Border procedures at the Chile/Bolivia were easy, though there was a bit of a wait on the Bolivian side as a tourist bus had just arrived before us.
I decided to take the shortcut to the town where the flight would be, Colcha K. As expected, the road was terrible with potholes and truck breaking corrugations. I followed the road, but soon worked out that we could probably cut across a salt lake. I’d never driven on a salt lake, so had no idea whether there would be an issue with the truck sinking in. I took the risk as anything was better than the road we were on. As it turned out the lake was perfect and mostly smooth. I just pointed the truck in the general direction we needed to go and went for it. We eventually found a track after about 40kms which led us back on to the original horrible road. The wind was blowing a gale, around 80km/h. I’d never been in the situation where I was driving at 60km/h but our dust was blowing in front of us. The dust is so fine, and it was very unpleasant.
We arrived into Colcha K in the middle of the afternoon. The wind was howling and I was just trusting that the predictions would be correct for flying the following day.
It was a very roundabout way of how I ended up flying there. I was researching places with stable weather. I was thinking about flying on the Uyuni Salt Lake, the largest salt lake in the world, but I wasn’t confident about the wind. It seemed to be often windy there, so I looked for a more sheltered spot nearby. I decided on Colcha K. I then needed to find a contact. I sent an email to the only hotel in the town and told them what I was planning. Luckily the owner, Carmen, replied and said they would help out.
The other complication was that there was a military camp next to the town. I managed to get the Whatsapp contact of the Lieutenant Colonel. From our communications, I wasn’t sure if he was for or against it, (bearing in mind that it was all in Spanish).
When we arrived, I asked Carmen and her husband if we could arrange a meeting, but first I wanted support from everyone, so we managed to convince the headmaster of the school, the town’s mayor, as well as a translator, (the only person in town who could speak English. Carmen and her husband didn’t speak English) to come with us, and all within 30 minutes. We went around each place and collected them before going to the camp. We also checked out a couple of possible launch sites along the way.
We turned up at the camp and asked for a meeting. They let us in and we went to the Lieutenant Colonel’s office. I was surprised to see that nearly all the furnishings were red: curtains, carpet, desk, furniture. He was a very nice person and agreed to let me fly, though I couldn’t fly over the camp. I was happy with that.
The altitude was 3500m, and both Des and I could feel the effects of the high altitude. I felt lethargic and a slight headache for about half a day, but came right after that. Des felt it worse as he also had a bit of a cold.
We turned up to the sports field early the next morning. People slowly turned up. I delayed taking off as long as I could. Time doesn’t work in Bolivia very well. It was getting a bit windy, so eventually I took off just before 9am, getting concerned that more wind would kick in during the flight.
The lower wind direction was towards the mountains, but I was expecting it would come back towards the flat open areas the higher I went, (if it didn’t I don’t know what I would do. I would need a helicopter, or a lama, to get out for sure), Sure enough at 4000m, it turned back.
The scenery was stunning. I could see the Uyuni Salt Flat in the distance, as well as the huge mountains and plains around. Definitely a flight to remember.
Des found me and we packed the balloon before heading back to the school to speak to the kids. It was interesting as no one could speak English, but we got by. We had a lot of laughs. They were also amazed with my house on wheels and I let quite a few look inside.
We had a simple, but nice meal in the town square after.
After a rest day, we headed out of Colcha K, 20kms down the road to Chuvica, one of the entrances on to the Uyuni Salt Lake. The guard at the entrance was from Colcha K and we had seen each other at the flight. He said not to go too far to the right as there is a military and mining area.
I was quite excited about crossing the lake, it was something I’d heard a lot about.
The first part of the lake was a man made dirt road as the salt close to the shore was very soft with water pools.
It eventually got better and I could go as fast as I liked across the salt lake. It’s an amazing experience to see such a massive expanse of bright white salt. You lose perspective of distance. We stopped in the middle and took in the surrounds.
We visited the famous salt hotel before moving off the lake and on to Uyuni. We had crossed about 70kms of lake. To get off the lake, you have to negotiate a number of pools.
The town of Uyuni is an interesting place. A real meeting point, and by far the biggest commercial centre around. We had a very nice lunch and looked around the town. I also bought fuel, (which is more expensive for foreigners) and went to get the salt washed off the truck. There was an incredible amount of salt stuck to the underneath of the truck.
We headed out of town mid afternoon, continuing towards Argentina. The road is new and has perfect asphalt. They haven’t even finished building the toll booth yet.
It was such a contrast to when we entered Bolivia. They are still finishing the road, but even the few dirt parts are very good.
We wound our way through the mountains. The countryside is sparse, and there were very few vehicles on the road. One of the passes was 4300m high.
We stopped in a beautiful valley with amazing rock formations for the night. The starry sky was amazing with no light or smoke pollution.
