The Colombian Sojurn – Chapter 18

The jungle east of the Andes, following a tributary of the Rio Caqueta.
Day One.

The first part of the journey was relatively easy, almost enjoyable. It was good going on the banks of the small river, a gentle flow of green, sometimes slicked with oil and fuel from the crashed helicopter. Flocks of wading birds inhabited the calm pools on the river corners, where nutritious mud was deposited from upstream. Fortunately, there were no jabirus. In some areas, the path was blocked by reeds, which he cut with the parang. After several hours of chopping through the vegetation, he had two large blisters on his left hand.

“Fucking tender horn,” Edge observed and bound his hand with a sweat rag.

The sun was well up when Edge stopped for a bite to eat and to rehydrate himself. He munched the chocolate in a thoughtful way, scanning the jungle to his left and the river to his right. The jungle was a lonely place and it was making him feel gloomy. He had less than half a camelback of water and would need to look for a fresh supply, when he stopped for the night. It would be stupid to continue blundering on in the darkness, so he was determined to find somewhere dry, out of the persistent drizzle. Suddenly he felt a sense of dread and when he looked at his hands, they were shaking violently. He felt cold, clammy and sick and realised that the shakes were caused by delayed shock from the helicopter crash. It took him an hour to get a grip on himself.

For the rest of the afternoon Edge tramped along beside the river and at about 18:00 it started to get dark. He found a dry spot underneath a large, dead tree and unrolled his Gore-Tex bivvy bag, putting it under the tree. He would use the daysack as a pillow and lost in thought, he cleaned his weapons and re-sharpened the parang. He looked across at the sluggishly moving river in the darkness and felt both sad and frightened. How long will I have to walk? What if any habitation I come across is occupied by the FARC? What if, Why and When? He stopped these thoughts because therein lay madness. He fell into a troubled sleep… Must get water tomorrow. The gentle rain pattered down on the fronds of vegetation, lulling him into sleep.

Edge woke up in the small hours and stared up at the full moon, that turned the turgid water of the river silver. Nocturnal animals were whooping and calling, unseen in the darkness. The rain had stopped and the air smelled earthy and primeval. He felt an itch in his armpit and more on his side and sleepily he put his hand inside his undershirt to scratch and bellowed with agony. He rolled over because it felt like he had been shot, then there were more stabbing pains and he gritted his teeth in an attempt to control the agony.

The bullet ant, also known as Paraponera clavata, is named after its painful sting. The Paraponera clavata’s sting tops the Schmidt’s sting-pain index, and many people have compared its bite to being shot. The Bullet ant’s sting causes a wave of throbbing and burning pain that lasts unabated for 24 hours. Some of the symptoms associated with a Bullet ant’s sting include tachycardia, edema, lymphadenopathy and presence of fresh blood in the victim’s faeces. Bullet ants are about 1.2 inches long, wingless and reddish-black. They aren’t aggressive ants, but they can be vicious when defending their nest. Bullet ants are distributed throughout South and Central America, particularly in the wet neotropical realm. Edge had been stung by four of them.

The dry ground underneath the dead tree was the bullet ants’ front door, and they hadn’t taken too kindly that Edge had decided to bivvy there. He kicked out of the bivvy bag and headed for the river. He tore off the undershirt and went into the water, with the ants continuing to sting him, just four little ants and so much pain. Edge felt one of them clinging to the hair in his armpit.

“Die you fucking little bastard, die!” and he crushed the life out of the ant.

He sat on a rock out of the river and felt the throbbing pain of the stings, alone in the darkness. He was tempted to use his morphine, but he would sleep and perhaps never wake up again. When it was light, he carefully checked his clothing and bivvy bag, stamping on the stragglers with a manic revenge. Sure enough, his heart was beating like a trip hammer and the glands in his armpit were swollen and tender.

“Thank you, God. Thank you so fucking much!”

Edge slung on the day sack and his rifle and headed south-east towards the rising sun. Another day of misery for a handful of miles.

