01 Feb Deep in the Amazon Rainforest
Nothing scares me.
I live for adventure. The unknown. The undiscovered and the sweet rush of adrenaline that courses through my veins every time I stare smiling into the very face of death and give him the finger.
I’ve hunted grizzly in the Alaskan wilderness armed with nothing but a bow to give my apex predator prey a fair shot at winning.
I’ve scaled Yosemite’s El Capitaine mountain, all 3000 feet of its vertical rock face in just 24 hours while sleeping in suspended hammocks I hung from the pitons I wedged into the rock.
I’ve survived sandstorms in the Sahara and a mid Atlantic hurricane as I sailed from Newfoundland to Portugal alone in my wind propelled sailboat.
I always travel alone. I refuse sherpas, guides or anything else of the like. They ruin the experience so I pay them to look the other way.
I’m also incredibly lucky.
Not just with near death close calls, which god knows there’s been more than a few, but with life in general.
I’m 33 years old and in the prime of my life. I’ve never had to work a day of it because I come from a ridiculous amount of wealth. My family owns one of the largest retail chains in North America and money is no object for us. My father says he and his father before him worked all their lives building an empire so the future descendants of our family wouldn’t have to.
My ancestors hail from Portugal and my father says the blood of discovery and conquest runs through our veins. I tend to agree with that because I suffer from a serious case of wanderlust. If I stay too long in a city with all its creature comforts, modern utilities, and domesticated people, I end up feeling like a caged animal in a concrete zoo.
My family has always understood my particular affliction so they’ve encouraged and funded every single one of my expeditions on the sole condition that I document everything on my satellite phone which connects me to the internet and is how I’m able to write this to you now.
The whole reason I traversed the Atlantic in the first place was to reconnect with my heritage stopping only on Portugal’s offshore land of the Azores along the way to resupply. I wanted to walk the same land that my ancestors did. Travel the same waters and feel the same sense of accomplishment, so I retraced their steps. This mimicry has lead me all over the world and finally to the Amazon in Portugal’s largest former colony, Brasil.
It’s hard to imagine in our modern era that there remains places left on the planet to be discovered, let alone something as colossal as the Amazon, but here she stands. Five and a half million square kilometers in all her glory just begging to be explored.
To put that into perspective that’s larger than all of the territory controlled by the Roman Empire at its peak. Rome at that time stretched from as far west as the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula in Europe, and as far east to the sands of Iran in western Asia. All of that territory including Roman coastal North Africa would fit comfortably within the Amazon with over a million square kilometers to spare.
To this day, there lives dozens, if not hundreds of tribes of indigenous people who remain uncontacted.
If I had found one of them it would have been the highlight of my entire life. Hell, if I would have found some new species of frog I’d have been content, and I don’t even much like frogs. So if someone would have told me a week ago that I would be the first to set eyes on an a structure in the middle of the jungle that has remained untouched for god knows how long I’d have been elated.
It’s been said that more tears have been shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
When I found it I was about to cut my exhibition short and make my way back to civilization. I had provisioned for weeks but by the 4th day I had already had enough.
The Amazon is the most relentless and unforgiving terrain I’ve ever encountered which is probably a pretty good reason why it has remained largely unmapped.
The air is so thick here with humidity that you cough up the water that accumulates in your lungs throughout the day as if you’re drowning one breath of fresh air at a time.
When the air itself is wet, so is everything else and if you’re not careful, the very ground you walk on firm and steady with one step will swallow your leg to the ankle with the next and hold on tight with shackles of mud as dense and dark as clay.
Insects are more of a concern here than anywhere else in the world that I’ve encountered and I don’t just mean the large venomous kind like spiders or centipedes. These creatures are deadly, a single bite from either would likely spell the end of my life out here with no medical attention, but they have no reason to bite you. They don’t see you as prey and actively go out of their way to avoid you.
