Australia 2: Finale

The final leg begins now…

Ang and Simon woke bursting with excitement that was twinged with sadness. They had been racing for 10 months, and it was all finally going to end. So while they were looking forward to seeing friends and family, they didn’t want the adventure to end. But this is the Amazing Exclusive Race, not the Neverending story. Team Australia was heading home.

They ate breakfast, packed their backpacks one last time and jumped in Paul’s waiting car for the drive through the early morning to Bergen airport. With no traffic to contend with, they were soon at the airport and checked in. An emotional goodbye was said to their fantastic hosts and they went through security, leaving Norway.

Leg one with the flight from Bergen to Copenhagen. This short flight gave them a great view of the Øresund bridge that connects Denmark with Sweden. Their plane landed smoothly, and they raced through the airport, stopping only to laugh at a ‘Big Corny’ chocolate bar in a vending machine.

Øresund bridge connecting Denmark to Sweden

Back on the plane the team headed north again back to Manchester. Another smooth flight was quickly completed with the team sharing the ride with commuters heading to work. Knowing that they had an eight hour layover, and this was the start of the ticket back to Australia, the team attempted to secure an earlier flight. They asked around several airlines, but had no success. Ang commented that “I hope this wait doesn’t cost us the lead”, to which Simon added “at least we can check out Manchester”.

Knowing that the train station was just outside of the airport from their previous trips to Hexham, the team left their luggage and ran over the pedestiran bridge to purchase tickets into town. They were soon on a train into the heart of Manchester. Arriving, they grabbed a tourist map and set out to check out some of the sights. These included a street that had been converted into a running track, the John Rylands library, and an authentic pub lunch (as recommended by a UK customs guy).

Manchester street running track event
John Rylands library pint holder Harry Potter hall
Readers in the reading room Catalogue cabinet
Simon self portrait Ang marvels at the architecture
Neogothic to the max Ghost hallway
Interesting stairway Racing appears over for the day
Classic pub for a classic pub lunch

After cramming in an action packed day, and noticing the sun was getting low, the team made their way back to the train station for their return trip to the airport. Arriving at the station, they briefly freaked out as they thought they may miss the flight. It was then they realised the station clock had not been changed to daylights savings time and relaxed.

Back at the Manchester Airport, the team jumped on the third last flight. They were the only team on the aircraft, and with no sign of any other teams, they were excited. They both knew that a lot could go wrong, so kept composed and strategised to see if they could speed up their return to Australia.

The short flight to Zurich was completed with the team landing there in the evening. They ran out of the aircraft and over to the airline counter, to yet again see if they could get a quicker flight back to Australia. Unfortunately as it was late in the evening, the ticketing staff had gone home for the day. Disappointed they hopped back on the second last plane through to Bangkok, after briefly pricing up some duty free perfume.

Zurich plane spotters So weird, they get a mound
Zurich airport caters for the well travelled tots

Through the long night the team travelled. Their plane winged its way across a large portion of the globe, depositing them in Thailand in the early morning. Their ticket had an eight hour layover before the final flight back to Australia, so the team once again set about trying to negotiate an earlier flight. After speaking to several airline staff, the team found that the flight they had booked for that evening was the quickest return with no other seats available

The team resigned themselves to having another eight hours to kill and decided to head into Bangkok city to check out the town. They went through security and stepping outside of the airport promptly decided the 30+, high humidity Thai air wasn’t what they wanted to experience after being acclimatised to 10 degree weather and 35 hours of travel they had so far endured. Wisely, they decided to head back into the airport for a shower and massage.

Back in the airport they occupied themselves by showering, shopping for perfume and relaxing. After a full day of wondering around the airport, walking the length and breadth of the terminal, at last boarding for their flight was called.

Waiting for the flight…. Waiting ……
Bangkok airport, lap 5 Walking…..
The final flight

A little over eight hours later, their plane began its final decent into Brisbane. Despite not seeing another team on the flight, Simon and Ang knew they still would need to push themselves all the way to the finish – in the Amazing Exclusive Race there are no guarantees, only surprises…

Arriving out of customs at Brisbane Airport (surprised by fans!)

The team was met by some Amazing Exclusive Race fans who had camped out waiting and hoping to see their favourite team as they finished. They were not disappointed. Simon and Ang raced past the screaming fans and collected the final directions. They were to drive themselves to Orleigh park, the finish line for the first ever Amazing Exclusive Race.

Simon and Ang drove out of the car park and headed in the direction of the city. They didn’t need a map being locals and soon crossed the river. Parking the car right next to the park they sprinted to the finishing mat.

The team races to the finish line

The host, Emily, welcomed the team “90,000km, 5 continents, 25 countries and 132 beds, Simon and Ang, you are the winners of the first ever Amazing Exclusive Race”. The assembled crowd of fans went wild and Simon and Ang embraced. Together they had completed an adventure of a life time.

First place!!!!

The team celebrated late into the afternoon with fans and friends ….. before jet lag took over and they slept happy ever after.

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Norway 2: Bergen, Seafood Capital of Viking Land

During the rest period, Ang and Simon relaxed and enjoyed the cold humid weather by going into the centre of town and for walks around Paradis.

Gamlehaugen, the Norwegian royal family’s residence in Bergen Quite the statement
Fantoft Stave Church (rebuilt after a fire in 1992 started by black metalers) Note the fence and camera to keep an eye out for metal mayhem
Bryggen in all their glory
View towards ferry dock

After a relaxing and enjoyable rest period, including a great salmon dinner with Ang’s support family, Gunnar and Cecilie, Ang and Simon readied themselves for the challenges of the leg ahead. They were handed their next clue at breakfast by the lovely Chilean cleaners who work for Ang’s host family. Both Simon and Ang were able to converse in Spanish, an oddly unexpected thing to be doing in Norway. Their first challenge for the Bergen’s leg of the race was to travel to Urkien for the Over Vidden walk, a spectacular hike high above Bergen town. Simon and Ang were kindly given a lift by the cleaners to the chairlift.

