This was the blog I never want to write and the video Lee never wanted to edit. It’s probably one of the reasons the blog is so far behind, I never wanted to revisit this or publish it. Our story has always been a true account, including the highs and lows of this trip, and so here it it. Perhaps I thought if I left it long enough I could write a positive story but that is not going to be the case here. This new and unwanted chapter begins on the 28th of December at a free parking spot near the beautiful Laguna Cuicocha. Perhaps you can spot where we camped, right in the centre, the large lay by.
We had arrived the night before and despite the fact that we were happy to be back wild camping, this one did have its drawbacks. The main thing being that it was very close to the road. While it’s pretty much a dead end track, it good quality tarmac and so every visitor to the laguna merrily blasted past us at a speed that made us keep the cats shut in when the park was open. At 5pm, the gates are shut, and by about 6pm the majority of people have left. It’s dark by 7pm anyway. We had planned to stop here a night or two and walk the 12km rim trail of the laguna, a lovely looking hike that would be perfect for blowing away the end of the year cobwebs.
We waited a day or two in the hope that Lee would feel a bit better and it wouldn’t be such a struggle hike, we had gained nearly another 1000m elevation since Ibarra, the laguna sitting at 3100m. We were in no hurry, deciding to spend New Year in Otavalo just a half hour drive away.
The night of the 28th is one I had replayed over and over in my head. We let the cats out about 6pm. As we had suspected, Aimee made a beeline for the road, Lizzy tailing behind her. I went over to try and discourage her from being so close in case any other cars came, but she had disappeared into the dense undergrowth that lined the sides. I remember looking at the time. I made a mental note that even now, a 6.23pm there was still a car coming past. Next time, we would wait till 7pm to let them out. Still, it passed fairly slowly and it was just the one car, we weren’t overly concerned.
Shortly after, night fell and it began to rain. We called the cats but they didn’t come, most likely sheltering under the van until the worst passed. We shut the doors as with thunder and lightning, the heavens opened in a torrential storm. The kind of storm that turns a dry car park into a swimming pool and a roadside gutter into a raging river. The kind of storm where I look at our door seals and wonder which will leak first. Then there was that tell tale bounce of the suspension and a clatter as Aimee appeared at the cat flap. She came in a busily set about licking off the rain. Lizzie was still out there. As with most storms like this, it was short lived. As the rain lessened, we opened the door, expecting a soggy black cat to come in. After a short wait, we went out looking for her, the storm now just a drizzle in the mountain fog. When we still couldn’t find her we retreated back inside. Both our cats are prone to wander off from time to time so we weren’t worried yet.
After watching an episode of 24, we went back out again. No luck again. I didn’t make it all the way through the next episode before we were out again. Calling and searching. It wasn’t like her to stay out at night. Something felt wrong. We went to bed that evening, instructing each other that we wanted waking up if she came in. Just to know she was safe. By 3am, she still wasn’t back and neither of us could really sleep. Lee went out looking and despite a bad night, we were both up early.
We told the security guard at the gate what had happened and asked them to look out for her. I couldn’t make it through the explanation without bursting into tears in front of the guard. We spent our day walking up and down the road, calling her. Putting up a post on facebook, we got some recommendations on what to do. Reports piled in from our friends and followers.
“My cat went missing for 5 days and then just came back!”
“I found my cat hiding in my neighbours’ shed after a week, I can’t believe she didn’t call out to me though…”
More and more people told us their stories. It was reassuring at least to hear how common it was and that often they took days or even weeks to come back. We had said originally we would stay and look for a week. After so many stories, we extended that to two weeks. We put her bed outside. We made litter scent paths through the forest. Again, we got up at 3am and hiked the 5km loop that the roads made in our immediate area. We hung up our smelly laundry in trees, hoped the scent would bring her back. We checked the roads every day to see if she had been hit and Lee carved paths through the surrounding undergrowth with a machete to give us better access to this impossible landscape. We told every local we saw about her, showing them a picture, only to be told she would have been eaten by the foxes. As several days passed, she did not appear.
Throughout it all, Aimee slept. She missed her as much as we both did and neither of us could get through a day without breaking down in tears. We realised just how much she was a part of our lives and every morning I got up in hope I would see her snuggled back in her bed. Sometimes I dreamed she came home and then the crushing realisation that it was just a dream would slowly dawn on me.
We wanted to print out posters and put them up in the area, but it was the weekend. Then it would be the New Year and then a bank holiday. While we waited, we continued our search. Then New Year came. Our bottle of champagne remained unopened and all the special cheese we had saved stayed in the fridge. We ate instant noodles, not that either of us really cared about eating at the moment, and were in bed by 10pm. I have never been one to really celebrate New Year, but this was definitely the worst one. To make matters worse, the 1st of January was Lizzy’s birthday.