Day Two – The Cataracts

A poem was going round and round in Edge’s head:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke

The river seemed to be moving more swiftly and around the next bend it disappeared from his sight. Edge stopped and listened and swore he heard a tumult of water up ahead. He reached a head pool and the river went down in stages of waterfalls and white water. He reasoned the southern side of the falls was the better going and went a couple of hundred yards upstream to ford the river. It was deep in the middle and he swam kicking with his legs, holding the rifle out of the water.

Piranhas? A risk I’ll have to take.

Edge didn’t receive any piranha bites but unknown to him, he picked up his first leech. He didn’t feel it swim in the neck of his combat jacket, nor bite onto him, given the nature of the leeches’ ability to anaesthetise the flesh. Happy attached to his side, the parasite started to drink its fill of Edge’s blood.

On the other side of the river, he had a small piece of chorizo, followed by a drink of water. He found some thick-leafed shrubs and poured the collected water into his camelback, followed by a puritab. After the head pool, the river fell away like a rough staircase. The rocks near the water were slippery and dangerous, constantly wetted by the spray coming off the waterfalls. At first the going wasn’t too bad as he snaked down along the dry rocks, but the river soon fell away and he was looking at a drop of some seventy-five feet to the next set of pools, with more waterfalls beyond. Edge decided to cut a walking pole from a tree, which he shaped with the parang, dropped it down to the next level and looked around him.

There were ferns, rich and luxuriant in the damp air and he tried to hang onto one. It was not strong enough and the vegetation pulled out of the ground. He despaired of having to clamber down rough, wet rocks, but then he spotted vines snaking down the slope. The first one he tested pulled off the tree, but the second one was sturdy and thicker than the climbing ropes they had used. Three weeks ago? It feels much longer.

Edge made sure his rifle and daysack were secure and then grasped the vine. He leaned out from the slope and arm under arm, let himself down. It took a long time and was exhausting. To make matters worse, the vine finished about ten feet short of the ground. He slid down the vine with his hands and dropped the last few feet. A broken leg now would condemn them all to death. Edge rolled on his back, hurt his knee and cut his shin, but his bones were in one piece.

Now the river went down gradient in a multitude of smaller waterfalls, but it caused him to have to wade through the stones, skinning his lower legs. On one he lost his footing and fell in, completely soaking himself with freezing water. Edge pulled himself out and continued down the falls. He reached the bottom and looked around. It was late afternoon and the sun was behind him, and then he felt his smock pocket.

“Oh fuckit!” he groaned out loud. His pocket was unbuttoned and the chorizo and the bars of chocolate were gone, somewhere up river when he had his fall in the water. A wave of despair buried him and he sat down on a rock with his head in his hands, weeping pathetically. The ant bites were still burning like an inquisitor’s poker in his side and his knee was throbbing.

An out of body Edge told him to: Pull your fucking self together, you self-pitying sack of shit! He couldn’t argue with that, so he did.

He needed food and tried desperately to think. His instructors so many years ago had told him that the jungle was teeming with life, much of it edible. I need you here, now! But he was completely alone. What could he eat? Bamboo had a rich, starchy root system, but there were no bamboo thickets here, just the jungle. Vines are OK for water, but you couldn’t eat them. The river. Come on, think!

Edge found a supple sapling and split one of the ends into four barbs and went to a shallow pool. The water ran clear and there were myriads of tiny fish swimming against the current. Where there are little fish, there are big fish as well. He missed the first one, forgetting to allow for refraction and the rest were scared off. He persevered and a large fish swam into the pool. Edge lunged, and managed to spear the fish with one of the barbs. It struggled and splashed in the water, but he hauled it out and flipped it onto the grass away from the river. A large rock put paid to its thrashing and the fish lay still.

