Adventures Old and New

watching the sunrise in Peru

Way back in 2009, I went on an adventure to Peru. One of those once-in-a-lifetime adventures type things.

A one off adventure, inspired by people who had done or were doing similar things.

Except it wasn’t a one off and it didn’t end there.

A five day hike to the lost city of Machu Picchu in 2009 inspired this blog, the Flat Foot Adventurer.

In 2011, I traded remote mountain paths for the Arctic tundra of Norway. Instead of high mountain paths I was driving a sled and a pack of huskies through the snow and across frozen lakes.

Since then, the adventures continue. I raced on a dragon boat team, moved to Australia, tracked nesting sea turtles on deserted beaches, started a street roller hockey team, and kept looking for more adventures.

Adventures in 2017 and Beyond

thevenard islandIt’s now 2017.

In December, I travel to WA’s Thevenard island to join the flatback turtle monitoring program, counting tracks, tagging turtles, and collecting data.

In September 2019, I plan to embark on my biggest and most challenging adventure yet. I will be joining Raleigh International as a volunteer on an expedition for three months in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Volunteers will be working with rural communities in remote areas of Central America. Protecting one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, projects can involve working on a water and sanitation initiatives to bring clean water to rural communities, or constructing school buildings for indigenous communities.

On the expedition as a volunteer communications officer, I am not getting paid. Due to Raleigh International being a registered charity I need to fundraise for them, and various charity fundraising activities and begging will follow. In addition, there will be some unashamed requests for funds to help me cover the period I will be in a remote Central American jungle instead of at a desk in Perth.

This will make the next year a challenge all of its own.

Adventures in Costa Rica awaitI set up today the Facebook page for The Flat Foot Adventurer.

After eight years of adventures it deserves to have one! Previous adventures had pages, but lost relevance when the adventures were complete.

It makes sense for there to be one page for sharing these adventures to.

Stay tuned for more adventures!

What drives the world’s greatest living explorer?

Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Sir Ranulph FiennesI was up and out of bed early this morning (*cough*forasunday*cough*) because — of course — Sunday mornings means training with the Dragon Boat team. Yesterday, there had been a message that it was possible training would get cancelled today because of weather conditions. We can’t go out on the dock if it’s too windy. But this morning my alarm went off at 8.45 and there was no word to say training was cancelled, so I showered, dressed, layered up, packed my rucksack with clean, dry clothes to change into, and headed out to the dock which is about a 10 minute walk from my flat, if that.

Yes, it’s December, and yes a lot of the time at the moment it is bloody freezing out: but that’s no excuse not to go out in a Dragon Boat on a cold Sunday morning when you have been out the night before, drinking and bowling. When I stepped outside into the Sunday morning air my first thought was that it actually wasn’t all that cold. That could have had something to do with the long thermal underwear, two t-shirts, a hoody, jacket, and hat I was wearing — but it was a nice morning, and when you’re paddling in the boat, you tend to stay quite warm anyway. There was also not a very strong wind, so I could see why the training was still on.

Except on the way to the dock, I began to have doubts: crossing a small footbridge between Royal Victoria Dock and Royal Albert Dock, the wind was quite strong and the water on the docks looked rough. And I was right: when I arrived I was told we might not be able to go out, and we were waiting for the final word: it didn’t take long for us to be told “No”.

While we were waiting, I picked up a copy of the Docklands newspaper “The Wharf”, and read an interview with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, wherein he talked about how he will lead a team across Antartica during the winter. I’ve mentioned before how this expedition is being described as the last adventure open to be had (which I disagree with).

It was interesting to read Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ own words, since I describe myself as an aspiring or freelance adventurer. What struck me most was where he was asked if he was “excited or scared” by the prospect of his winter adventure in the Antarctic. Apparently, Sir Ranulph’s teams for his adventures are chosen on the basis of the individuals being “someone who hasn’t got much emotion”. Being a former British Army officer, Sir Ranulph is described as “emotionally detached”, which is something I can imagine is important in the Armed Forces (and probably one of many reasons I didn’t get very far when I once tried to join the Royal Air Force).

I can’t imagine contrasting with Sir Ranulph much more than I do. Adventures both excite and scare me, and I think emotion is important to my adventures. I don’t do things just because they’re there, I don’t do them to beat someone else (like wanting to beat the Norwegians to a trans-Antartcic winter adventure), I do them because they excite me, I do them for the people in my life I care about, I do them because I get to a point where I can no longer imagine not doing them.

There were times during the Inca Trail I was scared: the morning of Dead Woman’s Pass I remember feeling very confronted by what lay ahead, since not everyone is able to make it — often due to altitude sickness, a lack of fitness, or under-estimating the mountain and trying to do it too quickly. There was times during the Arctic Adventure that I was unhappy: I was hurting from falling off the sled and being dragged behind it, I was cold, and I felt I just wasn’t good enough. I would never make it onto one of Sir Ranulph’s teams: finding something exciting would immediately preclude me. A history of depression would also not count in my favour. Being sometimes so excited and inspired by everything there is in the world to see and do and experience and share and wanting to do it all now, at once, without delay, all of it certainly are not the qualities of the man the Guinness Book of World Records describes as “the world’s greatest living explorer”.

