2001-08-10 - 11:20 p.m.
The problem with being off your bike for a month is that it becomes very difficult to get back on. You forget how to get out of bed in the morning, how to pack your panniers, and how to read a map. Before I say any more though, it's important to note that my younger brother Andrew has a long history of forgetfulness anyway, so add him and his loaded touring bike (loaded with a pillow and 5 spare inner-tubes!) to the equation, and things get enormously complicated!
So leaving Cuenca proved very difficult. For several days it was the newly purchased chess set, and several hundred games of rummy; another morning we were distracted by a thief running down the street with a bottle of coke, while another man beat him over the head with a shovel. When we finally set about seriously leaving, we didn't get out of bed until midday. On the second attempt, we got out of bed, but spent an entire day packing the bikes. On the final attempt, we managed to get out of bed, pack the panniers, and incredibly, got on our bikes and started riding. Unfortunately, we would realise 160km later it was in the wrong direction.
It was a dramatic 160kms though, dropping gradually at first, and then suddenly from 2200mts to sea level. It probably should have occured to me that we were dropping a little too much, but I suppose I'd forgotten what hills were too.
I'd also forgotten the daily encounters with rabid bicycle-munching dogs. The tactic of most cyclists is to stop and confront a single dog, and throw stones at, or out-run a pack, but Andy had different ideas. Chased by a particularly blood-thirsty specimen, he casually reached for my plastic flagpole, and letting the dog's jaw practically close on his leg, took a well-timed swing at it's snout. A loud crack confirmed contact, and the stunned hound stopped in it's tracks, pricked it's ears, cocked it's head, whimpered, sneezed and ran for cover. A new sport had been invented - rabid dog thrashing (or dog polo) - and Andy has become master at it. In fact it has almost become the objective of his trip. His mission; to beat bicycle biting dogs into submission, for the safer passage of future panamerica cyclists. And after 8 months of daily encounters, he has my full-hearted support!
The dog-God was seemingly unimpressed though, and sent a warning minutes later in the form of a puncture. The puncture quickly became three as handy-Andy somehow managed to blow the valves on not one, but two of his spare inner-tubes! After a protracted repair session, he rode off, leaving his sunglasses on a cafe table. The dog-God smiled, wagging it's tail in delight.
After 50km of green mountain pastures and farmland, the road dropped suddenly into a dry, barren canyon. Looking for somewhere to camp, we opted for the only sheltered spot in sight, a quarry. A quick chat with the young security guards secured us a tentsite between a bulldozer and a dump truck. Confirming that we'd be safe, a teenager loaded several shells into his shotgun. Several shots rang out in the night - presumably target practice.
Woken at 6.00 the following morning, we struggled with an hour we hadn't seen since the top of Mt. Chimborazo several weeks earlier. 30kms down the road, it finally dawned on Andy that he'd left a complete change of clothes sitting on the bucket of the bulldozer. As he now had an empty pannier, I decided it would be only fair to give him a few extra things to carry...after all, we didn't want his panniers to be unbalanced...!
The road continued to drop, the temperature climbed. We passed through a tropical belt of lush green jungle. Suddenly banana trees started appearing and the road flattened out. I looked at a map and decided this was very unusual for 1500mts altitude! Finally reaching a largish town, I asked where we were. Nobody seemed to be making much sense, until one man pointed to my map, at a town near the coast not far from the Peruvian border, about 100kms and 2000mts west of our intended destination. Hmmmm... A quick conference of the brothers ended with an easy solution; rather than head back to Loja, we would ride down the coast - further, but flatter.
Just before the border, several cyclists appeared. One spotted the horns and asked if I was cycling from Alaska.
"Well, yes actually", I replied.
"Ah, yes, Middleton. I was reading your website just the other day."
I quickly removed my helmet to allow for swelling.
Rod was an English/Belizean cyclist riding up from Argentina. His friend was Javier, owner of the casa cyclistas (open home for cyclists) in Chiclayo. He scrawled a quick note for us to give to his wife and daughter when we arrived.
At the border, young boys on tricycles tried to sell us ice-creams. We agreed, but only if they would let us ride the ice-cream trikes around the immigration office. A weary immigration officer stamped our passports as we contemplated a permanent exchange of bikes. (3 wheeled stability, lots of room for gear, and an ice-box to keep our water cold in the desert!)
Arriving in the northern Peruvian town of Tombes, the central plaza was kicking with vibrant youngsters in party mode. We managed to bargain a hotel room down to $10, with cable television. The following morning we forgot how to get up again, and instead watched, dumbfounded, an obscure early 70's New Zealand movie, set in our hometown (Wellington)!
Riding out of Tombes, I caught my first glimpse of the Pacific since Panama. For the next 300kms, the road hugged the coast through hot, dusty seaside towns, with nothing but dry, parched scrubland in between. Fog kept the sky overcast and the temperatures surprisingly cool at between 15-20 degrees celcius. Nodding Jennies and pipelines revealed the presence of Peru's biggest oilfield. The two oasis towns of Talara and Piura offered brief relief from a constant headwind. We took turns cycling behind one another to rest from the wind - (of course I gave Andy the lion's share in front, to help build his strength and endurance...!)
