The Dragoman Tour Begins!
Updated: Mar 18, 2020
I’d like to say that I chose a Dragoman Tour because it sounded as if it was going to have a ‘Game of Thrones’ style adventure but in truth it is much more mundane and practical. When I decided to do an overland tour I did my research. I wanted a mixed age group. I love all age groups but I didn’t want to be on a tour dominated by either twenty something year olds or older people. When I was on a trip to an ice cave with Helen in Iceland the Portuguese driver of the monster truck we were in told me that in the summer he drives young Americans around Europe. He said most of them party all night and sleep on the bus all day!
A quick wizz round the internet gave generally positive views of Dragoman Trips. There’s always one that complains but most people described wonderful experiences and were fulsome in their praise of the staff. It was clear that it attracted the mixed age group that I desired so in May 2019 when there was a 15% off sale for the Trans Patagonian Trip, my hand hovered over the ‘confirm this payment’ knowing that once I pressed and paid that sizeable deposit, there was no going back on the decision to retire from the teaching profession, a profession that had been a major part of my identity for thirty five years. A profession that has given me so much job satisfaction; many lifetime highlights; the opportunity to really make a difference to the life chances of young people; and some of my best friends.
Oh, and also a profession that has given me a lot crap and many grey hairs in the form of awkward kids, difficult staff, useless parents, all those bloody locals who keep ringing up to complain, ousted, data.....the list goes on, just in case you thought I was getting too sentimental!
When I booked in May I didn’t really take much notice of the following details on the trip:
“Some real physical challenges and some elements of hardship”
When I re-read it the night before the trip it made my stomach turn over. Is this really what I signed up for? Would my dodgy knee hold out? Is it a holiday or a bloody boot camp?
The first night was in a very nice four star hotel right on the Beagle Channel with uninterrupted mountain views but it wasn’t a good idea to get too used to this as only 20% of the tour is in good standard hotels. 40% is camping and the rest is in hostels.
So, as I am a booking.com genius (Yes! Who would have thought?) I raised this with my B&B to get the late check-out and I was told I could leave when ever I liked. I had intended to spend the day doing bits and bobs but the weather was so sparklingly beautiful I had to go out for a walk. I got a bit carried away after I returned on the ‘chill out’ front and probably left too late for comfort. The B&B offered to call me a taxi but as I’m on a budget trip (well that’s what I tell Richard!) I decided to walk the 30 minutes according to google.maps. Mind you, they’re lying bastards because it always takes longer or perhaps that’s because I’m carrying the equivalent of a small car!
40 minutes later and I was approaching the hotel which was in the middle of bloody nowhere. I had intended to keep a low profile for the first couple of days so I could suss out who to stick with and who to avoid but no chance! With only 10 minutes to go to the 6pm meeting, I found myself making my way across a large grassy area at the front of the hotel (looking like the Michelin Man!) with all these people staring at me through large picture windows. I tried to play it cool and hide behind my phone to take a photo but this seemed to prompt some to get up and come and stare directly out of the window to get a better view. I get this because I was very curious about who my fellow travellers would be but I felt like a moving target and could only imagine the conversation:
“Oh, my God! I think she’s bought the kitchen sink with her!”
“Well that’s the way to make a grand entrance!” (said with sarcasm!)
I made it to the safety of the reception where I was met by Jazz (Jasbinder), the Tour Guide, a warm, friendly and helpful man who is thirty years old (I originally put probably early thirties and he got very offended when he read it whilst giving out jobs so I’ve had to change this!). He’s worked for Dragoman for three years and has done this trip countless times. Great start!
The group meeting was a very reserved affair. Everyone was rather shy when asked to introduce themselves and, of course, because of where I was sat I had to go first! I kept it brief with “I’m from the U.K., I love travel and I am going all the way to Columbia”. I scanned the group to see if I could work out who would be my doppelgänger and narrowed it down to about 3 women.
