JUNGLE WARRIORS

 Tony King, Las Cuevas, Belize, 1996

 A gut-wrenching smell suddenly filled my nostrils. Mr. Howe, a Mayan Indian with a life full of jungle experience, whispered that it was the reek of a herd of white-lipped peccaries. Relatives of wild pigs, they are known in Belize as "warree", a Creole derivation of "warrior", due to their aggressive character. My heart thumped rapidly. I had heard numerous stories of their tendency to charge humans, particularly when agitated by the predatory attentions of a jaguar, and anyone failing to climb a tree fast enough would be ripped to pieces in minutes by their sharp tusks.

All my senses were working in overdrive. We trod quietly, the stench still overpowering. In the dim of the forest we could not see much. Then, to our right, a great commotion broke out. Peccaries were running in all directions, barking loudly and cracking their tusks together. The noise was immense, thirty or more animals giving the impression of at least twice that number. Frozen to the spot we were rapidly assessing our situation. Despite the mayhem none had charged directly at us. We stood our ground.

The noise abated, a few tusk-cracks reminding us of their continued presence. In the still gloom ahead of us I made out a patch of whiteness. Peering ever harder I realised it was the chin of a relatively small member of the herd, the rest of its grey body melting into the darkness. It was motionless, facing us ominously, the hairs on the back of its neck erect and threatening. This was the leader of the pack, the dictator whom all others obeyed. We were surrounded, the whole herd waiting for the decision of this one small general.

Time stood still. My eyes had long since surveyed my surroundings for the most climbable tree. Now they were fixed ahead, staring deep into the mind of the animal confronting us. Still, no move was made.

With a sudden fury it charged, the rest of the herd simultaneously breaking into their chilling war-cry of tusk-cracking and throaty barking. Panicking, I lost all sense of composure and jumped for the nearest hanging vine, the thickness of a decent rope. My backpack seemed to gather weight as I struggled to pull myself up. I could hardly muster the strength to lift myself more than a foot off the ground. I inadvertently swung round on the vine, my back to the charging warree. I was helpless.

Then, behind me, a piercing, fearsome crack sliced through the charged atmosphere. I twisted my neck to look back over my shoulder. Mr. Howe was crouching on the ground, facing the peccary and smashing his machete against a fallen log - a display so ferocious that the animal stopped in its tracks, reconsidering the situation. After a moments hesitation it retreated, and accordingly the rest of the herd scattered noisily.

I let go of my vine, wary of any second charge. Mr. Howe seemed unperturbed. Apparently he had initially climbed a small tree, but feeling he wouldn't be able to hold the position for long, he had jumped back down to challenge the warree. In that instant the balance of fear had tipped back in our favour. In Mr. Howe the warree had met their match, and I was relieved he had saved me from a bloody mauling.

 Later, as I lay back on my narrow bed of palm leaves, conversation turned to stories of duendes, forest-dwelling dwarves with pointed hats, no thumbs, and their feet attached backwards. Mr. Howe may have feared these spirits of the forest, but from where I’d been hanging he could certainly handle the warriors.