Ghost Train

We drive up to Alausí to ride the fearsome Devil’s Nose train. El Nariz del Diablo is a hairpin, switchback railroad that winds its way up a vertiginous cliff. The turns, they say, are so extreme that the train must be shunted off into sidings then backed up certain stretches before being refitted to the track. As you inch your way up the solid rock face you stare down into the precipice then outwards down the Avenida de los Volcanes, stretching away to a jagged horizon.

“Over 2,000 people died building this section of track,” I tell the children with relish, “Their bones are buried beneath the pilings. You could say it’s a real ghost train…” I permit myself a macabre laugh to underline this classic Dad joke. The kids are both glued to their screens and don’t respond. “We might be able to ride up on the roof if we bribe a guard,” I try after a pause, “but if we fall off, then we too will join the ghosts! Forever…’ Still nothing. I nudge Menna for a reaction, but she is not listening either. This is how conversations go some days.

We arrive at Alausí around sundown. It is a misty little town where pavements glisten and a hazy sodium glow sits round the streetlights like St Elmo’s fire. We see no humans at all as we drive through it. There is a huge statue of Jesus looming high above the town, he looks down sadly at the deserted streets, singling us out for a forlorn glance.

Our hostel owner is an old-timer from another century, dapper with neat white hair and a courteous welcome. He is assisted by a simple lad who charges up and attempts to sanitise us with a giant insecticide pump before we enter. We shoe him away, it is chill and damp enough already without being spritzed with cold disinfectant spray. “Es por la Covid” he mutters.

Señor Marco was a renowned marathon runner in his day and now coaches running clubs and schools around the district. His high altitude training programs produce top champions, he tells me. I prop up the bar and listen to his stories while Menna and the kids unload the car. He shows me a wall of black and white photos – runners grimacing, winners with arms aloft, grinning skinny kids brandishing medals while Señor Marco towers beaming in the background. There are many beautiful routes that we can run around here, or even – looking critically at me – walk. But we are not here to run, we are going to ride the famous train I tell him. A look of consternation crosses that rugged brow, his moustaches twitch.

“Pero señor William, ahora el tren no circula mas…”

“But the website says nothing about it being closed,” I protest, “they are selling tickets! Google Maps says it’s open – and, and Google knows everything!” I feel betrayed. Señor Marco shrugs apologetically and makes a gesture that somehow encompasses the untrustworthy nature of websites, the impossibility of train schedules, the transient nature of the world. I nearly join in on the punchline that I know is coming:
“¡Es por la Covid!” Of course it fucking is.

“The ghost train is so ghostly that it’s no longer physically here,” I tell the kids. “It’s off running routes in the spirit world, carrying the souls of dead Ecuadorean labourers.” We have driven many miles to this damp little ghost town for nothing, I don’t add.

That night nothing is open in Alausí except a far-off pizzeria, which itself is pretending to be closed. The lights are off and tables and chairs are piled up high against the glass doors like a barricade. We order a couple of pizzas from a suspicious face in a trapdoor, then walk home in the rain, the boxes getting soggier with every step.

“The train is not all that there is here,” says Señor Marco thoughtfully over coffee next morning. He stares into space for a while, trying to remember what else there is too. I hold my breath. “There is a path!” He nods many times.
“A path to where?”
“A path up into the mountains. To a high mirador there where you can see condors. The views are maybe better even than from the train. It is only a short walk.”
“So, how long is that?”
”Short like say, half an hour?”
“Short like say, three hours,”
“Ah. I see. Short.”

Señor Marco leads us over to a large topographical map on his wall. He makes a large sweeping gesture that seem to encompass hundreds of square kilometres of mountain terrain.
“This is where you will walk. I will take you there in my car.”

We argue briefly amongst ourselves. Matilda doesn’t want to go on any walk. Menna wants to get away early and is in some kind of stress about lunch. Arthur would like to scramble up the tracks of the defunct Nariz del Diablo train.

Señor Marco frowns and shakes his head, he does not think that any of these are good ideas. Too lazy, too dismissive, too steep, too many ghosts. His walk is the right option. Better, fresher, the views are the most magnificent. We will see condors, he reminds us, and that is that. “Let us get in the car.”

Señor Marco drives us over derelict rail tracks out to the edge of town. Alausí is griddled with rail line that run along the roads and score the squares. Tangles of tracks and sidings, roadside platforms, empty signal boxes. A couple of old style train carriages sit in the plaza mayor. Jesus is still looking mournful and we try not to catch his eye. In the daylight he appears to have moss growing on his face.

Menna is worried that we will get lost in the mountains, like we always do, but Senor Marco crouches down and traces a map in the dust with a stick. It is simple. We must follow a wiggly line that curls around a small pebble, then jerks upwards, twists to the left and ends in a clump of grass. We cannot go wrong. With this reassurance, we are gently shooed along like wayward children. Off we scamper, up the mountain trail pointing at butterflies and tripping each other over.

The Andes are truly stunning. Even after several weeks here, a sudden turn round a corner brings new perspectives that hit you viscerally. The far off pinnacles above are much higher than the Alps, less rounded than the Rockies. Peaks behind peaks, ravines within valleys. Rail lines score the greenery far below, zig-zagging up the opposing slopes. It is sunny and the birdsong is loud.

