We were called at 5:30 am to finish packing and we set off by bus for Cachora and the start of our trek. On the way we picked up our main camp staff namely cook, his assistants and the muleteer master, and they picked up our provisions for a week. We stopped in a village for breakfast. I was still feeling queasy but managed to eat some bread and have some coffee. Our skiing enthusiast however was decidedly under the weather. We stopped for another view and photographs of Salkantay (photo) before following a gorgeous mountain road. Eventually we turned off onto a poor track to Cachora. It was a small town with a school by the town square (photo). We could hear the enthusiastic chatter of the children but we had something else on our minds. Our skier was so ill by now that a doctor was contacted. There was a surgery in the town and he was taken there for further examination. We waited while the rest of the camp staff were rounded up. They proceeded to pack and load the mules in preparation for the trek while we awaited news of our friend. We held back for as long as we could but he was to be kept in the surgery with suspected salmonella poisoning. Steak at the Italian restaurant the night before was the main suspect. If he was well enough in the afternoon he would follow on by mule. Our tour leader stayed behind with him to arrange matters.
And so we set off, downhill to start with but soon climbing up towards the Capulyioc pass. It was a good path and we could stride out (photo). It was a gorgeous warm sunny morning and the views of Padrayoc were stunning (photo 1) (photo 2) (photo 3 - panorama) (photo 4). Eventually I got my first view of the chasm that was hiding the Apurimac river (photo). Further on there was a beautiful view downstream (photo). Our cook and his staff had put up tables for our lunch by the path. It was the first of a series of excellent meals on the trek. There was always a tasty soup to start with and whenever we had pasta or rice it was cooked just right. There was also a toilet tent pitched containing a sit-down chemical toilet. This was luxury indeed!
There was a long zigzag path down to our camp at Chiquisca, a descent of 3,500 feet from Capulyioc pass, and it was dusk by the time we got there. There were other groups camping there and it was pretty busy. I went to get a quick wash and joined the others who were chatting. They said I was very keen, so I made a mental note not to wash so often. In fact we were all expected to wash our hands with disinfectant soap before each meal, the sort of hygiene that's essential on this sort of trip. They suspended a large plastic bottle, with hole in the bottom to fill it with water, upside down. Partially unscrewing the cap gave a stream of water ideal for washing and rinsing hands. Neat! For dinner on the trek there was always soup, main course, dessert and a choice of coca tea, camomile tea, black tea, Nescafé or Milo (a milk beverage with chocolate and malt originating from Australia) to drink. Dehydration can exacerbate AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) so we were encouraged to take on lots of fluid. There was a shop at this camp so there was beer for those who wanted it.
Shortly after dinner our skiing friend and the tour leader arrived. They had come all the way on mules having set out in the afternoon. Riding mules down a steep path in the dark can have been no fun. Our friend was very tired and put to bed almost immediately. There was still a question as to how fit he would be the next day but there were contingency plans if he could not continue in the morning. I went to bed soon after and went out like a light. I awoke in the early hours thanks to a call of nature. I've never seen the stars look so bright and I've never seen the Milky Way so clear. No wonder the Incas were so impressed by it. We had had a hard day of walking, some 600 feet of ascent, 4,000 feet of descent and about 10 miles distance. Tomorrow we would see Choquequirao.
We were awoken at 5:30 and given the tea or coffee of our choice. A bowl of hot water was left in the bellmouths of our tents shortly after and after washing and packing our belongings we had breakfast. This was the usual procedure of a morning. Breakfast usually comprised omelette or pancake with bread and butter, a choice of spread and choice of drink. We also got a pack containing a granola bar and item of fruit (apple orange or banana) for a morning snack. Drinking water which had been boiled was also available. I added a blackcurrant-flavoured electrolyte and energy drink powder to mine. We were ready to go at 7:00 apart from our skiing friend who needed another day of convalescence. It was planned that he would follow on the next day and catch us on our second night at Choquequirao. I had protected myself against mosquitoes with 100% DEET the previous day and escaped with only three bites but not everyone had so lucky and my tubes of hydrocortizone was in great demand. I'd taken two by accident. One was supposed to have been ibuprofen cream. My lapse with the DEET would come later in the trip. I'm prone to sunburn so I covered myself with long trousers, long sleeved tops and a big hat; and used factor 50+ sun cream on the exposed bits throughout the trip. I returned burn-free but also tan-free.
