Beware the Otter

Today we have left the motoroised canoe behind and we are progressing upriver Indian style, by paddle, at dawn. We are on the trail of the giant Amazon river otter.

Diego has a lead. He has heard of a suspected otter nest a few miles upriver. We will approach it by stealth, paddling silently through the swamp waters and hopefully catching a sight of this rare mammal.

The giant otter is the largest of the mustelid family, a beast that grows to roughly the same length as Menna (though at 35kg, it is somewhat more svelte). Over the last few decades the population of giant otters has been decimated. It is the usual story of encroaching humanity: fur hunters, mercury poisoning, loss of habitat. It is now listed by the UN as an endangered species.

A ‘few miles upriver’ turns out to be a couple of hours of hard paddling. It is a fairly intense early morning workout. We make our way up the main Cuyabeno, then we branch off to follow a section of smaller tributaries and channels deep into the jungle. Branches hang down all around us, bromeliads spurt up from the banks, occasional orchids hang down and there are some bright red flowers I don’t recognise. We find ourselves paddling through wide muddy pools then punting our way through interconnecting passages that are really no more than muddy ditches.

“Quiet!” says Diego, as he so often does. Our kids are arguing and hitting each other, they need a swift kick. There is a hoarse shouting sound somewhere up ahead. “We are close.”

We pull through a curtain of branches and suddenly there they are: dark shapes rearing out of the muddy water, spinning and slithering around in the sunlit shallows. It’s hard to count them because they are in constant motion, but there must be five large adults and a couple of tiny pups.

The otter group spots our canoe and they collectively freeze for a second. Then a delegation of three males turns and heads over towards us.

Otters are like pretty much the cutest animals in the world right? Furry, intelligent, playful. They float on their backs and hold hands. They slide down mud banks. They have expressive eyes and funny whiskers.

But not these frickin otters.

These ones are large and scary.

Diego mentioned the other day that the giant otter could take on a jaguar, but I didn’t really get the implications of this. Now I very clearly see what he means.

They come straight for the boat, rearing up out of the water like aquatic prairie dogs, barking and shouting in a very unfriendly way. Their teeth are yellow, their eyes are red and and their claws look sharp enough to rip your stomach open with a single swipe. The Spanish name for the giant otter is lobo de agua, the water wolf.

“We are too near the pups. We will back off gently,” says Diego quietly. “They can attack the canoe from underneath and sometimes they are strong enough to turn us over.”

Images of the seven of us thrashing around in the dark waters while sinewy fur streaks slip and swirl around in the gloom, scratching, biting, butting. Blood clouds, bubbles, piranhas clustering, alligators slipping in from the shores.

We retreat back some meters and then the otters all submerge, and unsure whether we are about to get torpedoed from beneath, we brace. The rest of the family melts away back into the mangroves. The sounds of the forest return. No otter faces emerge and we are left in stasis, silent, slightly shaken, awestruck by this close-up encounter with such an magnificent mammal.

Onwards we paddle down these lost waterways, heading deeper into the wilderness, or so it it feels though I have no cardinal reference points. Have we crossed into Colombia or Peru? I have no idea how Diego can navigate in this world, so far away from our lodge, where trees are dense and prolific, where water and land merge into unsubstantial floating vegetation, where secret channels hide beyond curtains of hanging foliage.

We push our canoe through gaps between tree roots and bushes, we duck low branches. “Careful!” Diego whispers, “Don’t touch!”

There is a seemingly impenetrable wall of leaves that Diego wants us to pass through at one point. We paddle the canoe straight for it and then like magic we glide right through to find ourselves in a deep and silent black pool encircled by the most ancient looking buttressed trees. It is the stuff of fairy tales. As we look around awestruck, absorbing the enchantment, there is a noise. A yelp, hoarse and high, then another louder one. What is this?

It takes me a moment to realise that this cry is not an aquatic mammal guarding its territory, but my daughter. She is sobbing in high gulps and tearing at her top. The foliage that we just brushed through is home to a colony of fire ants and many of them are now trying to colonise Matilda. They are roaming inside her clothes, biting and stinging her back and chest. She screams.

Then I feel it too. I have several inside my collar and they really fucking hurt. The bites burn, like, like… fire!

We settle, we moor up, we console Matilda, we scratch our wounds. We are tired from paddling so we fish for piranhas, using old bacon on handheld lines. The fish are too cunning for us though. Within seconds of putting the line down into that febrile water, there are tugs and shivers, the bacon is surgically stripped away, but the hook keeps comes up empty. Down in the murky depths beneath us there is a lot of movement.

