June 08, 2009

We made it!

I've been sitting here for about 10 minutes now, desperately trying to come up with the wittiest, most-creative opening line possible for this Machu Picchu post. After all, doing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was without a doubt the highlight of our trip to South America, and anything less than literary excellence simply won't do it justice.

I don't know how to get across just how awesome it was, and I just don't know where to start. So I'll go the boringly logical route, and start at the beginning...

The farmers in Peru had decided to strike on the very day that we were supposed to start the Inca Trail (they block all the roads and attack people who try to pass – fun!) so we were starting a day early, which not only meant we had one day less to prepare ourselves (there were plastic ponchos to be bought, walking sticks to be hired and bags to pack), we also had to fork out an extra $US35 each for the privilege. To top it all off, Craig was fevering it up, big time, putting our already questionable hiking ability (too much fried chicken and zero exercise) in serious jeopardy.

With Craig pumped full of miscellaneous drugs – hey, I just rolled with whatever the chemist gave me! – we attended the mandatory night-before meeting to meet our group and tour leader, and run through the four days of pure pain that were to follow.

As expected, the room was full of whiny, loud-mouth Americans (er, generalisation and stereotype alert). OK, to be fair, the room was full of Americans, two of whom were whiny and loud-mouthed, and there were a couple of Irish and Hollanders thrown in there for good measure. While the rest of our group drank coca tea and whined about the havoc the altitude was wreaking on them, we sat smugly in the corner (having been at altitude for about six-weeks, we were well and truly acclimatised. Now, if only we had done some exercise in the last year or so...).

'I hate our group already,' said Craig as soon as we exited the meeting.

Love 'em, like 'em or hate 'em, we had to meet up with all of them the next day at 2pm to start our four-day adventure. We sat at the meeting point (a local square) with our tiny 5kg backpacks and watched the rest of our group roll in with their ginormous backpacks plus their bursting-at-the-seams duffel bags for the porters to carry – being the stingy backpackers that we are, Craig and I opted to carry all our own stuff, thus saving $US50 on the porter fee. No one in our group could believe the size of our bags. 'I just don't know how you did it, there is no possible way I could cut back on anything I bought,' said Whiny American One (we'll call her Rita, as, funnily enough, that's her name). We later found out that Rita had packed three pairs of pants (we had one each), full toiletries (we just had suncreen, insect repellent, deodorant and baby wipes) and three dresses (er, we didn't pack any of those).

That night we camped on a soccer field close to kilometre 84 (the starting point of the Inca Trail). The rain poured down as I slpet snugly, while poor old Craig tossed and turned the night away, still plagued by fever.

The next day it was backpacks on, walking sticks in hand and hiking boots on – or in our case, joggers. It seems the rest of the group miraculously managed to score themselves head-to-toe sponsorship deals with The North Face, and were kitted out with all the latest hiking gear and gizmos. We, on the other hand, were pretty much wearing the same clothes we had been sporting for the previous 72 days. Once we got our passport stamped through the checkpoint, we had officially started our Inca Trail journey.

In typical Craig fashion, he quickly powered on up the hill, leaving the rest of us in his Asic-induced dust. The day was hot and sunny, and we were all soon sweating up a storm and asking ourselves why we had forked out $US500 each to put ourselves through all this pain.

The first day consisted of walking, walking and more walking – which funnily enough, so did the other days. We were truly exhausted by the time we reached our campsite, where we washed ourselves with little bowls of hot water and enjoyed hard-earned Twix bars.

It's safe to say that when the dreaded 'Day Two' rolled around, we were shitting ourselves. Day One was tough enough, but Day Two was meant to be a real killer, so with some Kylie Minogue pumping through my iPod headphones, we set out to conquer Dead Woman's Pass.

Day Two was the hardest thing we have ever done in our 25 years on this earth. We pushed ourselves to heart-thumping, lung-burning, calf-wobbling extremes, there were times when Craig would stop and say, 'I'm done. I can't go on.' It was so tough you would walk ten steps and then have to have a break. After 2000 steps and over two hours plodding up hill, we finally made it to Dead Woman's Pass, only to realise we had an hour-long, bone-jarring descent in front of us until lunch time, after which , we would then climb for another four hours until we reached out campsite.

Physically and mentally, we were spent. By the time we reached camp, I was on the verge of a Mariah Carey-style breakdown. Craig flopped onto his roll-up mattress, his fever was back with a vengeance. That night, Craig was so sick he did even emerge from the tent for dinner.

Of course, while I am banging on and on about the blood, sweat, tears and pain we endured, this really was luxury trekking, thanks to The Red Army. Our tour company, Llama Path, are renowned for their efficient and well-looked-after porters. These guys are amazing, not only do they carry 27 kilograms each on their backs, they also do it in record speed, giving them enough time to set up our tents and cook all our meals before we arrive.

By Day Three we were really feeling the pain, but with the knowledge that all our trekking would be finished by lunchtime, we pushed on. The Red Army clapped us off, as they did every day, and once again we were winding our way through the mountains on the stony Inca Trail Path.

With our tour leader, Casiano, willing us to go on with a Peru pipe version of Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart, we willed our aching knees and blistered feet to keep trudging on to our campsite. We celebrated our mammoth achievement over a few cold beers, and shouted all 22 of the porters to a cold one, too.

Once The Big Day, rolled around (that'd be the day we made it to Machu Picchu), we were a team on a mission – be the first at the checkpoint. On the final day, they don't open the gates to the path until 5.30am, meaning first in, best dressed. Determined to be first in line, we awoke at 3.15am, quickly dressed, packed and stuffed down some breakfast, before making our way in the dark to the gates. We then sat there for over and hour, but as we were first, it was worth it.

So what's the big deal with being first at the gates? Well, you set off on the trail first, meaning that you have a better chance of getting to the Sun Gate (and the first glimpse of Machu Picchu) first, and therefore get to take in the magnificent view, minus the 200 other hikers who are hot on your heels.

Once we were through those gates, we were off. A half run/half walk pace was adopted as we navigated the rocky path, headlights and torches lighting the way. For about an hour we kept up the pace, I stopped for a brief moment to fall over, then it was back to pushing ourselves to the limit. Having gone through three of the toughest days of our lives, we weren't gonna give up now.

Craig pushed on faster, and unable to keep up the pace, I fell slightly behind. Every inch of my body was in pain, but I kept on going...

Craig was the third person to make it to the Sun Gate that day and got the whole place to himself (the two that had beaten him had already left), and I came in fifth – not bad for arguably the unfittest person on earth. We got a clear, beautiful day and stood there for a while to catch our breath and take in the moment we had been waiting for, Machu Picchu.

There are some famous sights around the world that really don't live up to expectations – they're never as big, bright or spectacular as in the photographs. But Machu Picchu certainly lives up to the hype, it is simply awesome. We got to spend a good couple of hours staring at it and walking around it, and it made the 45 kilometers we had just hiked totally and utterly worth it.

It's one of those experiences that we would never do again (once was enough), but we are so glad we did it, and damn proud, too!