I wake up at around 4am to the sound of a very large cockerel who can’t tell the time. It’s dark and I am freezing cold. I roll over and remember where we are - on a porch in the middle of the Panamanian jungle. I am very, very hungry and everything aches. After another hour of attempting to get a bit more sleep, the rest of the team starts to stir and, as with every other day, we start crawling out of our sleeping bags and attempting to ‘get dressed’ even though we are almost all already dressed. The wet, muddy kit we hung over the porch is still wet and muddy. Our shoes are still wet and muddy. Everything is wet and muddy. Everything is cold. Rick starts to heat the water for our breakfast pouches and we roll our hammocks and sleeping bags up and re-pack our bags. I have decided to be rubbish captain, so I have a massive bin bag of shit, including old food packets and used bumhole roll to attach to my pack too. It’s disgusting. This in itself is an endurance challenge. I decide to try and find somewhere to have a wee, and am directed to a small hut that looks like it may contain the remains of some other unfortunate adventurer. It looks like this.
When I open the door, all I can see are spiders and bugs. But I actually don't care. I am too tired to care. I realise I haven’t done any video updates, mainly because I have been too busy trying to survive, so I recorded this one. Sorry the sound is so low - for some reason I didn’t want to wake people up?! (We were all already up and that massive cock is doing a pretty bad job of being quiet). When I look at my face in this video, I can actually see the mental pain in it. This is the face of someone scraping the barrel for just a tiny scrap of energy.
Overnight, Jim has come up with a plan A and a plan B. None of the plans have a day on the island in them. I am, therefore, not interested in the plans.
Plan A: We crack on as fast as we can go, and get to where the pack rafts are, pack rafting out of the jungle as planned, all be it a day late.
Plan B: We are too slow to get to where the pack rafts are without risking missing our flights back to the UK, we have to be extracted from the jungle early, by boat from a village.
We all want to do plan A. None of us want to be seen as quitting early. We’ve come this far and we want to finish. The thing is, we don't actually have a choice regarding plan A or plan B. The choice will be made for us by the jungle. Either way, we have at least 2 more days of this.
When I get back to the porch (un-murdered), there is an animated conversation going on between Moises, Erwin and the family that own the shack. News is relayed that the farmer is willing to help us up the next climb, putting some of our bags on his mule. The climb is horribly steep and muddy, and we can give him one dry bag each from our packs to take up. We are totally overjoyed. Having a slightly lighter pack will make a massive difference. Rob is suffering the most. By his own admission he is the least fit, and not used to this type of terrain or endurance challenge. I think the fact he has taken it on at all is immense. This is a stress test for an event. There will be many different types of people taking part, from super fit athletes to normal office workers wanting a challenge. He’s a vital part of ‘the experiment’. He has dug so deep over the last two days, but always has a nice word to say - he’s a very positive guy and his attitude is hugely admirable. I bloody love Rob. We need to make sure that everyone is taken care of. I know I am tired and hungry, but I also know I am currently capable of carrying more than him. In order to keep as fast a pace as we can, we all agree that he should have the lions share of mule-space. We pay the farmer around a months worth of wages (a mere $50) to take our stuff and watch as he packs it onto the poor pony.
We set out across the farm, falling over the huge ridges filled with cow shit and mud, stumbling down the hill towards the next ascent. The mule walks effortlessly on it’s 4 legs (DAMN YOU MULE) and the family dog runs up the hills in front of us. It was amazing having a dog with us. I forgot how much I missed my dogs. My heart aches for a dog cuddle.
The hills were much the same as yesterday, if not worse. I couldn’t understand how the mule was getting up them. The hoof worn path upwards was an extremely narrow, deep trench - the mud touched us on both sides, there were scrambles and our packs, even though lighter, kept getting caught in the narrower stretches. The tracks twisted and turned, and with no clear view of what was ahead, it was impossible to see when you would get respite from the constant uphill. Everything was burning. I decided to try and zone out, and took 2 strong pain killers on top of my teeny breakfast, to try and stop my shoulders and knees hurting. I was counting my steps up - every 20 steps I had to stop to regulate my breathing and heart rate. I leant on my sticks and thought of nothing but sitting down. I was now really having to ration my snacks. We had two extra days of this and I had to plan ahead. Two extra days and nothing to look forward to. There would be no beach, no day of relaxation. We would reach Boco Del Torres in the dark and leave for home in the dark the following morning. My carrot had gone and I felt hopeless.
