by Heather LT
A fast paced race around South America takes one pair off course.
N.B. This is not really a chapter as I haven't any in this story. It is only double paragraphed to make it easier to read on screen. Written in British English.
In less than an hour the race would begin. Ellie and her cohort, Toby, would at last be starting the race which would see them rushing around the continent of South America in nothing but the confines of a four-by-four jeep.
Ellie sat in the front seat of the jeep, nibbling on her bottom lip. With the naivety of the inexperienced, she expected to see an audience or some kind of fanfare to see them off, but there wasn’t even a hint of wishes of bon voyage or the raucous of excited cheers. She squinted out of the windows looking at a handful of contestants and organisers milling around. In the glare of a couple of strategically placed floodlights she could just make out other jeeps parked in the field. She listened to the distant roars of engines as contestants got into position, the yelling of directions, and calls of instruction bellowing from a megaphone in a marquee not too far away. With sounds merging into one big riotous mess, the commotion at the starting point was intense.
"Don't let the chaos worry you," Toby smiled. "It’s just last minute panic."
"Who's worrying?" she quipped, refusing to be seen as a child in need of reassurance. Having resigned herself to fate, she felt calmer. More grounded. Although still a little apprehensive about race, she was no longer in a constant state of panic that everything would go terribly wrong. Pangs of excitement now thrummed through her body. She was anticipating the countdown, imaging the drivers gunning their jeeps, and what it would feel like as they left behind the muddy field.
Time ticked by fast until the clock finally reached five minutes before midnight. “It seems like a peculiar time to start a race,” said Ellie, puzzled. Dangerous too, she would have thought.
“Graham Dragoman has a flare for the dramatic. He says it makes things more interesting,” replied Toby as he gave the jeep a final look over, “and I guess it does,” he grinned.
Wasn’t racing around a continent practically unaided interesting enough without starting it in the dark of the night? The degree of danger was what the contestants seemed to thrive on. Her mind whirled back to the dinner she had been invited to with DeLuca. They had all talked excitedly about the perils of the jungle. At the time, it had made her flutter inside.
Last calls were made for everyone to “get ready”. Ellie reached down to buckle her seatbelt, her hand shaking. Perhaps she wasn’t as less panicked as she thought? As the buckle clicked into the lock, she puffed out a long breath and glanced up to see Toby was grinning at her. There was no mistaking that he was excited. Then a dramatic countdown from ten began, followed by the sound of a booming air horn. The race had officially begun.
The state-of-the-art jeep roared into action under Toby's control, shooting forward across the muddied field towards fast-approaching jungle terrain as they pursued the other competitors at a cautious speed. The harsh glare of the floodlights was soon long gone and night-time meant they couldn't see past the headlights, except the telltale signs of other life as streams of light from other vehicles beamed through the sparse trees. But as everyone spread out taking their own routes, those comforting flickers disappeared and they were left alone. They crunched their way over brittle twigs and meandered around gaps between trees.
Transfixed by the new experience, Ellie’s wide eyes were glued to the eeriness outside the jeep. Her body tense and rigid in response to being flung side to side like a ragdoll as the jeep bumped along. "H-h-how d-do you st-stand this-is?" She stammered almost every time she spoke, the bumps taking the wind out of her voice.
He grinned in amusement at her broken up speech. "You get used to it," he told her in natural cadence.
Toby drove the route he’d taken on previous races. A direct route from Medellin to Lima with only two scheduled stops: Guatape, which wasn't too far away from their current location, and Huaraz, a city in Peru located over a thousand miles away. “This is nothing compared to what we’ll be driving through later on,” Toby informed about the terrain. Not many people dared to drive through thousands of miles of remote jungle, but Ellie was sure that Toby seemed to be encouraged by the challenging terrain. She was unsure how she felt about that realisation.
They reached Guatape in no time at all, but they didn't stop to rest. Instead, Toby gave Ellie a short tutorial on how to use the satellite phone so she knew how to check in with headquarters or call for help if necessary. Three hours later, after a short visit to a shoddy petrol station leaking petrol, a much needed toilet break, and a quick meal that was almost inedible to eat because of the strong odour of petrol, they traipsed on until everything surrounding them turned pitch-black.
"We'll stop here tonight," Toby suddenly announced as the jeep came to a steady halt in a manmade clearing. "We're not camping because it's too dark, so we'll sleep in the car."
