05 September 2011


At the little museum beyond the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park, Pedro gives us a brief tour, speaking in Spanish, which I mostly can't follow, and skipping the tattered, stuffed condor with its outstretched wings. The enormous bird saddens me — dispossessed of its life in every sense. I've seen animals mounted so expertly their eyes seem to retain the memory of life, and although taxidermy raises difficult philosophical questions, at least the care and expertise with which those animals were mounted suggests a respect for the animals, an attempt to retain the life taken from them. I don't know the history of this condor, but can't help feeling it represents (unintentionally, I trust) not the wonder and magnificence of the largest flying bird in the world, but the power of humans over animals; too often, the only reason we do things to animals is because we can. I glance at the dusty bird, its disintegrating primary feathers, its dull dark head and lifeless eyes, and turn away.

Outside, however, I feel more optimistic, particularly after I've tried a cup of coca tea from the little stall. Coca tea's supposed to help one cope with the effects of altitude, but I'm trying it because, ... well, because it's tea; it looks like real tea, with lots of big leaves steeping in the cup. I love it; I'd happily drink more. The flavour differs from the teas I love (and miss here), but at least it has a flavour, unlike the steely tea bags to which I've resorted.

We drive up towards the cloud, along a badly corrugated and pot-holed dirt road. Wild horses graze unperturbed as we pass by; a few fine spots of rains appear on the windscreen, then sleet, then we're bouncing our way up through snow. At the car park (about 4500 m) we change into whatever warm, wind-and-rain-proof gear we have and begin the 300 metre steep trudge up volcanic scoria to the refugio. I'm breathing hard because of the altitude but feel good. I settle into a steady pace and maintain it all the way, loving the feeling of working hard in a wild, cold environment — the kind of environment that reminds me of familiar places in Aotearoa.

Pedro arrives at the refugio and congratulates Mike and me, telling us we're very strong.
"Next time we will go to the top", he says.
But there won't be a next time, not for Mike, who flies home in a week's time, and not for me. An expensive guided climb — a non-technical slog, in fact — as part of a long line of people all intent on the summit holds no interest for me. Even on this day of bad weather, the refugio's crowded and people still trudge up from the car park. This is not a place for me; I don't resent the crowd or deny them their enjoyment — I'm glad to see so many people enjoying the place — but I don't feel at home here the way I would if the hut were much smaller (this sleeps 70 people), with just a handful of people present.

Back at the car park I'm appalled at the number of cars, and they're still arriving. The place reminds me of a skifield car park in New Zealand. The weather closes in, so we drive lower, unload the bikes and try to get them to work. This proves difficult. Mike's has a bald back tyre, so he can't brake effectively and eventually has to stop partway down to change bikes; my gears barely work and when I remount the bike further down the mountain the chain slips off the sprocket and I'm dumped onto the ground, knees first but fortunately into soft volcanic dust; Sean's seat keeps slipping down and his gears eventually fail completely.Nevertheless, I enjoy the fun and the exercise despite the discomfort, although the appeal begins to wear thin while biking on the flat in the rain along a rough, corrugated road.

But by the time we reach the restaurant I'm still mostly dry thanks to the foresight of having packed leggings as well as parka. I've seen a few new birds, too — Stout-billed Cinclodes nesting in a roadside bank; a large raptor circling a long way off and far below; Andean lapwings on the flats.We recover in the restaurant over chips and guacamole, brown bread, slices of banana and apple, a delicious bean soup, and cinnamon tea, then begin the long drive back to Quito. We all sleep well, but Sean sets the record: 14 hours. Even I sleep well, and I need it — the next day I have an overnight bus journey to the Amazon.

Note: Check the photoblog for more photos of our day on Cotopaxi (and elsewhere)
1. The summit of Cotopaxi.
2. The car park when we arrived.
3. Mike rests on the parapet at the refugio as the cloud begins to lift (briefly).
4. (L to R): Phil, Serena and Sean wait partway down the road while Mike gets a replacement bike.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor


Bob McKerrow said...

Thanks for another update on your travels. I am enjoying following you on this amazing journey.

Relatively Retiring said...

Oh! This is such a surprise, and such a contrast with the images of heat and colour.
The compulsion to 'conquer' the highest bit of land by driving up as far as possible and then standing on it is very hard to understand.
Glad you landed in nice soft volcanic dust!

Anne said...

I do agree with you about stuffed animals. When I see them I feel a slight skin crawl.

This post reminds me that not all of travel is wonderful. But I am enjoying the vicarious trip with you, and am glad that I am not panting up hill in sleet and rain or falling off a bike, even to land in soft dust.

