Belize: Welcome to the jungle

Tropical survival training isn't for the faint-hearted, says Jeremy Hart. But it will help navigate the nasties. Well, apart from the larvae buried in your skull
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The Independent Travel

For most people, the end of August spells the end of summer. For me it will spend the end of the waiting. Waiting to see if, from somewhere on my epidermis, an inch-long barbed larva belonging to the jungle-dwelling botfly will erupt.

Given that just a few weeks ago I was wander-ing about the Belizean jungle and, despite being lathered up in tube after tube of Her Majesty's military insect repellent, got bitten to hell, the odds are good that I could be about to give birth.

I'm prepared. The day before following a jungle survival expert, Nick Bougas, into the dense bush of Central America's smallest country, I helped him expel two baby botflies from his scalp. Botflies might make your skin crawl, but at least they will not kill you. In the Belizean jungle, that honour is left to other nasties, such as the fer-de-lance and coral snakes, killer bees, wild pigs and (occasionally) pumas or jaguars.

"The biggest killer of humans in the jungle is not the wildlife but humans themselves not knowing how to cope. Nine out of 10 people who end up in the jungle will die," says Bougas, who spends a third of every year living in the jungle. "But if you know where to look, the jungle is full of food and water."

This year Belize is celebrating 25 years of independence from Britain. But the former colony of British Honduras, no bigger than Wales and best known for its diving and offshore cays, still has strong ties to the UK, and has agreed to become the sole jungle- training centre for the British military.

"It is the best jungle environment I have been to," says Bougas, who was born in South Africa but has lived in Belize for eight years. "Belize has every type of jungle, every kind of threat the military would need to prepare for, and yet all of it is within an hour or so by helicopter from Belize City."

This is the rainy season, and the tracks are thigh-high in mud. Our Land Rover churns, paddles and flails through the quagmire until the mud eventually turns completely to water in the form of the Sibun River, featured in the film The Mosquito Coast.

Bougas has arranged with his local bush experts to canoe us upstream to our base camp on this swirling torrent of brown, 60ft deep water. His crew grew up in the jungle. From its depths they unearth food, shelter, natural medicines, even an aphrodisiac. "Gengweh vine, mixed with balsam bark and wild yam," reveals one of them, Vaughan. "The girls go wild for it."

Vaughan gives me a bush medicine man's guide to the flora. The jungle is a veritable chemist's shop. "We very seldom buy anything from a drug store. Why would we? Bush remedies work," he says.

"But what happens if you get bitten by a snake?" I ask.

"Bull horn acacia has a heart drug in it," pipes up another local, Lance. I presume he means it will work against the snake venom. "The other way is to kill the snake that bit you, take out the liver, mash it up and smear it on the bite," he adds.

I wish Vaughan and Lance would stay with us. Their presence has been reassuring. Seeing them slip away into the jungle that surrounds the clearing that will be home for the next 24 hours is gut-wrenching. "Don't worry, we only see a snake once a month," they call back, laughing.

Now there is just me, Nick the photographer and Nick Bougas, plus a million mozzies, god knows how many snakes and spiders and hundreds of miles of impenetrable jungle for company.

Bougas's aim is to teach me how to become a survivor, not a victim. "We have about five hours before darkness," he says. "And the first rule of the jungle is not to be walking about in the dark. It's when all the nasty stuff comes out. So before then we need to make sure we are prepared for the night."

Stupidly, I have volunteered to sleep in the open. The two Nicks will sleep in hammocks. But Bougas has said I can give up my mattress of cahune palm leaves for an SAS hammock if I feel uncomfortable.

My bed of palm is raised a few feet off the ground, but a snake in search of warmth could still cuddle up next to me, Bougas warns. "Just lie still and wait for it to slither away," he advises. "But that could take a few hours."

Food is our next priority. Nick has brought British army rations with him, including chocolate, biscuits (brown) and boil-in-the-bag sausages and beans. For the military, lighting a fire and cooking food would give away their position. We have no such concerns about stealth, and so prepare to light a camp fire, using two bits of bamboo.

Cahune palm and bamboo are the B&Q of the jungle; Nick cuts another length of bamboo either side of the natural internal dividing walls that separate the stem from top to bottom. This piece will be our cooking pot. Hollowed out, and with a little lid carved out, it will sit on the embers and boil up a jungle soup Bougas is creating from okra, cassava and coco.

"The hardest thing to find in the jungle is a good source of carbohydrate, so this is excellent," he explains as the soup starts to bubble. The fire is not only for cooking and scaring off animals - the smoke from the cahune palm's oily nuts keeps away the mosquitoes.

Darkness drops like a stone under the jungle canopy. In less than 20 minutes it is like living under a pitch-black sweaty blanket. And as night falls so the volume of jungle cacophony rises. "The senses of the jungle are sound and smell, not sight," Bougas says, to the accompaniment of a troupe of howler monkeys high in the canopy.

In a fug of cahune-nut smoke we tidy up the camp, to dissuade animals from foraging. Fire is not always enough of a deterrent for a famished big cat, so Nick leaves his machete by my palm bedside, just in case.

I have never slept so badly. Forget the voracious insects divebombing my outer defences, the rivers of sweat, the potential motorway of slithering serpents beneath my bed and the non-stop party being held in the trees, my worst- ever case of insomnia comes from the discomfort of sleeping on the palms, which are draped too thinly on a frame of vine wood.

When I do nod off, the moment is short-lived. My subconscious rings an alarm bell in my head and at the same time makes my body freeze stiff. I only realise why when I am awake enough to register a loud purring from somewhere beneath and to one side of my bed. My machete is inches from my ear yet I dare not move an eyelid, let alone an arm. Whatever is snuffling about is just feet away, and sounds like a Harley on idle.

After what seems hours but may be only minutes, the purring grows fainter as the unwelcome visitor moves off. If I do give birth to a junior botfly it will probably won't be pleasant, but at least it won't have flesh-ripping claws and canines...

Jeremy Hart travelled to Belize as a guest of Land Rover (landrover.com) and Discovery Expeditions Belize (discoverybelize. com). A two-day jungle survival course costs £320.

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