Before the ‘Beast from the East’ strikes

Friday 23 February. A bright, sunny day, and not too much of a breeze. Although the day dawned with a covering of frost everywhere, it was not as cold as I feared. Still, there was a need to wrap up warm.

It looks like things will be rather different next week when the Beast from the East hits the UK. Beast from the East? That’s what the weather system from deepest Siberia has been labeled, and due to hit the UK early in the week, with Arctic sub-zero temperatures, and possibly significant snow fall. There’s a more or less stationary high pressure system over Scandinavia to the northeast of the UK, blocking ‘warmer’ weather systems driving in from the Atlantic, and at the same time drawing in all that cold Siberian air on a strengthening easterly air flow.

So, with much more inclement weather forecast, Steph and I decided that we’d better take advantage of yesterday’s decent weather and head out for a walk, and visit yet another National Trust property: Knowles Mill, a derelict 18th century flour mill alongside Dowles Brook in the heart of the Wyre Forest on the outskirts of Bewdley, about 18 miles west from Bromsgrove.

Knowles Mill along Dowles Brook in the Wyre Forest, with the mill cottage (privately-owned and undergoing renovation) behind.

There are no National Trust signs to Knowles Mill. It’s located within the Wyre Forest National Nature Reserve, and parking (with space for up to a dozen cars) can be found at the end of the very narrow Dry Mill Lane. We arrived around 10:20, and took one of the remaining spaces. Best to get there early although by the time we departed, just after noon, many of the cars had already left. As with all my blog posts, just click on the images to open a larger version.

We decided to follow the Dowles Brook Trail (marked red on the map below), although there is a public bridleway on the other side of the brook, and a bridge over it at Knowles Mill.

This route initially follows the Wyre Forest Butterfly Trail along the bed of the disused Tenbury and Bewdley Railway that was opened in 1864, and closed in July 1961. Then there’s a steep walk down into the valley, with the path emerging behind the mill and cottage.

So what was a mill doing beside Dowles Brook, how long had it been there, and what was its history?

The millstones and gearing mechanisms inside the mill are still in quite good shape.

On the west side of the mill the skeleton of the water wheel can be seen, and beside that the drained mill pond (although with some standing water today).

I couldn’t help wondering how life at the mill must have changed once construction of the railway began in 1860. The peace and tranquility of the site must have been shattered as the gangs of navvies moved in to build the massive embankments across all the small valleys that cut through the hillside above Dowles Brook.

After visiting the mill, we headed upstream, passing Cooper’s Mill (just a cottage now) before crossing over Dowles Brook and returning to the car park along the disused railway. At the car park we enjoyed a hot cup of coffee (we’d brought a flask with us) before setting off home in time for a later than usual lunch.

The walk, just on three miles, had no challenging sections to speak of, and combined the best of both worlds: local history and the enjoyment of beautiful woodland landscapes.

Note: there are no toilets at the car park.


Mark making tools, paper, and a steady hand

Ask anyone to name a famous English composer and they’d probably mention Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) or, more probably, Sir Edward Elgar.

Elgar was born in June 1857 in a small cottage, The Firs, in the village of Lower Broadheath, a stone’s throw west of Worcester, and 20 miles southwest from our home in Bromsgrove. The cottage (formerly the Elgar Birthplace Museum) came into the care of the National Trust in 2016 following an agreement with the Elgar Foundation. Closed for a year for some refurbishment, and the addition of a tea-room at the existing Visitor Centre among other improvements, The Firs re-opened in September 2017.

As the weather forecast for Friday (yesterday) had looked promising from earlier in the week, Steph and I made plans for a day out. But where to go? Looking through the 2018 handbook I came across The Firs (which had not featured in the 2017 handbook for obvious reasons). And with the added attraction of a two-mile circular walk in Elgar country in the vicinity, this was just what the doctor ordered!

Our visit to The Firs was beyond my expectations and unbelievably moving, even bringing me to the point of tears as I watched the 15-20 minute film about Elgar in the Visitor Centre. Throughout our visit, but especially in ‘Elgar’s Study’, I really had the feeling of being in the presence of greatness, and I can’t recall ever having had that reaction before.

