WheelchairTrip – Through Mountains, Jungles and Swamps

Michal Woroch and Maciej Kaminski, two friends traversing South America in wheelchairs and the Land Rover Defender, named Defe, arrived in Lima. This is the fourth capital city on the route of their journey, after Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile and La Paz.

Through Mountains, Jungles and Swamps

Traveling in Wheelchairs and by Defe across America

Michal Woroch and Maciej Kaminski, two friends traversing South America in wheelchairs and the Land Rover Defender, named Defe, arrived in Lima. This is the fourth capital city on the route of their journey, after Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile and La Paz.

– Mr. Piotr, we have a story for you! What an experience we had! – I have never heard that much enthusiasm from Michal and Maciej before and, above all, their willingness to let me know about their impressions and experiences from the latest section of their journey. It is usually not easy to get much information from them, about what they saw, how they felt, what caught their attention, what surprised them. This time they were eager to start the conversation!

– I think for the first time in my life I had the feeling that I nearly died! – added Michal.


Direction: Peru

After leaving La Paz, the two friends rushed towards the border between Bolivia and Peru. For nearly all the time in the past several weeks, they had been traveling on roads in the mountains, at an altitude of between 11,500 and 15,000 feet above sea level. I think they even have become more accustomed to the rarified atmosphere where the oxygen level is so low that performing any activity is quite exhausting and more like hard physical work.

They changed their location for a brief time, although quite quickly. From the high Andean peaks they arrived in Caranavi, in the valley located at an altitude of only 2,500 feet to visit dentist Mauricio, their facebook friend. Raw mountain scenery transformed into a true tropical jungle and heat replaced the cold!

– I like the heat, so I was able to acclimatize to these conditions much better than Michal – said Maciej. – Very soon though, we both began to struggle with the overwhelming heat, because it wasn’t so pleasant any more. Eventually, we were using a garden hose to spray each other with cold water every 10 minutes in the host’s backyard.

It was their first contact with jungle conditions. The next challenges are still ahead of them.

After that short break in what was almost lowlands, the friends climbed up again to heights of about 13,000 feet. Looking forward with excitement to the extraordinary experiences they made their way to Lake Titicaca. That third largest lake in South America is the largest lake uppermost in the world, located at 12,507 feet above sea level. Being able to see that famous body of water was one of the main goals for Michal.

– Actually, I do not know what I expected. A heavy gray mist hung over the lake, so everything below took its color. Truly, I liked all these shades of gray. The lake is huge, I admit, but otherwise it did not arouse much excitement in us. More interesting to us was a ferry carrying buses to the other side of the shore. Besides, we felt like we were in a resort area, when we saw tourists renting boats to sightsee.


The first repair

At the Lake Titicaca the travelers bade farewell to Bolivia and welcomed Peru, because the lake lies on the border between these two countries.

For some time, Michal had been worried about a thumping sound coming from under the hood of “Defe”. The more he thought about the distance of seven thousand five hundred miles they already drove without replacing any parts, the more intense it sounded. Finally, when they came to Arequipa, the car had to spend two days in the workshop to repair a faulty fuel pump. The time Defe was out of use the travelers spent on studies of mountains roads of the Arequipa district. They got maps and instructions from the person “who knows everything in that matter” (that’s Michals words) – my good friend Vlado Soto who acts as the Honor Consul of Poland. By the way, Vlado knows also car repair workshops so he was the one who helped with Defender problem.

From Arequipa, the friends moved in the direction of the Colca Canyon. They spent the night almost at the edge of the gorge, which in 1981 the Canoandes’79 expedition had kayaked for the first time in history. Unfortunately, admiring the charms of that unusual place was disrupted by dense fog, which seemed to possess the space over the river for several days. In Chivay, though, they had the opportunity to see the monument commemorating the first exploration of the canyon.


In the trap

The rainy season in South America this year has been full of extremely heavy precipitation. Many villages experienced flooding. Many roads were impassable due to flooding, and also in the mountains – because of the avalanches, which sent down snow and rocks.

That day happened to be sunny. It was late afternoon and it was time to look for a spot to stay overnight. They were at 15,000 feet above sea level. According to the advice of the natives, Michal and Maciej left the road to take a shortcut across a meadow covered with beautiful green grass. After driving only a very short distance, a small river that had appeared before them did not seem to constitute any obstacle to the Defender, as well as a wet section of the area where the water reached a height of maybe only five centimeters. One would like to say that Defe went through this area like a storm, but it suddenly got stuck in the mud, which seemed to suck the car into it.

