One Step Beyond

THIS blog normally looks backwards, but feel the need to break from that pattern.

Not that nothing has happened over the last few days, but what is coming up has been looming large since well before the start of this whole South American adventure.

Right back to when, against all my assertions to the contrary, the decision was made to join the trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

No, was not going to do it. Was definitely taking the train. No amount of asking or prodding would change my mind. 

Right up until, with only the last few daily permits for the Classic route remaining, some asking and prodding changed my mind.

So tomorrow morning, far too early, we head off on what promises to be one of the most challenging, memorable, exhausting, exhilarating and, no doubt, painful experiences of the whole trip.

The first three days will take us up and down a route hewn into the Andes – it is the up which is occupying most of our minds, although the down sections come with a fearsome reputation as Gringo Killers – before the short final morning burst to reach Machu Picchu at sunrise on the fourth day.

Not all of us, some are heading off on the alternative Lares route while some put discretion (and a fair amount of common sense) above valour and opted for the train. My current roommates Becky and Robby have done it before and are heading off on their own jungle adventure.

What lies ahead certainly seems to have concentrated the minds and sent us scurrying around Cusco to stock up on supplies (via a rather lovely bagel cafe for brunch), warm gear for the cold nights (in my case, hiring a better sleeping bag) and knock-off North Face clothing.

Thankfully, we will not have to carry all of our new purchases – hiring a porter to carry a duffel bag up to 7kg full of sleeping bags, warm clothing for the evenings and assorted other gear may prove to be the best $40 spent on the whole trip.

That leaves us to carry our own, smaller day bags – camera, rain gear, essentials such as toilet paper etc – while the porters break down camp, catch up and run ahead, cook lunch, run past us again and have camp ready and the evening meal on the go.

The tip we are sorting out at this evening’s briefing may not be enough.

Just hope they do not have to carry me over some of the bigger climbs, the longest, highest and most notorious of which comes on (and occupies most of) the second morning – Dead Woman’s Pass at around 4,200m.

Writing that again has me wondering about the wisdom of doing this, a common occurrence over the past few months.

Twenty four hours ago was all for pulling out – however frowned upon relinquishing one of the precious permits is – as a complete lack of sleep at an even higher bush camp and a slightly dodgy stomach had me confined to bed (and the bathroom) while the others explored the delights of Cusco.

Thankfully, was in a much better state by this morning. Certainly a much better state than some who kept exploring until late into the night.

But clothes sorted, camera charging, backpack packed and stuff awaiting the arrival of the duffel bag at the briefing, there is no going back now.

Have never been one for trekking. Did a couple back in the distant past but preparations were confined to walks to and up Robinswood Hill – not exactly an Andean peak – and along the notoriously flat Gloucester and Sharpness Canal to at least break in my boots and get used to the mileage and a good chunk of time on the move.

Shorter bursts on the treadmill with a rising incline added some extra preparation while an early trek around a lake in Otavalo at the start of the trip suggests some of that effort may have paid off.

But there is little preparation for the altitude and the sheer length of the inclines which we are just going to have to take one step and one laboured breath at a time.

We have not been without a fair amount of acclimatisation over the past few days.

When you left us, we were still heading largely down the coast and nursing the pet bug which laid a few of the group low for several days and earned us a bonus upgrade to rooms at our stop near Nazca.

The upgrade came at a price for the healthy, a night cleaning pretty much everything on the truck – especially the kitchen – to see off any lurking germs and we seem to have shrugged off any lingering affects.

Opted out of the big ticket item at this stop – a flight over the Nazca Lines – opting for a brief view from a tower, but did get tours of the Cahuaci Pyramids and Chauchilla cemeteries (complete with complete mummies) brought to life by the enthusiastic Janssen.

An overnight stop on the beach at Puerto Inka ended our time at sea level and we began our climb inland at Arequipa.