Elgar’s parents William and Anne had seven children, although two died young.

William was a piano tuner, and held a warrant from Queen Adelaide (wife of William IV).

Although Elgar moved away to Worcester with his family at the age of two, he retained a life-long attachment to The Firs. At the bottom of the cottage garden (see map) there is a lovely life-size sculpture of Elgar sitting on a bench (by Jemma Pearson) gazing through a gap in the hedge towards the Malvern Hills that he loved so much. It was commissioned by the Elgar Foundation in 2007 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth.

Elgar’s daughter, Carice (born in 1890) was the inspiration, in 1935, to acquire The Firs as a memorial to her father.

Entrance to the house is by timed tickets. There’s obviously not a great deal of space inside to accommodate too many visitors at a time.

Inside the entrance porch was a small room with an iron range for heating water and cooking. Today, the National Trust has decorated the room with contemporary though not original-to-the-house items, including a piano tuner’s set of instruments.

On the ground floor, the Parlour (dedicated to Carice Elgar) has a lovely piano, possibly played by Elgar.

At the top of the stairs is a room the full width of the cottage (perhaps earlier divided into two rooms) where Elgar was born. Two other rooms and this one have displays of various musical instruments, his sporting and scientific interests, and other personal belongings such as watches.

Elgar was apparently a keen cyclist, and on one wall of the Visitor Centre there’s a mural of an exuberant cycling Elgar. We were told, although this may well only be anecdotal, that Elgar once cycled from Malvern to Wolverhampton to watch his favorite football team Wolverhampton Wanderers play. A round trip of 100 miles!

Alice and Edward Elgar in 1890

Inside the Visitor Centre, an exhibition illustrates highlights from Elgar’s life and career. He married Caroline Alice Roberts in 1889. Her parents disapproved of Elgar—a ‘jobbing musician’—and did not attend their wedding in the Brompton Oratory in London. I hadn’t realized until yesterday that Elgar was a Catholic.

Alice (who died in 1920) was his inspiration, and early on in their relationship recognized his genius. And that leads to the second point I didn’t know. Elgar received no formal musical training. It wasn’t until 1899, with the first performance of the Enigma Variations, that his growing reputation as a composer was sealed.

In ‘Elgar’s study’ there are original scores of some of his most famous works, as well as the desk at which he worked.

Alice used to prepare the paper on which Elgar composed. Apparently, specially printed paper with the staves was not available, and had to be drawn by hand using the five-pointed pen you can see in a couple of the photos above.

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the free‘. Famous words by Arthur C Benson put to music in Elgar’s 1901 Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, sung here by contralto Clara Butt.

A page from the original score of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’

Who hasn’t heard Land of Hope and Glory? It’s the theme accompanying high school and university graduations around the world. Our two daughters graduated from Manila International School in the Philippines in the 1990s, and it was used then.

Another large room in the Visitor Centre, the Carice Room, is used for concerts, and where we watched the film about Elgar. There was also a lovely exhibition yesterday of watercolors by Worcestershire artist David Birtwhistle.

After a spot of lunch—we even sat outside at one of the many picnic tables—we set off on our walk, which took just over an hour. The walk begins on a public bridleway just behind The Firs, and then crosses three fields sown with oilseed rape and winter barley. By the time we reached terra firma again at Bell Lane, it felt  as though we were carrying half of Worcestershire on our muddy boots.

And at this point I must come back to Vaughan Williams for a moment, because as we were walking across the barley field, and looking back towards Worcester Cathedral to the east, a skylark rose into the air in front of us, singing lustily throughout its ascent and as it glided slowly back to earth.

What a wonderful sight and sound, reminding me instantly of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending premiered in 1920, although originally written for violin and piano in 1914.

The staff and volunteers at The Firs were outstanding, and their friendliness and readiness to engage with us added to the enjoyment of our visit. As I said at the outset, we didn’t have any particular expectations when deciding to visit Elgar’s birthplace. I came away deeply affected by what I saw, heard, and learned, and I’m sure that the emotion will stay with me for many days to come. And, coincidentally, as I am finishing writing this post, while listening to Classic FM, Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 has just been featured.






Taking in the central sierra . . .

