That time when adventurer-survivalist and star of the TV series “Survivorman” headed to the Amazon in Ecuador to explore the life of the Waorani people.
Story by Les Stroud, Photos by Laura Bombier
My introduction to jungles came through classic Tarzan movies. Those films may have been black and white, but in my imagination, the jungle glowed in Technicolor. Poisonous snakes slithering along twisted vines crawling with ants, huge, thick leaves drooping everywhere, steamy and wet jungle vistas shrouded in fog and echoing of more bird calls than I could ever hope to recognize—that’s my version of paradise.
I’m going to attempt to survive for seven days in the Amazon jungle, alone. That’s my job, actually. Existing solo in remote locations for seven days at a time is the basic premise of my television series, Survivorman. I have travelled around the globe making this show but it is here, finally, that I am preparing to live my dream: surviving in the jungle. This is my training run.
Having never really paid attention to high-school geography (well, we were learning about iron ore in Pittsburgh) I have lived with a number of assumptions about jungles. One: you have to be wealthy to consider going to the jungle. Two: wherever they are, it is a lifetime away. It never occurred to me that so many vast, thick rainforest ecosystems could exist so close to North America.
The Amazon basin stretches from the northern part of South America through to central Brazil in the south, with the Andes on the west and the Atlantic coast on the east. The Amazon is the epicenter. I’m headed to the eastern Andes of Ecuador, the headwaters of the Amazon.
From Quito to the small, edge-of-the-jungle air base in Shell, it is a six-hour taxi ride through the eastern Andes past a couple of small Ecuadorian towns. Flying out of Shell is a risky venture. The only safety-conscious and experienced pilots are the missionaries, but they’re not permitted to fly anyone who isn’t associated with their missions. Enter anthropologist and linguist Jim Yost.
He lived with the natives in this area for 10 years and is one of only half a dozen people in the outside world that can speak their language. He also has connections with the missionaries and through him I could fly with the only safe pilots in town, deep into the headwaters of the Amazon River, where I will be a guest of the Waorani.
The Waorani are considered to be one of the most violent peoples in the history of the world. Sixty percent of adult male deaths are homicides, mostly revenge killings. Most of the killings are done by spear, often in the dead of night. The perpetrators will sneak up on a hut, burst through the thatched grass side and drive a spear into someone’s chest as they sleep. In the 1950s, this remote area of the Amazon became infamous when five missionaries were massacred by the Waorani. The story has been retold in the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor and the movie and book End of the Spear.
What happened after the massacre makes for an even more incredible story; the wife and sister of one of the slain missionaries moved in with their relative’s killers and brought them Christianity. The Waorani were profoundly moved and the tribe embraced the concept of forgiveness. Since then, that concept has spread and the entire culture has begun to evolve from one of violence to one of understanding. As I contemplate my stay with this tribe, I realize it’s still a relatively new evolution for them.
It takes only a few minutes in the air to leave what, to me, looks just like Northern Ontario: large areas of bush broken up by roads, dwellings and mines. But soon we were flying over a vast expanse of dark green jungle that stretched quite literally as far as the eye could see. This part of the Amazon basin has not been hit as hard by logging and farming as it has in Brazil. Somewhere down there, I’ll be left alone for a week.
Our destination is the Waorani village of Snake River. From my view in the sky, I can make out a tiny grass airstrip in the middle of the dense forest. Jim Yost, photographer Laura Bombier and I are about to enter a land lost in time.
The entire village is a collection of eight huts within about two acres of barely tamed rainforest circled by a chain-link fence that was freed from some abandoned oil company camp and now serves as protection from jaguars. Most of the structures were made with milled wood courtesy of the lone sawmill, Norwood, shared by this and five other villages throughout the year. The presence of wooden structures is something that separates these villages from other, more primitive villages.
Eight families inhabit the eight buildings. The roofs are made of corrugated tin also liberated from abandoned oil camps. The ground is a combination of hard packed mud, rooster and dog droppings. The village is closed in on all sides by miles and miles of mosquito-filled, snake-slithering, jaguar-prowling, spider-crawling, ant-infested, wasp-buzzing jungle. Heaven.
Waorani etiquette dictates that after disembarking the plane you wait on the edge of the village until you are invited to come in, even though the huts are a mere 90 metres from the airstrip. This tradition could see you standing there for many hours, if not all day, until some elder decided to give you the thumbs-up. Fortunately for us, they were excited to have visitors, and especially to see their old friend Jim, whom they call Warika.
