Tag Archives: Amazon

Flashbacks to Peru as we leave Washington

Leaving Washington.

Last night we went to Boo at the Zoo; a Halloween party amongst the animals. No, truly, there were animals to be seen, I wasn’t referring to one-thousand sugar-soaked children in fancy-dress, Really, I wasn’t.

The kids had a great time collecting a huge range of horribly unhealthy foods. The treats included a lollipop with a light inside it. Imagine children running about in the dark, their cheeks lit from inside as they suck on a lightbulb covered in toffee. Nightmare…

We actually did see some animals and as it was after dark we got to see some of them up close and personal. I was particularly taken with two specimens. First the naked-mole rats. There’s something strangely fascinating about these beast even though they are almost the definition of ugly. I do wonder: if we have some atavistic, base-of-the-spine, genetic reaction to lizards thanks to a time when our ancestors were tiny mammals and lizard-like dinosaurs ruled the world – then perhaps our fascination with naked mole rats indicates that that’s how our ancestors actually looked.

The other animals was the Saki Monkey. What made this especially thrilling was that we’d seen them in the wild a couple of weeks earlier. I have to admit we got a far better look at them in the National Zoo than we did in the wild; but seeing them close up after having seen their cousins leaping from tree to tree in the Amazon was a strange thrill.

Declan and Callum in costume at the zoo
Declan and Callum in costume at the zoo

Today, we spent a long time making our way back up to Newark Airport and then flying to Montreal. We rather staggered into our apartment in Montreal and collapsed in front of the television to watch one of our new favourite shows: Penn and Teller Tell a Lie. For those who don’t know, Penn and Teller are probably the most famous magicians in the world today and their new show involves them presenting a series of amazing things one of which is not true. Today their finale was “Piranhas will not eat you alive”. We all immediately screamed at the TV – “THAT’S TRUE, WE SWAM WITH PIRANHAS THREE WEEKS AGO!”

As a matter of interest, Penn and Teller claim that the whole Piranha as the supreme carnivore thing came about because a bunch of locals put on a show for Teddy Roosevelt who wrote about it his book about his travels in the Amazon. This popularised the whole idea which was then picked upon by movie producers in the 1950s and a whole species of fish got a terribly ill-deserved reputation. That may be true, but for the moment I’m sticking with the story that we swam with a ravening hoard.


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.

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.


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?

Five lessons from the jungle


1. If you venture into thick jungle and the guy wielding the machete is a foot shorter than you, you are going to bump your head a lot.

We set out at crack of dawn to explore the grid system around the Research Centre in search of interesting things. There are rough paths following the grid so the walking was tough but OK. Then we went off into the pristine jungle to search for a particular palm that Christian could use to teach the boys how to make a blow-dart gun. We had thought our walk through the Valley of the Poison-dart Frogs was tough going, but this was real jungle.

Piranha dinner.

2. David Attenborough has superhero powers.

In all the wandering about and looking for animals we’ve done in the last few days, actual sightings have been few and far between. The problem is that this is roughly pristine jungle and so the animals are spread out. A fellow-traveller who had been to Borneo tells us you go out and trip over animals there because the logging has forced them all into a small area. The Mr Attenborough setting out and within seconds talking in hushed tones within feet of interesting things is, in our experience, either special effects or, as stated, superhero powers. As he’s one of my heroes, I’m going with the later.


3. If you want to spot things in the jungle, don’t ask the guy with one eye.

There are so many layers to the jungle that real depth perception is crucial to spotting things. Jennifer was seeing stuff and vainly trying to point it out to me. Unless it moved I had no hope.

4. The dangerous things are not always obvious

We went fishing for piranha again this afternoon and caught several – three different species in fact. They do have vicious teeth but are nothing like as dangerous as advertised. In fact the thing that has really captured our imagination is a particular fungus. this little beauty falls on its victim and then grows to take control of the victim’s nervous system, sending them slowly insane. Eventually the victim finds a high spot and dies, the fungus spores and the cycle continues. The only saving grace is that the victims are always wasps – at least as far as anyone knows.

5. People like lists

There are definitely a group of our fellow-travellers that are trying to tick off a list of having seen as many animals as possible. We’ve discovered that’s simply not us. Most of a year of travelling has made us very copacetic – we’re pretty much happy just to be here, seeing some cool stuff is a bonus rather than an end in itself. Which means we are not getting up at 5am to tramp through the jungle again tomorrow.

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.

Chasing pink dolphins and eating piranha

Swimming in the Amazon.

We swam with pink dolphins this morning. Well to be completely honest, that’s a bit like going to a concert and saying that you danced with the star: more accurately, we swam in the same place as pink dolphins, there wasn’t much Flipper-like interaction.

