Posts Tagged ‘forest’

Yukon and on and on

They call it ‘The Highway of Tears’. Since the seventies more than twenty women have vanished off the main road that sweeps east-west across British Columbia connecting the port of Prince Rupert and the town of Prince George, most of them hitch-hikers, most Native Americans. Each body unearthed from the forest adds to the tally of an uncaught killer. The eyes of these women gazed at me from the roadside missing posters as I cycled by – sentient, sparkling eyes, in concert with playful smiles, maybe because a loved one had called their name and snapped a surprise photo. The mood of that instant, captured in a time when they weren’t missed or mourned, was at odds with the bleak details of their disappearance or murder in the print that followed.

For three days the weather was congruent with the road’s repute and the sadness that seeped from each poster and missing smile. A tense, metallic sky drooped low over the forest, the rain-laden clouds almost enveloping the spiny tops of the spruce trees which sprawled out over the hills like an ancient army ready for battle, their ranks broken only by the odd raggedy lake. I edged west until the coastal range jerked up out of the western horizon, as fast as a pop-up in a children’s book. Buried in a crease of glinting rock was the Hudson Bay Glacier – the first river of ice on my route since I was embroiled in a battle for air in the lofty peaks of the Cordillera Blanca range in Peru. During the summer in these open, almost unpeopled lands in the northern reaches of North America I can read my book at midnight by the afterglow of a sun that dinks beneath the horizon only briefly before it’s up again too early, night here is just a harried caller.

I stayed in a cabin one night on Highway 16, a refuge set up by a local man for tired bikers to use for the night. There was a guestbook where cyclists scribbled ‘keep the rubber side down!’ and wished each other tail winds, and there were discarded items lying about for others to take or trade, items whose weight was not deemed worth their usefulness. Books, a mirror, a ladle and some condoms, presumably someone was feeling a little pessimistic about their chances with the Alaskan totty, if that’s not an oxymoron.

The roads and my options become fewer up here – I have only one real choice to make for the next 3000 km before the Dalton Highway ferries me into the arctic circle and eventually to the Arctic Ocean where my northbound romp I began one year and eight months ago from Argentina comes to a head. From highway 16 I hung a right onto the Cassiar Highway and Canada got wilder. The road pierces a huge tract of sparsely populated back country, ending after 723 km at the Alaska Highway in the Yukon. I rode past vivid sprays of intermingled pink and saffron wild flowers riven by crooked corridors of flat foliage – trails made by foraging black bears. On my first day on the Cassiar I spotted four bears, all made a dash from the road once I got close and camera-ready. A day later a female with four cubs trundled out onto the tarmac, so I kept my distance in case Mum’s instinct to protect her young included mauling any bikers in sight. Two weeks before an American cyclist had been attacked by a wolf near here as he cycled. He dived inside an RV just in time, the wolf tore apart his panniers. A bear attack though, I mused, might have a silver lining. I don’t really want the fear of death, but to survive with a nice claw mark to show for it and no PTSD would provide a good yarn and probably the legacy of never having to buy my own beer again. Maybe that’s my fate. To hunch in a corner of some dingy local haunt, full of old soaks, a place where I’m local too and no longer a stranger, when I’m gnarled and grizzly and stout-soaked and rambling. ‘That’ll be ole Fabesy’ the barman might say. ‘Beat a Grizzley to death once. Buy ‘im a beer ‘n he’ll tell y’all bout it.’

Mountains, snow-spotted and rusty-verged and scarred with the eroded channels of invisible streams, towered over deep interlocking valleys. The Cassiar became elevated in sections and land tumbled down either side into a parade of pine trees, as rigid as nails, crowded together, unshakable in the soggy and loam-scented breeze. In the evenings I camped by lakes where I could wallow through the soupy, reed-scattered fringes and wash off the day. The sanguine light of the low sun glanced off the water and thousands of glinting motes, the wings of insects, flickered just above the surface, and for hours I heard the plops of fish that flipped out to gobble them up.

There were places on my map with names, like junctions, dry creek beds and long abandoned towns, and sometimes it was two hundred kilometres or more before I landed on somewhere useful with water and food. Sometimes it was a fiercely priced lodge, sometimes just a store with parochial, miserly proprietors who reminded me not to bring my own food inside and in one case refused to fill up my water bottle, because, and I quote verbatim ‘I don’t know where it’s been’. I flashed him a wan smile, thinking about where I’d like it to go. Canadian hospitality has flourished in every other respect though – I’ve been donated money, beds, campsites, peanut butter, salmon, a dry bag, a high five, and oceans of good vibes. So thank you Canada.

When I wasn’t rough camping or pitching in some ominously labeled lay-by called something like ‘The Rabid Grizzly Rest Stop’ (that place really does exist), or on the fringes of a small Native community, I rested up in campsites, even though BCs pricing policy is about as logical and fair as the British National Party’s manifesto. In BC government campsites you are charged per ‘camping party’ – which can be an RV the size of a long distance passenger coach, three tents and eight people, or alternatively: one man and a bicycle. And you can’t team up with other soloists – ‘you arrive alone, you pay alone’ scorned a mardy attendant.

Scarpering bears and porcupines and chats with bikers broke up my days on the Cassiar, the cyclists were all heading south, autumn falls in August up here and I’m traveling late in the season. Motorcyclists waved and RVs rallied by. Evidently Earnest Shakelton brought a smoothy maker, a foot spa and a microwave to Antarctica. Or at least that’s what the RV manufacturers would have you believe with names like The Adventurer and The Expedition. And there was the slightly more tepid Excursion, which invites the question – why do you need a 33 foot mega-vehicle with leather couches and a Sony home cinema system if it’s only an excursion? Some have run with the tested, zesty names of predators – The Puma, The Cougar, The White Hawk, and then breaking tradition there’s the less ostentatious Mallard. Come on, The Mallard? Who’s going to buy one of those? Except the obvious market: roving ornithologists. At a guess the Mallard stays in the garage, the Cougar gets the driveway. I liked the occupants of the Mallard though, they honked and waved and cheered me on, which made me think that either ornithologists are all very chirpy, or very high. Perhaps there’s a promotion on at the Mallard dealership – each vehicle comes with a year’s supply of Ecstasy.

There’s the King Kamper too, RV manufacturers have been studying the greats of hiphop, breaks and dubstep production by putting a K where a C should be to add some edge. And of course the road hogging assholes that drive THE INTRUDER. I can imagine the American Infomercial now: a brash and angry man shouts abrasively into camera…

‘You wanna crush some nature? You wanna kick the shit out of the wilderness? You need THE INTRUDER! Comes with three moose-seeking missiles, a license to hunt Native Americans and a flame thrower so you can start your own wildfires. Don’t visit nature, INTRUDE on it! Or for just 300,000 bucks more upgrade to THE DEATH STAR and get a year’s supply of Napalm absolutely free!’

