Welcome to the Jungle

In August 2005, Gavin Wright, who has been a Type I diabetic for over forty years, cycled over the Andes in Peru, on the highest surfaced road in the world, and out to the Amazon city of Pucallpa. In 2002 Gavin completed his first mountain cycling trip – a solo ride over the Annamite Mountains in Vietnam and Laos. On returning he decided he really wanted to show that diabetes wasn’t the major hurdle on such a trip and so he looked for the hardest road – and the best ride – in the world. It may not really be the hardest road, but it certainly was an eventful journey. Apart from the severe difficulties of cycling at high altitude (the road reaches 4,818m), Gavin had to circumnavigate gun-toting cocaine farmers on the Amazon rim and was in Pucallpa at the time of the tragic plane crash. What proved not to be a major problem – once more – was diabetes. “I have found that once I am trained to heavy exercise my blood sugars are generally more normal,” says Gavin. “Getting over the Andes was very hard, but I’m used to very heavy training and it wasn’t ultimately that different. The main point is that diabetes didn’t stop me – and it never will.”

Gavin was helped by Novo Nordisk, Giant Bikes and Enviroair, who all thought this was a great message to be sending to young diabetics.

Welcome the Jungle - Diabetes didn’t stop me: Cycling over the Andes and into the Amazon

By Gavin Wright

Gavin in PeruWe landed in Lima after midnight on a Saturday night. The city seemed all shabby and mostly closed, but the people at Hostelling International in Miraflores, with its cavernous reception, tropical garden and empty pool were happy to greet us. Lima is almost always overcast and so it was when Sunday morning saw us unpacking and assembling our bikes. This and finding a bike shop to get a mechanic to give them a check-up took up most of a purposefully quiet day. We found a shop run by a young man called Wesley, who, lucky for us, spoke rather good English. All the bicycles in the shop were mountain bikes and they sold for about US$30 each. Two mechanics had a thoroughly good look at my Giant Xtc2 LE, mostly out of professional interest, I think. They had only ever seen pictures of this kind of componentry and were fascinated to meet the real thing. Wesley warned me before we left the shop to look after my bike while I was in Peru: not because of anyone stealing it, but because if anything on it broke there was no way I was going to get it fixed. Hugh and I then took Wesley to lunch. Lima is famous for its cebiche and Wesley knew the best place to get it. Octopus, squid and several different fish all marinated in lime juice, Spanish onion, chilli and herbs, came served surrounded by big wedges of sweet potato and corn cobs with giant-sized kernels. Later that afternoon, we found a supermarket and stocked up for the start of our trip. Monday morning we loaded up the panniers and cycled off down the road. Not very far, actually, as we had no idea how to get to the right road on the other side of Lima, which is a sizeable and complicated city. We soon found a cab to drive us there. On our way we went through much poorer areas of the city. Here we found Peruvian people living and working in half-finished buildings, frantic labours on every footpath and a huge number of the mototaxis (motorbikes with two-wheeled carriages in the rear) that are so common all over the country. I wondered why we didn’t see them in the more expensive parts of the city.

