In the darkness of the pre-dawn, was when the jeep first broke down, and we hadn’t even made it out of the village. The jeep had made the rounds to different hostels and was now full; a Finnish couple, a girl from Argentina, and a guy from the south of Colombia. If it could, the jeep would probably have more tales than all of us combined. It looked like a crumpled soda can coated in dry mud, and combined with it’s driver, who was swept away in hot anger from repeated unsuccessful attempts to start her while simultaneously conducting a yelling fit with his angry wife, there was enough to draft up a reality show pitch.
I had been warned that the journey to the northernmost point of South America in Punta Gallinas, Colombia, was not the most smooth of journeys. This land is governed by the indigenous Wayuu tribe, a culture which successfully fought off Spanish colonisation, preserving that culture but remaining in relative exclusion from the rest of Colombian society. There is little tourist infrastructure here, the only visitors feeling their way along the La Guajira desert peninsula with multiple buses and shuttle jeeps.
My mission had begun 72 hours prior flagging down a public bus from the highway which runs between the gorgeous palm tree littered Caribbean coast of northern Colombia and the mist shrouded peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In my mind embarking on this journey was a mystical, captivating notion; riding through the desert like Indiana Jones with a jeep as my camel just to stand atop this majestic continent, cut off from wifi and the gringo trail, as isolated as I could possibly be from the comforts of my previous existence in tidy Auckland, New Zealand. A few days prior, a lovely Swedish backpacker who had just came from Punta Gallinas had outlined the path I must take. Her handwritten note was my map; four place names which I would need to transit through. After two hours on the bus I arrived at the first, 4 Vias, which translates to ‘Four Ways’. And it is just that. Simply a large, four way intersection where two endless highways snake out of the horizon and clash, spurring out of the grisly dirt the growth of a handful of wooden food shacks and entrepreneurial jeep owners. It was one of these that offered to take me to Cabo de la Vela, the launching pad for Punta Gallinas. I jumped in with a couple of friendly Dutch travellers, and we boosted along the desert highway to hazy infinity. The ride was the perfect opportunity to observe one of the most bizarre habits of certain Colombian drivers. For no tangible reason, and with no car to overtake, they steer the car into the oncoming lane and just STAY THERE, with any passengers sharing concerned glances with each other in silence. When an oncoming car is a hundred or so metres away, that thankfully spurs a change back to the perfectly acceptable and more importantly, legal lane, and allows the foreign passengers to restart normal breathing patterns.
We arrived in Cabo de la Vela after an extended stop in the bustling desert town Urubia which didn’t simply serve as a requested ATM stop, but also for gas, a quick repair to the jeep’s transmission, and for the driver to catch up with half the townsfolk at either a slow crawl along the sidewalk or a complete stop for the full elbow-out-the-window babble. The sun was slipping towards the horizon as we arrived, drowning the desert settlement in a warm maternal glow. It radiated from the beach, whose sand merged with that of the desert and lined the long calm crescent bay. Alongside the chaotic rabble of a childrens’ beach football game, a young kitesurfer would skip along the water’s edge before surrendering to the wind and allowing it to whisk him several metres into the air. A dirt road runs parallel to the beach and is straddled with hammock filled beach huts and small wooden buildings containing kite surfing schools, hostels and restaurants. I stayed in one of the beach huts, little more than three timber walls and a roof where a hammock dangles facing the sea. This was a place where wifi is a dirty word, where electricity is as scarce as pillows, where if you want to order dinner you tell the chef that morning. That first night I fell asleep to strobing tropical storm far out in the Caribbean, it’s restless lightning exploding in silence miles behind the stormy mist, illuminating the blended grey canvas of sky and ocean every couple of seconds for hours on end.
Despite the serenity of this already isolated village, I was determined to kick on to Punta Gallinas as soon as possible. The owner of the hostel whose hammock I rented made a phone call, and quickly a ride to Punta Gallinas for the next day was organised; the driver rocked up and briefed me and two Israeli girls who also wanted to make the trip, and all seemed to be set for a 5am pickup. Of course that wasn’t the case. As I found out over beers later in the evening, the driver had counted the Israelis twice when they had enquired earlier in the day, meaning we were actually short of the five passengers they consider the minimum number for the trip. It still didn’t stop me rising at 5am in the hope I would see another jeep making the journey, but nothing was gained but bags under my eyes. That following day, Juan, an English speaking Colombian friend I had met the night prior, translated the grumbling incomprehensible Spanish of my hostel owner; there is only one car in the village that goes to Punta Gallinas, so asking around the town at different places will appear only as inflated interest. With this I held my tongue, hoping for something that night but feeling stifled at leaving my trip in the hands of somebody who cares much less than me. I killed the day hiking to a hilltop shrine which gave a rugged view of the ocean crashing onto the harsh edge of the desert and in the afternoon, when I saw signs outside a beach hut advertising trips to Punta Gallinas I almost enquired, if not for a plump man in the shadows of the hut chuckling with such aggression at his amigo that with my uncertain Spanish I felt as uncomfortable as Billy Ray Cyrus watching the video for ‘Wrecking Ball’.
