Escape from the jungle

Yossi Ghinsberg retells his incredible, true-life story of survival in the Amazon.

Peruvian jungle (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Peruvian jungle
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Nearly two generations of world travelers and adventurers have grown up with Yossi Ghinsberg’s best-selling memoir Back from Tuichi, his story of survival in the Bolivian Amazon in 1981.
In 2014, it was announced that the book would be made into a movie and filming began this past March. The joint Australian-American production stars Daniel Radcliffe as Ghinsberg, a part the Harry Potter actor sought out for himself.
“We spent a few days together and spoke at length, and he’s gotten deep into my character,” Ghinsberg said in an interview with the Magazine. “For example, it was important for him to listen to all the records I used to listen to back then, and he studied Israeli diction, such as our rolling R’s.”
Despite differences in physique – Radcliffe is only 1.65 meters, compared to Ghinsberg’s 1.88 – the adventurer says he grew to admire Radcliffe.
Since that adventure, Ghinsberg has been a role model for many. As both a coach and a public speaker, he has assisted thousands throughout the world overcome life challenges to maximize their potential. Speaking with the Magazine, Ghinsberg recounts his life-changing adventure. With his typical charm and talent for storytelling, his tale is one of inspiration.
FOR GHINSBERG, the story begins with the book Papillon by Henri Charrière – a memoir detailing the author’s daring escapades as an escaped convict from the French prison Devil’s Island in French Guiana and through South America.
Ghinsberg sought to find Charrière, to receive his blessing to reenact the book’s journey.
“Of course I didn’t mean being imprisoned or encountering Devil’s Island,” Ghinsberg says in an interview with the Magazine, “but I was hungry to reach the jungle.”
Yet when he arrived in Merida, the author’s home village, he learned Charrière had died three years earlier.
Undaunted, he set out for the jungle, But was quickly disappointed to discover that so many others had taken the same journey, and the “isolated” tribes he sought had already been introduced to modern culture.
“They had tape recorders and clothing like ours. I started doubting my dream; perhaps there would be no original path left for me to forge.”
At 21 years old and just released from the army, Ghinsberg was ready for adventure in South America.
“These stories raged in my imagination,” he says, “and I guess I was naïve enough to think I could replicate the events.”
He planned to head to an island at the center of Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world, separating Peru and Bolivia.
He boarded a 6 a.m. ferry, and as it was leaving the dock, Ghinsberg and his fellow passengers heard from shore, “‘Wait, wait for me!’ Everyone on board turned around and looked at a backpacker running across the dock.
“No one wanted to turn back. The morning was cold and wet. Still, the boat’s skipper turned around and the backpacker jumped in. His name was Marcus, a Swiss teacher on sabbatical.
He was a wonderful fellow, and everyone who met him felt immediately drawn to his warm nature.”
The two became instant friends and traveled together for several weeks.
“There was an inherent spirituality to him; he was filled with compassion and an almost saint-like quality to give of himself. He persuaded me to change my plans and, instead of heading into the Peruvian jungle, I went with him to La Paz, spending the remaining two weeks of his sojourn there with him until his departure.
“However, one day in La Paz, I realized that a stranger was trailing me, appearing everywhere I went. At one point I turned and looked him straight in the eye. He immediately introduced himself as Karl, an Austrian geologist. Initially I thought he was a nuisance and wished he would leave me alone, but when he told me his mission of entering uncharted areas in order to make contact with tribes, I realized this may have been exactly the opportunity I’d been searching for! “Karl’s desire to locate undiscovered treasures, including Inca artifacts, resounded deep within me. When he told me about his next expedition into the depth of the pristine jungle, I asked to join him. Marcus was still there at this point and I requested that he join us. Karl immediately agreed.”
Initially, Marcus was apprehensive, Ghinsberg says, saying that he couldn’t go on the journey because he had to get back to Switzerland. Marcus tried to convince Ghinsberg to treat Karl and the adventure with more suspicion.
