- PUBLISHED ONLINE:
- 23 MARCH 2015
- ZAC ASSEMAKIS
- SAM BARKER
Part 2 of our attempt to cross the untamed expanse of the Darien Gap sees us swap our Discovery 4 for a 20ft boat as we head downriver to Condoto.
"The Darien Gap is a 100-mile swathe of thick, swampy, jungle...fewer people have crossed its length than have reached the summit of Everest". Read Part 1 of the adventure.
As well as reciting the Darien prayer, our guide Hernán's almost encyclopedic knowledge of what each and every snake, insect and parasite will do to us, combined with his Vincent Price-like delivery, is unnerving to say the least. For the record, there is every possibility that something will lay its eggs in us, digest us from the inside out, or burrow under our skin and make itself at home. But there is little I can do to prevent any of this, so I trudge on and resign myself to being a good host.
After several more hours through the forest – including an ascent so steep that it makes one of the guides vomit – we arrive at the ranger station of Rancho Frio, where we are pitching camp for the night. The rangers here represent the front line in the preservation of the Darien national Park, but this is no high-tech headquarters. The station is small, with a couple of outbuildings and a bunkhouse, and only three rangers, who are at the start of a 30-day tour of duty.According to head ranger Ivildo Dojirama, the biggest problem facing the rangers is that they are few in number and have a huge area to patrol in their fight against illegal logging and poaching in the Darien. "It’s a difficult task that we have," he says. "The area of the national park is huge, so if we catch one logger or poacher, then we are lucky."
Early next morning, our journey continues in another piragua into a more remote area of the Darien. This is not a pretty waterway, but rather a huge expanse of dark, muddy water with distant shores crowded with impenetrable rainforest. We’re on our way to the Embera Indian village of Condoto.
The semi-nomadic Embera are one of the indigenous peoples of the Darien and still eke out an existence from hunting-gathering and subsistence farming. The village of Condoto lies in one of the Darien’s most untouched regions and, according to the experts, it is little changed since the days when the Trans-Americas Expedition passed through.
For hours at a time, there is no sign of any kind of civilisation. It’s the dry season, so the river is low, and it splits and turns and confuses our navigators with endless phoney tributaries. We soon become lost, and as the tide goes out, the boat runs aground on a shallow bank right in the middle of the river. It’s about a quarter of a mile to each bank, so there is no choice but to jump into the river and try to dislodge the 20-foot boat using brute force.
Although it’s tough pushing a huge boat in 30°C heat, I imagine that it’s easier than trying to get a Range Rover through this terrain. As the 1972 expedition entered the Atrato swamp, they used small rafts to transport the vehicles across the marshes and wielded saws, axes, ropes, jacks and even explosives to help them carve a path through the swamp. Overhanging boughs had to be chopped down, underwater snags levelled and enormous floating hardwood logs cut into segments and pushed aside. On one occasion, when the logs formed a jam, they had to be mined with 100 pounds of plastic explosives.
It was one of the few sights that the Canadian film crew accompanying the expedition managed to capture. According to one of the team, "Drama never happened when the cameras were around. Cars didn’t dangle over precipices, men didn’t nearly get killed, winch ropes didn’t snap, cars didn’t roll backwards, snakes didn’t strike and rafts with vehicles onboard didn’t almost turn over."
Eventually, we extricate the boat and haul ourselves back in with our clothes soaking wet and our legs from the knee down covered in the filthy and pungent detritus of the river. But as we progress, it’s becoming clear that more pushing will be required. The further we go upstream, the slower our progress becomes and, with the sun setting and the prospect of reaching the village today diminishing, we decide to make camp.
"The Darien is tough. You still have to work hard to get here. You feel like an explorer."
Our new home is a stony grey bank in the middle of the river. It’s not the most exotic island in the world – and word has quickly spread among the mosquito community that we’ve arrived for dinner – but thankfully, there is plenty of driftwood around and we quickly gather enough to build a fire and dry our sodden clothes.
On the plus side, there are no unpleasant animals here. On the minus, I suspect that it’s because this is quite possibly the most uncomfortable place in the world.
"The Darien is tough, but that’s part of what protects it" explains Hernán, his face lit by the campfire. "You still have to work hard to get here. You feel like an explorer. To me, it’s part of the attraction of coming into the Darien."
The next morning, we are up before sunrise, and after a breakfast of bread, processed cheese and tinned sausages, it’s time to make the final hike up to Condoto.
