Our trek was to take us from Puerto Jimenez on one side of the Peninsula del Osa to Carate on the other. 42km in 4 days. Doesn’t sound too bad, eh? Add in temperatures at around 30C and humidity of 90% and “Costa Rican flat” (aka up and down – just look at the contour lines!) through jungle and rivers and you start to get an idea. Oh! And we were carrying tents, stoves, safety gear and food for 5 days for 13 people. This was meant to be a challenge and a challenge it was. For me, it wasn’t so much the walking with a pack. I have done that plenty of times and for much further. It was the heat and the humidity that I found hard. Constantly sweating, constantly having to replace fluid and trying to keep cool. The many river crossings were, in fact, a blessing as it gave us a chance to cool our feet down and splash our faces with water. Although we had wet feet for 5 days which wasn’t so great.
But I wouldn’t swap the experience for anything. The wildlife we saw, the shared challenges, the sense of fulfilment and just being in such amazing surroundings – the sights, the smells, the sounds.
Day one was our entrance walk, mainly on 4WD track from Puerto Jimenez and crossing the Rio Nuevo several times, we walked 13.5km into a lodge situated at the confluence of two rivers at the edge of the jungle. Someone, I think, had had the bright idea a few years ago, probably a few years too early for the tourist boom, to build a “jungle paradise” with a central cabin with a wood stove and space to hang out, and a range of cabins that sleep between 2 and 6 people on wooden bunks. It never really took off but the cabins remain, a little dilapidated but still functional and a warden still manages the site and keeps the place maintained. For us it was a haven. The river provided us with a great swimming spot to cool off and we didn’t have to get out our tents or trangias. Having a fire to cook on was a luxury.
The high note of the day was seeing squirrel monkeys in the trees. These were our 4th species of monkey this trip. They are very cute and surprisingly happy to sit as we took photos. We also met our first (of many) leaf cutter ants which are everywhere! These amazing ants carry more than their body weight in leaf to their colonies where it moulds and then is broken down as food. The acid that the deposit as they walk kills all other vegetation and leaves empty brown pathways that, according to Randal, can get so big that trekkers follow them thinking they are trails!
Christmas Day saw Secret Santa visit and we excitedly opened the presents we had been given and watched as the presents we had bought were opened. It was a time of reflection and I know there had been a few tears shed in the privacy of dorm rooms as the girls thought about what their families were doing. But it was also a time of excitement of what was to come. We had an easy day ahead of us; a 10km circular walk without our huge packs to explore the immediate environs of the lodge. Randal is a biologist and today was a real treat as we had time to stop and appreciate the world around us. He told us all about the different trees, animals and insects as we climbed to a high point where we could see across the jungle canopy. In one direction was the gulf and in the other the peak we would climb the next day to get across to the Pacific Ocean. (see next blog for details of the wildlife)
Day 3 was our big day; only a short 10km walk but the steepest climb and as we headed deeper into the jungle the terrain was more unforgiving. The “hill” was advertised as being “hard”. It was only just over 400m high but one group had allegedly taken 12 hours to complete the 10km with 3 hours spent climbing the hill! Randall was confident that we were better than that and could do it in around 8 hours but we still had an early start at 6am – just in case! Challenge on! There was lots of “Costa Rican flat” which meant “up, up, down, up, down, down, up…….” We ended up doing the big hill in half an hour! Result!
Lunch was at a small waterfall and getting there after the hill seemed like forever as we made our way over the seemingly never-ending, undulating “Costa Rican flat”. I think we had been so hyped up for the hill and after making it to the top with relative ease we thought it was all over and were a little low on moral and energy! Never mind, only 2 hours after lunch and we were at the goldminers’ camp in the Quebrada Piedras Blancas. All in we had made it in seven and a half hours. Not bad at all!
Day 4 was supposed to be an easy one. A 7.30am start and we would be at the beach by lunchtime. It was not to be. We had a medical crisis to start off with: Randal had fallen into a low blood sugar unconsciousness in the early morning. We had thought he was just asleep and then that he was fooling around pretending to be asleep and that when the girls were all ready to go and that he would just jump up. Leidy, the assistant guide had seen him up and about at 5am so thought the same thing. At 7.30am he was still snoring, we got all the girls to shout from below the balcony to wake him but there was no response. We then called his name and shook him but there was still no response.
Nor did he respond to pain.
Something was wrong.
Leidy suddenly realised what it was and went to get some sugar sweets from his bag. I had been going through the possibilities of why a seemingly very fit and healthy man would be unresponsive and was just coming to the conclusion that diabetes might be the problem. Leidy reaching for sweets confirmed that. However, she said that he wasn’t diabetic he was just susceptible to low blood sugar. Same thing, I thought, but he didn’t have insulin. To cut a long story short, we started trying to get sugar into his system and after about half an hour he started to respond, we could open his mouth and his swallow reflex returned. It took another hour before we could have any sort of intelligible conversation with him and it was clear that he was not going to be able to lead us out of the jungle. Interestingly, the first words he said were in English and so I had to translate for Leidy! He said afterwards that as soon as he came round he felt that he had full brain functionality, recognised that Leidy and I were treating him and knew exactly what he wanted to say but just couldn’t make his mouth work!
