Monday, January 07, 2008

On the Road to the Clouds

What kind of will power does it take to decide to eliminate your tribe? To collectively cease to have children, and if one happens to be born that it be thrown from a cliff to its death?

That's part of the tragedy of the Diaguita tribe which lived in what is today northwestern Argentina in the 15th century.


In their city of Quilmes near Cafayete, they resisted the Inca empire which spread from Peru through the Andes, though they later accepted a certain co-existence in return for technologies such as irrigation which the invaders brought. In the Inca decline, the Spanish invaders became their next enemy, and for 130 years they fought against subjugation, eventually being defeated.

As the history goes, the Diaguitans then decided on a form of collective deliberate extinction, by vowing not to have any more children. I recently stood on the outcrop above the ruins of their city from where it is said they killed any babies which happened to be born despite their extinction effort.

In the end, the population of the city had reduced by two thirds to some 2,000 people. At that point they left Quilmes, one group heading for Cordoba, the other for Buenas Aires, some 1,500 kilometres away. Many hundreds died on the way, and the settlement where the Spanish rulers effectively put them on a 'reservation' was eventually abandoned, as it had become a ghost town.

Today that settlement is also known as Quilmes, but is famous only because Argentina's best-selling beer of the same name comes from there.

Hearing that very strong story made my visit to ancient Quilmes a very thought-provoking one. Looking down over the excavated ruins spread below that outcrop, I could almost feel the sense of hopeless determination amongst a people who had once been the masters of the Calchaqui Valley.

That visit to Quilmes was a side-track to a Land Rover drive up to the highest national road in the Americas passable by car, and then only a few months of the year without using a 4WD vehicle. At some 5,000 metres the Abra del Acay is higher than Mont Blanc.


Our journey was from Cafayete to the provincial capital of Salta, by the long way around. It took us up along the course of the Calchaqui River right to the ice-capped springs on the slopes of the Nevado de Acay which are the river's source.

It was billed as 'The Road to the Clouds'. We didn't have any clouds, though, they aren't due until around the end of the year.

It was an amazing journey not just to see the capability of the Discovery 3 in its element, but to traverse an area where the people today are a mix of many races.


The trip wasn't just a history lesson in conquest, but also in winemaking and the slow development of the wine industry in this part of Argentina. It produces today wines to rival the best in the country, and the world, and we camped on the estate owned by American Donald Hess, which has the officially highest vineyards in the world, at 3,015 metres.


Getting to the Paso Abra del Acay the Land Rover way involved taking the cars offroad much of the time and travelling through the gorges and canyons carved out by the Calchaqui River.

The Terrain Response system inaugurated in Discovery 3 when it was first launched proved to be a big help in negotiating the boulder-strewn riverbed, and along the sandy sections worn out on the river's bends.

Out of the river, the journey was most of the time a very dusty affair, as even when on the main roads of the region we were generally on dirt and rubble surfaces.

These were when the radio systems used while travelling in the short convoys proved their usefulness. The lead vehicle could warn of approaching vehicles or pedestrians which otherwise would have been invisible in the dust. On the narrower sections, sometimes with scary sheer drops on one side, this also provided the opportunity to find a slightly wider stretch of road by which the opposing vehicles could pass.


The views from the Paso, when we finally reached it, were spectacular and worth all the worry. Indeed, at the top we drove offroad on a truly lunar landscape in order to breach the actual 5,000 metres level above the road. That the wind chill and the altitude had us all wrapped up like eskimos under the blazing sun didn't take from the sense of achievement.

Afterwards it was downhill all the way, with an overnight stop at the 3,800 metres mining village of San Antonio de los Cobres. It is famous for being a station on the highest railway in South America, 'The Train to the Clouds', now unfortunately, not in use. From there, we followed the line of much of the track before ending the journey in Salta, the provincial capital.

The Discovery 3 2.7 litre engines were designed to operate efficiently at up to around 3,500 metres and it was interesting to see what effects the thin air and steep gradients caused on the 'Road to the Clouds' odyssey.

There was a noticeable fall-off in power as we climbed to the higher levels. And the turbocharger would spin faster than usual trying to develop enough pressure to do its thing. But though pickup was diminished especially when trying to redevelop momentum after negotiating a slow uphill hairpin, at no stage did the cars let us down.

The biggest danger was actually for us drivers, as once above 3,000 metres we lowlanders were prone to altitude sickness. Symptoms include headaches and nausea, and the problem can lead to hallucinations and erratic judgement and even sudden unconsciousness. We were all on our guard, drinking a lot of water and moving around slowly, and though some members of the group did get sick as we descended from the Abra, fortunately there were no serious instances.

But back home, I'm not thinking about the cars so much. What I can't get out of my mind is the thought of those children thrown from the rocky outcrop over Quilmes.

I'm not judging the Diaguitans for slaughtering their babies. That's something they will have come to terms with themselves hundreds of years ago.

It's just the enormity of their decision of extinction that makes my small travels on this planet seem so relatively insignificant.

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