12-27 Mar 2015 – A walk on the wild side: Our short jaunt in the jungle (2 of 4)

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Flooded forest in the Amazon
Flooded forest in the Cuyabeno Reserve

Do you ever let your mind wander to a place just out of reach? Have you seen the fossils of extinct creatures in museums and wondered what they were really like? Have you been teased by thoughts of what our human ancestors might have seen when they first came to South America—creatures now gone from memory, represented only by the hardiest fossil record? Many have fallen into extinction but some remain. In great tracts of primeval forest, still chiefly untouched by human hands, life teems in myriad varieties, millions of nooks and crannies filled with specialised life forms, known and unknown, awaiting our curious glance. I could only begin to wonder how many weird creatures—with whom we share their fragile planet—I’d get to intimately glance. I wanted to see them all! An unattainably romantic ambition but heading into the Amazon, I was going to give it a damn good try.

An earthy dirt track led us out of Peru onto an eventual paved-ish road, squeezing past umpteen more soggy mud-stricken and rock-riddled landslides along the way. Taking a part of Peru with me was easy; dirt was ingrained on my skin speckling me with a face full of au naturel ‘beauty’ spots. A long border crossing at La Balsa and an increasingly sore day in the saddle contoured us around the rough green fabric of the mountains, with a town gently coming into focus on its hem.

Arrr, the Ecuadorian utopia that was Vilcabamba; a rural idyll after spending all morning up to our maracas in mud—sloshing through Ecuador’s quaggy roads under construction, around every cruddy corner. Oh my Yin-Yang, where were we? No more rough-shack villeras—shanty towns scurrying up the mountainside. Or an ebb and flow of people selling ropey food and liquid sugar in their faded sombrero shaded, plastic table and chaired open-air cafes. Goodbye cholesterol palace of heated display cabinets containing twice and thrice deep-fried everything, hello actual sustenance. Even the searing heat had mostly gone, tamed by the elevation.

Instead, we were greeted by a crisply painted plaza bedecked with colonial buildings—some in an elegant state of decline, while others had been spruced up into bohemian bars and bustling little eateries, rurally decorated. The odd tienda neatly displayed its handicrafts, organic super-food produce and local wares. Through the gaps between the mountains, in the patches of blue sky, wisps of clouds painted graceful swirls. The sun was in free fall towards the town, glinting off the swept streets and anointing the place with a golden glow. The gleam of cut lime green grass added further to this pristine clean enclave. Feeling a year’s worth of muck and grime in my tramp-blackened body and motorcycle gear—the latter of which hadn’t seen soap for over a year—I took my thousand-wear-grey riding suit straight to the launderette and me to get washed.

False glass frog
False glass frog

Tantalising on all the senses—all three and a half of mine anyway from having a zero sense of smell and a weak sense of taste—Vilcabamba boasted a deep sense of good healthy living amongst a bubbly boho community. I overheard one woman walking her dog on a string remark to her friend, “Ooh I just ad-ore talking about bowel movements, it’s fascinating. Seriously, I could talk shit all day.” Appreciating that they should fly out like a neat loaf perhaps more than most, I was hooked and hadn’t even kicked the side-stand down. The view out was one of peaceful treetops, and the soundtrack played the uplifting twitter of tropical birds. Even our Hostal Taranza didn’t cost us several arms and legs, although you’ll be falling over places that will if you do visit.

Upon a disinclined departure, I couldn’t help thinking we’d chanced upon a standalone sparkling gem of a place, contrary to so many garbage-infested places prevalent in Peru. But no—after the sudden shockwave of Vilcabamba receding in our mirrors—for the next few hours, I clocked a handful of cheery lads hanging off the back of a waste disposal truck, big bottle banks in the proceeding towns, bold road signs alerting folks to ‘Keep Ecuador clean’ and a complete lack of trash. How can one country get it so wrong and an adjoining one so right? Oh, and fuel set us back 25 pence per litre, equivalent to $1.40 USD for a gallon. Ecuador was definitely going to agree with us both.

Having donned the LBNs (little black numbers) for the rainy season’s drizzly ride ahead, a second shock horror ensued: this time Jason’s rear suspension decided to expire like a campfire at dawn. He pogo-sticked his way for 235 miles from Vilcabamba to Alausi on his two-wheeled bouncy castle. If it’s not one thing, it’s your BMW shock—clearly not designed to cope with long term adventure riding. My vantage from behind though was comedy gold; a bobbing-to-some-hip-hop-beat-Cadillac on two tyres instead of four. Shouldn’t joke, no it wasn’t funny. Just the ups and downs of motorcycle travel…stop it, Lisa.

Through a straightforward road system of remarkably calm and considerate traffic, my die-hard survival instincts kicked in all the same; expecting the worst upon entering Quito. As a tendril of anxiety took leave from my soul, I had to entirely reprogramme the ‘inner-anarchist’ part of my brain. Eerily quiet in the Sunday silence—courteous buses(!), truck drivers and 4x4s were all giving way to me—pre-empting a change in their direction with indicators(!), and all without honking the horn. Not even once. It was steady; unspectacular; fine. My Zen was rapidly restored in turn equilibrating a mental inner balance. And I could have sworn my body all but exploded into beams of sunlight.

Bikes safely stowed in Hostel Zentrum courtesy of its two attentive German owners, we packed only the essentials: rum and repellant, a fresh razor (I’ve been mistaken for a redheaded primate before) and our remaining store of English teabags. The overnight bus—from Quito to Lago Agrio—was a rampaging old boar of a vehicle with an imposing snout and grille. It looked like it should be foraging wildly in the Amazon’s undergrowth rather than roaming the streets. The vehicle snarled into life, reversed out of its berth and our journey began. Our short-range rural beast and then an old banger of a minibus took us to the start of our jolly in the jungle at the Cuyabeno River.

Amazonian voyeurs heading into the jungle
Amazonian voyeurs heading into the jungle

“WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE!”, blared through my head, courtesy of Guns and Roses the moment we stepped into our motorised canoe. Down in the river bottom, the barest hint of green whiskered the banks of the Cuyabeno. At only six metres deep, it looked more like an abyss of beef stock gravy made dark and glossy by the nutrients infused by the soil and tannins released from the decomposing leaves. Every drop was from rainwater, which fascinated me; it dries up completely come the dry season in parts, forcing certain lodges to fall into abeyance.

As intrepid if not clueless voyeurs, we canoed our way down an Ecuadorian affluent of the Amazon Basin. Following the tropical vegetation for three hours down river familiarised us to the powerful clay-coloured current of the Basin’s mighty headwater. It’s a place, if there ever was one, where everything is always more than you could ever expect it to be.

The warm breeze whipped at my clothes and ruffled my hair; I looked up and there was a snake bird. Not because it seizes snakes, but because of its long slender neck. Oh my goodness, “Look over there!”. It was a squirrel monkey with a white painted face—nimbly hanging from a ceiba tree. The show turned into a circus of monkeys clowning around—swinging acrobatically from tail to branch, just for the fun of it. Just because they can. It didn’t take long to realise the opportunity cost of looking at one creature to the forfeit of missing another. I needed more eyes, and quick.

The squirrel monkeys often follow the capuchins, another primate perhaps a shade more skilled at seeking out provisions than they are. With a keen sense of where to go to stave off hunger, the capuchin monkeys don’t seem to mind at all they have a scrounging set of followers. Good for them, it’s not always a ‘Dog eat dog’ world.

A curious little capuchin monkey in search for food
A curious little capuchin monkey in search for food

Furiously pushing food into their faces while eyeing us up, these squirrel monkeys took—oh, what was that? Something akin to your Nana’s bulbous shopping bag, or your Grandad’s old sock—suspended from the end of a tree branch. Strategically high up but still hidden from terrestrial (ground-dwelling), arboreal (tree-dwelling) and aerial predators—for the most part. A filigree weaver bird’s nest, wow.

Fluttering by—diverting my attention yet again goes a Morpho butterfly, shimmering its iridescent cobalt blue wings—as big as a pair of man’s hands. Supersized was going to be the common denominator here, my fourth and a half’s sense could feel it. Paul, our Quito-based tour operator of Carpe DM located just inside Secret Garden Hostel had exclaimed on top, “If you don’t like your experience with naturalist Luis Torres I’ve assigned to you, I will personally refund every cent.” Money-mouthed convictions that strong coupled with scores of raving Trip Advisor reviews of this Luis, and having spent 6 minutes in the jungle, I had an incline we were onto a win-win.

