Monday, 28 September 2009

Julien Donkey Boy & (Near) Death In The Afternoon

Along with the obvious Machu Picchu, Colca Canyon was top of my list of sites to visit in Peru, if not South America. The former is easy to get to from Cusco. Colca, on the other hand, is a bone-jarring 8 hour bus ride from Arequipa.

Arequipa itself is a lovely little city which feels more like a town, seated at the base of the Misti volcano. The colonial old buildings are stunning, as is the city’s main square, Plaza D’Armas. It's a tourist magnet, Western restaurants and older Westerners people dotted about; the prices reflect this demographic. Incidentally, I had the best falafel ever tasted here (though I’ve yet to visit North Africa) at a place called Fez (very imaginative).

We saw little in the city itself, bar an England game and the famous Ice Maiden. The former was uninspiring and dull. The latter is the frozen remains of a young Inca girl who was taken to the top of the volcanic mountains (no mean feat today, and they went barefoot) and sacrificed to pacify the angry spirit. The story is a moving one; you watch a fairly interesting film before being shown round the remains and artefacts found at her death site. Garfield and myself exchanged worried looks when Speckled peered into the chilled glass cabinet bearing the girl’s remains and muttered “I think she’s quite fit, actually”. Whether this disturbed me primarily because the girl was estimated at 13 years old, or because she’s a withered frozen corpse in a display case, I couldn’t quite make my mind up. Either way, we needed to find Jim a woman. And quick.

Colca is not the place to find one, but we were here for the Canyon. A drab settlement around a small, deserted town square, the place isn’t going to win any awards for aesthetics. But a few hundred yards beyond the town’s borders is a vertical drop to take your breath away. Several miles long, and a full kilometre deep at its greatest depth, this canyon truly is breathtakingly beautiful. Small villages perch precariously on its slopes, and a river meanders through its floor. At one end sits the Oasis, a tiny set of huts (dirt floor…wipe your feet on the way out) and a solitary bar/ kitchen. From the top the pools are blue dots, the inhabitants invisible. It’s big. Twice the depth of the Grand Canyon, in fact.

We actually went the wrong way about the trek, and descended the way you are supposed to come up. The path zig-zags sharply up the side of the valley in an almost vertical climb. Hard work judging by the faces of those coming up, but nothing like myself and Garfield would suffer the next day. The Oasis is a peaceful spot to spend an evening, even if it is run by the most miserable bastard you’re ever likely to encounter in Peru. He cheers up by the late afternoon, but in the mornings he looks at you like he’s caught you shagging his sister (when it was his turn). He redeemed himself the next morning by making one of the best pancakes I’ve ever had. Well it would have been, if I hadn’t put salt on it instead of sugar. Wiping it off and covering it in jam couldn’t take the taste away. A bad omen for the rest of the day.

The lily-livered Yorkshireman, otherwise known as Speckled Jim, was barely out of camp when he spotted some donkeys for hire. I’d shared a joint with Speckled on the descent the day previous, we had a break near a large human turd and enjoyed the view (of the canyon…not the turd); he’d complained it was hard going, and thought he may hire a donkey to get back to town. Hard going? Downhill? No wonder these lot lost the War Of The Roses, even after enlisting the help of the French and Welsh armies. If Churchill had been from Leeds, we’d all be saying Sieg Heil instead of Good Morning, these days. We left Jim to start some hard bargaining with the donkey man (ie. He gave Jim an extortionate price and Jim said “OK”) and set off walking. We were across the river and halfway up the far side of the valley before Hopalong Cassidy came into view.

It was hard going, and we passed through a couple of villages on thankfully level ground. I bought water but, since we’d just had breakfast, we didn’t think to buy supplies such as chocolate and bananas. Big mistake. We passed several people coming the other way, including a German couple in full hiking gear and boots. They looked us up and down, particularly Garfield in his Converse pumps and houndstooth trousers, and asked us how far we were going. When we told them all the way back to town, they said it was a long way, and that they’d broken the journey by staying overnight in a village. Obviously thought us a little mad. Mad Dogs And Englishmen, and all that (brave Yorkshire folk excepted).

Descending towards the bridge back over the canyon, I begged some pain-killers from a passing group. My knees were absolutely shot-at, I know how a retired Third Division footballer feels now (except my tan wasn’t from a sunbed). Soldiering on like the valiant Lancastrian I am, we reached the river before Speckled and began the climb. It was truly daunting. A third of the way up and we were guzzling water like there was no tomorrow, sweat pouring off us. Speckled passed us on his donkey, filming on his camera and mocking the "Foolish Lancastrians". Can’t argue with that one but, as I pointed out as he passed, us Lancastrians would be leaving our footprints in the dust, not hoofprints. So, technically, Jim didn’t do the Colca Canyon. Don’t let him tell you otherwise, Mr Duncan.

The climb got steeper. And steeper. As we rounded each corner and thought it impossible it could get any worse, it got worse. The closer we got to the face, the more it seemed to stretch away. We got the shakes from a lack of blood sugar. I’d have swapped North End gaining promotion this season for a Snickers (I'm lying, but I'll be long dead before they're promoted, chocolate it is). Having to stop every hundred yards for a break, I was close to giving up. Don’t think I’d have lasted long on the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, to be honest: “Can we stop for a rest and tea and biscuits, cruel Japanese man?” Garfield, being a bit fitter, was ahead most of the time: I was relying on him to force me to keep going. When he started flagging, it was time to worry. Our exchanged glances betrayed the first inklings of fear and despair. “We’re the kind of idiots you read about in the paper dying on mountainsides” he noted grimly. At least we still had our humour, eh? After a while we passed a large group, and a generous Frenchman gave us some biscuits. Rescued. By a Frenchman? Don’t tell anyone...please

By the time we reached the plateau, our relief was palpable…and, needless to say, mutual. We were barely shuffling along by this point, and could see the town a mile in the distance. Now on level ground, survival achieved, my brain acknowledged the aches and pains previously blotted out; blisters on my feet like 50p pieces. Speckled came upon us sprawled outside the first shop we’d come across, shovelling biscuits and chocolate into our mouths as quick as we could swallow it. He’d come to find us, bearing extra water, and looked relieved we’d made it. Apparently he’d asked his guide/ donkey owner what time he reckoned we’d make it back; he’d just laughed and drawn his hand across his throat in a slitting motion.

Speckled’s Dad will be mortified by his son’s lack of fortitude. Shame on you, Jim. I think the funniest thing for me is the fact that Jim’s a self-titled “Master Trekker”. He’s seen Nepal and made various hikes in India, and even brought his special boots for this trip: then used them to walk downhill, hiring a donkey for the real work uphill. We’ve given him that much stick that he started writing an email telling “the truth” while we were on the bus out of there.

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