I wake up at 5am, as instructed, with the same feeling I had the day before I collected my A-Level results. Sort of sick, sort of excited. I put my feet on the floor and HOLY FUCK does my right foot hurt. Last nights compeed has done nothing but make the blister worse - more fluid has built up and it’s pushing against the dressing. There’s nothing else to do but get up and rip it (and the top layer of skin) off. It hurts. A lot. But no time to dick about now. I have to borrow a needle from James to get the rest of the fluid out, but I can’t get my boot on otherwise. It’s gross and painful. I put alcohol and iodine onto it, plaster and tape it and hope that it doesn’t get worse.
After a huge breakfast (a mostly silent one, like a wake) it’s time to leave. Our bags are put in the car and taken to the bottom of the hill. Even picking them up to put them in the car is horrible. This is it. This is what I have to carry for the next “3 days”. At the bottom of the hill, we put our packs on. The plan today is to cover 25km of jungle and then camp. It is 7am when we leave. 25km takes me about 2 hours if I’m running. It CANNOT take more than 5 hours. With a lunch stop. It just can’t. Here is a picture of Merlin at the start of the trek. I like this, because he looks so fresh and clean and innocent. He looks like one of the kids at the start of the film ‘I.T.’
Let’s get this clear. With the jungle, there is no support crew, no shop, no people, no extra snacks, no extra water, no nothing. There are no get outs, no going back and no trotting off on your own. You are dependant on yourself and each other. You cannot just say “I’m a dickhead, get me out of here”. If you want out, it’s helicopter and you had better be injured. That is the only way. No phone signal, very weak GPS. It’s fucking serious. Once you’re in, you're in.
From the get go, it was so hard. I had never done anything like this before. The cheat sticks came straight out. The terrain to start was hard, chalky rock, sometimes vertical in it’s ascent. We all got on with it, hoofing ourselves up, trying to drink enough water and take enough salt. It was already hot, but it was manageable. I had taken some ibuprofen and codeine, and my foot didn’t hurt anymore, but that meant everything else did. After a couple of hours we got to the outskirts of the jungle. The first 2 miles had taken us 28 minutes and 29 minutes respectively. This was going to be a LONG day. Those two miles were the fastest 2 miles we would do that day. Or all week, for that matter.
On the edge of the real jungle, it started to get muddy. Really muddy. December is the end of rainy season in Panama. When the event goes ahead in 2020, it will be done in March. It will be a lot drier. To try and get an idea of the mud, here is a video of a mule taking a cock back from wining a cock fight.
Seriously, that chicken has won a fight and so is allowed to ride the mule home, but also MUD. That animal had 4 legs! This is not a muddy puddle. This is life from here on in.
We trekked on and on, trying to keep our spirits up. A 44 min mile, a 49 min mile, a 50 min mile, on and on it went. Energy was sapped. We stopped for our first lunch of cold, wet pasta. I think that was the day he had lunch on the Continental Divide. But if I’m honest I can’t remember. We did do that one day though. I had never felt so tired. Everything was heavy. The knowledge there was no bed or shelter tonight was also there at the back of my mind. Mentally I was doing OK, but it wasn’t until 9 miles in, at about 3pm, when we put our packs down, that I felt a true sense of how utterly depleted I was. Taking the pack off, and staring at the thick jungle where we were supposed to sleep was pretty hilarious. The aim was to set up camp at 3 or 4pm every day, in daylight. Today was the only day that we would actually do that.
Moses and Elvin set at it, chopping down the huge vines and leaves to make space for the hammocks. Didn’t look much like a campsite, if I’m honest. Now was the real test. Can Bailey put a hammock up on her own? I had done it once in the lodge with help. I was sure it would be fine.
It took me about an hour, but I got it up before 5pm and I was SO FUCKING PROUD OF MYSELF! Here’s a little video I took - apologies for the bad sound, but my little face is so happy. I have even managed to forget how hard the day had been and make it seem fun! These were halcyon days. The naive. halcyon days.
After putting up the hammock, I began to realise how disgusting I was. I was sweaty and dirty and had nowhere to sit. I couldn’t take off my boots because I had nothing else to put on my feet. The jungle floor is a mixture of mud, debris, roots, spikes, killing things, and then you’ve got the locals - snakes, spiders and a billion ants. My feet were white, wet and rotting. Why didn’t I pack those sandals? WHY?
It’s impossible to get changed and keep dry unless you are super organised and have a chair and some sandals. I had neither of these things and my hammock opened from the bottom so I couldn’t sit in it. All my special dry kit was in one of many dry bags - socks, some leggings to sleep in, one extra pair of pants and two tops - but there was just no way to dry my soaking wet stuff for tomorrow - my leggings, top and sports bra were soaked in sweat and river water, and my boots were wet through. It’s always wet in the jungle. These things would never dry. So I made the decision to sleep in my wet bra and hang my leggings up. That bra didn’t come off for the whole time I was in the jungle. More on that later.