Six Waorani came out to help us with our gear and we walked across a small wet area where we were cautioned to watch for snakes. Over 90 percent of all adult Waorani have been bitten by snakes. Deadly snakes. We kept looking down.
The only sanitation in the village was a lone outhouse right in the middle of the village, in the only spot not protected by fences. Unbelievably, it actually had a flush toilet courtesy of a hose that had been tapped into a stream a distance from the village. In anticipation of our arrival, the villagers had built a traditional hut with a thatched roof. Once the dogs, all of them covered in mange, and the rooster were kicked out, it became our home.
The first order of business was to hang our beds, or rather our hammocks. Now, I can totally relate to the comfort and beauty of sleeping in my hammock at the cottage on a lazy weekend afternoon, but the thought of spending more than 20 nights (the duration of my training camp stay) curled up in one made me wonder if I would be getting any sleep.
After settling in, Jim climbed into his hammock and waited. For what, I wasn’t really sure. He just waited. So Laura and I did the same. Perhaps it was hammock practice time? The only activity for the next few hours other than trying to get comfortable on a thin piece of nylon stretched between poles was trying to relate to the three little girls who would become our shadows for our entire time in the village.
They dared each other to inch closer to me to see if they could poke this odd-looking stranger from behind. They were all under age seven, and two of them had never been out of the jungle.
There are 1,700 Waorani living in an area covering more than 13,000 square kilometres of thick jungle. Most of the villages are slowly becoming modernized. A few of them have electricity courtesy of diesel generators, and some even have sanitation and running water. They are all located between one and four days hard jungle walk from the next town.
But a stay in a fully equipped village doesn’t make for a great survival story so I’ve elected to go primitive—to stay with a splinter group of a few families that, believe it or not, long for the old days. No, they don’t want a return to the violence and killings, but they do want to return to jungle ways, where days are spent hunting for monkeys with a blowgun or wading in the streams with fishnets in hand.
There was yet another splinter group that was somewhat less inviting. Years ago, a group of Waorani natives took off into the jungle just over a day’s paddle downstream. The Tagaedi, as they are now called, are one of nearly 70 tribes that live deep (much deeper than I currently am) in the Amazon. No one who has ever tried to contact them has ever come back alive.
To make matters even more intimidating for me, only three weeks before our visit some of the Waorani from another village went down and killed 16 Tagaedi. Hostility and tension filled the already thick jungle air. I realized I was about to be alone for a week in a territory rife with retribution.
In our village, it was a much different story. We had a number of hosts, all of whom spoke no English. Badiana is a 30-year-old woman with a wonderfully sweet disposition. Kinta and Ippa, both about 50, lived here and were the main organizers of the village. Tomo and his wife, Anna, both over 60, had come up from their own, even smaller, village further downstream (and closer to the Tagaedi I might add) to be here for Jim. And then there was Duey.
He is one of the Waorani that massacred the five missionaries by spear. I could have been greatly intimidated—even afraid—but before my time in this jungle is finished it will be as gut-wrenching to leave this group of people as it would family.
As my guide, Tomo will become like a brother. His appearance is striking. His skin is like leather and his toes are splayed out wide from walking barefoot in the jungle his entire life. In fact, the Waorani only started wearing clothes because outsiders couldn’t get past their nakedness and they had grown weary of the staring. Clothing in the jungle rots quickly and not much will last beyond a few weeks. Nakedness wasn’t simply an aesthetic choice, it was, quite simply, a practicality.
For the Waorani, one lone string around the waist is considered to be dressed and the absence of the string is shameful nudity. Men tie the string to the foreskin to pull the penis up and out of the way when tromping through the jungle. Don’t ask.
In the jungle, the night closes in on you quickly. There are no sunsets. No big skies. Some would find it claustrophobic, even creepy. Not me. For me, the night lies heavy, like a thick blanket, and the sounds are amplified, even ear-piercing. Over there, a frog croaks. Behind me, a night bird calls. Not far off, a puma growls. Somewhere out there, probably within a stone’s throw, a jaguar prowls.
Jim, Laura and I are mellowing out as we lay in our hammocks waiting for the Waorani evening meal to begin. Not many people visit the Waorani. Missionaries, anthropologists and the odd magazine writer will go to the effort it takes to come this far into the heart of the Amazon. But we were different.