After unclipping his seatbelt, he reached onto the backseat and grabbed a scratchy black thermal blanket before proceeding to tell Ellie to wrap up in it, and then he grabbed a quilt and told her to do the same explaining about the drop in temperature in the rainforest at night. He then retrieved a rucksack. "If you’re hungry, I have snacks. If you're thirsty, I have water and warm coffee in the flask."
Munching on crisps, they sat and chatted for the best part of an hour about the gruelling journey to Lima ahead of them before Toby reclined their chairs and turned off the reading lights above them. Her very first night sleeping in the chilly car, Ellie curled up as best she could and slept clutching the torch she had found in the glove compartment. It offered her a smidgen of comfort, enough to help her fall asleep.
The first morning in the jungle arrived quick as a flash.
Ellie stirred, yawning her way out of sleep, and her eyes flickered open to look at Toby, who was checking out his appearance in the visor mirror. His chair was already in the upright position and his quilt and blanket shoved onto the backseat. He had obviously been awake for some time.
"Morning," she mumbled, sleepiness giving an edge to her voice. Was it really time to wake up and get moving?
“I was woken by howler monkeys,” he said with a dash of disdain. “They have devilish howls capable of scaring even the most seasoned jungle visitor.” He rubbed at his stubbly jaw line. “You didn’t even stir at the sound.” His tone suggested he was either in awe of the fact or envious of it, she couldn’t decide which.
"I got a better night’s sleep then I thought I would." She stretched, trying to dispel the ache in her muscles caused by huddling into a warm ball.
"Did you get a little scared?" Toby knowingly glanced down at the torch that now lay in her lap.
Scared? Even as her brain began assembling a retort, she could feel embarrassment rising from her chest and knew her cheeks were glowing soft pink. Without saying anything, she made the first move to start the day.
The morning ritual was quick. He escorted her to do her business at the back of the jeep. An experience no lady should have to go through. Keeping his back towards her and watchful eye for any predatory animal that might want to surprise her whilst she was peeing, she hoped. The feeling of discomfort was worth it if it meant she avoided that situation. She washed her face and hands with face wipes and brushed her teeth. She ate a protein bar and drank a small tin cup of coffee for breakfast. “No chance of a change of clothes?” she asked with a mouth half full of mushy protein bar. Conscious of how much she was sweating since waking up and Toby’s hurry to set off, she thought she would ask. Changing clothes this early was inauspicious, Toby advised her as he spritzed himself with deodorant. Ellie finished her breakfast, and then quickly drenched herself in her jasmine-scented body spray.
Quick as a flash she was swamped by a swarm of nectar thirsty bugs who were enticed by the smell of jasmine. Her hands whirled around her head trying to bat them away.
“Jasmine scented,” read Toby from the spray can she dropped on the floor during the attack of bugs. “Didn’t anyone warn you about strong scents attracting creepy crawlies?”
Between slapping bugs on her arms and chest, she scowled at him.
He masked the scent of jasmine by spraying his own neutral scented deodorant around her followed by a generous dose of bug spray. When the bugs stopped trying to invade her, Toby allowed her into the jeep. She sat scratching at itchy bites as they set off, and even after the best part of three hours she was still scratching. “These bites are insane!” she snapped. As much as she tried not itch, the relief from scratching was irresistible even if it did leave behind painful sore skin. As luck would have it, Toby kept a bottle of itch cream in the glove compartment. She smothered her skin in the lotion and waited with as much patience she could muster for the effects to kick in.
Everything looked and smelled exactly the same: green and moist. It was beginning to drive Ellie's eyes insane; she pitied Toby who was driving.
A crackling sound from the hand radio that was strapped to the glove compartment broke the monotony of the drive. Toby reached for it, and, seconds later DeLuca's voice erupted over the thrum of the engine. "Just a heads up, amigo, the water is high near the river crossing before you get to Lima."
DeLuca wasn't exaggerating when he said the water was high, they realised as they came to the river crossing two hours later. The jeep got stuck in soft clay mud on the banks of the overflowing river; water had risen up into it dampening the footrests. This kind of trouble she could handle, she rationalised minutes before Toby informed her of the sizeable task ahead of her. The task of connecting the chains to a nearby tree to winch the jeep out of the sticky situation fell to Ellie.
“This is the first of many sticky situations,” said Toby as he once again pointlessly revved the jeep’s engine. “Pun intended,” he grinned across at her.
