Next up on Bolivia’s “scary transportation” list was a 12-seater plane over the mountains from La Paz to the steaming Amazon jungle. Clearance above the rocky mountain tops for the first half hour was minimal, but then the mountains dropped away into fluffy white clouds and eventually green jungled hills with rivers snaking their way through them. We landed on the grass runway at Rurrenabaque (Rurre), with relief after the quite stomach churning flight. From freezing, chaotic breathless La Paz we were suddenly in a tiny sweltering town smack in the middle of the Amazon Basin. Insects hummed and palm trees swayed, this was more like it! More than half of Bolivia’s territory is in the jungle, but it’s a part of the Amazon that is sparsely populated compared to the Brazilian Amazon. Rurre is a simple town where most of the houses are traditional thatched wooden huts and life is a long way from frenetic La Paz and the highlands. The Indian faces here are less weather beaten and more relaxed, as people stroll casually around the town going about their business. Tour agencies abound but there are no street hasslers as in Peru. You can wander around each agency without any pressure. Jason and I “The Flashpackers” (so dubbed by a hostel owner in Peru when we asked for the best room) persuaded Hannah, a true backpacker, to upgrade to a hotel with pool and fans. It has to be said that she didn’t take much persuasion. The power of the Boliviano is just great and we were in heaven lazing in the tropical gardens tormenting the hotel’s pet Ostrich, “Claudio”. La Selva – the Jungle Good things never last when you are travelling and the next day we set off on a 3 day jungle trip into the Madidi National Park. The Park is the size of Wales and apparently has over 1000 bird species as well as tropical jungle, Pampas (Flooded planes) and Andean peaks. 4 hours sitting on a small backless bench in a long wooden boat was a seriously uncomfortable experience. However, from the Beni River the jungle stretched back as far as the eye could see with occasional hills poking up from the greenery. Kids washed at the edge of the river and families from the communities who live inside the jungle sat on the banks watching us glide past. Our camp was situated just inland from the river – a few raised wooden huts in a clearing. We spent the first day and a half wandering around the jungle; with our guide William hacking away at branches in our path with his machete. He showed us trees as wide as a small house, trees that strangle other trees and also how the jungle trees can give man almost everything he needs to survive: medicines, food, shelter, tools, rope and most impressive I thought, water. When the sun shone through the canopy you could see that every surface was alive with out-sized insect life, spiders webs hung between massive leaves, and termites had built mounds half way up tall trees. Being in the jungle is more about hearing things than seeing them and whenever we stood still the insect hums, birdcalls and occasional monkey calls echoed around the forest. Later we decided to go for a dip in the muddy river, a big mistake as we all got eaten alive by various bugs but at least we felt a bit cleaner. Nighttime is my favorite time in the jungle, and as darkness fell we lay in our hammocks playing games and listening to the weird birdcalls. Some have short sharp screeches, others tunefully whistle and one in particular sounded like brakes screeching and then a person tittering. All mixed in they create a cool jungle sound track to fall asleep to. Wet wet wet… The next afternoon, Jason, living up to his Flashpacker name, decided he was pining for the pool and the hotel and caught the next boat back. Hannah and I, hard girls that we are, decided to stay and hike further into the jungle to camp that night. Big mistake… As we set off with William and another couple the sun was shining. Half an hour later the heavens opened. Cursing as the other couple got out their ridiculously large rain ponchos, we realised we had nothing, barely even a plastic bag between us. Annoyingly William chopped down man-sized leaves to use as his umbrella but he didn’t stop to do the same for us. By the time we arrived at the camp a couple of hours later we were soaked to the skin as were the contents of our day sacks. We stood under the piffley scrap of plastic that was to be our shelter for the night. 