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 braizen 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 soley 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

1-6 Feb 2015 – Machu Picchu: A place of peace & power

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In awe of the lost city of the Incas: Machu Picchu.

Getting to Machu Picchu under our own steam was a conscious choice that worked fairly well. As opposed to opting for a four-day Jungle Trail package for example, which offered more bang for our buck. $200 US would’ve added in four high-energy activities on top of Machu Picchu but for us, spending our clock and cash riding to and visiting the iconic Inca ruins was paramount. Rushing our way through mountain biking when we bike practically everyday to then trek six hours with the day-trippers, after having hiked some of the best stomping ground in South America, didn’t overly appeal. The river rapids and zip lining would’ve been fun though. Still, this was about Machu Picchu and little else.

Our chosen route towards the great Inca city – so well publicized, documented and captured on film – made me mull over whether actually seeing Machu Picchu for myself might angle towards the anticlimactic, or may be remove some of the mystery surrounding it? I dared to hope that wasn’t going to be the case on the way out of Peru’s Inca capital, Cusco. Admittedly, the price to transport two of us: on two motorcycles, in a taxi, marching our out-of-condition feet on a railway ramble to lodge in a captive-audience area to then catch a bus up to the National Park, cost us several arms and aching legs.

In Peru’s rainy season, my mind soon turned to other matters when the Satnav shaved some mileage off highway 3S, and instead led us down an off road shortcut to Ollantaytambo. Namely, a mess of muddy tracks through a line of lofty hillside alongside River Vilcanota’s milky mocha waters. It wasn’t Dakar-level mud but it was muddy good fun for us. The Garmin saved us a whopping four miles off the journey. Isn’t it always the unexpected interruptions that add colour and texture to your day, or for us brown and wet, soft earth caked all over our bikes and bodies.

Meeting a farmer high up on the hills
Meeting a farmer high up on the hills

High up in the mountains on the way to Santa Maria, we stopped to take five. High in altitude but low in warmth, it was like a little Switzerland in the wintery Welsh Valleys of South America. But steeped in Inca heritage where wild rugged mountains rose to thousands of metres and in between them were hidden innumerable valleys, tiered full with terraces, streamlets, hiking and biking trails, and high elevation meadows overflowing with sprays of wildflowers, sheep and llamas.

Chatting with Elena, contented with playing with a pink, plastic earring she'd found on the ground.
Chatting with four year old Elena, contented with playing with a blue, plastic earring she’d found on the ground.

I took a cursory glance and flopped in a tired heap next to my bike, zonked instantaneously while Jason surveyed the scene – cloud-mingled mist climbing up the mountainside like rising smoke. A farmer with his four year old daughter, Elena were curious enough to wander over, while shepherding his sheep with a handmade catapult to roam on the grass, not the road. Like so many children in South America, this little girl had a serenity that lay behind her dark brown eyes. Filthy from matted head to hard-skinned toes, she wore a brightly coloured croqueted bonnet tied beneath her chin, bore the odd rip and tear in her grubby clothing yet her hands and feet were warm to the touch.

Smiling brightly each time I made eye contact, I continued to convey interest in her. She stood on one spot, quietly fascinated by a broken, blue sparkly plastic earring, which held her attention as much as she did mine. Namely, I just wanted some interaction with this cute-as-a-button wee Peruvian. When I rifled through my panniers to produce biscuits and peanuts, Elena beamed when I put them in her mucky hands.

Having spent longer than anticipated on a wet, dirt road to Santa Maria, we followed suit the next morning to Santa Teresa. Ditching the bikes and dumping all but our day packs at Hostel Yacumama, we negotiated a ‘Don’t-take-the-biscuit’ bike fee and jumped in a minibus taxi from Santa Teresa to Hidro Eléctrica, the local Hydro electric power plant. Too frugal to pay the $42 US one-way train fare, we traipsed alongside the railway track for seven odd miles into Aquas Calientes. Jason suffered waives of sickness, doubled over now and again with stomach cramps and endured problems with his constitution, caught out from goodness knows what. He walked as though he was wading through treacle every step of the way. I carried the gear, felt royally unfit for the duration and to add laborious insult to unlucky injury, the afternoon unleashed a torrent of rain. The pair of us made a complete meal out of it.

The juxtaposed tiny town of Aquas Calientes – only accessible by train or on foot – is a jarring mix of ancient and modern. So great was the discord upon entering this sub-tropical jungle spot, we were hit first by the general reek of money – a line of plush hotels and fine jewelry stores – in parallel with a raging river running a fierce course of chocolate milk against lush green, monumentally neck-craning mountainside. The place was thriving on the wads of wonga from the purses and wallets of all and sundry that like us, wanted a spellbinding piece of Machu Picchu’s magic.

The jungle town is renowned to adopt a ‘We’ll never see you again’ mentality and vendors do their utmost to overcharge for every conceivable product and service available. When I began bartering for a café con leche, a cuppa coffee, the lady simply smiled and with a discernibly smug air informed me, “Yes but my milk is very, very fresh”. Mmn, I’ll milk Daisy’s udders myself if it’ll save me three quid. I prayed the Morris powers of persuasion would take effect, went in hard and negotiated down with a “Oh come oooon, you look like a very, very lovely lady who’ll be kind enough to offer a much nicer price”. The impulsive shimmy tagged on at the end seemed to put her slightly off kilter and she reluctantly agreed. Job done.

Machu Picchu is about as panoramic as it gets in Peru!
Machu Picchu is about as panoramic as it gets in Peru!

Come the dark, misty light of dawn, our 5.30am bus traversed the sharp switchbacks of the steep Carretera Hiram Bingham, up to Machu Picchu Park. Groggy from the fug of sleep, we alighted the bus and looked upon the gateway to the sacred grounds. Jason raised an eyebrow at me, which would have been pure Spafford had his features not resembled those of a sleep-ruffled ferret.

I stepped beyond the entrance and started on the ancient pathway. A thick belt of clouds and the high morning mist enveloped us, which gave the start of the day a damp, dull cast. Poncho doing its duty in the persisting rain, I tucked into a warm pastry for my 6.10am breakfast on the Inca bridge, while my mind’s eye imagined a totemic vestige of lost civilization – about as dreamlike as my day was likely to get. Reality gave me only Jason’s profile from behind, trundling along in front of me. Poor bloke, he felt as rough as a badger’s backside.

Mid-morning, the mist gave way before us and ragged grey curtains parted by their prow, which bathed the ruins in a soft, flickering light. It didn’t cease to amaze me that our ancestors had built such a triumph. I tried to wrap my comprehension around the number of steps that had been carved out of enormous pieces of rock and carried, piled and tiered to create the wonderment that is Machu Picchu. The sheer size of it filled my soul with a wowed quietness. Fathomlessly unknowable how a few hundred men simply pushed the rocks up inclined planes using stones with knobs on them to lever others into position. For this one still and silent moment of the day, everything in the world was at peace, locked in beauty. Verdant terraces emerged in every shade of green; emerald, olive and thyme. And sage, moss and myrtle. I couldn’t help but let my soul dance, breathing in the miracle of man’s work.

7

2,453 metres above sea level and nestled on a small hilltop between the Andean Mountain Range, the majestic lost city of the Incas soars above a bow of the rumbling Urubamba river precipitously below. The estate sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna (Wayna) Picchu, with a commanding view down two valleys and a nearly impassable mountain at its back. Located in semi-tropical highland, the area is known as the ‘eyebrow of the jungle’.

