The word, emerging from somewhere amongst the hazy silhouettes of the dark room, comfortably cleared the sound of Mike’s gentle snoring. I was awake instantly, rolling onto my elbows and looking into each of the murky corners.
“Mama.” Louder now, and suddenly very fucking weird. This second ‘Mama’ had creeped me out, no doubt. My ears pinned back against the darkness, I tried to figure out what the hell was going on.
“Mama.” I looked across to Mike, still fast asleep. Mike. Mike was saying mama… On every other exhalation – in a voice that was remarkably like a child’s. I laughed, if only to shake off how weird it was,and tried to go back to sleep for a while. At least I wasn’t the one being possessed by a demon.
The morning arrived and we sat around eating eggs and drinking orange juice. Mike certainly didn’t look possessed any more, so I accompanied him to pick up some more bottles of water (we were chugging through bottles in this heat) before we left the hotel. I rode mine and Colin’s bikes out of the compound, down some stairs and into the street then sat eating oranges while the others finished prepping.
In the morning briefing, Dave let us know that this was a day of photo opportunities – the ride up to a glacial meltwater lake at 5000m altitude. Lake Llanganuco. We already looked awesome – but the plan was to get the bikes washed on the way to Yungay where our road broke away and teetered up into the mountains. It looked like Dave had paid for the deluxe service – the eagle browed teenager with the soapy sponge was indisputably giving the bikes a real thorough clean. My bike, washed first, looked brand new – not that I had a problem with dirty dirt bikes anyway. While committed, the teen wasn’t exactly fast so Franco had to crack the whip.
We followed the truck to the start of the dirt track in Yungay as we’d left Franco at the car wash to catch up. In the process we’d picked up two stragglers, native Inca/Peruvian boys who got into the back of the truck alongside the spare bike. A creamy smokescreen of dust was being kicked up by the truck so I held my breath till clear pockets of air came my way. None too soon Dave’s hand popped out of his window and waved us past with flicks of his wrist. I was on the throttle instantly and led the trail of bikes up through wooded tracks where tall berms of gravel edges wide hairpins. I figured out quickly that you could ride right at the lip of these berms to keep speed throughout the corners. That or drift, something I’d only figured out how to do accidentally.
My pace up the mountain side was relentless – I was having far too much fun to slow down for anything other than the occasional photo. I’d lost ‘guide pace’ Colin early on, and Chas was no where to be seen, but Mike had clung pretty close and therefore got into plenty more photos than the others. I was impressed. Here was a guy who had only passed his MOD2 a few weeks ago, burning his way up a Peruvian mountainside with all the confidence of a speedway rider. In hindsight it was only a matter of time until one of us came unstuck…
The gravel road wide, we blasted into the middle of a small town. With my tinted sun visor down I felt pretty cool, like one of the bad guys in a spy movie motorbike chase. Mike was tailing me at about 20ft. The road curved left 90 degrees, over a makeshift wooden pallet bridge and climbed again to the next set of loose hair pins. Dogs are a perennial problem for bikes in Peru – aggravated by the noise they give chase four times out of five, snapping and barking. I was just about through the corner when one charged out of nowhere from my right. I held the line and it passed behind me – I didn’t really have time to do anything else. I powered through the next 5 or so minutes of climbing till I reached a prow overhanging the road, from where I could catch some photos of Mike riding up with the iced mass of Huascaran stood prominent behind him. Only Mike never showed up. The dust from my bike settled and there were no more plumes behind it.
A couple of minutes later I decided to descend back down, its always possible I’d taken a wrong turn. Tentatively reversing my route I descended back through the hair pins, occasionally stopping a passer-by to ask whether they’d seen “uno mas moto”, one more motorbike. Eventually someone said yes, pointed 50ft down the road to town, just past the wooden bridge in the village. There was Mike’s bike on its stand, not looking chewed up, but no longer ‘just washed’ either. I flipped my helmet camera on, not wanting to waste any of the action.
