canyon. From ground level, the canyon appears to abruptly end at a sheer cliff face. However, the view from the rim reveals a massive expanse of stupa-like domes. Along the route we saw lizards, honey pot ants, and collected swarms of hitchhiking flies on our backs. The latter is one of those things you just come to accept because it’s just not worth fighting.Rock formations at Kings Canyon: Northern Territory, Australia

The trick to dealing with the flies was to keep moving. Then, when the sun set with a pink halo completely encircling the horizon, the flies just disappeared out of thin air. The red landscape turned to bruised plum and the temperature dropped. The desert might be sparse, but there is life quietly tucked away in every fold and crevice.Red earth landscape of the outback: Northern Territory, Australia

About: Curtin Springs

About: Uluru and Kata Tjuta

About: Kings Canyon

Polaroid of Uluru in the afternoon: Northern Territory, Australia


Coober Pedy: Week 171 Part 1

Kitchen at Faye's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

When the rest of the world emerged from under the cloak of World War I, Coober Pedy went underground. The name in fact is a local Aboriginal term for white man’s hole.

“You see that?” Colin asked. His hand directed us upwards to a slender wooden match that poked out of a crack in the kitchen ceiling. “It’s been up there for 18 years and hasn’t moved. That’s how I know the earth is stable.”

Like many residents in Coober Pedy, Colin lived in an underground ‘dugout’. No matter the weather, the temperature inside a dugout hovers around 72 degrees without the aid of heaters or air conditioning. It’s an unusual architectural legacy courtesy of the WWI trench fighters turned opal miners. Colin’s home is a tourist site courtesy of Faye Nayler.

Air vent inside the guest bedroom of Faye's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Faye moved into town in the 1960s to work at a local restaurant. When her employer fired her for not cooking green meat, she made her own café. Then, with the help of two friends, she spent the next ten years digging her own home.

Faye's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Faye was one of the first people to recognize the town’s tourism potential and one of the first to offer tours of her own house. When she retired to Queensland, Faye sold her property with the stipulation that it must remain a lived-in tourist attraction.

Colin, the homeowner, who lives at Faye's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

“Do you ever get tired of showing people your home?” I asked Colin at the end of the tour.

“Of course,” he sighed and shrugged his shoulders, “but we get to meet visitors from all over the world.”

Terry feeding a baby kangaroo at Josephine's Gallery: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Josephine’s Gallery is a five minute walk from Faye’s Underground House. It has Aboriginal art, opal jewelry, and a barnyard odor. The owners run a kangaroo rescue center behind the shop and, like everything else in Coober Pedy, it’s a DIY kind of enterprise.

During the holidays, when bursting fireworks echo across the treeless landscape, Josephine and Terry bring the kangaroos inside. They turn up the TV and let their spoiled marsupial grandkids eat Twisties and drink black tea.

“Now that one is a bit stupid.” Terry affectionately pointed to one of the red kangaroos. “He cries when it rains. Mind you he is five years old, so that is not normal. I have to move him out of the rain myself.”

On the way out of the shop, I picked up a brochure about how to rescue joey kangaroos. It’s not for the faint of heart. Older joeys just need to be kept warm, but furless ones that are latched on to a nipple must not be forcibly removed. The rescuer would need to slice through one side of the pouch and cut the nipple off at the base.

Tie the end of the teat off with a piece of string. The baby will eventually release the teat.

Underground Art Gallery: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Just down the road, at the bottom of a long staircase, was a room filled with dubious Aboriginal art and the requisite opal jewelry. “Everything is on sale,” advised the guy behind the counter. He was rough around the edges and I had a hard time imagining him daintily arranging the necklace display. The far end of the counter was lined with photos of machines.

“He with the biggest tools wins,” the shop owner explained when he saw me glancing over the photos. “I’m selling my stock off to go into the dugout digging business.” It turned out there was a construction boom of sorts since Chevron found a large deposit of shale oil near Coober Pedy.