Matilda is still whimpering and writhing. Menna is bent over her like a mother chimpanzee, stroking her, grooming her, pulling off ants. We have spotted a huge spider lurking immobile on a tree root right next to our canoe and it’s mildly freaking everyone out. I need the loo. We are stiff but we cannot stretch out, any attempt to leave this small craft means stepping into a hostile quagmire, sinking down into a seething mulch of hungry creatures.

This right here, I think to myself, is what exploring is really about. Unimaginable beauty, true wilderness but it must be paid for in the currency of discomfort, fear and danger. I feel proud that my children have paid the price and will take these moments back into the world with them. We go adventuring to collect vivid memories and experience the rush of extreme sensations, but it is not always fun in the moment. No-one is relaxed in our canoe right now – except Diego who is impervious to discomfort.

On our way back we come across another otter lodge. This time we are at just the right distance. Close enough to see the full antics, far away enough not to pose a threat. We see the otters climbing up the bank and slithering down, playing, messing around. They are submerging themselves and rolling, wallowing in the muddy shallows. Sometimes they appear to be laughing.

From this distance they really are quite cute.

Night Walk

Humans are not well equipped to deal with the nocturnal environment. This becomes ever more apparent as we grope our way along the jungle path; leaves, creepers, spider webs tickling our faces in the darkness. We inch forwards following the intermittent light of Diego’s torch somewhere up ahead, weaving through tangled silhouettes like a willow the wisp.

We have seen frogs and spiders tonight – lots of spiders – mainly venomous. Scorpions too. We have watched seething lines of ants devouring cicadas on a thorn tree. I have come face to face with a snake (type unknown) that uncoiled itself and slithered away between the tree roots with impressive speed, leaving me frozen, crouching in an awkward unbalanced position, unnerved and very glad that it had chosen not to insert its fangs in my unprotected nose. There were slithery movements in the rivulets that could have been caimans or anacondas or perhaps they were just forest rats.

Despite Diego’s requests for us to stay together and stay silent, the two Ecuadorean girls in our party are doing a lot of nervous whispery chatter and occasional screams. I am worried that their noise will scare away any of the more interesting nocturnal sightings: armadillos, tapirs, big cats.

Diego stops to give a hushed lecture about a chrysalis and I wander on a few paces ahead. I slip round a corner and then I am alone. I hold my torch clenched in my fist, so my hand glows red and thin spears of light emerge out from between my fingers. It is dim enough to protect my night vision but just enough to make out a ghostly path.

I can still hear the group talking behind me and I have an urge to get away from the voices. I push on down the track. I have this vision of slipping away and communing somehow with the forest, silently becoming part of the ecosystem. A witness to prowling shadows as they slip through the glades. Perhaps I will come face to face with a jaguar. We will look into each others’ eyes and share some timeless moment of mutual understanding. I will come back wiser and wilder, with the faraway look of the forest shaman.

And now suddenly the daydream is real and I am totally alone. No sounds, no lights. I switch off my torch and stand there silently in the utter darkness. I can see a few faraway stars through gaps in the canopy, but their light does not penetrate to the forest floor. I wait to see the jungle come alive.

And all around life surges forward.

In the absence of sight all noise is magnified and takes on a layered texture. Slithering, rustling, croaking, calling, twitching, scratching, trilling, growling, chirping. It’s like a three dimensional world builds suddenly outwards, like a radar view or a heat map. A contoured living landscape all around me, seething and moving.

Then a heavy foot cracks a twig not far away and at the same time there is a significant squelching sound to my left. Something else runs across the back of my neck and immediately all my zen is lost. I am suddenly very scared. Everything around here is predatory or poisonous. I am the only creature here without decent teeth or claws. I have no finely calibrated flight reflexes. All I have is a finely-tuned imagination and it is going wild right now.

I remember Diego’s story about a guide who took a wrong path and was lost in the jungle for three weeks. He emerged like a skeleton, half-deranged, with broken fingers, fungal infections and supporating insect bites.

I switch my torch on and shine it around wildly. Too fast! Was that glittering the reflection of eyes in the torch beam, or was it moisture dripping off leaves? I run back down the track. But is it back? Which way did I come from?

And then I round a curve and I have found a kind of safety, clattering into the group who are now discussing a fungus. “Shhh!” says Diego. I pant and edge my way into the safety of the herd.

“Are you scared Daddy?” Says Matilda. “It’s ok. You can hold my hand”

Amazon

When morning breaks we are stiff and grumpy. We have been tossed around on dirt roads all night, jolted over speed bumps, woken by angry motorbikes buzzing past us in the darkness. We’ve passed through roadblocks and forded rivers, squirming all the while, trying to find comfy positions in the back of the bus while the children’s heads loll like pendulums with each turn. I feel like every spring of that worn seat has scored its curved imprint into my buttocks.

