Tag Archives: wanderlust

Malawi Matters

Zambia is the friendliest place I have ever been, so neighbouring Malawi’s high VISA fee and culture of shouting ‘Give me money’ came as a surprise. I stopped for petrol soon after the border. A Malawian man approached me, I knew exactly how this conversation would go. How fast does your bike go? What size engine does it have? Wow, that’s huge. My bike is 250CC. Same conversation every time, they always start with ‘How fast does your bike go?’ like Africa is some sort of Fast and the Furious set.

“What size engine do you have?”

“650CC.”

“Oh.” He sounded disappointed.

“Do you have a bike?”

“Yes.”

“What CC is your bike?” I asked out of politeness.

“1150 BMW.”

I looked at him shocked. That was an expensive bike by American standards, I did not expect someone in a village in Malawi to have one. And I realized that’s what’s wrong with the world – why can’t anyone save up and buy a BMW?

“A man was riding Cairo to Cape Town and his bike was no more in Malawi so he sold it to me and he went home. I ripped out all electrics and fixed it myself. One day I want to do a tour like you are doing but VISAs are very expensive here.”

Lilongwe was a small capital, not much for a tourist to do so I wandered around the local market. I turned a corner to find 30 people dancing. Not African dancing with a beat and rhythm – white people dancing. They were all wearing the same green t-shirts. I took a closer look, they were missionaries. I had ridden my motorcycle from Seattle to a place with African Missionaries. The dancing finished and they formed a semi-circle around a bald, middle aged, accountant looking man. The locals had formed quite a large crowd to complete the circle.

“My name is JJ.” He boomed into the microphone.

The crowd looked on in silence.

“Can you say JJ?”

Silence.

A Malawian man in matching green t-shirt translated his sentence into Swahili.

Deafening silence.

The two Malawian men at the nearest stall asked me, “What are you doing here?”

“I heard there were white people embarrassing themselves so I came right over.”

They both cracked up laughing and slapped my hand.

“I am Chicken Wing and this is Joe.”

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“What’s going on here?”

“They are from the church but they came all the way from America so we must listen.”

“I came from America as well, but I came on a motorcycle.”

“To here? Wow. We will listen to you instead then.”

They slapped my hand again.

The speeches had finished now and upbeat dance music was playing. JJ donned a white blood stained sheet and crown of thorns and ran around silently pretending to cure other missionaries.

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Two teenagers brought out a board and pretended to hammer nails into JJs hands with the tempo and campness of an 80s workout video. America, they’re not sending their best and brightest. Some I’m sure are good people.

I started to wonder why anyone would come to Malawi. I left the underwhelming capital and rode to my hotel in Monkey Bay. After coming hundreds of miles out of my way to see the Lake of Stars, all I could see was the bare assed African man in front of me. This was not tribal Africa, he was from the navy base next door and going for a dip. The South African owners were discussing hotel maintenance.

“And then we need to put all the furniture in the water.”

“You mean in the lake?”

“Yes, they lay eggs that survive for four days underwater so weigh down all the furniture in the hotel and put it in the lake.”

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I took the hotel kayak out on the lake. The peaceful bay opened up into an ocean of blue, the endless lake meeting the clear sky. A small village on a beach was tucked in around the next corner. There was no road to the village, the only way to get there was to walk or sail. A place unburdened by progress. The only other person on the lake was a lone fisherman casting a net from an ancient canoe. It was an image that hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. I can see why people come to Malawi.

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Invader Zim

I had heard that an African border can take anywhere between ten minutes and two days. But I had managed to breeze through till now, so I was foolishly optimistic when I arrived at the Zimbabwe border. Three hours later I was sitting in the head of the customs officials office. Things were not going well. Another three hours of calls to Cape Town and bouncing between customs and the clearing agent hut down the road and I made it through. The sun was setting as I finally cleared customs.