I wonder what motivates Sir Ranulph, if these adventures don’t excite him? Does he get that same wanderlust that I do, that it’s been a while since a big adventure and there’s a siren call just outside of hearing? Does he unexpectedly one day think “I want to travel the entire distance of North and South America in one trip and by any means necessary“? Or does he approach everything with a detached, scientific outlook? “This has not yet been done, and so I should do it before someone else does”.

I write about my adventures because I write compulsively, and I like to share my adventures: I hope that they will inspire people to have adventures of their own, in the same way I am inspired by adventures I read, and for people who prefer to read than adventure I hope to give a vicarious adventure. What drives Sir Ranulph? I’d like to ask him myself, but I don’t think he’d approve of me.

New Adventure Needed!

When you've seen how big the world is, how can you make do with this?
Image source: http://www.seoco.co.uk/blog/set-geographic-webmaster-tool-works/

“We were brought up on the Space Race, now they expect you to clean toiletsWhen you’ve seen how big the world is, how can you make do with this?”

Pulp “Glory Days”

With the Arctic Adventure truly over, and the notebook exhausted, we take a break to bring you this important message.

I need a new adventure.

I’ve explored North America on Greyhound buses and slept on pavements in southern California. I’ve hiked the Inca Trail to the “lost city” of Machu Picchu.  I’ve driven a pack of huskies across the frozen lakes and hills of the Arctic Circle and gazed at the Northern Lights.  Now I want to know what’s next.

You think about an adventure.  You play with various ideas until one sticks, and you tell people about it.  Maybe they’re admiring, maybe they think you’re crazy, maybe they’re envious — but it all excites you.  After too long of thinking about it and telling people about it, it becomes time to put your money where your mouth is and actually sign up.  Having dreams is one thing, but you don’t want to be the person that dreams and never does anything about it.

Once you take the plunge, it’s serious.  There is now a finite space of time between you and the adventure, and a seemingly infinite number of things to do.  But there’s the other end, too — this end of the adventure when you’ve already been back a month, and you’ve got nothing to train for, nothing to dream about or talk about, nothing to have mini freak-outs about on the way to work.

I signed up for the Arctic Adventure last July, and that was several months later than I ideally wanted to (because I was a bit dense and was looking in the wrong section of the website for the type of event I wanted). Now I have been back for two months, have completed the fundraising, and long for a new adventure.

I took on John Williams and Selina Barker’s “Screw Work, Let’s Play” 30 Day Challenge — after all, these two were influential in getting me to actual sign up for the Arctic, and last year were instrumental in getting me to start writing “Atlantic City” my zombie novel.  I thought great, this will get me started on a new adventure.  After many discussions with Selina, she encouraged me to focus less on the big ideas and to instead find adventures in the small things, every day.

Away I went.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to do, or afford, 30 adventures in 30 days but would do what I could and blog about it.  Have you noticed any of those blog posts? That’s because there have been no adventures.  I didn’t think the idea out carefully enough, and even some things that I thought I would do — go to a martial arts class, learn latin dance — didn’t happen.  Things seem less like “every day adventures” and more like…just doing stuff.

Now I’m in a kind of limbo.  I still want the big adventure, I still want to save the world — I want to help people after natural disasters or in war zones, even if it’s just picking up the rubble or painting walls — and be able to help further by inspiring others to help by writing about it and taking pictures.  As strange as it seems to me, there are also people out there who see no appeal at all in hiking the Inca Trail or dog sledding through the Arctic Circle — but these people like the opportunity to live vicariously through blog posts and stories about adventures.

There’s still so much I want to do, and no practical way of doing it.

As for the every day, since the Arctic I’ve struggled a little with a lack of purpose.  Nothing to train for, no big “adventure” to look forward to, to tell people about or sometimes worry over. My fitness has taken a nosedive, and I’m now taking on the challenge to better handle my depressive moods.

In the every day, things can be a struggle sometimes — but I’m trying to resolve that while there are some things I can’t change, I can take responsibility for how I react, and what I do about it.  This week, I have taken to Tribesports to give me challenges and an excuse to get some endorphins flowing — while I try and get a handle on what adventure means to me, and what I can do, while balancing it with all the things I love so much about being at home.

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

What’s the latest with the Flat-Footed Adventurer?

Having drawn a blank on corporate sponsorship, and come away empty-handed from any recent sharing of this blog, I have stepped my campaign up a gear. This trip is not going to beat me before it has even begun.

