A series of muffled raps and shakes of the tent poles was followed by the sound of the zip opening, then grubby hands thrust two cups of coca tea and a quiet buenos diaz through the open door. Outside it was still cold and 4am dark but the electric-blue washes of dawn were starting to push above the distant mountains.
Extremely early mornings induce a state of quivering, adrenal, apprehension in me which fuelled me through the mechanical camping routines of stuffing body into clothes and spare clothes and sleeping material into bags. Dervala needed little encouragement to do likewise and soon we were stretching and yawning in the cool, damp air of a high mountain dawn.
At a sleepy dinner the night before, Raul, our guide, had persuaded us that an early, early start would see us free of the hordes of other trekking groups. He was right, around us lay the grey toadstools of myriad tents, each full of quiet snuffling or snoring noises. Our porters were breaking camp with stage whispers and good humour.
We climbed away from the dormant campsite, into the moutain gloaming. Head-torches were needed at first, but the sun was racing up behind the deep notches of the far, dark ridge faster than we were and soon we could see well enough in the half-light. Still all was quiet. After half an hour we reached Runkuracay, one time Inca observatory and now our private viewing platform. We were halfway up a deep corrie cum valley, above us the higher peaks were being painted with amber, their splintered crags sticking above our shadowy deeps.
Five minutes' walk further up we gazed in silent wonder as light poured downwards on the hills, claiming boulders, cliffs, whole folds of land. Distant peaks changed from dark, terrifying monsters to honey drenched rock spires as orange light resolved their features. Still we were in shadow.
From below wafted the sounds of a flute, traditional mountain music played by a porter as he patiently climbed the ancient stone steps of the trail. And as his music reached us, so did the sunlight, the cold, dark dam of the far sawtooth ridge was breached by the inevitable sunrise and warmth and light silently splashed across us.
Far beneath us, the campsite slumbered on in the darkness.
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