Jungley Bits

19 02 2009


          “So why’s it called a rainforest?”  (Tapanahoni River, Suriname)


The jungles of Suriname are about as jungley as jungles get. Nearly 80% of the South American country is still rainforest covered, stretching from the mangroves of the Caribbean all the way to Brazil. This is serious Amazonian jungle interrupted by only the odd winding river and the occasional village. From above, it is a rolling carpet of green as far as the eye can see, but from ground level it is a dark and verdant world that prevents the eye from seeing very far at all.


To the uninitiated, it’s a hostile place of deadly snakes, poisonous insects and piranha-filled rivers where jaguars lurk behind every bush. Step in and you are completely disoriented and lost forever…unless you have a local guide and a little timeless knowledge.


We were staying in thatched huts along the Tapanahoni River deep in the interior. From the clearing around the huts, the jungle looked magical but intimidating. Certainly not the sort of place you would venture alone. For the local villagers, the jungle was everything from garden to hunting ground. One morning the men headed off armed with bows, arrows, spears and hunting dogs no larger than Jack Russells. They returned with a string of monkeys, wild pigs and satisfied smiles.


Leading us through the green curtain and into the rainforest beyond, one of the Arowak men led us down almost indistinguishable paths. Barefooted, he walked effortlessly while the rest of us struggled with fallen branches and clinging vines. Monkeys screamed overhead while our guide eyed them eagerly, clearly disappointed that he’d left his arrows at home.


We stopped at a small plant and were each handed a green leaf to chew. The extreme bitterness turned our mouths inside out and puckered our faces as though we’d swallowed working vacuum cleaners.


“For diarrhoea.” the guide explained while the rest of us wondered if the cure was worse than the ailment. Further along we tried cures for sore throats and fever, an antiseptic the colour of iodine and a clear fruit that became a dark ink when applied to our skin. It seemed that everything could be eaten or used and that the jungle was not only a grocery store but also a drug store…only without the loyalty points and express checkouts.


In a sun-dappled clearing created by a fallen tree, we sat on tree stumps and ate manioc and cold catfish using large green leaves as plates. Our guide grabbed a large vine perhaps two inches thick and withdrew his machete. Holding the bottom of the green cylinder, he gave it a mighty whack and removed a section with a diagonal cut. He held it up, tilted back his head and opened his mouth. Water began to trickle from the vine and into his mouth. He passed it around. The water was cool, fresh and sweet and certainly enough to relieve a thirst. With lunch over, our trek continued.


Our guide picked up a thick stick and banged the gigantic buttresses of an enormous tree, explaining that if ever we were lost in the rainforest, this was the best way to attract attention. The sound reverberated through the jungle.


Finally, we emerged back into the clearing by our huts. We stopped and squinted in the harsh light before gazing at the clear blue sky that we’d barely seen all day. We turned and looked back at the jungle. It was no longer intimidating or frightening: it was a wonderland of greens laced with shafts of light and colourful birds and stocked better than any corner store. Our guide waved farewell as he headed back to his village to collect his bow and arrow and return to try and find the monkeys.



Photograph and post by: Simon Vaughan


Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 95

11 07 2008


Always check local pronunciations before going swimming.

We were flying over the endless Amazonian jungles of
Suriname in a small turbo-prop aircraft. Despite the air flooding in through a small hole at the bottom of the door, the heat was so intense that the pilot’s shirt was transparent with moisture and perspiration cascaded from his brow.  Amid boxes of food and drums of fuel I turned to our guide who was sitting in front of me:


“Are there many piranha here?” I shouted over the din of the engines, nodding towards the window.


He surveyed me quizzically.


“No,” he paused, “…not here.”


The next day we were relaxing in a crystal clear river after a long jungle hike. Huge trees hung languidly from the banks providing shade from the relentless sun while glorious birds flitted from one side to the other. We lounged on pristine sand flecked with fool’s gold, the shallow cool water reaching to our shoulders and lapping at our necks. Colourful fish swam around our legs and midrifts: magnificent blues, reds and silvers. We watched them idly while revelling in our beautiful surroundings.


“What fish are those?” someone casually asked our guide.


“Peee-ran-ya.” he replied.


“Pirr-arna?” we all exclaimed in unison, sitting bolt upright and staring at our piscine friends.


“Yes, peee-ran-ya. But don’t worry, they only bite if you’re bleeding.” he explained.