The ride up to the top of the mountain was fun. The team burst out of the lift and commenced walking. They made their way through snow covered high peaks and past more waterproof Norweigns. The team took many photos and enjoyed the length of the walk before they began to descend towards Fløyen, the end of the Over Vidden walk.

Bergen from Mt Ulriken
Over vidden
Chilly vidden trail
Lake on the vidden trail
Snow on the Vidden
Comm tower and old world war 2 bunker Old world war 2 viaduct
Even more spectular Vidden

Arriving at the visitors centre, the team were told that they needed to make their way back town to the Bergen waterfront to the offices of the Brygen Preservation Society, where they would receive their next clue. After briefly enjoying the view, the team jumped into the funicular and rode down the hill. At the base they raced along the waterfront and ran into the old trading buildings.

Looking down at Bergen from Mt Fløyen
Looking down on the historic harbour
The racers pose for a Bergen promotional shot Performance art or a wedding?
Ang enjoying Bergen street art Ang!
Downtown Bergen Delicious Groovy?

Once there, the team was greeted by Mamma, and were each given a Jorgen costume to try on for the 17 May celebrations. With the fitting completed, they thanked Mamma and raced back to Ang’s host family’s house. On the way back, Ang, who had previously lived in Norway was thrilled. She explained to Simon what the day represented for Norway. Simon was suitably excited.

Bergen waterfront
Bryggen passageway Historic walkways
Weatherboard constructions

The next day was spent enjoying the great company, relaxing and eating delicious seafood.

Syttende Mai (17 May) is the Norwegian national day, which celebrates the birth of modern Norway in 1814 wtih the signing of the Norwegian constitution. Simon and Ang woke, and dressed. Ang told Simon that it was important to say Gratulerer Med Dagen (literally Congratulations on this Day) to everyone, which Simon tried as best he could. Ang’s host family looked fantastic in their costumes – suits for the guys and bunads for the girls. These intricate costumes are custom made and represent different regions. Once everyone was ready they all piled into cars and headed off.

The first stop for the day was a family friend’s place. There they all enjoyed a delicious brunch. After the meal, the team along with Mamma quickly changed into their costume and raced into town. They ran to the Brygen, where they sorted out last minute costume details and props and joined the assembled Brygena Preservation Friends, ready to march in the parade. Ang was appointed a drunken Jorgen. Simon was tasked with carrying Torsk fisk, a really stinky dried cod on a big pole with a friendly quiet Norwegian guy.

Ang’s wonderful host family in their splendid national costumes Syttende Mai breakfast
Preparing to take part in the parade

With everything organised, the drummers started and the team marched out of the Brygen and onto the street along the waterfront.

Initially there wasn’t much happening, a few people took photos and the marchers smiled and waved. It soon became clear that it was still early, and that they were marching towards the main square. Arriving there they were marshalled into their appointed spot and waited. Soon they were joined by thousands of other Norwegians organised into community groups and societies in varying costumes that would take part in the parade.

Gents waiting to be released to parade on their velos Friends of Bryggen association’s waiting to march
The racers pose for a promotional photo The group’s drummers
More velos

At the appointed time, the Brygen Preservation Society were released from holding by the officials and they set off. The previously empty streets were lined with an estimated 150,000 spectators turning out despite the light rain (Simon believes Norwegians are inherently waterproof) along the 4km parade route. Simon stumped people by not being able to speak Norwegian, responding to their next question as to why are Australians marching in the parade with that they are in a race and this is an amazing challenge to complete. The team also hammed it up by Simon holding his nose due to the stinky dried Torsk fisk and for Ang fake chugging from the over sized booze mug (both actions perfectly in character).

They walked back past the Brygen, turned and headed back along the parade route waving to the huge crowds. It was then they met the other paraders coming in the opposite direction. Simon noticed a cheeky Australian flag hanging out of the window of an apartment along the route. He decided to mess with their minds by mouthing the words “Aussie Aussie Aussie”, which drew points and exclamation from the Australian balcony spectators. The crowds loved the Torsk fisk, with hundreds pointing and laughing at the hanging stinky fish. Simon and Ang walked and played off the crowd, bringing their characters to life.

Ladies laughing in the parade Stinky fish frame spectators in their national costume
Happy Norwiegans wave to the parade Sneaky Australian ex-pats get in on the festivities

The steady stream of parade groups walking past the team seem to have no end. There seemed to be no end to the variety of groups walking in the left lane (such as the Buekorps https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buekorps). The scale of the celebrations was impressive.

Ang gets stuck into the good stuff Ang plays the cheery role well (photo Gunar)
Simon carries torskefiske proudly (photo Gunar)

Sadly, the drummers leading the group rounded the final corner and walked towards a Viking ship on the shores of a lake, the finish of their parade. The team joined together and along with Mamma, were met by Papa. He handed them their final clue.

Paul, Ang, Simon and Ragnhild pose seconds before the final clue is given Tasty Norwegian canapes
Gunnar and Cecilie enjoying the day

After 290 days of racing, they had reached the end. They were to make their way back to Brisbane! Their first flight of several would leave early the next morning.

The team headed back to Mamma and Papa’s house and spent the rest of the day and evening with Ang’s wonderful host family (Simon of course made celebration ice cream).

In a brief interview at the house, Simon and Ang were sad how their time in Bergen was so wonderful and far too short. They both were really grateful for the hospitality and the ability to spend their last leg staying with such fantastic folk. Simon and Ang both said “a big heartfelt thanks for having us stay”.

The team went to bed happy and content. Tomorrow would be Friday 18 May 2012, day 291 of the Amazing Exclusive Race.

… to be continued

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Brazil 3: São Paulo to Trindade

Previously on the Amazing Exclusive Race, Simon and Ang raced through the ultra relaxed country of Uruguay. They marveled at the huge volume of maté the locals consume, and completed a number of challenges in the very relaxed and laid back country. With all their Uruguayan tasks completed, they boarded a flight from Montevideo north to the Brazilian mega city of São Paulo..