Don’t think we can blame the altitude (2,800m) for a sudden Jesus complex at our restaurant overlooking the main square, but when they give a bearded bloke the sole white poncho among coloured fellow diners, it can go to his head. 

Poncho returned, it was out to sample the nightlife of Arequipa which ended far too late for at least one of us while others were heading out far too early for an overnight trek in Colca Canyon.

Our Reality Tour provided a very different taste of the city, taking in a cemetery, day care centre for  children of single mothers, a stone quarry and market. Very interesting it was, but can’t help a feeling of unease when other people’s misfortune is used to lure in tourists.

The burger joint which kept luring members of the group back was far more acceptable.

A group of us were back in the minibus the next day as altitude really came to the fore.

Whisked out of Arequipa, we were taken up to 4,900m – it was all a bit quiet on the bus at that point – and through some spectacular scenery, any number of llamas, alpacas and vicunas, our first taste of coca tea and a dip in the hot springs.

Our stop for the night saw us ignore advice to eat small meals in the evening and avoid alcohol at altitude but very pleasant it was true, good food served up by a very forthright French woman.

We were up early the next morning to be on the lip of the Colca Canyon – a mile down and the second deepest on the earth – to watch condors taking flight on the thermals before winding our way back through some spectacular scenery to our meeting point with the truck and the rest of the reunited group.

At least that was the plan, while we were waiting and watching a llama spit at a group of tourists when they were not so keen to share their lunch with him, the truck was undergoing a few mechanical problems.

Patched up and back on the road, the delay put the night’s planned bush camp out of reach and forced us to find a new location – turning up a path and climbing to find a bit of flattish land well in excess of 4,000m.

It made for a difficult night – not least for cook group – in the wind as several of us struggled at the height and sparked my less than pristine arrival in Cusco.

But hey, there’s nothing major coming up at altitude is there?

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Please Look After These Overlanders

ANYONE who travels for any time will find themselves faced with unravelling the local tipping culture.

South America is no different and the past few days have seen the familiar service charges in restaurants and guides alongside a few more unusual requests for a few Peruvian soles.

The guide on the open top bus tour who pretty much gave up on the English version of her spiel, the guy dressed as a monk who mysteriously threw himself off a cliff for our entertainment and the random guy demanding $5 for wandering in and singing badly as we ate largely did so without profit.

One of them may have cursed us. Or called us donkeys.

Thankfully, the curse does not seem to have come to anything as none of those targeted have gone down with the pet bug which has laid low several of our truck group.

We have taken steps to stop any further spread of infection, spending an evening washing everything on the truck and, more radically, avoiding any cross contamination by having a couple of bottles of local drink pisco poured into mouths (or somewhere near) in our night out in the sand dunes.

Perhaps we should rewind and explain some of that…

Last time we were chilling out at the beach in northern Peru, watching a huge pod of dolphins swim by and the owner refloating the carcass of a dead sea lion and prodding it down to someone else’s stretch of sand.

For much of the intervening time, we have been hugging the Peruvian coast as we wind our way south, albeit losing the glorious sunshine to several days under a gloomy haze which sits over part of the country almost relentlessly and seems to infect the whole atmosphere and national identity.

Our first stop was the seaside town of Huanchaco, where we found ourselves sharing a hostel with members of a Peruvian circus which provided a night out for much of the group in between a couple of visits to pre-Inca sites (and a supermarket trip which involved most people’s bags clinking and sparked an interesting jeopardy to reaching for a bottle of Coke).

The Chan Chan Ruins – a series of palaces made out of adobe (possibly photoshopped) – are the more celebrated but think many of us found the nearby Temples of the Sun and Moon more interesting.

A series of temples built on top of each other by the even older Moche civilisation, intact decorations made the whole thing easier to comprehend.

From camping in the the relative luxury of a hostel garden – a kitchen to cook and the overlander’s holy trinity of WiFi, showers and toilets – our next stop provided what was billed as the first bush camp of the trip, not to mention a maiden outing for my cook group.

