Thursday, October 15, 2015

Into The Wilderness – The Darien Jungle


Map picture

Into The Wilderness – The Darien Jungle

I do not usually write about an adventure until it is over, however it appears that the next two days are going to be very busy. So, having a few moments before we depart the ship, I thought that now would be a good time to explain what I think is going to happen.

Last night after clearing the Panama Canal, our ship cruised south along the Panamanian coast for approximately 145 miles, anchoring about an hour ago in the San Miguel Gulf. We are now positioned at the mouth of the Mogue River, which will be our highway into the Darien Jungle. We will travel up river with the rising tide for 12 miles in order to reach the Embera Village, a journey of almost two hours. The Embera are one of several indigenous tribes which inhabit this remote jungle. There are no roads through the jungle, and last year our ship became the very first vessel to have passengers visit the village. At our lecture this morning, it was carefully pointed out that while these people live a primitive life, they are a modern people who have chosen to isolate themselves in the jungle. We will visit their schools, and we may even see a cell phone or two – yes, amazingly when we anchored we got a weak signal in our room. So it might be said that they are living in a period of transition. It reminds me of what we found in the South Pacific. The people there lived in isolation, but they knew of the outside world, and many of their young adults are leaving those communities to seek their fortunes in the modern world.

In any event, our caravan of zodiacs and local canoes is set to depart the ship in 30 minutes and to drive inland with the rising tide; where we are going is completely tidal dependent. So much so that when it is time to depart, we were told not to loiter or we could become stranded overnight. So, I’ll stop for now and hopefully be back on the other side.

It is a new morning! What I can say in a nutshell is that the living of the experience of it was, shall we say, a little different than imagined.

Lisa and I got ourselves all ready for a long ride in the zodiacs. Water bottles, insect repellent, sun screen, cool shirts – shorts, and wide brimmed hats: to this we added waterproof bags for our cameras and life vests. Once outfitted, we grabbed out walking sticks and set out looking for adventure. Today, we were in the first group to board our boat, but unlike most days when we would have set out on our own, we had to wait until the entire ship was loaded. The torturous route up the river and through the mangrove swamps required precise navigation and local knowledge. Since the ship does not carry enough zodiacs to hold all 115 passengers along with the entire expedition team, several local wooden boats were hired to ferry people. We boarded our zodiac at 12:30, and then had to sit under a blazing sun while the remaining boats were loaded. The black colored zodiacs quickly became so hot that you could burn your hand if you touched them Fortunately our driver saw the problem as we all turned red, and he nudged our little zodiac right up under the stern of the ship, and pushed against the huge vessel as if it was going to move it. That didn’t happen, but in that position, we finally had some shade from the blazing sun. Eventually, after almost 50 minutes of sitting, the caravan was ready to head up river, but first we had to reach the river! Because of the large tidal swells in this region, the Explorer was anchored very far off shore. In fact, we could not even see the mouth of the river where we were headed, and when we reached it and looked back, our ship was barely visible on the horizon.

Finally our caravan, which I am guessing included almost 20 little boats, entered the river and we headed into the rain forest. At first, we made good time, turning up one channel after another until there was no way I could remember how we had gotten there. Every boat carried a little GPS unit which was programmed with check points along our route. Even so, a few wrong turns were made and as we got even further up river, it narrowed and our progress begin to slow. At some point, we were down to a crawl as the little boats had to navigate around huge logs, sticks just sticking up at the waters top which could rip open the bottom, and of course, sand bars. Some boats became grounded and we waited while things were set right. Some channels were not navigable, and we backed up, and all the while we found out why they call it the “rain” forest, because it begin to pour. Our sunny day disappeared, and all around us in the hills, we could hear the thunderous sound of lighting – non-stop lighting. Quickly everyone and everything was soaked. Lisa and I had waterproof bags for our cameras, but Lisa’s had an unexplained hole in it, and I did not shut mine correctly and my camera became damp. We were the lucky ones. We understand that many people were not prepared for heavy and continuous rain and they lost their cameras on the first outing.

After almost 3 hours, we turned a corner in the river and heard native music welcoming our arrival. The water level was still too low to allow us to reach the concrete stairs the village had so carefully prepared, and so we pulled up on a steep muddy bank, where strong hands effortlessly pulled us to shore. We all the set off on a muddy path along the river eventually reaching the concrete sidewalk which had been created for us. There was only one BIG problem. If you have a concrete surface in a warm wet environment, it quickly attracts mold and growth rendering it so slick as to be more dangerous to walk on than the muddy gully’s on the side.

Lisa and I really struggled! We had been told that the walk to the village was a 10 to 15 minute walk. It took the two of us 45 minutes, and at several points, we started to turn back. However the rain stopped just as the village came into sight, and so we struggled on to reach the main group – obviously everyone else had long ago reached the village square.

The Embera natives were all very friendly, and colorfully dressed. Many of the women went without bras, while others either did wear a bra or at least made some effort to cover themselves. They were elaborately tattooed, but sadly no one spoke English. They lived in homes built on stilts high above the ground, and most were without walls leaving the living space open to catch whatever breeze there was.

While I looked around, the natives put on a short cultural show after which they displayed their wares for purchase. Actually the handicrafts were of exceptional quality, and I believe almost everyone made at least one purchase. Lisa and I were getting nervous about the long walk back to the boats because if you will remember we were told that if we missed the tide, we would be stuck for a day. When it started a torrential downpour, the cameras quickly went away and we headed on the long and difficult walk back. This time we were going slightly downhill and the surface was very slick at times. It felt as if we were walking on ice so for Lisa and me, it was a very slow walk, but we finally made it. We may have been the first to depart the village, but I think we were the last to reach the boats.

Awaiting us at the boats was a wonderful sight – the hotel department had gone to a great deal of trouble to have a large supply of cold drinks and snacks. The Hotel Director himself was there along with the Head Chef. What a sight for sore eyes!

All I can say about the journey home was that I did not think we would ever make it. The river was now so swollen from the rain that we made good time getting to the Gulf, but when we finally spotted the ship it was so very far away. Finally we arrived, soaking wet from head to toe. Everything went into the tub, a quick shower, and we both fell asleep – but, we had made it!

I know you would like pictures, but it is all I can do right now to keep up with all the activities. I hope to get to them tomorrow.


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