With teeth like razors and skin like barbwire, piranhas have the sunny disposition of a Filipino death squad. Sharks may be the grunt soldiers of aquatic terror, but South American piranhas are riverside hit men, shredding their prey with efficient ferocity. Found within rivers from Argentina to Colombia, they hunt in large packs, sending out scouts to locate the prey before initiating a feeding frenzy characterized by a scene of boiling water. Kayaking through piranha infested waters along the Orinoco sounds more like an adventure tourism sales plug than a reality, until my Warao guide Pina hands me a stick, some gut wire, and a crudely fashioned hook. Rather alarmingly, all I need to do is splash my stick on the water surface to attract the beasties, and within seconds, my bait has vanished. The combination of heat, storms of mosquitoes, and inhuman humidity make me want to dive into the river, but the combination of bloodthirsty carnivorous piranhas make me want to stay on shore more. Although they only grow to 2ft long, nature has equipped piranhas with deadly tools, from interlocked teeth to excellent hearing and unparalleled teamwork. Each fish takes a mighty munch and instantly moves out of the way for his pal. Theodore Roosevelt, on an expedition to Brazil in 1913, described a horrifying scene of a cow being attacked and stripped to the bone in minutes.
Eat me? Eat you! I am determined to catch a piranha, both as a challenge, and to reaffirm my place in the food chain. With dark clouds of mosquitoes raining down on my neck and a skinny loyal Warao dog at my side, I persist, constantly replacing the bait that seems to vanish seconds once it hits the water. Finally, I tug up at the right time, and a small, sharp, and thoroughly bemused piranha is on my hook. A hot makeshift grill, a dash of strong lime, some trusty Tabasco (I always travel with a bottle), and I have to confess: piranha is a tasty, albeit bony fish. It’s not enough to quench a major hunger, but at least you’re on the right side of the fork.
Cut to: The following day. For hours, a torrential downpour dumps its moist guilt on our twin-engine open-roof speedboat. I’m excited at the prospect of sleeping on a real bed tonight in a rustic shack so much more attractive than another wrapped up buggy night in a hammock. Large tapirs are running up and down the wooden boardwalks in this remote jungle lodge, while banana-beaked toucans and chirpy macaws rest on the tables at the bar. Drinks flow. Hey, lets go watch the sunset at the congruence of three tributaries! Hey, let’s bring our sketchy free pouring barman along! Swimming with piranha: a good idea at the time. Of course, the local Warao swim, drink and bathe in the same waters, and in truth have more problems with rabid vampire bats than bloodthirsty piranhas. For piranhas tend to attack weak fish first, and healthy humans last. Still, how big a thrill is a jungle adventure in the Orinoco Delta? As big as a piranha’s appetite.