In my overconfidence I had booked two nights in Bulawayo. Hotel rooms are far and away the biggest expense when travelling the world. You could sleep in a tent and save a lot of money but when you have the money, you tend to choose to stay somewhere comfortable; with a nice safe parking lot. I hated the idea of losing more money to lost hotel rooms. I set off into the crisp night air in the direction of Bulawayo. I followed closely behind a truck that would hopefully take me all the way to town. The temperature dropped; you can spend hours on a motorcycle debating whether you should pull over and change into heated gear.  I decided to keep riding and get this over with. I quickly realized the disadvantage of riding behind a truck is that potholes can come flying at you with no time to react. When you hit a pothole at speed on a motorcycle, the seat rises up to kick you in the ass for riding too fast. I swerved around several craters that were large enough to cause serious damage to my bike. My lead blocker truck turned off and headed for Harare, leaving me alone in the middle of Zimbabwe in darkness.

I pulled in and put on a buff. Buffs are those wraparound neck scarfs that can be folded into any head gear you can imagine. I decided against the full heated gear, always leave something in reserve for when things get worse – things can always get worse. I instantly felt warmer, I have learned that buffs are magic. The night was silent, the kind of silence you can only find far away from civilization. Stars filled the night sky, the green hue of the Milky Way barely perceptible. I wondered what kind of wildlife would be out at night in Zimbabwe and quickly hopped back on my bike and rolled out into the night. In the darkness I could just about make out a figure in front of me, getting closer and closer. I swerved onto the wrong side of the road. A lone donkey stood defiantly in the road, he did not react as I blew past him. I counted the minutes ticking down as I weaved between barely visible potholes.

It was approaching 11PM as I slipped through the silent Zimbabwean night. Mangled metal lay on the road ahead. As I got closer I could see it was once a sign that read, ‘Police Ahead’. Out of the darkness I could see six black men standing in the middle of the road. There was no light or even a flashlight to illuminate them. As I rolled to a stop I considered my options, I could gun the engine and go around them but that included the risk of being shot at. I knew there was only one way I could deal with this situation.

The first police officer was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘POLICE’. The man behind him was wearing a hoodie. I realized that these were probably not police officers. I cheerily shouted, “Hello, how are you? I’m just heading to Bulawayo. Come here, I’d better go, it’s getting dark.” It had been dark for five hours. I sped off into the Zimbabwean night leaving police officers satisfied with the minimum checkpoint interaction or criminals wondering what had just happened. Everyone I later asked in Zimbabwe said, “Oh yeah, those were not cops.”

Bulawayo is a lovely tourist town with wide tree lined streets, however I was the only tourist in town. Some of the buildings had an almost Australian looking architecture with thin arch awnings extending to the street. Department stores looked like they had been frozen in time since 1970. The local market was selling individual rolls of toilet paper for 50c each, the first sign of the economic crises in the country. Zimbabwe’s currency had hyperinflated, resulting in the blocks of one hundred trillion notes locals were trying to sell as souvenirs. The country, officially, was now using the US Dollar; but they didn’t have any. To deal with this they introduced Bond Notes, a local currency supposedly equal to the dollar but available for much less on the black market. ATMs had signs posted saying, ‘Sorry, no cash’. The daily queue for the bank extended out the door and around the building. Each person only able to withdraw $40 per day. I burned through my stash of US Dollars, shops apologizing when they gave me change in Bond Notes because they didn’t have any dollars. To get on with daily life, Zimbabweans pay for things with their phones and avoid cash altogether.

After a two day stop over in Bulawayo I headed to Great Zimbabwe, the capital of Zimbabwe in the Iron Age and the source of the country’s name after the fall of Rhodesia. It consisted of a large hill where the king sat, a small village recreated to look like it did in the Iron Age and a huge stone made animal keep. Large baboons now patrolled the keep, long reclaimed by nature. The stone walls looked exactly like the old stone walls surrounding the fields by my house back in Ireland. The same yellow moss growing on both. I pictured our ancestors 5000 miles apart, building the same walls.

I got back on the road and headed for Harare, the capital. I arrived once again at sunset, I did not fancy riding around Harare in the dark so I navigated straight to my hotel. I pulled up to an intersection and suddenly I was swarmed. I hadn’t been swarmed by people since India. They were all shouting questions about my bike, I shouted, “I need to cross here” and broke free from the swarm. On the far side of the intersection a man was setting fire to a bonfire. I turned right into my hotel, safe behind large metal gates.