We all spill out into the village at dawn. Buildings on stilts list heavily over the river, peeling paint, warped boards, lianas tangled round gables. The water moves past, thick like treacle. Somewhere above us we hear the metallic skiffle of iguana claws on corrugated roofs.

We eat breakfast in a dusty wood space looking out into jungle: rice and beans, guava juice, a small cup of instant coffee. Talk is limited. There is an outhouse with a toilet back in the woods, but it doesn’t flush and everyone needs to go.

Deep in the Putumayo region, somewhere near the Colombian border, this village has no name on the map. It is merely a stop off point on the Cuyabeno river, a jump-off point into the Amazon, a backwater in the truest sense of the word.

A motorized canoe glides up and moors on the jetty. We board clumsily. We are handed lifejackets and ponchos, our luggage is stowed under tarps. I look around at my companions properly in the daylight. There is my family, looking dazed and pale, two Ecuadorean girls chattering, a young looking boy from Norway and our guide, Diego, a slight, elfin character, alert and bird-like. At the tiller is Carlos, our local riverman. He has broad impassive indigenous features, a wide white-toothed grin, bare feet.

Then we cast off and we enter a new world.

The river is bronze and torpid (“Café con leche water, rich in tannins and sediment,” says Diego) but then we skim through patches of black ink (“Agua negra, poor sediment. See how it is thin…”). All traces of mankind disappear behind us, we see no more villages, just thick curtains of leaves. The canoe glides along with a growl, banking around the bends in smooth lazy curves. Occasionally we cross another canoe and sometimes Carlos waves or shouts a greeting in local dialect. Mainly the river runs slick and silent around us, bubbling and swirling, merging into low hanging branches and shrubbery that in turn blend up into endless stories of green primary growth.

We see many wild things on that first voyage. Diego runs a low commentary, voice rising to signify the rarity of the target, pointing and calling, directing Carlos from one side of the river to the other, doubling back for a missed monkey troupe or to investigate a rustling in the bushes. Six or seven types of monkey we spot, deer, Ananinda birds, ancient prehistoric turkeys, kingfishers, spiders an eagle? Arthur wakes up, becomes more and more animated, pointing and chirping like a little cricket: “Is that a white-throated toucan Diego?”

At one point the grey skies above us open up and we cruise on through a deluge, everyone scrambling to put on black rubber ponchos, peering out from under dripping hoods. All sounds recede beyond the drumming of droplets on wet tarp. Birds disappear, movements on the river are masked by the splashing. Carlos grins and guns the boat forward through vertical sheets of water.

Our lodge is a fairly rudimentary affair. A boathouse by the riverside with a couple of hammocks and some bare wooden steps. A raised duckboard trail leads around a square of cleared grassland wherein lie piles of lumber, home no doubt to various highly venomous snakes. There is a feeling of jungle torpor, the smell of decay and lethargy. A basic canteen area houses a long single table and benches. There is a row of thatched cabins with dormitory style rooms. We have a double bed and two singles in our bedroom, each tented with a mosquito net. The walls are bare, there are no shelves, no chairs, a basic bathroom out back. No electricity of course, except for two hours in the evening when the diesel generator is switched on to charge cameras and essentials. There is no phone signal, no hot water, no WiFi. This is the Amazon. “We are explorers!” I tell the kids, “Not poolside lounge lizards.” Matilda gives me one of her most lizard-like looks:
“I am not an explorer,” she says, flicking out a forked tongue, “long live lounging!”

We’re back in the canoe a few hours later, venturing down sinuous tributaries, spotting an anaconda curled on a submerged branch; pink river dolphins breaching in the distance; a mother sloth with cubs on her back. “Is it a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth Diego?” asks Arthur.
“Show-off” I mutter.

And then we round a bend and we’re at an unexpected lake. It is vast, lost somewhere deep in the forest, encircled by ancient woods. A flood plain, Diego tells us, those floating bushes we see are actually the canopies of tall submerged trees. We dive off the canoe and swim. The water is sweet to the taste and I imagine it rich and dense, teeming with a million bacteria, microbes, nematodes, wild diseases that they don’t even have names for yet. The sun is setting and the lake water is dark around us. We see dolphins breaching in the distance, I am sure that they are not the only creatures splashing here. Arthur and Matilda turn into river otters, they dive in time and time again, duck each other, scream, laugh, try to pull Diego into the water, dive down to find river weed. I am happy to return to the boat after a few minutes. Menna does not go in.

Later over dinner, Diego asks us to guess what creatures were swimming with us in that lake.

