Dapto wildman Andrew Ucles is on the comeback trail after losing his health, his TV deal and - almost - his mind.
Andrew Ucles disappears into the upstairs level of his parents’ Horsley home and returns holding a small vial of clear fluid with a maggot-like botfly larva suspended inside.
At peace in its watery grave, the parasite reveals nothing of its uncomfortable past.
The larva is Ucles' souvenir from his latest adventure - a nine-month solo journey into the Amazon rainforest.
Within three weeks of arriving, the larva took up residence under the skin on his hip.
Worse than the day-and-night itching cause by the mosquitoes or the sandflies, it took his discomfort to maddening new heights.
Ucles’ surrogacy continued until it was recognised by an Amazonian native.
With no supply of Vaseline or duct tape, the man used thick tobacco tar to seal the tiny hole the parasite breathed through, cutting off its oxygen supply.
“You wait 15 minutes and you can actually feel it coming to the surface," Ucles said. "Then you pop it out. The relief is unbelievable.”
Ucles – Dapto wildman, wildlife documentary-maker and Youtube star – would find little relief in the Peruvian Amazon, where he arrived in late March to gather footage for his Youtube channel, and to regroup.
Two thousand and sixteen was supposed to be Ucles’ time.
After five years of knocking on the film and television industry’s door - going it alone on above-and-beyond wildlife surveillance missions, barehanded bush captures and smeared-in-guts survivalist experiments (almost always for unmanned cameras he had propped up himself) - he had signed a contract with an international powerhouse.
The deal was for a nine-episode series, with a proper budget and a 14-person production crew. What’s more, it would co-star his girlfriend, US adventurer Laura Zerra, of Naked and Afraid reality TV fame.
The crew traveled to Thailand and Vietnam to film the first two episodes before returning to Australia to collect footage in the Northern Territory. Then Ucles – known to many for his breakneck bolts through the bush – grew strangely still.
He had contracted typhoid and then, with his immune system weakened, leptospirosis - the latter probably from swimming in water contaminated with rat urine.
“I’d spent a lot of time swimming around in South-East Asia in some pretty dodgy places when I was filming with the network,” he says.
“I thought I was dead. You could literally cook a steak on my back, I was that hot. I was completely dehydrated, couldn’t keep fluids down, dizziness ... Imagine your worst form of gastroenteritis and times it by 10.”
Ucles, 28, spent a week at Katherine Base Hospital. He says it took almost four months for him to return to full health and regain his fitness.
Meantime, his crew sat idle. Nothing was getting filmed and production dates weren’t lining up. The production ground to a halt and footage from the first episodes was vaulted. The deal was gone.
Ucles, as he tells it, took the news with an air of wry humour, drawing on a seemingly iron-clad sense of self belief.
“I’d worked so hard for that,” he says. “I didn’t want to think at that time that it was all over and it’s all done. I started laughing. Because I know I’ve got something that nobody else has. It will happen, it’s just a matter of time - I know that and everybody else does. I’ve always been confident with my skills and abilities. I’ve always had a vision, and I’m going to stay true to that and know my time will come around again.”
Single once more (he won’t talk about the demise of his relationship with Zerra – “just out of respect” – and it is unclear how much, if any, this contributed to the TV deal folding) Ucles returned to what he knew – or what he thought he knew.
He arrived in Peru in late-March, moving into a basic, shack-like research station in the Madre de Dios region in South-Eastern Peru.
His base overlooked the muddy brown waters of Las Piedras - a large tributory to the Amazon River.
He slept on boards raised off the rainforest floor, with a leaf-covered roof overhead.
Boats laden with cocaine passed down the waterway with arrows stuck in their sides – gifts from the Mashco-Piro – a still-mysterious uncontacted tribe living 60 kilometres upstream.
Ucles planted 12 game cameras throughout the rainforest and would examine their hours of footage in his down-time, studying the routines of animals he hoped to capture barehanded. He estimates he walked 15-20kms each day.
