In the Land of the Leech

Tough Parables

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

At a clinic near my home in Seattle, I watch the eighth silver needle plunge into my arm. "You've come in too late to be protected from dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis," says the nurse, almost delightedly, as she vaccinates me against whatever hell awaits me in the Southeast Asian jungle.

Two weeks, three continents, six airports, and two boat rides later, I'm in Bukit Lawang, at the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park in north-central Sumatra, about to schlepp to the park's western side. Back home I was feeling uncomfortable, folded and locked behind a desk. Now I'm hearing about Sumatra's least endangered species: the leech. "Burn them off with a lit cigarette," says Rev, our Indonesian guide, with a flick of his Marlboro.

My traveling companion, Ruthie, and I follow Rev into the park's dense interior, where a wall of almost certainly malarial mosquitoes immediately engulfs us, adding a new layer of irritation to the 100-degree-plus day. Soon I feel a dull pain behind my knee. I look, and it's a slimy brown-and-black tiger leech picked up at the last river crossing, filled to the gills with O-positive. Philip Morris to the rescue.

Our trek should take two weeks. By day three, my skin is burned and peeling and encrusted with sweat and myriad strains of slime. In my mild delirium, I become convinced that I am molting. The miles and days bleed into one another as we hack our way through the sea of vines. Ten days in, I am miserable, awash in self-pity. I am broken.

But the next day, I begin to flick leeches and slap mosquitoes with the thoughtlessness previously reserved for the lowly gnat. I settle into my role as blood donor and inconsequential ingredient of the rainforest, and just as Ido, we breach the jungle's perimeter and come out the other side. Exhausted, Rev and Ruthie and I crawl under our tarp for a final night of writhing and sweating. At 4:45 a.m., with the Muslim call to prayer echoing over the hills from Ketembe, I awake, strangely renewed. I walk up a rise and scale a tall, heavily limbed tree. Up there, looking back over the thick folds of jungle, I feel more alive than I've felt in years. I decide in that moment to quit my job and to chase adventure full-time.

And so I do.

Holly Morris is the creator of the PBS series Adventure Divas ( and the host of the Discovery Channel's Treks in the Wild World.

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