[May 2016] By the end of April, after our successful trip to the Amazon, the rainy season in the mountains of Peru was over, so we turned back south again to go and explore the High Andes of Peru. However, we hadn’t got far when I got the sort of phone call that everybody dreads, especially when they are a long way from home – my father had been taken ill and had been admitted to hospital. The first days of May became about getting me onto a plane back to the UK. Bruce stayed with the van in Huaraz and, for him, that two week period rapidly degenerated into a cascade of interrelated mechanical problems and then culminated with him, on the day I was travelling back out, taking an unusually bad fall while rock climbing and giving himself a concussion! June could only be an improvement…
Warning: This instalment of our trip blog doesn’t feature much travel – or much fun for that matter, so skip down to the end to the gallery of pictures to see what we did see of the Cordillera Blanca in May and on to the next blog to carry on reading about our journey north through the mountains of Peru.
On Monday 25th April 2016, we flew back to Tumbes from Iquitos and the Amazon, to be reunited with the Yellow Van, parked at the lovely Swiss Wassi campsite on the northern coast of Peru. Rather wallowing in how fortunate we had been that things had come together so well with our trips to the Galapagos and the Amazon while we waited out the rainy season in the Peruvian highlands, we had a relaxed and enjoyable couple of days exploring the northern-most coast of Peru. We went in search of (and eventually found) a little natural hot mud bath; got up early to see the pelicans and turtles gather around the fishing boats coming in with the days catch at the little fishing port of Ñuro; had pisco sours at sunset on the beach at the surfers resort of Mancora; then started out on our drive south again into the mountains of the High Andes, the Cordillera Blanca. Our intention was to do some rock climbing and trekking in one of the most spectacular mountain regions of the world.
Storyline 1: I get that phone call…
Camped at a delightful little hacienda a day or so into our drive south, I got the phone message everyone dreads receiving. We have an old Blackberry handset that has a “Travel SIM” in it, a SIM card that can be used to connect to local mobile networks all over the world, that we carry as our “reach us in an emergency” phone. We felt this was a necessary addition to our kit particularly because my father has had Alzheimer’s for many years now and, although my mother and he were still managing at home quite well at this point, his health had deteriorated in recent months and an emergency was an ever-present concern. An active UK number has also proved useful for use with banks’ online security systems while abroad.
On Thursday 28th April, as we got into the van to go to bed, I found a voicemail message from my mother telling me that my father was in hospital and she had been warned “to prepare for the worst”. She was thoughtful enough to give me the hospital number and to tell me which ward my father was in, because, given the time difference, it was the now the middle of the night in the UK and she had said she was going to try to sleep for a few hours. I immediately called the hospital and spoke to the night team on the ward who reassured me that that he was still stable. I had previously heard from my mother that he had been ill (something like a flu or stomach bug), but he had since deteriorated and, when she couldn’t move him from a chair back into bed that evening, she had called an ambulance.
The next few days are a bit of a blur of driving onwards (south towards Lima and the international airport seemed like a sensible direction of travel whatever happened) and keeping in touch as much as possible over Skype while they tried to work out what was happening to my dad. We decided to continue to Huaraz as planned, as there is an airport there with regular short flights to connect to flights back to the UK in Lima, and it was somewhere Bruce could reasonably stay with the van in Peru.
On Saturday afternoon, as we drove up a dramatic valley from the coast towards Huaraz, we were faced by the road being closed for the afternoon for roadworks. This is a constant risk driving in much of South America, where remote small roads simply have to be closed for work to be done, but our meeting this closure at this point was not well timed for us! It wasn’t going to reopen until 5pm and there was no way around. For reasons of safety and security, we try not to avoid driving after dark and we especially didn’t want to drive this section of road in the dark, as it is a dramatic narrow gorge drive that twists and turns, along the edge of a deep precipice! 5pm was going to be too late for us to get through to somewhere to stay for the night before it got dark. So we had little choice but to turn around and find somewhere back down the valley a bit off the road where we could camp. This left us without mobile signal or a means of contact in this remote valley for the night, but, as the last I had heard was that my father had been a little better that morning, I relaxed a little, hoping for the best. The next morning, we set off early (Sunday, so no roadworks), but it was mid-morning (late afternoon UK time), by the time we picked up mobile signal again and I found a series of messages telling me my father’s condition had worsened again and they were worried. Not being able to reach me had not helped those at home…
We arrived in Huaraz that afternoon and I immediately booked myself onto a series of flights back to the UK. It wasn’t until I was on my way, on Tuesday 2nd May, that they worked out that my father had had a stroke (of the bleeding rather than clotting kind).