Part of the Vilcabamba Batolite formation, Machu Picchu is part of a mass of igneous rock, 250 million years old. The most common stone found in the region is a greyish-white granite, and because of its high quantities of quartz, mica and feldspar makes it relatively easy to shape. And so the Andean masons proved, who made light work out of utilising such a magnificent building material. Built in 1450, many archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an Incan retreat for the emperor Pachacuti; an estate for him and his royal court, or panaca, to relax, hunt and whimsically entertain guests. Separated into three areas – agricultural, urban, and religious – the Incan built structures were arranged so that the function of the buildings matched the form of their surroundings.

The city in its heyday had a water supply from natural springs on highly developed irrigation systems that couldn’t be blocked easily and aqueducts that took advantage of the natural slopes. Splashing fountains also abounded in its time. Masterpieces of hydraulic engineering brought fresh water into buildings while other channels removed waste. The surrounding hillsides were cultivated with fertile soil terraces, not only to provide more farmland to grow crops, but to steepen the slopes which invaders would have to ascend. Many believe sufficient to feed the population of a guesstimated 1,200 four times over. The terraces also reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides. A time of exulting in a period of collective brilliance, wouldn’t you agree?

The vista fantastic view between Cusco and Santa Maria.
The vista fantastic view between Cusco and Santa Maria.

The lower areas contained buildings occupied by farmers and teachers, and the most important religious areas were located at the crest of the hill, overlooking the lush Urubamba Valley a world below. Machu Picchu was utilised by the Inca as a secret ceremonial city with an observatory bound in astronomical and equinoctial importance. The rising and setting of the sun when seen from certain locations within the estate aligns neatly with religiously significant mountains during solstices and equinoxes. All that said, two high-altitude routes from Machu Picchu go across the mountains on the 110 kilometre Inca Trail back to Cusco; one through the sun gate, and the other across the Inca bridge. Both could be blocked easily, should invaders approach along them. Regardless of its original purpose, it’s strategically located and readily defended.

Having paid an additional $10 US in advance, we started up Wayna Picchu’s set of rough-hewn stone steps, the site’s sacred and loftiest peak at 2,693 metres. In Quechua, Wayna Pikchu means ‘young or young man’ and ‘pyramid’. Partway up the northern side is the Temple of the Moon inside a cavern, allegedly a goddess’ cave. Lichen spangled stones dotted over the mountainside, they were steep in parts and the resident morning mist left them slippery. The views from the top of Wayna Picchu gave rise to a further acute and amazing moment, well worth the slog of an ascent. Oddly though, the strongest and probably most profound view of the Inca estate was ascertained when we entered the park, not atop its tallest peak.

Shamanic legends tell that when a sensitive person touches their forehead to Machu Picchu’s Intihuatana stone it opens their vision to the spirit world. I wondered if a similar effect transpired when Jason, still feeling dreadful with diarrhea, lost his footing half way down Wayna Picchu and plummeted 25 feet, grating against its sheer face. Oh my giddy ants, “JASON!”, I shouted as I watched him, his forehead and everything else besides descend through an eternity of jungle bush and trees. My heart seemed to sink right through my body and into the muddy earth.

Climbing up Wayna Picchu
Climbing up Wayna Picchu

Down a level, there was a chap with his arms outstretched waiting to soften Jason’s landing. It was almost comical when he grabbed a dishevelled Jason on impact, removed his dirtied cap and poured litres of water over his mud smudged head. Drenching him back to a refreshing reality, he enquired with a concerned sincerity, ‘Are you alright?’ More or less but you’ve just washed away his vision into the spirit world. Stunned to the root of my soul, I was in a shaken state of disbelief having witnessed him fall, and consumed with relief that it was onto a lower ledge rather than an abyss over the precipice. Somehow, settling on his jammy feet. Festooned in the mountain’s natural debris but stalwartly in one piece on terra firma, I thanked the Inca deities a thousand times over. Heart hammering at my chest, I cried a cathartic flood but afterwards supposed you should never discount the wonder of your tears. They can be healing waters and a stream of joy. Sometimes, I guess they’re the best words the heart can speak.

In 1874, by order of the Peruvian Government, a German cartographer Herman Gohring mapped the region, employing the names Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu for the first time in the modern era. Other explorers and locals would in turn find Machu Picchu prior to Hiram Bingham’s famous rediscovery, which brought word of the ruins to the outside world in 1911. Bingham, a North American History professor, came to South America to research the military campaigns of the liberator Simon Bolivar. Having taken an interest in Incan culture, Bingham journeyed to Cusco with a sergeant, his translator.

While travelling through the Sacred Valley of the Incas along the Urubamba River, they stopped at a place in the Hacienda Cutija. There they met a farmer named Melchor Arteaga. Arteaga gave the explorers information about the existence of some ruins at the top of what they cited an ‘Old mountain’ (Machu Picchu) and received a one coin tip for his trouble. When Bingham reached the mountain, he found two families farming its steep sides on the terraces. It was an 11-year old child, the son of one of the families, who led the explorers into the archaeological remains. On 24 July 1911, they glimpsed their first look at the ‘Royal Tomb’, the ‘Principal Temple’, and at last, the ‘Temple of the Three Windows’. Since then, that date is known as the ‘Day of the Scientific Discovery of Machu Picchu’.  Interestingly, letters written to Bingham’s son were revealed sometime later by the son divulging how Bingham overdramatised the difficulty of journeying to and the discovery of Machu Picchu, quite sensationally in fact so as to no doubt increase his kudos, heroic status, accredited fame and popularity.

Overlooking the terraces, fields and temples at Machu Picchu.
Overlooking the terraces, fields and temples at Machu Picchu.

Glancing out from the Funerary Rock Hut on all the temples, patchwork quilt fields, pristine terraces and baths seems to take you to another time. Blending in with the hillside itself, the lost city created a seamless and elegant green paradise, making Machu Picchu a ‘must see’ of Peru for me. Although Jason would urge you to factor in the cost and time to get there as well as the desired duration to experience it. It was one of the most beautiful and enigmatic ancient sites on which I’ve ever locked my eyes. Shrouded in as much legend, myth and sacredness as there was mist and cloud, the site was in a remarkable state of preservation.

The structures, carved from granite of the mountain top are wonders of both architectural and aesthetic genius. Many of the building blocks weigh 50 tonnes or more yet are so precisely sculpted and fitted together with such exactitude that the mortarless joints will not permit the insertion of a piece of paper. It’s perhaps one of the most petite but most revered and extraordinary cities ever visited, invisible from below and completely self-contained.

Wearily, we walked from Machu Picchu back to Aquas Calientes. A long but easy enough descent although Jason still managed to trip up a couple of times. That evening he took a perfunctory shower and peeled into bed; the sounds of gentle snoring soon filled the air. I was lead-weight exhausted, a myriad of emotions having taken their toll. My eyes had a will of their own, they closed and I slipped into a deep and comforting sleep.

The trail we took back along the railway the following morning started stiffly for our worn-out calves. My legs had all but fallen into abeyance. All that was required was an action, a cold start, instant and brutal as beginnings so often are. The seven miles somehow managed to soar inside two hours, it’d taken nearly double that to walk the same on the way there.  The air was filled with butterflies, floating like confetti: oranges, yellows, iridescent blues and some fluttering transparent wings while others spanned Jason’s hand.  Mindful to such moments, I was thrilled we’d walked and not trained it back.

Look at this little guy's transparent wings, incredible.
Look at this little guy’s transparent wings, incredible.