Piranhas?
“Of course! The piranhas are everywhere in the river. Maybe we will go fishing for them tomorrow.”
Crocodiles?
“Caimans in fact. Especially the black caiman. It is the largest one – up to six meters long. He will grab you with his jaws then twist and roll to break your bones. Then he pulls you down under to drown. For large mammals like you, he would probably store you underwater a while to rot before eating. What else?”
Anacondas?
“Yes too. They will be hunting once the sun falls. We saw one once the length of three men, round as a barrel in the middle where it was digesting something… big. There are many snakes there in the water too, coral snake, water moccasin, maybe boas.”
Beavers?
“No. River otters though, very aggressive. Will fight a jaguar.
Other reptiles?
“On the mud bottom you will find electric eels. They use low voltage electricity to sense and to hunt, kind of like a radar. Then they can generate a high voltage charge, enough to stun a tapir. They have a suction bite so they clamp on to their prey, then they can shock again and again. No charger needed!”
Oh good. What else?
“The most dangerous of all… the candiru, the toothpick fish. Never pee in the Amazon! He will swim up your urine and right up into your, ahem… penis! And he sticks out his sharp umbrella spines so you cannot pull him out again. Then my friends, he will start to eat…”

When the conversation dies down we go to bed, for there is nothing else to do. It is dark and there are no lights in our cabin. Despite the overnight bus ride and the long day we have just had, sleep does not come easily. We lie for some time under our mosquito nets listening to the sound of the jungle around, imagining snakes on the floorboards and tarantulas under the pillows, feeling river-borne parasites squirming in our guts.

Our dreams when they come are slow and heavy: brown waters and submerged coils, shadowy shapes moving in the murky depths, the lighting flash of the electric eel, that first agonizing bite of the bloody toothpick fish…

Buffalo Christmas

We wind our way through woods and shanty towns, past industrial zones and banana plantations until finally we arrive at the Caribbean coast. There is a mass migratory event that happens on the 23rd December in Costa Rica: cities empty and long lines of laden pickups jam the arterial roads. We have chosen to join them and traverse the country together. For eight hours we drive, inching our way along unlit potholed highways, sandwiched between ancient diesel trucks while Christmas hits rise and fade into radio static. This kind of trip takes its toll. Menna and I argued bitterly about some of my overtaking decisions.

Josh and Meg have come through with the goods though, finding us all a house at the eleventh hour. So it is around midnight that we roll up to our new digs: Casa Mango in Cahuita town. It is a bizarre crooked glass and steel tower, looming four stories high in a clapperboard village where no other buildings venture above two floors. The higher windows enrage the toucans that nest in the facing tree so they periodically launch frenzied attacks on their own reflections. There is a resident sloth too, navigating an arboreal map up in the towering figs; he descends to the ground once a week to deposit a prodigious mound of crap somewhere on the property.

We drive into Puerto Viejo next morning for coffee and last-minute panic buying. It’s a place with some notoriety in these parts. A reggae town where bright coloured paint peels off the driftwood store fronts, where fishermen, hustlers and barefoot surf kids mingle with Tico holidaymakers and stoner ex-pats; where dangerous snare-drum cannonades ricochet out from the beach market and the gridlocked cars on Main Street respond with honky-tonk klaxons; where bank security guards watch the crowds from behind dark glasses, fondling shotguns slung across their chests.

We arrive in town sometime around ten am on Christmas Eve and I guess the festivities must have begun a while ago, for there are already many prone bodies sprawled in doorways and stretched out under the palm trees. More Costa Ricans die with skulls cracked by falling coconuts than from all the crocodile and snake attacks together. This is one piece of wisdom I share with the others as the shopping trip slips into a more sedentary phase where fish tacos feature and cocktails on the beach. And somehow as afternoon surrenders to evening we are still there in town, presents un-wrapped, chatting with the lobster men down behind the fishing boats where the smell of weed is strongest.

The hardships of the road are behind us and we immerse ourselves into the reggae vibe. Christmas week slips past sweetly. Papaya smoothies, hard sun and transistor radio; sweltering nights with mosquito symphonies. The flushed faces of Matilda and Marlowe opening their stockings (‘Father Christmas did find us!’). Volleyball in the pool, a morning surf in Santa hats. We FaceTime our families at home, send WhatsApp messages to far off friends in alternate dimensions. Our playlist is all Lee Scratch Perry and Buju Banton, kids rocking out to the Banana Boat song. Meg cooks turkey and we eat it with chilli sauce and pineapple salsa. Cold Pilsen beers take the edge off the heat. We walk the beaches on Boxing Day, play charades and bake cookies. We are turfed out of our house and find ourselves driving around town knocking on doors in an unfortunately timed rainstorm, looking for accommodation to see in the new year.