I stayed with my mother for two weeks, visiting my father in hospital each day as he slowly came around again, but it was quite clear that his brain had been quite badly damaged, either by the stroke itself or by the Alzheimer’s making a step change in progression. A few weeks after I left again, my father was moved into a care home near my parents’ house, where he is being well looked after and seems to be quite content much of the time. But my father, as I knew him, has gone.
For me, when we started to write this account of our trip and publish our photographs, my father was, in my mind, my main audience. I grew up with a map on the wall of his study showing his numerous travel routes around the globe during the 1950s and 60s, before backpackers were invented – he travelled the world independently with a big brown suitcase full, mostly, of books! Both my sister and I attribute our itchy feet to that inspiration – we both caught the travel bug from him. He avidly read and re-read our early blogs, saying it brought back memories of when he visited South America 50 years earlier. It is sad that he will not be able to read the rest of our account, but, of course, we are continuing with our blog, as much for our own record as anything.
For several months, I was affected by a kind of malaise that I guess is effectively grief at the loss of my father, but in a kind of limbo… Bruce was a rock, picking up with doing the research, making our plans and keeping us moving on when I was just not interested. But for me, with my heart was now partly at home with my family, the joy and freedom of the trip would never be fully recovered.
Storyline 2: Meanwhile, back in Peru, Bruce gets a concussion
One of the reasons for leaving Bruce and the van in Huaraz while I went back to the UK is that Huaraz is the base town for one of South America’s major rock climbing regions. Bruce set himself about connecting to some rock climbers in the area to keep himself busy while I was away. The first night after I left, he took himself up to a beautiful mountain lake to camp for the night, then he found a climber that offered a home-stay (and joined him for a few afternoons of local climbing). He drove out to Hatun Machay, a valley with an amazing rock formation, known as Bosque de Piedras (Forest of Stones), where there is a climbers’ refugio. At 4,200m, it is also rather cold at night and when the sun isn’t shining!
It was between Hatun Machay and Huaraz, on the Sunday (15th May) when I was travelling back to Peru, that Bruce took a dramatic fall near the top of multi-pitch sports climb. His partner was below him and around a corner, so he cannot be sure what happened, but falls when sports climbing (climbing with a series of large bolts in the rocks to attach the rope to as you climb, holding you if you fall) are normally pretty uneventful, even if they sometimes look dramatic. The bolts hold you, the rope has some give in it to protect you and you are just left swinging below where you fell, albeit sometimes a little annoyed.
But this time, and he still doesn’t really know how, Bruce must have banged his head on something as he fell, although he can’t remember there being any obvious rocks or bulges nearby to hit. At the time, he was more preoccupied by the fact his glasses had fallen off! His partner (many thanks to Paul for looking after him!) lowered him back down to where he was and, given his sight disablement (no glasses – he hadn’t thought to put contact lenses in that morning, as we usually do for climbing), they decided to slowly abseil back down to the bottom. On the way down, they found the glasses, although it was just the frame as both lenses had popped out. It was also partway down that Paul noticed some blood on the back of Bruce’s head and they found a cut where the strap of him helmet had dug in – the first indication he had banged his head. Thank goodness we always wear helmets – we see a lot of climbers who don’t bother.