The mosquitoes are an obvious choice because they’re everywhere. They loom in the air like fog and every single one of them carry the risk of sickness or infection. They buzz in your ears in that startling way that causes you to jolt and slap hard at your skin though it hardly matters because every single one of them that you kill is waiting to be replaced by a hundred others. All the stagnant water here is ideal for their procreation and the putrid smell of that bacteria is overwhelming and hangs heavy in the air alongside them. Zika, dengue fever, malaria and lord knows what else is a concern of course but I’ve taken the appropriate precautions and vaccinations before coming here. I expected them.
I didn’t expect the goddamn ants.
I swear I’ve never given the insect a second thought in my life until I got here. Hundreds of different types of the most aggressive, vicious, hostile little assholes I’ve ever had the displeasure of encountering. You can hardly stand idle without them swarming the hand that rests on a tree or them claiming your backpack where you left it on the ground to stretch your aching back. Red ants, army ants, bullet ants, each one more terrible than the last. My heart nearly stopping completely when one of the latter found its way into my boot through an opening where my pant leg untucked. A sting from one of those and the victim can only wait it out and writhe on the ground in an agony that builds and crescendos over the course of several hours. It’s what I’ve been told anyway, I have no interest in finding out for myself.
Another thing that cannot be ignored is the noise.
You’ll find no stillness here. Every square foot of this jungle is teeming with life and commotion. The insects buzz near constant, the birds screech at all hours and the monkeys howl at your presence. I get the same feeling of agitation here as I do in the big city without an ounce of concrete in sight.
Noise was the final straw that nearly drove me from the rainforest but it was also noise that kept me from leaving. More specifically a sound. Seemingly out of nowhere, completely out of place as much felt as it was heard, a comforting rounded vibrato in the sharp screeching symphony of the jungle. A deep pulsating hum that reverberated through the ground beckoning me to it’s source.
Hypnotic to the extent that I followed without question. I remember cutting through thick brush and vine to get there. I remember walking with my backpack above my head as I crossed a body of murky water. I remember the hum increasing in intensity. I don’t remember it taking a full day to make it there.
My watch read midday before I heard the hum, but the sun had already began to set when I stood before the structure though, I didn’t register much at the time.
The noise lead me to a ravine and at the base of that ravine stood stone gates.
I could hear nothing else over the noise. Less a hum now and more a roar that drowned out the jungle that increased in intensity with every step I took toward it. The rumble so overwhelming that I was forced to block my ears as I drew nearer.
As abruptly as it began, it all at once stopped when I stood directly in front of it. The speed and sudden change in intensity caused me to lose my balance for a moment and with its silence, the familiar sounds of the amazon were once again audible when I removed my hands from where they rested over my ears.
Birds, breeze, running water, all of it.
I observed my discovery in awe. Massive twin slabs of stone standing side by side almost seamlessly and held up by enormous primitive hinges. Locked only by a massive wooden log resting horizontally on iron brackets creating a door bolt.
I whispered something inaudible even to myself and looked around me. The walls on either side and behind the doors ran incredibly high and the tree roots and vines that grew dense out of them blocked out most of the setting sun. A small creek ran between my feet and I followed its stream with my eyes to where it ran under the small gap beneath the stone. Thinking that the water must feed into an underground cave blocked only by the gate.
Water marks and algae covered its base formed by the rising and falling levels of the creek throughout the year. Letting my eyes travel all the way to the top, I noticed something that I hadn’t before. Words.
Six of them. Three carved into each stone slab.
“Abandone toda esperança quem entra aqui”
My Portuguese was rusty but I instantly recognized it as a warning. I felt a smile tug at the corners of my mouth and before I knew it, I was laughing hysterically. I threw my head back and let out a thunderous cry of triumph.
I had discovered something.
If the conquistadores of the old world thought it necessary to build a structure like this out in the middle of nowhere to discourage entry, then whatever lie behind it will surely land me on the cover of national geographic.
I lifted one end of the massive log with all my strength and allowed it to crash at my feet, then made my way to the opposite end to repeat the process. I dragged the log as far away from the stone as I could.