The dirt road near our hostel had dried and dew sparkled everywhere, diamond-like tears of the early morning reflecting the sun’s warmth. All looked rosy until encountering a magnitude of hairy moments back to Santa Maria.   Imprudent minibus drivers took blind hairpin bends as if they were cornering on rails and turned it into an exercise like a date with the firing squad. One rather reckless driver got a mouthful off Jason while I checked my limbs were intact; good job there was a distinct language barrier, which kept the content ambiguous and tone crystal.

So, was Machu Picchu worth it? As a small but significant part of one of the largest and most sophisticated empires in the entire pre-industrial world, a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary and World Heritage site, Machu Picchu is equal in beauty to any culture of the old world. “An absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization”, as UNESCO so aptly put it.

I almost had to pinch myself at Machu Picchu.
I almost had to pinch myself at Machu Picchu.

26-31 Jan 2015 – Bye Bye Bolivia, sea-sized Lake Titicaca & hello Peru!

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Atop a hill overlooking Lake Titicaca surrounded by Copacabana’s patchwork quilt of olives, limes, mosses and cooking apple greens.

Leaving La Paz wasn’t the cruisey ride I’d pictured. To begin with, we had some heartfelt farewells and heartwarming moto-hugs to dispense. Oscar reluctantly let us go and sent us on our merry way into the bedlam of downtown La Paz. Getting out of the city meant getting well and truly stuck in it first. Busy with barminess, I hovered over and hit my horn like I was signaling Morse code: ‘Get-me-out-of-here!’ A veritable racket and tantamount to ten times the danger of Bolivia’s disreputable Death Road. Sandwiched between Toyota Town-Aces and Hi-Aces, my panniers scraped and scratched like nobody’s business. A fit of fury stuck halfway down my throat, like a sneeze that refused to come. Mind unraveling to become somewhat discombobulated, I gritted my teeth and remained undeterred, at least outwardly.

Two and a quarter hours we trawled through rush hour in air that was oppressive, thick and full of menace. “Che boludo!”, I may’ve mouthed when drivers in their moving metal boxes pressed in; a derogatory term relating to the perpetrator’s derrière. Breathe in Pearl”, I urged, “The nutters are out!” as sweat matted my riding top and motorcycle trousers to my arms and legs. I fidgeted like a toad leg frying in hot oil. Intermittently crawling through the city’s sprawl at a snail’s pace in between going hell for leather surfaced my inner-anarchist. Pearl was screaming out for idiot-protection bars like a four-wheel drive needs ‘roo bars in Australia’s bush. It was maddening as it was toilsome, I might as well have been treading in a flood of biting ants.

Would I miss the futile sense of urgency from drivers? – pipping in frantic haste whose clanging disorder and toxic fumes billowed around us – feeling the mixture wrap around my face like a hot bandage. The mishmash of concentrated blockhouses, built to look like a bland, Lego city and climbing up the rocky mesas like poison ivy. Or the trash-lined roads patrolled by snarling dogs that raced alongside us like whipped curs. That is, until becoming burnt out and bungled by malevolent forces – its guts slithered out like wet eels, sliding from a slit sack. The answer is probably not, cities are not ordinarily my thing. Sometimes the happiness of one end of a city can soon sour at the other.  Jason was getting travel-weary of coursing through city after city; it was high time to leave them alone for a while.

Now that's what you call an afternoon shadow.
Now that’s what you call an afternoon shadow.

Having finally escaped the brunt of La Paz’s stinging bite of traffic, an unforeseen reward for the morning’s calamity unfolded as we cruised towards Copacabana. Through a smog-blackened face, my eyes darted over rolling swells of green countryside on a stunning road. I smiled every mile past the traditional Aymará villages to the glacier-capped, brilliant white snowy peaks of the Cordillera Real. And then our eyes gravitated like magnets on the singularity of Lake Titicaca, its energy and sheer gravity drawing us in. Crystalline, gemlike water sparkled in a clear, Altiplano light. ‘Pretty special alright’, my radar registered.

The Peruvian hills en route to Lake Titicaca
The Peruvian hills en route to Lake Titicaca

No sooner had we kicked the side-stands down at San Pedro de Tiquina and the pair of us dived into the local catch. What felt like eating our head weight in fried white bait and trucha – trout, was a stomach-gratifying, taste sensation. That is, until the signal hit my brain I was more than full on fish. But what a welcomed interruption from meat.

Hopping across the water on a makeshift craft that resembled a rickety raft more than a sturdy boat was a rigmarole in itself, negotiating two heavy bikes aboard. The boat cleaved gently through turquoise waters until we spilled onto the shoreline. There we continued on ruta 2’s snaking ribbon of highway all the way to Copacabana – affording one of the best views of the vast expanse of blue. Biking bliss after the morning’s manic encounter with moronic drivers.

Peru's equivalent of P&O ferries
Carving through Lake Titicaca’s turquoise waters on Peru’s equivalent of P&O ferries

The world’s highest navigable body of water, Lake Titicaca is gar-gantuan. It goes on and on, way beyond the eye can see. A watery world without end. Set between Peru and Bolivia, the 8,400 square kilometre mass of shimmering freshwater is more akin to a sea than a lake. It’s no wonder history reveals how Inca legends and Andean beliefs came to credit Lake Titicaca with the birthplace of their civilization and the sun, connecting it to mystical events. There was a discernibly calm, soothing energy about the place.

Nestled between two hills and perched on the southern shore of the lake, Copacabana was a small, tourist-centric town, apparently still attracting international pilgrims who flock to its fiestas. We took flight after an overnight stay at Hostel Sonia having had our fill of Bolivia and pushed onto Peru.

Through Andean countryside dotted with villages, high-altitude hamlets and ruins all linked by ancient Inca culture, we sailed past terrace-lined foothills and mountainside. How had people once worked the land so industriously, so uniformly in linear lines – so high up? With women wearing petticoats and moccasins made from used tyres, still working the land by hand, it felt Peruvian all at once, rich in its Inca heritage.

A local Uros islander on the floating reeds
A local Uros islander on the floating reeds

Just 7 kilometres east of our accommodation, Hostel Uros in Puno, we took ourselves off to see some floating islands. Utterly unique because they’ve been constructed from nothing; created entirely with the buoyant totora reeds that grow abundantly in the shallows of Lake Titicaca. The lives of the Aymará speaking Uros islanders are intertwined with the reeds. Edible in part, they also build their homes, transport, arts and whimsical crafts from the versatile material. Walking on the island was as soft and springy as a freshly baked cake. Their unusual floating existence roots back to an effort to avoid and isolate themselves from the aggressive Collas and Incas tribes. A peaceful people.

Uros' unique floating reed islands.
Uros’ unique floating reed islands.

I was greeted by five families, all of whom displayed boundless personality. Although in tune with a tourist-ready set up, a set of folkloric songs were sung in dulcet tones of Aymará as well as a distant version of English. In such a contemporary age, I enjoyed seeing this time-honoured way of living for myself. Even if I did get further collared to pay for an obligatory reed-boat ride, powered by an engine attached to an adjoining smaller boat, and encouraged to buy handmade goods I was neither inclined to purchase nor wanted to carry on my motorcycle. These good folks needed to stay afloat like anyone else.

One of Cusco's narrow streets tucked away in this love-to-get-lost labyrinth of a city.
One of Cusco’s narrow streets tucked away in this love-to-get-lost labyrinth of a city.

