The border into Ecuador was hot, the thick air drawing the moisture from our skin. It took only moments to stamp us out of Peru and into Ecuador, the last overland stamp I would get on this trip. My blank passport has now four whole pages filled. Spending my first US dollars that had been a Christmas gift from home, I savoured the cold sweetness of a raspberry magnum. The truck eventually was checked through, despite having no cabin or back locker checks. 

Driving into Ecuador, the mystical mountains were framed by cloud and blue sky. Banana tree plantations lined the small country road our huge, orange truck rumbled down. It was a shocking change from the sands of Peru to lush mountains of Ecuador. I reflected that my time really is drawing to an end when the tropical landscape similar to my beginning in Brasil dominates the view. 

A nap, more indulgence in ice cream and some driving took us to the city of Cuenca. Colonial streets held the historic charm as modern fashion stores dominated the shop fronts. Our hotel was about seventy years old, the open courtyard turned reception a lovely, yet echoey place. It was hard to forgive the phone that shrilled loudly and endlessly at six am both days. 

An easy walk to the main plaza, we explored the various restaurants on offer before a small group of us settled down for a meal. The next morning we ventured to the famous Panama Hat factory, entertaining ourselves for moments on end trying the various shapes and colours of hats. The shop and small workshop had the fine, classic hats for a few hundred US dollars, to the cheaper hats in white, pink, green, and more! Not much of a hat person, I happily grinned along at the outrageous hats others found. A bright pink sun hat with loose straw around it, balanced upon Australian Jimmy’s curly hair. Fluro green golfer hat for UK Steve, to match his shirt. New Zealand’s Beth working the yellow and blue Doctor Harry style cap. On request I purchased an excited Uncle a classic looking Panama Hat before I decided to explore the town. 

People stood on the street with wheelbarrows loaded of fruits. Large, juicy strawberries caught my eye and I excitedly bought half a kilo of them for a dollar fifty. They were delightful! Continuing my fruit adventure (after a very long time of lolly and chocolate adventure) I wandered into a fruit market. The frightened girl that got lost in a market in Santiago has certainly changed as I confidently strode through the stalls until I found them. Mangos! Two little girls raced through the narrow isle behind me, giggling in delight as their mother scowled. I handed over a dollar for the three mangos in my bag and smiled as curious eyes followed me onto the street. After finding and purchasing a not so legal movie in likely terrible quality, I settled at a chilled out, local, natural juice bar. Unsure what to order, I agreed with the juice baristas suggestion of strawberry, pineapple with banana. As I sipped my tasty drink, a chubby young boy jumped up onto the stool next to me and leaned over the bar. He chatted excitedly to the friendly man behind the counter, obviously a usual customer. The rest of Cuenca faded into time as I took a relaxing afternoon lazing about the hotel room. 

Huge mountains dwarfed our truck as we rolled along sheer faces the next morning. Winding roads clinging to the mountain edge, we braved altitude once more. Hidden valleys filled with mist were visible far below. Pure white water tumbled through the narrow stream where the mountains met. The proud giants soaked up the high altitude sun light, for below a layer of cloud cloaked the lower landscape. Like an ocean of fluff, the plush cloud lapped half way up the grand mountains. Daring clouds crawled up above the temporary horizon onto the mountain side, sneaking in through the valley. Driving among these ancient giants, I see now the spirit indigenous people speak of. Alive.

Our hearts leapt to our throats as we teetered past landslides that had eaten the road, broken bitumen and deep cracks just below our windows. Night had fallen by the time we arrived at the Cloud Forest Hostel where a warm, home cooked meal awaited us. The idea of eating out has always been exciting to me, but now so close to home, I cannot wait for that home cooked meal sitting at the table and kicking my brother across from me.

The double bed in the loft of our room was rock hard, but it offered me privacy and comfort as I could see the gloomy rain dripping outside through the triangular window.