There can’t be a more convincing argument against the existence of a benevolent God and Creator than the mosquito, and the Yukon is their domain. For the last two days on the Cassiar Highway the insects were about as prevalent as my fleeting urge to throw myself under a truck because of them. Cycling became more relaxing than not because my break time involved a myriad of buzzing Beelzebubs feeding on my blood before making sweet insect love in my nostrils and having a party on my face. At night thousands swarmed around my tent and between the inner and the fly. Sometimes I’d stop to chat with another biker heading south, we’d both make harried conversation whilst slapping away feeding mosquitoes, vigorously scratching old bites, twirling around wildly to break the cumulus cloud of flying critters and cursing loudly. The best simile I can offer is a pair of people with severe Tourettes attempting to Morris dance after a weeklong crack cocaine binge. It might sound unlikely, but I’m fairly sure that’s a Saturday night in some parts of Manchester.

Mosquitoes in my effing home
The Yukon is a colossal territory north of BC, a hinterland of bear-filled forest and scattered lakes in the watershed of it’s namesake, the Yukon River. I rode northwest through the Yukon along the Alaska Highway, gone were the valleys and peaks, in their place just scores of dead spruce whose reflections stewed in the inky swamps they protruded from. Wild fires in the 80’s wiped out great swathes of forest here and the young trees planted in their place are resplendent green and already house high. More recent fires had left only blackened stumps, between them a scintillating rug of fireweed – a pioneer species that paints the tarry remnants of an old blaze a ferocious pink – was nature’s two fingers up at destruction. Some crown fires are so immense they can burn through the winter months too, only to be fully extinguished in the spring when firefighters dig up the smoldering earth.

I can’t shake the thought that there’s something innately vapid and cheesy about using travel as a road to self-discovery. For me it conjures the image of hapless nineteen year olds traveling to the banks of the Ganges to ‘find’ themselves. I didn’t embark on this journey by bike to that end, discovery was in my mind reserved for the outside world and not the internal one, but I’ve had the treacle-like drip of time on my bike to ponder, to analyse, to remember, to regret and to dream, so inevitably self-reflection happens whether I was expecting or willing it to or not. ‘Finding myself’ though might be overkill, I’d prefer to stay a little lost.

There have been no grand revelations though, no big questions done away with. And I was the barely yellow, ripe around the edges, years away from moldy, age of 29 when I left on my bike, so travel hasn’t ram-raided the shop front of my personality either. My priorities have shifted, though I won’t be adopting an orphan from Malawi.

So what have I learnt about myself exactly? Perhaps I’ll explain more if I ever write a book about all this. In those rookie days back in 2010, when I shivered inside an ice-encrusted sleeping bag and worried a bit about exposure, one thing that I did discover was how much I was capable of, and it was more than I thought. I’ve been pushed in countless ways and finding out how much solitude, how much exhaustion, how much fear and how much boredom I can deal with before my brain screams Enough! Go home! was good to know. When push came to shove I didn’t immediately pencil in a route on my map to the nearest airport. I coped, and sometimes more than that, I reveled in the test. This doesn’t of course mark me out as special or heroic, in fact it’s the opposite – it’s the most average response in the world. In many respects most of us have a deflated opinion of what we’re capable of. It’s why the clichéd dictum of ‘you can do anything you want to’ is so clichéd – because despite the superficial welcome it receives, despite how regularly it’s banded about, how many people really believe it?

Finally I arrived into Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon and a stonking place in the Granola belt of Canada where friends Kirstin and Cameron gave me a bed, introduced me to the best TV show on earth (check out ‘Drunk Histories’) before we had a great knees up for Kirstin’s birthday which involved, though not from memory, rum. Five uninspiring days of riding after I left Whitehorse, brightened only by Greg Proop’s podcast on my IPOD, I got to the very trippy wild west town of Dawson City, created and made famous by the Klondike Gold Rush, where I have teamed up with two Swizz cyclists – together we will ride into Alaska via the rough and tough and high and allegedly stunning border crossing known as ‘The Top Of The World Highway’, which for touring cyclists is one of the most famous roads in the Americas. And I have decided no more shaving, a cultural homage to the men and women that live in Alaska. Wait up, do women live in Alaska?

Thank yous – Kirstin and Cameron – you are the bee’s knees. Jon and Jenna – Bobby Dazzlers, the pair of you. Brenda – mad props. The Goldrush Campsite, The Cycle Canada crew, Jon from Rainbow RV park, some other anonymous headz. Next month is my last blog post from this continent, there might be snow in them photos too.

Claire, the invisible bear and a kazoo

It was the worst possible sentence to hear since I was dog tired, horizontal inside my tent and intent on a restful night’s sleep. 

“But I love you Amy….You Bitch.”

Having heard that series of words, slurred and probably uttered in the aftermath of necking something brutally alcoholic, and after ruminating on them briefly, I suspected they would herald a long, long night ahead. Dave The Drunk Misogynist, as we’ll call him, was not going to unwind this perplexing dichotomy very quickly – that he loves her, but that he also thinks she’s a bitch. Amy, the subject of Dave’s affections and contempt, had locked herself inside a car which was parked on the banks of a river where I had set up my tent, about a day’s ride out of Seattle. Dave, it seemed, wanted to get into the car with Amy.

‘Come on you bitch, let me in. I love you.’

‘Fuck off Dave’ retorted Amy ‘I don’t love you, I love Brian’

The words must have stung ‘Fine, have your 20 year old boyfriend!’ returned Dave.

Dave, lovelorn but ever the romantic, would retreat for a minute or two offering me the tantilising prospect of slumber, only to charge back to the car and pledge his undying love before an impulse to shout ‘Whore!’ overtook him. Eventually after hours of stalemate (between Dave and Amy, me and sleep) Dave decided the best demonstration of his unrequited love for Amy was to deflate her car tyres, which he did, to Amy’s agonized screams, followed by ‘What have you DONE! Dave, what have you DONE!!’ and then softer and softer whimpering as I drifted off belatedly to dreamland.

Two days in Seattle with my second cousin Liz was well spent since it involved good company, the League of Gentlemen on DVD and quite a lot of ice cream. The Canadian border to me was just another boundary, not something to stress about. I saw no potential of being forbidden to enter Canada or any likelihood of it being more complicated than any of the sixty that have come before it. Or so I thought.

After a chain of predictable questions the border guard asked how long I’d been cycling. Three and half years caused his eyebrows to take a vigorous leap towards his hair line, he swiftly wrote the letter B on a piece of paper and told me to go inside the immigration building. The immigration official was a tall, bald, menacing man with a Scottish lilt. ‘Here’s what’s happening’ he declared in a no-nonsense and well-practiced fashion. ‘YOU (and he pointed at me) have to prove to ME (points at himself, in case I find simple pronouns confusing) that we’re not going to find you working in a bar in Canada. I want bank statements, I want papers, I want evidence. So come on then, show me what you’ve got.’