As we left camp we got our first close-up view of the Apurimac River (photo). In Quechua it means the river that speaks. It was more like shouting. We descended almost 1,000 feet to Playa Rosalina, where there is a disused campsite, and a new suspension bridge across the river (photo). My preparation and fitness were now to be tested for the first time. There was a 4,750 feet climb to our lunch spot. When out walking I usually pick a pace (of energy output rather than speed) that I can maintain for hours, slowing my speed for steeper inclines and increasing when the slope eases. This morning I picked my pace and kept going up the steep zigzagging path making the occasional brief stop for a drink. After 90 minutes I reached the Santa Rosa campsite where there was a shop (photo). Our guide had suggested this was a good spot for our morning break so I had my granola bar and fruit. Some of the others stopped and bought drinks. I wanted to get moving again whilst I was still in my rhythm. We had only come up 40% of the way; that meant another two and a quarter hours to the lunch spot. Just over an hour later I could see almost all the path from Capulyioc to last night's campsite so I stopped for a (photo). I reached Marampata 3 hours and 50 minutes after leaving the bridge at Playa Rosalina and stopped to take a panorama (photo). Our lunch stop was just 30 yards further on, round a corner. Feeling a mixture of elation and relief I knew I'd passed my first test with ease. I could have kept going. The two young women and marathon man had been there for some time; a couple of others had passed me on the way but the remainder of our group were behind me. The camp staff, though, had rocketed up and had been preparing our lunches for ages (photo).
From our lunch site we could easily see Choquequirao straddling a col further round the mountainside (photo). We had an undulating path to follow so it wasn't just a stroll but it was easy compared with what we'd done that morning. As we got closer to Choquequirao we could make out more of the areas that had been developed, like some terraces overlooking a huge drop (photo). We crossed a stream that became a huge waterfall. I kept stopping to take photographs (photo) and was left behind by the others. And so I was the last one into camp for the second successive night. The young women had gone off up to the Inca site. I was happy to rest and survey the wonderful view (photo). There was another group staying at the camp, French Canadians, but we hardly saw them. There were showers, with icy cold water, that some brave souls used; and sit down toilets which like many in Peru had no seats. That day we had done some 4850 feet of cumulative ascent, 1,650 feet of cumulative descent and about 5.6 miles distance. We were to have a lie-in the following morning; we weren't to be woken by our camp staff till 7:00. We should be so lucky!
We were woken at around 5:30 by the departing French Canadians and their camp crew making as much noise as Montcalm's army. The terraces they had occupied provided a good stand for my bowl of water when it arrived and I could wash myself and my hair with as much ease as in my own bathroom. After breakfast we headed up towards the main site. Choquequirao means Cradle of Gold in Quechuan but that is a recently given name. As the Incas had no written language its original name is unknown. There were some utility buildings on the way characterised by their mortared wall construction (photo 1) (photo 2). Then we walked up past some terraces (photo) which the cloud forest seemed to be trying to reclaim. There is some debate about the archaeologist's work here. Some claim it belongs to the forest and should be left, and those who are working there see the forest reclaiming it almost as fast as they are recovering the Inca buildings.
The main square is a tribute to their work and looks immaculate (photo), and there was a new vista for us to the west we had not previously seen. This building, on the way to the Usnu has a double-jamb dooway (photo), a sign of importance. We walked up to the Usnu, the flattened top of the grassy knoll where the rituals would have taken place. From here we could survey the main square, the terraces, the channel that supplied the inhabitants' water and the buildings above (zoom-enabled photo). In the other direction we could see the progress of the Apurimac downstream (photo). We returned to the square to look at more buildings (photo 1) (photo 2) then went up by the water channel, where we saw this local resident (photo), to the buildings above (photo), in the upper square. There was another good view of the site from here (photo). From there we walked down to the recently-discovered llama terraces. The Incas rarely decorated their constructions but here they had inset lighter stones to create a series of llamas in the terrace walls (photo). We walked along these terraces, which are very steep (photo), and then to a viewing point where the pattern across the whole series of terraces can be made out (photo). We now retraced our steps back to the camp for lunch.