As soon as we reached the edge of Lima we were surrounded by giant slopes of loose and barren rock. The colour of milky tea, we were to live with this backdrop until we neared the very top of the Andes. The first town we passed through was Chosica. At an altitude of about 800m it is warm and sunny and many city folk come here for their holidays. There are big resorts, with palm trees, pools and cabins, outside the town and it has a great market where we first saw big sacks of black corn and many dried chillies and other spices. We sat down for lunch and were given huge plates with potatoes, corn, salad and roasted guinea pigs. Very tasty. It is in Chosica that the American ultra-marathon champion Lon Haldeman starts his Peruvian tours. Lon has a superhuman cycling record and once a year he brings groups of cyclists out to cross the Andes. He has spent much time in Amazonian Peru and now makes it a scheduled part of all the tours he runs for group members to shop for clothes in Lima and then donate them all to an orphanage in the jungle. Lon has done our route a couple of times – now he goes up the same way, but turns down a different road at La Oroya. I have exchanged emails with him and he told us of a ‘gravel path’ that runs near the road. He uses this path as there is no traffic on it and he said we’d see it from the road. From this point on our eyes were peeled. From Chosica we climbed over 1,500m (4,900 feet) to Matucana. It was hot and after our long journey we both felt out of practice. It was a hard day, even though the gradient was not too steep. Matucana was the first town we found that was really tucked into a fold of the mountainside. There is a grand railway station here that serves the mining community, but for the most part it’s a sleepy little place where people sit round the main square, apparently with nothing to do. We ate smoked trout with corn and potatoes and got a very early night. The next day was a short one – about 15km took us to the smaller town of San Mateo. Everywhere on the hills and below us in the valley we saw dirt roads and were constantly asking ourselves – is this Lon’s gravel path? There were no longer any parts of the road that were not uphill and cycling was becoming very difficult. At San Mateo we were over 3,000m (9,850 feet) above sea level and I was glad it was a short day. San Mateo is a tiny little place, but the market wound round all over and took a while to explore. At night it came alive. People arrived from who knows where to stroll around and eat in the many little restaurants. From San Mateo we were unsure how far it was to the top, but we knew there was a climb of nearly 1,800m (5,900 feet). Once we reached the Anticona Pass we did know there was a 40-45km ride to the next town, La Oroya, and we were pretty sure it was all down hill. After leaving San Mateo the road was continually steep, with a gradient of 7%. The trucks that passed us had slowed right down and the ones coming down from the mines ahead were moving at little more than walking pace. My bike computer told me that I was also going at mostly 8.7km per hour and it didn’t take long before our stops to catch our breath became alarmingly frequent. It was early afternoon when we cycled slowly into the tiny dot on the map called Casapalca. We hadn’t planned on staying here, but when we saw a sign saying ‘Hostal’ we made the quick decision to finish off the big hill the following day. We didn’t know accurately how far it was to the top and we didn’t want to be cycling down to La Oroya in the dark. Our accommodation in Casapalca could be described politely as ‘lowly’. I can think of no other way to be polite about it. It was certainly cheap. The plumbing in the building was minimal and I think the water came straight out of the river. I was careful to use sterilizing swabs, even to get blood from my fingertips for glucose testing. So it was good to be out cycling in the early morning. At this very last stage we started to see bits of greenery on the hills as well as snow and ice here and there, although it was still hot in the sun. The views to the west, whenever we stopped to look back, became extraordinary. We could see the road up which we had cycled – not just a long way away, but a long way below. The Giant Xtc2 was superb. The gears went down and down – I don’t think I ever went into the granny gear. It’s a lightweight bicycle, but the panniers, which weighed more than the bike, seemed to pull me backwards. The ride to the top turned out to be five kilometres longer than we had been told, which made a big difference at this altitude. We were now being seriously affected by the lack of oxygen and again we stopped frequently. I have to say that Hugh seemed to cope better with the thin air than I did. I know he didn’t find it easy, but it was always me calling for a stop. I would cycle as far as I was able and then dismount, throw down my bike (lowering it took too much energy) and lie down quickly on my back at the side of the road. As air began to re-enter my body I found myself slipping off into sleep and it was a very pleasurable feeling, but somehow I thought this wasn’t quite right, so up I would get and carry on up the hill. Cycling up mountains is all about getting round the next bend and you never know what you’ll see when you do. When we turned the very last bend and saw the sign – ABRA ANTICONA Altitud 4818m (15,800 feet) – it was a surprise and a wonderful moment. It was a relief, but much more than that – we were elated. We felt we had really achieved something. We rode to the sign, got off our bikes, shook hands and hugged. We had cycled to the top of the highest paved road in the world.