The team’s Gol airways flight touched down in the early evening and the team raced out of the airport hunting for transport to their next destination, the colonial port town of Paraty. They jumped on the airport shuttle and just made it in time to the Tietê bus station. Once there and after the team found the right ticket window, they bought tickets on an overnight bus to Paraty that was departing moments later. Simon and Ang raced through the bus station for a second time to the right gate, just in time to board the overnight bus. Unlike their previous overnight ride in Brazil, this one was not too noisy, with only the last hour’s continuous speed bumps interrupting the team’s attempts at sleeping.

Arriving at Paraty, the team jumped off the bus at 3.40am along with a few locals at the deserted bus station. There they met a friendly Brazilian lady called Monica who had also just got off the bus. She surprised the team by telling them that their surprise destination was actually the nearby seaside small town of Trindade. Simon and Ang were excited as the town and importantly beaches sounded awesome. As the first local bus to Trindade wasn’t until 5.20am, the team occupied themselves by chatting with Monica and looking for a working ATM.

Soon the sky lightened and the first local bus of the day pulled in. Simon and Ang jumped on with Monica and immediately the driver shot off into the early pre-dawn light at hellish speed. Passing the outskirts of Paraty, the road entered the jungle and became more twisted than a curled twisty. The driver obviously enjoyed this part of the journey as he put the pedal to the metal, with the bus becoming airborne at one point. Ang rightly squealed, which only seemed to egg the driver on even more.

Minutes before sunrise proper, the bus crossed through a flooded creek and over some rocks and into the small town of Trindade. The team jumped out and raced to the Mairs Do Trindade, a pousada that Monica said was run by the ever friendly Lucas, an Argentine expat living the good life in Brazil. As it was a little after 6am at this point and Lucas was still fast asleep, so the team was unable to check in. They left their bags and went down to the spectacular beach to watch the day lighten properly and chat with Monica while they waited for Lucas to wake up and check them in to the finish of this leg of the race.

Main road into town
Brazilian sunrise

At a little after 8 am they returned to the Mairs Do Trindade. Lucas had just woken and he informed the team that they were the first to arrive. As the first team to arrive, they were given a reward, they were to spend the next four days enjoying the beach and surrounds that this part of Brazil could offer.

Ang and Simon were excited to win yet another race, and after a rest, set out to explore all the nearby awesome beaches.  They consumed a number of caipirinhas and enjoyed the relaxed pace of Brazilian small town beach life. They went on walks north and south of the town to stunning beaches the nearby Playa Brava. They also took a couple of day/night trips into Paraty for excellent food and to watch the old town flood for the month.

Beach time
Yo dog
Ang hits the beach
Paraty Red window trim, Paraty
Paraty twilight
Cobble streets Paraty
15th century church Flooding Paraty streets
Self cleaning streets
Paraty pony Paraty bike
oooh pretty street scape
Restaurant (with mandatory bike) Paraty Caipirinhas!
Delicious!

When they weren’t relaxing, one of the team’s favourite things to do was to watch the Trindade locals walk around with cafe umbrellas when it rained (as it did often in the late arvo given the tropical heat). They also enjoyed making friends with other holiday makers, all of whom were Brazilian tourists.

Lots of rain can only be stopped by cafe umbrellas Yellow giant umbrella and matching shirt
Sleepy cat
Long Paraty building
Townscape in Paraty
Relaxed dog Defaced legal tender
Another Paraty pony Street of Fire
Daytime unflooded street
Paraty bay Paraty party boats
No words Paraty bus station
More caipirinhas! Dessert deliciousness

On the final morning, after an enjoyable rest period, it was sadly time to check out of the pitstop. They were given their first clue for the upcoming leg of the race. Tearing open the envelope and reading the clue, the team found they were directed to make their way back to Rio De Janeiro for a second time!

They jumped into a random van that took them back to Paraty, where they bought tickets on the direct bus to Rio. Five hours later the team arrived once again at Rodoviária Novo Rio. They raced out and straight into a waiting cab, as this was non-carnival time and there were hardly any people around.

Marine Pirates!

To be continued…

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Uruguay 1: Colonia, Montevideo and Punta Del Este

The start of this leg marked the 265th day of the Amazing Exclusive Race. The producers, whilst not telling the teams waiting at the pitstop where they were going next, did tell them this leg would start the final 30 days of racing. Simon and Ang were super excited to hear the news. They had won every leg since the beginning many months ago and they could almost taste the scent of sweet victory at the final finishing check in mat. But they knew that with a race as unpredictable as the Amazing Exclusive Race, it would require them to give it their all to be that first team over the finishing line on the final leg. So they packed their bags and readied themselves for the challenges ahead.

As the first team to arrive at 2am at the end of the previous leg, after an optional 12 hours rest period, Simon and Ang were the first to check out of the pitstop at 2pm. They were excited as their clue directed them to make their way to Colonia, Uruguay across the Rio de la Plata. With start formalities completed, they raced out of the hostel and over to the subway. A quick ride later they arrived at the Buquebus terminal.

Tickets were purchased and the team set about going through the shared customs post, receiving an officious Argentine stamp followed by a super ultra laid back Uruguay entry stamp. They walked around to the waiting concourse and sat. Thirty minutes passed quickly and the team headed to the gangplank to board the catamaran. As they headed along the walk way, Ang spied none other than Team Ireland! They were on a mandatory rest period and had come down to the boat to see team Australia off, having just checked into a pitstop themselves. Both Simon and Ang were pleased and had a yelling conversation across the concourse to the jovial fellow Amazing Exclusive Race team until the final departure was called.

The Buquebus is a large catamaran that plies the Rio de la Plata between Colonia and Buenos Aires. The ferry mostly transports cars, but does have a passenger section with a rather impressive duty free shop. Simon immediately began singing ‘the love boat’. Ang tolerated this, but got annoyed after the tenth repetition as Simon only knew those three words and nothing else of the song. Aside from awesomely bad singing by Simon, the crossing was smooth and they arrived at the Uruguayan docks.

