Near Death in the Darién

"Years ago, I tried to cross the Darién Gap."

Now the middle-aged Canadian awaiting the 6am colectivo in a rickety Puerto Jiménez bus shelter really had my attention.

"After the first day, I thought I would never get out. I started writing letters to my wife, and putting them in - you're probably too young to remember this - but camera film used to come in these little containers. So I'd push my letters in there, and float them off down the river, thinking - madness - that one day she'd read them."

"I had planned to walk along the riverbed. I had maps, a tent, compass, everything. But it was the rainy season. On the first day the river started rising, and I was walking waist deep in water. Trails got washed away."

Was he crazy? I thought. The Darién Gap - 160km of dense rainforest and swamp covering the border between Panama and Colombia - is often described as 'impassable', even in the dry season. 

"I was in there for 11 days, until I couldn't walk anymore. I had food for 5. Each day I would try a new trail, and end up back at this same waterfall. I'd go a kilometre or so along a path, and then couldn't get any further. Because of the rain, trees kept falling over. You'd hear them in the night, crashing down."

"My feet were chicken shit - raw meat. My skin was peeling off." He grimaced at the recollection. "So, I had this thin inflatable mattress. And I blew up all the plastic bags I had in my rucksack - I'd thrown away all my other possessions - cameras, everything, ruined, because my backpack was always in water - and I floated down the river."

"I remember that night, I put the mattress on high ground to sleep. And in the middle of the night I felt myself floating away - the river was rising so fast. So I climbed up to some tree branches - and an hour later the river reached me again. So I went to the highest point I could reach."

"The river went through this big canyon, but there were so many trees, and the sides were so steep, there was no sunlight."

"I thought I was going to die." He shook his head, as though amazed and somewhat bemused by his past self. "I kept writing in my diary, writing down my thoughts."

"I ended up at the same rangers' station I'd left on the first day. They fed me, looked after me. I stayed there a few days. There was also a Colombian guy there who'd hurt his arm real bad with his machete. It was this guy who carried me out of there - I couldn't walk."

"We took a boat from Turbo to - I can't remember what the place was called in Panama. At that time, it was full of Americans. They turned him away - the guy who carried me out of there - so he had to go back to Colombia. And I got a flight out of there as fast as I could."

Unfortunately for us, our driver was not so keen to get us off his bus as fast as he could, and forgot to warn us when we passed our stop. Still, our hour long wait for a hitch back down the bumpy track to Matapalo didn't seem much to complain about in comparison to our friend's trials in the jungle.


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