We continued on to Argentina the next day, having a very tasty lunch from a street food stall at the border town on the Bolivian side. There was also a Sunday market happening. Lots of people were out and about.
The Bolivia/Argentina border was easy to cross. It took 30mins or less. I had chosen to go through Argentina as the road into and through Paraguay is in terrible condition.
The landscape had opened right up with long straight roads and very easy driving. There were some spectacular valleys, especially before the city of Jujuy.
We stayed in the town of General Gumes that night. It had been a long driving day.
We continued on towards Corrientes the next day. The road was mainly good, except for one stretch of 50kms which looked like the craters of the moon. I have no idea why it was in such bad condition. After that stretch we stopped for lunch at a service station and had a really delicious home made meal. It made the terrible stretch of road almost bearable.
The landscape became wide open plains again with massive crops and beef farms. We passed a massive feeding lot, the largest I’d ever seen, there must’ve been tens of thousands of cattle.
We managed to cover 850kms and it was well after dark when we stopped. We stopped at a police check point for the night. The policeman was very nice and even gave us their wifi password.
The road to the Paraguay border was very good. We arrived and went to the immigration office, only to be asked where our visas were. This was a surprise to both Des and I as we thought we could get a visa on arrival. It was only at the airport though. Luckily for us the immigration officers were very good. They gave us the option to either go back to the consulate in the previous city in Argentina and wait and pay US$150, or they could arrange it for US$100 on the spot. Obviously we went with the latter.
The Customs officers were very friendly too, and we were through in about an hour, including the hassles with the visa.
After buying a sim card and having lunch, we made our way through the pouring rain to the Yvytu Aeroclub, just outside the Capital, Asuncion. There was a lot of surface flooding about the place.
We were met by the groundsman, who unlocked the gate for us and showed us around.
When I went for dinner at a nearby restaurant that evening, they asked me where I was from. When I said New Zealand, they said that they had heard a New Zealander was coming with a balloon to fly there. They were very surprised when I said that I was the guy bringing the balloon. They wanted a photo with me, and they also gave me a traditional Mate tea cup as a gift. Mate is a very popular drink in the south east of South America.
We met with Alvaro, a member of the aeroclub, the following day. He was a friend of a friend and helped me to arrange the flight permission. He also introduced us to Marcelo, an aspiring commercial pilot, who could speak English well. We had lunch together and discussed the flight. They also showed us the many different aircraft they had at the club. Some of the planes were very historic.
We were lucky with our timing for the flight the next day. The weather had cleared for a few days, with light winds forecast. Paraguay is generally a windy place. Yvytu means ‘Windy’ in the Guarani language. However, the ground was sodden after almost 2 weeks of continuous rainfall. I didn’t want a repeat of what happened at the aeroclub in Uruguay, so asked if we could use Alvaro’s pickup for the flight, instead of my truck, as it was much lighter.
Quite a number of club members and other members of the public came to watch the balloon take off in the afternoon. Conditions were great, though the cloud base was quite low. I took Alvaro’s Son on the flight. He was really excited about it.
Paraguay is a generally flat place, with a few low lying hills around. I aimed for a football field in a nearby town. I was working hard to get there as it was the last field before having to cross some hills and inaccessible places. As I crossed low over the town, the whole place came to a stop. Everyone was so surprised to see a balloon.
I flew low over a school just before I came in to land. All the kids were yelling and screaming. I just made it on to the field. A football game was going on, but was soon abandoned as everyone wanted to see the balloon.
I kept the balloon up for a while so everyone could get a good look. It drew quite a crowd, and there were plenty of keen helpers to help pack when I eventually deflated the balloon.
A national news crew were waiting for us when we returned and we did a 5 minute live interview from the aeroclub.
Marcelo invited us to his place in Asuncion the following day, and gave us a tour around the city. His Father had recently restored a vintage Ford car. He proudly took us for a drive. They had done an amazing job of the restoration.
We walked all around the central city. As it turned out, Marcelo was the perfect guide, his Great Grandfather was the President of Paraguay, and his Family had a long line of highly educated and influential people which had shaped Paraguay. He knew a lot about the history of Paraguay.
After a very enjoyable afternoon of looking around the city, we met Alvaro at a well known restaurant/bar and watched some of the World Cup.
We went back to Marcelo’s house and had a good chat with the rest of his Family, before heading back to the aeroclub.
We headed for the Itaipu Dam the following morning on the Paraguay/Brazil border. It’s the 2nd largest dam in the world, (though the electricity output of Itaipu was more than the 1st, the Three Gorges Dam in China, in 2015 and 2016).
It was a relatively easy drive there, though a lot of traffic on the road.