Entering the country was straight forward, as they had already cleared customs and so the team was quickly on its way. The team mingled with runners in a road race as they headed straight to the bus terminal. There they left their luggage, then raced into the center of Colonia town. The team roved around the quaint old settlement and had a great lunch with outstanding customer service, easily the best random lunch stop service in South America. This surprised and pleased the team immensely. After they had surveyed the old town and found an ATM that would accept their travel card, the team received their next clue. They were to make their way to the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo, as quickly as possible.

Cheap bank! Relaxed Colonia street
Colonia lighthouse Ah, a good stretch!
The River Plate

Simon and Ang raced back to the main street and headed back towards the bus station. On the way back they ran into couple that they had previously seen on the Antarctic leg of the Amazing Exclusive race. They chatted briefly and found out that the couple were on an indefinite race around the world. Knowing that time was the essence given the clearly sleepy nature of Uruguay, Ang and Simon bid the other team good luck and fair well and continued their run back to the bus station. They soon arrived, and after collecting bags they were just in time to purchase tickets for the evening bus to the capital.

Classic with fish? In need of some TLC

A relaxing couple of hours later the team’s bus pulled into Tres Cruces terminal, the main bus station in Montevideo. They were then handed their next clue. Their challenge was to complete a tour of the old town of Montevideo to work out why Uruguayan businesses don’t seem to open early. With the rest of the evening free, the team set out to get another feed of steak at a Uruguayan paradilla, before calling it a night sometime in the early hours.

Waking the next morning, the team checked out of their accommodation at 11am and set out for a long walk around the quiet streets of Montevideo. Ang was amazed at the complete lack of open shops and banks for what anywhere else would be a busy Monday morning. Nothing seems to be open for some reason. The team were certain it wasn’t a public holiday after their previous issues on the first Nicaraguan leg, and would have asked someone if there was someone to ask. After walking for about an hour the team suddenly worked it out. Either Uruguayans are naturally so laid back they don’t get moving about until mid afternoon or after they’ve had enough maté. After they completed the walk, both Ang and Simon agreed it was a slow wake up with maté.

Montevideo shoreline
Old style Uruguay ride
Classically sleepy Uruguay building (with confused Uruguay dude)
Uruguayan crowds
Packed Uruguyan street Ang’s red scarf
Street art Bookstores are better in Uruguay
Trippy Uruguayan book shop

With their walk complete and the correct answer determined, the team received their next clue. They were to make their way up the coast to the seaside town of Punta Del Este and find the giant hand. Not sure where they would find the hand, but knowing Punta Del Este is about an hour north of Montevideo, the team collected their bags from the hostel then raced to a nearby bus station to take the trip to the main terminal.

Whilst they waited for their bus to arrive, they got to see a Rip Van Dike one man band play Mary Poppins inspired tunes to entertain the emerging Uruguayans. Simon and Ang were so thoroughly entertained by the performance and the huge volumes of maté that was being drunk by people passing by that before they knew it they were on the bus to the terminal.

One man band! Random statue

Arriving at the terminal they quickly secured tickets on an intercity bus to Punta Del Este. A relaxed ride later through pretty countryside, their bus pulled into the bus station. The town of Punta Del Este by the beach in peak season is probably pumping, with huge high rises packed with people. As it was cold, the place was a ghost town. Simon and Ang however did not care as the sky was amazing and they were racing to find a giant hand. A chilled bus dude pointed them to the beach, so the team raced off with backpacks on.

There in the fading twilight the team saw the huge half buried hand statue. Having successfully found the hand, the team were given their next clue. They were to make their way north by bus to the small seaside town Paraty, Brazil. Excited to be heading back to the land of Portuguese and that their destination sounded kind of like Party, the team raced back to the bus station.

Giant hand! Reach for the sky buried hand!

There they found that the earliest bus wouldn’t leave to travel north into Brazil until 11.30pm, and that it wouldn’t take them far into the country. By Simon’s estimate there was at least 30 hours of bus travel needed to get to Paraty. With the news the team considered their options and hefted their backpacks in the early evening around the quiet Punta streets till they found a heladería with wifi. There they ate ice cream, searched for and booked a flight from Montevideo airport the next morning to São Paulo on Gol airlines. Simon and Ang knew they probably would be facing a time penalty, but after their previous overnight bus experience in Brazil, thought it was a risk worth taking.

With the rest of the evening free to enjoy Punta’s quiet night life, the team checked into a hostel, had one more asado meal and went to sleep.

Waking the next morning they checked out of their hostel, raced to the bus station and bought tickets on the first bus back to Montevideo. Their friendly driver dropped them right at the front door of the ultra modern terminal and the team soon cleared customs.

As they waited for their flight to take off, Simon mused that he really enjoyed the brief time they spent in the country, saying “it was an ultra short and rushed four day stay, but we saw most of the coast line and oddly I feel really relaxed. I’d be very surprised if Uruguay has a blood pressure problem. If they did, it would probably be low blood pressure”. To which Ang added “it’s the maté”.

Their flight was called and they boarded the flight and bid Uruguay goodbye.

After all these flights, finally leg room!

To be continued…

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Argentina 5: Mendoza Wineries

Previously on the Amazing Exclusive Race, one team of two raced from the funky cultural town of Valparaiso to Santiago, the capital of Chile. Having received a clue to make their way to Argentina, they book a ticket on a fast Tica international bus over the Andes. While they waited over night for their bus to depart they checked out the city’s best eatery neighborhoods before they returned to their Plaza Del Armas hostel to rest ahead of the next day’s journey.

Waking late the next morning in true Latin American style, the team checked out of the hostel and raced to the bus station. They quickly boarded the midday bus to Mendoza and were soon heading east over the Andes towards Argentina. Their bus was virtually empty of passengers and made its way through vineyards and up the windy roads and switchbacks into the high Andes.

Bus station souvenirs? Climbing up into the Andes

At the integrated border control (Chilean and Argentine customs officials in the same booths side by side), they got their exit and entry stamps and were once again back in Argentina. The bus snaked its way down the valley towards Mendoza city where they arrived in the later afternoon at the bus station. The team raced to their accommodation and checked in. There they commenced their first Mendoza challenge, they were to wait until the morning when they would be given their next clue.