At this point he put his hands behind his head and wearing an expression akin to that of a sadistic child when pulling the legs off an insect, he rested back into his chair and I got the sudden perception that this was someone who had been short changed in life and was wreaking revenge on society, one cycle tourist at a time. I didn’t have much, no bank statements, nothing to prove that I had funds. In the end certificates proving I was a medic and a phone call to my relatives in Vancouver just about satisfied him. It was too close for comfort.

I stayed with MaryLouise, my mum’s cousin, a kind of extreme superhuman who thrashes twenty year olds in half Iron Man contests. She is also very charming and I enjoyed chilling out with her family whilst I waited for a very cool cat to arrive. Claire is an old friend of mine from Liverpool and also a superhuman by way of being a psychologist, PhD whizz, jazz musician, Frisbee champion, purveyor of winks and wry smiles and expedition leader and who is brilliantly dynamic in lots of other cool ways too. We swapped news, went to a poetry slam, biked around Vancouver and prepared for the road ahead. And we wondered a bit about some of Canada’s furry residents…

Bears – there are two schools of thought in Canada. The alarmists like to remind you of the ease at which a Grizzly can out-run you before it takes a minute to chew heartily away on your bone marrow, and there are the more insouciant brigade who like to compare black bears to big dogs and who offer assurances that they won’t give much trouble. Everybody though seems to think bringing a can of bear pepper spray to fend off a creature that gets too close is a sensible idea. I have my doubts. There are very few things in this world more disagreeable than being mauled to death by a bear. One of those things is spraying yourself in the face with extra potent pepper spray, and then getting mauled to death by a bear. Despite my reservations Claire and I headed off to a hunting store to enquire about some sort of defense strategy even though Claire has a kazoo and I have some interesting dance moves and I reckon a well-choreographed performance might repel even the most hulking of Grizzlies.

We get directed to a hunting store which is staffed exclusively by the sort of men who have taxidermied their own grandparents and have mounted them to the walls of their home, and who can’t finish a beer without crunching the can onto their forehead and growling. These are not the type of men you would leave to look after a family pet if you go on holiday. You might return to find they have finished off little Oscar with a crossbow and are sitting in a circle, skinning or spit roasting him.

‘This is essential’ explained one very serious man, holding the bear spray aloft and tilted unnervingly in my direction.
‘27 foot range. Just blast the bear right in the face, OK?’
‘Um, OK’ we mumble. 

I can’t summon up a mental image of either of us blasting a charging bear in the face with this. Instead I wonder if throwing the can at the oncoming bear and wailing pathetically would impede the attack. Probably not. I’m awed, impressed and a little disturbed by the array of bear repelling devices on offer. There are a variety of bear sprays, bear bombs (which just go bang and aren’t as exciting as they sound), flares, bear guns and projectiles. After a brief discussion, marked by total uncertainty and mild panic, we decide on the bear spray, mainly because the man behind the counter is perusing other bear defeating devices and I’m a little scared about what direction the conversation might soon take.

‘We call this the BEAR-VAP. Push this little button and it will vaporize up to 75 adult grizzlies in a 32 mile radius. Oh wait, you’ll need some of this too. BEAR-O-CIDE. Just sprinkle a thimbleful of this stuff into any small stream and it will kill every black bear that drinks from any river between here and the Yukon for 18 years.’ 

The actual packaging on bear spray. Something tells me it wouldn’t work out quite like this 
So excited, and with only a mild sense of impending doom bestowed on us by the hunting shop, we set off. Given that we had a little time to play with, a loop of Vancouver Island was on the cards before we set out on the more serious mountains of northern BC. Claire had three weeks before a bus from Prince George would transport her and her bike back to Vancouver. This year it seems that Canada’s tourism board have let the intern come up with British Columbia’s tagline, infused, as it is, with subtlety and edge.

‘British Columbia – The Best Place in the World’ 

There’s another one doing the rounds as well, the irritating ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’ which makes me want to decapitate something small, cute and furry just so I don’t have it in my head any more.

I admit it, three and a half years of biking has left me a little jaded. It’s getting harder not to make endless comparisons between where I am and where I’ve been, but having Claire with me has opened my eyes again to just how propitious it is to experience this wonky world by bicycle. Claire gets excited about herons. Claire is surprised when she consumes 200 grams of dairy milk chocolate and moves on to marsh mallows. Claire is enlivened by the prospect of not knowing where we’ll end up or where we’ll sleep. It’s invigorating.

We pedaled up the aptly named sunshine coast watched by the Canadian wildlife, as we watched back. We spotted a scuttling raccoon, a slightly pissed off deer, garter snakes, purple starfish and a seal which could have been doing a good impression of a sea otter. Ferries shuttled us across the watery bits as we sat on deck playing a kazoo, catching up and congratulating Canada. RVs crowded us a little on the roads and I mused over their curious names – The Adventurer. The Expedition. The RV manufacturers had done their research. We all know how important the microwave and foot spa were to Ernest Shackleton.

In Nanaimo on Vancouver Island we hung out with Chris, a diamond geezer, and Joe, his gigantean Newfoundland dog that cheerfully murders the neighbour’s chickens at every given opportunity. Chris cycled with us the following day and after eating for so long in a bakery we fell into a desperate tour-de-France peloton for the ultimately failed race to make the ferry, and after being too full of pastry based food to make it we opted instead to drink beer on the beach, like the serious cyclists we are.

The road that would take us to the world renowned resort town of Whistler and beyond is the Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky Highway, don’t let the abbreviated version fool you. Vancouver was steeped in a sullen murk as we rode away over the rolling hills of the coast whilst drizzle spattered the asphalt. Out to our west ethereal claws of mist raked through the dense groves of pines trees which crowded the low humps of the gulf islands.

Claire was the perfect cycling companion, just when boredom threatened she would nonchalantly pull up alongside me with a ‘Steve?’ and offer up some theories on the shape of the universe or ask my opinion on some aberrant topic.

‘Yes Claire’
‘What’s your favourite marsupial?’

We talked about people we both knew of course. We discussed other important issues too – Utilitarianism. Socialised medicine. Why gooseberries are under-rated. Who were the Thundercats. How much of a tosser David Cameron actually is. Interspersed with laughter and this mental and verbal workout we had an intensely competitive thumb war tournament (three all), we lobbed cherries into each other’s jowls and Claire tried to teach me to sing. I would say Claire failed, but really it was me.

There were some moments where I felt a little vulnerable as another pair of eyes appraised my slightly odd ball lifestyle. The discovery of a tin of tuna with a Spanish label and leaking powdered mashed potato that I can say with confidence has been in my food bag since at least Peru was one such moment. But Claire cooked risotto, could read road signs from more than ten metres away and sometimes felt inspired to use the phrase ‘amazeballs’. All of these things and many others made her a great travel companion. And she reminded me of how exciting the serendipity that courts all cycle tourers can be – it’s great when someone else is a bit awed by the hospitality of strangers, by the romance of wild camping, and by the buzz of meeting another biker. It feels good to share.

