Bone tingling fear is a thankfully infrequent visitor to my cushy London life. But as our mud soaked land cruiser ploughed through the rainforest of Guyana, South America to Iwokrama International Conservation Centre, fear was chasing us. We hopped over age-old tree trunks as if they were inconvenient speed bumps and skidded through craters that could have swallowed the one tonne jeep whole. It was the start of a trip into the unknown, the initial planning stages of which had taken place in a GCSE revision session in the stuffy library, over cartons of warm apple juice.
When we were eleven, Rachel and I bonded immediately over our shared desire to become intrepid explorers. Young, naïve and a little bit dumb, we waited just four years before concocting our ‘plans’. I have to confess, aside from booking flights, there wasn’t any thought beyond stocking up on supplies from the Oxford branch of Millets. Amongst the fishing tackle and the highland fleeces, we picked up dry shampoo, blister plasters, Kendal Mint Cake, spare tent pegs and not much else.
None of this would prove of any use to us. Iwokrama’s field station is an eleven-hour drive from civilization. Beyond just its geography, it is so far removed from the rest of the world it doesn’t seem to adhere to the universal laws of physics. Mammals fly through the treetops on leathery black wings, bugs as big as human hands glow neon yellow and water hangs in the air so heavily it makes dry shampoo seem like an absurd concept.
There were things Rachel and I found easier to adjust to than others. Washing your clothes was futile, they never dried out completely and the high iron content of the water meant they were stained a perpetual shade of red. The iron also made going for a swim in the mighty Amazon River like plunging into an Enoch Powell nightmare with added piranhas. Food was probably the hardest thing to come to terms with. Though palatial banquets of plump mangos, buttery cassava bread and crispy fried shrimps were laid on for visiting tourists, we came to Iwokrama to work and so ate with the staff. Chicken was a once a fortnight luxury, brought over from the nearest Amerindian village and slaughtered outside our cabins. Chicken’s feet, which were far more transportable, were the protein mainstay of most meals, usually served floating on the top of a lentil-based broth. I’m deeply ashamed to admit that as someone with a mild phobia of birds, especially their scrabbling little claws, there were tears.
But we were made incredibly welcome. I remember trying to explain to the Ameridian head chef, Paulette, who had never left the rainforest – just why pizza was so fabulous and necessary. Hours later she presented me with warm cassava bread topped with the freshest vegetables, delicious spices and freshwater fish – and it remains to this day the best ‘pizza’ I have ever tasted. I recall fondly the way the ancient jungle sounded at night; you could almost imagine you were one of the first humans to have walked on earth. Fear was ever present, whether we were logging forest fauna on the vertiginous summit of Turtle Mountain, or counting anti-malarial tablets to discover we had overdosed (side effect: some pretty out there hallucinations involving man-eating howler monkeys). But, despite our youth and folly, it was incredible to uncover the atavistic resources at the heart of all of us.
Visit: http://www.iwokrama.org/eco-tourism/ to find out more