5 July 2016
The alarm goes off at 0400 but we have been awake prior to all the iphone alerts pinging off. No one really wants to get up but we stir ourselves into action and clear the room. I’m mildly surprised to see most of the group sitting around the common area, slumped like so many half filled bean bags, no hint of energy. But they are at least out of their rooms and ready to go. It turns out they had not tuned into the start time and the word had gotten around that we were due to leave at 0300. It’s a source of amusement for me but I leave them alone. Early is better than late. We try and move about quietly for the sake of others in the hostel but it seems everyone is up early to catch a bus to somewhere, so it’s not long before the half lit common room has a slight hum to it as people check packs, catch up with social media, double check times and make last minute additions or subtractions to the bags they plan to leave behind at the hostel.
Henry arrives right on time, appearing as he did yesterday as if by magic. He is keen to get on the road. We are all ready to go so there is no fuss, just an orderly walk out the front door to the bus which, given the hour, has been able to park in our narrow lane. It’s close to freezing, if not right on zero and, while the hostel interior was cool, we feel the crisp night air as we step onto the pavement. All our packs are thrown onto the roof and tied down by a dour sort of driver but he is deft and soon has everything stowed away. We grind off up the lane, turn left and start climbing up out of town through yellow lit streets that are empty, even of the ubiquitous dogs. We get a couple of blocks up the road when Henry reminds us that we will need our passports for Machu Picchu. I have an awful thought – that my passport may well be in my daypack which I had left at the hostel. It usually resides in a small internal pouch in that pack. I suggest to Henry that we stop and check. He is mildly irritated but accepts that its best to check now, rather than discover later that I don’t have it with me. The driver clambers onto the roof while a couple of stray dogs wander over to check us out. The pack comes down and I retrieve my passport from the top cover, place it in my pocket where it will now permanently reside. We are back on the road in minutes and we climb quietly into the outskirts of the city.
However the continued ascent messes with some of us. I feel a headache coming on but others bring up their scanty breakfasts and feel ill. But we are soon over the range and drop down the other side as we roll through small hamlets and get glimpses of the countryside under the occasional street light here and there. By 0615 the sky has brightened enough for us to see hints of the agriculture, fields, hedges and ploughed paddocks we are passing though. We are clearly driving across a high, very flat plateau even though we have a dramatic backdrop of shadowy mountains behind. By the time dawn is sprung we have a clear view of everything, just in time for the road to suddenly drop and wind dramatically down to Limatambo, a small town busy with large trucks, earthmoving equipment and kids getting ready to go to school. Not only is it very light but the zig zag route that drops us so quickly has taken its way along some precipitous drop offs and via hairpin bends that have got our complete attention. An upside is that we see Mt Salkantay (sahl-can-thai), or “Savage Mountain” for the first time, the dawn light catching its snow capped peak and rubbing a peach pastel over its white canvas. It’s huge and awesome and we watch it for as long as we can. When we are not sweating the hairpin bends that is.
From Limatambo we follow the Apurimac River, or more correctly the Rio Apurimac. Limatambo seems to mark some sort of watershed, for the Apurimac now seems to cut into arid country and we move from mountain slopes covered in vegetation to slopes that are colourful tans and duns, yet with no green at all. We follow the Apurimac for a short while then abruptly cut off onto a gravel road that starts to wind its way up through dust and blind corners, along some of those exposed mountain sides you see in South American pictures taken by madmen. But this time it’s us. On occasions I choose to look away. Henry is happy through. He needed to get us onto this section of road, well before 0700 when it closes for repairs, and hence his enthusiasm for the 0430 start. It opens again between 1200 and 1300. Bizarre really. Closed for the majority of the day – go figure. As the road starts to level out towards the top of the mountain, the Apurimac a sliver of light now only glimpsed occasionally far below us, we learn that the Spaniards discovered this area was ideal for grape growing. It’s arid so there might be something in that. But also that this is the prized centre of avocado growing in Peru as well. That I find a little more difficult to believe. In fact the horticulture is proving a little counter intuitive for me as we climb higher and higher we discover more and more farming. And the higher it goes so too is the reputation of the produce elevated. (And more and more eucalypts and peppercorns appear. Along with the occasional bottlebrush).
We wound our way up to Mollyapata, ignoring the sections of road that had to still be widened, and looking away from the sheer drops into the valley below the U turns that seemed to curve into empty space. We arrive at Mollyapata along a gentle ridge line that slopes away gently in grassy paddocks on either side of the tree lined road and I find it hard to believe we are perched on such a high mountain. We pause in an open compound to fill in paperwork. Everyone heading over the Salkantay Pass is registered here. More importantly it’s a chance to clear our heads and stomachs. And the plastic bags used to help clear stomachs on the way up. Paperwork and ablutions complete we trundle into the town square and park next to the police station. The sun is up in a clear sky, and the day has that clear crisp diamond white feel to it that mountain dawns do so well. A number of other buses have pulled into the square in front of us, their noisy occupants disrupting the serenity of this tiny place. It’s the first reminder that this will not be a track we will have to ourselves. I console myself with the thought that this route remains markedly less populated than the more popular Inca Trail. In the centre of the square is the usual garden. Under a central, large spreading oak like tree (except it seems to be an evergreen of some sort) two men in trilbys watch what’s going on while a women with a child sits and watches as well. They seem to care less about all of us interrupting. Hibiscus and bottlebrush in flower keep the bees busy. A couple of small kids run through, perhaps on their way to school. On the north side of the square is an array of cafes which the other buses are filling. On the east is a small traditional looking church while on the west side, and near our café is the police station. Parked outside is a Toyota sedan bearing all the marks of what might happen if those U turns are not negotiated properly. I wonder, looking at the collapsed steering wheel, what happened to the driver.
