A Journey into the Heart of the Jungle
Written by Pip Stewart // Photography by Jon Williams
‘Pip, don’t think about the snake too much.’ James’s words were almost lost amid the cacophony of noise that wove around us, and in the whirlwind of my own thoughts and the dark images that flashed into my mind. The truth is, I couldn’t help thinking about it. Whatever James, one of our most experienced Wai Wai guides, might have thought, the snake had slithered its way into my psyche and refused to leave. I knew it would stay with me forever.
It’s the jungle’s sounds I most enjoy when I walk: an eclectic mix of autumnal dead-leaf crunch underfoot with the hum of life above. I feel like the jungle takes on different personalities according to the weather. When it rains, a coolness spreads and the mood becomes muted. On days like today, with the beating sun somewhere hidden above the treetops, the brilliant greens of the jungle come alive as the sun’s light dashes through gaps in the canopy. Look closely and you’ll see the myriad shapes, colours, and textures. But when it’s hot, it’s stifling. And exhausting.
Walking through the jungle is not like any old hike; in addition to the slopes, there are vines, fallen trees, debris everywhere. Most of the day, I had a stick in one hand and my bandana wrapped around the other for leaning against the rotten logs we had to clamber over. Hours earlier, our team of nine had slogged up breath-stealing inclines, cutting a line through the dense flora. At some point, struggling to maintain balance on slick ground, and exhausted from the beleaguering humidity, I’d managed to wedge my foot between a vine and a gnarled, rotten tree trunk. After a minute or so of shaking and tugging, my foot came free. Laura shouted as it did, and her words echoed in my mind even hours later: ‘Oh my god, there’s a snake.’
As it turns out, my backside is useful, both for sliding down slopes and for snake charming. A tiny mottled snake reared up inches away from where my leg had been flailing only seconds before. Its diamond-shaped head hovered, studying us, and its tongue flicked. It was nightmarish; black, white, and grey, merging invisibly with the shadows. One of those snakes you pray you never see in a place like this, several days’ torrid hiking from medical help. Bothrops atrox: commonly known as the lancehead, known here as the labaria. A particularly venomous species of pit viper.
‘That’s definitely an enemy,’ Jackson said. He had drawn his machete and now held it at arm’s length, close to the snake. ‘An oval head on a snake is OK, but not a diamond. If the venom 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.’ This was probably unnecessary as I was already keeping as much distance between myself and the snake as possible. The labaria is known for its nervous disposition and swift attacks. As one article I read in the Guyana Chronicle said: ‘Once they feel threatened they would bite you fast, fast, fast; before you even realise it they could bite you five times already. They are very hot-tempered and most people that get bitten, get bitten by that snake-type.’ Jackson covered it with the machete so that Laura and Ness could pass it unharmed. After that, and before Jackson clambered over the trunk, I heard the dull thud of machete on wood. ‘Pain, pain, pain,’ James said, shaking his head. ‘This is one of the bad snakes of the jungle.’
I must have been in shock coming down the mountain, my senses dulled by the turmoil in my mind, because it was only when the reality hit, later on at the bottom as we rested, that I broke down in tears. I was shaken. I’d even sat on the log to help free my foot, presumably inches over the snake. Had it struck, the labaria would have killed me. But it didn’t and, to this day, I’m thankful. I was also exceptionally sad that it had spared me – but we hadn’t spared it. I asked Jackson why.
‘I killed it because it’s poisonous,’ he said.
It hit me then, as it would many more times during our journey, that life so often hinges on a few key decisions. Had I lingered there longer, stopped to catch my breath for an extra second, perhaps I wouldn’t be writing these words. It was gearing up to attack and had Jackson not killed it perhaps another of the team wouldn’t be here either. It’s a sobering thought. The decision that had brought me to this point was to join an attempt with Laura and Ness to become the first people to paddle the length of the Essequibo River, from source to sea. As someone with limited paddling experience, the notion of kayaking down rapids and portaging around waterfalls was, frankly, terrifying. I’m not ashamed to say that in the build-up to this expedition, on it, and even since, fear has been a large part of the experience. For runners of gnarly whitewater, the Essequibo might look tame, but for me it represented a genuine, personal challenge. Much of this journey was about learning to use fear positively, accepting that very real dangers existed, but that I was in control of my response to them.
So much of my experience during the expedition centred on getting to grips with what it meant to be human on a fundamental level. Never in my life have I experienced a need for such raw survival. The river that carried us also sustained us, from fishing, to drinking, to washing. For nearly two and a half months, we slept under a canopy in hammocks. My feet were in a sorry state, covered in so many tiny cuts they felt like needles when I walked on them. The damp environment took its toll. Sometimes, putting on my boots felt like a prison sentence. Experiences that inhabited my nightmares at home suddenly became a living reality: paddling past 6m caiman, navigating churning whitewater, sleeping with the roar of jaguar close to camp. In fact, jaguar often prowled through camp and stood face to face with our guides. We encountered deadly scorpions and spiders whose legs could have folded around my fist. I even contracted trench foot and could no longer walk properly. These were no longer my fears; these things became my daily life.
