The Amazon – Tribes, Shrunken Skulls and Crocodiles
This is an account of my trip to the Amazon including the trials of Tribal life and taking some forest medicine through the nose.
Following on from my brief visit to Quito, Ecuador I flew down to the Amazon basin with my travelling companion Jonas from Copenhagen, Denmark and took a boat along the river Coco before walking with backpack on and grabbing all cameras along narrow walkways through forest and over bogs where bright orange dragonflies weaved in and out of reed beds and huge blue morpho butterflies flitted about. We then took a short canoe ride and paddled across a lake to Sacha lodge.
We were to stay at two different bases whilst in the Amazon, Sacha Lodge a fairly commercial site set up for the ease of seeing wildlife with local guides and then the NAPO Wildlife centre, a more obscure place, much further out and set up for naturalists and wildlife researchers rather than tourists.
There are no roads leading to Sacha Lodge, it is accessible by river only, food comes the same route as I did, down river Coca by paddle boat then over the boardwalk through the forest and across the lake.
Water comes from a well near the North trail head and is purified by an ‘ozone filtration system’, clever stuff, power for the site comes from two diesel generators which swap ever 12 hours, solar power cannot be set up here as it is too cloudy.
Organic waste is managed on site by a compost heap and inorganic waste such as plastics, etc. is shipped up river to Coca, there are toilets here, which is a real luxury, toilet paper can not be put in the pan as it blocks the system so instead you put it into a bin next to the toilet.
The lodge was dreamed up by Arnold Ammeter, better known as Benny who was born in Interlaken in Switzerland who came to Ecuador in 1979 to work with Gold before getting into coco cola distribution then he branched out to opening natural lodges and in 1991 Sacha lodge was created.
Sacha lodge is a beautiful place consisting of comfortable huts with wooden walkways a few feet above the forest, there are paths leading into the forest in all directions and you can wander off alone to explore, which is really what I wanted and then get off onto the natural forest mud trails.
Although I am most likely in the minority, I find having a guide often more of a hindrance than a help as I much prefer to be away from other people to walk quietly and slowly through the forest looking for insects and frogs. Having to ‘keep up’ on a hike means that you are walking past tons of wildlife, unseen eyes watching the walkers from their camouflaged habitats, searching for frogs and insects takes time and often involves carefully combing through leaf litter and searching under logs and fallen branches.
Unsociable as it may sound I travel to these places to get time away from people, so being put in group is the last thing I want to do, Jonas is different as we are used to travelling and working together to look for wildlife, we know each others foibles and can read each others moods, so it works with the two of us, most of the time anyway.
There are night walks here also and I had little choice but to take these with a guide and a group of 5 others, but as always the group charged forward so fast it was tricky to keep up when I stopped to photograph any wildlife and often found that they had long gone, leaving a pitch black pathway ahead of me, apart from the small, steady beam of my torch. This was no bad thing, except that you could get lost in the darkness of the forest if the torch suddenly ran out so I found it a constant challenge to try and keep up without missing any potential photographic opportunities of the wildlife, having said that the advantage of there being a group does mean more pairs of eyes looking for things.
On this particular night walk I was excited to see an Amazon Milk Frog, as I particularly wanted to see one of these, they are around 3 inches in length with a brown and cream patterning on the body and pale green webbed feet and has a beautiful golden eye with black stripes, the Amazon Milk Frog is highly toxic and will release its poison if handled, the male has a loud call that sounds like a bark and females can lay up to 1,000 eggs, it is an impressive looking frog, here are a couple of photographs.
Jonas and I did a search of the lodge area for bugs and frogs and found a young Goliath Bird Eating Tarantula, a pair of Lichen Praying Mantises and a fantastic mustard yellow Gecko.
I spent one day wandering alone along one of the forest trails and saw something beautiful that caught my eye, it was in fact a young Vine Snake a very sleek long, thin snake with huge, unblinking eyes, it wound itself slowly around a tree and was very obliging while I took over 50 photographs of it, I went to get Jonas as I know he loves snakes and took him back to show it to him also.