“Where you people all from den?” asks the skinny black kid sitting on the bridge. But where we’re from doesn’t really matter now so much as where we’re going. We had been hoping to head on to Bocas Del Toro, an island archipelago across the border in Panama, but the whole country has gone into lockdown and ruined our plans.
“So tell us the news then chico, where’s the fiesta at anyhow?” but he just smiles and shakes his head. He don’t want no gringo white boys at his jam. So instead we come across Hotel Aban, a no-frills basic set of cabinas arranged around a small pool.

We eat lobster on New Year’s Eve, then swim, dance in the shallows, fight off hustlers on the beach, go to a circus show, drink margaritas and mojitos. We play loud games back at the hotel and go for a midnight swim. Time stretches, compresses, and this elasticity propels us into new year. We see 2021 in with something that resembles relief, even as we sprawl under the stars with cicadas whistling and all the dirty luxury of the Caribbean draped around us.

It is the promise of redemption and renewal that New Year brings; the clicking of astronomical gears that will surely return the world to safe kilter. This year will bring some kind of cosmic rebalancing I think, but this becomes an uneasy thought. Those of us who have floated away from the hardships of the pandemic like moths through the jail bars, where will we end up when the wheel of fate turns?

We test out 2021 gingerly: we find a sheltered bay, climb the cliffs, take pictures, get our cars stuck in the sand, eat pizza, have a beach run, make risotto, sleep off last year’s excesses. It all feels suspiciously like it did before. I stand on a rock outcropping at one point and frown out to sea, sun-dazed, spun-out and empty headed, wanting to think of something profound on that first bright day of the year. Then a huge wave surges up out of nowhere and I get soaked through.

Jungle Extraction

Once we have made the decision to go to hospital it all becomes a race. We bundle everything into our bags, wolf down a coffee and say a hurried goodbye to a worried Josh, Meg and Marlowe who we are now abandoning alone in the middle of nowhere.

Felipe our hotel manager is full of exciting options: a helicopter airlift out of La Leona perhaps or a private jet charter from that little disused jungle airstrip over in Carate? We are carried along by this for a while – (Menna thinks I’m about to haemorrhage and wants a speedy extraction) but we lose enthusiasm when we understand that this will run to several thousands of dollars which we cannot claim back. There is always the internal flight from Puerto Jiminez to San Jose this afternoon, offers Felipe, a little deflated, I could fly ahead while the rest of the family follows by car. We work out timings and see that although the drive to San Jose will take nearly twelve hours, if we set off now we can arrive about the same time the flight does anyway. It will cost considerably less and we will all be together.

Felipe is disappointed but like a trooper he guns up the quad bike, hitches on the baggage trailer, and drives us back along the beach to Carate at full throttle. It is a hot and exhilarating ride and I forget for a while that I am supposed to be ill, taking selfies and spotting hawks along the way. We then clamber into our car, finding it hot and humid with a strange smell after five days parked in the jungle rain.

We drive three hours back to civilisation, jolting our way through the Osa peninsula over mud-drifts and trenches, fallen branches, rocks and rivers. We make it to Puerto Jiminez by midday and pick up a paved, though heavily potholed road. We then settle into an eight hour drive up to the capital, made much longer by the weekend traffic clogging up the roads into the city.

As long as I am upright I am able to breathe fine. I do much of the driving in a tripped-out half-awake state, while Menna taps up a network of medical contacts, gets recommendations for doctors, digs out insurance details (for several horrific hours we can’t find any record of my policy at all. Did the transaction not go through?). She evaluates hospitals, chats with specialists, books accommodation, checks my stats.

Menna is amazing in a crisis, I think to myself as I sing along to eighties hits on the radio, occasionally spitting blood out the window. The kids are unusually quiet and well-behaved throughout the long journey.

When we walk into Emergencias there is a nurse waiting for me and I am able to sink into the torpor and passivity that hospitals are designed to create. The check-in is like arriving at a hotel chain, they copy passport details, fill out forms, give me a smiling welcome and then take a large dollar deposit on my credit card. Then I get a blood pressure cuff on my arm, thermometer in my mouth, COVID swabs up my nose, cannula into my wrist. Blood goes out, pills go in, radiation goes through. X-Rays and CT Scans show a cloudy view of my inner landscape. Doctors mutter and confer and tell me half the story. Menna asks probing medical questions and they open up fully to her.

This is a well-rehearsed drill that I am familiar with, and as I am poked and punctured, I am able to lazily rate this hospital against various other ones I have stayed in over the years. NHS hospital have a certain flavour: they are bustling, full, usually slightly tattered but with an underlying sense of heart that I always find touching. They have cream walls with scuff marks, overworked stern nurses, those ancient iron wheelchairs, eclectic art, hidden interior gardens, children’s wards with peeling underwater murals.

