I probably couldn’t have picked a worse place to break my leg.
We were deep into the Bolivian Amazon basin for starters, a three hour boat ride from civilisation. Not only that, it was 11pm and we were half a kilometre from our river side camp, amidst thick jungle on a walk upon which we were attempting to find those lesser seen creatures of the night. We’d found spiders and creepy crawlies in the shadows, their elaborate webs and grotesque features worsened in the darkness, and we’d just spent a few hushed minutes watching the unblinking eyes of an Alligator lurking in an ink black lagoon. There was no path out from here. Our guide Marco, clad in a bandana and necklaces of Caiman teeth and Jaguar claws, thrashed a way ahead of us with his machete, emerging by a murky brown river which churned it’s way between steep muddy banks. The only way ahead was across a fallen tree trunk which stretched across the river onto a barely visible path, disappearing off into the gloom of the jungle. First though, the bridge.
We’d crossed this tree trunk before, right? Or had we? Recent flooding had opened up a vast network of new rivers and streams across the forest floor, most of which we’d had to traverse over the last two days, and they were beginning to all look a bit familiar. Marco led the way, carefully balancing his way across in his thick set Wellington boots, and that there was my problem. I have no balance. I’m not a person who has great coordination in anything to be honest, so when faced with a slippery tree trunk, ten feet above a river and guided only by the feeble light of my head torch, it was never really going to end well. I wobbled at first, steadied myself, then wobbled some more. Approaching half way, I took a quick glance at the swirling waters below me, thought back to those Alligator eyes from moments before and knew that I definitely, definitely did not want to go in. Edging tentatively forwards again the inevitable began to happen, my balance began to go, my feet scrambled for a foothold but found only wet bark and yep, I was going down. I made a desperate lunge towards the far bank – first a splash as my feet hit the waters edge, then a distinct snap as my leg hit a tree root or branch. Ouch. Seems I’d found myself a one way ticket out of the jungle.
We’d found our way into the jungle via the small and dusty town of Rurrenabaque. Tucked away within vast swathes of surrounding rainforest, the town was reached by either a 20+ hour bus journey or a 40 minute flight from La Paz (we went for the latter, if you’ve ever been on Bolivian buses you’ll know why) and was a jumping off point for both trips to the jungle, or trips to nearby wetlands known as the Pampas. We’d gone for a combination of both, a couple of days in the forested Madidi National Park before two more days in the Pampas, where we’d been promised caiman, piranhas and worryingly enough in mind of those two, swimming with the pink dolphins that also cruise the same waters.
There was little to be seen in the water the next morning however, as we made our way up a massively swollen and silt filled River Madidi and into the jungle. The bustling waterfront of Rurrenabaque quickly gave way to more isolated settlements, each more rustic than the last, until after an hour or there seemed to no sign of civilisation whatsoever. Herons and Egrets waded in the shallows unperturbed by the whine of our passing engine, Mackaws screeched past us overhead, while the only other sound was the occasional crash as chunks of the muddy banks collapsed into the water. Our landing and entrance to the jungle was three hours up river. A blink and you miss it gap in the thick river side vegetation led to a small enclave where a rudimentary camp had been set up; here we got to know our new group, were set to work collecting and chopping firewood and ate barbecued river fish. It was a good start.
From here onwards though, our jungle trip took on a slightly less authentic direction than expected. While it promised a lot, the next two days took on an almost Blue Peter-esque feel. Hours were spent making bits and pieces out of palm leaves – clothing, water bottle holders, jewellery – while our walks during the day invariably led from tree to tree where it was clear a set route had been devised to exemplify the natural remedies and uses the rainforest could provide. It was interesting enough, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t quite the swashbuckling and wild experience for which we’d been hoping.
We had a Pachamama ceremony that first night, where underneath a huge pale moon which filtered through the canopy and with the croaks and sighs of the jungle around us, we’d give offerings to Mother Earth and give blessings to our trip ahead. Yet as seriously as our local guide and chef took it, you couldn’t help wonder about the authenticity of a ceremony that revolved around them smoking two packs of Marlboro Reds and burying the cigarette butts as an offering, it’s probably not what their forefathers were doing way back when. Fast forward 24 hours then, and after a two day programme distinctly lacking in adventure, we found ourselves heading off on a night walk which was quite the opposite. This was more like it; groping our way through the undergrowth there was a definite sense of adventure now and this was the kind of jungle trip I’d been visualising – hacking past vines, creeping through the darkness, finding dangerous animals, breaking legs….ah, yes. That.
