Weather. Early morning fog, later intense sun. 20 degrees C. Status. Metal exploration.

Mules are very under-rated.  They are the transport backbone in the mountainous parts of the Andes, linking isolated communities, bringing supplies and ferrying out the sick and dead. Carrying up to 200 pounds, without complaint, they are also invaluable for footsore geologists, exploring for gold, silver and copper.

This is a tale of a mule traverse, from the high Andes, to the coastal plain, of Ecuador. Two geologists, one under-aged machetero, and Macho the Mule. An unforgettable journey into little-visited mountains, almost untouched by ‘civilization’.

Macho the mule

Of course, the Andes do have transitable dirt roads, but they are impassable in the wet season, because of landslips, and dusty and rutted in the dry. To get to the road-head, you generally spend a day or two on them. And these roads strike fear. Precipitous drops, sometimes a thousand metres, into gorges and raging rivers; worthy of those TV programs that tout the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’. Forget road barriers; they don’t exist. Add into the pant-wetting mix drivers who favour a one-handed approach to hairpins, using a polishing action on the steering wheel, hand flat against the middle, and these roads become genuinely terrifying. Not surprisingly, I normally emerge from these trips with a wet back, from cold sweats.  During the worst stretches, I exit the car and walk ahead. These roads scare the shit out of me and I’m convinced they will one day claim my life. And this is not an unrealistic fear. A Peruvian friend, the marvellously named Wenceslao, plunged from a hairpin into an abyss. Luckily, he was in a Toyota Hilux, the other ‘workhorse’ of the Andes. He survived, but with life-changing injuries. Another passenger was thrown through the side window, then crushed and killed by the rolling car.

All the Andean dirt roads decline in quality and eventually fizzle out, normally at a village which serves as a distribution hub for more isolated communities. And that distribution is effected by my friend, the mule. Everything gets loaded onto these patient animals. Zinc roofing sheets, gas bottles, cement, timber and steel reinforcing rods. The list is endless.

So we find ourselves at a highland village, about 4000 metres above sea level, preparing for a mule traverse. The people are a mix of Quechua-speaking indigenas and Spanish-speaking mestizos. Occasional black faces peer from windows; they are described to me, unfairly, as fugitives from the Ecuadorian justice system, choosing to settle far from their native towns and cities, where they are wanted men.

We arrange our machetero, a surly, suspicious bugger, and mule for the following day. We agree prices, then travel back to the larger town of Pucará, to stop the night. The only accommodation is a convent. The place is a freezing, stark concrete monstrosity. The Catholic cura treats us warily, perhaps embarrassed by his small gaggle of 15-year old ‘nuns’, interpreted by my colleagues as his girlfriends. They tell me that, so far off the beaten track, the local priest more or less behaves as he likes. Probably grossly unfair, but I am no fan of the activities of the Catholic church in South America, so I choose to believe it.

I shower under a freezing torrent, missing bricks providing ventilation and access to the howling wind. Every geologist has their own cold water shower routine. Some just plunge in. Cowards, like me, use the ABC method (after the Spanish, ‘axilas, bolas y culo’), beginning by wetting the parts with fewest nerve endings. Surprisingly enough, these seem to be the genitals. (Not sure what this says about me.) Then I finish with the neck, shoulders and face, pure torture.

Shortly after this invigorating, pneumonia-inducing shower, the driver approaches, smirking. Two women at the convent door want to speak. I go down and quickly establish that there has been some miscommunication. This is how it arose. Ecuadorians are very formal. If you have a University degree, you are an ‘Ingeniero’ (literally, engineer). If you have a doctorate, then you are always ‘Doctor’. Clearly, someone overheard the word. At the door stand two hefty young women, clothed in typical indigena garb, with multiple, billowing skirts, white blouses and black porkpie hats. They needed there monthly check-up, and respective certificates, to allow them to keep ‘working’. And since no medical practitioners were available within a four hour bus radius, they seized their opportunity. I politely let them down, explaining I am a doctor of rocks and therefore practically useless, unless they were interested in epithermal gold veins. Gonorrhoea is not my speciality. They shrug and walk off, disappointed. Despite the remoteness, it is admirable that the Ecuadorian healthcare system extends into such remote areas.