Later that night I went on a two hour night walk just with Jonas and the guide, this was much better as we could go at a slower pace to look for and photograph the wildlife and we saw some great stick insects, tarantulas, metallic beetles, etc.
We went looking for Armadillos and it was not long before the scent of an Armadillo caught the senses of the guide moments before it appeared and went crashing into the forest undergrowth. We chased it for sometime, scrambling through thorny bush, however despite tracking it for sometime it escaped us, which is a shame as a photograph or some film footage would have been great. I would be tempting to stay up for a few hours and sit quietly waiting for it, however by that time our own scent was scattered throughout the area and so it seemed futile to do this.
This was a difficult trip for me, as I felt poorly for about 80% of the time out in the Amazon which made it tough with proper forest hikes, etc. It was a case of make the best of it and get on with it, which I did as much as possible and rested when I needed to, though I could feel that it irritated Jonas that I was not always up to scratch for the hiking, it did not in any way stop him going, but there were times when I thought I must try and get out even if I feel unwell.
On one of these full day hikes I got up at 05:30am feeling ill after coughing all through the night, my chest felt tender from it and I was still suffering from the nausea that had plagued me from the start of the trip, on saying to Jonas that I felt too poorly for the hike he gave me a look of such utter contempt that I grumpily changed my mind and said that I would go for it.
I am glad I did.
I went to breakfast, I can never eat at that time in the morning so instead made a couple of cheese rolls, wrapped them in a tissue napkin and stuffed them into my pockets before zipping up so that the ants could not get at them readily stored for later to eat on the go, we then had to wait at the waterside for the rain to stop as it had been raining very hard for a couple of hours. It is not safe to cross the lake when the rain is coming down so hard, though in the forest it was fine to walk in it as the canopy would break it up a little.
Eventually it stopped and Jonas, myself, a guide (Ol-ha) and a forest tracker (Cho Chan) got into a canoe and rowed across the lake, then we disembarked and walked across the forested route that we came in on before getting into a long tin boat to cross some interesting waters with narrow channels full of ferns, mosses, heliconias, palms and dark mangrove roots. Golden-mantled Tamarins (Saguinus tripartitus) jumped from tree to tree and a huge striped Heron flew on ahead of us landing on a log before flying further down river again each time we rowed towards it.
The tin boat would sometimes scrape against wood where the water was low and roots and branches were just beneath the surface, I liked this boat, it felt like an ancient battered but sturdy vehicle for exploring the dark, tannin stained waters where huge crocodiles, catfish and Arrowana fish dwelled.
We jumped out at a steep bank and scrambled up the slippery muddy hill into the forest, Cho cut us a path with his machete and sometimes we waded through deep mud, climbed over whole trees that had fallen, over logs strewn across water, climbing up more steep, muddy banks grabbing branches to pull ourselves up.
It was exciting getting through the forest and looking for Monkeys, etc, but the mosquitoes were out in force here, much more than any other area in the region that we had passed through, the forest itself was rather dark from the thick canopy high above, leaving only the odd patch of escapee sunlight.
We saw a group of Black Woolly Monkeys which Cho said he had only seen once before, he does not speak English, but we understood him through Ol-ha’s translation, the monkeys were really beautiful and unusual to look at and later we encountered a group of Spider Monkeys who passed quietly by overhead.
We continued on and had been going for about 5 hours, Cho continued hacking a route for us which must have been very tiring for him, however I also felt exhausted from the constant nausea that I had been suffering with not to mention my ever present cough that was now wearing me down a little. In complete contrast to me, Jonas seems to be extremely resilient to any illness or tiredness, he just keeps on going, something that I am rather envious of.
We were almost at the destination that Cho and Ol-ha wanted to reach anyway, that being a swamp, which is as far as they wanted to go, on reaching it the mosquitos, which had already been rife, began swarming with gusto, there was just no escape from them and they bit my through two layers of clothing, which is quite incredible.
Cho had been aware of my persistent cough and kept pointing at my chest and imitating the cough, then Ol-ha said that Cho had been looking for natural forest medicine for me but was searching for the right plant which was not easy to find.
