Israeli Yossi Ghinsberg nearly died in the Bolivian rainforest. He tells us of his miraculous survival
Yossi Ghinsberg is sitting in the bar of a hotel in Central London, sipping a glass of red wine and picking at a bowl of crisps. Simple enough pleasures, but Ghinsberg feels he will never again take them for granted. For he is one of a rare group — those who have been lost in the Amazon rainforest and lived to tell the tale.
For three weeks in 1981, Ghinsberg — an Israeli backpacker travelling through South America — survived near drowning, venomous snakes, starvation and extreme pain. His incredible story of survival — he calls it miraculous — has been made into a documentary seen in 160 countries, and now his book, Lost in the Jungle, is being published in the UK for the first time.
Ghinsberg explains how he found himself in the jungle as a 22-year-old fresh from his military service in the Israeli navy. “I was very naïve,” he says. “I wanted to be like the heroes of the books I read. That’s why I wanted to go to the jungle. I wasn’t interested in danger from the adrenaline aspect, I was more interested in the romance.”
His travels took him to Bolivia, where he met a Swiss traveller called Marcus. “It happened almost like a novel. The start of the story was when I met Marcus on a trip over a lake. Then there was Karl, an Austrian who was larger than life. I believe he picked me because of my naivete. He was experienced in jungle travel and told me about this great adventure we could have through the rainforest to discover a hidden tribe.
“Eventually, there were four of us. Karl, Marcus, me and an American called Kevin. We formed a group. We were four different nationalities, four distinct cultures and four different personalities. We were set for a clash.”
It came after the group had been travelling through the rainforest for only a couple of weeks. Ghinsberg recalls: “The environment was harsh. There were tensions, the food was basic — we shot and ate monkeys, among other things. At first I was cursing myself for my stupidity and wanted to go back, but I adjusted.”
However, the disagreements led to the group breaking up. “We built a raft to travel down the river. It was dangerous. Karl [who was acting as guide] said it was too risky to go on and that we should continue on foot. I was ready to agree with him, until Kevin suggested the two of us carry on in the raft on our own. I was shocked but agreed out of loyalty and the bond we had.”
Disaster struck when they lost control of the raft as it neared a huge water-
fall. Kevin somehow scrambled to shore but Ghinsberg was thrown over the
“There were moments of great despair, but falling down that waterfall wasn’t one of them,” he says. “It was a rollercoaster ride which lasted for 15 or 20 minutes. It was all I could do to keep my head above water. When I finally arrived on the shore, I had a moment of complete exhilaration that I had survived. A few seconds later came the first feeling of disaster and despair. Even then, I thought it would only be a few hours until we connected again. The toughest moment was after a few days, when I realised that I was completely alone.”
Ghinsberg survived a late-night encounter with a jaguar by improvising a flame thrower — he set light to an insect-repellent spray. He ate fruit and raw eggs scavenged from jungle-chicken nests. After several days walking in the direction he imagined to be that of the nearest town, San Jose, he started to develop an inner confidence. “I discovered my own power and then I didn’t want to give it up. I didn’t even want to be rescued any more. It was intoxicating.”
But his optimism did not last. “There was a terrible flood. I was almost drowned, and then on two occasions nearly sunk in a bog. The last week was the toughest because I was physically drained. I was just skin and bone. There was no food left to scavenge and I couldn’t walk because my feet were so bad. At one point, I shook a tree full of fire ants on my head just to have some pain to distract me from my aching feet so that I could continue to walk.”
And then two “miraculous” events happened. “For two days I had the company of a girl. She appeared next to me. It was no less of a miracle if it was my imagination which had summoned her up, because it happened at the very moment I had broken down and given up.”
The second miracle was his rescue. “It is very difficult to see it as a coincidence. Kevin had found his way back to safety and he came with some Bolivians on a boat to find me. They had given up hope, but could not find anywhere to turn the boat around. They were forced upstream to land the boat. In the whole of the Amazon, the place they landed happened to the place where I had collapsed unconscious.”
Marcus and Karl were never found — it is assumed they perished in the jungle — but Ghinsberg, who now tours the world talking about his experience, is still friends with Kevin. “He was an American Catholic but a couple of years after the accident he met an Israeli girl. Now he is Jewish and lives on a kibbutz near Jerusalem.”
Ghinsberg’s own Jewishness played its part in his survival. He says: “My Uncle Nissim studied Kabbalah. Just before he died, he gave this tiny book, its pages yellow with age. He said it had special powers. I had a feeling that the book helped to keep me safe. My daughter is called Nissim after him.”
Ultimately, his experience in the rainforest changed his life. “I became a very simple person. The simple things are the most precious to me. I don’t ascribe much significance to the things I have now. That feeling of touching death has never left me.”