Claire wasn’t aware of this, but I was surreptitiously undertaking a research project whilst we cycled together through BC…

The effect of cycle touring on a previously uninitiated individual: An observational study.

Aim – To determine how long the transformation process will take from baseline to Cycle Tourer

Methodology – Observation of control subject Claire Press

Day Three – Claire accidentally ingests 95% DEET. Doesn’t seem to care.

Day Five – Claire has begun to develop a bizarre obsession with roadkill. Talk often veers to dead animals.

Day Six – I find Claire slumped outside supermarket surrounded by empty packets of blueberry muffins, crumbs covering her face, and with an expression of unsullied joy and contentment.

Day Eleven – Empties half a jar of strawberry jam onto bread and spreads it around wildly with index finger. Smirks when I offer a knife.

Day Thirteen – Wears T-shirt inside out. Doesn’t notice until mid-afternoon.

Day Fifteen – Uses the exact phrase ‘You know it’s a good day when sweat dribbles down your ass’

Day sixteen – Has become adept in killing mosquitoes in total darkness.

Day seventeen – gazes strangely at inner tube. Perhaps wondering if several of them glued together would make a serviceable bandana.

Conclusion – Transformation complete by 17 days.

Whistler is a busy resort town which hosted many of the events of the winter Olympics in 2010. Our plan on arrival was to find an Australian, an easy task here, buy them a beer, also an easy task, and subtly suggest (not ask) that we camp in their garden. It was a fail. After approximately six hours and thirty cups of tea we found ourselves sitting in a flat with two alcoholics, feeling slightly uneasy, whilst they made jokes about stealing all our stuff. In the end though they showed us to a decent spot to camp in the park, humanity prevailed.

Then it was a short ride to Pemberton where Tammy was going to put us up, a surfer I met on the coast of Mexico and an all-round brilliant human being. We met her briefly on the road where she gave us a very Canadian lesson about how to fight a cougar (‘just punch and kick it in the face’) and offered us her home to rest up in whilst she was away, a cosy forest retreat easily worth the uphill battle to get there.

Claire, pedaling uphill for three km: ‘Steve, I hate you right now’
And then two minutes later ‘I’m sorry Steve. It’s not you. It’s just that I hate everything a little right now’

As sweaty as sumo wrestlers, dizzy and slightly blue, we arrived. Claire admitted her pulse was strangely audible and at a slightly higher BPM than Happy Hardcore.

The next day was a well-deserved day off, and one where the adjective Perfect might just be the best fit. Tammy is also keen on paragliding and had arranged for us to give it a whirl with her mates, and for free. We both floated off the launch site on tandem paragliders, vaguely towards the snow covered crags and glaciated peaks of the coastal mountains and hovering high and occasionally swooping over the broad valley below.

Tammy’s pad was where we wiled away the afternoon, knowing that after you’ve spent the morning paragliding in British Columbia, the day is already awesome and you don’t have to exert any extra effort to make it so. That afternoon a black bear loped into the garden so I sent Claire downstairs to deal with it – part of an agreed plan that she handles black bears, Grizzlies and cougars, I get troublesome insects and noisy dogs.

The next day began with ‘Eye of the tiger’ ringing out from my computer – we needed it. The Duffy Lake Road beckoned. Or in local parlance ‘THE DUFFY’ (which comes with a brief whistle and bounce of the eyebrows). The road climbs a thousand vertical metres and starts out at a 15 to 20% grade with an average incline of 7.5% to the top. THE DUFFY had been on our minds and had exerted its menace well before we glanced up at its preliminary twists and turns, though despite the hype and irrefutable stats (maybe because of them), it was tamer than we imagined. A double handed high five came in the early afternoon as we crested the pass, glanced back behind us and exchanged a little look that said ‘Have some of that, Canada’. And Canada thanked us for our efforts with bold and imposing peaks, bald eagles, prodigious gorges and serene moments skirting turquoise lakes as we rallied downwards, sucking up the odd rush of cool air radiating from churning mountain streams that cascaded into the wide river at the gorge floor. Around us poplar fluff drifted easily on the breeze as if we were biking through a snow dome. In amongst it all two cyclists were grinning like crazy people.

The topography is as changeable as the weather in this part of Canada and soon we were in an arid semi-desert. Lillooet, we were reminded time and again, is the hottest spot in Canada. It’s a fact dished out with gravity by the locals of a country internationally renowned for its incessant tropical heat. ‘It’s gonna be way too hot to ride today’ scorned a local man in the supermarket. He went on to tell me a cautionary tale I only half listened to, which I think involved another cycling couple and probably involved them sweating so hard they were converted into a white crust and had to be scraped off the tarmac and their salt crystals repatriated, but I wasn’t really paying attention. We set off anyway, sweating and panting past signs that told us not to pass snow ploughs on the right.

Back into the verdant arable land to the east and lulled into a sense of invincibility by the absence so far of a bear attack, we camped out in a small village of Native Americans and left food inside our tent instead of the nightly ritual of finding a place to stash it where bears couldn’t get to it. In hindsight, this must have been on Claire’s mind. From deep sleep I was violently jerked into the real world as Claire kicked off her sleeping bag and shouted ‘It’s inside! ITS INSIDE!’

Now Claire was asleep and dreaming, but the important thing to understand is that I had no idea at the time that she was asleep and dreaming, and when someone shouts ‘IT’S INSIDE!’ at night, in a tent, with food in it, in Canada, in bear country, you have to assume the worst has happened, or is about to. Two thoughts raced to the forefront of my mind, interestingly the first was ‘use hysterical friend as human shield’ but this was soon superseded by the more sensible ‘better get the bear spray’. One close look at Claire though and I knew she was in the throes of an ursine-related nightmare. We settled back to sleep but half an hour later Claire threw herself wildly into the side of the tent, another imaginary bear had attacked whilst I was asleep and she was bravely defending us. Imaginary bears are much scarier than real ones.

The terrain flattened out as we climbed slowly up onto the Fraser Plateau and soon we were relaxing in Prince George, Claire’s final stop. I gave a talk to the local bike club, and I said goodbye to Claire. And then it rained. 

To my north and where I’m heading there is a big empty space on my map where I suspect bears outnumber people, moose heads adorn every wall and the women have beards. I will leave British Columbia behind and embrace the Yukon, a place twice the size of England and with a population that could fit inside Norwich City Football stadium. And yes, that really is something to be excited about.

Thank you’s this month – Liz and Zach, MaryLouise, Paul and the posse, Mark, Cath and Superman Luke, Josephine, Norman, Stacy and Deb, Etta, The Powell River Bikers, Vancouver Rotary Club, Prince George Cycling Club, Ruth and Paul, Stephen and Rua, Chris, Tammy, Mike and the paragliders, Brenda, Pero and Vanessa, a whole bunch of anonymous Canadians and whoever it was that drew a penis on the deer signpost near Quesnel. You’ve all been utterly ace, so mad props to one and all. If I’ve forgotten anyone, I blame it on last night’s drinking with Claire, who’s gone for now, but not forgotten.