Cusco told me in ten minutes it would rank my favourite South American city to date. Rough-hewn cobble stoned, steep narrow streets, lined by meticulously crafted masonry and a bright, feel-safe city ambiance pervaded throughout. It was a superb collision of chaotic and modern with slow and traditional. Estrellita Hostel was an ideal spot for the bikes and us, closely located to the heart of the old-fashioned city. I cared little and less that the place was packed with massage hawkers, a glut of tourist ware-touting locals hunting you like prey amid a minefield of Machupicchu tour operators, the place was throbbing with life. The fare was excellent, especially the fresh cuisine at Jack’s Café and Korma Sutra. It was ‘vista fantastic’ with no shortage of intriguing vantage points. I could’ve sat people watching all day.

A colourful and rather talented musician playing his hypnotic panpipe tunes
A colourful and rather talented musician playing his hypnotic panpipe tunes
Meticulous masonry on the walls of Cusco, you couldn't insert a piece of paper in between those stones.
Meticulous masonry on the walls of Cusco, you couldn’t insert a piece of paper in between those stones.

Fiestas occur at frequent intervals in Cusco and one night we meandered through a firework-lit celebration in honour of the church. Live festival-inspired music permeated our ears as I squeezed my way in between the carnival market vendors offering supersized pale corn-on-the-cob with cheese alongside chicha morada, which is a sweet Peruvian beverage made from purple corn, roasted guinea pig or alpaca. I soon became an inveterate fan to the cactus flower fruit, which was fuchsia pink and finger-licking good. In fact, Peru’s roads were full of the flowering fruits – bush food ripe for the picking and packed with a sweetened punch. It developed into the perfect roadside snack and our jam-sandwich breakfast substitute. People jostled past coming and going in the teeming streets; the place was alive with a street dancing atmosphere.

Cactus flower fruit is scrumptious.
Cactus flower fruit is scrumptious.

Courtesy of social media, we’d become acquainted with Andrew – a loquacious Brit with a passion for night skies, skippering boats and photography – who’d been living in Cusco for the last seven years. After three too many dark beers, we spotted a local singer being filmed half way up a scenic street. Jupiter’s moons were illuminating the sky and the singer’s crescent shape line of groupies were evidently enjoying the show. The situation fostered an odd behaviour. In the heat of a spontaneous second, I found myself shamelessly dancing with this cheesetastic grinning guy; perhaps not one of my classiest moments gatecrashing his gig! Still, the crowd eddied and purled around me, cheering with full encouragement exclaiming that I’d be sure to feature on Peruvian television. I haven’t the slightest inkling why doing that seemed a good idea at the time.

Having the meanest curry this side of South America with Andrew.
Having the meanest curry this side of South America with Andrew.
Pretty impressive architecture flows through Cusco
Pretty impressive architecture flows through Cusco

All walks of life can be found in Cusco, not just the holidaymakers, travellers, honorary locals and residents. A Peruvian woman, well into the winter of her days, sat kind of crouched over on the floor. In the middle of a busy backstreet. She may’ve fallen, dropped something or stooped to pick up something she’d found perhaps. “Are you alright lady? Can I help at all?”, I enquired in survival Spanish. Stumbling over the language I kept probing, like a tongue returning to an abscess. She looked at me a little strained and shook her head. I think I was walking on ground uninvited. Curious, I thought. Or not. I looked at a metre radius around the woman and the full force of recognition hit me. My quagmire was her irredeemable, sticky situation. This lady was patently and simply having a nice, big number two! I can’t speak with specificity about this lady’s choice of location but oh my, there’s a memory of Cusco that’ll never fade.

A local with her lucrative golden goose at the top of Cusco
A local with her lucrative golden goose at the top of Cusco
Dramatic skies over Cusco in the rainy season.
Dramatic skies over Cusco in the rainy season.

25 Jan 2015 – The Road of Death on motorcycle

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The Road of Death
Riding on the edge: Bolivia’s infamous Road of Death

An 11,000-foot descent, sheer drops and 200 plus deaths a year: Welcome to Bolivia’s Road of Death, the terrifying route tourists love to two wheel down. Its official name is Camino a las Yungas but it’s best known as La Carretera de la Muerte, the Road of Death. It’s not just a name either: the gorgeously lush, winding 64-kilometre route that links La Paz with the town of Coroico was and is still considered one of the deadliest roads in the world. Just one of many in Bolivia.

The North Yungas journey is renowned to be overwhelming, as much for the staggering scenery as for the dangerous gravel route. Part of the transition zone where the Andes fall away into the Amazon Basin. For the locals, the ‘Death Road’ was an important transport route, which they braved in cars and trucks, teetering on the edge and risking their lives with every trip. The mortality rate is not surprising considering that: safety barriers are few and far between, vehicles meet head on along a miniscule dirt track – at peak altitudes of more than 4,500 metres – and with a vicious drop off on one side of up to 800 metres. No wonder it was deemed ‘The world’s most dangerous road’ by an Inter-American Development Bank report in 1995. On the up side there’s now a much improved, replacement route, which since 2007 tends to all the heavies and commuter traffic with far less incident than before. Still, leaving an old road not to be reckoned with.

Although still in use by the odd local car, tourist minibus and support vehicle, it’s the over-zealous cyclists that come a cropper, more than passing motorised traffic. This is because of kamikaze, freewheeling cycle guides racing down at full tilt for the sheer thrill, substandard mountain bikes on hire to one and all, or a blind unawareness if not overconfidence to any oncoming, upward traffic.

Taking a deep breath before the Death Road's rollercoaster ride
Taking a deep breath before the Death Road’s roller coaster ride

Psyched with a mixed bag feeling of ‘Just how hard is this road going to be?’ deliciously tinged with that pre-excitement you get moments before a rollercoaster’s tipping point. We gave ourselves no choice but to take a deep breath and carefully: navigate around careening cyclists hell bent on fulfilling their bragging rights, falling rocks and blind hairpin bends, penetrate waterfalls, cross two rivers and endure the fog, mud and humidity. All over a 3,600 metre vertical descent. We knew the trip was set to take in stunning views among the rolling hills, but come with the somewhat distracting – and for some frightening – lofty heights from the canopy as two rubber tyres separate the rider from a narrow single-lane road with very little in the way of roadside protection.  The ride was set to be adrenaline-packed as it was unforgettable.

Built on the backbreaking labours of Paraguayan prisoners during the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay, the construction of the road took place in the 1930s. Due to both the engineering design of that decade and the natural structure of the area, its topography and geological formation meant steep slopes were created. The resultant single-track lane varied in width from 2.9 to 3.5 metres.

Our starting point in La Paz at 3,600 metres was almost a low point compared to the motorcycle-chugging ascent up to La Cumbre’s cloud forest at 4,650 metres. Along the way on ruta 3, I coaxed Pearl on a little as she sighed in a sluggish, less responsive manner. ‘It’s alright lady, I’ll keep you in third gear’, I reassured her. We fumbled our way farther on through bike-swallowing fog under grey scraps of cloud, which tossed like leaves in a fitful breeze, shifted, like wind-tossed foliage. The cold wind helped to numb the pangs of hunger but didn’t alleviate my desperation for a pee; it pushed against my bladder like a pin piercing my belly.

With my visor permanently steamed up, icy rain pellets stung my cheeks as I carefully worked my way up and down the undulations of the road, skirting around deceptively deep potholes. I probably looked like a drunken sailor on two wheels heading toward the next watering hole. When you face the force of foggy rain, you don’t exactly ride boldly forward in a show of unbridled confidence. Bluster will get you battered. Still, the views passing Cotapata National Park took on the supremacy of the Scottish highlands, the delirium of England’s Lake District and then New Zealand’s soul-nourishing hills, towering above us. Bolivia for me just keeps getting better and better.

