I love jungles. Whether it’s sloth-spotting in the Colombian corner of the Amazon, dodging monkeys in Peru or eating insects in Ecuador, South America gives you a seriously high dose of them. And why not? All that green-filtered light and rickety bridges, all those parrots and waterfalls. Jungles are mysterious, enticing and full of unseen gems. They’re great.
Except when they go wrong; then they just hurt like hell, near drown you and leave you wondering which twisted divine being (or equally twisted process of evolution) worked out so many ingenious ways to get you.
I wasn’t even meant to be in the jungle. I’d travelled to los llanos (the Colombian plains, for chrissake) which I’d expected to be flat, desolate and temperate, full of spur-toting cowboys and rainbow-coloured rivers. Jungle was not on the itinerary.
Another time I’ll tell you about that beautiful river – Caño Cristales – because boy, was it spectacular and La Macarena is about as full of warm Colombian hospitality and aguardiente-soaked rumba as you are ever likely to get.
But this is not a nice, touristy blog post. It’s a warning. Take the jungle seriously. It is not Walt Disney world.
One day the heavens opened, in this particular piece of non-jungle jungle, in the plains, so we swam across a swollen piece of water. Returning four hours later, it was too swollen for up-to-your-chest doggy paddling, so we found a fallen tree upstream and clambered across that instead.
The following day we returned to the same place and, despite finding the water somewhere around thigh level, we opted again for the fallen tree. That was our first mistake. It wouldn’t be my last.
I was at the back, as always, clutching my huge camera. As I reached the log, where the others were in various stages of wobbling across, I noticed a small cloud of flying orange creatures in the air to my left.
My brain didn’t register anything unusual – jungles are always full of weird stuff, aren’t they? – but as I took another step I heard my friend scream: “Run!” as someone else impolitely stabbed me in the right arm.
What happened next is blurry. I remember stopping and frantically swiping furious, over-sized wasps from my body as they continued to stab me. Then, beginning to shake as the last, stubborn stingers gave up the fight, I turned to my friend – who’s been ahead and later, behind me as we turned tail – and apologised for not running away.
“What? You did run. You ran so fast. Thank you so much,” she panted, equally grey and trembling.
We later realised we’d both sprinted some 50 feet, back through the jungle. She’d been swiping the beasts as she ran but, in my terror, I’d simply sprinted – leaving myself covered. She had five angry stings to my 15.
We waded through the water and continued with our day, popping painkillers and anti-inflammatories, but most of all fighting the creeping misery of having gone five rounds with a needle-wielding Mike Tyson and lost.
Hours later, the pain remained as fresh as it had been in the minutes after we’d disturbed the nest. But the river was incredible and the careful medical attention of the locals yet more touching. Now I know I would go through all that again, having seen what I’ve seen and experienced what I have. Pain fades in hours. Memories do not.
But at the time, I was furious – more with myself than the stroppy hornets whose day we’d interrupted. You can’t go bounding off into a jungle, you don’t keep walking into the unknown and you certainly don’t run away taking all of your attackers with you.
“Are you okay?” one of my fellow explorers said kindly, as I opted out of a final swim through the river and bathed quietly in my own pain.
“I’m fine,” I said, big brave girl face.
Hmmm. I’m fine now. In Bogotá, that is. Not a wasp in sight.