Peering out of the window, she grimaced.
“Call it an initiation,” he said now.
“You just don’t want me behind the wheel of your precious jeep,” she retorted. With reluctance, she pulled on Toby’s man-size wellies before climbing gracefully out of the passenger side window to embrace the knee-high mud.
Her feet met the squishy mud with a splat, and walking in the stuff was tricky. Her heart raced as she sank an inch with every step and the wellies were forever getting stuck. It took a lot of physical exertion as well as time to hoist the chains onto dry land. She felt empowered as she pulled the heavy metal chain around the tree but the feeling soon disappeared when to her utter horror she lost her balance and fell face first into the wet mud. From the jeep, Toby laughed hysterically at her; panting, silent laughter. Once he managed to keep a straight face, he got to winching the jeep out of the mud to safety before parking it on dry land.
Standing by the tree next to the chain, Ellie scraped as much mud as possible from her body. She flicked some in Toby’s direction as he walked over to her, chuckling. "I wouldn't worry too much about that," he smiled. "There's somewhere close by where you can wash - a freshwater waterfall."
The thirty metres high waterfall powerfully threw gallons of cool water over its edge into a rock pool. The pool, the size of a small lake, tricked into the river they crossed not so long ago. It was mostly shaded by the canopy of tall trees, except for the burst of sunlight at the foot of the waterfall.
Her eyes widened in trepidation when she glimpsed the magnificence of the waterfall, and she sucked in an eager breath. The plumes of mist it gave off teasing her body. Without a second thought about her clothes, she jumped into the swell of water at bottom of the waterfall. The mud immediately melted from her skin, swirling around her like a storm cloud in the chilled water. She swam freely away from it and the hoard of bugs that flew around her head. The water was exhilarating and refreshing all at the same time.
Toby whistled, alerting her that he was lingering by the tree line. "Is it safe to come in?" he called over the roar of the water.
"Yeah, sure, come on in." Her voice sounded too cheery. She was enjoying it too much. At this rate, she wouldn’t ever want to leave. There is nothing more pleasurable than swimming and showering in the chilled water of a waterfall when you've been driving for hours in humid air.
"I brought some toiletries over for you – shampoo and soap." He placed the wash bag on one of the flat rocks by the water along with a couple of towels and a fresh pair of clothing for them both.
Ellie hoisted herself out of the water onto the rock. Her clothing was almost free of the clay mud – at least she wouldn’t have to scrub them much at a later date. Too filthy and sweaty and blotchy because of the heat to be conservative, she began tugging off her t-shirt and shorts until she was standing only in her underwear, aware of Toby lingering close by.
Wafting a hand in front of her face to scatter intrusive bugs before quickly locating the bottle of shampoo and squeezing a generous amount into the palm of her hand, she lathered it on her hair until it became bubbly.
Aware of Toby still lingering close by, she threw him a glance. It was then that he began to move away from her to his own space beside the pool where he stripped himself of his own clothes until he stood in nothing but a pair of boxers.
Her eyes ran over his broad shoulders and lean torso in appreciation as she watched him about to dive into the inviting water. When she realised she was outright staring, she jumped back into the pond and washed the surplus amount of bubbles from her hair.
"Chuck me the soap!" he called to Ellie after she resurfaced washing her long hair. She left a trail of bubbles behind her as she swam back to the rock to throw him the soap. He quickly washed himself before he joined her on the flat rock. They basked in the water spray for a quick ten minutes before drying themselves off and re-dressing with their backs to each other.
"I thought we could set up camp here for the night," Toby announced. "It makes no sense to drive on when we only have an hour’s daylight left."
Camping in an actual tent in the middle of the jungle was an experience, even more so than sleeping in a jeep in the middle of the jungle. The thin and therefore easily damaged material separating her from whatever roamed about in the darkness distracted Ellie from sleeping. It made her very anxious, at the same time it made her determined to toughen up. As the hours ticked by, she preferred more and more the extra safety the jeep offered. At some point her continuous tossing and turning managed to wake Toby. Although she sensed he was tempted to lock her in the jeep instead he rifled sleepily through his rucksack and produced the torch for her.
With its soft light dimmed by a pillow, Ellie sighed. The nearby rush of water blocked her from hearing the usual sounds of the rainforest, for that she was almost thankful. Her shoulders relaxed as she curled up and closed her eyes. Soon she drifted into a deep sleep.