I don't remember what time our skiing friend arrived, with our tour leader, but we all were delighted to see him. The previous three days had been an emotional roller-coaster ride for him, from despair in Cachora when he thought he might miss the whole trek, through riding mules down steep paths in the dark, arriving at Chiquisca totally exhausted and not knowing when or if he would manage to catch us up. He went up to the main site with some of the others. Four of us went down to see some of the other terraces we'd seen on the way.
We passed through a farm on the way and imagined the farm workers looked after the terraces. There were signs to a building near the Chunchulmayo waterfall which we followed, and then there were some saying Siga los Signas. Well we didn't know what it was but we decided to find out. After being directed up and down the terraces, once up a six foot wall we gave up. Eventually someone twigged it meant Follow the Signs. The terraces were wildly overgrown, with marrows amongst other things, and seemed uncared for (photo). There was also a plant with seeds that stuck in our clothing and which took hours to get out. Eventually we had to retrace our steps back to camp. I was the last one in again. That day we had done some 2,200 feet of cumulative ascent, 2,200 feet of cumulative descent and about 5 miles distance. The evening passed without incident and I went to bed in anticipation of another hard day tomorrow.
There was a 5:30 call for us again this morning and we set off at around 7:00, gradually climbing the ridge above Choquequirao. Our guide was leading but kept stopping to keep us together. He mentioned we should look out for snakes in the undergrowth on the ascent, particularly a brown one with a triangular pointed head. He had seen a couple on previous trips. He called it the jergona. I had a suspicion of what it was, confirmed when I got home. It was known to me as the fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes around. Its bite delivers about twice the fatal dose to humans. I kept my eyes peeled.
Once we were out of that area and near the top of the ridge he let us off our leashes. The two young women went off as usual and I followed them. The others stayed together. At the top of the ridge we could see the Rio Yanama but we were to cross the Rio Blanco (a.k.a. Victoria) which entered the Yanama from the right (photo). There was a long descent of some 4,750 feet to the river. It was a good path with a decent gradient for walking so we were able to stride out. We stopped for our morning snack part of the way down and we were all together again. Then the young women went off, followed by me. We passed some terraces where there were people working. A cow had been killed that morning and the carcass and hide were laid out neatly. You don't see that in the Lake District. Soon after, our marathon runner ran past followed by two others he had persuaded to run down. I followed at my own pace sighting the river from above (photo). I reached the river almost exactly two hours after crossing the top of the ridge, I can be accurate because my photographs are time-stamped, and crossed by a rickety bridge (photo). Our camp staff had set a table for lunch further downstream. We had been promised the opportunity for a swim, and most of us had been carrying swimming costumes and towels in our packs but when I dipped my feet in the water I knew I wasn't going swimming. It was icy cold. Some brave souls went in for a minute or two but that was all.
After lunch we set off in dribs and drabs to climb to Maisal camp, an ascent of 3,750 feet. I did it in my usual remorseless fashion and instead of being last to arrive at camp I was fifth. I saw this view on the way up (photo) and this at the camp (photo). Two of the others were starting to struggle and arrived long after, with a group of assorted helpers including our tour leader and our guide's assistant. It had been another tough day. We had done some 5,200 feet of cumulative ascent, 4,750 feet of cumulative descent and just over 5 miles distance. For the second night in succession we had a campsite to ourselves (photo). There was a shop but no showers or toilets, so the toilet tent was erected and we again had the luxury of our chemical toilet, one with a seat. The next day promised to be easier!
We set off at 7:00, as usual, from Maisal, and headed for the San Juan Pass. We had a mere 3,100 feet to climb to reach it, which should have been easy by our recent standards, but there's no easy way of climbing 3,100 feet and the path was awful. It was very muddy and covered in rocks of just the right size to turn an ankle. So progress was slow, but slower for some than others. The skies were overcast and the cloud forest dense so there was little opportunity or purpose in taking photographs. I took only one on the way up (photo). A group of four of us got to the top together, the front runners had already gone and the stragglers were behind. I took pictures of the view both sides of the col (photo back) (photo ahead), and walked up to the top of the pass which was only 30 yards further on. I found a comfortable seat and had a snack.
