Surviving a Shooting in the Amazon

On July 1, 2012, Davey du Plessis set off on a roughly 4,000-mile source-to-sea expedition down the Amazon. Two months and a third of the way in, he was attacked and left in the jungle to die. This is his story, as told to Joe Spring.

    Photo: World Wonderer/Facebook

Du Plessis in the clinic

I thought, “You’re in the middle of the jungle. There is no one else around except the people shooting at you, who are somewhere hidden. This is where you are going to die.”

“As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
, Man's Search for Meaning

It was Saturday the 25 of August, and up until mid-afternoon, I was having my best day on the river. I was almost two months into the expedition. I had already hiked from the town of Tuti to Mount Mismi—the listed source of the Amazon at that time—and back. I had biked roughly 500 miles through the Andes. Then I put a kayak into a tributary of the Amazon called the Urubamba River and had paddled roughly 700 miles. That Saturday morning, I saw my first manatee. A river dolphin swam next to boat. I saw two new species of birds. I was collecting data for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, so every time I saw animals I got a huge boost, but around midafternoon I started to have a really sick feeling.

I was distracted from that feeling by a brown raptor that seemed to be following me. It would fly along the riverbank and then sit on the ground, which seemed unusual for a bird of prey. It would take off, fly ahead of me, and land. It did this for almost half a mile, so I just kept taking photos of the bird.

I didn’t see much human activity until two guys, maybe in their twenties, motored past in a pirogue. I didn’t pay much notice to them because I was focused on the bird. Then the bird disappeared. About ten minutes later, I felt something slam into my back.

My arms shot up and the paddle flew into the air as I rolled with the kayak, into the water. I was underwater and my eyes were open. I sank deeper and thought, “If I don’t do something now, I’m going to drown.” I tried to use my arms to paddle up to the surface, but they were frozen stiff. They felt separate from my body. I thought, “OK, maybe someone had come behind me and hacked my arms off.”

I used my legs to kick to the surface. When I breached, I looked around. What happened? Who did this? Had someone tried to cut my arms off using a machete? There was no one there. Then I thought, “Maybe that bird of prey flew into my back.”

A few seconds after breaching, something hit my face. I looked around, but saw nothing. I didn’t hear anything besides a ringing in my ears. I kicked to the kayak. Because my arms weren’t working, I used my head and torso to push my boat toward the riverbank. I was maybe fifteen feet away from shore. My feet hit mud. I walked to knee-deep water and sat down. I was facing the opposite riverbank. I still had absolutely no idea what happened. It was kind of like being in that rare, confused moment right after you wake up from a dream.

Then something hit the right side of my face.

Someone was shooting me from the jungle. I put my head down to look at the water and saw a big pool of blood surrounding me. I realized the hopelessness of the situation. I thought, “You’re in the middle of the jungle. There is no one else around except the people shooting at you, who are somewhere hidden. This is where you are going to die.”

At that thought, I just lay down in the water and closed my eyes. I felt a high above all highs. I have no religion, but I’d heard that you’ll see a white light or feel an out of body experience when you go. I waited for something like that. After a few moments of blackness, I felt the water lapping against my face. I realized I was still in the same place. I thought, “You are still alive.” 

I opened my eyes. The euphoria started to subside and I started to address my end again, this time in stages. I said, “OK, you’re going to close your eyes and feel out of your body and then disappear.” It didn’t happen.

I opened my eyes and saw this individual coming up on a boat. He was about 150 feet upriver and moving slowly towards me, parallel to the shore. He was staring at me. I recognized him as one of the guys that passed me in the pirogue.  He had a brown jacket and a shaved head. I realized that the other guy, who was wearing a worn yellow t-shirt, was probably in the jungle and had fired the shots.

I sprang to my feet. He laid on the motor just a bit more. I put my hands together like I was praying and said, “Please leave me alone.” I kicked my kayak out and said, “Take it. It’s your kayak.” He just stared at me and carried on upriver. I was desperate and petrified. I was pleading, hoping that he would have a bit of sympathy. Eventually, I gave up and just stared back.

