Now what could possibly go wrong?

James Spencer/ David Dell

Have you ever imagined how it would feel to be alone on a desert island? Miles from civilization, no cell phone contact and not even a roof over your head? This last week I wanted to see if I could be a true survivor like someone from the TV series “lost.”

The adventure seemed like it would be straightforward and I would have great material for an article. Lack of preparation and I will admit my own bad planning turned this into something far more serious – and yes at times, potentially life threatening.

The plan was simple. A friend, Jason Ward, would drop me off on Burica island at the tip of Punta Burica in Chirqui. This is the farthest point west in Panama and closely borders Costa Rica. There are large sharks in the waters and recently, locals report seeing a 12 foot crocodile close to shore. Several sources tell me of drugs being regularly off loaded onto local beaches. Colombians are now working closely with the Mexican cartels and the deserted Burica Pennisular is a perfect spot for this. So why would I, a 64 year old semi-retired writer want to brave the weather and dangers of this sparsely inhabited part of Panama? Crazy like a fox sums it up well.

I had matches, paper to start a fire, water, plenty of food, a machete and lastly a 10x14 foot plastic tarpaulin. The all-important ingredients of canned beans, sausages, a liter of red wine and six beers I placed in cooler. I had a tripod for my camera and yes, I actually read the manual so I could take pictures of myself during this great adventure. With all this preparation what could possibly go wrong?

It was Thursday September 4th, 2008 3:30 in the afternoon as we approached Burica island. Jason Ward offered to take me to the island in his 23 foot panga. Jason was familiar with these waters and said because of the rocks he couldn’t get me to the beach and that I would have to load everything into his inflatable kayak and paddle through the surf the quarter mile to shore. With no life jacket and the weight of a full cooler adding to the imbalance, I felt concerned, but load up and sail off. I did.

I soon realised that I was not in the best physical shape for this. I had to stop three or four times to catch my breath. I headed for a sand bar at the northern end of the island. This, I thought would be the only spot safe enough to beach without tipping over the cooler and its precious contents. As the surf crashed over the stern of the kayak my concern started to mount. Breathless, and in a mild state of panic I paddled furiously for the sandbar. As the kayak grounded safely and firmly on the gray-brown sand, I heaved a sigh of relief. 

There was a welcoming committee silently watching my approach. Three large vultures sat on a piece of driftwood. I imagined the conversation between these three black garbage eaters went something like this. “Hmm, shall we wait as we are supposed to, or just tuck in while it’s fresh?” The older, scruffier of the bunch said, “Nah, it’s better when it’s aged a bit, they say it tastes just like chicken.”

No outside contact.
While I was still getting my breath back after my Olympic size paddle, I dug out my cell phone and tried to call my wife. After three tries and getting a “No service available” message, it dawned on me, I really was alone. If I had a heart attack, broke a leg or something I couldn’t reach help. I would have to survive as best I could until the next day when the boat would come to rescue me.

The sky was clouding over and I knew my first task was to find a place to put up the tarp and hang the hammock. I found what I thought was the perfect spot, with two trees close together. With some judicious hacking away of the foliage I soon had my tarp set up. Next item of importance was to get some dry wood for a fire.

Driftwood covers the shoreline of Burica and there is plenty of kindling. My first and most important mistake was misjudging the high tidemark. What I didn’t realize was the tides in this area can reach an average of 17 to 18 feet, and higher during full moons.

Soon, I had what I thought would be, an all-night beach blaze. I pictured myself cooking beans and sausages by the fire and then reminiscing for hours with a glass of red wine. This had all the makings of being a wonderful, memorable night. It turned out to be memorable all right, but not wonderful.

At this point I opened the red wine to celebrate. I had a cover from the elements, my fire was blazing away, I had cooked a meal and felt quite proud of myself. Now all I had to do was contact the producers of the “Survivor” T.V. series and see if they wanted to hire a 64-year old “expert.”

As the light was fading and a slight drizzle started, I thought now would be a good time to explore the island. The other side of the sand bar from where I was camping was the windward side and piles of driftwood and debris had formed. This was not beautiful at all. 95% of the shoreline was covered in plastic waste; drinking water bottles, plastic flip-flops and running shoes – one running shoe looked horribly like it had part of a human foot still inside.

It starts to go wrong. 
The rain intensified and I returned to the camp just as the rising tide dealt me a cruel blow and within a second it put out my fire. Reality kicked in and I wondered how much higher the tide was going to rise. As the rain fell harder I decided to move my camp to a higher point on the beach. I salvaged some bamboo poles from the driftwood and by 6.45 I had the tarp stretched between four poles. The problem now was that I was directly in the path of the wind. During the repositioning I had become soaked to the skin, the fire was drenched with no possibility of being relit. As the light faded I thought I would finish off the red wine and hunker down for the night.

My years in the military had taught me to always bring along some comfort food. Some years ago I was in the British Army and for reasons I won’t go into, ended up parachuting fifty miles into the Libyan desert. Before the operation our wonderful military had given us a special twenty four hour ration pack. It was the size of a tin of sardines and claimed that it contained everything needed to sustain a person for a complete day. In no uncertain terms we were told “Only open in cases of emergency.” Typically, they wouldn’t say “what” it contained, it must have been a military secret or something. Being the maverick then, as I am now, I couldn’t wait to unearth this survival secret. Late, one cold Libyan desert night I opened the tin. Was it full of high tech dehydrated tablets, a fishing kit, something to catch wild animals? No! The content was a single bar of horrible tasting, dark chocolate.