But the Amazon was difficult – nothing like the open Australian outback or the African plains that had been the backdrop of some of his most popular chase scenes.
A former state cross country runner, Ucles’ speed was almost useless in jungle sometimes too thick for walking, let alone sprinting.
“I thought I was going to be home in June, but because of how difficult the terrain was, and how intelligent the animals were, it took me nine months,” he says.
“Just thinking about the mosquitoes and the sand flies gives me nightmares. The army uses the jungle as a training environment – a filter to see who’s actually got it. It’s a very difficult environment. It sent me almost insane.”
Ucles honed his wildman skills out the back of rural Dapto as a boy, catching snakes, turtles and foxes. At 13 he was hospitalised with a red-bellied black snake bite.
When he deliberately disappeared in 2010 – leaving behind word that he had embarked on a 100-day solo survival mission into the Australian outback, and did not want to be rescued - he got his first taste of international headlines.
He popped up 67 days later, explaining he’d been admitted to Mildura Base Hospital and citing mental confusion and exhaustion.
Soon afterwards, the videos started trickling onto Youtube.
His channel now hosts more than 70 of them – mostly solo, bare-chested affairs that showcase his bush skills, ingenuity and “bonkers” side.
About five million people watched him dress up in an emu carcass in order to lower the defences of, and catch, a kangaroo, and almost 15 million have seen him catch rabbits by sending live snakes into their burrows.
An early video from four years ago, showing a medley of barehanded catches, has amassed more than 24 million views.
Ucles’ fans have likened him to Steve Irwin. Rumours that he has died often circulate, particularly when illness and contractual obligations silenced his channel for months.
Behind the showmanship and larrikinism, Ucles is the ultimate self-starter.
The fruits of his Amazonian labour are remarkable.
In one memorable scene yet to make it to Youtube, he uses the open jaws of the alligator-like black caiman – “nature’s vice” – to crack open a coconut, which he then eats.
In other upcoming uploads, he enjoys a hard-won embrace with a sloth (before the famously slow-moving creature clamps its claws into his arm).
He wrangles a three-metre bushmaster – a kind of venomous pit viper – and brings in a capybara – the world’s biggest rodent – for a close-up.
For all his experience, Ucles still lights up at talk of the animals. He wanted to shine a light on some of the Amazon’s more bizarre creatures, especially “the ones that don’t get air time”, he says.
His favourite was the tamandua, a curious-looking anteater with a long, curved snout that gets up on its hind legs – arms outstretched, Bruce Lee-style – when confronted.
“It kind of reminded me of a goanna we have here in Australia, but covered in fur,” Ucles says.
“Just the way that he’d kind of stand up, or sit there with his tongue out. He was an animal with a lot of character.”
Ucles is in no hurry to return to the Amazon, but he would like to have visited all the world’s continents before he signs his next network deal.
His experience with a major network has made him wiser. When it comes to a production company, bigger isn’t always best, he suggests.
And if he were to film a series again, he’d set the first few episodes in Australia, where there are fewer serious diseases to catch.
Ucles often fields requests from international fans who want to follow him into the bush and learn some of his skills.
Later this year he is planning this into an international tours business. It is important, he says, to have something besides the TV career.
“The network is still going to be the ultimate goal, but [Steve] Irwin always had the zoo there on the side, [outback wrangler] Matt Wright had has done adventure tours in the Northern Territory and Bear Grylls has done the survival academy. You need to have an exit business on the side.”
It is comfortable at Ucles’ Horsley home, where family pictures line the living room walls and the smell of his mum’s cooking wafts out of the kitchen.
Network talks have started up again, and there are 30 new videos to drip-feed to Youtube, starting next month, from a room with a reliable internet connection. But Ucles won’t be staying long. This isn’t really his world.
“At the end of the day, where I get my sense of enjoyment out of it, is where I’m connected with nature. That’s when I’m really happy. It’s stressful and it’s hard but when I’m out there just with nature? It’s when I’m at my best.”