Everything Is Coming Up Milhouse

WHILE taking you to parts of the world you would not normally see, overloading has a tendency to keep you away from the real world.

The appearance of WiFi has people scurrying for the sports results and, if it holds up long enough, possibly some actual news.

We have checked on the latest Brexit news – and tried to explain it to our non-British travellers – but not sure we have been able to report anything concrete in the last six weeks without getting more confused than them.

Far more interested in the rugby scores.

But every so often, the real world impinges on our journey – and all around us South America is getting very real.

Behind us, riots broke out in Quito which forced the Ecuadorean government to backtrack on proposed fuel price increases.

Lima was in a state of flux with road blocks and threatened protests against the Peruvian government while Argentina – not many miles away once we have pulled the truck out of the river bed we are camping in – and Uruguay headed to the polls today.

And Venezuela, officially still on our route, is in such a state the option of heading down the Amazon to Colombia – remarkably, a bastion of sanity – is on the map on our tour T-shirts.

Far more to the forefront of our minds is the situation in Bolivia and Chile.

Both have been hit by protests, road blocks and turmoil which has already forced one rethink to our schedule and has us keeping a watching brief on what lies ahead with several crossings between Chile and Argentina ahead on the way south, not to mention departures and arrivals due in Santiago.

All that was a long way from our minds as we made our way back from Machu Picchu to our Cusco base at Milhouse Hostel.

Top of our agenda as we headed back via train and minibus from Aqua Calientes was getting dry, laundry, a shower, getting to the bar and staying awake on the journey as part of the 24-hour challenge to stay awake for a day after our 3.30am wake-up call – some with more success than others.

Dry, clean and laundry crammed into bags for delivery, the final climb of the Inca Trail adventure carried us up the steps to the hostel bar to a wide selection of happy hour cocktails, shots won by throwing bottle tops into a bucket above the bar, chocolate cake, a variety of silly hats and a beer pong tournament which never reached its conclusion.

Strangely, by the early hours the bar staff were not too keen on letting a couple of Anglo-Aussie survivors stay behind to watch the Rugby World Cup quarter-final – my 24 hours awake ending watching the game on Twitter while my roomie fell asleep five minutes from reaching the target.

Not surprisingly, the following day was not too action-packed – a hefty late breakfast (try the Gordo at Jack’s Cafe if you are ever in Cusco, you will not go hungry), a massage for aching muscles after the trek, some more sleep and a group trip out for a curry at the Korma Sutra.

Very pleasant and pretty restrained amid the first stirrings of trouble ahead. At least for most of us – those on the top bunks in our dorm were glad to be well clear from the fallout of one person’s night out.

Morning came a bit too early for the late-night reveller as a convoy of taxis reunited us with the truck to make the way to our next stop in Puno, our base on the banks of Lake Titicaca.

Not that we stayed there too long – at least at this point – as we headed out the next morning on the world’s highest navigable lake. Very slowly.

Our boat chugged along, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the views over the next two days, soak up the sun, catch up on sleep, attempt to throw corn into mouths between decks, sample the local wine and work out how soon one of the children playing on the roof was going to fall in.

Our slow boat to nowhere in particular did have a few stops to get us on dry land as we headed slap into the heart of the tourist trail.

Well, sort of dry land – first port of call taking us to a floating reed island to meet the local Uros Indians who talked us through how they built the islands – interesting, once our rather long-winded guide had let them explain – before trying to sell us stuff. 

And transporting us to another island on an even slower boat.

Back on our normal sedate transport, we chugged across to Amanturi island, our base for the night where we were dished out in groups to our host families.

After fears of minimal facilities, our group – most of the Inca Trek veterans plus tour leader Danny – were pleasantly surprised as we found comfortable beds (if you did not move too much), a toilet and good food served up by our Mama for the night.

Meals were interspersed with a walk up to a temple at the top of the island – a steep incline which suggested the Inca Trail had left its mark, interspersed by another lengthy lecture by our guide on the meaning of an Inca Cross.

Something to do with things in threes evidently.

We were beginning to switch off before discovering a bar and alpaca on a stick on our way down, despite his claims the islanders were largely teetotal and barely ate meat.

The local falling drunk into the barbecue and the men drinking in the local shop until late rather ruined his argument as we headed back to our home for the night and either headed back up the steep slope in traditional dress for a party or up the slightly less steep stairs to bed.