“Senor Marco is right!” we say to each other “Senor Marco knows”. We leave the damp town of Alausí behind us and trek upwards into sunlit pastures. We find the ridge, curl around the mountain top looking down upon folds and creases, following topographic swells where huge tectonic forces have rippled the bedrock, gullies where running water has eroded the granite. The ghost train moans it’s way up the opposite escarpment but we hardly notice.

For three and a half hours we trek. We find the mirador, it is a stone promontory jutting out over huge heights. There is a goat shack there and some locals are playing loud pan-pipe hits through a portable speaker. We buy bottled water and hot chocolate while women in ethnic dresses giggle at us. We hang out for a while with our binoculars ready, waiting to see those huge birds with the largest wingspan on earth.

The condors are away with the ghost train though, their mighty shadows circling overhead as it chugs its way over bone and cinder tracks in the dusky netherworld. Here in the sunlight there are only green finches and swallows, a distant falcon wheeling and circling above the valleys below.

We are not disappointed though. We are above the damp despair of Alausi, we have turned our back on sad Jesus. We have done with our legs what thousands of labourers died to mechanise. Between us unspoken is the oldest of all traveller cliches: it is the journey that counts – not the destination; never trophies nor trains nor condors. It is escape and freedom and all those ephemeral things that make kids roll their eyes when we talk about them.

The clouds are rolling in now and it looks like rain is coming, so we turn around and make our way back down the mountain.


Cold Mountain

“I learn something every time I climb a mountain,” said Michael Kennedy before he skied into a tree and died. Today we are climbing a mountain and we too are learning something: about preparation and planning, about lackadaisical approaches, about extreme weather. We are learning that mountains are cold places. “I learn something every time I forget my jacket…”

Our travel philosophy is simple: we seek out new things, we throw ourselves after adventure, we plan as little as possible, we let luck and impulse guide us. It doesn’t always work of course. We arrived in Brazil in the middle of the world’s worst Covid spike. We got lost in the desert with no water. We found ourselves surfing with sharks. I nearly bled out in an isolated jungle lodge. Now we are trekking through snow on the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano with no boots, no gloves and only thin anoraks. At least we have covid masks to keep our cheeks warm.

And somehow now we’re in Ecuador. A blurred night and day journey. Natal to Sao Paolo (Gol Airlines, check-in chaos, arguments about surfboards, no food) Sao Paolo to Panama City (Copa Airlines, 2am takeoff, heads lolling, sunrise over the sea, congealed egg breakfast), Panama City to Quito (Chatty pilot, bumpy flight, The Andes! Hair-raising landing).

It’s our first day here and full of naïve optimism we have taken the teleferico up from Quito. Just on a whim. A simple cable car ride that will take us to the mountain top where we might go for a stroll and drink in the view. It is pleasant and sunny when we climb in the bubble car, but weather moves fast in the mountains and as we clank our way upwards, clouds come rolling in all around us. They look heavy and menacing.

Quito sits 2800m above sea level, the second highest capital in the world (the highest is La Paz, a little further south in the same mountain chain). Now after climbing another kilometre in the cable car we find ourselves at some four thousand meters of altitude, up in thin air. There doesn’t seem to be enough oxygen to fill our lungs.

Our arrival coincides with some kind of cosmic tantrum. The clouds close ranks, the visibility deteriorates, a flurry of snow veils the landscape. Then a heavier spray of hailstones and then a full electrical storm erupts. Lightening bounces off the cloud ceiling above us; percussive booms of thunder make us jump. We splash through slush in our trainers, icy waters drips down our bare necks. We stuff our hands into our wet jeans’ pockets, tuck in our elbows and hunch forwards against the wind.

Matilda is scared of the lightning and after ten minutes on the trail, she is whining hard and so the girls turn back for the lodge. Arthur and I goad each other reluctantly onwards, putting great emphasis on completing our quest. Maybe we have some kind of summit fever. There is a swing somewhere ahead that a taxi driver has told us about. It is positioned on a cliff top, so you can take photos suspended in mid air, high above the plateau where Quito lies spread out, a faraway Lego town on a creased rug, the white bricks smudged and dirty from overuse.

It is only a twenty minute tramp up to the swing but they are the coldest and wettest twenty minutes in recent memory. Our ability to deal with the cold has been diminished. We’ve been softened up on tropical beaches. We make it to the swing at last, panting like dogs, soaking wet, toes numb, Arthur is shivering violently and thinks he might have altitude sickness.

Neither of us fancies actually sitting on the swing – the wooden seat is dripping with slush and the chain is icy. The weather has cleared enough to make out a ghost town below, so I take a quick snap of Arthur standing beside the swing and we agree that this is enough of a summit trophy for us.

We run back down the mountain to safety, squinting into the snow, slipping and sliding in the slush. We find the girls sipping hot chocolate in the cable car lodge, and breathlessly we tell them our heroic stories. Arthur saw something that might have been a mountain hare! Daddy slipped over on the flat path! How wild is it that two days ago we were in the desert and now we’re in the mountains!

Ecuador is going to be a different type of travel experience we all agree, and we head down the mountain to find a camping shop where we can buy some warm clothes.

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment…”

Richard Cross and countless other gear-boffins.