The Gorgona Trip – Paradise at last

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Possibly the most magical moment of the whole trip to Gorgona was the trip home.  The little coaster we had travelled in had dropped us off and moved on, southwards and apart from one other supply ship coming north, nothing had arrived at the island, and no-one had left, in the four days we had been there.  Now we were to stay on the beach and wait for the returning boat.  We were promised that we would see its lights in the eastern evening, board, and travel overnight back to Buenaventura.

 We gathered in the gloom at the little shelter on the beach.  There is no natural harbour on Gorgona, which is why we had done a ship-to-ship on the way in.  Now, this shelter was all that protected us from the windy channel between here and the mainland.  It covered a set of smaller boats and some fishing equipment, and we made ourselves as comfortable as possible on our makeshift chairs – buckets, boat sides, logs and masts.

Waiting for the boat

Waiting for the boat

We all took it in turns to peer out in the gloom. Several lights were visible of many coasters ploughing up and down the Colombian Pacific Coast, but it was obvious that these were all miles away and travelling parallel to the coast, none heading out towards Gorgona.  The evening drew on, it was getting quite late now, and I was beginning to suspect that we might not be going tonight.  Each little pin prick of light, lost and rediscovered in the tossing waves, was analysed by us shoremen, and rejected as they moved further up the coast or disappeared from view over the horizon.  The crowd left sitting started talking and joking.  Four days had gelled us well together and even in my broken Spanish, I found myself joining in to the conversations.

 Then our attention turned to a pin prick of light which did not move across the sea in the same way as the others, but appeared almost stationary.  We realised after some time that it was indeed getting larger, and decided that it must be our boat.  There were moments when we thought we had deceived ourselves again, but then, unmistakably, it was growing larger and larger.  The single source split into two and we could discern other lights on the boat.  Then, all at once, a series of floodlights came on across the bridge and the whole bay was lit up.  It was a magical moment as we realised that our rescuers had come, and for all our respect and love of Gorgona built up over the last few days, we knew this was a good moment to leave.

 Activity increased on the shore now as the fishing boats were made ready.  We found ourselves paddling across the coral shingle in our bare feet, shoes tied around our necks and rucksacks on our backs, the black water hiding our toes as we headed out to the boats, but the water still deliciously warm and soothing.  It was after midnight when the last person had been hauled aboard the coaster, the flood lights were turned off, final good byes said and the coasters engines roared into life as we headed into the channel once more.

 That was a beautiful evening.  I don’t remember going inside.  Graeme was very tired and spent the night in the cabins aft.  I remember little, but there was a small amount of room on the deck that wasn’t taken up with cargo of one sort or another.  At the bottom were piles of timber, ready cut, deep dark tropical timbers (possibly illegal although I wasn’t going to argue while on the boat).  Above them green bananas and plantains of various sorts, and I was perched on a sack of hard oranges.  I lay there looking up at the sky, marking the progress of the little lights on the sea, or watching the clouds drift in and out over the stars and a huge yellow moon, almost full.  The boat made steady progress and apart from the engines, the main noise was the constant lap lap lap of the water as it hit the bows.  I must have drifted off for I woke when it was almost light, a softening mist lay across the sea, and the outline of the Andes was clearly visible in the middle distance.  I could see the main South American coastline and the heavy jungle coastline looming up.  All at once we were rounding the corner of the coast and entering the grey harbour of Buenaventura.

What a contrast to our previous journey on this boat.

 Of the rest of the journey, well it was a bit of an anticlimax coming back to the realities of civilisation and the noise of Cali.  We said some tearful farewells at the bus station and Graeme and I clambered into our taxi for his house.  But our minds were still full of four wonderful days.

 The island had not the rarities of Galapagos, or the beauty of Caribbean Islands, the corals of the east, the ruggedness of Scotland, or the scenery of some Atlantic islands.  But it had a wonderful air about it, and although the circumstances for its preservation were due to the utmost cruelty, you felt that here at least some of Colombia’s rich diversity was being preserved properly.

The Gorgona Trip – in the camp and around the island

In the afternoon, Graeme and I decided to try out the hammock.  This yellow net had been provided by Chris, one of Graeme’s English friends in Cali, and we were all thumbs trying to get the thing set up, but eventually we had it strung, albeit lowly, between two palms and I spent most of the afternoon dreaming away.  Graeme went to sleep beside me and the lap lap lap of the breakers soon made me drift off also…

The sun was already setting when we roused and we left the hammock hanging.  After dinner, where we chatted to many of the guests and I gave them an update on the state of my hand, to which they all replied in the usual manner in their only English.