Snake road Decaying avalanche protection for a train line no longer functioning

Early the next morning, Simon and Ang were given their next task. They read the clue and couldn’t believe their luck. They were to set off with Trout and Wine tours on a trip around the wineries of Mendoza. Joining them on this challenge were teams from America, Paraguay, and England and New Zealand.

The first vineyard the teams visited was Mendel, a smallish place with limited production focusing on quality. There the team tasted a selection of wines and marveled at the wine making process, and the old adobe construction of the facility.

First winery of the tour Delicious Malbec
Mendel’s sorting room
Grapes ready for the next stage of wine making Picking out the twigs

Back in the van the teams all jumped and drove to the larger facility of Dante Robino. This vineyard produces about 100 times the production of the first. The group toured the architecturally designed facilities, then headed to the tasting room. Once again a range of great wines were drunk. For team Australia this was an education as they were able to try some varieties that were new for them. These included a glasses of Torrontés and Bonarda.

Late harvest grapes Old Dante truck
Vines! Argentine wine maker next to some barrels
Aging barrels with art works on display Barrel art
Wine bunker Dante’s tasting offerings
Dante Robino whites tasting… nice! Mighty Dante Malbecs

With tasting completed, the team raced back to the van and were driven to their next stop. Arriving at Topaz, they embarked on a quick tour and olive oil tasting before they entered the lunch room. There the team’s challenge was to eat a five course meal that, being in Argentina, involved a huge amount of meat and of course matching wines to suit each course. Simon remarked that “it was a ridiculous amount of meat, easily +800gs of prime Argentine beef, so while probably not good for your long term health, I could get used to doing this”. Sadly the challenge was over all too soon and the teams were allowed to leave the dining room.

Lunch at Topaz! Non beef entré
Beef based main (Argentina knows steak)

Despite wanting to have an afternoon nap, the team piled back into the van and drove to the last vineyard for the day, the historic Bodegas Lynch. Once again, the facility was of adobe construction, a large collection of historic gaucho ponchos and included a massive asado hall and the typical subterranean aging cavern. The final wine tasting was sublime. The team enjoyed the range of wines they tried and just wished that they could take time out from the race to arrange to ship some of the wines home.

HDR barrel bunker Final tasting stop for the day

With the final vineyard toured, the last glass sipped, Ang very merry and dancing around, the team received their next clue. They were to head back into the nearby Andes and on to Aconaguaga national park. Happy they had finished a great stage of the race, the team jumped back in the van and were driven back to their accommodation. There they enjoyed an involuntary rest period.

After waking, and because they had yet to have enough Malbec, the team headed out to dinner. They enjoyed another fine steak and with it more fine Malbec before returning once again to their accommodation for rest ahead of the next day’s challenges.

Pre dinner drinks Ang is still impressed by the Argentine Malbecs

….To be continued.

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Galapagos 5: Santiago Island to North Seymore Island

Upon waking, the team found themselves in yet another stunning Galapagos location, James Bay on Santiago Island. They were once again ferried ashore. They walked along the trail and saw lots of birds, including finches that were friendly enough to land on cameras. Ang through these birds were very vain, but enjoyed the experience immensely.

Early morning Galapagos dew
One of Darwin’s friendly finches These finches are not camera shy

After the short walk they arrived at a lava rock grotto and headlands. There they were able to see the usual assortment of lots of marine iguanas, sea lions and birds. For the first time they saw fur seals, which unlike the staffy like sea lions, which to Simon thought looked a little like sea rats.

Ang and Simon complete the Val Halen challenge HDR marine iguana
Even more awwwwwww Sleepy sea lion

With this challenge completed, the team made their way back to the landing beach. There they changed into their snorkel gear and wetsuits and entered the water. Snorkelling along the beach they saw the usual huge numbers of fish, swimming marine iguanas, sea lions, turtles, a ray and a huge friendly white tipped shark.

Surprisingly, the swim with marine iguana challenge is just as hard as the previous dolphin challenge

With the shark challenge completed, the team returned to the Eden and cruised to Rabida Island. Once again they were required to change in their snorkelling gear and enter the water at a location that Rubén called “a special place”. It definitely was special with the team seeing the usual huge assortment of sea lions, turtles, rays and fish. With this snorkelling completed, the team climbed back into the zodiac and were driving around a headland. There they entered the water and swam back towards the beach, hugging the coastline they saw blue footed boobies, heaps of fish and sea lions. Once they arrived at the beach the challenge was completed and they returned to the Eden.

Mighty frigate bird
Undersea community Underwater racers!

Anchor was weighed and the Eden motored to North Seymore Island. Dolphins were seen on the way and Simon, along with some other passengers, sat on the roof to watch the sunset. Several frigate birds landed on the roof to catch a free ride back to their colony on North Seymore.

Another mighty frigate bird Lazy pirate frigate birds hitch a ride

Soon the Eden arrived at the anchorage. White tipped sharks circled the boat as the team ate dinner and then spent the night.

…To be continued.

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Galapagos 4: Isabela and Fernandina

Waking early, Team Australia joined the other passengers and boarded the zodiacs for the morning wildlife spotting challenge.  The two boats motored out away from Eden out of Targus cove along the cliffs.  Henry, the slightly crazed skipper of one of the boats, spotted a pod of whales in the distance, so both zodiacs raced in their general direction.  After following the pod for a little while, the boats turned back to Targus cove.

Sunrise just outside of Targus cove Pelican and boobie at dawn
Hunting whales challenge Success! Whale spotted in front of Fernandina

Spotting a huge pod of dolphins, both zodiacs raced over to the northern entry to the cove.  After driving around for about ten minutes, Rubén came up with the idea of bringing the morning’s snorkel forward.  Both zodiacs raced back to the Eden, stopping briefly only to watch some mating turtles.  The team quickly had breakfast and changed into their snorkel gear and were soon ferried back to the entry of Targus cove.