Downtown Harare is like a cross between Johannesburg and Baghdad. Large buildings falling into disrepair. Bonfires on the corners. But the contrast to the abandoned buildings is the people. Activists hopeful for a brighter tomorrow. They had lived through the reign of Robert Mugabe, lived through the military coup that deposed him and now they were looking forward to a future they could reach out and touch; with democratic elections and foreign investments saving the country they loved. Weeks later, after the fraudulent election, when the army opened fire on protesters and gunned down three people, they began to lose hope.

I got back on my bike and headed towards Zambia. The first stop was Kariba Nature Reserve. That night the manager of the hotel knocked on my door, “Would you like to see an elephant?” An elephant was walking through the middle of town just past the hotel gates. The locals all made a high pitched whistling noise. I guess to warn people about the elephant and direct it away. The elephant continued about its business down the street. I asked the hotel manager where a good restaurant would be. “You go right, you walk three blocks and if you meet the elephants you run away.” I followed his directions and ended up at a bar. As I walked through the bar the high pitched elephant whistle started. I smiled, aware they were mocking me. Everyone burst out laughing.

I scoured the neighborhood but could not find a restaurant that would be safe for motorcycle travel the next day. I gave up and bought some food in a shop. The shopkeeper said, “I also have a motorcycle but I don’t like to ride at sunset. The lions can stand on the road and they are hard to see at sunset. If you hit one and come off, they eat you.” He said this casually as if he was discussing the weather.

At this point I had been through a lot of borders, but few can match the spectacle of Kariba. I had gotten through the Zimbabweans customs when the official said, “Now you must enter the tent and get police clearance.” Any extra steps like this are usually a money making business. I entered the tent with suspicion. The police officer had a peculiar look on his face, I figured I might as well get the shake down over with, “Are you alright there?” He looked at me, clearly trying to decide whether to say something, “Can I try on your helmet?” I handed over my helmet. It dwarfed his Zimbabwean head, we all had a good laugh. They stamped my paperwork free of charge and I headed towards the Zambian side. The border runs across the top of Kariba Dam with spectacular views on each side. The dammed lake and mountains on one side, the green of Zambia sprawling out below on the other side. But, as this was still Zimbabwe, large cracks ran up from the base of the dam – with everyone remaining unconcerned.

Peril in Peru

I had been riding the PanAmerican Highway down the length of Peru. Endless desert asphalt where the wind winds up across the entire ocean to punch you right in the side of the head. An unseen force trying to tear your helmet off for hours at a time. After a grueling week it was finally time to turn inland and up the mountains to the magical Macchu Picchu.

33 degrees. As I rose from the desert floor the temperature steadily dropped. 23 degrees. I stopped to add a layer of UnderArmour. 14 degrees. I changed to winter gloves. 10 degrees. A storm cloud rolled in and the temperature plummeted just as I came to the crest of a hill. 4 degrees. Huge hailstones pelted the bike, a layer of ice coating the road. I slowed to a crawl, my boots sliding along the ground on either side of the bike. In Alaska a grizzled motorcycle rider who had just finished his world tour had given me some advice, “When the going gets rough, don’t try to be a hero and stay up – walk your bike through. It’ll be slow but not as slow as finding a mechanic or a hospital.” A horn blared, the only other car on the lonely mountain road rolled past. When you manage to get a horn from the unflappable Peruvian drivers you know things have gone horribly wrong.

I followed two black tyre tracks through the pristine white landscape. They suddenly veered off the road. A tourist jeep sat perched on the rocks as if placed there by some long forgotten mountain giant. Thunder cracked in the distance to round out the terrifying scene in front of me. The driver climbed up to me and spoke in Spanish. I asked “Are you ok? Any injuries?” He gave me a thumbs up. Not being able to speak any Spanish, he lost interest in me so I continued my downhill slide. If the storm had closed in on the way up the hill there was no way I could have kept going. Just past the crashed jeep, the ice started to part and then disappeared. I pulled in at the next toll booth and gesticulated wildly to mime that a car had crashed back up the road. The disinterested man in the toll booth mimed a phone up to his ear, a symbol that he had already called it in.

The temperature lingered at 4 degrees. Just as I was congratulating myself on surviving the icecapades, a police siren wailed behind me. I pulled in and through some broken English, broken Spanish and the international language of mime, the message was conveyed. “Stop at the next town, it is snowing ahead.” In response I mimed a tent. He shook his head, “Stop at the next town.”