On the advice of a gentleman by the name of Nick, I have contacted the legendary Ben Fogle — who as an adventurer is perhaps best known for his participation in the inaugural South Pole Race. Will Ben Fogle be able to give me any advice on preparing, fitness, publicity or raising even the paltry sum that is the trip deposit? Will Ben Fogle even read my email, let alone respond? You, dear reader(s), will among the first to know.

I have also been advised that I should seek medical opinion on if it is even advisable that I make this trip, given the accident I had before my Peru trip. One should always consult a doctor before embarking on a new fitness regimen, but how many of us ever actually do? I certainly never do, and don’t recall when I last saw a doctor — other than the recent trip to see one in France when I broke my collarbone snowboarding. Yes, I am accident prone and clumsy. Yes, these two things plus dog sledding in the wilds of the Arctic Circle might lead to calamity. But will that put me off? Hells, no. Just the same, I feel I should at least tell my doctor of my plans and give him a chance to object.

Other than contacting adventurers-turned-Gardener’s-World-presenters, I also have made contact with the editor of a local newspaper. In exchange for their financial support — either of the trip deposit or a larger sum towards the fundraising total — I will provide them with content. How much content will be discussed with regards to how much help they can give me. Once again, I am filled with suspense. Will the editor read my email? Will he file it in the tray marked “bin”? Or will he think it’s a good idea and make contact? I have given first refusal to this particular newspaper — if I don’t get a repsonse, or get a response in the negative, then I will widen it out to other newspapers instead.

Until I can pay this deposit and sign up, I am kind of stalled — the usual recipes for charity fundraising don’t apply until I actually am fundraising for the charity. At which point, there will be requests to collect outside supermarkets, in Tube stations, and anywhere else I can think of.  But there needs to be action, so the first action is keep making contact with people who might be able to help.

Even if you’re reading this, you can help. You might not be able to donate money, or your services as a fitness trainer or native Norwegian speaker, but you can still help. I need people to help me organise events, I need people to help me get publicity. I need people to keep me motivated, to say “you’re doing great!” or “Must try harder!” (as all my school reports used to say).

In the words of John Hegley: “I need you like a lookalike needs somebody to look like”.

Day 6: Winay Wayna-Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, PeruYou think you know Machu Picchu. You have seen it in guidebooks, in things to do before you die lists, in Facebook photo albums of various friends. You’ve seen it in high-definition technicolour. How can seeing it in person not be an anti-climax?

I thought all of these things, until I saw it. The lost city, that technically has no name, but is referred to by the name of the mountain: Machu Picchu.

And maybe it’s the altitude, and maybe it’s exhaustion, maybe it’s that you’ve been working towards this moment for so long: planning and training and fundraising and hiking — but either way, it’s a big emotional moment. I tell everyone the same thing: if you want to see Machu Picchu, you should hike the Inca trail to get there.

Sure, you can take a bus up the mountain from Agua Calientes, and arrive all fresh and rested, but where would be the sense of achievement?

The last day’s hiking started with an unexpected lie-in. When this became the plan, I don’t know, I was fairly sure it was meant to be an early start to be there for sunrise: but none of that mattered once we were awake and on our way. To tell the truth, the hike to get to Machu Picchu on the last day fades in my memory: because there was an enormous event waiting at the end, and everything else becomes over-exposed because of it.

 Inti Punku, the sun gateWhat I remember most is the stone steps up to the sun gate, from where you look down on to the lost city below. One more set of steps, except that lining the steps on both sides are the trip guides, the doctors, the porters you have become close to over the last few days. And they are all cheering and applauding. I raised an arm in triumph for a photo: I did it. On bruised and blistered and broken feet, I did it.

After the photo opportunities with mountain Machu Picchu in the background, we were encouraged to spend a few minutes in quiet reflection about why we were there and what we had accomplished. That’s about the time that the exhaustion and altitude combined to have almost everyone break down in tears. We were all there raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support, and all had stories about how cancer had affected the lives of people around us — or us personally. My aunt would have loved Machu Picchu and Peru, and it seemed like a fitting tribute to her memory.

What I don’t often talk about is the pain I was in on this last day. I’d been on a prescription pain killers all week to deal with the pain in my injured foot and in my knees, and had foolishly decided for the last day to start reducing the dose. Looking back, I could have waited another couple of days, but I under-estimated how much of a hike the final day would be. But you know what? Look at that smile. I was genuinely happy. In that moment, it was all worth it.

Among the ruins of Machu Picchu there are wild llamas just wandering around, and once you have descended the long, winding path down to the city you yourself just wander among the ruins and the grass: marvelling at the pyramids and the buildings, and the ingenuity of this long lost civilisation. Everyone there probably wishes they were alone to experience it without the slightly grubby hikers, like me, or the fresh faced tourists just off the air-conditioned bus. Just the same, you remember the feeling of the city and try to memorise all the details to report back later.

Day 5: Pacamayo – Winay Wayna

Our last full day’s hiking began shortly after 5.30am, on a cold Andean morning above the Pacamayo river.  Joe had slept the night through, and the cheerful porters were greeting us all with bowls of hot water for washing in, and mugs of Coca tea.

