Amazon Jungle

by Jeff Randall

EXTREME - the only word fit to describe the Peruvian Amazon jungle.Abundant with life sustaining resources, it is perhaps the easiest place in the world to survive with nothing more than a good blade, however, torrential rain, high humidity, equatorial sun, biting insects and thick jungle produces the most mentally demanding survival situation one could ever face. Introducing yourself to this environment, initially forces the question, "what the Hell am I doing here?," but as the days pass by, a metamorphosis takes place, and you realize in order to survive, you must adapt - taking everything the jungle throws at you, enjoying it and asking for more.

Our survival expedition into virgin jungle consisted of a seven man team - four Americans and three Peruvian Indians of the Yagua tribe. The group fully understood this was not a typical "eco-tour." We were there to learn survival skills, relying on nothing but machetes and what we carried in our small rucks.

We had subjected ourselves to several vaccinations and medical attention before leaving the States, but this was for diseases such as Yellow Fever and Malaria. We knew if we sustained a "hot" snake bite or severe injury deep in the jungle, chances are it would be deadly, since rapid evacuation would be impossible. Explaining an expedition of this nature to average people always produces the response, "why?" The answer is simple: Testing yourself to these extremes, builds physical and mental strength, in addition, you are allowed to experience things few "civilized" humans ever do. Stress disappears in the bush, and you quickly realize that our luxurious, spoiled, everyday lives may ultimately be our downfall. Most of us could not survive, should the corner grocery store or family doctor cease to exist. The deep jungle does not afford these luxuries; to the jungle newcomer it's get tough or die; to the Indians, it's an everyday peaceful co-existence with nature.

Our adventure began in Iquitos, Peru - a third world city on the Amazon river. Travel in and out of Iquitos is either by aircraft or river, since no roads link this hustling metropolis to any other part of the world. Our target area was 300 kilometers up river, past the Amazonian headwaters into the high jungle. Before we were to see cold beer, hot water and electric lights again, sixteen days of the most wonderful "Hell" on earth would be experienced.

The first couple of days on the Amazon is very relaxing, traveling in our "base camp," a 26 foot mahogany boat propelled by a small Johnson outboard. We have enough gas to insert ourselves into the target area and return back to Iquitos, leg muscles and dugouts will do all the work into and out of the deep jungle.

Making camp for the first night, slaps the reality of where you're really at. Literally inhaling mosquitoes as we set up our nets, ground cloths and tarps, we begin to claw at our bodies, trying to remove all the life forms crawling on us. 100 percent DEET is no match for these tropical insects. The Indians use live termite mounds rubbed over exposed areas, while this seemed to work a little better than store-bought chemicals, the only cure is learning to cope.

After a few days, a mental hardening develops and you begin to pay no attention - every hardship brings about a desire to overcome. The rain is the toughest obstacle to conquer. Gear and spare clothing is continually swamped, and you learn to always keep a poncho handy. One minute will be clear sky and scorching sun, the next will bring about torrential, unexpected rain. Plenty of large plastic bags and desiccant are necessities for carrying camera, electronic and other sensitive gear.

After two long days of traveling up river, we reach the drop off point, from here we load our packs into a small dugout for the journey into the jungle interior. The water is extremely high and we push the dugout thru thick swamps, cutting a path with machetes. Leeches, spiders and biting ants attach themselves as we navigate the waist deep black waters. Every once in a while, a clearing emerges and we are allowed the luxury of paddling the canoe for a few hundred yards. Pushing on into the night, our headlights cast eerie shadows and green eyed reflections, it's obvious the jungle is always alive.

Daybreak finds us on a small tributary with several small thatched huts - the Jivaro Indian tribe, a primitive people who still practice the art of head shrinking. Andre, our Indian guide, speaks to them in Indian dialect and we are welcomed into their village. The tribe is preparing curare, a potent tranquilizer used on blow gun dart tips. We help gather the Ampiwaska vine, begin scraping the bark and placing it in a funnel made from banana leaves.

Filtering water thru this produces an amber colored liquid which is boiled to a paste - the finished product. We are then taught to make darts from palm bark. Each dart is exactly the same length; the Indians measure by counting hand and finger widths.

When everything is prepared, we travel by foot up river with the tribal chief. In no time, we spot Red Howler monkeys, the Indian quickly take one with a single dart. Later that evening, the remaining curare is mixed with lemon grass tea, which produces a mild sedative - we all have a restful sleep. Lemon grass is found throughout the jungle, harvesting the grass and boiling with water produces a good tasting herbal tea. Daybreak awakes us to the distinct smell of hair burning. Watching anxiously as the Indians singe the hair from the previous days hunt, we learn this is breakfast. No part of the animal is wasted, and we clean our plates out of respect, as well as hunger.

