Survival: Tales from the Jungle

Staying healthy and trying to sleep against all odds!

I’ve always loved traveling into wild places. That usually means creature comforts are not guaranteed and for the most part, that’s just the way I like it! As an adventure-filmmaker, I’ve chosen some pretty challenging routes to navigate and explore a myriad of life’s mysteries. My workplace is in the jungles of Africa, Asia, South America and the Amazon. My TV programs have allowed me to capture and measure huge anacondas, search for lost explorers and mysterious monsters, uncover forgotten and ancient jungle cities, climb into sacred tribal caves, film one of the world’s rarest monkeys and discover then eat the world’s largest spiders. In Africa, my crew and I moved giant man eating crocodiles from Ugandan swamps, tranquilized lions then tracked them and joined medical teams saving mountain gorillas. In short, this kind of life offers up some amazing sights and experiences, but then there’s the survival part.

Surviving in the jungle is just a little different from life in the big city: but in many ways strangely similar. Food and shelter are always at the top of the list. In the jungle, add to the list: finding clean drinking water, staying alive and healthy, keeping dry and getting enough sleep! Along the way survival might include: dodging fast moving snakes, prepping my Katadyn Water filter to pump water from a stream, negotiating with hostile tribes to return my equipment, sampling fermented human saliva drinks or trapping giant Agouti jungle rats in the out houses. In short, it’s impossible to prepare for everything! The only thing you can count on is not having enough to drink or eat, taking malaria pills and inevitably combating fatigue. The jungle provides no safe haven for indulged and pampered Westerners. You have to be alert and vigilant at all times and getting enough sleep, food and water is essential.

The key to any remote jungle travel is having a fixer — someone who knows everything about the location you’re going to, can find local wildlife, can assure your safety and provide food and water. I produced/directed a BBC/Animal Planet expedition searching for the Red Uakari monkey, an extremely rare primate which lives in a small section of the Peruvian Amazon. Because we were going to be filming a student primatologist from England’s Kent University, we were able to arrange for transport on their large 75 foot research ship. When you go to the jungle especially when you’re going to be hiking everyday, you need clean water. We were able to calculate the exact number of gallons that we would need over three weeks on this boat for our crew of five people plus the ship’s crew and native guides. We were also assuming of course that the water we’d brought on board from the Central Amazonian city of Iquitos was going to be clean and would not make us sick.

We lived off stores the cook had acquired in Iquitos and the Amazonian fish which were quite plentiful. So luckily, there was no danger of going hungry on this trip. I only felt slightly guilty eating bizarre-looking river fish that looked liked they’d survived the last 20 million years of evolutionary development unscathed. The giant fruit-eating Piranha was especially delicious! We even managed to pick our own acai berries which as it turns out are quite different from the blueberry type fruit you see on packages in the west. Essentially, it’s a large kernel with some blue skin on it and all those acai drinks and ice cream are made out of the thick pulp that lines that skin. In any case we were able to make some tea and dessert, which proved to be quite tasty with a little sugar.

Being on the research boat was pretty much an ideal scenario for the film shoot. Every morning we’d leave the boat tied up to a huge 20 ft. mud bank (which would soon be covered in the rainy season) and march up the jungle trails. Since we’d be hiking in 100 degree heat and high humidity each day, having the relative security of the ship to download the day’s material and clean our gear was a real luxury. We could dry out our clothes and fire up the generator to charge batteries — ensuring we had enough fuel left to get us back down river of course! On shore lurked poisonous snakes, insects and even the world’s third largest cat — the jaguar. The ever present gang plank, made me think about the ease with which any of the larger creatures could climb on board! Any sleep we got depended on fans, mosquito nets and sprays, to avoid bug infested accommodation. We even lined our cabin floors with double-sided gaffer tape to catch large and potentially dangerous bugs! Treacherous walks to the one bathroom at night on slippery decks and inadequate rails kept us all at high alert. The sound of the jungle when the sun goes down is an unsettling cacophony never experienced by the regular tourist. Waking up to the splash of a Caiman (alligator) diving into the water, the buzz of disease-infested sand flies or the supernatural sounding roar of hundreds of howler monkeys at the crack of dawn can turn the heaviest sleeper into an insomniac. All things considered though, our floating home, was much preferable to a camp on the crawling jungle floor! But, on another trip I did up a Blackwater River in Venezuela searching for the largest anacondas in the world, things got significantly more intense.

Shooting for our Biggest & Baddest series (National Geographic WILD) the purpose of the trip was to film, find and measure huge anacondas: to confirm possible sightings by early explorers of snakes up to 60 feet long. Starting in the heart of central Venezuela, we headed up river in wooden dugout canoes with motors on them. Our trip would last several days with stops along the way and turned out to be one of the hottest environments I’ve ever been in. Despite wearing hats, and having complete sunblock on our faces and hands most of the film crew ended up badly burned. Searching for giant snakes along the riverbanks by day, we had to find a place to sleep at night. Oh, and I should mention, an anaconda dragged our biologist-star Niall McCann 30 ft. down an embankment to the edge of the river. Along the way, the fixer was able to locate accommodation in the native villages that line the river. Unfortunately, no one told us about some of the potential hazards in doing that. In many ways, I’ve found the jungle to be a safer place then the local villages. Why?

Let me describe the hazards of sleeping in hammocks outside, underneath a thatched roof. You basically lock yourself into this hammock with anti-malarial mosquito netting all around hoping that the small creases and openings at the top, don’t somehow let things in. It’s a little tough to sleep when the last thing you’re told is to not let your arms, hands and feet touch the mosquito netting because vampire bats come by at night, cling to the netting and suck blood from your limbs. The second thing about thatched roofs is that they are home to every living thing that crawls, slithers or hops. I’d heard that Scorpions have been known to get by the knotted rope on your hammock. But as it turns out, that’s the least of your worries.

Right after lights go out the place is crawling with giant cockroaches and I found myself doing battle with hordes of the giant creatures — which had found their way through the netting and now ran over my face, down my chest and generally began running amuck across my body. By doing battle I mean I had this large electrically charged paddle which is normally used for flying insects but in this case came in handy. In a grotesque Wimbledon match, I was frying cockroaches and using a wicked underhand to knock them away with this electrified tennis racket. In another too familiar scenario, snakes and rats do battle in the rafters above you or maybe a bullet ant with the world’s most painful sting could land on you, in the middle of the night. As it turns out none of these vermin are your biggest concern. Turns out, there’s this innocuous bug known as the Reduviid bug that is the deadliest customer of all. The beetle, also known as the “kissing bug” carries Chagas disease — one of the deadliest and most widespread vector borne illnesses, affecting 6 to 7 million people in Latin America. Basically, once bitten, you can live your life with few symptoms, only to discover 10 years later that your heart has swelled up massively, eventually outgrowing the cavity in your chest! The results being, well, fatal!

So for all the wonders of jungle exploration, lack of sleep can be one of your biggest challenges and no matter how much meditating you do, you simply cannot get past the thoughts of things crawling on you. It’s best to have an arsenal of sleep aids, stop itch, camomile tea and perhaps melatonin or some other natural sleep aid to help you get through the night. You never really catch up on that lost sleep for the rest of the trip…unless you find yourself in a particularly comfortable tourist lodge somewhere, back in civilization! Sleep should never be taken for granted, it can evade you even in the most luxurious surroundings, but in the jungle, it seems like nothing ever sleeps. Perhaps like the animals that often inhabit it, a nocturnal lifestyle is best suited for anyone visiting the jungle.

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