Breakfast is welcome since we have been travelling on mainly empty stomachs (some more than others). We stomp upstairs to a place that hides it kitchen behind a curtain. Not a good sign methinks. But it is a new place and appears clean. Simple wooden tables and straight-backed chairs made according to those designs that woodwork teachers like to give their students. The menu advertises an American breakfast which proves to be a strange mix of omelette and fruit salad. The next weightiest item on the menu was the pancake. For reasons known only to themselves they decided to cook the blessed thing last, after everything else had been served up, and poor Kavitha had her pancake delivered long after everyone else had eaten, making for a hastily concluded breakfast. We climb down the back stairs to the small lane, checking out the pigs and roosters that might one day become some other trekker’s breakfast, and re-enter the square. It has quietened down a little, at least in terms of visitors like us. Kids are being dragged to school. A number of older women have joined the watchers under the tree but are carefully placed in the warming rays of the sun.
Back in the bus and we continue to push on north, climbing out through a straggly lane and equally straggly mud brick houses, past two cool cats who look like they might be ‘the lads’ of Mollepata. They barely give us a passing glance – they are too cool for that. The track continues to wind its dusty way upwards though the pre-breakfast escarpments no longer exist and we are treated to more paddocks, grazing horses, the occasional cattle, endless gum trees dressing the fence lines and the spectacle of the Rio Blanco way below us. And soon, ahead of us glimpses of Mt Humantay, snow covered glory and magnificence. An hour later we pass a gaggle of trekkers choking in dust, then some mules, some more trekkers and suddenly we are pulling over behind other buses. Disembark, put your packs for the mules over there on the blue tarp and continue to be awed by Humantay. It’s a magnificent backdrop. It’s the brilliant titanium white that sets off everything else we see on the way up to Soraypampa – orange tints of autumn, holly green shine of Christmas, delicate lace tans of the tree moss, the brightness of alpine lillies. And even the emerald flash of hummingbirds, the first one spotted while we wait for the wranglers to sort out the mules. Those beasts are reluctant to be strapped up with our gear, but as with the yak wranglers in Nepal the young lads have the measure of these single minded animals. A quick wrap of the eyes under a colourful strip of cloth and the mule stops, feet braced but compliant while loads are thrown on and buckles and straps cinched up. Before we know it a small mule convoy rattles into shape and disappears with our gear into the scrub up the hill. We put on our day packs and start to walk.
At last! After all the messing about acclimatising in Cusco, and hours in a bus, we are finally on our way. Actually walking. Such sweet relief to be finally walking. Henry bolts off with the younger and fitter ones. It’s not long before those who remain dressed for the cold are stopped, stripping off layers. And more layers. It’s hot under this alpine sun as we point ourselves directly up the hill. The scrub along here is low stuff of a type I don’t know. We left the eucalypts half an hour or more back down the valley. This stuff can hide a mule or three, is home to hummingbirds and wrens and robins, is decorated with delicate flowers. But it gives zero shade. We ascend for twenty minutes before we hit a contour and stop for a quick update on the vegetation by Henry. But I can hear the faint trickle of water and after a bit of poking about realise we are standing just below a water race. Eventually this race will become our track as we walk along its edge, with the white glacial serac ridden faces of Humantay and Salkantay looming every larger in front of us as we walk in to Soraypampa camp a few hours later.
Our camp is quite civilised as far as tent camps go. Our tents are set up under a tin roof which might make for a dry camp but it does nothing to mitigate the fact that we are in a cold sink, perched as we are directly below a glacier that hangs above us further up the valley, while around the corner multiple glaciers hang of Salkantay. But the sun is still shining as we drop our packs and given our tents are already set up there is nothing to do except do that climb high/sleep low thing. So off we go, grinding up 390m to a clear, glacial tal with the rather unimaginative name of Laguna de Humantay. But what it lacks in name it makes up for in stunning clear water with its glacial backdrop, hints of green from glacial granite and the reason to climb high. Some of the lads go for a swim, replaying the Gangapurna Tal (Nepal) swim of 2012. I went prepared to swim, complete with a change of clothes but decide that I am quite happy to just watch this one. Another couple have come prepared to have a dip as well. Good for them.
As the sun drops and the wind off that frozen block of ice whips around us we turn and make our way back to the camp. I am pleased everyone has made it up the hill here. Some have taken the slowest of times but that matters nothing. They have persisted and that is all that matters. I am doubly pleased though, for between this exercise and the Cusco acclimatisation I am now confident we will all get over that pass tomorrow. We huddle in a fridge with its door open and have dinner but it’s a short lived affair for the warmest place is in that rated sleeping bag in the tent. I am in there as soon as possible and am quickly having those lucid, mad dreams that seem to come with altitude. And exertion. We have both in spades right now.
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