Paul drove Bruce and the rest of their little group back to the refugio. By that time, he was starting to feel some symptoms suggesting concussion – a little nausea and tiredness (although it had also been a long day), so he asked the others to keep an eye on him that night. Next morning, a group of them set out back to Huaraz in the Yellow Van (I was to arrive in Lima that morning and fly back to Huaraz the following morning). They were about halfway back when the van overheated (once again – this was a culmination of a series of problems Bruce had been dealing with over this two week period, see below).
This final overheating event was the last of a series and, this time, the entire water system was blown. After leaving it to cool down, when Bruce poured some water into the tank to top it up, it came straight out the bottom again! Luckily, he was with some other climbers and someone who stopped to help gave a couple of them a lift to a road toll both down the road where they called for a pick-up truck to come and get the van. A few hours later, it was deposited at the VW garage in Huaraz and Bruce packed a bag and checked into a comfortable little Swiss-run hotel in town.
Meanwhile, I had landed in Lima that morning, after a journey not without a little drama myself. Having negotiated the challenge at check-in that it is airline policy not to take passengers without a return flight booked (this is not an unknown hurdle that can usually be overcome by approval by the airline during the check-in process of some proof of alternative onward travel plans – such as a campervan and husband waiting for me to continue our journey in Peru!), my passport then disappeared! Over a 15 minute period of growing panic, I went to and fro from the check-in desk (where I had last seen it) and the oversize luggage carousel, where I had taken my heavy rucksack full of car parts, and emptied my hand luggage out over the floor three times before another member of staff arrived and immediately pulled out a little push away section of the check-in desk, revealing my passport – she had seen that happen before!
On arrival in Lima, I found myself unintentionally in effect smuggling the car parts into the country, getting lucky as my luggage passed through the customs’ x-rays at the exit (the less said about that the better probably) – not something that comes naturally or sits comfortably with me, but was my only option. All we know is that if the parts had been taken to go through a lengthy customs importation procedure, we never would have got the van out of the country on time!
What with all this, and the sprained wrist I had managed to give myself lifting the heavy rucksack on and off my back, I spent my 24 hours in Lima airport at the airport hotel trying to recover and get some rest. They have a spa at the hotel (free for guests), which I could use while waiting to check-in after lunch. [Top travel tip (with thanks to Richard in Iquitos for this one): Anyone can use the spa for a small charge if they have a layover in Lima, not just hotel guests, and they even give you a gown, slippers, towels, soap and shampoo!]
I had started to be a little concerned about Bruce when I hadn’t been greeted after my flight by the expected WhatsApp message saying something like “had a good days climbing” etc. etc. This turned out to be because his phone, which was in the top pocket of his rucksack, had been smashed as a result of his fall. By the time I did hear from him, many hours later when he could connect to the internet at the hotel that afternoon, I was more than a little concerned… The tail of woe he had to recount, with the fall, the concussion and the van needing a to be recovered on the back of a truck, left me spinning, when I was already feeling pretty emotionally fragile. This was the trigger for me and I spent much of the next 12 hours in unstoppable floods of tears…
Next morning, he came in a taxi to the airport in Huaraz for an emotional reunion. He looked rather dark and moody with only his prescription sunglasses to wear (we got him some new glasses made up that afternoon) and it was clear all was not quite right. I did a few basic concussion tests on him (speech and co-ordination) and kept a close eye as he slept for the rest of the morning. Thankfully, it was a mild concussion, although he was a little fragile for a few days afterwards and had to be careful standing up quickly for a few weeks. He also found he couldn’t take alcohol for a while (we learnt that it affects the same part of the brain), but a month or so dry was probably no bad thing!
Storyline 3: The Yellow Van also goes through a bad patch…
Problems type 1: Cooling system
The Yellow Van’s problems started back on the afternoon we arrived in Huaraz focused on getting me on a plane back to the UK. As we pulled into the little hotel there (where we could camp in the van), we found it had overheated. We didn’t worry too much then, as it had been a long drive that day, but it was a little unexpected. Then, next morning, when we left for Bruce to drop me at the airport, we found an oily pool of water under the engine. Over the next day or so, it overheated twice more as Bruce headed out to camp near a mountain lake for the night and then on the way to go climbing.