For a few seconds, we locked eyes. I thought, “Run.” Before I took off, I thought, “Let me just grab the PLB and trigger it.” I turned around, and in those few seconds I heard a shot. It hit my left leg. I took off into the jungle without activating the PLB. My arms and hands were still somewhat locked, and it felt like I was running in a straitjacket.

I turned my whole body to see if the guys were pursuing me, but they weren’t. After about a mile, my body just stopped. I hit a low point. I felt completely hopeless because there was no nearby community. I thought, “I’m probably going to rot in the jungle and disappear and no one will ever know that I left. My mom’s going to spend the rest of her life just hoping by some miracle that I will walk through the door and be OK.” 

I started to motivate myself. I was internalizing everything. I said, “OK you ran from those guys. You ran because you wanted to live.” As soon as I realized that, I said. “You’re no longer going to wait for death. You’re going to do whatever you can to keep moving forward and find some way out of this. You’re not going to stop or rest until you run out of breath, black out from a loss of blood, or suffocate from the blood filling your lungs. You will not wait to die like you did a few minutes ago.”

After that internal speech, I took off running in a zigzagging fashion. I wanted to make sure that I could still easily hide in the jungle, but I needed the river as my source of navigation. It was difficult to fight through the mess of vegetation. It must have been about another mile of running that took me to another bend in the river. It was a good point to scout, about a mile upriver and a mile downriver. Looking upriver, I couldn’t see the two guys that attacked me, so I felt safe. Downriver, I saw absolutely nothing.

I remembered there was a community upriver where I stopped about an hour and a half before, but I thought that maybe the guys who shot me were from that community. I said to myself, “What you are going to have to do is just continue downriver and hopefully somewhere along the way you’ll see boats or some help.”

By fortune’s favor, two individuals emerged on the opposite riverbank, maybe 2,000 feet away. I hesitated. “Maybe these two guys are the guys that shot you?” The more I looked, the more I realized they weren’t wearing the same colors.

I have a very loud whistle. I took a deep breath and pushed. Nothing came out—not even a little peep. I tried again. Nothing again. I tried to scream, but I couldn’t build up enough pressure in my lungs and my throat to get them to hear me.

I sat there for five minutes just doing whatever I could to try and get their attention. I moved around. My right arm was still frozen from that initial shot. I raised my left arm and moved around. Nothing. I realized, “You have to try and swim across the river.” I started scouring the riverbank for a good piece of wood that I could float on while I kicked. I couldn’t find anything. 

I walked about waist deep and then I remembered about the river dolphins. For the last three weeks, they had been very inquisitive; one even breached the bottom of my kayak. They were not dangerous, but they wanted to play. If they were in this stretch of river, they could cause me to go underwater. I waded back to the bank.

After I got up on land, I saw one of the guys with his hands up. They floated across and stopped 100 feet in front of me. Because of my broken Spanish, I didn’t know anything else to say but, “Por favor. Por favor.” I put my hands in the shape of a gun to show that I’d been shot. I pointed upriver to show where. They stared, then they turned around.

I thought, “What the hell are these guys doing? Are they not seeing that I’m in a critical situation?”

Then the same guy put his hand up, signaling to wait. Two more guys walked out of the jungle and got into the boat. They started coming to where I was. They pointed for me to move about 100 feet downriver. They picked me up and I lay down in the boat. I lifted my head to look out of the boat on the way across the river. Other guys were coming out of the woods. Then this woman came out and started screaming. I was covered in mud and still had blood dripping down my face.

These guys took me out of the boat and walked me through the jungle for about 500 feet. All of a sudden, this community of wooden houses appeared. There were children playing football. There were people chatting. They walked me in and set me in this shelter on a bench. It was about four or five o’clock in the afternoon.

