Out of Africa: Plank phobia

“The fear to step on a plank or a precarious tree trunk(s) contraption in order to board a floating device -a boat- and/or to cross a small river” (Bushsnob, 2014).

Rurrenabaque harbour and market on a Saturday. These were the fish we were after!

Rurrenabaque harbour and market on a Saturday. These were the fish we were after!

I did not know I suffered from this condition until I was in my fifties. It appeared without warning hence I could not resort to preventive psychiatry. Maybe it was the altitude in La Paz that did it. I do not know!

The first encounter with it took place in Bolivia so I ask your permission to digress yet again and to depart from the African bush to the Amazonian one where, in pursuit of these very large fish, we booked an “expedition” up the Amazon tributaries. Eventually I will give you the complete details but now I will only focus on my phobia.

Early in the morning, the boat came to collect us and we needed to climb on board, over the water. The plank in question was about two metres above the water and rather precariously bridging land and boat. The river was calm and I do not suffer from vertigo but, the moment I set my foot on the plank, I knew I was in trouble so, pretending to be a gentleman, I allowed the family to go first, the luggage to be loaded and all to be ready and then, in a final and desperate attempt not to “plank” I informed all present that I would go and pay the hotel bill. “Dad, what are you saying, we paid it already!” my daughter said. “Oh, yes, I forgot” I lied and then added; “I will check the room to see if we left anything”. “Dad, we all already did”, it was my son’s turn to talk. So, aware that there is a limit to lame excuses and for my love of fishing, I faced the music and “walked the plank”, eyes closed, having memorized the route beforehand as you do when you are a child walking through a dark room!

Faltering I just managed to get on board, tumbling over fishing gear, people and bags which were clutched desperately as my arrival literally rocked the boat! Once on board I felt perfectly normal -as usual- and did not dwell on the moment any longer. Thus we were heading for the Madidi National Park, an area immortalized by “Exploration Fawcett”, a great read.

The plan was to camp on the shores of the river Tuichi, after a few hours of arduous travel up the river towards the Andes. The navigation would not be a direct one as we all agreed to our guide’s suggestion of stopping to watch the macaws. “No trip to the Madidi is complete without seeing this natural wonder” he had said. These were the Red-and-green Macaw, Ara chloropterus, the largest of the macaws belonging to the Ara genus and only smaller than the Hyacinth Macaw, the largest macaw. We could not wait!

On arrival I was relieved that disembarking was “plank-free” and it involved a quick jump ashore. “Easy” I thought. We walked in the forest towards the red cliffs where the nests were. All was going well until a small river appeared. In these areas the infrastructure is not well developed so there was no bridge to cross but two tree trunks tied together that spanned the three metre breach. I crossed it with my eyes wide open this time. I was very relieved that I made it to the other end quite easily.

After walking another kilometre we arrived to the site of the nests, wich took the shape of holes in the cliffs where the macaws were seen perching either singly or in pairs, together with other smaller parrots. It was beautiful to observe and hear these large birds interacting, going in and out of their nests and flying back and forth continuously. These are predominantly bright red birds with iridescent green-blue wings and long tails in the same colours.  There were about 40-50 birds at the time and they were as entertaining as they were loud! After watching them for a while and taking a few pictures, it was time to return.

We walked back basking in the glow brought on by our experience when we came face to face with the trunk “bridge” again! The guide crossed first with the ease of one well used to the action. Then it was my turn and, again, I went for it without stopping to think as this had worked in the other direction. Regrettably, it did not this time…

The moment I set foot on the trunks I felt an almost imperceptible rotation of perhaps two or three centimetres, enough to throw me -the athletic bushsnob- off balance. By the time I completed the first step, my body angle was already unsustainably tilted and, although I tried to compensate with the following step, my balance was already gone. Now, while I am suspended in mid air, I will stop for a moment to describe the situation around me. The guide had already crossed, but my family was behind me so everybody was watching my act. They may have shouted in alarm or relief at my imminent demise, I will never know. I did not hear anything.

What I remember next is landing on my back about two and a half metres below on the reeds growing in the water. The dense vegetation clearly spared me from serious physical damage as it cushioned my fall before I hit the water with a mighty splash (I was about 90kg at the time). As usual in these cases, wounded pride was stronger than overall damage so I shook myself off and promptly climbed the steep bank at an appropriate place a few metres away (where I could have crossed the river with only wet feet!). I was totally soaked in muddy water, shaken, winded, and upset at my clumsiness but otherwise fine!

Maybe my family asked me how I was, I do not remember. What I do recall was the guide saying: “You fell really well. How did you manage to turn around in the air as you did?” I looked at him and he seemed serious! I do not recall what I replied or if I did but my self-esteem felt a bit restored. His remark was certainly better than the fit of giggling that took over my family and that continued for the rest of the trip whenever the incident was remembered!

After a few steps I recovered control over my senses and I remembered the camera in my shirt pocket. Muddy water dripped out of it and it became evident that no macaw pictures would illustrate any future publications (sorry!) and also that the rest of the expedition would only be remembered! So the picture of the boat I show here is from another trip in the Tuichi, later on, prior to my second camera’s desintegration under similar circumstances…

So it was that, wet and with my pride badly dented, I climbed back on the boat and we proceeded to have a great trip, despite my newly discovered syndrome. Thankfully it did not affect my fishing skills.

En route to the river Tuichi. My daughter at the prow is making heroic moves to steer the boat while the bushsnob, on the right, gives instructions...

En route to the river Tuichi. My daughter at the prow is making heroic moves to steer the boat while the bushsnob, on the right, gives instructions…

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