Stalked by Darkness: How to Cheat Death in the Andes
*The following true story has been lifted and reworked from excerpts of the author's private journals 'Six Months in the Andes' (January-July 2014).
The cataclysmic clampdown on my skull seemed to recall mankind's most evil atrocities in a time lapse flicker. Breath was non-existent, time merely an illusion, but the sky burned an ambitious blue, and that I guess, was something.
The Incas call it manchaychikuy; the dreaded Soroche. Altitude sickness. I call it hell. It felt like my head could implode at any minute. The vacuum within my skull was so infinitely tangible, that I deludedly thought that I had entered the stratosphere. Delusion. That's an understatement. I was hallucinating, sure, that was the fun part, but psychologically, I was weak, suggestible. I felt like the most divine of gods and the spawn of the Devil at the same time.
The eerie silence that only a sudden escalation can bring, coupled with the minimally surreal landscape of volcanic remnants and not much else, meant that for a fleeting moment, I was on the moon. Entranced by the lack of realism, I believed that gravity had left me for another, she was no longer mine. Mother Nature was dead to me; I was now a Moon Man. In my mind at least.
I'll be honest, in between bouts of delusion, came the purest of lucidity and clarity; I was on my way out. I was a dead man walking. A spaceman biding his time, walking that tightrope between split seconds of losing the sealed security of his oxygen helmet, and having his head explode. But then, I can be a tad melodramatic at times.
Our Quechua guide, Chican, was due to leave us. For the next few months, we were on our own. Sure, in that time we would visit cities, civilised or otherwise, and for a good part of our journey, we would be within miles of reaching help if need be. Chican ensured us, that if we continue to head west, we'll find him if we need to. Just follow the setting sun, gringo.
For now though, for the next few weeks, it was just me, and the love of my life, Demelza. To her credit, she kept plodding along, soldiering a stoic path to nowhere in particular, still optimistically clutching onto the hope that there may just be a good coffee place over the next ridge. There wasn't. That would come three countries north of here. Dear, sweet Demelza.
Here, was Northern Chile. The Atacama Desert, the highest desert in the world. The driest place on Earth. My mind taunted with egotistical put- downs and dry quips about my mental fragility; you should be used to the altitude by now. No one else up here is hallucinating, Why'd you drink so much gin last night? And so on.
That bastard of a mind was right though; it always is. I should be used to the altitude by now. We had already conquered Argentina's Tierra Del Fuego and Patagonia, had no problems with Southern and Central Chile either. But I had half-heartedly trained for that for months on end before I left home. I had a base fitness and a motivation to disappear from civilisation in an attempt to ground myself once more. But then, as I always seem to do, I lost sight of whatever it was I was trying to achieve. I forgot what the prize was. Once more, I became complacent. There's a surprising amount of alcohol buzzing around these ancient Andean communities, and I, along with hounding my own fare share of cocaine base straight from the Coca plantations, took full advantage.
When alcohol enters the bloodstream, the body's largest organ, the skin, immediately begins dehydrating. Alcohol saps any residual moisture that nurtures the body's balances, and beats the living shit out of it. Then, just for kicks, it smacks the crap out of the liver. That's at sea level. At 6,000 metres, the physiological violence escalates ten fold. I could feel my liver chipping away at my insides, ready to bust out at any day. No amount of water seemed to help in the rehydration process, and the artificial stimulance of the base was fast wearing out its welcome. I was later to find out that cocaine enlarges the brain to an abnormal and potentially life-threatening swell, a la John Belushi style. At altitude, the potential consequences are far more catastrophic. No wonder my head felt as though it had gone fifteen rounds with Mike Tyson.
Demelza, coercing me in her own special way to push my hedonistic stupidity to one side and grow some balls, had become the grounding influence that I so sorely was craving. The presence was there all along. But now, we're in the Andes, three months into a six month journey that would see us trek, hike, climb, and occasionally bus, our way from Ushuaia, Argentina to Colca Canyon, Peru. A six month zig-zag of windswept, sun scarred, heart palpitating menace, Inca style. One felt, that throughout the entire pilgrimage, our lives really were in the hands of the Gods.
In the mind of our occasional guide for this sector, Chican, God is undoubtedly the Incan fertility goddess, Pachamama. Pachamama is revered among Inca communities, ancient and ancestral. She is the embodiment of their Earth. She is the mountains, the presider over planting and harvest, the big boss of earthquakes. Anger her, and Pachamama will wreak an apocalyptic tidal wave of hellfire on you and all those around you. Keep her happy, and she's cool. Like a second wife.
