In early 2014 my friend Joe Flowers invited me on the inaugural Bushcraft Global trip; his new company takes people to the Amazon Jungle at the southern tip of Colombia and teaches them jungle survival. Having camped throughout the Rockies and Michigan I can honestly say I never had the opportunity to camp anywhere like the Amazon so, naturally, I was in.
Fortunately, Bushcraft Global is sponsored by TOPS Knives, so even though my entire knife collection is designed more for North America, it wasn’t an issue. Each member of the expedition was provided with a TOPS Knives Machete .170 and Shango XL knife, which was a perfect combination for traversing the dense Amazon jungle.
A. The jungle was very dense and at times impossible to get through without machetes. B. Rodolfo, one of our Jacuna Guides, making a roof panel for the kitchen. C. The thatched roof over the kitchen and food. D. Our hammocks at the second base camp about nine miles into the jungle. E. TOPS Knives Machete .170 and Shango XL with my finished blow gun. F. A frog we got at the second base camp. It was delicious.
I think the hardest part of this trip was packing for it. Having never been anywhere like the Amazon, I had no idea what I should and shouldn’t bring. Fortunately, we were given a list but it was more of a guideline and it is still difficult to determine what, of the gear you are used to, will be useful and what won’t. Whether it is or not, all of it will be susceptible to the intense humidity of the jungle. For that reason, the most important pieces of gear on the list were dry bags; I used multiple bags to organize my gear as opposed to using one big dump bag. Of equal importance was quick-drying nylon clothes; do not wear cotton, you will be wet and miserable the entire time you’re there.
“THE AMAZON JUNGLE IS ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING PLACES ON EARTH AND, EVEN THOUGH EVERYTHING THERE IS CONSTANTLY STRUGGLING FOR SURVIVAL, IT IS ALSO TEEMING WITH LIFE.”
There are a few other items that topped the list for importance and are highly recommended. Once you think you have enough DEET, go buy some more, because you don’t have enough. Make a foot powder ball with any kind of antifungal powder and one leg of pantyhose; your feet are imperative when traversing the jungle and jungle rot will surely slow you down. A blister kit; make sure you have some good ointments and tapes specifically designed for blisters, plus Vaseline to prevent blisters. Two or three flashlights and plenty of batteries; traveling through the jungle during the day is not nearly as hard as traveling through it at night. Trust me when I say that just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there and it can’t kill you. Also, some form of water purification; regardless of what type of water purifier you have you should also have iodine tablets as a backup for good measure. You will also need your typical gear, but the things listed here are vital.
Upon arriving in Leticia, there were small taxis and dirt bikes zipping around everywhere. Fortunately we had a bus waiting for us, which would deliver us to the La Arenosa Lodge (which is a part of Reserva Natural Tanimboca) owned by our host Goran. Here we would spend our first night in preparation for heading into the jungle to our first base camp.
As soon as the sun went down on the first day we were taken for a night hike through the surrounding jungle to learn about the local flora and fauna; at night is the best time for this because that is when the jungle really comes alive. One of the most important lessons we learned on that hike was to always be aware of your surroundings in the jungle. At one point we stopped to discuss something and one of the gentlemen with us had a tree frog right next to his head, it wasn’t a dangerous variety, but it was a lesson in paying attention to your surroundings. Everything there is fighting for survival and that makes all of it dangerous on some level. Not to mention that next time it could have been a scorpion, tarantula or a killerpillar (what we affectionately nicknamed the caterpillars down there).
BASE CAMP ONE
The day after we arrived we got up early and hiked about three or four miles into the jungle, to our first base camp. This location had a good size hut and some fenced-in property that was part of Tanimboca. The property was remote and surrounded by jungle and, although it had no electricity, it did have running water (we each had to pump the well 300 times a day to bring the water to the hut). The purpose of the first base camp was to give us a few days to acclimate to the jungle, giving us a comfortable place to begin learning some of the skills we would need for the longer hike that was ahead.