Photographs, phone calls home (even though it was 3.00am in Melbourne) and cheese sandwiches (llama cheese I think, very nice) out of the way and we were off once more. It was downhill all the way to La Oroya and I enjoyed that feeling I had had after reaching the top of the Annamite Mountains in Laos – it was as if I had been given wings. We tore down those hills and were in La Oroya in about an hour and a half. We celebrated that night with a two-course dinner and allowed ourselves the luxury of a beer. The next day took us out onto the high flat valley that contains Junin, the site of the first victory for the Peruvians (with Simon Bolivar) against the Spanish in the early Eighteenth Century. Ever off in the distance was Lake Junin and at the far end of the plain we took a steep hill down off the highway into Cerro de Pasco. It was a long day and not an easy one, but the ups and downs were all very gentle. It was a pleasure to see the colour that the Peruvians add, with their traditional clothes, flags and goods for sale at the side of the road, to the otherwise stark and barren surroundings of their high altitude life. Everyone we saw had the long straight nose, black hair and darker skin of the pure Peruvian. The people here are forever snacking on corn cooked with salt or spices and their good humour is unshakable. At the end of the day we checked into the Hotel Wong, with its intriguing wood paneling and parquet floors. We ate paparellenos (mashed potato filled with spiced meat and deep-fried, served with rice, noodles and Spanish onion salad) at a streetside stall, then wandered round the market. Winding its way in strands over a large hill in the middle of the town the market had just about everything. There were hats, shoes and clothes, hardware, DVD’s and crockery; bicycles, furniture and food. There were many different chillies and bunches of leaves for both cooking and medicine; live guinea pigs and rabbits; frogs swimming in buckets and carcasses of animals I couldn’t identify. I found several people selling dead snakes of various kinds and when I stopped to take pictures a man was kind enough to pull out a three-metre live boa for me to photograph. The start of the next day’s ride was a very steep climb just to get out of Cerro de Pasco and back to the main highway. We were still at an elevation of about 4,400m (14,450 feet), but we were looking forward to cycling down about 2,500m (8,200 feet) to the provincial capital of Huanuco. It started well: we passed flocks of llamas at high speed and stopped here and there to take some great photo’s. Three Peruvians on bikes overtook us at one of these points – they too were going very fast. A little later we caught up with them where they had pulled over for a break. We managed to communicate enough for both parties to introduce themselves and we got them to pose for photographs. We stopped about half way for lunch – chicken and rice, with sliced avocado – and were looking forward to getting to town mid-afternoon. It wasn’t to be, though, as we soon hit the rising winds. Later we learnt that these winds blow always – at the time we just thought we were unlucky, but they came up the valley and held us in a firm grip. Even on steep downward slopes form then on we had to pedal hard to keep going and rarely managed 20km per hour. It was just getting dark, and my odometer was telling me we’d ridden 125km, when we pulled up in front of the Hotel Tours in Huanuco. The main square was just two minutes walk away and there we found many people hard at work setting up a stage for a big celebration that night and the following day. Short soldiers stalked around with camouflaged faces and angry-looking machine guns and many civilians carried old rifles on their shoulders. We had planned to have two days off here, so we didn’t hesitate to sit and enjoy a beer in the corner of the square. From Huanuco we took a tour to the Temple of Kotosh. We wandered around the great artificial mound in which it is buried until we came to the entrance to the ritual chamber. Here are the two relief sculptures of crossed hands and there has been much speculation over this image and what it may signify. The big mystery concerning the temple is why, over the two millennia that it was in use, the worshippers kept burying it and building another one on top – and why at around two thousand years ago they buried it for the last time and never came back. Just like the druids, they never wrote anything down and so we are left guessing.

