day 2 – dead womans pass

Tents are not very comfortable, are they? Our first night in a tent was a bit restless – there was lots of thunder and rain during the night, and dogs barking and howling, and loud snoring from our neighbours, and then roosters crowing and tent zips unzipping and then…. it was time to get up. We were greeted at our tent door by a smiling porter bearing cups of coca tea and a bucket of hot water to wash our faces. After a sleepless night, it was a pretty nice way to start the day.

Breakfast consisted of bread and jam and… PANCAKES!! With mountains and ‘Machu Picchu’ scrawled across in a squeezy nutella-type spread! Yummo!

We bundled up our things, and Abel gave us a briefing on what to expect today. We were headed up to Dead Womans Pass. It was going to be hard. We were to take things at our own pace. There would be a lot of steps and we would be going up very, VERY high. It would be hard to breathe. We had to chew coca leaves (it helps with the altitude) and drink plenty of water and take plenty of rest stops.

So. Up we went. I’m not gonna get all technical and talk about angles and gradients and what-not. Sometimes the path was steep, sometimes it had steps, sometimes the steps were small and narrow, like they’d been laid for a gnome, and sometimes the steps were huge, like they’d been laid for a giant. As I struggled up, hobbling along with my walking stick through moss-covered trees and great big bushes, the porters rushed past me with their backs laden with our belongings. I felt awful – seeing them lugging our stuff with such seeming ease while I laboured along with next to nothing in my backpack.

The higher we went, the harder it got. Rich and I took several stops for water and jubes. At one point, we took an extended stop and handed out jubes to everyone who huffed and puffed by. I think this could be one of my favourite parts of the trek (apart from finishing it, of course); it was mostly porters who took us up on our jube offer, and seeing them smile as they munched on sugary treats, sweat pouring off their faces, on their way up the hill made me feel pretty happy.

llamas llama-ing about

We had a snack stop with our group at a flat plateau halfway up the mountain, where llamas roamed freely munching on grass and leaves, and dogs ran around in search of cheese sandwiches and discarded biscuits.

From here, the top – which is referred to as The Big Nipple, because, well, it looks like a big nipple – didn’t look too far away. I could see the path the whole way up. It didn’t disappear behind any mountain bends or behind any trees or anything like that – it looked fine. It looked easy.

Ha!

Once we started up the hill after our snack, things took a turn for the muy difícil! Rich and I shuffled along at a pensioners pace, looking even more elderly with our walking sticks. Strategically placed boulders along the path made for excellent rest stops, which we took every ten metres or so. When we finally made it close enough to the top to make out the guys from our group and hear snippets of conversation – when the end to this leg of the trek would be over – it still took another hour or so to actually make it to the summit. Even getting up the last few steps was a major struggle. When we finally made it, we both guzzled water, high-fived our team-mates, and collapsed at the edge.

Hooray!! We did it!!

Good job gang! This is the hardest bit OVER!

O Wembolina, how wrong can you be?

With the clouds rolling in around us and a chilly wind gusting in, we made our way down the other side. One would think it would be much easier heading down a mountain than it is going up, but they’re kind of on par with each other. While it’s easier to maintain a conversation and keep your breath steady on the way down, your knees lock and your ankles jar and your toes ram into the top of your shoes. It’s easier to make the wrong step and fall. It’s easier to lose your balance. It’s easier to sustain an injury. Ouch.

We took it slowly, chatting with Carmel and Jim about music and politics (like why is it that it’s always the Premier’s son who seems to get into trouble and/or become a model?) and travelling. We took breaks. We admired the scenery. It was a tricky business at times but twas a nice way to end day two of the trek.

We arrived at camp at about 2, had lunch, and collapsed into our tents. I’d been told that day two was the hardest day and we’d done it. Woot! Tomorrow would be smooth sailing. Andean flats were ahead, as Abel was wont to say. Beautiful scenery. And we were more than halfway to Machu Picchu.

day 1 on the trail

As predicted, the sun DID come up on Thursday morning. I got up early to take advantage of the limited hot water, and had my last shower (and hairwash) for four days. Muchos yuckness. To say that I had butterflies is an understatement. Those butterflies felt like they were wearing brick-filled backpacks and spiky stilettos and were having a party in my tummy. Ouch.

