The Neanderthals are out there somewhere. They are much more advanced than us. What happens when we meet?
In an attempt to restore my equilibrium I stood on the bank and looked around at the dense forest that surrounded us. It was so full of life. The foliage was unusually dense so that it was difficult to penetrate but I could see exotic birds flitting above the trees, monkeys in the canopy and the rich rustle and hum of insect life. The air was humid and earthy with the aroma of decay mixed in with tropical blossom. This was the sultry paradise that I loved. Or at least what I had loved up until now. Right now it felt strangely oppressive and threatening.
I could not help thinking that those indigenous natives had been right. Maybe there were evil spirits here? I could certainly sense a great unease that sent fear welling up in me. That was not because of the physical challenge or dangers that lay ahead. I was used to them. Those trials did not scare me. This was something different, as if some great terror lay beneath the surface, hidden beneath a thin veneer of normality.
That feeling of fear was something I hoped was not an omen of what was to come, not that I believed in premonitions. It was just that it had taken me by surprise, something I had never experienced before. I reasoned with myself: once we go going it would soon pass.
I repressed the fear. Underlying it was the joy of being back in amongst nature and I attempted to allow that to bubble up to the surface. I tried taking deep breaths, sucking the rich aroma of the jungle into my lungs but nothing I did seemed to dispel my qualms.
The nervous crew of the two helicopters were busy depositing the rest of the gear on the banks on the river. They too seemed unduly anxious to get the job done and be out of here. My two companions, Enzo Silva and Vitor Ruiz, ignoring me altogether, were already silently setting up the outboard on the boat and stowing their provisions and equipment on board. I watched them. It was difficult to work out what they were feeling. They looked permanently sullen. Pinosaro had obviously not chosen them for their extensive vocabulary or talkativeness. They were men of few words. They were dark skinned large muscular men whose agility and prowess was immediately obvious with everything they did. They were used to the jungle, resourceful and knowledgeable of that I had no doubt, but they also had a military air about them, and that look of men who had seen too much death.
Pinosaro had put them there as my minders. At least that is what I had decided they were.
Outwardly they had the remit of keeping me alive and getting me to my destination but I think they were also tasked with watching me to ensure I did not get up to mischief. Though what on earth Pinosaro thought I might be able to get up to out here in this isolated place was utterly beyond me. But he was just that sort of paranoid type who would trust nobody. Perhaps he thought I might go freelance, prospecting for gold or minerals and look to strike my own deal with one of the big mining companies?
I stood aside, hands on hips, projecting my role as boss and overseer as they packed the boat. Somehow their demeanour added to my unease. For the past three days I had developed the impression that they were watching me and making note of everything I was up to. Still – I kept telling myself, I did not care – as long as they were competent. Watching them as they set about their business in a most professional manner I had few doubts on that score. I resolved to tolerate them and not allow their surliness to detract from my delight at being back where I most wanted to be.
I sauntered across to where they were working and gave them some unnecessary orders related to the stowing of equipment. I made them move some of the things they had already loaded. I needed to reinforce just who was in charge of this expedition. From experience it was necessary. There was only room for one leader.
The obviously resented my intrusion but did as they were told in a resentful fashion without argument.
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.