Our guide had another couple of chances to tell us more than we needed to know as we headed to the neighbouring island of Taquile for another steep walk and a rather less strenuous stroll around the island before heading, slowly, back to Puno.

Which is where the problems on the road ahead started to get more real – a group meeting at the hotel outlining a plan to stay another day to monitor events in Bolivia with a potential second round of voting in their election.

News of problems in La Paz – our first major stop – and road blocks drifted through as the wine flowed and more people descended, clinking, on one of the rooms.

We headed to bed with heads slightly spinning. Partly from wine, partly from altitude and partly from the prospects of what lay ahead – a run for the border or an alternative route via land or air.

All we could do was sit and wait.

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The Inca Trail

My view of Machu Picchu

LEGS full of three days walking and drenched after trudging the final few hours from camp, we climbed the final few steps to the classic view of Machu Picchu.

What we got was not the famous vista over the ruins and terraces and beyond to the looming mountains.

It was there. It was just hidden behind a blanket of cloud, rain and the first influx of day trippers who had taken the easier option – the one convinced was right for me until a moment of madness – and come by train and bus.

But did it really matter?

To the day trippers, certainly. This was their Machu Picchu experience, something they may have looked forward to for years only to be greeted by a downpour and limited visibility.

And yes, it would have been lovely to see the Incan site in all its glory. It is impressive even in these conditions.

But at some point in the previous three days trekking through, up, down and over Andrean mountain passes, the destination became secondary to the experience of getting there.

Don’t want to go as far as claiming some sort of epiphany on the road to Machu Picchu, but those three days – rarely easy, often extremely testing – proved a few things to myself and provided a shared experience which the nine of us who were lucky to get the limited permits on offer each day for the Classic trek will remember forever.

It was challenging, at times painful, frustrating and exhausting, but it was fun, rewarding and utterly exhilarating. 

And it gave us immense respect for a special breed of men who did everything we needed and more beyond actually dragging us the 40-odd kilometres.

Ended it not on my hands and knees as expected, but in one piece, going strong and with a new perspective on what is physically possible – even if the first post-trek challenge was to head up to the hostel bar and try to stay up for 24 hours ago.

Have spent much of the time since being convinced to opt for the Classic trek over the train saying the feeling was equal parts excitement and dread.

By the eve of the trek briefing at our hostel in Cusco, that balance was much nearer to three per cent excitement amid the balance of panic.

But with warmer sleeping bag and walking poles hired, gear squeezed into my back pack and the the 7kg allowable in the duffel bag for one of the porters to carry and our guide Gerson’s briefing sorted, there was no turning back.

We certainly did not have much time for second thoughts in the morning as we rolled out of bed early and were whisked out of Cusco toward the official start point at Km 82 (based on the distance of the full, traditional trek from the old Incan capital) via a breakfast stop at Ollantaytambo.

And there was no turning back as we made our was through the control station and began the first day’s walking along the banks of the Urrabamba River – along with the Ngorongoro Crater, a place which has been on my travel bucket list since Michael Palin first introduced it to me.

Day one, which carried us around 11km to our overnight stop at Wayllabamba, was a mix of rolling paths with a few uphill stretches to get us warmed up for what was to come.

As well as discovering we had almost bought a perfect rainbow of poncho colours at the first early rainfall, the opening day introduced the daily routine of the porters speeding ahead with both our gear and all the equipment needed to cook up and serve mountains of delicious food (for breakfast, lunch and dinner – with added teatime bringing an obsession with hot chocolate and piles of popcorn).

They even threw in intricately-folded napkins, animal centrepieces for one lunch and a final night cake. Cooked in a pressure cooker halfway up a mountain.

They were not the only blokes carrying a lot of weight the length of the trek, but while they bounding along the trail like mountain goats, my progress was also falling into something of a routine.

My role became akin to that of a cycling domestique – setting the pace, clearing the path of people in the way when necessary (there was liberal use of a walking pole and more than liberal amounts of swearing), before making way for the proper climbers on the steepest stretches and battling to the top at my own pace to hopefully regroup or battle my way back on the descent.

That first day was a fairly gentle introduction, tough enough walking to know we had done it but with reasonable facilities (flushing toilet and flat grass) and the surprise at how well we were being looked after to ease us in.

But as we headed to bed straight after dinner, the mountains looming all around us in the dark provided a telling reminder of what was to come on day two.