Our incredible guide Luis with the eyes of a hawk and Lisa
Our incredible guide Luis with the eyes of a hawk and Lisa

Dumping our bags was the sum total of ‘Getting settled into jungle life’. Done. Siona Lodge was a handmade thatched-roofed snuggery. Adorned with rustic detailing, it struck the perfect cord of traditional: bamboo furniture and locally weaved hammocks, a learning station for all the species awaiting us in the thick of the Amazon and fully enclosed mosquito nets enmeshing our four poster bed from any overly curious creatures. In a wooden cabin on stilts—in the event of flooding—the white fluffy towels and en suite added that little bit of luxury on top.

Relaxing in Siona Lodge
Relaxing in Siona Lodge

Dawn spilled through a labyrinth of trees: ferns, ancient kapoks, palms and strangler figs endemic from Cuyabeno were the ones I’d started to recognise. I awoke wide-eyed at a golden veil of light that fell over me and washed by the drowning noises of the forest—crickets, monkeys and birdsong. The dew silvered the spiders’ webs that draped the lodge’s wild garden. I sucked in a deep breath of the damp, moist air. We’re talking 99.9 per cent humidity, so quite humid.

Wafting away a pair of carefree wasps with stingers the size of nails, our first canoe outing ventured us into the heart of the Cuyabeno River, sandwiched by jungle dripping with creepers. A damp mist still hung in the air reducing peripheral visibility and softening the edges of everything making the place look like an indistinct fragment of memory. At a stone’s throw, we spotted a pair of blue and yellow macaws and a rookery of the gregarious Greater Anis. More affectionately known as ‘the cook’ birds who make the sound of gurgling water on the boil. The Hoatzin ‘Stink bird’ is also ten a penny in the Amazon; their meat is renowned to be repulsive but their eggs scrumptious.

The Hoatzin 'stink' bird
The Hoatzin ‘stink’ bird

Our night walk took us—and by us I mean me more than Jason—to an intense level. Even though my enthusiasm dial was turned to high and I was assuredly in the mood, my ability to relax in a state of mindful awareness was stymied by some unfounded anxiety. Mayhaps because it was my first night in the jungle, my image tank was getting full and I felt a little overwhelmed by it all. We donned the jungle-strength, tan-removing deet and armed with cameras and rubber boots, ventured out in pitch blackness on foot into the forest. An eerie prickle fluttered up my back—knowing all too well poisonous creatures, paralyzing creepy crawlies with neurotoxins squirting out from giving a misconstrued, furtive glance —come alive at night to play. And hunt. And mess with your melon.

Man, I needed to grow a backbone at that moment. A small thread of panic stitched my chest, I was on edge albeit tingling with raised-hair-on-the-nape-of-my-neck excitement. I soon succumbed to a series of less-than-ladylike flavoured gasps with each brush of hanging vines and plants sweeping around my head, neck and shoulders. Every other tree root seemed to writhe and slither in the shadows cast from erratic beams of torchlight—appearing moistened and snake-like underfoot. To the chorus of the bull frog and rhythm of the cane toad’s ‘ribbet’, we stepped deeper into the black wilderness, a sea of tiny eyes glistening back in the illumination of our headtorches. So far, so nuts.

A tree frog
A hungry tree frog

Arachnidphobics would not last a minute here. Into battle I went, pressing on amidst a constant veneer of adrenaline-induced moisture on the skin. I found myself wiping my hands on my trousers, a reflex when the jungle is sweeping over your shoulders every second with goodness knows what crawling down your back. Every few feet and we were side-stepping around big, furry bird eating spiders, sociable tarantulas, aquatic walk-on-water wolf spiders and tailless whip scorpions whose name pleases me no end. I loved the golden silk orb weavers whose webs were so strong, had you fallen from a height on one, you would probably just sproing right back up and land softly into its deadly trap. Their spun silks are actually used for fishing line and police apparel up in Columbia. Who knew?

A sociable but big furry tarantula
A sociable but big furry tarantula

The spiders, as venomous as they can get, like the unassuming banana spider—capable of taking a grown man down in minutes—were placid, happy to keep themselves to themselves, industriously working on catching their next meal. It was only when Luis started skillfully grabbing snakes that made my heart start to jump around my chest like a flea on a hot rock. Flying insects darted through the evening dusk in hot pursuit, buzzing in glittering dances around us. They landed on my clammy face, attracted by the beam of my lumens until I was on the brink of madness. Just turn it off! Better, so much better. But then I couldn’t see where the bullet ants were headed—they’ll give you a nasty nip. Equivalent to being shot by all firsthand accounts…whoa! Go figure with a name like that.

A sunny little whip snake
A sunny little whip snake

I burst out from the foliage and into the open. The understory of our night walk ended on finding a rainbow boa constrictor taking comfort beneath someone’s cabin, which was elbow-jostlingly popular. Luis debriefed us as we poured over the species safely behind laminated plastic we’d seen that day. He’s the kind of guy that thrives from his cultural heritage and biodiverse back doorstep. I was buzzing off his buzz, like an emphatic bee. The guy dropped all pretense and unexpectedly launched into a great roaring chuckle every now and again. Certainly when I happened to explain what trumping meant. I love it when someone’s laugh is funnier than the joke.

I closed my eyes for a few minutes, barely swinging in a hammock and allowing the last effects of dusk to disappear for the night. Digesting and processing my first encounter with the forest. When I opened my eyes, the night sky was so powerful that I all but experienced vertigo. It felt like I was falling up into space, the stars racing toward me as if to embrace me. I lay down to gaze in wonder at the Milky Way, stunning and intense when undiminished by the pollution of city lights. It was a vastness calling to be gazed up into, making me feel small but comfortable with myself.

Lifting my hands imagining that I could reach out and pluck diamonds, one by one, off a velvet black sky. Shooting stars would occasionally blaze a brief trail across the night blackness. I lay as quietly as I could, allowing the immensity of space and scattered light to dwarf me. Stillness fell like a silk shawl as I lost myself to the starry night. The night’s quiet asserted itself once more.

One of Pachamama's sunsets over the Amazon
One of Pachamama’s (Mother Earth’s) sunsets over the Amazon

 

12-27 Mar 2015 – A walk on the wild side: Setting the scene (1 of 4)

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A shaman's everyday neck wear
A shaman’s everyday neck wear

Background information

Terrain

Much of Amazonia is surprisingly easy to traverse. The rivers are your highways, and most of the land is flat or has a gently rolling topography. Low hills rise in some places, but these are climbable. Ravines along the intermittent streams are more of a challenge; most are spanned by slippery, narrow fallen trees in varying degrees of decomposition.

Cuyabeno reserve, our home for ten days is close to 600,000 hectares—Ecuador’s second largest region in the Amazon Basin to Yasuni’s 900,000 hectares—27,300 of which belong to the tribal communities. These are the ancestral lands of five indigenous groups: Siona, Secoya, Cofan, Kichwa and Shuar. We’d be venturing only into primary forest on ‘terra firma’—high ground that isn’t subject to seasonal flooding with frequent wellied-walks and canoe paddles through stagnant swamplands, flat forest of black and white water, and swamps of herbs and palm. Bring it on.

You’ll leave a piece of your heart in the Amazon, can guarantee that…
You’ll leave a piece of your heart in the Amazon, can guarantee that…

Conservation

Faced with the ongoing obliteration of the world’s tropical rainforest, Cuyabeno’s lodges believe it’s imperative to reach their visitors, share and promote a deep respect, and foremost spawn a wider awareness about the natural areas left that are biologically as rich as the Amazon. Not to mention its importance played in the rest of the world.

With a strong focus on conservation in an area with one of the most complex ecosystems, our snuggeries—Siona and Caiman Lodges gave us: electricity created from solar energy and high-efficiency generators; wastewater treatment systems—later recycled back into the ecosystem; and peace of mind that hunting has been voluntarily ceased for well over a decade. A portion of our dollars would also be ploughed back into the forest to continue making good inroads on the sustainable path to eco-tourism. Sounded like a promising starter for ten.

