The story of English gardener Tom Hart-Dyke, who was held in captivity with his travel partner Paul Winder for nine months in the Darién Gap in 1999, could at first sound like yet another tragic hostage tale. In Colombia, the abductions perpetrated by insurgent armed groups, drug cartels and even anonymous thugs in recent decades have marked the country’s violent history and affected the lives of hundreds of families and individuals. Surprisingly, even though Hart-Dyke’s ordeal was also a terrifying experience of constant death threats and psychological pressure, it also stands out as an unprecedented tale of true British pluck and eccentricity in one of the world’s most intricate and isolated environments.
On the 15th of March 1999, Tom and Paul, who had met only weeks before in Mexico and travelled together down to Panamá and the gates of the Darién, embarked on an orchid-hunting expedition through this famously thick and dangerous web of forests, mountains and swamps. Heading for the Colombian border, their only precaution before leaving was a couple of postcards sent to their families, in which they unfortunately forgot to mention their intention to ignore the warning of their Lonely Planet Guide: “Don’t even think about it!”. Less than a week later, their foolish enterprise was brutally stopped when a FARC-affiliated armed group crossed their path, kidnapped them, and soon required a 10 million dollar ransom to let them go. Convinced that no one could pay such money back home, Tom and Paul were left only with their patience and cunning to outsmart the rebels.
As Tom Hart-Dyke shared his memories with the 400-strong audience during the 2014 edition of the Hay Festival in Cartagena last month, his burlesque, tragi-comic description of their life in the custody of an inexperienced guerrillero named Will Smith and his heavily-armed sidekicks kept the whole room in permanent laughter. “We thought if we kept thanking them for everything all the time, as we had been taught at home, even for the grim howler-monkey stews we sometimes got for lunch, they would think twice before killing us”, he recalls with a smile. “We also desperately tried to make them win the card games we invited them to play, Paul and I cheating as much as we could under the table. That one didn’t work though, they were totally hopeless at cards,” he adds, provoking yet more laughter from the audience.
A strong-minded rebel-in-the-making (Tom once saw a FARC-for-Beginners booklet fall off his back pocket, that included a chapter on “How to handle hostages”), Will Smith refused to abandon the idea that the two young men were either highly prepared CIA agents in disguise or drug runners of an unusual kind. “Jardinero, jardinero!,” Tom insisted in his Kent accent, leaving Will in a silent, somewhat puzzled denial.
After some time, he finally granted them the permission to go on orchid-hunting walks in the jungle to prove their words. Almost back to his old self, Tom soon put together the most colourful gardens he could, thus definitely confusing his captors. “It was heaven, I almost forgot who I was, orchids were dripping from the trees, everywhere”. These transient moments of gardening ecstasy were smartly used by Tom and Paul to make their captors believe that they were, basically, having a blast.
While Tom was busy gardening under FARC supervision, back in England, their families had tried it all to find their boys alive. Neither their trips to Colombia and Panama nor the British Embassy’s efforts gave any results. To them, Tom and Paul were lost. Memorial services were held, and a deep, unresolved grief was slowly chasing out every hope of their mums and dads to see them ever again.
“You miss your mummy, don’t you Tomás?,” Will Smith enquired one day, hoping to find a weak point to cling to. “No, not really. I haven’t seen her in almost three years with all that travelling. She can wait a few more you know, she’ll be fine,” Tom cleverly replied, leaving poor Will on the brink of misery. These two bizarre tree-hugging gringos did not even miss their mums. With Paul’s leg rotting with Chagas worms, the food supplies to keep them alive adding up to the expenses, and the 10 million dollars nowhere close, this could last forever.
One morning in December 1999, Tom and Paul were finally set free by their exasperated jailers. “They just didn’t know what to do with us anymore,” Tom recalls. In a last, Monty Pythonesque improvisation, they even went back to Will Smith to ask him for directions after getting lost in the swamps on their way to freedom. After one last goodbye, they were home for Christmas.
Years later, in 2003, they co-authored a book about their tribulation, The Cloud Garden (Transworld, 2003). A Sunday Times Bestseller, it is a thrilling, hilarious read, and a crafty reminder of the intolerable effects of Colombia’s on-going conflict.