One of the other members had been complaining of feeling unwell as she approached the top and was now feeling worse. None of us had suffered any gastrointestinal problems since leaving "civilisation" so the obvious culprit was AMS, after all we were at 13,600 feet. Our guide caught up with us at that moment, divined the signs and said we needed to get her down to a lower altitude. Our lunch stop ahead was about 500 feet below so he took her down there. I followed on shortly afterwards and met our guide coming back. He was hoping to meet some of the following group and offer encouragement in the shape of a nearby stop and a good lunch. I got down to the lunch stop just as it was starting to rain. The camp staff had put up our table and seats but at the onset of rain rushed to get the mess tent up. After a while our guide came back down and we got chatting. He said the last group had been about an hour behind us and he thought some had taken the previous days' climbs too fast and might not manage the pass the following day. I asked how many and he said maybe four. Two had already admitted they were struggling but who were the other two? I decided not to ask. I wondered if I was one of them.
The others caught up, the rain stopped, and after lunch we walked down the 2,000 feet to the village of Yanama. It was an interesting walk and there was a fine view ahead (photo). The path in one section was perched on a rocky shelf with sheer drops of hundreds of feet on one side. Eventually we spotted the village (photo). Our camp was set up in the grounds of the local school. The camp staff prepared hot drinks for us, which was normal at about 5:30 pm on the trek; and afterwards I retired to my tent, stuck my lower limbs in my sleeping bag to keep warm and listened to some music on my MP4 player. I emerged from the tent a while later after hearing a lot of shouting. An impromptu football match was going on with members of the trekking party and the camp staff playing. We had done some 3,100 feet of cumulative ascent, 2,050 feet of cumulative descent and about 5.5 miles distance during the day and I wouldn't have had the energy or the desire to play but they were enjoying themselves. It was all fast and furious but the stars of the game were two village lads, who couldn't have been more than ten years old, playing as goalkeepers, and courageously blocking anything that came their way, whatever the force behind the ball or however close the kick.
Once the game was over we had dinner and discussed the upcoming day's walk. Our AMS sufferer was well again so she would be walking. Some were discussing going up the pass on mules, but were leaving their decisions till tomorrow. I'd made mine - I was walking.
It was a pleasant morning, some cloud some sunshine, when we set off for La Rinconada pass which also appears to be known as the Apacheta pass (4650 metres/15,250 feet). Our guide was stopping and starting so I asked if I could go on. He nodded, and I was off, striding out on a good track amongst beautiful scenery and feeling great. I stopped a couple of times to take photographs (photo 1) (photo 2) and was overtaken but was soon out in the lead again after they stopped for their morning snack. I wanted to get much higher, to break the back of the climb, before I stopped for mine. Some of the camp staff went by me with mules and when they stopped for a break about two thirds of the way up I did too (photo). The two young women, our skiing friend and our guide passed me there and I followed them shortly after. I was walking up into snow (photo) which was falling heavier and heavier as I ascended. I was anticipating reaching the top when I spotted our guide, standing on a promontory by the path, wearing a poncho, and looking like the Man with No Name. I thought he was welcoming me to the top but there was still some way to go. By the time I got to the top it was snowing heavily so photographs were out of the question. Our lunch stop was some 400 metres below the top on the other side so I continued down. Our guide caught me and passed me and I met him and the three who had passed me on the way at the lunch stop. The camp staff had pitched the mess tent so we sheltered from the sleet, as it was at that altitude. Our guide went back up the pass to shepherd the others down to our stop.
We all collected and had lunch, the camp and cooking staff were amazing, and set off intermittently for Totora (photo) which was still a long way away. It was raining sporadically and whilst I was dry inside my Paramo jacket and trousers they were getting very wet on the outside. So was my rucksack though the contents were in a waterproof liner. Towards the end of this subsidiary valley we had to cross another of those rickety bridges. A very young member of our camp staff was trying unsuccessfully to get two mules across through the water. Our guide stopped to help him. No doubt the lad would learn from the experience. We walked along the main valley to Tortora and found our campsite. Our main bags were covered and protected from the rain whilst being carried on the mules, and mine is waterproof, but the outside had got a bit wet. I had to get into my tent with some dry things and some wet, and somehow keep them apart. Now it was my turn to learn from the experience.
It had been a long and tiring day. We had done some 3,700 feet of cumulative ascent, 4,300 feet of cumulative descent and about 12.5 miles distance. At dinner we talked about our day. Two of our party had gone up the pass on mules, the two who had been struggling. But someone else did. Our tour leader, the man who told me I wasn't adequately prepared for the trek, had gone up the pass on a mule, too. I felt a warm glow inside, like the kids in the old Ready Brek adverts, only better.
