Riding Peru’s Canon del Pato, the World’s most dangerous road! [31/50]

Roads come in all shapes and sizes, and some are undoubtedly more dangerous that others (and for different reasons). Some roads are dangerous because of banditos or revolutionaries, some are dangerous because of their condition or environmental placing, and some are dangerous because conforming Modernists are unable to respond independently to uncertain, non-pre-programmed conditions (it is the last one that most frightens me, like the angry robots on an LA freeway, soon to be in silly self-driving cars!).

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The road to Caraz via Canon del Pato

The road through Canon del Pato in Peru is a mostly unsealed and almost entirely deserted stretch of road that starts in Santa on the Pacific coast, follows the Rio Santa through a spectacular river valley, and ends in Caraz high up in the mountains (perhaps about 200 kms). To say the road is spectacular is almost an understatement as it is by far the most impressive stretch of road that I have ever been on (and this isn’t just the scary bit that goes through Canon del Pato).

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The road to Canon del Pato

The road is sealed about half way until Chuquicata, which is little more than a salmonella-restaurant and a few abandoned adobe houses. To Chuquicata, the road winds through a deep river valley of enormous rock cliff faces, lonely cactus clinging for their life and a few adobe houses, brightly splattered with straight-forward political advertising for presidential candidates. The Rio Santa rapidly flows through the centre of the valley, brown and muddy as it eternally eats away the gravely Andes.
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At Chuquicata, I stopped and asked for directions as the sealed road went over a bridge that crossed the river to the left, but my GPS said straight-ahead on the exhausting, unsealed road. GPS is unreliable in the mountains as; one, it often difficult to get a signal; two, the path is often not listed and three, digital maps rarely distinguish between gravel and sealed roads. So I went straight-ahead on the unsealed road, not knowing how long it would take to get to Caraz as riding on gravel with two wheels is a hell of a lot harder than travelling with four.

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Rathole!

The 125cc Yamaha, which is little more than a mountain bike with an engine, handled the road well but at 25 kms an hour it was slow going. And gravel roads have recalcitrant personalities all of their own and their moods can change unexpectedly at any given juncture.

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Canon del Pato

After a couple of hours of jaw-dropping scenery, feeling intrepid, if not slightly out of my depth, wondering how to fix flat tyres on motos, I came across the first tunnel into the mountain so knew I must be near Canon del Pato. The road through Canon del Pato consists of dozens of one-lane tunnels, roughly hacked through the mountains by a big rat. The tunnels are pitch black and look like gold-rush-era mine shafts and just to make things more interesting, are one lane. On entering the tunnels, one must toot their horn hoping that the big rat isn’t still in there boring its way through the Andes.

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Canon del Pato

After traveling through dozens of these things, some with rough holes conveniently blasted into the side to let the sunshine in, the road became sealed again which was a welcome reprieve as this cut hours off my travel time which meant that Canon del Pato wouldn’t have to be foolishly traversed in the Andean moonlight. I arrived at the beautiful city of Caraz set beneath snow-capped, jagged Andean peaks at around sunset wondering if I could ever bring this intense individual travel experience onto the straighter roads of many others.

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A typical section of many Andean roads

Shacked-up in Vilcabamba…[29/50]

Vilcabamba, about 200 kilometers from the Peruvian border, was the last town I visited in Ecuador. It is a classic small Ecuadorian town, built on an orderly grid, lined with wobbly, white-washed adobe houses with a shaded town square in the centre (with the ubiquitous Catholic Church bearing down). But what makes Vilcabamba different to other Ecuadorian towns is that everyone has been preserved with secret herbs and spices and thus resemble Colonel Sanders. Apparently in the 1950s, the venerable Readers Digest wrote an article that claimed that Vilcabamba had more centenarians than any other place because of the climate or fresh air or such. And the individuals that read that article, who were possible already pushing a century at the time, came to live in Vilcabamba. And now they aimlessly wander the streets with their American dollars buying over-ripe avocados and 1 dollar pilsners then sit in cafés all day and yell at each other.

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Vilcabamba, adobe houses

But in reality, Vilcabamba isn’t just a retirement village for the feral-edges of the American empire, it is also a friendly community of diverse peoples from all over the shop. A mix of lethargic 1960s hippy-trail, meets Catholic Ecuadorian rumba, meets wholesome instrumental backpacker.

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Welcome to Vilcabamba where people live forever!

When I arrived in Vilcabamba, I checked into a well-designed, adobe hotel with a vast jungle – garden in the centre; a long way from my windowless room in Cuenca. And after swinging in the hammock for a century or two thinking of nothing, in particular, I decided to go for a walk to check out the local geography. But the map that the owner of the hotel had given me was extremely dated so after an hour or two, I was lost in a deep valley next to a rapidly flowing, muddy river. When I walked up a driveway to ask for directions, I stumbled upon a sign that said “cabins with kitchens for rent”. I followed the sign and met the proprietor, a gentleman named Charlie with an arresting Wolf Creek stare! We had a brief, nervous chat about the birds in the local national park (a whopping 6% of the world’s species), hiking and the lunacy of riding a 125cc moto to Chile. And the next day I moved into Cabin number 1.

