The Darien Gap
I struggle with the waist straps of my backpack, tightening them over my soaked T-shirt. The pack weighs a third of my weight, making my knees buckle. The band of my shorts ruckles uncomfortably against my skin.
“The wet season has come early. We’d better get going, the rivers will be rising.” Our Dutch guide, Ingrid, hoists a second pack onto her chest, giving her the appearance of a snail with two shells. One home for herself, the other for us. I marvel that someone so slight makes the task look easy.
The day before, we shared the dried food, medical supplies and cooking equipment between the seven of us to add to our personal equipment. No shops or motels exist where we intend going. Everything we need has to be carried in. After much debate, we rationed ourselves to a single bottle of scotch between us all. No beer. We wouldn’t be able to make it cold anyway.
Our two local Colombian guides slash at empty air with machetes, indicating impatience perhaps. There’s nothing to cut yet. Millipedes of moisture ripple down my back. I’m not sure if it’s the rain or nerves. My dreams of a jungle trek – spotting toucans, discovering exotic orchids, spying a panther from a distance – wash away in the torrents.
The start of our hike takes us past people going about their daily lives oblivious to the weather. Children splash in puddles, women carry home fresh vegetables from the market, men tinker with broken bicycles and dilapidated trucks. The rain sluices down our necks, running into every crevice of our skin. My waterproof hiking boots slosh with as much water inside as out, but I’m warmed by the exertion and pleased to be on our way.
Our hike will take us across the swamplands and forest of the Darien Gap – the divide between South America and Central America – a hundred-kilometre stretch on a map where the Pan-American Highway doesn’t join. A territory inhabited only on its periphery by a few Choco Indians.
We reach a river. The early storm has swelled the water into a coffee-coloured cascade. Rather than skipping across stones, I fight against churning foam. If I look down, the rushing flow confuses my sense of balance and grips me in a hypnotic trance; best to look at the far bank and plow on.
The Atrato delta washes ahead of us, a brown swamp of mud banks and vegetation torn from their roots by the storm. Islands of matted leaves swirl towards the sea. Two at a time, we balance precariously in a dug-out canoe to cross deeper water. Our ferryman paddles from behind to navigate through the debris and strong currents.
A coconut plantation clings to a finger of land pointing to the Caribbean. We meander through the thrashing fronds, getting used to our packs. My feet squelch a passage along well-worn trails. Before I can find my rhythm, another expanse of swamp opens before us. This time there is no canoe. A raft of woven palm leaves rests atop loosely strapped planks. It rocks as we climb aboard. Using a wooden staff, we punt across.
The path follows the beach. Wet sand clings to my boots but provides firm footing. White horses crash off to our right, spray stinging my eyes. The wind shouts warnings in my ears, but we trudge on. I can feel sweat meeting rain through my clothes. Blown sand abrades my skin. It is too noisy for conversation. With grim determination, we forge ahead.
After an hour or so we head into the forest. There is still no need for machetes, but our guides slash at any hanging vine with a vengeance. I breathe deeply and absorb the jungle smells, wet earth with a hint of perfume. Away from the raging ocean, the dim interior is mysteriously quiet. Drips of rain wash the salt from my face. Dappled light dances across my eyes. I imagine I see animals lurking in the shadows.
Ingrid holds up a hand up for us to stop. “Don’t grab the trees for support.” She gingerly turns a branch and reveals the finger-long thorns hidden under the leaves. “Some of the plants have poisonous hairs, and there is always a chance that what you grab is not a vine.” She smiles as we nod. No-one wants to hang on to a snake by mistake. I’m glad I have my stout walking stick. The mud is as slick as a greased pig at a country fair.
As we trudge on, my shoulders scream with pain and my arms shake with exhaustion. My pack seems to have doubled in weight since this morning. I want to stop to rest, but I can’t hold up the trek. I collapse on a log, crying. Only half a day into the six-day trek I feel I’m not going to make it.
“There’s no going back. This is a one-way trip.” Ingrid studies my pack. “You must take the weight on your hips, not your shoulders.” She shows Pete, my husband, how to adjust the straps – tighter here, looser there, settle that lower, pull that forward. The relief is immeasurable.
Placing one foot in front of the other, I no longer feel like a lumbering ox in a yoke; maybe just a pack mule. Taking care not to trip on exposed roots or fallen logs, I look around with a lighter heart and stride out with renewed vigour.
The relentless rain has washed away any semblance of a trail. Animal tracks criss-cross the jungle like cracks in crazy paving. Our machete-wielding guides don’t hesitate. They swing in harmony, slashing at lianas, hacking at fronds, chopping at low branches. The sound of vegetation falling to the blade offers reassurance that we are not lost.
Turning around, it is hard to see where we have come from; the jungle seems to close behind us, a curtain of green. We walk in single file, keeping the person in front of us in sight at all times. How do the locals find their way? What do they see that I don’t?
Late morning, the sun pushes through the clouds. Searing heat causes steam to rise from the ground, the vegetation, me. We stop at a shallow creek for a break. I down a litre of water and electrolytes. Before moving on I refill the bottles, dropping a chlorine tablet in each. We stop every hour for a rest – creeks are plentiful. Occasionally, enough sunlight filters through the canopy to encourage a bloom to shout to pollinators. Head-sized blossoms of orange and yellow, stamens as long as your hand. Their gaudiness seems incongruous where everything else reflects a consistent jungle green.
