Bill Oddie in Costa Rica

Thanks to the BBC, Bill knows the way to San José. But what he did there is a bit of a blur.

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Thanks to the BBC, Bill knows the way to San José. But what he did there is a bit of a blur.

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Some years ago, I was asked to present Radio 4’s consumer travel programme Breakaway. I accepted, assuming that it would be tantamount to a world tour subsidised by the BBC, only to find that I never got farther than Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire.

I eventually reminded David, the producer, that he had promised me one big trip, and he was as good as his word. Well, big in distance though not duration: three days in Costa Rica.

On our first morning in the capital, San José, we took a taxi up a volcano. The higher we drove the thicker the fog became, until we arrived at the edge of the crater – which was invisible.

“Good job it’s radio,” I muttered, and recorded my reactions to an awesome landscape that I couldn’t actually see.

Wet and Wild

The following day, our taxi dropped us off on a bridge that crossed a roaring river swollen by recent deluges – yes, we were going white-water rafting. My feeble plea of “Can’t I just act it?” was rejected, and David and I squeezed into wetsuits and joined half a dozen other tourists.

Our captain was an American girl who stood astride the prow of our dinghy and taught us synchronised paddling. She pointed to the people on the right-hand side of the boat.

“When I say ‘Right!’, you guys stop paddling. When I say ‘Left!’, you guys…”

“Stop paddling?” I piped up.

“You got it,” she enthused.

We practised for 10 minutes until we were as slickly drilled as a Varsity Boat Race crew, at which point we lowered the dinghy into the water.

A ferocious current swept us down river. Our skipper barked “Left, right, left, right!”, but she might as well have yelled “Everybody panic!”

Meanwhile, David shoved a microphone in my direction and began to interview me. “What wildlife can you see?” he asked.

I was on the brink of blasphemy when there was a shout from our leader. “Hold tight, everybody!” she ordered (as if we needed to be told). “Yesterday there was a big boulder here that could… Oh my God! It’s gone!”

This was not good news. Instead of a mighty boulder there was now a cavernous hole, down which the river was writhing like a maelstrom. It was as if Costa Rica itself was going down the plughole.

The boat tipped sideways, and I fell out.

Blackout

I remember being underwater, and reaching upwards. A hand grabbed mine and I was hauled back on board like a harpooned seal.

I think I must have blacked out. The next thing I knew, the river was placid and there was, indeed, wildlife along the banks.

“Are you all right?” David asked. “Do you know where you are?”

When I told him I didn’t, he replied, “We’re in Costa Rica for Breakaway.”

“Surely not,” I responded. “We never go farther than Tewkesbury!”

Half an hour later we were moored by a charming riverside café. I took a birding stroll around the garden, in the hope that the species I saw would help me re-orientate.

“Hmm… house sparrow – that could be anywhere,” I said to myself. “Tennessee warbler – North America, maybe? Wait – a Montezuma oropendola means Latin America. And chestnut-mandibled toucans… I am in Costa Rica!”

Improvised ending

When I was back in London a few weeks later, David rang me.

“You falling in the river spoiled some of the recordings,” he said. “Could we knock up an ending?”

So we sat on a bench in the rose garden in Regent’s Park with a washing-up bowl and a flannel, so that I could simulate the lapping waters of a Costa Rican beach.

I was about to bid my listeners a fond farewell when a couple of birds nearby began screeching in the background as they squabbled over a discarded sandwich.

“We can’t have that!” I pontificated.

“Why not?” asked David.

“They don’t have black-headed gulls in Costa Rica! Listeners will know. The BBC will get complaints!”

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I’m sure it did.

Former Goodie Bill Oddie, OBE has presented natural-history programmes for the BBC for well over 10 years, some of them serious and some of them silly. This column is a bit of both.