Marino and I went into the dining room at the same time. He was packing his bag with Aqua Pannela, a sweet drink, some very sugary lumps, and various other items. I realised I had nothing much to sustain me for the trip. I had packed my blue cagoule, my ruablo that I had picked up in Silves, a small market town south of Cali that had a large Indian population, and was wearing my straw Panama, which was my everyday apparel in Colombia. Marino eyed me even more suspiciously than before, and I was getting the impression he thought I was taking the Mickey.
The German couple opened the kitchen door. Breakfast for the four of us was some bread and coffee. Then we headed off. I always get a curious feeling just before a long walk, that I am so tired that no way can my body get me through the whole day. When I get into my rhythm I am all right then till after the first stop, then it becomes more difficult to go again. I get very tired after lunch and then reach that stage where I can’t care whether I carry on or drop dead on the spot. At no time do I really feel that I completely enjoy walking, and even afterwards I feel so dogged tired that I don’t really appreciate it. I think it is only the after experience, the memories of the walk through rose tinted glasses that makes it all right again.
I was certainly shocked by the severity of the walk from the first moment. We went a short way back along yesterday’s track, then turned abruptly right and up over a high ridge between the Miras and Quindio valleys. It rose a good 500 ft before slackening in its gradient, and we meandered still upwards through the cloud forest. Then blow me if we didn’t go down again. This confused me enormously. I was supposed to be going up the mountains and here I was losing the potential energy I had fought to obtain over the previous half hour. Marino and I managed to keep up a good pace, but we kept having to wait for the Germans. This was slowing us down and Marino showed a carefully guarded impatience for them as we went higher. He would say things to me when we were alone like “we aren’t going to climb far in one day, Mister Alan”. We came down to the Quindio River and followed past some sizeable waterfalls, rock bluffs and gorges. We crossed the river and climbed steeply once more. This wrecked the Germans. The man complained of a blister that was flaring up on his foot and they decided that they would turn back. Marino ensured that they could find there way back, watched them disappear down the narrow rocky path and then smiled at me and said “We make some progress now, no, Mister Alan?”
I wasn’t so sure of this. He had already changed his mind about my walking skills, but I had had the excuse of having frequent rests to let the others catch up. This was now gone and I had only my own weaknesses to blame for lack of progress. Marino set off at a renewed pace and I found it difficult to keep up with him, but I soon found that my legs were stretching and my lungs were expanding. To a certain extent this did not work, as the rising altitude was making it more essential to get oxygen into the lungs, and I had only had one day to acclimatise to 6000 ft before going further up.
At one point, near the River Quindio again, we came across a huge wooden structure. Apparently a new centre for research in the mountains, the building work had only recently finished. I was grateful for a quick pause to look around it, but Marino was in a hurry to make more progress. We’d been climbing for three hours and we hadn’t reached the end of the forest yet.
We continued to rise and the cloud forest began to thin slightly. We skirted the fringe of some cloud and then delved straight into it. The temperature dropped dramatically and I continued to layer myself with clothes. The trees began to reduce in height and a scrubby moorland took over, like that you find on the HighPeak but without the heather. Fully mature trees were growing to less than three feet up here and the mist swirled between their gnarled branches.
At various stages, Marino would stop, and he got out the Agua Pannela. This was a very sweet drink, made from melting the Pannela Sweetbread (almost pure sugar as far as I could make out) into water. Marino added lemon juice that gave it a delicious tang. A few drops of this liquid were enough to refresh you, clean you mouth out and give you substantial energy to sustain you for the next stages. He also had some solid Pannela which melted in your mouth. These two victuals kept us going on the upward journey.
I was getting a little frustrated that we had climbed to over ten thousand feet and all I could see was cloud. I got glimpses between wisps of an expansive moorland, and the strange plants of the Paramo became apparent.
A rubbery cactus style plant grew almost everywhere, which a thick stem rising up to three feet above the ground crowned by fleshy yellow-green leaves. Hairs cover most of the plant, catching the condensation and various attributes keep the plants stable in this extreme climate. Now, as far as the eye could see, these plants dominated. Marino disappeared off into the mist as we arrived at another layer of cloud. I struggled to keep up now, I had some of my own blisters to contend with, and an ache in my legs, back and neck from walking perpetually upwards. I saw Marino’s outline ahead of me on a hilltop. I decide to tell him that I needed to go back. We’d be walking almost non stop for six hours and were now close to fourteen thousand feet.
I reached him and began to speak, when my mind was blown away. Not only was it very windy up there, which may have accounted for some of it, but I now saw that we were above the clouds and ahead of me was Tolima, the second highest peak in the Central Cordillera, capped in snow and glistening in bright light. A higher level of cloud drifted over it now and again, but I felt so satisfied that I had seen it. I got my photo taken and took one of Marino, wrapped up in his heavy green coat, ragged jeans, turquoise scarf and purple baseball cap. Then I noticed, amongst the pimply green moorland around me, was a small finca, here at this level. I was amazed to find that many people eke out lives up here, and Marino said “That is where lunch is, Mister Alan”. I said I was very tired and wanted to turn back. I had said “Bastante”, which I’d looked up in my dictionary, but still don’t know whether it was the right thing to say. Nevertheless, my haggard look must convinced Marino that if he didn’t turn round soon, he would have to carry me off the mountain.