Saturday, 26 December 2015

Yet more geography lessons.

For those in the know: Cajamarca > Celindin > Balsas > Leymemarca > Pedro Ruis > Bagua Grande...all places that might not show on an atlas map, but are in northern Perù. Dropped pins ( k > q )


I thought that I had got a handle on the clima-geography of the Andes. Dry desert on the coast, bisected by great rivers flowing from out of the glaciated mountains that feed an irrigation agriculture, surrounded by bare plantless desert. Rising quickly from the ocean coast to an impoverished Altipano. Dropping down to an elevated Central Valley, only to climb a second ridge of similar hills and then descendIng to the jungly flats.

We had a choice. We arrived in town from the south, we can leave on any of the remaining three quarters of the compass. Which makes Cajamarca a genuine geographical crossroad. It's also a cross-road to history.

Head straight on at the crossroads, on what would be the obvious line to reach the Ecuadorian frontier and we would find a major road construction project. Gravel roads in the wet are 'interesting', but only in the euphemistic sense; add in the prospect of road graders, dump trucks and one hour temporary road closures, and that 'interest' becomes problematic. One night's rain will render the route into an impassable glutinous, glaucous paste. We know, we've been rescued by a four-wheel driven pick-up once before.

Turn left and we quickly arrive back down in the coastal Suchera desert, a place described as 'there will be nothing, then more nothing and then absolutely nothing'. Dieter's quote concludes, 'but just as zero is a valid mathematical result, so a desert is a multifaceted entity'. I like his sentiment and I love that countryside, but we've been through it many times, and anyway, we'll end up down there soon enough, whenst it will offer a useful contrast to the mountains.

So we head off to the right. It will be the other three sides of that rectangle. Another deviation, another diversion. We have just enough information to know that there's going to be a variation in elevations. A couple of high points over 3600m, and a river crossing around 500m, which suggests a rollercoaster ride. It is. But it's an even bigger rollercoaster of variety.

On our excessively scaled map, the valley that carries the Rio Marañon looks like a major geographical feature. Crest to crest is twenty kilometres as the condor soars, by asphalt it is three times longer and will take us two and a bit days to get to the other side. That's the trouble with mapping apps; you get the good news and the bad news all together. With that sort of ratio, you know that there's going to be very few flat sections of road. Do the math and you know the average gradient is going to be constant work.

We crest the first 'abra', to find a bank of thick fog clinging to the upper slopes. That makes clima-sense. Warm moist air rising on convection currents meeting cooler drier air arising from the valley that we've just left. Roiling, tumbling clouds that are in perpetual motion, yet never retreat or progress. We fall into this murk, down a narrow road that's been chipped out of the steep hillside. An apparition of a gaucho horseman merges out of the white gloom, but that's virtually the only traffic. Down. Down. Down. Breaking into clear skies and a vertigo-inducing descent. Each subsequent turn of road appearing to be folded underneath where I'm standing; the road a mere illiterate scribble on the scape.

Hot blasted drafts of ventilated air buffet us as the vegetative zones merge into a dry desert of mesquite trees. Then just as suddenly a spring-fed plot of jungle fruit, papaya and bananas materialises; only to return to that thin shadeless tree cover.

Slowly the bottom of the valley emerges out of the haze, and acquires some definition. I'd convinced myself that if we were going down to those reduced elevations, that we would be entering wild jungle, with visions of howler monkeys, strangler pythons and malarial mozzies. After all, the Rio Marañòn is the major precursor for the Rio Amazonas. Wrong. It might have only a further five hundred metres to drop and over four thousand kilometres to travel to the Atlantic Ocean, but this is a powerful, creamed, mud infused desert river. I will always be incredulous that a river with those potential physics, it's a gradient so negligible as to be insignificant, can still move. All we find is a meagre strip of mango cultivation on it's banks. A minor oasis of hardscrabble subsistence farming.

Or so I had assumed. We find a room on a 'finca', a smallholding. The family are sorting through a heap of leaves, picking out the woody stalks. Of course I know that it's coca, but it could possibly be for the chewing, drinking market, the ancient antidote for 'sorache', the altitude sickness. Only, in the middle of the night I hear a soft tap on the locked outside gate, whispered conversation, and in the morning the sorted bag has been replaced with a new pile of leaves. There's also a new powerful Yamaha motor bike parked in a yard that is scattered with the paraphernalia for cock fighting. We play the ignorant Gringo, and start our climb back up the other side of the valley.

Not to break my habit for misjudging the local clima-geography, I had assumed that the re-ascent would be a reverse of the descent. Wrong. True there is the mesquite tree, but now it's surrounded by withered, desiccated grasses that slowly, with altitude, turn green and grow clovers. More altitude and the trees grow plate sized leaves and garner a canopy that near the top evolves into a cloud forest. The early morning cumulus is an inversion; islands of hill tops break through the cloudscape, wisps of white are teased apart and spiral like geyser'd fumaroles out of scalloped hillsides. The roadside banks are dripping mosses and ferns, a single bead of crystal'd dew on each new unfurling frond.

Cresting the second 'abra', we enter yet another world. Possibly nor'west Scotland, circa 1850. Granite outcrops erupting from a wildflower infused swards, docken-chocked patches of potato and rickets of gnarled fence posts held up with rusted tangles of barbed wire. It might not be good traveler etiquette to compare locations, but the emotions engendered by this high river source are so strong as to be impossible to ignore. Then I realise I was in the right century, only the wrong country....County Donegal; Ireland, as a herd of horses, asses and donkeys come clattering around the corner, driven on by three whooping lads. "Gringa, amigo", to which I'm tempted to reply: "an' the top o' the mornin' to you". I wonder if they're straight out of central casting, and the Navigator questions if we've stepped into Brigadoon. Will it all disappear around the next corner?

Another long river valley descent, the pay-back, a chance to spend or squander all of the last two days accumulated work. A chance to acquire more stories of violent thunder storms, collapsing hillsides and the surreal evidence of nature's capriciousness; Jungled bromeliads growing on desert cactus. The weird is just plain wonderful.

I've learnt my lesson and given up on trying to second-guess what might be coming around the next corner.