How to get down from the top of a volcano

My skin and clothes had turned the same smudgy grey-brown. The earthy taste of dirt was wedged between every tooth, and a paste was forming on my dry tongue. My wrists were now sore hinges, and both legs shook as I dismounted from the bike. My poor bottom was more than a little shaken up. I beamed at my friends through my aching jaw – we had survived the descent.

Arequipa is an extreme city by all accounts. It experiences 8-10 tremors a day, and the giant cartoon crack on the bell tower of the cathedral testifies to the real possibility of another earthquake. The preserved body of Inkan child sacrifice from 500 years ago, named ‘Momia Juanita’*, crouches in frozen captivity in the local Catholic history museum. Three ominous volcanoes loom heavy on the horizon, with El Misti winning the title for most active. Between rocky gorges white water flows furiously, creating froth that could rival any barista’s cappuccino crown. The water flips the heavy orange rafts and canoes that shoot themselves down river, and takes unlucky oars captive (including mine).

So in the spirit of the place, my friends and I signed up for a mountain biking trip down a mountain. Well, not exactly a mountain – the Chachani volcano. Opposite the monstrous time bomb that is El Misti.

Things didn’t start well. We all got so excited about spotting two native vicuñas (like llamas, but fancy and rarer) on the long drive up, we were forced to squat unceremoniously at the top to relieve ourselves. It wouldn’t have been too bad, but there was a troop of armed guards who patrolled the area to protect the communication tower, and it was their job to watch what we were doing. Our tour guides, as polite as they were, must have inwardly despaired as I velcro-ed my elbow pads to my knees. Erin and I asked them to show us how to work the gears more than once, but in hindsight all we needed to know was how to slam the brakes.

Within minutes of hitting the dusty track, our bike chains jumped off in revolt as we accidentally rode over boulders. Our intrepid team of four soon became two, and I cautiously followed my friend Alex who struck out bravely ahead, inadvertently showing me where to ride to avoid all the sand bogs and huge rocks. Despite riding cautiously with my fingers firmly on the brakes, I continued to pick up speed. I was paranoid about my other friend Dan cutting me up in an artistic manoeuvre, as he was a seasoned cyclist who could already discern the difference between high and low gears. After a few more bends of gingerly using my feet for balance, I decided to let go and gather speed. We raced towards the first check point, skidding in the sand and wrenching our handlebars in a futile effort to manouever ourselves around the rocks. The whole time, I kept imagining what we’d do if El Misti began to smoke and spew lava.

Alex continued to lead out front and stopped to replace his chain again, so I caught up with him for a breather. We looked back up the yellow zigzag track towards the peak, over the low scribbles of desert shrubs, but we couldn’t see the other two. The 4×4 was not ahead of us at the checkpoint either. Perhaps we had gone the wrong way – the checkpoint was just a red smear of paint on a rock after all, and there were lots of rocks. But there was an unspoken moment of quiet dread. What if something had happened; what if there had been an accident? We decided to push on and wait.

The obstacles got larger. Huge smooth boulders rose out of the track and I began to perch above my seat. The sand pits got deeper and greedily sucked our tyres into them if we veered off the steep grassy verges for a second. We saw one of the guides in a red top ahead of us hurtling down the mountain side, adopting a low crouched poise as he took on the treacherously bumpy shortcut. We spotted the 4×4 jumping down the track towards us, following a lone rider that was unmistakeably Erin, with her blonde curly hair bouncing out of her helmet. But two guides stepped out, meaning that the red speeding devil was in fact Dan, and he had beaten us after all.

We stopped for a drink to wash the sand out of our mouths, and ease the Lego claws that were forming at the end of our wrists. We readjusted our knee pads which had shaken themselves down our legs, and recounted our last hour’s ride to each other. Erin’s story won without a doubt: as she set off, she hit one of those magnetic boulders and fell off her bike, ripping her trousers in the process. It was a huge tear from her knee all the way up the inner seams, and the guides resourcefully patched her up with lots of electrical tape.

Now that we were all setting off together, the competition was on. There was sadistic pedalling, gear wrenching, and reckless swerving up the slanted corners. The brakes were applied constantly, but our tyres had acquired a dangerous taste for the road. This section made the earlier boulders seem like pebbles, and with no suspension my teeth rattled in my head as I gripped on to the handlebars. My feet bounced off the bucking pedals and my helmet rode up and down my forehead as if I was repeatedly surprised. If our back tyres had kicked out over the edge, it wouldn’t have ended well and it’s not something electric tape could have fixed. As if to reinforce this morbid point, an optimistic eagle began to circle overhead.

After another hour of riding, we stiffly sat on the ground and ate lunch. We compared how many times we’d replaced our chains. It wasn’t just physically tiring – the concentration it took to swerve and pick out a path was mentally exhausting.

As we set off down the shortcut, we took it in turns to battle through deep sand, each getting so far before falling off. Ahead of us lay a long uphill sand section which we struggled to get our tyres around. The tour guides had warned us and offered to load our bikes on the 4×4, but I was far too stubborn to admit defeat. Instead, I carried by bike in the sweltering heat as my feet sank into the sand whilst the guys kicked down to budge an inch.

Reaching the road was like rediscovering civilisation. The concrete may have been cracked, but it was smooth and flat and propelled us round its corners that hugged the mountainside. We glided down as fast as our bikes would take us, and there was a distinct lack of passing lorries to slow us down. Alex nearly suffered a heart attack as a dog ran out in front of him, barking at the speedy intruder. We rode through the slum area outside Arequipa, where people had flocked to in protest against paying taxes according to our guides. Litter floated everywhere and stretched plastic sheets flapped against concrete. There was no infrastructure to support life in this mustard coloured wilderness – there was available water in the nearby reservoir but no electricity. I realised that our ride encompassed some degree of risk, but here people faced real danger. This desert was an impossible place to try to survive, outside the jurisdiction and security of the government, beneath the volcanoes.


*More on Juanita coming soon.

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