Independent on Sunday/Bradt Travel Writing Competition 2012 Shortlisted Entry

Published in The Irresponsible Traveller, Bradt. Why not buy the book? It’s got Michael Palin in and everything.


I returned from the Lost City. I nearly didn’t.

It was the rainy season, and the torrents of water that poured down the mountainside were washing the road away. Our jeep ascent into the Sierra Nevada involved driving with one wheel overlapping the edge of a sheer precipice. We had two contraguerilla guards accompanying us in the truck and the butt of one of their rifles tapped politely on my hip bone. Climbing out of the jeep at the top, we met a group that had just finished the trek. They looked haggard and most definitely worse for ‘where’. We asked them how it had gone. One man thought long and hard, and replied:

“It’s like meeting with the devil.” And so we set off. Uphill and sweaty – we were floundering mounds of uselessness. Our guides didn´t seem to notice. We finally made it to the top and spent the first night sleeping in hammocks under the stars.

We rose with the sun and saw paradise. The butterflies were incandescent and bigger than birds. The bromeliad-lined trees were colossal, and there were flowers so big they looked like fruit. I fell in love with world all over again. And again. And again. And I didn’t stop until we stopped walking. On the second night we camped right next to the ferocious Buritaca River. Slowly but surely we were working our way into to the obscurity of jungle. Mosquitoes and sandflies became squadrons of blood sucker fuckers.

The next day we began the final stretch to the Lost City. On the way, we swam in a crystal pool with waterfalls, and I plotted a graph of now over yes. Then we had to cross the big river, the ferocious one. Seven times. The current was so strong we used ropes to get from one side to the other, and we blobbed around like cumbersome blubber balls while our guides balanced expertly on nothing. Safely on the right side, we soggily approached the stone steps to the Lost City, and climbed all 2,000 of them.

There. It was beautiful. Crumbing stone circle terraces rose implausibly out the mountains like rejected offerings to the clouds. Serene. Detached. A whole land, a whole civilisation built on the dreams of dawn. And the jungle had reclaimed everything. We spent the afternoon in dappled sunlight, exploring what already was. Rising with the sun again on the fourth day, we toured the ancient city with our guide. Three snakes and a toucan later, we began the long trek home.

It turns out the devil was in a tree root. I tripped over it, and fell on to rocks below. Lying with my face in the mud, and my knee and the rock like a pestle and mortar, all I could think of was the word ´splat´. I briefly saw my pristine white knee cap, and then the blood started. With no option but to continue, I dragged my leg behind me, also trying to ignore the stabbing pain in my side. At base our guide boiled some water and salt to try and clean the hole in my knee, although he forgot to cool it first. I couldn’t cover my leg up so the mosquitoes and sandflies feasted on it. At one point, a moth got stuck in the wound.

I had to conquer some deeply unforgiving inclines the next day. By the time we reached base for our last night my leg was so swollen it was starting to blend in the with ancient jungle trees. Waiting for the jeep to come and collect us, I noticed the swelling had spread up one leg and was creeping down the other. Both my legs were shiny and purple and it was becoming hard to tell where the joints were. The precarious drive down didn’t seem nearly as scary this time as I was concentrating on trying not to let my legs explode. We got back to Santa Marta in floods – there was no way of telling where the sea ended and the road began. A pathetic fallacy of grey.

In hospital, I was treated for a cracked rib and cellulitis. “Just in time”. Apparently. I had an antibiotic shot from a needle so wide it felt like a gutter, and was given millions of pills to lay my head on. For a week after, I dragged round swollen, fluid-filled legs – thinking of the graph I had plotted and waiting patiently for the infection to subside.

It was worth it. I saw what should and shouldn’t have been lost. I would do it all again. And, it would appear that I took the Satan bullet for the whole trekking group. Everyone else was completely fine.