24 Hours in the rainforest

 

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Category: Reflections Date: 30 Jun 02


Even now, a week later when I close my eyes, the images appear before me, like rapid frames in an unedited film. Twenty-four hours in the rainforest, 25 miles of slopes, bush and mud, 17 hours of walking, and a night trying to find our way out of it.

 

I have never hiked. I was crazy to promise my husband (hereafter known as the Marlboro Man or MM, since to combine outdoors and smoking is entirely natural to him) to join his group of cycling buddies on a hike in the Paria/Matelot forest in which 13 people were wandering about lost. Even while packing, we were watching the news of distraught relatives of the lost hikers, fielding frantic calls from my family about the madness of our venture.

 

Saturday June 22 began with the tyrannical rise (3 am) for our drive to Blanchisseuse, from where the plan was to complete the two-day hike to Matelot in one day. MM scoffed away rising trepidation, saying our group, with a few exceptions (me), were experienced hikers, that we had a guide, and everything we need.

 

He replaced my little T-shirt and shorts with hideous bottom-enlarging waterproof pants and a Big Bird-yellow raincoat at which I looked with loathing, but didn’t argue. In the jungle, man knows best.

 

The maxi taxi arrived promptly at 4 and having resisted a powerful urge to tie myself onto my bedpost, I clamber in to meet my fellow hikers - three women and seven men, in varying degrees of fitness, in their mid-thirties, and a father (Roger) and 12-year-old son, Zak.

 

My spouse is saying with convoluted logic I should feel safer because the forest will be swarming with rescue teams looking for the lost hikers.

7 am: It is damp and cool when we start on the undulating trail from Blanchisseuse. We find the forest endlessly fascinating - splitting cocoa pods for the tangy, pulpy fruit, tasting wild chestnuts, biting into ripe mangoes, scraping our teeth on almonds.

8 am: The guide takes us along a secret path to a spectacular sight - a rocky peninsula, stark and weatherworn, jutting into the sea’s crashing waves.

9 am-1 pm: We descend from the forest to another breathtaking sight, more imposing than London’s Marble Arch: a huge primal stony arch, nature’s majestic gateway to nowhere.

 

In white glare, we walk on, along the long stretch of Paria Beach. A low-flying helicopter reminds us of the search for the missing hikers.

We zigzag up along the ridges of dense rainforest and down to the beaches of Petite Tacarib and Grand Tacarib, crossing several streams. Our dripping sweaty faces and bodies remain cool under branches arching in the sky - sandbox, silk cotton, cannonball trees. We push past strangler vines. Our trail is strewn with blossoms, flanked by ferns, crimson flowers.

 

We stay hydrated with water pouches filled with Gatorade. We have walked 12 miles. We have stepped on several ants nests while listening to the guide talk of poisonous snakes and thorns that immediately penetrate your heart and kill you.

 

By now we notice our guide does not have map, phone, or compass or liability forms. We pore over MM’s map, dated 1970.

2.30-5.30 pm: We begin our descent to Madamas Beach, stopping at the mouth of the Madamas River, where we picnic.

Barefooted, we cross the wide mouth of the river and across rocks along the beach. We stop at the foot of a cliff where a barbecued leatherback turtle has ended its days. There is no path up - only cliff. My heart in my mouth, I manage to crawl up, with help.

Back on the trail, Peter, a pleasant, quiet guy, lands badly, fractures his ankle. Tim, our fit first-aid expert, builds him a soft cast with duct tape and equips him with two hiking poles from the group.

Peter is our group’s hero, stoic, uncomplaining, gamely keeping up, despite his searing pain.

 

Our time of arrival has been revised to 6.30 pm, then 7 pm. Zak sings/talks nonsense and keeps us laughing.

5.30: It is raining hard, turning mud to slush. The path gets narrower, steeper. The stones slippery. We edge ahead.

The guide admits he hasn’t done this in a year, and needs to check new cross-trails. I feel a ligament in my knee knot up in pain.

6.30: The guide says we are an hour from Matelot. We press ahead, sliding down stony, dark paths in places, crossing slushy streams.

The guide takes a wrong turn, veering us along steep valleys, along the sea. A full moon among the clouds makes the darkness eerie.

7.30: The guide says we’ll be there in half an hour. Six flashlights help 12 of us to find our footing.

8.30: We slide down a stony, muddy stream in pitch black. As we climb out of the valley the trail narrows. One false move could hurtle us down into the dark, steep drop below.

9 pm: The guide hurries us across a rapidly swelling river, waist-high in places (Petite Riviere). My knee hits rock, one leg sinks deeper than the other. The strapping Brian wades in, carrying Peter.

“How long now?” we call in turns.

“Half an hour.”

 

We climb up the slope with the help of roving flashlights. Gradually, our torches are dying. A hiker gets through to her mother on her cell. She repeats after the guide: “We are 40 minutes away.”

The phone goes dead.

 

We are definitely lost. We can’t find the trail out of the valley.

11 pm: We backtrack again, and cross the river at a broken bridge. Here I find myself unable to stop my legs shaking - not good on a slippery, dark path on a steep slope.

Zak sits down and rails against the guide’s “half an hour” mantra.

Just ahead, the hardy hiker Azeem, trying for a signal on his cell, swivels around and steps off the trail.

He is hanging vertically. He grabs a root, and Tim, our fittest hiker, pulls him up.

We stop, exhausted, wet, muddy, scared and cold, and decide to spend the night in a small clearing, where the men gather balisier leaves as our bedding. 

 

Back home, some of our families are frantic. Zak’s mother, my family, contact the Coastguard, Matelot police, army. Everyone, even telephone operators, promises to help the next day.

 

Two men try to light a fire, but get only smoke. Three people concentrate on Peter’s ankle. Shivering, we change out of our wet clothes, and huddle together, thinking of hypothermia. The MM produces a hiking blanket that looks like a large piece of foil for Zak and dad, Roger. Rope, water purifiers, energy bars tumble from knapsacks.

We may survive.

 

Midnight: We curl up (I in now-beloved Big Bird raincoat) in the damp green moonlight listening to the forest. A mango falls on MM’s head and rolls on my knee. Big raindrops sting our faces.

 

I must have dreamt of snakes and cliffs. At 5 am I wake to the whiff of the Marlboro Man coolly smoking his last cigarette.

5.30 am Saturday: The guide and Azeem have cleared the trail ahead. In five minutes Matelot is in sight.

“How far away do you think we are?” asks the guide, who could have led us to our death because he couldn’t say “I’m sorry, I’m lost.”

“Half an hour away” I say, and “right.”

 

Eleven of us, our brave 12-year-old Zak, our injured hero Peter, hobble down a field, past a mooing cow towards our maxi taxi, which waited all night for us, and a parent who couldn’t stop smiling at having us back after 24 hours in the rainforest, 25 miles of slopes, bush and mud, 17 hours of walking.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur