TRAVEL / On the road from Tijuana: Cacti, birds of prey and the rusting hulks of automobiles punctuate the desert landscape of Baja California. Joe Cummings clocks up 3,600 kilometres and survives.

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BEFORE taking my first 1,000- kilometre car journey through the Baja California peninsula, I scaled a wall of travel books on Baja. They ranged from the 1928 Mananaland: Adventuring with Camera and Rifle Through California and Mexico to the latest edition of the American Automobile Association's Baja California Tour Guide. Almost everything I read about conditions on the road from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas conjured up potential calamity. The AA book listed automotive parts and tools to be tucked into the boot before departure; driving at night sounded like jumping off a bridge with a half-severed bungee cord around your ankles.

So it was with some trepidation that I eased a Mexican-made VW bug out of the Avis rental lot on to Tijuana's busy Boulevard Agua Caliente one bracing January afternoon not so long ago. I quickly became accustomed to Tijuana driving - if you've seen one gridlock you've seen them all - and confidence in my driving bounced back to near-normal levels. After all, didn't Mexicans drive on the same side of the road as my countrymen in California?

Once I was south of Tijuana on the original Mexico 1 or 'free road' (the four-lane toll road to Ensenada, I was told, was tame and expensive), the bug was slinging its way around steep mountain curves with several layers of canyon and desert below. En route to San Felipe on Mexico 3,

I pondered upon the rusting skeletons of Sixties Plymouth Roadrunners, VW vans and Chevy pickups among the whip-like ocotillo and towering cactus. How much worse conditions must have been before these roads were modernised in the 1970s. Then, looking more closely at the roadside debris, I noticed that some of the decaying hulks were in fact Eighties models. Take nothing for granted, I thought.

However, I made it to the tip of the peninsula and back, zigzagging across it several times and logged 3,600 Baja kilometres in the first six weeks of driving. Total damage at journey's end: a sunburned left arm (my rented car, like all vehicles produced in Mexico, had left-hand drive), and a cracked oil pan inflicted by a sharp boulder protruding from a red-dirt road between Mexico 1 and the little-known Mission San Javier deep in the peninsula interior. I equalised my tan at Land's End - the jumble of rock arches and sand beaches at Baja's southernmost tip that forms the coccyx of a cordillera that begins far north in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. In Mulege I had the oil pan sealed by a village mechanic for a mere USdollars 25 ( pounds 13).

Now that I'm an 'old Baja hand' I relish the drive, whether it takes three days of straight-ahead driving or three weeks of lingering in old mission pueblos and losing myself in palm canyons. Even the touristy bits at the beginning - the rigged games of jai alai (like pelota) at Tijuana's Palacio Fronton arena, the docile burros painted with zebra stripes posing for photos along Avenida Revolucion - put me in the right frame of mind for the journey south.

Yet another initiatory step must be taken in salty Ensenada on the upper Pacific coast, just out of reach of border day-trippers but not yet the 'real Baja' for us old hands. Wedged between the waterfront tourist shopping district along Avenida Lopez Mateos and a clutch of seedy red-light bars on Avenida Ruiz is 100-year-old Hussong's Cantina, where we Baja-nauts stop for a ritual shot of tequila chased with a cold Tecate cerveza and squeeze of lime before confronting the no-nonsense middle part of the journey. If the pass-the-hat ensemble of acordeonistas and guitarristas are pumping out a particularly infectious nortena (northern) repertoire the evening I walk through the swinging doors, chances are I'll be adding another half-day to my southward itinerary to recover from the after-effects.

Once past the hilly fishing-and- farming town of El Rosario, the classic Baja scenery kicks in, splashing a montage of cactus greens, arroyo reds (the colour of the streams) and rocky greys across the windscreen. For roughly 200kms below Arroyo del Rosario, a whole pantheon of types of desert foliage peculiar to Baja California make appearances.

These include profuse stands of cirio - a spindly succulent that reaches 15 metres in height. Tiny green leaves sprout along its grey trunk like a coarse fur. After a desert rain, a flame-like orange sprouts from the tip - hence the Spanish name, which means 'candle'. Another Baja oddity, the 'elephant tree', dots the central Baja, its short, stubby profile and papery bark peeling from gnarled grey trunks (which bear a resemblance to elephant appendages) to reveal a spongy green interior. Cutting lazy circles over the extraterrestrial landscape is a minor air force of hawks, eagles, and ospreys; the occasional cactus wren darts from perch to perch below.

As the transpeninsular highway bounces from the Pacific Ocean side to the Gulf of California side on its erratic journey south, there is plenty to feed the eye but little for the stomach. There are no 'dairy bars' next to the sporadic petrol stations (one must top up the tank at every opportunity); no 24-hour stores.

I like pulling off at ranchos tucked here and there along the highway, where ranchers' families traditionally invite transpeninsular pilgrims to share whatever is cooking on the wood-fired stone hearth that day for USdollars 4 ( pounds 2) a meal. Rancho Ynes, just south of Catavina in the centre of the peninsula, is justly famous for chiles rellenos (batter-fried peppers stuffed with melted, home- made cheese); at Rancho El Mesquital near the historic mission town of San Ignacio, I've eaten venado guisado, a thick, spicy stew of wild venison culled from the afternoon hunt.

At the peninsula's end, after crossing the Tropic of Cancer and passing the iron-shuttered, pastel-coloured houses ringing the quiet bay of La Paz, it's back to 'gringoland' at the fast-growing resort town of Cabo San Lucas. Time to belly-up to the bar at the Giggling Marlin to guzzle Pacificos with the red-faced North Americans who have flown in via Los Cabos international airport to live out their Hemingway fantasies at 'Marlin Alley', a strait teeming with hard-fighting billfish.

Sometimes I'd like to stay longer in Cabo, sampling the fish tacos at Chido's and waiting in the dark, air-conditioned caverns of the Cabo Wabo Cantina for Van Halen to put in a surprise performance. But the transpeninsular road has a way of yanking on my internal compass; I've barely thought about it when the bonnet is pointing north and I'm reliving the journey bottom to top.

Joe Cummings is the author of 'The Baja Handbook', published in paperback by Moon/Hodder at pounds 8.95)

(Photographs omitted)