September 1973. One of our first road trips in Peru, a circular route taking in Pisco on the coast south of Lima, before heading up into the Andes to Ayacucho, before heading north to Huancayo, and then back down to Lima. I’m sure the trip today is much easier than 43 or 44 years ago.

On the first day we drove south just as far as Pisco, spending one night there before attempting the next stage over the mountains to Ayacucho. Apart from the coastal Panamerican Highway and the road from Huancayo back to Lima, which were paved, the others were dirt roads in various states of repair. At the highest point on the road between Pisco and Ayacucho, we encountered one particularly stretch of muddy road that I thought we just might halt our trip. But with some expeditious maneuvering, I managed to extricate us from mud almost up to the axles.

The road up from Pisco.

If I remember correctly, the road dropping down to Ayacucho seemed to last forever, a long and relatively gentle decline. It was above Ayacucho where I took this photo, one of my favorites in all I took during our three years in Peru.

Staying at the turista hotel just off the main square, we spent a couple of nights in Ayacucho, and enjoyed its pleasant climate, lying as it does in a wide, fertile valley, just below 2800 m above sea level.

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North from Ayacucho the road crosses a wide, high altitude plain, dotted everywhere with cacti. Further north, it follows the steep-sided valley of the Mantaro River, and is carved into the side of the mountain. Maybe it has been widened today, but back in the day, it was so narrow that traffic flow was one-way only on alternate days. This had to be factored into our road trip planning of course.

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It was an easy day’s drive between Ayacucho and Huancayo, and we spent a couple of nights there. As the International Potato Center (CIP) had its highland experiment station close to Huancayo in the Mantaro Valley, and Steph and I would travel there almost every week during the potato growing season between November and May, we took the opportunity of passing through Huancayo to check a few work-related items before passing through on our way back down to Lima along that familiar road that crosses Ticlio at almost 5000m.

This trip must have lasted about seven days, maybe eight. With the others we made, as well as the various potato collecting trips that I made as part of my work, we were fortunate to explore many parts of this beautiful country.

Here is a list of those trips:


Wishing I was in Cuzco . . .

The 10th World Potato Congress takes place in the southern Peruvian city of Cuzco at the end of May this year. I wish I was going.

It would be a great opportunity to renew my links with potato research, and revisiting one of Peru’s most iconic cities would be a joy.

I like this quotation from the Congress website: Potatoes are the foundation of Andean society. It shaped cultures and gave birth to empires. As the world population explodes and climate change places increased demands on the world’s farmers, this diverse and hearty tuber will play an instrumental role in feeding a hungry planet.

Cuzco lies at the heart of the Andean potato culture. The region around Cuzco, south to Lake Titicaca and into northern Bolivia is where most diversity in potatoes and their wild species relatives has been documented. When I worked for the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru during the early 1970s I had several opportunities of looking for potatoes on the Peruvian side of the border, and made three (possibly four) visits to Cuzco. I see from a quick scrutiny of the street map of Cuzco on Google maps that the city has changed a great deal during the intervening years. That’s hardly surprising, including many fast food outlets dotted around the city. The golden M get everywhere! Also there are many more hotels (some of the highest luxury) in the central part of the city than I encountered 45 years ago.

At Machu Picchu in January 1973

I visited Cuzco for the first time within two weeks of arriving in Peru in January 1973. The participants of a potato germplasm workshop (that I described just a few days ago) spent a few days in Cuzco, and I had the opportunity of taking in some of the incredible sights that the area has to offer, such as Machu Picchu and the fortress of Sacsayhuamán on the hillside outside the city.

Steph and I were married in Lima in October 1973, but we delayed our honeymoon until December. And where could there be a more romantic destination than Cuzco, taking in a trip to Machu Picchu (where we stayed overnight at the turista hotel right beside the ruins), Sacsayhuamán, the Sacred Valley, and the Sunday market at Pisac.

In the early 70s, the Peruvian airline Faucett flew Boeing 727s into Cuzco. In January 1973 I’d only ever flown three times: in 1966 to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland on a BEA Viscount turboprop; from London to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines to attend a scientific meeting in Izmir; and the intercontinental flight from London to Lima with BOAC.

