In the footsteps of the Incas
Simon Calder: The Inca Trail, on which we "warmed up", was sheer, bloody slog. Whose idea was it to haul two huge backpacks across 13,000-feet mountain passes, when everyone else got porters to do it?
Mick Webb: Well you’re supposed to be the intrepid independent traveller so I’m surprised to hear you say that. As a radio producer, I thought it’d be more interesting to record the stresses and strains of "real travel" than reflect on the quality of the boeuf bourgignon that the cook had prepared for the trekkers‘ supper. I have to say, though, that after listening to all the mini-discs filled with us moaning about the weight of our packs and the unbelievably steep Inca gradients, I began to wonder if I was right.
SC I think that‘s a bit harsh. I thought we coped pretty well with the problems, often self-inflicted - like tearing the flysheet of the tent when we tried to put it up for the first time in the dark, and the freezing rain, about 13,000 feet up a mountain.
MW Ok, I’ll hold up my hand and admit to being the idiot responsible. You can’t deny, though, that I did work nightly miracles with bits of string and a plastic poncho to keep us fairly dry during the rest of the trip. On the whole, I’m sure we both felt that you can’t beat going at your own pace, and there were all the memorable encounters with people en-route that just wouldn’t have happened if we’d been part of an organised group. That rather formal young Canadian called Chantal who’d never heard, let alone used, the word "knackered" until she got to the Inca Trail. There were a couple of completely mad young British brothers who shared their last packet of dried bananas with us. They’d not bothered at all with acclimatisation but just gone straight from sea-level to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass in two days and lived to tell the tale; and then there was the charming ecological policeman called Fernando who took us on a guided tour of Wiñay Wayna, which is a really beautiful Inca suburb, I suppose you could call it, of Machu Picchu. Anyway, we asked Fernando, whose main job was protecting the natural splendours of the area, about one of the beautiful red flowers growing on the ruins - "It‘s a kind of orchid" he said, "here have a look" - and casually picked it.
SC Medically, we have to count ourselves extremely lucky that we didn't get Manco Inca's Revenge - according to the doctor we spoke to before the trip, one in two travellers gets dismal stomach problems. As it was, I felt so weakened by the whole exercise that I think I might have just given myself up to the jungle if I‘d got sick.
MW I think we were careful about what we ate: purified or bottled water; a tedious but safe regime of packet soup, canned tuna and tropical fruit when we could get it. In fact the only time we risked ordering a really dodgy-looking local meal was in Quillabamba at the end of the trip, and for some reason the food never arrived - only the beer. As a fully paid-up hypochondriac, I am still waiting to be stricken by some weird disease after being bitten by a couple of unbelievably vicious black flies whose Quechua name translates, apparently, as "makes the puma cry". And the gringo, too, I’d say.
SC The worst moment in the entire three weeks was on the last-but-one day’s hike, when those schoolkids sent us off in the wrong direction and we did two hours, uphill, in the heat of the day, which we then had to retrace. For once, you showed considerable restraint in not hurling me to the foot of the canyon, since I was the one who led us astray.
MW I like the "for once". I thought I was tolerance personified in the face of your relentless desire to get as far as was humanly possible on every single day of the expedition. On that particular occasion, I was so completely knackered I was hardly able to point out that in the Andes, it’s unwise to ask a passer-by, "Is this the path to...?" because it’s considered to be bad manners to disagree with visitors, even if they are going in a totally wrong direction. The form of the question has to be "Which is the way to...?" or "how do I get to...?" then you’ll get the right answer. But I shouldn’t be over-critical, because I was very grateful to you for buying the Diamox pills when I thought I was going to die of altitude sickness, and also for indulging my need to win all your money at cards during those long periods spent in airport lounges or beside dusty tracks, waiting for something to happen.
SC I suppose something we did share was an enjoyment of the mad minutiae of travel somewhere like Peru. That security officer at Lima airport who led you away for ages to quiz you, I presumed, about all the suspicious-looking recording gear that had showed up on the scanner.
MW Yes, well I thought the same thing but actually he wanted me to go through the English homework of his mate, the Immigration Officer. "Is it still raining?" was one of the sentences!
SC And I suppose the test of comradeship after a trip like this is - are we still speaking?
MW And the answer is yes - even if it’s mostly arguing.
BBC producer Mick Webb and The Independent's Simon Calder.
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