Lost in the last great wilderness

It's one of the planet's most treacherous places. Yet two young British men travelled to South America's notorious Darien Gap - and are now missing in this labyrinth of rivers and jungle. What on earth could have lured them there?

In travel, the further you stray from the beaten track, the more you can rely upon local people to help you; in remote locations, the notion that the traveller must be looked after is strongly held. This rule applies through much of Latin America, from the highlands of Guatemala to the jungles of Peru. But in the Darien Gap, the thick-jungled isthmus linking Colombia and Panama, the comfort of strangers degenerates into a depressingly high probability that the visitor will die.

In travel, the further you stray from the beaten track, the more you can rely upon local people to help you; in remote locations, the notion that the traveller must be looked after is strongly held. This rule applies through much of Latin America, from the highlands of Guatemala to the jungles of Peru. But in the Darien Gap, the thick-jungled isthmus linking Colombia and Panama, the comfort of strangers degenerates into a depressingly high probability that the visitor will die.

Everyone who travels extensively in Central or South America is intrigued by the Darien Gap. It's a 100-mile stretch of swamp, jungle, rivers and mountains that interrupts the Pan-American Highway - turning the world's mightiest road into its longest cul-de-sac. It is also one of the most treacherous parts of Latin America.

Somewhere in this labyrinth of rivers and untracked jungle, two British travellers are missing. Today, Sarah Hart Dyke, of Eynsford, Kent, is due to arrive in the Colombian capital, Bogota, determined to find out the fate of her son, Tom, 24, and his companion, Paul Winder, 29.

The omens do not look good. Brian Winder, Paul's father, seemed very pessimistic after his return from a visit on the Panama side. Because there has been no ransom demand from any of the rebel groups known to patrol the area, and neither young man has used a credit card or posted a letter for months, he is close to despair. He met Mrs Hart Dyke last week before her journey, and cautioned her that there was only a 5 per cent chance that their sons are still alive.

One of three brothers from Chelmsford, Essex, Paul Winder left his job at Salomon Brothers investment bank to explore Central America and met up with Mr Hart Dyke, the orchid stalker, in Puerto Rico.

Colombia is blamed unfairly for many of the woes afflicting Latin America, but responsibility for destabilising the Gap rests squarely with the warring factions from this troubled nation. Skirmishes between government forces and the left-wing rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), have killed 200 in the past three weeks alone. Another guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), is jostling for control of territory in the troubled north west. To this lethal cocktail is added right-wing paramilitaries and the drug traffickers' private armies, often coalescing into a single murderous impulse. For several years now, the conflict has spilled over into Panama.

Everyone from the British ambassador in Bogota to the State Department in Washington exhorts travellers not to stray into the badlands beyond the end of the Pan-American Highway. Added to this, the travellers' grapevine tells of a succession of deaths in the past few years, including one hapless Russian who decided to cycle the globe in support of world peace, only to come to a violent end close to the Colombia-Panama frontier.

There is a feasible alternative surface route if you can find a space aboard a freighter through the idyllic San Blas islands, then tackle a demanding day's hike along the coast into Colombia. For the orchid hunter Tom Hart Dyke, though, the temptation of tracking down virgin flora in one of the world's last true wildernesses proved too strong. Eric Hansen, in his recent book Orchid Fever, writes of a botanical craze that "has already eclipsed both the 19th-century Victorian frenzy for orchids as well as the tulip madness that gripped the Netherlands in the 17th century".

It is equally easy to understand the appeal to Paul Winder of making a journey that, in all likelihood, no other traveller will attempt this year. The best, faint hope is that they have merely been kidnapped - a national sport in Colombia, where the average so far this year is one abduction every three hours.

The natural hazards are almost as alarming. Since the rains began in earnest in May, millions of virulent disease-bearing mosquitoes have joined leeches in their quest for blood. Jaguars and ocelots roam the rainforest, while underfoot lurks the lethal fer-de-lance snake.

The Darien has always had a fatal fascination. Five centuries ago, it was crucial in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. In 1513, after marching for 27 days, Vasco Nunez de Balboa crossed the mountains of the Darien and became the first European to reach the Pacific. (The poet Keats makes a glaring historical error by giving credit for first seeing the Pacific to "stout Cortes" on a peak in Darien.) The view from a peak in Darien is a breathtaking panorama of rugged hills clad in deep green, giving way to misty ocean shores speckled with islands. Many Europeans believed fortunes awaited in Panama - a Scottish colony was established on the Atlantic coast in the 18th century, but the venture ended in despair and death. Only a dot on the map remains of "Nuevo Edimburgo".

Early studies for a canal through the Panamanian isthmus focused on the Darien but were abandoned when the jungle proved unforgiving. But the area's inaccessibility has been its salvation in terms of flora and fauna. Robert S Ridgely, the celebrated American ornithologist, is a regular visitor; and the rare orchids drew Mr Hart Dyke here despite the risks. The lush National Park of Darien, which lies within Panama, shares a border with Katios National Park, in Colombia. With its stepped Tilupo cascade near the sacred Tcarcuna Hill, the area is irresistible to a keen botanist, intrigued to examine 2,000 known varieties of orchids and lianas.

Mr Hart Dyke and Mr Winder, started out on a well-trodden trail through Mexico and Central America, pausing for a few weeks before Christmas 1999 at the backpacker haven of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Each year, thousands of travellers continue south through the now-peaceful nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to Costa Rica - the clean and sanitised eco-republic where many end their journeys.

Those who press on across the border into Panama discover the most beautiful, seductive and unspoilt country of all. This year, it has been a nation in a collective good mood, as the handover of the Canal from US control was completed on the eve of the Millennium. Most visitors who get this far will take a jaunt along the Canal, arguably the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century, and perhaps venture onwards to Portobelo - once the Clapham Junction of the Americas, where all the riches from Peru and Bolivia was loaded onto ships bound for Spain.

Beyond here, the roads - and the traveller's prospects - diminish quickly. The main tourist office in Panama City advises foreigners against catching the public bus that, in theory at least, sets off each morning at dawn along the only road east from the capital to the town of Yaviza, where the Highway dissolves away.

Some of the Choco people, the colourful and fiercely independent group of hunter-gatherers who make the Darien their home, earned a tidy living from guiding gringos through the Gap. The two British travellers were last spotted on 12 March, at the tribal village of Pucuro. Two days before that, they had checked in with a police outpost at the Indian village of Boca de Cupe in deep jungle, just 22 miles short of the Colombian frontier. "The two young men told police they were proceeding to the border with Colombia... they have not been heard from since," said an official at the British Embassy in Panama. There is no record that they even managed to make it to the border.

The official travel advice for the time of their disappearance makes bleak reading indeed. It says: "In rural areas there is a risk of being caught up in guerrilla or paramilitary attacks, or opportunistic kidnapping. The border area with Panama [is] especially high risk"

Simon Calder is author of 'Panamericana - On the Road through Mexico and Central America'

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