Feisty friends and forest

The sign, sited roadside and heralding a blind corner was a bit perturbing. Why, I had to wonder, did Ecuadorians need this picture? If they didn’t understand that accelerating into oncoming traffic on a virtual chicane, a manoeuvre Lewis Hamilton would scoff at, had consequences – namely mangled bodies, crumpled metal, gravestones and grieving relatives – perhaps they weren’t quite ready to be at the helm of an automobile. Perhaps these people should just walk. Perhaps these people shouldn’t be let outside at all. Perhaps these people need to be told not to play with tigers and require labels on tubs of industrial strength sulphuric acid specifically warning them not to bath their children in it. Just outside Quito these soon-to-be organ donors swerved frantically, skimming past looming juggernauts and flashing by my panniers before another precarious deflection back into the lane that normal, life-cherishing people enjoy so much. So to my dismay I figured the sign was necessary after all and more questions came to the fore – did Ecuadorian cars come fitted with giant joysticks instead of steering wheels? Would a new sign do any good? “No dying in the road” or “Your family love you” or perhaps a three metre high poster depicting a man decapitated in a traffic accident à la the images on cigarette packets? Probably not.

From the buzz and throng of Quito I ventured north to Mitad del Mundo – AKA the Equator, and my 4th crossing on this bike ride of mine. Obligatory photo – one foot in the Northern and one foot in the Southern hemisphere – and I was off on back roads, Colombia-bound. An evening sift through my panniers turned into a rummage before exploding into a tantrum as I realised my only pair of trainers were sitting somewhere in a Quito hostel and I knew I would be taking a bus back to retrieve them. South Americans are endowed with dainty tootsies and my size, a not unusual one back home, is near on impossible to get hold of out here. When searching for new trainers in Peru the shop staff would stifle giggles, eyeball my feet and take it in turns to point at my (relatively) clown-like plodders. Often they would continue the ribbing by asking if they could see them. I would sigh, remove my shoes and wait whilst they huddled around me, grinning and taking photos on their mobile phones.

Trainers reclaimed I set off again and soon fleeting glimpses of Colombian soil penetrated the twisting Ecuadorean valleys. Not long after crossing the border my new country emphatically answered questions that had been swimming through my mind. Would there be big hills to ride? – YES screamed Colombia’s perpetually rolling farmland and her cresting and crash-landing caminos. Would the girls be beautiful? YES flirted Colombia with cheeky smiles and tossed hair – I got lost in their eyes and resolved to marry one. Well, at least one. Was my gear still waterproof after three years – NO replied flooded panniers, with a splash and a slosh. I’m here in the wet season and like the tropical wet of Tanzania more than a year ago I wake to a golden bath of warm light inside my tent, I eye malevolent clouds with apprehension over lunch, I get soaked through in the afternoon and I peel off my sodden garbs and drain my panniers every evening. And then I do it all over again.

I was once asked in a job interview by a medical consultant to describe myself in one word. One, he said, only one. Choose wisely. An internal alarm sounded as my lips fought the urge to reply “succinct” – an answer that could have secured me the post or resulted in a “Thanks Dr Fabes, we’ll let you know. Succinct enough for you?” It’s now a game I play with new countries, and the adjective I chose for Colombia?


Feisty are the children who run alongside my bicycle shouting “Meeeeesterrrrrr!”
Feisty are the drivers, the afternoon downpours, the gradients, and the transvestite who propositioned me in the high street at lunch time.
The fields are a feisty green after the rain, the musicians sing with feisty abandon in the streets and teenagers hold each other in feisty embrace in town squares, not caring for their audience.

Some Things That Make Me Smile

  • Dogs in trousers
  • People wearing pyjamas during the day in public places
  • The elderly in Spandex
Colombia has plenty of all three and thus I pedalled her rolling roads with a preternaturally wide grin taking up half my face. The pyjama fad may seem an extra bit bizarre when you consider just how fashion obsessed Colombians are, but it brought back memories of my adopted, feisty and fashion obsessed city of Liverpool, where at least half of those pushing shopping trolleys around ASDA on Saturdays had opted for jim-jams or else had suffered some sort of brain hemorrhage and had simply forgotten to get dressed. “Salad, got that, beans, yep. Damn it! I’m sure I’m forgetting something.”

Through the shifting altitudes I lorry surfed a bit (hanging off the back of trucks to ascend hills) whilst a green ocean of off-kilter fields slid by. Sometimes a few Colombian kids on BMXs were hanging off the back of the same trucks and we’d chat, laugh and scream when the truck accelerated and boo when it dropped speed.

They are a benevolent bunch these Colombians – I was thinking – soon after I asked a man in the street where I might be able to buy a map of Colombia. Within two minutes he had recruited a local scout troupe and issued strict instructions – I set off with a gang of adolescents in woggles to assist me in my purchase and within five minutes I had my map and was thanking the gang for their trouble. “No trouble!” they assured me with winsome grins and pats on the back. On another occasion I asked the police if they knew of somewhere I could camp. They ushered me into their patrol car, drove me to a local lady’s house and then demanded that I camp on her front lawn. The lady had every right to react a little miffed after being told to convert her property into a campsite – but she was Colombian and so just smiled instead with a “mucho gusto, Senor”.

There’s a blossoming middle class in Colombia  – evidenced on my ride by the many nice cars that glided past, the dearth of motorbikes, the well tended and spacious gardens, the many posh clothes shops and the gravity defying breasts and buttocks – Colombia’s booming industry in plastic surgery is world renowned. It all had me wondering where this wealth had sprouted from, Colombia is mineral-rich, has a good amount of oil and of course the international popularity of a particular Nose Drug may have had a part in it. But it’s also a country of divisions in wealth, like the rest of South America. The long civil war in Colombia has affected many directly and there are more internally displaced people in Colombia than any country on earth save Sudan. But Colombia is the real comeback kid – many of the roads I have cycled over the last few weeks would have been considered off limits just 15 years ago during an era when many Colombians were virtually imprisoned in their cities.

Carved into rock by the roadside the words translate as ‘victory or death’.
Taking advantage of this more recent freedom to explore the back roads I decided to leave the highway to cycle a road with the best epithet on the continent – The Trampoline of Death. Like Bolivia’s more famous Death Road this is a thoroughfare which winds and bounces through cloud forest and boasts vertical drops immediately beside it for the majority of it’s course. Though strangely the Trampoline of Death wasn’t the bit I was most worried about. The bit just afterwards had a fairly specific warning from the UK foreign office – ‘Don’t’, they said, ‘enter the San Augustin Archaeological Park from any of the back roads, use the main road only from Bogota’. A very specific warning and I would be disobeying the scare-mongerers once again. And once again I was faced with the old question I so often find myself battling – brave or stupid? If, for example, I decided to staple my penis to a wolf that could be construed as brave, but undeniably stupid. Venturing through these jungle-clad back roads was a harder quandary to answer.

