Ecuador

Moving away from Guayaquil to Quito, we boarded one of the great train journeys of the world. It's either the slow train or the "autoferro" and we decide that the ride in the autoferro would be the "new" experience. Two carriages being pulled by a powerfully geared engine, providing the feeling that we were more in a big bus rather than a train. Gear changes.

We would make a half way stop at Riobamba. Our greeting at the station was a throng of children carrying dishes full of fried bananas or peanuts. They were persistent, laughing and cajouling each other all the while, and eventually we bought two sizable bags of peanuts. We would disembark so as to venture away further into the Andes, to Banos. Starting point for another walk. Centre for some of Ecuador's most spectacular mountain scenery.

Banos was also the seeding point for the gradual separation of Brad and I as travelling partners. It was obvious that he wasn't very happy and the thought of scrambling up another mountain didn't help matters. For subliminal moments I would agree with his questioning, but always remembered some pledges I'd made with myself regarding this travel year. And so it was that one Pommie named Gus entered into our travelling life. He was one of those almost indomitable John Cleese like figures, who would only give away that he was in South America on a "secret mission". He had eccentricities. Occasionally, he would break out into his "second" language, which was a unique jibber created by himself and university colleagues. It was used in situations of extreme cautiousness, or just generally to confuse all and sundry. He certainly had his ways. Provocative and alive.

He had been in the same hotel as us, and with his happy-go-lucky, friendly nature, struck up a conversation with us in the hallway. We had just come out of the bedroom/conference room, where it had been decided that I should go on with my walk and that Brad would be happy to hover in the town for a few days.

And so, there and then in the immediacy of a dingy hallway, it was decided that Gus would climb Mt Tungurahua (five thousand and sixteen metres) with me. We walked off to find a more conducive place to chat and make plans. Once we had coffees, eggs and toast at our fingertips, the conversation flowed. We drifted between the seemingly unreal subject of our lives, pre-travels, and the more immediate trekking plan-of-attack. He was intelligent, excitable, a great personality, but it was obvious he wasn't even prepared for walking to the Post Office.

The sly genius of Peruvian thieves had robbed Gus of most of his travelling possessions in Lima. It was a similarly sad story that had been heard many times before. He had entered a bus, put down his pack and while he was paying the driver someone had slipped away with his pack. Of course, it was always a team effort and when he had tried to get out of the bus to look for the offending thief, he found his way blocked by a couple of innocent, prospective bus travellers. Forty seconds in Lima, after six months of travelling, and he had lost his pack, clothes, camera, all his films from six months of travel, plane ticket and sleeping bag, rain coat, walking boots. The lot. And now here he was, as happy as could be, with a two dollar carry bag from the markets of Lima, a cheap plastic rain coat, the clothes he'd been wearing the day he'd been robbed and the knowledge that travel insurance really did have value. But he was ready to go, he was rearing to go. We would go!

I would carry all of the equipment and he would provide the company for the walk. I was happy with that, and he was beaming, as we set forth, upwards. He would soon tell me that this was the first time he'd done a trek like this. It was clear to see that he wasn't a hardened walker of mountains. He didn't ever complain, but he was awkward and had little sense of direction.

Walking up a mountain had some direct link with contemplation, deep thinking, reflection on life and its lot.

"There are so many ways to view one point, that a line seems infinite .... and it is................................"

I could switch from a reflective channel, via a present scanning of the scenic beauty opening its arms to me, and then just as easily, slip in contemplating what lay ahead for me. Life, the universe, sort of junk! "Give me a thousand truths, and I'll show you a million perceptions." Occasionally, we would stop and drink some water, take a breather, or simply stop and take in the sights and sounds which pledged, quite clearly, that we were here in the Ecuadorian Andes. Sub-tropical growth, more rain, New bird sounds. The fresh face.

We had had a late start, having to buy our eating supplies in the hour before we left. Trying to get either kerosine or petrol for my stove had presented quite a problem. It was either that they don't know where or point you in a direction which was far from the right one. Consequently, we could only fit in five hours of walking before dusk started to settle over us. We stopped as soon as we came to a beautiful clearing surrounded by lush sub-tropical vegetation. Light rain started falling, and the tent was put up with deft precision. Hot soup and bread, just before settling into bed, had never tasted as good.

It's almost like a complete encyclopaedia of life's passions, to lay asleep after a tiring day of pounding the trail. The perfume of unwashed flesh permeates the tent which, by now, has acquired a certain unique garnish of its own. The after taste of the soup lingers. You wonder if it's going to be raining harder in the wee hours of the morning, when you'll inevitably have to get up to go to the toilet. The filtered jungle breeze enters through the fly net. Slow deep breaths.

