Book Review: The White Rock – An Exploration of the Inca Heartland By Hugh Thomson

By Hugh Thomson

I spent seven weeks in Peru at the end of 2005. Most of the time I was in Lima but I travelled south for three weeks to Arequipa, Puno, Cusco and finally Machu Picchu.

On the surface Peru is a simple, third world South American country. It’s beautiful scenery and attractions, including the famous buildings and ruins of the Incas, attract thousands of tourists and backpackers each year.

What I didn’t realise until afterwards was just how complex Peruvian politics, history and culture really are.

This is partly because of the geography. Peru has three distinct geographical regions; one of the world’s driest deserts on the coast, thick jungle in the Amazon basin to the east, and the towering peaks of the Andes in the middle.

Peru may look small on a map compared to its giant neighbour Brazil, but in reality it’s a massive country, the distances exaggerated by the inhospitable terrain. Vast areas are uninhabited and unexplored. Just recently, photos were released of an uncontacted tribe on the Brazil/Peru border, along with the startling fact that half of the world’s last 100 or so remaining uncontacted tribes are believed to live in the region.

Hugh Thomson, the author of The White Rock, came to Peru in early 1982 after hearing about an Inca ruin originally found by Hiram Bingham, the discoverer (or perhaps more accurately rediscoverer) of Machu Picchu, then lost again, 70 years earlier. In 1912 Bingham discovered the ruins of Llactapata, failed to record the location properly and was never able to find them again.

Machu Picchu, Peru © Andrew Gibson

At the time a twenty-one year old working in a London pub, Thomson was looking for some sort of purpose and found it in a mission to rediscover the ruins. He was not only attracted by the idea of searching for a lost ruin, but by the pull of the unknown. At the time Eastern Peru was largely unexplored and unmapped.

He formed an expedition with a couple of friends, raised some funds and flew to Cusco, from where they joined an architectural dig at Cushichaca, near the start of the Inca trail. Not only did they find the ruins of Llactapata in pretty quick time, they went on to explore the system of Inca roads around Machu Picchu and beyond, discovering more ruins in the process.

The book took twenty years to write and the author, who went on to become a well known film maker,  looks back on his earlier experiences with the benefit of maturity and experience.  But The White Rock goes beyond a simple travelogue.

Hugh Thomson puts together a fascinating history of the Incas and the Spanish Conquest, starting from the initial expansion of the Inca empire as they conquered neighbouring tribes, to the arrival of the Spanish, the murder of Atahualpa and the final battles, forty years on, in and around Old Vilcabamba, the final hiding place deep in the jungle of the last Inca rulers.

His historical research is interwoven with his real life adventures and tales of his encounters with iconic explorers such as Gary Ziegler and Gene Savoy, and stories of some of less savoury aspects of recent Peruvian history such as the rise of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas.

The book left me with a deep appreciation of the history of the Inca Empire, their culture and the mysteries of the Peruvian Andes and jungle.

I recommend The White Rock for any traveller to the region who wishes to learn more about its history, the story of the rise and fall of the Inca Empire, the Spanish conquest and the impact of these events upon the modern landscape and Peruvian people.