The entire community came and gathered around me. They stared and whispered to each other. I was sitting there with my shoulders stooped. I had lost all of the feeling on the right side of my face and I couldn’t hear in my right ear. I thought the bullets had caused a brain hemorrhage and that’s why I lost the feeling in my face and some hearing. I started having all these different discussions at the same time in my head, about everything from surfing at home to what I was doing in the jungle. I was beginning to panic. 

Just then, this old lady walked up to me. Her closeness distracted me from my thoughts. She was this old, old lady with a bucket of water, and she started washing all of the mud off my legs.

Then I thought of Pucallpa, a proper city that was just a bit upriver. “Maybe by motorboat I could get there.” I asked her, “How many hours to Pucallpa?” Some other people told me, “A day and a half.” I didn’t think I’d live a day and a half.

“Do you have a phone?” I said. 

I hoped that I could get ahold of my mom or someone in South Africa. I wanted to tell them where I was and that I had been shot, in case I couldn’t make the trip to the hospital. They took me to a call box. They asked me for the number. At first, I couldn’t piece together the number in Spanish. Eventually, I managed to get them the whole number, but it wouldn’t go through. After several attempts, I gave up. 

They started feeding me sugar water. Prior to being attacked, I had read about the placebo effect. I told myself, “OK, the sugar water is your stimulant. It’s going to keep you awake until you get help. It’s going to help you until you get out of here. It’s going to be your painkiller.” 

I asked the people to take me downriver.  They made a stretcher out of someone’s bed and wrapped me up in blankets, then motored me downriver for two hours. It was nightfall when we landed. The community we reached had no electricity; all the light came from torches and candles. 

The people in the boat and some people from the village gathered around and started talking. They said, “Pobre, Pobre.” They didn’t have the money to take me to Pucallpa. They didn’t have the money for petrol for the motor. That’s what I think they said. I took the blankets off and said, “I have nothing to give you. It’s all been taken.” 

Throughout the process, I could feel my insides filling up with blood. I thought I might drown in my own blood. After about an hour at the second community, I started to throw up. They came over and huddled around me as I was vomiting into the boat. A guy started using the cup used for sugar water to scoop up the bloody vomit and throw it overboard.

Eventually, I started to choke. It had been four or five hours since the shooting and the blood was starting to coagulate. Jelly-like nuggets were getting stuck in my throat. I pushed my fingers down my throat—to try and throw them up and sometimes to pull them up. It was a gory process, but it changed my situation. They must have thought, “Even though we can’t take him to Pucallpa, we can take him to the next village.” One of the members of the other village came up to me with a drip bag and stuck it into my arm.

They put me in a different boat and headed downriver. We reached another point onshore and they stopped. They carried me about 150 feet into the jungle and put me down, talked for a few moments, and then started to walk off. I said, “Qué es el problema?” They ignored me and walked away.

Once they left, the whole jungle came to life.  The majority of the sound came from mosquitos. There were also a lot of frogs, but mostly I heard the mosquitos because they were so close. I was wrapped in blankets, but my face was exposed. Thirty or more of them buzzed around my skin. At first, I’d blow to try and get them away from my nose, but I had no energy. Eventually, I just let them sit on my face. They were just a minor distraction because I had so much pain.

My windpipe was punctured. Every time I swallowed, or my throat moved, it hurt. I vomited a lot, straight onto the stretcher. I didn’t move much because of the pain. I constantly tasted blood. My neck was sore, but it wasn’t like an overall pain. It was burning and stinging in concentrated spots. My right shoulder stung at several points. My back stung and burned at several points. My thigh stung and burned at points. I balanced uncomfortably on my right side; it was too painful to lie on my stomach and back.

I could feel myself wanting to give up again. The worry that these guys had left me kept surfacing. Was I going to be stuck in the middle of a night in a jungle I didn’t know? I started to think about books about the mind and the body. I remembered this book by Victor Frankl called Man’s Search for Meaning. He lived through the Holocaust. He was a psychiatrist who developed something called logotherapy, where he said that people who endure the most suffering are people who attach a certain purpose or meaning to give them a reason to live. So I thought, “OK, what meaning can I give my thoughts?”