Chican lived in the desert village of Guatin, just 20km from the Bolivian border. He, and several other villagers, through basic Quechuan phrasings and the language of gesture, taught Demelza and myself all about Pachamama and her eccentricities. Prior to every new structure built, before the tilling of any fertile ground (not a lot), there must be a sacrifice to the Earth. To appease Pachamama. In the case of a hut, usually the foetus of a Vicuna would do. A new crop requires something a little less, perhaps a small bird, even an insect. But legend, as legend often does, had swept through the village from the big smoke that humans are the ones sacrificed in the case of a skyscraper or apartment block being built. I found this very difficult to believe. Weeks later, in La Paz, Bolivia, I discovered that this grisly custom was in fact, true.
But Demelza and I didn't need to worry about that, we were building nothing more than a legacy to ourselves. To Chican, all we had to remember was, every time we ate, to offer the first mouthful of food to Pachamama, and every time we drank alcohol, to pour the first shot onto her dry, scarred surface. Seems a waste, but I'm not one to tempt fate. So we littered the Earth with guinea pig meat and chicha to our hearts content. The goddess would have wanted it that way.
Our aim for this portion of the trip was pretty simple, on a map at least. Trek from the Atacama Desert's living oasis town of San Pedro, across the Bolivian border and salt flats, to Uyuni. To our amazement, both San Pedro and Uyuni were backpacker havens. Meccas for the dreadlocked, pretentious and unwashed to yearn towards, in order to show off their hack guitar skills and bad Bob Dylan impersonations. We hated it. We really did. But, in between those two tiny towns, was absolutely fucking nothing and, at times, both of us craved the relative civility and security blanket that San Pedro and Uyuni had to offer. Too late now. We weren't just in the middle of nowhere, we were nowhere.
Hiking Southern Chile and Argentina was tough, but doesn't crack a start against hiking in this cruel satirical twist of a desert. At least in the south, there was the occasional tree to shelter under or rest against. The only real danger to us in those parts was the cold (thermals fixed that), altitude (we had pills for that), and ourselves (we were kind of fit). But in the Atacama Desert, to quote the porn star who slept with John Wayne Bobbitt, there's fucking nothing! Apart from being the driest place on Earth and the world's highest desert, there are no trees. There are scorpions, snakes, evil little bastard ants, swooping birds of prey, ticks, rabid dogs, skittish vicunas and really angry and territorial llamas. I thought they were such nice creatures? Also, the scientifically proven fact that regions of this desert had not received rain for over 10,000 years, well, that's kind of hard to wrap your head around. Where the hell do you get water from?
Chican was more than a sporadic guide, he was a lifesaver. The Incan MacGyver. He introduced us to the many uses of the coca leaf. Who would've thought that there was more to getting an adrenalised high from this magical piece of greenery? Not only did sucking on the coca leaf cure me of my altitudinal ailments, eating it meant extra energy and protein. Drinking it meant an aware relaxation would envelop the body. Rubbing it on wounds meant that infection didn't stand a chance, but the big one, soaking the leaves in a bottle of cold water meant that the body's need for hydrogen rehydration was more than halved. Water, although still extremely important, was no longer such an essential commodity.
With two sticks and a keen eye, Chican showed us where natural spring water lay just inches below the desert's rocky surface. It looked easy. Just search for the slightest dark tint in the sand's bright, reflective sheen, and scratch away. Fuckin' Chican. We didn't strike water once.
Luckily he showed us another trick. The driest desert in the world, ironically, produces a tree called the Mist Tree. The branches of the Mist Tree contain water, lots and lots of it. In case of a water emergency, all we had to do was break off the branch of the mist tree, hollow it out slightly, and drink to our hearts content. No problems. Should be easy. I don't think we saw a single fucking mist tree on our travels either.
But here's the thing. Demelza and I, and I have no idea how, are in the fortunate position to be able to pay a guide for weeks to watch over us from a distance. We are spoilt westerners. Soft to the very core. Chican kept his word and watched over us every few days for three weeks. Along the way, we were warned that we might see the odd dead body or two; Quechua villagers trekking to find food and water that succumbed to Pachamama's harsh treatment of her worshippers. We didn't see any dead bodies, but the guilt building up inside me was palpable. Most people on the planet are nowhere near as lucky as white, middle-class western males.
In the extremities of life, one can certainly become philosophical and pragmatic. Sucking on a coca leaf, feeling the clamping bind of the dreaded Soroche loosen it's vice-like grip on my temples and neck, I would often shift my focus from trekking, and find solace in a simple rock, or a circling condor. And solace came in the form of my own internal principles of death and the beyond. The thought occurred to me; if I were to die out here, and obviously it's quite possible, then so what? Who cares? There is no right or wrong in this world. Is there? Every action, every circumstance is just that; action and circumstance. As a white, middle-class westerner, am I doomed to die in a hospital bed at the age of 81 with a ton of morphine in my system and a cynically jaded nurse wiping my arse for me three times a day? Fuck that. I'd rather die in the arms of this rock. Of course, I'd rather not, but if it were to eventuate, then so be it. At least I'd provide a decent feed to that fucking vulture that keeps circling above.
