There is a common misconception that goes as such: the natural world is chaotic, wild, and untamed. This is a myth. Though it may seem from the outside to be a swirling mass of flora and fauna smeared across the earth’s canvas, it is infinitely more ordered than we can ever know.
This island, this paradise, is the perfect example of that truth; urban jungle gives way to true jungle to beach and exposed stone and a desert of crashing waves under the watchful eye of a tall, snow-capped mountain. The boundaries smear here and there, but there is order and in each single part there is a reflection of the beautiful whole.
The broad highway becomes a city street and then, finally, a two-lane road that wears and trundles until there is only the camp site. A single story office, a block of showers and bathrooms, and a handful of pitch sites… and this is high-luxury compared to the next one, two days along the coast and a third of the way up the mountain.
I can feel the sunburned skin of my eyes crinkle as I pull into a shady spot and draw a deep breath. There’s no moment quite like this. The thrill of an adventure about to begin is unbeatable.
Beyond the sprouting grass and swaying wildflowers of the campsite there is a jagged series of boulders that make a lip, keeping the shifting sands of the coast at bay and protecting the tents from the rough oceanic winds.
Beyond them the trail begins, leading through the swirling natural biomes of this island. The excitement is like an itch that tickles through my body. I cannot wait to get gone.
The first steps are tentative; burning sands shift and hiss under my sneakers. The desire to strip to sandals and shorts is overwhelming and deceptive — the crisp sea air would only allow the blazing sun to redden me stealthily.
The pale sands would burn the skin from my feet. This is the desert landscape, beautiful and deadly, drawing us to it though there is nothing life-sustaining about it. Or so it seems. The waters in the rock pools beside me sparkle with shells and flitting fish, so small as to be almost unseen.
Out in the wide blue ocean there are behemoths and leviathans — here the world is a little smaller, a little more fathomable. The creatures are a little easier to comprehend — the start of the marked path skirts these pools and is washed away and renewed every day.
Tucked between the last of the rock pools and the craggy face of the cliff that it has been carved into, the mountain path is not for everyone. In just two days, it traverses the heights and depths of the coast, passing plains and sand before trailing into the thick, lush jungle at the base of the mountain proper.
From that icy height, the summit, the island will be laid out in full. These are the moments that I live for. To hold the natural world in the bowl of my eye…
But first, the ascent to the first plateau and a perilous step across the rushing river that tumbles, head long, into the rolling, roiling ocean in a spray of rainbows. A chill of mist.
Whipped by wind and chapped by sand and sea, I push through the coastal scrubland and windswept plains of the plateau to a jagged tooth of stone that juts from the swaying grass. In that great shadow my tent is safe from the wind and the pinwheel stars rise and fall to reveal the dawn of civilization.
The city has ceased to exist — I cannot remember where I have come from. There is only the ache of yesterday’s hike and the promise of today’s — the plains stretch on to the horizon, but will soon give way to the dense jungle.
Stretch and pull, the rhythm of movement that rules us all; a timid, long-legged grassland animal peers before bouncing away into the distance with a flick-flick of its white tail. Lightness and ease — these are the feelings of the journey; exhilaration will come later.
For now, it is only relief and the unbearable happiness of the natural world. The feeling of slowly returning to nature. With a sneaking sense of trespassing, I pull the shoes from my feet and walk the mud path on bare soles, feeling the mud and pebbles, their roughness and sharp stings, with a kind of penitent joy.
Too soon, however, it’s necessary to cover the stinging flesh once more — the jungle encroaches early; a large spider creeps along the path before me, its fuzzed body and careful legs casting a twin body in shadow on the ground.
To step into the outskirts of the jungle is to be a tiny beast, swallowed whole by a many-headed monster. Warm and sticky and humid, it is a trickling, tickling place where the equivalent to silence is a low-level hum and chirp.
Colors so bright that they have to be seen to be believed bloom next to corpulent monster flowers that open at night with pungent, stomach churning scents, and in every tree there is a set of eyes glittering, gleaming, watching. Here there be monsters, and so I join with fellow hikers at a checkpoint and we huddle together in the night, wreathed in campfires, making nervous jokes as the night beasts yowl.
This is the sound of the jungle in the morning. We are all soaked to the bone and yearning for the high, whipped coastal path once more. There is no relief to come, however; sand encroaches into the sparse trees as we push out into blinding sunshine.
Now forty miles from the coast, we have reached an altogether different beach; an endless shifting set of dunes in the shadow of the stone queen beyond. A whispering haze above the scalding sands pretends to be water, to be trees, to be people, and the little dancing lizards hop from foot to foot as they scamper in our shadows.
When we shelter from the heat of midday under a straining tarpaulin, soaked in the trees and now bleaching in the wilderness, they skitter into our den and hover nervously at its edges. In quiet, careful measures of kindness, we pour capfuls of our dwindling fresh water into the lid of a food container and leave it at the far edge of the shelter.
There is the belief that we should not interfere, but it is so cruel to see them baking. The capacity for kindness is the most natural gift. They do not drink it much, our tiny friends; perhaps it is not in their nature. But they paddle through it and sniff and shake. Cooling their bodies in its shallow body and then in the wind.
Like us they hide until the sun passes its zenith and then scamper out to find whatever it is that they need while we pack away the shelter and roll out shoulders. At first there is only a wall of sand, topped with a snowy peak in the distance, but as we reach the peak of a dune there is a string of fluttering flags in the rubble-field at the base of the mountain.
We have passed the land of fire to reach the realm of ice. The last hour of walking is seemingly devoid of life. The coastal fish, the jungle denizens, even the tiny, fleeting lizards and the prowling beasts that we saw lounging by a sun-soaked oasis, none of them venture here. But there are hardy, scrubby plants and skittering rodents in the deepest crevices between the boulders that stand like giants’ bones, and in the sky great birds circle, seeking these small pickings.
This is the silence of death; in the land of perpetual winter nature is sparse but hardy and the nights are void still. This is broken country, and it takes its price from every creature that passes through.
We eat steaming tins of ration style food and huddle together with our eyes turned to that lofty peak. A shadow crosses the moon as some night hunting bird covers its kingdom in spectral silence. Dry — this natural sphere is dry, drier even than the desert, and drier still at altitude where every inch of moisture has been turned to hard crystal. When the cold turns my hands to hard, red blocks and the wind has whipped me raw and ice has set around my lashes I’ll wonder why I chose this, but the view will make it worthwhile.
From up there on the crown of the world the swirling world below will make sense and the tendrils of the sand and sea and jungle that blend into each other will reveal the hidden secrets of the world.
Or perhaps not, but there will be a joy and lightness that I can carry home, a kernel of hope that will grow and flower even when my feet carry me back to the concrete pathways and trails of the city. A flowering sapling that ties me here; there is one for every adventure. Nature grows in me, too, and I nurture it so that the concrete never closes around my heart and mind.
Fifteen steps to the summit and we have left the clouds behind. This is the brightest place on earth and on a day like today it feels like the only place. The canopy of clouds below looks like a pillowy mass of marshmallow. You could almost believe that it would support you until a chunk of rock skitters from the path and plummets through its insubstantial heart.
Ten steps to the summit and my heart is racing, my hands are sweating, my legs age. My head spins. But still there is the brilliant feeling of clarity — this is the pinnacle. This is what I came for. Somewhere in the far distance my car is gathering sand and pollen, the loyal old city beast. When I return, it too will bring some of the natural world home and scatter it along the roads and byways.