Stacked into the tray of a ute, two overflowing cars sped us to the days adventure. The gloom held off for us to enjoy a beautiful view of a volcanic crater lake half an hour from the town of Chugchilán. The unusual emerald green of the lake glowed to a shimmering turquoise when the sun peaked through the clouds. Beginning ahead of the group, Hannah and I marched off on the short hike a third of the way around the wide crater. Slick from the previous nights rain, the narrow paths were muddy and confusing. Taking a wrong turn, we ended up trampling through the loose earth of a freshly plowed field while a snarling dog attacked the end of my walking pole. Calves burning and trekking spirit faltering, we scrambled up the steep mountain side and back over to the crater lake path. It was another hours walk back down to the rendezvous point to drive back. Ominous storm clouds gathered, thunder rumbling ahead as we willed the ute to appear. A single ute rolled up as the heavens poured down on us. Four jumped into the cabin, taking all the bags with them. Eight of us were crammed into the tray of the ute while the brave souls that were left decided to walk back. No protection from the rain, and the sponge of a seat soaking up all the water, I didn’t think the ride could get any worse. I nervously shouted to animals we passed by, attempting to distract myself from the muddy, boggy roads our overloaded truck struggled over and the sheer, landslide prone drops metres from me. Then the hail came. Hands frozen by the icy wind, the oncoming ice stung exposed skin like insect bites. We screamed as we shielded our eyes, the violent balls of pain pelting our faces. Some managed to land in my mouth, the others taking humour in the crushed ice at the edges of my mouth. Looking down pools of water and hail gathered in my crotch. The hail eventually stopped and we found sealed road, taking our exhausted and freezing bodies to the hostel for warm showers and siestas.     

Spilling half a litre of water on my bed just before night time, I slept rigidly on the edge that remained mostly dry. Leaving altitude, for a fair while I hope, we made our way down through the clouds and towards the adventure town of Baños. 

Stopping in the town before setting up at our jungle campsite, we were allowed a couple of hours to explore. Enticed by any markets, I was devastated to realise the beautifully painted macaws were on untreated wood. It wouldn’t have been the first souvenir I had to weigh up the disappointment of not getting by the pain of losing it. Dreading my way through customs in less than a week, I opted to make the path to my waiting family an item faster. 

Rain drummed against the canvas layer of my tent, a harmonious jungle lullaby that carried me through the night. The skies remained grey the next morning as we huddled to scoff our breakfast before traipsing through mud onto the truck. We wound up a frightening road, slick mud threatening to slide us into extremely close trees, or tight concrete bridges leaving a long drop into fierce water. Holding our breaths, we finally made it to the top for the days adventure. Six zip lines ranging from two-hundred metres to six-hundred awaited us, excitement pushing away the persistent rain. The first line was a breeze, the hum of the zip line pleasant as I flew through and above jungle rainforest. Next we had the opportunity to be upside down which was great fun until I slowly began turning and the pressure of blood flowing to my head turned me purple. The guides at the end had to help turn me right side up! The other lines allowed us to superman across a deep valley with a raging, brown river below. One I raced beside Hannah on my stomach with hands outstretched as superman again. Others I was able to sit back and try to enjoy the scenery from great heights through the rain that was pelting my eyes. 

Soaking wet but adrenalin pumped we went back into town for a few hours to receive much needed warm meals. That night at camp we enjoyed an awesome barbecue cooked by the hostel owner, sitting around two large tables out from the drizzle in the common area. A few too many drinks led to six of us attempting the ‘crazy worm’, an awkward four legged walk while we were connected. Our success and amusing display earned us a free bottle of rum and cokes. 

