“I joke that if I were a cat, I would have been dead a long time ago,” jests Yossi Ghinsberg, who is in many ways, nothing short of a walking miracle.
Thirty-six years ago, the self-confessed dreamer from Tel Aviv bid farewell to his parents, hauled a backpack onto his shoulders and set off to South America in search of an adventure – little knowing he would achieve just that in spades.
Aged 22 and fresh from completing his military service with the Israeli navy, Yossi was one of three backpackers who “naively” trusted a mysterious man claiming he could lead them through the depths of uncharted Amazon rainforest to a lost tribe and a river full of gold.
But his pursuit of a dream quickly turned into a nightmare. When Yossi became separated from the group, he was forced to endure 20 days, lost, alone and on the brink of starvation, before against all conceivable odds he was finally rescued.
In those three weeks, he had to defend himself against wild boar, giant red ants, snakes and jaguars.
He almost drowned and sank into a bog on two occasions. He had to forage for food, including moulding fruit, fallen monkeys and raw bird embryos, while parasitic worms burrowed beneath his skin.
Now his ordeal and inspiring story of survival, detailed in his 1991 book, Back From Tuichi, has been adapted into a new film, Jungle, starring Daniel Radcliffe.
Speaking to Jewish News this week, Yossi, who is now a tech-entrepreneur and motivational speaker based in Australia, revealed he has never been someone to shy away from danger.
The 58-year-old said: “I always took risks and I still do. I wanted to go to Petra [before the Israel-Jordan peace treaty signed in 1994] and was seriously planning it, only that my friends weren’t committed enough.
“While in the Navy, in Sharm El Sheikh I joined Bedouin tribes, dressed like them and really almost became one of them. I was a spear fisherman and I was fighting sharks that were trying to steal my fish. I took many risks while diving in the Red Sea and had more than one close encounter with death.”
But for Yossi it was South America that provided the greatest lure. Inspired by the 1969 memoir Papillon, which describes convicted felon Henri Charriere’s brazen escape from Devil’s Island to a new life in Venezuela, the young adventurer wanted to journey to the Amazon, find a tribe unknown to the outside world and live with them.
While backpacking through La Paz, Bolivia, he met a mysterious Austrian named Karl Ruprechter – and Yossi instantly believed he had found the very man to help his dream come true.
“I was immediately captivated by him. Worn-out khakis, square jaw, broad shoulders, that spark of madness in his eyes – he was the man I was looking for, and I knew it.”
Yossi recruited two fellow backpackers along for the journey – Kevin Gale, originally from America and Marcus Stamm, from Switzerland.
But as they trekked to Asariamas, the very last small community on the “fringe of the unknown”, inhabited by native Toromonas Indians, and then beyond, the group became increasingly exhausted, both physically and mentally. Their friendships began to fray.
Marcus and Karl decided to head back through the jungle by foot, while Yossi and Kevin opted for the alternative – building a raft and sailing back down the river.
It was a decision that Yossi says “would haunt us for the rest of our lives”. While he and Kevin were both thrown into the river after their raft hit the rocks, Marcus and Karl – who was later revealed to be an Austrian criminal wanted by the authorities – were never heard from again.
Following their accident, Kevin managed to swim to the shore and was left stranded for five days before he was rescued by local fisherman. But Yossi was left alone in the jungle for almost three weeks.
He recalls: “The nights, without doubt, were the worst of all. As darkness descends, there is no light whatsoever, the canopy swallows the stars and moon and the darkness is as thick as velvet.
“At night all the noises emerge, the screeches and roars and barks and calls and things are moving around. It was simply overwhelming and I had no fire or gun to protect myself. If not for my ability to daydream, I would have consumed myself during these nights of horror.
“I also had many physical injuries, the worst were my feet – chunks of raw, exposed flesh, bloody and infected. Every single step threw excruciating pain up my entire body.”
Yossi was also suffering from tropical leishmaniosis, a parasitic disease that causes large skin ulcers and can prove fatal.
Close to death, Yossi believes his subsequent rescue was nothing short of what he calls “a miracle.”
Determined to discover what had happened to his friend, Kevin had persuaded local tribesmen to take a motorboat back down the river in search of Yossi. Just at the very point of giving up, they spotted Yossi on the riverbank, having been woken by the noise of the boat’s engine.
He credits his survival to “providence”, as well as a little kabbalah book given to him by his uncle before he set off on his journey. “With that booklet I felt immortal”, he says.
Incredibly, ten years later Yossi returned to the very jungle where he was left stranded and helped the local tribespeople build a solar-powered ecolodge, Chalalan, which he is still involved with today.
In many aspects, his experience in the jungle not only nearly claimed his life, but gave Yossi a unique perspective on life.
He reflects: “I’ve learned that I am stronger and wiser than I thought, that I can endure pain and have the resilience I never believed I had.
“I’ve learned to appreciate food, safety, companionship, those basics we take for granted. I’ve found my faith and led a life of spiritual inquiry. But I also found it hard to go back to the mundane and have a normal life. In some ways, I am still in transit and my real home is the road itself.”
Jungle (15) is released in cinemas and On Demand from Friday