The excitement of first night jungle camp gave me a little bit of energy, so I went and got the water to warm up our pouches for dinner from the stream a few hundred feet away. We ate our tiny meals, and talked about how we were on track to make it to the island of dreams. Oh island of dreams. You are my carrot and I love you. I couldn’t wait to celebrate our achievement with beers and sand and sunbathing. Just a few days away. Just a few days.
At 7pm it was bedtime. It’s dark in the jungle. Really fucking dark, and too wet to make a fire and sing songs. We were all shattered. I managed to get into my dry leggings and sleeping bag without getting any little bug pals in my hammock with me, and before I knew it, I was asleep.
I woke up at about 2am. The specialist quilt around my hammock (attached to the outside) had slipped and I was FREEZING cold. There were noises everywhere. It was weird. I didn’t want to wriggle about in case my hammock fell down. This was a lesson. Next time quilt IN hammock. I slept on and off until 5am when it was time to get up, pack up and ship out.
The Jungle - Day 14
We wake up in the dark, we get up in the dark. The head torch is king. It’s really hard to motivate yourself to put on cold wet kit, but there is no choice here. It’s like a military operation. I covered myself in lube the best I could - feet, shoulders and all the other bits. I smelt so bad that I was almost offending myself. I managed to clean my teeth and get warmish - putting on the cold wet clothes from the day before with my Montane jacket over the top to try and warm myself up. New dry socks though - and then feet straight into cold, wet boots (checking for fun spider buddies in them before, obviously). Rick warmed the water for breakfast and “jungle coffee” while we took down our hammocks and tarps and diligently packed them away. Everything has mud on it, most stuff is wet and we are very, very tired. It’s strange how your brain switches into survival mode. You just get on with it, almost zombie like. I am no longer scared of ants or spiders or beetles. I just want to fit in with my crew and get things done. I don’t want to be a burden and I don’t want to be broken.
After breakfast and coffee (basically ground coffee in dirty water, heated up - you drink it if you’re desperate, believe me, grouts and all), it was time to head out. The route was much discussed - something I did not take part in. I trusted Jim and Rick and the guides to get it right. They didn’t need another person messing it up. I would just mess it up. Packs onto aching backs, still hungry. The calorie deficit is so real. Snacks are limited to what you have in your pack, and you are just burning everything you have with every step.
The first part of todays route is knee deep through a river. Darren and Merlin take their shoes off. I can’t be fucked, and what are you going to dry your feet on when you get to the other side anyway? Darren has done what nobody wants to do, and cut the back of his leg with his own machete. While this may sound funny, it’s not. He needs to be careful. He also has a huge blister between his big toe and second precious toe. More on that later.
The route is more gruelling than anything I have ever done. It is SO muddy and so rocky. The descents are as bad as the ascents, if not worse. Your legs go to jelly, and the weight on your back pushes you to fall. We cover the height of Snowdon in just a few miles. You have no idea when the ups will stop, and sometimes they don't for hours. Picking a line is almost impossible. The wet kit rubs on my skin and there are multiple rivers to get through. They provide a few seconds of freezing comfort on my hot little feet. I am very aware I am eating a lot. I have rationed my snacks, but I am so, so hungry. I get through the days snacks in the first 4 hours. I save one Pulsin bar for later. The group are getting quieter. The hills are getting steeper. There are no photos that can do the climbs justice. I stopped taking pictures because I didn’t have the energy to get my phone out and anyway, they don;t show the horror. For a good 4 miles, it’s scrambling. Hands pulling you up wet, muddy, vertical ascents. Trying to use your poles to pull you and your kit up. The rocks drop away from under you. There is no energy. The group get more and more quiet. The group spread out, but ultimately we have to stay together. My heart beats so hard I can feel it in my eyes. Progress is extremely slow, but its the best any of us can do. This is the first time that I realise we may be in trouble. Big fucking trouble.
This environment is relentless. It wants to kill you. I have done some really hard stuff in my time, but this tops it all. I have my first cry at about 3 miles in. I don't stop to cry, I just let tears roll down my face as I try and pick the best line to get up the never ending hills. Sometimes. because I am on my own, I just shout “FUUUUUUCK” really loud at nothing. My legs burn, my lungs burn and my brain has nothing in it. Rob is lagging behind. I am worried about him. Eventually I get to the top of a hill where the rest of the team are sitting.
This is what they looked like.
