- PUBLISHED ONLINE:
- 23 MARCH 2015
- ZAC ASSEMAKIS
- SAM BARKER
In Part 1, we begin our attempt to forge a path through the Darien Gap, one of the world's last true wildernesses, in a Discovery 4.
We swap our Discovery 4 for a 20ft boat as we head downriver to Condoto in Part 2. Find out how our journey progressed.
Before you travel, it’s generally a good idea to Google your destination first.
Just a few seconds’ research can unearth the best bars to drink in, what not to wear, and that age-old stumbling block: whether it’s bad manners to reveal the soles of your feet to a stranger. It serves as an exciting glimpse of the journey ahead. Unless, like me, your chosen destination happens to be the Darien Gap. In fact, I’m now rather regretting the moment I hit the return key...
The top search results revealed some key facts. The Darien Gap is a 100-mile swathe of thick, swampy jungle separating Panama and Colombia. It’s dense, filled with an extraordinary array of wildlife and endemic plant species. It’s untouched by modern roads – the Pan-American Highway that stretches the length of the Americas simply stops at one edge of the Darien jungle and picks up again on the other side. And fewer people have crossed its length than have reached the summit of Everest. So far, so good.
But now, as I read further, I spot something a little more concerning. Words like "treacherous", "dangerous" and even "deadly" begin to appear.
"If you ever wondered," Google search result number three reads, "what it’s like to be kidnapped in the Darien Gap by a Colombian death squad, here is an account." The website goes on to recount the tale of journalist Robert Young Pelton, who was kidnapped there in 2003 and held for ten days. After his ordeal, he wrote: "The Darien Gap is one of the last places people really hesitate to venture to. It’s an absolutely pristine jungle, but it’s also got thorns, wasps, snakes, thieves, criminals – you name it. Everything that’s bad for you is in there."
So to summarise: near-impassable terrain, extremely inhospitable locals, and an array of animals and insects to die for – quite literally.
So why on earth would I even be contemplating a journey into the heart of this dreaded place? Because some 39 years ago, a British army team led by adventurer Major John Blashford-snell and Captain Gavin Thompson attempted to make its way through the Darien Gap – in a Range Rover. Well, two, to be precise.
It was the winter of 1971, and two Range Rovers arrived in anchorage, Alaska, to embark on the British Trans-Americas Expedition. At this time, the Range Rover was a completely new vehicle, and wasn’t the obvious choice for such an extreme undertaking, but the two vehicles were donated to show that this all-new concept was just as capable as a Land Rover in extreme conditions.
The goal was to drive the entire length of the Americas, from anchorage in Alaska to Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of Argentina. The 16,000-mile trip would go on to take a total of 190 days, and although they didn’t know it then, 100 of those days would be spent just trying to get across the Gap.
At the start of their Darien crossing, Blashford-Snell noted that at a reception held in their honour, his officers were treated like people "who had once had a nervous breakdown and would surely end up in the asylum. Clearly, to the local people who know much about the Darien Gap, our scheme is complete madness, but they are too polite to say."
The intention of my rather more modest journey into the Gap is not to conquer it as the 1972 team did, but to drive to its edge and then, by dugout canoe, head to its heart to find out how life has changed since the expedition passed this way. I’ll also find out what is now being done to conserve one of the planet’s last great wildernesses. As I make my plans, however, I still wonder if there is an element of madness to my scheme, too.
We begin our journey in Panama City, which, thanks to the wealth created by the Canal, has the feel of a long-established American metropolis, with skyscrapers, flashy cars and fashionably dressed people – even the official currency is US dollars. The money that built the skyscrapers extends its tentacles into the countryside, too. The road that eventually turns into the Pan-American Highway is arrow-straight and perfectly formed.
Unlike the 1972 expedition, I’m not at the wheel of a Range Rover but a Discovery 4. That’s not to say that the Range Rover is not perfectly well equipped to deal with this more rugged kind of adventure, but the Discovery 4 seems the more appropriate set of wheels. It’s the difference between heading into the jungle with James Bond (he’ll cope brilliantly, but he’d rather be sipping a martini while dressed in a dinner suit) and Lara Croft (she’d look great in an evening dress, but she’d rather be seeking out artefacts in the jungle).
When the 1972 team came down this route to the edge of the Gap, the team had supplies brought in by boat, helicopter, parachute, pack pony and porter. Altogether, they delivered over ten tons of rations,15,000 gallons of petrol, 2,400 cans of beer, and 80,000 cigarettes. Today, our operation is rather more modest. We do have a couple of live chickens and what seems like an inordinate amount of processed cheese and water packed into the back of our vehicle, but that’s about it.
This area has changed since 1972 – a point that’s not lost on our guide, Hernán Araúz of Ancon Expeditions, the eco-tourism arm of one of Panama’s leading conservation groups. In addition to being one of the world’s experts on the Darien Gap, Hernán’s mother and father were widely regarded as ‘Mr and Mrs Darien’. His mother Reina was an anthropologist who studied many of the Gap’s tribes and helped to establish the area as a World heritage site, while his father Amado was a cartographer who, along with Reina, undertook the first ever crossing of the Gap by vehicle in 1960. Incidentally, one of the vehicles they used was a Land Rover lovingly nicknamed ‘The Affectionate Cockroach’.