“He desperately tried to convince me that I was behaving foolishly, but I wouldn’t be deterred. Marcus was so distraught about my insistence that he asked his friend Kevin to intervene in an attempt to stop me from attempting this foolhardy escapade. Kevin was a beefy American backpacker, a photographer of some renown who was somewhat familiar with the proposed terrain. He’d trekked in those areas and maintained that there were all kinds of strange – and even dangerous – people there and that I was making a terrible mistake.
“The next day both of them accompanied me to meet the geologist, primarily to protect me, but in the end, even Kevin was impressed. Karl’s professionalism removed any doubt in the minds of my friends that he was the ‘real deal.’ Kevin’s dream was that someday his work would appear in National Geographic magazine. The opportunity to take images of faces never captured before was an irresistible lure.
Once Kevin committed to the journey, Marcus joined the party.”
THE GROUP left the city and walked four days to reach the last area of settlement along the Amazon. The villagers tried to warn the travelers that they were making a mistake and should turn back immediately.
“They couldn’t understand why we’d go in there without a native guide.”
The rainy season was just beginning, making any expected difficulties even more threatening. Despite their concern for their safety, Ghinsberg says, they all still felt confident that Karl’s plan was solid. “We soldiered on,” he says.
Karl was a larger-than-life magnetic personality, Ghinsberg remembers.
“The jungle was his playground, a place where he thrived by mastering the elements.
He taught us a lot about the jungle.
He knew it, loved it and understood nature.
We later discovered he was a pathological liar, but at the beginning of the journey, he was our guru.
“There was a rift in our relationships, however. Kevin and I grew closer and uncomfortable circumstances resulted in a coolness in our relationship to Marcus.
While there were several reasons for the ensuing distance, I can only speak for myself. Although I often felt weak and frightened, Marcus was terrified. In comparison, I was heroic.”
HOWEVER, RIFTS began to form within the group. First, Marcus injured his feet and was having difficulty walking and keeping pace. Kevin – an outdoorsman, born and bred in Oregon and comfortable with the elements – began arguing with Karl. They broke into two groups, Karl and Marcus walking together, speaking in German, and Ghinsberg and Kevin talking in English.
“It was the most frightening thing that happened to me in the jungle,” Ghinsberg says.
“I discovered my own dark side. My friend suffered, and in a way, I profited.
He became isolated and he was in physical pain, but Kevin and I could not support him. We marginalized him and, in fact, left him to walk with Karl.”
The tension culminated on a raft trip where the four – still not speaking – had to navigate an unpredictable river.
“The river roiled, madly turbulent, but the war of silence between us was far mightier. The oars cracked and broke, but turning back was not an option.
“After four days like this, Karl declared that we should return to the jungle because we’d soon reach a canyon with enormous waterfalls. We pulled to the bank and built a camp so that Marcus’ feet might heal from their festering wounds. After a few uncomfortable days of not speaking to one another, Kevin quietly pulled me aside and suggested that we leave Karl and Marcus and continue downriver by raft. Alone.”
The purpose of the trip remained: to be the first to discover an untouched Indian tribe. Ghinsberg explains that Marcus “wouldn’t or couldn’t” adapt to their survival situation, “we felt threatened,” he says.
“For example, we chopped down a tree so that it would fall to enable us to reach the fruit, but he tried to protect it.
That’s not appropriate for the situation.
He held an ethical mirror up to our faces, but it wasn’t the right time or place.”
Marcus’s physical state continued to deteriorate, so the group came up with a plan. Their map showed that the Tuichi River they were walking along flowed into the Beni River, where there was the town called Rurrenabaque, with an airport.
“We decided to build a raft and sail it down the Tuichi. It took several days to cut down trees, dry them, and tie the branches together. Those were tough days. As long as we were in the forest, Karl was the undisputed boss. He hunted, cooked, prepared camp and could even light a fire in the pouring rain. The tougher the experience, the mightier he became! However, something about entering the river altered him. Like Samson after his locks were shorn, he became completely weak. He turned hysterical; crying and screaming. It was a terrible eye opener.”
