Jungles are some of the wildest and most remote places on the planet. Dense and often impenetrable, they are perfect hiding places. They have lured many an explorer or adventurer into their lethal green embrace, whether it be the with the possibility of discovering new species or the promise of finding abandoned ruins. The lucky ones make it out alive but others are never seen or heard from again.
The big green hell contains a mind-boggling number of challenges and hazards. The terrain can be so difficult to traverse that progress is agonizingly slow and tropical downpours can completely alter the landscape, making navigation even tougher. Then there is the wildlife; big cats stalk their prey through the undergrowth while insects infect their victims with bacteria and disease. To be prepared to take on all that one has to be incredibly brave or somewhat stupid. Either way, there are many who have.
In this article we take a look at one film and two books that recount some riveting real-life jungle adventures. Whether you prefer watching them or reading about them, you won’t be disappointed.
Jungle is a 2017 movie based on Yossi Ghinsberg’s extraordinary true tale of attrition and survival in the Bolivian rainforest. Although a relatively recent release, the events it depicts took place in 1981. The Israeli, then in his early twenties, was backpacking in South America long before independent travel became popular. Jungle tells the story of how he and his friends (Marcus and Kevin) are persuaded to embark on a real adventure into the unknown by a mysterious Austrian called Karl. They certainly get that and more as Karl—their de facto guide—leads them deeper into the Amazon.
As days turn to weeks, the travellers’ excitement and high spirits are usurped by anxiety, fatigue, and physical ailments, culminating in a moment of crux where the group decides to split in two. Jungle goes on to show Yossi and Kevin’s attempt to return to civilization by rafting down the turbulent river, and the horrifying instant when they become separated from each other. As a result, Yossi finds himself in an even worse predicament—suddenly alone, without equipment or supplies, and lost in one of the most dangerous environments on Earth.
Although much of the film focuses on Yossi’s solo ordeal, it does a great job of showing how friendships can be affected by extreme stress, with some relationships breaking down while others gain strength. This is mainly down to the skillful acting of the four main cast members, and in particular Daniel Radcliffe who produces a stellar performance as Yossi. He is able to portray the euphoric feelings that the freedom of independent travel inspires and the primal emotions that result from incarceration in the jungle with equal believability.
The film’s cinematography and audio work are of a very high standard. Local life in quaint Andean towns and stifling Amazonian villages is represented in all its colour and vibrancy, while the terrifying perils of the rainforest are introduced with atmospheric scenes of heart-pounding tension or a despairing sense of hopelessness. The soundtrack complements the visuals wonderfully and the timely use of ambient audio effects helps to slowly build up the viewer’s apprehension and unease.
It can’t have been an easy task for director Greg McLean to convey the overwhelming fear, loneliness, and insecurity that Yossi must have felt during his ordeal, but the intensity of the protagonist’s inner battle to keep going is very well expressed here. His deteriorating mental state is presented through the use of dream scenes and hallucinatory sequences, both of which help convince the viewer that such an arduous experience hits the mind as hard as the body. Physically. Yossi has to cope with an ever-increasing number of dire circumstances, ranging from parasitic infection to starvation, all the while becoming weaker and weaker.
Gruesome in parts and nerve-wracking in its entirety, this is one of those cinematic experiences that captivates. Although squeamish viewers will surely find themselves turning away at times, it simply has to been seen through to the end. With a few thought-provoking mysteries remaining even after the credits have rolled, Jungle not only serves as an edge-of-your-seat survival story, but also as an example of what can happen when the call of the wild gets the better of us and we bite off more than we can chew. One thing we can say with some confidence is that after watching this movie it is unlikely you will ever want to step foot into the great green abyss yourself.
The Lost City of the Monkey God (2017)
Journalist Douglas Preston’s page-turner The Lost City of the Monkey God details the search for a legendary cursed archaeological site (also known as Ciudad Blanca) in a largely unknown region of Honduran rainforest. The ruins’ possible location was identified using laser imaging, detection, and ranging technology (LiDAR) and this comprehensive account of the reconnaissance and survey expeditions Preston was part of in 2012 and 2015, while on assignment for The New Yorker and National Geographic, makes for some very informative and exciting reading.