After consultation with Javier, the trekking company owner, Roy, one of the goldminers who was also an experienced trekker and knew the way out well, was to lead us out and Javier would send in some more trekking guides to meet us, assist us on a steep downhill section and then help Randall out. In the meantime, Lisbet, Roy’s wife stayed and continued to feed Randall carbohydrate and sugar until he stabilised.
It was 9.30am before we set off. The girls had been extremely patient and understanding as we had kept them informed with what was going on. Howie had also contacted the World Challenge Ops room. The first part of the trek was along the river, criss-crossing as we went.
The goldminers’ basic shelters of wooden poles and a tarpaulin were dotted along the river where they had cleared the bank of vegetation and flattened out the ground. The river beds too had been modified to encourage the flow of water and the washing down of the gold deposits after the rainy season. Goldmining was a booming trade of Costa Rica (the name means “Rich Coast”) but nowadays the gold is pretty much all gone and there are only a few Oreros (Goldminers) grinding out a living. They are there, according to Randall and Javier, because their families have always been there and they don’t really know anything else. Mining in the Corcovado National Park is illegal but these guys roam the rivers just outside the Park and if they do venture just inside they are more or less ignored. Their eco-footprint is small compared to ours; they may alter the river bed and leave some waste behind by burying or burning plastic, tin cans and bottles but they live a very simple life – no electricity, wood fires, travel by horse, kill the meat they need and use edible plants from the forest to supplement the monthly trips to “civilisation” for basic supplies.
There was some suggestion that the oreros were to be feared or at least people of whom we should be wary. People who live their lives away from the civilised norms of society, in the past criminals and people on the wrong side of the law would make their way to remote areas to seek their fortunes. Often the men stay in the jungle for weeks on end whilst the women live in the villages so the camps do not have the calming influence of females. However, Randal and Javier have a good relationship with the oreros at the camp/village where we stayed and certainly Roy and Lisbet who we met were very friendly and the half dozen other men we saw panning for gold in the shallow rivers waved hello and smiled in response to our greetings.
Roy cleared away the overhanging branches so we could walk under the fallen trees that balanced precariously across the river and cut back the undergrowth to reveal the path beneath. We had crossed into the Corcovado National Park and this was rainforest as you imagine it to be. Lush, green, thickly overgrown. The path had clearly not been walked for a while; it was very overgrown, fallen trees and vines and deep mud made the going slow and awkward. Roy cut footholds in the fallen tree trunks slippery with moss with his machete as we headed upwards. It seems that Lava Tours are the only group that do this trek and it is one specially designed for World Challenge Groups so it really was a path less travelled. Leidy took up Randal’s calls of “watch out for snakes” as we went. Snakes were the one thing that Randal feared in the jungle and since he was an experienced jungle man we could only respect his fear and advice to watch where we put our feet and be careful about what we grabbed hold of!
Once we left the river we climbed quite steeply until we reached the highest point of our trek at 510m. We paused for a few minutes to catch our breath and peer through the thick trees at the view. More trees! We could just make out that we were on a summit, we could see other ridge lines and there was a sense that we were high up but the vegetation was so dense and the steam rising from the ground as the rain fell steadily made visibility poor. There was a stillness in the air and when the rain started and the mist rose it was all quite ethereal with the vines draped over the trees and the calls of the birds seemed to echo through the stillness. Even the happy chatter of the girls had fallen silent. Anticipating our trek back in NZ I had worried about being wet the whole time in a rain forest and how I would cope with that. It had rained in the evenings and during the night but this was the first rain that we had come across whilst walking. It was actually quite refreshing although I am sure that we might not have thought so if it had rained the whole time!
On a more open stretch walking along a ridge we heard a commotion high above us in the trees and a huge branch came falling onto the path right in front of us. Looking up at the noise we could see cappuccino monkeys having a rare old time. “Angry monkeys”, said Roy, “keep walking fast”. Apparently when the monkeys are angry they are very violent and will break off branches and throw them down as well as throwing pooh and sticks and fruit! Maybe it was the rain and the wind that was disturbing them or maybe it was us but they certainly seemed agitated bouncing on the branches and screeching and running and swinging between the trees.
Suddenly there was a cry of “Randal’s here!”. And sure enough, there he was as right as rain! He came through the group to greet Leidy who was delighted to see him. He gave us both a big hug and said thank you for saving his life. There were an emotional few minutes, the girls too were delighted to see him and spirits rose considerably. We had just been joined from the other end by another of the trekking guides and soon after Javier arrived with another. So we had ample assistance as we made our way down the quite treacherous downhill section that was a slippery web of roots, thick mud and steep steps.
Lunch was at another waterfall but this one was amazing. Only short but a fearful force dropping into a pool about waist deep. Perfect for pounding sore shoulders. We were all happy by this stage to just stand under the water fully clothed to cool ourselves down knowing that a) it wasn’t far now to the end and b) it was so hot that clothes dried quickly and wet clothes helped to keep us cool.
The last section was beautiful. We came out of the jungle and into the steep sided gorge of the Rio Carate with tumbling waters and mini rapids. None more than knee deep so we picked our way down the river, hopping over the stone strewn river bed or wading through the water. All too soon we arrived at Carate and the Pacific Ocean. Final group photos and (tearful) goodbyes. It had been an emotional day, we were all tired and there had been some low moments when it had been hard to keep spirits up as we plodded through mud and slipped on roots and clambered over huge tree trunks, trudged uphill and negotiated the downs. However, there was a huge sense of achievement and huge relief at making it all together with Randal with us at the end.