I tossed my bag over into the small wet fishing boat and precariously dangled for a moment between the two boats. We loaded up our boat and set off in a wide loop to the shore, where the only way onto dry land was through the gentle breakers above the coral-shingled beach. We scuttled up the beach and assembled in a large open sided building where we were allocated our cabins. The men were in one large dormitory, the women in another. Only twenty four visitors are allowed on the island, and everything we brought had to be taken back by us, and everything on the island had to remain here. Gorgona is a preserved island, where the fragile balance of the island’s ecology is protected at whatever cost.
We found out why the island had remained so “untouched” after a simple breakfast. We walked about half a mile south of the camp along a steamy pathway. Several types of monkeys chittered in the thick branches above us, tormenting us as we walked onto a concrete platform. We saw a large number of derelict buildings with barbed wire protecting the jungle from them, or vice versa. The division between jungle and building was now fuzzy, and insects swarmed throughout the area, plants grew out of every available crevice and the hard concrete façade was fading in green moss, mildew and fern.
We suddenly were aware we had been brought to a high security prison. Colombian governments had used this for about 30 years to keep opponents away from the public eye. They were shepherded off to Gorgona and held for years, often without trial, and without any contact to the outside world. The conditions were unbearable now; what they had been like when the place was supposedly habitable, one can only guess at. The jungle may have been tamed to a certain extent when the gaol was in use but the barbed wire must never have kept the flies, cockroaches and scorpions away. Now, hoards of termites rampaged up and down walls, temporary tunnels and permanent encampments splattered the walls.
We were shown the normal quarters, the ranks of bunk beds, as they had been when the camp closed down, only a few years before in 1983. And behind the kitchens and guards quarters were a set of holes in the concrete filled with storm water. We wondered whether they were latrines, or holes for superstructure now rotted to nothing. No, this was the solitary confinement block. The holes were barely wide enough for a man to get his shoulders into. They were lowered into these deep holes, and deprived of movement even to scratch their noses or move their aching limbs, they could be left in these holes for up to twenty-four hours at a time. And they were prey to all the creepy-crawlies that would come, and some were left in the open air, so the rain, wind and sun would torment them for all this time. These simple rounded holes in the concrete could barely show the extent of the inhumanity that was inflicted on these people and yet the stories our guide told us made the scenes so vivid that we all shuddered to contemplate the ordeals the prisoners had to go through. There may have been a glimmer of understanding if these people were proved to have caused similar hardship to others, though I would be hard pressed to subscribe to that philosophy. That many of these people were here merely for holding a different opinion, liberal rather than conservative, or vice versa, made it even more unbearable. And the final bizarre thought, as we left this ruin behind, was that somehow, the inhumanity between men had meant that the other species on the island were left untouched, and that humans were now able to protect this ecological niche for the enjoyment of others only because of the suffering of their fellow men.
We headed back to lunch at the camp, and then in the afternoon were invited down to the coral reefs on the southeast coast to learn how to snorkel. This was my first time ever snorkelling. Graeme and I had been into a shopping centre in Cali to get ourselves kitted out. We had bought the cheapest snorkelling gear we could find, it looked the right colour, and a pair of swimming trunks, which I had neglected to get when I was in the UK. We headed down to the beach with all the others and stripped off. The guide was giving a run down on how to snorkel. I don’t remember much (Chris Hillman in Eritrea taught me a lot more several years later, but then again he did it in English not Spanish). I worked out I had to spit in my goggles to stop them clogging up, and how to breathe through the pipe at the top.
I put my head in the water, and my goggles filled up with water immediately, and I swallowed a gallon of salt water. I stood upright immediately and coughed and spluttered over Graeme. We tried to tighten the back of the mask, but they would still fill up, albeit more slowly than before. That was the one valuable lesson learnt; buy cheap, expect mistakes. But we did manage about thirty seconds of snorkelling every time we went down.
The sea was quite rough and it was difficult to make anything out. We were told not to put our hands on coral as it was very sharp, and also you ran the risk of irreparably damaging the reef. So we were careful to swim to the side the reef. To be honest, it wasn’t the best reef in the world. It was quite steep and the roughness of the breakers made it difficult to see anything but bubbles and fizz. Eventually, as my eyes became used to it, I did see some brightly coloured fish, but moving too quickly for me to find out what they were. All in all it was a disappointing first experience. This being the landward side of Gorgona, I expected that this was the best of the coral reef. Then came a disaster that almost ruined the whole month in Colombia. I was trying to stand up when a large wave hit me and I toppled onto some reef. I put my right hand to break the fall and landed straight on a piece of razor sharp coral. It was a second or two before I realised that I had hurt myself. I felt the bang, and got up. Graeme was nearby and went whiter than he normally looked. “Al, look at your hand”. Blood was streaming down the side of my hand away from my little finger. A wave hit it and washed it off, but immediately the whole area was full with blood again.