Tag Archives: Amazon Jungle

Sad farewells

Boys with Nikki.

Somewhere on the deep, dark expanses of the Amazon tonight floats a hat that has seen the Pyramids, the little enamelled kingfisher bought in the Lake District glinting gently in the moonlight.

Our day started with a wistful goodbye to the wonderful Nikki from Melbourne who has been our companion for the last few days. And then we were off downriver. The Amazon jungle put on a final display of hawks, herons and butterflies as the river gradually widened out in front of us. We saw more and more people as we approached the lower Lodge; although it says something about our last few days when seeing two locals fishing from a canoe feels like a crowd.

Last photo at the Research Centre.

After lunch at the Lodge we set off again, this time for Iquitos. The event which will ever-after be known as “the hat tragedy” occurred just as we turned onto the Amazon proper and went up to full speed. The wind whipped around us and in a flash Declan’s hat disappeared behind us. He was, understandably, very upset: “That hat represents so many memories!” Dec was right, in a world where our possessions are what we have in our backpack the boys’ hats have been a constant companion, the stains and scratches reminders of visits and experiences. We’re all a bit bereft to have lost one.

The last photo of Dec's hat.

Anyway, we were moving at speed and soon arrived in the turmoil of Iquitos. After the calm of the upper Amazon, Iquitos was like being hit in the face with a hot, damp, ugly, noisy brick. It was frankly a relief to get to the airport and catch our plane back to Lima.

We had a wonderful time in the Amazon and, although I’m looking forward to cooler, drier weather and warm showers, we’ll miss the place.

Our Amazon adventure may be over; but, somewhere out on that amazing river, Declan’s hat ventures on.

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Dugouts, blow-guns and tarantulas

My dugout canoe.

I awoke this morning and set out in a dugout canoe to silently glide over the river-waters in search of wildlife. I did end up seeing a dolphin and a great troupe of squirrel-monkeys, but really the thrill for me was paddling the dugout. It’s remarkably responsive and easy to steer, but the hand-carved paddle, in a shape with looks just like a spade from a pack of cards, is amazingly heavy.

This morning we continued the theme of handmade things by making our own blow-pipes (or maybe blow-guns, there’s continuing discussion as to what is the correct term). They were made using a variety of palms and bit of tree that we gathered at the end of a machete from the surrounding jungle. We whittled the palms into shape, used a hot iron to ream out the bore, carved a mouth-piece and made darts. The end result was shorter than real ones would have been, but otherwise completely authentic. Well that’s not quite right, a truly well-made blow-pipe would have involved splitting the reed in two and smoothing a bore before binding the two halves back together – but that would have required days of skilled work. And we had neither days not that skilled work.

Target practice with the guns.

The end result shoots remarkably well and the boys were soon making mincemeat out of a target. As an interesting piece of trivia: apparently the natives used to walk about chewing peppers, the hot breath making it easier to get the required force to send a dart 50-100 metres.

Tarantula.

After lunch we set out way upriver in the motor-boat. We covered enough distance that the river was seriously narrowing with the jungle edging closer and closer on the sides and then turned off the motor and drifted back downstream. The silence proved to be a great way to see a wide variety of birds including the impressive blue and yellow macaw with its distinctive long tail. Though, the most exciting things was seeing an enormous tarantula – no one was willing to put their hand in the photo for scale, so take my word for it, it’s big.

It was a great final day in the jungle – leaving us with only one unanswered question: how on earth do we get handmade blow-guns back through customs?

Gone fishin’ for piranha

Frog in the dark.

Last night we went out spotlighting again and tracked down tree frogs in full mating call. Huge, big things with balloon-like throats making deep croaking sounds. Apparently the frog that can keep up the croaking longest gets to mate.

Then this morning we moved from our residence of the last four nights 15km further up-stream to the Amazon Research Centre. The ARC sits in a reserve where there are no nearby villages and no hunting allowed. It has a higher level of biodiversity than most other places around and is surrounded by jungle demarcated by a careful grid system to keep track of and study the local fauna.