After Huanuco we started climbing the ridges and speeding down into the valleys that would lead us out of the Andes and into the Amazon. Our next stop was Tingo Maria, about 125 km, and to get there we had a 1,000m (3,300 feet) ascent to the Carpish Tunnel. We had a very early start and a good rolling hour and a half before we started to climb. Although it was steep it was a good ride and not too difficult. Now that we were no longer at high altitude it was nice to feel our training had been of some use. We stopped every five kilometres, but never for very long and it was a pleasure to see the country become greener. Well-presented fruit stalls appeared in all the villages and we stopped under a tree to eat little purple and yellow melons. After a couple of hours we came to the tunnel, which burrows under the highest parts of this string of mountains. Like no other tunnel I have ever encountered the Carpish has a sonic effect that makes every truck that passes through sound like a roaring titanic beast. It was a terrible sound, but all we could do was wait till it was clear and sprint through the 600m to the other side. I had lost my front lamp by this time, so I clutched my feeble torch and hoped for the best. We met no traffic in the tunnel and emerged into a warmer world. As we started our 2,000m (6,600 feet) descent we saw banana palms and papaya trees almost straight away. The vegetation was thick and the local people were burning off patches of bush, producing smoke that lay like mist over the valleys. As we neared the base the jungle welcomed us with huge butterflies and brilliantly coloured birds that shrieked as they crossed in front of us and, now sticky in the heat, we welcomed the jungle. Although this wasn’t quite the Amazon rainforest, it felt superb to be among such a great profusion of life. The last 30km of this day were almost completely flat and I set a fast pace into town. It felt great to finish a brilliant day’s cycling with a long burst of hard pedalling. We booked into the Hotel New York, Tingo Maria. The woman who showed me the room spoke very little English. When she pointed upwards and said ‘Chickens’, I assumed that’s where they kept them. Later we found there was a restaurant on the roof that sold Peru’s favourite meal – roast chicken and chips. Unfortunately, by this time some jungle bug had entered Hugh’s system and he was becoming quite ill. Having bought the full gastric pack from the Travel Doctor he was now getting to use it. In Huanuco we had been warned about the next stretch of road. Our English-speaking guide had told us about the coca farmers and their anger at both the Peruvian and American governments, who have been trying to get them to scale down their operations. Here in Tingo Maria we were told more anxiously that we should not cycle out towards the Amazon proper. We saw a local protest march and were told about the killing of three policemen along the road we had to take. ‘If you cycle down there they will not know who you are and they will shoot you’, is the warning we got, which was plain enough for me. Not wishing to be mistaken for North Americans or risk our lives, we packed the bikes in the back of a station wagon and headed straight for the safety of the first Amazon town. Along the way we certainly did see plenty of coca leaves laid out on the road to dry, but there was no sign of any gun-toting drug farmers.

The car took us to the Amazon town of Aguaytia. We found the best ‘hostal’ we could and Hugh lay down on his bed in gastric misery. He stayed there for a day and a half before his fever broke and he was able to start taking nourishment once more. Aguaytia sits on the western bank of the Rio Aguaytia, on the map a tiny tributary of the Rio Ucayali, which far away becomes the Amazon. It is a river many times the size of the Yarra, however, and I spent some time studying life by the water. I watched longboats pull in piled high with green bananas, the staple carbohydrate in these parts. Mototaxis drove straight out into the shallows to get the brown dust scrubbed off their carriages. Black vultures waded among dogs looking for scraps by the unattended boats. In the town the hardware shops displayed a range of long, heavy machetes; children played with enormous pet macaws; and small carts sold long drinks of juice squeezed freshly from a oranges and pineapples.

Back on the bikes we headed off down the broken road into the Amazon jungle. What seemed on the map to be a flat route was actually all up and down small hills. This road was once surfaced, I believe, but is now just rocks and loose soil. Every few minutes big trucks came weaving along and each one that passed threw up an impenetrable cloud of dust. It was a fantastic ride though – just the kind of rough country the Giant Xtc2 was made for. On the downhill slopes I knew my bike was tough enough to just let go and I’d dodge the biggest rocks if I could. Hugh was not fully recovered and although his hybrid had performed very well on the climb up the Andes it was a bit out of its depth on this road. We stopped many times and I would walk out through a break in the foliage at the side of the road to just take in the Amazon rainforest. Standing still in the dense green understorey I drank in the sights and sounds of the greatest jungle on earth – sensations never to be forgotten.

