A diabetic on an Amazon adventure


A diabetic on an Amazon adventure

Volunteering in the remote rainforest could be daunting if you suffer from diabetes, but Graham Dennis explains why you shouldn’t let it hold you back.

I have always wanted to visit the Manu Biosphere Reserve and in 2016 I found a way to do it, by volunteering with Crees Foundation at the Manu Learning Centre (MLC) in South-east Peru.

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Graham was able to live his dream of visiting the remote Manu rainforest, despite suffering from diabetes | Image © Pierre Giraud

First of all, though, I needed to be sure that the Crees team could cope with a type 1 diabetic for six weeks and the answer was an emphatic yes!

The trip into the MLC is long but awe inspiring. Driving down through cloud forest on a single track road, and then taking a boat ride along the Alto Madre de Dios River, I knew I was in the most biodiverse place on Earth.

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Community spirit and a caring team meant that Graham felt looked out for during his time volunteering in the rainforest | Image © Pierre Giraud

I had filled out a medical form and fully briefed Crees before setting out to Peru, but I knew that the remote location of the MLC could make my condition difficult to manage on the ground. As soon as I arrived, I needed to make sure everyone knew what to do, so on the first evening I was invited by staff to give a presentation on the subject. I was amazed to find out that they had never had a diabetic volunteer before; it was both a learning experience for staff and volunteers.

I knew that the first week would be the hardest, getting used to the heat and humidity and daily routine of meals and work. Sure enough, the training I had given them was put to the test on my third day when we went on a night walk for the first time and I had a ‘hypo’ (low blood sugar) in the dark and in the rain. Emma, the volunteer leader dealt with it brilliantly (ably assisted by the other volunteers) and we got back to base without further incident.

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After briefing all the staff and volunteers, Graham could take part in all the rainforest treks and surveys | Image © Pierre Giraud

After having this first-hand experience everyone knew to keep an eye on me and intervene at the first sign of a problem. The trouble is, after dark with only candles or torchlight, it is not easy – as I found out the next evening during Saturday night fun! Everyone was so engrossed in fun activities that it took a while before anyone noticed that I had dropped out of the party. Fortunately Kristi realised and I was plied with sugary things to get my blood sugar up again. This time, however, my stomach reacted by being violently sick – and still my blood sugar was too low. I suggested honey so staff raided the kitchen and after a few spoonfuls, I was feeling a lot better.

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Graham’s initial time in the Amazon wasn’t without incident, but by managing his condition he could have this amazing six week experience | Image © Pierre Giraud

After this, any group I was with got into a real routine of checking with me, whilst I also made sure I sucked on sweets while out on the trails in the jungle. Things settled down and I was able to enjoy the forest and the wildlife without worrying.

In my third week I woke up at 2.00am but could not move or speak. My groans and mumbling woke up the other volunteers sharing my pod but they did not initially recognise what was going on. When they realised, they sprang into action and when I eventually came to I had four volunteers making sure I was alright. They had dealt with the situation so well that it was not necessary to disturb a member of staff.

The remaining three weeks were incident free and I was able to concentrate on the work and enjoying the forest. On my last day I managed to see my 300th species of bird at MLC and this when announced was greeted with a huge cheer.

 Bird watching in the Amazon and recording 300 species was a highlight during Graham's trip | Image ©
Bird watching in the Amazon and recording 300 species was a highlight during Graham’s trip | Image © Pierre Giraud

What stands out for me apart from the fantastic location and brilliant wildlife, was the real sense of community at the centre and the teamwork that made it feel a really great place to be, even for a diabetic. My advice is to be careful, plan well and make sure that everyone is fully briefed on how to manage your condition.

Diabetes shouldn’t hold you back from having adventures and living life to the full. If I can do it, so can you.

Get involved

By visiting Manu Rainforest with Crees, you will be supporting conservation and community projects in the Amazon:
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