I've been lucky enough to spend the last week in the Belizian Jungle with the Welsh Guards, reporting on their jungle training. Here's my jungle diary
Tuesday 20 - Houston or bust
Twelve hours in the air followed by a fun night out in a Houston bar, which had a larger-than-life model of a shire horse in the middle of it?!. Amazed at how knowledgeable the Texans are about their politics (and about ours) and so passionate about it too... some are a little too passionate about it for me after 12 hours on a plane.
Wednesday 21 - A last bit of luxury
Four hours to Belize. Texas had been freezing in the morning so I'm still wearing a woolly jumper when the open the doors of the plane at Belize. Wham! The heat and humidity hits you like a wall and by the time I'm at the bottom of the steps my clothes are soaking. Short drive to Price Army barracks where we enjoy a meal, a dip in their pool and a bed in one of the officers huts. A last bit of luxury.
Belize is a strange place outside the camp, struggling to overcome problems with drugs and crime, with a woman murdered a short distance from the camp in the few hours we were there. That said, the Belizians are a very friendly, welcoming people, whose love of the British stems from the British army's support in the country's defence.
Thursday 22 - Into the jungle
It's the end of the monsoon season, but nobody has told the weather that. It's dry when I start walking towards the vehicle, I'm soaked by a rain storm by the time I get there, then it's gone again! It's so warm though, the rain is very comfortable and you're dry within a few minutes.
The journey is a long one. Along the way you can see the make up of the country, from the Afro-Caribbean community around Belize, to the fascinating Mennonites two thirds of the way along the route - living isolated lives that reject technology, then on into the jungle, where you find the Mayan people, descendants of the people who built huge stone temples in the jungle, before being forced out by the Spanish, returning back with a new mix of Mayan and Mexican.
Arrive at Augustine Camp on the edge of the jungle and are issued with our jungle equipment, including hammocks, ration packs, mosquito nets, ponchos, machetes, compasses, candles, water purifiers etc. Met up with Three Company in the admin area (just inside the jungle where they come to take on supplies and regroup, without leaving the jungle) Meet some great characters, among them an officer from the TA, who has a Phd from Oxford in Military History, specifically the 100 Years War and is able to give a fascinating take on the army and modern warfare. The guys give me a demonstration in how to set up my hammock (I think I'll be getting them to help me set it up on the first night).
Friday 23 - Jam Boys and Iron Men
Met up with Prince of Wales Company, the Jam Boys (given an extra serving of jam with their rations during the war as they were so tall). Returned to Three Company to set up hammock etc for the night (got a couple of lads to help to avoid spending the night on the floor) actually very comfortable.
Before it goes dark (about 4.30pm) we start a fire and get a crash course with our hexi-block stoves and 24hr ration packs... on tonight's menu is Ration Pack 'B', soup, beef stew and dumplings, chocolate pudding in chocolate sauce, oatmeal block, fruit biscuits, biscuit brownes, meat pate, chocolate, boiled sweets, chocolate drink, tea, coffee, stock drink, orange drink, chewing gum, waterproof matches, paper tissues and water puri tabs... I looked for the wine list, but it must have fallen out of mine!
It's pretty tasty stuff, though I can imagine after a month in the jungle it becomes a bit heavy, not surprising at around 6,000 calories a pack, but that's what you need out here, together with at least eight litres of water a day.
When it goes dark, you swing your torch away from the fire and back into the trees and for a split second you see tiny little green dots everywhere, as the torchlight picks up the eyes of the spiders watching you in the darkness... Think I'll check the the ropes on my hammock one last time!
Even in this more open edge of the jungle, the night time noises are wonderful. It's still hot, but I'm not muddy so it's just a case of undo the shirt, roll up the trousers, keep the boots on and lie back listening to the animal orchestra the other side of my mosquito net.
Saturday 24 - Soap and scorpions
Up early to meet Prince of Wales Company again in the jungle, then meet with Lt Col Richard Stanton to see the new Bowman communication system. Return to Augustine to talk to the support company. The chefs are amazing, really skilled guys with incredible imagination, who turn ration pack food into really tasty dishes. The one I spoke to here from Wrexham has cooked for royalty and at Jamie Oliver's 15 restaurant, while another I had met, was making chocolate balls by hand!
Came back to the lighter edge of the jungle to wait for another company, a family of enterprising Mayans, still living in the jungle, were making money selling drinks out of the back of their home. A guy ran up with a huge pack on his back and collapsed onto the stone bench next to us. Lying there with his eyes closed he began sniffing the air and his eyes suddenly shot open: "God, you smell fantastic!" he cried (I should point out that having not washed, or shaved in four days, we thought we were smelling anything but fantastic), "Wow. I haven't smelt soap in weeks," he said, almost sniffing the person sat next to him. It turned out he was one of the officers from the Advanced Jungle area and had just run 20km with pack in the mid day sun as training.
