Faithful reader, as you may remember from Part 1 of this series, the woeful Weazel was sick as a dog and as thoroughly broken as a suspected Jew on the Grand Inquisitor’s rack; nevertheless, at the beginning of June 2017 after less than a month of recuperation I set out for Belize. My ostensible purpose was to experience the onset of the rainy season. Ann was busy working so she was unable to join me. That meant no kisses and no one to share the load so I had to carry my full jungle kit all by myself.
It is hard enough to carry a sixty pound pack under the best of conditions, but just try it when 69 years old and suffering from two virulent diseases and four broken bones.
My shoulder was the worst. I could carry the pack but I couldn’t put it on. Hefting it was an agonizing ordeal involving sitting on the ground to put my arms through the straps, then rolling over onto my hands and knees, then standing up. Once up I could walk for a mile or so before it became unbearable. I was better prepared for the old folks home than the jungle.
This was not my first rodeo. (A bad metaphor since there are neither horses nor cows in Belize because the jungle eats them for breakfast.)
I first visited Belize in the winter of 83 after fleeing a disastrous attempt to build a sex grotto for Alvin Malnik who was at that time the world’s richest gangster due to “disappearing” Jimmy Hoffa , then ripping off the Saudis for billions. The problem was that “Big Al”, who is little and cute even to this day, couldn’t take a joke. I made a wisecrack about him helicoptering in loads of top shelf prostitutes and soon thereafter was running for the jungle where no one could find me. Look him up and prepare to be amazed, but pay no attention to his Wiki entry because he wrote it himself. Instead, concentrate on things like the time he bought Michael Jackson and kept him like a pet monkey That was until he discovered that he couldn’t be housebroken. No one could make this stuff up, not even me.
On that fateful trip in late 1983 and early 84 I explored the Manatee river to discover the gigantic cave at the headwaters, then later set off across the Vaca plateau to join a band Chicleros in an effort to locate the legendary Chiquibul cave system. It was my first real wilderness experience, and in a sense I haven’t come back yet.
I was hooked, so I made eight more trips, most of which involved the continued exploration of both the Manatee and Monkey river watersheds. in every case I penetrated deep into the wilderness, made extraordinary discoveries, and had wonderful yet arduous and bizarre experiences.
My last visit was in 2002 so it had been fifteen years since I last had the dubious pleasure of being eaten alive by insects and punctured by thorns in the Belizean jungle.
I arrived back in Belize city at the beginning of June to discover that it hadn’t changed a bit, still a shithole just bigger and busier. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been improvements, in some places there is now even some plumbing!
I was pleased when my taxi driver informed me that crime was down because so many of the local hoodlums had killed each other. This good news means that Belize is now only the third most deadly country in the world.
(Note: This statistic pertains to the country as a whole. Many parts are relatively safe, but the stats from Belize City are off the charts. Visiting Belize City is rather like taking a stroll through a battle zone in Syria. The difference is that in Syria they scream, “Die infidel scum” before they shoot you; whereas, in Belize City they say , “Welcome to Belize my brother!”)
I did not wish to inflate the statistics so I caught the next bus out of town and headed west for Monkey bay.
Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is a grass roots ecotourism and education facility located in the central savanna which is run by my old friends Matt and Marga Miller. Unlike other would be expats, almost all of whom fail by either dying, fleeing, or going insane, Matt and Marga have toughed it out for over 27 years.
Marga received me like a long lost son. She was astonished that I had just staggered in off the highway with no advance notice. Everyone else arrives by tour bus.
Staggered is the right word because I was delirious from the heat, for April through early June is the height of the hot dry season in Belize. My cocktail of diseases had rendered me feverish and my body incapable of temperature regulation. The Doxycycline I was taking for Lyme disease made me extremely photosensitive so the sun burned right through my hat and thin clothes. A continuous river of sweat poured off my brow as she led me to my new home, a wooden platform under a thatched hut.
The mind operates faster than conscious thought to form word associations. So it is that whenever I think of Belize I think of biting bugs. I was not disappointed. As soon as I got there I began to be devoured by invisible Ceratopogonid no-see-ums. On the savanna they come in hordes at dusk, dawn, and all hours in between. I was also tormented by numerous botlas flies (a corruption of the word bottle ass), a species of Simuliid black flies that are the curse of Belize.
Swinging in a hammock was out of the question so I headed out on foot for a drink. Monkey Bay has the good fortune to be sandwiched between the two best bars in Belize, Cheers to the east and Amigos to the west. Both are within close walking distance! To my amazement Anita and Chrissie, the owners of Cheers bar and restaurant actually remembered me!
