In his quest to experience the ancient hallucinogenic ceremony of ayahuasca, HAMISH MITCHELL COTTS flew from Lima to the ancient Peruvian capital of Cusco. That was followed by a 10-day trip into Manu Park—1.5 million hectares of pristine forest in the Amazon basin. The Manu River was made famous by the film Fitzcarraldo. He then hired a guide and drove another 14 hours along the surfaced road before being picked up by a dug-out canoe.

As I made my way to Darikiking’s hut in the forest at dusk,  the torrential rain having subsided after failing unremittingly with a terrible sense of foreboding: was this the last stop on a one-way ticket to the heart of Darkness?

Darikiking was an Amazon Indian Shaman who had agreed to perform the ayahuasca ceremony for me. Ayahuasca (Dead man’s vine) or Banisteriopsis Caapi, is a liana famous for its apparent ability to produce out-of-body experiences.  It was first identified by the British Botanic Richard Spruce, who sent samples back to Kew in the 1850’s. The bark of the vine which contains a number of hallucinogenic alkaloids is prepared as an infusion with other psychoactive plants and used ritually by the Indians. Its active principle known as “telepathine”, is said to induce a state of clairvoidance and a belief that the user can foretell the future.

The impetus for this journey began in 1971 when I read the teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda who was an anthropology student at UCLA met a Yaqui Indian shaman on a field trip to Mexico and became his apprentice. In this an its sequels, Castaneda relates his bizarre and terrifying experiences from a sorcerer’s world of elementals and earth spirits. His writings were not without controversy and it was suggested by some of his less charitable critics that much of what he wrote had been concocted in his kitchen in Malibu. Ultimately, I knew I must do my own research and chose Peru, a country, like Mexico, with a strong shamanic tradition. In the weeks in which I had been in the country I had spent my time perambulanting along the piranha infested headwaters of the Amazon in a dugout canoe and acclimatising myself to the heat, humidity and insects of the jungle. My guide a mestizo girls who, though reticent on the subject of shamanism, confided that she had been apprenticed of three years.

I expressed my great interest in the subject and after what I took to be a throughout vetting she agreed to give me an introduction to her teacher Darikiking. On arrival in his village I made my way to a wood and corrugated iron shack calling itself Hotel Pilcopata, run by a large, amiable, middle-aged lady called Señora Rubela, where I found accommodation. She sent word to Darikiking at his hut at a half-hour’s walk outside the village and some hours later he appeared, a pure-blodded Indian with strong noble features, aged around 50 and dressed on a T-shirt, shorts and an ancient pair of wellington boots. We talked at length and he agreed to perform the ayahuasca ceremony after three days’ preparation—the key to a successful ceremony to visualize the subconscious.  To take it without the requisite preparation is to risk confronting vision of Hell. For this reason he ordered me to abstain from alcohol, meat and sex and added that under no circumstances should I consider it if I were involved in any unresolved law suit. At Hotel Pilcopata Señora Rubela made it her business to feed me three enormous meals a day. Abstinence from meat was not an issue, as the diet consisted entirely of starch — deep fried yucca, rice, potatoes and pasta with occasional fruit and vegetables

I felt like an athlete loading with carbohydrate for a psychic marathon. One day she told me how much like the Prince of Wales I was. “He too loved her food and ate mine with particular relish”, she said proudly. I put it down to delusions of grandeur and let the subject drop, but some weeks later I met her nephew, a level-headed businessman. who swore that prince Charles had visited her house on a jungle trip 10 years earlier. Three days later, in the half light, I could just see the conical shape of the thatched roof appear in the clearing. I made my way inside the hut and sat on the dirt floor opposite Darikiking. Dressed in ceremonial robe and headdress made from the yellow tail feathers of the Oropendula bird, he lit a candle and began to arrange his power objects in front of him; a collection of strange stones, a quartz crystal, a caiman’s tail, a condor’s claw. He poured the ayahuasca liquid from a five-gallon petrol can into a chipped enamel mug and passed it to me to drink; the taste was pungent, bitter and deeply repulsive. I settled with my back to the wall and eyes closed as he extinguished the candle. Then he intoned shamanic songs, dusted me with aromatic powder and blew smoke over me from a loosely rolled cigarette. He urged me to speak to the plant and ask it to teach me. If it accepted me I had nothing to fear, if not I could expect a violent fit of vomiting… or worse.

As I waited, I meditated on his instructions. In his preambule Darakiking had cautioned me not to “rush on ahead” or allow myself to be sidetracked by a seductive imagery, but to stay with him. He told me that we would be linked telepathically and to listen to his shamanic songs and use them as a point of reference if all else seemed confusing.

I felt reassured that I had a guide but this was essentially why I had come all the way to Peru. Similar drugs, I am constantly told by the press, can be available in most London night clubs, but in our own culture hallucinogenic drugs seem to be used and abused for entirely recreational purposes.

Don Alejandro Jahuanchi died in 1998