Siona Lodge, Cuyabeno Reserve
Siona Lodge, Cuyabeno Reserve

Current climate of primary preservation

Refreshing is how you’ll be pleased to feel when learning that Ecuador—despite only home to two per cent of the Amazon basin—has become champion when it comes to preserving their precious rainforest. Ecuadorian forestry law, best practice and exemplar behaviour is pretty well embedded now: prune, fell, bark, burn or destroy a protected forest tree and you’re looking at a hefty penalty of at least a one to three year prison sentence, and a fine that would hemorrhage most bank accounts.

Of course there wasn’t always zero deforestation in Ecuador—today, the country only lays claim to around 35 per cent of its original share of the Amazon basin. And devastatingly, there’s still several riggs pumping into the reserve’s forest ground for oil, but as always, slowly slowly, save a monkey. Clients come to the Amazon and are either oblivious of what’s going on—choosing to blissfully uphold the romance of the jungle, or are increasingly aware to the current destruction of human hands. May we all proactively pitch our tents in the latter camp.

Sadly, money only knows why the Brazilian government are still paying people to cut down 60 per cent of ‘its’ Amazonia in order to facilitate room to grow more soy—I understand—to feed more pigs in China. Among other inanely unsustainable purposes. Blindsided by the bottomline doesn’t quite portray the imbecility that eradicating habitats and extinguishing species faster than we’ve studied—let alone identified—will have on the ecosystem. Or survival of the human race. And of course the Earth.

Puerto Bolivar, an indigenous village in the Amazon Basin
Puerto Bolivar, an indigenous village in the Amazon Basin

Anthropology

An interruption from the constant visuals and vistas of the jungle came from a village visit to ‘Puerto Bolivar’. Handled by the women of the indigenous community gave us an opportunity to learn about the Kichwa culture—participating in a traditional method of preparing yuca (cassava), which is a starchy tuberous root from a native tropical tree—into flour:

Pulling yucas
Pulling yucas with roots this big is a bit like pulling teeth

Rita, an indigenous woman aged just 41 years old led us into her wild garden. More salt than pepper had crept into her hair and her expression was kindly but revealed a lifetime of hard graft. Interestingly, Rita had long since adapted to wearing lightweight western fabrics—practical quick-drying clothes over a traditionally heavier weave from the forest.

Stoking the fire for cooking
Stoking the fire for cooking
A bird with a death wish?
A bird with a death wish?
Initial preparation of making traditional yuca bread
Initial preparation of making traditional yuca bread

Possessing the skill of a trained sword fighter, Rita took hold of her machete and slashed at the foliage, wildly and skillfully to extract a handful of yuca from the fertile ground. Rich organic soil alien to any pesticide or fungicide. With the Midas touch and an experienced pair of hands, she whipped it into Amazonian pizza bread using time-honoured means and handmade kitchen utensils from the forest. Fascinating to watch, take part in but foremost feast upon for lunch.

Grating yuca on a sheet of pierced aluminium
Grating yuca on a sheet of pierced aluminium
Spreading the grated yuca into a handmade palm reed squeezer
Spreading the grated yuca into a handmade palm reed squeezer
Rolling up the yuca for a super squeezing
Rolling up the yuca for a super squeezing
Squeezing out the excess water leaving in the mandatory 20 per cent!
Rinsing out the excess water leaving in the mandatory 20 per cent!
About to sieve the yuca for a fluffy light consistency
About to sieve the yuca for a fluffy light consistency
Spreading out the yuca on a clay hotplate into a perfect pizza base
Spreading out the yuca on a clay hotplate into a perfect pizza type base
A work-in-progress Amazonian bread
A work-in-progress Amazonian pizza bread

Being educated to some of the village’s traditions, still alive today gave me pause for thought: There’s a pressure for women to master the delicate process of preparing yuca in order to heighten their eligibility in securing a husband. Likewise, if the man is unable to triumph in the art of blow-pipe hunting, preparing the poisoned dart in just the right quantities of frog and plant juices in order to cleanly take down a 600 pound tapir—as well as constructing a durable hammock from vine threads—then no resultant wife or “boom boom” (as our naturalist guide so aptly put it), respectively for the husband. Fair enough, it works both ways. Jason was given the blow-pipe and aiming at a papaya from 10 metres away, managed to strike a hole in one. Guess that makes him ripe for the picking…

The shaman and his blow-pipe
The shaman and his blow-pipe

An illustration of rituals from a shaman in his malloca—a ceremonial house—one afternoon, gave us a small but intriguing window to watch him gain access to a world of good and evil spirits in the practice of divination and healing. I am still pausing for thought about the indisputable power of a shaman—without any firsthand experience. On an arbitary note, I was told that redheads are particularly adept at attracting chaotic forces.

A shaman in his full regalia
A shaman in his full regalia

The shaman’s head dress was particularly eye-catching, decorated by the vibrant feathers of a trogan bird. His skinny neck was like cured skin but fabulously adorned in a string of teeth from jaguar and peccary (a skunk pig). Now a priceless family air loom that’s passed down each generation.

No ayahuasca was consumed in a ceremony on that occasion—a vine based hallucinating beverage but an explanation of how a few gulps would set you into a terrific trance and give rise to a profound insight into yourself, and some, was relayed.

Perhaps most curious of all was the story told about the upbringing of the next great shaman, a process that is still happening today. When the unborn child, ‘the one’, is chosen, a group of shamans whisk the wee bairn away upon its arrival into the world to a cave. Away from the community. The mother is allowed to breast feed the baby and father permitted to visit on a weekly basis, although essentially the newborn becomes the responsibility of the shamans.

For the next 19 years, the child is reared and moulded in all the rituals, traditions and ways of a shaman.  On its 19th birthday, the late teen is taken out in twilight, in order to experience its first moonlight and through a night of meditation, prepares for their first sunrise.  Looking into the eyes of that individual must be a profoundly extraordinary experience, with something not quite present, which ordinarily would be in our eyes, replaced by something else entirely. The mind boggles.

Incidentally, the Yellow Food People is a tribe that still resides somewhere deep in the Amazon jungle. Fully naked, nomadic and dependent on the land. Now here’s the extraordinary part: any interaction whatsoever forced upon them from the outside world has concluded so far in death. They want less than zero to do with the western world; apparently one small group of tourists each paid $30,000 USD to a South American tour operator to get dropped off nearby to the clan. Once they eventually caught up with the tribe, they were all killed on their initial greeting. A clear signal from which to take permanent heed.

6-11 Mar 2015 – Oh Peru, I’m gonna miss you

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I love the thrumming of the hummingbird's wings.
I love the thrumming of a hummingbird’s wings.

With Pearl perky and raring to go—now a “shocker-rejuvenated GS” as Johnny Bravo so aptly put it—life became peachy again. Even at 4am when peeling our sleep-sapped bodies out of bed: the prospect of avoiding the unforgiving pandemonium of exiting Lima in its 24/7 rush hour was enough to self-catapult out of bed. But with one thing and another nine, I managed to hit the sack just after midnight the night previous—making my early start about as rude as it can get. Drunk on sleep starvation, I found myself donning my motorcycle boots in just my underwear and all but dropping Pearl in turning her around on a scarred section of road near a bitten kerb, feeling far from sober. I’d not consumed a morsel of anything exciting, I was just beastly tired making it more than disconcerting that my reaction times were less than tickety boo. Another lesson learned.

Making hay while the sun shines...
Making hay while the sun shines…wow, that reminds me of my hair in the mornings

Freedom flooded my veins having escaped the clutches of Lima—in less than an hour—for the second occasion. Two too many times. Having received an invitation to meet bikers Julio and Ricardo in Trujillo, it made sense to keep tootling all 350 miles on the Pan American to meet their acquaintance. Whether I was feeling it more than usual or the freighters were simply out in full force, the day seemed riddled with the non-stop, won’t-stop blighters.

Big US-style trucks from the old and grizzly to the modern and gleaming, strained and grunted their way with the rest of the traffic. On a dual carriageway that hummed with old sedans, brand new 4x4s and swarms of white estate taxis—caused long convoys and invited the kind of overtaking which is best done with eyes closed. One oncoming curveball chose to pass another on my blind corner—the pair of them adjacent and unwavering in each lane. Both within a hair’s breadth of braking distance for me to swerve onto the hard shoulder in retreat, I decided to ride on there for some time.  Out of harm’s heinous way.

Don't sweat it, food's on the house for two-wheeled travellers!
Don’t sweat it, food’s on the house for two-wheeled travellers at La Balsa!