Hypothermia sets in.
The tarp I had set up worked great keeping the rain off me, although it didn’t matter as my trousers, boots and tee shirt were all waterlogged. The wind picked up strength just as the last vestiges of light faded from the sky. I had forgotten that alcohol is a vasodilator, that means it opens the blood vessels and makes you even colder. I tried to stay warm by snuggling down in the kayak but before long I started to shiver violently. The first rules of survival are simple: don’t panic and get out of the wind. There was no alternative, even though the rain was pouring down, I had to break down the tarp roof and wrap it around me like a blanket. I folded the tarp into four and pulled it around me like a small tent. It stopped the wind and I remembered from a few true-life survivor stories to curl up in a fetal position to conserve body heat.

Curled up in the kayak with the tarp pulled over me I was at least not getting any colder. Unfortunately the beans and sausages I had eaten earlier were having the expected effect and not only was my shelter cold, wet and miserable it also smelt like a sewer.

Oh no! Not a drug dealers submarine?
I must have dozed off because the next time I awoke it was 3:30 in the morning. The rain and lightning had subsided a bit so I pulled the tarp back and took stock of my position. In the bay about 200 hundred yards away was something I hadn’t seen before, a long black shape sitting in the water. The overcast sky meant there was no natural light whatever. I wondered was I seeing things. Then the thought struck me, Oh no, this looks like one of those fiberglass drug dealers submarines. Wonderful! I am wet, tired, hyperthermic and now will most probably be murdered by some Colombian or Mexican drug dealers.

Newspaper reports say there is considerable drug activity between the Panama and Costa Rican borders. The Colombians no longer transport their cocaine to Mexico, they simply drop it off in Panama and the Mexican drug cartels take it from there. I strained both my eyes and ears to hear any sounds like a diesel engine or of hatches being opened. I thought to myself, it’s so dark they can’t possibly see me, but what if they unload on to this beach they are bound to stumble across me.

I lay there for an hour, as motionless as my shivering body would allow. Then it became obvious, the submarine was just a rock formation revealed by the low tide.

Just after 5:40 in the morning the first few signs of daylight came across the eastern sky. There were some strange pink shaped balls of light that were almost Aurora Borealis in their shape. I grabbed the camera from the dry bag but they quickly disappeared. By 6:30 the sky was warming and so were my spirits. I knew that Jason would be coming by to pick me up around 10:00 so as the warming sun dried my clothes, I ate my last two hard-boiled eggs.

Burica Island is about a mile square in size. It has a high point sixty feet above sea level and is mostly palm treed jungle. Having drunk all of my water I downed my last beer and decided I would use this time to see if this island could support life. I did discover several freshwater springs and some coconut trees, so yes, you could live here possibly for years.

Fans of the “Lost” TV series will love this.

At the back of the beach was a small trail. I didn’t know if this was an animal trail or used by fishermen, so armed with my machete I hacked my way along a well defined path. The ground rose steeply and to my left I could see the rocky shore and beach. Then I saw a small hand painted sign that read, “Faro” (lighthouse). After five minutes of following the trail I came across an almost surreal structure. 

It was a white, circular steel tower about thirty feet high and 3 feet across. Fans of the TV series “lost” would love this – it had a hatch. The hatchway was open and there was a steel ladder leading up. At the back of the tower was a white steel box which I took for a now defunct generator.

Sadly, beaches all over the Pacific have been inundated with garbage. Mainly flip-flops, water bottles and plastic. The blue runner in this picture looked like it had the remains of a foot inside it. However, in the jungle I did see this beautiful yellow flower, what a contrast-the garbage of man and a few steps away the natural beauty of nature.

Buoyed by my discovery I returned to the beach to await pick up. The hours passed and there was no boat insight. Midday came and went and I wondered what had happened. As the afternoon wore on I began to suspect that I might have to spend another night on my island. This time I would build my shelter away from the wind and my fire would be safe from the ravages of a rising tide. The island had freshwater, coconuts and I had dry matches for a fire.

Around 3:00 in the afternoon I spotted a boat about a half mile offshore. Someone was waving from the stern. So I loaded the Kayak I paddled through the surf toward the boat. As I approached I realized that Jason Ward had returned with Captain Dan Peavy, from Hooked On Panama resort. As I scrambled aboard the La Chiricana, Captain Dan leaned back from his seat on the tower smiled, and said in his inimitable way “James, you look like sh**.”

Hooked On Panama is about 5 miles away from Burica Island and they might take tourists there. Not overnight, just for a pleasant, daytime excursion. After my trip Captain Dan confided that he couldn’t risk putting clients through a similar adventure, “James,” he said, “it’s just too dangerous.”

There is an old saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Mentally and physically I had survived the worst night of my life. I had been bowed but never broken. I had been alone on a desert island with just my wits and crazy like a fox mentality. To my list of life accomplishments I could now add the title: survivor.