Colombia | Tales From The River

I was nervous when I woke up. I lay on my bunk and thought about the ten thousand things that might go awry in the jungle. Bites, parasites, broken bones, falling branches, plus a thousand other horrors I couldn’t even fully form drifted through my mind. When I’m scared I always tell myself the same thing: this is what an adventure feels like. This is part of it. You can never be sure of what will happen. Do it anyway.


There was a girl in my dorm, Nataly, who was setting out on the same tour as me. She was from Belarus, and she was as stoic and calm as you might expect someone from that part of the world to be. We packed our bags and got into a waiting taxi, and together we drove with the windows down – morning already warm – across to Thomas’s house.

Thomas was waiting for us. He took our bags, then took our shoe sizes. He handed us each a pair of wellies.

“Do we need to wear them now?”

“No, no,” he said, waving away our concerns. Everybody is always waving away concerns in Colombia. They all make the same gesture, like batting away a mosquito.

Nataly and I made smalltalk while we waited for the other people on our tour to arrive. I asked, thinking myself worldly and clever and hoping such knowledge would delight her, if Nataly’s real name was Natalia. She said yes, but she doesn’t like being called that because nobody outside Belarus can pronounce it right, and it bugs her. I asked her to try me. I got it wrong as well.

Three young Israeli guys arrived by taxi, wearing khakis and drinking beers. I shook their hands and said hello; they seemed friendly but I didn’t like the fact they’d arrived already boozing. One of them had a youthful face but a drinker’s body, one of them looked competent and outdoorsy, and the last was overweight with thick glasses.

“Is it normal in Israel to drink in the morning?” asked Nataly.

“We are not in Israel,” the outdoorsy one replied. “It’s what you do in Colombia!”

A fair point. Then a small, dark-skinned man with a round belly arrived, and Thomas introduced him:

“This is your guide. His name is Alain, but you can call him Alan, or The Goblin.”

Alain laughed. Nobody asked why he was called The Goblin.

Then it was time to go. There was no briefing or run through of an itinerary. After the desert tour, I’d learned not to expect one. We left the house and walked across town, stopping to buy snacks. The Israelis bought a lot of sweets and chocolate and other goodies. I bought two apples and a pack of cigarettes.

“Is that it?” asked Nataly.

“I don’t eat much,” I answered.

I would regret these words more than once before the trip was over.

On the other side of town we reached the river. I’d not seen it yet – the Amazon – and I looked at the narrow brown river down a steep bank, all lined with colourful wooden boats and leafy trees and houses on stilts, and I thought it looked a bit small. Had I been listening to what Alain was saying at the time – I wasn’t listening, I was smoking and taking photographs – I would have learned that this river was only a tributary, not the Amazon.

We teetered down the slippery bank and climbed onto a boat. I took more photos. I was happy the Israelis were wearing khakis. They were aesthetically excellent; it made it feel more like the sort of adventure you see in films. I can’t tell you how many times on my travels I’ve looked around me and thought ‘Jurassic Park!

I also thought ‘Apocalypse Now!’ but I told my brain to shut up.


We rumbled away on our boat, with our wellies and our small rucksacks; we’d left our big bags at Thomas’s house. We passed rusting old houseboats and reeds, and then the river opened up in front of us, easily two kilometres in width: hemmed in by ancient green forest, the Amazon at last.

The water in the Amazon is a rusty red colour, and completely opaque. You can see things floating on the surface – leaves, twigs, the occasional miserable piece of litter when you’re near a human establishment – but one inch beneath the surface, it’s anyone’s guess. As we chugged slowly upriver, the morning sky was ominous. Not in that gloomy English way where the clouds are brown and hang low and engulf you, but in that impressive tropical way where gigantic fluffy formations soar vertically upwards for kilometres, flecked with gold and black.

The Israelis rolled a massive joint and smoked it. After the initial fifteen minutes of ‘holy shit this is the Amazon River’ manic photo-taking had passed, we talked to Alain about his life on the river.

“You must have seen some crazy stuff out here.”

“You wouldn’t believe the stories I have,” said Alain, turning from us to the water. “It’s a strange place, this river.”

Alright, I thought. I’ll bite.

“What sort of stories?”

Alain pulled a face, thinking. The boat chugged on and the rusty water lapped against the sides.

“One time, when I was young, I went out fishing with my brother. We were just teenagers. We stood on the bank, with our fishing lines in the water, and my brother got a bite. He started pulling it in, but it was stuck. I told him ‘Pull! Pull!’, and he pulled harder and harder but nothing. We knew it would be something big. Finally we pulled together, and his hook comes out of the water. And on the end of it was a tangle of blonde hair.”

I blinked at him.


“And me and my brother, man, we look at each other, and we freak out, we drop our fishing rods and we run, we run out of there.”

There was a lot of under-breath swearing on the boat as we processed the implication of this.

“And another time,” said Alain, “my friend and I were swimming in the river, just playing around. And then we see something. This thing swims past us, at first we thought it was an anaconda. But it was too big man, it was like, humps going up and down above the water, like a gigantic snake. It was this thick” – he made a shape with his hands wider than a human’s torso – “and it was red and black, with a big scaly spine down its back like a dinosaur. There’s nothing like that supposed to be living in the river.

“We got out, and we told each other ‘we’re never swimming in the river again’, man. But of course we did swim in it again, we swim in it all the time.”

“What do you think it was?” I asked.

Alain shrugged. “I don’t know. Years ago there was this scientist guy who came out here to make a TV show, and he tried to put a scanner in the water to find out what’s in here. He found a lot of new species, in only one tiny section of the river. We never know what lives out here. The water is too dark, and the river is too big.”

I looked out over the muddy waters, at the wall of dense jungle beyond and at the crashing clouds beyond the jungle. Thousands upon thousands of miles of it in all directions. Most of it completely uninhabited by humans, untouched, unseen, ever. I thought about everything that might be in there, waiting.

“Well,” I said. “Fuck.”

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