When was the last time you were alone? Truly alone? When did you last spend a whole day by yourself with no communication or contact with others? No emails, no texts, no phone calls, not even a thank you at the supermarket or a “Dave’s not in, sorry. Call back later” on the land line. If I had asked myself these questions back in London I would struggle to find an answer. Now solitude is as reliably constant in my life as punctures and super-noodles and I have a guilty secret – I quite enjoy it. I realise that by admitting this I’ve marked myself out as the type of weirdo that abducts children from playgrounds or collects cats. The dubious ‘loner’. Keep away from Old Fabesy, parents will warn their children, that one keeps to himself. I need company of course, I just have an affinity for the crisp silence as I crawl out of my tent and into my wild camping spot at dawn, and I’m selfish – I like the open spaces and wide skies to be just mine to wander and to smile about. And when I need company – it’s never far away, it’s easy prey, not like the ever more scarce beast of wilderness.

November 3rd – The Trampoline Of Death

In part the lure is in it’s mystery. I can’t see where the roads goes, I can’t guess, half a football pitch away is an invisible cloud world, a precipice and a sliver of track. Upwards I go as the jungle murmurs it’s secret threats in clicks and tweets that echo through the foliage. Each push of the pedals in the not-quite-a granny gear brings me a tiny bit closer to the top of This Hill, but only a tiny bit and I know This Hill will not be the last. Sweat is cascading now from my eyebrows in a salty waterfall which soaks my beard as my bike tyres slowly crunch the gravel. I clear my mind, try not to focus on the climb and let my imagination roam – it’s the best way to ease the struggle, and I’ve had plenty of practise. The jungle recedes, though not literally, as my mind flits and rushes through an old life, a life of constant friends not superficial ones, a life of hospital shifts, of time with my family, of girlfriends, of festivals in the summer and of a reassuring routine. A life that fades with each new border and each new month on the road. 

The path twists up at a gradient a downhill skier would be more accustomed to, my wheeze hits a new pitch and power and I rejoin the jungle reality. Is that the top? Brief elation, then freewheel, then despair as the next ridge rears up and the mountains continue to mock me. I assent and on I go, exhausted now, but there’s always more to give. For hill after painful hill it’s a case of “Suck it in, I’ve had worse than this” – it’s a mantra that serves me well – after three years of cycling the truth is that I’ve almost always cycled steeper climbs before, battled up higher passes, rattled over rougher roads, and overcome worse. With each hill in my wake I’m stronger, more adept, and ever readier for the next. This at least is how I reassure myself when a little voice tells me I can’t go on, that’s its too hard, that I need to stop, rest or retreat.

Eventually I catch a view of the next valley – it’s a sight that rewards my perseverance. The jungle enswathes every fold of land for as far as I can see and there amongst it, tumbling through it, the Trampoline of Death. I ready for a bumpy, treacherous descent and know it was worth every drop of sweat and every gasping, suffocating moment, though it was a mental battle more than a physical one. It always is.

A river glints in the early morning light

Was I stapling my penis to a wolf? Possibly. There were army road blocks every 30 km or so staffed by fresh faced adolescent conscripts but so far no sign of those party poopers the FARC. I asked to camp with the soldiers hoping this would make me safer during the night, but they explained that that would in fact make me a target for lurking guerrillas who might take a pot shot from the jungle so I resolved to wild camp instead. In the gathering dusk I spotted a small track, half concealed by a collapsing tunnel of green and disappearing into the wilds. I wheeled my bike into the leafy passage which swept around a couple of bends and ended in a black tarp which hung over a pulley system. From the pulley a zip line was stretched across the entire valley and consumed by a fuzz of foliage hundreds of metres away on the far side of the drop. Only after the sun had slipped behind the peaks and as I crouched in my tent porch and scooped tentacles of spaghetti into my mouth, did I start to consider what it might be for, and the foreboding built. If there was a coca plantation in the next valley this would be one mighty fine and fast way to get it to the road. If you had ever wondered, like me, how drug cartels hide immense coca plantations in the jungle then you just have to come to Colombia – the forest is endless and untouched. You could hide whole cities here. My night was sweaty, restless and long as every rustle of the undergrowth took my heart rate from the normal tempo to something approaching Techno. As the sun rose I began to pack up but a creak made me jump. I swung around aghast – the pulley was turning. Slowly at first and then the creak became a whir as the wheel span ever faster. Someone was coming over from the next valley. Terror beat curiosity hands down and I bundled things into panniers and made off before an unexpected meeting with an amused and lowly local farmer or an unamused gang of hardcore FARC terrorists.

The next day I crossed another police road block. After the usual cheery interrogation they asked which way I was heading. I pointed east. “No problem this way” I was assured “but the way you’re coming from”, continued the senior of the two “that’s a complicated zone”. His friend elaborated by mimicking a knife slashing his throat whilst his tongue lolled and head dropped forward in fake death. I gulped and steered the conversation to what policemen in Colombia most like to discuss – girls and football.

Cali was soon on my agenda – the world’s unofficial salsa dancing capital and it was time to show the Colombians how to do it – my British hips had my dancing partners entranced and amused, presumably they were cognisant of the fact they had never before seen anyone quite so bad at salsa.

The next day I was approached by a local entrepreneur outside my hostel who offered various services – if I wanted to learn Spanish, get a guided tour of the city or find a good prostitute, he assured me, he was the man who could sort it out. Another Colombian with fingers in pies. Here’s his amusing business card – my guess is that a ‘VIP escort’ is not someone to call if you feel like a nice game of scrabble.

Salento was next – a small town embedded in the verdant, fresh beauty of Colombia’s coffee region. Plenty of foreigners flock to enjoy the views or mess about on horses or visit the farms and undulating coffee plantations nearby. It’s a town that got it right in so many ways – there’s no aggressive restaurant touts, no friction between locals and tourists, no over-charging and no hassle. In other words the polar opposite to Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama. Chilled out to almost freezing I set off to Manizales to meet friends of my Mum’s who did a sterling job of showing me around (thank you Ana) and then onward to Colombia’s second city of Medellin.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been busy booking public talks for California and during April and May I’m due to speak in various institutions from schools and universities to rotary clubs and outdoor retailers. If anyone reading this post has contacts in California who may be interested in booking me to speak then please send me an email – – and I can provide more information.

In less than a month I will reach the end of continent 3 and board a boat to Panama, soon after I’m looking forward to a New Year’s Eve in Costa Rica with an old friend from the UK. On this blog look out for a run down of some weird and wacky statistics from South America and the CT6 Equipment reviews for 2012.

