When Paddington Bear comes to visit his relatives I’ve absolutely no idea how he finds them. Quite possibly they are easier to spot in “…deepest, darkest Peru…” , where he hails from, though I doubt it some how, for spectacled bears (Tyemarctos Ornatus) are an elusive creature and apparently much is still to be learnt about them. Which is why we’ve headed off the beaten track in the Imbabura province of northern Ecuador, in the hope of sighting one. Continue reading “ON THE TRAIL OF THE SPECTACLED BEAR”
The Smiling policeboy
You know you’ve acquired a certain age when the policemen look younger than yourself….but this is getting ridiculous. We’ve left northern Peru behind us, crossing the border into south-west Ecuador, and have entered the land of ‘El Oro Verde’ (The Green Gold) – otherwise known as banana country. We’ve come to the town of Machala, commercial and administrative centre for the province of El Oro, in search of supplies and one month of vehicle insurance. Continue reading “THE LAND OF GREEN GOLD”
A KING’S RANSOM: The Llanganates National Park is a terra incognita, a land of seething volcanoes, fathomless ravines, impenetrable mists and quaking bogs – which is why we shall gaze at it from afar, despite the promise of great fortunes to be had. For centuries the Llanganates has been devouring unhinged gringos frothing at the mouth in their search for riches and glory, haunted by the obsession of Atahualpa’s gold. Seventy thousand Lama-loads of treasure, weighing two and a half thousand tonnes, is hidden in the Llanganates, in the waters of the “Lake Made by Hand” …or so the legend goes. And it’s sending the treasure hunters crazy. To help find the hoard there exists a derrotero, an ancient guide, lying amongst the millions of documents in the archives in Seville…if you can find it…if it still exists there…oh, and a faded map drawn by a Senor Guzman, which apparently causes gibbering men to wend their way in ever decreasing circles. The Indians claim this is a bewitched land; they say the treasure is cursed.
When the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro first arrived in northern Peru he discovered a people adorned in intricate jewellery crafted from gold and silver. Pizarro, little more than a cunning scrap merchant from Trujillo, got the whiff of El Dorado, the lost city of gold any adventurer worth his salt knew existed somewhere between the Andes and Timbuktu. Pizarro cajoled his men and their horses inland, marauding, mangling, melting, until a steady stream of gold bars, an ancient version of the European Union ‘soft loan’, began riding the waves east, to fill the coffers of a grateful King of Spain. In Cajamarca Pizarro’s small band of mercenaries made remarkably short work of the Inca Emperor’s army. Atahualpa, fresh from murdering his half-brother, was soon overwhelmed by the bearded warriors, with their metal tubes emitting fire and painful circular balls, and these curious, whinnying beasts on which they paraded. In the plaza at Cajamarca Pizarro gawked at the vast quantities of gold. And yet still it wasn’t enough. He made an offer to Atahualpa: if the emperor could fill his prison cell to bursting with his peoples’ garish baubles the Spaniard would resist disembowlling him and feeding his ‘bits’ to the savage dogs roaming the streets. Atahualpa agreed. Soon his cell filled with the most exquisite jewellery: masks, figurines, bracelets, rings and necklaces materialised from all corners of the continent. Pizarro rubbed his hands, seeing nothing more than a means to influence and power, and he stoked his fires accordingly. When news came to the conquistador’s ears of a gathering Inca army he reneged on his agreement. He wouldn’t burn the Inca alive, after all. He had him garrotted instead. When general Ruminahui, commander of the northern armies, heard of such treachery the seventy thousand lama-loads of treasure he hoped would finally release his master were diverted to the Llanganates, thereby creating one of the world’s greatest legends of lost treasure.
CHIMBORAZO VOLCANO: When passing close to a volcano, especially one of this magnitude, it’s always something of a relief to learn it’s inactive. But can the status of a volcano ever really be considered inactive. Much like stroking a grumpy dog, you can only hope it growls a minute or two before it bites. You see, according to the statistics, Chimborazo blows every one thousand years. It last took a bite out of the surrounding countryside in AD 550, so a view of its teeth is roughly five hundred years overdue. The German explorer Baron Alexander Von Humboldt ignored such statistics when he climbed the volcano in 1802, during his south American tour. In fact, he’d have probably relished the sight of a stream of bubbling magma severing his retreat – such was the nature of the man. The baron and his party reached a height of 5,897 metres before being forced to descend, due to the quantity of blood pouring from their noses. No doubt the German was in his element. He loved nothing better than self-experimentation, after which he made copious notes concerning the weeping pustules, the racing heart, the impaired sight or the aggravating rash. At 6,268 metres of altitude, for a long time Chimborazo was considered the highest mountain in the world, until they discovered Everest. Edward Whymper eventually cracked the summit of Chimborazo in 1886. Whymper always professed that high-altitude sickness was caused by a build up of gases within the body. Which leaves me wondering: did he ever have trouble sharing a tent?
