It seemed like such a brilliant idea at the time. My best friend and I would go and live deep in theCosta Rican jungle, doing volunteer work at aturtle preservation farm and enjoying the solitude of an isolated nature reserve. We took a pick-up truck and then a boat through the jungle and eventually found the campsite on an island. There was no running water, no electricity, no lights. It soon dawned on me: What the hell had I got myself in to?
An elderly guy from Holland named Paul was the team leader and owner of the camp. He welcomed us with a warm handshake. One of his legs was missing. I looked down. “Oh don’t worry about that,” he said. “It was bitten off by a crocodile in the jungle.”
My friend and I looked at each other in horror. Then we realised he was joking – he told us he’d lost his leg in a car accident.
Scorpions & snakes
We quickly settled into what was to become our home for the next couple of weeks. The first few days were mellow and we easily adapted to the laid-back lifestyle. We slept in little wooden huts near the beach, and we had to check our boots every morning for scorpions and snakes. We saw howler monkeys in the trees and crocodiles in the river. Unfortunately we couldn’t go swimming as there were dangerous currents and sharks all over the place, so we just lay around in hammocks, dozing in the sun. We ate rice with beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner at a big table near the beach, shaded by palm trees and a nice sea breeze. I felt an overwhelmingly sense of freedom and peace; this was the stuff dreams are made off.
A few days later, the work began. My first task was to patrol the beach at night – up and down the coastline for 14km – to prevent poachers from catching sea turtles which were in the process of laying eggs on the beach. In this malaria-infested area of Central America I wasn’t allowed to use any insect repellent or a torch because I was told sea turtles wouldn’t recognise their native beach if it looked or smelled different to what they had experienced when they had hatched previously.
So I had to walk with Jorge, an old local, who invited me home to his little hut to have a coffee and a talk. God bless Latin Americans for their non-existent sense of time. An hour later we finally were ready to patrol the beach and I was going to do my bit to help Mother Nature. Jorge set a cracking pace. He jogged along as if it was the Olympics.
I struggled to keep up with him in the dark jungle, without any lights.
Hatching escape plans
Then we saw her. A gigantic turtle lying on the beach, laying eggs. We were supposed to mark her as well as count the eggs and bring them back to the camp where they could safely develop until they hatch. Knowing that sea turtles can lay up to a 120 eggs in one go and being unlucky enough to have found the mother animal at the furthest end of the beach, I must have lost five litres of sweat that night and many nights to come. I would often curse the project and secretly draw little escape plans from the island.
But seeing the little turtles hatching and releasing them into the ocean made it all worthwhile. Paul is doing a great job at helping the turtles and educating the local community about preservation. The time I spent there was one of the most rewarding and inspirational periods of my life.