Eventually Cho stopped at a tree called Tzicta and with his machete he expertly shaved off the outer bark and then found some huge palm leaves and made a bowl out of them by inter-weaving them together then used a small stick to twig it with. He them returned to the tree and shaved off some of the inner scrapings and placed them in the bowl along with some other plants and herbs that he collected off the ground and chopped finely before adding them into the bowl and gesturing for me to pour in my water, which I did.
I had assumed that I would drink this mixture down, but although this was his intention, rather than by mouth I had to take it through the nose instead and there was rather a lot of this mixture to take which was now a paste/liquid.
I put my head back and he duly poured it straight into my nostrils, the concoction burnt like acid when it went through my nostrils and down my throat, it felt wrong to be taking it via the nose and the taste was awful making me want to choke it back up. The acidity really burnt and would stay with me for most of the day, once I had got it all down, Cho mixed up a second batch of the stuff and made me do it all over again, though the first dose had successfully numbed my throat and so it was not so hard to get down.
Cho explained via Ol-ha that after about 5 or 6 hours I would have to drink a special medicinal tea that he would make for me, I thanked him and wondered if this would indeed cure my ever present cough.
Cho got his knowledge of forest medicine through his grandfather who was a medicine man and he learnt off him what is used for malaria, yellow fever and also chest/coughing problems, he also said how important it is for the families that live there.
Forest families are generally large with around 12-14 children, however this is causing problems as they can not support such a large family so the villagers are getting poorer, Cho says that he will only have 3 children as he does not want to become like so many others.
We had a snack by the swamp, I was about to sit down but was told not to due to the amount of army ants, instead Cho cut seats out of the rotting tree stumps and covered them in huge palm leaves, it was very effective.
We ate some bread and cheese before heading back the way we had come over fallen trees, some of them huge, through slippery passes, scrambling up and down muddy banks, both Jonas and I slipped and fell down one of the steep banks and got covered in mud, neither of us cared for ourselves, it was all about protecting our cameras.
We found a new species of Frog called Dendrobites bilinguane, which Cho was excited about, we also saw a Rocket Frog, Crested Jungle Frog and Ecuadorian poison dart frog.
It was a very long hike back but Cho and Ol-ha were both very pleased to have covered this ground, they were mapping the area, cutting new routes and exploring what was to be seen, it was exciting.
I was of course looking for as many insects as I could on route and found a very nice Black Tortoise Beetle.
We eventually came to the clearing with the huts and had another snack here with fruit juice in cartons and ate cold hard boiled eggs and potatoes, it was a welcome treat then Jonas and I looked for frogs and insects in the area and found a Weevil, some colourful Katydids, a Dragonfly and a Termites Nest.
After the rest, we then continued on foot until we reached the steep embankment which we climbed down to the waters edge where the tin boat was tied up waiting for us, I was very glad to see it and to get out of that dense forest to get some relief from the large number of attacking mosquitos.
It felt so good to be on the tin boat again and drift down the quiet, dark waters past all the colourful flowers amongst all the different shades of greens, it was beautiful and the breeze from the tin boat was a relief to both body and mind.
Later on we transferred from tin boat to foot and walked through more forest until we reached the lake where we got back into a small wooden canoe and paddled back to the next forest edge before walking back to camp.
I had a cold shower which was fantastic, it was always good to wash the mud and sweat away from the body at the end of a day, then I washed my clothes and hung them up to dry, though this could take a very long time as the humidity was so high and generally we put on damp clothes.
I felt very heady, almost drunk and suddenly very happy without a care in the world, it must be the forest medicine but to add to my euphoric state I drank two cocktail banana daiquiris which made me feel even merrier and talked no doubt non-stop nonsense to the people in the bar.
Jonas and I got up at 6am today and got ready to walk out with Cho to the Tree Tower, Jonas had already been once looking for birds on a day I was ill, but I had asked if we could return to it as he had seen a giant Goliath Bird Eating spider there that I wanted to search for.
The rain was heavy and it rained and rained and rained, but we went anyway trudging through muddy forest with waterproof capes over our camera equipment, it was a constant battle to keep our cameras dry in the humidity and all the rain, but it was a challenge that we welcomed to see the wildlife.
