Dinner bubbles away on the purring stove, I take my eye from the the lake being lit by distant flashes of lightening to look back behind the tent to the house. In the glow of the interior I can see the two girls who allowed me to camp here, silouetted, watching with intrigue....or fear. A plane flies overhead, heading north, I wonder if it contains Adam, I wonder how he is? Does he wonder of me? Does anyone?
I was heading north again, back towards El Cocuy with several other targets in mind along the way. First up, was to try and ride amongst the red and purple hills I'd spotted near Villa de Leyva, when I'd first met Adam two weeks prior.
I rode up from the south to the crest of a chilly pine forest, which stopped abruptly, opening up like a stage's curtains, and before me the space-scape of Mars etched into the rusty red dirt. Fine scenery and the substance behind the country's pottery too.
Each house was a fabricator of the pottery, without exception. Each one with it's own large domed earth oven, with an even larger stockpile of wares....and half broken pots scattered about inside and out...and on the road. Plumes of black smoke dot the barren lunar countryside, rising up into the air, signifying the baking process in effect; forty hours at 1000ºF and some two-hundred pieces a time. The huge quantities of pottery descend the hills to flood the town of Raquira and the market, meaning for low prices...cheaper than the price of dirt. US75c will buy a small piece.
I pass through the delightful town Barichara as I continue north, a beautifully tranquil place of white wash homes with a thick border of red dust painted on in times of heavy rain and passing traffic.
"You want to see the canyon?" asks the bored youth as I pull up to the barrier and tug off my helmet, revealing my grease twist of blonde hair. I look over his shoulder towards the viewpoint, the cafes, the ski-lift, the people peering over in to the canyon.
"Not really," I reply with a look of derision, "how do you get down there?" I ask pointing behind me to the adjacent and, in my eyes, much more unique and impressive valley. I feel like going in and telling all the
people they're looking the wrong way, but like sheep, and modern consumers, they follow what the adverts and signs say. 'They' say it's good therefore it is. It's not Simon says, it's Walmart says...or "they" whoever the evil "they are." (Rant over).
The youth shrugs his shoulders, unable to, likewise, think for himself. "It's 2000 pesos ($1) to park.....it's free if you put your bike there."
"No thanks." I reply to the puppet, and ride off to look for a way down the other side.
I find a dirt trail leading down as the sun starts to make it's final climax, sinking into the ugly canyon, setting my valley ablaze with a beautiful array of colour and shadow....if only I didn't have to find camp!
Besides the quiet road and a tall fork of cactus blooming with flowering round balls, I find a spot, peering down to the silty strip of river creeping along silently far far below. I wake to the sound of an eagle perched upon the cactus, its screaming call lost to the depths of the canyon....the noisy chatter of other birds hidden amongst the thorny bushes and as well, road workers laughing and slowly getting to work on the road - sadly, making it paved. The still lovely dirt strip from the very top transcends down and down through the
physical rainbow of fascinating colours, black to purple, red to orange, cream to white...correspondingly, the heat increases until at the bottom it is seemingly white hot. Here, somewhere amongst the haze of heat grows and dries large flat tobacco leaves.
With the road not appearing on my map, I leave the completely soul-less furnace-town Cepita and explore the network of valleys, up a narrow trail of talcum powder, right along the very edge of a steep face,
feels like I'm floating up over the valley floor, like the soaring eagles, though its Rodney doing the screaming, leaving the first and only knobbly imprint of tire marks in the soft dust it seems. Splendid!
Riding up then pass beyond Bucaramanga, rolling treeless hills of pale grass and shades of muddy green on my way to Pamplona. Families work in the fields of potatoes, spring onions and carrots amongst the cold mist that holds the impending rain, bicyclists laden with pesticide sprayers upon their backs on their way home after a day of dousing the vegetables heavily with drums of yellow gunk.
