And Atlanta is right. It is fine. The following morning I wake up, thus proving that I am meant to die an old woman clutching a blue diamond on the hull of a boat and not when I’m acting like a knucklehead in a third world country.
And I want Jack to draw me like one of his French girls.
Anyway, the following day we are sitting in a collectivo, heading to Palomino, a river in the middle of the Colombian jungle which one can float languidly down on a rubber tube. I am feeling like toxic turtle pooh. My mouth is dry, my head throbs, and I’m fairly certain that my blood is toxic enough to turn any mosquito that comes near me into Tony Montana. We stop at Palomino, I grab the greasiest, nastiest, sluttiest empanada I can find, shove it inelegantly into my mouth, wipe crumbs on my shorts, and jump on a motorbike taxi. The motorcycles will take us to the place where we can hike to the river.
In Colombia, nobody wears helmets on a motorbike taxi, but I’ve done the same thing in Cambodia and Thailand and now jump on the back with only moderate amounts of trepidation. However, add ‘no helmet’ to ‘rocky dirt path’, sprinkle it with ‘hangover’, and multiply it all by ‘I’m holding onto the bike with one hand while the other clutches an inflatable, rubber tubing tyre’, and you get ‘WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!’
The road leading to the drop off point is downhill, gravelly and uneven. It’s the sort of path that one would be cautious walking down- if ones name is Clumsy CC, anyway- and we are travelling it on a 250cc motorbike. I hug the Colombian driver with my knees in an overly intimate manner, telling myself that the journey is a good thigh workout- if nothing else- as I squeeze my legs in fright when the back wheel periodically slips out.
I’m certain that I’m giving my parents a few extra grey hairs by the shit that I talk about doing on this trip.
I can assume that my moto-taxi guy has been riding bikes for…five minutes. He rides with the confidence and speed of Casey Stoner and the aptitude of Steady Eddy. Aside from the back wheel slipping out every so often; he frequently over-accelerates, over-brakes, and skids down the path. I sit on the back, still clutching my inflatable tube like a boom-box, and pray to a God that I don’t believe in like the hypocritical little chicken shit that I am. Miraculously, we arrive at the drop off point sans gravel rash or head injuries.
We pay the guys, switch shoulders with the tube, and begin to hike.
And here is where I get crabby.
Atlanta suggested that the hike to get to the river is a light, twenty minute stroll through beautiful mountain scenery. In reality, it’s a fourty five minute climb up a mountain. The scenery is there, it’s just under your fucking feet. After ten minutes of a relentless uphill slog, the packet and a half of cigarettes, two grams of cocaine, and bottle of cheap rum from the previous night makes itself known. I’m sweating, my heart is hammering, and I’m fucking cranky. Sorry, but I am. I throw an internal tantie at the first-world inconvenience of having to do physical exercise and quickly morph into a pain in the gerbil.
Switzerland, a fellow traveller, is behind me. Switzerland is a girl so unfit that she once had to get a motorbike taxi to pick her up from a bushwalk. She described the ordeal as, “I just sat down next to a turkey and refused to go any further. I don’t care. The guide should have told me that it was a long walk. I’m lazy and I don’t like to move, I just like to sit and smoke.” Switzerland is, predictably, in a similar state of distress. Atlanta, however, is gracefully climbing the path with his inner tube slung over his shoulder, gazing fondly at his surroundings. Switzerland and I stop, drop our inner tubes, hack up a lung, and gather what little oxygen we can find.
“Atlanta,” I pant. “You never mentioned that we’d be hiking the Kokoda fucking trail.”
He turns, grinning. “It’s not that bad.”
“We’re climbing up a fucking mountain.”
“That’s an exaggeration.”
I turn to Switzerland. “Am I exaggerating?”
She shakes her head, her jaw comically slack. “It’s a mountain.”
I turn, triumphant, to Atlanta. “So how much further, Bear Grylls?”
“Maybe ten minutes.”
Atlanta’s concept of distance and time can be somewhat skewed. I once asked him how far a walk would be. He said, “Less than two hours but more than five minutes.” I can only assume that we have another twenty minutes of intense cardio before we reach the promised land. I grumpily pick up my inner tube and continue on. Eventually, with multiple breaks, we make it.
And it’s completely worth it.
To go tubing in Palomino is to glide slowly down a river in the jungles of North East Colombia until you reach the Caribbean Sea. The Sierra Nevada mountains hug your journey and the water beneath your arse is so clear that you can see the catfish sucking moss from the stones at the bottom. Colombian farmers herd cattle across the river to your right and venues of vultures nest to your left. Funnily enough, it was the former that frightened Switzerland, who insisted that cows are dangerous creatures. “They murder people in Switzerland, you know.”
