He and Harry had ridden up the serra on mules the year he arrived at the mining town in 1955. As they gazed down at the distant town of Belo Horizonte from their vantage point where the track petered out at a gap in the peaks he had suggested they rode their mules down the far side. Harry laughed and said ‘there is no track any more, we’ll have to go back.’

Now, four years later and Harry retired back in Durham he determined to see if he could do on foot what they had not been able to do on mule back. He had not taken the project too seriously and set off  without any preparations, not even taking any food or water. It had seemed so easy and casual back then and he whistled as he walked along  the climbing track  beyond the mining town of Nova Lima. It was easy going to begin with and he was able to make steady progress.The track led him, after a couple of hours ascending, to the solitary house of a company watchman which lay away from the track in a clearing in what was now thick woodland. Although set in idyllic surroundings with a clear stream gushing down close by and the sweep of the towering serra above as a majestic backdrop, the house was not well looked after and the surroundings littered with discarded debris. Pigs and chickens roamed freely to add to the unclean and untidy image and a mean looking, skinny dog growled unconvincingly as he approached.

He did not know this watchman, a man in his fifties with several days grey stubble who stood unmoving just outside the door with his wife behind him and staring over his shoulder. The woman’s hair was uncombed and unkempt. There was the inevitable smell of rancid oil and wood smoke in the air from some food being cooked inside. He could see a shotgun leaning against the outer grubby white-washed wall. The couple continued staring at him curiously as he drew closer and returned his salutation of ‘boa tarde.’ impassively. The scene did not encourage him to linger, but he paused for some checking. ‘Is this right for the track over the serra?’ ‘Yes, yes. Straight on.’ ‘Is it still open?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How far to the top?’ ‘Oh, far.’ ‘Very good, ate logo.’ ‘Ate logo.’ There was no indication that the man comprehended, so impassive was his posture, and so minimal his responses. There was no point in wasting more time here and he pressed on leaving the clearing behind and was soon out of their sight after he turned a bend in the track. The gradient almost immediately grew steeper and, for a while, the woodland denser.

He required several rests because of the strenuous efforts needed and this slowed his progress so that when the sun went down behind the hills he was still a good distance from the crest of the range. It was necessary to press on quickly before the light failed completely for him not to be left in the dark below the skyline; but the steepness of the climb was more than he had anticipated and, at times, he was forced to clamber on to rocks using his hands and arms to heave himself up and pull himself over. Darkness always comes swiftly in these parts and it occurred to him after some time, climbing up and over large boulders, that he had probably lost the track. But, on the other hand, how could he have done so? There had been no apparent or obvious alternative ; he sat on a flat rock to rest and wait for his eyes to gain their night vision, as he had learned to do in the RAF. With night vision, everything felt less threatening and menacing. But what was he to do now?

There was no longer a clear track to follow, and he doubted he could find it again if he started to climb down in the dark. He ruled that out at once. So, go on, go up. He could now see the dark rim of the serra above him; it looked a sheer rise in the variegated shades of darkness; some stars were showing in the lighter shade above it and now, rested and seeing these encouraged him to start climbing again but cautiously, very cautiously. He didn’t want to fall and break a bone. That would mean a night out here and all the uncertainty. So, be careful, he told himself. After half an hour he stopped again and tried to assess if he was or was not making meaningful progress. It was such slow going  and he was sweating and breathing heavily, but he had to convince himself that it was progress he was making. It was becoming more difficult though and the rocks becoming larger and more perpendicular so they could not be scaled and a way had to be found round them and he was aware that doing this in the dark exposed him to the danger of a slip and a fall. He had been labouring up for what seemed to him to be an hour, so he rested again. ‘I must have lost the track. Idiot,’ he chided himself. ‘Harry and I rode up to the top on mules, and no mule could have climbed the rocks I’m clambering up.’ This realisation made him depressed for the first time, but there was no going back now, he would never make it so his only hope was to get to the top and search for the track. He got to his feet with this purpose renewed in his head.

Pulling himself up, gasping and trembling from the muscle exertion around a rock face the size of a bill-board and nearly as flat, he found himself standing on a narrow ledge with a steep rock face above that was covered in shrubbery and straggling bushes. He could see from looking upwards that this was the final obstacle before he reached the peak, and rested for some time for his breathing to become normal and his muscles to relax. When he felt himself ready again for more activity he grasped the nearby foliage and found it to be firmly embedded and able to support his weight. He started to pull himself upwards by means of the bushes and was about ten feet above the ledge when he discerned a break in the rock face, hidden from below by the shrubbery, and what seemed to be a cleft or a cave. His head came up to the level of the floor of this cave. In the night of different tones of greys and blacks, the inside appeared to be the blackest of all tones. Quite impenetrable for his eyes.

And then the hairs started rising on the back of his neck and a primeval fear took hold of him. There was something there, close to him. He stayed paralysed, suspended in one position, with his mind racing to regain control over the terror he felt. And then he smelt it. The smell of an animal’s lair, unwashed fur, acrid, sour. His head seemed to be inside a pit of the unknown, and his hands let go of their hold abruptly, involuntarily so that he slithered down the rock face. It was a panic reaction to his defenceless exposure to an unknown unseen animal in its lair on the dark hillside, with one part of him wanting only to get away from a secret danger at all costs, while another part sought to ensure that he would land on the ledge and not go plunging into a free fall down to the boulders.