Flying into Cuzco was (is) quite an experience. There’s only one way in, and out! It is quite awesome (if not a little unnerving) dropping through the cloud cover, knowing that some of the highest mountains in the world are just below, then seeing the landscape open as you emerge from the clouds, banking hard to the left and follow the valley, landing at Cuzco from the east.

The city has now expanded eastwards beyond the airport, but in 1973 it was more or less at the city limits. The main part of the city lies at the western end of the runway, and hills rise quite steeply just beyond, thus the single direction for landing and the reverse for take-off. Maybe with new, and more highly powered aircraft, it’s now possible to take off to the west. Those attending the World Potato Congress should have a delightful trip from the coast. By the end of May the dry season should be well-established, and the skies clear.

So, what is so special about Cuzco? It’s a city steeped in history, with Spanish colonial buildings blending into, and even constructed on top of the Inca architecture. That architecture leaves one full of wonder, trying to imagine how the stones were brought to the various sites, and sculpted to fit so snugly. Perhaps the best example is the twelve-sided (or angled) stone in the street named Hatun Rumiyoc (a couple of blocks east of the Plaza de Armas). This is taken to an even greater level at Sacsayhuamán, with an enormous eleven-sided stone.

My first impressions of Cuzco were the orange-tiled roofs of most buildings in the city.

All streets eventually lead to the main square, the Plaza de Armas in the city center, dominated on its eastern side by the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, and on its southern side by the late 16th century Templo de la Compañía de Jesús (a Jesuit church).

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One of the finest examples of the Inca-Colonial mixed architecture is the Coricancha temple upon which was constructed the Convent of Santo Domingo. The Incan stonework is exquisite (although showing some earthquake damage), and inside 16th/17 century paintings have survived for centuries.

Another aspect of Cuzco’s architectural heritage that caught our attention were the balconies adorning many (if not most) buildings on every street, at least towards the city center.

In the early 1970s steam locomotives were still in operation around Cuzco and, being somewhat of a steam buff, I had to take the opportunity of wandering around the locomotive shed. During our trip to Machu Picchu, our tourist diesel-powered train actually crossed with another pulled by a steam locomotive.

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Outside the city, to the north lies the Inca fortress citadel of Sacsayhuamán, the park covering an area of more than 3000 hectares. Steph and I spent a morning exploring the fortress, viewing it from many different angles, and pondering just how a workforce (probably slave labour) came to construct this impressive site, with its huge stones so closely sculpted against each other that it’s impossible to insert the blade of a knife.

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Among the most commonly visited locations by many tourists is the small town of Pisac, some 35 km from northeast of Cuzco at the head of the Sacred Valley, where a vibrant market is held each Sunday. We took a taxi there, and joined quite a small group of other tourists to wander around, bargain for various items (including an alpaca skin rug that we still had until just a couple of years ago). This is not a tourist market, however—or at least it wasn’t in December 1973 when we visited. As you can see in the slideshow below, it was very much a place and occasion frequented by people coming from the surrounding communities to sell their produce, and meet up with family and friends. Whenever I look at these photographs I always feel quite sad, as it’s likely that many who appear have since passed away.

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It’s no wonder that Cuzco and surrounding areas have been afforded UNESCO World Heritage status (as so many other treasures in this wonderful country). So, as I think about the opportunities that potato scientists from all around the world will enjoy when they visit Cuzco at the end of May, I can’t help but feel a tinge of envy. However, they’d better take advantage of the odd cup of coca tea, or maté de coca, if offered. An infusion of coca leaves (yes, that coca!), it really does help mitigate the effects of high altitude and the onset of so-called ‘altitude sickness’.


A stroll in the park . . .

Croome Court, some 20 miles south of our home in Bromsgrove, and nestling beneath the Malvern Hills, is one of our ‘local’ National Trust properties. In fact, it was the second property we visited, at the end of March 2011, just after we’d become members of the National Trust.

And a couple of days ago, on a very bright but cold morning, we made our fifth visit to Croome. The ideal setting for a bracing walk, and not only to recover from some of the excesses of Christmas, but also take a peek inside the house since we’d not done that since 2011.