I once stayed some weeks in an Italian hospital after a road accident, and it had a unique sense of Latin verve – constant bubbling volume, flamboyant and inefficient doctors, crowds of relatives chatting and eating pasta round the bed where grandpa lay dying, barely suppressed chaos everywhere.

The CIMA hospital in San Jose, on the other hand, is silent, clean, new, empty. Its spotless white and grey palette doesn’t seem to reflect the diverse and colourful country of Costa Rica. Everyone here speaks quietly and deferentially and you can’t see any of their features behind the layers of PPE. It feels like a hospital in a sci-fi film.

Eventually I am moved into a room on the top floor, overlooking the mountains. I am given a fetching set of yellow pyjamas. The doctors agree that my lung is full of blood, but they don’t know why, so I stay overnight and go into theatre the next morning for a bronchoscopy: a probe with a fibre optic camera is sent down my throat, deep into my lungs to investigate further.

It turns out that I have ruptured a blood vessel deep in my left lung and it is leaking like a burst pipe. The diagnosis is haemoptysis caused by extreme coughing. The surgeon removes the clots and hoses it all down to stop the bleeding, he squirts in some antibiotics to prevent infection, all while I slumber peacefully on the operating table.

I wake up a few hours later in my room, feeling surprisingly good. I have not eaten for 24 hours and when a nurse brings me a steak and ice cream I nearly burst into tears. It must be the cocktail of anaesthetics and sedatives still washing around my system I tell myself. My room is peaceful, the view is good, I am well rested, I can breathe again. Menna and the kids pop up for a visit, we do some homeschooling but then they disappear again on a mission to the skatepark. I settle back into bed and find a superhero movie on TV.

I ask the doctors if they will let me stay a couple more nights.

A most malicious cough!

Oliver Twist. Charles Dickens.

Masque of the Red Death

The blood coughs became more frequent over our stay in the Corcovado. I tell Menna but no one else. Her hypothesis is that I have a minor laceration somewhere in my lung. I managed to inhale a mouthful of nuts last week and I was bent double in an epic coughing fit that lasted around twenty minutes. Perhaps my lung tissue has been nicked by a sharp fragment of peanut. I like this theory, because we are a very long way from civilisation right now, so I certainly wouldn’t want it to be anything more scary like tuberculosis or lung cancer. Once I tell Menna about a medical problem there is a sense of delegation, a transfer of ownership, and I generally cease to worry about it. Whatever the cause, I have developed a deep melodious cough with a frothy gurgling undertone that isn’t entirely unpleasant, a bit like blowing bubbles through a straw. It brings a salty iron taste to my throat. The blood I spit out is profuse and shocking in it’s red glow; freshly oxygenated, it looks so vibrant – so healthy!

We go on a long jungle trek and see herds of peccaries in a hurry; they are being pursued, we are told, by an invisible puma. We see groups of coati with glossy black fur, striped tails held high, hunting the purple and orange halloween crabs that infest the sandy walkways at the forest’s edge. We watch a rare white hawk circling silently through the branches of a huge Guanacaste tree, flitting round and round like a jungle phantom. She was hunting howler monkeys, waiting until the mothers slept to snatch a baby from their grasp. We waded across rivers that may have been frequented by crocodiles, although we didn’t see any – which I suppose is the way with crocodiles, until they have a hold of your leg. At the end of the walk I take myself away quietly and cough for a while on the beach. Menna pats my back. Matilda comes up to us and is very disturbed to see a wet pool of blood between my feet in the sand. We pass it off as a cut lip. She nods silently and wanders off.

When we surf again that evening I am caught inside by a set of waves. Held underwater and unable to breathe for a long while, I splutter as I surface and then my gasping causes more coughing. I try to swallow down the blood as I am scared that I will attract sharks.

The fourth night of our stay in the jungle is the worst yet. I cannot lie flat without gargling and choking. I drift in and out of sleep propped up on pillows on my single camp bed.

In the darkness I relive old M*A*S*H tv episodes where sweating soldiers bleed out in tropical field hospital tents; I float down the oily jungle waters of Apocalypse Now in thrall to some undefined twilight danger, pulled towards horrific moments of dark self-realisation. I think of the descent into fever and tropical madness in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; I retrace Allie Fox’s tracks in Thoreaux’s Mosquito Coast, knowing that I too have dragged my family deep into the jungle on a wild quixotic quest that can only lead to death and disaster. I think of Kafka slowly dying of consumption and Yeats, Orwell (did Camus go this way too?).