Cal reading Dickens as we motor upriver.

As we motored upriver, Callum did his best imitation of a Nineteenth Century British explorer: lying back and reading Dickens. He did deign to raise his head and look at the especially interesting birds we saw, but I kept expecting him to snap his fingers and ask for a G&T to ease the journey.

Dec meets his dinner.

This afternoon, we went fishing for piranha. We were on a clear mission: this was not generic fishing, we wanted piranha. So we motored down to a spot when a tributary meets our river, moored and settled into some fishing using some basic poles. It took a little while until our first bite and then Declan landed a small piranha. I thought his face would split, the grin was that big. Not long after he caught a catfish. Then we moved to the other side of the river and Callum landed a decent-sized barracuda. Over the course of three hours the boys had gone through, perhaps, ten hookfuls of bait; I managed two changes of bait, the fish were so uninterested in me they couldn’t even be bothered stealing my bait. I eventually managed to catch a fish on the quick catch-and-release program – I hooked it but it wriggled off the hook before reaching the boat.

Then Declan hooked a bigger catfish, a major battle ensued with Christian, our guide, shouting “Play it, play it.” while Declan struggled to keep the fish on the line. The end result didn’t really show how tricky the fish was to bring in given a basic pole and line, but we all felt satisfied that this was a fish worth eating.

We had Declan’s catfish for dinner tonight. And it was good.

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.

It’s a jungle in here

A frog we met in the jungle.

We awoke this morning to sunrise over the river. Local Riverinos were paddling their dugouts in to shore carrying a few goods to market. Black eagles swooped low over the water and further off a line of emerald-green vegetation shimmered in the gathering heat.

Our boat was moored down below and we picked our way out to it over a raft of logs. As soon as we were aboard we set off at high-speed up the Amazon. The Amazon here is wide and brown; it is full of floating vegetation and debris, from leaves to huge trees. The helmsman steered us around most of those but we came to an abrupt halt at one point when we smashed into a submerged tree trunk.

After about an hour we stopped at a trading post. This was a small, palm thatched house sitting on a raft of enormous logs. Dolphins gamboled in the waters next to the raft and a small group of locals sat preparing food. Soon the reason for their preparations became obvious: a local boat crowded with people and animals put in and was immediately boarded by the food-sellers.

Cal getting a drink to help recover from the Bullet Ant bite.

We motored on for another couple of hours seeing birds, clouds of butterflies and many locals paddling about in dugout canoes. Eventually we turned a corner an came to our lodge. The Lodge is entirely built of roughly finished wood and forms a wide crescent on a bend in the river. In the centre is the dining area and rooms; at the end of one arm is a laboratory; at the end of the other, a large room with hammocks and rocking chairs. I suppose you’d describe it as rustic but comfortable.

After lunch, our guide, Christian, armed himself with a machete and we set out into the jungle still dripping after a torrential tropical downpour. In the course of three hours walking through the jungle we saw frogs, toads and centipedes. We ate some of the hollow tree that is the sloth’s favourite food and has recently started being harvested as a diabetes cure. We pushed through swamps and balanced on fallen trunks over ponds. Callum got bitten by a Bullet Ant – a very painful experience.

Pygmy Marmoset - photos were a bit tricky to take.

The best bit though was seeing primates. We saw Capuchin Monkeys and Squirrel Monkeys in the middle-distance. But then as we made our way back in the dusk we ran into a group of Pygmy Marmosets. We’d seen some of these before in zoos, but it felt completely different seeing them in the wild. The Capuchin is too wily to let people get near, but we got within a few feet of the Pygmy Marmosets, partly thanks to a passing hawk proving a greater potential threat than us.

Now we’re sitting in the hammock room listening to the evening sounds of the jungle close in around us. The river is still but there is someone paddling past casting tiny ripples. Cicadas remind us of home, but their background sound is overlaid by calls and screeches that are entirely foreign to our Australian ears. I’m looking forward to sleeping tonight in our room, which is screened against mosquitos but otherwise largely open to the jungle.

Because this is a research centre we have some Internet! But only some.