The Valley of the Poison-Dart Frogs

Fer-de-lance snake in the tree.

Last night when Declan and I went spotlighting on the river the jungle was a dark lowering place. The trees were pitch-black walls, the clouded sky a dark grey and the river itself a fustian path leading ever onwards. The sounds of monkeys, birds and frogs seemed almost alarmingly close. Finding a fer-de-lance, the most poisonous snake in South America, came with heightened tension and then seeing the eldritch glow of a single firefly bobbing erratically over the river seemed like something other-worldly.

Poison-dart frog.

Today the river was quite a different place. Bright blue skies saw the sun burning down as we headed up a tributary to the valley of the poison-dart frogs – a name which ought to be capitalised and used as the title of a TinTin book. It took us about two hours of constant motoring through the jungle until we reached our landing-place. And then we set out into the jungle.

Poison-dart frog on a machette.

For the next three hours we walked through oppressively thick jungle to the rhythmic metallic-ringing sound of machetes clearing a path. The humidity was like a thick wet blanket and within minutes we were all dripping with sweat. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that felt so far from civilisation; there was just our small group and thick, unending jungle around us. Insects from tiny little flies to dragonflies the size of small birds droned all around us; there were probably birds too, but the jungle was too dense to see anything more than a few feet away from where we were standing.

Termites are a natural mosquito repellent.

Our goal was to find the tiny poison-dart frogs. The natives have traditionally used the toxic excretions of these little amphibians to coat their blow-gun darts. In keeping with much of the jungle flora and fauna the frogs are handily colour coded to indicate to predators they they are dangerous – and that colour coding makes them look rather glamorous to our non-native eyes. We found a yellow and black stripped frog within ten minutes of starting out, but it was a couple of hours until we next found a frog, this one a red-stripped one. In the meantime we discovered a couple of small toads and a huge mahogany tree. There aren’t many mahogany trees left in this part of the Amazon – loggers used to use helicopters to find those sticking their head above the canopy and then cherry-pick them out.

Finally we literally staggered out of the jungle into the small clearing where we had lunch by the river. There was a table and some shade and flocks of moths and butterflies attracted either by the shade or the salt from the sweat drying all over us. We all had moths and butterflies land all over us and add the fluttering of their wings to the gentle river-breeze that helped to, eventually, cool us down.

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