Thursday, 30 November 2017

Jon and Rod's ill-fated Bolivia trip

This trip like several in recent years started for me when Jon Hornbuckle asked if I would be interested in a small low-cost private trip to Bolivia. Rod Martins had seen his old friend Barry Walker at the Birdfair and persuaded him to put on a private cost-price Bolivia trip for friends using Barry's Manu Expeditions expertise. I was very interested but timing wasn't great for me as Jon had a reason to go in late November/early December which is my busiest time at work (most tours go in September/October when weathewr is generally better). Jon brought the trip forward a few days to sort of accommodate me, starting in La Paz on 9 November and departing on 3 December. Still not ideal but I could just about manage the whole trip and cleared the time off work by agreeing to go in some extra days on my return to catch up. Soon there were six of us with Brian, Duncan and Nick coming too. News of the trip spread and pretty much everyone Jon mentioned it too wanted to come. Soon Lori, Malcolm, Mike, Neil and Paul were on board making a rather uncomfortable 11. So much for it being a small trip! The trip was a topic of conversation in Mongolia for those of us there, probably much to the amusement of those who were not going, with concerns raised over escalating costs but most of us decided to proceed, some indeed, myself included, having already booked non-refundable flights. Lori and Nick then dropped out for cost/work related reasons, Nick when his School became an Academy and refused him the time off he'd assumed he could have. He wasn't close enough to a comfortable retirement to press the issue, took a hit on the flight and went to Amazonian Brazil and Paraguay with Birdquest in the summer instead! We paid Jon a deposit which he sent on to Barry then almost immediately Neil dropped out for work reasons. Jon recruited Marc to replace of him and things stabilised with a group of 9. That is until disaster struck and Jon was involved in a serious car accident in the South of France which left him with complete and seemingly irreversible memory loss and worse. His part in this and any other trip was very sadly over. It came as a great shock to all of us fortunate enough to have travelled with him in the past - absolutely tragic.

There was still a question of paying Barry a final balance and refunding Neil his deposit. I took over the 'admin' side of the trip liaising with Barry. I collected monies, sent Barry £17500 and then had a couple of sleepless nights when it wasn't delivered - Barry hadn't realised his account details had changed. TransferWise allowed one redirection and after a couple of days it arrived in his account, much to our relief. There were now eight of us going, six (Brian, Duncan, Mike, Paul, Rod and me) for the whole trip, Marc who wasn't staying for the last part (Apolo) and Malcolm whom was joining three days in (after) Riberalta.

Four of us were flying out with Avianca and had 17 hours in Bogota between flights. I tried to arrange some birding but was unable to find a guide with vehicle who was available and prepared to help us at a reasonably price. It soon became clear that my preferred option (Monterredondo) wasn't really feasible. At least the time at Bogota airport could be usefully devoted to last minute reading of reports. A week or so before departure Duncan and I received an email from Avianca, in Spanish, telling us not to be concerned because they were making every effort to mitigate the effects of a long running pilots strike! This only served to increase stress levels although monitoring flight departures showed all relevant flights the previous week had gone and none were more than 4 hours late. That our Ecojet La Paz to Riberalta flight had been put back gave us 8 hours to make that connection.

On the evening of 7 December I met Brian, Duncan and Rod at Heathrow's Terminal 2 to check in for our Avianca flight. It was on the board and scheduled to be on time so everything was looking good. That is until Rod was refused check in. His passport had a corner of its clear cover to the photograph page coming away by about 5mm. It seemed amazingly trivial but apparently a passenger with similar had been let on the flight a couple of weeks earlier but was refused entry into Bolivia, turned back and Avianca fined £2000. Rod was understandably incredibly dejected, and we were all pretty shell shocked by the triviality of it and felt greatly for him. A trip lost for a stick of glue, although having been spotted by the airline staff representing a 'mended' passport was unlikely to have worked. Rod caught a coach to Victoria and present himself at the Passport Office nearby the next morning hoping to obtain a new 24 hours passport so he could join us in Trinidad with Malcolm, only missing 3 days of the trip. At the Passport Office he encountered further mindless
 bureaucracy (or another ultimate jobsworth) as he had to provide 'justification' for his damaged passport (it's been used a lot and wasn't made well enough to stand it?) significantly delaying the process and very sadly he did not make it. We all missed his company.

Brian, Duncan and I were now the only survivors of the original line-up with both the main instigators of the trip not making it. Very sad but what could we do? We boarded our flight, 10 hours to Bogota. Our 17 hour wait there was spent in (and around) the airport, reading reports and studying the Field Guide. As the layover was more than 12 hours Avianca were not allowed to check our bags all the way through to La Paz (for most airlines it is 24) so in some ways it was just as well we;'d no birding arranged as we would have had the hassle of having all our luggage with us. We arrived in La Paz at 03:30 after a 3 hour flight, collected our bags, changed some $ (the airport being our best opportunity to do so) and mistakenly (in my view) paid for a few hours in an airport Sleep Box Hotel. It was expensive and excessively hot and stuffy and I wish I'd slept on airport seats as originally planned. Only a slight concern that my bag might be stolen while I slept prevented me from doing so.

Postings with photos from the trip will follow in due course. Here is one to be getting on with:

Blue-throated Macaws near Trinidad, 12 November 2017

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