The Lost City of the Monkey God is a very well organised piece of writing and the author wastes no time in communicating the danger involved in visiting the Honduran jungle to the reader. The book opens with an unsettling descriptive list of the area’s threats, ranging from the presence of violent drug cartels to lethal wildlife and flesh-eating afflictions. A great deal of background on the history of the region and past exploration is presented, featuring some characters that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Hollywood action movie. This additional exposition sheds light on how Ciudad Blanca came to be associated with death and curses, which as events unfold, seems to become ever more relevant.
The expedition team, made up of a wide assortment of professionals including archaeologists, scientists, journalists, photographers, and ex-special forces members, has to contend with a number of menacing creepy jungle inhabitants during their work, not least of which are the deadly and aggressive fer-de-lance snakes with their acid-like venom. Chiggers and sandflies also assault the party with unrelenting persistence. As the group makes progress investigating ruins and searching for answers behind the mystery they hide, other obstacles and controversies are thrown in front of them, and just as it seems that a suitable level of success has been achieved, the curse of Ciudad Blanca leaves its mark on them—quite literally.
Although thoroughly entertaining as a tale of true adventure, this retelling of the drama that unfolded is tempered by in-depth yet easily digestible technical and logistical explanations of the research, planning, and practical scientific work that was undertaken. Preston achieves a perfect balance with this and also offers some great insight to the general reader on topics such as immunology, mass migration, academic infighting, and Central American politics. Both factual and engaging, The Lost City of the Monkey God is essential reading for any armchair adventurer.
The Lost City of Z (2009)
If you haven’t heard of the The Lost City of the Monkey God perhaps you will be more familiar with David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z, which was made into a film starring Charlie Hunnam. Grann’s 2009 work, chronicling the Amazonian explorations of hardy and tenacious adventurer Percy Harrison Fawcett and his disappearance in 1925, has received universal praise. More than just a biographical travelogue or an account of the search for hidden ruins, The Lost City of Z is also a self-reflective consideration of the obsessive nature of those who, no matter the cost, are unable to relinquish their hold on a goal or idea once they have set their heart on it.
In the early twentieth century Fawcett launched several expeditions into the Amazon with the backing of the Royal Geographical Society, which was trying to map the remaining uncharted parts of the world. On the first of these missions he was tasked with delineating the national boundary between Bolivia and Brazil, but as time went on Fawcett became convinced that somewhere in the depths of the rainforest lay evidence of a hidden civilization. Finding this lost city became the main focus of his life and he headed into the jungle with different companions time and time again in pursuit of it, where they faced deprivation, disease, plagues of insects, vampire bats, and poisoned arrow attacks.
The circumstances of Fawcett’s vanishing have remained a mystery for almost a century and expeditions into the jungle to discover his party’s fate have been undertaken by a staggering number of people, including a military commander, an actor, and even a banker. Many of these later adventures make entertaining stories themselves, but it is the fate of Fawcett’s party and the enigma of Z that drive Grann’s work. The reporter investigates the Victorian explorer’s life history, revealing his influences, acquaintances, rivals, and the effect that his work and disappearance had on his family. Grann discovers a man with deep spirituality, incredible drive, an indefatigable constitution, and rare strength of character.
To achieve this, the author embarks on an adventure of his own—both into the past and into the rainforest—as he tries to uncover the truth. The Lost City of Z is packed with adventure and interspersed with curious sub-stories. The gripping account of Grann’s own journey is expertly told between chapters that chart those of Fawcett. From centuries-old attempts to find El Dorado to more recent sallies into the rainforest to determine the outcome of Fawcett’s final expedition, this book paints a fascinating picture of the history of South American jungle exploration—a history littered with tales of those consumed by their own imagination and ambition.
- For more cinematic escapes take a look at our list of adventure films.
- If it’s great written adventure stories you want, you’ll no doubt find something to your liking on our adventure literature page.
- Finally, if you are seeking a vicarious digital jungle adventure from the comfort of home, the brilliant and immersive ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ is perhaps the best way to experience the rigours and excitement of tropical South American travel.
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