It was not the great inconvenience of losing more than an hour worth of light the worst thing that the unfortunate episode that I had just gone through left me, but the horrible bitter taste that remained inside me. Years of travelling around the world receiving affection, protection and hospitality, especially in Africa, again and again, make you drop your guard and lower your defences. That is why, when occasionally something ugly happens, the disappointment becomes much more intense.
Now, in these conditions, already effectively at the end of the day, I find myself outside the village and back at the mouth of the jungle. In the dim light of the remaining daylight, I contemplate the road ahead of me now tainted by the cold blue tones of the twilight. I do not feel real uneasiness, after all, the 132 km I had cycled to get there had been splendid and I now had only 32 km left to pedal. At that time, I could only assume that the road would continue in the same condition to the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) base, which I felt would take me little more than a couple of hours. Besides, it would not be the first time I would pedal at night in the jungle, that's why I did not even consider the possibility of staying there.
However, I can not allow myself to be overconfident because when confidence becomes excessive, it quickly becomes omnipotence. At that moment in which we feel all-powerful, it is when we are more prone to be hit by nature, giving us a lesson of its power, to return us to the place that corresponds to us. That is why, without spending much more time thinking, I prudently jump on the bike to finish once and for all with this long day.
In a very short time, as expected, the night looms over me, but nothing changes so far. 10 km in just an hour, they go in a blink of an eye, and I think everything will be fine until suddenly, my front wheel sinks in the mud. I'm not alarmed because it's absolutely normal to run into mud patches in places like this. There are so many times that I have already been through this, that I just get off the bike and start pushing, hoping to meet again firm ground in a few meters. Wrapped in the majestic symphony of the jungle, I try almost blindly to guess where to return to solid ground.
I do not want to start punishing myself ahead of time and add stress to my head when I need it the least, but I slightly start to wonder why I always neglect important things that can result in a potential problem. My headlamp does not even have enough energy to illuminate the floor below me. This is a problem that should not exist, had I bought spare batteries at the right time when nothing was a problem and I knew I would need them soon. Now, I can not see more than a few centimeters around me, so I have no choice but to continue blindly wanting everything to return to normal; and soon.
But several meters pass and nothing returns to normal. I keep sinking into a dense mud swamp. The bicycle is buried, I sink down to my ankles in the mud and I find it increasingly difficult to find a position from which I can push it to take it out of the jam. I can barely dig out my own feet, and every time I pull them out, the heavy blocks of mud are stuck in my sandals. I keep going with much difficulty, but I do not want to despair believing that the road will be firm again. And sometimes it does, and I can ride on the bike until 100 or 200 meters later I sink back into a deeper patch of mud.
I spend two hellish hours, during which I have buried myself even more in this mortal trap. The fatigue begins to overwhelm me, the sweat of the intense effort soaks my body, and even without being able to see me, I imagine that the red colour of the mud now stains my entire body. My fingers are injured from scraping the mud that blocks the brakes. The wheels no longer spin. They are permanently stuck and dragging the bicycle becomes an impossible task. It's full night time now and I see absolutely nothing around me, I am blind except for the dim light produced by the little battery I have left in my headlamp. The noise of billions of bugs deafens me and intimidates me. I could not imagine it even in the worst hallucination. I'm in trouble and I still do not even foresee how much worse it can get.
I have moved forward 2 km in 2 hours. By now, I have gotten too deep to try to go back, but if it continues like this, I have too much ahead to think that I will be able reach my destination. It is time for me to begin to manage my expectations, but the problem is that I can not stay here outside trapped in this swamp in the dark all night. I can not imagine how I could even camp in these conditions. Everything tells me that I need to continue, but if it continues like this I will not get anywhere either. I have no choice but to find out.
I leave the bicycle and I set off to explore on foot with still a weak hope that everything will improve soon. It's not that I can even walk fast, I need to take off my sandals and even so, my feet still sink. I walk slowly, cutting off the soles of my feet and ankles with the sharp pebbles inside the mud, moving forward 200-300 meters on foot just to find out that nothing improves. I go back to the bicycle, I start to unload everything and carry the panniers loaded on my shoulder. The weight of what I carry with me, sinks me even more and I only advance 100 or 200 meters. There, I throw them in the mud and I go back to get the bicycle, which I can not carry on my shoulders because it makes me lose my balance. I have to drag it since the wheels barely spin. It sinks a bit less because it is unloaded, but it has enough weight to keep accumulating more mud and blocking the wheels completely. Nothing spins anymore. My task is as titanic as stupid, but at this moment I see no other alternative.
The darkness and the noise fill me with fear and while I continue with the brutal task of moving forward carrying all over my shoulders, I see that on the sides of the road, in between the bushes, the eyes of dozens of small inhabitants of this jungle shine, reflecting the light of my headlamp. They turn on and off, probably by blinking or moving between plants. It is a creepy feeling to be surrounded by absolute darkness and to be observed from all sides, but I do not have time for anxiety. I suppose that if those eyes were dangerous they would have already devoured me to the bone. So I continue....