Hernán passes me an old black-and-white photo taken by his father that shows a helicopter hovering just above the rainforest canopy. Beyond the helicopter is nothing but mile upon mile of rainforest.
"Is this where we’re heading?" I ask. "This is where we are," he responds. He pokes a stubby finger at the image. "All of this used to be thick rainforest until 30 years ago." Now, in the same place that the original expedition team were literally hacking a path through the thick forest, the Discovery is confidently clocking up the miles.
"The Highway is the single-biggest threat to the Darien Gap," Hernán tells me. "Deforestation, guerilla fighters, poaching: all of these problems are nothing compared to the impact of building a road through the forest. The only thing that has kept the Darien protected is its reputation. It has this aura and dark mystique about it. No one wants to come here."
As we continue towards the new boundaries of the Gap, it’s hard to reconcile the dark heart of the Darien with the terrain that we’re passing through. The Darien legend is that of a rainforest as densely packed with history as it is with flora and fauna. A place of conquistadors, buccaneers and, in 1696, an assortment of 2,000 Scots who thought the Darien would be a good place to set up home. Around one fifth of Scotland’s wealth was invested in this new trading post, and the results were disastrous. The settlers perished at the hands of hostile Indians, hostile animals, hostile Spaniards and malaria – and perhaps unsurprisingly, the Scots’ trade goods (mostly made of wool) weren’t a big hit with the locals, either. Those Scots that survived ended up penniless, and the ensuing financial crisis almost bankrupted Scotland itself and led to the creation of the British union. The rest, as they say, is history.
Although our 2010 journey is now taking us a few miles west from the original expedition, I’m beginning to get a sense of what an unbelievable feat it was to drive two vehicles through this kind of primary rainforest.
Around me is not the stuff of history, but rather an occasional clump of trees punctuating the cleared landscape. It’s a stark reminder that this used to be rainforest. We stop at the property of one homesteader who has recently cleared his land and is now burning away the last remnants so that he can grow more food, keep livestock and feed his family.
"It’s a plight that reflects a dilemma for conservation the world over," explains Hernán, "because if we’re going to stop people clearing the rainforest and killing the animals, then we have to show them that all this is worth more alive than dead. Sustainable eco-tourism is the way forward."
YAVIZA, THE EDGE OF THE DARIEN GAP
It’s late by the time we arrive at the frontier town of Yaviza at the edge of the Gap, but this small town is not as lawless as my research suggested: "a town of barefooted prostitutes and drunken men fighting in the streets with machetes and broken bottles". Admittedly, the phrase "What a wonderful place"` doesn’t immediately spring to mind, but once you’ve negotiated the surly guards at the checkpoint, studied the posters of fugitives wanted for drug-running, kidnapping and crimes against humanity, and let the authorities know that you’re here, then it’s not so bad. The people seem friendly, and although my hotel room is rather like a prison cell, it’s as good a place as any to rest before we head into the rainforest proper.
Yaviza marks the end of the road, literally, so we reluctantly leave the comfort of the Discovery 4 behind. We transfer to a piragua – a narrow dugout boat with a small outboard motor – which propels us along a myriad of jungle waterways. Eventually, we go ashore and begin our trek on foot, the trail taking us down an ever- darkening tunnel of vegetation that eventually burrows into the undergrowth as the jungle consumes us.
Although our 2010 journey is now taking us a few miles west from the route that the original expedition followed, I’m now beginning to get a sense of what an unbelievable feat it was to drive two vehicles through this kind of primary rainforest.
Even in bright sunshine, this is a dark and oppressive place. Little light penetrates from the canopy high above and it’s eerily quiet – the silence is only interrupted by the rhythmic hiss of cicadas and the regimented crunch of our footsteps as we march through the sea of dry leaves. Worse still, the humidity means that I’m sweating in places I didn’t realise it was possible to perspire.
Tough though our hike is, I can only imagine what 100 days of winching, pushing, grinding, digging, bashing, swearing and slashing a path for the two Range Rovers would have been like. The jungle took its toll on the 1972 expedition. There were instances of broken bones, flesh riddled with jungle sores, diarrhoea, hornet stings and snake bites. Most tragic of all was the deaths of five Colombian marines, who drowned when their boat capsized as they helped out with reconnaissance.
It’s hard not to think of these hardships as we pitch our tents and settle down for the night, but we’re soon lulled by what must surely be the world’s noisiest collection of frogs, toads and insects. It’s the perfect soundtrack to the tiny but perfectly formed light display put on by a thousand fireflies.
‘When you go to the Darien, commend yourself to the Virgin Mary. For in her hands is the way in, and in God’s is the way out!’
Our guide Hernán bellows ‘the Darien Prayer’ like an evangelical preacher as he leads our team of guides and horses deeper into the jungle.
We swap our Discovery 4 for a 20ft boat as we head downriver to the Condoto in Part 2. Find out how our journey progressed.
- PUBLISHED ONLINE:
- 23 MARCH 2015
- ZAC ASSEMAKIS
- SAM BARKER