The day was no less windy, but the clouds had lifted somewhat. I could now see clearly over what appeared a sheer drop into the main valley, and could appreciate why we had circled it far to the north west. The return trip was like a video in rewind, I recognised so many of the features that we had passed on the way up; first the gully, then the cactus plants on the Paramo, then the dwarf trees as the forest took over. Then the steep drop to the main river. Then past the new centre, incongruous among the naturalness of the valley. Then up, oh my god, we went up again, over the ridge between the two rivers. My legs, despite being in autodrive for the past few miles, found this so difficult that I was going along in a daze, missing my footing on the way up, and then stumbling over every type of obstacle; root, rock, stream, on the way down.
The afternoon drew on and the forest was steamy. Marino would take great long strides and disappear in front of me. The several layers of clothes we had clung to on the mountain tops got stripped away and Marino took his baseball cap off. A dazzling white bald head bobbed up and down in front of me as we headed along the valley.
We turned the final corner and in the distance, along the steep ridge, I once more saw the Chalets of the foundation’s lodges. They looked so civilised now, after seeming hostile the day before. The rough buildings and rudimentary facilities of this rustic centre seemed a centre of calm and civilisation after the blustery mountaintops.
I came into the camp and went into the dining room. The sun was setting fast as I walked in and several of the party were already in there chatting before dinner. They were all interested in my day, having themselves just milled around the camp and played games. Marino followed me in and beamed. He slapped me roughly on the back and said “A camino, a good camino, Mister Alan.”
I ate like a horse despite being dog tired, and the two Germans who had limped back to camp enviously questioned me about the tops of the mountains, above the clouds. I chatted to many or the people there, like in Gorgona, no longer an outsider but one of the crowd. In the fast diminishing light after the meal, I sat outside the dining hall with one of the families. The mother and father told me they were from Cali, one of the leafy suburbs way to the south. We shared a bottle of Chilean Red Wine and I was introduced to their sixteen-year-old daughter who was planning to travel to London. I told her to get in touch with me when she got there and enthusiastically, she gave me her details. I never heard from her again. I told them about my work in the UK and this was overheard by one of the fresh faced women from the staff. She was a scientist and she told me in English that she was doing a study into the habits of the rare birds up in the reserve. She asked whether I was interested in seeing them collect the birds from their nets in the morning. A little, dark guy gave me a crooked smile , it was her assistant on the project, which told me that he would welcome me. I said I would be delighted so was told to meet them here at 5:30 next morning. This made me look at my watch. It was eight o’clock, I had been on the go for over 14 hours, and was absolutely shattered. As I made my excuses and left the little group, I bumped into Marino, who beamed at me again.
“I go to Salento tomorrow after breakfast. You come, I find you taxi.” I suddenly remembered that I was supposed to be back in Cali tomorrow night. I had a day visiting CIAT, the Agricultural Centre nearby the next day, and then fly on to Cartagena for my last weekend before flying back via Caracas to London. The air up here had made me forget my rush around completely. I realised also that the arrangements to get me back to Cali, some hundred miles away, were not all that firm. It sounded like Marino and I were to walk to Salento and then I would get a taxi to Armenia and on to Cali by Super Taxi. This was something I would not have had guts to do three weeks earlier, but I had now learnt the Colombian transport system quite well, my Spanish was a lot better than it had been, and I was on the home stretch and still knew how to say “Carrera 53, Calle 13” in Spanish. So I didn’t blanche too much at Marino’s plans, the worst fear was whether I was going to be able to walk the next day. So now I headed off to my bunk, read a few more chapters of Sherlock Holmes while the kids played around me on the dormitory and fell into a fitful sleep.