The morning thunderheads are already gathering as we wave good-bye. Morale is high due to full stomachs and dry clothes - this won't last long. We ease around a bend in the narrow river, bumping the dugout into heavy overgrowth, small black wasps begin attacking by the hundreds.

Escape to the water is impossible due to thick bush. Finally, we make it out of the bombardment, everyone sustaining 20 or more stings. Eyes and lips swell as we apply Sting Eze (another necessity). The Indians seem to enjoy being stung, and believe it makes you stronger, as for us, it was simply another obstacle conquered.

The tributary quickly becomes an obstacle course, using a single blade axe and machetes, we chop through log jams, some 2 feet in diameter. Cecropia tree bark, a natural lubricant, is also placed on the partly submerged logs as we get out and push the dugout past. After two days of hard bushwhacking, we make our destination - the high jungle. One of our team members has seriously swollen ankles due to scratching chigger and insect bites, and immersion foot is threatening the remainder of the crew, so we decide to make a dry camp and rest our feet for the day.

Building a waterproof shelter is very easy due to material abundance. The first step is to hackand clear a campsite, saving the small saplings for the framework. Philodendron and other vines are gathered for lashing material; palm leaves are used for the roof thatch, by folding them double along their axis and lashing to the frame, much like lapping roofing shingles. Two hours later we have a shelter 30 feet long and 15 feet wide, using nothing but jungle products and machetes. Nightfall brought more serious rain, but the hut refused to leak.

Everyone wakes to sunshine and the smell of coffee, we decide to strip down for a bath in the warm tributary. Manuel, an Indian team member, is catching Piranha for breakfast and we learn, regardless of Hollywood's portrayal, this fish is not aggressive towards humans. Finishing a delicious fish breakfast, we take a short hike in search of Huacra Pona Palm tree to build a dugout raft. This palm is known for it's large bulges suitable for hollowing and making canoes, and looks much like a Walking Stick Palm due to its above ground root structure.

The old Indian method for falling is to build a fire in the roots until the tree comes down - we use an axe. Using machetes to cut through the bark, and a sharp stick to remove the soft heart produces a dugout rapidly. The heart wood can be used as a natural fertilizer for gardening and crop production. Finishing two of these "pontoons," they are lashed together and launched in the water. Long forked sticks are used for paddles. The completed palm raft is water tight and maneuvers easily. We will use this for several days until we begin our journey back.

A staple diet in the jungle is yucca root, which tastes much like a potato when baked in the fire, and swamp cabbage, which is the heart of a Chonta Palm. It receives its name from the cabbage taste when eaten raw. Sliced into thin strips and boiled with chicken, or other fowl, the cabbage makes good noodles. Chonta Palm seeds are simmered over a fire and crushed to make a fruit juice. Other plentiful jungle food sources are bananas, papaya and citrus fruits. For meat, we catch small Caiman (crocodile family), Tintamu bird and Tapir.

The Indians fashion tree stands from small trees and vine, and wait over a fresh trail for the animal to pass by. You learn quickly that the indigenous people are not "sportsmen," who kill for the sake of killing. These people take only what is needed to survive. They believe all things have a spirit and due the same respect as a fellow human being.

Clean drinking water is essential for anyone wishing to visit this area. The jungle people drink directly from the rivers and have built a certain immunity that we don't have. Personal water filters are a must for extended stays in the bush. One source of clean water, which needs no filtering, is the Sipo de Agua vine. It is found throughout the high jungle, and readily pours sweet tasting water when cut with a machete.

We would spend another 5 days exploring the high jungle, learning survival skills and studying natural medicinal plants, such as the iodine tree, which secretes a red sap when cut with a knife. This is used by the Indians to treat minor wounds. I would also try the sap from the Milk of Magnesia tree. The white resin is collected and taken directly. It has a taste much like Mylanta and cures mild stomach irritations. We learn that in the jungle, everything has a value, if not for humans, then for some form of wildlife. These people consider their world, and jungle, a sacred place to be used and not abused.

As we spent the next several days bushwhacking a different route back to the base boat, we became depressed knowing we would soon be leaving this freedom and frontier spirit. We had experienced things and gone places few people ever attempt. The Indians and the jungle work together to sustain each other, and, for a brief time, we were part of that. The whole team vowed to return.

This excursion teaches that survival is 90 percent positive mental attitude. After completing this course, you come away with a different outlook, and understand what it's like to push yourself beyond limits fixated in your mind.

The Indians are true survivalist, who don't know the word "quit." Living and working with these people forces you to appreciate the smaller, more important things in life. Again, this is not a vacation or typical "eco-tour," it is, however, a life experience.

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