Monday, 4 February 2008

Deja-vu all over again...

The bobbing of the cone of light from my head torch on the footsteps ahead of me was a familiar sight. After a 1.50am wake up call we had been climbing for two and a half hours before the nausea began to abate. This time the ultimate goal was simply a connecting bus to get back to our transport back to Arequipa, however, the motion and experience of climbing at night was unmistakable. The climb out of the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world, was the reward for a wonderful day descending the day before. Unlike its more famous cousin, the Grand Canyon, the Colca Canyon is a deep ravine, cut by a frothing river, out of lush pasture land between two volcanic mountain ranges. The flat desert plateau of the Grand Canyon is as far away from Colca as you could get. The snow capped peaks are gradually transformed by Inca terracing, planted with potatoes, beans and maize. Women adorned with intricately embroidered, wide rimmed hats work the fields whilst their husbands repair the terracing and clean the irrigation ditches in their impossibly large stetsons.

The further down the river valley you get the flatter the flood plain becomes until you reach a point where the river begins to cut deep into the alluvial deposits. Within a few kilometres the walls of the mountains converge, squeezing out the flood plain to the width of the river and so the canyon begins. Over two hours we dropped from the ledge onto the path into the canyon. Entering a think blanket of cloud that marked the temperature inversion,separating the warm air at the base of the canyon from the frigid air dropping off the snow capped mountains, the path was wide and lined with shrubby trees. Within half an hour we had emerged from the cloud to be greeted with a terrifying drop over a thousand metres to the river below. After four days on the Inca trail we were used to the exposure of these paths, cut into the near vertical canyon sides, but how the mules manage to negotiate the steep steps and hairpin bends, whilst fully laden is still a mystery. We stopped a couple of times to let families pass with their retinue of mules and donkeys carrying provisions to their villages below. It’s hard to imagine a two day round trip, every week or so, just to go food shopping. The luxury of a trip in the car to the farm shop is exactly that.

Our accommodation for the evening at the ‘Oasis’ the end of the canyon was a ‘rustic’ bungalow. It is hard to imagine what a ‘rustic’ bungalow is, but I had wishful visions of a slightly dilapidated bungalow with a porch and a basic kitchen. I should have know better. The closest comparator I can think of is an african rondhavel. On top of an adobe foundation of a foot or so was a five foot wall of bamboos, widely spaced for easy access to the local community of spiders and rodents. The round pitched roof of bamboo and grass looked less than waterproof, but that was to be academic. The beds inside the hut were much like the charpoi beds that are found in Pakistan and Afghanistan with dusty covers and rancid sheets. The one saving grace of this ‘oasis’ was the naturally fed swimming pool, a haven after a hot sweaty day of trekking.

After a fitful night’s sleep, mostly spent dreaming about spiders in Sarah’s rucksack, we were awake at 1.50am for a 2am start. It took the best part of two hours to get going as I was starting to come down with a stomach bug. The turning point in the climb was when I found out that I had a pocketful of lemon sours that each lasted a good 20 minutes and provide the much needed energy that I wasn’t able to eat in solids. Exhausted and slightly delirious, we finally reached the town at the top of the canyon at 6am. No more serious trekking until the Patagonian Lake least that’s what Sarah thinks!

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