222The entrance to the Death Road started in rarefied air, slightly above the already high-elevation of La Paz. Although not so deadly nowadays, for a few hummingbird heartbeats the realisation of making one mistake and you’d meet your maker hit home, but the thought flickered away again. May be the thought of reaching ‘game over’ had been lurking but I hadn’t dared to admit it because then, like the nuclear bomb, it could never be uninvented. Pearl and I would exercise care and become caution personified.

Before biting the bullet onto the road itself, we spotted a pair of 250cc Chinese bikes in a clearing and, perhaps stalling for a little time, headed straight for them. Two Australian guys were also preparing for the thrill ride, getting their gig in order as much mentally as physically. Their jacket-less armour and lightweight machines boasting proper knobblies made quite the model ‘Death Road’ ensemble. “Nice bikes, guys!” was the first comment to come from them. “Thanks lads, looking forward to the Death Road?” I enquired. Of course, now lets go do it.

The mix of beauty and danger on the Death Road was intoxicating. The stony dirt track thinned and when it nearly died altogether, grew more confident just as quickly, giving way to a wider track, which led to a stretch so to speak, rideable on road. Without wisdom, imagination is a cruel taskmaster. I observed early on that letting go of any alleviated gnaw of anxiety, got us moving much quicker.

You'll get a free power shower on the Death Road, don't forget your shower gel.
You’ll get a free power shower on the Death Road, don’t forget your shower gel.

Despite the intermittent bounteous rainfall, repeatedly stopping to don and ditch the waterproof onesies, the weight of the world dissolved in the invigorating flashes of the rainbow-spraying waterfalls, the sun on my shoulders and the stillness of the place drawing me in. With the remnants of the cyclists remaining after midday – who waved their fronds and gave way to us – an excitement sang in my veins as I rode along the steep and bumpy track. It seemed the whole world was in my grasp, and it seemed as though I was lifting off above myself; tooling along on my Pearl and at the same time lifting into the sky, and so filled with elation and freedom that I had to open my mouth and scream.

Taking the quadcopter for a quick spin
Taking the quadcopter for a quick spin

Jason was itching like a kid on Christmas morning to unwrap the quadcopter from its box and take it for a spin over the near-vertical abyss. The space between the dry highlands’ Altiplano-bound clouds and the steaming, forested depths of the humid lowlands. I guess it’s every drone pilot’s dream to capture the airborne essence of such a dramatic scene. Alas, the pervading air of hard-won tranquility ceased and resulted in a rather calamity-led crash. Inches away from plummeting over the precipice, the unit dropped towards us like a gannet dive-bombing its prey. That high thin air left little and less for the drone to push against. Hey ho, Jason had still managed to shoot a few microseconds of aerial gold.

Hugging the walls of the sheer valley, we snaked our way beneath rocky overhangs and elongated cascades. It’s impossible to ignore the reminders of fatalities as we rode past shrines, memorials and crosses that pop up at chillingly frequent intervals.  All marking the tragedy of the vast number of lives lost to the road. It humbled me from the inside out.

High in lush elevated jungle, riding through 100-meter high waterfalls, streams and by coca fields was a ride like no other. As I got power-showered through the waterfalls, the terrain became its most rocky. And slippery, washing away part of the road. I rallied. I had better go through with it, Pearl had pride. More than me. It was easier than I’d anticipated, as if I were an oyster already loosened within the shell. I held onto the little thrill this gave me. A needlelike pleasure in my stomach, just below my ribcage.

11
Having survived coming down the ‘World’s most dangerous road’, may as well go back up!

Close to the road’s connecting town of Coroico – a town that takes its name from the Quechua word coryguayco meaning ‘golden hill’ – we convened at the second river crossing. More rocky than the former river’s pebbly version, the latter was also longer; a 20-metre stream gushing water half way up our wheels as we wended through. Two locals had parked up in a shallower section, utilsing the free resource to clean their cars and themselves. Why not? The water looked fresh and sparkling, pure enough to drink I’d imagine. I staggered across on Pearl, a little jerky as Jason effortlessly glided through showing me how it was done. My textbook river crossing would have to wait.

We survived all the way to the end of the Death Road. Its steep mountains, plunging valleys and rugged terrain. Whoa! It seemed only logical to return the way we came and enjoy the road going back up. Even if it meant meeting the odd unsuspecting cyclist or car coming downhill; as oncoming upward traffic, we supposedly had right of way. Ascending was in fact easier, enjoying the physical and psychologically safer wall of the mountainside on my left. One of the few if not only places in South America that stipulates left-hand side driving.

The afternoon’s momentum maintained in full swing, showers fell on and off until eventually the sky dried and reared up above us, rose and lavender. The reverse journey saw long shadows inch across the dense, bottle green sub-tropical Yungas. There was a light from the sky that gilded the clouds, intensifying the sun lowering every hour. Definitely a day to let the world take care of itself, a paradise of thoughtfulness.

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Your bike will get bathed and showered through two water-crossings and numerous cascades – a ‘win win’.

The Camino de la Muerte is a legendary road and despite its past innumerable deaths experienced, that moment of adrenaline, suspense to the unknown and exposure to nature, you can feel the fascination and buzz – down and up. Every second that passed the little hairs on the back of my neck rose, whilst my image-tank became full to bursting as emerging and radiant growth unfurled before us. It was a biker’s fantasy with jaw-on-the-floor views, another visceral experience. It left me windblown, mind blown and exhilarated.

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It’s pretty hard to peel yourself away once you get over the initial shock of being in such close vicinity to those sheer drops…honest.

 

13-24 Jan 2015 – Leaving footprints in Torotoro & a present from La Paz

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Torotoro National Park, Bolivia
Torotoro National Park, Bolivia

With the misadventure of missing the Dakar from Salar de Uyuni having passed, we wished the moto Olympians well for the remainder of the race (from afar), and scampered back to Sucre with a tail between our legs. Refuelled and rested in Bolivia’s constitutionally recognised capital, we scurried the 200 odd miles over rutas 5, 23 and 7 leading us into the urban sprawl that is Cochambamba. The streets were saturated with photocopier shops, crammed in between kiosks bursting with processed junk, chips and salsa, banks of candy and great walls of electrified soda.

Hotels and motels straggled over the city were also bountiful, budget-traveller hostels not so much. We stumbled upon a little serendipity tucked away down Junin street, Hostel Casa Vieje Colonial. It didn’t burn a hole in our pockets to: securely park the bikes with easy access, relax the weary muscles in a hot shower or store our stuff to take a two-day trip to Torotoro National Park. Perfecto.

Torotoro is home to tonnes of dinosaur footprints - too good to miss if you're passing.
Torotoro is home to tonnes of dinosaur footprints – too good to miss if you’re passing.

The drive to Torotoro was akin to the Wizard of Oz’s yellow brick road, except it was bobbly and rough-hewn as opposed to uniformly bricked and a radiant hue of yellow. Rugged road became narrower in parts, windier single track lane became packed earth peppered with knobbly, bone-like flints. The snaking, slapdash cobblestones glistened in the wet. Parts of the road were slick with mud, hindered by the odd land slide and broken by flooded river crossings. No wonder it took four bum-jolting hours to do 80 miles, even in our hired four-wheel drive. The same cobblestone-fashioned road made a sizeable appearance en route to Cochambamba, making it slippery under foot and an ice-rink for two wheels. In Bolivia’s wettest month of the year, it took a thimble of sense to catch a four-wheeled ride over to Torotoro.