Hopes were not high as we headed off the road towards the sea to find a rock fall blocking the way, only for Will to swing Spongebob to the left and through a narrow tunnel which emerged on a small beach, lined with largely deserted bars and restaurants.

One of those provided our base for the night, both for cooking (a biryani which proved very successful, far more down to Izzy’s efforts than my sous cheffing) and sleeping as, a few who opted for tents on the beach apart, we bedded down on the floor of the restaurant terrace or sun loungers.

From the almost deserted surroundings of Vesigue, a long drive day took us into the traffic-choked streets of Lima.

It is not a pretty city, not helped by those seemingly never-ending overcast conditions seemingly weighing down on everything and everyone.

Warnings of not heading out on your own after dark or taking valuables out were added to by the threat of protests against the government which saw the main square near the hostel fenced off and patrolled by police throughout our stay.

Not that we ventured too far on the first night, the clinking from the supermarket taken up to the hotel terrace for a few (well, quite a few) drinks well into the night, either side of the first appearance of a guinea pig on the table at a nearby restaurant.

Many of us ventured further afield the next day. We just wish we had not bothered.

Perhaps the traffic issues coming in should have tipped us off that an open top bus tour was not a great idea. Especially as it was not that warm.

There certainly is not that much to see – certainly not enough to fill four hours, the small statue of Paddington in the distance prompting the most excitement – and what there was the guide opted not to tell us about while we were anywhere near it or she lapsed into Spanish halfway through her English explanation.

She pretty much gave up altogether by the end, but not before what she seemed to think was the highlight of the trip.

Quite why the man dressed as a monk – any pretence that he was actually a monk was ruined by watching him change from sweatshirt and jeans in a car park – dived off a rock into the waves was never explained.

Maybe that might have prompted a few more soles being thrown into his collecting box as he dripped his way up to the top deck.

He had more success than the elderly guy who wandered, guitar in hand, into the small place roomie Keith, Lisa and I had chosen to refuel after so long without nutrition.

One pretty awful song we never asked for and he seemed to think the gringos should stump up more than the cost of our meal, lingering next to our table for several minutes before getting the message and departing with what may have been a curse and certainly was not very polite.

Having not made a great impression, Lima did redeem itself a bit with an evening trip out to a park across town to a park with a series of fountains and an impressive light show, followed by a curse-free late night assault on some local fast food joints.

None of us were too sorry to wave goodbye to Lima (very slowly, given the track and its sprawl) as bolstered by three new arrivals we headed off to a more traditional bush camp.

Celebrations for Alli’s birthday started early on the truck and continued into the night, largely undeterred by the gale blowing across our clifftop bush camp in Paracas National Park, although the wind marked a swift demise off the cliff to the first of several kites acquired en route.

Sadly, it was not just the aftermath of those celebrations that laid a few people low the next day as the arrival of the bug coincided with what was billed as Funday Sunday, a series of activities which ended with most of the group spending the night among the sand dunes.

First up was a boat trip to Iles de Ballestas, billed as the poor man’s Galapagos.

The fun took a while to get going with various people feeling under the weather and the absence of the planned English-speaking guide, our Spanish traveller Rebeca stepping into the breach and earning herself a job offer as things improved with an array of wildlife – the sea lions and odd penguin stealing the show from a multitude of sea birds (do you really want me to do the boobie gag?).

Next up was a trip to see how the local brew pisco is made and, probably more pertinently, a tasting session which saw a few of us succeed in downing rather more than our allotted amount.

What we had to do to get it must remain within the group.

With even more clanking from a few new purchases, we headed off to Huacachina for the final part of the triple bill.

After hurtling across the dunes in Mad Max-style 10-man dune buggies, we threw ourselves down them head first on sandboards before being whisked off to our home for the night, a makeshift camp in the middle of the dunes.