To my dismay, through the mist I see, hanging from the antique square petrol pumps, tatty signs that read, "No hay." Oh dear, and my petrol tank is almost empty. I twist the fuel tap to reserve but am soon empty...though luckily - with help of the quarter litre in the stove bottle, I make it to the top of this pass and cruise downhill to refill.
|Out of gas, using the stove fuel|
The traffic thins, the potholes grow and the mud thickens as the altitude gains and a broad valley of
"frailejones" - the plants I recognise from El Cocuy's great heights - opens out before me, familiar now, these plants become a sure indication that I'm up into high altitudes and thin air. Air. Vital air. All important air. Evacuating, it seems, my tire....again.
"You've had SIXTY-ONE punctures!?" exclaim the group of ponchoed and wellied spectators.
|The bike just made it over this pass...and I mean 'just'!|
"Yeah..." I say disgruntled, "and two in three days....!"
Gentile gents, they were very friendly and helpful men, with plasticy red cheeks from days of cold high altitude air. They tell me of good camp spots nearby next to the river and also, further up, a waterfall. It was a lovely camp, too, not least as it reminded me of my second home; Snowdonia National Park in
North Wales. I hate punctures, but fate is a funny thing.
And, as if two punctures was not enough (or 61), it was to be three (62)...and this time fate was to be a much more unkind animal.
Having returned to El Cocuy's jagged black massifs on my way back south I decided it was too good to simply pass through and spent several days amongst the mountains, lakes and glaciers, walking and riding, hoping for some clear weather permitting good views....and photos.
Sitting in the shelter beneath a large slab, cut thousands or millions of years ago by the now much receded glacier, i eat my sandwiches. I have to chew and pause, and breathe, and then chew a little more. The sun is barely discernable behind the sick pallid grey of the sky and I beg out loud that it will clear up. I thought I'd be luckier this time, third time lucky...but....
I plod on, until I finally pass the tall cone shaped cairn that has been guiding my way through the maze of boulders and rocks spat out by the glacier on it's slow and forceful retreat, and round the corner of the trail to glimpse my target...glimpsed and no more, vanished behind the bank of heavy plump cloud that moments earlier I watched tumble over the adjacent mountain ridge like the ominous dust behind a charging cavalry, reaching you inevitably, with catastrophe. Having worked myself to exhaustion at nearly 5000m, for the third time, I was deeply disappointed. I felt this time would be third time lucky, I deserved that, didn't I? I was tired, not just from the walk but also the lack of sleep; anxious with excitement, and fear - of the glaciers blankness, crevasses. However, I was determined to wait it out, to walk the glacier.....makes the summit. Until that is, the hail start to pelt down like arrows and any sense of direction was lost amongst the charging cavalry. As the only one on the mountain fighting this battle I decided against my lusting desires that descent
was the sensible option.
Then having descended. It cleared up.
So I trudged my way back up, cursing the Gods, the lack of air, and my body's tardiness at aclimatising to altitude. Reaching the glacier, camera at the ready, the cloud came in again to close the curtains on the view. I despaired, and sat on a boulder to contemplate my bad luck - elephants - as the poison of altitude coursed through me, clouding my mind with tired negativity, breathing hard, trying to keep my lunch down.
Apparently the balance just wasn't in my favour. Though, having said that, I did glimpse the monolith, 'El Pulpito', a tall red slate of warm rock piercing up through the glaciers cold barren white.
The rain and sleet hammer down during the steep knee-jarring, meniscus tearing, descent path on my long way back to the bike. I warm the little engine carefully before tackling the very steep and fairly rough trail back to my fabulous camp spot....
...and get said third puncture. Three in less than a week...though this time, it is in fact the valve split from the
tube. I'm exhausted, and too tired to contemplate repairing the tire, especially in the rain. So, I step off the bike, and start walking, leaving it there beside the road. It's a quiet road I tell myself, though in my gloom I have a tinge of hope that it will be stolen.