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Cabin at Vilcabamba

It was a rustic cabin with a basic kitchen and a balcony overlooking the river (with hammock). And as I was a little afraid of my upcoming ride through the northern Peruvian desert, I decided to stay a while to let my itinerary germinate (and confidences build). A new friend came to visit from Cuenca for a few days and we spent long evenings discussing Ecuadorian politics, money laundering of US Dollars, and the South American drug trade (while eating over-ripe avocados and drinking Pilsner). After he had left, I spent a few days walking the excellent hiking trails of Vilcabamba, preparing the strong local coffee in the cabins kitchen, and reading a historical novel about the Dutch East Indies company’s outposts in Japan in the eighteenth century. Good times!

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Bridge near my cabin

When I left the cabin and climbed on my trusty moto bound for the Peruvian desert, I saw a very long line of empty beer bottles that I had left for Charlie. There seemed to be so many; I must have been in the cabin for a very long time. But then again, perhaps it was only a short period as time is measured in strange ways in Vilcabamba!

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Walking trail above Vilcabamba

The temperatures of Colombia [23/50]

Colombia has one of the most diverse climates of any region that I have ever encountered; from tropical beaches, to cool cloud forests, to misty towns in the mountains, to dusty lawless deserts fit only for banditos. Riding a motorcycle over this geography is challenging as it is almost impossible to predict what the temperature will be in the next town. When I was in Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast, I rode a mere twenty kms to a city called Minca and the temperature halved (from 30+ Celsius to about 14 Celsius). Minca is at an elevation of only about 1000 meters but has its own sub-climate of heavy predictable monsoon rainfalls, cold nights, and misty days.

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Soleno

At the next town that I stopped, Tolu, the temperature was unbearably hot at noon and only the mentally challenged (and gringos) could be seen wandering about outdoors at this time of day. In the next town, the vast modern metropolis of Santa Marta, the temperature was a mild and comfortable 25 Celsius with bright sunny days and cool evenings. But in the next town, Soleno in the coffee region up in the mountains, the rains and the mist had returned, and the weather forecast predicted that the likelihood of rain was 100% over the next seven days (it has a monsoonal sub-climate good for growing coffee beans).

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Tolu

I am now in Popayan, not far from the Ecuadorian border, a beautiful colonial town with an impressive and well maintained historical central district. The temperature here is hot with bright sunny days and shorts and tee shirts are a must (yesterday in Solento I was wearing thermals and a puff jacket).

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Soleno, coffee plantation

In the next couple of days I will cross into Ecuador to do some trekking near Quito and make my way the next 6000 KMS (on my trusty 125cc motorcycle) through the other diverse climates of South America on the way to Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia.

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Papayan

4 good reasons to take a sabbatical year…[4/50]

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View of Annapurna massif near Manang, on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal

There are (hopefully) number of good reasons to take an extended sabbatical or ‘gap year’, perhaps not just once, but during key junctures in your life. Gap years are usually about the process of coming of age, of getting out there and experiencing the world before starting University or a career. They help individuals develop self-sufficiency, independence, decision-making and maturity.  Plus you get to see a good chunk of the world which is probably good for everyone as it helps build undertakings between individuals and cultures.

But there are also good arguments for taking ‘gap years’ at other periods of your life.  A gap year or ‘sabbatical’ can be a means of ‘book-ending` certain chapters of your life; of taking some time to develop new perspectives on what has passed and what is yet to come.  There is a skill that is often lost in the day-to-day demands of mouse-wheel Modernity and this is the ability to contextualise and navigate oneself within the great mountains and valleys of life.  Context appears to be the great deficit of the emerging information economy and unfortunately, reductiveness, superficiality and banality are moving at frightening speed. A year isn’t such a long time in the great scheme of things, and hopefully through doing something different for a year, new insights, choices, creativity, and abilities will emerge.   At least this is what I tell myself!

1. Time is your most valuable asset

There is a parochialism that has enveloped day-to-day  life, but this parochialism isn’t geographical, but temporal. It is the ”parochialism of the present”. Millions of people are now trapped in the loud and raucous NOW, primarily driven by the hysterical and trivial demands of cheap communication devices (I am making an incursion here).  This NOW can stretch for many years, until one day you may realise that every day looks the same as the past day and the view may from the hill up the road was possibly better. In other words, significance is contextual and layered and the Modern world has many iron cages of insignificance (and some of them digital).

A sabbatical is time to do new things, to clearly re-think your goals and aspirations, and these don’t just come to you in the form of a lazy text message, you have to look for them.