We reached the tower which looked to me as though it would fall down at the first gust of wind that blew its way, I found out that there had been a second tower further off but that it had collapsed.
We climbed steadily up the tower in the rain, which made the rotting wood slippery in places, some of the wood was so rotten that it had fallen away and part of a step would be missing. Termites and rain had rotted the wood and sometimes a step would move as you put your foot on it as it had come away on one side, looking at the already long drop below made me feel less confident of the tower, but the top had to be reached as my spider had been seen up by the canopy.
Once up there Jonas showed me where he had seen the spider, we were literally at the top of a very tall tree, however there were so many hiding places for the Tarantula as the branches were full of holes and covered in dense leaves and air plants, it was not to be seen anywhere.
There were some very colourful birds that could be seen from up there looking across the forest canopy such as Toucans and Parakeets, so it was worth he climb up.
I left Jonas and Cho up there though and climbed back down to the forest to look for frogs, using a long thin stick I carefully disturbed the leaf litter and found an abundance of tiny tree frogs and insects also.
It had been a happy morning spent in this area, the forest here was less dense and dark so there were much fewer mosquitoes, the boys came down from the tower and we headed back through the forest to camp and had lunch before packing up our backpacks ready to leave for NAPO island.
After lunch Cho, Jonas and I set off with our bags on a canoe across the water, then by foot through the forest walking to the waterside where this time there was a small cove with sand and driftwood where the boat would pick us up.
The boat did not turn up, so Cho got onto a radio and then gestured to us to wait there, then he waved good bye and disappeared back into the forest. Jonas and I mooched about looking around the little cove then sat and waited, the sky was black again threatening rain, but it created a dramatic sky by the water.
About an hour later the boat finally came to pick us up, three men were on it, two natives and the manager of NAPO wildlife centre, a man called Pedro, he shook hands with us and apologised for being late, the boat had been held up in bad weather, he was very well spoken and polite, dressed in an immaculate white shirt and smart trousers, he looked uncomfortable and out of place somehow.
It was fantastic being on this boat as it had an engine and sped along the Coca river creating that wonderful cool breeze that you can find yourself clinging to in a bid to escape the humidity.
After about an hour or so on the speed boat, we then came to a private dock and transferred to a canoe for the next part of the journey which would take over 2 hours highlighting the remoteness of the area we were heading to.
The canoe, which was paddled by the two natives and Pedro who again looked very uncomfortable and awkward, but it was really good to be journeying down this narrow almost black waterway where we saw hundreds of Dragonflies battling for their territory, a Boat Billed Heron, some impressive Hoatzin birds and a snake feared by the locals, which they call the X snake but was in fact a Fer De Lance.
It was an evil looking snake as it watched us, unblinking, from the bank on which it was coiled, I like snakes, however it is right to fear this one, if a Fer De Lance strikes you its venom can shut down your nervous system within 4 hours, there is an antidote, but you only have the 4 hours to get to it, otherwise you will die. This snake is also known as an aggressor, in that rather than slide away from a human, it will stand its ground and keep striking at you should you get too near it.
The canoe continued on down the river where eventually the foliage changed from the darker jungle plants to lighter green ferns and pond lilies then it opened out into Anangu lake on the South bank of the Napo river
The lake was so still it looked like glass and was so beautiful fringed by tall trees where brightly coloured kingfishers would speed from branch to branch, occasionally a huge pair of emotionless eyes would peer out at us from the water, the lake was full of Black Caiman crocodiles and unlike Sacha, you cannot swim here as these will attack to kill. In fact a couple did swim in the lake and were attacked and had to be flown out to a hospital by helicopter, it was long before we arrived though, but that story did stick in my mind.
Crossing the lake we paddled towards some very inviting rounded huts that looked like little Hobbit homes, the water was so still that the reflections of the huts were almost picture perfect.
Jonas and I jumped out of the canoe gathering our packs and cameras and were given a welcome drink of fruit juice, which was very refreshing and shown to our hut, as we walked up and over the narrow path towards it we saw thousands of Leaf Cutter Ants on the longest trail I have ever seen of these Ants. I threw my stuff into the hut and grabbing my cameras filmed some footage of the ants on their busy trail as well as photographing them, they were a pleasure to watch.