I awoke in the early hours thanks to a call of nature. The rain was pattering on my tent and I was disinclined to go out to the toilet tent. I listened to some music for a while hoping the rain would stop. When the pattering did stop I dressed quickly and emerged from the tent into falling snow. There was a patchy white covering on the ground so it must have been snowing for a while. We were only 13 degrees from the equator at 11,000 feet in early autumn and it was snowing! I don't think people believed me when I recounted it at breakfast.
It rained intermittently all morning. We had been promised bathing in hot thermal springs when we reached the Rio Santa Teresa but we remembered the promises and the freezing waters of the Rio Blanco. In fact the rain stopped when we reached the thermal bath, which was as hot as I have my bath at home. Most of us had to get out of the water occasionally to cool down. Some time during the previous days I'd forgotten to put on the DEET and I, like most of the others, had a few irritating insect bites. There were black spots in the centre of the bites and memories of tales of warble flies, whose larvae can grow under human skin started to bother me. But the others had them too and I dismissed the thoughts. Bathing in the pool seemed to ease the itching, and hydrocortizone cream applied afterwards helped too. I dried myself, dressed and took photographs of the bath (photo) and the Rio Santa Teresa (photo) which was flowing by. Soon we were following the path by the river on our way to La Playa. It started to rain again, the path was very muddy, and for me at least progress seemed very slow.
As we approached our lunch stop we came across the first other trekkers I'd seen since a couple on climb to Maisal. There were more rickety bridges to cross though there was only one that bothered me. It had a curious open multilayered construction and one had to step over crosspieces above the longitudinal beams onto crosspieces beneath the beams, and there was a torrent flowing beneath. I didn't have the presence of mind to photograph it before crossing it and after I'd climbed down from it at the other side there wasn't a position to see the very open lattice. The river seemed angry (photo), but this after all, was the dry season. In the rainy season it floods the path and regularly washes some of it away.
We had another two hours to La Playa and, mercifully, as we walked along the sun came out and our clothes started to dry. There were avocado trees laden with fruit, but not apparently ripe enough to eat. La Playa is a one-street collection of buildings built of breeze-block walls and wooden roofs but it was as close to "civilisation" as we'd been for some time. We had descended over 4,200 feet and walked nearly 15 miles on this undulating path. I trailed in last but one. The campsite seemed to be milling with people but few were staying overnight. It was to be our last night under canvas and we had to say farewell to some of the camp staff who'd be leaving us in the morning. They were presented with their tips that evening. Tomorrow we'd see Machu Picchu.
We left La Playa and headed up into the cloud forest and through a coffee plantation. We stopped at the owners' house, hoping for a tour of their treatment plant but no one was at home. Our guide filled us in with the details in his usual admirable fashion. After the coffee is harvested the fruit is soaked in water to soften the skin. This is then peeled from the seeds which are then dried in the sun. It looked very labour-intensive. There were other fruits growing there, many of which I'd never heard. We kept on climbing and had good views through the breaks in the vegetation (photo 1) (photo 2). At the top of the pass there was a cheery group of Americans I'd seen the day before as they passed me on the road to La Playa in their bus. We bumped into them several times more over the next 24 hours. Our group continued down the other side but not for long. We stopped briefly to get our first view of Machu Picchu through a gap the dense foliage (photo). And then, not much further, there was the ancient site of Patallacta. From here we had a wide panorama of the peaks surrounding Machu Picchu, and The Lost City of the Incas itself in the centre being protected by them (photo).
We stayed at Patallacta for our morning break and examining the buildings, some restored (photo) and others still in the grip of the forest. Descending from there we had impressive views of the Rio Vilcanota (a.k.a. Urubamba) (photo) which, over 1,000 feet below Machu Picchu, almost encircles it. We dropped down to and crossed a small suspension bridge over the Rio Ahobamba (photo) and continued past a spectacular waterfall (photo) towards the Vilcanota and the train station by the hydroelectric plant. On our last trekking day we had done some 2,450 feet of cumulative ascent, 3,300 feet of cumulative descent and almost 9 miles distance. We had a long wait for our train to Aguas Calientes but our cooking staff had set up their kitchen at a shopping development nearby. It was the last meal they prepared for us and we were sorry to see them go. They had fed us superbly, and kept us infection-free for the whole trek.