If I’d wanted an adventure then the next 12 hours was just that. The pain was like nothing I’ve ever known before – and that’s coming from someone who’s broken his head, two arms and has taken more then a few footballs to the nether regions – so there was no chance of me hobbling back to camp. We were half a kilometre away at this point, and after much discussion amongst our group it was decided that a bench from the camp would be used as a stretcher. For the best part of an hour six heroic men and women huffed and puffed me back to camp – over winding roots, under fallen trees – jungle paths are not designed for this kind of thing and it was an incredible effort. Back at camp things would improve surely? We’d get some painkillers in me and head back to Rurrenabaque, right? Wrong. The medical assistance provided by our tour company consisted of wanting to wash my leg in hot, salty water – they had nothing else – and there was absolutely no way of contacting the outside world. The plan was to take the boat back at first light, as was planned anyway, so for the meantime we were going nowhere. Loaded up on Ibuprofen and Aspirin, I lay grimacing on my bench under a mosquito net, with my leg in a crude bamboo and vine splint and a million questions going through my head.
How bad was the break? Would several hours delay mean it’s too late to be fixed? How could I make this up to Jamie, who’d been so excited to see the dolphins the next day? Would they sort me out in Rurrenabaque or fly me to La Paz? Who would be in England’s starting line up in the World Cup next week? Safe to say, it was the longest night of my life.
Our scheduled 5:30am departure became 7am, a heavy morning mist meaning the river was unnavigable, before more back busting bench moving feats had me on the boat and we were away. This is probably the right time to express my absolute and endless thanks to the others in our group – Toby, Carmen, Sarah and Claire – strangers the day before, now absolute heroes who made a horrific situation a lot more bearable. From breathing exercises by the river, to supplying painkillers, clothes and sleeping bags and wading knee deep in mud for me; they were an incredible help. Back in Rurrenabaque they delayed their Pampas tour to the following day in order to help Jamie get things organised and find immediate flights to La Paz for us, something they found thanks to two generous and anonymous Israelis who gave up their seats. Sometimes the people you meet on the road are the very best.
While all this was going elsewhere I was now in Rurrenabaque hospital, which was an eye opening experience in more than a few ways. Moved to a grubby emergency room which I shared with a woman in labour and a man having unknown things pulled from his backside, my first request was for some painkillers – 12 hours on Aspirin just wasn’t doing the job. The thing is, we had to buy them first. They then wanted to put a cast on my leg, but once again Jamie would have to head off to the nearest pharmacy to buy the cast materials herself. The whole set up was painfully bizarre, yet if nothing else merely highlighted the medical differences of 1st and 3rd world countries. Two worryingly sketchy X-Rays (which both missed one of my broken bones) and an excruciating stretching and straightening of my leg later, I was in a cast and on my way to La Paz. I’ve never been so grateful to leave the jungle.
So here we are then, in a more comfortable room in La Paz, with a nice steel rod running from my knee to my ankle and plenty of time to reflect on the ups and downs of the last week.
Downs. Well firstly I’ve broken my leg, it hurts. Secondly, our travels have been cut short. There’ll be no pink river dolphins in the Pampas and no surreal earth and sky defying landscapes at the Bolivian salt flats. We won’t be discovering the charms of Sucre or Potosí, and nor will we be tracking Jaguar in the Brazilian Pantanal or snorkelling in some of the worlds purest water in Bonito. But we’ve agreed that we’ll be back for those, and much rather this happened now than four months ago when everything was ahead of us.
As the ups go, well there’s two that spring to mind. First and foremost, is Jamie, who has been nothing short of incredible since this all began. As well as having her own travels cut short and not uttering a word in dismay about it, she’s seen and dealt with things with me in my bedridden state that you’d not wish upon your worst enemy. She’s organised and made arrangements, been patient and held my hand, and most amazingly of all, she’s tolerated me watching the World Cup at all hours of the day. That’s right, that’s the second upside to all this. With 32 teams competing in the greatest competition on earth, I’d managed to coincide my accident with the day it all kicked off and as such, have barely missed a minute of the action. Never before have I had a chance to watch so much football back to back, and not feel guilty in any way. In fact in all honesty, I probably couldn’t have picked a better time to break my leg.