In August 1976, SAETA flight number 232, carrying twenty-two passengers and four crew, disappeared en-route from Quito to Cuenca. The mystery of the missing plane was solved in October 2002, twenty-four years later. The wrecked Vickers Viscount aircraft and its dead passengers were found on Chimborazo at an altitude of 5,400 metres by Ecuadorian climbers ascending the volcano on a little used route.
THE LUNGS OF THE WORLD: One of the problems I find with the Amazon is how elements of it linger after you’ve left. Barely had we regained four thousand metres altitude than a rather large, creatively-coloured spider scurried from our bedding, followed by an enormous beetle that bled green ooze (whoops, I hope it wasn’t rare) tottering from beneath the toilet. At least on the altiplano you’re unlikely to find a lama cowering in the fridge. I have to accept it’s just not everyone’s cup of tea this jungle lark – it’s just a bit too wet and sticky and buzzy. No matter how many times you take a shower you are left in no doubt: from the moment you arrive in the jungle you slowly decompose. These hardy souls at the Jatun Sacha Biological Station brave all sorts of discomfort in the hope their efforts might go some way to slowing the destruction of the planet. In the 2,200 hectare reserve they provide education to the locals on the tropical rainforest of the Upper Rio Napo region. The soil here is not good for growing crops…and yet they do. After a couple of harvests the ground is finished and another area must be cleared of trees. CHOP! CHOP!CHOP! And so the story goes on. And that’s before we discuss the illegal loggers. These jungles are the lungs of the world and they’re disappearing pretty quickly.
Christine and I go for a wander in the jungle whilst we still can. Jatun Sacha means ‘big jungle’ in Quechua, and it certainly feels very big, even after only fifteen minutes ambling. It’s full of spirits and curiously named plants. Our information sheet tells us to look out for ‘Moral Bobo’, Suru Panga’, ‘Hot lips’ and ‘Hens Blood’. We wade through the sultry atmosphere, brushing spiders from the trail and looking for snakes. I’m not really paranoid; I like to be prepared. Drawing breath is like sucking the air through a damp cloth. It rains heavily before we get back and giant palm leaves do their best to fend it off. At dusk, swinging in a damp hammock, I listen to the clicking and whirring and screeching emanating from the jungle. Fire flies stare, green-eyed, from the darkeness. It’s really very calming. And then a mosquito whines in my ear. SLAP!
RING OF FIRE: No, I’m not referring to the aftermath of a particularly violent curry. I’m talking about the beliefs of the ancients. In the old days the equator was thought to be a ring of fire populated by mythical creatures. They believed that even if such forces might be overcome, no man could survive beyond it, for how could he live upside down. Quite right, too. In Ecuador they make a bit of a thing about the equator and the strange phenomena concerning it. They’ve built a museum where they encourage people to balance an egg on a nail and flush the toilet. It all sounds jolly technical. We didn’t go there because for some reason they didn’t manage to build it exactly on the equator, which might just negate the results of these jolly technical experiments. On the road out to Cayambe, a place more famous for its roses than equatorial phenomena, there is a MIDDLE OF THE WORLD sign which, if my GPS is correct, is in fact on the equator. As the volume of water in a toilet is not sufficient to be influenced by the Coriolis force (something to do with centrifugal and inertial forces) I didn’t bother flushing it to observe which way the water whirled. I was preoccupied with another thought. For the past day or two I’d been ruminating on what happens to the seasons when we leave the spring of the southern hemisphere for the autumn of the northern hemisphere. For instance, how immediate would the changes be? In a matter of a few metres would the green leaves suddenly be curled and brown; would the vibrantly-coloured flowers fade and wilt? What would happen to the grasses? I was on to some ground-breaking thinking and I’d dug out my notebook. My instincts as a naturalist were coming to the fore; the Baron Von Humboldt would have been impressed. Over the next few kilometres I made these illuminating observations: the condition of the trees remains unchanged. Ditto the grasses and flowers. Uhm…I think I’ll stick to overlanding.
I think the most striking thing about the Galapagos Islands is how cool all the animals are. Nesting Boobies gaze into your eyes, sea lions gawp through your goggles, penguins swim past your nose, giant tortoises hobble over your feet, and turtles drift past on the currents. Even a reef shark darting out of the mangroves only came to say hello. Since the archipelago gained protected status a Zen-like calm appears to have descended over its inhabitants. Though it wasn’t always so. When the Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, drifted off course in 1535, accidently discovering the islands, he promptly began chomping his way through the locals. He penned a letter to King Charles of Spain telling him ‘…the birds are so silly that they didn’t know how to flee and many were caught by hand.’ Even Charles Darwin wasn’t beyond a juicy tortoise steak.
