Friday, 5 December 2008

Where the Condors Soar.

I would be lying if I said that I enjoy travel. What, I hear you cry? How can someone who does not enjoy travelling spend four months travelling around South America? Well, let me explain. I love the end result of travelling, arriving at my destination to be thrilled at what is waiting to be found there. What I don’t like is getting there, be it by car, train, bus, aeroplane, bike, boat, mule or on my own two weary feet. The same goes for getting back again. As you may have already read, getting to the Manu Biosphere Reserve was quite an adventure in itself. Getting back again was no different. It involved another long boat trip followed by a rather harrowing car journey along a road that will eventually span the South American continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Right now, it is “under construction”, a euphemism for a dirt road that has bollards down most of its length, 90% of the vehicles are dump trucks and visibility is reduced to nothing every time one barrels past. Add to this a windscreen that has so many cracks in it that the driver appears to have resorted to the use of colourful stickers to hold it all together and you have a recipe for a very stressful four hours. The stress did not finish once I arrived in Puerto Maldonaldo, since Mr. DBM, who was in a different vehicle, did not. After two hours of the guide telling me not to worry, he would be here in ten minutes, he did finally arrive, none-the-worse-for-wear. It appears that the car he was in got a puncture, then it broke down and then they decided to tow it back with them using a towrope that broke about 14 times. It must have been a very short towrope by the end of the journey. Still, all is well that ends well.

For our next little adventure, we were going up in the world. Yep, back up onto the Altiplano of Peru. We were heading for the Colca Canyon in search of the condor. I am very torn by the high plains of the Andes. I love the wildness and the bleakness, the way the weather changes in a matter of minutes from glorious sunshine to hail, sleet and snow. The sky is so pure and bright, the colours vivid, vibrant and ever-changing as the light strikes the land at different angles. Everything feels so clean and fresh, the air is untainted and you feel exhilarated as you draw in deep lungfuls of glorious, refreshing, bracing, ........... wait a minute, here is the catch ......... oxygen-depleted air. You see, I may delight in the beauty of the Altiplano, but I have no energy to explore its splendour. I didn’t even have the energy to go shopping – gasp, what, that can’t be so. Well, you may gasp, and that is exactly what I was doing as I was trying to buy a jumper (sweater for all you North Americans) for my Mum. I cannot recommend high altitude shopping. First of all, I didn’t even make it passed the first stall to scrutinize the variety of goods available at the other stalls (I wonder if you have to pay a premium to get that prime selling position). Then, I didn’t have the energy to peruse all my jumper-buying options at the stall I did make it to. As for bartering, well, that fell into the category of “here is my purse, help yourself”. So, I am guessing that my hypoxic purchase may have been a little on the wrong size, wrong colour, wrong style, over-priced side. Oh well, at least my Mum can wear it with pride and let everyone know that it was acquired at 5000m above sea level.

Aside from the low oxygen levels, there are other difficulties associated with living on the Andean Altiplano. These include the scarcity of water, due to the rain shadow formed by the Andes, rapid changes in temperature, from very cold at night, to searingly hot during the day, strong, drying winds and high UV levels. The Altiplano is a harsh place to live and any tourist who travels there can attest to this. However, a tourist does not live here and can retreat to their hotel room with lots of hot water and warm bedding whenever they need to (note, I did not include central heating here, since I have yet to find a hotel that actually heats their rooms – perhaps I need to find more upmarket hotels? Instead, you end up getting crushed every night under a mountain of blankets). The fauna and flora of this region have no such luxuries, so how do they survive? You will now expect to ooooh and aaaah over some cute, furry creature and learn how its fur keeps it warm at night and how it can cool off during the day by hiding in burrows and rock crevices. But no, I will not. It is time for a closer look at an example of the flora of this region. Yes, a plant. I once had a student who asked me “Why do we have to study plants? They are so boring?” And my answer was.........“What have you eaten today?” Think about it. Can you think of any food that you have eaten in the past week that does not, directly or indirectly rely on plants?