We’d been on the road since stupid o’clock and by late morning, the day was beginning to take its toll. Frazzled by lack of sleep, a tangle of traffic and the heat penetrating my damnable motorcycle clothing, we pulled up to a roadside restaurant ‘La Balsa’. Given the warmest of receptions, I was handed a guestbook to sign; a priceless keepsake bursting with memories, photos, small trinkets and home currency of the odd motorcyclist, a colossal number of cyclists, and even an unassisted walker embarking upon a journey from the southernmost tip of South America to England, eventually making it into an around the world ramble. Over 14 years! Imagine how that experience would define you for the rest of your life.  Phenomenal man.

After devouring a couple of fruit-filled pancakes and freshly squeezed juice, I thought it was a little strange that the same round of food and beverage was served again. Jason hadn’t blinked before he’d breathed in the second helping. We ordered la quenta but told there was no charge. “Lo siento, itere por favor.” Sorry, repeat that please? That’s right, two-wheeled travellers are given a meal on the house. A stunning service.

Being able to fight it no longer, I quietly lay my filthy face on my hands at the table and micro-seconds before falling into a deep slumber, was gently squeezed by the hand and shown straight to a back room. Home to a lose-me-forever big, comfy bed over which a cross breeze blew through the 32 degree Celsius air. I had died and slept a heavenly hour. A fortifying mango injection and replenishing kip was more than I could have prayed for in that moment. We weren’t always but that afternoon, we were in a fabulous place at a fortunate time. Perhaps there is a God.

Free from mishap—bikes and bodies—we arrived to the coastal town of Trujillo.   Look in the right spots and it’s a hotbed of colonial streets and profusion of churches alongside monied apartments, a show of high-end restaurants, sandy beaches and a respectable surf. A deluge of positive attention from passers-by made our last impression of Lima vaporize into the toxic air from whence it came.

Hanging with 'Bad boy gone biker' Ricardo, owner of a rather swish Ducati
Hanging with ‘Bad boy gone biker’ Ricardo, owner of a rather swish Ducati

Julio invited us to his Paddock Restaurant, furnishing us with the highlights of his tour company Peru Moto Aventuras while we tucked into some tasty nosh. Ricardo wouldn’t let us leave Trujillo without first paying for Jason and me to visit to the Arqueológico de Chan Chan—the world’s largest adobe city made entirely of earth, dating back to 800 AD. The highlight for me was the following morning’s rideout along the seafront, following Ricardo on his rather delectable Ducati and playing ‘Chase me if you can’ with Julio on his step-through scooter. Even Pearl felt like a speed demon but quickly wound her neck in when Ricardo ‘Bad Boy Gone Biker’ roared past.

The world's once largest mud brick city: Chan Chan
The world’s once largest mud brick city: Chan Chan

We kicked the side stands down by the sea to watch surfers take to the cooler waters while savouring yet another treat on Ricardo, a mixed plate of ceviche. It’s a chilled concoction of fish, shrimp and other seafood marinated in a culinary marriage of lime juice, onions, cilantro and chilli peppers. Despite a lengthy preparation time, it took minutes to devour such tastebud divinity.

From Trujillo we took the 10A east and picked up the 3N north to Cajamarca where I pretended to not have seen the policia hailing me to the roadside for a random spot check. Sorry fellas but I didn’t see you, nor had I any Peru-specific SOAT insurance to show them. Onto Celendin for the night. We zipped over the 08B for 90 ‘S’ shaped miles, skirting the contours of the hillside like the hem on a rah rah skirt. This, according to the guidebook is known as Peru’s Road of Death equivalent, whose description requires travellers of this route to have “nerves of steel to brave the hopelessly nerve-wracking” 90 mile mountain route between Celendin and Leymebamba. Mmn.

On top of the world again on Peru's Road of Death equivalent
On top of the world again on Peru’s Road of Death equivalent

We set off on a Monday morning expecting the worst and got nothing more than the odd car and minibus or two, having an entire landscape of swashbuckling peaks practically to ourselves. You’d probably need a Valium if you were being transported in a bus along some of the two metre wide roads but on two wheels? It’s dreamy—carving up into the hills, ears popping as you wend up through wispy clouds that drift in from empty space and tease the asphalt. We continued to climb through cloud forests and countryside swathed in a lush quilt of greens.

But this is Peru in the rainy season. And ‘unpredictable’ is Peru’s middle name. The cruisey ride soon turned sour on the exposed approach to the summit; driving rain and gusting wind veered us precariously close to the sheer drop, nerves teetering on the edge around every hairpin. We peaked Abra de Barro Negro (Black Mud Pass) at 3,678 metres, which would have offered us the highest viewing point over the river—were it not for being engulfed in opaque cloud clinging to the hillside. Easy to understand why the road is still accident-prone but then Peru thrives on an element of risk to reward you with an exponentially satisfying thrill. When the clouds parted their prow, there was more than 3.5 vertical kilometres below. Now that’s worth seeing…if it’s not too cloudy!

Leymebamba, a gorgeous little convivial town had an endearingly rustic allure from its cobblestones and legendary friendliness from locals. I coasted through its historic centre at milk wagon speed, smiling at a clutch of juice vendors tending their trolleys of stacked papaya, mango and oranges. I could only admire its frock-like prettiness against a backdrop of mammoth mountains.

A charming, well-mannered woman—owner of La Casona hostel—was receptive to our arrival. Being on the frugal end of a finite budget, she allowed me to bargain a beaut of a rate for her four-star, tastefully decorated lodging; the only place in Leymebamba able to accommodate the bikes. It wasn’t iciness I felt from her, but a kind of steady imperial radiance. At half price, we were duly indebted to this lady. She smiled, and the softness of it built a warmth under my heart.

Supping a cafe latte at Kenticafe; this is the life for us.
Supping a cafe latte at Kenticafe; this is the life for us.
This will be Jason and me if we break another shock...
This will be Jason and me if we break another shock…

Lunching at Kenticafe to the humbling sight and distinct thrumming sound of hummingbirds, we spent the remainder of the afternoon at the Mummy Museo oppositie. The mummies were discovered at Laguna de los Cóndores, dating back to the 6th century and are now wrapped in preserving bundles. Well almost—parts of adult, children and newborn skeletons were still exposed for our gruesome viewing pleasure. Those along with their artefacts, including a near-pristine array of elaborate necklaces adorned with lines of knotted strings. Little is known about these artefacts except many were burned by the Incas in fear of them, however, it’s thought that they were actually books as a way of communication amongst those peoples.

This chap's been waiting and waiting and waiting...time to call it a day, mate.
This chap’s been waiting and waiting and waiting…time to call it a day, mate.

Cruising through Chachapoyas, a cloud-forested land belonging to the ‘People of the Clouds’, we wended over the asphalt by a hypnotising mist, moving like dry ice. Stopping at the Marvelous Spatuletail Ecological site took us into a remote forest in northern Peru. It’s the only place on the planet you’ll get to stare at the delicate little Marvellous Spatuletail fluttering from feeder to feeder. In and amongst other species too, such as the: Gould’s Jewelfront, Sparkling Violetear and Golden-tailed Sapphire. A treasure trove of gems and jewels. It’s also a prime site for the viewing of the rare Many-spotted hummingbird and discovery of new species like the Metaltail. An exquisite experience.

The Marvelous Spatuletail hummingbird
A simply marvellous name for the Marvellous Spatuletail hummingbird

Peru is a country with some fairly serious terrain. The place is locked in beauty for the most part and despite its curveballs, which seem only to add to the chase or the thrill, I can’t decide—or mayhaps we’ve just become desensitised—I will forever remain fond of its high highs and all-part-of-the-fun low lows. Alas, it was time to squeeze past a double snafu of a two part landslide at Pedro Ruiz and another, more serious one at San Ignacio crushing four people, haul ourselves out of the wet chocolate cake mix and end Peru with something of a smudged punctuation mark.

A wet chocolate cake mix oozing down the hillside for days on end
Wet chocolate cake mix oozing down the hillside in Peru’s sometimes unpassable, rainy season

24 Feb-5 Mar 2015 – Seeing red, avoiding amber & going for green

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Preparing Pearl for some major surgery
Preparing Pearl for some major surgery

In order to rebegin our earth-bound way northward, gin-ger-ly is the way in which I rode Pearl all 230 miles southbound to Lima. Pearl was sporting a newly welded, temporarily repaired rear suspension linkage—albeit with no dampening in place but despite having cause for complaint, held up beautifully on the Pan American highway’s asphalt. Getting me to a place in which we could get her adequately mended—without issue, what a trooper. Holding her in a new level of regard, I held no qualms in taking my ‘Captain Slow’ status to another notch; delicately descending into drainage dips and negotiating speed bumps with supreme care.