A nicer place could not be imagined. The restaurant is open to the savanna and the grounds have been transformed into a botanical garden full of tropical flowers specially designed to attract birds. I will never forget the day many years ago when my beautiful friend Kelly flew out of her seat, rolled across the sill into the garden, then grabbed a big blacktail snake which promptly bit her between the eyes. Now that’s a good woman!
Not even good fellowship and stiff drinks could cure the fact that I was broken and sick. Before leaving I couldn’t even sleep in a soft bed because of my ribs and shoulder, so trying to sleep on hard planks was agony. All night long sweat poured from my body such that I lay in a sopping puddle.
After a few days of “rest” I headed to Five Blues Lake to camp alone in the jungle. I have already written the story of that adventure, so I will just offer a few highlights.
And where might one find such a deadly ankle nipper? Right next to your foot of course!
I had a wonderful but truly horrible time while camped at Five Blues Lake. I suffered greatly and think I actually would have died had it not been for the cool blue waters of the lake.
From Five Blues I traveled onward to the tiny village of Gales Point, a spit of sand in the Southern lagoon, to visit my old friends Moses and Janito. In years past they joined me on many expeditions up the Manatee river by dugout canoe. We made many extraordinary discoveries such as one of the world’s most spectacular caves, but the best part of our journeys was sitting around the fire listening to Moses sing the stories of his African ancestors. Moses is a living link to the ancient past, and the funniest man alive.
I was especially pleased to meet Moses’ younger brother Leroy, a much more worldly man than Moses. He had recently returned after years of living in Chicago, but in his youth he was a famous jaguar hunter.
It was heartbreaking to see how much the once idyllic village of Gales Point has fallen into poverty and despair. I might add that while there I was terribly sick from the aforementioned injuries and disease.
Gales Point was once a self sufficient fishing village populated by Maroons (escaped slaves), but the disappearance of seagrass in the surrounding lagoon caused the collapse of the marine ecosystem. Thus, their little world went from overwhelming abundance to no fish for dinner, and it is hard to live on nothing but mangos and coconuts.
Ecological collapse was soon followed by societal collapse. The worst elements of the worldwide drug culture swept Belize, and soon brothers were killing each other over crack cocaine. As a result the population of Gales point plummeted to only 250 people, almost all of whom are old.
I thought oblivion was inevitable until I discovered that there were still a few kids being raised by their grandparents. They were even teaching them to sail!
Twenty seven years ago my young herpetologist friend Jacob Marlin asked me where he might find a god forsaken jungle wilderness full of snakes where he could build his dream, a tropical research station and lodge. I unrolled a map of Belize and placed my finger at the spot where the Bladen branch of the Monkey river emerges from the Maya mountains. I told him that if he owned that spot he would control the largest and most important wilderness area in all of Central America.
Many wild eyed romantics come to Belize to find their fortune but almost all fail. Through perseverance and hard work Jacob has managed to carve out a jungle empire called BFREE (Belize Foundation for Environment and Education).
In the beginning we waded across the river and hacked our way into the jungle until we found a looted Mayan ruin. Atop the debris was a rare and beautiful coral snake. Jake decided that it was a perfectly good omen so that is where his house stands today.
But it isn’t just a home. He has built an entire research station capable of accommodating large student groups with beautifully designed individual huts, dorms, a laboratory, and the world’s best kitchen, a big circular thatched building complete with hammocks, a library, picnic tables, and even cold beer. His Mayan staff serve fabulous Creole food to scientists and Sleazeweazels alike.
The grounds feature extensive tropical gardens of fruit bearing trees, and Jacob has established a large eco friendly cacao plantation based upon Theobroma trees found growing wild on the property. These trees are the direct descendants of those that provided chocolate to Mayan kings.
Just a few minutes from the kitchen there is a spooky freshwater lagoon filled with crocodiles, enormous tapirs, and a large colony of boat billed herons.
The surrounding jungle is filled with life. There are five different species of wild cats, but the jaguar is king! Monkeys have made a major comeback and the cries of howlers fill the skies. There is no better place for a tropical researcher or ecotourist to experience the wild jungle!
Beside it all runs the beautiful blue Bladen branch of the Monkey river.
But to get to BFREE one must first cross the savanna.
It looks easy but it isn’t. The savanna mud is a bottomless mire, and then you have to cross the river. When I got to BFREE the river was knee deep, but when I left it was a raging torrent that we had to cross by canoe at the risk of our lives.
In the old days whenever I explored the Bladen there was no choice but to camp in the jungle, but now the accommodations are deluxe! I was still extremely ill and worn down from my travels, so Jacob kindly offered me a cabin at BFREE. It was a lifesaver.
