Since she first transitioned from backpacker into globetrotting journalist, “travel junkie” is the moniker that has followed Julia Dimon to some of the world’s most adventurous locations. Her writing career began at age 12 with a monthly column for the Toronto Star, yet this keen Canadian’s addiction to travel was sparked by a trip to Rome. Her life, however, was altered by an inspirational postcard in a backpackers’ bar in Byron Bay, Australia that sparked her drive to experience every corner of the globe.
In her first report for the LYA blog, new Eddie Bauer Adventure Travel guide Julia Dimon reports from the jungles of Guyana, where she learned tactical techniques at survival school, tested the limits of her psychological strength, and developed a deeper appreciation for the indigenous Amerindian people who make this area their home. She also experienced the joy of sharing a hammock with poisonous insects such as the bullet ant, whose bite ranks as a 4 on the Schmidt sting index and reportedly feels like firewalking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel. She survived to send us this dispatch from the jungle.
Words and Images by Julia Dimon
Nestled between South America’s Venezuela and Brazil, it’s a magical landscape, so remote and unspoiled that it inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Guyana. It’s a mysterious land of exotic wildlife and pristine rain forests covering approximately 80% of the country. Untouched and off the radar of most travellers, Guyana is the perfect place for a rugged adventure.
I recently got back from a 10-day trip that would take me all across this English-speaking nation, from Georgetown, a crumbling colonial city with a distinctly Caribbean vibe, to Iwokrama Rain Forest to spot wildlife, then to Surama for a hard-core jungle survival experience.
While Kaieteur Falls – the world’s largest and most powerful single drop waterfall that’s five times the size of Niagara Falls – is Guyana’s main attraction, our first stop was of a different kind. The Iwokrama Canopy Walkway is a series of suspension bridges and decks some 100 feet above the rain forest floor. High above the canopy treetops, it’s a great way to get a bird’s-eye view of the jungle below. If you’re an avid birder, this region is a must visit. You can spot colorful and exotic species like the yellow-tufted woodpecker, the green aracari and the painted parakeet. Be sure to keep your eyes open for black howler and capuchin monkeys playing in the treetops.
Home to an estimated 225 species of mammals and 815 species of birds, Guyana has a rich biodiversity. Beyond birds, the country boasts a wide selection of “superlative” species: the jaguar (the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere), the capybara (the world’s largest rodent), the harpy eagle (the largest eagle in the Americas), the tapir (South America’s largest native mammal), the giant river otter, the giant anteater, the giant armadillo and the giant river turtle. Wildlife viewing is unpredictable and there are no guarantees, so it’s important to manage one’s expectations. Jaguar viewing, for example, is quite rare but it does happen every so often, so keep your eyes peeled and don’t smell too delicious.
From the comforts of the Atta EcoLodge at the mouth of the Iwokrama Canopy Walkway entrance, we traveled overland deep into the Amazon Basin to the Amerindian town of Surama.
If you think Bear Grylls has the best job in the world, then you’ll love the two-week-long, fully immersive jungle survival experience offered by Bushmasters, a UK-based adventure tour company. Local guides will teach you how to hunt Amerindian style with a bow and arrow, wield a machete, hand fish, set up camp and build shelter. The training culminates in a two-day isolation experience, where you venture out into the jungle completely solo to put all your survival skills to the test.
I followed a trio of Makushi guides into the jungle and hoped for the best.
First task was to set up camp. My guide handed me a machete and instructed me to clear away the vines that carpeted the jungle floor (so you can spot creepy crawlies who try to cuddle with you in the middle of the night). I strung my hammock between two trees, adjusted a tarp overtop, secured a mosquito net and voilà, our modest shelter for the evening.
Next on the survival agenda was to hunt for dinner with a traditional bow and arrow. It looks easy, but real life archery requires a combination of strength, coordination and timing. Let’s just say I needed some practice. Perhaps we’d have more luck fishing, my guide suggested, so we found some cocorite grubs (juicy worms found nestled in a shelled nut that make great bait) and set out on dugout canoes. Catch of the day was three small, excessively bony piranha, which we took back to our makeshift camp and grilled over an open flame.
Post dinner, in a darkness so dark you could barely see your own hand in front of your face, I retreated to my hammock to get some sleep. My calm oneness with nature was brutally interrupted by a pack of massive wolf spiders who attempted to make my backpack their new home. I’m not a fan of spiders, certainly not big hairy ones laying claim to my belongings. Apparently I’d set up camp smack in the middle of a wolf spider compound.
Unsettled, but unscathed, I slipped beneath my mosquito net and obsessively checked the innards of my hammock. If they were lurking out there, perhaps they got in here! But lucky me, no spiders…just an ant. Though they’re only an inch long and seem totally harmless, bullet ants are nasty little guys with reputations as the world’s most painful stinging insect. On the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, bullet ants rate as the number one most painful bite among H ymenoptera, one of the largest orders of insects. Schmidt himself described the bite of a bullet ant “like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in grinding into your heel.” With a reputation like that, it was hard to feel enthused as I watched it crawling around my hammock bed.
I’m sorry to report that there was a bullet ant homicide that evening. It was in cold blood and the only witnesses were wolf spiders. As you can imagine, after all that late night insect excitement, I slept terribly. Tossing, turning, worrying, wondering what else was scuttling and slithering around me deep in the jungle of Guyana.
Insects aside, jungle survival in Guyana was an incredible experience. Beyond learning the tactical techniques of survival, sleeping out in the jungle (exposed to the elements and plagued by an overactive imagination) the trip tested my psychological strength and gave you a deeper appreciation for the indigenous Amerindian people who make this area their home. The insects, I can live without.
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