Jazz gave us some introductory details and warned us that it was company policy that prostitution, drug taking and the use of guns and knives was prohibited! I looked around the group of 22 consisting of married couples; a father and son; an American man who is friends with the father and son; women in their fifties and sixties who have left their husbands at home (yes, I’m not the only one!); seven young women- Danish (x6)/Australian (x1) who remind me of my Kathryn and Helen; and an American woman who is thirty three. I some how don’t think the rules and regulations will be violated on this trip!
Some have been on other Dragoman Trips so I’m assuming that if they’ve come back for a double dose, it must be a good company. Or perhaps it was that 15% off!
We had to check kitty money with Darren the driver (kitty money is used for day to day expenses on the trip e.g. food and included activities). I paid mine by bank transfer well before the trip in to a dollar account at NatWest in London. Trying to explain this to bank staff at call centres was very frustrating. It is one of those out of the ordinary transactions that they don’t normally encounter, so over about a week and hundreds of hours of calls to Lloyds and NatWest which frequently included:
“Oh, you can just do it online.”
“NO YOU CAN’T! Please put me through to a manager who knows exactly what they’re talking about!”
Anyway, after sleepless nights and additional calls to Sarah, my Dragoman Personal Assistant, I managed to pay the kitty money. As it was thousands of pounds (hundreds if Richard is reading this which he probably isn’t as he knows exactly how my travels will pan out!), it was not an option to carry it in cash for 6 weeks before my trip started.
Christine came over to introduce herself. When you are on an interview panel you normally make up your mind within 10 seconds whether the candidate is a viable candidate for the job. I’m pleased to report that Christine has definitely got the job of Perfect Travel Companion all the way to Columbia. Definitely, a Maggie Holmes/Margaret Marquis combo! As I write this 5 days in she hasn’t disappointed. She is from a very small Scottish island so we are fellow islanders. Mind you, her island only has 127 people and it takes two hours to travel there on the ferry. It is near Jura and although I already had an idyllic picture in my head, this was surpassed by the photo she showed us of the view from her house. She knows all 127 inhabitants on the island and we are currently all on tender hooks because a woman who is 25 weeks pregnant has had to be airlifted to the mainland because her waters have started to break. Christine’s husband, is giving us regular updates. Luckily she has managed one week at the hospital without having the baby so we hope for continued good news. It is like watching an episode of “Life on the Island”, a fly on the wall documentary. They are also searching for a primary head teacher and an island doctor but Christine doesn’t hold out much hope! I’ve only known Christine for 5 days but by the time we get to Columbia I am confident I will know who is having an affair with whom and who has just been done for speeding (if that’s possible on the island)! I will keep you posted!
The other queue was to check details held e.g. next of kin and dietary requirements with Jazz. This done it was an opportunity to make my first complaint and raise an issue (not like me I know!). Would Jazz be the kind of tour guide who would (a) get defensive/make excuse/wind me up further or (b) the kind of tour guide who would smile sweetly/apologise profusely (whilst thinking ‘What bull shit can I give this woman to get her off my back?’)/promise to get things sorted.
Luckily Jazz was the (b) type of tour guide. The complaint was that he added King Penguins to the itinerary at the last minute. Yes, these are the King Penguins I saw on that long tour from Punta Arenas and spent 62 pounds seeing! Jazz promised to try and get me in for free and true to his word, he did.
The issue that I wanted to flag up was that I was in a triple room (with two lovely women) but because I had arrived late I got the kid’s bed in the corridor, outside the toilet of the large room. As it happened, it worked well because it had its own light so I could read until late without disturbing the other two women but many people who had paid the same as me were in double rooms. I just wanted to make him aware of the need to mix and match so I wasn’t always 3rd person in the kids’ bed. I am sure I didn’t need to do this and it will all pan out well but I was new to this over landing lark so I didn’t want to leave anything to chance!
At one point Jazz, seeing the transit bus arrive, dashed off to check it knew we needed it to get to the restaurant in town. I joked with him about leaving me in charge of the group’s passports and he sheepishly pointed out I was looking after a rucksack full of thousands of thousands of dollars worth of kitty money!! If I’d known I could have gone 5 star up the Andes!!
