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Hoofing It

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Five years ago, on the side of a dirt road in the high Andes, I bought a donkey. Watching me hand a wad of crumpled soles to the farmer, my Ecuadorian friend Ramiro smiled and shook his head. ‘Are you sure you want to do this, amigo, when there are plenty of trucks and buses?’ It was a good question, especially considering the pitiful, mud-caked specimen that stood before us. The trouble was, my solo bicycle trip through Latin America had been interrupted by an inflamed knee, but I was determined to continue south without using motorized transport.

Unable to pedal but still able to walk, I had found inspiration in a battered copy of Eight Feet in the Andes wedged between the clothes and the spare tubes in my pannier. In the early 1980s, its author Dervla Murphy flew to Cajamarca in Peru with her 9-year-old daughter Rachel. Already a veteran of odysseys on foot, mule, donkey and bicycle, the Irish travel writer needed no justification for what came next. Putting the local grapevine to good use, she and Rachel purchased a lively young mule named Juana. Then, using William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Peru as their guidebook, they embarked on a southward trek, following the route of Pizarro’s conquistadors all the way to the historic Inca capital of Cuzco.

Incredibly, Rachel was already something of a hardened traveller.Before primary school, she had tagged along in On a Shoestring to Coorg (1976), her mother’s memoir of a trip to south India. In Where the Indus Is Young (1977), she then rode Hallam, an ex-polo pony, for a wintry month in Baltistan. Now, the challenge ahead for the Murphys and their latest steed was on another level: between Cajamarca and Cuzco, their ‘eight feet’ would need to traverse 1,300 miles of rugged Andean cordillera.

Juana was ‘an elegant, glossy young lady with an intelligent expression: about 12.1 h. h. and a dark bay, shading off on bell

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Five years ago, on the side of a dirt road in the high Andes, I bought a donkey. Watching me hand a wad of crumpled soles to the farmer, my Ecuadorian friend Ramiro smiled and shook his head. ‘Are you sure you want to do this, amigo, when there are plenty of trucks and buses?’ It was a good question, especially considering the pitiful, mud-caked specimen that stood before us. The trouble was, my solo bicycle trip through Latin America had been interrupted by an inflamed knee, but I was determined to continue south without using motorized transport.

