The day a hand drawn mud map on a napkin, led to a four-day adventure in the mountains of Peru.
Updated: Apr 28, 2022
I’m writing this post at 7.30 a.m. while sitting on the veranda of the Goose Beach Bar, Busselton (in Western Australia), to take full advantage of the welcome vista. Before me lies the longest wooden jetty in the southern hemisphere, extending nearly 2 km into the sparkling waters of the Indian Ocean. If I had a stone in my hand, an easy throw would drop it straight onto the beach. That’s how near I am. But I don’t want to taint the fine white sand with pebbles. Besides, there are wading birds to consider, each one silently scavenging the shoreline. The ocean laps gently around their delicate webbed feet, ebbing and flowing with barely an effort.
I started my morning with a brisk walk to the end of the jetty, passing solitary fishermen on the way: them lost in thought as they studied the milky water, me intent on a steady pace while listening to a few classics by Dylan, Springsteen and Oasis. During the walk I didn’t spot any dolphins, but did encounter a stingray, close to shore, gliding slowly across the shallows.
Depending on the time of day and differing seasons, each venture to the end of the jetty offers something different. Not by much, but just enough to add a little variety. During the midsummer school holiday you’ll likely encounter boisterous teenagers jumping from a designated platform into the ocean. When not leaping from the jetty, their flirtatious giggles carry across the water, as the sun warms their skin.
But the sun doesn’t always shine in this part of Western Australia. Between June and August you run the risk of encountering stiff winds and squally showers when venturing outside. These cool, breezy days are reminiscent of the inclement weather I left behind in England, 18 years ago. I still think back to my life in Luton, a lively, cosmopolitan town, located 30 miles north of London. Although I remember the people and places with fondness, the south west of Australia is my home now. After all this time I’ve learnt to embrace the early hours of each weekend morning, especially during the warmer months.
Did I mention it’s a Saturday morning as I write this post? On such a glorious day, many cafes in town will soon be busy, especially the select few that offer a view of the ocean. Luckily, I’ve arrived back from my walk, just in time to pick a table on the veranda. I’ve ordered a mug of coffee and can now relax, watching as the pace picks up around me.
Far in the distance I spot movement in the water. It’s not the resident dolphins I hoped for, but a group of swimmers heading to shore after circumnavigating the length of the jetty. Busselton might seem to some like a sleepy beachside town, but dip deeper and you’ll find a community of sporty and energetic folk. For those who enjoy outdoor pursuits, Busselton has earned the reputation as the Events Capital of Western Australia, with a calendar full of activities each year, including Ironman events, sailing regattas, running races and epic swims around the jetty. Locals and visitors alike, embrace the natural playgrounds of nearby forests, coastal tracks and crystal-clear waters.
The section of coastline I’m admiring (while waiting for my coffee to arrive) is vastly different from the epic surf breaks found on the other side of the nearby cape. Instead of the sheltered coves, reef breaks, lefthanders and formidable swells found between Dunsborough and Margaret River, the emerald waters that surround Busselton jetty are a haven for those who enjoy fishing, sailing, kayaking, swimming, boating, snorkelling or paddle boarding. It’s a haven for families with young children, who enjoy the shipwreck themed beachside park as much as the warm turquoise waters and long stretches of white sand.
Scuba divers are also attracted to these waters, enjoying the abundance of sea life found between (and clinging to) the timber pylons at the end of the jetty. For those without a scuba diving ticket there is also the option of signing up for a guided sub aqua walk near the end of the jetty, while wearing an underwater suit and mask, (which is hooked to an air supply). Looking more like a moon walker than a scuba diver, the effect is still the same, with wide smiles from all that venture below the waterline.
Those that do not want to get wet while gazing at shoals of silvery fish can take a bright red train to the end of the jetty, to visit the underwater observatory.
Just recently there was talk of a juvenile whale making a guest appearance close to one of the underwater windows. Sharks appear from time to time, along with dolphins, octopus and inquisitive seals.
My coffee arrives with a smile, just as a fisherman walks past, pulling a handmade cart loaded with fishing rods, bait and a place to stow a flask of tea. He will be hoping for a feed of herring, whiting or squid and seems to be in no hurry, unlike the power walker that soon overtakes him. She wears headphones, a baseball cap, shorts and T-shirt, while bounding along the footpath before setting course for the jetty.