His falling feet stayed on the ledge and his trailing hands stayed grasping support so that tremble and pant as he may, he was safe from falling further. His apprehensions were now aroused and he wanted to get away from this spot. It was one way or the other along the ledge; but which way? He goaded his mind to think back to where he had first started climbing; and had the track at that spot to be most likely to have gone left or right? Try as he would, he could not pin-point a likely clue; it would have to be done on an instinctive decision. With his back pressed against the rock face he would attempt to move to his left and hope that the ledge led to a way through and so, groping his way along and not able to judge the extent of the drop below him, he let his heart settle to a normal beat. He visualised the possibility of snakes on the ledge and quickly pushed the thought away; concentrate on what has to be done, he warned himself, sternly, not on what might happen.

The sweep of his left arm in the darkness struck against an obstacle that appeared to be a dislodged rock securely wedged where it lay and blocking his progress along the ledge. He felt around for a foothold on the far side and then, lying with his face towards the rock, spread-eagling himself, as though strapped down for a whipping, he clung to this rock as he eased his right leg over to the far side before twisting his body while grasping for a hold on the upper edge he pulled himself round the obstruction and felt his feet on the far side of the ledge. There was no slipping; nothing was dislodged; nothing moved even and, as he continued shuffling along  his feet felt as though the ledge was widening at which he felt his spirits rising. But almost immediately he sensed new dangers as the ledge became so wide that he could no longer check the edge with his feet and the vertical rock face at his back, at the same time. Some new method of progression would have to be worked out.

As he pondered this, he noticed that the height of the outline of the rock face above against the sky was less than before and, as he had not been climbing but moving horizontally, this meant that he might be coming to a gap in the range. This reasoning was correct and before long he found his head on a level with the height of the top of the serra and fumbling cautiously in the darkness he could no longer find the edge of the ledge. He was on open ground and, after proceeding for some time, caught sight of lights down below on the far side, which must be Belo Horizonte.

He had no idea of the time, but he knew that he would have to wait for day-break for finding an easier way down than he had been able to do on the way up. After some searching he found a spot where he could sit, facing the distant lights and made himself as comfortable as possible, before dropping off into a light sleep. He stirred several times during the night but awoke fully when the dawn light came filtering into the dark sky. The lights began to merge gradually into an amorphous blur as the dawn spread itself about the still sleeping town. His immediate surroundings were becoming distinguishable as the darkness ebbed away, and he rose slowly and stiffly to his feet, intent on tracking a way down as soon as the growing light permitted.

Moving about more freely, he went slowly in the same direction he had been going before he stopped. Now he could touch and see shadowy outlines to find a safe way. Keeping the far off town in view was becoming difficult because of a diffused shadow obliterating the previously clearly seen lights, without revealing any other clue as to where the town lay below. He strained his eyes for a land mark, because it was that side he had to keep in sight. He was moving along the ridge of the serra and had to be sure he stayed in contact with the far side for a descent when the opportunity presented itself.

It was quite light when he came to a saddle lying between two peaks and what could be a track running in the direction he wanted to go. The only way to find out was to leave the ridge and go down, and he found it possible to make good progress for a hundred yards or so before he saw the way was blocked by thick vegetation growing higher than his head. Should he try and push through? If it was a true track from past times, this must be overgrowth since it ceased to be used; there was no way around so it was either press on through or return to the ridge to seek for another gap, possibly miles away. I’ll risk it, he said doubtfully to himself, and pushed into the tangle of undergrowth. It was not clear for some while whether this was going to be the way down for him and although there were no thorns or prickles to tear his clothes or flesh, it was hard enough going pushing his way through.

As it thinned out he was able to see what was almost certainly an old, long disused track on which he was able to descend the serra at an ever increasingly brisk pace.. After a few miles the first shacks lying on the outskirts of the town came into sight and he knew he had been successful. The dwellings were poor adobe affairs with rough wooden shutters and roofs of old zinc sheets. There were flattened earthen yards surrounding these mean huts and fences of dried wattles and flattened oil drums. Nobody stirred. He was not afraid of the dogs here; only the rich had dangerous guard dogs; the poor attracted half starved mongrels that slunk away with their tails between their legs when threatened.

The silent walk along earth roads traversing this area of impoverished shacks changed when the sun appeared, from that of a forlorn, abandoned scene to one with its own grim, striving beauty which he passed through and came to crudely asphalted roads with electricity wires strung haphazardly between an assortment of different sized poles and water pipes running to taps within compounds where he could see the first attempts at growing a few straggly vegetables. These wooden houses with tiles, were a step up from the adobe shacks on the periphery, without piped water or electricity and, as he walked now on the flat towards the city centre. he came to brick houses with glass windows and fences with gates.BLOG – MULE RIDE (3)

Early workers were now making their ways to work and he went into the first open bar he passed for coffee and slices of freshly baked bread, standing at the counter in the Spanish manner. Trams were picking up passengers along the Avenidas and, with the sun up, the day was just starting in Belo Horizonte. The Parque Principal looked inviting compared with the wilderness he had come through and, as he stood at the junction of the nearly deserted Avenida Alves Cabral with Alfonso Pena looking southwards he could see the distant serra over which he had crossed. and where Nova Lima lay the other side, a distance of 20 miles away, while behind him beyond the town was open country to the north with other hills and the aeroporto Pampulha. You have to walk into a town in the early morning to understand it and appreciate its beauty, he thought, as he headed for the Central Bus Station.