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NONESUCH EXTRA
Juliana Koepcke 1972
My Nine Days Alone in the Jungle
by Nicholas Asheshov
Originally published in the Peruvian Times January 14 1972 Vol XXXl No 1619 re-published - courtesy Peruvian Times
The spelling Juliana is used as the original article followed the Spanish form of her name

 

Juliana Koepcke, the 17-year-old German girl, the only survivor of the Lansa accident near Pucallpa on Christmas Eve, has only given one interview since her reappearance. The interview was granted to Nicholas Asheshov, Editor of the Peruvian Times and it took place at Yarinacocha on January 7. Here Asheshov talks about the girl and her family and later Juliana gives her own account of what happened to her.

Even though I've seen her, and talked to her and heard her describe what she did and what happened to her, I still have no real idea how or why Juliana Koepcke survived.

It seems probable - though this hasn't been confirmed by the accident investigators - that the Electra exploded or cracked up in mid-air. In any case Juliana herself certainly has little or no understanding of why she arrived alive and only slightly injured on the ground, after a 200-mile-an-hour fall of several thousand feet, while the 91 other people in the aircraft were all killed or other people in the aircraft were all killed or fatally injured.

"It seems as though there was an explosion," she says now. "After that I don't remember anything.

"I woke up and I felt myself flying; I couldn't believe it. I saw trees below me and I thought I was dreaming … Then I realised that it wasn't a dream because though I was sitting in my seat my eyes were streaming - I suppose because of the speed. Everything went dark after that.

"I think my seat must have hit a bendy part of a tree and I must have tumbled down through the lianas. When I woke up again I was upside down beneath the triple seat, still tied in by my seat belt."

That's all there was to it and I suppose that the only lesson to be learned from it is that it's worth making sure that you're always tied securely into your seat with the safety belt."

That's all there was to it and I suppose that the only lesson to be learned from it is that it's worth making sure that you're always tied securely into your seat with the safety belt. It appears too that Juliana was right at the back of the plane, in the last row, and she had the window seat. Her mother had been next to her. That, I've heard, is also where the pilots sit when they're flying as passengers.

One of the most immediately and obviously appealing features of Juliana Koepcke's totally unexpected arrival back to the world where everybody else lives is that she is, as it appeared to me, a very small, slight person, quiet, unassertive and pretty in an undramatic sort of way.

She can't weigh much more than 110 pounds and is around five feet two or three inches tall. At the moment her eyes are slightly puffed and extremely bloodshot, so it's difficult to say what she 'normally' looks like. A friend says that people frequently take Juliana to be no more than 13 or 14 years old - she's 17 - but when she was telling me about her journey through the jungle she talked clearly and, though her voice is soft and gently pitched, confidently. By that I mean that she seems sure of herself, without being pre-possessing or nervously assertive.

Her parents, Dr. Hans Koepcke and Dr. Maria Koepcke have established a sold reputation in the 25 years they've lived in Peru as naturalists. Dr. Maria, who was attached to the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, in Lima, was certainly Peru's foremost authority on the birds of Peru: her best-known publication was 'Las Aves de Lima' which is, and will probably remain the standard work on the subject.

Together the Koepckes, with Juliana as part of the team, had lately and for some time been working in an area of jungle to the south of Pucallpa, between the Pachitea and Ucayali rivers, where they were doing the definitive study of the bird, and probably other animal, life. I met Dr. Maria in Lima not long before she finally left for Pucallpa on December 24 and she told me briefly something about the discovery of which I remember as a new species of bush turkey, which carries her name (… koepckeisis, I suppose). As I understand it, the Koepckes' work in this area was a final stage in the preparation of a major work dedicated to describing the bird life of Peru.

In Pucallpa last week the difficulties involved in getting to see either Juliana or her father were considerable. A lot of people, friends and well-wishers as well as newspapermen, wanted to see them and talk to them and they'd more or less gone into hiding in the Yarinacocha area, about half an hour by bad road from the town itself where there's a big jungle lake on which Dr. Theodore Binder's 'Albert Schweizer' Hospital, and the Summer Institute of Linguistics main base are situated.

Eventually Dr. Koepcke, with whom I'd been on an expedition in the jungle a few years ago, decided it would solve some of his problems if he saw me and a couple of people from Stern magazine, of Hamburg, and allowed us to see and hear briefly what Juliana had to say about her nine days alone in the jungle.

She was lying back on some pillows in a wide bed in the main bedroom in one of the very well-appointed and comfortable houses maintained in the Yarinacocha by some missionaries. I suppose she looked rather fragile - she certainly looked very sweet - though it's difficult to describe anybody with Juliana's proven strength of character as 'delicate' or 'fragile'. Her father sat down next to her and I sat beside him and Juliana almost immediately, after a few introductory remarks by her father, along the lines of 'take it easy' and 'just tell it in your own words' (how else?) she began, in German her account. It went like this:
(She is now on the ground)
"I woke up sometime in the afternoon, I think it must have been around four o'clock." Her father later explained that her wristwatch had continued to function through the crash and for most of the time until she came out alive nine days later. From the times of some of the watches found this week on the bodies of the other passengers, the accident would have taken place very close to one o'clock in the afternoon.

