Veteran Australian adventurer John Leivers has spent more time walking in the Andes than most llamas. His vast knowledge and on-the-ground experience of the Qhapaq Ñan make him an irreplaceable member of the team.
John, who is now 64, divides his time between coaching and ‘sweeping’ a women’s surf boat crew in Perth, Western Australia and being the “chief consultant” on SA Expeditions’ ground-breaking Qhapaq Ñan Expedition from Ingapirca in Ecuador to Cusco in Peru. He will hike every step of the way alongside, with Nick Stanziano, (Founder and Chief Explorer of SA Expeditions), providing invaluable insights into the route, history, politics and more. As Nick says ,“Since I first conceived this Qhapaq Ñan expedition until today, John’s stories, mentorship and expertise on the Qhapaq Ñan have been ever present.”
John has always been “one of those blokes who’s keen to see what’s over the next ridge and deal with whatever’s there,” and he spent the 1980s and 90s leading overland expeditions and tours to over 80 countries, while also finding the time to visit a further 40 under his own steam. On his travels he visited many of the world’s most important ruins, in the process unearthing (forgive the pun) a real passion for archaeology and anthropology. He has spent the majority of the last 30 years in Peru, and he knows all 26 regions intimately.
The bug bites
He first went to Peru in 1991 – he was taking a group on The Inca Trail (to Machu Picchu), back when it was still an undiscovered gem – but it wasn’t until a few years later that his love affair with South America really began. Wanting to explore and inspired by the writings of the legendary explorer and architect Vince Lee, John decided to trek the section of the Qhapaq Ñan which joins Vitcos (the second-last Inca capital) with Espiritu Pampa (the last, doomed Inca Capital).
The trail was in poor shape and John had to make frequent use of his machete to cut through the thick bush. When he finally reached the spot where he thought Espiritu Pampa should be, he saw none of the 400 buildings Vince Lee had included on his maps. “I thought I was in the wrong place,” he remembers, “But then I realised that the entire city had been swallowed up by the jungle. The bush was so thick that you’d walk into walls before you saw them. It was a proper adventure that really got me going...”
No other continent like it
From then onwards, John took every chance he could to explore the Qhapaq Ñan. In and around Vilcabamba – a region that the Peruvian Institute of Culture said had only 6 miles of Qhapaq Ñan and zero Chanca sites – John personally rediscovered more than 300 miles of Inca roads and dozens of Chanca sites and even a possible Huari site.
“In Europe, Asia and the Middle East all of the really important archaeological sites have already been discovered,” John enthuses, “But South America is different. Within 130 years of the Spanish conquest, the indigenous population was reduced by 85%, which meant that thousands of significant settlements were abandoned and consumed by the cloud forest and jungle. It’s one of the only places in the world where a bloke with a backpack still has a very real chance of discovering something new and important.”
Highs and lows
It goes without saying that trekking in the world’s second-highest mountain range has more highs than it does lows. John loves nothing better than camping rough on the altiplano, with only the stars and the apus (sacred mountains) for company, but over the years he has had his fair share of close shaves too.
In March 2002 he arrived in the extremely remote Vilcabamba village of Yanahuanca in the Cusco region, hoping to be allowed to sleep in the school for the night. As soon as he walked into town everyone ran away. “They’d probably never seen a gringo, and years of persecution by the Shining Path had taught them to be wary of outsiders.” John knew he might be in danger so he walked a mile or so down the trail and made camp in a hidden spot behind a stone wall.
“I thought no one had seen me, but obviously I was wrong. In the middle of the night a group of guys with shotguns and machetes accosted me. They’d clearly been on the alcohol and the first thing they did was accuse me of being a Sendero (member of the Shining Path). After a lot of explaining they changed their minds and decided I was a huaquero (looter of ancient sites) ... which was almost as bad! … and then a miner. Eventually I was able to convince them that I was just a crazy old gringo and they ended up inviting me to join them for dinner.”
A force for good
John hopes that the SA Expeditions Qhapaq Ñan project will dar consciencia (raise awareness) to the challenges facing the Qhapaq Ñan and the communities it serves, especially in the remotest regions of the continent. Like Nick Stanziano, he is convinced that sustainable and ethical tourism can generate the awareness and funds that are needed to preserve one of the world’s greatest feats of engineering. “Many sections of the Qhapaq Ñan have already been replaced by roads, destroyed by mines, or dismantled to make walls. But because the network is so vast and well engineered, there’s still plenty of Qhapaq Ñan left to save if we act now.”
The cover image of this blog shows John on a transversal Qhapaq Ñan from Cusco to Puerto Inca.