Close up Mike looked blue and, taking my gloves off, he felt cold to the touch. Classic shock symptoms, though he was completely compos mentis, I would have been worried otherwise. Instead I let the camera roll. He showed me the new dent in his helmet.
The same dog that had made a swipe at me doubled back on Mike, effectively pinning him into a water drainage ditch on the right side of the track. He bailed from the bike and took a roll on the gravel. Littered with rocks twice the size of golf balls I couldn’t imagine that roll being very pleasant… Mike had the war wounds to prove it. It was a good twenty minutes before Franco arrived, having caught us up from the bike wash. Then another ten until the truck and Colin arrived. Colin rode a Suzuki, his transalp in the back of the truck after a flat tyre. Chas was also in the truck, his bike in the back with Colin’s – seemed like the road here was eventful for everyone in some way, except me and Frank. Mikes bike still worked, with a few tweaks, so Jorge left the truck to Dave and joined the bikes for the short haul up to Lake Llangunco. The ten minutes before arriving had been especially beautiful, the road meandering through lush green scrub while black and maroon sheer sided cliffs stretched 200m overhead, lapped with roofs and overhangs and protruding flakes. Glacial walls spread, dirty grey on the flanks of Huascaran.
The truck arrived a while later, after taking a detour to a local clinic to get Mike laced with antibiotics – stabbed straight into a butt cheek. I’d been burning time by running around the car park, to get an altitude buzz on (3’850m). The heady delights lasted 10 or so seconds before fuzzing away. Not that the beauty and solitude of the place wasn’t enough for me…
The old boys stayed next to the lake, with the pastries. Mike rode shotgun on Franco’s transalp, Jorge took Mikes DR and I remained on my trusty steed for a romp up to a higher altitude. The road followed the circumference of the lake, but the drop down to the turquoise water got steadily greater. With rock wall above and cliff edge below, we continued with a degree of control – only opening the throttle fully for a long stretch along a causeway, punctuated only by one small bridge or take-off ramp, depending on how late you saw it. Grazing wild donkeys barely lifted their heads to see what the commotion was, ambling idly through short grass and into the road, but easy enough to dodge. The road became rutted and potted and littered with larger rocks that you didn’t want to hit. I jangled up this, chain slapping wildly, metal somewhere clanking loudly to a spot next to a waterfall and stopped to take photos. The boys, chewing coca leaves as per usual, sat on the rocks while cows mulched past, chewing up mouthfuls of grass from between stumpy, spiky, dark green trees. Franco spotted a cows skull and bought it over to look at. I held it up to the front of my bike, jokingly, but the boys loved the idea. I threw myself into attaching it to my headlight with the same fervour they had, dashing from pannier to bike grabbing duct tape, cable ties and anything else we could use to bind it.
Somehow, making way more clattering than I had on the way up, I managed to get to the lake car park with the cow skull still attached. Initially I’d nursed it as it bounced around on the front plastics pretty violently. Soon enough though I’d given that idea up for good – nearly forgetting to slow down for the bridge again as we made our way along the causeway. Alongside the precipitous drop I really put the hammer down, caution thrown to the wind. I didn’t spot a drainage rut that cut right across the gravel, about two feet wide and one foot deep. I hit it at speed, nearly unhinging myself from the bike. My legs were in the air as the pogo stick suspension did its best to suck up the blow. I felt like a freestyle motocross rider, albeit wildly out of control and not actually in the air.. well, not unless I caught the 200m drop down into the icy lake – which was very much a near miss. My heart flickered excitedly as I bounced out of trouble and pulled up waiting for the others. I took it easy from then… sort of.
The whole entourage made its way down the mountain side and back to base. The sweeping hairpins taken much more gradually on the way down, no longer fighting but propelled by gravity. While I might enjoy the occasional drifting rear wheel, the front end going is a wholly more uncomfortable sensation. Enough daylight to grab an ice cream then head back to watch Mike devouring a different type of cream.
Road rash cream. In big smeary dollops.