We can see the Malverns from Bromsgrove, and there is often a clear view south down the valley of the River Severn near Croome, with the Costwolds outlier of Bredon Hill on the east side and, more spectacularly on the west, the line of the Malverns stretching some eight miles north to south and separating Worcestershire from Herefordshire.

As we drove south along the M5 motorway I wasn’t expecting to see the Malverns as we did that morning, covered in snow, and looking even more stately, impressive, and higher than we normally see them. What a surprise! Once at Croome, we had magnificent views of the whole line of hills due west. The snow had somehow ‘etched’ new landscape perspectives that we’d never observed before.

The magnificent Malvern Hills, looking more like the Alps than a modest range of hills on the Worcestershire-Herefordshire border.

The northern end of the Malverns, with Croome’s Temple Greenhouse on the far right, and the Croome River snaking past trees towards the left.

The Panorama Tower has a view westwards towards the Malverns, and east towards Croome Park itself. It lies about 1 mile as the crow flies due west from the house.

First things first, however. We arrived just after 10:45, after a 30 minute drive from home. Fortunately although the night before had been very cold, with a little dusting of snow and some icy patches on rural roads, we did not encounter any holdups at all. Nevertheless, the first place we headed to was Croome’s 1940s-style canteen to enjoy a cup of frothy cappuccino to set us up for the walk around the park.

In the past we’ve taken in the whole circuit of the park, to the far end of the Croome River (see map). But on this day, we walked as far at the Island Pavilion (21 on the map), and back along the far side of the Croome River to the Chinese Bridge (16). After touring the house, we headed to the Rotunda (13) and along the east side of the Walled Garden to exit through the Visitor Centre. It was a walk of around three miles, and most welcome.

A painting by Richard Wilson in 1758 is on display in one of the ground floor rooms. Not much has changed in the intervening 260 years.

Since our first visit, the main entrance to Croome Court is now through the Hall on the north side of the building. Inside, there are few significant changes from our last visit, although I think there were more rooms open on the first floor.

The Robert Adam ceiling in the Long Gallery is a sight to behold. The decorated plaster-work of the dining room is as delightful as ever, likewise the main doorway and ceiling of the Saloon. The bare wooden walls of the Tapestry Room are testament to what was; the tapestries now hang in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom on the first floor caught my eye, as did the portraits of the 9th Earl of Coventry and his wife propped up against the wall of an adjacent room.

Two exhibits stand out above the others. I love porcelain, and in the dining room there is a stunning exhibit, The Golden Box (designed by Dutch artist Bouke de Vries, whose War and Pieces we saw at Berrington Hall in April this year), of some of Croome’s porcelain. The Golden Box took my breath away.

On the first floor, in what was Lady Coventry’s Dressing Room, is the recently opened ‘I AM Archive’, a vortex construction that will eventually house information and documents about Croome. A truly inspirational design.

Finally, it was outside again through the doors of the Saloon, and on to the south-facing steps flanked by two sphinxes. In the early afternoon sunshine, the light coloured stone of the façade glowed a deep gold. At the Rotunda there was a good view over much of the park to the west and south.

Croome was heaving with visitors, all taking advantage of the lovely day, many following children along the ‘Gingerbread Trail’, or taking dogs for walks in the park’s wide open spaces. Everyone seemed to be having fun, as we did, and we look forward to our next visit some time during 2018.


And pigs might fly . . .

Steph and I made two road trips together to the small town of San Ramón (see map), that lies at just over 800 m on the eastern slopes of the Andes in the Department of Junín.

Nothing particularly special or interesting in that, you might ask, especially if you know the region. The International Potato Center (CIP) opened an experiment station there in the 1970s, as somewhere it could evaluate potato breeding lines against several pests and diseases that appeared more regularly at this site than at higher elevations. But also for testing potatoes in their ability to grow under higher temperatures than usual for potatoes, a temperate crop that evolved in the Tropics. This emphasis on adaptation to high temperatures, with the aim of potentially expanding potato production worldwide into less favorable environments, was work I would continue once I moved to Costa Rica in 1976.