We read in the community room after dinner.  There was no TV in the camp and no organised events to keep us occupied, so we just amused ourselves in the wide-open room (where at least there was electricity).  Graeme and I set ourselves up sitting astride one of the large low window sills to the room.  It was just slightly uncomfortable for us to sit there, but you stretched your legs and got used to it.  We sat, one leg in the light of the room, one in the dark outside and played Backgammon.  Graeme had brought a pocket set from home in Cali and we had some good battles, fairly evenly matched.  We were so absorbed in the game that nothing else seemed to matter.  Some of the kids from one of the families were playing some form of tag game out in the dark, and I became aware that there was a bit of a commotion among one of the groups.  A French woman from our party came across to us, and said, in English, “You do realise that your foot is right next to a snake”.  I smiled, misunderstanding her completely because of her accent.  Graeme seemed to have comprehended more easily and repeated her words verbatim in English.  I looked to my right to see a head, only slightly smaller than my foot, of a boa constrictor.  It’s huge body trailed off into the night.  It lay there, more or less asleep, but I think quite aware of my presence there.  Graeme and I were too surprised to say anything and resorted to calmly lifting the backgammon board between us and moving our outside feet up very, very carefully.  We balanced the board between us to the other side of the room and placed it carefully on another window ledge.  Then we both screamed.

The next morning, the constrictor was spotted again in the camp and followed rather too avidly by several of our party.  I saw its body disappear into a hedge, I saw over ten feet of it and I’m not sure I saw two thirds.

That day we went on a long expected boat ride around the island.  One thing Gorgona is famous for is being on the migratory route and feeding grounds of several whale species, including, in the right season, Hump backed whales.  We’d seen some whales out far in the bay from the restaurant one lunchtime, but this was the opportunity to get close up.  The weather was not so brilliant again, and the skies were grey and the waves quite large as we boarded on of the little fishing boats.  The trip was a big disappointment  – we saw the island off to the left, and we saw grey waves to the outside, but no whales did we spy and the trip passed off uneventfully.

On a boat trip round the island

On a boat trip round the island

That afternoon, one of the guys who we had befriended, a huge black guy with a shiny shaved head and a wide white smile asked us to join him in his personal quarters, some way off from the camp.  Graeme and I felt very honoured to be asked back there.  He spoke only Spanish, so most of my conversation with him was through sign language and smiles, but Graeme was able to get a stumbling conversation going with him.  There was another disappointment when we got to his little cabin.  Instead of finding some great ecological treasure trove or and insight into island dwelling life, we were shown a television and told we could stay here and watch it.  It polluted Graeme and myself.  For the first time in Colombia, I had been away from all this and it was a rude awakening to see that even here the mindless game shows, soap operas and American import movies were saturating into Gorgona’s supposed paradise.  We stayed as long as it was polite, and when we made our move, the guy showed us some of the little wood carvings he did.  We quite liked the dolphin, and he gave it to us as a present.  I think I’ve lost mine, like I have a hundred other trinkets since, but this was one of the first I received, and partially made up for our embarrassment at not seeming to appreciate the guy’s invitation to see civilisation.

The Gorgona Trip – Starting to immerse

I was slightly stunned at this sight but called over the guide, and at the same time tried to stem the flow of blood by clamping up the hand.  However, because it was on the side of the hand that naturally stretches with any movement, anything I did opened the wound further and blood came out faster.  The guide arrived and sized up the situation quickly.  He looked up nervously at me from his golden curly hair as if to say ”I knew you English bastards were going to be trouble.”  He then guided me back to the shore, holding my right arm up in the air above my body.  I had attracted the attention of most of the other members of the group, and one large lady, who happened to be a nurse in Cali, came across and sucked through her teeth with the best of them at my wound. At this stage I was pinching the side of my right hand to stem the blood flow with thumb and forefinger of my left hand, but I realised this was an impractical solution for the rest of the holiday.

 The guide took his snorkelling mask and ripped off the rubber straps.  He wrapped them around my hand, using the thumb as an anchor and tightened them over the wound.  The bleeding seemed to stop and I was now free with my other hand.