The hinges screamed as they moved for the first time in centuries and I screamed with them from the excersion it took to put them in motion. When the doors where ajar, I stood before them doubled over and panting. Watching as the sweat from my face dripped into the stream and flow into the entrance.
I gazed into it shaking my head and squinting at the light. Of all the things I was expecting to lie behind those doors, a valley was not among them.
Daylight had already faded into blackness behind me, but before me within the entrance a glow emitted like unobstructed moonlight. I straightened walking right up to it and breathed deeply as I passed its threshold. The breath I drew was refreshingly free from humidity, clean and somewhat cool. The moon overhead was indeed unobstructed and it’s light shone brightly in tandem with the constellations that littered the heavens.
Hundreds if not thousands of yellow fireflies scattered around the landscape mimicking the shimmering stars with soft bioluminescence. The reflection of the moon on the rushing water of the creek was sparkling in competition. All this creating the most breathtakingly beautiful scene I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.
The valley was vast but its borders were visible. It’s 50 or 55 acres guarded by mountainous walls on all sides like a crater. I walked, mouth open at the wonder of it all.
Everything here seemed out of place for South America. The climate, the trees, the bloody grass… all of it. What I found exactly I still wasn’t sure. A different ecosystem that seems to have evolved independently from, yet still deep within the rainforest. I named it “Eden” because I thought “Paradise found” would make a hell of a headline.
I walked around the valley taking in the majesty of this place. The cool breeze on my skin and the sweetness of the air, until I finally removed my gear from my aching shoulders and lay it on the bank of the creek. Sprawling myself out next to it on the cool grass, gazing up at the spectacular night sky grinning. For the first night since I stepped foot in this God forsaken place, I drifted off to sleep deeply and uninterrupted.
I awoke to nothing. No squawking parrots, no buzzing insects, no noise. Only the comforting sound of the creek filled the air and I made a silent prayer to anyone listening for that.
The sun shined merrily in the blue sky so I took this opportunity to retrieve my solar panel from my backpack to charge my phone. I took in my surroundings for the first time in the light of day to appreciate the stunning array of colour this Eden offered. From the vivid evergreen pasture on the ground, to the crystal blue of the sky, and everything in between was magnificently vibrant.
It felt safe here.
I began documenting my discovery jotting down my findings in the leather journal I packed and snapped pictures for reference.
I don’t know exactly when that feeling of security began to wane throughout the morning, but I do remember It was the sound of my breathing that alerted me to the fact that I could hear nothing else.
No birds or insects still, but even the creek was now silent. The hair on the back of my neck stood at the realization that a pin drop could be heard should one fall anywhere in this valley.
I dropped my gear and made my way to the outer walls where the gate stood scaling the hill that stood between us. I was at the peak when I was able to see past the cliffs of the walls above me.
My eyes shifting from the crystal blue of the sky above me to the deep blackness that began to swallow it whole from the peripherals.
I rubbed my eyes at this but it didn’t seem to help. Above me in a large circle was the sky as I’d always known it, but in a larger ring around it was blackness. I say blackness but it hardly does it justice. Night is black but night is something, what surrounded the sky was more than black – it was nothing.
I looked back at the bank of the creek where I spent the night and realized why I could no longer hear water because there was none left of it to speak of. The very ground it ran over was left cracked and dry.
A new colour was introduced to the palette of the valley – brown. The plant life so vibrant and alive just this morning began to wilt and dry before my very eyes as if they were plagued by drought.
Confusion set in as my eyes scanned the walls for the gate and panic took its place when they found it closed. I bolted toward it whispering “no” under my breath repeatedly and begun screaming it, as I pushed with all of my might against the slabs that refused to give an inch.
I paced as my mind ran through my options. If I couldn’t go through the gate I could at least scale the walls. These were nothing in comparison to el capitaine. I ran back to where I dropped my gear and pulled out what I’d need for the ascent.