At breakfast, everyone was looking a little nervous and anxious. People seemed to be avoiding coffee and not eating a huge amount. Why? One word. Toilets. After breakfast, there was a mass exodus, to take advantage of that one word. In the peace and privacy of ones own room. Fun times.

Our bus arrived at about 7.30am and we piled on, headed for Km 82, the starting point for the trail. We met our porters and they bundled up our duffle bags with sleeping mats and bags and food and chairs and tents and pretty much EVERYTHING. These guys are flipping amazing. They’re all tiny, nuggety little men who carry about 20kgs on their backs. And. They run most of the way along the trail. There was one porter who did the entire Inca Trail in just under 4 hours a few years ago. He was 57.

We collected our walking poles, and went through the first checkpoint. Our passports were stamped, and a group picture was snapped under the notorious (to me) Km 82 sign. This was it. We were doing it.

Here we go...

The first few hours were beautiful. We strolled along flat grassy land, donkeys grazing by the path, cacti and trees and flowers all over the place. We passed ladies in traditional dress selling water and Gatorade and Inca Kola and chocolate. We passed clean toilets. The last we’d see for a few days…

Most of the stroll for the first few hours was pretty gentle. There was one looooong, steep incline up the side of a hill, with a lovely view at the top, followed by a loooooong, steep decline down the other side. Rich and I huffed and puffed quite a bit at the top. And again at the bottom.

I call this one... Donkey eating grass.

At about midday we steered off the path, across a bridge and onto a farm for lunch. When we arrived, the porters all stood around clapping and cheering, welcoming us with cups of purple cordial. A tent was set up with a long table down the middle (set with tablecloth, cutlery and cups – sheesh!!) and we sat down to vegie soup, followed by fish and rice and vegetables. All delicious. Ridiculous!!

Unfortunately during lunch, a wild eee-aww-ing from a nearby donkey started up. One of the boys asked “I wonder what makes a donkey eee-aww like that?”. At that exact moment I stood up to take my empty plate out, and espied two donkeys COPULATING right outside the tent. I was at the worst possible angle you can imagine (don’t even try to imagine it – please), and I fear I will be forever scarred by the sight. Ew. Donkeys.

On we went. A herd of llamas passed us on the path. Followed by some non-sexing donkeys carrying heavy loads. Followed by some horses. The rider at the back of the horses said “Taxi?” and if I knew then how hard the trail would become the next day, I reckon I would have taken him up on it.

After lunch the path got significantly steeper, and higher. By the time we made it to camp at 5pm that afternoon, my legs were starting to burn and my lungs were starting to scream a little. Everything had been manageable and fine, but something told me (ie. guidebooks and the internetz) that tomorrow would be very different.

the inca trail – it begins…

If someone had told me how hard, scary and puff-inducing the Inca Trail was going to be, I’m honestly not sure I would have done it. Rich and I had several moments along the trail where we would stop to catch our breath, look at each other, and shake our heads in a ‘What the crap are we doing??’ fashion. It was a tough slog – the toughest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but I’m so glad I did it. I’m feeling pretty chuffed, in all honesty.

Our Inca adventure started a week ago. On Monday night we met half of our tour group – a Canadian army fella, a luvverly couple from Sydney, and two Danish chaps – in a Lima hotel for briefing, got our plane tickets for our flight to Cusco the next day, that sorta thing.

Next morning we were up bright n early for a tres borink breakfast (cold toast and jam) and  bad coffee, and we were off to the airport. The flight to Cusco was pretty hair-raising. Cusco itself is at an altitude of around 3,400m above sea level. It’s surrounded by mountains that are even taller (I’ll tell you about those) and it’s windy and it makes landing aeroplanes a leetle beet tricky. Our plane came in, the wheels lowered, we were about to hit the runway and then suddenly… The plane sped up and we were up in the air again. We did another circle of a mountain and a valley and came in again for take 2. This time the plane dropped suddenly. Sheesh! I gasped (loudly) and clutched my armrest and the man next to me said “That’s the trouble with these winds”.

