The Jungle’s Neutral
“Wow! There’s a tree here like a sea urchin!” I yelled as I slid, exhausted and out of control, down a muddy bank straight into a tree that looked like some medieval torture implement.
“What’s a sea urchin?” came the reply from an equally out-of-control Jacqs, sliding in behind me.
“It’s one of those spiky things in the sea – you Kiwi idiots eat them,” I called, now some ten yards further on, upside down with one leg caught in a tree root.
“Ahhh, you mean kina – yeah, it is just like that,” she replied, a little unnecessarily as she de-kebabbed her face from the same tree. “Hey Jamie, watch out, there’s a tree like a kina here!”
“What the heck is a kina?”
“Just avoid it, Jamie, it bloody hurts!” I yelled, staggering on ahead.
“Shit! You could have warned me! It’s like getting stabbed by a sea urchin,” squealed Jamie.
“Jamie, you bloody id…” my expletives were cut off as a bamboo shoot skewered my calf.
“I’m done. Let’s get out of this jungle…”
Now, you must forgive the language of this narrative, but this experience can’t be described without the foul words that accompanied us on more or less every step of the 230 kilometres of the jungle we had just dragged ourselves through.
A year earlier, four of the For Rangers team had run the treacherous Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert. It was a brilliant experience – miserable at the time – but with an afterglow that lasted longer than the blisters on our tortured feet. The further into the past that experience got, the more nostalgic we became. So much so that we forgot the pain of the desert, persuading six more impressionable folk to accompany the For Rangers team and join us on our next adventure – a 230-kilometre, six-day ultra in the Peruvian Jungle.
Before the Race
“The jungle’s neutral,” declared Pete, as we donned our packs and stood on the start line in the Cloud Forest, ready for the first day. Ryan, not accustomed to Pete’s nonsensical sayings, stupidly asked him to elaborate, “What does that mean?”
“It means it doesn’t take sides,” Pete said.
“It’s on every bloody side as far as I can see,” Ryan exclaimed, disentangling his enormous ears from a thorny vine some ten yards away.
“It’ll be great!” said Keith with a happy look on his face, pausing while trying to remember the Latin name of the insect that was stinging him.
Jamie was further ahead, angrily swatting at sandflies and squinting menacingly at the other competitors. “Let’s just get on with it!”
And so we did.
Day One: Cloud Forest
“Last year one of the top runners broke his ankle about four kilometres in,” informed Matt, with the smug look of a man who’d done his research. “Be careful on the first path down off the road,” he called nonchalantly before racing off and promptly spraining both ankles.
We all followed behind and into some of the most beautiful country I’d ever seen. Crystal clear rivers surrounded by foliage of every shade and colour, quivering with butterflies the size of dinner plates. We had trotted into an Attenborough documentary.
It was incredible and fair to say on the first 34 kilometres to Camp One only Hollie Woodhouse didn’t enjoy that day – a troubled tummy making even a runner with her determination, battle.
Pete was in camp when I got in, under a barn-like structure helping untangle Harry’s hammock in a maze of other hammocks. “Never turn down shelter,” he warned. “Bugger that,” I said, “too many people in here. I’m putting mine up there,” pointing to a large glade. Ten minutes later as a huge downpour started, I was lying in my hammock that now resembled a sinking life raft, eating soggy freeze-dried stew.
It was going to be tougher than I thought.
Day Two: Amazonia
“This muesli tastes funny,” moaned Harry, as he sat amongst the carnage of collapsed hammocks and wet gear. “It’s fusilli, you idiot,” said Ryan, leaning out of his hammock. “Oh crap – that’s my breakfast every day,” Harry said miserably, staring glumly at his hot pasta.
“Today’s stage is called Amazonia,” announced Matt with authority, his swollen, sprained ankles in the air, looking like a weird illustration from a Karma Sutra guide. “We’ll be hitting real jungle now.”
“What the hell have we just been running through, then?” said Jamie, who was clearly in a foul mood. His shoulders were feeling the effects of his decision to pack a carton of cigarettes and complete fishing tackle box.
Matt was right. The forest became thicker. Hotter. More humid. Our already soaked kit clung to us like cling film. Spirits weren’t as buoyant as Day One, and we trotted and trudged from clearing to clearing to the next camp.
Holly Winser was chipper, though. We had called her ‘Badger’ for no apparent reason other than it amused us and differentiated her from Hollie Woodhouse – who we subsequently named ‘Sheep’.
“Gosh, this is such an adventure!” Holly Badger grinned, as though we were off to a picnic in Hyde Park. “Look at those leaf-cutter ants!” called out Keith from in front, “awesome.”
“Christ! This is like the bloody Sound of Music. I’m off,” grumbled Jamie – ever the team player, breaking into a faster run and heading on alone.
We arrived to find him and Pete lying under their hammocks in a clearing in the forest. “There’s a stream over there. It’s awesome,” said Jamie, whose mood had lifted from his shoulders the moment his pack had done the same.
And it was. We lounged around on warm rocks, dipping into deep fast-flowing icy pools trying not to think of Day Three.
Day Three: Logging
“It feels good to be ready early,” said Ryan smugly. “I’ve eaten, packed and strapped my feet. I’m free to relax for 20 minutes before we start. Gee, I even found it easy getting everything into my pack this morning.” We nodded and smiled, no one bothering to point out that he was sitting in his still-erect hammock.
We lined up at the start of Day Three feeling pretty weary. Behind us, Ryan was frantically trying to squeeze his hammock into his pack. This was meant to be a tough day.
“This stage is called Logging,” Matt announced, still quite pleased with his prior research, despite his increasingly mangled feet.