A slight aside from the story here. As many of you know, I have suffered with depressive episodes for much of my teenage and adult life. I struggle with it a lot, and I use running as a way to help that. My lack of belief in myself has pushed me to do these challenges - kind of a self harm that’s good for me. The long and the short of it is I don’t particularly like myself and if something bad happens, it’s because I deserve it. (That’s the illness talking).
My main trigger for these episodes is abandonment. If people say they are going to do something with me, or for me, and then change their mind at the last minute or don't turn up, it triggers me. The monkeys on bicycles in my brain tell me this behaviour means I don’t matter, people don’t like me and I can’t trust anyone - the broken part of my brain is proved right through the behaviour of others - often behaviour that stems from an issue completely out of their control, I might add. Depression is not rational. If it’s plans that change or are cancelled, I deal with by telling myself I deserve to be disappointed. Why would something brilliant ever happen to someone like me? You see reader, the ill part of my brain really doesn’t like me at all. It tells me that I deserve the worst, and when the worst happens, it is proved right.
What had happened here, is that the plan that I’d had in my head for the last 4 months had changed beyond recognition. The thing I had been promised (my days on the beach), had been taken away. The thing I was focussing on was gone. I was teetering on the edge of extreme sadness and anger - two emotions that are very closely linked in my psyche. I felt like there was no point in going on and there hadn’t been a point in starting. But in the jungle you have to go on. Nobody is coming to get you. Your hand is forced. And there was the point in starting, staring me in the face. The point was to get to the bare bones of this very familiar feeling of unfairness and abandonment, sit with it and push through it without distraction.
This may all sound very dramatic, but I am trying to be honest about what happened to me in there.
My sphere of reference had narrowed so much. My reality was different. My world was in this jungle, in the here and now. I hadn’t looked at the internet, social media or talked to my friends or family. I couldn’t. My phone was now just a camera. The things that I looked at, engaged with, worried about and used as a distraction from myself were gone. There was nothing to distract me from me. That feeling was both terrifying and exhilarating. No escape from the horror of the jungle or the horror of my own thoughts. I had to face my brain and sit (or walk) with it. And ultimately that was the most glorious thing. This challenge was giving me the tools and time I needed to sit with my feelings. Physically, all we had to do here was follow instructions. Get up, get moving, stay moving until we were told to stop. Mentally, we had a far bigger battle, and nothing to distract us from it.
Now, on reflection, this was lightbulb moment day. For all of us, our ‘real world’ is full of man made distractions, issues and divisions, designed to stop us thinking too much about our core selves and what actually makes us happy and functional. Our ‘real world’ stops us questioning why we feel the way we do and helps us medicate, mask and hide those feelings to become (or to pretend to be) the people that we think we should be. The opinion of others is paramount, the opinion of ourselves doesn’t matter. Stripped of these distractions, we have no choice but to focus on what’s going on in our heads. And it changes us. It focuses us and provides moments of clarity. During this challenge, we become selfless and aware of others. We worked as a team without judgement or prejudice. We were strong, calm and supportive. We triumphed in the face of adversity. We dealt with multiple unforeseen circumstances, and overcame them. Humans are social, pack creatures. We’re programmed to look after each other. When there is nothing divisive around you, you cannot be divided.
The crux of it was that nothing had been taken away from me, because there was nothing there in the first place. The whole plan was fluid. It was a recce. Things go wrong. Thats what it’s a recce. I had managed to come to a rational conclusion. I was still disappointed, still tired and still fighting, but I’d rationalised it. And that was a win no matter how tiny.
This would not be the last time that I had to untangle my good brain from my bad.
