Part Four – The Big Trek
It’s 7am and I’m rendezvousing with my trek group for a three-hour drive into the Chapada Diamantina National Park. It’s an all-French-speaking group. There’s one Belgian – let’s call him Hercule, one Quebeccy (or is it Quebecian?) – I’m going to call her Butch, and a French couple – Philippe and Marie-Claude. Butch, a PHD chemist and part time pole dancer, has very short arms and legs and a voice like gravel. Hercule is exceptionally brown and an ear surgeon. He once spent time in Eastbourne! Philippe and Marie-Claude are having an early life existential crisis; they think starving themselves of good quality cheese and wearing the same pair of socks for a week will help them pinpoint the exact meaning of their shallow existence (at some point, I will tell them it won’t). Meanwhile, our guide, whose name is unpronounceable to me but means ‘Little Willy’ in Portuguese, has a habit of gobbling his words so although he’s apparently speaking pigeon-English to me, his unenunciated words are lost on the breeze. We’re rammed into a small jeep driven by a gormless middle-aged man in board shorts and flip flops who insists on swapping my smallish backpack for a bigger one (more of this later). As promised by the trek organiser, en route we stop in a small town where there’s a bank which has actual cash in its ATM. Glory be! I replenish my wallet with Brazilian Real while Little Willy visits the market and buys all our food for the next three days.
We’re dropped off at the foot of a steep climb and Little Willy shares out the food. Apparently, ours is a basic trek, i.e. there are no sturdy porters, not even a small donkey to carry our bags. We are the donkeys. Rather conveniently, Butch and Marie-Claude have very small packs so can only fit in a few cheese balls and a couple of bags of pasta. Courtesy of our driver, I have a much larger pack and so end up with three days’ worth of potatoes. I’m also carrying 1.5 litres of water! We start climbing almost immediately. It’s two kilometres straight up, the sun is high in the sky and there’s no shade. After three hours, my spuds are taking their toll. I’ve got waggy legs and my head is on a rolling boil. Hercule, with his medical training, sees that I’m probably going to pass out and drop off the edge and comes to my rescue. He masterfully takes charge of my pack, carrying it up the last few remaining metres. At the top is a flat, scrubby plateau where I collapse. Little Willy gives me a banana and pats me on the back. For the rest of our trek, he will constantly ask me ‘tudo bem?’, which roughly translates as ‘don’t you dare die on me you lanky bitch.’ At first, I’m grateful for his concern but after a while I want to punch him.
There is precious little evidence of humankind in the Chapada Diamantina. There are no roads and only a handful of homestays dotted around. There aren’t even any other trekkers. Imagine, a beautiful, wild landscape of dramatic rocky outcrops, colourful orchids and deep forested valleys where the only sounds are the gentle rustle of the wind in the trees and the chirp of birdsong. And then, rudely puncturing the serenity is le blah le blah le blah of my four Gaulish companions. They never shut up. In their late 20s, and seemingly super fit (especially Butch), they can skip up a steep incline of switchbacks, with a backpack, in searing heat, and still have enough breath to guffaw and titter at each other’s travel deprivation stories. ‘Marie-Claude, cherie, do you recall the time in Umpalumpaland when we got lost in the jungle for three weeks and had to eat our flip flops?’
I catch up with Little Willy who’s striding on ahead – no doubt, he’s also desperate to get away from the eternal blether. At our first homestay (think 1970s youth hostel but without the lightbulbs and hot water) we rinse the sweat out of our smalls under a cold tap in the yard while Little Willy cooks our dinner, a strange combo of rice, fried potato, cheese balls (naturally), tapioca flatbread (too much chewing) and stewy stuff – all washed down by the local beer. By the time we’re done eating it’s dark. I leave the rest of the group to get pissed on the local cachaca (rustic rum) and retire to my 20 bunk room, of which I am the sole tenant.
The next day, after a thick slurry of porridge and black coffee, we’re off up the ominously named Prefecture Slit. It’s another vertiginous climb involving lots of scrabbling around on rocks and a hazardous crawl through a dripping cave. Marie-Claude is afflicted by claustrophobia and Philippe has to cover her head with a travelling tea towel so she can’t see how low the ceiling is and freak out. We make it through to the other side and the trek culminates with some staggeringly scary views down a sheer cliff face. Under Little Willy’s direction, we inch on our bellies to look over the edge. Apparently, a few years ago a freak gust blew a trekker off the edge so he’s taking no chances. And knowing my propensity for falling over, neither am I.
That night at the homestay, the Gauls are on the cachaca again and Butch demonstrates some of her pole dancing moves. ‘It’s not sexual’ she growls flinging herself into a Martini Spin around the corner pole of the veranda. The boys, evidently feeling a prickle in their testicles, then have a press up competition. I leave them to it. The next day, we have a long 24km trek across the plateau back to the beginning of the trek. En route, we see a humming bird bathing in a creek and some wild horses. Oh yeah, and I’m so tired, on one of our periodic rests, I narrowly miss sitting on a lizard. It’s time to go home. We descend the same way we came up (so much easier without the potatoes), meet up with our driver and make our way back to Lencois where we celebrate our safe return with a can of Coke. I’m gagging to get back to Paula’s Pousada for a big old lather but my backpack (the one I’d exchanged for a bigger one at the start of the trek) has disappeared, as has our driver. I have a row on WhatsApp with the trek organiser (very difficult as a. his English is shit b. the mobile signal keeps dipping out, and c. he’s not even sure who our driver is and I don’t know how to say ‘gormless’ in French). Needless to say, at 6am the next morning said driver turns up at Paula’s and thrusts my backpack at me with a scowl. There’s no mea culpa forthcoming, nothing. Time to move on I think; before I kill. Next stop – Salvador.