A very pleasant night was enjoyed by all – well, all of those well enough to savour it – as the pisco flowed, our hosts cooked up a wonderful barbecue and absolutely nothing happened involving a dinosaur onesie.

Well, not that we have got room for here.

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An Extra Ticket To Ride

DAY seven, possibly, of this meander around South America and the first chance to draw breath, sit down and take stock of what has happened over the opening week.

It is not the intended chance, should be down the road in Banos rather than heeding the need to stay within sight of the facilities.

But between the runs to the loo (nothing too major and, until today, not one that has really stopped me) and application of sun cream, anti-mosquito spray and cream once it clearly hasn’t worked, we have crammed plenty in.

What we have learned over the last seven days:

  • The names of our 17 fellow passengers – a mixture of Brits, a liberal sprinkling of Americans and a few Aussies complemented by a Belgian, Spaniard, German, Japanese and a Venezuelan, together with tour leader Danny, South African driver Will and truck Spongebob.
  • If it leaks, 100 per cent Deet spray melts your bag (not mine).
  • Spaniards have excellent reflexes.
  • It is pretty much impossible to say hello to someone called Bert without sounding like a character from Sesame Street.
  • You can have discussions about Brexit, politics and religion, but nothing appears to cause more outrage than expressing a dislike for Queen (the band, not the monarch).
  • Don’t wee in the Amazon.

What we have been reminded about overloading:

  • Mosquitoes – or any buzzy, bitey little thing – love me.
  • Every campsite should have at least one dog.
  • However organised and well packed you think you are, it is impossible to keep track of where you put all your stuff.
  • You will cast jealous glances at how well organised and equipped everybody else seems to be.
  • Give a bunch of overlanders a hint of WiFi and they will be glued to their phones.

In many ways, this opening week has been very different from my previous experiences of overlanding.

And we have not really started living off the truck – the first cook group rolled into action last night, but with the truck parked across the campsite and the contents of the kitchen carried down to the facilities on site.

For starters, until we rolled in to our current campsite at Rio Verde – around 20km from Banos (sort of the Ecuadorian version of Bath, only with fewer Roman buildings but more waterfalls and cloud forest, probably got a better rugby team as well) – we had enjoyed the relative luxury of beds and proper facilities.

Compare that to Africa – have promised not to do that too often, but it is worth the comparison – when we spent much of the first week learning about the delights of bush camping in a cork forest outside Rabat and a bed did not arrive until an upgrade in Ghana, three months in.

While we have not been bush camping and living off the truck – even the drive days have been relatively short – we have been cramming in plenty to the first few days since we all came together in Quito.

The first challenge was getting there, the lack of an onward flight or dated bus ticket out of Ecuador stopping airline staff from allowing me through check-in without buying one – bought for far too much money from Quito to Bogota and which needs refunding as soon as the camp WiFi kicks back in.

But having sailed through immigration – without any hint of asking to see the ticket – a taxi ride making full use of every available lane dropped me at the Secret Garden hostel to start a weekend of shrugging off jet lag, seeing at least some of the sprawling city and perfecting that look of panic the English display when somebody speaks to them in a foreign language.

My Spanish is pretty awful. To be honest, non existent beyond buenos dias, gracias and una cerveza por favor. Clueless when spoken to, finding it possible to identify enough words in signs to have a vague idea what is going on. Sometimes. Helps having several native/fluent Spanish speakers in the group to help out.

Did not need their help on my mission to find a shop selling a towel, finally located just off the Plaza Grande in the middle of Quito’s old town which is all very pleasant as are pockets of a city which is largely a bustling, capital with all that entails.

Draped between and across several mountains – walking at this altitude provided some crucial acclimatisation for what lies ahead – it does provide some serious views which were soaked in from the terrace of my hostel (spent plenty of time there) and from the top of the TeleferiQo.

A cable car up to around 4,100m, it provides stunning vistas and a real test on the lungs having met up with a few fellow travellers before the official starting point and trekked up a bit higher to around the same height as the high point of the Inca Trail which lies in wait in the next month.