But it was mornings like this that brought home where we were, and why we were doing it.  Sometimes at the end of the day when your knees were screaming and you were hiking the last few miles to camp in rapidly fading light, it was easy to forget.  Then you wake up the next morning with views of cloud-filled valleys, and you wonder why you don’t do this kind of thing more often.  Day three of proper hiking along the Inca trail promised lots more ruins, more altitude, and more cloud forest.

About a kilometre along the trail from the campsite, and a climb of about 150m we came to the first set of ruins of the day, the remains of Runkuraqay — at an altitude of approximately 3750m.

Discovered by the explorer Hiram Bingham, who was searching for Machu Picchu, like much of the Incan architecture the purpose of the tambo aren’t entirely clear.  While some historians claim it was a lookout post for the trail, others have said it was a guard house, a grain store or even a llama corral.

From here the hike just kep going up — and like the previous day, the air was thin, the trail was steep and the going was slow.  While we knew we were going up to 4,000m again, we’d spent the night at altitude and so hadn’t nearly as far to go this time — instead we had almost all of the rest of the day downhill.

And so from the highest point of the day, it was another 400m descent down to the town of Sayaqmarka.  Reached only by a steep, narrow staircase Sayaqmarka can be translated as “inaccesible town”.

Having spent the best part of the day so far not actually at the back of the group, I decided to forego a brief side trip up to the ruins of Sayaqmarka and instead press on ahead.  There was still a lot of hiking to be done, and I had some foolish notion that I might possibly be able to get back before nightfall without being eaten by a puma.  Though I expect for many it would be an honour to be eaten by such a revered animal, I figured that could at least wait until after Machu Picchu.

Speaking of Machu Picchu, I had come this far now and was now reassured in myself that I wouldn’t have to abandon the trail with one of the group leaders and instead take the train to the lost city.  In some of my darker moments the day before I had reassured myself that it would still be an adventure, even if that was the worst case scenario.  But it wasn’t me being carried up to Dead Woman’s Pass in a papoose, or giving the porters a fright by keeling over at the top.  So, surely, if I had come this far then I would just keep going?  The worst of the uphill was behind me, and we were at such a point that returning were as tedious as to go o’er.

As the day wore on, the trail levelled out and widened — giving us fine views and occasional patches of cloud forest.  The third pass was reached easily after passing through an Inca tunnel in the rock.  I can’t be sure exactly when it was in the day, but it must have been about around this time that one of my fellow trekkers had a small mishap with some strong pharmaceutical painkillers.

For reasons of her own, one of the trek doctors had given her two of these tablets, and she’d been instructed to take them something like four hours apart.  I can be fairly clear about these instructions, since I’d been given some myself — but never felt the need to resort to those on top of what I was already taking.  Many of you can probably guess what happened next — it got to halfway through the day, and Yvonne realised she had forgotten to take one of the tablets earlier.  Maybe she was feeling particularly sore, and that was what reminded her, but she obviously figured that she would need to “catch up” on what she had missed, and took them both at once.

Yvonne later told us that she didn’t realise this was a mistake until some time later.  We were at the top of a particularly steep climb, everyone was getting their breath back, and Yvonne noticed how the colours on all the plants seemed so unusually vivid, and thought to herself that she hadn’t known that was a symptom of altitude sickness.  Then she remembered the tablets she had taken, and realised all was not well.  Before long, she was giggling like an addict in the depths of an ether binge, and was unable to walk any distance completely unaided.

Luckily for everyone involved, Yvonne needed nothing more than one of the group leaders to support her as she walked and to keep an eye on her — no permanent damage was going to have been done, she just needed supervision and assistance.

On route to the last night’s camp we passed above the ruins of Phuyupatmarka (meaning Cloud-Level Town), a complex structure of protection walls and paths built on the uppermost side of a high hill.  It’s a sad state of affairs when by this point it is almost getting to a point where this elaborate Inca architecture is starting to seem normal.  It never becomes boring or uninteresting, but after a while you start to expect it — and know you are getting closer to the final day.

Before you can get to the final day, though, if you are like me you will spend most of the last hour of walking actually hiking in complete darkness with only a headtorch for light. While I wasn’t alone and the camp wasn’t far away, it was still not advisable to be walking the trails in the dark.  For me, it just added to the adventure — but I still didn’t want to get eaten by any wild animals.

The campsite of Winay Wayna was completely different to the previous two nights.  For a start it had toilets and showers — real toilets and real showers, that weren’t in tents.  It also had a dining hall, a kind of off-licence and a small shop that sold the tokens you needed to buy beer.  Most of the others had already been back at the camp for an hour or two already by this point, and had got on the beers without delay. Even Joe, who had made a lazarus-like recovery.

To celebrate the end of the camping, that evening there was a formal meal at real tables and everything — but for many of us, that was where the celebrations would stay, because the next day was the final hike to the lost city of Machu Picchu.