At the restaurant I sat with Christine and another woman in her sixties. Jazz the tour guide joined us and as he told me he rented his house out while he was running tours I commented that this was a good idea because I know that Dragoman don’t pay much. I know this for a fact because they say as much with the added benefit that you are able to travel which is compensation. Jazz got visibly flustered and assured me that Dragoman pay well. Just when he could see that I was about to contradict him he said, “Jayne, meet Heather, she’s the owner of Dragoman Ltd!!!” It all fitted in to place! At the meeting, Darren had joked with Heather and George, her husband (Founder of Dragoman) about living in Suffolk, near the Dragoman head quarters. In actual fact, I think the Dragoman HQ is in their back garden. I pulled Jazz’s leg about leaving me in charge of the group’s passports and kitty money earlier! I also took Heather to task about not employing my friend Claire for an office job. She was extremely apologetic, as if she had just turned me down for an office job. Your loss Heather!
After breakfast we met Carmen. Carmen is not a more glamorous guide than Jazz but the truck who will be our trusty steed as far as Santiago. She may look a bit rough at the edges but has all the essentials for a long journey. This includes comfy seats, some with tables for blog writing as the world goes by; a library; lockers for storing bits and bobs; a pub which is another name for the safe (in the floor of the bus) and an actual bar for drinks. These trucks are custom made by Dragoman and she is one of their older models.
We have a buddy system. It’s like being on a school trip! My Amigo is Amalie, one of the Delightful Danes. She does a brilliant job of looking after me and has the best smile in the group for me to find when we are checking we are all back on the bus or at the rest point. Plus, there are truck jobs.
On the coach the next day I sat with George (called G by the Dragoman staff) and Heather who are the owners of Dragoman. They are delightful and very low key. They are well travelled and well read so they were very interesting to talk to during the long bus journey on our return north. George started the company in 1978. He had been driving a bus to Kathmandu when the company went bust. He took the opportunity to buy the bus and at the same time he inherited some land in Suffolk. They now have 29 trucks travelling on exciting worldwide routes. Heather did a Dragoman Trip and met George on the trip (very romantic!) and the rest is history!
To my surprise, George and Heather haven’t done that many Dragoman Tours. It can’t be easy for the crew to have the bosses on the trip but they seemed to have a good relationship with George and Heather, which is all credit to them all.
I’ve also got my eye on the 70 Day West African Discoverer; 142 day Trans Africa-The Cape to Cairo; and the 107 day Backroads of Gengis Khan- along the Silk Route and in to Western Mongolia. Heather from Australia (not to be confused with George’s wife and co owner of Dragoman), who is my age, is doing the Trans Andean and Patagonian Wanderer but stopping off for a month in La Paz before rejoining the next group. Heather is a lovely travel companion who I have shared a room with on several occasions. She is well travelled and started her trip at the same time as me but travelled through Brazil. She went on car ferries to see the fiords of Chile which I have put on my Top Ten List and she is an equipment guru. So I’ve got a huge and very ineffective/old fashioned foam bedroll. My loyal readers will have seen it in photos. The grey thing! Heather has a blow up delux version, great for the freezing nights of Patagonia which is the size of a small purse. In fact, all her equipment looks as if it’s come straight out of Lilliput! She took me to an outward bound shop but we could only get one the size of a handbag. I got it anyway! I need my beauty sleep! Much of Heather’s top tips were passed on over a jug of something very potent during happy hour!
We did the King Penguins (AGAIN IN MY CASE! But to be fair, Jazz did get me in for free! That doesn’t account for the 52 pounds that I paid for the trip itself!)
We stayed in a hostel for the night near the King Penguin Colony. The meal had been cooked by the crew and the vegetarian dish was a delicious stew with lots of lentils and vegetables. I shared a room with Amanda from America. Not to be confused with Amanda from South Africa and Amanda from Denmark! When I told her I worked in a secondary school until recently, she said, “Oh my God! That must be hard! I could never do that!” At this point, I was thinking she must manage a hardware store or be a yoga teacher but no, she proceeded to tell me that she was a psychiatric nurse in a high security facility. Basically, one of those jails you get in “Prison Break”.