“None of you have any cuts, do you?” he suddenly asked quite concerned.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Fear Is The Key

15 05 2008

Suriname 2

The Island of Unmentionable Horrors – Suriname

Many years ago I read a fascinating book on cryptozoology, the study of species that may or may not exist. Things like Bigfoot, Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster and helpful tax collectors. I tend to keep an open mind on such matters, whether through wishful thinking or because I used too many toxic felt-tip pens as a child, I’m not sure. However, for all my optimism, there is one thing that I don’t think will ever be found – a man-eating frog.


Everyone has their own fears. I’ve known people who will happily pay top dollar to devour gelatinous raw fish in fancy restaurants, yet run a mile from a bowl of jiggling Jello. Others who faint at the thought of a paper cut yet spend their Saturday evenings glued to the most graphic slasher movie ever.


Different things evidently bother different people.


I once met a woman who seemed to be utterly fearless. We had spent several days together in the jungle and nothing perturbed her in the slightest. We’d seen scorpions and giant cockroaches and she never batted an eyelid. On our first evening we were advised to ensure that our mosquito nets weren’t pressed against our skin at night, lest vampire bats snuggle up and suck our blood. Still not so much as an eye twitch. When one morning we found the dog fast asleep surrounded by two bloated vampire bats so gorged on its blood that they were struggling to crawl away never mind fly, she gazed on with rapt fascination.


So imagine our panic when her blood-curdling screams filled the camp just after dawn. We volted from our sleep and ran towards the deafening sound. Had she been bitten by a snake? Cornered by a jaguar?  Was there a piranha in her water bottle? We found her standing in a clearing in front of the showers. She was holding her face in her hands, crying and shaking. She stammered unintelligibly and gestured frantically.


We grabbed long sticks and like the unruly mob of village-goers in Frankenstein, advanced towards the shower. We swung open the door and jumped back…and there was the cause of the commotion: on the floor of the shower, sitting by the drain in all its evilness, riled-up and ready to pounce.


It glared at us with cold, malefic eyes.


A frog.


Granted it was the biggest frog I’d ever seen, but it was still only a frog. Actually, a nice pretty green one.


“I really hate frogs”, sobbed our fellow traveller, unnecessarily.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008 

The One That Got Away – Thank Goodness!

30 03 2008





Suriname jungle

Taxi, please!


I will be the first to admit that I’m not the world’s best swimmer. I can quite nicely lie on my back, I just find it difficult to move. I can even lie on my stomach and make reasonably credible swimming motions by flailing my arms and legs, but I do have trouble with coordination and can’t seem to master the art of breathing, which can be a problem.

Being fairly considerate, I do hate to inconvenience others when I am drowning, especially when on holiday. Instead, I stifle my gurgling screams, struggle to remain calm and try to get myself into the more secure position of floating like a log. It has worked well so far and I’ve only had to be resuscitated once or twice. 

This aquatic inability really hasn’t hampered my travels much, however. In South America, when faced with the decision between a 5-hour hike through the dense Amazonian jungle from which I’d just emerged, or a quick swim across a rather wide yet inviting river overhung with trees and glistening in the tropical sun, there really was no choice. Until our guide mentioned that the river was home to “little” piranhas, “small” caimans - and candirú.

For those who haven’t read that 19th century classic “Scary Wee Beasts of Jungley Rivers”, the legendary candirú strikes more terror in a man’s heart than any other creature on earth. Forget great white sharks, Bengal tigers and anacondas, the candirú is a tiny fish that swims ‘upstream’ into the male urethra. Once settled, it buries its spines into its surroundings and sits there. Forever. This results in extreme pain, rather a lot of inconvenience and eventual death.

But I digress.

Really not fancying the juggle trek, and against my better judgment, I struggled my way across the river using a combination of lumber-impersonation, and kicking and flailing on my stomach while holding my breath. After a few minutes of exertion, the river seemed as wide as the Pacific, the current as strong as a tsunami, and the chances of ever reaching the far bank seemed distinctly remote. Quick death by piranha was suddenly quite appealing and I contemplated wiggling my toes like bait - although I still resolutely declined to even consider the candirú option.

I did eventually reach the sandy bank and stumbled ashore, utterly exhausted but somewhat triumphant.  I had not only swum the greatest distance of my life, but I’d also dodged a variety of very nasty creatures that likely found me quite appetizing.

Seeing how much I had struggled, our local guide came over to me as I slowly recovered on the warm sand.  He knelt down and pointed to an object tied to a tree on the far bank. 

“Did I forget to mention the dug-out canoe?” he asked, innocently.

Post and photo by: Simon Vaughan © 2008