Breakfast at 7:00. I don’t usually eat breakfast, but I will eat whatever is there today since I have no idea when we’re going to get our next meal.
We have a little time after breakfast to get our stuff together, then we wait for the truck to pick up supplies that will get transported to the camp via boat (I see about a hundred cans of Del Monte mixed vegetables, low sodium; it appears we’ll be eating peas and carrots a lot), and then we shoulder our backpacks. My backpack feels less heavy than the one I walked with at home, even though it’s probably a little heavier in actuality, but it’s bigger and better balanced. My problem is that it’s so heavy that I have to heave it onto my knee, and then from there I have to twist and swing it onto my back.
All good, except every time I try, it hits the boxy hip pockets of my belt kit! Eventually I get it on, and we gather for the obligatory “before” picture. Then we move out.
Ian sets a punishing pace. I am a pretty fast walker, usually, but the track we’re walking on is soft and muddy and very slippery. My hiking boots don’t grip the mud all that well and I feel like I’m falling further and further behind.
We have two Amerindian guides with us: Lionel and his brother Derrick. Derrick is “snake eyes” and checks the ground at the front for snakes; Lionel brings up the rear, so people like me don’t get lost – bad for business if you lose clients before you hit your first camp, LOL! It’s hot and muggy, and my pack feels heavier with every step.
After 20 minutes, I debate whether I can ask for a break. I decide to tough it out for another 10 minutes. I slip and slide in the mud almost every step and eventually I go down. I catch myself on one knee and only get muddy on one side, but now to get up! I feel like the poster child for Life Alert (“Help! I have fallen and I can’t get up!”). My backpack is so heavy that I cannot get up out of my semi-crouch, especially since my feet are still sliding in the mud.
Fortunately, one of the guys walking with me gives me a hand: S and B have generously hung back with me. I know they could do better, so I really appreciate that they’re bringing up the rear with me.
When we catch up with the others, they’re taking a smoke break. Lionel tells us to take the packs off for a bit and stretch. I trudge back around the corner to find a nice private bush. When we get going again, we veer off the path and wind our way through the jungle, leaving more space between people, so that branches snapping back won’t take someone’s eye out.
The footing is more difficult, but the pace is a little slower, thank God! After about an hour and a half, we reach Rock Landing, our camp for the first 4 days.
We drop the backpacks and sit in the shelter of the mess hall and rest for a bit. I’m glad the hike is over. I did ok on the second part, I tell myself, especially once I do the mental math of figuring out the ratio of load to body weight.
We all had packs that weighed about the same. So, my load was between 40- 45% of my body weight – pretty hefty. For one of our 200-lb guys, that would have corresponded to an 80-90 pound pack. Not sure if those guys would have been quite as fleet-footed with 90 pounds of load! (Well, if nothing else, it makes me feel better to think that!)
After a brief rest, we follow Ian into the woods. He teaches us machete safety (“you always want to keep your body parts out of the way!”).
If you’re clearing the ground on your left and one of your chops (finally!) goes through the sapling like butter, make sure your left leg is out of the way of the machete follow-through.
Step forward with your right, keep your left leg back. And vice versa on the backstroke to the right.
And he teaches us the right way to sharpen the machete with the file that we each got (“back and forth looks cool but does nothing: the teeth only bite going forward”).
Then he proceeds to fell a tree with his machete (“look at the way it naturally leans and the way it wants to fall. Gravity always wins. Always.”) And look up to see what vines or killer bee nests or whatever other surprises are waiting in the crown of the tree whose base you’re chopping.
He makes a “Christmas tree” out of the tree he took down, a stick with lots of forks on top that you can use next to your hammock to hang all sorts of stuff from.
Basic rule in the rainforest: never leave anything on the ground for any length of time. Ants, scorpions, other nasties, all love to crawl into stuff you leave on the ground. Everything has to be hung up.
We all get some time to practice machete skills and take down a tree and make a Christmas tree ourselves. – Some of the guys hack down huge trees; I am mindful of my lack of upper body strength and pick a smaller tree, one with lots of forks. Maybe not as impressive as the other trees, but quite serviceable, as we will see, in the coming days.
Lunch & Hammock Time!
Then we gather in the mess hall for lunch: PB&J, Laughing Cow wedges and Cheez Whiz on crackers, bags of peanuts, and mini Milky Ways — dream lunch of elementary school kids everywhere!
After lunch, Ian shows us how to pick a site for a hammock. He takes us to the river’s edge: great “view” sites, but one of the trees has a bullet ant nest. He stirs it with a long stick and one bullet ant crawls out onto the stick. He shows it around: black, huge, maybe just under an inch long – “this one isn’t all that big; they get bigger.”
They are nocturnal, mostly, so unless you see their nest during the day, you might not even know your tree has bullet ants. I don’t really have an issue with giant ants, that is, until Ian explains that on some insect bite/sting pain scale the bite of the bullet ant is at the top, THE most painful thing in the world.
