Dark Heart

Day 120 - Somewhere in the jungle

A beast as elusive as the jaguar was our quarry. As rare too as the spotted cat in these modern times; we hunted for it in the rainforest. Three days and two nights we would spend on its trail, a search to test the body and mind to their limits. We chased the real, we sought a prize no less than ´The Authentic Experience™´. Not for us the comforts of a jungle lodge. Nor either the luxuries of meals thrice daily or bottled water in our bag. There was no bag in fact, only a mosquito net and a guide named Pedro. Everything we needed, food and drink and shelter would come from the forest. A casual, curious click on the ´Extreme´ section of the Mogli Jungle Tours website was all it was. Alcohol is a substance of many abilities but I am ever astounded at the way it turns bad ideas into good ones, questionable into compelling. As another glass of red wine slipped down in a restaurant in La Paz far from the jungle my life suddenly became incomplete having never held a tarantula or eaten a termite. No other tour would do, it was ´Survivors´ or nothing. Rurrenabaque sits on the banks of the River Beni and would be the jumping off point for our Amazon adventure. A turbulent hour by propeller plane from La Paz we left behind the chilly altitude of the capital for beating sun and thick, humid air. The town seems to exist solely to send tourists off into nature’s sweaty embrace. Tour agencies throng the high street outnumbered only by outfitters selling anything and everything an intrepid explorer might need, from repellent to rubber boots. And knives. Big, mean knives that Mike persuaded me were essential to our survival. So there I stood in my new wellies wearing a shirt last owned by someone from, judging by the arm patch, the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief. I gazed upstream to where the jungle swallowed the river and, in my head, beyond that to the living hell where our steel would be put to use. On one shoulder a mosquito net, the sole concession to comfort allowed, on the other a camera to record our daring exploits for posterity. At my feet a murky flow that would cross a continent to find a great ocean. In front of me the rickety launch that would speed us 3 hours along the Beni to a remote jungle camp. The launch drew a slow arc in the water, the engine fired and that would be the last we’d see of it for 3 days. As I watched its departure burning pinpricks of pain erupted across my hand. I pulled it away from the tree against which I had leant to find both the hand and the tree festooned with the insectoid agents of Satan (they even sport his team colour) that are fire ants. Named both for their red hue and the flaming viciousness of their bite they attack without provocation, hang on with fierce tenacity and probably taught Pedro a whole new set of English language curses he’d never heard before. ´Lesson 1 - Mind your manos (hands)´. It was quite a nice jungle camp as it turned out, or so it seemed for the 30 seconds it took me, Michael and Pedro to walk straight through it. Our first challenge came within another 30 seconds. Pedro waltzed over the log laying some 5 feet above the stream and with an instruction of "tranquilla" (calm) beckoned me to follow. I looked at the trunk that seemed to grow more slender before my eyes, I looked at the stream and its unknown depth, its unsighted bottom and I....opted to wade. Fortunately our knowledgeable, experienced guide assured me that this would not be a problem. Unfortunately, I discovered as the water slipped over the top of my boots, that this was not true. A trail snaked, no, sneaked into the green maze. From the clutter of bended branch decked with leaves to the loamy leaf-littered soil, it was a wall of nature. It burst from the ground and covered the sky, it ensconced with a brutal edge. Our party was not the only using the trail as a large paw print attested, a jaguar had been this very way of late. Onward. And onward. Beads of sweat raced each other down my forehead before dropping off the end of my nose like it was a leaky tap. Trails were fond morning memories, Pedro hacked out a path seen only by him through grasping, snagging, scratching growth. The occasional fire ant hopped aboard for a stinging ride and proved as adept at biting through our clothes as they had our skin. Sustained by what forest fruit we found, hunger was nothing to the all-conquering discomfort of thirst. Water poured from every pore and my mouth ran dry. Fantastic images of cold Fanta straight from the fridge occupied my thoughts. Torturous remembrances of frosty beer straight from the tap dominated my conscious. And suddenly the most rhetorical question I have every heard rang out "agua?" Cool, fresh, slightly woody water bubbled out of the hefty lump of tree I suspended above my head and down into a parched desert held wide open and grateful for every drop. Pedro had identified the exposed roots of a tree that was not entirely unlike every other tree around us and with a few dashes of his machete furnished me with a rather unconventional drinking vessel. The sound of wild pigs nearby even failed to distract