They have decided, I think, that its occupants represent their best chance of lunch in this lifeless desert, a pair of gringos in a budget Romanian runabout on one of the world's wildest roads. The slaphead scavengers may have a point. We are winding up the notorious Cañón del Pato, a dirt track strung between Peru's arid coast and its dizzying Andean highlands, and I am wondering if TopGear has bitten off more than the little Dacia Duster can gummily chew. The Cañón del Pato – translates as “Duck Canyon”, contains no ducks – should be approached with trepidation in a Toyota Land Cruiser or a military Humvee. But a £10,000 Eastern European SUV, a car that's too cheap to be badged a Renault? Gentlemen, prepare for your starring roles in Carrion up the Canyon!
I start to mentally compile a list of “Things in Our Favour”. After 15 minutes it stands at this: (1) Four-wheel drive
That's all I've got. A front-drive-only Duster is available at the freakishly reasonable price of £8,995, but – ever safety-conscious – we've got the AWD version, which starts at just under 11 grand, making it the UK's cheapest 4x4 by far. That said, it's the sort of AWD system that, on paper at least, looks more suited to “muddy driveway” than “Peruvian death road”. It remains front-drive in normal road use, a central clutch transferring up to 50% of the power to the rear when it detects slippage. And that's about it for off-tarmac protection: the Duster is on road tires, has no locking differentials, no winch and no water or food on board. Admittedly, the latter isn't really the Duster's issue so much as a total lack of forethought on the part of myself and photographer Matthias, but still the point stands: things ain't looking promising.
We are very much alone on this road. The last vehicle we saw was a rickety old bus bumbling the other way a few hours back, packed to the rafters with wan passengers and with the slogan “JESUS ALONSO” across the top of the windscreen. Judging by the speed it passed at, the driver could indeed have been a hybrid of F1 ace and deity. Since then, nothing. Just miles and miles of brown-grey rock and corrugated track, snaking into the gargantuan Andes.
The odds are stacked against it, but the Duster is holding up. We clatter over rickety iron bridges laid with splintered planks of wood; we do motorway speeds across vicious terrain – hard rutted dirt cut with foot-deep holes and jagged, tire-pinching boulders. The little Dacia (rhymes with ‘Comin' Atcha', innit) shrugs it off with ease.
Past Yuracmarca, where an ancient man waves a live chicken at us like a magic wand, the canyon walls begin to close in, pinching atop the road like mile-high stage curtains. If ominous geology exists, this is it. Onwards and upwards, little Duster.
The Andes are big. If you are in possession of an atlas or a basic knowledge of geography, you may already be aware of this fact. But really, they're enormous – the biggest mountains in the world outside the Himalayas. Peru boasts some three dozen peaks over 19,000 feet, which, for the non-mountaineers among you, translates as “really, really high”. But it's not just the size of the Andes, it's that they loom from nowhere: drive a few miles inland from Peru's arid, desert coast spring, and suddenly you're amid monstrous, snow-capped giants, sheer sides rising almost vertically from valley floors. This place makes the Alps look like the Norfolk Broads.
This place isn't so much off the beaten track as unaware of the existence of a beaten track.