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What happens to a man when he’s shot, left for dead… and survives?
It’s a jungle out there. According to the South African Police Service’s 2012/2013 crime statistics, 16 259 people were murdered between April 2012 and March 2013. So what does a man do when someone tries to kill him? Davey du Plessis has looked down that barrel – and what he found there will surprise you. In 2012, he was on an epic solo river trip through the Peruvian Amazon, collecting data for the environmental organisation Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, when – completely out of the blue – he was shot and left for dead in the jungle. Here, in his own words, is his story as told to Mark van Dijk:
I never saw the shooter. I just felt the impact of the shot and heard ringing in my ears. I didn’t feel pain. I was shot in my back, so my body went into paralysis and I fell out of my kayak and into the river. I couldn’t use my arms, so I kicked myself to the surface with my legs. I didn’t know what was happening. I thought a bird had flown into my back. But as I swam to the shore, I was shot again, and then I saw the blood.
There was no provocation. It was a complete ambush. They saw me from upriver and strategised the whole thing. There was never an attempt to take my stuff. They shot me, and they carried on shooting until I looked dead. It wasn’t a priority to take my stuff. It was a priority to kill me. The biggest irony is, I went there for environmental issues, to help protect the indigenous people there. And I’m like: “Here I am, doing something to protect your livelihood… and you shoot me?”
I’m not angry. It’s not something I can blame myself for. But at the same time, that’s what bothered me about it: it was so out of my control. All my planning had gone into catering for the environment, but the one thing you can’t cater for is the human element.
The biggest mistake you can make is to think you can predict what a human will do. You never can. You can never assume or expect anything. You don’t know what your best friend is going to do, so how are you going to know what people in foreign environments are going to do? When you realise that, you kind of let it all go. It’s so far out of your reach, what’s the point of even worrying about it. There’s nothing you can do. So you just adapt to it when something happens.
There was a pool of blood all around me. After the third shot I swam to the riverbank and sat in shallow water, just bleeding. Then I realised: I’ve been shot. I’m in the middle of the jungle. And the only people here are ones who are shooting me. So I closed my eyes and waited, mentally going through the process of what would happen before I disappeared. Then I opened my eyes and saw one of the guys – there were two of them; I’d seen them come past me on the river earlier – coming towards me in a boat. I looked at him, and he just stared at me like I was nothing. And I thought, If this guy reaches me and I’m still breathing, he will kill me. And then I ran.
As I turned to run he shot me again. But I just ran. I didn’t know where – I just wanted to get away. I knew there was a big ferry back in the distance, and that was the only other sign of humanity besides the guys behind me. But as I ran I thought: you have just made the decision to choose to live. You will not lie and wait. That was the defining point.
It’s a great story, but there’s a person in the story. Getting shot was part of it, but without mental strength I could easily have withered away. My mom’s a trauma counsellor, and all the books I’ve read are about the mind. There’s a good one by Victor Frankel, a psychologist who survived the Holocaust. He found that the people who lived and who could endure more than others were those who found meaning or value outside of the concentration camps. I used that principal. And then you tell yourself: all those books you’ve read are now going to serve you.
We look at our role models, and we think they’re anomalies. We think only Nelson Mandela can do that. But we all get opportunities to forgive someone. Not once have I thought of revenge, and I’m proud of that. It makes sense to want revenge or to be angry, but I don’t feel it. It’s not there.
I left all my stuff behind. But I had a device that, when activated, sends an SOS signal and GPS co-ordinates. It was activated during my last week in Peru, obviously by whoever now has my stuff. That signal goes out to the Peruvian military, navy, police… and it pinpoints where these guys are in the jungle. I can point it out on the map right now where my stuff is.
I don’t understand why they did it. So why must I be angry that it’s happened? It’s happened. There’s no reason to want revenge. It hurts you more than it serves you. Fine, so I go back… and then what? Will I shoot them? Will that make me feel better? No thanks. I feel fine as is.
I reached a bend in the river, and saw two fishermen. They took me to their village, but the only hospital was a day and a half away by motorboat. They couldn’t afford to take me all the way to the hospital, but they could take me to the next village. And so I went, from village to village, same story each time. And each time I would lie and wait, sometimes for two or three hours at a time.
I had a part to play, And I knew what my part was. I knew, If these guys are carrying me through the jungle, I have to be alive. I can’t get there dead, and now they’ve gone 24 hours through the jungle. Once I reached that first village, I wouldn’t allow myself to give up or die until I’d contacted someone from home to let them know what had happened. Then, if I did die, at least they’d know what had happened, and my mom wouldn’t sit for her whole life waiting for me to walk through the door.
There was a moment when I didn’t think I was going to live. I had a lot of internal bleeding, and I started to vomit blood. Lots of blood. And it wasn’t coughing; it was projectile vomiting. But after five villages I was put on their fastest boat, which took me to a town called Pucallpa. There the people at the hospital couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t prove how I would pay, so for two hours they sat trying to figure something out. Then fortunately I got hold of my mom, and she managed to figure something out. (It was the first time in a week that she’d heard from me.) Eventually – and this was 24 hours after I’d been shot – she got hold of my uncle, who works for SAB – who happen to have a plant in Pucallpa – and one of their representatives came in to say he’d stand surety for me so the doctors could start working on me. But then the hospital didn’t have the facilities, so they had to get air support to fly me to Lima, the capital city. But to get to Lima you have to fly over the Andes, and a helicopter won’t do that at night. So they had to book me onto a commercial flight, on a stretcher, strapped to a whole row of seats. When I got to Lima I was met on the tarmac by an ambulance, and taken to a proper hospital. It had been about 30 hours since I’d been shot, and I hadn’t slept at all.
I don’t regret going. I do regret that I didn’t make it to the end of my adventure. I put so much into it. I kept telling myself: It’s a struggle today, but it’s all going to be worthwhile when you get to the end, when you reach the mouth, when you taste the salt water. It’s like the end of a race: you start running a marathon, and the pain you go through there makes it all worthwhile when you reach the end. I didn’t get to the end. That’s my only regret. The human element brought it to an end, when I thought it would be the environment or my own physical capability that would knock me down. Instead it was some guy with a gun. It’s great that I came out of it alive, and it’s a fascinating story, but it’s not what I wanted.
Being alone in the jungle, you know something bad could happen. But I had reasons to be there that trumped the fear. I was representing a cause that I believe in, in an area that very few humans get to experience, and that’s diminishing day by day. Those privileges trumped the fear. I’ve always used that as a driving force for adventure. I find a big enough reason to go there.
I still have bullets in my face. One bullet is lodged in my septum, in the middle of my heart. It’ll be there forever. And sometimes you relive what happened, you ask, “Why?” But then there’s the “What if?” I was shot on the side of my face, but what if I’d been shot in the eyes? Because it was a shotgun, the shot sprayed. What if it had been a rifle, or a pistol or anything with a solid bullet, then what? And so you think of all the alternative universes. But there’s no regret, no remorse.
It’s one of those things you’ll never understand. I just enjoy the privilege of being able to share a good story. And it’s an awesome story.