Early next morning we head back to the road-head. There is no great surprise when the machetero fails to turn up. After all, it is Saturday and weekends are dangerous, particularly in rural areas. Ecuador has a huge drink problem, fueled by cheap sugar cane alcohol, known as aguardiente or puro. Roads are sometimes blocked by unconscious drinkers, always male. Groups of men can become aggressive, blockading roads to unknown vehicles, a problem if your job is exploration and you are new to the area. Ecuadorian society is deeply macho and it is common to see the loyal wife sitting patiently by her comatose husband in a ditch, waiting for him to recover. Or leading him, barely upright, on a horse. The women are diligent and use this downtime to spin wool as they sit. They keep this up even when walking. In fact, I am convinced women drive the rural economies of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.

Drinking also leads to sex abuse and incest. I am no sociologist and cannot say just how prevalent it is; my experience is based on hearsay. Most Highland girls seem to have babies before the age of 15 or 16, but that is considered normal and not what we would consider as ‘abuse’. But more disturbingly, I had noticed the previous day, tiny hovels beneath the ignimbrite cliffs, a hard walk uphill from the road-head village.  Each large enough for one person. I ask in the village and, apparently, these are where daughters escape to on a Saturday night, to escape the attentions of their fathers, stepfathers and uncles.

After an hour of waiting around, we contract a new machetero, probably fifteen years old, practically mute, and his mule. The animal is duly loaded with tents, sleeping bags, food and sample bags. Cans of sardines and condensed milk, my downfall, dominate the inventory. As we set off, predictably, the originally contracted machetero emerges blearily from his pit, hungover, starts complaining and all hell is let loose. There is already an undercurrent of anti-stranger feeling, common in the remote parts of Ecuador, and this incident, fueled by alcohol, ignites the flame. A cartoonish lynch mob assembles from nowhere, half of them drunk. No pitchforks, but plenty of machetes.  There follows a very nervous half hour as we begin our traverse, back along the road for a short distance. Our driver keeps the vehicle between us and the angry mob. However, sometimes being a gringo has advantages; the locals seem a little more nervous about attacking a foreigner. With huge relief, we take the plunge down a mule trail and the mob loses interest and evaporates.

The mule traverse begins in earnest. A six day walk, mostly descending, with the heavy lifting done by the mule, freeing us geologists to hammer promising-looking rocks and collect samples. All as part of World Bank efforts to kick-start mining investment. We were the pioneers, sent out to discover future mines. The program was a reasonable success, but corruption  diverted some of the money, intended for exploration, into the pockets of a few Ecuadorian fat cats. On the plus side, I made friends for life.

It is July in the highlands, the dry season. We begin about 4000 metres, planning to drop down to sea level, passing through several climatic and vegetation zones. The lack of rain makes for a pleasurable experience. The vegetation at this elevation is fascinating. From a distance, it could be Scottish moorland. But, up close, it looks very different. Instead of heather and berries, the ground is a hard, brittle carpet of dwarf shrubs and grasses. Many are waxy and hairy, a survival strategy against evaporation, intense ultraviolet light, and night frosts. Leaves are spiky, or curl in on themselves. This turf is dotted with tiny purple, yellow and white flowers; I am lousy with flowers, but recognize violets. Crunching pleasantly underfoot, like astroturf,  it is one of my favourite surfaces, light-years from the boggy Russian tundra. The only plant that rises more than a few inches, is the frailejon, a pineapple-like confection of spikey leaves, with a central flower stalk, hairy and sticky, providing nectar for hummingbirds.

