Jim Austin's Vermonter at Large
Jim Austin
Jim Austin
is a freelance writer from Putney, Vermont.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 05.05.04


Into Hell's Garden

For years I have been plotting a fishing trip to Belize with Shorty. I scouted the perfect spot on the Internet.

Tobacco Caye is an island off the coast teeming with tarpon, barracuda, Spanish mackerel, and grouper. Shorty and I showed up at the beginning of his Spring break and spent five days fishing and snorkeling in the gin clear waters.

It was mid-week when Ruth, my peerless aspidistra, arrived. She had not been overly keen on the fishing aspect of the vacation. Ruth, in her wisdom, wanted to see the rain forest.

Rain forest camping was discussed. While sitting behind my computer in my air-conditioned study this seemed like jolly fun. Walk a few miles to a leafy glade, set up camp with the help of various guides and porters, then caper about identifying birds of paradise, butterflies, and furry mammals of every stripe. Not as adrenaline-pumping as catching a 50-pound tarpon but efficacious nonetheless.

I may have misinterpreted the "rainforest camping info" on the web site.

Instead of leisurely days flitting about the flora, we were set to march ten miles per day for three days through narrow trails over mountains, through caves. and into broadleaf forest following a machete-wielding Mayan guide. Thirty miles -- not bad, right? Ten miles a day, no big deal.

Try doing it in sauna. It was the Bataan death march all over again. An hour and a half into the walk I was soaked with sweat and desperately thinking up reasons to turn back. Unfortunately for these plans a young woman joined us on the trek.

Cindy was a travel writer and photographer who weighed about 100 pounds and carried a pack weighing about half that. I tip the scales at about 230 and my backpack weighed around 15 pounds and has a kitty stenciled on it. If I collapsed sobbing in the middle of the trail after two miles my son and wife would have even more contempt for me.

Still, I considered it.

The first few miles saw our Mayan guide pointing out some of the more interesting flora and fauna that we would be encountering along the way.

"This is spiny bamboo" Marcos enthused. "Avoid it at all costs."

Spiny bamboo looks ordinary bamboo except that every 3 inches there is a trio of 3-inch-long spikes that would, in our guide's words, "puncture a hiking boot or the tire on your Land Rover." That was one of several plants adorned with flesh-rending lancets. The bull-horned something or other had spikes also.

Not ordinary spikes mind you but spikes filled with fire ants that poured out and sank venomous mandibles into you if you disturbed them.

"Don't eat that berry" chuckled Marcos. Even if you touch it your optic nerves will disintegrate. That insect is very bad, you'll die screaming if he bites you or even a close relative."

The rainforest is Hell's garden. Oh, and the bot flies don't forget the bot flies. According to the guide of doom they lay their eggs in the tiniest sore or wound and after a day or two you notice a small hole.

"That's so the larva can breath," says Marcos.

If left to grow you end up with a two-inch worm under you skin that will emerge and fly away, leaving a suppurating hole in your arm, ear, or whatever.

"Just cover the hole with duct tape and leave it for 24 hours -- it will die and you can just squeeze the corpse out like a large pimple."

Wow, another use for duct tape.

The only relief from the oppressive heat was soaking in the river at lunch and after we made camp. The temperature in the caves we went through was cooler but staring bug-eyed at the vampire bats with three-foot wingspreads was too distracting to note the difference.

Speaking of making camp, I wondered after we stopped who had the tents. No tents. We all set up fully enclosed hammocks. This, Marcos explained, saved a lot of weight. Every night we slid into a black tube suspended between two trees and waited to be devoured by jaguars like a giant taco.

Suffice to say that I didn't see any of the birds, flowers, or mammals that Ruth and Shorty rhapsodized about as we trudged through the forest. I kept my eyes on the trail and fantasized about the Belizean beer that awaited me at the end of the journey.

Now that my tick bites are on the mend and the duct tape is off of my bot fly holes, would I do it again?

NO WAY on earth would I do it again. I won't even look at a picture of the rainforest again. If you want Marcos's web site here it is:

I told him I would pass it along if he carried my pack for the last ten miles.