Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.
My knees plead with me. I’m following a wiry young American along a trail through thick Bolivian jungle, stumbling over roots and vines, and my jack-hammering knees are screaming at me: “What the hell were you thinking?”
Here I was, on Day 1 of a 30-day volunteer stint with Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi at a wild-animal refuge near Villa Tunari on the fringes of the Amazon Basin. Inti is famous for the controversial fact that its volunteers walk – not without risk – many of its big felines, including jaguars, pumas and ocelots (dwarf leopards). The jungle jaunts keep the cats healthy and provide them with vital mental stimulation.
I’d be walking a 35-kilogram puma along the longest, toughest terrain used by Inti’s nearly 40 big cats. And, according to Inti’s volunteer co-ordinator, I might well be the oldest guy to do it.
I knew that a full day walking Sonko (Quechua for “heart”) entailed trekking about 16 kilometres a day. But I hadn’t realized how tortuous the trail would be as it ran through stony, ankle-twisting streams and a convoluted roller coaster of steep, often muddy inclines and declines. “Can I really friggin’ do this?” I asked myself.
Inti Wara Yassi operates three jungle refuges in Bolivia, providing sanctuary to a plethora of monkeys, birds, coatis, kinkajous and other animals rescued from the illegal pet trade, circuses and wildlife abusers. For example, one capuchin monkey was rescued from a bar where for years drunken patrons could pay a boliviano (about 15 cents) to punch him in the face.
An Inti staffer spent three days teaching me the delicate art of puma walking – jeté gracefully over vines sown like booby traps across the trail. I was twice his 26 years and wondered why there were no escalators in the jungle.
We finally came to a rise where Sonko mewled greetings to us. Now 10, he came to Inti in 2004 as a seven-month-old cub. Poachers had killed his mother and a family had kept him as a pet until he became unmanageable.
I saw him pacing his cage, majestic and inquisitively eyeballing this half-naked, mud-caked newcomer. “Let’s go say hello,” said my trainer, instructing me to poke my hand through a hole in the cage. With a Harley-Davidson purr, the big cat sauntered over, opened his mouth in a big fangy yawn, then nuzzled and licked my hand.
Over the following month, in rain, biting bugs and soggy heat, I endured trekking about 460 kilometres with Sonko. He would, on one alarming occasion, jump me and my Israeli partner Ofir, clamping his jaw around the side of my neck in a puma’s lightning-fast death grip. (I was told later that this was probably play.) Sonko had lightly raked my shoulder with barely extended claws, drawing four thin streams of blood.
But that was the only wound he inflicted. It was the trail that brutally chomped away at me, battering my knees to jelly, driving me to three painkillers a day. And yet I knew that without the endurance – and perhaps crazy daring – of volunteers, Sonko would be stuck for life in a cage, and that gave me heart I never knew I had.
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