Day 4: The Inca Trail, Wayllabamba to Pacamayo

After a restless night disturbed by tentmate Joe’s frequent and noisy vomiting, we started the second proper day of walking with the knowledge that this would be perhaps the hardest thing many of us had ever done — and possibly the hardest thing we would ever do.

We had camped overnight at an altitude of 2700m at a place called Wayllabamba, which in the Peruvian Quechan language means “grassy plain”. Both of these are quite safe, reassuring facts that you take comfort in on the trail. The altitude is low (although that is still double the height of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles), and the name tells you how it’s nice and flat. This contrasted with the focal point of the day: Dead Woman’s Pass, standing at an altitude of 4200m, over three times the height of Ben Nevis and nearly four times the height of Snowdon*.

It wasn’t long before the ascending trail took us up through what is referred to as “cloud forest”, where the forests are persistently misty — this made it cooler for the uphill hike, but the altitude was still tough. Joe hadn’t recovered from the night before, and was struggling to continue going since he couldn’t even keep water down. We were lucky that it stayed dry for us, since this part of the trail had a reputation for being hard going when it got muddy as well as steep.

I remember one stop we made for a rest and water, which really symbolised the contrast of the traditional Peruvian society and the “modern world”. We stopped to regroup and rest, and a few feet away, under a tree sat two Peruvian women in traditional dress, with their donkey. And a table selling bottle water, Coke, chocolate, Powerade and various other delicacies. Every now and then the donkey would wander closer to one of the women, and she’d hit it with a stick. I got the impression the woman was telling the donkey to go away, but maybe it was the other way round — the donkey enjoyed it, and every now and then just had an urge to be hit with a stick again, whereupon the old lady would oblige.

Lunch a couple of hours later was a beautiful lush valley, with views of snow-capped peaks and the heights of Dead Woman’s Pass lying ahead of us. Joe was in a bad way. He was dehydrated and weak, from being unable to keep anything down but still being determined to keep going. I think the trail and the long months of preparation did that to you: giving up was not an option. If I thought I had things bad with dodgy knees and a bad foot, Joe had to be put on an intravenous drip in a tent.

When I arrived at the lunch stop true to form our team of trusty porters had already erected the three group dining tents for us, as well as the cooking tents and done all the cooking — and there was still a few minutes to go before meal time. Most others had been there a while longer than me, but I was perpetually slow. It’s now such a bad way to take the trail, you get the opportunity to take in all the sights around you — which never have the chance to become familiar or run of the mill.

I encouraged a fellow trekker to venture in to one of the surrounding fields where llamas (or maybe alpacas, I can’t tell the difference) were peacefully grazing. I had been tasked by Ali to hug a llama for her, and I was determines to meet my obligations, and have a photo taken to prove it. Unfortunately, the llamas had other ideas about this. They might be big. And smelly. But they are also still timid of people, and weren’t keen on the idea of being hugged by someone who hadn’t showered in a couple of days. I settled for a photo near a llama instead, though I won’t post it since it’s not a very flattering picture — and I don’t look a whole heap better.

Lunch was packed with carbs — the now-usual selection of dishes ranging between soup, chicken, white rice and traditional Peruvian dishes. It was delicious, and best of all plentiful — and we needed it, since Dead Woman’s Pass still lay several hours ahead and several thousand meters above us.


After lunch the trail got steeper and relentless, there was often barely enough room for two people to walk side by side, when there would come up the mountain a shout of “Porters!”. Everyone would move to one side to let these Peruvian supermen past — with port-a-loos and stoves on their backs and nothing more than sandals on their feet.

The altitude made the trek hard going. We’d be able to walk no more than a few minutes before having to stop to catch our breath — the thing about altitude was that the air literally did feel thinner, you could take long, deep breaths but the air just didn’t go so far. Your heart would pound, your head would thump, and you just had to stop and let everything settle — no amount of eagerness or speed would get you up the mountain any faster.

With the altitude came the cloud, and once we reached Dead Woman’s Pass (so-called because it is said to resemble a dead woman lying on her back, with the view of two mountainous peaks resembling breasts) it got cold very quickly. We all assembled together to appreciate what would be the highest — although not necessarily the hardest — point of our trip. The views were limited by the cloud around and below us, and strangely reminded me of Dartmoor — probably because of the cloud/fog, rock and desolate landscape. On many of the surrounding hills were small piles of stones, not unlike the cairns found in the British Isles — they were apparently expressions of wishes by Quechan travellers, who would return and add another stone to the top of the pile when their wish came true.

Getting to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass was only half the battle — there was still a 500m descent to camp to go. While the ascent was hard-going because of the altitude and steep climb, descending is often just as hard, and the relentless steps are torture on your knees — and like with the ascent, you can’t speed up, even if you want to, and know you are against the clock to get into camp before dark.