With a rear shock to be shipped and install, on closer inspection there was also: Pearl’s brakes, which were letting out a pair of screams every time I slowed; the plate—protecting my feet from her exhaust—had bore a raucous-racket-of-a-hole in it from all the off road vibration; she was in dire need of an oil change and service; her battery terminals were looking beyond filthy and on top, Pearl was missing a couple of crucial bolts to her sub-frame.

All that coupled with worn out tyres, an oil change and service due on the F800cc, faulty brake discs and a disintegrated plate supporting his Peli case, Jason was going to be one busy boy in Lima. I would of course become the ‘Sparky’s mate’ and pass the spanners, emulate James Bond with his Motion Pro tool and bring cups of tea and slices of keke—cake on the hour, every hour.

In an attempt to escape from one reality only to seek a more beautiful one, I long ago implored the world to teach me a thing or two before the time runs out. I love the stark differences encountered on the travel spectrum in Peru for example, such as walking past mothers breastfeeding their toddlers, yes—three year old toddlers, on a Monday morning inside a national bank.  (At least they’d save soles on Inca Kola and other such child-beckoning beverages.) Or surviving a sea of the world’s worst drivers to encountering floods of the same local people with the nicest manners. Especially when disaster strikes and you become dependent on the help of a stranger.

Pearl, you're gonna feel like a shiny new penny with a working suspension!
Hang in there Pearl, you’re gonna feel like a shiny new penny shortly!

A new acquaintance, ex-pat Brit Johnny Bravo who has journeyed alongside the “loonbags” of Lima’s roads for years, took us to the boho-chic end of Barranca and over a coffee pondered, “I can’t decide if they are the best drivers (with huge reserves of luck), or the worst drivers (with the fastest reflexes!)” From firsthand experience, I’d fervently err on the latter..! Although ruminating on it later over a savoured cup of English tea, thanks to Johnny’s thoughtfulness, when you grasp that users of the roads in Peru haven’t been required to take a driving test, only something akin to Britain’s ‘Compulsory Basic Training’ day, you begin to fathom why the roads are frenetic at best, fatal at worst.

But when and how did Peruvians become so gloriously hospitable, especially noticeable when compared to the British culture of the more reserved, perhaps occasionally guilty of a little cynicism and suspicion? That’s something culturally instilled at a grassroots level, starting with good old fashioned family values and community spirit in helping our neighbour. Some of us in England have barely spoken a word to our next door neighbour. We’ve much and more to learn from the world.

Our accommodation within 24 hours went from ‘Love hotel’ to a Catholic convent, another amusing contrast. Both of which I thought I was getting incredible ‘bang for my buck’; the former for its value in renting a room for the entire night and the latter for the uber low price including internet and hot water. That is, until getting electric shocks from the our shower head. And later an unpleasant buzz from Jason’s arm holding the laptop—a jolting over-charge of which ran through him from the electricity powering the could-now-do-without WiFi. “Ouch! Stop touching your arm against mine Jason— it ruddy hurts!” Turning everything off gave rise only to a rude gush of cold water but at least the shower was welcoming in Lima’s humid heat. After the initial shock…

Sat in a semblance of the convent’s peace and quiet, reading and relaxing, we experienced a minor earthquake. Apparently reaching 3.9 on the Richter Scale, it wasn’t more than a titillating tremor, however, it did simultaneously raise our eyebrows in acknowledgment. Actually, it’s not unusual for Lima to experience seismic activity, being situated between two tectonic plates: the Nazca Plate and South America Plate. Still, as mild as it was, I didn’t expect to find my lips singing away to Carole King’s song, “I feel the Earth move under my feet…

So now we were to simply sit tight and wait for our parts en route from Motorworks. The parcel itself—the contents of which would be akin to our birthdays, 15 year anniverary together and Christmas in one—took a speedy three days to hit Peruvian soil, one of FedEx’s fortes by far. The battle on our hands commenced the moment it landed; we now had to climb an Everest-sized mountain of bureaucracy via an administration labyrinth along the way. Jason beavered away on preparing Pearl for her major surgery, while I spent a day and night furiously designing, reformatting and translating technical specifications in Spanish for each of the nine components and collating original invoices in keeping with Customs’ preferred layout.

Pearl's shock horror
Pearl’s shock horror

Sounded straightforward enough, however with FedEx answering their switchboard one in every ten calls coupled with my survival Spanish, and unclear instructions around a mandatory set of precise requirements from the import agent Yudit Canta, assembling our paperwork correctly was filled with inaccurate time-wasting exercises and more laptop hours than I’d care to bore you about. Ines, the co-manager at Touratech Peru corrected my paperwork, grossly impinging on her working day and her husband Ivan, the other manager, had pre-empted us on how to best ‘push’ the process. We essentially had a 50:50 chance of ascertaining a ‘green light’ from Customs’ traffic light system; an amber or red simply spelled ‘No package release’.

With a killer 20 mile ride riddled with Lima’s loonbags over to the FedEx office, we were told on arrival that our paperwork wouldn’t be presented to Customs until the following day. My response to which politely relayed the rehearsed, somewhat embellished story of a time-ticking visa past its 11th hour and subsequent impounding of the motos, “Our parcel is full of constituent parts to fix my motorcycle in order to complete a five-day ride to the border with only four days remaining before visa expiry. Please could you help me, I am desperado for FedEx’s assistance under these urgent and accentuating circumstances. If I do not collect the package today, it’s game over for us and our motorcycles on an Argentina to Alaska trip.” An economy of the truth admittedly but desperation really is the mother of invention.

“Sorry madam, this is the procedure we must follow at FedEx and Customs will look to process your documentation tomorrow. You will get a red, amber or green back from them.” Arrr, the parcel-determining colours of their unenlightening traffic light system.

You’re kidding? Any crisis of conscience fully reconciled within the blink of an eye, it was time to trigger a mini-Oscar-nomination-standard-thunderstorm on my face. A deluge of snotting and the onset of tears worked a charm. Fortunately, the FedEx representative was male giving me full leverage to cry him a river in appealing to his ‘Moto-damsel in distress’ sympathy-inducing qualities. (A woman may’ve just told me to “Suck it up princess, your parcel ain’t ready.”)

Alakazam! A day’s worth of mundane hours later and FedEx fast-tracked our parcel from somewhere lost in the ether to ‘Ready for collection’. And joy of joys—believe you me, I never dreamed I’d feel so elated to see the word Verde—green in red ink on our consignment papers. Namely, a box of motorcycle parts but Pearl’s livelihood depended on it. It wasn’t exactly a box of ‘old for new’ but I’d take ‘broken for second hand’ any day. I offered up the rear shock like it was The Lion King’s Simba and bathed in the green victory of glory.

Out with the royally broken, in with the functioning second hand!
Out with the royally broken, in with the functioning second hand!

Please VOTE before 31 March 2015: Jason’s nominations in the Horizons Unlimited Photo Comp

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The 2016 Horizons Unlimited Photo contest received around 650 entries this year.  Two of Jason’s images have been nominated in the ‘Top 40′, which are currently doing pretty well in terms of votes so far – the second picture below is doing particularly well; it is currently sitting in the number 1 spot.  Go Jase!  Extremely proud of the boy, who is loving the photography element of the trip as much as the riding.  Go figure when you can combine both passions in one.

Please support him before the closing date (31 March 2015) and vote for both images, i.e. ‘Like’ the image through the HU Facebook page on the hyperlinks below.  Thanks so much, it’d mean the world to him if you helped him to get his work ‘out there’ a bit more.

Please like this image here:

Sunset at the Valley of the moon, Chile
Sunset at the Valley of the moon, Atacama Desert in Chile

Please also like this image here:

Wild camping in Purmamarca
Wild camping in Purmamarca, Argentina

11-21 Feb 2015 – Lima’s loveless roads & a harmonising Huascarán National Park

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Tough day at the office again, Cordillera Blanca, Peru.
Tough day at the office again, Cordillera Blanca, Peru.

One year, 18,000 miles on moto and five countries into the trip, we are still wending our way up South America—somewhat slowly—loving the two wheeled life more than yesterday but less than tomorrow.

