The next morning we meet at breakfast and discuss our schedule for the day. First, we’ll take a 5+ hour trek through the jungle with a local guide, who’ll point out various flora and fauna on our route. Then, we’ll rendezvous with Hannah, our tour leader, for a well earned picnic lunch on the shady banks of the Tahan River.
When you travel on organised tours it’s easy to feel obligated to do everything on your itinerary. Of course there are things that you have to do, like take the arranged transport to a new location, or stay in weird and wonderful guesthouses. But then, there are the included activities. Experiences that you’ve paid for and you knew were coming but you aren’t that keen on doing.
For me, this trek was that experience. So I decide to opt out. Trudging through thick jungle in punishing heat and energy sapping humidity does not appeal to me at all. On top of that, I know that if I do go, I’ll be so worried about where I’m walking I’ll end up seeing nothing but my own feet the entire time.
And then, there are the leeches.
We’d discussed the little suckers in graphic detail at dinner the night before and while Hannah tried to reassure us that, due to lack of rainfall, we probably wouldn’t see any, an overnight downpour had made them an absolute certainty. So, I, along with a fellow traveller, Wendy, tell the group we’ve decided to sit this one out.
Our decision is not without controversy.
Sandy, another lone female traveller in the group, thinks it’s laughable. She concedes that leeches are gross but insists they’re ultimately harmless and we’re being a bit childish worrying about them. She stops short of calling us wusses and giving us wedgies though. Which is decent of her.
Meanwhile, other group members, including Wendy’s husband try to use old chestnuts like :
and phrases like “get out of your comfort zone” and “you only live once” to try and change our minds, but we stick to our guns. This is our holiday, we counter, and leeches, harmless or not, just aren’t our idea of a good time.
Wendy kisses her husband goodbye and we wave the group off on their adventure.
A few hours later, we help Hannah, our tour leader, cart our picnic lunch down to a long fishing boat with an outboard motor on the back. We don bright orange life jackets, climb in and set off down the Tahan River.
The hum of the boat’s motor reverberates through the trees as we move swiftly through the heart of the jungle to our meeting point.
We don’t see much wildlife, but we do catch sight of a line of people walking by the river’s edge. It’s our group.
They wave back, becoming quite animated as we pass. Sandy calls out something to us, but the boat’s motor drowns it out. And then, whoosh, they’re far behind us. Still waving, for some reason.
According to Hannah’s calculations, the group won’t reach us for a few hours so, when we reach the picnic spot, Wendy and I plonk ourselves by the river edge and read to pass the time.
An hour later, to our total surprise, our group show up. They’re drenched in sweat and look miserable. And haunted.
“Wow, you guys finished quick,” notes Hannah, checking her watch, “I wasn’t expecting you for another hour or so.”
“We speed walked most of the way,” says Tina, “We just wanted to get out of there.”
“Why, what happened?”
Tina, pulls off her backpack, drops down onto the river bank, chugs half a bottle of water and begins to explain.
She tells us that, within seconds of entering the rain forest, they saw their first leech. Then another. And then a whole lot more.
It seems that the wriggly, little critters detected a fresh blood supply in their midst because, in Tina’s words: “They seemed to stand up and turn towards us” before edging towards the group en mass.
They got Sandy first. Slipping into the mesh on her sneakers, burrowing through her socks and attaching themselves to her feet and ankles.
“It happened so fast. I was immediately freaked out, and we hadn’t even started the trek yet.”
Inexplicably, rather than turn back, or set the jungle on fire, like I would have done, they kept going. Determined to have the experience on the itinerary, only at 5 times the speed.
“The poor guide. Every couple of minutes he wanted to stop and tell us about something, but no one cared. We just wanted to get the whole trek over with as quickly as possible.”
At one point, the guide wasn’t moving fast enough, so Sandy began pushing him ahead with one hand, imploring him to go faster, while she tried (and failed) to remove leeches from her legs with the other.
“We were moving as fast as we could and then we heard a boat. We saw you guys and thought we were saved.”
Wendy and I exchange glances.
“But you just waved and sped away.”
I think back. I do remember them being quite animated, but I didn’t think anything was wrong.
A few feet away from us, Sandy sits by the river in silence. Hannah, having heard enough of Tina’s story, goes to check on her.
“Sandy fell,” says Tina in hushed tones, “She was going so fast, brushing herself down, not really looking were she was going and she tripped and fell. She got more of them on her while she was down.”
My stomach rolls.
Hannah heads back to the boat and grabs a first aid kit. We ask her if Sandy is okay and she tells us she’s rattled, but, save for a small scratch on her head from her fall, otherwise fine.
Wendy realises she should probably go check on her husband who, she notes, is also oddly subdued.
“You guys were right to sit this one out.” Tina says.
“Sounds like it,” I say.
I have no idea how I would have reacted if I’d have been in the middle of it. Just the thought of it makes me feel ill.
“The worst part of it,” Tina continues, “was that we walked through a rain forest without seeing any of it. I was going so fast, watching my step so I didn’t fall. I don’t think I saw a thing, except my shoes…and those damn leeches.”