I made it to the town of Negro Maya. It was really just a small cluster of stone cottages that looked like they were straight out of 1850s Ireland. The first house I approached had a young woman in full traditional Peruvian dress in the doorway. I asked in my best Spanish if there was a place I could stay. She did not answer. I repeated ‘Hoteles?’ several times with more and more ambitious pronunciation. She looked at me, confused, in deafening silence. She raised her hand and flicked her wrist to shoo me away. It occurred to me much later that she didn’t speak Spanish, only Quechua – the native Peruvian language in the Andes.

The next house had two unquestionably native Peruvians sitting at a bench outside. They looked like they could have been sitting there discussing the events of the day since the fall of the Incan Empire. Thankfully one of them spoke Spanish. I asked again if I could stay. He shook his head and pointed to the road, “30 kilometers.” I told him that the police had told me to stay in this town because it was snowing ahead. He looked up at me starting to lose his patience, “Then drive CAREFULLY.”

I slowly rode towards the next town. Thoughts of how I could have flown to Cusco, or skipped it completely ran through my mind as the setting sun lit up the sky in a dazzling shade of orange. I arrived in the dark, the snow covered mountain peak to the left of the road glinting in the moonlight. This town was a slightly larger version of the previous one. To the right was a barn like structure, in decades old faint writing I could just make out the word ‘Hosteria’. I pulled in.

Inside there was a single large room; on the left side there were shelves that had biscuits and bottle of Coca-Cola (the one universal constant). On the right side there was a table and chairs and a big old television showing soccer: the national obsession. Watching the match was the owner, one glance told me everything I needed to know about him. He was an old bachelor farmer, a wild breed – the same the world over. I asked him if I could stay. He smiled, “10 Soles” (about $3.10) “Come.” He led me out the back door. Chickens ran between my legs and around the back yard. A rickety staircase led up to a three room extension that he had clearly, proudly built himself. Large unfinished wooden beams supported a corrugated steel roof. At the points where the beams intersected with the walls, cracks ran out in every direction. The far side of the yard had a small building with BANOS sprawled in white paint. An outhouse that had three small rooms with a hole in the ground, and each one in a more horrifying state than the last. He cooked up a dinner of fish that he had caught in the river and potatoes that he had grown himself.

The next morning I packed my bags, opened the large metal gate and pulled out onto the highway. As the road rose out of town I heard a deep agricultural ancestral voice in my head, “The chickens will get out…” I turned around, pulled the heavy gates shut as best I could from the outside and headed back into the mountains.

The rest of the road to Cusco was a beautiful twisty winding road with temperatures in the 20s. I checked into my hotel and headed straight out to get tickets to Macchu Picchu to keep my trip on track. I paid $300 and they gave me tickets; I pointed out that my passport number was wrong and they replied with the one line that sums up South America perfectly – “If at least 50% is correct, everything will be fine.”

I waited outside my hotel at 3AM for my tour bus. And waited. At 4AM a woman walked out of the darkness shouting my name. I followed her to a small white car which drove me to the tour bus. The bus was running late and to make up time the driver sped through town and careened around hairpin bends. The only movement he made that was not driving related was to learn over and turn up the radio when Spandau Ballet’s True came on. He overtook two cars on a blind corner. ‘…Always in time, but never in line for dreams…’

He made it to the train station just in time. The platform was swarming with people boarding the train, all of them kitted out in designer gym gear. North Face jackets as far as the eye could see. Except for one hero. A Japanese man with a top knot was dressed in full ceremonial Japanese clothing.

A short train journey later our tour guide was explaining how Hiram Bingham, the explorer, discovered Macchu Picchu – The natives pointed to the top of the mountain and said, “There are ruins up there.” He asked for a guide and they sent a small child to show him around. That was some good exploring. When you enter Macchu Picchu the mountain and ruins are laid out in a magnificent vista. Every picture you’ve ever seen of Macchu Picchu comes to life right in front of you. It is the one tourist attraction that truly does not disappoint.

Montezuma

As I waited at the border the minutes bled into hours. I had perfected my disinterested border zen but this time I had a deadline looming; my hotel check-in was closing at 8pm. I sat on the ground on top of a fine layer of sand and dirt watching my arrival time tick past 8 while I waited for ‘authorization’. When I finally made it through I hoped that some velocital liberties would make up the 30 minute difference.