Given my record at much lower altitudes in ski resorts, was presently surprised at how well my body coped with that and the long walk back across the city, although the Inca Trail does not come with a cable car to take much of the uphill strain.

So having sampled the delights of Quito, slightly acclimatised to altitude and repacked (again), it was a quick hop across town to meet my fellow travellers, go through a few formalities and begin the job of getting to know each other.

We’ve got plenty of time ahead for that and have been kept busy starting that process. More of that next time.

  • Will look to get pics up when time and WiFi allows.
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The Wrong Trousers

THE journey of a thousand miles, said ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (cheers Google), begins with one step.

Not sure he foresaw that step taking place at a bus step next to a petrol station in a Gloucester suburb, particularly by someone sweltering in a hoodie that was never going to fit into his overstretched bags and wearing the wrong trousers due to a bit of a packing cock-up.

Starting point

But that’s how my next adventure, of considerably more than a thousand miles, started in rising temperatures completely unsuited to wearing or carrying the hoodie and a fleece-lined jacket.

Both will have a part to play – even if only as a handy pillow when camping – in the seven months ahead as we meander our way around South America.

As will the unintended jeans.

A few days ago, they had been confined to a bag in a rapidly filling storage unit before being rescued from their fate – at least temporarily – when my best jeans had been set aside to travel in and the spare pair pulled from the storage pile had proved to be far too big after my weight loss and spent half their time soaking up puddles.

Thought they had been part of the last trip to the storage unit – right up until getting changed before heading off to catch the 444 National Express to Heathrow and realising they were the ones which had been neatly packed away and the intended pair were starting their hibernation alongside most of my earthly possessions in that storage unit.

Fully armed for an 11-hour flight

But if that’s the biggest packing nightmare of this whole trip, so be it – being very careful on that, given the strain being shown by my shoulder bag until a trip to a Quito market to get a lightweight extra bag to ease some of the congestion (a life changer in Africa) and a total repack before climbing on board the truck will do,

These jeans will do. They are smart enough (if you don’t look at the frayed bits at the bottom that have been constantly trod on), comfortable enough and not too big to be totally out of sync with my current waist size.

There are shorts aplenty crammed in the rucksack, just might be worth holding off on them until some of the bruises decorating my legs in a lovely range of colours have had time to fade.

No idea how most of them got there and, bar one right on my left knee, they don’t even hurt if you touch them, but the legacy of several days clearing and cleaning my flat and transporting its contents to storage.

Sliding the final wardrobe through the door and into almost the ideal remaining space was like the finale to the perfect game of Tetris, rewriting the top score and crossing off the final major item on my to-do list before the off.

Which is not far off. This is being written in a rather swish lounge, courtesy of my bank, which may help the jeans fit a bit more snugly and the boarding gate is due to appear in the next few minutes. For what appears to be one of the last two flights out of Heathrow this evening.

The to-do list is all but empty, one late issue about an onward travel document at the airport sorted – will elaborate on that and a possible amendment to the route in later posts – and it is time for the off.

Next stop Quito. Well Bogota, for a few hours, but you get my drift.

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Best Laid Plans…

IT has been a week of anniversaries

Purely by coincidence, the last few days have been full of Facebook memories revolving around travel – to such an extent, it has become something of a tradition to wish a friend happy birthday specifically from some other part of the world (it will be a few weeks late this year, but we’ll get there…).

Seven years ago, flew home from New York (having had far too little sleep and with a slightly sore head after a night that ended with an Aussie in Greenwich Village probably closer to dawn than was wise) – the first flight of the trip having headed there from London and followed that with a road trip around the eastern US.

Five years ago spent this week sweltering in Charleston at a wedding (while sweating out the previous night’s rehearsal dinner).

And four years ago, climbed off a big yellow truck for the final time as 10 months on the road in Africa came to an end in Cairo.