I thought about my mom. I also thought, “Think of all the cool things you’re going to have with this story. Think of all of the things you can tell your friends if you survive. ‘I Shouldn’t Be Alive,’ will want to show your story. You’ll be able to write a cool book or write a movie. But you have to be able to survive to share this story.”

I thought of Tony Robbins and the principles he taught. I let go of so many questions I couldn’t answer. I stopped asking myself if they were going to come back and instead did whatever I could to remain calm and find something peaceful. I played a game where I started to think about anything having to do with survival. I recalled any movie scene that involved people surviving and any song that had the word survive in it. 

After about 10 minutes of playing this game, I became very calm. I listened to the frogs and the mosquitos. After about 45 minutes, I heard voices coming from the distance. Another crew came and walked me to another tributary, where they loaded me into another boat and we took off into the night.

After a two- or three-hour trip, the same thing happened again. They picked me up and took me into the jungle and left me alone. The initial panic came, because I couldn’t understand why they were doing this; I felt so vulnerable in the middle of the jungle.

I used my survival as a means to justify surviving longer. I thought, “OK, you survived six hours. You can survive six hours more. You vomited this much blood. You can vomit that much more.”

A crew came and the same thing happened again: another tributary, another boat. At about six in the morning, just about sunrise, we reached a proper community. There were roads, electric lights, and concrete structures. They picked me up in the stretcher and they lifted me up to the riverbank, where there was a mototaxi. They took me on a 15-minute ride to a doctor’s house. He woke up, took me to a room, laid me on the bed, and looked at me.

He didn’t speak to me. He didn’t touch me. He just took some photos. The doctor gave me a shirt, because my shirt was covered in blood. Then the man and woman took me back to the mototaxi, and we drove back down to the river. They put me in another boat with two outboard motors and they said it was the fastest boat ride to Pucallpa, which was four hours away. At about ten o’clock in the morning, I saw port cranes peeking up over the top of the canopy.

As I was walking into the hospital, I saw a reflection of my neck in a window. It had swollen out; it looked as though another head about to burst from underneath my neck. They put me on a bed, took out the drip bag and put in a proper one. They took off my clothes. They started to discuss what they were doing, but very quickly, the issue became money. The doctor just looked at me, and I realized the issue was payment.

I said, “If you have internet, I have travel insurance.” Fortunately they did. I found my number online and they called the travel insurance company. They tried for two hours, but couldn’t get through. Meanwhile, they just left me.

While all this was going on, a girl came; she said was interested in who I was and what I was doing. I told her in broken Spanish what had happened. I gave her my mom’s contact details and asked if she could call her. She set off. About 30 minutes later I got ahold of the doctors and I said, “Please, can I use your phone?”

I called my mom. When I talked to her I found out she already knew something had happened. The girl's brother taught English in Pucallpa. He called my mother and said “Your child has been in an accident in the jungle and is on the way to Pucallpa.” Of course, I was already in Pucallpa. I said, “Mom, I’ve been shot. They won’t do anything because I can’t pay.”

My mom went to Facebook and started networking as much as she could. Out of pure luck, she found out my uncle worked for the South African Brewery and had done a stint in South America. He got ahold of the division in Pucallpa, and they sent over two individuals who spoke English, Alvaro and Bettina. They arrived at the hospital and said, “We know what’s happened. We’re going to stay. We’re going to pay. You’re going to be OK.” 

As soon as they showed up, I became a priority. The doctor took me in for X-rays. When I got out, things were getting a bit crazy. Because I’d been at the hospital four or five hours, the news had spread. Journalists were trying to get into the room. After looking at me and the X-rays, the doctors told Alvaro that they didn’t have the facilities to operate. They we’re going to have to get me to Lima. The problem was that it was now 6 o’clock on Sunday evening and no small aircraft will fly over the Peruvian Andes at night. It’s too dangerous. I would have to wait until morning.