Let’s just say I had some nice private time with the toilet bowl in the early hours of the next morning, dreading today’s activity. I sheepishly tried to eat breakfast, unsure whether I should even attempt the day. Thankfully I was convinced by friends and in no time was squeezed into a wetsuit and put on a pumping party bus up to the first waterfall. I’d been abseiling at year nine camp, and seen some canyoner’s in the blue mountains in February, but standing a top a waterfall going backwards is a whole new experience. The water was cool but helped me forget the pain my body was putting me through from the earlier night. With a few screams and curses, I was shuffled over the edge of the fall, leaning back further than felt natural. Half way down I was grinning, taking larger steps and faster. A metre from the swirling pool below I steadied myself before launching off the rock face and splashing into the water below. The next fall proved a challenge, cross twice through the pounding water or simply take the side down. A couple of the men had tried and had gotten stuck or slipped as the water pushed them off balance. Many opted to reach the bottom easily. Feeling confident after my one abseil, I went left, pushing through the waterfall. Keeping my feet in firm contact with the rock, I didn’t find it too hard. Until the rock sunk further behind the waterfall and my next crossing had the strong water beating into my chest and face. Accompanied by some defiant screams and some spluttering, I pushed through to the cheers of my friends and happily bounced to the bottom. The third waterfall seemed easy, all we had to do was sit beside a friend and slide on down. No one said the sudden jerks of the rope to slow you would cut into the worst of places. The video of my ride down with Hannah depicts not my usual scream, but instead the scream of discomfort. The last few seconds of the video shows a groaning Kate holding her groin. For our last waterfall I was more than sure my harness was in the right position to avoid a repeat of the last fall. Our scheming guides refused to explain this surprise, only that on three we jump. Balanced on a rotting piece of wood, a dizzying drop below I clutched the rope for dear life before pushing off and free falling fifteen or so metres. The harness quickly softened my drop to land my feet on the ground inside the great waterfall around me. 

Lush green flashed by as we continued our journey across Ecuador. Baños was great fun, holding more adventures than I had time for. It would definitely be somewhere I return to. 

A parade of dancing Ecuadorians created traffic but also entertainment for us before we reached the Hasquila Amazon lodge. Situated on the edge of the Amazon basin, it was rugged enough for many bugs and winged things but not much other wildlife. Over the next three days we donned on necessary gumboots to explore the surrounding, muddy jungle. By night we stayed in gorgeous two person bungalows, soft white beds comforting as the insects sung a night chorus just outside. Every meal was three or four course, delicious food with perfect portions. I walked under waterfalls, received a very natural facial with amazon clay straight from the river bed, saw adorable tiny bats in caves, went on a short caving expedition through water and crevices, and visited an animal sanctuary via dugout canoe. Small monkeys jumped around the branches overhead, both teasing and comforting the caged animals. Due to the awful animal trafficking of amazon species, many of the animals in this shelter may never be released back into the wild. Macaws whose wings were broken, only admired for their colours. Monkeys with aggression issues, McDonalds addictions and even one disabled after a fall from his mother whom was shot. Ocelots, anacondas, parrots, even a boar all taken from their homes. The final night in the amazon was odd, knowing the next stop would be the end. As the truck was loaded and we wove our way through the misty cloud forest and passed landslide eaten road I listened contentedly to all my friends singing along to classic tunes, for the last time. Suddenly it seemed we were at Quito, unloading all our bags and belongings. My cheeks reddened as everyone realised how much stuff I actually had accumulated over four months. I had my red bag I left with… and a new purple bag, and a full garbage bag of things. That afternoon, aside from a quick trip to the Quito artisan markets, was spent arranging and rearranging my bags to fit everything. My Spanish teachers sister came by the hotel to drop off some items bound for Australia, a lovely woman whom I hope to meet again one day. I am so grateful to the lovely Rhianne who spent valuable time helping translate. 

My final night in South America included going out for dinner with my overseas family. Some people I had spent four months with, some people I’d known for just a few weeks. The place we went to was awful, the food disappointing and wait ridiculous. But the company made it all bearable. We exchanged stories, praise, even speeches. Duncan and Rhianne were amazing tour leaders, and I was so lucky to finish up with them. The full weight of my departure from the tour didn’t sink in until long after that night. Even as my dear friend Hannah waved away my taxi with tears in her eyes, I couldn’t yet be sad. For I had just had an amazing adventure, and now I would finally see my family after four months. 

The first flight wasn’t pleasant, a couple sitting next to me not understanding the meaning of disgusting. Glad to be off that plane, my anticipation for the journey home was temporarily halted. Ahead of me was a nine hour wait from ten pm to seven am in the airport. I used my half an hour of wifi and then waited. And waited. Listened to some music. Waited. A short nap. Waited. 