It’s at this point that Jim starts talking about us not making it to the island. I wanted to punch him in the face. Again. We are much slower than expected (because we were trudging through hell) and we needed to make up a lot time to be able to complete the jungle in 3 days. This seems impossible. We are going to be here for at least 4 days. Maybe 5. We sit in silence. I share some sweets with the team. I use all the coping strategies that I have had in place to protect my mental health throughout my life to deal with my feelings. They are feelings of anger, disappointment and frustration and are directed mainly at myself. I put the wall up in my brain. The protective wall that will stop me breaking. For now.
Jim is talking to Rick and the guides about how we can get to camp before nightfall. Moses and Elvin don’t speak English - Rick is translating. Moses and Elvin have only ever done this route once, backwards, and that was a while ago. I don’t know how I am going to go on. I refer back to the wall and slowly stand up.
A route had been planned. We follow on. Hours go past, we go on. We trudge through fake steps that fall away underneath us, through mud and cow shit, stepping on rotten wooden struts that either give way or make us slip over. We are calf deep in mud most of the time. I feel like I have turned into some kind of psychopath. Just staring ahead with nothing going through my brain. Nobody is going to come and get us. We have to stop at some point. The tracks we are making run along ridges with huge drops. The earth falls away but the drops are masked by the tops too trees that grow next to us. I know they are there and they make me panic. We have to tuck under fallen trees with the packs on. The trunks mean you have to almost slide under on your stomach. Getting up hurts. Its starting to get dark - it gets dark quicker when you;re under the canopy. Then another huge climb up. We need to camp. We need to stop.
The jungle fades away to reveal thick, muddy fields where cows graze. We are at the top of a hill and can see a tiny shack in the middle of the field. We have to stay there. That is what my brain is saying. They have to let us stay there. It’s getting dark, and we have been moving for nearly 10 hours. I say to Merlin and Darren that we have to stay there. They say nothing. We stumble towards the shack, and Rick, Jim, Moses and Alvin are already there, talking animatedly to the owners. We are all leaning down, with our heads resting on our poles. We can’t do it anymore. We are really in the shit. We are massively behind schedule. The small family that live in the house invite us onto their porch using hand gestures, and give us a bucket to wash out boots in. It’s like washing your boots in a muddy puddle, but we are so grateful. Water is precious and this is a gift. They say we can sleep on their porch. We are so grateful. We sit there, dazed and confused and exhausted.
We start getting undressed the best we can - which is not well - organising hammocks on the floor. There is nowhere to hang them. We have to sleep on the floor. There are huge spiders everywhere, and no space to stretch out, but we don’t care. This tiny family, who have nothing, have invited us as guests to use their porch and we are so in need of it. All they have is this land, a pig, a few chickens, a mule and a cow or two. These children have never seen a car or a television. They don’t know what the internet is. They look at us like aliens. We are so grateful. They are living. In a way I am jealous of them. To live a life like this is to actually live.
I felt ashamed of what I was missing. I felt embarrassed at the riches we looked like we possessed. James spent time with the family - taking photos of them and showing them to the spellbound children. James later put the following post up on his facebook and with his permission I have copied and pasted it here. I think he sums it up better than I ever could.
“I'm not sure I have the right words for this picture yet, but here goes. I was also in Panama recently, crossing coast to coast and documenting the recce of a race along the same route. What was expected to be a three day 65km jungle section ended up being five days and closer to 90. We climbed over the height of Kilimanjaro in mud you wouldn't believe. The afternoon we realised that we were, to put it bluntly, in the shit, we stumbled out from the jungle into a small hillside of pasture. One small turquoise shack sat halfway down the knee-deep boggy slopes. The family of four who lived there saw our state and, with less than an hour to dark, let us spend the night on their front porch, giving us free access to their water (no small thing). The simplicity of their lives was so staggering it actually hurt me somewhere inside to see, I'm not going to try and explain this feeling, because I don't want to do it injustice, but that home and its family of four was one of the single most achingly beautiful things I have ever seen. They were all pretty shy, except for this young girl. With her tiny pet chick and a permanent infectious smile, she was a bold little character, and gracious enough to let a grimy, mud-soaked photographer do his thing. No hashtags for this one, it isn't right, just a photograph of something utterly unique.” James Appleton.
We heat up some water and cook our pouches. We eat them fast. We know that we are in trouble. We are so far behind now. But we have ground to sleep on, and we need to sleep. I don’t get changed. I just roll myself into my sleeping bag, in my wet, sweaty kit, put my net over my face and lay on the wooden porch. We all do. We are a team. Tomorrow will be better. Behind me I can hear a pig snuffling. I am safe. I am with my team, and we will look after each other.