 Much chagrined, I sat on the grassy bank while the almost fruitless snorkelling went on.  I felt a little faint, and particularly foolish, strapped up in a snorkelling mask and with my hand in the air.  The rest of the team dressed and we tromped back through the forest to the camp.  Once there, Graeme and I tailed off with the guide to the infirmary.  The nurse followed me in and several camp workers came in for a bit of sport.

 This was only my second time in the third world, and there are several nightmares I had had about travelling abroad.  One was being mugged, the second was getting the shits, the third was insect life and the fourth was having to be hospitalised.  The last was by far the worst, as the shadows of dirty needles, shoddy practices, AIDS and hepatitis rained heavy.  I asked Graeme to get my medical kit from my pack, at least I knew where those needles and bandages had been.  The decided that they could bandage me up and I should be all right to continue on, but they were going to clean out the wound, as coral could harbinger dangerous diseases.  I saw a large bottle of something with iodine in it.  It fizzed as they poured it into a white enamel dish.  It fizzed again as it touched my flesh once the guide had removed the straps and wiped the worst of the encrusted and still free flowing blood from my wound.  The heat from the liquid was intense, and Graeme and I agreed that nothing could survive under that concoction.  I was a little uncertain as to whether I was included in that blanket destruction, but decided to keep my thoughts to myself.

 The sun was drawing long shadows across the camp as we headed back to the communal room.  I had to show my hand to everyone, who showed such concern in their best English (usually consisting of a few “Tsschh tshh”, or a “Pheww” or a “oh no no no”).  I was however, firmly an insider, like every Colombian here, I had suffered.  It wasn’t the sort of icebreaker that I had hoped for.

 We slept remarkably well that night, partly for all the activity of the day (partly due to my shattered nerves following the accident) and mainly because we hadn’t slept much the night before on the boat.  When we awoke the next morning, the mugginess of the day before had somewhat lifted, but it was still showery.  We ate a hearty breakfast.  The food at the camp was fairly basic, but nourishing and the setting for breakfast was magnificent.  We headed off on a three mile trek across the island to the western beaches and Isla Gorgonilla – the smaller of the two islands here.

 The walk was fascinating, as it went behind the concentration camp, then rose steeply into the rainforest.  The rain of several days still lay heavy on the ground, and our boots squelched over bright red soil in our tracks.  We saw several snakes scurry out of our way as we tromped through the forest.  Tiny pencil thin beasts that didn’t wait to stick out their tongues.  Several frogs, some brightly marked, and insects weird and wonderful every step of the way.  But what was overpowering was the stuffiness of the forest floor.  Above us was the canopy and in between all manner of plants and animals trapped in the space.  The claustrophobia was almost unbearable, and the fact that even though we were on a very short walk, the forest felt unending.  I got the feeling that I never wanted to see the Amazon if this was what it was like.  I had passed by Mauro a wish to travel to Leticia on the SE corner of Colombia, actually on the Amazon River, but this thought went out of my head forever as I tromped through the tiny forest on Gorgona.

 Then, all at once, we started to descend and the fresh air of the beach once more wafted across our faces.  The canopy broke and we tumbled down through the palms and on to the true Pacific Coast of Gorgona.  This beach was probably the most remote place I had been to at that point.  The grey volcanic sand was untouched by human feet before we descended on it, at least it had been since the last tide had cleared it.  The view off into the Pacific was still grey and dismal, the humidity was intense, but the edge was taken off by a fresh wind that blew across our faces.  Thousands of fiddler crabs ran off in all directions to their lairs, waved their outsize hands at us and disappeared down their holes.  The crabs were one of the first things I had noticed about Gorgona when I arrived.  It reminded me of DuckIsland in Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck.  In that book there had been little crabs everywhere during the day and at night large crabs came out.  Graeme and I had paced around the beach in front of the camp and we’d seen the thousands of small holes for the Fiddler’s, then as we came back into camp, I joked when I saw the large holes under an evergreen hedge on the way back into the camp.  I said to Graeme “That’s probably where the large crabs live.”  I had to eat my words that evening when I was going around with a flashlight and came across a massive blue and red crab, toying calmly with a coconut shell.  It must have been eight inches across its body with huge, amazing looking claws that I decided to keep well clear of. I really must stop making stupid statements like that.



