Survival Stories: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

When she was 17, Juliane Koepcke dropped 10,000 feet into the Amazon rain forest. She describes how she survived—alone.

from the book "When I Fell from the Sky"

On December 28, my watch, a gift from my grandmother, stops for good, so I try to count the days as I go. The stream turns into a larger stream, then finally into a small river. Since it’s the rainy season, there’s barely any fruit to pick, and I’ve sucked on my last candy. I don’t have a knife to use to hack palm hearts out of the stems of the palm trees. Nor can I catch fish or cook roots. I don’t dare eat anything else. Much of what grows in the jungle is poisonous, so I keep my hands off what I don’t recognize. But I do drink a great deal of water from the stream.

Despite counting, I mix up the days. On December 29 or 30, the fifth or sixth day of my trek, I hear a buzzing, groaning sound that immediately turns my apathetic mood into euphoria. It’s the unmistakable call of a hoatzin, a subtropical bird that nests exclusively near open stretches of water—where people settle! At home in Panguana, I heard this call often.

With new impetus, I walk faster, following the sound. Finally, I’m standing on the bank of a large river, but there’s not a soul in sight. I hear planes in the distance, but as time passes, the noise fades. I believe that they’ve given up, having rescued all the passengers except me.

Intense anger overcomes me. How can the pilots turn around, now that I’ve finally reached an open stretch of water after all these days? Soon, my anger gives way to a terrible despair.

But I don’t give up. Where there is a river, people cannot be far away.

The riverbank is much too densely overgrown for me to carry on hiking along it. I know stingrays rest in the riverbanks, so I walk carefully. Progress is so slow that I decide to swim in the middle of the river instead—stingrays won’t venture into the deep water. I have to look out for piranhas, but I’ve learned that fish are dangerous only in standing water. I also expect to encounter caimans, alligator-like reptiles, but they generally don’t attack people.

Each night when the sun sets, I search for a reasonably safe spot on the bank where I can try to sleep. Mosquitoes and small flies called midges buzz around my head and try to crawl into my ears and nose. Even worse are the nights when it rains. Ice-cold drops pelt me, soaking my thin summer dress. The wind makes me shiver to the core. On those bleak nights, as I cower under a tree or in a bush, I feel utterly abandoned.

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