Supposedly worse than childbirth (he looks at me), say people who have experienced both, worse than being in an explosion. 24 hours of excruciating pain. “You won’t die from it; you just wish you did!” Well, that sounds just lovely. Let’s check our hammock trees for bullet ants, then!
We also need to check for dead wood, “widow makers”, branches that are dead and above you and can fall any time.Your tarp isn’t much protection, so you’re likely going to die if some branch falls on you. Or if a tree that’s already leaning your way, comes down in the wind or rain at night. — Death in the rain forest: let me count the ways!
We learn to select the right size trees, the right distance apart, tie the tarp, then the ridgeline, then the hammock (which here is also called basha).
He shows us the double half hitch knot to tie the paracord around the trees: “the knot a 2-year old child would make.” The key is not to make a knot that pulls tight under pressure, such as your weight in the hammock (“if it does, you will never be able to pull that knot open again, and then you have a choice to make: if you cut it, I will kill you!”). Got it. NO tightening knot. No cutting paracord on the $300 hammock he’s giving us to use.
Then we pick a partner and set up our hammocks in teams of two, so each person gets to do it twice for practice. We have about 2 hours to do that and after that it’s bath time! I work with P and we set my basha up first. And realize immediately that what looked so clear and logical and easy when Ian did it, isn’t quite as clear and easy when you do it yourself! Well, we sort of get mine set up and then do P’s.
Later, our third Amerindian guide, Roy, comes by and helps tighten some of my lines, and gets another pole to wedge under the tarp to lift it up a bit more, again making it look so easy. Well, I guess once you’ve done it a bunch of times, it does get easier.
Ian is big on bathing: “I don’t care about you being clean; I care about you being hygienic!” He says that in order for our bodies to breathe properly, our pores have to be free and open. Our skin is our first line of defense against infection and we have to maintain it as best possible.
He wants us to bathe every day and scrub our entire body, hair and all, with soap (“if you lose your soap, use mud! I don’t care, just scrub it!”). He tells us to bathe with our “day clothes” so they get washed, and then walk dripping wet to our hammocks, towel off there, and then put the dry night clothes on. Otherwise too much potential for lost towels, wet and muddy “dry” clothes etc.
Rock landing has two potential bathing sites: one where the boats land, the other one at the rocks that give the campsite its name. The rock area has a sharp descent and lots of current, and a very muddy swamp to slog through to even get to the rocks. I’m opting for the boat area. Super muddy, slide-y, and tough to get down.
One of the boats is down there and by climbing onto the boat and getting in the water from there, we can manage ok. Getting out and up the bank is challenging again. By the time we’re up the steps cut into the muddy embankment, we’re just as dirty as we were before, maybe more so. But then, it’s not about cleanliness, right?
I hang my sopping wet pants and shirts on my drying line, then towel off with my small but super absorbent camping towel, then put my “night” clothes on, another pair of long pants and permethrin shirt. It was nice to get out of the boots, but my crocs are huge, and trying to climb the riverbank with them sliding in the mud, and with the clingy mud sucking at them, and sucking them right off my feet, is another challenge.
I battle my crocs and the mud for a few days, and then I succumb to practicality: I tie my crocs onto my feet. Yes, I am aware of how that looks. Yes, I may lose my job with my fashion-conscious company once they see this picture, but function goes over form here in the jungle!
Dinner at 6:30. It’s totally dark now. We’re so close to the equator that there are almost equal periods of light and darkness.
12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. Dark night. Really dark night. Like, cannot see the hand in front of your eyes, dark night. No light. No moon (last week was new moon, so this week is especially dark).
Thank God for headlamps. I make my way through the dark forest to the mess hall building. We each grab a plate and silverware and help ourselves to pasta and farine and a “stew” of tuna and Del Monte mixed vegetables.
We liberally apply hot sauce. It’s not gourmet, but I’m hungry and I didn’t have to cook it! After dinner, we wash our plates and cutlery in the bowls outside and then some people go to bed; others hang out and talk. And drink tea. And rum. And talk more. – I don’t drink, but I enjoy listening to all the conversations, and I end up staying to talk, and listen, pretty much every night on this trip.
For me, part of the fascination of this trip is not just the skills and the knowledge and the mental and physical challenge, but also meeting other weirdos like me. Other people who enjoy this kind of adventure, other people who have traveled widely, or have interesting life experiences, or other viewpoints. I only have these ten days to soak it all in — I can sleep when I get home!
My first night in the hammock is comfortable. The hammock is at least 10 degrees warmer than the air outside, and I don’t think I’m going to need the light puffy blanket we each got for use in our hammock. But as morning comes, it does get a little chilly and I’m grateful for the warmth of the blanket.
The jungle sounds are not that scary to me. Not that different from spending a night outdoors at home. Different animals, of course, but I can hear lots of crickets, and lots of night bird sounds, frogs, and something splashing in the river. Fish? River otters? Caiman?
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