After about 3 hours and around 2.5 miles of climbing the equivalent of a muddy Snowdon, we reach the top of a ridge. The plan is to go round the top go the ridge rather than down into the village and up again. I approve of this plan - anything to keep us away from anymore huge ascents. This is where the mule says goodbye and we take our bags. Rob insists that he takes his full pack. We try and persuade him otherwise, but he is adamant. Jim and Rick are talking to Moises and Elvin about directions. It’s a pretty animated conversation, but I am sure they know what they are doing. We put our packs back on and start walking. It feels like we are going down hill, and then it becomes obvious we definitely ARE going down hill, stumbling and sliding down rocks. Everyone is quiet - I think we were all thinking the same thing. If we were supposed to be going along a ridge, how come we are going down hill? Rob is really lagging behind the rest of the group. We take it in turns to wait for him and encourage him, but he’s really quiet now. We all are.
After a couple of hours, we spot a small settlement. It’s a village and a school. A village that, had we been going the correct way, we would have avoided. We were on the wrong route. We had really fucked up. Up ahead, Rick and Jim are sat with Moses and Elvin looking at the map. I stay back. I don't want to hear what they have to say.
We have come the wrong way. Something has been lost in translation, and we have added hours, ascent and miles to our day. We are now in a river bed, in a stream. You don't get river beds on ridges. Jim and Rick are having it out with Moises and Elvin. The rest of us stand back, starring at our feet like school kids waiting for our parents to stop arguing. I look at my watch. It’s nearly 2pm and we haven't eaten since 6am. I quite curtly remind Jim of this fact, and sit on a rock in the stream to eat my lunch and filter some water. I don't care what anyone else wants to do, this is what I am doing. Everyone else follows suit.
Darren’s feet are sore. The blister between his big toe and second toe had got grit in it, so he popped it a few days earlier. He is wearing toe socks and I imagine that’s why it hurts. I ask him if he wants me to have a look and to try and patch it up. My foot box of dreams has gone largely unused, as my feet have been good. I was pretty thorough looking after them, drying them out at night with rubbing alcohol and covering them with silicon lube every day. Top marks to smug face Bailey and her pretty feet. When he took his sock off, I felt a bit like being sick. There was a yellow, deep hole between his two toes. It was pretty bad. And it was open. It was in a place that is hideously hard to dress. I felt so sorry for Darren - this must have been so fucking painful, but he hadn't mentioned it until now. I got my magic box out and tried my best to dress it, pouring alcohol and iodine into it, letting it dry out a bit and then using gauze and tensoplast to cover it. I had no idea if it would hold. But if we could get Darren to the end of the day, we could re-dress it then. I’m not going to put a picture here because it’s gross.
Jim comes over and tells us the bad news. We are not going to making it out of the jungle in time to use the pack rafts. We are now on plan B, and need to head to a point where we can be evacuated from the jungle by boat. This would, he said, take about 1.5 - 2 days if we could keep pace up. We weren't going to make the crossing the way we had planned. We weren't going to finish what we came here to do. We were gutted.
We now had another huge climb to get over and then we needed to keep going, hopefully finding somewhere to camp before nightfall. I don't say anything. We get up and start walking upwards again.
We reach a turn at the top of a hill and we stop and wait for Rob and Merlin. The team are taking it in turns to walk with Rob, although none of us have said this or arranged it. It’s just a natural thing that has happened. Like something we know we should do. Rob finally approaches us, and he looks awful. He's pale, swaying and shaky as he walks. He is really suffering. Darren, Merlin, Jim and I make the decision, there and then, to get his pack off him and distribute the weight between us. He tries to refuse, but we’re not taking no for an answer. We empty out the kit and pack it into our already bulging bags. We need to keep moving, and we need Rob to keep moving with us. I can tell Rob is annoyed, possibly embarrassed but he’s relieved. It could have been any of us that needed help. Not having a pack makes a huge difference. We move on. Up and up. We all just want today to be over.
My mood deteriorates and I am thinking too much about nothing. We’ve been going for 11 hours. I feel burning anger at the loss of time. I am storming on ahead over tree stumps, wacking the jungle with my poles, head down. To top it all off, I have “baby shark” going round and round in my head. Jungle madness. I come to a fallen tree and duck down to get under it. Merlin is behind me. My pack is too big and I get wedged under it. Merlin tells me he will give me a shove and that’s it. I explode.
