Not just strictly for the birds in deep­est Colombia

THE GREEN TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - DENISE LAWUNGKURR GOOD­FEL­LOW

UPON hear­ing of my in­vi­ta­tion to speak at the Colombia Bird Fes­ti­val in Maniza­les, friends were wor­ried. Some thought it a scam. Oth­ers warned of kid­nap­pings and the prospect of nasty dis­eases. But Maniza­les, high in the An­des, has 12 uni­ver­si­ties — surely it couldn’t be too dan­ger­ous.

My jour­ney didn’t start well. The itin­er­ary was con­fus­ing and when I asked Natalia, my Colom­bian con­tact, for help, she men­tioned Jo­han­nes­burg, much to my con­ster­na­tion. Then my flight from Dar­win to Syd­ney was de­layed be­cause of the first Novem­ber cy­clone in 40 years.

Oth­er­wise the trip was a breeze. At Bo­gota air­port, a mother pushed her English-speak­ing child for­ward to in­ter­pret for me. Another woman, Maria, shep­herded me to the right ter­mi­nal and then, re­al­is­ing my air­line wasn’t fly­ing, scored me a ‘‘staff seat’’ on another. She didn’t speak English ei­ther.

The flight to Maniza­les was a lit­tle scary; a glimpse of vul­tures high above was not re­as­sur­ing. We landed safely and were wel­comed to the tiny air­port by smil­ing lo­cals with ‘‘Wel­come’’ writ- ten on their T-shirts. The com­fort­able suites and beau­ti­ful grounds at the Recinto del Pen­samiento, my home for sev­eral days, were the equal of any­where I’ve stayed.

The fes­ti­val was the brain­child of Ser­gio Ocampo-Tobon, the so-called soul of Colom­bian bird­watch­ing, and far from be­ing a scam it had the whole­hearted sup­port of state Gov­er­nor Ju­lian Gu­tier­rez- Boter, plus ho­tel chains and cof­fee-grow­ers.

The speak­ers had an im­pres­sive range of skills. Blind since birth, Juan Pablo Cu­lasso of Uruguay can iden­tify thou­sands of dif­fer­ent bird calls, and gave us a demon­stra­tion, all the while ra­di­at­ing gen­tle good hu­mour. We gave him a stand­ing ova­tion. Then there was Paul Betancourt, who stud­ies macaws and makes the very best rum.

I talked of birds in Aus­tralia’s Top End and con­ser­va­tion and the chal­lenges in­dige­nous peo­ple face in deal­ing with such is­sues. Luis Fer­nando Jaramillo, who works with in­dige­nous Colom­bians, took my hands in a heart­felt ges­ture of em­pa­thy.

On­my­last day, I walked up the rain­forested moun­tain to a lit­tle house in a clear­ing. Streaks of emer­ald, gar­net, peri­dot and amethyst buzzed around the red plas­tic bird feed­ers and pot­ted pur­ple and pink fuch­sias on the porch.

Sparkling Vi­o­letear, Wood­star, Bronzy Inca and Amazilia tza­catl . . . the hum­ming­birds’ names sang with im­agery, adding depth to their beauty. Smartly dressed tourists stopped in their tracks, daz­zled speech­less.

I re­turned to the ho­tel to find Natalia de­spair­ing over my home­bound itin­er­ary; I was in dan­ger of miss­ing a con­nect­ing flight. She ar­ranged for me to re­turn to Bo­gota by an overnight bus.

When I ar­rived in Bo­gota at 5am, Natalia’s friend, Veron­ica, and her hus­band were wait­ing for me. She’d stayed up all night, ring­ing the bus driver ev­ery two hours to en­sure his only nonS­pan­ish-speak­ing pas­sen­ger was OK. They took meto the air­port and saw me through the for­mal­i­ties.

The lovely city of Maniza­les reminds me of the Ade­laide of my youth. I saw birds beau­ti­ful be­yond de­scrip­tion, made new friends and en­coun­tered the kind­ness of strangers. I’ll go back.

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