April 30, 2006 GMT
(3) Peru: The Highlands

The desert had spoiled me. With ambients reaching into the low 30s C on a regular basis life was easy.

Riding had been hot at times, my riding gear keeping me in the moist zone. Water consumption was high in the 3 liter plus per day range. I looked forward to the mountains with trepadation, knowing they could be cold and wet.

The road from Nazca to Abancay was paved. Maybe it had been for years, but it was a road untraveled. The foothills passed quickly and soon I was in the montane zone. Sand gave way to grass, cactus persisted but reluctantly. A few trees were evident. Cultivated mountain sides became common place. Too steep for machinery they were hand tilled. Actually most of highland Peru operated that way. Tilling, sowing, reaping and threshing were still all manual operations.

The road wended it's way upwards...ever upwards...2,000 ft, 3,000, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8000, 9, 10, 11, 12 and finally 13,000 feet. My first low, high mountain pass peaked out at 13,600 feet. I was in the land of the Višuna. Groups of višuna abounded...my first encounter with this protected species.


Višuna.JPG

The višuna had been protected throughout the Inca civilizaton and then brought to the edge of extinction by the Spanish. During Inca times the ultra-fine fleece from its breast was used for the finest of textiles to be worn only by the Inca himself. Višuna were not killed by the Inca. They were captured, their fleece removed and then released, to be harvested again. Any commoner caught killing a višuna suffered the same fate...the death sentence...no ifs, ands or buts. This was Imperial property.

Suddenly I was surrounded with greenery. So used to shades of brown, grey, white and black my eyes soaked up this forgotten wonder. Wildflowers abounded. I was astounded at the opulence. The land was covered in color... reds, greens, yellows, whites and purples. The wet season had lingered this year. It had merged into the dry season prolonging the wet and shortening the dry. Nature had responded in kind. The precipitation bonus had energized the flowers to bloom one more time. I had not expected this. It was truly a visual bonus.

I criss-crossed my tires, touching center only when I rolled from left to right. The edges moaned in protest. The rubber polished roads proved to be slick, providing only marginal gripping power. Round and round I twirled, left and right, in and out, 90, 180, 270 degree turns...more than a thousand. My arms ached from throwing the bike left and right. Debris sometimes littered the road adding an extra level of caution. Upwards, upwards, ever upwards I climbed. At 13,600 ft there was a brief pause and then a descent into steep valley. Down and down I whirled, my arms still aching...and then my first rain. It started gently allowing me time to dress up. Then it steadied and finally became a downpour.

The temperature dropped from the 20sC to the low teens. The land was lush and verdant. Onwards I pushed, climbing out of the valley and through another pass at 13,800 ft. A pause for lunch fortified the body. There was still a long ways to go...an unknown zone. The road had not straightened all day...2nd and 3rd gear were the norm, 4th and 5th the exception. Going was slow and there was no hope of a respite. My desination was only 250 kms away, but in reality it was 5 hours of hard riding.

I climbed into the last pass...the formidable pass...a pass of unkown elevation, duration and danger. The corners were tighter, the fog frequent, the temperature dropping steadily, the sun settling lower on the horizon, the verdant zone now well behind me. At 15,300 feet I reached the apex...but there I stayed...caught like a deer in the headlights. 8C and falling. I stopped to suit up.

Then the rains came. Slow for only a moment and then a veritable downpour. Purple and blue stabs of light jagged to the ground. The impending thunderous crash that followed surely woke the dead. It sent shivers down my spine. I looked around me. Truely, I was the tallest object on this vast, lifeless plain...the plain of doom. I could not stay here. I had to keep moving. There was no shelter. No place of refuge. No place to hide.

The rain froze into hail pellets and soon the road was covered in hail, several inches deep. I slowed to first gear, my feet ready to shoot out like outriggers should I move into a skid. Braverly overcame fear and I shifted into second and then third...then back to second. The intensity of the hail increased, the sun was obscured by the heavy cloud mass. Lightning stabbed towards me...the temperature dropped to 0C.


The Altiplano.JPG

Then the road dropped off of the plateau...only a thousand feet or so, but enough to move back into the rain zone. I shifted up. The road sign indicated 150 kms to Abancay. The clock approached 5 PM. Sunset was just after 6 PM. There was no way I could make it now. If I arrived at all I would arrive after dark. These mountain roads require concentration in the daytime never mind at night. I pushed onwards.

I passed through a few hovel towns, fit only for those who have spent their lives in this harsh, unforgiving environment. I could not intrude. A rise in the road brought me back into the hail zone. It was either heavy rain or hail. Not much to choose from...the sky grew darker. I was warm and dry but hypothermia moves in slowly and catches you off guard. The rain still poured. I could not stop and strip down to add another layer here. I had to take my chances.

The road turned to the north and I spotted a patch of blue sky on the horizon. My spirits picked up. I knew then I could get out of this storm. I looked at my GPS. My route took me north. I was pointing towards a dry zone, but how far away was it?

At sunset I crossed the line. Like a mark in the sand, I crossed from the wet zone to the dry zone. I dropped off of the altiplano into a deep river valley. Soon I saw people out walking...enjoying the evening. The temperature rose to 14C. The altimeter showed a loss of 6,500 feet, down to 8,000. I had ridden out of the storm. Night moved in quickly. I was still 100 kms from Abancay with no desire to ride the canyon in the night.

I looked for a place to bed down and there it was. An old adobe ruin to block prying eyes, a river to lull me to sleep. As I dismounted an involuntary shudder wracked my body. My teeth rattled and my body shook. The first signs of a deep chill. I had beat it, but just barely. After a few minutes the chill had been purged. I unpacked and set up camp before the blackness of night descended upon me. Surrounded by mountains, a brilliant sky and a warm, dry evening I crawled into an even warmer sleeping bag and struggled to find sleep. I couldn't for many hours.

Posted by Robert Bielesch at April 30, 2006 01:53 AM GMT
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