Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age
A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike (Steinbeck)
The only ones in the Wildcatter Club that afternoon were me and Gladys the waitress, when Warren came barging through the swing doors, shouting up a large bourbon before he even reached the bar. I did not know Warren that well, only as an American film producer who, for the past couple of months had been staying in one of the Hotel Colon suites. He began frequenting my place shortly after he arrived in Quito and had been conducting much of his business over the club’s telephone. At least, by the cajoling and pleading he made and the amounts of money he would shout down the line for all to hear, I assumed it was business. I came to an arrangement with him. I allowed him to make international calls from the bar and he would pay me in US dollars. At the exchange rate, dollars to Sucres, the local currency, I thought I had made a good deal.
In town, there were rumours aplenty about Warren. The ex-pat customers’ gossip had him – in his efforts to obtain permission to make a film in Ecuador – throwing private parties in his hotel suite, where members of the military were entertained with booze, food and prohibited pornographic films. Probably the idle speculation had some truth in it because, as I was also learning this was how a lot of business was conducted during the years the military Junta.
After tossing back another bourbon and making a second overseas call, he suggested I join him at one of the tables, some distance from the bar. I was about to politely inquire as to how the filming was coming along but he beat me to it; launching into a lengthy account of production and other problems he was having. He complained he was at a loss as to solve them and almost in tears, spoke of the lack of corporation he was getting from the locals. They, he went on, were completely useless in an emergency, which is what he was having right now. It was unbelievable that there was absolutely no one he could trust to make a very urgent journey to his film crew’s camp.
He said he was only too willing to go himself but he could not afford to be far away from a phone, which I could believe considering the time he spent on it. If only, he lamented, there was some reliable person to assist him; someone like myself for example and his trouble would be solved. He waited until Gladys placed two more drinks in front of us and retreated back behind the bar before baiting the trap.
“Have you heard of the Llanganates?” he queried, peering into his drink.
“No.” I truthfully answered. “I’ve been too Llanelwy and Llandudno in Wales, Is Llanganate somewhere around those parts?”
He then took pains to explain to me that the Llanganaties were a remote range of mountains in the Ecuadorian Andes, which as a relative newcomer to the country I had never heard of. With geographical differences sorted and drawing me further into his confidence, he described how for years, he had been researching the story of Atahualpa’s missing treasure. He was convinced this missing fortune was in a lake in the high, bleak and desolate Llaganates.
According to Warren’s version of history, it all began back in 1533 in Cusco, the Inca capital, when Atahualpa the Lord of the Incas, was imprisoned by the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. To save his neck, Atahualpa promised to fill a large vault with gold and other precious metals. The Inca king kept his promise and the vault was speedily filled. However, the ungrateful Pizarro reneged on his part of the arrangement and garrotted the poor, trusting chappy.
On their way to Cusco and under the command of Rumiñahui, one of Atahualpa’s generals was a column of 600 llamas loaded with even more treasure. On hearing of Pizarro’s duplicity, Rumiñahui decided against completing delivery and instead, decided to conceal the hoard for his own later use. Warren claimed his investigation was based on 17th-century documents from the Royal Geographical Society. These, plus some seemingly agile imagination on his part, revealed the fortune to be at the bottom of the very lake where his crew were presently filming.
Regrettably, for the project, the film crew was running out of supplies. If the indigenous messenger who had gotten the news to Warren in Quito was to have been believed, the two divers with the team were gravely ill from dehydration and starvation. It seemed, in their calculations, they had not taken into consideration being submerged beneath a cold unfathomable, weed-filled lake at an altitude of 3,352 meters. Warren was uncertain if they were suffering from the bends, hypothermia or hepatitis – possibly all three.
Warren had approached the Ecuadorian military for help but they maintained there were no helicopters available for hire and they were either unable or unwilling to offer any further assistance. He suspected their reluctance was due to the fact that he was being side-stepped. As the story unfolded, I gathered he had not been completely honest with the Ecuadorian authorities. He neglected to mention, apart from filming a story around the Atahualpa legend, he intended to take as much of the booty out of the country as possible without informing his hosts. This he explained, is where I came into the picture.
If someone trustful – like me – could be found to deliver the medicines and supplies to the stranded crew, they would be well rewarded for their services. Making sure Gladys was still out of range, he suggested that if – only if, 88,I could be persuaded to make the journey, not only would he pay me for my time but by way of his gratitude, he was prepared to give me a significantly valuable piece from the treasure. Why not, I asked myself? It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Patricia, the club secretary and the staff were quite capable of look after the club for a couple of days and it would be a marvellous opportunity for me to see more of Ecuador. Looking back, I should have asked around before I made my decision. No one – but no one – in their right mind would want to go into the Llanganates. This first bit of dispiriting news I learned while attempting to hire a vehicle for the trip
Innocently enquiring as to why this was, I was told that no one could get into the Llangantes period. Did I realize how many idiot gringos had died up there in the Cordillera? I said I did not. The prospects of getting even near to those unexplored parts were not looking good. It was Warren, with all the wiles of a veritable film producer, who had the answer – money. With sufficient dollars he convinced Bolivar, a Hotel Colon taxi driver, to take me and the supplies as far as El Triunfo, which was no more than a small hamlet some miles east of the town of Bańos.