You can’t imagine my surprise when I opened a pannier and this guy popped out

Sun and death in the lands of the Inca

Dodging The Drop  
Riding the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

A waft of frigid mist drifts across the splintered wooden crosses, cloaking their detail, and a shiver ripples through my arms and down my back as I watch their shapes fade threateningly back to life. They were erected as memorials to the backpackers and locals who have plummeted to their death, and the abyss lies just a few feet from where I’m standing.

On first consideration it might seem surprising that people still die whilst cycling the North Yungas Road in Bolivia, a road eagerly referred to by its more popular and dread-inducing monikor – El Camino de la Muerte, Spanish for ‘The Death Road’. If a person were going to be a little more careful than usual, I reason, surely it would be at a location in which ‘Death’ was half the title. But, teeth chattering in the sub zero bite of 4700 metres above sea level at the very start of this now infamous freewheel, I change my mind.

The name it seems is just an invitation to push the boundaries of good sense and later bath in the glory of having nearly died, but not. This truth emerges as I catch glimpses of the fired up faces of the bikers, creased and flushed with surging adrenaline, as they rocket down the unsealed track next to a chiasmic drop which flanks the Death Road for most of its course, the reason behind all the crosses and the well-deserved reputation.

I’m here on my loaded touring bike, cleats detached for this ride, and in the midst of a throng of bikers who have opted instead to join an organised tour. In all seventeen companies now sprinkle the Death Road with bikes and riders and the setting is as staggering as the premise of riding it. Cut into the jungle-clad mountains of the Yungas, just one hour from Bolivia’s most populous city of La Paz, the foreboding rock-strewn track twists an almost continuous descent for over forty miles. Whilst rallying down over three and a half thousand vertical metres, riders travel not only from altitude to lowland but from cloud filled cold to humid tropical heat and from unsullied fear to, fingers crossed, celebration and relief.

After peering tentatively over the unguarded road’s edge and briefly marveling at the sheer cliff face and remote tree tops beneath, I wonder whether the Paraguayan prisoners of war who constructed this road in the 1930s had any inkling at the time of its eventual fate. Over the years the Death Road has claimed thousands of lives and is now a feared and notorious but popular attraction along the deeply rutted Gringo Trail of South America.

Inside the hostels of La Paz myths concerning the Death Road abound. A car flying over the edge only one week ago was the current star of the rumour mill, batted around mostly by a bunch of Israelis just back from a tour, one nursing a broken wrist after he had thrown himself from his wayward bike before it had thrown him into the jungle. To find out some hard facts, I decide to ask the experts. ‘The risks are very real. And this road is not the place to cut corners.’ Proclaims Derren Patterson of Gravity, the company home to the original posse of guides who dreamt up the ride back in 1998 and who still boast an unrivalled safety record. ‘The interest for most companies is to sell the tour as cheaply as possible because cheap backpackers often only look at the price tag without thinking that in Bolivia there are no standards for activities like this.’ Cut corners, it emerges, come in the shape of re-welded frames, underpaid guides, cheap parts and even fake brake pads.

Researching the road’s murky past only led me to further question my decision to join these thrill junkies. The Death Road was the site of Bolivia’s biggest road accident when, in 1983, a bus carrying over one hundred passengers hurtled over the precipice and tumbled into oblivion. By the mid-90s it was official once it was christened The World’s Most Dangerous Road following a review by the Inter-American Development Bank who estimated that 200 to 300 people careered off its edge every year and that, per mile, there were more fatalities here than on any other road on earth. Not long after this unsavory honour was bestowed on the North Yungas Road guides and backpackers arrived in force, keen for a slap of adrenaline and a photo on Facebook, complete with a boastful caption. By 2006 the riders had it almost all to themselves once the construction of a new thoroughfare to the jungle was completed, taking with it most of the traffic. Amongst the cyclists who have dared not all have reached the small town of Coroico near the finish line. In the last twelve years eighteen “I survived The World’s Most Dangerous Road” t-shirts have gone spare.

A view from the upper reaches of the Death Road

It’s near the top of the descent that resides the most hair-raising section. At this altitude clouds frequently invade the forest, obscuring both the three metre wide sliver of rugged terrain ahead and the vertiginous drop immediately beside it. I watch as the wind drives dense whirls of cloud into the foliage to reveal an exaggerated and menacing vista, tempting and deterring the gathered riders about to take the plunge. Rows of impossibly deep Vs made up of converging mountainsides stretch away, becoming ever more blurred by a distant and sullen murk. Jungle hugs every bulge and whim of the mountains; beneath the cliffs it hides the twisted and rusting metal carcasses of hundreds of trucks and cars. As well as the magic of the precipice, it’s exhilarating too being so enclosed in nature.

As I begin the descent an internal monologue kicks up, a perhaps predictable “DEATH road… be careful!” on repeat. But soon another voice takes over, going something like “YEAAAAAAH! I’m riding the DEATH road! WOOOOOOOOH!” My enthusiasm though is soon subdued as I begin wobbling wildly in the aftermath of a collision between my front tyre and a fist sized chunk of rock. I pull swiftly over to the right as a fleet of Konas and their hooting jockeys rampage past, each sensibly screaming “Coming left!” as they go. As a one day aspiring father I start to wish that I too had suspension. Throughout these upper reaches water patters onto the rocky road surface from high above, only the truly courageous, skillful or imbecilic veer to avoid getting wet; I am none of the above and receive a sopping for my cowardice. After each hairy switchback another huge curl of terror-inducing trail reveals itself along with one very clear impression – roads do not belong here.

The soundtrack of the Yungas doesn’t seem to fit with the chilling vista, a timid and quirky blend of squawks, buzzes and clicks attest to the richness of life that lurks in the nearby greenery. Underneath and barely discernible there’s another layer of sound – the trickle and gush of hidden jungle streams. At times it’s tempting to wonder at the scenery, to glance behind, to search for the source of that strange jungle sound, and then the inner voice shouts ‘DEATH ROAD!’ and I reign in my curiosity and refocus my attention on my juddering bicycle and the ever present peril to my left. Today, I remind myself, I’m careful. Every so often someone is going to do their best impression of ET going home and I have promised my mum I will not be the next abyss-bound silhouette.

At one of the viewing points en route I skid to a halt and begin chatting to a gaggle of hyperventilating but for now stationary bikers and as I discover, The Death Road draws all sorts. ‘My son challenged me to give it a go!’ a pudgy middle aged man confides with a nervous grin, now bathed in perspiration and perhaps questioning the wisdom of accepting a dare from a sixteen year old. Roughly twenty five thousand riders enjoy the buzz and bragging rights every year, from masters of downhill to slack fast food junkies and from multinational gangs of backpackers to honeymooning couples, competing for glory. The tour groups issue their riders with elbow pads and helmets, as we clamber back onto bikes I can’t help but consider what the protective kit and their human contents would look like after a hundred metre free fall and a jungle canopy crash-landing, but to avoid an embarrassing panic attack, I try hard not to. Behind a van trails our group of riders so that the guides can assist in case of accident, or get a front seat view if one of their clients flies a short cut to the finishing altitude.