Motoring downriver we saw vultures, hawks and a range of butterflies. Already we’re becoming blasé about the more common birds and butterflies – there are just so many of them about. But there are still new things to see aplenty. We saw hawks close up and even catching prey; we saw bats asleep on tree trunks; a huge flock of storks; a woodpecker. And of course the dolphins.

The dolphins live in a deep pool frequented by lots of fish. Because the water is muddy-brown you can only see them when the come up for air – which means most of the photographs turned out mostly to be of  a hint of curved back or the ripples left behind. The boys and I went in for a swim with the dolphins – I must admit I was just about as thrilled to be able to say that I’d swum in the Amazon as to have been with the dolphins.

Making our way back up river, we came across some locals harvesting watermelons from a small farm. We pulled in and bought some. We ate the watermelon for lunch together with piranha caught by one of our fellow guests.

Soccer with the locals. Peru won.

In the afternoon we visited a local village. It was interesting to see how the people really live – a mixture of traditional and modern, but definitely weighted towards the traditional. The houses are largely open to the elements, built on stilts to get above the floods that raise the river level by 12m for four months of the year. There is an elementary school and high school in the village. The elementary school does not have so many kids at the higher levels because they still marry very young here and don’t go to school once they have kids of their own. There is a small clinic, but it is tiny, dilapidated and little used – in stark contrast to the huge house which serves as home and shop for the shaman and herb-woman.

Our game of soccer with the local kids had them winning by a country mile – but, hey, they had the home team advantage!

We climb trees; monkey climbs us

Up to the first canopy platform - 40m up.

It’s hot enough here that the rain sprinkling onto our beds during a night of thunderstorms was not a real problem. Well, apart from when Declan woke up screaming that he was covered in ants thanks to the raindrops.

This morning we went zip-lining through the jungle canopy. In theory there is a variety of animals and birds available to be sen in the canopy. I must admit though that all of our fair-ground screams meant we saw very little. The zip-line starts about 30 m (90 ft) up on a huge kapok tree. You zip from there to another tree, then swap lines and zip on another stage, and then finally abseil down to the ground. It was a splendid experience and far less scary than I feared – the worst of it was getting up the first tree. Callum, of course, had real issues with it but mastered them wonderfully; Declan had to be restrained from just leaping off Tarzan-like.

We did see a vulture, some fly-catchers and macaws as well as a variety of insect-life. Lots of insects in fact.  The jungle floor here is largely clay and thanks to the rain had formed a lovely, sucking, viscous muck that dragged at our boots as we walked along and required a focus on the ground. The positive thing about that was that we managed to spot some interesting insects without our guide’s help.

Dec says G'day.

In the afternoon we went to visit Dorilla, a woolly monkey who was rescued from illegal animal traders when young. Dorilla now lives in the wild but has not found a group to join so she’s very friendly to humans. We got to feed her and then she played with us in our boat. Apart from being friendly we were struck by how soft her hands and feet were as well as the inside of her beautiful prehensile tail: all particularly obvious as she climbed all over us.

The trip to meet Dorilla took us down a lovely small river with tons of bird-life all around. We saw kingfishers, ibis, herons, hawks and eagles as well as tons of smaller birds. And we also saw people in the most unlikely places. You’ll turn a corner and there will be a small thatched hut on stilts in front of which is someone washing their hair or washing their clothes in the river. These people are small farmers and hunters and occasionally you’ll see a long boat going down the river with a small load of bananas or something and the entire family draped over it.

We made our way back from our visit to Dorilla as the sun started to set. The boat and ourselves all smelling of monkey, and wide grins plastered all over our faces.

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.

Iquitos on the Amazon

Iquitos Port
Iquitos Port

Iquitos is only accessible by air and water. It sits in the far East of Peru just down river from the Amazon’s headwaters. You can take a boat and reach the sea – the Atlantic Ocean 6,000 km away through Brazil.

Iquitos was originally founded as a Jesuit mission and didn’t do much until the late 19th Century when a 25-year rubber boom turned the place into a goldmine for those in charge. Huge fortunes were made and then disappeared when someone smuggled the seeds of rubber trees out and rubber plantations grew up in other, more accessible, locations.

A lasting memory of the boom times is the Iron House. Created by Gustav Eiffel as a pre-fabricated house it was bought in Paris and transported all the way to Iquitos where it stands still today – an unlikely testament to what vast wealth can achieve in even highly unlikely places.

Today Iquitos has a population of over 300,000 and is the regional centre for the Peruvian Amazon. It is also our staging post where we spend the night before setting out tomorrow morning by long-boat 150km upriver to our lodge.