14 Mar 2017

Parents warn backpackers after son's Amazon death

11:52 am on 14 March 2017

The family of a young Aucklander who died suddenly in the Amazon jungle has issued a warning to other tourists about the dangers of a traditional hallucinogen known as ayahuasca.

Matthew Dawson-Clarke

Matthew Dawson-Clarke Photo: Supplied / Facebook

Matthew Dawson-Clarke went to Peru to sample ayahuasca - an increasingly popular item on the bucket lists of many young adventure travellers.

The 24-year-old died after drinking a powerful brew of tobacco tea in preparation for the ayahuasca ceremony.

There have been five ayahuasca-related deaths in Peru since his death in September 2015.

For the first time, Mr Dawson-Clarke's parents have given a full account of his death at Kapitari, an ayahuasca retreat outside the city of Iquitos, Peru.

The Dawson-Clarkes only heard their son had died from a tourist who rang to offer condolences three days later.

"My world stopped that day," his mother Lyndie told the ABC's Foreign Correspondent programme.

"This is my world, you know? It doesn't happen to people like me, and it doesn't happen to my son."

The ABC programme team travelled to Peru to investigate Mr Dawson-Clarke's death and said it learned no-one from the jungle retreat tried to get medical help when he took ill; it was left to other tourists to try to get him to hospital - nor did retreat staff or management inform his parents.

Ever since, his family has been waging a battle to hold Kapitari management to account.

While his mother says she does not want to bar young people from trying ayahuasca, she asks them to think seriously before they decide whether to go ahead.

"I'm not here to tell people what to do with their lives," she said.

"I'm just here to say 'be aware'. Be aware that it may not be right for everybody, and if you are a really healthy individual, what are you putting into your system? The possibility of you dying can happen."

A coronial inquest in New Zealand into Mr Dawson-Clarke's death has handed down an interim finding, which is inconclusive.

Travellers chasing ayahuasca high

Tens of thousands of travellers are flocking to the Amazon to chase the ayahuasca high, with promises of spiritual, physical and psychological healing and growth.

The plant grows only in the Amazon, and, when brewed with other natural jungle products, it becomes one of the most powerful hallucinogens in the world.

A man smokes 'sacred tobacco' at the start of an ayahuasca ritual ceremony, in Ecuador.

A man smokes 'sacred tobacco' at the start of an ayahuasca ritual ceremony, in Ecuador. Photo: AFP

Since Mr Dawson-Clarke died in September 2015, there have been another five known ayahuasca-related deaths in Peru.

And while an Ayahuasca Safety Association is in its infancy, there is little sign of any real progress.

While some ayahuasca retreats are making as much as $US30,000 a week, there are hardly any convictions when things go wrong. Many retreats still lack adequate first aid equipment or trained staff.

About 17 ayahuasca retreats are licensed with local authorities to host foreigners, but at least 50 around Iquitos are currently operating illegally. They include Kapitari - where Mr Dawson-Clarke died.

When deaths do occur at retreats, those in charge are rarely made accountable.

The Peruvian police investigation into Mr Dawson-Clarke's death was short-lived. But, apparently as a result of his family's persistence, it was reopened last month.

Now Don Lucho, the shaman who prepared the tobacco tea for Mr Dawson-Clarke at Kapitari, is facing questions from an investigating prosecutor.

The shaman told Foreign Correspondent Mr Dawson-Clarke's death was "his destiny".

The programme also tracked down the tour operator who organised and facilitated his trip, British expat Andy Metcalfe. He also denied responsibility.

"We had well over 1000 people on retreats before Matt came along and no incidents whatsoever."

But he acknowledged "maybe we were complacent".

"There are certain risks that people have to be aware of. When something goes wrong, you can't just dial an ambulance and have them come out in five minutes like you can in the western world," he said.

Mr Metcalfe now runs his own ayahuasca retreat, called Gaia Tree Retreat, servicing hundreds of foreign tourists each year.

Asked if safety standards had improved since Mr Dawson-Clarke's death, he replied: "It's not very easy to get first aid training in Peru, in Iquitos, so finding people that are able to work on the retreats that have a full amount of first aid, it's not really possible.

"I don't want to say not possible; it's not easy."