Some sources say Pucallpa has now reached a population of 400,000. It’s impossible to judge from cycling through it, but the jungle shrinks away from the road long before you reach the city, land cleared for building or farming, or land just cleared. But when you reach the Plaza de Armas – the town square – you only have to cycle a couple of blocks further to look out over the Rio Ucayali and far away on the eastern bank the jungle is there once more. At the water’s edge trucks park haphazardly on the broken concrete – a surface that used to extend far further out, but gets sucked away when the river rises every wet season. Here there are small shops selling tinned food and a string of stalls displaying hammocks. These are things you will need if you want to go any further, as from here it’s a boat and you’ll most likely be sleeping out on deck. Hugh and I felt in need of pampering and after some work found the best hotel in town. A three-star place, it wasn’t very expensive, but was built like a Balinese resort with a pool surrounded by coconut palms and tropical flowers. We had a few days before our flights back to Lima and settled back to relax and revitalise. We found great food here: I must have eaten half a dozen different animals that I didn’t know the name of (I hope none of them were endangered); the spiced fresh fish cooked in banana leaves were superb; and the chicken prepared by the Shipibo cooks, dark meat from huge jungle fowl, had a rare and powerful taste. Twice we took a boat out onto Lake Yarinacocha to visit the Shipibo villages and get shown some of the local wildlife. Unfortunately, while we were on our second trip bad weather rushed in from the east: first the wind blew up a terrible dust storm and then came the rain. This cleared the air and we could see a huge column of smoke rising from the bush near the airport. We didn’t learn about it until hours later, but this was the TANS Peru Boeing 737 that crashed just outside Pucallpa airport killing over 40 people. The whole town was badly affected by this and we never again saw the evening crowds that gathered to socialise in the Plaza de Armas. Two days later we checked in for our flights out of Pucallpa. Some of the waiting passengers were heavily bandaged and everyone at the airport was on edge. It was clear there were no aeroplanes waiting on the tarmac. As the rain started pounding against the airport building, not much more than a small warehouse, we learnt that the pilots were nervous about leaving Lima. The staff in the control tower were trying to persuade them everything was OK in Pucallpa. We made our way to the bar and had just ordered a beer when a huge blast of wind slammed across the front of the building and dozens of ceiling panels came crashing to the floor of the main hall. As we bravely raised our glasses all the lights went out. Hours later, after the storm, we watched through the glass wall as our precious bikes were hurled to the ground from the top of the baggage trolley and coffins were loaded – with a great deal more reverence – into the hold of our flight back to the capital.

Flying back over the Andes was superb. We studied the light brown peaks rolling off into the far distance. Then we spotted what looked like a very deep crease coming up the western slopes. As we got closer we could see right into it and there at the bottom of the sharp fold in the mountains was a winding road – our road. And next to the winding road was a gravel path. And – wait a minute – what was that? Surely not a man on a bicycle? Back in Lima we did little but pack our bikes back into their waiting boxes. Our flight to Santiago was cancelled so LAN Chile were nice enough to put us up for our extra night in what appeared to be the best hotel in Peru – the Sheraton Lima. It was certainly a comfortable end to our stay, but it also provided an edge of supreme contrast. Hugh and I sat back in the lap of luxury and remembered our unplanned stay in the mountain village of Casapalca. Someone had walked down the low, dark corridor and tried to enter my room twice that night. Thankfully my aggressive ‘Who’s there?’ had been enough to send them away, but at the Novotel no-one bothered us at all.

We certainly did have some problems on our trip. Reaching the Anticona Pass and dealing with the thin air at high altitude was probably the worst, although with perseverance we triumphed. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t at the time. Murderous coca farmers could have been a very grave danger. We didn’t actually see any, but knowing they were out there was enough to get us off our bikes and break the bicycling line that led from Lima to the Rio Ucayali. And the tragic plane crash at Pucallpa didn’t just dampen everybody’s spirits, it very nearly left us stranded in the jungle with no way of getting to our flights out of Peru. But one of the things that didn’t cause any problems was diabetes. I trained very hard for this ride and for a long time. This meant a regime of heavy exercise (cycling long distances and up hills) as well as a long period of adjusting insulin levels in response to frequent blood tests. Testing has to be done before, during, after and some time after strong exertion, but once a pattern is established the benefits of all that work become evident. A lower, or more normal, range of blood sugar levels is what I achieved with all this training and this result carries on through days without exercise as long as the heavy exercise remains regular – three or four times a week. Cycling up the side of the Andes didn’t change this pattern very much. I was monitoring my blood sugar even more often, so that I had a good idea what it was just about all of the time, but Peruvians everywhere seem to eat tons of carbohydrate so getting refueled was never a problem. I was used to the hard physical work and we always stopped to eat. As far as diabetes was concerned, cycling over the mountains wasn’t that different from training at home.

In short, a long time ago I could have said to myself that I should have a quiet lifestyle, but I didn’t. Riding my bike over the Andes and into the Amazon was not easy, but having been dependent on insulin for over forty years was not one of the difficulties – diabetes didn’t stop me.

Now I am just left with a simple dilemma.

Where next?