She and her team have to assess whether murderers and rapists are fit to stand trial or are insane.
“Do you know when they’re lying about being insane?”
“Oh, yes, they get monitored 24/7 so can only keep it up for so long.”
I’m a bit worried about about Amanda’s view of a U.K. secondary school if she thinks I had a hard job.
“Do you know when they’re lying about doing their homework?”
“Oh yes, because they haven’t bothered doing it for the past year!”
We had to get the ferry off Tierra del Fuego which is a very large island so it was back to the same ferry where I had the wind delay a few days before. This time there was no wind and no queue so we hopped on the ferry but there were dolphins! It was totally, absolutely and utterly amazing. The sort of wildlife experience you normally pay a fortune to experience. I decided to stay on the bus as I’d seen the fairly mundane scenery before and Christine and Heather stayed with me. We were just chatting to Jazz, our guide, when I spotted one of the Commerson’s Dolphin that he’d said we may see. They were all round the boat and stuck with it throughout the crossing, jumping, diving and just cruising along. I counted nine dolphin in one shot but, no doubt, there were more. They are like mini killer whales and they certainly put a good show on for us!!
Soon we reached our first border as a group. There was a routine to be followed. The crew went in first to get the paperwork checked for the overall group and present the documentation for the bus. Next the group would go as a group to get passports stamped. If it was a crossing in to Chile then customs declarations have to be filled out and all bags x-rayed. It can take up to an hour. The bus driver, Darren, realised he couldn’t find his passport at the border. He knew it was on the bus but couldn’t find the safe place he’d put it in. I started to feel very sorry for him! After some frantic searching, he found it in a Tupperware box. Probably a safe place. So safe even Darren himself couldn’t find it!
Irma and Amanda, two old ladies from South Africa (their words, not mine, as posted on the Dragoman Facebook Page), started a card school at one of the tables with four seats around it. Matt played with them and I suggested that, as a big rugby fan, he avenge England’s defeat in the Rugby World Cup, 2019. Well, I wish I’d kept my mouth shut because it soon became clear that Irma and Amanda are very good at cards! After 20 games he hadn’t won a single game. South Africa 20/ England 0. Ozzy Heather went in to bat for Australia and yes, you’ve guessed it, she won the next four games. Typical bloody Australia! So now it’s South Africa 20/ Australia 4/ England 0. We decided to strengthen the team. We had to face it! Matt was useless! We added Rachel and Dragoman Heather who each won a game. Eventually, even Matt won a game which got loud cheers. Personally, I don’t think that was deserved as he’d just embarrassed a whole nation! Final Score: South Africa 152/ Australia 43/ England 3. Very embarrassing! We should have got Christine to play for Scotland. At least that would have made England look good!!!
Our hostel for the next three nights was in El Calafate. The area is very arid, totally different to Ushuaia with its lush vegetation covering the mountains.
I desperately needed to wash my hair but the hair dryer was not exactly a Cindy Crawford 5000 or a Nicky Clarke Salon Standard, more like a ten year old hair dryer attached to the wall, purchased from The Pound Shop. In the end, failing all else, I washed it before bed and towel dried it. It actually didn’t look too bad in the morning. Obviously not Basildon water! The hair care facilities are certainly not up to Joan Risby Perfect Hair Care Standards and as for the camping- just don’t go there, Joan!