For the first week I was too debilitated to do anything other than to walk the already established trails.
I especially enjoyed the weird crocodile filled lagoon, here seen in the dry season.
There were perfectly good bathing facilities at the research station, but the beautiful blue pool was only a kilometer away.
As soon as I gathered a bit of strength I headed up the Bladen with Hilberto Rash, a Mayan ranger working for Yaaxche, a conservation organization that manages the Bladen Nature Reserve.
Hilberto is the real deal, not some bunny hugging eco-weenie. As a full blooded Mayan Indian the jungle is in his blood. He is a front line soldier in the fight for conservation, for the preservation of his Mayan heritage, and for the sovereignty of his nation.
For years Hilberto served as a jungle ranger with the Belize Defense Force. His duty was to patrol the wild frontier of the Vaca plateau to prevent incursions from adjacent Guatemala. In doing so he showed both courage and kindness. If a poor man crossed the poorly marked border he would politely ask him to leave, but if the man carried a gun it was time for a showdown.
Now Hilberto works for Yaaxche to protect the Bladen. Because of his efforts and those of others the bad old days of looting, logging, and hunting have come to an end, and this critically important wilderness is safe from depredation. I could not have asked for a better guide and companion, plus he carried my pack!
Hilberto left me at a beautiful curve in the river where I camped alone for several days. It wasn’t a hard core wilderness adventure like my previous trips, it was more like coming home.
Much of my time was spent swimming.
My favorite pastime was admiring the magnificent jungle trees along the river. Everywhere I went monkeys scolded me from high above.
I actually remembered the gigantic fig shown below from my first expedition in 1990. It hasn’t changed a bit. This tree began life centuries ago as a a tiny epiphyte on the branch of a jungle giant. It enveloped the tree, strangled it to death, and now nothing remains of the host.
On our way back we visited the entrance of a cave that holds the secret of the Bladen.
I have visited this cave several times on previous trips but it has never been fully explored. For reasons too complex to explain here I believe that an enormous undiscovered cave system lies southeast of the Bladen, and that the water discharged at Redwater spring is actually the water of Snake Creek at the very head of the Bladen.
I have tried to access this hypothetical cave system from many different potential entrances but have never managed to make it past the breakdown plugs. In doing so I have discovered numerous different Mayan graves and other archaeological sites. All have been left untouched by me with the exception of one in which I slipped my business card between the cracks so that if some modern day looter or Indiana Jones ever disturbs the grave he will find my card with a note telling him to leave the dead in peace!
After a delightful two week sojourn along the Bladen that did more for my spirits than my health I headed south to the funky little town of Punta Gorda better known as PeeGee.
I took a squalid little room across from the now defunct Hotel Isabel where many years ago I witnessed an entire contingent of Gurkhas screwing two Guatemalan girls. You will get to read that bizarre story later when I write up the entire experience.
PeeGee is a friendly little place and I was enjoying my stay until I stepped out of my filthy shower stall to discover the floor wasn’t there. When my foot finally found it I slipped on the slimy biofilm and crashed to the concrete floor. In doing so I landed on my already broken ribs and ruined shoulder. If I had fallen one inch to the left I would have hit a sharp ceramic corner and my brains would have been splashed across the floor. Even without that I was nearly dead.
It was a major setback. There was no way I could lift my pack so I had no choice but to remain in my wretched little room, but then the bed broke sending me to the floor again.
I was not a happy camper, but I made the best of it by wandering around town for several days having minor adventures. The most ludicrous involved a fellow named Rasta Dean who accosted me while I was searching for a famous drummer named Emmeth who lived in the bush outside of town.
Rasta Dean explained that he had a scheme to make millions. He was going to capture the ubiquitous giant blue land crabs that live in the mangroves then paint quaint scenes on their back and sell them to the Japanese. He was crushed when I informed him that crabs periodically molt their shells, which is why they disappear into their holes for weeks at a time.
Rasta Dean was afraid to enter the jungle to look for Emmeth; but I wasn’t, so I just listened for the sound of drums until I found him.
We went back by way of a shortcut.
After returning to town, which really was just a short distance away, Rasta Dean ran ahead like a Gypsy herald stealing fruit and proclaiming to everyone he met that I was a famous jungle explorer from National Geographic who was going to make a movie in which he would be the star! After that we went back to drinking Badman Jimmy rum.
Three days after my latest injury I struggled to pick up my pack then headed to the docks to catch a skiff for Livingston, Guatemala. My original idea had been to recuperate in Belize before heading into the real adventure, but instead I was heading into the unknown as a sick badly injured old man who should have been in a nursing home.
You ain’t seen nuthin yet, so stay tuned for Part 3!