San Ramón today has a population of 30,000 inhabitants but was very much smaller when we first visited. It was not normally on our itinerary, since Steph’s and my work only took us to Huancayo high up in the central Andes, at over 3000 m.

Our first trip, in August 1973 (with CIP plant pathologist John Vessey and physiologist Ray Meyer) was just a few weeks after Steph joined me in Peru. This was our first experience of the hot and humid lowland tropics. Little did we imagine that just a few years later (from 1976) we would spend almost five years in Costa Rica living under those conditions in Turrialba, nor that almost two decades later we would move to the Philippines for 19 years.

Our second and short vacation trip was in September 1974.

I’ve been back only a couple of times, once in early 1976 before we headed off to Costa Rica, and another¹ in the mid-1980s when, working at The University of Birmingham, I had a research project with CIP, and took the opportunity of a visit to Lima to travel from Huancayo to San Ramón.

Dropping down to San Ramón the only road passes through the town of Tarma, famous for its flower production. What a delight. Higher up, the road sweeps round broad valleys with it patchwork of fields, one of the most attractive views I think I’ve seen in all my travels across the Andes.

Below Tarma, the valley narrows, and winds its way beside a fast flowing river (that becomes the Chanchamayo River beyond San Ramón), with numerous tunnels carved through the rock, and barely wide enough in places for two vehicles to pass. There are steep precipices into the river below at numerous locations.

And given that the San Ramón region and beyond is (was) a particularly important fruit-growing one (especially for papayas), there was always a constant stream of lorries loaded with fruit grinding their way out of the valley to climb over Ticlio (at almost 5000 m) before dropping rapidly to Lima on the coasts.

Steph’s first trip to Huancayo (and San Ramon) in August 1973.

On the second morning of our September 1974 trip, we set off after breakfast along the Chanchamayo River towards La Merced, stopping frequently to look at the vegetation, explore the river bank, and take photos. It’s hard to imagine that La Merced now has a population approaching 170,000. Beyond La Merced we had thoughts of eventually reaching Oxapampa, but as the road deteriorated so did our expectations of being able to travel there and back in a single day. With some regret we turned around. Oxapampa was (is) an interesting community, founded in the 19th century by German immigrants, and retaining much of that influence today.

Our trip on the third day was much more eventful. Following a suggestion by John Vessey, we decided to take advantage of the local light aircraft flights from San Ramón servicing communities further out in the lowland areas (the ‘jungle’) and visit one such beside the Pichis River, Puerto Bermúdez (some 550 m lower in altitude than San Ramón). Today, Puerto Bermúdez is connected by road to La Merced and San Ramón, a drive of some 176 km, and about four hours. There was no road in 1974, and flights were the only option. From satellite images, the town does not appear to have an airstrip anymore. What looks like a former airstrip is flanked by buildings and criss-crossed by streets. Maybe with the road now reaching the town, an air bridge to San Ramón or other towns is no longer economically viable.

Having purchased our tickets, we arrived at the airfield early the next morning, and found ourselves squeezed into the rear seats of a single engine plane (probably a Cessna) for the 45 minute flight to Puerto Bermúdez. We were scheduled to return mid-afternoon, and had decided that we’d try and rent a boat for a trip along the river.

In 1974, Puerto Bermúdez was a very small settlement, and the area is home to one of Peru’s largest indigenous communities in its Amazon region, the Asháninka².

We soon found somewhere to buy a quick cup of coffee, and someone who would rent his boat to us for several hours for a trip along the Pichis, a river that flows north to join the even bigger Ucayali River south of Pucallpa, being some of the headwaters of the River Amazon.

In this gallery of photos, you can see the type of dugout canoes that are common along the river, with their long shaft outboard motors. In the distance along the river you can also see the Andes rising in the west. And also some of the communities we observed along the riverbanks, and the rafts carrying fruits. This was our first experience of an environment like this, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Everyone was most friendly.

After a quick bite to eat for lunch, we headed back to the airstrip for our mid-afternoon flight back to San Ramón.

And that’s when we had our next surprise. There was an aircraft waiting for the return flight. We were the only passengers. But the aircraft had no seats for us. There was some ‘freight’ to take: several dead pigs that were loaded along with empty beer crates that we were to use as seats. No seat belts!