A classic three-clawed footprint, courtesy of a theropod meaning 'beast footed'.
A classic three-clawed footprint, courtesy of a theropod meaning ‘beast footed’.

Home to mineral-rich canyons and cavern-filled caves, blind fish and a turtle cemetery, our sole impetus for seeing Torotoro National Park was to witness 65 million years of natural history. Dinosaur footprints! Clearly imprinted in the petrified clay, some were the size and depth of footballs, others more precise leaving a three-clawed impression. There were thousands of depressions, dotted around so you could follow their trail; trace where the owners had once chased one another, sauntered around or stomped away somewhere. As far as paleontology goes, it piqued my interest more than any museum glass-housed fossil.

Elminia and her son, Hilbej
Elminia and her son, Hilbej

Deep into folds of the National Park we followed our mountain-goat guide, Timo, pulled along in his wake. At the furthest point on we met Elminia, carrying her 18 month old son Hilbej in an aguayo, a traditional Bolivian sling. It left me wondering how these native mothers didn’t resemble stevedores. Hilbej perfectly personified Mowgli from The Jungle Book; above a button mushroom nose, he looked at me through dark, almond-shaped eyes, framed with a shock of longish black hair against smooth, swarthy skin. He hoisted himself up on his mother’s two braids; more black than grey although a little salt had crept in. I could only marvel at the indomitability of the very young in Bolivia – no seethe of frustration in the fierce sun at altitude. Just unconcerned acceptance through big, curious eyes.

Elminia received us cautiously at first, tinged with an inquisitive air whilst industriously spinning yarn from llama wool by hand. She seemed sufficient unto herself. Flashing a gap-toothed smile in a mouth that was more gum than enamel, and overactive eyebrows semaphored a tentative request. She was a thin and sinewy woman whose angular features had been weathered by the harshness of an outdoor life. I followed the opportunistic direction of her thoughts and handed over a few coins, but what I wanted more was to cook a square meal for them both.

Spinning llama wool by hand
Spinning llama wool by hand

Torotoro’s unmissable presence of dinosaur footprints exist because during sometime around the cretaceous period, the now National Park was a flat and marshy ground – dotted with lagoons and deltas, where the vegetation was helped by a humid and mild climate. This supposed an excellent pantry of food for the carnivorous and herbivorous dinosaurs. Seen from the Carreras Pampa in the malleable saurian clay, all the dinosaurs left their personal seal, the footprints. A worthy detour and one I’m grateful we took.

'Bigfoot', a huge armoured dinorsaur, the Ankylosaurus!
‘Bigfoot’, a huge armoured dinorsaur, the Ankylosaurus!

Over 16,000 miles now registering on the ‘Adventure before dementia’ mile-o-meter, we rode out of Cochambamba – but not before someone waved at us wildly from across the street. The young guy was one of the flawlessly English speaking Bolivians we’d met from the Dakar Rally in La Chita. Fancy bumping into him on a random Monday morning, 500 miles from our initial chance meet.

Further acts of randomness ensued when riding leisurely over a smooth ribbon of asphalt; Jason somehow managed to hit an unassuming rock. There was a gasp down the helmet’s intercom, like a wave pulling back over the pebbles but the impact was disturbingly gentle. A dull thud – like a soft unzipping, against the wheel rim. Still, it tore at Jason’s heart. Another dent in the wallet. The rim might as well have been made of chocolate.

Jason's chocolate front wheel rim
Jason’s chocolate front wheel rim
A spot of pent up aggression Jase?
A spot of pent up aggression Jase?

Under dirty cotton-wool skies en route to La Paz, we drifted precariously at over 4,000-metres through a cloudbank in three degrees and eye-squinting visibility. The mist clung to us, damp and chilly. Two metres in front and the fog swallowed Jason up; I moved through it like a blind man groping his way down an unfamiliar corridor. I felt icy fingers reaching through my clothing and goosefleshing my skin. A thin, cold rain swept beneath slate-grey clouds, growing darker and began to slant across the sky, fast approaching us. As the drizzle became heavier, the drops fell with an untamed intensity that made me huddle inside myself, clinging onto every vestige of warmth. A challenge for the spirits not to dampen under Mother Nature’s unyielding, wet spell.

When the weather turns in Bolivia, you've just gotta let Mother Nature tire herself out.
When the weather turns in Bolivia, you’ve just gotta let Mother Nature tire herself out.

It was the way our dice rolled all morning; no double sixes eventuated for us. Be that as it may, it paled by comparison when glimpsing an ill-fated, mangled dog nearby a man’s corpse, head bloodied and arms contorted strewn on the roadside. A shrill voice keened in my head. I brushed my hair from my eyes, along with a tangle of unpleasant and discordant thoughts. I think I started to pray. It wasn’t a conscious prayer, more a desperate and silent and unending plea aimed at grey sky, which offered no comfort. I let my prayer play out to an unquenchable thankful feeling, buoyed up by the action of breathing.

A local Bolivian
A local Bolivian

The intense hiss of rain, grumble of thunder and bone-chilling morning finally gave way to china blue skies and a skin-warming 20 degrees Celsius. A stranger by the name of Oscar had got in touch on Facebook three days previous; informed us he’d just picked up the Two Wheeled Nomad thread. Naturally he rationalised, would hear no refusals to his offer of invitation to come and stay. A week or a month, our choice. Having outlined a cheeky shortcut for us to avoid La Paz’s downtown medley of mayhem beforehand, we veered off the highway and pulled onto the top of a plateau overlooking a quiet valley of houses. Ten miles outside Oscar’s town, Seguencoma. The outlying fringe of La Paz – Bolivia’s second capital for the seat of government – is not what either of us expected.

My ignorance was repaired when the lay of the land revealed enticing green mountainous landscape, interlaced with a rainbow of coloured houses, neatly arranged upon steep, rocky hills. It was quaint, quiet and seemed safe from our vantage point. Not remotely akin to the negative picture painted in the guidebook, so often the way. Granted, we weren’t exactly downtown in the thick of the city but still.

Jaw-on-the-floor views en route to La Paz.
Jaw-on-the-floor views en route to La Paz.

We descended as though on spidersilk into a pretty neighbourhood of middling prosperity. I was so juiced, I had to stop the bike half way down to take in what my eyes were showing me. The landscape radiated an inviting appeal, optimised in a golden afternoon sunshine. I was pleasantly surprised and cruised the rest of the way at milkwagon speed as the genial town opened up slowly on either side of me.

Within five minutes of pulling into Seguencoma – another calm and gentle residential area – Oscar, his sister and girlfriend greeted us with an enchantingly polite reception. Their smiles unwithholding. He seemed a man of substance, someone seasoned a little by life.

Oscar with his daughter, Adri
Oscar with his daughter, Adri

High up in the hills, a rather rocky and rutty one in particular, Oscar opened up his home. He placed a rum and coke into our hands, chilled by boob-shaped ice cubes. Having known of his existence for a mere few days, Oscar bit off his chortle and with a deadpan expression explained two obligatory house rules to respect. One: Treat his place like our home. Number two: Under no circumstance, must we thank him. For anything. We’d owe him many beers if we did. The flash of a serious frown clued me into his expression. “That is how it is”, he summarised, “You are bikers. End of.” He burst into hysterical laughter as if caught off guard from the brilliance of his own sense of humour. I warmed instantly to his unpretentious manner and beamed in his company.

