Day 25: My most terrifying day in the jungle and back to base camp
Today was one of those days when you realise what a hostile environment the jungle can be – and are thankful to be alive at the end of the day. After spending nearly a month living in the wild we were jolted out of our complacency and the reality of where we are was brought into sharp focus…
Each night we leave our jungle boots upside-down on two sticks next to our bed to prevent creepy crawlies getting in. However, as I shone my torch into my boots I noticed a small black spider lurking in there. As I hopped to the morning fire with one shoe I asked Jackson, one of our Wai Wai jungle guides, how you remove it as I was trying to smoke it out. Turns out that’s exactly what you do. Jackson, completely at home in this environment, then bashed my shoe against a tree and to my shock, put his hand in and wiggled it around. He couldn’t find the spider and concluded it had gone. I did put my shoe on rather tentatively nonetheless.
Jackson also has diagnosed that I have ‘mosquito worms’ in my hands and shoulders – small white, irritating lumps with worms growing underneath. Getting rid of them essentially involves putting duct tape on them and hoping they suffocate. I feel like I am now in the worm club as both Ness and Laura have them on their bums.
“I may also have one on my coxic, I wouldn’t mind someone checking it out in the morning,” said Ness as Jackson checked me over.
“Mine’s in my bum crack,” said Laura. Joyous. It’s amazing how quickly you bond on expedition…
We were hiking back from the source to where we left the dugout canoes. Unfortunately this involved crossing steep, 45 degree slopes – and seemingly we meet a new one every hour. Given we’d already walked this way finding the so-called trail should have been easy. It wasn’t.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re following the yellow brick road and we’re following a grass path on a lawn” remarked Laura to our Wai Wai guides as they taught us how to read paths through the forest.
“Mate, I swear you’re like walking Velcro” Ness remarked to me at one point in the hike.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You seem to pick up most of the forest and dont even realise it.”
In addition to my backpack it turns out I’d been trailing a large branch behind me for a good five minutes and hadn’t clocked it. With exhaustion setting in I guess a bit more weight is barely noticeable.
We were all unbelievably sweaty today. I was going to attribute this to the strenuous exercise but apparently the cause may have been in our morning jungle drink. Jackson said açai makes you sweat.
“It gives you a lot of power, a lot of energy”, he said.
Ness snorted: “Does it mate? I’m still trying to find it.”
Today was notable in that I had my most terrifying experience of the trip so far. As I was crossing a log I got my foot stuck in a vine next to it so waggled it around for a while trying to free it. Just as I moved my leg Laura exclaimed: “Oh my god, there’s a snake.”
Mere inches under where my bum and leg had been flailing around seconds earlier was a small black, white and grey snake, its diamond-shaped head reared up and its tongue out. It wasn’t just any snake either; it was one of the three snakes you pray doesn’t bite you in the jungle. It was a labaria snake.
“That’s definitely an enemy,” said Jackson – who had drawn his machete at this point and was holding it at arms length close to the snake.
“An oval head on a snake is ok but not a diamond. If it gets your veins it will kill you. If it gets your muscle you will be very sick. It was getting ready. It’s very tiny but very poisonous.”
Jackson covered it with the machete so that Laura and Ness could pass the log unharmed. Before Jackson crossed all I heard was the thud a machete on wood. I was in total shock. To think that I’d been hovering just inches from something that could have quite easily killed me was terrifying. I was also exceptionally thankful to it for not attacking.
“Bushmaster, emorara (a little green one like a leaf) and the labaria – these are the three bad snakes of the jungle” said James, our eldest and most knowledgable jungle guide. He shook his head: “pain, pain, pain.”
I was in shock coming down the mountain and broke down in tears when the reality of the situation hit. I was amazingly shaken afterwards. Also felt sad that the snake was killed. It could have absolutely have finished me off, I was just inches above it, yet it didn’t. Bizarrely, as I sat on that log I had even thought how amazingly comfortable I am getting with the environment and sitting on logs. Perhaps it was another warning from the jungle to not get complacent. I’ve been learning to sit with fear, I’m not quite ready to sit on it…
“Pip, don’t think too much about snakes”, said James as he watched me zone out as we stopped for a rest. Jackson then pipped up with a story about needing the loo and how he’d accidentally squatted down by a snake and jumped a mile as he saw it. “So the snake was dodging your shit”, Peiman, our cameraman, joked. Jackson responded that you should always clear the area with your machete first. “Thanks for letting us know right now, after two weeks in the jungle…” said Peiman.
My head was still with the labaria snake and I asked Jackson why he killed it. It had done me no harm and I felt uncomfortable that it had been killed because it had a chance incident with a human on a hike. “I killed it because it’s poisonous”, he said very mater of factly.
Jackson said you always see a snake if you dream of needles. Bizarrely Laura said she had a dream about mending Peiman’s shirt that evening. He also said if you dream of a vagina you’re about to make a big mistake, but if you talk about it it’s ok. Laura asked what it means if you dream of things that don’t exist. “No one has ever told me that,” he said.
“Did you smell that hog-like smell as you walked down the hill?” asked Peiman. “It turns out it was a Jaguar smell.” Just what I needed to hear…
On a more positive note, one of the camps we had been through previously had the vine that the guys said could cure HIV. We asked them to cut us some up and I have a flask of the liquid as well as a cutting of the vine with me. Just need to figure out how we can transport it home. Would be just our luck that it turns out to be a class A drug and we end up in jail…
Walking seemed to go on forever today and we literally went through all sorts of terrrain – from swamps (where if you stood in the wrong place your foot, calf or knee would be lost to the mud), to steep slopes, to rather pleasant meanders through the forest, which if you imagined hard enough, could almost be like walking through English woods in the summer. At one point we walked through a break in the canopy. “I’d almost forgotten sun existed,” Laura remarked as we entered the patch. I felt like a vampire trying to hide! Was a shock to the system.
It was weird going back through our old camps, they felt like ghost towns – the jungle almost seemed to be clawing back any remanence of life that didn’t entirely belong there. Was an eery feeling.
When we finally reached base camp at 3pm we were so elated. Just 5m from camp I managed to trip over my feet – again. Laura remarked that this camp felt like we were coming home, which I suppose we were in a way. Peiman said we should all dive into the water fully clothed – which we did. We’d left as much weight as we could at this camp, and only hiked with survival essentials, so shampoo was waiting for us in the bags we’d left behind. I washed my hair for the first time in a week, what a luxury! My hair has been down a fair bit and literally turned into a bird’s nest.
When we moved all the bags from the table top we’d left them on (essentially the base of the kayak) we saw a brown scorpion. Nigel took his machete and cut off the sting – although, thankfully, it turns out it was already dead. Been feeling very bad about the snake still.
That evening we put some music on, our head torches on flash mode and had a bit of a dance party. The weirdest place I’ve ever had a boogie for sure. It felt like a celebration; we’d made it to the furthest source of the Essequibo but more importantly we’d survived. I literally felt like I’d experienced every single human emotion in a day: joy, fear, shock, pain, elation. The first part of our journey was over, now it was just a small matter of paddling the entire river. As I dropped off to sleep the enormity of the task that faced us didn’t matter – I was just thankful to be alive…