On the first night at the hostel in El Calafate, we made empanadas. Well that’s what I told my Argentinian friends because I knew they’d be impressed. In truth, we cheated from start to finish. Not only was the pasty ready made and shaped but so was the filling. I was on the Vegetarian/Vegan Table with Rick and John, who are father and Son, and Rachel who is a solicitor. Rachel or Matt (or Matthew when he is in trouble with Rachel which is most of the time!) are a delightful couple. Matt is a Quantity Surveyor and claims to have a Geography Degree from Birmingham University but every time I asked him a question about the Geography surrounding us, naturally assuming his level would be higher than the Key Stage 3 Geography I taught whenever someone was on maternity leave, he’d shrug and go “Yer, probably!” to every possible scenario I’d give him. When I asked him about what I thought were drumlins (glacial deposits) that lined what was clearly a glacial valley he said, “Nah, it’s not glacial valley. It was formed by rivers.” Rachel said, “Don’t bother asking him, he knows nothing about Geography!” but I suspect it was a clever ploy to stop me hassling him. He even tried to tell me that the Drumlins are Viking Burial Mounds so he must be taking the piss!
Anyway, I digress. Back to the empanadas. We had a vegetable filling on the vegetarian table. John, son of Rick, is a vegan. It is hard enough being a vegetarian in Argentina so I feel his pain! John plays in a band and has an impressive goatee beard. Rachel and I were mesmerised by his colourful tattoo sleeves that he told us were in the Japanese style. Rick is an artist, and Painter and Decorator. He described how he and John travelled around Europe together when John was ten years old (but I think Rachel miss that bit or at least I hope she did). The funniest part of the story was when they paid to do two laps of the Nuremberg Ring Race Track in Germany. Rick, who raced motorbikes until he was 50 years old, said they went round in his white Astra Van with “Rick Roberts- Painter and Decorator” on the side and two bikes on the top. It sounded like an episode from “Only Fools and Horses” as he described how the porches and Mercedes went racing past!
At this point, Rachel asked John and Rick how long they’d known each other. I laughed and said, “Since John was born because they’re father and son.” Rachel couldn’t believe she didn’t know this and called Matt over from a meat eating table to see if he knew. I was willing Matt to say no but I’m afraid he said, “Oh yes, I knew that!” and got in to a lot of trouble. He later told me he didn’t know but was trying to wind Rachel up. Probably just trying to save face! In addition, I was able to add to my revelations because Rick, who has already been on a Dragoman Trip, didn’t realise George and Heather are the Chief Executives of the Company!
Anyway, back to the empanadas! They are small so we had pizza too.
The main purpose of our visit to this area was to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier. The glacier is named after the scientist who surveyed the area. We left early and it was a slow burn to this glorious glacier because the mountain scenery on the 1.5 hour journey was very enticing. We saw caracara birds which are like posh chickens and lots of hare which are an introduced species. A guide told me that the hare is indirectly having an impact on the famous South American condor because puma used to hunt guanaco but now they can just hunt hare more easily and as they are so much smaller, there is nothing left for the condor which in a scavenger.
When we got to Perito Moreno Glacier, it took your breath away! No amount of superlatives were strong enough. The perfect weather obviously helped. It was one of only 5 perfect weather days in a year. I don’t know this for sure but on the basis that it was a similar day to our trip to Milford Sound in New Zealand, which is a long way south, and they definitely billed that as one of the five best days, it must be true and that’s what I told the rest of the group! They’ll all be making definitive statements in their blogs and diaries, and on their post cards!!
We did the boat trip to the glacier’s very impressive 60 metre wall of ice. It was like something out of “Game of Thrones”, beyond the wall. I expected John Snow and The Wildlings appear on top. The walkways also gave stunning views of this pouting princess’ ice wall and the crevices of the tongue that snaked its way down the valley, so turquoise and decorative in places it could have been an ice palace. As the sun warmed her face we were tempted with calving where large blocks drop off. Even a small block can make a loud noise like a gun shot. They got bigger and bigger until we finally got to see ‘the big one’, a massive block which caused a tidal wave as it hit the lake. I rushed back to the hostel to post on Facebook, bragging rights well and truly off the scale! In addition, Jazz, the guide, has gone from zero to hero. He may be very irritating and have the worst sense of humour in South America but he was the only person to capture it on video. Only joking, we love you really Jazz or is that what you’ve told us to say because the bosses are in toe.