On arrival at the so-called village, according to Warren, I would be able to hire a guide and pack animals to transport myself and the load to his starving crew. In a hurry to escape before something untoward at the club came up to spoil what I thought would be a pleasant holiday, I borrowed a rucksack, sleeping bag and an anorak from an outward-bound type who taught at the British Council. The following morning at dawn, having purchased and packed everything in the boot of the taxi, Warren was waiting at the gate of the wildcatter to wave me off before presumably going inside to order breakfast, another drink and continue with his overseas phone calls.
We headed out of town in Bolivar’s immaculate, yellow Ford Taunus with the Hotel Colon’s logo blazoned on both sides of the vehicle, I found myself scoffing at those so-called adventurers who used Jeeps and Land Rovers for expeditions, when they could be travelling in style and comfort as was I. Limousines I was now convinced were the only way to go. My reverie ended not far out of Quito when we experienced the first of four punctures.
After passing the town of Latacunga, 90 km south of Quito, we found to our dismay that the Ecuadorian stretch of the Pan-American highway along which we were crawling was in places little more than a poorly repaired highway. Bolivar, who I realized by then had about as much knowledge of the terrain outside Quito as myself, took six hours of cautious driving to get us to the minute city of Bańos. We finally pulled up in front of a small hotel which to me seemed like a good place to overnight.
Bolivar, however, had other ideas, which I later realized would allow him to make more money out of the expenses Warren had given him to cover his part of the deal. In chatting to some locals, he had heard the road to El Triunfo was a good one and it would take only another hour to arrive there. He convinced me that it was better for us to push on before dark.
We made it to El Triunfo but it took not one but three hours, as the road was not a road but not much more than widened, mule trail. The village, if one would call a couple of buildings, a few wooden shacks and a store with a hitching post outside, a village, There was no hotel. Worse to come, there were no guides or pack animals available. The bizarre looking, poncho-clad inhabitants who came to gape at us without a mouthful of teeth between them, informed us that a group of foreigners had hired the only guide and mules two weeks before. Nothing had been seen or heard of them since.
They went up there, they said, pointing their gnarled fingers in the general direction of a distant bank of mist or was it cloud, in or under which I presumed were more mountains. Should I wish to continue alone, they informed me, via Bolivar translation, I could follow a track they all simultaneously indicated, which was at the far end of the village, beyond the last wooden house. I was to follow this and continue uphill until I reached a solitary house. The old man living there knew a family who might find someone willing to accompany me. How far was it to this house, Bolivar asked them? Three to four hours depending on the weather, maybe longer for a foreigner, they giggled.
This is when Bolivar came into his own. I was relying on his Spanish and his partial understanding of Quechua, the Andean indigenous language to inform me what was going on. I was just a white object of anthropological curiosity for the miserable looking inhabitants but I was intrigued at the cringing respect they paid to Bolivar. Both he and his mud-splattered yellow Ford Taunus were treated like objects from outer space. I doubted the gaping folk had ever before seen a vehicle of such dimensions. It could also have been that he was a lot taller and certainly a lot faster than most of them tied together.
He accepted their veneration as one born to rule. After listening to their constant, “Si mi jefe. No mi jefe”- Yes boss. No boss – for long enough, he demanded they find a guide and mules by the following morning. Any evident reluctance to obey ended when Bolivar informed them – he informed me later that the gringo would pay well for their trouble.
Warren’s arrangement had been for Bolivar to take me to and leave me in El Triunfo, then return for me in three days. Not only had he risked his recently purchased taxi to get us through some truly awful conditions, but now it was too late and the road too hazardous for him to drive back even to Bańos. The alternative, the nearest hotel being back down in Bańos, was to sleep in the taxi. I took the back seat, knowing and from observing over the years those taxi drivers usually sleep in the front seat. It was not comfortable but anything was better than rolling out my sleeping bag on the earthen floor one of the filthy looking dwellings. I found a bottle of Four Roses rum among the supplies which eased some discomfort.
Waking after an uncomfortable few hours of sleep I had further reason to be grateful for his Bolivar’s influence over the community. Before first light, he again took charge of the situation. Only one mule and a not so willing guide had been found. After drawn-out negotiations between a toothless and half-witted looking dwarf, which were unintelligible to me, Bolivar informed me it really was the best they could do. He pointed out the poor mule, standing forlornly nearby and looking as unhappy as I felt being there. The supplies would be carried on the backs of the guide, his wife and their three small children, the oldest no more than twelve years of age, all looking more dirty and bedraggled than the donkey.