With tensions still high in the group, Ghinsberg says that he and Kevin decided to take the raft and that Marcus and Karl would stay behind.
“Thinking that it would be for his own good, we were forced to make a difficult decision. We felt that he wouldn’t survive with us and, from our perspective, we sensed that Karl offered Marcus the safer option. Marcus ultimately accepted this and there was no more arguing.”
Yet Ghinsberg would never see Marcus and Karl again.
“They disappeared, never exiting the jungle,” he says. “This feeling has haunted me for years.”
HOWEVER, BACK on the river, and three hours after they departed, Ghinsberg and Kevin reached a bottleneck in a canyon and couldn’t get out.
“The walls on both sides became steeper and we lost complete control of the raft, careening madly and, while gripping the sides of the fragile boat, we prayed to stay alive.
“We suddenly crashed into a rock with terrible force. The raft became impaled on the boulder and below us was a waterfall of some five to six meters in height. Our only option was to push ourselves into the surging rapids, since darkness was descending.
“However, to our horror, we could not dislodge the raft. Kevin had a plan and insisted on jumping into the water and swimming to the other side of the gulf, braiding a rope from several reeds in order to pull me over. I was terrified but saw that there was little choice. Staying in place meant certain death. As Kevin jumped into the water, the raft freed itself and began to fall. He did make it to the bank, but the raft and I were swallowed up in the flow. For one very long minute, I was underwater, hanging on as tightly as I could.
When the raft bounced to the surface, my first breath was like pure gold.
“After that breath, I turned to look back. I saw Kevin for an instant, standing on the bank. The raft spun around the bend, and for the next half hour I floated down a canyon filled with rocks and waterfalls.”
Ghinsberg says it was “divine providence” that saved his life.
“In retrospect, it turned out that no other person had been through there.
Had I broken a wrist or ankle, that would’ve been the end of me. The raft came apart and all equipment was lost, but nothing happened to me. Not a scratch! I hauled myself out by climbing a rock and lay there among the rocks, shivering with cold, but I felt sure I’d seen Kevin and that he’d run after me.
The next morning I climbed the cliff and set out towards him. It took four days.
At that point, it became clear to me that I wouldn’t find him. I was paralyzed by the realization I was going to die a horrible death, in pain and possibly eaten alive by some wild animal or falling off the cliff. It was the peak of the rainy season; I had no fire, no knife, no gun.
“On the fifth day I set out on a journey of my own, in the opposite direction: downriver. For four days, I ate nothing, and my legs began to develop the same disease symptoms that had inflicted Marcus. I became despondent with my situation and ultimately suffered bouts of delirium. Suddenly, in the distance, I saw something yellow and sparkling. When I got closer, I saw it was a large wild plum – juicy, with no worms or rot on it. I took a bite and became intoxicated from the sugar! Drunk! High! I looked up, to see a tree that was all yellow with this beautiful fruit. Starving, I climbed up, and on the first branch, stretched my hand out. In front of my outstretched arm loomed a vicious Amazon snake – the loura – coiled and ready to strike.
“I experienced an ‘out-of-body’ sensation.
I watched my hand leave the branch and I fell five meters straight down onto solid rock. Miraculously, I was unhurt. I grabbed a stick and climbed the tree, smashing the snake.
It fell out of the limb and I smashed its head with a stone.
“I stripped the skin off the snake and removed its intestine, as though I’d been doing these things all my life.
This was the moment that something changed in me forever. Until then, I’d been in shock and uncertain as to whether or not I possessed the mettle to cope, but overpowering a snake that could kill me revealed a deeper understanding about the power and fragility of life. That the sense of lacking confidence and not belonging, which had been nurtured by society, was no longer relevant for me. A switch occurred. Suddenly I felt at home. This was my victory.
It was powerful, like a coming-of-age ceremony. It empowered me, and allowed me to continue.