 We spent most of that morning on the beach and I came across crabs everywhere.  We swam, and despite the murky nature of the sky, the water was beautifully warm and soothing, and I felt good enough to swim despite my bandage.  Graeme was looking distinctly healthier as well.  At the south end of the beach a spit of sand linked Gorgona with its near neighbour, Gorgonilla.  At high tide the link was severed, but at the time, a set of rock pools and jagged stonework could be explored, and I went off for a walk on my own around these areas.  More crabs could be seen, flat green ones that clung to the vertical rocks and scuttled menacingly as soon as you approached.  Hundreds of small fish, dull coloured but of infinite variety played in the small pools until they were released from their more humane solitary confinements by the new high tide.

 Eventually, we headed back to the camp.  Some took a boat which had come around the point but I decided to walk.  As we descended into the camp, the cloud eventually broke and for the first time since we had arrived on the island, I got the true sense of being on a paradise island.  The blue sky and sea joined to each other; in the distant mist to the east we could see great mountains of the western Cordillera rise into the clouds.  The palm trees swayed gently and everything, our clothes and ourselves included, steamed in the sun.

The Gorgona Trip – The prison and trouble on the reef

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.

Gorgona Prison

Gorgona Prison

 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.

A beach on Gorgona

A beach on Gorgona

 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.

The Gorgona Trip – Bumpy Crossing

The land opened out again as we neared the coast and a sprawling, dilapidated city came into view.  This was Buenaventura.  After the Amazon rainforest and the loneliness of Darien, this was the wildest part of Colombia.  Graeme was justifiably paranoid when we halted at the quayside among a throng of people.  We both wanted to get out of the coach and put our hands firmly on our bags before they disappeared down the road.  I looked around at the harbour, more grey shacks tumbled into the harbour.  Some on stilts hung over an equally grey area of water and grey pelicans lazily flew across the lagoons collecting grey fish in their grey mouths.  I’ve never seen Pelicans quite so dirty.

 I was then aware that a small grey boat was chugging into the harbour.  It was a small coaster with a long flat front for cargo, a group of cabins upon which perched the bridge and a small deck aft.  I laughingly said to Graeme “That’s our boat”.  I really must stop making comments like that.  It was our boat.

 In a haze of activity, we were offloaded from our coach, and we stood helpless as we watched a flurry of nonsensical activity go on in the boat before we were finally allowed to board.  I say nonsensical because at the end of the furore, the only thing that seemed to have been achieved was some slops had been washed overboard.

Our Boat

Our Boat



 The weather really was grim now, it was oppressively humid, even the grey pelicans had gone off to see whether they could find some relief elsewhere, the hot drizzle annoyed everyone and the air became dark with the thunder clouds, and a rapidly onsetting dusk.

 We gingerly stepped aboard and had a brief but comprehensive tour of the boat.  There were a number of bunks around the back of the boat.  Graeme and I were in the aft cabin, and I flung my bag on the bed.  Graeme shoved his into a corner on the floor and we went out to watch the movements on deck.  I got a whiff of the on board toilet and decided that whatever happened, I could wait the ten hours or so that it would take to get to Gorgona.

 The sun was setting magnificently somewhere, but not here.  All I was aware of was approaching darkness as we let loose our mooring and drifted out into the murky lagoon.  The engines were on a low setting and we gurgled a few hundred yards to a floating platform with a petrol pump on it.  There we immediately stopped and spent the next half-hour refuelling.  I wondered whether Buenaventura was indeed purgatory and I was destined never to see another location ever again.

 Finally we drew away from the petrol pump, now blazing in lights in harmony with half a dozen other ships around the harbour.  The dimmer lights of the city were in the distance, but so few houses seemed to have electricity that it made little impact compared to the marine equivalents.

 We moved easily through the lagoon, but now the wind was rising and to the east we saw the flickerings of a major storm.  The hills behind the city were repeatedly silhouetted against the lightning flashes and the rain swept across the harbour out of the dark to chase us on our way.  The boat lurched against a squall that hit us end on, and we hove left and right for a moment or so. Then another squall, then the rain hit us and the lightning flashes and thunder joined the ensemble.  The almost empty little wooden boat tossed and turned in quite small waves and I suddenly began to wonder what would happen when we hit the open sea, a few miles to my west.  We were distracted by a number of people being sick over the gunnels and I felt proud that I had gained at least a modicum of sea worthiness in the few moments aboard.  Graeme was beginning to suffer and, although he always looked pale from his recent illness, he was looking almost white now.  Again, we were distracted from our thoughts by the guide coming round with his rucksack.  He dug deep inside and brought out a cold sandwich wrapped in silver foil.  I opened it up and remembered that I hadn’t really had much to eat since a very early and small lunch in Mauro’s mum’s house.  I was quite hungry but this was tempered by the rolling action of my stomach, a few seconds behind the rolling of the boat.