Diesel engines pump the town’s water supply from an aquifer and send it through a reverse osmosis treatment. At $5 per 1,000 liters, fresh water costs double what it does in metropolitan Sydney. I couldn’t imagine how much it would cost to import water if petrochemicals poisoned the aquifer.

“Are people worried about fracking?” I asked the owner.

“Yep,” he replied with a slow nod of the head. He seemed worried but also preoccupied with getting his share of the wealth. Seventy percent of the world’s opals comes from Coober Pedy, but that doesn’t mean anyone is guaranteed riches.

Polaroid of town look-out point: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Coober Pedy has a growing population of 3,500 but it also feels like a graveyard. It’s a place where cars are left to rust and pie-in-the-sky dreams go to die, businesses included.

Two men were sitting outside the Cup and Opal when Barret and I approached. One guy smiled, jumped up and led us inside. Barret and I were hoping for food but as soon as we entered it was obvious it had been a long time since anything edible had been served.

The tables were all pushed to the right of the café and covered in dust. Two perpendicular display cabinets ran along the left. “I will give you a nice discount,” the man announced with a thick Eastern European accent. “For you- 40% off. Very nice. Very very nice.”

“I’m shopping for my sister.” I replied as he began pulling out cheap necklaces. “I like it, but she’s so difficult.” Who could argue with a sister in another country?

Polaroid at Riba's underground camping: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Just outside the town limit was an underground campsite called Riba’s. The layout of the tunnel was somewhat in the shape of the letter P but with boxy campsites carved out along the route.

Rick and Barbara, the owners, had started out mining opals until tourism became more profitable. Aside from underground camping, Rick also gave nighttime tours of a mine shaft on his property.

The way opal mining works is that the available land belongs to the government and is only leased for a twelve month period. After registering for a permit, the hopeful miner marks a 50x50m or 50x100m claim with four posts and then registers that site. A person can only have one plot at any time.

According to Rick only one government plot had ever been sold and it was to a German tourist. When word got out about who was ‘selling’ land online, the shady local left town. It’s hard to do business when no one trusts you.

More the 90% of the opals found in silica veins are completely worthless potch opals because they didn’t have continually even pressure during their formation. The problem with mapping silica veins is that the potch and the valuable stuff show up as one and the same. Between the difficulty in surveying and the council’s mining legislation, there are no large scale operations.

Riba's night mine tour: Coober Pedy, South Australia

What surprised me most though about the whole process were the homemade components: the newspaper tube dynamite, the black light noodlers, and the safety protocol. If you fall down a shaft remember to spread your arms wide.

Rick pulled out some metal dowsers to show us how to map out silica veins. A plump woman with short bleach-blond hair and a tribal tattoo on her neck volunteered to try the dowsers. Her husband stayed behind with the camera. He had a pot belly and was wearing swim trunks that looked like a baggy Australian flag.

“Slow down,” Rick advised when the woman began to walk down the hall. “Make sure you hold them loosely.”

“I don’t do slow,” the woman replied in a curiously child-like voice. She reminded me of the time my dad hastily declared that he, “didn’t drive over 40mph anymore.”The town of Coober Pedy, South Australia

On our way out of quiet town, down the dusty main road, Barret was pulled over for a Breathalyzer test. It was late afternoon and there was only one other car behind us. Coober Pedy felt so Wild West that I was surprised to see a cop, let alone a Breathalyzer. The frequency of the machine’s beep increased until the test was finished.

“You’re good,” the female officer announced as she walked away. Barret hit the gas. The town was an industrial anthill in our rearview mirror.  Hundreds of white triangular mounds against red earth, almost a hundred years of digging.

“Doesn’t it look like the town lost something?” I asked Barret. “Collectively, they just lost it.”

Polaroid of a warning sign in the mine fields: Coober Pedy, South Australia

About: Coober Pedy

How to get to Faye’s Underground House: Old Watertank Road, Coober Pedy SA 5723

How to get to Josephine’s Gallery: 131-133 Hutchison Street, Coober Pedy SA 5723

How to get to Riba’s Underground Camping: 1811 William Creek Road, Coober Pedy SA 5723

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