At mid-afternoon, we emerge from under the canopy at a bend in the river. A satin sheet of golden butterflies cloaks the rocks. In our approach they billow like the envelope of a hot-air balloon being filled with gas, rising to melt into the sun.
I blink in the glare as Ingrid announces, “This is camp. We’ll stop here for the night.” So early? Not waiting for a second chance, I drop my pack and collapse on a rock. The stones are warm and smooth. I strip and plunge into the shallow coolness of the river, too tired for modesty, then bask on the rocks like a lizard. My clothes soon bake dry. Pete and I watch the silver slivers of fish elusively dart amongst the ripples. My stomach rumbles.
Refreshed, we gather a few soggy twigs and coax a small cooking fire to life. Packet soup never tasted so good. A shot of whiskey stings my throat like fire ants but permeates my soul with well-being.
Ingrid unpacks our communal tarpaulin from her snail house. We string up a rough shelter and unroll our mattresses. There is only just room for us all to lay shoulder to shoulder like sardines. It doesn’t matter. I don’t even feel the pebbly beach under my back. My eyes shut with the setting sun.
Three in the morning, cold trickles between my shoulder blades. The hammer of rain on the plastic sheet overhead indicates the trouble – run-off seeps across the ground, encroaching on our sleeping space. I pull a flimsy poncho around my shoulders and try to return to sleep. In vain.
By five thirty, no-one feels like lying in a puddle any longer. We pack our gear and head back on the trail after only a meagre breakfast of dried fruit and nuts. It is seven a.m.
By day three, starting out early in the rain, baking in the sun over lunch and collapsing in the heat mid-afternoon has become normal. Walking has become my life. It’s what I do. One step in front of the other. Up the muddy slope. Down the other side. Splash through the creeks. I had hoped to see wild animals, at least birds, but the jungle is quiet. I have given up staring into the gloom every time I think I see movement. If anything is there, it is beyond my ability to spy it.
The only bird we have seen so far is a scrub turkey that our head guide shot. It is his habit to wander the jungle with his rifle to search for food after we have set up camp. He roasted the turkey over the camp fire. It looked tough and sinewy. I’m pleased we aren’t relying on bush tucker for our nourishment.
I wonder what else lies hidden away from human eyes. Are there remedies for diseases in the vegetation? How much life crawls, slithers or unfurls that has yet to be recorded? Perhaps the venom of that spider under the bark contains a cure for AIDS, or the mucus of the spotted frog we saw at the last creek offers an antidote for rabies, or the pollen of that spiky orange flower could eradicate malaria? Lizards have existed on this planet for eons – what immunities do they have in their varied cold-blooded bodies?
A movement catches my eye as we stop at another river. A python at least two metres long falls from a branch into the rapidly moving water. His strong body pulses with grace as he swims across to the far bank. I don’t mind snakes as long as they don’t mind me.
We resume our walk. I am thrilled to have finally seen some wildlife. My mind replays the experience like a film as I continue up and down the slopes. Step, step, step. Slip. Step, step, step. The effort is meditative in its tranquillity.
Ingrid stops ahead and points out pug marks, deep in the soft mud. “Panther. Fresh.”
I walk with tense muscles for an hour, straining my eyes to make out dark shapes amongst the claustrophobic tangle, but nothing eventuates. No black velvet cut-out against the emerald backcloth. I don’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed. As much as I’d love to see a jungle cat, I’m not sure I want one to see me.
The tramp of our boots, the swish of wet vegetation, the odd muttered curse as someone trips, are the only sounds. No roars or coughs from predators. I see only myriad insects, spiders and tiny reptiles, scurrying about their business in silence, or waiting with infinite patience for their next meal.
Afternoon camp has become a delight; resting in the cool shallows, watching fingerlings flit by in graceful unison, skipping stones on reflective pools. Moss slimes over boulders. Umbrella leaves shade pebbled pools. I am immersed in this green, wet, mysterious, quiet land. It seems I’ve known no other life. My body is toughening up, the hills don’t seem so steep, the hour between breaks not so long.
Our trail doesn’t follow the contours of the land. Rather, we cross ridge then valley then ridge. My only horror now comes at the rivers. With water chest deep, not even my stout walking stick prevents the drag on my weary bones. I only survive with Pete’s strong hand to pull me across while one of our guides hoists my pack on his head. I try not to think of what might be in the water around me, concentrating only on keeping my footing.
After six days we reach an Indian village, nearly at the end of our hike. Some of the inhabitants have never seen a blond white woman. Children gawp from behind their mother’s colourful skirts. Woven houses stand tall on stilts above the floodplain. We sit on the raised verandah enjoying the light breeze, supping on fermented coconut milk. These people welcomed us with food, drink, and dance. They offer us carved ebony and mahogany – crocodiles, turtles, fish. I choose a walking stick with a handle carved in the head of a toucan. It is the only one I’ve seen.
The young girls sway, stamp and jump together around a roaring bonfire, sparks rising like fireflies. The young men tap drums. With a feeling of well-being and camaraderie, we swap stories of other adventures. Ingrid tells of her previous expedition here. “Guerillas kidnapped and held us at gunpoint for days. They finally abandoned us in the night.”
One of the elders, shaking his head, tells us of attempts to build a road across the isthmus. Our guide translates. “A road is not good. It will destroy the forest, kill our culture.”
I agree with his sentiment. Let the jungle keep its mysteries.