I sped along the Costa Rican highway, the light slowly fading. Unfamiliar jungle trees flew by on each side. Google Maps was also fading, losing my position every few minutes. I switched to Maps.ME, an offline maps app. It has an adventurous idea of what constitutes a road and had caused me to traverse mountains on dirt roads in both Iran and Albania but it had also saved me a few times in other countries.

I followed the map to the right off the highway. The spine of Costa Rica rises into ridges like some sort of sleeping dinosaur I was trying to clamber over. Almost on queue the road changed from smooth tarmac – to pothole strewn – to a former road that could now be used to film a moon landing. The last of the light was now gone and I was again on top of a mountain on a dirt road at night. Thanks Maps.ME. The only other traffic was small local vans that looked like they would survive Mad Max apocalypse, they were making the trip between tiny villages that clung to the mountainside. I slowly slalomed from the edge of one crater to the next. Winding my way up the mountain, watching my arrival time slide to 9pm. And then 10pm. I decided when I got there I would pitch my tent in the hotel car park, mostly out of spite for having a closing time.

The well worn road dipped left over a small hill, at the crest of the hill I slammed on the brakes. A large river blocked my path. I peered left and right into the darkness, there was no sign of a bridge. I looked down at the map, it clinically showed the road cutting straight across the river. I consulted Google Maps for a second opinion, it had the same prognosis.

I knew I should wade across the river and check the depth, but with the fatigue you get from months on the road and a long day in the saddle, I just couldn’t get off the bike. I could see the tyre tracks of a 4 wheel drive leading out of the river so I convinced myself that it must be a main route around here and couldn’t possibly be that deep. I slowly rode into the river – mercifully it was about one inch deep, relieved, I accelerated. About halfway across it got deeper, suddenly I was up to my knees in 3 feet of water and the engine cut out. My heart sank, along with my boots.

I looked around but I was surrounded by running water, darkness and silence beyond that. Drawing water into my engine was not a situation I was prepared to deal with. I held my breath and gingerly tried the ignition switch. It started up. I twisted the throttle and could hear the engine roar but the bike didn’t move. The silt on the riverbed was sucking the tyres in like quicksand. The bike was fully loaded and it would take a long time to unload everything and drag it out of the river on my own. I slowly rocked the bike back and forth as I gave it a little throttle, more in hope than in expectation. The tyre caught and slowly crawled up the river bank, the engine screaming in protest. I sat triumphantly on the far side of the river and looked back across the rushing torrent, cursing my long dead GoPro.

Around the next bend the tarmac reappeared and the bike charged ahead as if the last few hours had never happened. I rolled into Montezuma at 11pm and thankfully I was met by the hotel security guard who let me into my room. I took my dripping boots off at the door and headed straight for the shower. It only had one tap, not even a pretense of hot water, but it was the best shower I’d had in months.

Montezuma is an idyllic Bohemian village at the end of the Nicoya Peninsula. At the center of the town is a perfect white sandy beach. Stalls selling jewelry line the streets, everyone in town is a backpacker or full blown hippy. Long flowing hair, man buns and tanker shirts are everywhere, not a sleeve in sight. Dense green jungle trails filled with capuchin monkeys lead to 3 spectacular waterfalls. I had truly come through chaos and arrived in paradise.

Sandstorm

I dropped a gear and sped into the Karakum desert, nature’s full fury laid out before me. Lightning flashed to the left and right of the tiny car, the air crackled and sparked.

 

It felt like days before we had been in Ashgabat, instead of hours. Ashgabat is quite possibly the strangest place I have ever been in. The guide book accurately describes the capital of Turkmenistan as a cross between Las Vegas and Pyongyang. The city has opulent, hulking marble buildings, enormous 50 foot gates and more fountains than Vegas. It stands in contrast to the rest of Turkmenistan, a poor post-Soviet era desert country.

 

Turkmenistan was ruled by an eccentric dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, from 1985 to 2006. He declared himself ‘President for life’ and institued a raft of ridiculous laws. He outlawed lip syncing, ordered everyone to have a clean car at all times and banished dogs from the capital because of their “unappealing odour.” When he quit smoking, he banned smoking in all public places and declared that everyone should chew on bones to strengthen their teeth. Niyazov built a giant gold statue of himself in the middle of the city and had it rotate to follow the Sun. And then announced that the Sun was following him.