– Trying as they may, Defe would not move, the wheels sunk into the swamp and Defe was completely stuck! – said Michal.

– Maciej instructed me, that in such situations one needs to scream: Socorroooo!

A man driving on the road heard their call for help. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to do anything but he promised to arrange for a tractor to come in for about 5 o’clock in the morning. Later, another local stopped, but unfortunately he couldn’t do much. Meantime it got dark. The friends pitched their tents – as usual Michal on the lower platform of the car and Maciej on the roof; they could not do anything but wait for the morning.

It snowed that night. A layer of about 25 centimeters of fresh snow covered everything. It got very cold. Because the car was stuck, they could not turn on the heating.

– I woke up at one o’clock in the morning. I was hot and really cold at the same time! I felt paralyzed. I could not move. And then, I experienced feeling like I almost died – in retrospect it was easy for him to joke about that moment, but then he was really terrified. For some reason Michal lost consciousness. When he woke up feeling cold to the bones, he sat cross-legged, trying to warm up. Every now and then he fell back into a light sleep, or rather the state of numbness, to again wake up cold, feverish and scared. And so, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, time dragged on endlessly, it seemed!.

– Are you alive? – He heard a cry in the morning coming from the top of the car.

– Yes, I am alive!

– When Michal told me about his night ordeal, I felt very bad because I actually heard groaning sounds coming from the lower platform – said Maciej later – but I also felt that the car was moving, which meant to me that it was Michal tossing around. That’s why I did not go down to check on him. Especially at night, it was very hard for me to get out of my tent, which had collapsed under the thick layer of fresh snow.

At five o’clock, of course, there was no trace of a promised tractor. People driving by were only waving without stopping to the travelers trapped in the swamp. So passed the next few hours!

– We agreed that we would not write to you, Piotr, because we knew that you would move heaven and earth to help us. We wanted to manage by ourselves – they told me laughingly. – We decided to give ourselves one more night. If nothing changed in the situation, then we would write.

Finally, a white Toyota Hilux appeared on the meadow. That were the director of a company specializing in building roads, Señor Santiago Luperdi Calderon and his driver. Unfortunately their Toyota could not pull the Defender either. They brought another one, but the wheels of both trucks got stuck in the mud and Defe still did not move.

– I saw, in the eyes of the director, a resignation and desire to give up – reported Michal. – Maciek and I knew that we had to stop them from leaving. I just thought about an inflatable air-bag we had in our truck equipment, which works as a jack. It had to be pushed underneath Defe and hooked to the exhaust to be inflated causing the front of the Landover to go up. So, Maciek rode his wheelchair in the mud, immediately sinking up to the center of its wheels, and started to maneuver the air-bag. When the rescuers saw his efforts, they set about with renewed energy to pull us out of the swamp.

Raised slightly, and pulled by two Hiluxes, Defe finally rolled out of the mud. And then, one of the Toyotas got stuck in the mud. This time the Land Rover pulled it out. Still Maciek remained in the swamp. With the assistance of one of the drivers, he was able to get his wheelchair out of the mud! What an experience – but it all worked out well in the end, thanks to the kindness of the local people who helped!


Like in the family

The muddy wheelchairs of Michal and Maciek and Defe were cleaned up in the streams, which often appeared on the way to Puente del Inca. Travelers were able to admire the Inca Bridge woven from grass ichu, from the windows of their car. Unfortunately, getting onto the bridge proved impossible for people in wheelchairs. Michal and Maciej have accepted, with extraordinary calmness and humility, the constraints encountered along the way, which prevent them from seeing up close, and sometimes not seeing at all, some of the places.

-The most important is to be on the road and the ability of moving further – they stress every time I speak to them.

And so, enjoying their traveling, they reached Cuzco, where they were kindly welcomed by Duilio Vellutino, my good friend from the time of the Canoandes expedition. The two travelers, even in the absence of the owner, were able to stay in his house in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

– They adopted us like family – commented the two travelers about the meeting with Duilio’s neighbors and the guardians of the house who quickly became their friends.

It was not easy to leave the place and the people. The memories were spoiled a little bit by the reaction of the unwary Europeans’ stomachs not being used to local dinner specialties that caused some abdominal issues for both of them. After that important lesson, they were glad to arrive in Lima, where the Polish Embassy also warmly greeted them.

Soon, the two friends will leave to Pucallpa to realize another goal of their expedition – to see the Amazon!

By Piotr Chmielinski

Washington, February 21, 2017

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