Beneath a cloud-strewn sky, Lima’s bustling Miraflores appeared decent enough and initially I deemed the traffic no more demanding than La Paz or Buenos Aires, feeling thankful to the city angels that my prayers had been answered. Riding in those two cities was hellish enough. Entering Peru’s capital seemed to dispel the dark shadows that had sporadically plagued my soul. I’d been dreading Lima’s loony roads for weeks; fear had waited in the dark recesses of my mind, ready to pounce. Or was I simply adapting to the idiotic drivers of South America’s big cities? In part yes but there, nope, wrong again. The notorious road users of downtown Lima were a notch above moronic leaving the situation nails-in-the-coffin-hopeless. I’d not honked my horn as frequently—for so long—at a given time in my two year riding career; not until venturing eight miles from the BMW Motorrad garage to our accommodation. At night.

A shaft of anger opened up inside me and I started to work myself up into a whirling froth. Anger jostled with fear but both nipped at my belly as people elbowed past me in their two tonne people carriers. ‘Back off buster, I beg you. Just stop trying to sandwich me in the saddle’. My voice shrilled in a voice like sand against stone. I swerved around a dog’s corpse whose grey intestines wormed through the opening and oozed where they’d ruptured. Faltering, I squeezed my eyes closed to bolster my courage. All over my brain, lights were flickering on, doors were creaking open. Some of those doors led directly to our lodging but there was also the voice of Pearl inside me saying, ‘Whoa, keep goingyou’ve not escaped the bus butties or four wheel drive focaccias just yet.’

Hanging out with Ivan and Ines, these guys are all about value-added motorcycle travel!
Hanging out with Ivan and Ines, these guys are all about value-added motorcycle travel!

I opened my eyes after half a heartbeat. Clouds had started to gather, crowding the sky like lumbering beasts. Feeling the inner seethe of frustration inside a grinding wheel of terror, a whole city’s worth of boneheadedness came crashing down like a shelf full of shoes, all around my head at once—too overpowering to bear. Pleading gestures and dodging demolishment by the skin of my teeth was one thing in this black-souled and brazen traffic, but glimpsing a badly injured motorcyclist in an ambulance made my soul go cold. It seemed to hover half in my body and half out, as though it hungered to leave, to travel down a different road and find my happy place. The sight splintered my resolve. Breaking out of a thick knot of cars, I rode with the agility and speed of a frightened pack rat, fleeing a rising flood.

Home has definitely become where the hostel is, that day being Hitchhiker’s Backpackers on Bolognesi. When I narrowly dodged a coverless manhole and pulled into our gated sanctuary, worry still lined my forehead. I deflated like a porcupine bladder pricked with a quill and my shoulders sagged with the respite. Having beat the horn like I was playing a pinball machine, I’d have been better off asking every aggressive bus driver, “Excuse me Sir, would you mind terribly not mowing me down? Much obliged, old sport. Tally ho!” Let the world grind in its eternal and ponderous motions.

Steeped in a fog known as gurúa, we woke up one morning to Lima huddled under a smothered mantle of raucous noise. A sullen mist that turned the sky a milky white, leaving it draped in a spiritless pall. This microclimate was described by Moby Dick as the “strangest, saddest city thou can’st see”. Although the metropolis wasn’t supposed to take her white veil until the winter months of April to October, my brows lowered as I squinted into the humid miasma, vainly attempting to penetrate its twisting mask. So why, might you wonder did the Spanish build the capital of their Andean empire at a place regularly cloaked in an opaque ghostly fog? Because in all likelihood, they wouldn’t have realised having established the urban setting in January—smack bang in the summer—when skies are an unending blanket of blue.

Having chance met and spent a few of days with Canadian Patrick and his crazier-than-a-box-of-frogs Aussie wife, Belinda, ‘two-up’ on their Suzuki V-Strom while meeted, greeted, wined and dined by motorcycle-traveller oriented Ivan and Enis, the managers of Touratech Peru, a week had passed and it was time to ‘Vamos’, once again before getting comfortably stuck in a place. Ivan had even recommended staying in a convent, a two minute walk from the Touratech premises and half the price of our backpackers.  Barely retaining a grip on Lima’s ludicrous traffic—stronghold on my sanity weakened somewhat—we fled to the Pan Americana’s sand blasted highway. Lima’s wrath will sweep you from the road like a bit of goosedown in the wind if you’re not careful.

Skirting around the headland lapping up the calm coastal views of the Pacific on our left, giant dunes on our right, life became quiet again. Big black and white tipped caracaras punctured the morning stillness; they flirted with the ragged edge of the bluff, diving close, hovering on the updrafts, then canting their wings to soar away. The sun shone intently above the cloud-puffed horizon and a gentle band of blue arced across the world—melting into the spaces between the mountains, outlining the tufts of trees on the crests. Tension trickled from my body, leaving me feeling as light as a dandelion seed. Into that peace I rode into my happy place, which swelled with the rumbling power of Pearl.

Riding to the national park from Huaraz
Riding to the national park from Huaraz

Plains collided with indigo peaks so jagged and lofty, they lanced the sky’s long streamers on the green hilly road to Huaraz. We’d kissed goodbye to a straight track of brutal sun, Lima’s rays having penetrated my body in a thousand places. The benign wind had seized my plea and blew it out across perennially glaciered white peaks, which knifed their way through stretching mantles of grass-green valleys. Welcome to the Cordillera Blanca, the highest tropical mountain range in the world, second in height only to the Himalayas. Something told me its 18 staggering summits of more than 6,000 metres wouldn’t let me forget this region for a second.

Andean village Huaraz—90 per cent of which was wiped out by an earthquake 45 years ago—would never win any beauty contest but at least we found ourselves tucked away from the sprawl at ‘La Cabaña Hospedaje’, below a rooftop that commanded one of the most embracive panoramas I’d ever laid my eyes on. And our thanks go straight to Paul Pitchfork—a seasoned Tenere rider living in Peru—whom we randomly clocked ambling towards the accommodation within minutes of our arrival to Huaraz. Don’t you just love it when the universe is feeling generous?

Jason and Paul talked unceasingly; I smiled as I listened to the pair of them pick infrequent moments to come up for air. A light kindled in Paul’s eyes as he meticulously pinpointed the ‘must see’ spots on the map for us, deep into Peru’s least disturbed mountains. No tourists, just follow this squiggly line to a gateway into the backwaters of Peruvian life. This guy’s heart was ensconced in Peru as I caught a wistful nostalgia that gleamed in his eyes. When I suggested just that, he raised an eyebrow and grinned, shooting me an agreeable glance from the corner of his eye and made a delicate gesture, the way you’d brush aside a cobweb.

Huascarán National Park, packed full of Andean leviathans, encompasses practically the entire area of Cordillera Blanca above 4,000 metres. We were set to see a place home to 600 glaciers, endangered plant species and the poised Andean condor. Our route to peeking this hard-to-reach enigmatic utopia involved a rocky ride firstly to Yanama, a tiny mountain-enveloped pueblo (village). Paul had advised the track—although I’d correct gnarly tract—was a little rough to begin with. As soon as we started to climb and I turned the first corner, Pearl’s nose facing sharply down, my face went wan, filled with fear. Self-doubt gnawed at my ribs while worry sank knives into my gut, careening precariously down loamy soil. Lordy Lou, I was a hair’s breadth from losing control and we’d only just started out.

Biking bliss, Cordillera Blanca.
Biking bliss, Cordillera Blanca.

My muscles tightened when understanding dawned; there wasn’t going to be a rugged patch solely at the beginning; this was going to be fun all the way to the top. But something overrode and my brain quickly rewired. A passageway seemed to open in the air, allowing my soul to connect with Pearl’s. We must’ve communed because a door opened in my head and out flowed all the anxiety.  An influx of adrenaline propelled me along the narrow dirt trail—peppered with potholes, scored with ruts and packed with loose stones and biggish rocks. I started riding with my ‘ripio’ head on. Talk about adventure riding, it was the toughest loose gravel for me to date, and I was loving it!

Jaw-on-the-floor views!
Jaw-on-the-floor views!

Jason reassuringly implored, “Lisa, just keep doing what you’re doing”. Okay my darl, I will. “Although I’d be much happier if you stuck to the left”, he deferentially added from behind. Fair enough, those precipices on my right were pretty sheer. It made Bolivia’s ‘Road of Death’ look like a day at the beach. Part way to the top, Jason asked, “Are you enjoying yourself, Lisa?”