I do 2 km more in the 3 hours that follow and as midnight arrives I find a patch of solid ground. Without building illusions, I jump on the bicycle to pedal with the few energies I have left. The lack of proper light makes me force my eyes hard to see the ground, which is full of long thin branches and that does not allow me to discern what I'm really pedalling on. I gain a little speed. The pain and fatigue that I carry do not let me think, but I want to continue pedalling trying not to fade. At that moment, in between all those thin branches that I have been treading on, there is one that is not fixed on the floor with respect to the other ones. I do not have enough mental clarity already to correctly evaluate the situation in time, so I continue without putting too much thought, until I realise that the branch that was moving, was now clearly a giant black snake passing 2 cm next to my foot. At that moment, in that thousandth of a second, when I recognised it right below me, slithering smoothly on the road, my instinct reaction was not to stop. It is only when the snake is left well behind, that I stop the bike completely. I collapse on the handlebar and release violently the contained breath. That snake has just forgiven my life, only one bite would have been the end for me.
My internal alarm goes off at that moment to get my attention. I understand that if I continue this way, my chances of surviving tonight are drastically limited. I already find myself abusing too much of my karma. I realise that I need to find a solution, and soon. I remain trapped, nothing seems to indicate that it will improve soon but I decide to continue even a few meters more until I find a suitable place where at least, I am able to make an emergency camping.
However, as soon as I start to furiously push the handlebar again to advance on the deep mud, something unexpected happens, at a time when each and every one of those billions of jungle noises are completely cancelled by the scariest sound I heard in my entire life. A series of brutal thunderings follow each other progressively in the blackest darkness I have ever experienced. All the trees and plants that surround me creak as if the whole jungle was about to fall apart and disappear. Everything seems to be collapsing with violence around me but I can not see, I can not understand anything that is happening, I am in a desperate situation. I crouched in terror, paralyzed next the bicycle, all my muscles tense waiting for the worst. Then, suddenly, the noise is over and in front of me, a few meters away, in the dim light of my headlamp I distinguish a great dark mass obstructing the road.
I count 1, 2, 3, 4 ... forest elephants standing at such a short distance that I can only hold my breath, trying to be invisible or simply surrender myself to die in a violent sudden charge. Today, more than ever before, I have to put into practice that hard lesson I had learned in Botswana earlier this year. I stay absolutely still. They know that I am there, they are watching me in absolute silence. I can sense their intrigue, their suspicion and uneasiness
The elephants of the jungle have a great reputation for their irritability. That magnificent BBC documentary called Planet Earth comes immediately to my mind. The episode where in the middle of the night, in the jungle in the same region where I am, an elephant violently charges against a tree as if trying to bring it down, because he notices there was a cameraman up in the tree. I remember how comfortable and exciting it was to watch it at home and how documentaries like that one were, for the most part, the inspiration for me to get exactly where I am now. To his fortune, the cameraman was 20 m high above the tree (from where they filmed the behaviour of the elephants) and the tree did not fall; to my disgrace, I am face to face with them.
Any minor move, any sneezing or small coughing on my part, could mean my death for sure. The only movement is the frantic anxiety that rushes through my body without control. I know I have to do only one thing, to be completely still to give them a sense of predictability and to let them know that I am not a threat to them. It's not that I can do much more than that either. I am sunk in the mud in this blinding darkness with my body soaked in sweat and an itching that consumes me, but I can not risk scratching myself. There we are, them and me, The minutes pass but they seem like hours. The minutes pass but I could assure with certainty that they are hours in my internal clock.
After what seemed an eternity, the group proceeds to start moving. They leave the road and return to the jungle. The terrifying uproar begins again. It is the product of the elephants making their way through the thick vegetation. A while later they are once again absorbed by the symphony of the jungle. There, I stood several minutes making an effort to get out of my stupefaction. I violently release my contained breath and I am aware that I have just saved my life once again. I can no longer continue with such blatant abuse of my karma and decide to spend the rest of the night there no matter what.
Now it's time to find where to pitch the tent. Given the presence of these mastodons, the most important aspect to consider is not to camp on any of their tracks, since the elephants always repeat their same trajectories and walk over everything they find in the way. With great difficulty, in the absolute darkness, I walk on the ground carefully, examining the footprints, until I find a space near the edge of the road, bordered by a sufficiently high land embankment that assures me that at least there, the elephants will not be able to pass from side to side. It is past 1 am, it has been 18 hours since I left in the morning, I did less than 6 km in the last 6 hours and I reach to my last available energy to pitch the tent. The mud is too soft and does not have enough consistency for the pegs to stay fixed to the ground. The tent is flimsy like a flag without wind, but at least I can get inside it and pretend that I'm less exposed than being outside.
I am demolished, I feel an intense pain in every muscle of the body, which is sore, hurt and mistreated. I am covered with sweat and mud, I have an abominable smell and a post-stress sensation that makes it impossible for me to fall asleep. Meanwhile, out there in the black darkness, the jungle continues to roar incessantly, combining the beautiful melodies of insects and nocturnal birds, with the dark howls of the hyrax and the terrifying trumpeting of the elephants.
I feel like I've been through more emotions today than in several lives together. I have squandered adrenaline and the worst is that this hell, is not over yet. I'm still trapped. Now I only have to wait until the first light of day and wish me the best to be able to get out of there and alive, if possible.