A Week At The OVT: Day 5

Several months ago, I went on a trip to the Amazon. As everyone can tell you, it’s an incredible experience. Almost every sight and species you could possibly imagine, from A to Z; all found through a series of screens, densely forested by ads and creeping links, the latter steadily growing purple as you find new scenes that you also like.  I’m proud to say that in my intrepid trek through the jungle of the internet, I was the perfect traveller: I took no pictures, and left not even online footprints (thanks to my browser tools, I cleared the trail of cookie crumbs behind me). However, I did return home with a single souvenir: a copy of a book, entitled Microadventures, by Alastair Humphreys.

I love receiving mail. It’s like Christmas come right on time for me, whether it comes in January or in October. This parcel arrived in June. I tore open the brown packaging to reveal a glossy new book, fresh and uninjured. Not for long! I cracked its spine and skimmed through several of its ideas: A Rafting Adventure. From Summit to Sea. and – Close Your Eyes. Go! Here were ideas galore, a treasure trove in glorious print. I closed my eyes, and prepared to dive in.

And, of course, didn’t. I aspire to adventure; and no-one who knows what I have been up to since June would say I’d stayed at home and sat on my arse. Festivals, art, charity cooking, climbing volcanoes; all came and went in a technicolour blur, half-remembered in albums stored on my laptop. But did I have adventures of the footloose and fancy-free, spontaneous kind? In my opinion, relatively few. At one point I decided enough was enough and made a bid for freedom: some of my friends may remember a slightly slapdash group text in which I tried to organise a sleep-out under the stars. An adventurous, august idea; but living in London, ultimately foolish. Taking a sleeping bag to Regent’s Park and spending the night there would result, almost inevitably, in you being mistaken for a hippie or a tourist and being taken advantage of by someone similarly spontaneous and vastly more streetwise.

Part of the problem of microadventuring was my living in London; ironically, in the city’s sprawling, raunchy chaos, it’s difficult to live a life unplanned. Now that I am in another world entirely, and exploration is easier. I’m still fascinated by simple things like Ecuadorian streetlights; so how hard can a real adventure be?

So, enough shoegazing (for now). What was I talking about? Yes, the Amazon, its endless biodiversity and travel network and veins of pulsing life. Imagine travelling that! Now, there’s a bold adventure, and I had a similar one in mind. You’ll remember the mysterious mud from yesterday’s post? If not, I understand: a lack of interest in mud is as common as muck. However, bear with me here, because a journey grounded in something so mundane as liquid earth can have quite an unusual denouement. Think of the lazy Amazon, or the swarming Nile. Both begin as a trickle in the mountains. And yet, where these rivers reach their end, there grow vast and engorged cities, that feed off the fertile land that grows there. My personal Nile is a rusty orange thread of water in a narrow and wizened gorge; still, better than nothing, I suppose. I am there with all my explorer’s gear: compass clinometer, camera, water, boots. I am ready to go. We’re on the trail of a mysterious lahar. In our own unusual, microadventurous way, we are charting the source of the Nile.


The roots of trees cable, like power outlets, flick lithely on the ground. We’re unplugged here, and trip over in our astonishment. Occasionally bird sing; other than that there is no sound. The ground is soft, the weather fair; white clouds held aloft, like bedding there in the sky – in places, peeking through, I spy the most amazing blue. The undulating ground that we may try to press our rememberances into, but unlike on Amazon, here my footprints will go unnoticed.

What is there to show and to tell? Too much, most of it invisible.

1. Mystery cat. 
Our first foray to find the water source takes us up a river valley carved from bedrock to the base of a waterfall, where we find more orange mud. Lightly pressed into it are some mysterious paw-prints. Lynx? Cougar? The spoor size suggests this is a lot larger than a housecat. Underneath the knick-point in the rock, I look out at the dense vegetation around us and imagine a dozen pairs of eyes looking back.

2. Scrambling. Life grows in every crook and nanny, and the steep rock in the valley is polished smooth by sources inhuman. Plenty of our steps up the valley are saved by a last-minute cling to an opportunistic tree root.

3. Shapes and angles. Near the top of the river valley, we see crops springing at ninety degrees from the hill. Amazing. A slew of large black birds spiral ominously overhead on the wind currents. Ten minutes later, our route ends below an impassable rock wall.

4. The road less travelled by. There appears to be two sources to the orange mud. We are now following the western trail, having been stopped by the wall in the east. We walk up a narrow alley created by erosion of a pyroclastic flow. More recent lahars have worn down the flow until they have formed a passable avenue, sort of. As we climb up the volcano, our alley gets deeper and deeper. The wind tears down it, louder and angrier, bearing news from the throat of fire above. Alarms begin to ring as the towering sides of the alley begin to fall: rockfall, like drizzle at first, increases to a monsoon roar. I think I’m like Indiana Jones, being driven back by rolling boulders – except these ones aren’t papier mache, some of them weigh most of a ton. In a whip-crack moment, we decide to retreat in a whip-crack moment.

5. Artefacts. On our escape from the boulders, we notice a drystone wall built into the side of the pyroclastic flow. It’s beautiful, red-and-black, a piece of work worthy of Andy Goldsworthy. What artist built it, and why?

6. Return. We’re above the eastern wall now, and can continue up the river valley. The ground is so soft here. We walk through sand dunes that sift eastwards in the wind towards a flowered wall of vegetation. An occasional glimpse through the vines shows a dizzying height to the valley carved below. We still can’t find the source, and now we’re above the line of the crops. The source is certainly no run-off-the-mill burst pipe from local farming, but something still mysterious. And yet, we can’t go further. A second wall of rock imposes on us from a hundred metres above. It itself must be forty metres high. I pick up a mossy staff of wood, and rest it in the ground. 2571m, says the GPS. It’s the highest I’ve ever been on the volcano, and higher than many of the IG staff.

We’re tired from the heat of the day, and our vain efforts to find a source. We slide down the bedrock of the river valley, a free waterpark with no queues. At the bottom our earlier footprints are noticed by Liz. She puts her boot beside a track in the mud. It’s her, all right. 

I know this isn’t an amazing adventure. If you boil down my words into the basics, here’s what I did on Sunday:
Tl,dr: saw some mud, looked for water; walked up a valley, did not find water, walked up a hill, still did not find water.
But it isn’t important. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t find the source, or the cat, or the creator of the wall. It’s in the way I tell the story, and the way that I felt about it. Cat’s footprints – big deal, you could say; but at the time they were imbued with mystery, and those bird’s calls, danger. I didn’t find the source of the Nile, but I had a microadventure; and, curiously enough, it was brilliantly exciting. As Alistair Humpreys said in his introduction, ‘Start small. But do start!’ If you do, you may find the adventure bug will get to you. Me, myself? I’m already plotting one for this Friday.


Where all the trouble started.

Recent lahar erosion through the pyroclastic flows of 2014.
Both of these processes are
powerful, partially because of
the steepness of Tungurahua’s flanks.

Retreat from the eastern wall.

A ‘flutterby’ provides a bright spot.

The lahar alleyway, approximately fifty metres before we had to turn back.
Rocks were falling in every direction. 

We made approximately 500 LOTR jokes while climbing these slopes. A nerd in one aspect equals a nerd in many.

My staff pointing the way we’d come.

Victory! Of sorts; at 2751m on Tungurahua.
The impassable wall is due south, in the background.


Here’s the website of the author who inspired this post. Highly, highly recommended! Go.
Here’s the link to the Amazon page where you can buy this product (Buy). NB. I’m not responsible for how deep your Amazon rabbit-hole goes.

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