Towards the lower reaches I relax a little more and gravity spins my wheels ever faster. The temperature rises, clouds evaporate, multi-hued butterflies dance beneath my handlebars and fetching purple flowers and banana plantations fill my peripheral vision. Then all of a sudden I’m coasting through a village and towards a rumbling river, above birds of prey glide languorously in low loops and Bolivia welcomes me back from the edge of reason with beaming children and ogling women festooned in bowler hats and traditional pollera skirts of shocking pink. I spot the father of the teenager, his face now as iridescent as the skirts but also alight with jubilation. I exhale my relief knowing that I too have made it, although I’m concerned for my brake pads, they are now at death’s door. The bikers swiftly pile into town and just as rapidly into bars where they high five and down celebratory beers. Others pull wheelies but most don’t feel the need to show off any more than donning their “I survived…” t-shirts. A quick body count by a guide confirms that, this time, everyone gets one.

There’s a subset of cyclists who enjoy climbs, I’m one of them, and from the off my inner masochist wasn’t entirely happy with the prospect of spinning downhill for hours. Where’s the payback? I needed to know. Where the pain to go with the gain? Fortunately for the guilty, the Death Road has another currency – you pay for the freewheeling with fear and there’s now no doubt in my mind – it’s more than a fair price.

But of course for the vast majority the Death Road will fail to fulfill its eponymous promise, in fact for me the opposite was true and I finished the ride not just giddy with relief, but fiercely alive. They could change the title, somehow though, I don’t think it would have quite the same draw.

An island of sun and a lake in the sky 
Visiting Sun Island in Lake Titicaca

After escaping the action of La Paz I headed west to the shores of Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America and the highest lake of it’s size in the world at a lofty 3812 metres above sea level. The road around the lake holds me tight to it’s shore, often just a few faded green fields melting into the lake water lie between us. Further out, amongst the passive blue ripples, rise the giant mounds of islands that from a distance resemble the humps of huge sea monsters frozen in time. Beyond the islands, and the invisible opposing shore, hover snowy mountain tops, their bases lost in a grey-blue blur which hangs mysteriously over the lake.

Copacabana is another popular stop on the Gringo Trail, a ‘path’ that I swore to abandon once I had made it as far as Cusco in Peru. A wave of drug dealers, gangs of Israelis revelling in their post army exodus, overly assertive restaurant touts and chocolate selling hippies surge through the cobbled streets. I sniff out the cheapest hostel in town and set about trying to repair my only boots which have a jagged gash which now reveals half the sole. South Americans have much smaller feet and finding replacements my size has been impossible. Tomorrow I want to escape the masses and trek across Sun Island.

The tree scattered hills behind Copacabana slowly deflate behind the frothy, parabolic wake of our boat and the expanding blue of Lake Titicaca. I sit hunched up, hugging my knees to my chest and shivering on the open top deck of a boat heading for Sun Island, one of the lake’s largest and famed for the array of Inca ruins pockmarking the rocky terrain. I am engulfed in different languages, I recognise German, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Amongst the assembled tourists is a German chewing coca leaf and a couple of French tourists who have embraced Bolivian culture to the extent that they are adorned in the loud colours of the traditional knit-wear. I smile secretly to myself as I imagine them wondering into the arrivals terminal at some major European airport, still festooned in the traditional garbs, perhaps also with alpaca fleece coats and pan pipes.

We chug along beside the southern end of the island. The choppy, tight undulations of the terrain have a wave-like quality, the land seems like an elevated, drab version of the lake itself. Spiky succulents sprout out of the rocky slopes and shore side wooden fishing boats break into a wobbly dance as they meet the churning wake of our craft.

We walk from the beaches up the rocky path with a guide who has a crooked toothless grin and a cow boy style hat, as large black and white birds of prey patrol the sky above. He takes us to an alter, the original sacrificial table used by the Incas when they killed virgins on special ceremonies. He talks us through the presumed details of the brutal process, the murder and subsequent removal of the heart. To demonstrate he raises a clawed hand enclosing the imaginary heart fresh from the virgin’s chest, the circle of gasping tourists fix excited and appalled eyes on the hand.

Afterwards I set off with Coni, a Swizz girl I met on the boat. For three hours we walk the path as it arcs and dips over the rolling spine of the island, the dark blue view of the lake never escapes my eye line. As I amble past terraced fields and watch the gulls gliding from lake to shore, I admire the tranquillity of the setting, impressed that it’s now a world away from the violent and dramatic distant past we have been privy to. 

City of the Incas
Visiting the ruins at Machu Picchu

The train seemed the most time-conservative way to reach Machu Picchu. I take a seat opposite an American couple from Colorado who chat away in that relaxed and familiar way that Americans have when they strike up conversation with strangers. A little later an older American lady sits down next to me, a conversational non-sequitur who rambles through topics, from the people she has met with very large feet to what happens to horses when they get a cold. The train tracks coddle the bank of the Urubamba river, frothy and eye-catching. With the passing minutes the forest grows thicker, trees overhang the far river bank, their creepers and vines dangling into the water like a congregation of still and pensive fishermen. The train finally stops at Agua Calientes and I step onto a platform full of jostling, confused tourists and hotel porters.

Crowded buses make runs up the hill to Machu Picchu but I feel a little guilty about taking the train instead of the trekking option so decide to redeem myself by hiking for an hour uphill to reach it. In the morning heat it’s a sweaty battle up, but when I emerge from the jungle foliage and Machu Picchu shouts it’s presence, I stop dead and appreciate the enormous landscape which is swimming in sunlight and throngs of sightseers. The feeling is akin to walking onto a stage and the curtain being drawn to reveal the audience because surrounding the ruins runs a huge circle of the blunt, verdant cones of even grander mountains.

After joining the shuffling hoards, and trying to covertly listen to knowledgeable tour guides, I make it back to Agua Calientes where I am chuffed to catch up with Tom, a good friend from my time in Liverpool, along with his wife Thea and her parents. That night the town is alive with outlandish costumes, noisy drunks and dancing backpackers. The occasion is a saint’s day, although as I have learnt of late, the Peruvians will take any excuse for a fiesta.

So in contrast to my usual type of blog piece, this month I decided to write three short pieces about popular tourist activities in Bolivia and Peru. For the next post expect my more usual tales of adventure from a remote part of Peru as I cycle one of the toughest routes so far, taking in over five passes each in excess of 5000 metres altitude and hitting some notoriously bad roads on which I will climb higher in one week than from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest. Once through the central highlands I’ll join the coast and scoot along to Lima where I plan to visit projects looking at TB control in the shanty towns around the capital as well as a project which is focused on the eradication of tapeworm infection. I will report back next month.