“Yep! Sure am”, I blurted in a surge of glee.

“Good because you’re riding like a pro today. I’m impressed.” Jason had said that to me only a handful of times in the last twelve months, I was ecstatic and fed off his complement like a hungry pup.  I think I dined out on it for a couple of days because my riding remained consistent.

Our hostel and bike's bed for the night
Our hostel and bike’s bed for the night

The sun was in high broiling ascendancy at altitude and the effort from the off roading had sucked the moisture from my body and spread it over my arms and legs in a thick sheen of sweat. Every which way I threw my gaze, ancient mountains rose to scallop the sky with humps of white. Contouring around the steep hillside feeling the size of an ant, we reached Yanama. I was in an incredulous state of pure joy. I’d made it, kept Pearl upright albeit bungled through a few times on a wing and a prayer, but it hit me straight away. No passing gringos. Only local children who shrilled happily in the plaza, while their parents laboured over tending to their herd or tienda (shop); stable doors half open to admit the breeze. Dogs barked in joyous accompaniment and caracaras wheeled on the warm air currents. We’d entered the backdoor to a time-honoured Peruvian life. Images danced on the back of my lids, flickering as sleep numbed my body and blissfully coiled through my thoughts.

Sunset at Yanama
Sunset at Yanama

Night greyed into early morning, softly illuminating the hilltop villages on rolling swells of land under the lilac canvas of predawn. I awoke just as the first light stole into the world and squirmed to get the kink out of my back. I yawned, a wide, lazy yawn. Chickens pecked at their corn and piglets squealed endearingly in the hospedaje’s (hostel’s) enclosure. I watched a splinter of sun peek over the horizon and the mountains revealed themselves with an unfathomably, icy blue presence. Plants cast off their shadows and stood naked in the splendour, their arms lifted high to receive the sun’s morning blessing.

Up and up we bounced over bobbled terrain. Mid morning, we’d scaled a slender backbone of ridge and rode between two ragged shards of mountain. Rimming the incredible vista, ice capped glaciers thrust up like filed teeth, their spiny points raking the bottom of the clouds. Hundreds of natural drainage channels zigzagged through a white maze of ridges. I sneaked up on cougar-silent feet towards the edge to get a closer look. The route had left me drained of physical vitality, but filled with a silence so profound it felt downy against my soul. “A-maz-ing!” slowly oozed from my lips as I gazed with utter gravity, my head panning the grandeur as hawks effortlessly dove in delight.

These leviathan glaciers will steal your breath, they're so lofty.
These leviathan glaciers will steal your breath, they’re so lofty.

Descending the rocky but not quite as gnarly switchbacks on the other side of the ridge, we passed the odd local minibus leaving us in a choking curtain of dust, rattling Pearl and me before it swept out into the landscape and formed into a dust devil that whirled into the sky. I ignored the twisting column spinning across my peripheral and kept my eyes on the stony ruts. I’d still a long way down to go. Dirt had routinely sloughed off the bank and formed pointed mounds, which we vigilantly meandered around. On a magnified scale, records of aluviones—a deadly mix of avalanche, waterfall and landslide—had devastated many sections of the region’s roads in the past, burying whole towns even; including Yungay, having wiped out thousands of lives over the last 300 years. Today, controlling the lake levels by building dams and tunnels helps prevent further onslaught from such horrific catastrophes.

Wheels back on the national park’s bottom, massive faces of rock loomed as an implacable backdrop to a jade green lake and glacial blue ribbon of water running down from above. Reflections of clouds sailed across the water. I picked up a pebble and tossed it into the centre of a cloud, rings distorting the peaceful image. A couple of ducks floated placidly passing a cow—half submerged chewing on the lake’s grasses. Hunger came on like a mini hurricane through my stomach.

The glaciers in Peru will suit you, Sir!
The glaciers in Peru will suit you, Sir!

My belly whined with gratitude over a late lunch in the rebuilt town of Yungay and begged for more. By the time I’d finished, satisfaction pervaded my body, trickling strength into my limbs. Another mountain-swathed village called Sucre took us in for the night. With a weak-wristed action, I parked Pearl for the evening and stood under a tepid shower. The water soothed like cool salve on an aching burn. I lay down and all the weariness I’d been staving off settled on my shoulders like a leaden cape. Fatigue lay upon Jason like a sodden blanket too. Exertion at a rather hefty altitude and making a school girl error of missing breakfast, had taken its toll on me but that mattered little and less in what felt like a distinctly different part of Peru, culturally and geographically; it was going to be hard to leave this little enclave.

I sat quietly, staring out across the plaza, the very fabric of darkness pulsed with a moonlit calm.

7-10 Feb 2015 – Gigantic squiggles & serious giggles

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The iconic hummingbird
The iconic hummingbird over the Nasca lines

As our wee Cessna soared a dizzy height over the Peruvian desert, just a couple of hundred miles southeast of Lima, the dull pale sameness of the rocks and sand organised and changed form. Distinct white lines gradually evolved from tan and rust-red. Strips of white crisscrossed a desert so dry that it rains less than an inch every year. Banking equally hard to the right and then left, the landscape transformed as lines took shape in simple geometric designs: trapezoids, linear lines, rectangles, triangles and whirls. Some perfectly straight, many running parallel and others intersecting, creating a grand geometric profile spanning a 37-mile long plain sat between the Inca and Nasca Valleys. These are the renowned Nasca lines—subject of mystery for over 80 years. So how were they formed? What purpose did they serve? Was extra terrestrial life involved?

Before take off
Before take off

Against a background of cloudy cerulean sky, some of the swirls and zigzags started to develop into an assortment of distinct shapes: a hummingbird, a condor, a whale and a 1,000-foot long pelican. Amongst other beasts and engravings etched on a giant scale, which can really only be appreciated from the sky. The viewing towers do little to ascertain a strong vantage but give an inkling of perspective. Even if I did spend the 30-minute flight in our cigar shaped tube on the cusp of bringing up breakfast, while Jason battled furiously with his irrational fear of flying. Amusingly opposite experiences; I couldn’t have cared less about dropping out of the sky in fear of chundering over four unsuspecting passengers whereas Jason’s stomach gave rise to only butterflies. Titillating his insides as we oscillated through a slightly fractious air space.

Huston, we have a problem!
Huston, we have a problem!

Incredibly, there are over an imperceptible 800 straight lines, 300 geometric figures and 70 animal and plant designs, which are called biomorphs. All curiously carved into the Peruvian desert by ancient Nasca people, so scientists have us believe, of whom flourished from around AD 1 to 700. Some of the neat streaks run up to 30 miles, while the biomorphs range up to 1,200 feet in length, as large as the Empire State Building.

The lines are technically known as geoglyphs—drawings on the ground made by removing rocks and earth to create a ‘negative’ image. The rocks that cover the desert have oxidized and weathered to a deep rust colour, and when the top 12-15 inches of rock is removed, a light coloured high contrasting sand is exposed. Certain areas of the pampa look like a well-used chalk board, with lines overlapping other lines, and designs cut through with straight lines of both ancient and more modern origin. Because there’s so little rain, wind and erosion, the exposed designs have stayed largely intact for a couple of millenniums. Mmmn, so what we’re looking at is just 2,000 year old graffiti.

The spider
The spider, an ancient symbol of rain.

Discovered in the 1930s post the advent of the aeroplane, American professor Paul Kosok investigated the Nasca lines, looked up from his work to catch the sunset in direct alignment with a line and called the 310 square mile stretch of high desert “the largest astronomy book in the world”. Johan Reinhard, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, adopted a multidisciplinary approach to the analysis of the lines and urged folks to “Look at the large ecological system, what’s around Nasca, where were the Nasca people located.” In a region that receives only about 20 minutes of rain per year, water was clearly an important factor. “It seems likely that most of the lines did not point at anything on the geographical or celestial horizon, but rather led to places where rituals were performed to obtain water and fertility of crops”, Reinhard hypothesised.

Bigger aerial shot of the hummingbird
Bigger aerial shot of the hummingbird, a symbol associated with fertility

And you might also find merit in Anthony Aveni’s concurring theory, a former National Geographic grantee that the trapezoids are big wide spaces where people could come in and out. The rituals were likely involved with the ancient need to propitiate or pay a debt to the gods, probably to plead, pray and dance for water. After all, spiral designs and themes have been discovered at other ancient Peruvian sites. Animal symbolism is common throughout the Andes including those found in the biomorphs drawn upon the Nasca plain: spiders are believed to be a sign of rain, hummingbirds are associated with fertility, and monkeys are found in the Amazon—an area with an abundance of water.

