Wish I were there: Michael Palin on his greatest adventure

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People assume that the lockdown and the spread of the coronavirus have made life unbearable for those who love to travel, but in my case, even though the road not taken by many became the one not taken, there were positives.

Travel is driven by curiosity. Growing up in Sheffield, I read avidly about the wider world, but thinking I’d never see the real Wild West or the Great Lakes, I recreated them with the help of curiosity, imagination, and a bike. and peak area. As the long shadow of Covid-19 has reduced my options for commuting around the world over the past 16 months, and perhaps beyond, I’ve come to realize just how important childhood cycling is to creating an appetite for the wider world.

Over these past months, I’ve rediscovered the pleasures of travel in miniature. Not the Taj Mahal or the Grand Canyon – instead the rhythms of natural and human life every day can be found within minutes of my home, as I cross Hampstead Heath in London. It may sound repetitive, but repetition has taught me that nothing is the same as the last time. Now, as summer approaches, the ponds in front of Kenwood House are filled with ducks, geese, pastures, and cats fighting for space to raise their families. In the depths of winter I can get equal pleasure from a robin wandering about in the dead leaves.

Traveling isn’t just checking the boxes and getting ahead – although I’ve done my fair share of it – it is, at its best, an exercise in observation, in opening eyes and ears and enjoying what’s special about where you are at any given time. Of course there are some days and some places that are more special than others, when there is more to it than just research and learning. When curiosity runs deep and the arousal of risk-taking intensifies all the senses. I had a day like this in Peru 25 years ago.

The Urubamba River is famous for one of the fiercest, fastest and most dangerous stretches of all the headwaters of the Amazon. © Shutterstock / Carlos Sala Fotografia

It wasn’t the easiest place to get to and when I got there there wasn’t much to do, but my day at Bongo de Mainec has remained in my mind among the most satisfying of all my travels. Satisfaction is a trivial word to describe the series of adventures that led to a safe passage through one of the most beautiful canyons on Earth, giving off an adrenaline rush that I imagine bungee jumpers or free-fall paratroopers should experience for a second or two. However, this went on for hours.

I wish I was there . . .

With the pandemic continuing to disrupt travel, we’ve been asking writers to take a trip in their imaginations, to tell the story of a faraway place they yearn to visit again. Read more from the series at ft.com/wishiwere

It began on the morning of June 22, 1996, when I woke up in a tent on a sandy spit beside the Urubamba, the river that flowed north through Machu Picchu and was on its way through the last folds of the Andes, becoming Ucayali and eventually the Amazon. In its last race of mountains, the river drops 10 feet, rushing to tens of miles from the steepest, fastest, and most dangerous stretches of all the headwaters of the Amazon. And it was only 20 minutes away from where I was brushing my teeth.

Our crew was already busy. Valentine was preparing the stoves for breakfast while his colleagues secured the cargo in the roughly dug canoes that were to take us across these turbulent waters. I got dehydrated and a bit nervous, I washed my face in the river. The night before I had reread Peter Mathisen’s novel in his book cloud forest, of descending the slopes that lie ahead, in the hope that the wisdom of such a seasoned traveler will offer me some reassurance. It didn’t help at all. “I was afraid,” he wrote. “I kept asking myself Bismillah which I thought I was doing here in the first place.”

My thoughts exactly.

Michael Palin breaks into camp next to Urubamba © Basil Pao

I took some comfort from the fact that Gustavo, the captain of our tall, slender boat, was tough, little talkative and seemingly devoid of emotion, and that Barry, my sparkling British guide from Cusco, seemed more interested in getting a signal on his radio so he could listen To the European Cup quarter-final between England and Spain.

I wish I had felt a little heroic, rather than the guilt that sometimes plagues a traveler when they know they’re beyond reason and they’re about to embark on something they’d never do at home. Health and safety barely allowed me to go to Peru without a helmet, let alone ride a bongo de Mainec in a canoe.

I felt similar perilous guilt while flying over the Arctic Ocean in a helicopter in pole to pole In search of a place to land as close to the North Pole as possible. It was late in the season and the snow was breaking. Our only chance was to try to quench one of the increasingly fragmented floating ice. Heads anxiously returned from the cockpit waiting for our approval to take the risk. It was tough, but they were willing to give it a try.

The faces of my wife and children flashed in my mind and I swear they were just saying “No!” in unison. I was about to scream that we don’t have to do this. We can design an ice floe at Pinewood Studios. And you know what, it wasn’t necessary to call the series pole to pole. Alliteration wasn’t something I was willing to die for. But it was too late to rewrite when we hit the raft with a terrifying bounce and the compass reading showed we were as damn close to 90 degrees north. As I climbed on the ice, I made a psychological apology to my family, but I made it to the North Pole, and that would be something to tell the neighbors.

Michael Palin at the North Pole in 1992 © Fraser Barber

Our boats slid from the sand to Urubamba under a dirty gray sky. Under a thick cloud the weather got cold and the river lost its luster and turned dark pea green. We rode the current and headed northwest, toward the gates of the Andes. From a nearby spit we watched our departure by a flock of brown cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Above us is a yellow-headed eagle swinging back and forth across the river, its head sharp and looking for prey, like an open jack knife. Then the first cataracts slipped beneath us and soon we spent less time birdwatching and more time holding the sides of the boat as white water splashed upon us and our outer boundary raced toward Pongo as if someone had quickly pressed forward.

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