 

We headed North from Ashgabat into the Karakum desert. Just as we were leaving the city the wind picked up and started blowing sand across the road in front of us. Marty in the passenger seat said, “If the weather gets too bad we’ll have to turn around.” The wind whipped the sand into small cyclones to the side of the road. A wall of sand moved in from the left and swept across the road, enveloping us. I slowed to a crawl as visibility was down to five feet in front of the car. “We’ll push on for a while.” I suggested hopefully. After a few minutes of driving blind, a large drop of water landed on the windscreen. Followed quickly by a torrential downpour. The sandstorm was immediately replaced by an old fashioned rainstorm. Marty rolled over and went to sleep.

 

After twenty minutes the rainstorm cleared and I roared eagerly into the crisp desert night. I drove on for two hours and the sun set on the perfectly asphalted Turkmenistan highway. I crested a small hill and suddenly in front of me there was a breathtaking sight, a huge sandstorm in the distance to the left of the road, inching closer and closer to the road ahead. It looked like a circular wall of light brown sand, stretching as far as the eye could see, cloaked in darkness and rumbling angrily. I was struck by how much it looked like something out of a movie. It was at least three times larger than the last storm and a smaller version sat off to the right of the road. Thunder rolled and lightning cracked on the edges of each storm. I held my breath, not wanting to make a noise in case Marty woke up and had us turn around.

 

I eased the accelerator to the floor and flew towards the maelstrom ahead. At this point, I had navigated through the chaos of the roads in India, snaked around crumbling one lane mountain roads in Peru with thousand foot drops to the side and edged my way through traffic in Istanbul. I hadn’t felt fear in years, but driving into this abomination of nature I suddenly felt alive again. Our course intersected directly with the path of the large thunder\sandstorm on the left and we were again engulfed, but this time it was less like a belt of sand passing across us and more like we had entered into a new world where instead of oxygen, the air was made up of little sand particles, each one lit up and dancing across the beam of the headlights. I made sure I wasn’t touching any metal part of the car, not knowing if that would help if we took a direct hit of the lighting. Lightning flashed within feet of the car to the left. Just when I was starting to feel like I was the greatest living adventurer in the world and that my name should be immortalized with the likes of Scott and Shackleton, I started to make out a dark object in the storm in front of me. I pulled into the left lane and passed, eventually making out a 125cc motorcycle with a young Turkman of about 18 sitting on top, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. When he saw me passing, he raised his left fist and shouted ‘WOOOHOOOO.’ There is always someone worse off than you. After ten more minutes of fighting through the sand, we came out the other side into the crystal clear night. A stupid grin plastered across my face for days after.

 

Two hours later we arrived at the Door to Hell. In 1971, Soviets started drilling in the Karakum desert looking for oil. The entire oil rig collapsed into the ground, creating a two hundred foot wide crater. It was actually a reserve of gas instead of oil, engineers decided to burn off the gas so as not to poison the nearby town. They threw in a match and lit the gas reserve, expecting it to burn off in a few weeks. It, instead, has been burning for forty years.

 

I had secretly been worried that it would be a let-down and would just be a hole in the ground that was on fire, an oversized fire pit. But arriving at the crater I could feel the majesty of the place. The air was burning against my face. The silence of the desert with the crackling of the giant burning pyre was almost spiritual. ‘This is amazing.’ I turned to Marty. ‘Sure. About to get more amazing.’ He reached into a black bin bag and pulled out two armfuls of fireworks. He launched them into the crater. The urge to throw something in eventually gets the better of everyone that goes there, but Marty had come well prepared. The fireworks landed at the bottom of the crater. And then nothing. We waited for a few minutes but we were left disappointed. His idea had come to nothing.

 

We set up our camping chairs to the cooler side of the crater and sat drinking warm cans of Turkmenistan beer. I had expected the usual crass tourist trapping that you find at every tourist attraction, but there was nothing there, just desert and a big flaming hole. It was refreshing.

 

The sun finally rose, lighting up the sky with glorious reds and blues that you only see in the desert, and those were quickly followed by unnatural greens, oranges, purples, yellows. The fireworks were exploding, painting the sky above the crater with fantastic colours. We were witnesses to a perfect moment. Never to be seen again.