Before departing he again tempted to get me to abandon my plans and return with him to Quito. He tried scaring me by saying it was known for guides to push their clients off some cliff, minus their valuables, and no one would be any the wiser. I was almost persuaded. Although I was genuinely concerned for the plight of the film crew, up there in those unfriendly, misty mountains, it was the adventurer in me, not their possible fate which urged me to continue.
Bolivar remained until all the gear was secured and finally threatened the guide that if I was not back in El Triunfo in three days he would return with the police. I admit to being more than a little anxious as I watched the rear lights of the taxi disappear on its way back to civilization, leaving me to the mercy of the guide, his family, a mule and no communicative language, I put my faith in Bolivar being as good as his word and being there if and when I returned.
The wizened old guide, despite my half-protestations, indicated I should ride on the mule. Pointing at the emaciated animal and then in the direction, we were proposing to take, with some theatrical gesticulations he got through to me I was a lesser weight than the packs. After which seemed to me as a lively family squabble, the supplies, which included two gas tanks, were heaped high onto the backs of his wife and children. We finally set off at a fast pace, or rather they did because at first, I had trouble getting the reluctant mule to keep up with them.
Three hours of monotonous plodding higher into the mountains, my backside already feeling pain from the wooden saddle, we became enveloped in dense heavy, white mist. I could hear but not see the family in front of me but luckily the mule plodded dutifully on and on following them up to the freshly made track. The weather and the conditions deteriorated along the route, as did any elation I may have had. The guide pointed out some mule spoors, and traces of a path and I assumed from what he was trying to tell me, they had been made by the film crew. As we continued steadily higher, our path took us through veritable forests of Pampas grass, in and out of small ravines, with torrents of water coursing through them, making our progress more arduous. Watching the family manhandle the heavy loads across streams, up treacherously steep inclines and through dense thickets of the bush, I was amazed at their stamina and their sure-footedness.
Crying out in loud, shrill commands or maybe instructions, over his shoulder the guide would infrequently stop to see if we were following him. His wife, bent almost in half under her load, continuously chattered to herself, while the kids, only slightly heavily laden either fought or giggled, seemingly oblivious of the weight they were carrying.
My feet would be stuck in the mud, as the mule struggled, sometimes up to its skinny belly, through quagmires, icy brooks and thick, wet matted greenery. After a few more hours of this and I had had enough. I dismounted the poor beast and continued on foot, for which the unfortunate creature seemed to be grateful; probably for the first time in its miserable life to be without weight on its back. The weather was atrocious and bitterly cold, changing from rain to sleet and even fleeting snow.
I cursed Warren for not telling about the adverse conditions and for not advising me to take warmer or more suitable clothing. I have been over a few absolutely tough assault courses during my army days but struggling up to that murderous trail into the Llanganates was worse than doing three of them consecutively. It took us two days, sleeping rough, to get to the campsite and there was a time during the odyssey I am not ashamed to admit that to the bewilderment of the guide, I literally shed tears of misery.* When eventually we created what seemed to me like the thousandth range, through the mist, I saw the camp beneath us and openly rejoiced. I never did get a clear view of that miserable bottomless pond – which I learned later was known as Brunner’s Laguna, named after a Swiss treasure hunter who attempted to make a living conning gullible dreamers like Warren. For the brief time I was there it remained swathed in cold, grey mist or cloud.
As to the starving camera crew; they were not quite the ravenous men I had expected to find. They were pleased to see me and the mysterious sickness the divers thought they had, had unremarkably disappeared. Somehow, as so often happens along long lines of communication, the original message Warren received had become mangled. All the team had requested was new oxygen tanks for the divers, some Asprin and food. They were, however, thrilled to get some of the goodies I had with me but they never bothered to unpack half the supplies, as they had been preparing to break camp when I arrived. Dispirited and disillusioned, they had decided to abandon the project and head back home to civilization.
Such was that uninhabitable place I only stayed up there long enough to get warm by their campfire and eat and drink more of the Four Roses. Getting dry was out of the question and I left them to make their own arrangements with my guide for their return journey. Accompanied by the guide’s eldest child I slid, slithered and slipped my way back down to El Triunfo as fast as I could. I dreaded the thought of Bolivar not being there but God bless him, there he was, He had not let me down.
Eventually back in Quito and before the team flew back to North America, I had the chance to asked Kenny, one of the divers, if they found any treasure? “The only gold in that fucking lake is the gold tooth I lost when my teeth were chattering so hard I thought my jaw had broken.” was his ungracious reply.
Warren left Ecuador without paying me and no one else either. I never even glimpsed a shard of pottery from Atahualpa’s treasure. The only compensation was over the years in Quito, I would occasionally find myself getting into Bolivar’s taxi and our amusement on the recounting the story made the adventure almost, I repeat almost worthwhile.
*A few years later, in 1984, I was to meet Joe Brown, the outstanding English rock climber of the 1950s and early 60s. His group was in Quito, at the end of an expedition into the Llanganates, when he told me it was the roughest terrain he had ever been in.
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