Once the inevitable altitude sickness and lassitude have passed, walking over this high ground, known as ‘paramo’, is unique and awe-inspiring. Cliffs of ignimbrite, with tooth-like columns, jut from the gently rolling green scenery.  Most people think of the Andes as jagged mountains, but large tracts in Ecuador and Peru comprise high plateaus, cut by deep, steep-sided gorges. The occasional snow-capped volcano, straight from a child’s drawing, and reaching 6000 metres, towers over this terrain. The air is cold, fresh and intense. If there is no fog, the equatorial sun fries skin. Hats, sunglasses and long sleeved shirts are essential. In rain, it is the most miserable place on Earth, horrible for navigation.

As we descend, over the next few days, we enter first a zone with low, fragrant shrubs, with waxy leaves. As you brush through, clouds of pollen and scent are released. The smells include mint, thyme and rosemary, but some induce nausea. Gradually we enter cloud forest. Most of the year, this is a dripping wet, mossy environment. The trees are short, but densely packed. They drip with parasitical moss, orchids and bromeliads, looking like aerial pineapples. I wonder how the trees can sustain the weight.  Unlike those arrays of gigantic, brilliant purple orchids in Tesco, the orchids here are small and yellow or flesh-coloured. Brilliant red flowers emerge from the bromeliads, like spears, and tiny frogs live in the bowl-shaped clusters of leaves, which trap water. Their entire lives are spent within these little communities, perched in the trees. Off the trail, the atmosphere is gloomy, oppressive and too quiet. Birds flit about furtively.

I start to befriend our machetero, a nervous youth, who barely says a word. I begin by asking the mule’s name. Of course, a relative newcomer to South America, I’m completely out of touch with life here. Animals, especially pack animals, don’t have names. They are commodities, like sacks of rice. The machetero looks bemused and eventually offers ‘Macho’, which, of course, means ‘male’. In my blissful ignorance, and before I had properly mastered Spanish, I thereafter call him ‘Macho’. What a berk.

These are pre-GPS days and the 1:50,000-scale topographic maps we have are total crap. Entire villages are mislocated, misnamed or non-existent. I navigate by altimeter and compass, reading the map contours and rivers. We hammer the rocks, take our samples, descending all the time. Crystalline rivers tumble down over smooth rock exposures. Geologist’s heaven.

We arrive at a tiny village called ‘El Paraiso’ (Paradise). It is still relatively untouched by the modern world, quaint and dusty. It means a comfortable night’s sleep, under a proper roof, rather than canvas. Such villages are a dying species. Slowly, but surely, road-heads advance and electricity arrives, particularly since the election of the social reformist president, Rafael Correa. With my own eyes, in the space of ten years visiting Ecuador, I see the change. It comes straight from the pages of Thomas Hardy, documenting the industrialization of England in the late 1800s; the elimination of a perceived, gentler, more pastoral life. In Ecuador, mud-brick buildings, with clay tile roofs, are replaced by concrete and galvanized zinc.  This is seen as progress. Plastic starts to proliferate in and around the village. And no one sees the irony of a gigantic pink plastic babywalker, in a village built on a steep mountain side with no transitable streets. Inevitably, it ends up dumped in the nearby quebrada.

The impact is not just physical, but social. Pre-electricity, I have nostalgic memories of peaceful evenings, with three generations of family clustered around kerosene lamps, playing naipe, a card game, obsessively. Only matchsticks are gambled. Laughter rings out. Bats flit in and out of the field of view, snapping up moths drawn by the light. Fireflies drift around, blinking neon every five seconds or so. People are abed early and rise early.

Now, with the arrival of electricity, street lamps drive the bats and fireflies farther out. No longer reliant on expensive batteries, music blasts out, dawn till dusk, and beyond. Priorities change. Young people now buy gaudy sound systems on credit, bringing them home by mule. They treasure them, putting them in prominent positions, covering them with cloth when not in use. They are mini-altars, raised to the twin gods of credit and consumption.  Invariably they are flanked by posters for local beer, with a big-assed girl (Ecuadorians love some ‘chunk in the trunk’) looking over her shoulder at the camera, bottle in hand, smiling. And the inevitable, stiff family portrait photographs, all smart suits, slicked hair and terrified expressions. Cheap Chinese-made motorbikes also appear, a little in advance of the advancing road-heads, because they can always be pushed the first leg of the journey to town and the social kudos of being the first to own a bike is immense.

