If you've backpacked through South America or have a keen interest in psychotropic medicine, you probably know I'm talking about ayahuasca. For centuries, Amazonian shamans have used this plant-based hallucinogen to treat spiritual and physical maladies. More recently, a growing Western interest has spawned a new style of holistic tourism.
Sting, Madonna and Tori Amos were onto the stuff years ago. Today, a new generation of indie artists (including The Bees, Klaxons and Ben Lee, who named his latest LP, Ayahuasca: Welcome To The Work) are leading the charge to the Amazon to try this Quechua 'spirit vine'. During a recent backpacking adventure, I sure as hell wasn't going to pass up an opportunity to join them.
Chaperoned by a local guide, I've been ferried to a remote jungle camp in the Ecuadorean Amazon. We arrive to find the local shaman stirring a cauldron over an open fire in preparation for the ceremony. Having fasted for the past 24 hours and abstained from tyramine-rich foods like cheese, salami and alcohol – which can hamper the effects of the natural brew – I am primed for life changing visions.
Necking a small cup of the foul liquid, I recline into a hammock to wait for the show to begin. Struggling to stay awake, I'm soon distracted by the whomp-whomp sound of a helicopter trying to land in our camp. I ask my guide about it, and he just chuckles. “Relax,” he says. “It's starting.”
Then, Bam! Bright, colourful lights flash across my eyelids. They soon begin to contort into animals, people. A wise-looking black man appears, dressed in a loincloth. He points to the horizon, and I follow his gaze to watch a scarlet orchid unfurl, revealing a metallic emerald beetle clinging to its stamen.
It's like a dream, but I'm totally lucid. The hallucinations are multi-sensory now, and I begin to wish the crickets had a volume dial. Opening my eyes briefly, I see every living thing in sight encircled by a quivering white light. I begin to laugh, but chunder instead. Violently.
This is the most ungraceful aspect of ayahuasca – it can induce vomiting, sometimes from both ends, and often continuously. As Sting himself once told Rolling Stone, ayhuasca ain't no party drug.
Taking a swig of water and climbing back into my hammock, my body feels like a bag of sand. But my brain is buzzing. Unconscious memories begin to bubble up from a forgotten internal chamber, and I feel like my own therapist as I stumble into a session of self-evaluation.
By morning, I'm knackered. But far from hungover or anxious, I feel calm and cleansed – as if I'd purged my psychic garbage along with the remaining contents of my stomach. I can see why scientists are increasingly looking at the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca, with numerous studies demonstrating its effectiveness in treating mood disorders.
But the ritual isn't without risk. While US studies have found no evidence to suggest taking ayahuasca in a ceremonial setting is harmful, several deaths have been linked with the drug. Other users report struggling with heavy visions caused by dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a naturally occurring psychedelic compound in ayahuasca. The legality of the drug remains a grey area in Australia, with no precedent for prosecution. There was a federal government plan posited in 2011 to ban plants containing DMT, but nothing has come of it. It's a tricky subject, given our national flower, the wattle, is chock-full of it.
While ayahuasca certainly isn't for everyone, I admit my experience – as a cynical journalist – was unexpectedly cathartic. I don't know, as Lee says, if it's the “medicine of our time”, but if you're mentally prepared for it, ayahuasca is one hell of a ride.