CONDOTO: UNCHANGED SINCE 1972
I needn’t have bothered trying to dry my clothes, because no sooner have I tied my laces than we’ve had to plunge back into the river and are wading upstream. The water is not cold, but with a heavy backpack on, the rocks are like marbles beneath my feet.
According to the experts, the key to successfully wading through water is to wedge your foot against a rock and not move the other foot forward until the first is secure. It’s easier said than done, however, and it turns walking into a tedious and ponderous process.
As we approach the village, we trudge past a gaggle of kids who stop hurling themselves into the water for a moment to giggle at our clumsy convoy. But the fact that we look dishevelled, sweaty and wet doesn’t dilute the warm reception that we get from the villagers. We’re in one of the Darien’s most remote regions and it’s not often that they get strangers through here.
It’s just after sunrise and activity is gathering pace as the men head out on hunting trips or to tend their crops. Wisps of smoke trail from the stilted wooden dwellings as the last remnants of night recede. at the heart of each dwelling, small fires lend a glow to the faces of those tending the extraordinarily large and steaming pots.
It quickly becomes apparent that the older people of the village dress in traditional loincloths, their hair characteristically bobbed and fringed. By contrast, the younger generation are dressed in a combination of Western t-shirts and shorts, while the women wear bright floral-patterned dresses.
One tradition that has not disappeared, however, is the body paint. Men and women of all ages are painted with the inky black juice of the jagua tree from the lower jaw downwards. This, I discover, is not simply symbolic – the paint is also a natural insect repellent.
Although the village is remote, even here there is plenty of evidence of the creeping exposure to Western civilisation. An old Cable and Wireless telephone box that’s surely been relocated from a Manhattan sidewalk sits forlornly at the side of the path. Meanwhile, a couple of teenagers swagger past, shoulders swinging with attitude, their bright Nike trainers so pristine it’s clear that they’ve never worn them to trudge through a river.
A village elder, Ardinio Caisamo, beckons me up to the platform that is the main living area of his dwelling. The ‘stairs’ consist of a single thin log with steps cut into it – clearly designed for the diminutive frame of an agile Embera, rather than my own larger and clumsier figure. To my consternation, the platform of the main living area appears equally flimsy, so I make my way across to a chair on all fours, and somehow manage not to disappear through the floor.
Over a steaming cup of black coffee, Ardinio tells me why he loves living here. The forest provides them with everything they need: wood for their homes and their boats; food for their children; freedom from a Western existence. It’s a way of life that has not changed for hundreds of years. But he is also worried for the future of the village. Families are leaving and moving to the city. Even Ardinio’s own children have left.
"They go to seek their fortune," he says, "but they never return. When they come to visit, they have forgotten everything about this life. We are the last of the last.
"I would rather stay here because I love the forest. I have no wish to live in a shanty town in the city. By being far away from the rest of the world, we are safe. It’s why we he hope that a road will never be built in the Darien."
When they made their way out of the swamp on the 99th day of their adventure, the 1972 Trans-Americas Expedition team were greeted by cheering locals, and a public holiday was declared. But not everyone was so optimistic about the future of a new trail through the Gap. "These Indians cheer because they think that now they’ll be able to cross the Atrato [swamp] and meet their daughters-in-law and grandchildren," said sergeant Partapsing Limbu of the expedition team. "But it isn’t true. And when it comes true, they’ll wish that it hadn’t."
After the expedition, the US Congress assigned £100 million to turn the track into a Highway – but the road never made it beyond Yaviza. Diplomatic wrangling and fears over health risks, drug running and guerrillas were all cited as reasons. Today, the general consensus is that a stretch of road knitting the two halves of the Pan-American Highway will never be built.
I ask one of the village elders why he thinks the area remains untouched, why people are still reluctant to come here. He doesn’t hesitate. "It’s the spirit of Woonan," he says. "It lives in the rainforest, and it instructs the animals to attack anyone who comes into the jungle."
The tale sends a shiver down my spine. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that for most people, the Gap is still a dark, foreboding place, filled with untold dangers.
I bid farewell to the Embera and head back into the jungle, with its deadly inhabitants lurking under every branch and rock. Smiling, I give a respectful nod to the Woonan – I hope it will protect this forest forever.
- PUBLISHED ONLINE:
- 23 MARCH 2015
- ZAC ASSEMAKIS
- SAM BARKER