I am looking forward to the next installment.

Anonymous said...

From Wikipedia: Taxidermy (from the Greek for arrangement of skin is the act of mounting or reproducing dead animals for display (e.g. as hunting trophies) or for other sources of study.

I have never liked seing dead animals mounted for display. And I agree that it is because we humans can. It is about power.

The Navajo Indians have an interesting belief: Animal skins are used primarily by skinwalkers, the pelt of animals such as bears, coyotes, wolves, and cougars are strictly tabooed.

A skin-walker is a person with the supernatural ability to turn into any animal he or she desires, though they first must be wearing a pelt of the animal, to be able to transform. Similar lore can be found in cultures throughout the world and is often referred to as shapeshifting by anthropologists.

According to Navajo myth, the only way to successfully shoot a skinwalker is to dip bullets into white ash.

Cotopaxi sounds like a powerful place.


pohanginapete said...

Bob, thank you. I've made it to the Galapagos, found a good, cheap hotel (with free wifi — as my sister said, "Is nothing sacred!") — and am about to head off exploring. The wildlife's wonderful, even along the waterfront of the town.

RR, I love the feeling of being high up, but over the years the compulsion to reach the top has waned. I mean that in most senses, too ;^)

Anne, thank you. I actually enjoyed the wild weather and exertion, and would much rather deal with that than the hazards of cities like Quito.
    I'm writing a lot (although the quality varies!), so all going well there will be many more installments :^)

Maureen, I think it's always risky to attribute motives, but I suspect too much taxidermy results from the urge to display prowess. On the other hand, I'm sure some hunters see it as a way to hold on to the memory of the animal, and while that may seem odd or perverse (or worse) to those who can't comprehend hunting, some hunters really do have huge respect for the animals they hunt — and that's not confined just to traditional hunters (e.g. indigenous hunters).
    The ethics of hunting is a minefield, though, so I'll leave it for some time in the future.
    Cotopaxi would have been even more powerful without the crowds, but perhaps it's much quieter during the week.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

about the only Spanish i know is "quidado, con la medusas" - look out, there are jellyfish

I found it in a phrasebook and it amused me to wonder what possible use it would ever be

What's worst is my aunt is Spanish - so i have no excuse

Of course - the reason i'm spouting all this nonsense is because there's nothing i can say about your photos other than - utterly, utterly amazing

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie, thanks for the kind words :^) My Spanish isn't much better, unfortunately, but I'm trusting it will improve rapidly as I'm forced to use it. At least I know a few phrases more useful than watch out for the jellyfish ;^)

leonie said...

Superb. Love following your travels and reading about your adventures!

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Leonie!

yanti said...

I love traveling, especially doing adventures traveling, and thanks for the sharing

Peregrina said...

At the moment, Pete, I'm staying in PN with C and only catching up on your travels intermittently. I do enjoy reading about them and looking at the lovely photos on your other blog. Your birds and iguana, especially, are just stunning. I'm so glad you've managed to get to the Galapagos after all.

By a quirk of coincidence, I've just read C's copy of Rachael King's "Magpie Hall", which has taxidermy as one of its themes, and am currently reading her first book, "The Sound of Butterflies", which is partly set in the Amazon at the beginning of the 20th century. I'm looking forward to reading about your time there. It will fit neatly against the background knowledge I've just gained.

Thank you for taking us along with you. You're going to places I'll never have the opportunity of visiting and giving me memories of things I haven't actually experienced in reality!

(We drove along the Pohangina Valley last weekend on a lovely spring day. There were many kereru feeding on the tree lucerne along the roadside. We couldn't quite see your front lawn but, judging by the number in the surrounding countryside, I would guess there are a few lambs gambolling on it now.)

pohanginapete said...

Yanti, thank you.

Peregrina, thank you, and I'll try to get the jungle journey written up soon. The Galápagos ... well, what can I say? While I'll miss getting to some of the places only the cruises can go (in particular, Fernandina and the western side of Isabela), I'm managing to see most of the wildlife (penguins were the notable sighting today), and the photographs just keep accumulating :^)

Lydia said...

You must be very strong, Pete. What a wild and beautiful place, brought to life for me with your words and wonderful shots. I must visit the photoblog to see more but just now am catching up on your glorious writing. :)

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, I think it's usually easy to appear strong in an environment you love. Besides, I'm not carrying much weight and that makes climbing much easier ;^)

Thanks for the kind words. More posts on the way...

Lydia said...

Ah, you are just humble.

Loved my visit to your photoblog, btw!

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Lydia :^)