PERU - Huaraz

From sea level at Lima the bus took us first through the unrelenting brown outer suburbs, endless expanses of slums with mixed media houses. Invention was the order here, inevitable for survival, as people eeked out existence in one of the most depressing landscape environments of any city in the world. Every conceivable scrap of anything had been used in the construction of their houses. At times you could scan across the lot and be mistaken for thinking that you were at the rubbish dump. What were their lives, these people; the children always had the purest white of school costumes, perfectly groomed hair. They waited for the school bus, like out of context angels, and difficult to imagine how they could look so pure coming from such a ragged neighbourhood.

I noticed that many houses, if not most, didn't have roofs. Too poor to afford the materials was the obvious answer, but within time I would learn that it rained so rarely that the only roof they needed were the suspended calico shades erected to hide them from the sun.

Gradually, we rose to the three thousand metres of altitude that was Huaraz. We had, initially, wondered why three hundred and fifty kms of distance should take nine hours. Every ascent was soon followed by an equally qualified decent; switchbacks and stunning drop-offs into the bowels of Amazonia. We were travelling in the Andes, and this was the only way to go! It was to be the first of hundreds of bus trips in and out of the South American continent and would surely rate in my book ...... "One thousand and one Thriller Bus Rides in South America."

The altitude didn't stomp on us as we had thought it would. We had found a peaceful little place to stay, in one of three rooms at the back of a local family's house. The room was small, hardly room for anything more than two undersized beds, but deep down we felt a relaxed feeling that we hadn't felt since setting feet on Peruvian soil.

Our new environment and its accompanying peace of mind had alerted our senses (to come out??) and be more aware. Cars growled only occasionally here, which was the first change, and then there was the air. This was real air, freshly served and crisp, straight off the snow capped peaks that surrounded the town. The people were mostly of Indian decent here, all with their distinct dress, the women with their colourful multi-layered dresses and hats; the men with their slightly more westernised look and the ever present hat. Country folk, a freshened environment, alive.

The views surrounding the city were stunning. The three highest peaks in Peru, all spearing abruptly up past six thousand metres, could be savoured at any moment on any day. The altitude bought a new light to focus. It was brighter, more definite. Gone was the dusty hole of Lima. The haze. Snow capped peaks standing there almost daring you to come towards them, "Dare you climb me?" they would say.

We would eventually accept that challenge. We were pardoned from the lowly ranks of backpacker and knighted as trekkers. Those who dared. To take on the land at its own game, the stakes were vague. The element of the unknown. Our sustenance would be oats and hot drinks for breakfast, oranges for thirst quenching, bananas on bread for lunch and spaghetti with canned tuna and packet soup as flavouring for dinner. The chocolate was there for times when we needed a morale booster, to lift tired spirits with the purge of sugar.

We had everything that we could possibly need - good walking boots, hats, cream for our noses, cream for our crotches ("a la heat-rash"), sleeping bags, tent, stove, pots, and lightweight sleeping mats. We had our expensive Eddie Bauer rain coats, jumpers for the cold, and T-shirts for the heat. An extensive medical kit and all-seeing cameras, and ...... we had very heavy packs! Henceforth, our first lesson in pack preparation!

Our destination was a small glacial lake at the base of the eighteen thousand foot Mt Churup. We walked steadily upward all morning until we reached a small mountain village. Rustic circular stone houses with thatched roofs. Nobody in sight. Amongst the myriad of possible tracks to take were two distinct possibilities. Flip a coin, be guided by unknown forces. It was here that we unknowingly took a wrong turn, walking through a deep valley, until after about an hour's walk it was clear that this wasn't the way.

Returning to the small village we re-consulted our rather inadequate maps and decided on what was to be the 'right' way. It seemed like we were already learning important 'life' lessons, and cheaply. It also seemed ridiculous that we should worry about taking a wrong turn. Wandering off into a deep Andean valley, magnificent peaks on all sides, free as the Condor we hadn't seen.

There would be few of the well-marked trails as we had experienced in the US at Yosemite National Park. Quite simply, there were no signs, no people to ask, and a very loose mud map taken from a book in Lima. In fact, it was this almost insecure feeling that would release calming waves, of knowing that we were completely free. We could control our own destiny here.

None of these thoughts were going through Brad's mind as he lay beside the track on the grass. He had vomited and felt that he needed to rest for a while. Altitude mixed with over exertion. We had been foolish in our calculation of how much water we would need and all the mountain streams we had envisioned must all be flowing in another direction today. Not long after this break our reward trickled forth.

Although only a small stream, it was flowing freely and that meant it was drinkable for me. Real and honest thirst rewarded by that initial freezing of your lips, an electric tinge - a walker's delight! You always swear that this is the best water you've 'ever' tasted. And it is.

We continued to push upward until we found a level camp site. Perched way up on the side of a rocky ridge with our destination as a backdrop. A whole wonderous view, the continuum of snowy mountains standing forcefully above smaller relations, stretched in front of us for as far as we could see. It had been a demanding first day, although I couldn't help but think that our position more than justified our effort. I built myself a makeshift stone seat and sat still, savoring the rich virginal air, the views in front of me. I was feeling like one of the last great explorers. Deep breathing and entrenched in the beauty before me. Replenishing lost body fluid.