By the time I made it back it was too late. The blackness that consumed the sky above me now consumed the walls before me. Taking the gate with it. I stood there for a long while staring into the abyss shaking my head in an attempt to wake up from this nightmare until I realized that meant that the blackness was still moving.
I made a line in the dirt with my foot to confirm it and watched in horror as inch by inch it was swallowed up by the shadows.
I jogged around the perimeter looking for the opening I’d never find. My heart sinking at the realization that the void was closing in from all directions like a cylinder or a noose.
All I could do was retreat toward the center as it stalked forward.
Confusion, panic, frustration and anticipation flooded through me like andrenaline untill I was almost quite literally pulling out my hair.
Minutes grew into hours and I howled into the abyss in defiance but it offered no echo as reply. The rocks I hurled into it were swallowed whole with no sign or sound of them landing.
No way under,
No way over,
No way out.
I made my way back to my gear and sat beside it head in hands. Powerlessness a completely foreign concept to me. The grass beneath me cracked like dry leaves under my weight as opened my bag to retrieve my canteen. My camera fell from where it was nestled within it, illuminating the rear LCD screen in the tumble.
The image of the last picture I took filled its display and I felt my brow furrow as I leaned over to pick it up. I struggled to comprehend what it was that I was seeing. In the place of the lush green forestry I had been photographing was a photo of smoke.
I hit the left keypad to scroll back through my other shots and the next dozen or so were much of the same. I checked the timestamps to make sure these were In fact the same photo’s I had taken earlier to confirm.
Embers were introduced as I continued to scroll and slowly they grew stronger into flame with every click of the button. My heart pounding in my throat until abruptly the screen went from inferno to black.
Another hit of the button and yet another black screen. I checked the numbering at the top right and it read 600 of 757 another click and the monitor remained black but 600 fell to 599 It was at the 546th shot when I saw it.
Two yellow specks of light in the distance of the photo the next five clicks brought them slowly closer. The five that followed after that introduced more pairs of yellow light until the screen was shimmering as if I’d taken a picture of the clear night sky. It was only as the original pair grew ever closer to my camera that I registered what I was looking at.
Thousands of pairs them scattered everywhere watching me from all angles in the darkness and waves of chills ran through my body as I remembered my first night here.
The final click of the button turned my screen a bright yellow altogether as if one of the eyes were pressed up close against the lens. I squinted at the brightness realizing for the first time just how dark my surroundings were becoming.
I looked up and all I could do was watch as bit by bit the blackness eclipsed the sun above me, the light growing fainter until all together I was plunged into darkness.
It’s been nineteen hours since then and my phone’s battery reads two percent at the end of my typing this and with no sun left for my solar panel to source, I fear this is my final word.
I watch as my leather journal burns in the fire that I’ve made to ward off the cold. I observe as the light it’s emitting is absorbed by the void no bigger at this point than my own arm span. The hum I first heard in the amazon comes and goes louder than ever making it difficult to think.
What happens when it closes I can’t be sure. As I pulled out another object from my bag to burn, an ant from the Amazon ran from where it was taking refuge within it, and the sight of another living creature filled me with more joy than I can put into words.
I tried to make him stay.
I tried to prevent him from scurrying off into the blackness, throwing my self on the ground stretching my hand out to catch him.
I couldn’t help but weep like a child at this abandonment.
Just a day ago I wished death on every single one of them that resided in the jungle and now I’d give anything to be kept company by one.
To not have to face this alone.
To my family, take care of each other. I love you all more than anything and I’m sorry that I’m forced to leave you.
Dad, I promised you that I would never let you outlive a child, forgive me.
Don’t come looking for me.
Don’t come looking for it.
I found something out here in the jungle.
What it is I don’t know, but I’ve heard it said that Hell is a culmination of everything that you fear most and, as I stare into the nothingness that surrounds me. I can’t help but laugh out loud because there’s not a goddamn thing in this world that I’m afraid of.
Nothing scares me.