My Personal Jungle Book

by Don L. Fulton

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    My patriarchal blessing states that I will be protected in travel over land and sea. That promise was fulfilled recently in the jungles of Venezuela when I helped lead an expedition down one of the remote rivers of that beautiful country. Before leaving home I determined that I would do my part by using caution in all that I did and by staying close to the Lord. I resolved that while in the jungle I would read the scriptures every day, pray constantly, and live the gospel to the best of my ability. I kept that commitment, and although I faced many dangers that could have taken my life, I developed a strong trust in my Heavenly Father, and he protected me and I returned home safely. I would like to share a few of the experiences in which I felt his protecting hand.

    While waiting for our clients to arrive for the river trip, I spent several days lumberjacking in the jungle. We worked beside a beautiful river, and the scenery was breathtaking. Each evening the silhouette of the jungle treescape against the purple and orange sunset was reflected in the calmness of the river. After a rainstorm the river was rainbow-colored, and on a clear day it was the green of the jungle, reflecting splashes of white from the orchids that grew everywhere. The wildlife was incredibly plentiful and varied. Red howler monkeys boomed in the distance. Rainbow clouds of brilliant-hued toucans flew overhead. Yard-wide turtles sunned themselves on logs, and otters played in the river.

    Of course, there were also piranha in the river, and as I worked felling trees I had to keep one eye out for killer bees, giant ants, bush flies, and deadly fer-de-lance snakes. One day while I was doing all that, a huge tree (about 100 feet tall) fell right on top of me, knocking me out. The last thing I remember was looking up at the blue sky and seeing a large shadow coming down at me, turning the day into night. Everything around me was smashed, but I was hit only by one of the smaller limbs and hardly touched otherwise. Everyone thought I was dead for sure. The Indian workers hacked their way to me and pulled me out semiconscious. When I fully awoke, I thanked the Lord for watching over me. Then I went back to watching for killer bees and venomous snakes.

    On another occasion I climbed Cuquenan Falls, the second highest falls in the world. To the best of my knowledge, I was the 14th person ever to reach the top. I was accompanied by Terry Brian, my partner in the rafting venture; Bernardo, a Venezuelan who provided transportation to the climb site; and Brazilo, our local Indian guide.

    A four-hour hike from our vehicle brought us to the Indian village of Paraitepuy (Pear-rye-tu-pwee). Cuquenan and Roraima, two huge, twin, flat-top peaks loomed above us in the sky, shooting straight up. At the base of the mountains were rolling green hills and ravines overflowing with rain forest. All around were other high plateaus and mountains. Clouds loomed close overhead, and in the many crevices all around were broad-leafed plants, bats, and orchids. Everything was very green and beautiful.

    Up at dawn the following day, we hiked across the plateau toward the foothills of Cuquenan. We stopped at the stream for lunch and bathed in the cool mountain water. The going became increasingly hard from there on. Finally we made camp in a large cave in the late afternoon. After bathing in the river, we spent the evening being eaten by jejenees (heh-he-nees), small gnatlike flies that bite as hard as horse flies. Cuquenan loomed larger than ever above us, filling much of the sky. The Indians call it Matuwe (Mat-too-wee), “the place of the dead.” They believe their dead ancestors wander around on its top as zombies, eating any unwary mortals who get caught there at night. The top of the mountain, we were told, was dark, misty, cold, and empty like a lunar landscape.

    When we awoke the next morning there was a clear, red sunrise, and then the clouds and mist rolled in. The mist was very heavy, almost like rain. It was very cold at first. In the gloom we saw a single deer bound over the hill and out of sight. We also saw jaguar tracks. We crossed several streams. Tall grass about two or three feet high blocked our way. It was very wet and rough on our legs. Our path kept getting steeper and steeper. Eventually we passed from the tall grass into thicker vegetation. There were lots of prickly plants, seven-foot-tall ferns, and foot-tall carnivorous pitcher plants. The terrain continued to get steeper. From time to time the mist would break enough for us to see Cuquenan rearing up straight above us.

    Soon we were slipping and sliding through a dark corridor cut out of a patch of dense rain forest. Moss hung everywhere from the giant fern trees. We finally stopped for lunch high on a rock point in the sun.

    Soon we left the massive vegetation, and the terrain got rockier and steeper. Whenever we became thirsty we drank water from the pitcher plants. Then came the steep bouldering. It was very dangerous in parts, and we made slow progress. But finally we saw the top of the mountain, and our route lay clear before us. We scrambled onto the top at about 3:30 in the afternoon.