Sounds from above broke into my silence. The bleating of sheep and a dog, I thought. I turned and looked up, scanning for movement on the ground above us. I focussed on the sheep as they weaved their way toward us. At the back of them, at a pace not slow enough to be called walking or fast enough to be running, came an Indian lady with a baby wrapped up and strung to her back in their familiar way. Herding the sheep ahead of her. Bare feet on the ground that had just tenderized our own, even with our sleek all-leather (with Vibram soles) shoes. She scooted past with a look that said, "I don't understand." A look which surely mirrored ours. The moment passed, I looked at Brad. Time to cook.

It was only six o'clock, but the sun had dropped down behind one of the peaks. Almost as soon as the shade hit us, so did the chill.

We woke early the next morning with a restless night's sleep to draw from. We had been dehydrated and had no water left to satisfy dry throats. The vapour of our breath and latent perspiration had formed on the inside of the tent and turned to ice crystals during the night. The damp of the night had turned solid on the outside of our tent, giving it a thin coating of white. It had been sub-zero that night.

A dry breakfast and it was onward and upward. The further we walked, the steeper it became. With the conquering of what must surely be the last rise, came the appearance of yet another. As my mind wafted from thought to thought, from a solitary wildflower to the valley falling away to our right, I would be working consciously on my "Law of Increasing Returns" theory.

We couldn't even see Mt Churup and began to question our sense of direction again. We struggled slowly up what was the steepest climb so far, now resigning to less frequent stops and using more consistent, but slower steps.

All around was nature's display cabinet of beauty. Our fatigue has put our senses at rest and the desire to reach the destination seems to be all important. At this moment "Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance" comes to mind. I extract, "To aim only at some future goal is shallow, it is the sides of the mountain which support it, not the top." Rescued by my eastern flow of thoughts, I start to notice the intricacies of the differing wildflowers, drawing sustenance from the beauty that surrounded me. It amazes me that, at such an altitude, with life forces battling the harsh conditions that prevail, that nature would still turn so much concern to the design of its flowers. The more I looked, the more I saw.

There are no trees at this altitude, as the tree line had finished a few hundred metres below, at around three thousand four hundred metres. Our chests push back and forth strongly, lungs pleading for more oxygen, hearts pumping heavily to keep the system in operation. Having reached the top of the ridge which we have designated as our goal, we aren't left disappointed. It's definitely not the glacial lake we had hoped for, but it is the perfect place to camp. The waterfall which feeds the rushing river is to be our refrigerated water supply, the flat grassed clearing set between large rocky outcrops is to be our private tent site. There's also a sun deck, scenic views and private swimming pool. It's perfect!

We lay quenching our thirst, retrieving morale with another square of chocolate. The sun beats loudly, it's relaxing. If it were not for the stiff legs we would easily have forgotten the previous hours of hard slogging.

An hour ago I had vowed not to walk another step today, but now I am at the centre of an internal debate which stars my inquisitive nature on one side with my depleted but recovering energies on the other. I bring Brad into the firing line, but he is very sure where he isn't going. He encourages me to go, though, so I wrap up my camera and a bottle full of the world's best brew in my jumper, and head upward, beside the waterfall. I am not walking anymore, now I'm climbing. Clambering over huge boulders with over-spray cooling me.

Twenty minutes later, sitting on top of a vast rocky outcrop, and looking down on the unrealistically coloured aqua-blue glacial lake, I survey Mt Churup. Marauding above the lake with all the beauty and awe that neither words nor photos could convey. I'm at peace and quickly get carried off. Transported by thoughts; a world of dreams, of beauty previously unrecognised. It's the air, the heavy sun and the silence. It's the mind, the water I'm drinking and lower back dampened by exertion. More air. More water. A powerful silence. I close my eyes and compile a mini-geographical documentary.

Had I not been naked and in a shower, and had I clothes on and been inside a disco, it could have been mistaken for the choreography of a John Travolta classic! It was chilly outside and the cold water from the shower seemed to be some type of torture system set up by the Peruvians for the pampered tourists of western civilizations. The idea was to get under and move. Fling your arms up and down, hop, skip, sing. Do whatever you want but don't ever think about how cold it really was. Invigorating isn't really the right word ...... shall we try electrifying??

Funny within itself was this thought. You could have a warm shower in the mornings when the electricity was running, and you could describe your shower as electrifying or now, in the late afternoon, having just walked the return twenty-nine kilometres from Mt Churup, we were experiencing a cold "electrifying" shower.

The council inspectors from home would never cope here. The system for supplying hot water for showering was rather suspect, creative even, but at home it would have been classed as quite dangerous. As it was, with their hundred and ten volts, you could get the constant buzz of electrified water without too much paranoia. A sour taste at the end of your tongue, the tingle of the fingers and into your wristbone, but no alarming parched bodies laying smoking on the untiled floor. But maybe?

The houses were made of either mud bricks or baked red clay bricks and would be finished off inside and out with a coating of plaster. They would then be painted with light pastel colours or whitewashed. The typically Spanish look of orange or red rounded tiles were the normal roof covering. Their methods of construction were simple, modern tools non-existent and everything labour intensive. Time seemed an unimportant part of life here. The finished houses always seemed a little unfinished to me, but the fact that they had housing at all seemed a huge plus after the slums I had seen around Lima.

The market place has an air about it that I like. Several streets are lined with permanent stalls, which consist of the goods, the owner and some type of shade, usually large squares as ex-flour sacks sown together and strung overhead. This is where we start to learn words in Spanish very quickly. If you want to buy some corn or potatoes then you will soon learn how to ask for them, especially when pointing and grunting like something out of a godzilla movie, is such an awkward way of doing it.

We both like Huaraz, but figure that things can't be too different just down the road at Caraz, so we move on.