 I ate it gingerly, and felt better with some ballast in the alimentaries.  It was useful as we hit the open ocean a few moments later and the little boat was driven high into the air and down again into huge water troughs.  Or so they felt at the time.  The thunder and lightning were all around and I was aware of incessant noise.  I tried to get some rest in the cabin below (it was now around 11 o’clock) but the aft cabin was right beside the engine and the drub-drub-drub was intolerable.

 Water was washing all over the decks, both from above and from the sea.  The rails were drenched as the drips gathered and refell through the boats fretwork.  I tried to read.  Graeme came in and hauled himself up onto the top bunk.  A few moments later he was down again and rushing for the side.  I gulped and gulped, trying to keep what little dinner I had eaten inside me.  The heat was oppressive in the cabin, the air outside so dank and turbulent to caused me more misery.  Everything was wet, and the noise of waves, and engine and rain and thunder just would not let up.  I thought of the money I had expended to have this once in a lifetime experience.

 Somehow, I must have got to sleep eventually but I remember awaking several times in the night and it seemed like we were still in the same place.  I realised the rain had stopped, but the wind was still quite fierce, and the waves on the open ocean still battered the boat quite mercilessly.  I say open ocean, but I suppose we were never more than twenty miles from any coast.  Although I could not tell, on leaving the islands to the west of Buenaventura, we had turned almost due south and gone parallel to the coast, then turned out to the south west to cross the narrow channel to the two islands; Isla Gorgona and Gorgonilla.

 Finally, when I awoke again, I noticed the sky was a mizzly grey and that the noise of the engines were a slightly different tune.  I came up on deck and a beautiful tropical morning was emerging, with a thin veil of mist and cloud covering the ocean, and I could see a few identical coasters to the east and to the west, a small volcanic island rising above the waves.  This was Gorgona, to be our home for the next four days.  I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next so I went back in to raise Graeme.  He was not a happy man.  He had been sick a few times in the evening and was thinking he was regretting the whole idea of the trip.  He came off his bunk and reached for his rucksack on the floor, to realise that the wash had soaked the bottom half.  I had left mine on the bunk, absent mindedly, but in the end fortuitously, as it had escaped the worst of the wetting.

 The engines cut out and we saw a small flotilla of boats emerge from the island to take us in.  Several people started the ship to ship transfer, and at that moment, as I watched the two boats bobbing independently, among a calm sea, no engines and no storm, my stomach gave in to its instincts and I threw up over the side.

The Gorgona Trip – The drop to the Pacific

Two weeks of hanging around Cali was beginning to tire both myself and Mauro out.  I needed a complete break to see something of the countryside around.  He found a blue and red leaflet that showed the delights of Gorgona, and I was keen to go.  Graeme was well enough now after his bout of Typhoid and decided he wanted to come with me.  Debbie was less keen but we knew it would do him good as long he was careful about the water.

 So one morning, we were down at the huge concrete bus station; thousands of people milling around catching buses in and out of town, others catching super taxis to Buga, Armenia, Popayan, Pasto, and us waiting for our bus that will take us to the Pacific coast this afternoon, ready for an overnight boat trip to the mystic Isle of Gorgona.  Super taxis were a new phenomenon to me, I had to use them first to get to Popayan for a day out on my own.



Popayan was an old city to the south of Cali, about half way to the Ecuadorian border, that had been devastated in an earthquake in the 70’s but had been painstakingly rebuilt so you could see all the old white colonial buildings and historical squares in their former glory.  I liked it, as Mauro thought I would, but it didn’t suit Angela – “It’s a dead town”.  Anyway, I had to catch a super taxi then from Cali bus station.  You went up to a counter with the name of the town on it, and you announced your intention to travel.  A tout would then find a taxi for you and you waited in it till it filled with five people then you started off.  The seats of the taxi were large but even so squashed up against an old roly poly widow for two hours was not too much fun, but it was a compromise between the cheap slow buses and the expensive fast normal taxis.

