At times the river became deeper, at other times rougher. We scrambled up cascades, filling our bottles with clean water before moving into the undergrowth. Our target was a 400-year-old strangler fig, which Andy calls “the cathedral”, a reference to its colossal scale and quasi-gothic aesthetics of pointed arches, flying buttresses and ribbed vaults.
He explained how the host tree, an ajo, would have been strangled over the course of hundreds of years, calling the hollow cylindrical tube “the site of the battle”. The strangler fig would have scaffolded the ajo’s trunk, engulfing it and throwing roots downwards to reach and penetrate into the soil. In time the fig became strong enough to support itself, growing its own leaves, and the ajo eventually died, hence the name of this region; Cabo Matapalo translates to “cape of the tree killer”.
I looked at the towering structure of interlaced limbs and aerial roots, before donning Andy’s bright T-shirt and hauling on a harness. He used a laser pointer to indicate the ideal route up, flicking the red dot to and fro: “Here’s the dance pole,” he said, using nicknames for different landmark stages, “and there’s Jezebel’s Tower”; I hoped I wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the biblical figure.
Top-roped, I began to pull myself up, enjoying the effort. It triggered a memory of climbing trees as a kid – the concentration, the exhilaration. Meanwhile, on the ground, Andy continued with a stream of instructions, encouraging me with lines such as “That was a dynamite climb”, even though it clearly was not.
I might have been graceless but I was gaining height. When I reached the “viewing roost”, Andy called out that there was a surprise in the darkness of the fig’s hollow tube, where the ajo’s trunk had once stood. On his instruction, I peered in and saw half a dozen tiny bats, which looked terrified by my sudden appearance.