A little back information is required here, as it is helpful to the story to understand that we don’t have a functioning temperature gauge. This was something we were a little concerned about, given the mountain driving required on our journey, but the guy we bought the van from had told us he had tried and tried to get it fixed, to no avail, but hadn’t managed to resolve it. These vans are known for difficult to resolve electronics issues, so we figured it was probably one of those and that we’d just have to be careful and live with it. With hindsight, we think we probably should have persisted in trying to get it fixed and that, maybe, it had been fixable all along after all…
Clearly something was wrong… The climber whose homestay Bruce was staying at took him to his uncle’s garage, where they found an apparent leak in a water pipe and fixed it. But a few days later, it overheated again. Not having complete faith in the first garage, Bruce went to a little specialist VW place, where they found one of the radiator fans was completely smashed (but missed by garage no. 1). That must be it, they figured, and they managed to fit a Toyota one as a temporary repair. Back in the UK, I got on to sourcing and getting a replacement delivered to me in time to take back out with me a couple of days later.
But then the dramatic water system failure happened, blowing the water pump for good measure, and, this time, the van went to the major VW garage on the back of a recovery lorry and, the day I returned, the team there set about working out what was really wrong. Not only had the radiator fan broken, but the thermostat was dead too, and stuck on. The thermostat, we learnt, restricts the water in the cooling system to just running through the engine until the engine warms up, then opens the water system up so it runs the full circuit past the cooling fans, only when it is hot, thereby allowing the engine to warm up faster. If it is stuck shut, there is effectively no cooling system!
This may well have been the root cause of the issues, although, of course, we will never know for sure. Meanwhile, repeated overheatings had blown the water pump and some of the pipework around it. Although, this is where the mystery deepens a little because the pipework that bust had clearly been repaired in the past and, as it happened, we had inherited a few random bits from the previous owner including a new piece of exactly that bit of pipe, which seemed rather unlikely to be a coincidence. Perhaps he had got a replacement then his mechanic had managed to work a repair? The guys in Huaraz showed us the broken thermometer (resulting in the faulty temperature guage), which was on a connecting bit of pipe. There didn’t seem to be any reason why it couldn’t just be replaced. Had the nice guy who sold us the van been spun a bit of a line about the temperature gauge?
At the end of the day, these systems are interrelated and one thing breaking led to pressure on the whole system and other parts failing. Fortunately, as the water pump was going to be due for a change soon anyway, I already had one in my bag to bring back out from the UK; we also already had a replacement for that mysterious bit of pipe; I had managed to get hold of a replacement radiator fan in time to bring out and we can live without that pesky thermostat – we just start the engine and run it a bit to warm it up the old fashioned way before we set out for the day.
But the cooling system was just a part of it…
Problems type 2: Dodgy engine oil
When all those parts were replaced and the engine was on and running again, the mechanics didn’t like the sound of it one bit. There was a knocking that suggested something not quite right with the engine itself. It would have to come out and be taken apart to see what’s wrong…
Seeing the entire engine of your little home on wheels being winched out is quite a sight, and only interesting in retrospect once you know everything turns out fine! The knocking was the tappets sticking. They were sticking because we either had the wrong oil in the engine or because it was bad oil put in – probably, we’ve concluded talking to various mechanics since, a bit of both. This was a home-grown problem…
Back when the first overheating events had happened and Bruce took the van to garage 1, who fixed a water leak, the van was also due for an oil change. They recommended a “lubricentro” (workshop for oil and other fluid changes). We need a type of oil that is unusual in much of South America – but we know that, so the first thing Bruce asked was whether they had the oil we needed. Oh yes, they said, and proceeded to drain the old oil. Then, when Bruce had little choice, they said, oh no, we don’t have your oil after all, but this one is really close, it will be fine, have this one instead. Back on the web later, he looked it up, it was just a little more viscous, and we figured it would be okay for a short time and we’d change it again soon… Apparently it wouldn’t be okay.