 It was obvious that a lot of people were heading towards this bus, and they had their backpacks and touristy clothes ready.  Our little wiry, curly red headed guide was fussing around the bus driver and he eventually came across and checked our tickets; we packed our bags into the side cabins of the coach and boarded.

 I liked Graeme enormously and we’d got to know each other very well during my couple of weeks in Cali so far.  I was to going to be living out of his pocket for the next five days, and him out of mine, and it would stretch us at times, but we emerged with a lot of mutual respect.  Graeme is one of these people who when he doesn’t like things he will tell you, he doesn’t hold back; which can be annoying and dangerous at times.  Sometimes, even he realises that his rather pugnacious attitude does not suit, but it is amazing how much he can accomplish with it, and it isn’t something you should lose if you have it.  He was still quite off colour, though.  The typhoid had come on when he had been in southern Africa on honeymoon with Debbie.  They had more or less come straight out to Colombia for Debbie to work at CIAT, and he had been a house husband, but he had suffered dreadfully with the effects of the bug; dehydration, lack of blood cells, tiredness, sickness.  He had been in and out of hospital, even tried several herbal remedies, but only now, after several months was he beginning to show signs of recovery.  Gorgona was the first really major excursion without Debbie since he had arrived in Colombia.  Debbie was scared stiff to be leaving him with an Englishman like me in the middle of Colombia.  Graeme’s Spanish was only mildly better than mine (his favourite expression was “bastardi Angi Pantalonies”, which means nothing at all but he liked it).  Actually it does mean something and it could be construed as being filthy, but most people just ignored him when he said it at parties.  His other expression was “No me molesti”, which roughly translated meant “don’t mess with me” and I found it incredibly useful a number of times in Colombia.

 We boarded the coach and started a most amazing journey.  We were on our way to Buenaventura, the main Pacific port for Colombia.  It was a mere hundred miles away, and about two hours drive, but we were to pass through the most diverse countryside in the world.  Cali sits high on a plateau between two of the Andes Cordilleras, the Centrale and the Occidentale.  To reach Buenaventura, we first had to battle our way across the Cali river and the traffic of the Calles, Carreras and Avenidas and then skim past the industrial town of Yumba to the north before rising high into the mountains of the western Cordillera.  We drove steeply up, past all the Narcoville flats with their massive satellite dishes on their rooves.  We rose up a steep valley, stripped bare of any vegetation (no wonder so much erosion occurs in the Andes), past boys playing the most dangerous game in the world.  They sit on their bikes, hold on to the backs of buses and rise up to the top of the mountain ridge above Cali.  They let go.  They freewheel down the main road; twenty kilometres, to the city streets, in amongst the traffic, the lorries and buses both rising and descending, past dogs, children, old people and chickens wandering around the road, past all the cars trying to overtake in both directions.  They try not to brake, although the hairpins they traverse inevitably make them go for their handlebars.  And at the bottom they are doing 60 miles an hour.

 We reached the top and travelled through some of the degraded cloud forest of the peaks.  Here many people have their weekend fincas, including the drug barons, as Graeme and I had found out a week before. The area of the high mountains is beautiful, the air is fresh, the countryside beautiful, with wild ranches and farms in amongst glorious forest and waterfalls.  Then we started to rise again, and once we reached the next summit, we were in desert.  Cactus clung to the hillside as we rose even further.  We reached the point where the road down to Buga meets.  We were now on the main road to the coast not only from Cali but also from Bogota and the rest of the country.

 The road began to wind downwards through some spectacular gorges, plunging deep into tunnels and playing cat and mouse with a disused railway line.  This started to give way and above the top of the gorge I could see a sky heavy with black clouds, and as the rocky sides gave way to tropical rainforest; the first I had ever seen, the humidity tipped over the edge and a huge thunderstorm fell on the miserable souls out on the side of the road.

Dropping down into the jungle

Dropping down into the jungle

 At the time, this was the poorest place I had ever seen.  Many of the people were black, the first predominantly black community I had seen in Colombia.  They lived in shacks which had been creosoted once, many years ago, but were now a dismal grey colour, rotten in places and badly in need of repair that the occupants could barely afford.  Around the grey habitations was a luminous green forest; bananas, cassava and other crops inextricably caught up in true jungle.