The second night camping was in the Pacamayo (or “sunrise”) valley, where instead the sun was quickly setting. My tentmate Joe (who had been carried at one point on the steepest part of the trail uphill) was already in the tent and his sleeping bag and fell sound asleep almost as soon as I got back. After a hard day, many of us were a lot more tired than the night before and went to sleep right after dinner.

The next day was promised by some to be the hardest, with another very early start.

*Readers outside of the UK: please feel free to chip in with how this compares with mountains you are more familiar with — I appreciate the UK isn’t known for its mountainous terrain.

Day 3 KM 82 – Wayllabamba

Day three started early, with an alarm call at 4.30am. My phone shows a text sent at 5.37 to the girl, just before we were leaving the hotel. I’d already been up for an hour, and it was another hour before sunrise.

This was to be day one of the proper trail: no more hotel beds, no gentle walks across countryside, instead we were going to be camping in the mountains with no mobile reception for three days. The next time anyone heard from me would be after Machu Picchu, whether I made it on foot or not. We piled into two coaches for the 3-hour drive to the start of the trail, known as “KM 82”.

I slept a lot of the journey, and woke up shortly before we stopped in a town called Ollantaytambo. The town itself was still waking up, but the people eager to sell to the tourists were already up and waiting — people selling scarves and hats and walking poles and any number of things. The walking poles were beautifully carved and painted, I started to wish I hadn’t brought my hiking poles from home with me — but I’d needed my poles for all the walks back in England, and they were adjustable to different heights, making them suitable for both uphill and downhill, which you couldn’t get with the wooden ones.

We spread out through the town square, some people were buying agua de florida — a kind of cologne that you splash on your hands, clap together and then inhale deeply, which was meant to help with altitude sickness. I was more interested in finding a scarf, less for the cold nights and more for protecting my neck from the sun, it was something I’d forgotten to take along. I walked from one traditional shop to the other, giving a bueans dias to the shop keepers and just smiling politely if they tried to make any further conversation. In each shop there would be shelves from floor to ceiling with ponchos and sweaters, blankets and scarves. I found a scarf I liked and bargained, although only briefly, with the shopkeeper for a good price.

It was still early and so still cold in the town. I was wearing my beanie hat for warmth, and my wide-brimmed hat on top of it as much for convenience as anything else. Occasionally, someone would stop me and try to sell me a hat. I knew they couldn’t speak English, but just the same my response was always the same: I’m already wearing two hats, do I look like I need a third? I think they understood the gist of it, even if not the exact words.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a parade appeared. There was men banging drums and playing trumpets, and most disturbing lots of men in scary-looking masks that resembled devils. They marched through the town holding their banner and banging their drum and then they were gone again. We never did find out what it had all been about — none of the locals seemed to pay any attention to it — but apparently the masks date back to the time of the conquistadors. We were told that the conquistadors had forbidden any traditional celebrations, and so people wore these masks to hide their identities.

Soon, we all piled back into our coaches for the rest of the journey to the check point at the start of the trail.

The Peruvian authorities are very cautious now about protecting the Inca trail, so numbers of people walking it are very tightly controlled and all groups have to be authorised. It wasn’t enough to just be a registered group saying how many people you were taking on the trail — everyone was listed by name, and had to provide their passports at the check point so they could cross-reference the names on the list with the names and pictures. You did get a stamp in the passport for it, though.

The train to Machu Picchu runs alongside KM 82, and everyone turned their noses up at the idea of being “a tourist” and just riding the train to the lost city — where is the challenge in that, where is the adventure if you haven’t hiked for days to reach the goal? Just the same, I think all of us felt just a little, tiny bit jealous. Nobody there would have chosen the train, even if given the option at the last minute — it was about the trail for us, not just the destination — but seeing it there made you stop and think about what lay ahead.

This first day of walking was still, by the trail’s standards, gentle. We crossed the Urubamba river and followed alongside it for several hours, until lunch. The rest of the day was a steady climb, looking down on terraced hillsides and the ruins of Patallacta.

I spent most of the day at the back of the group, as you might expect from my injury so was one of the last to arrive at the camp. At camp in Wayllabamba, the porters had put up all the tents for the group — neatly separated into the three sub groups, named Condor, Puma and Pachamama. Not only this, but they were already busy preparing the evening feast, and had set up the three communal tents with hot drinks and bowls of popcorn.

As was to become the standard, the evening meal was a carb-loaded three courses, starting with bowls of soup, before offering plates of white rice and chicken and potatoes alongside more traditional dishes and vegetarian options. After the early start and first day of walking, we all went to our tents fairly soon after dinner — besides as soon as the sun went down at 6pm it became very cold in the mountains, and I was glad for my poncho. The group leaders laughed at it, but I was warm and that was what mattered. It also made a very good improvised pillow for sleeping in the tent.

