He talks to us about drugs, shamanic potions and believing he was dying Matt, many people get sick of their jobs and go travelling. But you left a wife and very young daughter behind in Australia. How hard a decision was it? Very hard. And the experience was harder still for my wife. At some points I was more afraid of my wife’s reactions, than I was of the death squads in Colombia. But there were pros and cons. Since I’ve got back we’ve moved to a little country town, Dungog. I’m there writing and things. So I’m actually around a lot more now that before, when I was putting in long hours at the newspaper in Sydney. So things have balanced out. But it was hard and there was a lot of pain involved and it was a real risk with my wife and I. I’m eternally in her debt. It’s not something that I can say is the right thing to do for other people. It’s what I had to do, to stay a sane, functioning person.
Amongst other things, you joined in a mass bullfight, met a paramilitary leader, boxed with a gangster… which moment was the most frightening? The thing that will never leave me is the shamanic potion, the yagÃ©. Whenever I think about it I still get the shivers. I got this sense that it was not something I could just wait out and it’d be okay afterwards. I felt, “this is it. I’ve gone too far. There is no mercy. The universe has decided I’m dying.” With the bull fighting and things like that, there was a lot of dread and that sick in the stomach feeling. But the yagÃ© was this train coming, and I couldn’t get out of the way. I was getting worse and worse. I was thinking, “this is the final experience, this is death.” That is something that I feel again and again.
Do you feel like it really changed you? Yes. I believe in death now, that’s for sure. I had a sense of “I’ll get away with stuff”. Now I’m really trying to live an authentic life. Not waste time, but at the same time, not be driven in the wrong way. I’m trying to marry both my reckless, crazy side with my prudent and productive side.
In the book there’s a lot of drug use. Was that you being you, or you being a writer? That was me in Colombia. I’m not into “coke” here. For one thing I can’t afford it and I’ve stuffed around a fair bit in the past… I haven’t got the time for drugs and things. The coke thing was to get the trust of people – they were not going to talk to me unless I bought the coke. Even though I knew they were ripping me off, I had to go along with it. It became part of the environment. I like hiking and stuff like that and when I enter into the natural world with all its hazards, flavours and elements, you know, I absorb all that. It was a hardcore, wired world I was in and it would have been wrong of me not to do the coke, because I would have been keeping a fundamental part of the place at arms length. So I had to get my hands dirty, get complicit to an extent, or I’m not really there. But when I got back, after the yagÃ© and everything, I felt pretty weird, detached, strange, dizzy, my attention wandered. I went to a doctor, who asked me to walk in a straight line and I couldn’t. He said, “you’re chronically dehydrated and a bit screwed up. Don’t drink coffee and alcohol for six months”. So it took a while to get back to normal. Occupational hazard, I guess.
Would you encourage others to do what you did? I wouldn’t advise people to do what I did with the underworld. But people go into the bull runs of Pamplona and stuff like that. Why do it? Who knows? Why do people crave intensity? You know, if that’s your thing, sure. The underworld thing… you have to be very careful. Stuff like the yagÃ©… I wouldn’t say to anyone, “do it”, because it’s so horrendously unbearable and powerful. But people do do it. If you do it, don’t [do what I did and] spend the night before in a crackhouse. You can do yourself some serious, serious harm. My Colombian Death is out now, by Pan Macmillan Australia.