Sunday, February 11, 2007

In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle

Photos to come

In the broad clearing there were three spacious wooden bungalows raised on stilts, with high roofs of palm thatch. Each bungalow featured a shady porch with room to hang at least two hammocks. Inside were cots hung with clean mosquito nets. The bathroom had a concrete floor, cold running water and a flush toilet. Only a few large ants mooched around the base of the cistern.

Back down towards the river was the dining hut, with a long table of rough wood, a water filter, a thermos with tea and coffee, and a canopy which kept out the sun and the insects.

The jungle refuge offered just my preferred blend of bourgeois adventurism. Wilderness with catering.

It was a different world from the tacky jungle lodges around Iquitos with swimming pools, hot showers and observation towers. But it didn't quite require you to be Tarzan, when you'd been a deskbound bureaucrat only a few weeks previously and were still recovering from your confounded sunburn.

The refuge was a respectable 215 km from the city. We had driven an hour and a half along Iquitos' only highway, to the little port of Nauta, then travelled another two hours by motor canoe. We cruised along the Marañón to its juncture with the Amazon, crossed the great river, then headed an hour up the Yarapa – a tranquil, muddy-coloured tributary – to find the half-hidden entrance to a quiet lagoon.

The refuge belonged to Andres, a local guy who after 20 years guiding tourists had acquired his own business with a little office a block from the waterfront in Iquitos. His younger brother Juan was the chief guide on our trip.

There was a fair menagerie of pets: a tapir, a peccary (wild pig), a coti (racoon-like creature) and a toucan. They were fully tame yet idiosyncratic. The tapir apparently liked to head into the jungle at night time to look for food, returning to the refuge in the day, where it was also fed. Only a year and a half old, it was still on its way to its full-grown size of 300 kilos. The toucan was slightly loopy: the staff at the refuge sometimes had to pick it up and put it on a ledge or a tree at night, because it had the tendency to fall asleep on the ground – a risk to its health and safety.

It would have been a great story if they had all wound up at the camp as orphans, collected by a kindly hunter or villager. But I found out that from the assistant guide Mike that they had been bought. There's a small trade for those who can snatch a young animal and sell it to the lodges as a tourist gimmick.

Our first forest walk was a pleasant enough exercise in Junglecraft 101. We found a termites' nest and crunched on a couple of the supposedly edible insects. Juan pointed out a rubber tree and cut it with his machete to show how the sap flowed out and coagulated. We saw the slash marks on the trunk where the rubber collectors had tapped it last century.

From a palm tree we sampled the larva which nested in the hollow branches. A slight taste of coconut. I managed to quaff a couple, but was ready to believe that they were tastier when fried.

We refreshed ourselves with fresh water from the liana tree, whose branches form a natural filter. We observed the giant ceiba – the Amazon's largest tree – and a fallen mahogany, though we didn't se any that were standing. While I was prepared to believe Juan's statement that this was "primary jungle" - in the sense that it had never been cleared for cultivation - it still wasn't quite what you imagine as pristine rainforest.

A monkey was glimpsed here; a couple of parrots there. But any other wildlife was well and truly scared off by the tapir, which ccompanied us on the walk, frolicking boisterously.

After two hours we were drenched with sweat, bolstered by a tropical shower which had filtered its way through the canopy. Moisture ran off my forehead and into my eyes. Mud squelched and sucked around our shoes. Though my long sleeves and head-to-toe covering of insect repellent were doing the trick (I had stripped naked and smeared myself well with the lotion before leaving the bungalow), the clouds of mosquitos were intense and persistent

I figured I wasn't quite ready to take a day-long trek, let alone form a guerilla army to fade silently into the forest and strike like lightning at the invader. Given a bit more acclimatisation, I thought I might manage a one-night camp.

After sundown we went back into the forest to look for tarantulas. They weren't hard to find: every second tree seemed to have a fat, hairy resident, its eight thick legs grasping the trunk. We crept a little closer, positioning our cameras.