The light was fading fast so Jonas and I had supper in the main hut and got an early night looking forward to the first light so that we could explore the area.
A man in the next hut was violently sick all night, it sounded truly awful and I felt so sorry for him, I woke up at 5am with my legs and feet covered in fresh, itchy bites and I was in a strange state of mind also, things seem to get to you more out here.
I have heard other people say the same thing that in these areas the smallest things can seem so much bigger, but that you must remember that and not get caught up in ‘jungle madness’, once you get acclimatised I know that these thoughts and feelings generally settle down.
Many people in camp seemed to be suffering from this sickness, it must have been awful for them as we could hear them most of time throughout the day if we were there and during the night time.
I had a stomach upset that like clockwork got worse every 4 hours and so when I had to go I would discretely get behind a large tree in the forest and go in the hope that Jonas and Heidal would not guess.
It rained heavily for most of the day again and my passport got soaked in my ‘waterproof bag’ and I found myself wrapping my photographic lenses up as much as possible to protect them, it was a constant battle for both Jonas and I to keep the rain off our cameras.
We took a canoe across the lake and back down the 2 hour journey out of the narrow channel to the dock where we got into another boat and went to the Napo river to see a parrot clay lick, the parrots looked beautiful with their iridescent green feathers.
After spending some time watching the parrots we disembarked further along the bank and walked into a forested area to meet a Tribe (Quichua tribe), sadly there was to be no welcome dance for us as the women do the dance and a large number of them were giving birth all at that time, I saw no men there at all. There were four women and one of them spoke to us in Quichua and tried to explain what their life is like out there and how they survive in the forest, it was a fascinating account.
The Napo Runas are a mix of indigenous tribes who inhabit the shores alongside the Napo river, the Aguarico river and the slopes of the Andes, they are the native people who escaped up-river from the violence of the rubber-harvesters. Their jungle culture mixed itself with Andean people of the Quichua group, so their language today is the so-called Lower Quichua, and they are called either Naporunas or Quichuas. Other Quichua groups have formed south to the rivers Pastaza, Curaray and Bonbonaza, where they have fought hard to get rid of the invasive oil companies. As they have been all around the territory of the Huaorani (Waorani), accounts of their fights go back many years, perhaps even centuries, so the oil companies, when they wanted to secure new territories, have offered the Quichuas land in the areas where they knew they would have to deal with Waorani resistance to their presence. This practice of offering land to “civilized natives” in territories selected by oil companies where they want to start drilling for oil, land protected by the Waorani, has been one of the main causes for bloodshed in the last decades.
As well as that the Tribes have also had their fair share of violence with rival Tribes which would come and kill off the babies and children to try and stop the line. The Quichua woman explained to us via an interpretor that when this happened they would defend themselves by carving huge long wooden spears which would be hidden facing outwards around the camp to impale any imposters.
Anyone who was impaled would be killed and then made an example of with the shrunken head method, this is where the skin is taken off and re-moulded onto a small monkey skull then hung up outside the camp or village on vines as a deterrent to ward off other attackers.
Life for them is a constant battle it would seem, their faces look so much older than ours but this is not from the sun as they are deep in the forest and the canopy shuts much of it out, plus they use mud as a protector, it must be from living a hard life.
In her native language the woman also demonstrated how the tribe live by fishing, hunting for mammals, they make a lethal cocktail that stays in the kitchen at all times, this is to use as poison in the long blow darts that they use to paralyse monkeys so that they will fall out of the high canopy trees, the brew is made of bullet ants, spiders, poison dart frogs and forest herbs, it is very effective.
Bullet ants are common in the forest and if stung by one the pain is so bad it is said that it feels as if you have been shot, the pain will last up to 24 hours and is listed as number one by the Schmidt Pain Index, some Tribes use Bullet Ants in initiation ceremony to prove a mans ‘strength and manliness’ by making them put their hand in a glove of angry Bullet Ants that have been rather cruelly ‘sewn’ into the glove made of vines and will therefore continue stinging constantly, the unfortunate man has to keep his hand in there for 10 minutes, grown men have been known to pass out from the pain.