4 damp mattresses hung over the wooden frame and puddles crept into the sleeping space. An open sided shelter is great when the sun shines, but not so great when it’s bucketing it down and you have no dry clothes to put on. Worse still I discovered my ipod was wet and had packed up, gutted was an understatement (my 30th birthday pressie -engraved from Jason). The rain continued and William hastily tried to dig a mini-trench around the shelter, which clearly would have no chance of stopping the torrential rain seeping in. He didn’t seem to understand why we really didn’t want to stay here and sleep in a puddle in wet clothes without even a dry sheet or blanket. When you imagine the jungle you just imagine heat, but very strangely, the temperature had dropped by about 15 degrees in the space of 2 hours, we were freezing. Eventually, having seen the looks on mine and Hannah’s faces he agreed to take us back to camp number one, which at this point represented a 5 star hotel compared to drenched camp number 2. On the way back, as the rain, thunder and lightening continued we began to wonder how Jason and the others were doing on their boat ride back… Jason`s Story Crocodile Dundee had a bad feeling when he read the midday sky while tracking Pumas .. forecast rain, rain rain. The girls wouldn´t listen so it was everyman for himself. The boat arrived after a quick downpour and I said bye to the hardened jungle seekers. Unfortunately the longboat only had a 15 horse power motor and no shelter and 30 mins in the storms hit. As the river winded through 2 huge cuttings in the mountains the boat had to zigzig through the cutting to beat the head on wind and rain, until it got caught 90 degrees to the current. I grabbed the day pack with the cameras and ipod and prepared to swim with one hand holding it out of the river. The Swiss girl next to me was terrified when lightening missed the guide by about 10 meters … he was standing up next to me trying to push the boat around with a 3 meter pole … not very good thinking in a lightening storm ! As the temperature dropped so much the river water was warm so I jumped in holding the bag …it was going to be safer … if you were a confident swimmer. Luckily, we were pushed of course down a minor tributory, and I was able to stand up on the rocks but the current kept catching my legs in the rocks, so I floated a bit until it was knee high. The boat was at about a 60 degrees tilt and everyone jumped for the luggage before it all fell out. We were still 90 degrees to the current and getting hammered. All the blokes (about 3 foreign and 3 locals) had to manouevre one end of the long boat until it was pointing down current again and jump back in. By now the rain and hail was coming in horozontal and we were heading straight into it, lightening forks were hitting the river banks near and in the distance. The skipper could only see 50m and we were grounded again, and again. The wind and rain had given me numb arms (I only had shorts and a t-shirt on). Then we stopped at a village and picked up another 4 people … so now we had about 13 people on board and the water kept coming over the side, we were too heavy. We had 4 people scooping the water out of the boat. Our saving day was a piece of plastic ground sheet we also picked up at the village which the Swiss girl and I used to shelter from the wind and rain, with about 4 other locals. Otherwise she wouldn´t have made it, she was petrified of swimming. With that over our heads we were blinded and then the boat would get grounded on the rocks again and we would all lurch sideways nearly tipping the boat. By now I thought at least the camera and ipods were insured .. I would have to help the Swi
ss girl who was even more scared. The strong head winds made the return trip 4.5 hours and we got back in dark at 7pm, frozen. I had the camera, ipod and passports etc in 3 plastic bags, 1 around the other and they were wet to the middle one (but no casualties). We simply were not warned that such a major change in weather is possible. It was lovely in a hot shower thinking if the girls made the camp site or not. The warm dry room and bed … as well. Back to the Girls The next day the rain still hadn’t stopped so we sat in the kitchen hut making jewelry from seeds. When it finally did stop William took me for a walk near the camp. Every leaf glistened and I thought the jungle looked even more beautiful. There was an eerie silence as he told me about the 2 times he had been jumped on from behind by Jaguars in this jungle. He was born and brought up in a jungle community where apparently until a few years ago this was a regular occurrence when men hunted solo or in pairs. Incidentally he escaped only as his dog jumped on the back of the Jaguar and it fled up a tree in fright. I felt the hairs on my neck stand on end at the realisation that there were almost definitely Jaguars around us; although we couldn’t see them they could smell us. During the 3-hour freezing boat journey back, Hannah and I cowered beneath a filthy piece of plastic as we had few warm clothes. She only had shorts and she asked William at least 60 times how it could possibly get this cold in the jungle and how had it happened? William just laughed as she repeated her mantra over and over “Hace frio, ****in´ ´ell” (it´s cold ********). It had certainly been an adventure!