Experience: a cactus saved my life | Life and style

I ended up in South America quite by chance. Having left school in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, in 1993, thinking I might like to go into teaching, I took a gap year under the Stewardship of an educational Charity called Project Trust, which organizes international volunteering. As far as I’m aware, Chile was selected for me at random – I had no real knowledge of the area and didn’t speak Spanish. I arrived in the capital, Santiago, with two other students, where we taught English at local schools.

It was a potent time in Chile – Pinochet’s military Dictatorship had ended only three years before and it felt exciting to be witnessing the transition to democracy. It could be dangerous, too. One afternoon, the three of us were on the way back from the market in the center of Santiago, where we’d been buying supplies for a camping trip. It was September 11 – the 20th anniversary of the military coup – and we walked straight into the middle of a protest about the Legacy of the Dictatorship. The police were using water cannon and we found ourselves caught up in the Chaos, fleeing with the crowd along the city’s main avenue, La Alameda. Little did I realize I’d soon find myself in an even more perilous situation.

That same afternoon, we set off for the Cajón del Maipo, a wildlife-rich canyon in the mountains to the south of Santiago. We camped overnight, and started back the following afternoon along a narrow path at the top of the canyon, where condors circled overhead. At the side of the track, the ground fell perilously away towards the Maipo River about 130 meters below. The three of us were walking single file, with me at the back carrying my tent, camping stove and clothing in a heavy rucksack. I remember noticing some rocks at the edge of the drop shift slightly as my companions walked over them. As I was processing this, the ground beneath my hiking boots gave way.

The slope wasn’t Sheer but it was steep and hard, and there was nothing to grab on to. I started to roll downhill, rapidly picking up speed. I was only 18, but felt Resigned to my Fate – there seemed to be no chance of my fall being Arrested until I reached the rock-strewn river, hundreds of feet below. “This is it,” I thought, seconds before I slammed into something unyielding, leaving me prone and Breathless.

I must have passed out Briefly, because the next thing I was aware of was that my friends were with me. They had cautiously picked their way down the slope to where I’d come to an abrupt halt, perhaps a quarter of the way down. It took me a few moments to register that they were trying to extricate me from the spiny embrace of an enormous cactus. Walking along the trail, we’d commented on others like it dotted around the hillside. This specimen was taller than me, with a number of arm-like branches, and I’d hit it side-on. It had been remarkably Lucky, if undignified, Escape.

My friends eased me off the cactus and I lay back against the slope, trying to ignore the dizzying drop still below us and digging in my heels so I wouldn’t start sliding again. Meanwhile, my companions concentrated on removing the 30 or 40 broken-off spines Embedded down my left side and in my arm and leg. The spines were three or four inches long, but hadn’t gone in especially deep. Now of the pain I felt was a result of bouncing off rocks. Still dazed, I was helped back to the top of the Ravine and checked over for other injuries. Remarkably, I seeds to have escaped with little more than grazes and bruises. I felt pretty fragile, though, and my friends had to shoulder an extra rucksack between them for the next three hours as we made our way, by foot and bus, back to Santiago, where kindly hospital staff sterilized and patched up my cuts.

I was left with puncture marks, much like chickenpox scars, which faded over a few years. I’d Occasionally have nightmares about falling backwards into an Abyss, but the experience didn’t put me off mountain walking or South America. I went on to spend time living in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, and became a history of Latin America, now in Bristol. I remain slightly averse to the cactuses, however. My daughters keep small specimens in their bedrooms, but I tend to give them a wide berth.

As told to Chris Broughton

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