Perhaps one of the most amazing things about the jungle is the fact that there is literally food everywhere. However, just like anywhere else on the planet, you don’t want to just start grabbing things and eating them. With the help of our indigenous Jacuna (Pronounced Yah-coo-nah) guide we were taught some of the easier to identify edible plants and fruits during our many jungle walks. The easiest to identify was a palm tree we also used to harvest the leaves for shelter building, so we knew it well; the inside has the consistency and flavor of a cucumber. Along with that was the star fruit, another easy to identify edible that was so delicious it almost put me off fruit back home altogether.
The jungle has its own natural alarm system. When there is a dangerous predator, such as a jaguar or large snake, the whole area will get really quiet and then the area the predator is actually in will erupt in sound alerting the surrounding area to the exact location of the predator.
However, we all know we need protein as well, so making sure there were no holes in training, we set out to rustle up some grub. Literally. Once we found a tree with grubs in it (find a dead tree and put your ear up to it, you can hear them eating on the inside) we chopped the tree down and used an axe to open it up and start harvesting the grubs. Before putting the grub into the pouch we made out of a palm leaf, we bit the head, thus killing it instantly and ensuring it won’t crawl out and make an escape. We had that day’s harvest with dinner that night. I thought they were a little greasy when cooked, but tasted like raw almonds.
In the evenings, after the sun went down, we would go for long hikes along the rivers and spear fish. Using flashlights we would spot the fish as they slept near the bank and use the spears we fashioned back in camp to attempt to harvest them. I say “attempt” because the truth of the matter is that our Jacuna guide was the only one proficient enough to ensure we had fish to eat. But we learned a lot during our attempts and I am convinced that with a little more time we could have done pretty well.
A. Joe Flowers and Rodolfo working on one of the traps on the trap line. B. The platform we built for easier access down to the small nearby river. C. Working on hollowing out my blow gun during some downtime. D. Chief Gustavo, of the Makuna tribe. E. Jacuna fish traps. F. The best way to keep boots dry. This will not keep small critters like scorpions or killerpillars out of your boots, so you still need to shake them out before putting them on. G. The table in the commons area. H. Rustling up some grub.
One of the things I noticed immediately upon getting to Colombia is the machete is life there. Most people in Colombia (at least in areas like this) are given their first machete when they are four and they have one for the rest of their lives. So it was no surprise that a strong emphasis was placed on proper machete maintenance. Sharpening our machetes with a couple files that made the trip with us became a daily ritual. But aside from just using the files we were also shown a means of sharpening our machete on a log using the sand from the jungle floor. What made this even more effective is the fact that you can use different grains of sand to go from a basic edge to a keen one.
WASN’T ALL WORK
The last full day we were there we were taken for a hike a few miles deeper into the jungle where we met the Chief of a Makuna tribe, where we were invited into his large maloca (term for a traditional Indigenous house) and shown great hospitality as he sat with us and enlightened us with stories of his tribe and how he became Chief. After spending this time with us and providing us with something to eat he allowed us to go down the path and fish from his river.
BASE CAMP TWO
After returning back to Tanimboca from the first base camp we took a short excursion into Leticia (the local town) and did a little shopping, eating and sight-seeing before returning to prepare our gear for the long hike in the morning. It was important to really scour through our gear to rid ourselves of unnecessary weight, which is never easy, but was essential. The next morning we awoke and loaded our gear onto the truck that would take us to the drop-off point to begin our nine-mile hike.
The hike in was definitely different than the hike to the first base camp, which made us all glad for the time we had spent the first few days learning to traverse the jungle. Although the altitude was relatively the same from the beginning of the hike to the end, there were a lot of steep ups and downs, fairly deep waters and dense jungle with many obstacles. Unfortunately for me, I was sick during the hike (I believe from the salad I had eaten in town the day before) with diarrhea and a fever that registered upward of 102 degrees. I have done a lot of hiking in my life, but this was the most grueling I have ever experienced. Although I was a bit delirious, I forged on in autopilot and just followed the man in front of me, taking quick power naps at every stop. It wasn’t easy, but I made it.
