Escape to Ilha Grande

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The skies have finally opened properly and rain is thundering down on São Paulo, flooding its streets, soaking its inhabitants, who are all trying to get away from it, travelling to spend Christmas with family. It takes a good 50 minutes to travel the 8kms that lie between my home and the bus station. Once there, I have enough time to collect my ticket and make my way to the bay from which the bus will depart. It leaves right on time, heading out in the continuing torrential rain and joining the slow exodus on the highway. It takes a long time to get to the first stop at São Jose dos Campos, but after that the travel eases and the bus runs through the night, occasionally stopping for the driver to have a break and letting out an increasingly sleepy looking group of passengers.
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I wake just before we arrive at Angra dos Reis and after collecting my bag I find a taxi to take me to the cais from where the boats depart. There is still time for a coffee at the paderia suggested by the taxi driver and while the coffee is awful, the brioche is fantastic. Soon I’m on the first boat, a speedy vessel that deposits me on Ilha Grande in 30 minutes. The island is hidden in cloud, only slightly lighter in texture than on the mainland. Looks like the first day will be a rainy day. I arrive ridiculous early, but the room is ready about an hour after my arrival and I enjoy a bit of a rest in a hammock first before going for a stroll through the village of Abraão, towards the Black beach and back via the aqueduct. It rains steadily, but not too heavy and it is warm enough that I don’t really need the umbrella, except that my camera isn’t too fond of water. Most of the day I spend reading, sleeping and resting; I have underestimated how tiring the trip here has been and how tired I was to begin with.
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The next day it is still overcast, so perfect weather for a walk to Dois Rios, a small village on the other side of the island where previously the prison was located. The prison saw many serious criminals incarcerated, as well as political prisoners during the time that the armed forces were in power in Brazil. Although the prison itself has been demolished, parts of it still exist and have been turned into a small museum. The track meanders up the hill gradually and in the warm and humid conditions I am soon dripping with sweat. Near the top I get a great view over Abraão before heading over the hump and start descending on the other side. There is no one around, except for the howler monkeys who screech far off in the forest. It is an eerie sound, and while slightly threatening, it’s too far off and howler monkeys are not the aggressive kind of monkey anyway. Along the track I see many different birds, big lizards, the black and white tegus, but they are always too fast for my camera, diving back into the brush when they see me coming. Big bright blue butterflies dance around the path.
Once I get to Dois Rios I have a look at the remains of the prison and its little museum, before heading to the beach for a refreshing dip in the waves. After that I have a bit of lunch at the Barzinho (the little bar) before heading up the hill again. On the way up I stop at the Soldier’s Pool, a shaded waterhole and have another dip, this one substantially more refreshing than the beach, the water being nice and cool. From there a shortcut trail leads up the hill, which I follow, through thickets of bamboo, until it rejoins the main path again. The wind has picked up and increases as I ascend to the ridge. Just over the ridge as I start to go down again I notice that a large tree has crashed down and is now blocking the path. A little scramble later I’ve negotiated the obstacle, but more trees are creaking around me and partially collapsing in the wind, so I put the engine into fifth gear to get through this area as fast as possible. A little less than an hour later I am back in the village, where I first report the fallen tree to the police, as no one is able to get through to the other side now. After a good shower and a rest in the hammock, it is time for an early dinner and bed.
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The next day is Xmas morning, which dawns sunny and bright,  and with sore calf muscles I join the festivities at breakfast. Rennie, the manager/owner of Aratinga Inn, has created a fantastic atmosphere over breakfast, rushing about with champagne for her guests and soon the Christmas gifts are being handed out and opened by everyone. After the leisurely breakfast it is time to get my beach things together and make my way down to the quays to get on a boat that will take me and many, many other people to Pouso beach, from where a 20 minutes bush track leads to Lopes Mendes beach, which is truly one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, which is saying something. Soft white sand, a pounding blue surf and an endless expanse of beach. Most people stick to the area where the track leads onto the beach, but I walk on to about mid-way on the beach and spread out my sarong there in the shade of a tree and go for a dip in the waves. Despite being in the shade and with sunscreen lathered on, I still manage to get a bit burned. Why is it that there is always some part of the body that gets missed with the sunscreen, never mind how much attention you pay to the application of it?! After a few hours I retrace my steps to the other beach and wait for the 17h30 boat back to Abraão.
Friday morning dawns sunny again and I decide to walk up to the Cachoeira da Feiticeira (the Witch’s Waterfall), which is bewitchingly refreshing when I finally get there after a long slog uphill in increasingly hot and humid conditions. After visiting the waterfall, I head down to Feiticeira beach, miss the turn off to a quieter beach next to it and end up spending a few hours on a small beach, enjoying cold coconut water and açai for lunch, before catching a taxi boat back to Abraão. Dinner is at Dom Mario’s where I eat a fabulous steak and make a new canine friend, who is patiently sitting by my side in the hope that some part of the steak or of the bacon in the rosti makes its way to him. Unfortunately for him, no such luck!
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Saturday is my last day on Ilha Grande and this morning the heat is so oppressive that the merest movement results in sweat running down. Together with other guests Alex and Adam the decision is made to take a taxi boat to a small beach near Abraão, called Abraãozinho, where we find a good spot in the shade to stay cool. We have a great day, chatting away over a variety of beer, mojitos and caipiroskas while eating fish and chips and doing as little as possible. Eventually it is time to make our way back to the pousada, so I can get ready to get on the boat and depart the island. Initially scheduled to take the night bus again, the large and very international family who have been staying at Aratinga for these days as well will not hear of me waiting so long for the bus and invite me to join them in their transport back to São Paulo, particularly as we discover that we live only a few blocks apart. It is wonderfully generous of them and I’m thrilled to accept the offer. On the way back we stop at Paraty for a great dinner and arrive at 3am in the morning back in a quiet big city, where I even get dropped off in front of my door.