Unable to pedal but still able to walk, I had found inspiration in a battered copy of Eight Feet in the Andes wedged between the clothes and the spare tubes in my pannier. In the early 1980s, its author Dervla Murphy flew to Cajamarca in Peru with her 9-year-old daughter Rachel. Already a veteran of odysseys on foot, mule, donkey and bicycle, the Irish travel writer needed no justification for what came next. Putting the local grapevine to good use, she and Rachel purchased a lively young mule named Juana. Then, using William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Peru as their guidebook, they embarked on a southward trek, following the route of Pizarro’s conquistadors all the way to the historic Inca capital of Cuzco. Incredibly, Rachel was already something of a hardened traveller.Before primary school, she had tagged along in On a Shoestring to Coorg (1976), her mother’s memoir of a trip to south India. In Where the Indus Is Young (1977), she then rode Hallam, an ex-polo pony, for a wintry month in Baltistan. Now, the challenge ahead for the Murphys and their latest steed was on another level: between Cajamarca and Cuzco, their ‘eight feet’ would need to traverse 1,300 miles of rugged Andean cordillera. Juana was ‘an elegant, glossy young lady with an intelligent expression: about 12.1 h. h. and a dark bay, shading off on belly and legs to a most unusual creamy-russet’. My new purchase was comically shorter. Her coat was coffee-brown, overgrown and matted, and with her dreary demeanour she looked sad even by donkey standards. Still, my hope was that by lugging my tent, sleeping bag and two small sacks of clothes across the greater part of Ecuador, this unlikely companion could at least play an important recuperative role in my journey to Tierra del Fuego. And for this reason I named her Remedios, ‘Remedies’, or Remy for short. On a crisp morning we set off in ceremonial fashion from the national Equator monument, north-east of Quito. Two days later, we arrived at La Compania, a dilapidated family hacienda that Ramiro was restoring. Having covered barely 20 miles in 20 exhausting hours, I collapsed on a couch, ready to give up. I had expected bouts of sulkiness and obstinacy, but my donkey’s aversion to puddles, narrow paths, ankle-deep streams and yellow painted lines filled me with despair. What had I got myself into? Short on answers, I returned to Eight Feet and was soon marvelling once more at Dervla’s ability to endure day after long hard day on foot, navigating ravines, vanishing paths and erratic weather. Somehow, even in the bitter cold or pitched awkwardly on a vertiginous incline, she still retained what her publisher Jock Murray described as ‘that over-riding determination to put words on paper and the stamina to do it’. The titles of her diary entries alone – ‘camp on ledge of steep mountain’ or ‘camp on floor of village post office’ – were enough to inspire renewed enthusiasm. More than any other travel writer I had encountered, here was the genuine article. Dervla’s ‘mania for going off into the wilderness’ – to use Rachel’s words – was her way of reaching out to the past, ‘far out over that chasm created in human history by the earthquake of Progress’, to the few remaining places on earth untarnished by modernity. An only child, born in County Waterford in 1931, Dervla was from a young age intoxicated by the world beyond her reach. Poring over her cherished second-hand atlas, a gift from her grandfather, she longed to see not only faraway places with unpronounceable names but also the unmarked spaces between them. In her teens, however, she was pulled out of school to nurse her severely arthritic mother, and only sixteen years later, on the death of both parents, could she finally begin to make up for lost time. Her first book, Full Tilt (1965), is an exuberant account of her solo bicycle ride from Ireland to India. She has since written another two dozen, most of them memoirs of journeys through some of the world’s most inaccessible regions. With my spirits restored, Remy and I struck out once more. Ahead lay a 400-mile trek through Ecuador’s ‘avenue of the volcanoes’ to the Inca ruin of Ingapirca. To escape the Pan-American highway and its tarmac tributaries, we took our first leaf out of Eight Feet, tacking deeper into the mountains where footpaths and zigzagging jeep tracks connect the country’s most far-flung hamlets. On the way, the experiences of Dervla and Rachel three decades earlier informed my appreciation of the high sierra, its people and their harrowing history. Often with scarcely enough provisions to sustain themselves, and endlessly on the lookout for Juana’s fodder of choice, alfalfa (or ‘Alf’ in Murphy-speak), the trio adopted an old Dervla approach: in remote areas, depend on the locals. Since the nights she had spent with peasant families in Full Tilt, she had learnt that cultural barriers tend to give way to human kindness – and the people of the Peruvian highlands were no exception, even if they came across as aloof, or dulled by a lifetime of coca-chewing. Both mother and daughter kept diaries, and with good reason Dervla draws repeatedly on Rachel’s version of events:
Mummy wanted to go up the mountain on a little mines track because she pretened [sic] that she thought it was a short cut but I had the strong feeling it was just because she wanted to climb to the top. I refused firmly, and I am sure if Juana could have talked she would have thoroughly agreed with me.
Rachel’s pragmatism and pluck combined with Dervla’s curiosity and endearing self-deprecation (‘As we ate, the standard debate about my gender took place among staff and customers’) all make for delightful, unpredictable reading. In observing the symptoms of a wider tragedy set in motion by the Spanish conquest 450 years earlier, Dervla is also candid about the demoralized psyche of the Peruvian peasant. And yet, as readers familiar with the Murphy oeuvre will know, what stands out more than anything is her tireless fascination with the world, whether she is contemplating the demise of a once-great Incan empire or counting the shades of mountain blue in the distance. As Remy and I progressed, Juana and the Murphys were always with us in spirit. Together we meandered south, up and down mountainsides, pausing now and then to admire a smoking volcano or a shock of bright pink quinoa, or to ask a campesino in a colourful shawl and felt fedora whether we were still on the right track. For them, like me, the highs were literal. After each lung-busting ascent came the euphoria of summiting, when the Andes spread out majestically beneath. ‘In three directions we were overlooking hundreds of miles of convulsed Andean splendour – a sort of madness of mountains, possessing the earth to the farthest horizons. “Everywhere is below us!” exclaimed Rachel.’ Like Juana, Remy’s performance improved with each week. Her pace picked up, and sometimes we covered 20 miles in a day. Right to the end, however, we also shared the sort of desperate, undignified low points that one tends to keep within the family. After a particularly precarious descent, Dervla recalled Juana putting on ‘a classic and totally understandable display of mulishness’:
She stood legs braced, ears flattened and eyes rolling expressively towards the depths of the ravine where a torrent foamed noisily between cottage-sized boulders. I had to lead her down, applying a judicious mixture of wheedling and abuse, depending on how appalling our immediate situation was when she chose to be bolshie. ‘Actually she’s not being bolshie,’ said Rachel, who was slithering along behind. ‘She’s just being sensible. This isn’t a mule track.’
Remy and I reached rock-bottom when we were compelled to use a derelict train tunnel to avoid an unclimbable hill. For as long as the rusted tracks were still visible, I tried to preserve a measure of normality, scratching her ears and humming along merrily. The illusion was soon broken, however, when the tunnel curved away from the dying light. Sensing danger, Remy suddenly dug in her hooves. I tried reason, insisting that I too was scared. When that failed, I had no choice but to push her. In pitch darkness, we inched forward in exhausting bursts, Remy’s front hooves churning through the gravel like twin ploughs. Finally we reached a point where she must have realized that the way ahead was no more terrifying than the way back, and she broke away in a hopeful canter while I lay panting in the gloom. When we finally did reach Ingapirca after more than a month together above 8,000 feet, it was hard not to feel a great affection for my disobliging companion. Happily, my knee was now back in full working order. Remy had been my remedy after all – now it was my turn to be hers. When Dervla and Rachel arrived in Cuzco after a near-catastrophic final stretch, they too were determined to secure a toil-free retirement for their beloved Juana. For them, emancipation lay in a visit to the local tourist office; for me, in Ramiro’s willingness to contact every animal lover in his address book. The last time I saw Remy she was standing in a field, surrounded by excited children, on a family farm near the city of Cuenca. Stripping a bail of Alf with her latest acquaintance, a llama named Chocolaté, she felt no inclination to look up when I announced my departure. Perhaps she had learnt from Dervla’s closing words: ‘Not saying goodbye is always much easier.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 62 © Richard Conyngham 2019


About the contributor

After his Ecuadorian ramble, Richard Conyngham progressed southwards to the tip of Patagonia by bicycle, along the way tracing the Murphys’ route to Cuzco as closely as he could.

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