Over a drink he told us that on his first night he had made his way to the advanced jungle area and had been too exhausted to bother setting up his hammock, so decided to sleep under one of the Mayan's jungle thatch covers: "I was just falling asleep when a huge scorpion fell out of the leaves onto my chest," he said, "I wish I could say I didn't scream like a girl."
Travelled to the highest point on the surrounding hills where a fire watchtower has been built above the trees, giving the best and perhaps only view of the jungle... it's vast. All around is a shifting blanket of green, as though thrown over the landscape, with the small tree covered steep hills, sticking up from underneath it. Some parts are still charred and stripped bare, where areas were burned to kill off a beetle that threatened to destroy much of the jungle. It gives the place a split personality. One of the soldiers told me that these torched areas with their exposed red clay felt more like Kenya, while the outer reaches felt like dense British woodland and the innermost core, more like Vietnam.
Sunday 25 - Waterfalls and Kevlar
Up before dawn 4.30am. Three company are now 'tactical' so there's noise and light discipline and we follow them out of camp in silence.
Great morning watching them move into a position, set up a concealed 'harbour' area and send out reconnaissance groups, bringing back the information and building a stunning scale three-dimensional map model in the ground for them to plan their attack.
Went to the Thousand Foot Falls with Two Company for a much needed wash and a swim. It's an amazing place where the water flows in waterfalls from pool to pool right down the side of a mountain. Jumped straight in wearing my clothes... then jumped straight out again when I realised my notes were still in my pocket!
Get back out and my clothes are bone dry in under ten minutes. Back to Camp Augustine to be issued with body armour and helmets ready for Tuesday's live fire exercise, it's heavy stuff and the thought of carrying that, plus all the rest of the equipment the soldiers have, in the jungle heat, is daunting.
Monday 26 - Monkeys in the night time
Advanced Jungle, the deepest in we have been so far. It shows how dense the jungle is that you don't even know the lake is there until you're right on top of it. Arrived at dawn and watched as the huge dense banks of mist rolled down the valleys. Followed the soldiers down to the water where they did capsise drills, tipping over their craft then bobbing under it to reach the breathing space underneath.
Talked to one amazing young guy who, having almost drowned as a young boy, was terrified of the water and could not swim, but with the support of the others overcame this to complete the exercise.
Travelled out on the water to see some more of the area, the guy piloting our dingy had been out the day before looking for crocodiles and was disappointed to only find a few small ones... I was not so disappointed. Travelled further down the water to a huge dam built a few years ago. It was like something out of Lost, coming round a bend in the dense jungle, to be confronted with a wall of concrete.
Stayed deeper in the jungle near the Offensive Operations Area. Set up our hammocks early. Lost my bearings twice going to the toilet, emerging from the undergrowth somewhere unexpected... and that was in the day time!
Torrential rain. It's like the jungle floor, suddenly turns to liquid and flows away, taking with it any equipment not raised up on logs. Sat round the fire with the range guys, then off to the hammock. The noises here are even better, with hundreds more birds, insects and monkeys. Boots muddy so they're upside down on sticks to try and keep out the spiders.
Tuesday 27 - Indiana Lawson and Temples of Doom
A lie this morning until 5.30am. We followed Prince of Wales company as they entered the live fire range, simulating an attack on a jungle encampment. After the stealthy silence of the long jungle approach through deep mud, the contrast of the simulated mortar explosions and bursts of machine gun fire is fierce.
Camouflaged, covered in mud and sliding down the sloping jungle floor, the men were almost invisible, even from right on top of them and the accuracy of the machine guns, as they fell trees in a single burst is breathtaking. Live fire was fantastic, but for me the best part came afterwards. Already deep in the jungle, we were just 10 miles from the ancient Mayan city of Caracol and were given a couple of hours to explore its stone temples.
(The view of one of the smaller mounds from the top of the stone temple)
Approaching the site you round the final bend to be presented with vast stone temples rising high above the tree tops, but from down below the canopy is so dense you do not see them. It was phenomenal, with steep stone steps, tiny inner chambers where they found remains of the human sacrifices and other rooms only accessible by a small hole a few inches square.
The trees are so thick here that the city, which was home to around 110,000 people, having been discovered in the 1930s, was promptly lost again, reclaimed by the jungle and only rediscovered a few decades ago. They were a fascinating people, typically around 5ft 3ins tall and creators of incredible stone artwork and masks. More incredibly, the last of their cities was only abandoned in the 1700s... that's just 100years before my house was built!
Travelled back five hours out of the jungle all the way back to Price Barracks, had another much needed bath in a river on the way back (not having shaved to avoid infected cuts or washed to keep off mosquitoes). Headed out to a bars to celebrate our return. Towards the end of the evening, misread the signs at the end of a neon-lit corridor pointing to 'toilets' and 'tattoos' Went through the wrong one and nearly came back with an unexpected souvenir of my trip.
Wednesday 28 - Flight back
Belize Houston, Houston Gatwick, train Gatwick Reading, Reading Shrewsbury, Shrewsbury Gobowen, Gobwbowen Home... Back home within 24hours with a new found appreciation of toilets!