I piece together fragments of poetry and worry away at scraps of lines: piecing together Dulce et Decorum Est in the early hours, dwelling on the blood that comes ‘gargling forth from froth corrupted lungs’, repeating the line over and over to myself. I remember the masked figure that moves silently through the ball in Poe’s gothic tale Masque of the Red Death. Prince Prospero and his men were hiding from the plague too, I remind myself, naively thinking they could lock themselves away and outlast the disease – but the chime of midnight brought darkness, ‘and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all…’

Menna is awake most of the night of course, watching me cough and bubble and mutter to myself, staggering up to spit blood into the loo and replace my damp clutch of tissues. There is no electricity in our tent and we don’t want to wake the kids, but when the sun rises at 5:30 she examines me. One side of my chest is no longer rising as I breathe, the lung is hard and full of blood.

We agree that it is time to get to a hospital.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall… And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all

The Masque of the Red Death Edgar Allen Poe

The End of the World

There’s a dead macaw in the sand. Arthur finds him on our first afternoon and calls me over excitedly. He was damming a stream and suddenly he spotted the bird there, propped up on a tangle of roots with wings half-open, reclining. He has clearly been dead for a while and the vultures and coatis have been busy. Much of the upper body has been eaten away but his head is still there, attached by a length of vertebrae. His beak is closed, his eyes are open. We hook a long stick into the base of the skull and pick him up with it; he is surprisingly heavy. We take him ‘flying’ over to where the girls are sitting. Menna loves macaws.

After all the screaming is done, we start to feel bad about the desecration of such a magnificent creature, so we take him back, retracing the trail of vivid red and blue feathers to his final resting place. Earlier that morning I had been walking along the beach in the mist, searching for a wayward son. I was seized then by a coughing fit that came out of nowhere and surprised to find my mouth full of blood. I spat it out, and it made bright red frothy trails on the white sand. Now looking at the confusion of scarlet feathers I am reminded of that secret moment and then I wonder what it would be like to find yourself propped up, dying, on this beach. We place our Macaw upright against a tree, looking out over the ocean. The next morning he is gone, reclaimed by the jungle.

This is a wild land that we find ourselves in. There is nothing for several miles in either direction of us, just an endless sand strip that fades away into cloud and water, a dark line of jungle behind, large birds of prey circling above. Waves smash down on the beach with a relentless roar. It is haunting and obviously beautiful, not like a postcard scene, but in a lonely and savage kind of way.

Together with our friends Josh and Meg, and their daughter Marlowe, we’re staying in an eco camp out by the Leona ranger station on the edge of the Corcovado National Park, a place that National Geographic calls “one of the one of the most biologically intense places in the world”. All that separates us from this biological intensity is thin canvas, for we sleep in safari tents under the strangler figs. We must carefully shake out any folded towels before use, we are told, as scorpions or snakes often crawl inside. We seven are the first visitors to the camp since March and it seems that in the interim the jungle has moved to reclaim it: twisted roots and hanging lianas have swallowed the rearward row of tents; the spa cabin is now nothing but collapsed bamboo struts and palm shoots, and has been colonised by Capuchin monkeys; the hammocks are covered in moss and lichen. We have a cheery hotel manager and a cook staying somewhere on site. A food delivery comes daily by cart. The bar is empty.

To get here we had to drive to the southern outpost of Puerto Jiminez, an erstwhile  gold-mining and logging centre, now a dusty jump-off point for eco-travellers wanting to provision before heading into the wilds.  We handed over a large amount of cash there to a chatty big man with a tour-operator’s wolfish smile. He directed us onwards – three hours bouncing over potholed dirt tracks, driving fast against a tight deadline – to make a rendezvous with the pony cart before high tide. We forded several rivers, saw brown water pouring through our engine grills and agreed to forget the car rental disclaimers that very specifically forbade us from doing this. We crossed wooden bridges one car at a time. We stopped to photograph monkeys, coatis, toucans, caracaras picking ticks from oxen. We reached the end of the dirt road and abandoned our vehicles besides a disused airstrip in Carate, and in the driving tropical rain we set out on foot for a further five kilometres along the beach to find our camp. We were late and we missed our rendezvous with the cart driver, so we left our luggage piled up in a palm frond shack, not knowing if we would ever see it again. 

Now we are here at the end of the world and as the sun goes down, everything bleeds into crimson: red-gold stains of sunset, a swirl of scarlet feathers, the veins of my eyelids lowered against the glare, secret blood streaks in the sand. There is single macaw that flies low across the beach, squawking, and I wonder if it is the surviving member of the pair. These birds are said to partner for life. She is calling out to her mate perhaps, wondering where he has gone.