The very interesting plant that caught my eye on the Altiplano was the yareta. This is a very compact plant that hugs the ground, forming large mounds that look like huge, soft pillows of moss. Don’t let appearances fool you, and never jump onto a yareta plant thinking that it will be nice and soft. It is, in fact, rock hard, because the individual plantlets making up the mound are packed together so tightly. This compact growth form minimises water and heat loss, allowing the plant to survive in its harsh habitat. The yareta is so well adapted to the high levels of solar radiation found on the plains that it can no longer grow in the shade. Due to the unforgiving conditions here, this plant grows incredibly slowly, around 1mm per year and some yaretas are thought to be over 3000 years old.

There you go, an interesting plant. And for those of you who would still prefer something cute and cuddly, I give you the viscacha. This gorgeous little guy is a close relative of the chinchilla and it lives in amongst the rocks and crevices at high altitudes in the Andean mountains. Its fur is soft and dense, to keep it warm and to make sure that it is as cute as a button for our viewing pleasure.

Now, let's get to the canyon. The Colca Canyon is sometimes said to be the deepest canyon in the world, more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. However, this is much disputed, since it seems to be a matter of opinion as to where the top of the canyon is. As far as I was concerned, the top of the canyon was where our vehicle was waiting for us after we ascended from its depths. Facts and figures aside, I can tell you this - if you only ever visit one canyon in your life, make it the Grand Canyon. It may not be as deep, but it is way grander! Aside from its deepness, the Colca Canyon is probably the most famous for its Andean Condors. I was so looking forward to seeing them soar above the canyon walls, wheeling effortlessly in the upwellings of warm air, the majestic kings of the canyon. You can guess what is coming next, can’t you? Yep, lots of hanging around in the freezing cold and not a condor in sight. Not that I was too bothered at that point, since we had two more days in the canyon and I was being quite entertained by the hummingbirds. I have now finally got my much sought photograph of a feeding hummingbird. OK, so it was the largest and slowest hummingbird that I have ever seen, but a hummingbird is a hummingbird.............

The next morning, we headed down into the canyon. And down, and down and then some more down. It got hotter and drier the further down we went, until we were greeted by a little oasis of green, swimming pool, bar and all. Of course, I was too tired to take advantage of these amenities and I retired to my tent for a nap. On the way down into the canyon, I noticed an increasing number of prickly pear cacti. Our guide picked one of the leaves and showed us a very interesting creature. The question, Bugs' Biological Brainteaser of the Day, is – what is it? As a clue, I have included a picture of the guide’s hand immediately after squashing the mystery animal.

What goes down, has to come up again and so the next morning was destined to be a long, long, looooooonnnnnng haul back up to the top of the canyon. I was really not looking forward to this part of the hike. You see, it took me about three and a half hours to get down. The guide seemed to think that I would be able to hike back up in three hours. After witnessing my look of incredulity, he attempted to explain that people hike faster going up than coming down since they are less likely to trip and fall. OK, I can buy that, but he seemed to have neglected to factor in the fact that it requires a lot more effort going up and that I am a terribly slow hiker at the best of times and that the lack of oxygen at the higher altitudes has significant effects on my abilities to do anything, let alone hike up a very steep incline. The answer to this apparent dilemma came in the form of a mule and a $10 US bill. So, a three hour plus slog or a $10 mule? Do I look stupid? To those of you who know me, you don’t need to answer that question and for those of you who don’t, well, I wear glasses, so how stupid could I be? The mule it is then and let me tell you, that was the best $10 I have ever spent. I have to admit at this point that, at times, I take a perverse pleasure in other people’s suffering. There is Mr. DBM and I, admiring the view, letting our mules do all the hard work. Then there were all those people who made the decision to hike out. There they were, all red-faced and sweaty, huffing and puffing their way up out of the canyon and there I was, on my mule, and the only muscles doing any work were those required to smile. I couldn’t help but indulge in a quiet little chuckle, greeting them all with a cheery “Hola!” as we passed. Well, they could have taken a mule, couldn’t they?

So, did we ever get to see the condors? Well, technically, yes, I can say that I did see the condors at the Colca Canyon. But after a bum-numbing hour of sitting on rocks on the rim of the Canyon and only seeing a couple, very far away, I feel less than satisfied with my sightings. But, who knows, perhaps I will get the opportunity to see them again, just like those giant otters...........I live in hope.........well, you have to, don’t you?