The second morning over Wamiwanusca at 4,200m – or Dead Woman’s Pass – has long been in everyone’s mind, 9km of pretty much constant climbing with a vertical rise of 1,200m.

What lay ahead was very much in tour minds when we were woken at our tent doors by guides Gerson and Henry with a cup of coca tea at 5am.

It did not bode well that the short rise up to the control hut had legs heavy with yesterday’s miles in our legs feeling the strain.

But having eased back into a rhythm and found our pace, we began to hit our stride to the first rest stop of the morning as we regrouped – right up to the point when the steps began.

Walking on the paths is one thing, even on a slope, the addition of uneven stones adds another element to deal with, but the steps throw all but the very few off guard.

Imagine walking up a flight of steps for hours. Add in that those steps are uneven. And slippery. And different heights, both across the step and between each one with some up to some people’s knees.

For several hours.

That’s what saw me drop back from the leading bunch, thrown out of my even pace trained for on the treadmill and stopping to catch my breath and admire the stunning views.

It was hard, the altitude adding an extra test as we wound our way up at our own pace.

But having accepted what lay ahead, settled into my personal struggle as the top of the pass came into view with each bend tantalisingly taking it a little further away until, finally, the summit was within reach of one final effort – and a few more stops to catch my breath before stepping on briefly level ground.

Reaching the top of Dead Woman’s Pass Picture: Isobel McLeod

Any thoughts the hard part was over were soon dispelled as we headed down on the two-hour descent to our campsite – those steps are just as difficult to go down as they are to go up.

But with gravity giving a helping hand, only the real mountain goats beat me in to camp where we spent the rest of the day comparing tales from the trail, napping, enjoying a late lunch, napping, tea, dinner and sleeping.

After the travails of day two, the third full day we were assured was easier although longer at 14km and up to 10 hours ahead of us.

Easy was not the word that came to mind as we fought our way up to the second highest pass of the trek – Runkurakay at 3,950m, which again saw our personal battles up those dreaded steps.

Having regrouped at the summit, we dropped the short distance down the other side to the first of the day’s Inca sites and up and down the sides of a valley to our early lunch spot.

And from there it was, put simply, glorious.

Released from endless steps and on to more undulating paths, the domestique even managed to lead the pace to the top of the final pass and much of the way down the descent – perfecting a method of overtaking on the steps as people stopped for passing porters – before one of the mountain goats grew a bit nervous behind a couple of slips and moved to the front.

And as we dropped, breathing became easier, the weather brighter and the views across the Sacred Valley simply stunning and there was a genuine bounce in my step on arrival at the nearly-deserted Inti Pata terraces.

Alli and I were the first to arrive and just soaked in the view and our surroundings – a truly happy moment before heading down through the terraces and on to our final camp, via a run-in with some llamas on the path which saw me used as a human shield.

Spirits were high as we gradually all rolled in to camp and enjoyed one marvellous final meal, but not quite so high the next morning as our 3.30am alarm call was accompanied by the sound of heavy rain.

Which never relented.

Not the sort of thing you want when standing waiting for the control gate to open at 5.30am for the final 6km to our target.

It was largely routine, if narrow, slippy and increasingly wet, bar one set of steps which pretty much had us climbing up they were so steep.

And having led the group almost to the Sun Gate, the domestique again moved aside for the final steep pitch and arrived on the heels of most of the group to a spectacular view of… absolutely nothing.

Our waterproof (ish) ponchos provided pretty much the only colour as the cloud and rain blocked out any view of Machu Picchu before we were finally led down the final stretch into the citadel itself.

Thankfully, while the rain never let off, the views did clear enough for us to get some views and we were taken around the massive site, jostling for space with the thousands of visitors streaming in on the buses – quite a shock to the system after seeing just the same faces who had been walking at the same pace and schedule as us for the previous three days.

You do feel sorry for those day trippers, their big day dominated by appalling weather.

But for us, it was about so much more than just seeing Machu Picchu, grand as that was.

This was about the challenge of getting there, doing it together, sharing the experience and conquering personal challenges.

Some found it easier than others, mentally or physical. Some were reduced to tears, others had dark moments along the way. Other seemed to skip up even the steepest slopes.

And me? Loved every minute would be an overstatement, there were times on those steps which drove me to distraction.

But never went to any black places, never got too frustrated and always managed to keep calm and press on at my own pace, somehow managing to be stronger towards the finish – visions of crawling into Machu Picchu, to camp or at the top of passes far from the reality.

