Travel Bites: Amazon chill, Lima vultures

Tambopata River, Puerto Maldonado, Peru

IT’S cool down in the jungle. Yes, cold. In the Amazon. But apart from the bizarre temperature for an equatorial jungle, it’s most of the other things you’d expect.

It’s isolated, remote, dangerous, poverty-stricken, primitive, environmentally threatened and scary. It’s also beautiful, diverse, enlightened, even mystical. And it’s sultry.

Cool but sultry. That wonderfully evocative description that takes in leaves so dripping in condensation you’d swear it’s raining, dark thatch huts and hammocks, jungle bars with sour cocktails in sweating glass tumblers.

And it’s also full of nocturnal screeching by unknown species, howler monkeys bellowing in foliage high overhead, deadly bushmaster snakes, leaf-cutter ants and terrifying stinging trees to which adulterers are condemned.

That’s not to forget brilliantly-coloured macaws and toucans, giant river otters, piranha, naked children playing on riverbanks, shamans growing psycho-tropic drugs, riverside gold-mining operations from makeshift canoes, alligators, jaguars, tapirs, parrots and more parrots, waterways that rise 12 metres and more in flood.


Lima, Peru

VULTURES. Last thing I expected. And haze. Thick, enveloping haze. Like a bushfire approaching. Thick, close, under-your-shirt haze. Creeping in like a London pea-souper.

Except this isn’t London. It’s Lima, Peru, just a few degrees south of the equator. It should be steaming, hissing, like a busted boiler valve. Instead, the temperature’s a mild mid-20s Celsius. Balmy.

And the setting sun – slumping lazily into the vast watery desert of the Pacific – is a warm, gilded disc, all fuzzy, indistinct, at the edges. A gently vanishing glow, hardly a sunset proper.

Adjudicating over this trick of nature, from the vantage of San Domingo’s steeple, is the wizened black vulture, Coragyps atratus, with a basilisk eye. 

Breathe in. The warm jet-stream rising west of Chile; the abused children’s fate adorning the billboards of this confused, for years even train-less city; the demonic Christian conquistadors of Spain and their legacy ever-present … all are considered under the withering eye of the vulture; cousin of the native Quechuans’ chief totem, the condor.

 And the sunset’s fogged, blotted. Warm, soaking, otherworldly. As if like Peru and its history, perhaps its future, it too has been forgotten by the Fates.



While my charango gently weeps …

Charango: It looks like a wooden armadillo. You know, those critters always getting skittled on South American back roads. Anteater-like, shell-dwelling rodents that musicians like to behead, gut, slap a fretboard on and then a poultice of nylon or gut strings.

Well, no animals were hurt in this musical experiment, if that’s any consolation. Perhaps an endangered timber or two — I can’t vouch otherwise. What happens in Bolivia, where this was made, is all mystery to me.

Not that that’s where I found this charango — the 10-string fake armadillo. I brought it for $US300 on the streets of neighbouring Cusco, high up in Peruvian Andes. Pig of an instrument, too.

I’ve fooled around with guitars, mandolins, bouzoukis, banjos, citterns, fiddles, mando-cellos, ch’ins, bandurias, balalaikas, instruments I couldn’t even name.

I’ve re-tuned them, de-tuned them, battered them with brass, glass and chrome slides, distortion pedals, wah-wahs, tube-screamers, samples and patches . . . all sorts of nonsense. Tortured the neighbours a good bit too, I confess. But this charango’s a tricky proposition.

I’ve watched all manner of Andean pan flute band and thrash-strumming charangeur, I’ve seen some remarkable jazz and tango extracted from the instrument. It gets me dabbling about with the creature. Confused as all get-out, mind you.

The instrument has 10 strings in sets of two, four of them in unison, one an octave apart _ in the middle of the sets. The two sets either side are roughly in the same high-pitched settings.

Rather than climbing from low to high in pitch, this thing starts high, descends and then rises up again. Basically, two sets are tuned like a mandolin, or tenor banjo, or violin _ in fifths, reconciling on the seventh fret. Four sets, one of them overlapping, are like the highest four strings of a guitar. Go figure.

I show this box of mystery to a mate who’s handy with all manner of musical critters. His eyes light up: “Murph, what a gem!” Yeah sure, I think.