This, of course, made me mention ‘Drop Bears’, which led to a discussion about koalas, which caused Switzerland to utter the epic phrase, “Koala rape is a big problem in Australia.”
“What,” I asked, running my hand gently across the water. “People raping koalas?”
“No,” she said. “Koalas raping each other.”
“How does one know if a koala has been raped?” Atlanta asked.
“Does it go to the koala cops?” I add.
“Is there a koala rape-kit that vets use?” he asks.
We cackle, high five, Switzerland gets stroppy, and the conversation briefly dies.
Halfway down the river, a military helicopter flies low, circling directly above us. Men with machine guns briefly survey us with bored expressions before flying away over the mountains.
And that neatly sums up North East Colombia. At once, it’s one of the most beautiful and one of the most dangerous places you will ever see. It’s nature porn mixed with a horror movie. In one moment you will be terrified, wondering if your travels are going to end in a swarm of bullets, then you will see a place that National Geographic coins ‘one of the hidden gems of planet earth’. It’s intoxicating. It envelopes you with a siren song of bird life and gunfire. North East Colombia is the girl that your mother warned you about, the one that you get involved with anyway. She’s the girl in the battered leather jacket who smokes filterless Lucky Strikes and has a flask of whiskey perpetually hidden in her garter belt. You know she’s trouble, but she can make you feel so good that you can’t bring yourself to care.
After three hours on the river, we reach the ocean. We dump our tubes, grab some tequila sunrises, and demolish a plate of plantain fritters smeared with Costeño cheese and homemade salsa. Koala rape momentarily forgotten, we drink, joke and laugh on a beach in paradise. Three standard drinks later, we decide to call some moto-taxis to take us back to The Ranch- stopping on the way to buy 3.5 litres of homemade Kogi moonshine.
What is this majestic liquid, you ask? Well, the Kogi’s are the indigenous people of Sierra Nevada and their moonshine is toxic enough to power your average two stroke lawnmower engine.
Drinking too much of it has sent people temporarily blind.
And, of course, while the Kogi lady was pouring it from a gas can into the recycled Coca-Cola bottles, we all did a shot.
And this shot is what gave me the liquid courage needed to survive the twelve minute moto-taxi ride back to The Royale. You see, when the drivers began to engage in an on-road pissing contest that saw each bike overtake the next at gut-liquifying speeds in a desperate attempt to be the first in the queue, I could see the funny side.
‘Oh, men and their toys.’
When we maintained a speed of eighty kilometres an hour on a pitch black road that I was hurtling down without safety gear or a helmet, I could see the silver lining.
‘Well, at least I have a blog post.’
When the moto-rider periodically turned around and gave me a whiff of moonshine soaked breath, I could reason it out.
‘He probably rides drunk so often that he can do it better than he does when sober.’
When the bike began to weave on the road, I simply clutched the handrail at the back a little tighter and tried to move my ass with the weaves.
‘Just think of it as a really dangerous amusement park ride. One that can put you in a wheelchair for life. That’s okay, legs are overrated…at least I won’t have to climb any more Kokoda Trails if I’m paralysed.’
And when we began to overtake buses on bridges, around corners, and on the wrong side of the road- at a speed that can only be described as ‘I think I need to change my underwear now’- I simply said to myself, ‘well, if we crash I’ll just die instantly. I won’t know what hit me.’
Kogi moonshine makes you blind and blasé.
Back at the hostel, after devouring a dinner of lasagna, homemade garlic foccacia, and salad picked from the vegetable garden, I decide to forgo the moonshine party that is threatening to boil over to hike up the dirt steps to my cabin overlooking the mountains. I have a laptop with several episodes of Black Books on it to keep me company. My horrifying motorbike ride is forgotten, and I am, again, blissful.
I turn on the light in the cabin to see a ten centimetre cockroach fly from the balcony rail to the floor.
No Kokoda-trail exaggerations either. That was just the body, too. With it’s horrid little feelers the size cranks to fifteen. It’s a mutant, jungle bug from hell that is scurrying towards me with feverish determination.
I’m terrified of cockroaches.
Guns don’t frighten CC, mammoth insects do.
This is my nightmare, come to life, in the jungle, where nobody can hear me scream.
I take off a thong and shoot it off the balcony like a hockey puck. Realistically, my insect friend is just more Colombian juxtaposition. Heaven and hell. Besides, I have a belly full of food and beer, a white chocolate nougat bar waiting for dessert, and a mosquito net that will surely act as a talisman of sorts.