Humans have a remarkable ability to adapt. Taught by the Wai Wai – true jungle survival experts – Laura, Ness, and I slowly learned to not just survive, but how to eventually thrive in an environment that had once struck us as hostile. We’d often ask the Wai Wai whether new, unknown forest critters were ‘friend or enemy’. As James told me: ‘Most things in the jungle are friends unless you disturb them.’ By being vulnerable, by opening up about my fears, and having other people help allay them, I managed to relax, enjoy, and even seek refuge in the nurturing bosom of the jungle. One night, I asked Ant, one of our guides on the river section of the journey, how the Wai Wai learn to face fear. ‘Daddy took me hunting with him every Saturday from when I was about eight,’ he said. ‘He taught me that even when you see the white-lipped peccary [editor’s note: who are known to be aggressive when threatened and who roam in large packs] running towards you, you mustn’t run. You must be brave and stand there and shoot it. I will teach my children the same: you have to stand there, don’t run, and be brave.’
While I doubt I’ll ever encounter wild pigs in Central London (at least not of the jungle variety), our journey along the Essequibo forced me to look at the way I live my own life. Perhaps bizarrely, many of the stress responses I experienced when danger was present were the same responses I get when my phone buzzes, or I check my emails. As our other river guide, Romel, later told me, when danger is present his spirit would be frightened. ‘Your spirit tells you when something is around,’ he said. ‘You don’t see it, but your spirit feels it. The whole night you can sense when something is dangerous – the jaguar being the most dangerous predator in the forest. We are in their area. We don’t know, maybe we are camping in their home.’
This unease of the spirit has a real-world, practical use at 2.00am when a rustling around your hammock disturbs your sleep and you gear yourself up for what just might be a fight for your life. Conversely, it’s not much use when worrying about deadlines or unanswered emails during sleepless nights. I think it’s this disconnect between a modern and traditional way of living that leaves many of us feeling that ‘something’s not quite right’, but we can’t pinpoint exactly what that is. We no longer live in a traditional way, yet our inner psyche, the thing that makes us human and which evolved to protect us, does not register that. The difference in the jungle is that the threat usually disappears when you remove yourself from the situation. We cannot remove ourselves from modern life, however much we may want to. This was abundantly clear when we paddled further downstream and encountered the slow creep of humanity – the gold mines, the abandoned rubbish; the changing colour, smell, and makeup of the river, now indelibly stained by human touch. No longer able to drink the water due to possible mercury poisoning from the gold mining industry, our journey downstream was coloured by a new fear: what we’re doing to the world’s wild places. It’s no longer snakes that terrify me, it’s the choices we make as humans; the power and the potential destruction in that. Ant’s advice about being brave, and tackling threats, echoes all the louder.
When, after nearly three months away, the Atlantic Ocean opened up before us I realised that my fears had never really gone away. I’d just learned to sit with them. When we first set off, the names on the map were unfamiliar, remote, and meaningless. Now, when I look at the map it is full of colour: the people, the stories, the bends in the river. I feel like the Essequibo opened me, broke me, churned me around in a way I never saw coming. I feel so full of drive to be better, to change myself and the world around me in the best ways possible. The river reflected back my flaws – my ego, the insecurities. I desperately wanted to be brave, but ended up accepting that at times I was weak. At times I crumbled, at times I needed help. But it was fear that gave me the opportunity to be vulnerable – to ask for that help I didn’t even know I needed and the chance to grow from it.
As I bobbed around in the waves of the ocean, I thought about the teachings of the Wai Wai, and the beauty of teamwork. We’d wound our way from the source of this mighty river, from under the dark canopy of the jungle, to this vast blue expanse, bright with possibility. As I stared into my teammates’ smiling faces, it hit me that we’d done something that no-one had ever done before. And we’d done it together.
Contrary to James’s advice in the jungle, I did think about the snake that day, and every day subsequently. It has come to represent the fragility of life, the twists of fate on which it hangs, and gratitude in the face of fear. The river shaped me, the journey humbled me, but it was the snake that made me feel most alive.
Read our interview with Pip: ‘Life Lessons from the Amazon’
Pip Stewart is an explorer, presenter, and writer. A self-proclaimed hippie at heart, with a love for travel and well-being, Pip is a firm believer that connecting with people and the great outdoors is good for the soul.