“I DON’T WANT A FUCKING SHOVE! I CAN FUCKING DO IT MYSELF. FUCK OFF”. I think those were the words, but I can’t be sure. I basically screamed at Merlin and Darren (who was in front of me) and then burst into tears. I can’t remember this very clearly, but I know it happened, I know there was loads of swearing and I know that this was the moment I broke. This was the moment it all came out. I sat there by the tree, just angry and crying. I think Darren tried to give me a hug or say something nice, but I was too enraged with the world to appreciate it. I think Merlin was a bit scared.
After a couple of minutes, I got up and re-started my silent march. I’d had a cry and a shout. I’d broken a little bit more, but getting it out physically had actually really helped. A physical manifestation of frustration is good once in a while. Especially when there are only trees and your mates around to hear it. Nobody can keep stuff like this in all the time. I highly recommend it. Just maybe not on the tube/bus/in a library.
Fast forward 30 mins, and my ultra strop was over, and we were back to pushing on and even chatting a bit. Merlin and I were making up some amazing songs about ants. We got to the top of an enormous hill - one of the highest peaks we’d reached. It was stunningly beautiful, the jungle laid out below and around us. We stood for a minute, lost in this insane world. James got the drone out. This was the money shot. We all stood on the edge of the world as the drone flew round us. James was over the moon at how brilliant it looked. In his excitement, he looked away from the screen for maybe 3 seconds. And it was then we heard the crash. The drone had crashed into one of the thousands of trees behind us. And we had no idea which tree it was.
James jumped to his feet, grabbed Elvin and a machete and started pushing his way down the ridge, disappearing from sight into the jungle, desperately looking for the drone. It was about 5.30pm and it would be getting dark soon. The drone was almost out of battery and all James had to go on was the last image on his phone - an image of ‘some branches’. To begin with, I thought he would easily find it, but after 5 minutes it became clear that this was not the case at all.
Jim, Rob, Rick and Merlin had gone on. We could see a farmhouse half way up the hill, on the other side of the huge river that flowed below us, and thought maybe we could ask them is we could set up camp there. It didn’t look too far away. But there was a catch. The only way across the huge river at the bottom was by zip line. Man powered zip line. This was the first I had heard of the zip line and I felt sick at the thought of it. Darren and I waited at the top of the hill, hoping James would emerge resplendent, drone in hand. But nothing. We knew that we needed to go - it was already getting dark and dark is dangerous. We talked about it, and admitted James was the fittest of the lot of us and was in good hands with Elvin. Below us we could hear them mercilessly hacking at the jungle.
We picked up our bags and started to descend the mountain. As we slowly started down the ridge, I could hear James crashing around below, machete in hand, repeatedly shouting “FUUUUUCK! FUUCK!”. It was awful. I will never forget how painful his shouts were. James was not giving up.
The darkness was coming in very fast. The canopy above us just made it worse, and this was by far the steepest descent we’d had. It was very, very slow to get down. There were huge rocks, mud, trunks, spikes, creatures and branches everywhere. It seemed to be getting darker by the second, and I started to feel really scared. Where were the rest of the team? Why were we out here at this time? This was really fucking dangerous. The jungle noises started, things started flying at our face. We got out our headtorches. My heart was beating very loudly. It was one of the first times I had been genuinely scared. Where was the edge of the ridge? I was tired and shaky - my fear making me even less steady on my feet. Within 20 minutes, it was pitch black and we were still trying to get down. My head torch was flicking - warning me the batteries were low. I couldn’t change them now. It would mean emptying my whole bag on a sheer ridge in the dark. I prayed it would stay alight. It kept cutting out.
I remember trying to calm myself down, thinking that every time I looked up, I would see the rest of the team. Every time I looked up, I just saw Darren’s head torch shining in front of me. It went on and on and on. I felt angry we had been put in this position. Angry we hadn’t got down in daylight. Then I slipped.
I fell quite heavily onto my side and immediately felt pain in my left arm. Darren shouted up to me, checking if I was alright. I had slipped onto a thin, sharp stump that had cut the top of my arm through my top. My hands were grazed, my arm was cut, but I was ok. The adrenaline rush that went through me as I went down burnt up the last of my energy, and I could feel the tears coming. I got up and kept stumbling down. The little confidence I had in my legs had gone. I just wanted it to be over.