If you had told me that even the night before we left, it would have seemed far fetched. If you had told me that a year or 18 months ago, it would have seemed ridiculous.

And that’s my near epiphany.

Too often in the past, have not done something because felt it was physically beyond me or going to be too difficult. This could easily have been one of those things.

But with the right preparation and attitude, it is amazing what heights you can reach.

Even if you can’t see much when you get there.

  • That’s my tale, everyone has their own. Will file an advice piece for anyone thinking of walking the Inca Trail at some point in the future.
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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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Creating A Pong

WHEN the list of great British sporting achievements in 2019 is written, Ben Stokes will be a prominent figure for his efforts in the World Cup final and his astonishing match-winning Ashes innings.

Over the next few days and weeks, the Rugby World Cup and World Athletics Championships could well throw up some major candidate. And Lewis Hamilton will earn an awful lot of credit for having the best car.

But one sporting success is unlikely to receive much recognition in any end-of-year reviews.

Granted, beer pong is not a high-profile sport but having discovered some form of natural aptitude, am going to celebrate victory in our campsite tournament. Especially as was not even meant to be in it until wandering past at a timely moment with no good reason not to.

The tournament was one of the highlights of our stay at our campsite near Banos, at least for me as a need to stay near the facilities limited opportunities to get into the nearby town, take the perfect photo opportunity on a swing with a huge drop as its backdrop or soaking up the hot springs which give the town its name.

Or canyoning. But did anybody really have me down for that one?

Did manage to make the short walk up the road to get soaked by the Diablo waterfall and to sample the excellent empanadas at a local cafe. Twice.

But much of my time was spent back at base where the camp dogs seemed to spend as much time on bodily functions – always a key topic of conversation in overland groups – as me. They were just less fussy about exactly where.

Which added extra jeopardy as we gathered in the communal area for an Argentinian barbecue provided by our hosts – basically huge piles of meat with the odd bit of salad and bread to break it up – and the first sporting battle of the trip.

Had originally opted out, but found myself in the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) place when somebody was trying to hand her place onto someone else. Just had to bend the rules slightly, downing mouthfuls of disgusting water with rehydration salts rather than beer.

Alongside partner Robbie, our Anglo-American team somehow became the ones to beat and charged to success, rediscovering our top form just in time to close out a final interrupted by the need to use the table to house piles of meat.

Having tackled the morning job of packing the tents back into their bags, transporting the kitchen equipment back to the truck and dodging the final obstacles left for us by the dogs, it was back on the road early for the drive to the city of Cuenca.

Arriving at the hostel was most welcome for all of us – the discovery of a happy hour for much of the group and a comfortable bed for me after a difficult day fighting off what, thankfully, seemed to be the final symptoms of whatever laid me low.

So come morning after the best night’s sleep of the trip, was considerably brighter than several others as a group of us headed out on a walking tour of Cuenca.

It is a very attractive, interesting city, littered with churches – 72 of them evidently – and pretty buildings. Which is why the picture most of us fought over was the whole pig in the central market which provided our tasty, cheap lunch.

While most of us were discovering Cuenca anew, for two of our number – my beer pong partner Robbie and wife Becky – it is familiar ground as they have an apartment there and they opened the doors to us and a load of pizzas to soak in the spectacular sunset. And a few drinks.

It was our final fling in Ecuador, until we return to complete the circle in April, as we made the run for the first border and headed into Peru.

And having bounced around at varying altitudes and temperatures, our arrival in country number two has seen the heat rise as our height dropped to sea level, which is pretty easy to gauge when the waves are breaking yards from your tent.

Our time at Walkato Beach has given us time to draw breath, relax, get sunburned (just one knee bizarrely), down the odd drink or two and spend a couple of evenings around a campfire on the beach.

We did break camp to head down the coast to the bustling resort town of Mancora – think a Spanish beach town with less neon, chrome and Brits (assorted other nationalities) on the piss. Well, apart from our day in and around a bar on the sand run by a guy styling himself as James Bond.

There was a diversion to some cook group shopping which crowded into the back of a minibus with 14 of us for the ride back to base and another night around the fire on the beach.

No doubt the fire will be lit one last time tonight. Before or after the pizzas we’ve ordered arrive. Before then, there’s a pool to be led around or a tent to be napped in.

It’s a tough life.

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