We dragged our tired bodies another 38 kilometres across muddy tracks, slogging through knee-deep swamp water. There was less chat now with just the occasional “y’alright?” followed by “yep”, interspersed between grunts. It was as close and muggy as a sauna in Bombay.
Hollie Sheep’s tummy was playing up again. Matt’s feet were in real trouble, now covered in septic blisters brought about from limping. Ryan and Holly Badger both had messy feet too. Keith’s troublesome achilles was inflamed and red – not helped in the slightest by his weird collection of homoeopathic herbs. Jamie’s welts on his shoulders were giving him grief. Only Pete and Jacqs were still strong. “Jungle’s neutral!” he called from his hammock as we staggered and limped into camp. “Jungle’s a prick,” muttered Jamie darkly.
Day Four: The Lull
“Why do they call it a rainforest?” asked Harry, as we slopped around underneath our hammocks in the pouring rain, trying to squeeze our gear into our packs in the dark, ready for the fearsome ‘Lull’ – the penultimate, and apparently, most challenging day regarding terrain.
We had decided to award Pete the ‘Baby of the Day’ award – a bib with a bizarre Batlama (a lama in Batman’s clothing) emblazoned on it. Jacqs got ‘Bitch of the Day’ – a dog finger puppet. These two received the unfortunate awards that we had bought in Cusco, partially because they were still fresh and strong, and partially because we were too tired to think of any witty reason to give them to anybody else. Jamie held ‘Cock of the Day’ (a phallic key ring), and had done so more or less from the start.
“This will be great!” grinned lunatic Pete, looking on at the rest of us trying desperately to huddle under shelter.
It wasn’t. We slipped and slid for eight hours through bamboo forests, battling through rivers and dragging ourselves up impossibly steep hillsides.
Early on, Pete slipped on a log, and I, right behind, made a valiant attempt to save his race number on his pack. I succeeded in my noble endeavour, but Pete sadly tumbled 15 feet into a gully, apparently trying to break his fall with his forehead. He clambered out looking a bit groggy and jogged on. I followed him, either too tired to enquire as to his health or to want to avoid another bonkers remark like, “You rest, you rust!”
He was finally slowing, and more of the team caught up to him. As a group, we willed ourselves forward up the final hill. By this stage, Matt was in a bad way and walking like Gandalf after a prostate exam.
There was little chat for the next five or so hours and we staggered into camp, (a research centre in the jungle) silent and weary, strung up our hammocks and rolled into them, still covered in mud.
Day Five: The long One
This was the end. The last day. All we had to do was complete 75 kilometres or so, and the ordeal was over.
“You're concussed,” Jacqs unnecessarily pointed out to Pete. “No, I’m not”, he said, sliding off a flat bench onto the grass. “I’m fine. Neutral’s jungle!”
I looked across at the rest of the group. Matt was lying on his back grimacing at his ruined feet. Harry was hobbling to get water for his morning fusilli. The bruised arches of his feet made him look like he was a very poorly prepared fire walker. Holly Badger was similarly tender, gingerly trying to put socks on without bending her swollen knee.
Only Hollie Sheep seemed well. The Imodium-type side effects of freeze-dried adventure food had taken effect, and she was finally feeling herself again.
Pete charged off like an escapee from an asylum, gibbering to trees and plants that he passed. The rest of us fell into two groups; Keith was leading the walking wounded and the rest of us trudging on ahead.
What followed was torturous. For hours we slogged through swamps and waded up never-ending rivers. “Let’s play a game to take our minds off it”, I suggested. “Come Dine with Me, anyone?”
“Yep, I’ll go first”, shouted Hollie Sheep, with a lust for life that only someone just recovered from food poisoning can muster. “Stuffed peppers to start…”
I looked at Jamie. He was getting angry again. The idea of stuffed peppers as a treat to take his mind off the jungle was clearly misguided.
“…and slow roasted lamb,” she added.
Jamie exploded. “What the hell?! How can you Kiwis murder good meat like that! You surround yourself with sheep and then cook the poor buggers for two weeks. Meat should be rare!” I could see the rage was building again and tried to placate him. “Ox tail!” I blurted out. Jamie immediately calmed like a baby being handed a bottle. “That would be nice...,” he said, drifting off into a happy, culinary fantasy.
The next 12 hours were an unhappy mixture of pain and exhaustion and ludicrous conversation, before finally staggering to the finish line in a small town to find Pete and beer. Both sights were a relief.
“Where are Matt and the rest? Will they make it?” I asked the organisers. Only after several beers and some hot chips had I remembered that we still had men in the jungle. It was now 11pm. We had started at 5am.
“They went through Checkpoint Five, but according to the medics, there’s no way Matt will make it.”
Holly Badger and Harry limped in at 11:30pm.
“Bloody hell, you guys, well done!”
“I enjoyed that,” said an apparently delirious Harry
“What about Matt and Keith?” we asked.
“We left them two hours ago. Matt’s bad. Doubt he’ll make it. Fusilli anyone?”
We waited and waited. Then we saw them. Keith was pushing what looked like an upright corpse, staggering inches at a time.
Jamie whooped for joy and charged to meet them, hugging them both. “Well done you buggers! Awesome effort!” Matt looked bemused, “Is he concussed too?”
“Did anyone notice the Macaws?” inquired Keith, as though 20 hours of pushing an immobile Matt was a nature stroll.
It was 1:30am. We had all made it. Only 25 people finished the long stage, ten of which were the entire For Rangers team.
As we got back into camp, I reflected on the team: one fractured skull (so it turned out), one case of septicaemia, one twisted knee, a bad case of food poisoning, 16 ruined feet, and an apparent spiritual experience by Jamie. Quite a scorecard.
The jungle's neutral.