Death didn't eventuate, as I said, I can be a tad melodramatic, and as we rolled towards the Bolivian border and slightly beyond (who put a customs station all the way out here?), the intense white of the Salar de Uyuni crept into view for the very first time. We were close!
But we weren't. Chican, being a native villager with no passport or "credentials", was forced to turn back at the border. He could go no further. We knew that this scene would eventuate, there are ways to skirt customs and cross into Bolivia, but due to centuries old tensions between the two countries, the borders are patrolled by helicopters and snipers to within an inch of their lives. Death to our guide was not an alternative. Once again, as in so many cases along this at times treacherous journey, we were left to our own devices.
Now, I'm no Magellan, but I do know how to use a compass. Provided that is, I have a specific landmark to align to; a tree, a rock... anything. Trekking in the Uyuni salt flats makes trekking in the driest place on Earth seem like some sort of wonderful dream. There are no fucking landmarks in a salt flat, is there?! Through all of our meticulous planning (meticulous for us anyway), that fact had somehow eluded us. So I tested a theory. Finally finding a use for my pointless water stick, I scratched a giant X into the Earth's flat surface. Confident that I would never be laying eyes on this X again, I turned to Demelza with a look of I've got this. Turning and aligning the compass in the direction I thought we needed to head, I manfully signalled to the wife that this was it, I would light the way. Ain't no Pachamama gonna bring me down.
Two hours later, we all but tripped over the X again. That's right; the theory's correct. Men are idiots. But I proved another theory; idiots lost in the desert do walk in circles. A sudden, sinking feeling winded me; we were fucked. Too far beyond the border to turn back, still too far away from Uyuni to risk walking any further. With a low water supply and dead feet, this is where we would die. My philosophies backspinned a 180; I don't wanna fucking die!
Humankind doesn't need drugs. Life is tripped out enough as it is. One can't help but sink into a surreal, light-headedness of hallucination and balloon emptiness when stuck in a god-damn salt flat that's almost touching the sky. And with natural visions and a movie-like Indian dreaming, comes a great soundtrack, does it not? So, for the first time in weeks, I donned my trusty iPod and scrolled to the most appropriate music I could find to suit the situation. The Fuck Buttons. Desolate. Emotive. Intense.
For a suicidal purist, a sadistic minimalist, or just your plain old street-level variety nut job, being stranded in the Bolivian salt flats with little water, broken sunglasses, and a mind spinning out of control in sports replay slow motion, could potentially be quite amusing. For a melodramatic imbecile who seems to get off on pushing himself into increasingly difficult situations and then complaining about it once there, well it's bloody good fun as well. That's how I operate, what can I say? Blame my mother and father. They made me.
So with the Fuck Buttons 'Tarot Sport' drowning out the already drowned out eerie silence, we just kind of lay there, resting our weary heads on our packs, probably wondering what to do next, but mostly gaping in awe at the magnitude of this barren white wonder. As far as the eyes could see, was white. I lay on my stomach to try to detect any slight variation in gradience in the never ending rippled sheet. None. There didn't even seem to be a horizon. Surely this is the most alien place on Earth.
As I lay awkwardly prone, with old man joints and cramping stomach muscles, I could see a flickering silhouette in the near distance. Struggling to my feet and dusting the bitter salt from my face, chest and legs, I walked meticulously, economically, and graphically pinpoint, towards the intended target so as not to disturb it in its ritual. We had been told that vicunas often stray from the desert lagoons and patchily grassed knolls on the flat's edge, to the salt flats to die. If this was the case, and this was a vicuna dying, the morbid, self-sabotaging side of me wanted to sit by and absorb all of the creature's pains and anguishes, so it didn't need to.
It was a vicuna, two in fact. The most tragically beautiful scene one could ever witness. These two lovers had been together for a long time, it was obvious. Soulmates in an ethereal netherworld. The female was dying. Slowly. There didn't appear to be any obvious wounds or illnesses, perhaps like all creatures, it was just time to go. Regardless, I didn't want to walk any closer. Mother Nature's processes shan't be disturbed.
