The back up vehicle is on its last legs. The head gasket has blown, and it took all of Jim's professional motoring dexterity to nurse it over this section of the Andes. This was bad luck indeed. I have a great crew and the riders are handling the challenges of the project superbly, but we need this crucial support vehicle not to fail. The Super Tenere on the other hand is taking this journey in it’s stride. I never had reservations about it’s ‘Yamaha’ reliability, but simply whether I would adapt to the type of bike it is – touring verses my R1 track riding position. So far so brilliant. I am once again crossing the Andes and this bike has not missed a beat. More than speed, more than handling, more than anything associated with a good bike I need one that not just doesn’t break down, but never breaks down. Is this too much to ask of any bike? Will this bike last a total of 52 000 miles?
That night the riders decided to take a campsite 30 kilometres out of Abancay, disregarding my instructions to go a further 130 kilometres. As it was getting dark, I was considering booking a hotel for some of the riders but Jim said we should go on so he could drive at night while it remained cool.
So we set off, and by some act of sharp sightedness, Erik saw the rear lights of Andy's bike and chased me to turn us all around. Jim would certainly have gone on to the pre-arranged campsite. Whilst we had stopped early, he would be concerned he'd missed us and presume us to be in trouble, or he would be broken down with an over heated engine. It was a small catastrophe in the making, administered by a series of stupid errors that easily happen under stressful conditions.
I turned my attention away from the major problems and looked through the window of the campsite manager's room to see how he lived. It was scruffy and unkempt, but in the lamplight it looked almost cosy. A little girl lay in her bed, and a hollow cheeked man old enough to be her grandfather sat nearby watching television. He seemed oblivious to us, and when he looked out as we looked in, he didn’t register that he’d seen us. There was no wave or acknowledgement to indicate we were there. On a journey it is often like this. People see you yet don’t see you. So far are you from fitting in to their familiar habits or associations that this lack of context lends you a cloak of invisibility. Of course you are obvious as you ride by their dusty shacks on a wind torn alto-plano, but the reality is fleeting to the people who watch curiously from their doorways for a moment, before turning their attention back to more important matters.
At daybreak I saw where we had pitched our tents. Surrounded by vertical crags covered in mosses and patches of trees, it was in a most beautiful location. The toilets, however, were not beautiful, and the swimming pool was empty. A loose sheep in the meadow started licking around the leatherwork of some of the men’s crotches and it was debatable who secretly disliked it least.
After the customary briefing when everyone pretended to listen to me, we lined up at the exit and set off. Jim would surely be 100 kilometres up the road worrying where we were. When we caught up with the support vehicle Jim was filling the radiator with water. He was to do this every 30 kilometres to cross the Andes. He enjoyed challenges like this, did Jim. Erik would ride ahead with a bucket and find running water or a pond and report back to Jim with it full. In some ways it gave Erik an additional reason to be here.
I stopped the group by a large open area advertising itself as a restaurant. From Northern Chile to here, such places are built with a single layer of whitewashed breezeblock and mere pretence of toilets that never work. Each toilet bowl in the adjacent ‘Banos’ area was full of the products of the dirty end of passing truck drivers. Layer upon layer of discombobulated food had begun to assume the consistency of something unspeakably solid. Frankly I would rather shit in a puddle than use a Peruvian toilet. And so, another few days pass.
Across the way in the restaurant we sat on hard chairs whilst the waitress wiped down wooden tables so we could enjoy egg and bread. All of this was washed down by warm cups of odd tasting coffee laced with condensed milk. At one level it was a breakfast of such mediocrity you wonder why you stopped to eat, until you looked up at the faces serving you, which were utterly charming.
Further up the road we met Jim, still pouring water into the radiator. It was touch and go as to whether the engine would last until Nazca. It took four fill-ups to climb the few kilometres onto the alto-plano, so by extrapolating the number of fill-ups multiplied by the distance we still needed to travel that day, I figured that Jim would need to send Erik out for 420 buckets of water.
“Why do Thalidomide sufferers have burnt faces?” asked Jim, as he poured in more water. I didn’t know, but it was his dark humour holding the situation together. “Because they hold their fireworks at arm's length.” It was kind of funny in a non-PC way I suppose. “How do they wipe their arses?” asked Jim. I didn’t want to know, and instead looked around. It was a harsh landscape of rock and stubby vegetation. A cool wind was blowing and rain threatened. Jim was still filling the radiator when I left, and Erik was somewhere down the hillside with his bucket and a plastic bottle, looking for a stream.