Overview of the lines
Overview of the lines

“No single evaluation proves a theory about the lines, but the combination of archaeology, ethno-history, and anthropology builds a solid case,” said Reinhard. Add new technological research to the mix, and there’s no doubt that the world’s understanding of the Nasca lines will continue to evolve. So even they and others with credibility in their field, including one woman, Maria Reiche who devoted 40 years in study of them, still have no conclusive evidence as to how and why the Nasca lines came into existence.

A cemetery near Nasca
A cemetery near Nasca

The plain – interweaved by a network of these giant lines with many forming rectangles – has a striking resemblance to a modern airport. Perhaps they had been built for the convenience of ancient visitors from space to land their ships. As quirky as it might be to subscribe to this theory, the desert floor at Nasca is soft earth and loose stone, and wouldn’t support the landing wheels of an aircraft but mayhaps it would a hovering flying saucer.

The Monkey
The Monkey

Regardless of which camp you may sit, to my mind, as fascinating as the figures and lines are, couldn’t have been made without somebody in the air to direct the operations. You simply can’t see anything from ground level! Who would go to that kind of effort without ever being able to see it? For now, an unanswered mystery that’ll have to remain up in the air.  Still, touring the desert by air is a, if not thee best way, to hopscotch over Nasca’s relatively big distances and see the scale of these intriguing forces that shape the bleached and thirsting land.

With our rear view mirrors flirting with the Freddy Flintstone hills of Puquio, we tootled towards our next stop: Huacachina, entertainingly pronounced ‘Whacka-cheena’. Built around a small natural lake in the desert, 185 miles south of Lima, it’s known as the ‘oasis of South America’. Legend holds that the lagoon was created when a beautiful native princess was apprehended at her bath by a young hunter. She fled, leaving the pool of water she’d been bathing in to become the lagoon. The folds of her mantle, streaming behind her as she ran, became the surrounding sand dunes. And the woman herself is rumoured to still live in the oasis as a mermaid. How whimsically unromantic.

Our white knuckle thrill ride
Our white knuckle thrill ride

Why the detour? We fancied a spot of sanding around. And what better diversion to spend 40 Peruvian soles ($13 US) and immerse oneself in the warm, silky stuff than by taking a buggy ride on dunes that stretch up to 150 metres high. Transporting us deep into the desert, Manuel our driver (from Hostel Huacachina Sunset where we lodged), set us in store for a white-knuckle thrill ride and a half.

In a grinding and grizzly low gear, high range and foot firmly on the gas, we unreassuringly climbed our way to the top of the first dune, inching our way towards the sky. Every nerve atingle, emotions were a jumbled bag of fear, excitement, nervousness and heart-in-your-mouth ‘Is this guy for real?’ Mingled with anticipation and the thin-lipped tension of grim purpose. ‘I don’t wanna die!’ every fibre in my body screamed. Pinned in by a life-saving harness barely able to breathe, ‘Don’t stop and don’t turn the wheel’, I prayed, ‘We’ll roll like a melon!’

Tension tightened around my chest like an eagle’s talons. We peaked at the summit of a giant dune. Having floored it all the way up, Manuel stopped abruptly cresting a dune, smiled placidly having long mastered the subtle skill of momentum. We had all somehow avoided a coronary arrest. A sudden silence hung above the buggy as passengers prepared for the stomach-churning descent. Around me stretched miles of golden dunes rolling in waves to every horizon, like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. I was in the heart of a great sand sea.

Before you know it, your stomach is left behind but by no means forgotten. My vision swims but I notice the synchronised sway of us all moving as one. Speed increases by the second, hairdryer wind tousling our hair as we accelerate down the dune in what felt like a vertical plunge. Waves of sand crest over the hood as we plow an avalanche that gains size and momentum, vibrating and growling, as we lick up speed. The wheels are adept at careening over the boisterous bumps, I however, am carted above like a ragdoll being swung in the arms of a six year old.

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Twisting, looping, corkscrewing—what feels barely in control—Manuel’s ingenuity is tested at every turn but tackles each manoeuvre with composure. As we wind a snaking course through the dunes, I glance at the terror flashes in everyones’ eyes and grin a nervous smile at Jason. Whooping with a tremor invading my voice, Jason winks encouragingly at me before his head jolts in keeping with the movement of the bouncing buggy. I begin to chuckle, quietly and apprehensively at first but after a couple of snorts, laughter simply starts tumbling out. There’s a backward logic to feeling ecstatic and uneasy at the same time. An occasion that is utterly thrilling to be so unreservedly terrified.

We stop for the tenth time atop a skyscraper tall dune, aiming sharply down. I feel like a 20-pound trout on a five-pound test line. The sand buggies busying around below are the size of Tinker Toys. The downhill screams in unison make this the scariest rollercoaster I’m ever likely to ride. Including those that fly you through space at Gravity force 3, or necessitate 24-hour beacons to forewarn low flying aircraft. Excitement rushes through my body like raging rapids in a river. Head spinning, I climb out of my seat, legs akin to quivering jelly. I love and loathe the experience, my face having assumed dubious and dreadful expressions when in a state of self-induced terror.

Manuel left us caked in sand, sweat and suncream from matted head to toe. We periodically stopped to sand-board increasingly steep dunes on our bellies, braving ourselves and daring each other to keep our feet lifted up so as not to brake and diminish speed when whizzing down. I’d skinned my knee but having capped, cornered, glided and skimmed over the dunes, flew over them air-borne at every given opportunity and teetered on tipping up—roll-cage ready to rock—my whole body wrung with having a complete hoot.

The dunes of Huacachina
The dunes of Huacachina

We’d created our own nifty Nasca lines of incised swirls and punctuations in a thin veneer of sand, albeit none were quite so uniform or unique but they—like the ancient shapes and streaks—left us reeling in their wake just the same. With sand castles in my hair, ears, pants, up my nose and goodness knows where else, I became a human sand pit and felt like a four year old again who just didn’t care: intent on fiercely good fun. We were out on our desert tour for two and a half hours when we’d paid for only one. Insides churned up more than the sand, I’d bruised like a peach post the belly boarding but you can’t knock the value-added craic.

Throughout the day, sand-boarders and hikers appeared on the slopes of the dunes, trudging up in staggered lines. Reaching the top, their toil gave way to pure pleasure. Only one appealing option stared blatantly back at me—running downhill with wild abandon, high kicking my way to the bottom in a ‘Zebedee’ sprung-loaded style, laughing hysterically, while others took their pleasure in sand boarding, rolling or slip-sliding, all in their own avalanches of apricot sand.

Panoramic dunes, Huacachina
Panoramic dunes, Huacachina

Deep inside the desert’s folds, it almost felt like uncharted wilderness whose expanse, for all practical purposes, became our personal desert. On our last evening, with every ounce of strength remaining, I forced my feet to plod forward as they shished on an upward sand ridge. I was scowling and didn’t know why. There wasn’t a single thought in my mind that might bring a scowl to my face just then. ‘Being royally unfit for the sandy footslog may’ve played a role’, I mused as my ragged breathing sawed the air.

We stopped and settled on a lofty dune at dusk.  And reached an astonishing view—in a tawny light, towering dunes pitched down to the oval oasis of Huacachina. It was an epic landscape with cinematic beauty. By dusk, most of the day-trippers had trundled away leaving footprints dimpled in the sand. It was then we were treated to the sunset of all time whose shafts of fiery orange and intensifying rays deepened over the dunes, so bright they hurt my eyes. We saw the final visitors climbing the ridgelines of the tallest dunes, tiny figures silhouetted against the disappearing russet red sun emblazing the landscape in such improbable colours, even Hollywood couldn’t make them up.

There was no wind that night, no hordes of people, no sounds. Scooping up some sand, I let it trickle through my fingers while I studied the way the grains glimmered and hoped these sun-reddened dunes would dance in my dreams, beckoning me. I rocked back and watched an ocean of ethereal sky turn velvet orange, peach and pink and the silver spray of the Milky Way appear, serene in my own private Peru.

Apricot sunset over Huacachina
Apricot sunset over Huacachina