When things were done we stood silently contemplating what we were about to undertake.
The idea was that we would head down this tributary until we reached the area designated and then we would set off through the jungle. Enzo and Vitor were seasoned hunters and expert gatherers and I could hold my own so we would feed off the land. Looking around at the profusion of life I did not expect that to be difficult. A complete novice would have had little difficulty getting a meal together here.
For the umpteenth time I started gathering and checking my own personal equipment I was always paranoid about that before setting off on any venture. Once you’re out in the middle of nowhere there is nothing you can do about it. If something had been forgotten or was not functioning properly there was no way of putting things right. Everything was in order and seemed to be functioning. I had all that I needed to survey and record the terrain, to communicate in an emergency and to track our exact position. There was not much required in actual bulk and weight. The developments in electronics had been a boon. Everything was so small. Besides, checking the equipment took my mind off my inner turmoil and gave me something to focus on.
My two companions were going to be responsible for carrying the bulk of the gear in order to free me up for the technical side. I did not feel sorry for them. Enzo and Vitor, with their sturdy frames, would not find it hard lugging my stuff through the jungle. Everything we had with us was lightweight, apart from the machetes and guns. We were not taking tents or much in the way of cooking equipment. We had gossamer thin hammocks to keep us safe in the trees while we slept.
When I had completed all my checks I watched Enzo and Vitor going about their business. It was reassuring to see their efficiency despite the insistent disquiet that was eating at my guts.
As I became more familiar with them I could discern that they obviously felt that strange unease too. They were good at disguising their fears but I noticed the way they kept nervously glancing around. They were not even talking among themselves in hushed whispers and both had set, stony features as if they were holding themselves in check. I had been around them enough over the last few days to see that they were looking decidedly edgy, and I did not think that was the task in hand. The Amazon was a second home to them. No – they were picking up the same vibe as me. There was something very wrong about this place.
It did not take long to complete the set-up and ensure all our equipment was in full working order with everything triple checked. After they had unloaded our gear the helicopter crews had left us to it, confining themselves to getting the boat in the water and then sitting on the helicopter deck watching. They regarded all this as lunacy but there was an underlying aura of respect. The last thing they would ever want to do is to trek through that jungle. It was their worst nightmare. To come down in that green hell and have to make their way out on foot was something none of them ever wanted to even contemplate.
When everything was complete I took Enzo and Vitor aside and the three of us put the map on the ground, traced our route and went over our strategy. We had already carried this out a number of times back at base but this gave me yet another opportunity to reinforce my leadership role with last minute details. I wanted them to know how thorough I was. I went through contingency planning and safety procedures. It was essential we were all together on this and that they understood that I was calling the shots.
We had a meal together with the helicopter crews, full of much nervous laughter and much joking about leeches, testicles and giant tarantulas. It was a meal throughout which my two travelling companions sat apart and remained largely silent.
Then the helicopter crews were away back to civilisation and the three of us stood on the muddy shore and watched them go. We waved them off as they skimmed low over the canopy.
We were finally alone with hundreds of miles of pristine jungle separating us from the nearest habitation.
It never fails to leave me with a desolate feeling, to be alone so far from human civilisation. I was always left with a sense of trepidation but also a great thrill. But then, in this day and age, you were never truly alone. While you had your satellite phone you could always summon up assistance if required, even if you were in the most desolate region on earth.
Out here though, that assistance might be a long time coming and it might find it extremely hard to reach you. It was probably a false security. To all intents and purposes we were on our own.
Without more ado we set off. I directed them and Vitor took his place at the rear and started up the outboard while Enzo sat at the front with a paddle in hand and watchful eye. His job was to survey the water ahead for danger and parry away any submerged logs that might appear in front of us. The last thing we wanted was for some water-logged trunk to sink the boat or capsize us.
I sat amidships ostensibly in command even though there was little for me to do. That did not stop me from barking out orders from time to time, even if they were unnecessary. I was not in the business of making myself popular. This was all about survival. They knew their tasks and where we were heading, so for now I was essentially redundant.