It was an odd sensation adjusting back to normal life and as the minor frustrations and occasional deprivations of living on and around an overland truck fade, what you remember is the countless good times and enjoyable aspects of that life.

To such an extent you start to think about doing it again – and one month from today, will climb back on another big yellow truck in Quito and take up residence for seven months in a large circle around South America.

So one month out, what state are the preparations in?

To be honest, it’s all a bit of a concern – everything is pretty much on schedule.

Guaranteed that, having written that sentence, something is about to go horribly wrong but as it stands, things are on track. Even having spent this afternoon ignoring some of today’s intended list in favour of watching rugby and cricket.

Have been able to have a couple of weekends largely ignoring the to-do list, helped by using the days off work which have needed taking before my last day in the office.

Most of this lot needs packing – the sofa faces a less dignified fate. And yes, that is a bobble hat

What does remain on that list for the next few weeks is backloaded from then – the first few days finishing off compiling and packing up anything needed for the following seven months, the remaining time largely devoted to moving out of my flat and putting my life into storage.

That to-do list is broken down with jobs allocated for pretty much every day (with little spare time built in for watching cricket, rugby or the remaining episodes of Stranger Things – need to squeeze that one in before the list reaches ‘Cancel Netflix).

There’s a few appointments to go – osteopath, travel clinic for malaria tablets (not as critical as Africa, but better safe than sorry given my ability to be bitten by the lone small, buzzy thing within miles) and one last jab – a couple of leaving dos and even a gym schedule pencilled in.

As well as being better prepared for this trip due to knowledge after Africa, will arrive in Quito in better physical shape. The weight loss has hit – and seemingly levelled out at – seven and a half stone and probably fitter than… well, let’s just say it is a long time.

Could be fitter and the physical demands of the Inca Trail loom large, but the balance between excitement and fear has tipped slightly towards the former. Most of the time.

The pesky calf muscle which derailed a plan to get running and cut down the miles walking in preparation seems to have mended, with just the odd twinge now the ban on me hitting the treadmill is over.

With running limited, walking has ramped up – literally on the treadmill, gradually increasing the incline over 20 minutes – with a few longer strolls proving the lengthy times needed are achievable. Even ignoring lifts in favour of the stairs.

The gradients and altitude of the Andes are harder to replicate.

So physically things are, pretty much, ready to go and the schedule for moving out in place, what concerns remain? The things which, bar having left enough time to move out and clean my flat, keep me awake.

This lot is going in those bags off to the right. Or I’m wearing it

First is totally out of my control and boils down to which country’s economy can implode the most in the next couple of weeks. And that’s anyone’s guess.

The go-to currency for this trip is US dollars, both in the local payment which will form the group kitty to pay for our everyday expenses (you know, the important stuff like food) and spending money for changing at borders or, in the case of starting point Ecuador, the actual currency.

It all adds up to a pretty decent-sized lump sum to be sorted out before the off, which makes it the perfect time for the pound to plummet against the dollar.

Thankfully, not as much as against the euro and – good news time – there’s been sign of life today and the prospect of an improved rate for buying bulk. It’s a question of which country does something to damage its currency first and how long my nerve holds.

All this adds up to another reason to avoid spending any more money on kit, however strong the temptation.

Have spent several years advising people not to over pack, but one look at the piles of stuff waiting to be crammed into my rucksack and shoulder bag suggests that advice has not necessarily been taken on board.

Yesterday’s attempt to organise it better has eased my mind a bit, but it is going to take some cramming in.

Whatever the weather, suggest going to be wearing or carrying a hoodie or a new waterproof jacket – complete with a fleece lining – on the trip from Gloucester to Quito (via Heathrow and Bogota).

It could get pretty sweaty.

But if that’s what is keeping me awake, then that’s fine – certainly beats any work anxiety which is starting to fade away as we enter my final couple of weeks in the office.

Just two more papers to see off, followed by two weeks working through that to-do list.

It’s all getting mighty real.

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