Rebecca Linder discovers the daily dramas of life in the jungle and under the sea in Belize as she faces the challenges of an Expedition Leader’s Training Course.
There is no better place to reflect on my adventure in Belize than here on the go-slow Caribbean island Caye Caulker. Serenaded by the morning chorus of seabirds as I squat at the end of a wooden pier stretching out over crystal clear waters, I chuckle at the UK weather. Under the surface an eagle ray investigates the shallows, swiftly darting a barracuda before it returns to the depths.
One of my favourite days in Belize started with a boat ride over turquoise seas accompanied by a pod of dolphins. I was to dive into the Great Blue Hole, with its stunning contrast between light and dark blue waters. As I descended, I observed the walls studded with stalactites, overhangs and limestone formations originally developed as an Ice Age cave. Then, a rather large shadow appeared in the corner of my eye, leaving me overcome by a small moment of panic as I scanned the cuts with which I was afflicted while in the jungle. I took my leave of the black tipped reef shark and ascended to explore the outer reef. This was quite simply a scene from Finding Nemo: an underworld paradise with explosions of colour dispersed by exotic marine life and arty coral formations. Fascinated by an exceptionally bulbous fish inhaling and exhaling, I prepared to take a stunning photo; but, greeted by a curious moray eel, I politely allowed it right of way and retreated towards a nonchalant turtle seeming to watch life go by.
Before this seaborne idyll, I lived in the jungle for four months undertaking a tough expedition leader’s course, and witnessing the rainforest’s beauty and energy thriving beneath the extremes of torrential rain and intense heat. The nature-based spiritual practices and use of the jungle’s medicinal properties are the foundations of Mayan knowledge and make for an intriguing perspective on life: the passion of local people narrating stories of admired shamans who understand the power of the jungle intensified my desire to learn more.
My jungle survival course was a real education: an experience of self-reliance bolstered by imagination. The hours of darkness brought an endless playlist of unexplained sounds from near and far. Learning to accept that on occasion my hammock would spring into motion owing to the antics of a passing kinkajou was part in parcel of adapting to jungle life. The prehistoric echo of the howler monkeys growl was quite spectacular from afar and a real shock up close. Alone in the jungle, being jolted into consciousness by dinosaur roars beside my self-made shelter was certainly an unforgettable experience. Camping near a river always made for an eventful night with visits from animals splashing in the water. Never did I pluck the courage to see what was there, though I am hopeful it wasn’t our guide. Nor let us not forget the scavenger of the jungle, the screeching possum. A sound none too pleasing to the ear: it resembles the crashing of pots and cutlery. Morning brought the entertaining task of cleaning up the chaos left behind by such intruders.
Adjusting to the wild jungle environment naturally took time, though living comfortably with insects and spiders was a little more challenging. The head torch was useful to operate in the dark but more importantly an essential tool used to complete the nightly tarantula obstacle course. Shining light into pitch black broke through these creatures’ camouflage with the responding glow of red eyes. However the drawback of being lit up like a walking star was that I attracted every insect in sight, and I was continually slapped in the face by clouds of them.
On occasion I would wake before the birds and watch the initial stirrings of dawn. Being able to watch rare birds flaunt in the skies, observe monkeys swing between trees, peccary forage for food, and tayras prowl across the rocks beneath waterfalls undoubtedly surpassed the fulfilment of watching a TV nature documentary. Fresh tracks and the sighting of a seemingly frozen brocket dear gazing towards some perceived threat in the forest was the closest I came to the sacred jaguar, respectfully fighting for its covert life. Never does the excitement end when at the heart of such a wild environment.
But then my jungle reverie ends: I am back at Caye Caulker and the water surface shatters: my envy for the ray as a symbol of freedom rapidly diminishes as it is ripped from paradise and gulped down the gullet of a pelican. Slightly traumatised I force myself to accept the realities of nature: the unexpected, the magical, the extraordinary were all there to discover on my Belizean Odyssey.
By Rebecca Linder