The woman made us a brew that has hallucinogenic qualities which was served in a coconut half and looked like milk, they spit into it to ferment it which is more than off putting, however it would be rude not to try it, the brew tasted of strong mushrooms, its frothy milkiness was not too appetising though.
The woman talked of the Shaman, who are spiritual guides and respected medicine men, they are tested as young boys by going into the forest alone for several months and trying all the plants, roots and herbs for survival, they will become ill but will also learn how to cure themselves, luckier men have the natural remedies passed on from their forefathers, such as Cho who gave me my medicine for my cough.
People have travelled from all over the World to see these Shaman healers and I really would have liked to have met one, however the Tribe had a large carved wooden monkey in camp in honour of the Shaman who used to come and treat them, however one day he just lay down in that very spot and died, it is there in his honour.
Heidel who understood some of the language of the Tribeswoman and had been interpreting for us told me that he has watched Shaman men perform the medicine and each time the Shaman has ‘tuned into’ someone who has a serious illness, telling them exactly what is wrong with them and being 100% accurate, one man who had cancer the Shaman told him exactly where it was and said that he would not live long, another woman had a brain tumour and he had pointed to this area saying he could feel it there.
It is all so fascinating, the medicine ritual is intense and will aid many illnesses, however sadly it will not help with cancer if it is too far developed.
If you decide to try the ritual you must prepare for it over several days and have somebody with you, the medicine then given is a hallucinogenic cocktail that cleanses you, it is not pleasant to taste (much like my ‘acid’ medicine that I took through the nose I imagine) but this one can make you very sick and someone must stay with you while you take it.
I asked if it was possible to get to one of the Shaman to stay a few days and get a treatment, however they said that the Shaman are too far away now and it would not be possible, if I ever come back to the Amazon I will plan to do this.
After showing us some of the baskets weaved to carry forest fruits, etc. the Quichua woman showed us the traps that they built for their food source, there was an impressive array of traps from fishing ones to small mammals right up to human size! I filmed most of this and will put some extracts on here.
One of the traps I found particularly saddening as it is to trap Jaguars and other big cats, a small mammal will be put in as bait and then as the Jaguar walks in it triggers the trap to fall and hem both animals inside the wooden jail, the Tribesmen then suffocate them by lighting a fire and getting smoke in the cage, once the animals die the skins are removed and traded to make money, it is so sad for these beautiful cats, this practice is now illegal, though of course like most things it still goes on.
We were then shown the poison dart gun which is 7 feet long, to blow the dart through a tube that length takes an awful lot of puff and determination, I am still surprised at the length of it, however it is necessary in order to reach the top of the canopy and keep the dart aim straighter on its journey.
As we left the Quichua woman I met her eyes and found them to be warm and accepting of us as I waved goodbye and nodded a thank you, further down the track I looked back at the few of them that were there and thought how tough their lives are and wondered what the future holds for these Tribes.
Those thoughts have never left me.
We walked down the track and back through the forest to another clay lick of brightly coloured macaws, they were beautiful to watch and I filmed them before continuing down the track where Jonas was looking for birds to photograph and I was going for frogs and insects as usual, it was a nice leisurely walk back.
A very heavy tropical rain storm came out of nowhere and I was surprised to see how the trees were almost blowing over in it, the winds were so strong, we had to run out and away from the trees as branches were falling all around us.
We walked to a large hut where we had some food then canoed back in the rain once the winds had died down, the rain continued on for most of the day, but as we got back it cleared and calmed and what made it even better was that we heard and then saw a group of Giant River Otters.
The noise that these creatures make is so strange sounding, almost prehistoric as they show their excitement over a fish they have managed to catch, they were so graceful to watch but the moment was bried, they are shy mammals and disappeared out of view rapidly.
A game that I liked to play coming back across the lake was to ‘tease the caimen’ as I delighted in calling it, this is where we would canoe up close to the young caimen as they wallowed with their heads above water, at the point where the canoe got too close the caiman would throw itself up and into the water so fast that all you saw was a splash! It was great fun to film this, but we only did it with babies, not adults as that would be like playing Russian roulette, those adults have dull, lifeless eyes that follow you as you canoe by and the sheer size and strength of them scares me.