Later, the owner of my hostel informed me there was no hope for a full jeep for the morning. Disappointment reigned; resigned to the fact I would have to kill another day and day’s budget in this desert outpost. I was only saved when, smoking a cigerette on a tyre in the sand just after dusk, a dark jeep pulled up in front of me. In the passenger seat was Juan, exclaiming he had found me a ride to Punta Gallinas for the next morning, and after speaking to the driver next to him I became ecstatic; out of nothing, I would finally be heading off to the top of the middle of the world. I would later click that the driver was actually the aggressive laugher who I avoided earlier.
Somewhere in the prodding of the jeep’s innerworkings in that first pre-dawn breakdown the vehicle sprung to life, and not another thought was wasted on the consequences of the same thing happening in the desert. It was a full three hours of jarring tail bone assault through mud filled trenches and gaping potholes before that exact thing happened. The problem was when the engine was switched off, as it was with the first inevitable toilet break. Que the hissing and spluttering of the driver as we patiently waited, seeking cool shelter from the intrusive glare of the sun under the open boot door of our jeep. The verbal garbage of the driver was a language he by some miracle shared with the jeep, because after 15 minutes of assaulting the engine; taking the front wheel off and stabbing at the steel intestines beneath with a metal pole, he bullied her back to life.
Along the route were countless indigenous Wayuu settlements, where local children posted at checkpoints held ropes taught across the road, forcing any approaching vehicle to stop. I had read in the Lonely Planet that these children ask for candy; in reality it could have been money but either way I’ll never know, our crafty driver and his assistant would say something in Spanish at every barrier which convinced them to drop the rope and let us through. Poor kids only wanted a Moro.
Eventually, we stopped at the base of a mammoth sand dune. As soon as you exited the car you could feel it, a force, and excitement at what lay on the other side that made you forget the dull ache in your legs and hips and want to sprint up the dune like an excited puppy. The ocean whistled at us somewhere from the other side, it’s gale howling and whipping hot sand at our legs. It forced you to counter-act your weight, trudging against it through the loose particles of the steep dune Up and over the gentle smoothness of the majestic dome was the sight we’d all been waiting for. No it wasn’t THE northernmost point, that was still to come, but it was close, and ever so magnificent. An unrecognisable white capped Caribbean ocean, which hurled itself from beyond the earth’s curve to slam it’s beautiful blue on the stark beige of the desert mainland. In front of me the dune dipped sharply a hundred metres down to a small cove beach, but along the coast to the left, it merged with tall rocky outcrops where small tufts of green had clawing their way through the surface and small reefs nestled in the harsh confines of the cliffs’ jaws. The wind, the embodiment of the place’s power, ripped through my hair and scratched at my skin; it shouted, no screamed, the intoxicating truth that this was what travelling is all about. This was raw isolation. Not another group of souls to shout at across the wind, to corrupt your view of the invigourating vista. It was one of those places that when you eventually turn away, you are forced to turn back again, choked by the reality that you need to delay that last glimpse, knowing your photos will never live up to the stimulation of the reality.
At our next stop, the assistant produced a joint. There was no denying this was a special trip. The vista this time was a huge pale green lake cut out in a canyon from the rocks of the land. As we moved on again, it seemed it wasn’t a lake at all, but the branch of a harbour which splintered into the mainland from the inhospitable chaos of the open ocean.
Driving into our accommodation, run by the local Wayuu population, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl. The place was incredible, not because of it’s charming wood deco restaurant or sleeping hammocks hiding from the howling onshore wind by one log-bound wall, but it’s location. It was nestled atop a thin slice of elevated land, on one side, the attention seeking Caribbean ocean lay at the base of ruthless rock cliffs but on the other, another, huge, lake-like branch of the bay, still as the night, it’s green contrasting the mud shore. Mangroves several metres off shore posed shoulder to shoulder to form small walls, the whole body of water twenty or so metres below the level of the hostel, so standing on the edge of it’s cliffs you could gaze upon the whole thing hanging magnificently below like an emerald cut into the rock. In a dried out part of the canyon, two football goals had been erected to create a mud field where locals kicked around a ragged old ball with peeling fur panels. We stayed for a few hours, taking a warm engrossing nap in the hammocks, before we were woken by the driver, jeep already running, for our last excursion of the day. Unbeknownst to us then, the forward thinking driver and his young helper had ‘prepped’ the jeep, going through the motions of their wheel removal stabbing strategy to get it started ahead of time.
This final little journey, just a five minute ride, was to a steel frame lighthouse, poised to look across the sea unobstructed, for it was at last, the northernmost point of South America. Just some jutting rocks and a bit of beach, there are more postcard spots around the coast, but it’s beauty was in it’s isolation, in the feeling it erected in you of knowing almost 400 million people are clinging to the belly of the continent at your back. It was like being a student of the earth, simply a speck blessed enough with the consciousness to be able to admire it’s monstrous beauty. Standing there, after five months away from home, not knowing when next I’ll see my family or hometown, using an imaginary compass to picture all the world’s continents relative to my sand-submerged feet and above all, the two tiny islands tucked into the bottom corner of the world, the islands I call home. It was a typical journey defining moment, bleached into the memory by relentless sun, a sore arse, and a little bit of weed. To top it off, we only ended up breaking down one more time after that.