When the Conquistadores came to South America, they called the Amazon a “Green hell”, I’m beginning to see why

Sammy crossing one of the worst creeks we had to pass, you can also make out the rickety bird cage strapped to the back of his pack

We drank Fever tea to temper the pain of the long and gruelling march. We had only been hiking a day, but the straps of my pack had worn a rash around my waist, and my shoulders shuddered at the thought of shouldering more than their fare share. However, “Onwards!” The machete tasted plant blood today as we hacked our way forward, moving at a sloth’s pace. Today’s creek crossings were even more challenging and painful. To begin the day we started on an easy one that was only a meter or so off the ground, but it was pretty thin and there was a steep mud bank on the other side. Sammy walked across no problem and disappeared on the other side. I took a tentative step forward, and then another, lost my balance and hurled myself forward. I just managed to clear the water, the mud spilling up and over my boots. I had made it, but the heavy bag threatened to pull me back down into the water! There was no purchase. I clawed at the muddy ground, leaving deep fingernail ruts. The cool, fetid water started inching up my pants consuming all dry clothing in its path. The quagmire is like quicksand, I can’t extricate myself. I undo the straps on my bag, not so much to save myself as to preserve the electronics. Of course, as I lift the bag higher, I myself sink lower. I can nearly taste the mud now. The brief, unthinkable thought of ditching my camera equipment and saving myself passes through my mind, but I quickly dismiss it…no, I’ll go down with the ship…

“What’s taking so long?”, Sammy reappears, wiping the sweat from his brow and cleaning the machete on his plant leg. I can’t help but feel that I really don’t know this guy and here I am helpless, stuck up to my waist in mud, with my pack over my head and this grinning sadist with a machete fingering the sharpness of the blade. “Hold on, I’ll give you a hand…”. He raises the machete high and swings it down with all his force.

He cuts clean through a medium tree trunk, shaves off the branches and then pokes it in my direction. I grab hold and slowly he pulls me out. “1…2…3…PULL!”, only no wasps this time. I finally slither up the embankment like some primordial creature. We only started the trek 45 minutes ago but I already need a rest, this is a very trying experience and not an especially good start to the day. We crossed another 20 0r so creeks today. The worst one required us to hike hours out of our way upstream, cross 2 smaller creeks and weigh our options very carefully. Sammy spotted a log that had fallen across the water but had sunken over time and was submerged perhaps a meter under water. I tested the water first without my pack. The underwater log was thick, but slippery as hell. I edged forward, splaying my feet to hold my balance. As I progressed the water flowed up past my knees and to my my waist. Still, to either side of the log, it was at least another 2 meters deeper. Another few steps forward and the water was at my chest. I was only halfway across. I continued and as I did the water continued to do so as well. This won’t do I nearly gurgled. Sammy agreed and we paced up and down the creekside but didn’t find any suitable alternatives, this was it.

So we decided on a system, Sammy would carry the packs since his balance was much better and I would swim off to either side of him and make sure that I would help steady him and offer an extra hand to hold up the pack should he slip. So we strip down to our boxers and I go across first.  We take the lightest items like his birdcage, papers and whatever else we don’t want to get wet and then we proceed with the bulk of our stuff. He carries my pack first. It isn’t a particularly encouraging sight, he edges forward on the upturned roots of the log and I look at his naked legs, they are literally quaking under the weight of the pack. “Maybe I should do this, you know?” I ask. “No, no…I…I…I have got this” he strains. So with a nervous energy I splash into the water and am ready should he show the most infinitesimal sign of imbalance. He slides his bare feet over the log, but he seems as sure footed as though he could actually see his feet through the dark tea stained waters, as though he actually knew where the log was, as though I wouldn’t kill him in his sleep if he submerged all my electronics. We make it to the other side and I scramble up the bank with the help of some roots. Sammy passes up the bag and I collapse in catharsis.

Sammy heads back across to get his own pack. “Shit”, he yells. “What?” I ask, not looking up from rummaging through my belongings trying to get my camera set up to take a photo of this scene. “SHITTY”, he yells more forcefully. I look up to see the machete go whizzing by me and slam with a smacking force in the muddy bank, blade first, a couple feet away. I swallow and my eyes retrace the journey the blade just took, finally arriving at the crazy son of a bitch I had elected as my companion. It wasn’t “shit” he had been yelling, but “Ma-shit-ee”. I fall back into the water let out a quick underwater scream to vent my frustrations and emerge smiling and ready to help him bring his pack across, which is done without incident.