“My, you’re an ugly fucker,” he told the fish. Edge had no idea whether he could eat it or not, particularly raw. He would have to do the age-old tests. Firstly, he gutted the fish and removed its head on a rock. The first acid test was smell. He got close to the fish and smelled it for thirty seconds. No smell. Then he cut a small piece of flesh off and rubbed it on the delicate skin of his inner arm. He waited for fifteen minutes, watching the skin carefully for reddening or any other change. There was no change so he put the piece of fish in his mouth against his cheek. It was pretty tasteless apart for the general fishiness of uncooked fish. No tingling of the mouth, so he swallowed a small piece and waited for at least half an hour. While he waited, Edge prepared his bivvy bag in the shelter of a rock, making sure there were no ants about.

After about forty-five minutes the safety tests were done, so he started to eat the fish. It was horrible and tasted of river water, but he hoped it was nutritional enough to keep him going the next day. Edge settled down for the night. Physically, he was past the point of no return.

Night Poisoning and the Jaguar.

Edge woke suddenly. The moon was bright again and the jungle around him was full of scurrying animals, unseen in the darkness. What had woken him? He closed his eyes to go back to sleep, when the unbearable pain in his stomach hit him like a giant’s punch. He felt like he was being disembowelled, his stomach and colon cramping violently. He crawled out of the bivvy and vomited brutally and for several minutes, until he was dry retching.

Oh Christ! There was something wrong with the fish! And I’ve fucking eaten the lot!

Another violent cramp wracked his entrails and he crawled to the river to wash his face. He lay there for what seemed like hours, heaving bile and worse, he soiled himself.

This can’t get any worse, could it?

Well, you might die.

And he turned round and realised that things could, and had got a lot worse. The mature jaguar was lying on a rock watching him in the moonlight. His rifle was over by the bivvy, a distance he could never make in time. He had the Glock, but suspected that it wouldn’t even slow a pissed off jaguar.

“Would you do me a favour,” Edge said to it gently, “If you’re going to kill me, make it quick. And top tip. Don’t eat me, unless you want to get sick.”

The jaguar never took his eyes off him and blinked slowly. Edge closed his eyes and dropped into unconsciousness. He was beyond caring and being killed by a large, adult cat was quite frankly the least of his worries. Edge lay in his own filth, completely oblivious to the sun rising. By late morning he opened his eyes and sat up slowly. His head was pounding and his entire alimentary tract felt like it had been pulled out of his body and stuffed back in in the wrong order. He crawled across to his bivvy and felt in the daysack. He pulled out two, sealable sachets and took a large handful of sugar and then some salt and licked the mixture into his mouth, washing it down with a guzzle from the camelback. As far as rehydration and stabilising electrolytes went, it was just enough to keep him alive.
He looked round at the river, too dehydrated to cry. There was nothing but to go into the sluggishly moving water and let the river take him where it wished.

Is that a viable plan?

Got any other ideas? I thought not, so shut the fuck up!

The water was cold, and he felt a current in the middle. He had put his rifle across his buoyant daysack, hung on to it and the current took them downstream.

Next stop, the Amazon, he thought bitterly. I could be back with the helicopter and human company.

And you will all have died together, one at a time. What’s the point?

As he bobbed along with the river flow, more leeches made a beeline for him, slithering up his sleeves. He never felt their bites as the mouthparts burrowed into his emaciated flesh. After about three miles, the river narrowed and the flow increased its speed.

For the first time in two days, Edge realised that he needed a piss and, in the water, he let go. He couldn’t see how dark brown it was and flecked with blood and he closed his eyes and felt the pressure on his bladder decrease. Suddenly he stopped mid-flow, “Oh fuck!” he exclaimed.

He remembered a long time ago, about reading in a National Geographic magazine, about the candiru. The fish is found in the Amazon region of South America and is a type of catfish. It’s about an inch long and has a thin, eel-like appearance. The fish is actually parasitic. It uses spines located on the covers of its gills to attach itself to the gills of other, larger fish. Once positioned, it’s able to feed on the other fish’s blood.

The worst part of the article was that the fish is attracted by human urine in the water. When someone urinates in the water, according to the article, the fish swims into and lodges itself in the urethra of the unsuspecting individual. Once inside, the fish uses the spines on its gill covers to hold itself in place, which is painful and makes removal difficult.

