With one dash of his machete blade in the water, Lionel James kills a small fish the size of my finger, which he swiftly uses as bait to catch a haul of piranha and catfish.
The Amazonian jungle-dweller from Guyana is a skilled huntsman and some might recognise him from the BBC reality TV show Life Swap. For that he traded places with an office worker from London, donning a suit for the first time and learning what life is like in the concrete jungle.
Catching up with him back in his home country, while travelling with him on an expedition, Lionel told me that he ‘loved the trains’ in the UK, found the houses in London were ‘too little’ and the ‘fish wasn’t fresh’ (he could smell supermarket cuts of salmon and haddock long before he could see them).
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Lionel James, 50, grew up in the Guyanese jungle and his parents taught him traditional hunting skills. Some might recognise him from the BBC reality TV show Life Swap, where he traded places with an office worker from London
The sprightly 50-year-old said the Life Swap experience was ‘interesting’ but it didn’t lure him away from the jungle and he has gone back to his day-to-day life.
When he’s not at home with his wife, Lionel helps run expeditions for Bushmasters and he guides TV crews filming popular shows such as River Monsters and Naked and Afraid.
The father-of-seven (whose name is a remnant from the British occupation of Guyana from 1796 to 1966) tells me that he was introduced to the jungle from a young age as his parents navigated the impenetrable landscape searching for rubber trees.
The latex from the balata trees could fetch a good price before the introduction of synthetic materials and there were numerous businesses dotted across Guyana.
Lionel says his parents would teach him what plants were and weren’t safe to touch, how to spot creatures lurking in the forest and hunt them down with a bow and arrow.
He has passed the same knowledge on to his children (four boys and three girls) and he says hunting is still a necessary skill to have as a tribesman. Lionel is Makushi, one of the nine tribes found in Guyana.
Lionel works as a guide in the Guyanese jungle for extreme travel company Bushmasters. He shows clients how to fashion objects using natural materials, from fishing rods to chairs, and reveals the key elements needed for survival in the wild
An aerial view of the runway close to the rural village of Surama, where Lionel lives with his wife and family
He reveals that there were great battles among the tribes hundreds of years ago and his village was once invaded by the war-like Caribs.
Lionel obviously has a passion for the history and as our campfire burns, he starts recounting stories from the past.
He says: ‘The Caribs came with clubs and weapons and would target your head. They slaughtered the men, took the women and cooked the children to eat.
‘The men in my tribe couldn’t defend the women and children so we looked for poison to kill the Caribs and made deadly weapons. Before they arrived in Guyana we were peaceful people.’
Lionel reveals that the name of his village, Surama, which has a fairly nice ring to it, actually means ‘a human body burning on a fire’ in remembrance of those who died at the hands of the invading cannibals.
Luckily Lionel was born after the bloodshed occurred and the only battle wounds he exhibits are a number of raised piranha scars on his legs.
Lionel has several scars on his legs from piranha bites but that hasn’t put him off getting in the water with the fearsome fish. Above, a couple of freshly caught piranha
Working up an appetite: Lionel, seen here about to tuck into some chicken sticks, says his favourite food in the jungle is labba (a large rodent that can weigh up to 13kg) and that the tender meat tastes just like rabbit
Lionel says his stint on the BBC show Life Swap was interesting but not life changing. Above, a clip of him on the show. He said that he ‘loved the trains’ in the UK, but that the ‘fish wasn’t fresh’
But a scrap with some fearsome fish hasn’t put him off fishing and it remains one of his favourite hobbies.
Returning to the subject of his BBC moment of fame, Lionel says along with the fish in England being ‘smelly’, he was shocked about the the amount of allergies people seem to have in the western world.
He mused: ‘It’s amazing, some people can’t even eat pumpkins, they are allergic to so many things. We are much harder over here.’
On the subject of food, Lionel says his favourite food is labba (a large rodent that can weigh up to 13 kg) and that the tender meat tastes just like rabbit.
Summing up the best perk of life in the jungle, Lionel concludes: ‘In the developed states people have to pay for electricity and water. For us here life is simple. We can live for free.’
And with that, the tribesman gets up to reel in some piranha for dinner with a fishing rod fashioned out of a branch.
MailOnline travelled through Guyana with Bushmasters. The travel firm runs various expeditions in the country, with the next kayaking adventure taking place on April 7 – 19 2019 and priced at £1,930.
Norwegian Air runs daily flights from London Gatwick to New York JFK, with fares starting as low as £275 return.
Caribbean Airlines runs direct flights from New York to Georgetown, Guyana.
To make long airport transfers more comfortable, you can check into lounge areas with Priority Pass standard plus membership, which starts at £189 for ten free visits at participating lounges including No1 Lounge at Gatwick and Wingtips lounge at JFK.
For more information on what to do in Guyana, visit www.guyanatourism.com.