Cyclists come and go along the pedestrianised strip, some dressed in Lycra while seated on lightweight bikes, designed for speed over comfort. One solo rider has no such machine! Her bike has wide wheels and a funky yellow frame, complete with a wicker basket at the front. Seated inside is a small fluffy dog, its bright eyes observing me as I manage a brief wave.
Soon after, three riders pull over by the café and dismount one by one. They are dressed alike in bright shirts depicting the name of their cycling club. Their faces are flushed and as they stretch their legs, I overhear snippets of chitchat about an upcoming race they are in training for.
Nearby, a group of ladies are tucking into breakfast while chatting about a weekend trip to Margaret River. A few have got their phones out, checking the weather report and scrolling through Trip Advisor for recommendations on local wineries and attractions. We are lucky, as Western Australia is not in a Covid lockdown (at the moment) which means they can enjoy their girlie weekend with few cares.
Many locals insist that March and April are the best months to visit the south west of Australia. The roads are quieter, the staff at the coffee shops have time to learn your name and the autumnal sunshine is less harsh, with barely a breath of wind for those who venture out early. It is also harvest time at the wineries, adding an extra buzz within the Margaret River community, with tractors and farmhands busy from daybreak. Many workers are here for the chance to surf and as soon as their tasks are done will head to one of many surf breaks, depending on wind and swell.
While I’ve been sipping coffee, the women nearby have been busy. They’ve found a local guide who’ll be able to take them on an escorted tour of the wineries. They’ve also discovered a guest house offering last minute deals, located within walking distance of the Margaret River township. Finally, they’ve found a newly opened Italian restaurant. They initially seem hesitant to book a table, as it has few reviews on Trip Advisor. How could it, being so new?
I’m trying hard not to overhear, but it’s kind of hard as they are on the next table! As their plans come together the excited women scramble to get a word in over the Spotify soundtrack playing softly in the background.
Partway through “Castle on the Hill,” I close my notebook, drain my coffee and stand to leave. It is time for me to head home. My wife is keen to take our dog for a walk and we’ve made a pact with our teenage boys to head to the mountain bike trails in the forests surrounding Margaret River.
After pushing in my chair, I tried waving to the staff member who served my coffee, but she was too busy to notice. Instead, I packed away my notebook and squeezed past the ladies table. As I did so, one of them called out to a friend.
‘I reckon we should give the Italian a try. Nowadays, we rely far too much on Trip Advisor. Besides, it’s a BYO which means we can open another bottle of wine if the food is not up to scratch!’
To a chorus of laughter I headed outside, as one of them booked a meal for four at the newly opened restaurant. Moments later I began pedalling home, away from the million-dollar beachfront properties to my quiet suburb, a few minutes inland. During the cycle ride I thought back to the women with their smart phones, scrolling through Trip Advisor for social proof that they’d chosen well. We all do this to some extent, from buying cars, to booking holidays. Some ask friends for advice, while others use the internet to help guide them.
And yet, some of my most memorable travel adventures have come to fruition from moments of spontaneity. As I rode through Busselton town centre, past the surf shops, restaurants, coffee shops and pubs, I found myself thinking about a time, long ago, when I left England with my wife (Fran), to embark on a global adventure. At the time we were in our late thirties, looking for the chance to travel through South America and Africa, before venturing to Australia to find work and a place to live.
Our first aim had been to learn Spanish while in Ecuador, before enrolling as volunteers on a conservation project in the Amazon jungle. We then planned to travel overland to Peru to trek along the Inca Trail. The ancient city of Machu Picchu had been on my wish list since growing up in an English council estate, staring out of my childhood bedroom window, wondering what life had in store for me.
Ask most people about trekking in Peru and the first thing that comes to mind is the Inca Trail. It is high on the wish list for many adventure seekers, hoping to make their way along the fabled path, which eventually leads to Inti Punku (Sun Gate), to gaze at the fabled ruins of Machu Picchu.
The trip to Ecuador opened my eyes to the wonders of South America. For many weeks we toiled in the steamy jungle, working as conservation volunteers for an organisation called Jatun Sacha. Later, we made our way south, intent on reaching Peru to trek along the Inca Trail. But while travelling along the coastal strip in northern Peru, we decided on a whim to head inland, to the town of Huaraz, famed for its proximity to the snow-clad Andes.