After another 45 mins of stumbling downhill, rock after rock, in the pitch black, we could hear water - this must be the river. I could see light and the rest of the team came into view. All sitting, looking broken and sad, by a waterfall. Jim asked where James was. None of us knew. He was now somewhere in the jungle, in the dark, machete in hand, swearing at the trees, trying to get his beloved drone back.
It’s fair to say that all of us had lost our sense of humour at this point. We walked another kilometre to the edge of the river. I starred at the zip line in the dark. It looked like it had been put up by a child about 100 years ago. There was no way we were getting over that river tonight. We would have to camp on this side of the river and go in the morning. I looked around to try and find a couple of trees to put my hammock up in. There was nothing but dense jungle vegetation. Moises started hacking at it, as we all looked for plots in silence. Nowhere to sit, no light in which to set up camp, inky blackness and the sound of the river and nothing else. I found a rock covered in ants and sat on that. Fuck the ants. Fuck the jungle. I thought about punching Jim. Again.
Moises shouted my name - he had cleared me a spot for my hammock but it was the least inviting place on earth. It’s hard to explain how horrible it was. I walked over to check it out as best I could in the dark. There were huge green and red ants everywhere, spiders scuttling over the hacked vegetation under my feet. The leaves from the plants Moises had cut down had fallen onto deep, wet, rotting bark. Everything was alive. But there was no choice. This was my bedroom. I set up my hammock in the darkness, praying that it would stay up and no little jungle friends would get in. It looked terrifying. It was terrifying.
We heard voices coming from behind us, and James emerged with Moises, head down, covered in mud, sweat and blood. His arms were horrendously scratched and he looked like a ghost. There was no drone with him. He was absolutely gutted. The drone had the memory card in it - all the shots he had worked so hard to get over the last 3 days were gone. I felt to awful for him. But not as awful as he felt. I’ve never seen anyone beat themselves up the way James did that night. I was seriously worried about him. There was nothing I could say to make it better. James still thought there was a chance to get the drone back, and planned to run up the mountain we had just come down at daybreak to try and find it. If someone had offered me a million pounds in cash, I couldn’t have run up what we had just come down. The thought of him doing it in just a few hours time made me feel sick.
Mood in camp was more than bleak. We were all completely exhausted, and this was a late night. The last descent in the dark had really frightened everyone. It was already gone 9pm and we had to be on the move again at 6, so up for 5. We had around 20km to go to get to the bailout point. Today we had covered about 12km in 10 hours. There was no way we would be able to do 20km in one day. But still we talked about it being achievable. Today had destroyed us. Merlin got in his hammock and went to sleep, refusing to heat up his dinner or talk to anyone. I went down to the river and had my first wash in days - pointless when you have to put the same kit back on. It made me feel cold, but nothing else. James and Darren set up their hammocks in silence. Darren was camping in the spot that we hard earlier spotted a large coral snake. But he was beyond caring. We all were.
I put on my coat and sat on Ant Rock to eat my dinner. It took about 2 mins to eat those dinners, but they were 2 mins of calm and relative happiness. For 2 mins you could sit down and feed yourself. For 2 mins things were semi normal. As I sat there, a huge moth flew at my head torch over and over again - a moth the size of a bat. She wouldn’t leave me alone, and was so big her wings scratched my face. I asked Rick what she was, and he said she was actually a type of butterfly and shouldn’t have been out at night. She kept coming back, eventually settling down on my shoulder. I kinda liked her. She was very beautiful. She raised my spirits.
I got up, and my little (massive) butterfly friend was still on my shoulder. Because I am mental, I had a little word with her and told her it was bed time and she had to go. She flew off my shoulder and under my tarp, hanging just to the right of where I was sleeping. We were pals. I managed to get into my hammock with difficulty, not wanting to leave my boots on the floor for fear of them becoming home for a family of spiders or ants. But there was nowhere to hang them. I stuffed one boot inside the other and hoped I wouldn't need to get up for a wee in the night. That day was done. Tomorrow was a new one. I was asleep within seconds.