Wish I were there: Michael Palin on his greatest adventure
People assume that lockdown and the spread of coronavirus must have made life intolerable for those who love to travel, but in my case, though the road less travelled may have become the road not travelled, there have been positives.
Travelling is driven by curiosity. When I was growing up in Sheffield I read avidly of the wider world, but thinking I would never see the real Wild West or the Great Lakes I recreated them with the help of curiosity, imagination and a bicycle. And the Peak District. As the long shadow of Covid-19 has shrunk my globe-trotting options over the past 16 months, and likely well beyond, I have realised how important those childhood bike rides were in creating an appetite for the wider world.
Over these past months I have rediscovered the pleasures of travel in miniature. No Taj Mahals or Grand Canyons — instead the rhythms of natural and human life to be found each day within minutes of my home, crossing and recrossing Hampstead Heath in London. It might sound repetitious, but repetition has taught me that nothing is ever the same as the last time. Now, as we near high summer, the ponds in front of Kenwood House are brimming with ducks, geese, moorhens and coots fighting for space in which to bring up their families. In the depths of winter I can get equal pleasure from a robin skittering about in dead leaves.
Travelling is not just about ticking boxes and moving on — though I’ve done my fair share of that — it is, at its best, an exercise in observation, in opening eyes and ears and taking in what is special about where you are at any one time. Of course there are some days and some places that are more special than others, when there’s more to it than just looking and learning. When curiosity becomes visceral and the thrill of risk intensifies all the senses. I spent one such day in Peru 25 years ago.
It wasn’t the easiest place to get to, and when I got there there wasn’t much to do, but my day in the Pongo de Mainique remains in my mind as among the most satisfying I have spent on all my travels. Satisfying being a paltry word to describe the series of adventures which led to my safe passage through one of the most beautiful canyons on earth, producing an adrenalin rush that I imagine bungee jumpers or freefall parachuters must experience for a second or two. Except that this lasted for hours.
Wish I were there . . .
With the pandemic continuing to disrupt travel, we have been asking writers to journey in their imaginations, to tell the story of a distant place they yearn to revisit. Read more from the series at ft.com/wishiwere
It began on the morning of June 22 1996 when I awoke in a tent on a sand spit beside the Urubamba, the river that had flowed north past Machu Picchu and was on its way through the last folds of the Andes, to become the Ucayali and eventually the Amazon. On its final sprint out of the mountains the river falls 10 feet, accelerating into a dozen miles of the fiercest, fastest and most dangerous stretches in all the Amazon headwaters. And it was only 20 minutes away from where I was cleaning my teeth.
Our crew were already busy. Valentin was priming the cooking stoves for breakfast while his colleagues secured the cargo into the hollowed-out tree trunks that were to take us through these troubled waters. Already a little dry-mouthed and nervous, I washed my face in the river. The night before I had re-read Peter Matthiessen’s account, in his book The Cloud Forest, of descending the rapids that lay ahead, hoping that the wisdom of such a seasoned traveller would offer me some reassurance. He was no help at all. “I was afraid,” he wrote. “I kept asking myself what in the name of God I thought I was doing here in the first place.”
My thoughts exactly.
I took some comfort from the fact that Gustavo, the captain of our hollowed-out tree trunk, was tough, taciturn and apparently devoid of emotion, and that Barry, my effervescent British guide from Cusco, seemed more concerned with getting a signal on his radio so that he could listen to the European Cup quarter-final between England and Spain.
I wish I’d been feeling just a little bit heroic, rather than gnawed by the guilt that sometimes comes upon a traveller when they know that they have gone beyond reason and are about to embark on Something They Would Never Do At Home. Health and Safety would barely let me go to Peru without a helmet, let alone take on the Pongo de Mainique on a log, albeit a hollowed-out one.
I had felt similar risk guilt while circling above the Arctic Ocean in a helicopter on the Pole to Pole series, looking for a place to land as near to the North Pole as possible. It was late in the season and the ice was breaking up. Our only chance was to try and put down on one of the increasingly fragmented ice floes. Heads turned back anxiously from the cockpit waiting for our agreement to take the risk. It was going to be difficult, but they were willing to give it a try.