A traditionally clad Bolivian lady
A traditionally clad Bolivian lady

Oscar was totally at home in his own skin and I felt at home around him like I did with few people else. He had a refreshing and familiar way about him; able to express intense compassion for people and truth with unusual clarity. With a voice continually laced with bubbly humour, he also had an abyss of adoration for his 20 year-old daughter, Adri, alongside an unwavering appetite for motorcycling. Prioritising the repair of Jason’s chocolate wheel rim, Oscar took it to a Dakar racer’s mechanic without delay. Job done!

The repaired wheel rim, not bad to say how much Jason butchered it with a rock.
The repaired wheel rim, not bad to say how much Jason butchered it with a rock.

Unexpectedly, we were on the receiving end of barbequed, freshly-caught trout around the table with his daughter and sister, a steak meal with his girlfriend, and a day and almost night-long party with 15 or so of his closest friends.  There we woofed homemade American-style burgers I’d prepared with all the trimmings, washed down with Chuffla – a thirst-quenching mix of Bolivia’s white grape Singani, soda and lemon.  I danced until my thighs burned on the open-air top floor of Oscar’s apartment, mayhaps boasting the best view of La Paz.  Competing admirably with the breathtaking views taken in on the teleférico – La Paz’s cable car – courtesy of Gaby, Oscar’s sister.

Having a laugh at one of Oscar's parties
Having a laugh at one of Oscar’s parties

All of the above coupled with our bikes jet-washed, laundry sparklingly cleaned and bodies fed and watered, we were in dumbfounded disbelief of how exquisite our experience had been in La Paz. There was nothing not to like about Oscar, our welcoming host; the epitome of sociability.

10-12 Jan 2015 – The Dakar two-wheeled warriors! (2 of 2)

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Triumphantly coming into the seventh stage checkpoint, La Chita - nice one lads.
Triumphantly coming into the seventh stage checkpoint, La Chita – nice one lads.

Background

Courtesy of the official Dakar website

The Dakar Rally Raid: The adventure began back in 1977, when Thierry Sabine got lost on his motorbike in the Libyan desert during the Abidjan-Nice Rally. Saved from the sands in extremis, he returned to France still in thrall to this landscape and promising himself he would share his fascination with as many people as possible. He proceeded to come up with a route starting in Europe, continuing to Algiers and crossing Agadez before eventually finishing at Dakar. The founder coined a motto for his inspiration: “A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind.” Courtesy of his great conviction and that modicum of madness peculiar to all great ideas, the plan quickly became a reality. Since then, the Paris-Dakar, a unique event sparked by the spirit of adventure, open to all riders and carrying a message of friendship between all men (and women), has never failed to challenge, surprise and excite. Over the course of almost thirty years, it has generated innumerable sporting and human stories.

The only way to complete the Dakar is through a combination of endurance and determination. The competitors will have an additional problem to resolve on the 9,000 kilometres to be covered in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia: adopting and maintaining the right momentum, while the route continuously endeavours to break it. Depending on the day, both the setting and the pace will change, moving from rocky routes to desert dunes and from endurance stages to extreme sprints. Given the competitors’ inability to recognize clearly identified sections, in particular they must capitalise upon their ability to adapt and to control their stamina. The marathon stages will definitely remind them of this basic rule of off-road races.

The Dakar route in and around Bolivia
The Dakar route in and around Bolivia

The Dakar tests competitors and their vehicles in extreme endurance. The marathon stages, where drivers cannot use their assistance teams, are a particular test of their ability to independently manage their mechanics. This year, cars and trucks, which have not taken part in a marathon stage since 2005, will have to tackle this additional difficulty. Split over two days, a marathon stage involves some of the competitors spending the night in an isolated bivouac. The vehicles are taken into a closed area, where only help between competitors is authorised. Despite the technical challenge that this constraint represents, the drivers also enjoy a different, highly convivial atmosphere. In Uyuni, it will be the car teams which will spend a night apart, followed by the motorcyclists and quad bikers the next day. The truck category will have its own dedicated bivouac in the middle of the Atacama Desert.

For several years now, the organisers have used their in-depth knowledge of the South American terrain to refine the routes and offer specific features for each category. For the 2015 edition, the motorcyclists and quad bikers will face an additional difficulty, with a particularly dense second week: four marathon days in total. 35% of the kilometres they cover without the cars and trucks will be in the form of special stages.

Our days at the Dakar, Bolivia

The seventh stage of the Dakar Rally at La Chita saw us watch an afternoon of cars bomb through the sand, braking momentarily only to register at the checkpoint. The sun, a white hot penny in the morning turned to lightning-charged skies by the afternoon. Lashing rain down on the racers and spectators dampened not a single person’s spirit. Witnessing history being made, right in the thick of it left me tingling from the inside out.

The big start for rookie Llewelyn Pavey, Buenos Aires
The big start for veteran Simon Pavey, numbered 76 (Buenos Aires)

Newly but well-acquainted with the Bolivian blokes, the show for them had come to an end. Alas, they packed up their seven-tonne lorry to return home. Despite the inclement weather of iron-grey clouds and a sand storm in full swing, there was no way we’d be following suit. The biking warriors were due to race through La Chita the following day. But with the passing of time, and the departure of its main characters, the resultant mixture felt denuded and flavourless, like meat with the goodness boiled out of it. Overly inquisitive wide-eyed faces on legs started swarming towards the bikes. Without the protection of our makeshift compound in which we’d been ensconced, it was a tad intimidating to witness inebriated men succumbing to a strong urge of clambering all over our bikes like a climbing frame in a child’s playground.

Meet Ingrid and Franz - what a gregarious pair of Germans
Meet the Unimog, an “intense trailer” alright, a vise installed on the front of the vehicle as standard!

As with all good books, every page is un-put-down-able. Just as one chapter finished for us, the next started. A new dawn, a new day. Darting my eyes wildly around the site, I glimpsed a rather impressive expedition truck. A Unimog. I rapidly developed an abiding interest in its owner. A man was leisurely sat on his deck chair, shaded by an umbrella on the roof atop his all-wheel drive, all-terrain truck. A robust thing, which had a ground clearance of about a metre, the tyres looked like they’d been extracted from a tractor and it had a distinctly lock-down air of security to it. We’re talking: extreme torsion resistance, a welded frame, fording ability, coil-sprung axle suspension and stable portal axis with a hydraulic system. Go figure, the Germans know good engineering. It came as no surprise when a passing American girl ventured over, the cogs turning as she was trying to process the image of this vehicle before her. After a few moments, she smiled and remarked, “So like, I guess this is what? An intense trailer?!” I guess so.

Back on the wagon for Simon Pavey in his tenth Dakar Rally
Back on the wagon for Simon Pavey in his tenth Dakar Rally

Meet Franz and Ingrid, a retired couple in their fifty-something prime of their lives. Travelling to their hearts’ content. Franz spoke with a fierce and urgent vividity, his blue eyes shining as he brought the subject of travelling through foreign lands into sharp focus. He regaled us with his truck-bound journeys; as a skilled storyteller, his vocation offered a deep resource for some forthcoming tales. He remained humble about the Unimog yet nostalgic when he clocked our bikes and the ticket to freedom that two wheels bestow. The couple was as gracious as they were generous towards us. The pleasure was all ours. Retreating the tent and our somewhat exposed motorcycles under the safety of the dominant Unimog, we’d found our new home for the next stage of the Dakar.

Barcelona-born Laia Sanz finishing 9th overall in the 2015 Dakar Rally - you GO GIRL!
Barcelona-born Laia Sanz finishing 9th overall in the 2015 Dakar Rally – you GO GIRL!