The Itaipu Dam is an impressive sight. We arrived just in time for a free tour. It took 9 years to build, opening in 1984, but didn’t becoming fully operational until 2007. It produces an enormous 14GW of electricity. The dam is 196m high and 7.2kms long, and in 1994 was classed as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Well worth a visit if you get the chance.
The tour is around an hour, and you get taken around the dam on a bus.
We had dinner, watched more football while there, then continued on to the border. The border procedures were surprisingly easy and we were through in no time at all. The Customs officer in Paraguay said that he would make it easy for us because the result of the football was good.
We found a campground to park in for the night, before continue on to the amazing Iguazu Falls the following morning. They are an awesome sight, and just as impressive as the Victoria Falls on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border, which I visited last year.
It was a Sunday morning and I was surprised at the number of people there. The weather was overcast and around 16deg.
After spending a couple of hours taking in the breathtaking views, we continued towards Curitiba, staying at a truck stop that night.
The road is quite windy and hilly all the way. There was thick fog in places too, and of course, lots of trucks. Nearly all freight is transported by truck in Brazil.
We arrived at my friend, Mauro’s place in Campo Largo in the afternoon. It was nice to catch up again. I lived in Brazil for 10 months 8 years ago, and Mauro helped me a lot during that time. Mauro and his Family have a balloon manufacturing company, as well as a balloon ride business.
I visited a nearby school the following day to ask if we could show the kids the balloon the next day. The principal was more than happy for us too, so we were there at 7am and put the balloon up outside the school for the 200 kids. They were very happy for us to be visiting their rural school as they often didn’t get the same opportunities as the city kids.
It was a spectacular morning for flying. Cool, crisp air with mist patches lying over the lake and forests around. I could also see Curitiba in the distance.
I aimed for a sports field to land in Campo Largo. As I flew over the first suburb of the town, I couldn’t believe the sound from the huge number of dogs barking. I think every house had a dog.
I landed in the sports field, and was helped by a middle aged man to pack up the balloon. He was going for a walk with his wife.
Des came a bit later with the truck, along with Lais. She is one of only three female balloon pilots in Brazil, and was helping to organise the flight from the school.
We loaded the balloon and headed back to the school, where we were invited by the principal for coffee and cake, (which the kids had made). I was interested to find out that many of the kids had Polish backgrounds as many Polish emigrants had settled there a number of years ago.
We exchanged postcards. I spoke to two classrooms about the project and asked about what dreams they had. One of the young boys had a big future ahead of him, ranging from a firefighter to an astronaut! He wanted to do it all.
After lunch, we headed to Bombinhas, a few hours drive away. We had another event planned there for the next day, arranged by a very good balloonist friend of mine, Aquilino. We met him at a fuel station just outside of Curitiba, and carried on to his holiday house in Bombinhas, arriving there in the evening. We had dinner at a restaurant and went for a look at the beautiful beach. A bit too cold for swimming though.
We headed to the school the next morning. It was quite windy, but we managed to get the balloon up for a short time. We had only planned to inflate the balloon for the kids as the area was quite tricky to fly. We got the 200 or so kids involved in the packing up of the balloon. They loved it. Aquilino and I also talked to the kids aswell.
We looked around the school after, I was impressed with their facilities, including a well equipped kitchen. Children are provided with healthy meals at Brazilian Schools, which I think is a good idea.
I was a few weeks ahead of schedule, so Des decided to head north with Aquilino, and I was going south to Florianopolis and Torres to catch up with friends.
It was great to have a few weeks of seeing friends I hadn’t seen for years.
I also visited the place in Torres where I had worked out the whole project. I used to sit on a rock in Torres for hours a day contemplating life when I lived there 8 years ago. It was at that time I decided to commit to making the Flying High For Kids Project happen.
After a bad business deal here, I was at a loose end and considering what to do. Since I was a teenager, I’d always wanted to travel around the world, with a balloon and do it for a good cause. I thought, “what is stopping me?” I couldn’t think of any reason, so step by step, the project came together.
It was like the project had gone full circle and it was nice to be back at my favourite rock by the sea.
After Torres, I went back to Campo Largo and joined Mauro’s Son, Caio, on a trip to Guartela Canyon. I planned to join him on a commercial flight over it, but the weather didn’t co-operate. Regardless, it was a beautiful spot to visit and we had a lot of fun with him and his friends.
On returning to Campo Largo, (200kms away), 30 minutes later I was on a 450km drive with Mauro to help him on a balloon tour around Parana State with an advertising balloon. We generally flew in the afternoons as it was too windy in the mornings. It was a great chance to have a look around and see some small rural towns in the general area around Maringa.
I’m now back in Campo Largo and have had some work done on the camper and truck over the past few days, and prepared for the very long trip north, up to French Guiana, more than 4000kms away, plus a 4 day barge trip. It will be interesting to say the least…..