We continue following the river until we hit a patch of grass. Sammy stops cutting and looks around. “We should probably go around”, he says. “What are you talking about?” I say as I push past him. I’m a couple feet in grass over my head when I feel a tug on my sleeve. “What is it now Sammy?” I turn around but he’s not there, in fact, he hasn’t moved. “Well aren’t you coming?” “Not this way”, he smiles. I stumble forward a few more feet when I feel some more insistent tugging. Only now it is on my arms and legs. It is the grass. It has grabbed hold of me and won’t let go. As I pull away, the fine grass cuts cleanly through my skin, leaving a bloody trail. “Son of a bitch”, I mutter. I turn around and get another cut, and then another. I fight my way back the way I came in and emerge, blood trailing down my arms, skin stinging. Sammy nods and smiles a knowing smile that says, “Yes, you should have listened to me, now look at you”. Death by a thousand cuts got its origins from this grass, I have no doubt. “Razor grass”, Sammy says nodding in the direction of the blood stained grasses. Yes it is as painful as it sounds. Yes if he had thought fit to mention the name razor grass, I probably would have thought twice before entering that death trap. We look for a way around but the river borders one side and the other has a deep swamp with fallen trees that was impassable. We decide the best way to go about this is to take off our packs and clear the way with the machete. Sammy hikes in sandals, shorts and a t-shirt, whereas I hike in rubber boots, pants and a long-sleeved shirt. I will no doubt dream fond dreams of letting him do the painful task of clearing our way, but I took mercy on him and volunteered for the job. I’ve heard of a double-edged sword but this was ridiculous, as I cut the grass it also cut me. And it refused to go down without a fight. It was only 20-30 meters of trail I cut, but my arms were sore from the effort and I looked fairly nightmarish (imagine a sweaty, stinky, bearded man covered in blood wielding a blood stained machete overhead with drops of blood spraying in all directions as he cuts a path through the grasses).

We passed by a beautiful little creek, plenty of rocks and stepping stones with clear rushing water and tons of little minnows feeding amongst the shallows. Here we braked for lunch. When we stop we check ourselves over.

As though my bag weren’t heavy enough, all manner of passengers decide that they would like a free ride

We chill out, and ready lunch. Resting in the shade, pulling, twisting and burning off ticks…yeah, this is the life. We got the stove cooking and we made some rice. “Want some fresh fish?” I asked. Sammy looks at me, “You have a fishing line”? “No”, I tell him, “but don’t worry about that”. “Sure”, he says with a note of curiosity in his voice and then returns to setting up the stove. I sort through my things and locate my mosquito net, putting it in the water I sit and wait. Patiently some minnows gather above the net and I yank upwards, catching a little school. We throw them in some oil, and mix them with the canned sardines and they are delicious.

Sammy thinks that we’ll make it to Waratuk falls today but I have serious doubts. There is a ranger station at Waratuk and this is the typical starting point for tourists who wish to do the overland trip to Kaieteur. The trail is more groomed, I should say rather, they actually have a trail! We walk on and amazingly we hear the falls after no more than another hour of walking. We skirt a swamp and start climbing up a steep hill. Sammy is about to grab a tree trunk when suddenly he flings his hand away and points the machete threateningly at the tree. “What that?”. I labour up the hill and take a look. Perfectly camouflaged with the tree trunk is a bark mimicking treefrog.

The mottled skin of this treefrog helps disrupt its outline so that it can more effectively blend in with the blemished tree trunks on which it makes its home

Sammy was surprised when I told him it was a frog. We headed down to the Potaro and Sammy called across to the ranger station. The ranger is a good 200 meters away from the river front and in retrospect it was really a shot in the dark. But the warden, Anthony, believe it or not was actually there and ferried us across to the station. Here we slept under the the station house, with a nice bed of sand for me and Sammy in his hammock. We cooked, Sammy found more fever grass, God bless him, and I did my usual walkabout.

Digger wasp excavating a hole in the sand by Waratuk warden station

Digger wasps are diurnally active and display an interesting behaviour. They fly around looking for a good spot to build an underground burrow, and then actually begin to dig. They typically choose soft, sandy soils, which are easy to clear. With their feet clawing away, a little sand is tossed behind them into a small pile. They dig these several inches deep and across. And may build multiple chambers depending on the species. They will enter into the burrows and defend them from all incoming wasps attempting to dislodge them. Having constructed their home, they go off in search of food. A typical prey item for these wasps is spiders, though other insects will also do. They sting them to paralyze them and then drag them back to their burrows to feed. During breeding season, they will capture a large insect and lay eggs on it. These eggs nestled in the warm creature’s fur will hatch and begin to feed on the still living body of the prey. They consume the flesh, carefully avoiding and preserving the vital internal organs to keep the victim alive as long as possible. Finally they consume these too. They then pupate and undergo metamorphosis to their adult form to begin the cycle anew. A very interesting factoid about these Sphex wasps is that their behaviour is entirely programmed. In an experiment by Daniel Dennett, when the wasp arrived at its burrow with a prey item it left the prey to inspect the nest. The experimenter then moved the prey away about a foot. The wasp went looking for it, located it and then brought it back to the nest. Only it repeated the pattern, leaving the prey outside and inspecting the nest. This routine could be done any number of times without the wasp modifying its behaviour in the slightest. Such behaviour was then used as an argument by philosophers to explain how a variety of human actions though seemingly born of free will could simply be complex, innate behaviours.

Take me to- how you got those amazing photos?!!!!- https://pbertner.wordpress.com/photography-tips-tricks-and-techniques/


1 Response to When the Conquistadores came to South America, they called the Amazon a “Green hell”, I’m beginning to see why

  1. Pingback: How recognizing the Amazon rainforest as non-human helps counter human-driven ‘sustainable development’ interventions - Bliss

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