The faces of my wife and children flashed into my mind and I swear they were mouthing “No!” in unison. I was on the verge of shouting out that we didn’t have to do this. We could mock up an ice-floe at Pinewood Studios. And, you know what, the series didn’t have to be called Pole to Pole. Alliteration was not something I was prepared to die for. But it was too late for a rewrite as we hit the floe with a terrifying bounce and the compass reading showed we were as near as dammit to 90 degrees north. As I climbed out on to the ice I made a mental apology to my family, but I had reached the North Pole, and that would be something to tell the neighbours.
Our hollowed-out logs slid off the sand and into the Urubamba beneath dirty grey skies. Under thickening cloud the weather had cooled and the river had lost its sparkle and turned a murky pea-green colour. We rode the current and headed north-west, to the gates of the Andes. From an adjacent spit our departure was watched by a flock of brown cowbirds, who lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Above us a yellow-headed vulture swung back and forth across the river, its head sharp and scanning for prey, like an open jackknife. Then the first cataracts ricked and rumbled beneath us and soon we were spending less time birdwatching and more time gripping the sides of the boat as the white water splashed back at us and our outboards accelerated towards the Pongo as if someone had pressed fast-forward.
Waves came at us from all directions. Some smashing against the prow, others jolting the sides of the canoe, some even appearing to be chasing us. The heavens opened and the rain came down. I turned and threw a rueful glance at Gustavo, who squatted implacably in the stern teasing the rudder this way and that as if it were part of the foaming river itself. I comforted myself, rather desperately, with the thought that where I saw chaos, he saw harmony.
By now the jagged reefs and jutting rocks were coming at us so regularly it was as if the Pongo were booby-trapped. It seemed impossible that there could be a way through all this without hitting something and flipping over. As we rose and fell and twisted and turned it was impossible to know what was spray and what was rain. The rock walls grew steeper and darker on either side, and if this weren’t menacing enough a thick mist drifted apocalyptically over the enclosing jungle.
Suddenly, dead ahead, was a 30-metre pinnacle, and we were heading straight for it. As the river water broke against the rock it rebounded on us, and I felt our hull rise and fall in a succession of bone-shaking thumps. We were a stomach-churning metre or two from the rock stack before Gustavo swung away hard and turned us through the boiling waters towards the entrance of an ever-narrowing canyon.
Quite suddenly the riverbed was clear of obstacles and though the Urubamba had been squeezed into a channel less than 50m wide everything was suddenly quieter and calmer. The noise of roaring water was behind us and we could hear birdsong echoing off the walls of the Pongo.
The local Machiguenga people call the Pongo “the door of the bear”. A door through which you passed only after a fight.
The reward of having vanquished the bear was to find ourselves in a short stretch of paradise. The walls of the canyon were glistening with water that streamed out of the cloud forest and spilled down the black basalt flanks. The rock, compressed, twisted and turned over many millennia, had been eroded into funnels and columns and buttresses. Shrouded by the jungle above them, the whole place had a spectacular intimacy, a cathedral-like stillness and beauty. As we sailed through we subconsciously lowered our voices, as if we were indeed in a cathedral.
Peru has more bird species per square mile than any other place on earth and here they were teeming: nighthawks, tiger herons, bat falcons, an osprey sweeping down the canyon, and black butterflies fluttering low over the unruffled surface of the water. It was a place of profusion and natural abundance but subdued rather than showy.
All the physical and mental effort of our passage through the Pongo drained away to be replaced by a delicious feeling of calm. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. On the way in everything had been about risk and danger. Now, at the heart of the canyon, all was about silence and safety. That was until Barry’s radio suddenly spluttered into life just in time to hear that Stuart Pearce’s penalty and David Seaman’s save had put England through to the Euro semi-finals.
We didn’t stay long in this magical place, but long enough to leave a memory of a few hours that encapsulates almost everything I ever want from travel.
There have been many times when I wish I were back there. Now, as the years go by, I have accepted that I shall probably never see the Pongo de Mainique again. I just hope for the good people of Peru that, despite the grim news of Covid, there will soon be opportunities for people to experience for themselves the breathtaking wonders of the Urubamba.
Sir Michael Palin is a former president of the Royal Geographical Society and member of the comedy group Monty Python. His travels have been the subject of eight documentary series for the BBC
Peru is currently open to international tourists; they must have proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken no more than 72 hours before check-in. For details see peru.travel. Plan South America can arrange a week-long trip, taking in Lima, Cusco and two days on the Urubamba, including passing down the Pongo de Mainique, from £5,385 per person