The year was 1978; Olivia Newton-John was top of the charts with Let’s Get Physical. A rumour went around that The Rolling Stones were playing their farewell concert in Machu Pichu and we were going to get there by hook or crook. As it turned out the rumour was a hoax, spread no doubt by The Peruvian Tourist bureaux. We should have known better: that band will never play a final concert while still they breathe. But it did the trick, it got us to South America.
A flight to the U.S. cost – amazingly – the same as it does now, about $1500. There was no way I could raise that by making mud bricks, but we read in Time magazine of all places that cheap flights were available in Singapore – $700 to L.A. Cheap flights to Singapore were to be picked up in Perth, so West we went, four of us in an HR Holden with the ‘canary’ scrubbed off.
We nearly didn’t make it. Against our better judgement we picked up a large German backpacker just out of Adelaide who plonked himself in the back seat and refused to budge until we reached Perth. He didn’t understand the word goodbye. He was so heavy the headlights pointed into the sky, exacerbated by our lack of low beam. One night in the middle of the Great Australian Bight we pulled off the road to bed down for the night. The road trains were noisy so we drove cross-country ‘til the roar diminished somewhat, and lay down to rest our weary heads in the soft sand. The next morning we woke to the sound of giant waves smashing against an eighty metre cliff that was a stones throw from our campsite, with Gustaff guiding our vision heavenwards the night before, we could have sailed straight over the edge and into oblivion.
We blew a welsh plug on the Nullarbor when the temperature hit a hundred degrees in the old language. We stuffed a thong in it and limped into Perth, sold the HR to the wreckers for $100 and took off to Singapore. Alas, we were not the first to arrive, and the cheap flights had dried up. The nice lady suggested we go to Thailand, so we jumped on the train and headed for Bangkok, but alas the good citizens of Bangkok had also read Time magazine, and their cheap flights were also gone. As luck would have it, they did have some very cheap tickets to London via Romania with Tarom Airlines. The Pacific Ocean was proving an insurmountable obstacle so we turned our backs on it and continued westward. There is more than one way to skin a cat.
In London, Freddie Lakker, (remember him?) was in the process of smashing the airline cartels, which meant very cheap flights across the Atlantic, but you had to bring your own lunch. In New York we got a ‘Drive-Away’. As we all know, there are many, many filthy rich people in the U.S. who own more cars than family members to drive them, so when they shift from one coast to another as they love to do, they get backpackers to drive their extra cars across for them. Whoopee! Our own car and seven days to get to San Francisco. We stayed with some genuine Hippies up in Marion County, living in the hills off their Kellogg’s Cornflakes shares.
To cut a long story short, after braving the deserts of Mexico, the malaria riddled swamps of Guatemala, the banditos of Colombia and the volcanos of Equador we finally made it to Machu Pichu, a year late for the mythical concert. An old man in a chicha bar in Cuzco who still spoke Cechua, the language of the Incas, told us in broken Spanish, of the lost city of Vilcabamba on the banks of the Riobamba, way downstream from Machu Pichu, on the very edge of the ‘civilized’ world before you enter the vast unknown of The Amazon. For four hundred years Vilcabamba remained undetected, until 1911 when Hiram Bingham, riding a great British wave of 19th Century exploration and plunder, stumbled across it. As for the inhabitants, the last of the Inca royalty, fleeing the merciless onslaught of the Conquistadors, they were swallowed up by the jungle and never heard of again. To this day nobody knows their fate. The old man drew us a mud-map on a napkin that explained how to get there. We had to follow a road built by the Incas and still in good nick after five hundred years of constant use. After a days tramping we came across a clearing in the jungle. A cripple with a hair-lip ran around the fields on all fours like a wild beast. He beckoned us to follow him to a mud hut where his mother fed us steaming purple potatoes. We followed the swift flowing Riobamba downstream for another three
days, sheltering at night from the ceaseless rains in thatched huts, waking in fear of those little bugs that drop out of the thatch and suck your blood and infect you with an affliction that festers in your bloodstream for twenty years until one fine day you wake covered in boils that all burst, causing one to bleed to death, writhing in agony. After twenty years of anxiety we have found this not to be the case.
One fine morning we arrived at the spot marked with an X on the map, bitterly disappointed to find nothing more than a plot of sugar cane and a makeshift shack surrounded by impenetrable jungle. As we approached, a small boy ran into the jungle in fear of the white ghosts. His elder brother emerged from the shack, machete in hand and gave us a chunk of cane to chew on. We gave them the last of our ‘sublime’chocolate and they gave us a guided tour of the lost city of Vilcabamba. It was all around us. So overgrown after five hundred years it was invisible. Giant trees were growing out of the walls, their roots holding everything together. Baths carved out of the rock, fed with aqueducts, were the home of frogs and turtles. Butterflies filled the Inca temples. Black monkeys overhead pissed on us from a great hight, screeching with mirth.
We soon befriended the local campesinos, trading razor blades for oranges and aspirin for tortillas. We heard chilling tales around the campfire of the exploits of ‘Sendero Luminoso’ the bunch of ruthless Maoist Revolutionaries that terrorized the country at the time. Unbeknownst to us, we were travelling right through the very heart of their territory. One fellow emerged from the shadows to show us his prize possession; a wind up gramophone complete with the latest hit record. As he wound the little handle, out came ‘Let’s get physical, I wanna hear your body talk’.