“I can’t scratch a tune out of the swine. It rolls about, jumps octaves, tricks you every second note. Sounds great until you play three notes in a row,” I reply.

My mate smiles back, inscrutably. He then proceeds, gently — you don’t rush these things — to work his way through  Rondo á la Turk  on the charango.

I slide back into my seat for the ride. I don’t know what I was expecting.  Duelling Banjos, The Devil Goes Down to Georgia , some O’Carolan . . . anything but Mozart’s impossible  Rondo á la bloody Turk.  Last time I saw anyone playing that on strings it was Phil Emmanuel, Tommy’s brother.

But, nope, this was a Tuesday night, at Geelong’s Irish Murphy’s pub — barely anyone around — and a bloke sitting in the corner.

Take a bow, Geoff Sinbeck.

On the road to Machu Picchu

TRAVEL: Inca Trail wraiths on road to Machu Picchu

MACHU PICCHU: The wraiths slide down the cliff, clinging to the blue mossy granite, slinking toward the eerie stone structure that is Phuyupatamarka.

Chilly tendrils of mist reluctant to give up the earth, they whip down and over its ancient concourse, scrubbing it with a ghostly ether. They then race up the yellow grassy headland towards me.

The tendrils launch themselves at me, enveloping my throat, my arms, my body, and whispering threats I can’t understand. I freeze as they race past me toward a soaring cliff’s edge and more interlopers who have invaded their ancient enclave.

In the rarified air of the Andes, 10,000 feet above sea level, the ghosts of the ancient Inca kings are reminding me they don’t like visitors. Or so I think. Suddenly, an updraft, born far below _ a mile below, in a small town anxious to scrawl its destiny in the sand _ shatters the icy fingers and blows them to the four winds.

Maybe it’s the lack of oxygen but my imagination’s running riot. It’s been like this for days as I trudge past rocky ruin after beautiful rocky ruin, in the cloud forest of Peru’s High Inca Trail.

Looking down at faraway Aguas Calientes, I wonder if the vapours stalk its townsfolk too, mistaking them perhaps for shades of the marauding Spanish man-horse beasts who whipped the Incas into submission with arquebus, religion and disease 500 years ago.

Not all of the Incas succumbed, though. Learning of the slaughter at Cuzco and elsewhere, and fearing their own, many withdrew to the faraway reaches of the mountain jungles.

The most famous of their abandoned hideways is where I’m headed. The lost city of Machu Picchu. Spirits willing.

Discovered in 1911 by a professor from Yale, Machu Picchu is hard to get to. Five days by foot across stony frozen passes, along vertiginous crevasses, past brightly-coloured wild orchids, in the shadow of serrated snow-capped peaks, suspension bridges, wild rivers.

The trail is beautiful going but tough. Treacherous rocky paths and staircases — one foot wrong and you’ll do an ankle, knee or worse —  are constant pitfalls for the unwary. I limp in, up and over the Inti Punku/Sun Gate ridge, knees considerably worse for wear.

It’s little wonder the wicked Pizarro brothers never found Machu Picchu. Outsiders would only ever find it by accident, which is exactly how Hiram Bingham did so a century ago.

In 1911, Machu Picchu was an overgrown ruin Bingham mistook for Vilcabamba, believed the last stronghold hideaway of the Incas. His stunning find sent an electric shock through the world of archaeology.

The day I arrive, it’s still red-hot _ a favourite in a huge world-wide 100-million vote for the New 7 Wonders of the World. The place is buzzing with hundreds of tourists pouring over the site, 2350 metres above sea level.

Down in Aguas Calientes celebrations are in full swing. Cusqueno beer, pisco sour cocktails and cachasa caiparinhas you might drive your car on are all disappearing fast. Raucous Santana riffs are stripping the lurid paint from the town’s walls, so too the village brass band and classical music blasting from the town square’s stage. Even builders are dancing on the church roof.

The following day, it’s officially listed as a maravillo  —  in company with the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Rome’s Colloseum, the ancient city of Petra, Rio’s Christ Redeemer statue and Mexico’s Chich aacén Itz aacá.

I get back up the mountain by 7am to beat the rush, which I do by about 10 minutes.