“For 10 more days I trekked downriver.
I experienced indescribable pain and suffering, covered with sores; there was no spot on my body that wasn’t stung or scratched. I barely ate. At night, I fashioned a cover from tree roots, and hallucinated through the dark hours.
During the day, I walked. The 15th day was marked by a tremendous flood, endless rain, things falling in the forest, and then a torrent swooped down that took me with it. I needed to swim to reach a hill. I stayed there for two days until the waters subsided. At that point, my legs were in such bad shape that I couldn’t stand.
“Suddenly, a plane flew overhead! The first sign of human life in 17 days. It was clear to me that this was a search plane.
Gathering my strength, I jumped to my feet, running, shouting, but I couldn’t do much. The flood had swept me into the jungle, far from the river, and the area was thick with trees. The pilot couldn’t see me, and flew on. I broke down, sobbing deeply, awash with grief.
“I was emotionally in pieces. My legs felt as though they were on fire. Something within me realized that the only way out was to die, and I began praying for death. I cried, but there was someone else crying nearby.
“Near me in the mud, I looked up, and saw a young woman. It was so unexpected that I jumped to feet and screamed, ‘We’ve got no time for crying! Stand up! Let’s dash to the river!’ I thought that the plane might circle around.
For two whole days I talked to her. We were together the entire time. On my 18th night, I made a shelter for us both.
I chose a tree with broad enough roots to protect us both. I pulled down more palm fronds, enough to cover two people, and called to her to huddle up. In the morning I awakened to find that there was no one there.
“I panicked. Was this a game? Was I going mad? The thing is, I imagined all kinds of things, but this didn’t come from me. I felt as though someone was doing this for me.
“She saved my life by needing my help. When someone else needs you, there’s no limit to the strength you can draw on, but I had to let her go.
“The next day I fell into quicksand. I didn’t want to die slowly and miserably, so I chose to kill myself. I removed my backpack, which contained approximately 50 pills of Kevin’s medical kit.
Then an image of my mother came to mind, and I wanted to live for her sake.
For hours, I fought that quicksand until I managed to grapple my way out.
By now I was so exhausted that I fell to the ground and couldn’t get up. I knew I couldn’t stay there. I had to look for an open area where, if another plane passed, I could be seen. For for the time being, I was unable to move.
“At some point I saw a tree moving. The Palo Santo tree, it’s called. It exists symbiotically with fire ants. If you know anything about them, you know that every bite is intensely painful. I crawled over to the tree and let the ants crawl all over me.
“The pain spread all over my body and was so enveloping that my legs no longer felt any pain and I could walk. I found a shore and collapsed. A day later, I heard noise, and it got louder. I opened my eyes. About 80 meters in front of me, a boat. People around it were pushing it back into the water. By the time I managed to stand, it was in the river.
“And then the unbelievable occurred.
Kevin was sitting in the boat, with a team from the village, which was returning after three days of searching.
They’d stopped on the same shore where I’d collapsed the previous night because they couldn’t turn around in the stormy river. I was so exhausted that I couldn’t call out to them. Yet Kevin turned to take another look, saw me, and that’s how I was saved.”
GHINSBERG LATER learned that after the two were separated, Kevin tried to find him, but after four days, his feet were in too terrible a shape to continue.
He tied two tree trunks together and jumped into the river with them. Two days later he was found by indigenous hunters, who took him to their village down river. Kevin arranged for the search plane, and when it failed, set out with the indigenous people in a canoe to search for Ghinsberg.
Kevin also arranged a second expedition to look for Karl and Marcus, but they were never found.
Ghinsberg himself sought out Marcus’s family to tell them everything.
“I was so deeply guilt ridden.”
As for the Indian tribe they sought to discover, Ghinsberg says that to this day their existence remains a mystery.
“Some swear that it does exist, others say it’s no more than legend. If this tribe exists, it is going through great effort not to be discovered. It has no interest in being a victim to Western culture.” 
This article has been translated from Hebrew.