There was a quiet bit of the lake just down by the hut that I shared with Jonas and often at the end of the day we would walk down there to see what there was, today we watched with fascination as a Yellow Spotted River Turtle battled with Butterflies and even a dragonfly landing on its head, they were sucking the salt from the Turtle, it was interesting to see.
We did lots of canoeing today, it was a full day with two hours to get out of the creek onto the Napo river where we changed to a bigger boat which was powered and did an additional two hour journey past the parrot clay lick and natives camp which we now recognised and knew, beyond to a much larger lake past the odd long boat carrying huge lorries used (I imagine ) for logging.
The boat was cool and I especially enjoyed the journey as we had the company of two Canadians who I really liked, they were my favourite people from the trip as I loved their honesty and straight forwardness, their names were Rich and Rebecca.
Parts of the lake were covered in a thick mist, which looked romantic against the forest and eerie on the water as ghostly branches reached out like Merlin’s sword from the depths below.
Eventually we reached an area where the lake turned into a narrow channel and some way down here we were lucky to see Amazonian Pink River Dolphins, these Dolphins are incredibly pink, vibrant pink, I had no idea how bright they were. It was difficult to photograph or even film them as they played a game with us, appearing out of the water suddenly in one spot, only to re-appear in a completely different one, I am sure they were laughing and having fun, it felt that way.
What I loved about Rich and Rebecca is that they did not attempt to take any pictures, they sat and enjoyed the Dolphins, that little piece of time and magic of nature and I wished I could put my camera down for 1 second and do the same….but I could not, somehow I am conditioned now to capture everything on camera or film, but as they said it is good to just ‘be’ and enjoy it. Quite right.
These Pink River Dolphins are an odd shape, not as sleek as other Dolphins and therefore can not jump out of the water, but they move very fast and so you catch a glimpse of pink dorsal fin or pink tail, they are quite wonderful creatures.
Eventually the Dolphins grew bored of us and moved on and so did we and continued down the channel to an even narrower creek where we saw a nested tree of Night Herons, they were so peaceful looking sitting there, I took many photographs of these beautiful little birds.
Then suddenly Jonas called out, he was sitting at the front of the boat and had spotted a Common Potoo, my absolute favourite bird! Although I am not a ‘birdy person’ I have to say having seen these creatures in Guyana, I was so enthralled by them that to see one is a real scoop, they look like pieces of wood and are incredibly difficult to spot as they stay absolutely still during the day, by night, these nocturnal birds come alive opening their huge orange red eyes and hunting for prey.
It was a successful day out, we set back on the 4 hour journey to camp, I lay down in the boat enjoying the breeze from it but then suddenly once again the rains came out of nowhere, a huge heavy storm, we had to batten down the flapping plastic sheets alongside the boat, but the water poured in, a good 4-5 inches on it in the bottom of the boat, once again our equipment endured getting wet, though we protectively hugged it.
I shouted across to Jonas “do you remember Cambodia?….sorry we seem to be in this again”
“yes” he glumly replied.
One year ago I asked Jonas to accompany me as a friend and photographer on my expedition to Vietnam to explore some little know caves and document what was living in those areas (see Vietnam caving expedition) afterwards we travelled on to Cambodia where we got caught in a severe thunderstorm out at sea, we both thought that we would be out of that boat in the water as it rocked violently and water poured in as well as the engine failing……but that’s another story……
Jonas did not look too pleased that once again he has joined me on an adventure and all his equipment is at risk to the elements, I thought it all rather fun, we had plastic bags to protect and just had to hope it would all blow over, it adds to the adventure.
The tropical storm raged for hours and the boat rocked from side to side as the strong gusts of wind blew across the river, palm trees were almost doubled over by the wind and we clung ever still to our photographic equipment, the boatman gave me a black plastic bag as extra protection and I was so grateful.
The rain did not stop, we did the 2 hours back to the little dock but had to wait there for some time before it was safe to get into a canoe and travel the next 2 hours back to camp and we sat in the rain for the whole duration, but that is what life in the Amazon is like, it is, after all a rain forest.