Attracted by the hordes of gold the Spanish were hauling out of the New World, pirates began operating along the Pacific Coast, in order to raid the Spanish vessels running between Peru and Panama. The Galapagos, with its abundant supply of tortoise meat, became a favourite place to resupply the larder. By 1790 the pirates had been replaced by the whalers. Captain James Colnett was commissioned by the British Government to investigate the possibility of establishing a sperm-whale fishery based on the islands. The whalers were a hungry bunch. During the 19th century it’s thought that they ate some 200,000 giant tortoises.
For our six day trip of the western islands we joined the 72 metre MV Santa Cruz. We had wanted to take a smaller boat but the sea at this time of year is pretty choppy. During the passage from Isabela Island to Santa Cruz island the glasses, cups and books on the bedside table flew across the cabin, so we were pretty happy to be on a bigger boat.
Today, some 30,000 inhabitants live on the islands. Tourism is the principal employer, followed by fisheries and farming. One of the earlier inhabitants was an Irishman called Patrick Watkins, who was marooned on Santa Maria Island in 1807. He grew vegetables, which he traded for rum with passing ships. For two years he remained as drunk as a lord, and then he stole a boat, crewed it with five slaves and sailed for the mainland. When he arrived in Guayaquil none of the slaves were with him and he never let on what happened to them. In 1891 Manual J Cobos established a sugar factory on San Cristobal. He employed prisoners and it took thirteen years before they eventually killed him. In the 1930s three groups of Germans arrived on Floreana. Baroness Wagner de Bosquet came armed with her three lovers. Another was Dr Friedlich Ritter, who pulled all his teeth out to avoid dental problems. The third to arrive were the Wittmers of Cologne, who lived in a cave vacated by pirates. One by one the settlers died in strange circumstances. The baroness and her three lovers simply disappeared. Dr Ritter ate a chicken and died a couple of days later. Only the Wittmers survived. Margret Wittmer died in 2000 at the age of 95.
Lonesome George, the last of his lineage, was quite a famous tortoise. Apparently they brought him from the island where he lived to the Charles Darwin Research Centre in the hope he would mate with the three lusty females placed in the same pen. But George was too fat to do anything other than nibble a bit of lettuce, and so they put him on a diet for six months , which did wonders for his sex drive. However, being the human equivalent of several hundred years old, unsurprisingly he was firing blanks. No matter how long the eggs remained buried nothing popped up from the earth. So, after all the dieting and the sex and the disappointments, George dropped dead – which might have told the scientists a thing or two. Hardly had George been laid to rest than the folks at the research centre imported a new stud from America. His name is ‘Super Diego’ and things are going just swell. 2000 new tortoises have been created at the research centre (not all of them by Diego). A great success! How many giant tortoises can these islands support? I never asked. I’m sure the scientists have it all under control.
The officials at the La Balsa border crossing are an old fashioned lot. Here there is no internet connection, only ledgers and the postal service. Their telephones have a dial and a veneer of dust. The silver-haired customs officer took four hours to produce our temporary vehicle importation document. He had to ring the border post at Macara for someone to enter us into the system. ‘They need to issue me with an official number,’ he moaned. Except nobody on the other end of the phone was responding. I should imagine barely a couple of cars pass through the La Balsa border crossing each day. The dogs can sleep soundly in the middle of the track, chickens never have to run and the store keepers (two of them) sit on benches in the shade shooing flies. The only thing to move here is the Rio Blanco dividing Peru from Ecuador, which isn’t blanco at all, more a muddy-brown. Whilst we waited lunchtime came and went, and then a heavy tropical storm, making sure the ground remained nice and muddy. When we got grumpy the document we’d been waiting for miraculously appeared.
The La Balsa to Vilcabamba road (if you can call it a road) passes through the jungle of the central highlands. There really isn’t a great deal out here, apart from trees and bushes and mud, although our surroundings were often masked by a dense mist rising from the valleys. At dusk we stopped in a tiny settlement and asked permission to bivouac next to the church. Children came to talk with us. ‘Not so long ago we had some cyclists stay here,’ Andrea, the little girls told us. ‘And a Chinaman came on a bicycle, too. They all put up their tents inside the church.’
By the afternoon of the following day we arrived in Vilcabamba, a village popular with American and European expatriates who build big houses in the hills and then…well, I’m not quite sure what they do next. We met a young American couple and their three children. They’d come to settle in Vilcabamba and were starting to convert an old sugar cane mill into a smallholding where they could hide away in the hills, though the dream was taking longer than anticipated to materialise. The man looked longingly at our vehicle and said he wished he could go travelling.