The male was standing over his love, weeping. Not a shrieking or whimpering weep, but a succession of primal bellows that literally sent chills down the spine. He was grieving already, he knew it was over. The end of an era. Vicunas can live for a long time and often pair with just one mate for the entirety of its adult life. The deep sadness was only brought further to the surface when the male vicuna briefly glanced in my direction. The species of Llama are shy animals with extraordinary hearing who startle easily. Through our travels in the Andes, we had startled many a vicuna; they always run off and are often heard more than seen as a result. But this one didn't move, in fact, he paid me no mind whatsoever. He simply continued tending to his dying bride, standing over her in a protective poise, occasionally nudging her undercarriage and bellowing for her to miraculously rise. But she didn't. I didn't see her die, I needed to give them space to soak in their final moments on Earth together. But I know she did. The final distant bellow of the inconsolable male as we walked into the distance, signalled his lady's demise.
With that heart churning death scene, and the emotive gang rape of the Fuck Buttons still streaming its defeated frequencies through my rapidly ageing system, I couldn't help but cry. I bawled like a fucking baby. As I relayed what I had just seen, and felt, back to the often incredibly stoic Demelza, she bawled too. Her affinity with all creatures that aren't human is the most intense spiritual link that I have ever come across. Sometimes, I regret telling her.
We must have looked ridiculous to the random and most unexpected 4WD approached us. 2 gringos, man and woman, walking in circles with the burden of life, death, and backpacks, so close, yet so distant, in tears over what to a local outsider would seem like nothing. Just a daily occurrence. Things die. Get the fuck over it.
Here's the unbelievable thing; inside the 4WD was a tour group! Yep. Tourists. Driving, was a local from the nearby town of Colchani. A Spanish speaker! I'd never been so happy in all my life to come across a Spanish speaking human being as I was on that early afternoon. For weeks on end, we were dealing with mostly Quechuas. Beautiful, kind and giving people, but shit, I have no idea what the hell they're talking about half the time. Most don't speak Spanish. I instantly realised that we must have been much closer to Uyuni as we thought.
And we were. But, as the driver told us, that would have mattered little. We were just a touch over 3 kilometres from the main highway (an unsealed and potholed track), around 5 kilometres away from Colchani, and approximately 30 kilometres from the hub of Uyuni. Whether being 3 kilometres away, or 300 kilometres away, with only a hand held compass and nothing to use as a point of reference, made not an ounce of difference. If we hadn't been spotted, we were in trouble. Luckily for us, visibility is not an issue in these parts. The days are crystal clear, and as proved when I spotted the dramatic death scene, foreign objects stick out like vicuna's balls. 4WD's whizz by here on a daily basis. Ferrying hungover backpackers to the middle of the salt flats in order for them to obtain a filtered and watered down definition of "adventure". We were lucky.
I generally despise tourists for their half-assed attitudes towards travelling and exploring. Claiming that they've "done" a particular country, when all they've really done is sit in a bus, or the back seat of a taxi or tour group 4WD, only to greet the real world for an opportune photograph of selfie narcissism with only the tiniest hint of something wonderful and magical in the background. But hey, that's my issue to deal with. That day though, I could've dry humped each tourist's legs to the whittle of bone. The 4WD was full to capacity, but Rolando, the driver and guide, promised to radio around for someone to come and pick us up to take us into Colchani. He kept his word.
Colchani is a partial ghost town. Occasionally, it becomes littered with tourists for five minutes at a time as they come through from Uyuni. 4WD after 4WD rolls in to drive up business for the saturation of market stalls lining the town's one and only street. When the tourists disappear, not much else goes on. There's a restaurant, a public toilet, but no bar. What sort of town is this? At least we were safe. That's all that mattered. We'd almost achieved our goal of hoofing it from San Pedro to Uyuni. Almost. But we were satisfied in the knowledge that our experience had been one for the ages.
Demelza and I had been in the Andes for close to 4 months at that time. We felt like we'd seen and done it all. We'd overcome and acclimatised to the dreaded Soroche, and we'd invaded a border crossing that I dare suggest not too many gringos had crossed before. We'd experienced hallucinations, excruciating headaches and often hilarious delusions of grandeur. We'd been over the moon happy, and into the pits of hell sad. We argued, loved, skipped like schoolgirls, trudged like broken machines, fought, mocked, encouraged, starved, almost dehydrated, but not quite, and conquered our version of the Andes in four countries; Argentina, Chile, Peru, and now, Bolivia. But above all else, we persisted. That's something that I could never do alone. That's all Demelza. She is one tough chickadee.
Sitting in the one and only restaurant, chewing on a swathe of coca leaves, waiting for a beer and revelling in being able to converse in Spanish, something I had not revelled in before, I couldn't help but feel proud of our achievements, whatever they were. My internal grin was a mile wide. This was our element, my utopia. Time for a long due rest.
But the trouble had only just begun.
*To find out what happens next, stay tuned to The Low Road for part 2 of Stalked by Darkness: How to Cheat Death in the Andes.