Communicating with base back in San Ramón, the pilot told us that the weather had ‘closed in’ and that our departure would be delayed. And there we sat, looking westwards towards the Andes and wondering when we would be able to take off. After about an hour, the pilot told us that there was still ‘weather’ along the proposed return route, but ‘bugger it’ or words to that effect in Spanish, he said we should leave, and we’d better climb aboard if we wanted to return to San Ramón that same day.

With some trepidation—that I can still feel after all these years (I’ve never been the world’s best flier)—Steph and I climbed aboard, settled ourselves on our respective beer crates (or maybe they were cases of beer), and held on for dear life to anything we could as the plane hurtled down the runway and took to the air.

All was well for the first half of the flight. We gained height easily (after all the plane was carrying quite a light load  and I was very much lighter than I am, unfortunately, today). We could see the foothills of the Andes approaching, with rain squalls across our path. Needless to say things became rather more uncomfortable as we crossed that weather system, and bounced our way into San Ramón. But we lived to tell the tale.

Given the chance to make a journey like that again, I’d probably decline. The enthusiasm of youth, the risk taking. In any case one might hope that today, safety regulations are much more assiduously applied. The only time I’ve ever shared a flight with three dead pigs.


¹ The 1980s were the Michael Jackson years. The singer, not me. Arriving at our hotel in San Ramón, it didn’t take long before a very large crowd of children had assembled outside the hotel and chanting ‘We want Michael Jackson‘. Some mix-up!

² Puerto Bermúdez’s Asháninka suffered during the years of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla insurrection of the 1990s, and many inhabitants of the town were massacred.

Heading south to the highest lake in the world

At 3812 m above sea level, Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia, and is the ‘highest navigable lake in the world’. It’s more than 1200 km south from Lima by road, and was the destination of a trip that Steph and I made in November 1974. Our first idea was to drive to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, some 256 km southeast from Puno. However, we decided that would be one sector too far in the time we had available.

Most of the drive follows the Panamericana Sur for 850 km through a coastal desert, one of the driest in the world.

The highway crosses the Nazca Plain about 450 km south of Lima, and is the site of the world famous Nazca Lines (yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Peru!), ancient geoglyphs that can only be appreciated from the air. Sadly, we never took the opportunity for a flight over the Lines¹.

The Nazca monkey. Photo taken by renowned archaeologist Maria Reiche in 1953.

Much further south, at Camana, the road branches north towards the southern city of Arequipa, some 180 km away, and at an altitude of around 2330 m. Puno is reached from Arequipa after a climb to well over 4000 m before dropping to 3800 m on the shore of Lake Titicaca, crossing (among other locations) the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca (and its flamingos).

We had already decided to drive ourselves just as far as Arequipa, then take a colectivo (a communal taxi) for the rest of the journey to Puno, and use taxis to move between the various sites we wanted to visit around Puno. On reflection we could have taken our VW the whole distance given some of the other trips we made around Peru and the state of some of those roads. From Arequipa to Puno we left the asphalt behind, travelling on a graded dirt road.

We spent the first night in Nazca, traveling on to Camana and its turista hotel on the second day. Like most of our travels there were frequent stops to admire the landscape, take photos, and investigate the local flora, especially the various cactus species, a particular hobby of Steph’s at that time.

This cactus, possibly an Echinocactus species, was less than 3 inches in diameter.

The highway crosses quite a number of rivers that flow down from the Andes. In the desert, and along the valleys themselves, irrigated rice cultivation is quite important. I had no idea when looking at these rice paddies in the 1970s that I’d be working on that crop across the other side of the world two decades later².

In Arequipa, we found a garage where we could leave the car safely for a few days while we traveled on to Puno. And then spent the next day and a half walking around the city to enjoy some of its sites.

Arequipa, founded in 1540, is (was) an elegant city, with a skyline dominated by the symmetrical cone of the Misti volcano, rising to over 5800 m. It is seasonally snow-capped, but with the effects of climate change affecting so many mountain ranges in the Andes today, I wonder to what extent Misti now has any snow cover at all during the year.

