Durban - Former Durban man Davey du Plessis is an avid adventurer, but being riddled with bullets and shrapnel while kayaking the Amazon River in South America was more action than he was looking for.
Du Plessis, 24, spent several agonising hours in the Amazon jungle with bullets and shards lodged in his spine, face, neck, skull and arms – his body, and dreams of becoming the youngest person to navigate the Amazon River alone from source to sea, in tatters.
He had usually paddled in the middle of the river, but moved to the edge because the dolphins that have been following him started to scare him, his mother, Robyn Spence Wolff said on Monday.
“They started acting out of character by bashing his kayak. He didn’t want his kayak to break so he moved to the edge.”
When two men emerged from the jungle, he was close enough for them to fire at him. The bullets and shrapnel wounded him five times, his mother said.
Left for dead in the river after his attackers continued firing at him when he fell into the water, he swam to the edge and ran about 5km through the jungle until he came across members of a tribe, a distraught Spence Wolff said from her Mount Edgecombe, Durban, home.
Spence Wolff received a telephone call at 4pm on Sunday from a local her wounded son had convinced to relay word of his condition. She spoke to her son shortly thereafter.
”He tried calling out [to the tribe], but because of the gunshot to his neck, no sound came out,” she said. “He managed to attract their attention and ask for help. They wanted money to help him and when he said he didn’t have any, they took him to another tribe where he was left in a boat for four hours while the people argued about who was going to help him, until he started vomiting blood.”
She said they wrapped him in plastic and a blanket and somehow took him to Pucallpa, in Peru.
“When we first spoke, he was crying and telling me to come and fetch him. He said he lost all his things and his passport. I asked him if he was going to die and he said ‘It’s bad mom.’
“I didn’t think he was going to make it.”
Du Plessis is in a hospital in Lima, and appeared to be in good spirits, even posing for a picture that was sent to his mother.
Cape Town-born Du Plessis, who grew up in Durban and matriculated at Michaelhouse, had three months left of a solo adventure travelling down the Amazon River, from Mt Mismi to the Atlantic Ocean, part of his six-month ‘Source to Sea’ hiking, cycling and kayaking adventure that began in June in the Andean Mountains.
His cause was to raise awareness about conservation of all life.
“My son is not a normal boy. He is a peacemaker, an adventurer with a heart,” said Spence Wolff.
Du Plessis, who had said on his blog, World Wonderer, that he had no experience paddling a river, “especially of this scale, nor had I ever paddled in a foldable kayak”.
He had posted that 30 civilians had been kidnapped in connection with a drug cartel in the area.
Wolff said the man who called her could not speak much English, “but just said Davey was in an accident and that he was being taken to the local clinic there in Pucallpa”.
“He couldn’t answer any of my questions. When I tried calling back, there was no answer. I panicked for about an hour because I was home alone and my partner [jockey MJ Odendaal] was racing.
“Before Davey left, I made a list of all the South African embassies and their contact numbers. I started making calls, also contacting the travel insurance people,” she said. “I posted an SOS on Davey’s Facebook page for someone who could speak Spanish so that I could find out what happened to my son. I haven’t slept since.”
An hour later she received a call from him from the regional hospital he was taken to in Pucallpa, a city in eastern Peru on the banks of the Ucayali River.
By this time, Spence Wolff had also contacted Du Plessis’ uncle, Andrew Wolff, who has friends who work at brewer SABMiller in South America. They raced to her son’s side, helping to airlift him to the Anglo-American Hospital in Lima, where he was stabilised and awaiting surgery to remove all the bullets lodged in his body.
A National Geographic team on an expedition learnt about what had happened and tracked Du Plessis down to the hospital, and has been giving his worried mother updates on his condition.
Du Plessis’ father, who lives in the US, landed in Lima early yesterday and was liaising with doctors.
Odendaal had funded Du Plessis’ trip and equipment. “MJ has been my rock. I was completely finished yesterday. I thought Davey had died,” said Spence Wolff. “I encouraged and supported Davey’s dreams. It’s difficult as a mother to let your son go on such adventures but we’re very proud of him.”
Spence Wolff said her son had met the military in the area as he needed a permit to pass through. They escorted him to the chief of the indigenous people to introduce him and to make sure that he had safe passage.
Du Plessis would communicate when he could with his mother via a satellite phone or via the internet.
He would tell her how the “jungle came alive at night” and how terrified he was of falling into the water. “He spoke of anacondas and spiders and how he would hardly sleep at night,” Spence Wolff said.
Spence Wolff’s post last night on her Facebook page read: “Davey is still having tests... The surgeons are concerned about shrapnel that is lodged in the heart.
“They are hoping it’s just the heart muscle and not the heart itself. His lungs collapsed, but have expanded and the fluid is almost gone. He has shrapnel all over his body.”