Dolphin swimming with the zodiac Stunning fish or just mucking around?
Fornicating turtles Clumsy and awkward sea turtle sea sex Clumsy and awkward sea turtle sex

Jumping into the water, Ang and Simon, along with the rest of the group started swimming.  Galapagos dolphins squeal then flee when humans enter the water.  After thrashing their way for twenty metres or so in pursuit of the pod, the team stopped swimming and put their heads above water, realising the try and out swim dolphins challenge was too difficult to complete.

However, not wanting to give up, all teams climbed back into the zodiacs and attempted to try again.  This time they were dropped into the path of the oncoming pod.  This time, for those who entered the water first, the dolphins were very close.  Simon, as one of the first to enter the water, saw several dolphins swim towards him, then turn as they got close.  Afterwards Simon said “you could hear when everyone got into the water as the dolphins clicks and squeaks got louder, almost like they were saying ‘humans!  Run!.. I mean swim!’”.

With the dolphins fleeing the cove, the team received their next clue and set about snorkelling along the cliff wall.  This snorkel allowed them to see the usual huge numbers of turtles, sea lions and fish.  This time they also saw penguins and a cormorant from above and below the water.  Completing this challenge the team returned to the Eden and once again changed.

Another green turtle Galapagos starfish

Back into the zodiacs they went and were shuttled over to the shore where they went for a short walk to spectacular lookouts over a lagoons, and huge lava field.  Photographic tasks for this walk were to capture the elusive mocking birds.  The team also read some of the graffiti that various sailors had written on the walls over the previous centuries.   With time running short, Ang and Simon franticly tried to capture the mocking birds on the return to the zodiacs.  They were not successful and had to wait out a short time penalty.

View towards Targus cove and neighbouring lagoon Ghetto sea lions are legit
Little finchy, but sadly no mocking bird photo

After the time penalty was completed, they returned to Eden and anchor was weighed.  The boat headed north in the direction of the island of Fernandina.  This island is virtually untouched, volcanically active place and is the newest of all of the Galapagos Islands.  There is only one tourist landing site on this island and the Eden was steaming directly for it.   A delicious lunch was had en route.

Arriving at the island, the team and other passengers quickly readied themselves for the landing.  As Fernandina is very remote, few cruise boats make this journey.  However, larger vessels with up to 100 passengers do visit this site.  One of these boats arrived at the anchorage soon after the Eden.  So, in order to beat the hordes ashore and complete the walking through the Imps of Darkness challenge, Simon and Ang and the rest of the passengers raced to the zodiacs and over to the landing site.  After a quick surprise ceremonial birthday dunking of another fellow Australian passenger by one of the crew, the group walked onto dry land. There they saw a huge number of marine iguanas, the usual assortment of sea lions, cormorants, and some rare hawksbill turtles.  As they were walking around more marine iguanas arrived having finished their afternoon feeding.

Ellie gets dunked
Lava cacti and associated iguana Chris from team Holland gets amongst the iguanas
Piles of iguanas in iguana town Co-habitation at its best
Simon enjoying this leg immensely Just like Godzilla, an iguana emerges from the sea

Their last task was to complete the Imps of Darkness challenge with Simon giving Ang a piggyback through a field of iguanas that had stationed themselves on and around the path to warm up. With this challenge completed, the teams returned to the Eden.

Simon later said “the marine iguanas are amazing.  They start the day by trying to warm up in the sun.  Once they are hot enough they swim out to sea where they eat algae and seaweed for up to thirty minutes then return to the beach to reheat and snort up sea salt.  It was a magical, somewhat gross evil sight to see”.

Only thing cooler than a marine iguana is a marine iguana with a lava lizard on its tail If nothing else, this says ‘metal’
Whiskers McWhiskers walks with an iguana Brothers from different mothers

Back on board the Eden, a course was set for the northern tip of Isabela.  Arriving at the dramatic location, the team once again changed into their snorkel gear and entered the water.  Snorkelling along the shoreline the team saw an excessive number of turtles.  There was that many that Ang lost count of the number and the team had to be careful not to swim into them as they snorkelled.   Their snorkel route continued around the shoreline past blue footed boobies, cormorants and penguins.  Rounding a headland, the team swam into a huge cave that was home to an angry bachelor sea lion. There they completed the challenge and received their next clue in the water.  Back into the zodiacs they climbed and returned to the Eden for well earned snacks and drinks.

Ang is freezing, but happy at completing the challenge

Soon the Eden left Isabela and was motoring north for an eleven hour overnight sail to their next location.

… To be continued.

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Galapagos 3: Isla Isabela

Previously on the Amazing Exclusive Race, one team of two joined the Eden motor vessel for a cruise around the Galapagos Island.  After visiting fabulous islands such as Isla Lobos, Santa Fe and South Plazas, they motored to the mysterious Isla Isabela and the town of Puerto Ventimilla.

Delivering building supplies into Puerto Ventimilla

Waking early, racing resumed with the Simon and Ang being shuttled to the dock.  There they boarded a chiva for the drive to the Sierra Negro, a huge shield volcano with a 10km wide crater.  The chiva ride took the team past flamingos, lava flows and rural farmland.  At one point, Walter, a member of Team Holland spotted a red bird in the trees.  He excitedly called out to the driver to stop, and jumped out of the chiva and was soon snapping away.  He was quickly followed by the other passengers, once they had realised no one had fallen off the truck.

Galapagos flamingos on the way to Sierra Negra Crimson bird half way up Sierra Negra

Back in the chiva, the rest of the drive was quickly completed and the teams commenced the walk up the volcano to the mirador.  The hike was expected to take 45 minutes; however, as all teams were racing the humid walk was completed in half that time.  At the summit, they were treated to a spectacular view of the huge crater.  There, they had lunch, and fifteen minutes later the clouds arrived.  While they watched clouds obscure the crater, the other teams were entertained by Ang, who demonstrated her love for all things Mary Popins.