There were two sites we wanted to visit: the Basilica Cathedral, located on the north side of the Plaza de Armas, Arequipa’s central square. It has a facade of beautifully carved white stone, like the cathedral in Cajamarca that we visited in June 1974.

It was constructed over more than two centuries beginning in the 1540s. Progress was interrupted many times by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and the church had to be reconstructed several times. As recently as June 2001, one of its towers was toppled by a powerful earthquake that shook southern Peru. It is a building of great beauty, and dominates the Plaza de Armas.

A short distance north of the Plaza de Armas, the 16th century Dominican Convent of Saint Catherine (Monasterio Santa Catalina) is a quiet haven among the bustle of a busy city, and open for tourists to visit. Well, that was the situation four decades ago, so it must be even more so today. It has the feel of a small Spanish village, with winding streets, open doorways off to the side, and colonnaded hidden courtyards. And all decorated in a glorious umber.

The nuns could not receive visitors inside the convent, but could communicate with the outside world through grills. Natural light brightens the visitors’ corridor through skylights hewn from rock crystal. Inside the convent there are beautiful murals dating from as early as 1516. That’s interesting, because in the article about the convent on Wikipedia linked to above, the founding date is given as 1579, and Arequipa was not founded until 1540. Maybe some early buildings were incorporated into the convent. Nevertheless, there are some date inconsistencies I need to check further.

In Puno, there were three attractions we wanted to visit: the harbour and its large steamships; the floating islands made from the local totora reeds (Schoenoplectus californicus subsp. tatora), and home to a community of indigenous Urus; and the pre-Incan archaeological site of Sillustani, some 32 km northwest from Puno towards the airport town of Juliaca.

Some of the vessels that ply (or used to ply) Lake Titicaca are remarkable for their size. So how did they come to be sailing around the lake? The SS Ollanta was built in 1929 in Kingston upon Hull in England, in kit form, and sent out to Peru in pieces. The original Lego! Transported from the port of Mollendo to Puno by rail, it was riveted together on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and launched in 1931. It is still sailing today, but no longer on any scheduled services.

Tourism was, and must still be, a significant source of income for the Uru community that lives on the totora reed islands just offshore from Puno. Steph and I took the short motor boat trip from Puno to spend a couple of hours there. It is quite a remarkable community, seemingly self-sufficient, and getting around on their beautifully-crafted reed boats (the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II expedition).

Given my interest in potatoes, I was fascinated to come across this brilliant example of potato hydroponics. Now that’s a good use for an old totora reed boat. Ingenious!

Although we didn’t make it into Bolivia, we did head out along the south shore of the lake towards the border, as far as Juli, just over 80 km southeast from Puno. As with so many small communities in the Andes, the town is dominated by a Catholic church, that we took the opportunity of visiting. The opulence of its interior was quite unexpected.

Our final visit in the Puno area was to the pre-Incan cemetery of Sillustani constructed by the Qulla people on the edges of Lake Umayo, and comprising a series of round towers called chullpas. The stones making up the chullpas are smooth and regular is shape, and one is left, yet again, with a sense of awe, at how such beautiful pieces of architecture were actually constructed. Interestingly, the Qulla are an indigenous people of western Bolivia, northern Argentina, and Chile. Sillustani must have been at the northern limit of their territory and range.

And then the vacation was over and we were headed back to Arequipa, to pick up our car and drive to Camana on the coast for an overnight stop. I think we made it back to Lima from there is one very long day of driving.

Besides this visit, I’d been in Puno on two previous occasions. One of my abiding memories was to seemingly acquire a taste for the algarrobina cocktail, made with Pisco. While I love a delicious Pisco sour, the thought of this rather sweet concoction now sends shivers down my spine. Happy days!


¹ The Greenpeace delinquents who staged a protest on and defaced the Lines in December 2014 should have faced the full force of the law.

² In about 1996, the then President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori (now disgraced and serving a prison term for various human rights crimes, among others), visited the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines. I showed him around the genebank, and then joined discussions with IRRI’s Director General George Rothschild about rice production in Peru. Peru grows a number of IRRI varieties that have fallen out of favor in other parts of the world because of their susceptibility to pests and diseases. These, including IR43 and IR48 were less affected in Peru.