The days blurred together, one of us would force the other to eat some food or come for a walk. Sitting and moping the camper was the worst thing to do. To add to things, the weather was not on our side. Every day it rained. Sometimes by midday, sometimes early afternoon. We were confined to Ruby, watching the valley disappear into clouds. Everything was damp. Our shoes soaked from walking through the long grassy fields. Even the spices in the cupboard starting clumping together in the unrelenting humidity. This did little to improve as spirits as every night, we pulled on sodden shoes and trudged through the fields, calling her name and scattering around tuna and sardines.
On the 2nd of January, we headed into town. We had made a poster to get printed and after trying several print shops, we got some pretty bad quality and expensive copies done. Armed with polypockets, pins and sellotape we headed to the supermarket to stock up on groceries before catching a taxi back to our spot. Not only was Lizzy gone, but the camper had some serious problems. Every time it rained, water poured in through the a gap under the windscreen. The suspension made ominous noises at every little bump and the gearbox, not to be left out, was making an increasingly loud grinding noise. In light of these problems, we caught a taxi into town. Driving was to be kept to a minimum to ensure that when we needed to get to a garage we could make it there.
Now we had posters, we walked our new circuit with a sense of purpose. Sticking them on the most visible spots. The sign to the laguna, the lampposts and the bus stop. Then we realised that while I had printed about 25, we only had 12. We prioritised the local farms. We visited every one within a kilometre radius, speaker to the owners and giving them a flyer. We had offered a reward of $100, which we hoped might motivate the local workers into keeping an eye out for her as we doubted any of them would do it out of the goodness of their hearts. We had spoken to some, they were scared of us. $100 here is a weeks wages though and we’d happily pay it if it meant we could get our little girl back.
As the days passed with no luck, we picked a deadline. We said that we would leave on Friday the 13th of January. We planned to head to Alex’s for the weekend in Quito, before hitting the garage for a fresh start on the following Monday. I mentally prepared myself to drive away from this spot without her. Knowing that once we were gone, the chances of ever seeing her again were tiny. Despite the fact that it would be hard, at least we could move on. Sitting here every day was horrible. We didn’t know if she was alive or dead and that was the worst thing.
In the meantime, we took the boat tour around the laguna and also hiked the rim trail, now that Lee’s cough was slowly subsiding. We did the boat tour in the slight drizzle that seemed normal and it was at least a distraction for that afternoon. the highlight probably being the nearly Bailey’s like drink that they sold outside the restaurant.
The 12km that circles the crater takes around 5hrs to hike and so we allocated a whole day for it. The weather, while not sunny, was at least mostly not raining. It is a beautiful place, that was probably somewhat unappreciated by us, but it was nice to be doing something active that didn’t involve wrestling a camera in the dark.
After leaving Aimee for several hours we returned back to our cold camper and very needy remaining cat.
By the time it came to the 12th, we had resigned ourselves to it. We sat there drinking our morning coffee and looking at the beautiful and unappreciated view. Then, one of the park rangers cars pulled up. Two guys we now recognised came over. One, we had helped the other day when his battery died right near where we parked. The other was the first person we had spoken too. They told us that someone had seen our cat in the park, before continuing on down the road. We pack away in a frenzy, throwing on our shoes and half running up the road. We followed their directions to the road she had been seen on, before walking up the office building at the top. Apparently, this was the direction she was headed in, as she crossed this road.
At the office, they were having a barbecue. We arrived out of breath, asking about Liz. They had no idea what we were talking about. We showed the a photo, asking them to keep a look out for her, before heading off to search the surrounding area. They thought this was hilarious. Every time we turned our backs, one of them would make a cat mewing noise, while the others laughed. For a second, I wished I had better Spanish to go and give them a piece of my mind, but all I could think about was Liz. We walked around all the paths in the vicinity, arriving back at the toilet block near the entrance. Here was another guy I didn’t recognise and after I explained I was looking for my cat, he showed me to an animal trail on the side of the road. It turns out he was the one who saw her. He showed me where it joined the road, and then across to the other side where the trail continued back into the undergrowth. I pulled out my phone and showed him a picture, asking if it was this cat. Was he sure? Was she wearing a bandana still? Yes he told, definitely her. Suddenly everything had changed, our plans of leaving the next day vanished and I allowed myself to hope that once again, everything would turn out for the best.
A very difficult time. It’s tough enough to lose an animal at home…on the road infinitely worse.