"There were two bodies close beside me," Juliana continued. Her father said later that she had spent the remaining couple of hours of light looking for her mother.

"I stayed there the whole night and in the morning, around nine o'clock, after the ran had finished, I began to walk.
"I remember that the sun was shining and I began to walk slowly through the bush, stopping and sitting down from time to time.
"Quite soon I heard the small noise of running water. It came from a stream whose source was near the remains of the plane.
"For the rest of that day I followed this stream, which got bigger as I went on.
"Often I had to climb over and under big fallen trees. I slept in the undergrowth not far from the stream.
"The next day I went on in the same way until I got to another, larger stream, into which my stream lowed. Here the water came up to my knees. The bottom was mostly sand and the water flowed along.
"All the time the descent was gradual and quite easy. I didn't have to climb down any cliffs or anything like that"

Juliana interrupted her account at this point to say that while she'd seen "lots of spiders and ants" and any other insects that she didn't at any time see any snakes.

She continued: "I went on the whole day and when night fell I slept by the banks of the stream.
"Bit by bit the water got deeper and from time to time I was able to swim, which made things easier. At night it was difficult for me to sleep because of all the mosquitoes.
"I went on like this for nine days". Here she's adding up the time from when she left the crash to the time she first met people.

"I think it was on the ninth day that I got to a kind of beach on which a new boat (a canoe) was drawn up, but though I looked around I couldn't see or hear anybody.
"There was a small sort of path up into the bush from the beach and there I found a small shelter (a tambo) but there still wasn't anyone around, though I found an outboard motor there.
"I stayed there for a while. I wanted to keep going, but I didn't want to take the boat… it was someone else's, and anyway I wasn't sure that I'd be able to control it because the water in the stream was by now running quite strongly." Dr. Koepcke afterwards commented to me that "there are, clearly, disadvantages to teaching one's children not to steal."

"Eventually three men, lumbermen arrived. Right from the start they were very friendly, kind, helpful and considerate to me. I think they were very surprised to see just a girl alone.
"They gave me everything they had, medicines and blankets, though they didn't have much. All they had to eat was farina (ground-up dried yucca, a staple food in the jungle), sugar and salt. They made me eat lots of salt.
"They put their bag of farina [manioc flour] beside me and told me to eat, eat, eat. But I wasn't very hungry.
"I had lots of 'worms' (gusanos - the result of flies having laid their larvae in cuts) in my shoulder and other parts of my body.
"I remembered having seen my father treat our dog for gusanos [maggots] by putting gasoline on them, which is what I did then.
"When I put it on they began to come out. There were 35 of them just in that part, and the men helped me get ten others out in other parts of my body.
"The men didn't have any meat to eat as they hadn't had any luck with their hunting that day.
"Later on, they gave me a blanket and a mosquito net. They talked a lot and at first they wanted to get me down the river immediately. But eventually they decided that it'd be better for me to spend the night there. 'You'd better get a good sleep here,' they said. But I couldn't sleep properly because of the gusanos still in my body.
"Later, two more men arrived, who'd been cutting wood.
"Next morning they got the boat ready and two of them took me down to where the river came out into the Rio Pachitea. I think the journey there took about an hour and a half.
"I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to go down that part of the river on my own (i.e. without the boat) because the current was strong and I wouldn't you see, have been able to swim.

"Once we reached the Pachitea there were more people and they offered me more mto eat. But I still wasn't hungry, I suppose because my stomach mst have shrunk."
As she said this she laughed, for the first and only time.
"We went on down the Pachitea and after about six hours arrived at Tournavista" - where there's a cattle research and development station, and a sawmill, all now owned and run by the Ministry of Agriculture.
"From there, as you know, they flew me to the clinic."

That was Juliana's account. It's tantalizingly short - I was encouraged not to ask any questions - and there are all kinds of things it'd be good to know. How did she manage not to get frightened out of her wits during the long nights? - the jungle is a frightening place, even for people who know it well. What did she feel when she first saw the boat? And when she heard the men coming? How could she have managed without her spectacle, especially as her eyes must have become inflamed quite early on? What about her clothes? And so on.

Meanwhile doctors at Yarinacocha say she's recovering quite quickly and maybe there'll be more to tell sometime later.

Her father explained afterwards that she'd picked up a damp cake - a paneton - at the crash site, but had thrown it away not long afterwards, so she seems to have eaten next to nothing the whole time.

Nonesuch Expeditions editor: Tony Morrison

The interview was made at an American missionary base at Yarinacocha a settlement beside the Ucayali river an immense Amazon tributary. Yarinacocha is near Pucallpa which since 1971 has grown to a city of more than than 205,000 [2012]


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