Ang, aka Merry Poppins, in front of the huge Sierra Negra crater

Returning to Puerto Ventimilla and to a beachside bar, Team Canada enjoyed a ceviche while Simon, the other team Australia and half of Team America 3 braved the cold Pacific waters and went for a swim.  With these challenges completed, all teams walked back to the dock and were soon back onboard the Eden.  There the final additional passenger, Adam of Team America 4, arrived and that evening. After the regular briefing on the next day’s activities, the Eden motored into the night for nine hours, bound for the remote western side of Isla Isabela.

The mysterious Galapagos bottle tree Simon completing the beach swim challenge
Puerto Ventimilla town Ellie and Ang from the two team Australias shelter from the rain

Waking after a restful night’s sleep, Simon and Ang found the Eden in a spectacular location called Punta Moreno.  They were once again dropped ashore by zodiac where they walked around a huge kilometres wide lava flow.  Their walk allowed them to see hundreds of sally lightfooted crabs, sea lions, blue footed boobies and other birds.  Their walk took them past a small sea lion colony where they sadly saw a sea lion with a large fishing hook in its flipper.  The flipper was infected and obviously was causing the sea lion great pain.  With no veterinary or park services in this remote location, there was little that could be done for the animal.

HDR image of a lava flow Galapagos thumbs up cactus
Ruben’s feet seemed imune to lava Sally lightfooted crabs also love lava
Lava cactus
Panorama of a huge lava flow
So sad, but there was nothing that could be done Another photo of a sally lightfooted crab loving lava
Cactus worthy of being a Windows desktop background

Continuing, the teams soon arrived at a lava tidal pool. There they saw many trapped fish and several large white tipped reef sharks.  Soon it was back to the Eden to change and once again into the cold Isla Isabela waters.  Here, they snorkelled right next to the lava flows and despite the waters being murky, saw sting rays, heaps of fish, kelp and by Ang’s count, at least ten turtles.

Ang poses for a photo before she begins the easy turtle spotting challenge One of many turtles spotted
Racers on Eden’s sister ship, Aida Maria, go for a swim

Back onboard the Eden, the boat once again motored north, this time bound for Elizabeth bay.  Here, they embarked into the zodiacs and travelled into a mangrove estuary, which unlike Australian mangroves, included mangrove trees as tall as gum trees.  On the ride in they saw lots of turtles, blue herons, cormorants and smooth bill anis. As required by national park regulations, motors were not used in certain parts of the estuary, meaning Ang, along with Adam from Team America 4, had to take up oars and row the dingy.  Soon it was time to leave the peaceful mangroves.  On the way out of the bay, they passed over tens of golden rays swimming in a school.

Flightless blue eyed cormorant Close up of a Heron

Reaching open water, the team’s dingy continued to a nearby rock island.  There, they motored around the island and observed a mixture of blue footed boobies, sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas and blue herons that were all living together on the island in perfect harmony.

Mixed use colony
Boobie on a rock Lots of boobies
Yawning boobie

Finally after this action packed day, they returned to the Eden and then cruised for four hours to Targus cove where they spent the night.

Sunset towards Fernandina

… To be continued.

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Costa Rica 1: Playa Sámara

Leaving the pit stop at 5.30 am, they boarded the first chicken bus and were soon squashed in with the other Ometepe commuters.  Racing around the island, the bus deposited them at San José del Sur, where the team boarded the largest ferry, the Rey del Cocibolca for the crossing back to the mainland.

Panorama of Ometepe Island

The ferry ride was again slow, but much more comfortable than the ride to over to Ometepe.  On the boat, the team received a delicious hot local Nicaraguan breakfast of gallo pinto, eggs, avocado, tortillas and coffee.  Ang was very impressed with the restaurant service on the boat and said “I wish you could get this  on ferries back home.  You’d be lucky to get a quality meat pie”.

Soon the ferry arrived in San Jorge, where they joined some volunteers to share a taxi to back to Rivas.  Ignoring other taxi drivers persuit for the teams business, they jumped onto a waiting chicken bus and sped to the frontier.  The drive to the border was interesting for Simon and Ang as the road hugs the lake, making for some spectacular views of Ometepe Island.  After the 45 minute ride, the team arrived at what Ang called “a hell of a messy border”.

They paid their $1 to the local municipality to enter the border area then completed customs formalities and paid their $2 to exit Nicaragua.  Racing out of the departures kiosk, they were briefly confused as to which direction to head in as the large numbers of parked trucks all over the place like a dogs breakfast made seeing which way to walk difficult.  A helpful map was quickly located and the team set off through the muddy truck lot, along with two Americans who were also making the crossing.

Showing their passports a few more times to Nicaragua authorities, they walked down what looked like, minus the parked trucks, a normal road for this part of the world.  Eventually they arrived at a construction site and noticed a large queue.  There was no signage, but it was obviously Costa Rian immigration.

Passports were soon stamped and the team headed once again into a muddy carpark.  They eventually located the most local looking bus and were soon on their way to Liberia.

After almost two hours of driving, including a stop for Costa Rican authorities to check passports, the team arrived at the Liberia bus station.  Tickets were purchased for the next leg and the team joined the queue of people waiting. Unfortunately the front part of the queue completely filled the first bus so the team had to wait another 20 minutes for the second.

The advantage of this was the team was able to get a seat and were soon on their way 90 km further south.  Simon said halfway through this 2 hour bus ride that he thought that he ‘would never say that he missed chicken buses’ as while the bus was relatively modern, the seats were hard plastic benches. The other advantage to taking the second bus was that it stopped fewer times, which meant towards the end of the journey they caught up with the first bus.  After a painful 2 hours the bus arrived in Nicoya.

Getting some directions from the driver before getting off, the team walked over to the next bus station and waited for their final bus to Playa Sámara.  Some supplies were purchased and the team were soon on the final bus of the day. This bus was the most ultra modern that they had taken yet on the Amazing Exclusive Race and was even air-conditioned.  Both Ang and Simon were amazed.

The drive to Playa Sámara was incredibly beautiful, particularly the stretch through Valle Verde, and was very comfortable for the team.  They pulled into Sámara after an epic 12 hours of travel and there the team found their accommodation, the pit stop for this leg of the race.