When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber

Winston Churchill

Welcome to the Jungle

Arthur and I are somewhere in Los Quetzales cloud forest, high on the mountain face. We are starting to wonder if we have made a mistake. A jungle after dark is a scary place, full of whispers and insinuation. Spider webs brush across our faces and we have no idea how large or how venomous are the weavers. Roots twist and curl under our feet – or are they snakes? Things fly at us out of the darkness. It has been raining most of the afternoon and the path is slippy, the undergrowth around is thick. Our head torches cast thin beams straight ahead, but the light bounces back off wet leaves and the shadows behind have the glistening fluidity of ink. Every time I look towards Arthur he dazzles me with his torch and I lose my night vision.

This is our first foray into the forest, and venturing out at sunset was misjudged. The girls turned back a kilometre ago and now Artie is starting to get that quaver in his voice that says that his courage is failing. But we are men! We don’t admit fear or acknowledge our mistakes. Misadventure is a burden we must bear. We are still on the trail at least, or I think we are.

“Do you think we should turn back soon Dad?” It is the opening I need.

Happy to go back if that’s what you want…”

“Is it what you want?”

“Well, I could go on a bit. But I don’t want you to be scared.”

“I’m not scared! I just feel a bit tired. Hungry I mean. Hungry and tired.” Next to us in the undergrowth something large suddenly rustles and I jump.

“Jaguar!” I shout. It is intended as a joke but I get the volume wrong and Arthur leaps like a gazelle. His sudden movement startles me, and then we are both running, slipping, slithering our way back down the trail, through the spider webs and over the snakes. We are both hungry and we are tired, but we are not scared. It is time to go home.

We take the trail again at 5:45am next morning. Walking through the forest at sunrise is a whole different experience. Although once again we are in near complete darkness when we start, it is not so terrifying. We can feel the house lights are being gradually raised, black turns to grey and then to drab green. Olive notes show through then mossy tones, it gets brighter, deeper, until finally around us is every shade of green imaginable. At a point we know that the sun has hit the canopy because the leaves are glowing and painted in impossible colours and some have gold lining. The bird song gets louder and wilder. There is a ticking humming, buzzing that seems to rise from the forest floor. We come across gullies and streams, deep clearings with mossy floors, pockets of mist, sudden sunbeams slanting through the trees. We see a toucanet, hummingbirds, a flock of large black and white birds. There are always movements in our peripheral vision.

After about an hour hiking we emerge from the forest at the top of the mountain and into the sunlight. We find ourselves in coffee and avocado fields. A huge valley stretches out below, vultures and eagles circle above. We walk back down the mountain like heroes and have rice and beans for breakfast.

This is the start of our jungle life. By the time we leave Cedrela Eco Lodge two days later, Arthur and I have done the 5km jungle trail four times. We are hungry for more off-grid adventuring. When Menna and I were last in Costa Rica fifteen years ago, our focus was firmly on surfing, bars and beach life. This time around we are chasing nature not waves.

We move from the highland cloud forests of Quetzales down to the humid tropical jungle of Manuel Antonio and see monkeys at last – capuchins and squirrel monkeys – a huge emotional moment for the kids. We meet a tribe of iguanas on a deserted beach, a ranger points out the deadly fer-de-lance, Costa Rica’s most venomous snake, coiled on the edge of a path we have just walked. Fat agoutis scurry past us like dog-sized hamsters. The skies are alive and the kids are constantly spotting new birds, thumbing through their field guides to call out bright yellow kiskadees, hawks on telegraph wires, red tanagers, cinnamon hummingbirds, a pair of lineated woodpeckers. Then – raising the stakes – a pair of macaws blazing a rainbow streak against a misty blue evening (Matilda), a flock of toucans lunching on a fruit tree (Arthur).

We move on to Uvita where we stay in a ramshackle tree house up in the forest and get up close with the darker side of nature. There are scorpions in the beams, we see a poison dart frog on the terrace, a crocodile head surfaces in the lake, huge spiders give Matilda nightmares. We surf on black sand beaches and see more macaws flying against the forest backdrop, blood soaked and screaming murder.

‘More,’ we shout after two weeks of gorging ourselves on nature, ‘Iguanas no longer cut it, monkeys are commonplace. We need bigger game!’ Where are the tapirs and sloths, the anteaters and pumas? Where are the jaguars? We are forest experts now, hardened to insect bites, tuned into to patterns and shapes against the foliage. Our footfall is muffled, we communicate with hand signals, we dress in khaki and strap things to our belts. We need to get into real wilderness.

In the Osa Peninsula, at the southern most stretch of the Pacific coast, there is one vast untamed tract of proper primary rainforest that is said to contain sixty percent of all the biodiversity of Costa Rica and this is where we will head. We need to go to Corcovado.