This country will not let me leave...
I’ve been hijacked by Colombia. I’m meant to be in Panama by now, but I’ve just postponed my flight for the third time in three weeks. I’m being held captive by this country and its exotic charms. I’ll never make it home at this rate.
I never even meant to come to here. I wanted to, but to be completely honest I was scared. I was worried that I’d be spiked with Burandanga - the freaky local backstreet drug that’s made from the Datura plant, which removes your free will and turns into a self-robbing zombie. In fact all I had to worry about was being invited to lick poison dart frogs with a nutty professor. How could I have been so ignorant?
I came because I got an email from a frog scientist who’d been reading my blog and invited me to Bogota to check out the work he and his colleagues are doing. It was an exceedingly random offer, but these days I’m really into random. I like the idea that the frogs are guiding my path, taking me away from the well-worn South American gringo trail and the same old travel decisions I’ve made for years. I’m handing my destiny over to the little green guys. So I said yes.
It turns out that frogs make pretty good travel agents. Far from being the post apocalyptic urban hell-hole I had in mind, Bogota rocks. It’s the coolest city I’ve been to in years and really no more edgy than many other South American capitals.
It kind of reminds me of a Latino version of New York 20 years ago – pulsating with energy and an eclectic culture featuring great live music, world class museums, funky flea markets, kooky hole-in-the-wall bars and some seriously dodgy neighbourhoods rubbing up against super chic uptown restaurants and clubs. Oh and great people, who are also unbelievably welcoming. So, not that much like New York, then.
Snappy dressing knows no age limit in this town.
Colombia has tons of really amazing frogs too. Nearly eight hundred different species. In fact, if it wasn’t for Brazil (which has a few more species but is, after all, massive) it would be the amphibian capital of the world. And those are just the ones they know about - there are hundreds of species that have yet to be discovered in jungles that continue to be no-go areas thanks to decades of civil war.
The frog scientist who invited me – Dr Andrew Crawford – is part of a crack Colombian frog squad. They’re like the amphibian A team, battling away on the fungus fighting frontline. The deadly Chytrid fungus is invading this country from three different entry points. If someone doesn’t find a way to save the frogs fast then up to eighty percent of the species could go extinct in the higher altitudes favoured by the fungus - a devastating loss to global amphibian biodiversity.
But I believe in Andrew and his team. Not just because he’s passionate, dedicated and super smart but mostly because he looks just like Brains from Thunderbirds. And Thunderbirds always win.
Brains Bigger brains
Andrew’s lovely wife Vicky is tasked with getting to know the enemy by cultivating Chytrid in the lab. Ironically for a fungus that is seemingly unstoppable in the wild, Chytrid is remarkably hard to culture. After 15 months of trial and error Vicky and her colleague Edgar behave like proud parents that have survived IVF and refer to their first precious culture as their baby, and spoil it rotten. I made this short video of baby taking its first steps.
The large round circles are the fungal bodies, these imbed themselves in the frog’s skin cells and then the small mobile spores erupt out of them, ready to grow more fungus. It looks so innocuous but is an alarming efficient frog killing system.
They are also searching for a potential foil to the fungus and are particularly interested in the skin of a population of Atelopus toads that have Chytrid but haven't died from it. By culturing the skin scrapings of these toads they hope to discover some frog-friendly bacteria that's providing them with their immunity.
I’m taking a break from the capital to make the five-day trek, high up into the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern Colombia to visit the “lost city”, which sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie and has the looks and story to match. This ancient city, home to the pre-Inka Tayrona people, was abandoned during the Spanish conquest and “lost” for centuries until a couple of Colombian treasure hunters stumbled upon it in the early 1970’s.
At the time, the area was a prime spot for the cultivation of Santa Marta Gold – a particularly strong strain of marijuana. The grave robbers must have thought they’d smoked too much when they discovered this Eldorado - half consumed by the jungle and stuffed with gold. But in the end their greed was over-powering and they killed each other, and many others also died during the subsequent looting of its treasures.
It’s an incredible hike, gruelling and beautiful in equal measures, up and down steep mountain paths, through pristine jungle and wading waste deep through crystal clear rivers, which I only hope are still Chytrid free. At least it sounds as if the frogs here are alive and well – we are serenaded each night in our hammocks by a cacophony of amorous amphibians including the deafening whoop-whoop of the smoky jungle frog.
The smoky jungle frog is a big meaty brute - I had to stop our camp cook turning this one into dinner.
Until a few years ago this area was used to cultivate coca and process cocaine paste. Now the local farmers are subsidised to grow cacao instead. But that primary rainforest is gone forever and with cocaine consumption and production on the up, the coca farmers have probably just moved deeper into the mountains to tear down and poison yet more pristine jungle. Colombia has a significant portion of the Amazon and the destruction of rainforest to cultivate illegal crops is a significant environmental issue. In fact it's been estimated that every gram of coke implies the destruction of 4 sq metres of rainforest. A sobering thought indeed.
As we huff and puff our way up the mountain, we are frequently passed by ethereal figures clad in white, making light work of these brutal jungle paths. These are the Kogi Indians – the direct descendents of the Tayrona - whose culture has remained miraculously intact given their proximity to “civilisation”. I’m fascinated by them and keen to converse but they’re having none of it. Their disdain for me is palpable.
But who can blame them – from conquistadores to greedy grave robbers, pot growers and coca farmers to armed guerrillas, outsiders haven’t exactly put on a particularly favourable show to these people. Our guide tells me that the Kogi refer to themselves as “Elder brother” and everyone else as “Little brother”. They believe that little brother is young and foolish and destroying the planet. No arguing with that.
Buried deep in the jungle, twelve hundred moss covered steps lead to the "lost city". We climb up to the top, where the chiefs would have lived and are surrounded by clouds. It really is like something out of Indiana Jones. Totally magical.
But what really blows me away is that there, at the very top and in the spiritual centre of the city, is a giant rock shaped to look like a frog. Apparently frogs, like all nature, were highly revered and a potent symbol of fertility – the essence of life. The Tayrona, it seems, put frogs at the very centre of their world.
I had no idea and like the big superstitious frog freak that I am, I thank the little green guys for bringing me here to show me this amazing place.
As I descend back into the jungle I become pensive, unable to ignore the irony that western scientists also saw a link between frogs and fertility. But instead of building statues and worshipping them, we injected them with urine to find out if women were pregnant.
The twenty year mass export of African clawed toads for use as pregnancy tests is now widely considered to be the way that Chytrid has spread around the planet. Thanks to this bizarre tale of human folly, this frog statue could be the only frog left standing in these forests in a few years time. The Kogi may not want to talk to us, but perhaps we should have listened to them and their ancestors rather than stealing from them.
I leave you with the only frog that has ever come close to being the centre of our world, singing a strangely prescient song. Take it away Kermit....