For the most part I sat quietly, alternating between watching the GPS displaying our progress and observing the impenetrable barrier of green on either side of the river. Trying to see far into that dense jungle was a hopeless task. My eyes attempted to pierce the gloom between the trees but failed miserably, even so I could not refrain from trying. I could not shake off the feeling of impending doom. It was a feeling I had never experienced before. The usually excitement of being in the midst of such intoxicating beauty, setting off on an adventure, had been replaced by a sense of imminent danger that utterly spoilt it. The shadows in the foliage seemed sinister. It felt like we were being watched and heading for disaster, yet I could see no reason for my apprehension. I knew there were no other humans in that thick jungle.
Progress was slow. We were in no hurry but it felt like Enzo and Vitor were being extra cautious. It was best to put safety first but their over cautiousness only served to add to my misgivings.
With a great effort I controlled my fears as we progressed and I became used to the distressing sensation in my gut. I was determined to enjoy the splendour of the place.
There was plenty of opportunity to appreciate the beauty of our surrounds. Each time we passed a flock of brightly coloured birds or caught sight of a troupe of monkeys or an alligator poking its snout out of the water to watch us go by, it sent a wave of delight coursing through me. I was back in the wild. Though I did note that neither of my two companions seemed to show the slightest interest in the wonderful creatures we were encountering. That was not a good sign as far as I was concerned, but I put it down to the fact that, having been brought up here, they were probably used to the wonders of this verdant paradise.
The forward motion of the boat created a welcome cooling breeze. Vitor and Enzo took the opportunity to take off their shirts, their fluid movements and rippling muscles exuding efficiency, confidence and security. I noticed a number of scars and tattoos which tended to confirm my suspicions about their military connections though they were extremely reticent to share much of their personal history with me. All I could get out of them was that they had grown up in a small village on the Amazon and had left home at an early age to seek their fortunes. There was no mention of any military background though both had the same tattoo of a skull with crossed carbines on their forearms. I figured that was proof enough.
They were undoubtedly thoroughly at home in this environment. Not that it did much to relieve my nerves. I kept my khaki shirt on, setting an example as a leader, soaking as it was, and tried to relax.
Flocks of parrots took to the air, spooked by the noise of our outboard, a herd of capybaras trotted along the banks, casting nervous glances in our direction and groups of curious monkeys swung through the branches to get a better look at what was making such a strange loud noise.
Who knew what other eyes were watching unseen from the impenetrable dark. But I had the irrational, spooky feeling that we were being definitely being observed. If anything, those fears were growing the further up the river we progressed. No matter how much I tried they refused to be suppressed. The disquiet had settled like a wet blanket over me.
That first day we made slow but steady progress before setting up camp for the evening. There was little talk around the campfire, merely basic discourse concerning what needed doing, setting up the actual camp and hammocks, who took sentry duty and preparations for the next day. I did not mind that too much. I was back in the jungle I loved and I had no intention of befriending my two colleagues – just as long as they carried out their responsibilities and proved reliable I was content. Or I would have been if only I could have freed myself of the mood of gloom and fear that assailed me and refused to go away.
We used our instruments to take readings and recorded our observations as we were employed to do. I made sure that we were as professional and efficient as possible. There was a lot of money riding on this venture. I intended to make certain that we did our jobs.
I took first watch and passed over to Enzo at midnight before retiring into my insect-proof cocoon, dangling high up in the tree branches safe from marauding carnivores and invertebrates. That night I felt safe and snug in my hammock listening to the sounds of the nightlife. It sounded as if we had set up camp in the middle of some major intersection where every conceivable animal and insect passed by. The whole area was alive. It was like being on a wildlife motorway. But that was something I was familiar with. I relished it. I found them reassuring. The animal life was not the cause of the uneasiness that gnawed at my guts and put my nerve endings on alert.
Neanderthal: Amazon.co.uk: Forsythe, Ron: 9781677253609: Books