We said our farewells and gave them their tips and boarded the train (photo). The train had not travelled far up the steep incline before it stopped and started going backwards. It was not, however, back to the station we'd left but it had to zigzag its way back and forth up the slope to get the elevation it needed to continue to our destination. Aguas Calientes is a boom town. One of our party had been there before and said it had tripled in size over an few years. Our hotel was comfortable enough but there were no coathangers, nor anywhere to hang them if there were any. I'd hoped to wash a few necessary items but it proved out of the question. We went out for a meal in the town, which I enjoyed but started feeling some gastric discomfort shortly before leaving. I was not the only one affected.
I was awake at about 5:00 with my intestines churning. This was not the time to get the runs. We were to have breakfast at 6:00 and leave soon after to beat the crowds to Machu Picchu. A couple of pills solved my problem though I wasn't sure of that until later. I was lucky. One of our party had the doctor called and was confined to bed at least for the morning with suspected food poisoning. I lost track of who got ill, and when, over those last few days but it affected most of us.
We went to the bus station and were soon on our way up the mountain to Machu Picchu. Most of us wanted to climb Wayna Picchu, the little mountain at the back of the site. We knew they only allow 400 people up there per day so we planned to do that first. Our tour leader, who stayed at the hotel making arrangements for our sick friend, and our guide would be joining us after our climb so we had to find our own way to Wayna Picchu, which we imagined would be simple. It was not. There are rows and rows of terraces, most of which lead to dead ends and the entrance is at a low level where it isn't possible to see the layout of the site. The one member of the party who had been before said she thought we had to get up to the Temple of the Sun to cross to Wayna Picchu so we gained some height and found she was essentially correct. We made our way to the gate and started queueing for entrance. The queue was slow-moving but we got through with visitor numbers in the 80s and 90s.
The path up to the top (photo) is very steep (photo) with handrails and ropes (photo) as an aid. It is not for those who suffer acrophobia. There are a few terraces on the way up on which one can get a breather. Near the top there is a natural tunnel to squeeze through, then a wooden ladder which gives access to the top. The top is strewn with huge boulders which one has to clamber over to get around. There is not much space and even though they limit the numbers it still seems crowded up there. I didn't stay long and returned the way I'd come, unaware there was an alternative way down. I photographed the panorama (photo)
Once down and back through the gate I spotted our tour leader, guide and two of our party who hadn't gone up Wayna Picchu. The others came back down in dribs and drabs. 288 had been allowed onto Wayna Picchu by then, according to the book, and the big queue of people still waiting would have ensured many would leave disappointed. We now set off on our guided tour. First there was the Sacred Rock (photo), which is shaped just like the mountain which is seen behind it. There were utilities buildings (photo) with their round-stone mortared construction, and one with an internal staircase (photo), the Terraces (photo), the Temple of the Sun (photo) also seen from above (photo), the Royal tomb (photo), one of the water channels through the site (photo), the Principal Temple (photo), the Three-Windowed Temple, the Intiwatana (a sacred stone used in astronomical predictions) (photo), its location (photo) and the panorama from it (photo), the terraces and the Watchman's Hut.
After the tour we lay on the grass near the Central Plaza and had our snacks, and were promptly told off by an official for eating on the grass. It was OK to lie there, just not to eat. A group of us decided to walk up to the col known as the Sun Gate, where those trekking The Inca Trail first see Machu Picchu (photo). There were good views on the way from the terraces (photo). Then we walked back down to the entrance and got the latest on our ever-increasing sick list. Our friend who had spent the morning in the hotel had come up to the site but promptly threw up when she got off the bus and had to go back down. She was unwell for the rest of the trip. The rest of us went back down to the hotel as we chose during the afternoon for we had to collect our belongings and catch a train. The train journey was through some spectacular scenery but it was dusk by now and there was less and less to be seen. We finished off the day with a two-hour bus journey from the train station to Cusco. I tumbled into bed. Tomorrow was to be a free day.
Details of the routes of this trek superimposed on Virtual or Google Earth are available on ShareMyRoutes.
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Rev. 3 June 2008