19 OCTOBER 1991, Page 42

Pacing upon the mountains overhead

Patrick Marnham

THREE LETTERS FROM THE ANDES by Patrick Leigh Fermor John Murray, £10.95, pp.118 his is not so much a book as, well, three letters from thc Andes, originally written to the traveller's wife and repro- duced here with the personal bits omitted. Offered for sale for barely more than the price of the express postage from Lima, it is a snip, while we wait with such patience as we can muster for the final volume of the travel trilogy which started with a Time For Gifts.

Three Letters from the Andes describes a journey made by six friends in 1971. Four members of the party, which was led by Robin and Renee Fedden, were more or less serious mountaineers. The other two, the author and 'Andrew' (code for the Duke of Devonshire) provided a sort of scholarly or culinary support group. Although a map is provided, one has a curious sense for much of the narrative of being totally lost in tbe high sierra, a feeling not infrequently shared with the author. For the reader this is an agreeable feeling, even without the boost that Patrick Leigh Fermor himself was getting from the thin oxygen gulped down with hogsheads of rum or Chilean wine. '

Once camped out in the snow, high above the pampas, practical difficulties included frozen pens and frozen towels. Unfolding their towels in the morning 'was like straightening out bent tin'. One day the party moved on foot from 9,000 ft to 13,000 ft in seven hours. This progress was apparently made without special training, barely a week after arrival, and there were no drop-outs. Now and again the mount- aineers scaled a peak. One fine day they ascended all three peaks of Huanay, the highest being nearly 15,000 ft, an achieve- ment which was the primary purpose of the 7,000-mile journey.

Back at base the kettle could take one- and-a-half-hours to boil. While waiting,

a hugh pale bird with a prodigious wingspan floated out of the battlements of the peak and hovered overhead... El Condor!

At night the author would read aloud from Prescott's The Conquest of Peru, which put the entire party to sleep.

Once the mountaineering was done there was time for real travelling:

Again and again the pathway changed banks across uncouth Indian suspension bridges hung high over the river, woven of branches and liana and floored with slats on which the earth, now dripping with vegetation, had been laid and beaten flat... They swayed and dipped as we went over them. .. At one ford, only the foal's little pennanted head was visible above the flood... We tied our boots around our necks and plunged across. It was a magical day: one wanted the enchanted descent, sinking mysteriously from zone to zone, never to end.

At the end of the day the foal came to a standstill, so one of the Indian guides

slipped his poncho under his belly... slung it over his shoulder and trotted the remaining five miles with the little pony on his back...

Civilisation returned at 8,500 ft when they passed some homemade goalposts.

Below goalpost altitude unwelcome news of the outside world sometimes seeped through, not always accurately. A reference to 'the story of the ambassaor kidnapped by the Tupamaros in Paraguay' may refer to Sir Geoffrey Jackson, who was kid- napped by the Tupamaros in Uruguay. And they became aware that a revolution was taking place on the sidelines, across the border in Bolivia. But these events seemed less real on the shores of Lake Titicaca, where the Indians gathered to dance one of their sinister dances commemorating the Spanish conquest and the death, of their world; Many of the men were in curious fancy dress: tailcoats with silver buttons, high collars, Anthony Eden umbrellas stripped of cloth, so that only spokes remained; the wide pink ribbons of an imaginary order ran across their shirt fronts. 'Diplomaticos' or `magistratos', we were told. They looked extremely creepy.

Then in Arequipa the travellers inspect- ed the Convent of Santa Catalina which dominates the centre of the town and is as big as a citadel:

Parts were boarded off and 'clausura' is writ- ten across the planks; invisible black and white Dominican nuns still dwell there in seclusion... Lanes, alleys and sequestered quarters proliferate like the sub-divisions of a town... The framed martyrdoms in the main refectory and the mangled crucifix over the Abbess's high table must sometimes have been disturbing at mealtime.. . [portraits] mingle a Castilian splendour of lace and brocade with a primitive Indian stiffness, and everything is spangled with gold stars.

The time came to return home. They piled eight pony-loads of kit into two taxis, and carrying their ice hacks and wearing their climbing boots, in order to cut down on excess baggage charges, they joined the other passengers waiting in the departure hall of the Andean Society's charter flight. Some of these passengers wore blinding ponchos with hats like upside down mush- rooms, some grasped sheaves of Quecha arrows. The author thought that

All this gear must look a bit odd to the inhabitants, similar to a busload of Quecha Indians travelling to the Scottish Highlands in kilts and glengarries.

Let us hope that some time in the last 20 years Patrick Leigh Fermor returned to Peru alone, equipped this time with several large notebooks, and that these vivid impressions are merely an introduction to his account of the strangest empire ever won or lost by man.