But El Paraiso is still untouched. Electricity has not arrived. I capture a firefly in a glass jar, and, as I sleep on wooden boards, it blinks through the night beside me. A breeze comes through the gaps in the planks of the wall. Aromatic scents drift in.

Next day, dropping down the Cordillera flanks, there is a spectacular flat sea of cloud below. Common in Ecuador, this is unknown in Peru and Chile. In those countries the Andes drop West to a bone dry coastal plain, parched by millions of years of negligible rainfall. The Atacama Desert is dry for a reason. The cold offshore current, travelling north, provides no moisture to the air. Therefore, no rain falls on land. In contrast, Ecuador is blessed by a warm sea current, travelling south. It provides moist air and explains the tropical climate, ideal for banana plantations in the coast. The cloud in my field of view is augmented by smoke from numerous fires, set by the campesinos. They use it to clear scrub and forest, providing green shoots for grazing their few pox-ridden cattle when the rains arrive.

The first few nights under canvas are uneventful. Food is cooked on an open fire. There is pleasant chat with my newly qualified geologist colleague, Edgar, a fresh-faced, inoffensive guy. Overweight and out of breath, this traverse is a living hell for him. I don’t believe he has ever walked more than a kilometre or two.  Also a hardcore smoker, he sneaks cigarettes behind my back, knowing how I hate the habit. Edgar, now, sadly, and prematurely, dead, came from the privileged class of richer Ecuadorians. He never had to cook in his life. Meals were provided by mollycoddling maids. He is totally impractical in the field, unable to even tie a knot. He asks ‘where should I wash?’ and I point him at the stream. Some evenings he collapses into his sleeping bag, unable to even eat his dinner. This is the hardest thing he has done in his life.  I have a treasured photograph of Edgar, mid ablutions, underpants firmly pulled up. (Little known fact. All Ecuadorians shower with their underpants on. I anticipate a huge backlash now from Ecuadorian friends.)

I was with Edgar when he lost his virginity, in the seedy coastal town of Pasaje, where petty theft has been raised to an art form. Well, let me clarify. A more corrupt, older Ecuadorian geologist hired a couple of working girls to initiate Edgar into manhood on his birthday. I was already in my bed while this was going on. The geologists sneaked out after wishing me goodnight (honest guvnor). Edgar was mortified when the sorry tale was related by the older geologist the next evening, over dinner. Red-faced, Edgar later came to my hotel room protesting that ‘nothing had happened’, waving an unused condom, and ranting how his colleague was the ‘Devil’. (Getting to know the other guy over a couple of years, I came round to his point of view.) Until that evening, as I hugged a delicate and sobbing Edgar, I had never appreciated just how much counselling was involved in my job. Later I had to tackle the Devil, and tell him to ease off on Edgar.

On the mule traverse I cook, with emphasis on tuna and instant noodles. Everything tastes good in the wild. One learnt recipe, which I must share, involves a can of tuna, one tomato, one red onion, one lemon and a large plastic rock sample bag. Chop the tomato and onion finely, mix in bag with tuna, squeeze in lemon and leave for five minutes. Voila, delicious tuna and tomato salad, without the mess and no washing up.

The gulf between my world and this world becomes apparent on the fourth night. As we descend, the vegetation becomes more tropical. Secondary jungle, plantains (savoury bananas) and maize appear. As night falls we arrive at a smallholding, towered over by a gigantic zapote tree, in full fruit. Zapote is the size of a grapefruit and resembles a mix of melon and mango. The flesh is stringy, lodging between teeth for hours.

A gaunt woman, dressed in a ragged cotton dress, welcomes us. She lives in a timber shack, with a rusty corrugated zinc roof. Six or seven children stand silently, observing us and holding hands. Their faces are plastered with streaming snot, cracked and etched into their red faces by the intense sun. They look starved, with thin limbs and bloated stomachs. A sad tale ensues. The woman has not seen her husband in over a year. He went to the gold mines to make his fortune. She has heard no news since and, penniless, she struggles to support her family.

