I wouldn’t necessarily describe what happened to us as “being lost in the jungle at night.” We knew where we were, we just happened to be in the jungle much, much longer than we wanted to be.
I really just wanted to see a bridge in Taroko National Park. Those plans immediately changed when my friend, Cinthya, and I got to the trailhead and our interests were captured by a sign describing an indigenous village at the top of the mountain called Dali Village.
Two and a half hours later, with no village in sight and our will power quickly evaporating into the misty mountain top, we ran into two French hikers who were also looking for the village. Instead of turning back, we continued on with them.
We never found Dali Village, but we did find a grouping of houses where we got directions back down the mountain. It looked like a shortcut, which was a blessing because the thought of going back the entire way we had come was about to make me pass out on my sore feet.
When we started back down the mountain it was close to 4pm. This is an important detail, as the sun starts setting around 5pm. So, as the sun is starting to make its creeping descent behind the mountains, we’re stuck in the jungle. Real jungle. Thick, vine-infested, animal-inhabiting, snake slithering, dense jungle.
It had all the elements. A dubious-looking bridge, sheer drops, narrow trails, slippery rocks, a gully of loose stones. Ropes, fallen trees, missing trails, broken ladders, vines, roots, mud. It was a race with the sun. It was a competition to get out before you were trapped in utter darkness in the engulfing jungle. Did I mention that Cinthya was wearing flip flops? As you recall, we had simply meant to go see a bridge, not make a death-defying adventure into the Taiwanese jungle.
At some point during this struggle, one of the French tourists mentions that he had once been lost in the Congo for three days. He survived on insects and snakes until he found his way out. Throughout eye-bulging incredulity, we all breathed a sigh of relief. If we were stuck here, we had someone in our midst that could tip the scale on our survival. It also made his high spirits understandable instead of lunatic.
By the time we neared the bottom of the mountain, the sun had gone down below the sea. Congo-survivalist man had a headlamp and made use of that while the rest of us flashed our phone lights on.
Eventually we could hear the river. According to the directions, that was where the road was. We were in the clear. If we had to, we could hitchhike back to town while our abused muscles settled. However, the directions we had received were little more than hand gestures because we had no common language with the woman in the little mountain town.
So, imagine our shock and horror when the map by the river indicated that the nearest road was 7km away. Cinthya and I gaped and asked each other if this was real. I think we both wanted the other to make assurances that we were just imagining being trapped in the jungle at night. Cinthya timidly asked if we were going to be okay, and the Frenchman laughed and led the way.
We encountered moments where the trail ended and we had to trudge along in the rocky riverbed until the trail picked up again. We climbed massive boulders, we jumped across broken spaces in the ancient stone walls, we held Cinthya’s hand when the ground was slippery and her no-grip flip flops were going to give way. Every moment was marked by the oppressive black of the night and the even deeper black of the looming mountains.
I had crazy thoughts. I feared that there would be a flash flood and the river would sweep us away. I imagined us stumbling into someone’s secret pot farm and being murdered so that we would hold our tongues. I envisioned us losing our way and being lost in the jungle for days or weeks. In every scenario, people questioned why a group of young adults were wandering around the jungle at night.
When the panic really started rising, we kept it to ourselves so as not to infect the others. When there was a particularly rough moment, we joked that the going had been too easy and that we needed a challenge.
In the end, we made it home safe and sound with promises to meet up again the next day for a beer, which we did. There’s nothing like getting lost in the jungle to bond a group of people.
The rest of the night was borne in speechless reflection and at some point I realized that one of the most tragic things about the whole experience was that we had struggled in pain and fear through a landscape of intense beauty, and that we had missed it in the dark and the panic.
The next morning Cinthya and I went back.