The Road Less Travelled

One of the straplines for Bradt Travel Guides is “Taking the road less travelled”. The following article appeared in The Independent on Sunday to launch the 2006 Bradt/IoS travel-writing competition.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Two paths diverged in a wood. Although to call that wild, green, mossy Peruvian cloud-forest a wood is stretching it a little. It looked as though an artist had been at work with a spray can, coating every twisted branch with green, adding splodges of white lichen, and draping the result in tangled green hair. The sun shone through the red, spiky leaves of bromeliads and caught the colours of the small birds flitting among the leaves. Dumping our heavy packs on the ground, we pulled out the hand-drawn map of “The Inca Way” that a Swedish backpacker had given us. It was as squiggly and fantastical as the cloud-forest but showed a path running to Machu Picchu with no diversions. Or not at this point, anyway. “Well, that one looks the most worn” said George, pointing downhill. And the most inviting — the other, fainter one led uphill. The path got steeper as we descended the mountainside until we were slithering sideways, grasping clumps of tussock grass, towards a small lake. And there the trail ended with a symbolic statement from the last hiker to choose that route: a pile of human turds. Disgusting, yes, but we could only agree: “Oh shit!” We turned round and made our way slowly back up the mountain. Later we wrote in the first ever Bradt guide, published in 1974: “The problem is that in this area, and at other trouble spots, so many people have taken the wrong path that these are as worn as the right ones. So the most-used path isn’t necessarily the right one.”

We should have turned back in Mexico when our path ended on a pine-clad hill. The terrain sloped away in all directions, but on the other side of the valley we could see a patch of cultivation, a milpa, which suggested a nearby village. “There’ll be a road or path down there” we agreed, and set off happily to do a bit of bushwhacking. What we hadn’t anticipated was the effect of altitude on vegetation. Pine trees grow at high elevations; as we dropped lower we entered cloud-forest and our troubles began. Everything was damp, furry-green and rotten. The ground gave way beneath our feet, branches we grabbed for support broke off in our hands, and many friendly-looking shrubs turned out to prick or sting. It was also incredibly steep. “Be careful, that’s a long drop!” called out George helpfully as I glissaded past him hugging a detached tree. “I’m not doing this on purpose!” I shouted through clenched teeth before landing with a thump on my backpack.

When we finally reached the bottom there was no relief. Instead of the expected road or path there was a river. All we could see were trees, trees, and more trees. I was not happy. We had been lost in the jungle of Madagascar for four days a few years earlier and I wasn’t in the mood to repeat the experience. We followed the river downstream for several hours before camping for the night. The next morning George persuaded me that we must climb the almost vertical canyon side (try doing that with a pack weighing 40lb) since he was pretty sure he had located those milpas. We climbed. It was a repeat of the previous day except this time we were sliding backwards. We had to grab any handhold available, relying on luck and balance when there wasn’t one. As we got higher the vegetation turned into dense, scrubby thorn bushes. Just when I reached the stage of thinking death would be preferable to this torture we entered a clearing. A milpa! An old one, but a definite sign of civilisation. We soon found a weak trail, then an abandoned house, and finally an inhabited house with a clear trail leading up over the mountains.

“Sometimes”, we wrote later, “it takes more courage to turn back than to press on blindly”. It was this acquired wisdom that made us pause on the banks of Lesotho’s Dinekaneng River. It looked very deep, with loose rocks and boulders covering the bottom, and I was not going in. Nor were we turning back, having almost completed our walk across “The roof of Africa”. We could see the main path continuing on the other side, so clearly the locals on their sure-footed ponies could make it over safely. We followed a faint path upstream, hoping to find a safer place to cross.

The little school house was perched on a low hill overlooking the river with a scatter of huts nearby. Through the open windows we could hear the children chanting their lessons. We sat down to wait for classes to finish, knowing from experience that isolated areas anywhere in the world school-teachers are the best source of help: they usually speak English and their local knowledge is good. A small face appeared at one of the windows. Then another; it seemed that the whole class was peering at us silently. Then pandemonium. Children poured out of the door – and the windows — and raced towards us shrieking. They were followed by a harassed-looking teacher. We told him why we were there. “No problem” he said, “I’ll show you the place for crossing”. He shouted at the children in English to return to their classroom. They ignored him. He repeated the request in Sesotho. No response. He shrugged and told them something in a quieter voice. There was a whoop of delight and we and 50 or so children followed him along the river bank.

“What did you tell them?” I asked. “I said they could come with us but must write an essay about it afterwards”. A little girl held my hand and asked me repeatedly “Where is my father?” It was a question I felt at a loss to answer. The teacher collected two women relatives to carry our packs on their heads and soon stopped at a stretch of river that looked much the same as anywhere else but was, he said, soft underfoot.

We sat down to take off our boots and socks and the children clustered round like bees, buzzing with excitement. They fought for the privilege of carrying a boot each, and a smelly sock each, and to hold our hands to support us. One child on each side chivalrously hoisted up the bottoms of my shorts to keep them dry. The river bottom was indeed soft and sandy, and with so many helpers we were practically borne aloft through the flood. The final luxury came when we sat down on the far bank to put our boots back on. The towel was whisked out of my hands and a small girl dried my feet, carefully separating the toes to dab the last moisture away. Her brother insisted that he eased the boots on, and a further boy did up the laces. I would have loved to have read those essays!

Two roads diverged in Greece. The main road continued round the Mani peninsula, the track led up into the hills, away from the tourist beaches. There was no-one around. The villages we walked through were deserted, and the final one, on top of a bleak and windy ridge, reduced to a few walls and mounds of stones. One caught our eye with its distinctive shape. Surely not a church in this high, barren location? We ducked inside. Generations of cow dung lay soft beneath our feet. We were in a side chapel but at the far end was a doorway into the main body of the church. Torchlight revealed traces of colour. Once these walls would have been covered with murals of Byzantine saints wearing prim expressions and heavy haloes. Once the high point under the octagonal tower would have held the commanding figure of Christ, the Paternoster, glaring down at his subjects. But over the centuries mountain mists and the warm breath of cows have erased this work.

Nothing touches marble, however. Marble, quarried from these hills, the medium for the finest artisans of the Mani to express their creativity and skill. For here, in this derelict church, was an exquisite iconostasis. One pillar was still standing, the marble discoloured to a greenish brown, carved with a Celtic-style pattern of entwined cords encircling stylised roses. Ears of wheat decorated a fallen pillar, and on the ground, buried in the cow dung, we could see the top of the lintel. Kneeling down I scooped the dry dung from the white marble to reveal a fabulous beast. Its claws were large and curved, and the feathered wings were open, ready to take flight if necessary. Its splendid tail was flicked over its back, curled and coiled and curlicued like the unfurling frond of a spring fern. Small ears pricked, large eyes wide, and narrow snout (or was it a beak?) wearing a little smile. He was magnificent!

I tucked him up in his dung bed which had kept him safe for so many centuries, and crawled out into the rain and wind.
The publisher found a place for his coffee cup among the papers on his desk.
“It’s a nice little book, but too specialised for us, I’m afraid. There’s not a market for backpacking guides. What we would publish is a mainstream guide to Peru. You know – lots of hotels and sightseeing.”
“But we can’t afford to go back to Peru to research it!”
“Oh that doesn’t matter. Just get hold of a bunch of tourist brochures and take the information from there.”
Our paths diverged. And I… I took the one less travelled by. And that has made all the difference.

© Hilary Bradt

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