The sleeping tents we all shared with a tent mate, who had been previously assigned as our hotel room mates, too. I got a young guy called Joe who was a musician. He was nice enough, but strangely reminded me a lot of someone I had gone to school with — except almost ten years younger than we are now. It wasn’t long that we were in the tent that Joe mentioned not feeling great. I told him he’d probably feel better after a trip to the toilet — that I’d felt a bit off colour myself for a little while earlier, and it would be OK.

And so it was that our first night camping in the mountains of Peru was punctuated by Joe frequently getting up to loudly vomit outside our tent. If he wasn’t actually being sick he would be asking me what I thought he should do, should he see the doctor again or just leave it. After my initial mis-diagnosis, I generally told him that he should let them know. He’d see them, get a shot or some tablets or whatever, then go back to bed, only for the whole thing to repeat again.

It went on all night, and I genuinely felt more sorry for him than I did feel any annoyance at not getting sleep. We’d been advised before we went to bed that if you needed to get up in the night to unzip the tent and leave it open until you returned: that way the whole camp wouldn’t be kept awake by the zip-zip, zip-zip of you opening it, and closing it and the zip-zip, zip-zip when you returned again. Nobody needed to worry about that when there was a guy being very loudly sick in the camp.

Day 2 — Sacsayhuamán

“Sunday, May 31

6.30am: Sunrise over the mountains, and I’d forgotten what an amazing sight that is. Today is an acclimatisation walk, we’re being taken up to about 3500m and then walking back.

I admit here to being concerned about my foot, the doctor back thinks it could be weeks before it is better. I don’t even want to think about the possibility of not being able to walk.”
Our first real day in Peru started just before sunrise. It was already light outside, but when the sun reached over the mountains I remembered why I love this kind of country so much. We don’t have mountains in England, not a single one, so the best you can hope for is either hills or when the sun comes up over the buildings, which doesn’t have the same sort of feel to it.

Cusco was starting to wake up, like a big cat stretching and yawning. The hotel provided us with breakfast, which incorporated fruit juices, fresh fruit, yoghurt, scrambled eggs, and various bread products. A feature of the trip as a whole was large meals — loading up on the carbs and the calories, since you’d be needing all that you could get.

We were bussed up into the foothills of the mountains to start our first day’s walking — it wasn’t part of the trail itself, just an opportunity to get used to being at altitude and warm up a little for the walking we had ahead over the coming days. We started at a ruin called Tambo Machay — whose original purpose remains unknown, although it has been speculated it served as a place to guard the approaches to Cusco. Because of the Incas lack of a written language, many things about them are open to speculation — including their architecture. Just the same, the structures with its canals and aqueducts remained impressive.

From Tambo Machay we set off walking across country, and other than the altitude it was no more strenuous than many walks in England. It was particularly surreal to be walking through plains and fields and seeing football pitches off to the side, before remembering how popular the sport is in South America.

While the walking wasn’t hard, my foot was still painful. It had been several days since I’d hurt it, and although I was better able to put my weight on it and was taking a lot of pain killers it was still slow and difficult going at times, and put undue strain on my opposite knee. Just the same, although it bothered me, it still wasn’t anything that was likely to stop me altogether.

At times, we passed through towns in the mountains — basic stone houses where people lived their simple and quiet lives. Until the native children would see you, then suddenly there would be a dozen, barely-dressed children surrounding you, holding out their hands for money. We were told not to give them anything — the Peruvians are proud people, and don’t want their children growing up to be dependant on begging and handouts. We were especially told not to give them sweets, since they had no system of dental care.

I think our Macmillan guide Sarah described the children best as incredibly sweet, but so dirty. They were clever though, so often they would appear with a cute baby animal — usually a lamb — and try to entice you to take pictures, which they would then want money for. Fortunately, none of our group was taken in by this.

The next ruin we came to was Sacsayhuamán, referred to by the Peruvian guides as “sexy woman”. The site appeared to be a kind of fortress, and with the city of Cusco forms the head and body of a Puma. What is truly impressive about Sacsayhuamán was the sheer scale of it — from pictures, it looks like any other pile of stones that was once a fort. But some of the stones weigh as much as 200 tonnes, more than twice as tall as me, and are larger than I can comprehend. As with places like Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt, it’s amazing and much debated how these huge blocks of stone with rounded corners and interlocking edges were carved, transported across great distances and assembled. The fortress was also assembled with all the walls leaning at a slight angle to help protect it against earthquake. Clever chaps, those Incas — although much of their cleverness lay in borrowing ideas from older cultures.

From Sacsayhuamán, it seemed like the rest of the day was one long descent into Cusco — albeit on well maintained stone steps, and while I wasn’t exhausted by the day, the altitude left me feeling worn out and I was walking very badly by the time we eventually made it to the city’s outskirts.

As mentioned, this wasn’t even part of the trek itself — just a gentle warm up and a day trip to some historic sites, we wouldn’t ever have it this easy again.

Back at the hotel the order of the day was just dinner and bed, since Monday promised a very early start, and the beginning of the hiking itself.