Armed with sunglasses, sunscreen, cameras and waterproofs, we headed off to spend a second day under lightning-charged, bruised skies. The first batch of 30 dirt bikers descended. Including female rider Laia Sanz, her ponytail bouncing up on every corner as her wheels left a spectacular sand cloud in her wake.  Respect! I blinked in shock from the insanely close proximity we were from the racers as much as the dust. Crowds either side were no further than around two metres from the action, edging closer as each rider zoomed into view.  Only in Bolivia…!

Toughing it out together - the Pavey father and son duo
Toughing it out together – the Pavey father and son duo

Army recruits were too interested in the race to mind about something as trivial as folks running across the track every three minutes. Taking selfies and filming, cheering on the crowds and purchasing sunglasses seemed to be the order of the day for those in khaki uniform. For every adult man, I clocked nine boys of pubescent age. A total lack of organization and safety, at least no one was hurt for the fortunate part. What a sight! The official Dakar programme informed readers how Bolivia will – like the previous year – once again “amply satisfy” all requirements of the rally’s enterprising organisation. Definitely the land of stark contrast, colour and crazy.

Rooting specifically for two riders, a father and son duo Simon and Llewelyn Pavey – we waited for their eminent arrival – numbered 76 and 75 respectively. Through intense sunrays, which gave way to a dramatic purple sky, thunder and lightning played their part while we continued to watch and wait. Hours passed. Each time I examined a rider’s identifying number, a bit of the excitement dispersed, like a pool of shimmering water that evaporates beneath the midday sun.

Hanging out with the locals at the Dakar Rally
Hanging out with the locals at the Dakar Rally, La Chita

I didn’t want to but couldn’t help wonder if our Aussie shining stars, usually residing in Wales were still in the race. Of course they were, despite a couple of crashes and nasty encounters with dehydration, altitude sickness in -9 degrees Celsius conditions and dizziness requiring oxygen and a drip en route, the boys were faring incredibly well. Their official website and social media were keeping us well informed by the hour. More time passed and a relentless rain began to fall. Temperatures plummeted and the thought of a hot drink to revive the cockles settled on my mind like a nylon cloth and wouldn’t let it breathe.

It's tiny house living at its finest
It’s tiny house living at its finest – meet gregarious Germans Ingrid and Franz.

Killing more clock towards the back end of a cold, drizzly afternoon, we finally retreated to the coziness of the Unimog. There was a lull of riding anyway where only the odd quad and biker caught our attention sporadically. Then Simon and Llewelyn came through. Triumphantly passing the seventh stage. It was a moment of pure elation for us; it must have been euphoric for them. And relief mingled with chronic exhaustion probably. I waved my arms crazily, like a trapped moth in the hope of attracting their attention. I was too far away and felt my body crumpling under the shame of not being closer, like a sheet of newspaper burning in the fireplace. All night, the thought of catching them on the morrow niggled away at me. I would not let these men down through their heroic marathon.

When the weather turns in Bolivia, you've just gotta let Mother Nature tire herself out.
When the weather turns in Bolivia, you’ve just gotta let Mother Nature tire herself out.

A night of torrential rain left the tent bobbing in a lake by morning. Not an ideal start but not a deal-breaker either. We packed the tent down in record time, said our Auf Wiedersehens to our Deutsch freunds and headed straight to the Salar, the start of the next stage. The road under construction was slow going but made easier by filtering routes back onto the intermittent hardcore. It enabled us to claw back a bit of time, a small boon at least. Pearl’s never been one to relish the wet, this occasion was no exception. Pray old girl, just get me to the Salar. Putting my selfish needs before her own, I ignored the sluggish movements of my trusty wheels and sighed in resignation when Pearl put her foot down. Going nowhere, not least the eighth stage of the Dakar.

A wet wipe should soon have you clean as a whistle, Llewelyn.
A wet wipe should soon have you clean as a whistle, Llewelyn.

Five miles from Colchani, I studied my options as I surveyed the scene. I could abandon Pearl and ride ‘two up’ on Jason’s bike. Or perhaps push my motorcycle through the mud bath of slippy dirt. Out came the towrope. It was wet, the ground was squidgy at best and the puddles the size of paddling pools at worst. It was actually quite good fun once I got into it and picked up the technique without any snotting and screaming. “You did well today”, Jason surmised as I detected just a hair of relief in his voice. “Thanks!” I responded, without keeping the relish out of my voice. Riding side-by-side or in our case ‘subframe-rope-to-foot peg’, we gained independence and proximity. Motorcycling will leave you dizzy with a sense of liberation. All you need is an open mind and a cast-iron gut.

Jason rumbled Pearl back into action at a gasoline station while I chuckled that we were splattered helmet-to-boot-tip in mud. My hair had taken on the texture of straw and I was sporting black rings around my neck, which complemented the thick streaks of black embedded under each fingernail. A by-product of having too much fun in the desert over four days with no facilities. Without delay, we bobbled over the corrugations and squelched through the mud onto a wet Salar de Uyuni.

This guy's a showman alright - what an entertainer for the crowd.
This guy’s a showman alright – Argentinean Javier Pizzolito – what an entertainer for the crowd.

We were too late. Cars were inching away from the Salar while we pushed towards it, refusing to believe we’d missed the start. It had gone 9.30am, of course we’d missed it. Officials were turning traffic away from the Salar, assuming everyone had had their Dakar fill. What left me so royally out of favour with myself is that had we pressed on a further five kilometers onto the Salar to the worldwide collection of flags were located and well, not broken down, we would’ve caught the the riders leaving the salt flats. Our good intentions had turned into a complete debacle! The odds were stacked against us, we’d missed the boat and the bikers. Life would invariably continue, the rain would carry on falling and I suppose I was resigned as the Bolivian beggars who sat outside most city street corners, my hands outstretched.

Father and son Simon and Llewelyn celebrating their 63rd and 62nd places on the finish podium, side by side: a euphoric moment!
Father and son Simon and Llewelyn celebrating their 63rd and 62nd places on the finish podium, side by side:                               a euphoric moment!

Bolivia, I’ll say again, is the land of contrast. Her sun is devilishly hot but when she feels capricious, she’ll banish all warmth to be replaced by golf ball-sized hailstorms come the afternoon. She’ll give you strong WiFi but weak sanitation. You might think the local drivers who appear kamikaze – compared to those in Argentina for example – are out to kill you; they’re not, they’ve just never had to take a driving test on a par to British standards. Every street corner you’ll see 19th century bowler-hatted women clad in a silky shawl, llama-wool cardigan and traditional pleated skirt walking alongside their children donning ‘Ben 10’ tracksuits and Nike trainers. In front of them lies a mirage of commerce amid barminess – changing every paradigm and preconceived idea of the place you ever had. There is even an ineffable grace in the midst of squalor.

You're gonna sleep well tonight lad!
You’re gonna sleep well tonight lad!

The start of second stint in Bolivia was far from brutal compared to the initial experience. My efforts to tune into the country during the first time round felt phoney and misguided. By the country’s own volition, this time was brilliant fun; connecting with the locals left me giddy with a sense of warmth and magnanimity only fellow motorcyclists seem to share. The friendship, fond regard and affection that only riders and their motorcycles can ever know, we humbly reaped the rewards of camaraderie that is the fellowship of the road. Like a kaleidoscope, Bolivia had shaken me and settled my pieces into a different arrangement.

Thanks to SP Fifty One for capturing fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants action shots of Simon and Llewelyn Pavey.