By Jacki Hill-Murphy
A map with a trail that was set 500 years ago, wild terrain where compass needles whiz round uncontrollably, spectacled bears sniffing around the tent at night, tapirs scuttling around in the bush and thick black squishy mud as far as the eye can see! Yes this is the Llanganates in the Andes of Ecuador, where literally, no one ever goes.
So why am I going there with my team of three intrepid and enthusiastic ladies into this wild, wet and unexplored quagmire, a water-world in a vast and far-off land?
Isabela Brookes may have been coerced or bullied into going there with her new husband, Colonel Edward Brookes, a mad keen treasure seeker in 1920 for their honeymoon. We don’t have a photograph of the unfortunate lady but her story is fascinating and she trudged through the mud with a reluctant band of local men to show them the way into the heart of the park in search of Inca Gold. Was she wearing a long skirt I wonder, or had this local lady from the Andes succumbed to the new-fangled ‘trousers’ that were now almost acceptable clothing for a lady and would have added some sartorial comfort for her.
The Colonel had one thing on his mind - Gold, as they trekked closer to towards the Cerra Hermosa in the heart of the wilderness he may have begun to regret his lack of organisation in seeking out the fabled hoard as Isabel stumbled along behind him. She was hoping that the sun would shine and dry her out and that the sharp cold winds would give way to a gentle breeze - but is wasn’t to be and she succumbed to pneumonia. After a couple of days she sadly died, probably caught from getting thoroughly soaked in her tent. The men they had paid to go with them got scared and ran away and Colonel Brookes had to find his own way out, now a widower. Or was he? Legend has it that he already had a wife in America.
There are orchids galore in this area of outstanding nature, many don’t have names yet and little gardens of succulent plants cling to rocks in picturesque clusters. Bright blue and orange birds fly close, quite unafraid of humans, who they have never seen.
One of the lakes that emerges form the mist is called Isabela Brookes Lake, it is small and the shallow water surface ripples and long grasses skirting it toss in the wind. Another is shaped like a heart, a cruel twist in Isabela’s story.
The terrain is rugged and mountainous but cloud forest grows thickly on the slopes, valleys seem to lead nowhere and just when you has finished smoothing sunblock onto your face, the hot sun will give way to snow, or hail or the wind will blow up a storm. Off come the layers of clothing and on they go again, hoods up and hoods down, peel off the wet waterproof trousers and then back down to a t shirt. It is a mad world for weather, a mad world for testing your survival skills but a fantastic world for beauty in nature in the landscapes, for testing yourself against the elements when you are a mere speck in an unspoilt world that has never seen a combustion engine.
That's why we are going. We will bring back our stories and share them, of being in a mysterious wonderland of nature, recording and documenting it, like the first female explorers did of distant lands whose stories were read by those who could only dream of such a journey.
As for Isabela, we will pay our respects by her lake and commiserate with her, for the total lack of planning and equipment by her husband Colonel Brookes in his attempt to find Inca Gold there in the 1920s.