“6.35pm: After a gentle day’s walking to get used to the altitude, my knee hurts and, of course, my foot hurts. The doctors are openly concerned about it, I see them exchange looks, but everyone is very friendly and nice and supportive. I just keep saying I will do whatever it takes to make it through.

Sacsayhuamán was amazing. The huge stone blocks were so perfectly carved, the hills and mountains all looked more like a picture than actually real.

What lies ahead is honestly scaring me. I think everyone feels the same way.”

Day 1 — Cusco

After much delay (it’s been two weeks now since Machu Picchu), I begin a series of posts about the Inca Trail. As always, my travel writings go under the working title of “Stay out of circulation til the dogs get tired”.

Day 1 — Cusco

“Saturday, May 30
After almost 24 hours since I got to Heathrow, I am in Cusco. I feel fuzzy with the altitude, but mostly ok — and though my foot does worry me, I have to now try not to get too worried. It is bright, warm and sunny, and the air is filled with traffic noise and car horns.

Peru is a dusty brown colour, with dark green trees. The earth-toned buildings look like they are part of the landscape, almost as if they just grew here, instead of being made.

[later]The city doesn’t seem to ever slow down. It’s now 6pm, and dark, but the city still rumbles on.

We arrived in Lima in that dazed, half-awake, half-asleep state that comes with long-haul flying. I spend most of my time travelling in this kind of waking-sleep state, due to my ability to fall asleep in almost any moving vehicle. Aeroplanes used to be a kind of exception to this — mostly because you don’t really notice you are moving — but I happily slept almost the whole journey from London to New York, and then New York to Lima.

What had been billed as a long stop-over in New York instead became a rush across the airport — we’d been late taking off from Heathrow, and by the time we got to New York they were holding our plane for us.

Stepping off the plane in Lima, we were met by what appeared to be a doctor and a nurse wearing surgical masks, giving out information on swine flu. Despite the virus starting in Central America, many South American countries are still largely unaffected — Peru for example has only a handful of cases, compared to those in the United Kingdom. I imagine swine flu would be a lot more dangerous in a third world country like Peru, so their precautions weren’t overzealous — but it was a disturbing sight to be met with.

Unfortunately, out of the 50 or so of us travelling together for Macmillan, only about 10 bags made the journey from New York. Because of how delayed we had been, there hadn’t been time to load many bags — and a lot of people had only the clothes they were standing in. On the other hand, I always pack under the assumption that my bag is likely to be lost somewhere and include a change of clothes in my hand luggage.

The less said about Lima, the better. We didn’t see anything of the city, but from all the accounts I’ve heard that’s for the best. After filling out forms about our lost bags, we hopped on a short flight to Cusco, where I promptly went back to sleep and woke up only as we were landing.

Cusco — the cultural capital of Peru, and the former capital of the Inca empire — was vibrant, full of colours and people and noise and life. We were staying in the Savoy hotel, which our guides had gone to some pains to point out was not to the same standard as the Savoy in London. Part of the hotel was closed due to building work, and apparently it was something of a lottery if the showers worked. My shower worked — sort of — but the room was clean and the beds were large and comfortable. That was good enough for me.

After dropping our bags and a meal at the hotel, our hardy band of adventurers set out into the city. Along the roads were markets where local people sold their wares to tourists — ponchos, blankets, carvings. Each stall holder would call out “Hola, amigo” and try to entice you over. I deliberated for a long time before buying a poncho myself, but I figured it would come in useful at nights on the Inca trail. Half the fun in buying anything was bartering with the seller for a good price. Everything was a good price to begin with, the Peruvian Sol was about three to the Dollar, and with almost two Dollars to the Pound, nothing was too expensive. Just the same, I’d ask how much it was, mentally convert it, and then try and get them to knock about another ten off the price.

In Cusco it seemed there was always some kind of a parade going on, without explanation and without anyone paying too much attention. Maybe it was a special weekend.

In the evening, the Discover Adventure guides took us to a local restaurant for a chance to sample some Peruvian cuisine. Even though the restaurant was run by a Scotsman called Dougie. I turned away the chance to eat guinea pig when it was presented to us, since the creature still had paws. Had it been served as just sliced meat, I might have been willing to perhaps consider giving it a try — but when it still looked like someone’s pet, I wasn’t keen. In fact, I don’t think I tried anything Peruvian that night since the buffet also included a couple of chinese style dishes. I just wasn’t in that kind of place where I wanted to be eating something unknown, when we’d be spending the next few nights camping, without proper toilets or showers. What did catch my interest was when I discovered the owner of the bar also ran an adventure sports company, and he offered me the chance to go mountain biking on the last day in Cusco.

I turned down the chance to go drinking after the meal — although I wasn’t feeling too bad for the altitude, it was a fairly early start the next day to go on an “acclimatisation walk” in the foothills, and I wanted a clear head for it.