After a bit more lurching and bumping and dropping, we landed. Safely. A little shaky, but OK. Phewf!!

Our leader for the next six days – Abel – met us at the airport and took us to our hotel in a mattress-lined street in the city, then the eight of us went on a tour of the old part of town and then to lunch. Ingredients for Pisco Sours were brought to the table, and we each shook up our own lemon and egg white cocktails. Delicious, yes, but probably not the wisest move. Drinking alcohol on day one at such high altitude is kind of a recipe for disaster. Later in the day, Rich and I were both afflicted with monster headaches, nausea and squashy lungs that made breathing a little tricky… It was a fairly unpleasant night.

The next day we packed up our bags – 3kgs of clothing, toiletries, ponchos into a duffle bag carried by a porter, and whatever else we needed we carried in backpacks – and got into our little tourbus, bound for Ollantaytambo. We were a full group now. Along with the five peeps we met on Monday in Lima, we were joined in Cusco by a family of four from Castlemaine, a mom/daughter duo from Canada, and three uni lads from Melbourne/Perth.

Along the way to Ollantaytambo we stopped at an artisan village where, after receiving hugs from three Peruvian ladies as we stepped off the bus, we watched as wool was spun and blankets were weaved (or is it wove?) and deft hands knitted socks and hats and miniature llamas. That’s right – MINIATURE LLAMAS!!! With aloof llamas faces!!! Needless to say, I bought four. Don’t even get me started on the llamas and alpacas just milling about in the carpark. THERE WAS A BABY!!! WHO HAD A BIG FREAKOUT BECAUSE HE COULDN’T FIGURE OUT HOW TO USE HIS LEGS!!! Clearly, I almost collapsed from the cuteness. Sigh.

Big alpaca, little alpaca

Peruvian ladies, doing their thang

After lunch (where the speakers blared a panpipe band covering Guns N Roses and Bryan Adams as we ate) we headed to a chicheria, where chicha is made. Chicha is a fermented fruit beer that has an alcohol content of about 2%, is served in ENORMOUS glasses and smells revolting. We weren’t allowed to taste it, because it would almost certainly have made us ill. I’m kinda glad. It really didn’t look good. The chicheria also housed a (gulp) guinea pig farm. I won’t go into details – I’m sure you can guess what they were fattening them up for. Wah!

The Guinea Pig farm. O dear...

We arrived in Ollantaytambo at about 4 o’clock and took a stroll around some Incan ruins. They were quite beautiful, but the steps to the top were very steep and narrow and did nothing for my fear of heights. I was starting to get a little bit worried about the Inca Trail… What if it was gonna be like this? All stairs and steepness? Surely not. I googled ‘Inca trail fear of heights’ not long ago, and everything came up roses. Things would be OK. This was just a particularly vertigo-inducing site. Nothing to worry about.

I hobbled slowly down the stairs, as Rich helpfully guided me along, and admitted to a few others in our group that I was a little scared of heights. More than a little. Quite terrified.

Carmel – the mum from Castlemaine – looked a little surprised and said “Well, good on you for facing your fears and doing the Inca Trail!! By the time we climb all the stairs at Machu Picchu I’m sure you’ll be right as rain!”

Super gulp.

I went to sleep early that night. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay awake forever so tomorrow wouldn’t come. But as Annie once sang: “The sun’ll come out tomorrow”. And as Silverchair once sang: “Yooooooooou way-ait, til tomorrooowwwww”. And as The Eurythmics once sang: “When tomorrow comes!!” So I guess there’s no escaping it. Whatever time I went to sleep, the next day was going to come and I was going to hike the Inca Trail. May as well rest up.