The Waorani knew I wanted to spend a week alone in the jungle, their jungle, surviving, prompting ongoing jests about what a great meal I’d be for the jaguar. I joined the laughter—and then I was told that the Waorani would do anything to avoid being caught alone in the jungle at night.
OK, so they considered us crazy—crazier than most. But we also had a woman in our group, something the Waorani found even more fascinating. Few females venture this far into the jungle. Badiana thought Laura was absolutely beautiful and was so happy to have another woman to connect with, if only through hand signals.
Though we brought our own food, Anna and Ippa were only too happy to feed us, constantly, it seemed. Mostly it was manioc, a root much like potato, with whatever was caught that day, usually some kind of fish or bird. But the treasured treat is manioc drink. First the root is boiled and mashed by hand. Then the mash is chewed by female village elders before being spit back into the bowl. The saliva begins a process of fermentation and the mixture is left to sit overnight. The next morning it is mixed with hot water and ready to drink.
You are expected to guzzle it down, not sip it, as that would be an insult. It is also an insult to put down your food bowl once you have picked it up. My concerns that it would be a bother or inconvenient to feed us, house u s and guide us in the jungle were quickly dispelled when Jim explained that it was, in fact, their honour. They were thrilled that someone cared enough to want to learn and experience their traditional, quickly disappearing, way of life.
Jim himself was like a legend to them and some of the younger Waorani even came into the hut just to get a glimpse of the famous Warika. Jim and his wife, Kathy, spent 10 years living among the Waorani and raised their own three children in the jungle. He was an indispensable part of achieving Waorani ownership of territory in the jungles of Ecuador. Tomo respected and cared for him greatly but when Duey arrived that evening the love and friendship was more than evident.
Waorani don’t have a word for hello or goodbye but the happy sentiment was evident when Duey shed tears as he hugged Jim in greeting. Duey had walked for a day and a half through thick jungle just to see Jim and it was Duey who organized the men and women of the tribe to come into our hut to sing for us this first evening.
It was by far the most rudimental and crudest form of music I have ever heard. There was only the faintest hint of form or melody and no pitch or tuning at all for the rustic percussion instruments and flutes. Each song was simply a repetitive chanting of one or two lines of lyric. It was beautiful. I sat in the firelight as seven Waorani treated us to their traditional storytelling songs. I breathed deep and held back tears. The honour was purely ours.
In the middle of the night, I was awakened by Duey chanting and praying in a loud voice. Jim explained that this is a holdover from his days of existing within a more violent culture. You stayed awake in shifts and talked and sang so that your enemy knew you were awake and couldn’t attack you by surprise.
The next day, after our breakfast of manioc, we patiently waited in the hut, hanging around, literally, in our hammocks while the rain fell. It rains nearly every day here, usually for many hours and often as a downpour. Once the rain stops, the sun beats down through any small opening in the jungle canopy like a fiery hammer coming down on your head.
Before long our hosts arrived to begin my training. Kinta and Ippa wore their traditional clothing on the upper part of their bodies; leaves and feathers on their heads and woven plant fiber and decorations around their necks.
My first lesson was to be in the art of hunting by blowgun—a survival priority. If you can’t hunt or fish, you can’t survive. Dead simple. Village kids can point a two-metre blowgun heavenward and hit a hummingbird 20 metres away. I practiced on coconuts and Tomo cheered every time I hit my mark. Maybe I’d survive in the jungle after all.
Once, Tomo almost didn’t make it. He had hit a monkey with a dart from his blowgun. As it fell, the monkey got caught on a branch. Tomo climbed 70 feet up the tree to knock the monkey down. High up in the jungle canopy, he grazed a small poisonous caterpillar. The toxic shock was so powerful that his whole body was jolted out of the tree and he fell to the ground.
He was taken to the village hospital, where he remained for three weeks. His entire body turned completely black. It was looking grim. Finally, an entomologist was found in Brazil who not only recognized the poisoning but had developed an antidote. Tomo’s life was saved and he hadn’t broken a single bone.
The Amazon is home to a multitude of species of poisonous snakes, spiders, frogs, ants, bees, wasps, fish, caterpillars and bugs. Can I survive? Many of the survival methods I teach in North America are totally wrong in the jungle. In North America, you never stand up on a log or jump off of one for fear of snapping an ankle. But when traversing a jungle, you must stand on logs to cross over them.