Edge shuddered and felt inside his trousers, gently squeezing his penis. There was apparently nothing lodged up there. It was probably an urban myth, but he would make damned sure by getting out of the river and pissing on the bank.

Never Smile at a Crocodile

He didn’t know how much longer he could take the monotony of the passing jungle and the river cold that numbed him through to his bones. He felt his vision narrow and he closed his eyes. He awoke with a jolt and was relieved to see his rifle was still laid across his daysack, that appeared to be losing some of its buoyancy.

“Please God, make this stop,” he begged. He would quite happily let go and slip beneath the muddy, turgid waters, and then he thought about Morris and the Colombians waiting back at the crash site, waiting for help.

“It’s not bloody fair,” Edge cried in self-pity, “Don’t pin your hopes on me. I’m burned out, finished, a busted flush…”

He jerked himself out of defeatism and watched a large log slide down the distant bank and into the river. Odd. Logging? Where there’s logs there are peop…

“Oh fuck!”

The Orinoco Crocodile was about fifteen feet long and was heading towards him at around ten miles-per-hour. Two more on the bank lazily slithered into the water. Edge cocked the Heckler&Koch and drew a bead on the nearest crocodile. Perhaps I can outrun them with the current. Not a chance!

The crocodile slid under the water like a midget submarine, on its final attack run. It would strike him from below, dragging him down, drowning him, while those incredibly powerful jaws smashed his ribcage and spine. God couldn’t help him, just a rifle and 7.62mm rounds. Edge put the rifle barrel in the water, making sure the working parts were clear, so that the rifle’s gas escape would re-cock it.

His exhaustion was gone. He didn’t have the option of flight; he would have to fight. The surface of the water was disturbed like a wake. He saw a gaping maw, dirty teeth like daggers below him. It was moving so incredibly fast and Edge pulled the trigger in a long burst. The recoil in the water was odd, like he was firing in jelly. It was doubtful if any of the 7.62mm rounds would have the momentum in water to penetrate the croc’s armoured skin, but the rounds made a screen of expelled gasses, which may have disorientated the creature. The crocodile burst upwards, almost vertical like a Trident missile. He fired again and the crocodile’s head burst apart like a grenade in a melon. The crocodile bent double like a hairpin, twisting and writhing in its death throes. The tail smashed down, narrowly missing him and then it was gone.

Edge fired short busts at the other approaching amphibians, and they decided to wait for easier prey, such as their fellow croc, who would float to the surface putrefying, just how they liked their meals. Edge began to retch, straining his already wrenched diaphragm, and the exhaustion was back, but the river had increased its flow. The Orinoco Crocodile had just become slightly more of an endangered species.

The Bridge and Landfall

He was in a part of the river that had steep banks, almost like a gorge. The current was moving very fast now and it spun him around on a tight bend. Up ahead he saw that a large, modern bridge that was under construction. He shouted feebly for help, but the construction workers just stared at him as the speeding current swept him past them. Edge desperately tried to kick in towards the bank, but the grip of the current was too strong. He sobbed in despair as he was swept down the river and the bridge was soon out of sight.

That was probably the most depressing part of his journey from the helicopter crash. To be so near to rescue and the river sweeping him away was too much to bear. Edge knew that he was going to die in this wretched river and he contemplated blowing his brains out with the Glock. Then he thought of Moira and his children and the men back at the helicopter who were pinning their hopes on him.

Why me? I’m sick and useless.

The river was winding through the jungle now, less torrential in its flow. He was so tired he closed his eyes and let the river take him where it would. When he opened them again, it was nearly nightfall. In the gloom he could make out lights on the southern bank and were those boats on the river bank?

He waded ashore with shaking legs and saw a group of children watching him intently, fearful yet intrigued. He picked up the rifle and daysack and stepped onto dry land.

“Soy un soldado británico y estoy perdido …” he said to the oldest looking of the children, then he collapsed. The children stared at him and ran off to find an adult.

The Soldier – Rupert Brooke Public Domain

© Blown Periphery 2022