We took an overnight bus and paid the price for being under prepared, as the locals around us huddled in their seats, weighed down with blankets and pillows. We woke cold, stiff and hungry, unaware of the mountains looming beyond the wakening sky. After stepping off the bus, we soon found ourselves at the mercy of a local guide, who was keen to earn a few dollars by escorting us to a budget motel.
After a brief nap on a worn-out mattress we set off to find a better place to stay. The city centre bustled with cars and people, all going about their business. The rain had cleared, leaving behind a deep blue sky and the chance to point out snow-capped peaks, just beyond reach. A roadside café offered the chance to refuel, plus the opportunity to get directions for our luxury hostel. The waitress studied the address, pointed towards a nearby street and watched enthusiastically as we crossed the road and followed her directions.
We still couldn’t find the hostel but did discover a row of shops. Some sold a vast selection of camping equipment and others offered adventurous excursions to the nearby mountains. Some of the display windows showed posters of daring climbers, clinging to the sides of icy crags. Others displayed numerous items for sale, including rain jackets, tents, walking boots and maps. One shop caught our eye, due to a colourful poster by the doorway, depicting a couple trekking towards a crystal clear, glacial lake, sitting at the base of a snowy peak. The image was titled, Laguna 69. The words underneath said: Guided tours available, plus hire of equipment. See inside for details.
I looked at Fran, she smiled in reply and without a word we opened the door to Andean Summits and stepped inside. The owner was standing on a stepladder, adding an ice axe to a wall display and turned briefly to welcome us. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, with masses of dark curls, sunburnt cheeks and wide shoulders. I approached the counter and called up to him. ‘Excuse me. We’d like to trek to Laguna 69 and wondered if you have a map?’
He stepped down from the ladder and asked, ‘How long are you in the area for?’
‘We’re not sure really, maybe for five days.’
He smiled brightly and held his hands out wide. ‘Laguna 69 is a very beautiful place, but if you have five days to play with, I suggest something longer and a little more remote. After all, you are close to one of the highest mountain ranges in the world. Have you travelled all the way to the Andes for an adventure, or to drink coffee and enjoy day trips?’ he asked cheerfully.
One wall was decorated with a large map, depicting the mountains of northern Peru and he called us over to study it. He pointed out Huaraz and let our eyes wander across the chart. There were mountains everywhere, plus lakes and rivers. There were few roads, and some seemed to stop abruptly, as though there was nowhere else to go. He then traced his finger between a series of mountains and hills. ‘I think this is the route for you. It is the Santa Cruz trail. For a set price I will supply good quality tents, cooking equipment and the name of a local guide.’
He studied our straight faces and said, ‘Don’t look so worried. The trek will be amazing and in my opinion is far better than the Inca Trail.’
His words triggered a wide smile from me and a tentative grin from Fran, as she absorbed the information. Along the way we’d follow alongside a river, before tackling a mountain pass. It would take three or four days, with nothing in between, except meadows, glacial lakes and wild horses. After we’d paid the fee, he took us next door to a labyrinth of indoor markets, to purchase provisions. These were packaged by the thankful stallholders and stashed overnight in a corner of the camping shop.
As planned, we met him the following morning by the bus stop. He was easy to spot, waving from afar, while wrapped up against the cold in a fur-lined jacket. Our provisions were neatly bundled on the pavement and he helped put them in the hold. His final contribution was a mud map, scribbled onto a piece of paper.
It depicted a dotted line that led from Huaraz, past a series of mountains, towards the village of Cashapampa. He pointed towards a large X on the map, halfway between Huaraz and Cashapampa. ‘This is as far as the bus goes. Stay on board until the driver tells you to get off. There’s usually a taxi parked nearby, for those heading further into the mountains. Show this map to the taxi driver and they’ll take you to Cashapampa. Then you’ll need to find Carlos.’
And this is how we found ourselves on a four-day adventure with Carlos and his trusty donkeys.
The trip was one of the best I have ever taken, as we headed into the unknown. Sometimes you just need to take a punt and the day that we walked into the camping shop in Huaraz proved that to me.
My only regret is that I didn’t keep the napkin with the map. I think I lost it somewhere in Bolivia, while running for my life from an underground explosion. But that’s another story, for another day.
If you’d like to read more about my adventures in South America, you can do so by clicking here.