We agree to buy one of her valuable chickens, paying a big premium, which gives her much-valued cash. She kills it and prepares a watery caldo (stew). These country chickens are quite unlike KFC. The flesh is dark purple, coated with bright yellow fat, and very tough. The thighs are long.  Bones are strong, they don’t melt in the mouth, like our factory farmed versions. Every part is used. As the level of the soupy stew drops in the bowls, feet, intestines and cleaved heads, complete with beak, start to emerge. We share our rice and vegetables and the kids enjoy a rare feast. She then whips up a dessert called ‘leche colostra’. At the time, I confess I wasn’t sure what I was eating, but it resembled scrambled egg. It turns out, it is colostrum, the first, very fatty milk, produced by a cow after birthing. Mixed and cooked with water, chamomile and panela (sugar). It was vile.

The kids are thrilled by our chocolate. They examine the bars as if for the first time. Perhaps it was.

We retire to our tent, raised under the huge zapote tree. I find it hard to sleep, thinking on the callousness of the husband. He was no doubt in nearby Pasaje, drunk and spending his hard-earned gold on whores. Ironically, as the crow flies, he is probably only 50 kilometres from his wife. But he may as well be on the moon. The poverty also affects me. This is not a biblical-type famine, like those reported from East Africa by Michael Buerk, which triggered Live Aid. Thank God, I have never visited such places or witnessed such scenes. People in Ecuador do not die of starvation, they always make do. But the poverty can be grinding.

Packing up the tent the next morning, we leave virtually all our food with the family. I show them how to open the cans of condensed milk, using a machete. The woman is weeping with gratitude and clutching my arm, begging us not to leave. I feel empty. To this day, the memory brings tears to my eyes. I wonder what happened to those kids.

On the final night of the traverse we find a wooden shack and sleep in relative comfort. I make instant noodles with tuna for the three of us. A nearby wildfire, out of control and blazing on a kilometre-wide front, paints the sky orange. The ominous roar and explosion of trees and bushes wakes me several times in the night and I monitor the progress of the fire. But we stay safe and the smoke blows in another direction.

The next day, walking along deeply rutted mule trails, I notice scraps of paper in the undergrowth. They comprise densely written words on lined, schoolbook-type paper. When I question the normally taciturn machetero, he explains all.  Communications are tough in this neck of the woods and young lovers plant love letters in the bushes beside trails, hoping that some kind soul will deliver them to the intended person. It all seems very hit or miss to me, but what do I know?

We pass through a pitiful small village and the schoolteacher rushes out to meet us. Pleading with us to stay, she wants some company and conversation. She is not local and feels totally isolated. She  comes and goes by mule, every month or so, a typical situation for teachers in Ecuador. She rushes around to prepare us a drink, and disappears for 10 minutes or so. When she returns, her face is caked with white makeup. She is also bereft when we make our excuses and continue down the trail.

On the final day of the traverse we descend to the coastal plain, with its sticky, humid air. There is a blessed reunion with the driver and vehicle. My friends Macho the Mule and Silent Bob, the machetero, are paid off and we say our goodbyes; it wasn’t that memorable, since neither really came out of their shells during the trip. Only six nights in the bush, but it feels like a lifetime. Coincidentally, the rendezvous point is exactly the same place where, several years later, my good friend Isidro loses his gold tooth in the river. In that case, we had just come out of a 21-day trip in tents. We were washing in the river when the tooth dropped out. Frantic searching, by 10 people, all in underpants, ensued, but the tooth was never found. Ironic that we should lose gold, whilst exploring for gold. Twenty years later, Isidro still mourns his lost tooth and I still dream of a gaunt lady under a zapote tree.

Ecuadorian kids from Tres Chorreras

Isidro takes a geocheamical stream sediment sample

Washing in a crystal clear river, near Cosanga

NOTES. Some names have been changed in this account. This mule traverse occurred in 1996, but it seems like yesterday.