Due to illness, as soon as we arrived at our final destination I immediately set up my hammock and laid down for a nap. Fortunately for me, our expedition included some very good people and they helped to finish setting up my bug net and shelter while I slept. When I awoke for dinner I made my way down to the commons area that had been established and was surprised to find a table, much like a picnic table, fashioned by our Jacuna guides out of surrounding trees and chicken gut vines. It was quite sturdy and very impressive. After dinner I immediately went back to bed to attempt to sleep off what ailed me.
The next morning when I went back down to the commons area for breakfast there was a shelter over the table and a whole kitchen area, made from the surrounding materials, complete with a long counter for food and a roof made of palm leaves thatched together. The Jacuna guides work fast and they work well. Later that day we were taught how to thatch together the roof panels and we helped complete the roof over the kitchen. The next day we went down to the river and constructed a small deck out over the water for use in washing dishes, water procurement and a platform to set toiletries while bathing.
One of the Jacuna guides brought a blowgun and we attempted to hunt for monkey (in hunting parties of two). Unfortunately, probably due to having a group of people maneuvering around in the jungle, the hunt for monkey did not go well and the hunt for caiman met the same fate. However, we did set up a trap line to snare some Bird of Paradise and that ended up paying off. We only got one bird, but it was enough for a delicious stew that filled us all.
PASSING THE DOWNTIME
We didn’t have a whole lot of downtime, because in the jungle there is always something to be working on. But there were times when we would all just spend some time sitting around the table and it was at these times that we got to tell stories, joke around, sharpen our knives and machetes and work on projects. Some guys would take this time to write the day’s experiences in a journal and others would carve little figurines out of the beautiful blood wood we harvested. Andy Tran, of Innerbark Outdoors, and I used this time to make our own Jacuna blow guns and bows, with the guidance of our Jacuna guides, out of all natural materials harvested from the jungle around us.
This was one of the most rewarding experiences of the trip for me, but more than just rewarding, they almost became necessary when Andy, Dan Eastland, of Dogwood Custom Knives, and I spent the last night in our own camp about a mile away from base camp. Having found evidence there was a jaguar in the area, we were provided with a quiver full of poison darts to go with our new blow guns for security.
Being much healthier for the trip out made it much easier and I was actually lucid enough to remember a lot of the hike. Unfortunately, due to some heavy rains two nights before, most of the smaller streams were now about chest high and the only option was wading through. I made sure to remind everybody of the caiman we were hunting in these waters just two nights before, just to keep our eyes peeled. Other than the periods of deep waters (some almost the length of a football field) the hike was good and we made it out unscathed.
As if to not be outdone by the jungle itself, our host Goran gave us a great send-off, starting with a boat ride on the Amazon River, lunch at a very cool restaurant right on the river (complete with hammocks for siestas) and then finishing off with a great dinner and celebration back at La Arenosa. The trip to the Amazon was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done and I was grateful to have such great guides from whom to learn. I truly felt after this experience, and the skills learned, that I could have found my way out of the jungle alive in an emergency situation. Along with that were the friends made during this experience I will count as friends for the rest of my life.
The Amazon jungle is one of the most amazing places on Earth and even though everything there is constantly struggling for survival it is also teeming with life. It is almost impossible to go more than a few feet without finding some source of food and all around you are ingredients to make medicines to cure almost anything. After leaving the Amazon jungle it occurred to me that you may leave it, but it will never leave you. I will be going back.
SKILLS LEARNED AND
PRACTICED IN THE JUNGLE:
> Making a Jacuna blow gun
> Making a Jacuna bow
> Spear fishing
> Making thatched roof panels
> Building structures completely out of natural materials
> Setting trap lines for ground birds
> Machete maintenance in the middle of the jungle with and without a file
> Staying dry (just kidding, you don’t stay dry in the jungle)
> Making and setting fish traps
> Finding food in the Amazon
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.