The majority of poisonous snakebites occur when you step over a log, oblivious to the snakes hiding in the crux of its underside. I also learned to tromp heavily, as the vibrations will often cause the snakes to slither out of your way.
My next tutorial was fishing by net in the small, muddy jungle streams. This time, the women took over as my teachers. As Anna showed me how to shove my net deep into the muddy water to corner the fish, Laura, who was busy trying to get some video footage, fell backwards into the murky stream. When she surfaced, the first words out of my mouth were “Is the camera OK?!”
Everything we did, we did as a group, including laughing.
It is the night before I am to set out on my week-long survival test. Tomorrow I will be deposited in the heart of the jungle, alone. Before sleeping, I take my satellite phone out to the airstrip to call home. It is my only link to the outside world and on this night I need to hear familiar voices.
Instead, what I hear is a low growl coming from about 60 metres away in the pitch-black jungle. I make a beeline back to the hut. The growl belongs to a full-grown puma that has been hanging around the area.
Sleep proves hard. I’m more anxious about this survival stay than any other, yet, I’m also exhilarated; surviving in the Amazon jungle is my personal quest. Bug screening covers my hammock. This is good, given that our hut is filled with annoying, biting gnats. Also, the alternative—sleeping on the floor while thousands of army ants and the odd tarantula crawl over me—is worse.
In the morning, before we embark, the elders ceremoniously paint my back and arms with ink made from plant dyes. I am immediately swarmed by bees. Bees, wasps and butterflies, will be my constant companions for the next seven days.
My greatest foe, though, is a huge, two-inch-long ant they called the manyi ant. It has a monster-sized set of chompers on the front end and a massive stinger on the rear. If you are stung by one of these it’s said to be like taking a red-hot pair of pliers, jamming them into your skin, twisting them hard and holding. The pain doesn’t diminish for at least five hours. The Waorani fear this bite more than snakebites, yet one of the kids skillfully catches one for me using a small piece of grass twisted like a noose.
In the days to come, I will step barefoot beside at least six of these devils. I will plunge my hands deep into muddy riverbanks in search of catfish, praying I don’t, instead, get a handful of electric eel, or, the most feared creature of all, a freshwater stingray.
I will suspend belief and do a number of things that go against all my instincts. But this is survival, jungle-style.
My crew, including paramedic Barry Clark, will wait for me back in the village. On day six of my week alone in the jungle, I took a late-day walk. I looked up to see a huge spotted jaguar a mere 15 metres away. Concentrating on slowing my breathing and keeping the monster cat in sight, I made my way back to my bush camp. I wasn’t expected to follow the jungle trail home until the next day but decided that my visitor was reason enough to call this adventure short. I don’t mind suffering for my art, but I’m not interested in getting eaten for it.
The sun was setting and darkness was falling fast as I started picking my way home. The trail was small and tangled. I pulled out the screen of my video camera and relied on its night vision to guide my way. I set a quick pace, constantly turning my head searching for the giant feline. The big cat stalked me all the way back to the village.
After what seemed like an eternity, I came to the edge of the grass airstrip and hastily made my way into the fenced enclosure of the village. I’d made it. Barely. My heart was racing. Later that night, as I lay exhausted and spent in a hammock that now felt like the ultimate in luxury, Jim woke me up. “Listen,” he said, and motioned to the side of our hut. Clearly audible was the growl of the jaguar, which continued to circle the village all night.
I survived. Despite insects, snakes and ferocious felines, I survived. I am always asked what my favourite Survivorman location is. For beauty, I would say it is a tie between the Arctic and the Utah Canyon Lands. But I have never been so profoundly affected, so full of awe, as I was in the Amazon, the land of Waorani. I will return.
LES STROUD is a documentary filmmaker, adventurer-survivalist, environmentalist and expert outdoorsman, creator and star of the TV series Survivorman (previously on OLN and Discovery Channel International). He’s also a musician, and for more info on Les as both Survivorman and singer-songwriter go to www.lesstroudonline.com.
LAURA BOMBIER is an award-winning Toronto-based photographer and visual storyteller with a long list of bylines that include magazines, book publishers and other media, and photographer for Survivorman. For more info go to www.laurabombier.com.
- This story first appeared in Outpost magazine.