Cloud Road — A Journey Through the Inca Heartland

By John Harrison

It starts as a barber-shop whim. John Harrison spots a picture of Machu Picchu (‘as if the stones had been cast down from the sky with the casual genius of gods’) in the National Geographic, as a kid, and decides to go there. So when he’s about 50, he packs his water-proofs and GPS, buys a homing donkey from a man called Jesus, and treks 700 miles over ‘the first great road of the Incas: the Camino Real or Royal Road’. ‘Cloud Road — A Journey Through the Inca Heartland’ tells the story of that walk, over a road ‘hand-built, over 500 years ago, to cross the most difficult and dangerous mountains in all the Americas’, snaking its way down from the equator to Cuzco (Peru). Marching down this ‘fantasy landscape, bare, unreadable; the colour of sorcery’ Harrison negotiates vertiginous Andean passes, meets phlegmatic villagers (who face life’s misfortunes with a these-things-happen smile), stomachs ‘sheep’s head soup in the market, served with half a split skull’, braves the ever-shimmying earth and appallingly weepy skies, all to be overwhelmed by the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Inca monuments ‘so spectacular it took our mind off things’…

It works because

What might’ve been a stodgy memoir in less competent hands, becomes, thanks to Harrison’s genius, a paean to the land of the Incas, their glory and of course, gold. His exquisite writing makes towns, cliffs and gorges appear and vanish before your eyes, sweeping landscapes emerge, only to melt back into the swirling mist, until all that remains is Dapple, his donkey, which ‘only manages a speed faster than that of vegetables growing’ when it does not ‘gallop down a hill which it has taken you five hours to climb’. His intensely personal narratives – each word a tender caress (‘when I touch the smooth skin of her shoulder, her breathing hesitates, resumes its rhythm, familiar as habit’) – tempt you to drown in the descriptions, or at the very least, read out whole chapters to unsuspecting friends! And yet, passing through, as he does, a land that’s witnessed its fair share of grisly local customs (‘drums and whistles built up an atmosphere which blended religious awe, the euphoria after a successful battle and the terror of the captives waiting to die in the service of another man’s religion’) not to mention the horrible rampage by the Conquistadors, there is a good deal of the macabre in his book, only, thankfully, it’s outshone by the glorious ‘immersion in this titanic landscape’.

And this one stays with you

‘The scenery impressed by extremes: the tortured rock, the absolute bareness, the precariousness of our road, the blinding light, the ribbon of cloudless blue sky above, the height of the circling buzzards. They know someone will die here: if not today, tomorrow, or the day after.’

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Aparna KarthikeyanJune 28, 2012