Restlessly shifting about, trying to realise the best position, such that the ground below offers the best contour to your body. A down sleeping bag and twelve millimetres of closed-cell foam mat doesn't offer anything much more than warmth and dryness.

There's a certain security about burrowing deep inside your sleeping bag, although, in reality, you know that it offers no real protection. Probably more a hindrance. Sounds around you always different, although time and experience told you that those rustling bushes and those strange and mysterious sounds, were not some killer llama or a pack of jungle madmen. Just the general soundscape of the flora and fauna.

We talked ourselves to sleep, of how far we thought we had to go. Knowing that Banos had been at the very comfortable altitude of eighteen hundred metres, we knew that our destination of a small mountain refuge was at three thousand eight hundred metres. Judging from the amount of ground we'd covered, we calculated that we must surely be no more than a quick hour from the hut.

Two and a half hours of strenuous uphill heaving was closer to the mark, as we clambered, sometimes more like mountaineers than simple young trekkers, to the position where the hut lay. Perched on a small ridge with quite handsome drops on either side, the hut had a view unlike anything I'd seen before.

It took quite a time before I could fully appreciate the vista. Walkers fatigue coupled with a body dealing with altitude. A boy born and bred in the Broken Hill bush now propped up against a rock thousands of metres above sea level. My weariness didn't seem in proportion to the few hours we'd walked that morning.

Sitting on solid land and, being so far above the clouds, was an uncanny feeling. Weaving like a sea of snakes below us. The clouds, darting in and out of valleys, hugging peaks then letting go. Steaming further away, then connecting or overtaking another conglomeration of slower moving cloud. I drifted off into the never never of thought.

Countries must certainly flavour their subjects to some degree, either by the conditions that prevail, or discreetly through the history that lay before them.

Certainly, though, the comparison between the three Germans who were scrambling down from Tungurahua that morning, as Gus and I, who were raking our way upwards, was a fleeting but stark comparison. England, Australia and Germany, all holding on to tree branches or surefooting into a clumped bush or grass. Strong winds erratically slashing through the stunted tundra-like growth around us. Fogs would roll around, sleeting rains came and went. Thick wet aromas. The walking had become slippery with mud underfoot.

We had met at a point on the trail where the slope was all at fifty to sixty degrees upward. I stood with Gus, a little lower to my right, and the three Germans on differing degrees and angles, up and to my left. Gus had already engaged them, and I was involved in observation. It really was a sight to behold. The Germans, each with an ice axe, the best of walking boots, climbers knickerbockers, long red socks, small high quality alpine packs, woollen hats. The picture of intrepidness, preparation ...... an open statement! And there wavered Gus, cheap flimsy high-cut gym boots, pair of Levis with rickety patch over the left knee, and one of those printed T-shirts which looked like he had a dinner jacket with carnation stuck in the lapel. Over his shoulder was the cheap carry-bag which was now riding back-pack style. Upon closer inspection, we could see the torn handle strap that had almost prompted him to turn back at the first hour on the first day.

The three were deadly serious and worried by Gus' lack of protective clothing, and there was Gus, throwing down another block of chocolate and making very English remarks like, "Don't worry chaps."

The long lazy afternoon revealed this snow capped active volcano's truest beauty. As the night drew near, we set down to prepare another of those already famous, the properly patented, tuna, spaghetti and soup flavouring meals. Copious amounts of chocolate afterwards with hot cups of milo, together with our own personal account in the hut's log book of why we thought chocolate was the most important food for trekkers. The pages of precisely serious accounts of gruelling this and sub-zero that were rudely interrupted by a full page of nonsense, cartoons and chocolate trivia. It was an offering to the god of "balance".

I entered further thoughts on my "Law of Diminishing Returns" for mountain walking, and now agreed, with myself, that although it had some semblance of truth to it, there was more hypothesising to come, something like the more energy you put out the greater the rewards. Certainly, the rule that said the further you walk up a volcano the steeper and harder it becomes, had some foot in the walker's door of reality.

Next day we scampered back down the mountain with the zest and enthusiasm of two touched by the power, beauty and aura of the Andes mountains.

That afternoon was the final of the World Cup Soccer, so we sniffed out the best hotel in town and, after showers and shaves, dressed in our finest rags and marched into the Hotel Sangay. Acting like rich tourists, we mingled and rubbed shoulders with Ecuadorian business "toffs", playing pool and billiards, sipping cold drinks and sinking our trekking worn bodies down into huge old lounge chairs. Just like the ones you always used to find at your grandparents place. Italy beat Germany, three to one.

Late into the warm evening, we strolled back to our "el cheapo" hotel, complete with five foot six inch beds and cold showers. We would leave for Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, the next morning.