From Piura, the panamerican highway crosses the Sechura desert. Opting for the straightest, most direct route, we set out with 10 litres of water along a mind-numbingly straight, 220km line through the sand. Like a scene from Mad Max, several desolate villages sprang up from the desert at several points. Abondoned cars lay scattered about. People with close to nothing lived in mud and straw huts, somehow managing to squeeze a living from small herds of goats. We stopped to buy a litre of honey from a family for $2, before stopping to camp the night behind a thorn bush, just off the road.
Arriving in Chiclayo, we decided a couple of days of rest were warranted. We watched Jurassic Park III (as if the first 2 weren't bad enough) in an equally jurassic 1000 seat cinema - little changed since early last century. We spent a night at Javier's casa cyclista before heading south for another 350kms of desert. A day was spent in Peru's 2nd largest city, Trujillo. We visited a small village where a 92yr-old man was still working on his house carved entirely from stone.
The final stretch of desert into Chimbote was beautifully bleak. The black tarseal road cut a swath through enormous 500ft grey sandunes, while an overcast sky completed the black and white picture. At one point, a truck carrying bright orange flowers had lost some of its cargo, offering a beautiful contrast on the roadside.
The following morning, Andy woke with diarrhoea (another inner-tube?). Evidently he'd forgotten to read his contract and seemed to think this would entitle him to a day off the bike...we spent the day looking at maps, and after 700km, decided we'd had enough of the coastal desert. The following day we returned to a junction 15km north of Chimbote (The first time I'd ridden north since the Dempster highway, Canada!), and started up the Santa Valley to the Cordilla Blanco and Negro mountains - second only in size to the Himalayas with 35 peaks over 5000mts.
What began as a smooth paved road, quickly turned into dusty unpaved track. At about the 45km mark, we reached for our full-suspension mountain bikes, but evidently Andy had left them in the quarry with his change of clothes...
We spent the first night camped in a spectacular river valley, with 2000m mountains on all sides. The gravel road continued the next day, winding gently up the river valley, where we camped on the edge of 30 meter cliffs, overlooking the river. On day 3, at the 100km mark, the valley became a spectacular narrow canyon, with sheer 1000m cliffs on each side. The road wound its way around one side of the canyon, connected by 47 tunnels and 9 bridges! Little did Andy suspect, that one of these bridges would become the next location for the dog-God's revenge. After thrashing several more rabid hounds, Andy crossed a 50ft high bridge. Almost across, his front wheel lodged itself between two boards, sending him careening over the handlebars.
Here's what happened next, in his own words:
'My bike crashed down on top of me, pinning me to the bridge. The back wheel was hanging off the side. My first terrifying thought - "one of my feet is still caught in the clip, and if my bike decides to go over, the 50 odd kilos of weight has a chance of taking me with it." Then realising that I was mainly unhurt and that my bike was reasonably stable - my leg helping to stop the bike from plummeting 50ft below - I decided not to move and wait for Jamie as he should be only a moment behind. It was at this point I was extremely lucky not to lose one or both of my rear panniers into the river. One had already come off its clips and was hanging by only a strap.
After what seemed like an eternity, and with my leg strength fading, I decided I only had one option, to wiggle my foot out of the toeclip and use it to push the frame back onto the bridge. With an adrenaline boosted shove, I managed to slide my bike and panniers back to safety.
Jamie had stopped to talk to some people and so when he did finally cycle upon the scene he found me licking my wounds (mainly pride!) and pointing to a bent front and rear rack and an impressively warped wheel. We agreed that today was a good day as we knew that could have ended differently in a number of ways.'
Fortunately, everything proved mendable, and we rode on to Huallanca, a small town with a short, teasing stretch of tar-sealed road. Opting for a $4 hotel, we managed an early start the following morning, but only rode 5km out of town before an impish temptation got the better of us. Over 150 meters above the canyon floor, enormous boulders teetered on the edge of the road, just waiting for gravity (and a gentle shove) to send them to the bottom. For 2 hours, we managed to cycle a meagre 2 kilometers, stopping every 50 metres to nudge another boulder into the canyon. Each boulder would drop a full 3 seconds before exploding with a thundering BOOM on the canyon floor far below, followed by the delighted laughter of two mischevious boys.
After 3 hours and 8 kilometers, we found another attraction - a pulley cage on a cable, suspended 100mts above the canyon, stretching across to a mineshaft and waterfall on the other side. Again the temptation was too much, and I pullied myself over the canyon just as 3 stunned Swiss cyclists arrived. They were very supportive of Andy's 'Thrash a dog' campaign, and in fact, had their own weapons of choice - air-powered plastic pellet guns!
Finally getting back to the serious business of bicycle riding, we came to the end of the gravel road and arrived at the town of Yungay, at the foot of Peru's highest mountain - Mt. Huarascan (6768m) - and casualty of a 1970 landslide, which killed most of its 19,000 inhabitants. Camped in a field that night, we awoke to a spectacular view as the sun rose behind the snow-capped summit. Mastering the early starts, but still receiving recompense from the dog-God, Andy got another puncture 2kms from camp, and created a perfect photo opportunity as a group of local children came to investigate.
We've spent today in Huaraz, a large town with spectacular mountain scenery on all sides. Not surprisingly, it's somewhat of a tourist mecca, attracting hordes of hikers and climbers. We'll have to pass on the climbing this time though, as Andy has less than month to reach La Paz, and many dogs to train on route.
"That dog needs a good thrashing!" - Andy the rabid dog thrasher, defender of the panamerican cyclist, whilst wielding a plastic 'All Blacks' flagpole.
Total distance cycled: 18390km
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