By the time my next flight finally began boarding I was exhausted and cranky. My jaw dropped as I shuffled onto this plane, a very new addition to the LATAM airlines. The movie screens were very light touch screen, unlike the multiple taps necessary for other flights. The windows didn’t have shades but instead a dark tint forming from the press of a button. The technology perplexed me for hours. Landing in Santiago, it felt incredibly eerie. Four months ago I had landed at this same airport, full of nervous excitement, bound for Brasil. Rolling passed the large Qantas jet bound for Sydney I had my face pressed against the window like a child. My ticket told me I had thirty minutes to change flights, so I leapt and bounded from my plane and straight to the next gate. What anyone failed to highlight was there was an hour time difference.

More anxious waiting finally had me in line to board the plane. I fit all my bags into the overhead locker and sat contentedly. A young mother asked me to swap seats and I was more than delighted when she offered me an aisle seat in the centre row still next to my bags overhead. After having to climb over two sleeping girls the previous flight, the idea of using the bathroom when I wanted was more than appealing. Even better, no one was next to me. 

No fourteen hour flight is comfortable but this one was survivable. Between naps I watched three movies and enjoyed the delicious plane food. The anticipation made me feel so ill, but as the small plane moved closer to Sydney on the live map all pain faded away. 

​I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face when we were flying into Sydney, craning my neck to get a glimpse of the beautiful city below. Upon landing I wanted to scream for joy. I skipped through the airport, swiftly making my way through duty free and border security. My bags took forever, but I saw them being loaded in Santiago. When they finally appeared I packed everything onto the trolley on my way to customs. My honesty plan worked, declaring everything I had. I’d chosen my souvenirs wisely and took only minutes with the lovely inspector. If the trolley wasn’t so difficult to steer I would’ve sprinted. 

There they were. A small group of the people I’d missed for weeks on end. Tears blurred my vision as I ducked under the metal railing and launched into my mothers arms. 
I’ve been back in my home country for a week now. I’m still marvelling at all the little things I’d forgotten and am now remembering. How soft and warm my bed really is. The sour salivating taste of salt and vinegar chips. The pleasant cleanliness of the world around me. More often than not I find myself grinning goofily. I cannot hide my excitement when I use my body scrub in the shower, slide into soft sheets, taste a flavour I hadn’t had for four months. It’s so easy to forget how beautiful life can be, and I know I’m so lucky to have fresh eyes to admire it all. 

My adventure seems like a dream, the memories and experiences rippling when I recall them in my mind. Just a little girl thrown into the big world. It was the best challenge I could’ve ever hoped for, pressuring me until a diamond could evolve. Changing me so I could shine better and brighter. Back into normal life the real challenge awaits, the daunting demand of future. I’m torn between loving being back in my home and wanting to escape back into the dream world of travel. To soften this demand, I’ve escaped to the beach house I grew up with. The ocean has set my edgy soul at peace, the familiar beaches more calming than ever. In a few days I must begin the painful transiting back into life, returning to work and responsibilities. I wonder how I can adapt back to a life led by a different girl than who I am now.

I sat on a cliffs edge this morning, my mother on one side and grandmother on the other. The sea breeze was sharp and fresh, the golden sunshine removing its bite. The oceans waves crashed onto the flat rocks of the headland, pushing great sprays of white water high into the air. Soft turquoise rose and fell, the creamy sand swirling beneath the water. The blue deepened moving further out to sea, large ships frozen between the horizon and the sky. Surfers braved the great thundering waves that beat to the beaches rhythm. A spout of water reached into the sky far off the coast followed by the glistening arc of a slick body. The whales were migrating to the North. 

We watched the movement for hours, overtaken by the peace and beauty. No matter how real my life may be back home, there will always be the moments I can recall the peace and freedom I felt in South America. I never have to let go of what I achieved across the sea in a far away land. 

I am so happy to be home. I am so happy to have gone. I am so happy.   

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Ecuador – the final step

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