Alvaro said no way and paid for me to fly on a commercial airliner to Lima. The staff put me in a stretcher and drove me onto the runway and loaded me onto the plane. They put the stretcher down across four seats and then fastened seatbelts around it. Alvaro and a doctor accompanied me. My head was set because of the seatbelts, but I could see the kid across the aisle from me. He stared at me for the full one-hour trip. After we got to the hospital, a security guard from the South African Brewery came by and took a photo of me with my thumbs up. He emailed it to my mom so she knew I was OK.

I didn’t realize until I got to that hospital that I had been shot with a shotgun. I had pellets all over my body, all over my back, and all over my face. They counted 22 of them.

The priority was a pellet that punctured my heart. It had gone through one lung and through the outer wall of my heart and then lodged itself in my septum. It was positioned like a seed in the core of an apple. If they had to retrieve it, it would require open-heart surgery. In my case, they would have to take my heart out of the cavity and operate.  They monitored that while looking at the other pellets. One pellet punctured a lung. The blood drained through the hole into my thoracic cavity, which turned out to be a blessing because if it meant that lung was only half-full. I didn’t drown in my own blood.

My carotid artery had almost been severed completely. Normally with a punctured artery, you can just close it up. This one was under my jaw. They would have had to cut the jaw bone to go in and close it up. Such a procedure was too extreme, so they punctured my groin, slid a stent in, and pushed it up to my neck. Bullets that were an inch or less from my skin they removed. Anything deeper they left because it had been almost two days without any medical procedures. They said my body was already beginning to heal and so to try and retrieve the pellets would damage more tissue and put my body under a lot of stress.

I was in the ICU for 12 days. I stayed in the hospital for a few more weeks before I was given the OK to fly home.  In the last eight months I’ve had several scans of the pellet in my heart, and so far they’ve just left it alone. I don’t have feeling on one side of my jaw because one pellet hit a facial nerve. I don’t know if I’ll get that feeling back.

Initially, I thought this story of survival was my own—that my own beliefs and health had saved me.  The fact that I’d read, that I’d lived a good lifestyle, that I didn’t smoke, that I didn’t drink, that I was a strict vegan. I thought I survived because of who I was, because of all the effort I put into taking care of myself.

Now, I’ve had a bit more time to reflect. I’ve had time away from all of the media, and I’ve thought about this story from every angle. I realized I only survived because people cared about me when I was suffering. I could have only done so much alone. The initial shooting was an act of cruelty: I wasn't doing anything wrong. So how did I experience that malicious act and come out of the jungle without anger? That’s due to compassion, the small bits I experienced throughout the entire journey.

There was that lady that came to me in the first community. I almost felt like she was my granny. She crossed the bridge between a foreigner and her people and just walked up to me and quietly washed my legs. There was a guy on one boat trip who sat over me, put his hand on my chest, and just sang. It was a soft song. I don’t know if it was a prayer, or what. Those moments gave me hope, a reason to endure. They shifted my perspective on humanity. 

EXPERT OPINION:

Hope is a powerful force, and no doubt contributed to this unfortunate shooting victim’s will to live. He was also lucky to have been wounded by a shotgun rather than a high-powered firearm.

There are many lessons here. The obvious one is that there are cruel and senseless acts of violence possible in any situation. All travelers should be prepared to avoid dangerous situations and to know what to do if they are attacked. Robbers, kidnappers, and terrorists all use weapons and have patterns of assault that should be known to possible victims.

Anyone who travels far from home should have evacuation insurance and know whom to contact in the event that a rescue becomes necessary. Unusual or risky travel itineraries should be recorded and left with friends and perhaps with the appropriate embassies.

The medical advice is simple and compelling: Never give up. Everyone has unique qualities and the potential to heal under the most dire circumstances. If you live for just a few hours after an injury, the odds of survival go way up.

—Paul S. Auerbach, M.D., author of Medicine for the Outdoors and Field Guide to Wilderness Medicine

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