However, later on, our knowledgeable mechanic in Quito questioned whether such a small difference in oil type really would have caused such problems. He suggested they may have used bad quality oil. But we know to worry about that – people had warned us to always watch the oil change happen, make sure you see the seals being broken on new containers and that it is a recognisable brand that goes in. Bruce had done this, it had been new oil (at least it appeared that way) and it was a known brand. We had topped the oil up when we were in Nazca and that may well have been the source of poor quality oil, or the branded oil supply might be relatively poor quality in Peru. We will never know for sure…
At the end of the day, the oil was cleaned out and the problem dealt with at remarkably little cost for the scale of the job, just $250, and in the process the engine was thoroughly cleaned and inspected. We probably know the Yellow Van’s state of health as well as it is possible to now!
The team at VW in Huaraz wanted to deal with a few other problems they found, such as the clutch plate being worn and it was not ideal that the housing holding the resistor that controls the radiator fan was completely smashed and we had to improvise a way to hold the resistor in place, but to make these other repairs would mean importing the required parts, which they estimated would take around 30 days! This was not an option, as we had just 3 weeks to be out of the country. In Peru, there is no official process for extending the TIP (Temporary Import Permit) for the van and, if you overstay, it is apparently at the whim of the customs officer at the border whether they choose to seize the vehicle or not! It is hard to believe they would really do that, especially with a paper trail proving that the vehicle had broken down, but we did hear of one case of a traveller having their car seized, so it was not a risk we really wanted to take. It was perhaps not the best of luck that we had found ourselves with serious mechanical problems in the most strict country in South America regarding overstaying, with the clock rapidly ticking down!
But the van was now driveable (even if there were things the team would have liked to do more), so we decided to continue our journey as it was. With no temperature guage, we were concerned about the repaired cooling system functioning, especially given the mountain driving we had ahead of us, but we could use the little notebook PC with software we have for analysing the engine to monitor the temperature. Unfortunately, the software doesn’t work when the van is actually moving, so we had to stop regularly to plug the computer in and check the temperature. In the end, we kept this up for several weeks until we were confident all was working well.
On the road again
All this took about 10 days to resolve, during which time we rented a little apartment at the top of little residential building in a rather nice little suburb of Huaraz near to the VW garage. What with Bruce’s concussion and everything else, we did little more than make regular visits to the garage and into town for lunch. Unfortunately, any ideas we originally had of enjoying the world class trekking opportunities in the mountains were abandoned – neither of us was up to anything that exciting! We’ll just have to come back one day…
As historic colonial towns go, Huaraz is not terribly attractive with very few of the attractive old colonial buildings you find in other places. One day in town, we came across a graphic explanation of why this is in the form of a photography exhibition displaying photographs of the earthquake that completely flattened the city in 1970 (see the photo gallery). It’s a reality of life up and down the Andes to be constantly living under the threat of natural disaster. After leaving, we learnt that the city is now also living with the threat of a sudden flood as increased melt water in the mountains due to climate change is leading to possibility of a mountain lake above the city bursting its banks.
Once the van repairs were completed (as much as they could be), we decided to do a test run to explore the area a little more before going too far from our trusty team of mechanics. Bruce took me to Hatun Machay for a little bit of (gentle) climbing; we popped into the national park of Puya Raimondi to see the Puya (spectacular bromeliads plants that live 40-100 years, flower once and then die) and we crossed the mountains to see the interesting pre-Incan ruins at Chavin in the next valley, looping up to come back via another pass back over the mountains (see the gallery below).
On the way back over the mountains, the van’s cooling fans stopped working again and, unable to keep from overheating without stopping to give the engine some time to cool down every 10 to 15 minutes of climb up the steep pass, we detoured back into Huaraz for one final visit to the garage. The guys found and repaired a bad electrical connection, tested the fans and we were on our way again.
Other than this minor hitch with the newly repairing cooling system, given the good clean the engine had had, the Yellow Van was sounding and feeling better than ever. Despite this, we were nevertheless full of nervous anticipation that we and the van would make it as, on Saturday 4th June, we started our journey north through the mountains, towards the border with Ecuador…
A few more pictures of what we did manage to see of Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca: