The Top Adventure Stories of 2012: Davey du Plessis' Struggle to Survive

A South African man runs for his life in the Amazon

At least three expeditions sought to complete 4,000-mile-plus source-to-sea journeys down the Amazon this year, all after officials said it was likely the river had a new source. The first descent sent by Joe Kane and Piotr Chmeilinski in the mid-1980s would now have an asterisk and a new record was open for the taking. Two expeditions—one by West Hansen and another by James Contos—fought for the crown. You can read Grayson Schaffer’s story in our January issue about their battle for glory. The third expedition, a solo 4,000-plus-mile hike, bike, and paddle by South African explorer Davey du Plessis, failed. It made this list because it led to a gripping survival tale that involved 21st-century technology and an on-the-ground, village-to-village passing of the injured adventurer like a baton.

In July, du Plessis began his quest and news of his progress was periodically posted on Facebook. On Sunday, August 26, a cryptic update appeared on his page: "I need help. Does anyone know anyone in Peru, Davey has had an accident in the jungle, and I do not know where to start."

Du Plessis’ mother was posting on his Facebook page. She needed someone to translate things into Spanish. She got help. She found out her son had been shot several times. She returned to social media to share the details and expressed her thanks and concern. The details of what exactly happened were a bit scattered, but later in the fall, du Plessis shared them on his blog and in a YouTube video. A quick summary from those two sources is included below.

Du Plessis was a four-and-a-half-day paddle from the small town of Pecullpa. He had taken to the forest’s edge of the river in his red kayak because a school of river dolphins cavorting under his craft had spooked him. As he paddled, two men, maybe in their 20s, floated by him in a dugout canoe with a 50-horsepower engine. Shortly after they passed, he felt a sharp pain in his back and fell forward into the water. He had been shot, but didn’t know it. He surfaced and grabbed his kayak. Pellets from a shotgun ripped into his face. He swam to the riverbank, and was shot again, this time through his windpipe. He sat down, ready to die, and saw the scariest thing he had ever seen in his life: the face of a man “without compassion” gliding toward him in the boat.

He got up and ran. He was shot in the thigh. He reached a spot more than a mile away where he had seen a ferry from the water. It was gone when he arrived. He saw two men across the river, but he couldn’t yell because of the hole in his windpipe. He jumped up and down. They saw him and brought him to a village. He was passed from village to village, where the parties left him sitting in the dirt at the forest’s edge while they passed on word of what had happened, and then his pellet-ridden body. An old woman washed the mud and blood from his body with a sponge. An old man sang him songs. Another man rubbed his back as he spat up coagulated blood. The train of locals eventually brought him to Pulcallpa, where a brewery owner arranged for him to be flown to Lima. He received medical care, was flown home, and in October had the green light from his doctor to resume normal activities. You might think he went right for a beer from that brewery, but he doesn’t drink. He grabbed a surfboard and rode some waves breaking off the Cape Town coast.

“Every adventurer goes through some form of something going wrong,” he said in the YouTube video. “I hadn’t been prepared for it, but I still haven’t lost that spirit for adventure, and as soon as I can diagnose what’s wrong with me, I can’t wait to get back in the saddle and continue doing what I love, and sharing it with you guys.”

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