During the day long rest period the team took advantage of the spectacular surrounds to explore the beaches and headlands.  Refreshed, they had an early night ready for the next day’s travel.

Man on a horse, Playa Sámara Two horses and a beach
Ang climbing around the headland
Panorama of Playa Sámara
Towards the setting sun HDR image taken near Playa Sámara
Life is indeed awesome
Sunset Horses on Playa Sámara
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Nicaragua 2: León

León is a Nicaraguan spanish colonial city surrounded by unique volcanic formation.  The city is perhaps most famous for the extreme activities and hikes that can be undertaken nearby.  León was also the pit stop in an exclusive race around the world.

As the team were first to arrive, Simon and Ang were the first to depart the pit stop.  They raced to the nearby Quetzaltrekkers, a great non-profit tour organisation.  There they were fitted and measured for two yet unknown major challenges for this leg of the race.

After this, the team set out to explore the town of León and took care of travel chores such as clothes washing until it was late enough for them to join Team Belgium (now a whole team of two complete with theme song – Black Eyed Peas “I’ve got a feeling” ) and others for drinks.

Early the next morning, Simon and Ang, along with half of Team Belgium (Walter was not required to go boarding) and others, they boarded the Quetzaltrekkers flatbed truck for the hour drive to Cerro Negro.  The drive began on paved roads but quickly transitioned to black sandy tracks through fields of corn and sugar cane.

Farmers on the road to Cerro Negro

Soon they arrived at the entry to the national park and then the base of the volcán where they were kitted up with their water, volcano boards, gloves, overalls and goggles.  The racers then hiked up the side of the still active black volcano.  Cerro Negro is a young volcano that first erupted in 1850 and since then it has erupted 23 times with the most recent occurring in 1999.  If the rate of eruptions and growth continues, it is predicted to be the highest volcán in Nicaragua.  The sides of the volcano are black basalt that look remarkable like asphalt.  One side in particular has the perfect slope to allow boarding.

The team is ready to climb the volcán Boarders high up on Cerro Negro

After an hour long hike that included a stop in the crater for photos, the team arrived at the summit. There they donned their protective equipment and slid down the side of the volcano.  The ride down lasted approximately 2 minutes with Ang the fastest in the group for this first run.

High up on Cerro Negro The team completes the sulphur steam bath challenge
Panorama of Cerro’s crater
Kitted out for the first run At the bottom of Cerro Negro’s long boarding slope

Once at the bottom, snacks and Tang were had and the group started back up the volcano again.  The second climb was completed somewhat faster than the first.  Once at the top the team again dressed and moved to the launch point.  The team shot down the side of the volcano once more, this time with much less concern for safety and more for speed.  At the bottom of the volcano the team received their next clue and were soon speeding back to León.

Ang touches a cloud Ready for the next run
Free range iguana farm

Ang was particularly thrilled to have completed this challenge and said “I wish I could do it again, but next time on a bike”.

The next day the team checked out of their accommodation and spent the day walking around the old town before they once again returned to Quetzaltrekkers for their next clue.  Their task was to summit the Volcán Telica overnight as part of the full moon hike.

Apparently the largest church in Central America is in León Another, smaller church in León
Unfortunately the team missed Gustavo and his dancing girl’s performance Chilling in the hostel between challenges

After a few pre-hike drinks with team Belgium (both halves and once again accompanied by “I’ve got a feeling”), the team once returned to Quetzaltrekkers.  Dinner was had and then at 11pm, they climbed into a truck and drove off into the night.  Arriving at start of the hike, the team marched through moonlit maize fields and down dark rocky country roads.  At one rest stop, the team entertained the other hikers with an interruptive dance as they attempt to light paint the mango tree they had stopped under.  Ang said, when asked what the hell she was doing, “I’m trying to add fairy lights”.

Light painting of the mango tree rest stop

The walk itself was fairly easy.  The team chatted with the other hikers including Team America 1 and kept an eye on their foot placement over the uneven terrain.  At times the moon was bright enough to see the way by.  At other times, they needed their head torches to see the path.  They walked for a total of 6 hours (26km return) before they arrived at the hellish Telica summit, just before dawn.

There the team was required to approach the unstable crater edge.  With Telica venting sulphur and there being a light mist, it was difficult to see to the bottom of the crater and so the team was unable to see the lava.

Desending from the Telica crater edge

Retreating down into an older crater, the team along with the other hikers enjoyed an early morning breakfast.  They then raced back up the escarpment to watch the spectacular sunrise.  They once again attempted to view the lava and succeeded and were over joyed and awed at the sight and roar of it through the sulphur clouds.  They then started the long walk back down the volcano.

Early morning breakfast spot near Telica Early morning Telica under a full moon
Telica panorama
The racers pose for a photo with Telica Simon next to the crater edge
Ang next to the crater edge Ang looks over the crater edge (130m straight down)
HDR image of sunrise Telica just after dawn
Another panorama of Telica showing the crater
Parts of teams Australia, France and Israel watch the sunrise
Sunrise Telica panorama
Returning to León in the Quetzal truck

Back to León they raced. They checked into accommodation and then along with Team Belgium, headed out for a night of drinking and dancing.  This included a visitation to “After Party”, which Walter of Team Belgium had been excited about ever since he had completed his first León challenge for the Amazing Exclusive Race Belgium.   They danced until 2am when they were given their final clue for the León leg of the race.

Random Nicaraguan festival dude Inside the legendary After Party

Racing back along the calle towards Quetzaltrekkers, the team successful convinced other racers to take part in their full moon challenge.  Teams from Holland, Israel and Belgium joined and together they completed the full moon outside of Quetzaltrekkers.

Full moon challenge completed at 2am (censored)

Successfully completing this final challenge, the team raced back to their accommodation, the pit stop for this leg of the race. Ang commented “After an awesome 43 hours of racing this leg, I am pumped to still be in the amazing race but so glad to be finally hitting the hay”.

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