I love to trek in the mountains.
There’s something peaceful about the solitude, the cold, snow-fed streams that bubble through the valleys, against the imposing backdrop of rocky snow caps.
I’m a pretty fast walker, and I don’t like to dawdle. More often than not, I leave the pack behind to walk on my own, lest frustration ruin the experience. The guides, bless them, are generally stuck with the wheezing geriatrics, who, in a moment of insanity, somehow felt that they were capable of walking a distance they haven’t traversed for decades past, let alone considering the inclines.
On this occasion, it was the Andes, or more particularly, the Inca Trail. Well, not the actual Inca trail, which is commonly booked out for months in advance, and thus unavailable for a person with my limited foresight.
The track was nonetheless spectacular, and decidedly less crowded. The path wound past cool creeks, rolling, grassy hills, and lung-busting passes. The group was a mixed lot, mostly younger, some pitifully out of shape and relying on the rescue burro. However, mid-trek, we had been joined by four Romanians in their early twenties (two of each gender persuasion), who must have been training for high-altitude marathons. Suddenly, I was no longer the jack rabbit of the group, merely the mediocre. I tried to keep up, I really did, but youth was on their side.
The trek was a multi-day affair. We were liberally supplied with porters and horses to carry gear, tents and food. Even loaded down with our Westerner’s excess baggage, the porters flew past us every morning, arriving at camp just after lunch and setting up our home for the night, including, most importantly, the cooking of the food.
Of course, one shouldn’t be too picky about camp food. After all, it needs to be lugged, literally on the back of man or beast, to its final resting place. And, of course, my delicate stomach may not be accustomed to strange South American cuisine. It has to be said that they tried their best to accommodate us: pasta was regularly on offer, as well as quinoa. And as much as I’d prefer not to think about it, the cooks could only do so much as far as hygiene is concerned. There is no running water, lest it be found in the river, and its banks are pitted with the remnants of former toilet sites (nothing more than a tent surrounding a short drop) and liberally pocked with horse apples.
For all these reasons, I always presume that, at some stage, my bowels will catch up to me on holidays, and that I will spend an uncomfortable day or so sucking back on Imodium tablets and excusing myself from group social events. It’s all part of the experience.
But I digress. On this day, the weather was fickle. At times warm, with a gentle breeze that played through the hair, causing one to raise one’s face and close one’s eyes in repose. At others I was pelted with hard pebbles of ice as dark clouds scudded across the sky, which lodged in the folds of my clothing and turned them frigid. It was only when I stopped to don my wet weather gear that the deluge stopped, and by that time I was reluctant to take it off again, causing an uncomfortable steaming sensation and a stench that my fellow travellers regretted.
By the time the sun made its reappearance, I was anxious to get to camp. The Romanians were far ahead, and my companions lagging like a three-legged dog. Besides, my innards were starting to feel like they want to be out-ards. Quinoa may not have been the superfood its marketing agents had led me to believe.
There are a number of essential characteristics of mountain walks, notably:
- At high altitude, trees are in short supply. One cannot simply duck behind a shrub, and take a deuce. If any hardy foliage exists, you can bet that the ground behind it had already been well used for this purpose, and one needs to be careful to dodge any existing nuggets and the spire of non-biodegradable wet wipes that will become fossilised there.
- Secondly, the views are magnificent, the hills open and rolling, and the air clear. No matter how far in front of your companions you find yourself, it’s likely that you are always in full view, especially of those resourceful characters with binoculars and/or telephoto lenses.
I knew that the speedy local porters would already be at camp, and the tents were probably already up, including one with a small pothole and a little privacy. I lifted my pace.
At last, I rounded a small hill, and camp came into view. It was set aside an old, abandoned school, sitting high on a ledge above a mountain stream. In this season, it was content to bubble quietly in a twisting path, but I could see that the spring melt would bring an altogether more violent event. Over the years, it had carved away slices of mountain rock and would continue to do so until the end of time.
(Part 2 Next Week – An empty classroom – A certain lack of facilities – An urgent call – Unwelcome Visitors)