Every metre we moved further away from the clearing, the thicker the mosquitos became. I'm not a spider fan, and had expected to be freaked out by the hairy arachnids that like to feast on small birds. But while I didn't want to get too close, and nervously hovered just long enough by the spider that Juan scooped onto his machete to get a good photo, the tarantulas seemed positively benign and tranquil in comparison to the ever-present mosquitoes, swarming and whining like an angry plague.

Later, we headed out in the canoe to look for caimans. The moon was high and bright, and Juan was sceptical about whether we would see any. “When the moon is high, they can see us coming”, he said.

We silently sailed through the still waters of the lagoon, down the quiet river, and through flooded groves of trees. No caimans, but for the first time I was struck by a thrill, a feeling of the wildness and immensity of the dark jungle.

The night was loud with the chirp of insects and the the bellow of tree toads. Disconcertingly close by came the rumble of a motor - a ferry making its way up the Amazon. I thought I heard people's voices. I asked Juan, who said there was village with a Presbyterian church about five kilometres away; the singing was drifting on the night breeze. It still wasn't quite Heart of Darkness.

In the torch beam we saw the glowing eyes of a scampering monkey; and later a big owl flapped silently from its perch. But the caimans were nowhere to be found.

In the morning the mist was rising slowly, Avalon-like, from the surface of the lagoon, and we went out in the canoes to look for birds. Across the lagoon, along the river, through the reeds and the mangroves, we patiently identified the species: parrots, parakeets, kingfishers, vultures, herons, dotted this and crested that. I only saw the splashes, but two pink river dolphins broke the water twenty metres behind our canoe.

Every now and again Juan or Mike spotted a sloth. We stopped the canoe, while the guides passed around the binoculars and tried to point out to us where it was. “There! Don't you see! Just to the left of that forked branch!” When we finally picked out the stationary sloth, it was by managing to reconceptualise what had appeared a bird's nest or pile of leaves.

After an hour I'd lost all concentration. My ass was sore from sitting in the canoe and I was desperately craving coffee. On our return from breakfast came disappointment: the coffee tin was empty, and I had to make do with cinammon and clove tea.

We took the canoe across the other side of the lagoon, anchored under some shady mangroves, and began to fish for piranha. We had simple wooden rods – whittled tree branches with a line of thin wire and a rough iron hook.

Juan passed around chunks of chiken and beef. It was good bait for carnivourous fish. The problem wasn't attracting them – it was outsmarting them. Time and again I found that my hook was stripped bare, although I had hardly felt any pull on my line. After a while, Juan snagged a small catfish, then a couple of snapping piranha. Then at the third attempt, Tomas – a Swiss tourist - managed to get one as well.

Just when I'd given up hope of ever catching anything, I responded with a jerk to another almost imperceptible tug. I lifted my line out of the water, and this time there was a flash of orange; a wildly thrashing piranha was snared at the end of my line.

I hung the flailing fish above the canoe and let Mike subdue it. As a fishing incompetent, I didn't want to get too close to its powerful jaws which can apparently take off a finger with a single bite.

My success wasn't repeated. Over the next half hour we steadily worked our way through the rest of the bait. Rossmary – a girl from Iquitos – gave up in a sulk and announced she didn't want to catch one anyway. We headed back across the lagoon for lunch.

As we drank tea and compared photos, Mike brought me my piranha, lightly fried in margarine. It was tasty, though the flesh was scarce. For a brief moment I felt like a real hunter-gatherer.

But thank goodness they'd remembered to cook us some chicken.

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harvestbird said...

I remember that the children's novel Amazon Adventure began with the two boys acquiring a tapir as a pet before going off to subdue piranhas and outsmart ruthless developers. I'd always thought that was dramatic licence--but apparently not?

Simon Bidwell said...

Actually...I was going to mention Hal and Roger in the of my favourite stories as a kid. But I think they got a little more genuinely adventurous than I did.