Parque das Neblinas

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With a healed knee, it was time to set out for another foray into the Brazilian forest, or mata as they call it here. I opted for another organised walk with Ultreya Viagens, which doesn’t allow for much animal sightings with a group 18-strong, but does make for a very convivial day out.

We left Sao Paulo at 7am and headed out towards Mogi das Cruzes and from there in direction to Bertioga until we arrived at EcoFutures Parquet das Neblinas, which is perched on the escarpment and was reached after a long windy drive. After a quick coffee and an explanation of the walk, we headed out with guides Andrea and Gabriel, who explained about all the vegetation we saw on the way, including the bromeliad leaf featured above. The vegetation was full of exotic flowers and the inevitable mosquitoes, which despite liberal application of RID made a beeline for me.

The walk meandered along good paths towards the remnants of a river bed through which we gradually descended to a dam, which controlled the flow of water to the area below us. It culminated in a fantastic viewpoint from where we could see Bertioga and the beaches from afar. We had a quick snack there and then turned around to return the same way we came. The walk itself was easy, but posed some challenges for some of the newer recruits to walking, but everyone made it out and back and kept encouraging those who were struggling on the uphill on return.

Before we got back to our lunch at the visitors centre though, we detoured to a nice spot by the river and returned via the suspended catwalk to walk straight into the buffet that was laid out for us, and which was quite a feast. By 8pm I was back home and reflecting happily on a day spent outside of the concrete jungle and into the real one for a day.

Aarn Featherlite Freedom review

Back in October 2012 I blogged that I had bought the Aarn Featherlite Freedom backpack, but until November 2013 I didn’t really have an opportunity to take it out into the field. A good friend of mine emailed me today asking whether I had used the new pack on my Patagonia trip and that made me realise that whilst I had written about the walks themselves, I had not specifically written about the pack, so I thought I’d do that in a post now.

Previously I’ve always used my very trusty Macpac Torre pack on overnight and multiple day hikes. I bought that years ago and it seems to be indestructible. But it is also heavy and I’ve been looking for ways to lighten the load I carry and for how I carry it. The Aarn Featherlite Freedom seemed to be the answer and so in November last year the first thing was figuring out how to pack it with everything that I was going to need for the trip.

When you pack at home for a trip, you think you’ve got the configuration worked out on how everything goes into the pack, but then you get to the location, buy your gas canisters, your food and bingo, you have a new equation to work with. With the Torre I had so much space that I never really needed to give too much serious thought on what to take and often ended up bringing too much. No such luxury with the Aarn. The volume is significantly less than what I had with the Torre, so it takes thought and planning on what to take and how to pack it. Add to that adapting to new locations for water bottles, camera, snacks, sunscreen and sunglasses and it takes a few goes before you have it right. So it was good that I started out hiking in Los Glaciares on my own, which gave me the opportunity to get the hang of the pack, find the best places for all the equipment and the perfect configuration of everything.

I used two one-litre water bladders that slide neatly in the mesh pockets of the front pockets and are very easy to get out and back in. Most of the food went into the right front pocket, with first aid and camera going into the left front pocket. I particularly loved having the camera so easily accessible and not bothering me around my waist as previously. It also helped that I ditched the DSLR and opted for a Fuji X-E1. At about half the weight it was a joy to carry around and I found myself using it much more than I would have an DSLR. I found that having the drinking bladders and snacks in the front made stops really easy. Often I wouldn’t even take the pack off.

One other thing that I had to adjust to a little was the easiest way to put the pack on. There are a lot of straps and buckles and you have to find your own way around those. I would put the pack on while putting my arms through the straps, but then tuck the forearms back underneath the front pockets to secure the hip buckle, then take them out i front of the pockets to click them into place. Sounds complicated, but it wasn’t once I figured out my sequence.

After Los Glaciares I joined the group around Torres del Paine and that is when I had to figure out how to accommodate more food, given that we all had to carry substantial amounts for the 9-day trek. I solved that by putting the heavier food in the front pockets and the lighter stuff in the main compartment in the back. That initially left no space for my tent, but I had brought a dry bag for that purpose and slid the tent in there and clipped it to the top of the pack. Once we started getting through the food supplies, the tent could go back into the backpack. So that all worked fine too.

The pack stood up well in the weather conditions and everything stayed beautifully dry in it. Although I carried the same quantity of things as my fellow hikers, my pack looked smaller and felt lighter (also because a lot of my equipment is super lightweight). It also moves with the body much better and I was pleased to see that not once I did a ‘upside turtle’, which I have been known to do with the Macpac. I was also much more sure footed, which made river crossings so much easier that I was usually the first or second one across (do I hear gasps of surprise from my usual bushwalking buddies?!).

I did get a few funny looks and comments, but once people tried the pack on or saw me walk completely upright with it, they were quickly intrigued by it and asking where it was from, who manufactured it.

So to wrap this up: for me the pack receives a big tick of approval and I would only really use the Macpac again if I had to take much more than what would reasonably fit into the Aarn. I probably would try to avoid that at any cost. I better start planning another trip…