2. Do a project that you have always wanted to do

Independent long-term travel is one option for a sabbatical year, but there are, of course,  many others (as travel may not be for everyone).  There is volunteer or paid work in various parts of the world where one can learn new skills and develop new perspectives. But it is important to plan sometime in advance and be flexible enough to let the plan or project develop along the way.  The project might be writing a book, learning a sport, or building a tree-house.  Depending on what you plan to do, taking a sabbatical year is a fairly demanding endeavor as it may take up to a year to organise (and tie-up the mouse wheel), a year to actually do it, and then a year to readjust when you come back (and I haven’t figured out the last bit yet, but maybe this is the whole point!).

There are options available to take time of work (unpaid leave) and return to the same job, but I not sure this is a good idea (unless of course, you own your own business or work for your self in some capacity in which you have to ability to take your hard-earned perspectives and use them to shape you immediate surroundings). It may be a better idea to start something new when you return based on what you have learned.

3. Travel now, it is better than later

Travel is all about engaging the ‘big picture” and given my understanding of the past century, I don’t think that the present geo-political and economic arrangements will last.  Even if you didn’t study it at university or school, history didn’t end.  History isn’t politically correct, it’s not about shopping, it isn’t black and white, and it is bigger than you.  The world is fairly peaceful and we are in a golden age of air travel and now has never been a better time to see the world (as it may not be possible in 10-20 years time).  When I first started travelling in the early 1990s, huge parts of the world were inaccessible due to divergent political ideologies, economic expense, or lack of infrastructure for travelers (like hotels and roads!).  The 21st Century may not be that different to the 20th, at least in terms of the great ebbs and flows of humanity occasional fracturing into misunderstanding and conflict.  There are already signs of this occurring and history has never unraveled in a polite and orderly manner.  The most important ingredient for independent travel is peace and hopefully through building bridges with other cultures, you aid in this process in a small but meaningful way.

4. Friendship

Accordingly, perhaps the most satisfying thing about traveling is meeting new people, some of whom may become life-long friends. Sure, you may not see them that often, but still, there is a wonderful travel-narrative there with a few sparks to light it. It is the connections between people that is the most important.

The death of a travel diary…[3/50]

An everyday discipline that I have had for the past 27 years (ouch) is keeping a daily ”travel diary”. I started this arduous task way-back in 1988 during Australia’s bi-centenary year. This first diary was a Christmas gift from my sister, embellished with pictures of koalas, kangaroos, gum-nuts, and celebratory bi-centenary images of Governor Phillip triumphantly raising flags at Sydney Cove. Through my first diary, I started describing nights out on the booze, difficult friendships, and grand aspirations of seeing the world.

2014-12-07 20.57.50And the next year I had embarked on a voyage to conquer new lands. This was my first time out of Australia and like many Australians of the period, I thought it would be the only time!

When I triumphantly returned from a year in Europe and the US, I enrolled in a humanities degree at La Trobe University in Melbourne. And this is when all the trouble began. The diaries became another journey; the rich world of the humanities is both an internal and external journey.

Although I have never re-read my journals, I do recall that during my early years of education, they were rambling monsters with all sorts of treatises and manifestos, jaded letters, and tortured-observations, stapled to every other page. What a splendid time that was!

Then came are all those years of travel; of long summers in Asia, of study and road trips in the US, of good times in Kreuzberg in Berlin and late night drunken visits to chicken shops in Dalston in London. There was Hanoi, Mumbai and Ko Phan Ghan, Kathmandu, Vientiane, Hampi, Harlem, and Hoi Ann. And all those damn universities; UNSW, RMIT, Melbourne, King’s, Virginia, VU, and UCSC, each with their idiosyncratic style and ways to engage (or not engage) with the world.

But over the past few years, the diaries have become pedestrian (take this as a sign), concerning setting practical goals and writing about day-to-day administrative shite. And they started to take up a lot of room, in more ways than one, thus, it is time to move towards a minimalist future.

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I see the process of diary writing as similar to physical work-out, it is a workout for the soul. And just as it is possible to notice those who have never been to a gym (sorry about that), you may also notice those who have never kept a diary nor traveled in their youth. They may look good on the outside but have few healthy perspectives developed from the inside.

Anyhow, after much deliberation, I decided to burn the f**kers; to set the diaries on fire and destroy that journey; to start at ”year zero” just like New Zealand with a new flag! Now I can be historically pure and arrive anywhere from nowhere like a contextually-challenging snake on a plane (there are no snakes in New Zealand).

But being a historian (and a digital one) I just could not do it (well, not completely). So I painstakingly digitised all the diaries before I burnt them (it took many weeks, and now my arm hurts). They were scanned and photographed (according to one of the many standards) and are now safely encrypted and stored on a cloud drive protected by an inactive account manager. So, if I don’t reply to the ‘are you still alive’ email sent by this particular service every six months, they will never see the light of day. This makes me very happy!

So, I won’t keep a daily diary any longer (at least, not in this form). That work is now done, and the fruits of that labour will forever carry me on my travels. Burn!