    The top consisted of barren, dark-brown sandstone eroded into grotesque shapes. Here and there were stubby brown trees, about four feet tall, with reddish leaves. There were also some ferns, flowers, and grasses all growing from the bleak sandstone and pools of water. It was very misty and eerie. Through the clouds and mist we occasionally caught glimpses of the mountains below us where red and blue macaws flew above the jungle. We climbed up to some caves to make camp, then walked across the summit to the top of Cuquenan Falls. It was a beautiful view. Simply incredible!

    On our way back to camp, I stopped and picked up some quartz crystals in a stream bed. For a moment I thought they were diamonds. Bernardo and I stayed to collect a few and maybe find some real diamonds. Brazilo was eager to get back to camp and build a fire. Bernardo and I didn’t pay any attention to the encroaching darkness because we kept our eyes on the creek bottom looking for diamonds. All of a sudden we looked up and found ourselves surrounded by darkness and misty fog. We were lost somewhere on top of Cuquenan Mountain!

    We had built stone markers earlier to mark our trail, but we couldn’t see them now. The scape was all rock so we couldn’t follow our footprints. Bernardo panicked and began running wildly off into the night. I caught him, calmed him, and prayed. Suddenly it came to me that we just needed to follow the creek down to the edge of the mountain and then follow the edge around to where we had climbed up onto the summit earlier. There was some mud there and we could find our footprints. So that’s what we did. Bernardo was still scared, but I was calm inside. We found our footprints and followed them up to the cave where Brazilo was waiting. We arrived in time for spaghetti dinner and hugs and well wishes.

    Unfortunately, all such carefree adventures soon came to an end when our paying passengers arrived from the United States for the scheduled raft trip. We had to disappoint them because a serious drought had made the raft expedition impossible. Instead, we decided to motor up the Cuyuni (Ku-you-knee) and Chicunan (chee-kuu-non) rivers in a 30-foot dugout canoe, hike over a mountain range, and then float down the Carrao River past Angel Falls, the highest falls in the world.

    As we motored up into the jungle, dragging the heavy canoe bodily upstream over rocky rapids, I prayed for protection from rocks, electric eels, and piranhas. The river got lower and lower. Soon we had to get out and push, pull, and dig for clearance in the sand as we waded through the dark, infested waters from deep pool to deep pool. The going was so slow that we began to wonder if we would make it. The scenery, however, was beautiful, and we saw an incredible array of wildlife—everything from capuchino monkeys to caimens (a kind of crocodile) to orange-breasted falcons to giant click beetles—and a whole army of other jungle citizens of the feathered, furry, and scaly kinds.

    All the hard going put us two days behind schedule. Worse, in the process of pulling, pushing, and straining the canoe up the almost dry river, I tore a major muscle in my back. The pain was almost unbearable. We finally made it to the crossing, a mountain range covered with jungle. Everyone had his own load to carry, so I had to carry my own 80- to 90-pound load. I couldn’t take any pain killers or I could never have gotten over the range. So I hung in the back of the group and cried with pain the first day. The next morning I got up earlier than anyone else and had Terry help me on with my pack. All alone I marched up the small creek bed we were using as a trail. The pain was the worst I’ve ever experienced. I sang hymns to myself and prayed the whole way up. I was in such pain that I couldn’t stop to take my pack off or bend over or anything. So I trudged on. Shortly my prayers were answered. My back became numb. My leg stopped bleeding, and before I knew it I was over the mountain, lying on the river beach. I know that my Heavenly Father eased the pain and lifted me with energy to march up over that hot, steep, 2,000-foot mountain with seeming ease and comfort. The rest of the trip the passengers, all non-Mormon, called me Moses as I hobbled around with the help of a large wooden staff. They asked why I didn’t drink coffee or rum, and that gave me a chance to tell them about the Church.

    The trip down the Carrao River (Care-rao) was delightful. We floated through warm sunny days between high jungle cliffs, with lofty white clouds over us. The water was just right for swimming. Every day I thanked my Heavenly Father for the challenging trip, good people, and the beautiful weather. I was and am grateful for the protection I received and the love I gained for this beautiful part of the world. As we floated downstream I thought of a scripture I had recently read in the Doctrine and Covenants:

    “Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever!” (D&C 128:23.)

    Photos by Don L. Fulton

    Cabrillo Obispo Mountains and surrounding jungle

    Crevices near Cuquenan were full of orchids; Don L. Fulton; Logging area on the bank of the Cuyuni River.

    Top of Mount Cuquenan; Foot-tall carnivorous pitcher plants; Sandstone formations on Cuquenan; Cuquenan and falls

    Cuquenan seen from ten miles away

    Looking upriver towards Angel Falls; A three-toed sloth; Preparing for the upstream river trip; Orchids in the rain forest; An Indian woman weaving hammocks

    Pushing the canoe up the Carrao River