from the liquid bounty. ´Lesson 2 - Drink as much as you can, when you can´. A more interesting four-legged discovery of rodential significance was the capybara wallowing in a pool next to where we pitched camp for the night. As interesting as a glimpse of the world’s largest rodent was darkness would soon be upon us and a shelter was needed. A simple but sturdy construction of wood and fronded leaf was soon thrown up. As the night began its songs and its screams I stretched weary limbs and closed tired eyes. The night survived I rose, squeezed reluctant feet back into ill-fitting boots, packed my mosquito net into a backpack that Pedro had crafted, with considerable skill, from palm leaves and prepared to set out for another day under the canopy. It seems though that our jungle trekking stripes were earned on day 1 (the imaginary stripes that I now wore on the arm of my imaginary combat fatigues) for after a couple of hours walking we had already found our next campsite. We dropped our gear, hung up a ´Gone fishin´ sign and went hunting for bait. Bait, it transpired, would be the classic, cliché even, earthworm dug from a muddy bank and threaded onto sizeable hooks. The equipment was even simpler than the bait, line wound round a wooden spool. The fishing technique beat everything for its uncomplicatedness, after locating fish-filled pool (ask your guide to help in this), toss in hook and line and sink ´er. Slowly pull the line back to you and if you feel a bite give a mighty heave and pull the fish onto the bank. Easy. Or so I thought after Pedro had, with his very first cast, pulled in a 7 inch catfish. My catch took longer to come, in fact it needed a change of pool. A second location was so inhabited by buzzing, airborne nuisances we might as well have been fly-fishing! Arf! Our haul was OK so far with a few little roach added, but it was only likely to arouse our appetites without bedding them back down. I gave the line a sharp yank and out of nowhere a healthy, hearty catfish lay wildly flapping on the bank. I took the back of my knife to the unfortunate creature’s head and unleashed an inner bellow to the jungle at the sheer bloody masculinity of it all. ´Course Pedro came back from his spot with a whole string of fish and managed it without looking half as pleased with himself as I did but then again I expect he’s done this before. We washed and gutted the catch down by the river, scales glittered like sequins as the flow carried them away. After an hour or so of cooking in bamboo over an open fire I savoured the freshest fish of my life in all its succulent, flaky perfection. Dessert was a writhing white grub I found in a log. It had a delicate, buttery flavour I think would go well with steamed spinach. I watched the sunset through a peach-coloured sky scored by dashes of burnt orange and pink. Light peeked over the distant tree line to subtly illuminate the waters of a river that will, many miles from here, flow into the mighty Amazon. The cicadas had started their chirruping in the darkening jungle behind me while squawking macaws flew overhead in pairs, always pairs, returning home to roost. A waterfall downstream provided a low but constant thrum as the two fishermen were silhouetted against the shore (this part I imagine as I was one of those men). Some of the earlier catch had been reserved for bigger quarry and now myself and Pedro whirled weighed lines around our heads like lassos and out into the river’s powerful pull. And then we waited, in a meditative silence, for a twitch or a quiver. It never came. I didn’t care one bit. There was such peaceful solemnity to be found sitting by that river a fish on the line might only have disturbed it. The sun died after a last gasp of searing colour and compelled us to end our sojourn. But it had soothed my soul, if only for a while. It was beauty. The previous evening had been rounded out with a night walk in search of nocturnal animals. Apart from an endearingly cute tree mouse and a nearly sighted ocelot there wasn’t much to see, apart from a pristine darkness, a blacker-than-black, an absence of light as I have never seen before. Day 3 dawned and owing to our campsite’s proximity to the river I was able to drink most greedily of its muddy water. Suitably refreshed so began the trek back to civilisation. Time passed quickly as the terrain changed, one minute sandy and firm the next a glutinous orange bog. We passed a fallen log covered in thousands of tiny mushrooms not bigger than a pinhead. We passed trees with giant buttress roots taller than a man. We passed the tracks of pigs moving at speed and the jaguar tracks beside them from the animal no doubt inducing their haste. I was sad to be leaving the jungle despite the deprivation and discomfort. I wanted to see more, to see the weird and wonderful that may lie through the next thicket. But I took pleasure from having completed the tour, from having ´survived´, from having done all that was asked of me by man and by nature. ´Lesson 3 - Do that which you cannot in order that you might´. Next time 20 days, now that would be a test.

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