A long and wet walk up out of this valley in to the next, thinking of the inside of my tent, dry, warm and not walking. However, when I reach my - paid for - camp spot at one of the park's cabins, I find that some nitwit has stolen my helmet, out from my tent's porch. Over the months in the Americas I've grown
very confident in camping freely, almost anywhere at will, and I contemplate if I'd become "complacent". Exhausted, after a very tough hike I wanted only hot coffee and biscuits, whilst wrapped up in my sleeping bag. However, rather than dry feathery warmth I sat there amongst cold and sad thoughts that refused to warm the sleeping bag's plumes.
"I don't envy you...." said Amos, his
face lost in the protective shade of his jacket's rain hood, though his permanent broad grin is still clearly discernible. I met the amiable Canadian sprawled out
exhausted and sick on one of Cocuy's high passes, and spent an enjoyable
day together, descending, talking more than walking in the fog.
"This is going to be rubbish." I state in the face of unavoidable misery as the white shops and restaurants of Cocuy take on a whole new hue as the sky blackens and blackens, and blackens.
A pair of shocked disbelieving eyes peer from Amos' shadowy hood as a huge roll of thunder reverberates amongst the whitewashed buildings and the ponchoed men and women dart for cover. His perpetual smile, I
note, has gone.
"And no helmet." he reminds me...as if I need that, slipping on my woolly hat in its place. But, you couldn't help but like Amos, a great chap and I enjoyed my short time walking with him, and leaving him alone to ride into the storm contradicted common sense.
Drops of rain pelt hard against my face and soak in to my medieval woolly hat. As the road twists left and right I peer up and ahead at the angry skies, trying to predict my own swirling fate, hoping that the road will take me to the brightest future....a blue future that I can see now I swear, far, far in the distance.
|Nick in his new 'helmet'|
The rain was to prove torrid over the following days, prevailing almost without halt on my way to Bogota to buy a new helmet, meaning low spirits at times, though I'd often find a patch of blue sky big enough to fit my tent under and savoured the dryness of it's shelter, and took warmth from listening to the sound of rain on the flysheet, reminding me of rainy days at home, hot tea and a warm fire.
Leaving Bogota for the second time, I raced south away from the city's grip and peered happily out through my new helmet's clear visor.....into rain...at a small heard of cows grazing on the central reservation, traffic
thundering by, sending up huge brown waves of standing water over them, and over me. A man waits patiently amongst the cows, waiting to cross the road, he seems little bothered by the soaking he or his smart suit and tie are getting from the torrential rain, and a group of men pass by going the wrong way on bicycles in jeans and T-shirts which cling heavily with damp, equally unperturbed. The rain made the news that day, though for Bogotanos it seemed to have little consequence as they fight to earn their daily bread...or arepas.
As the city recedes to memories, so too thankfully does the rain and I drop down and down out of the eastern cordillera into the Desierto de Tatacoa. I set up camp atop one of the white sandy flutings, overlooking the maze of interlocking pyramids of grassy sand disappearing, far off to the horizon at the end of which the thunderstorms light up the the whole sky, though silently and safely off in the distance. It's a lovely camp, spoiled only by the irritation by the heat on the numerous bites from the previous camp's attacks by "Jejens" - miniscule biting bugs the size of pinheads! Nasty fellows!
I'd hoped to cross the desert by compass, but the tight weave of hillocks is certainly impenetrable and anyway...this isn't the desert. I find this some time later, a small patch of red sandy flutings... I had
had high expectations admittedly, expecting something like Egypt's White Desert, or Sudan's Atbara, or the USA's Death Valley or Anzaborrego! and though nice, Tatacoa was minuscule in comparison! And so a slight disappointment Still there's Atacama to come....
The bridge is out over the mighty Rio Magdalena but another lancha helps me on my way across, to continue on to a splendid 14km hike amongst the ancient decorated tombs and statues of "Tierradentro" dating from 6-900AD, before those Spanish fellows came over....
|Unloading the bike on the river crossign|