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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