We had a meal with Rich and Rebecca, they were leaving in the morning and invited us to go and see them in Yellowstone Park, I would love to go and it will be great to see them again one day.
The next day we got up at 6am, I was tired but felt well enough to get out for a hike and so off we went first rowing across the lake and then into a small creek where we stopped at a dark, forested area and stepped out of the canoe into deep clay. We had to scramble up a steep muddy bank side to a hilly area with very dense forest and on route saw many poison dart and tree frogs along with millipedes, tarantulas and exotic beetles.
We saw and heard Red Howler Monkeys and much later on we came across a group of wholly monkeys who got aggressive as they shook the branches violently and threw branches at us. I filmed some of this but then had to duck away as some of the branches were quite large and a whack on the head could do some obvious damage.
It was tricky to film but I captured some of it before having to retreat back through the trees and down another slippery bank, Jonas had already fallen over earlier and now it was my turn to go straight down into the thick mud, I was unhurt but my camera and lens got covered, I later cleaned it with some wipes and a small twig to get the mud out.
The walk continued on but again as the forest was so dense and dark and swampy the mosquitoes were a real nuisance and continuously bit through my two layered, long sleeved clothing.
After a morning in that dense forest we came back to base for lunch then afterwards headed out again in the canoe to do my favour
After a morning in that dense forest we came back to base for lunch then afterwards headed out again in the canoe to do my favourite thing of the day and tease the caimans and got some more film footage of them snapping into the water, it is the best way to spend an afternoon, well that and looking for three-toed sloths.
We found two Three-Toed Sloths hanging high in the tree tops, they are such amazing creatures to watch when moving as they seem to curl themselves lazily around the branches, most of the time they are as still as statues, but one of them was quite active, possibly being aware of our presence.
The remainder of the canoeing was peaceful and relaxing through the sunlit green foliage full of dragonflies and Butterflies to the denser darker creeks of tall trees, palms and vines.
I got covered in bites, bites on top of bites.
On the way back we were following a large caiman, it was hunting for prey, at 5:30pm they start to become active and hunt, it submerged under the water and little known to me at the time began following us in the canoe keeping close.
I was distracted by the beautiful sunset and glow of the light around it and wanted to get a wide angled shot of this amazing sky reflected in the water so without another thought stood up to take a photograph, as I did so quick as lightening that large crocodile snapped out of the water to the right side of me.
I was really startled and sat down immediately with fear, even Jonas and the canoe men had cried out at the shock of this thing snapping out of the water, it was only then we were told that it had been following us. We were then told that these crocodiles have been known to follow canoes and launch themselves sideways into the canoes to get at people and to try and tip the canoe, scary stuff.
I think its safe to say that I will never stand up in a canoe in the Amazon again.
Only three days left here at this point, it seemed a shame in some ways yet I felt ready to leave, Jonas and I battled on together, two friends who have shared some wildlife adventures but who also had to live in a small space together for those concentrated periods in an often uncomfortable and challenging environment such as our caves, it is little wonder we sometimes get irritable living that way 24/7 with the sickness, bites, stomach upsets that naturally come with it.
We made our way back to camp and once out of the canoe went our separate ways to look for things to photograph, I chose the Leaf Cutter Ants and Jonas went down to the Turtles, there was a group of German Documentary makers in camp that night, they were a nice bunch of people.
Next day it was up at 6am and off canoeing through darker waters and narrow forested canals, a different route to usual and on route we saw Spider Monkeys, one of the Amazons rarest monkey.
One of the males in this group got angry as we had canoed directly beneath them and he started to rock the branches from side to side them he threw a hefty branch down at us, narrowly missing the canoe.
I had been filming up to that point but ducked my camera down to protect it from the branch that came hurtling towards us, its a shame as I would have liked to have got it on film, had we been further back I would have risked it.
We continued canoeing away from the angry Spider Monkeys up river then stopped at a muddy bank and went off into the dark forest, this was to be a full days hiking but it was not long before I began to loathe it, again it was scrambling up and down, up and down steep muddy hills of thick, twisted forest, it was so dense in there that at times the greens of the leaves looked black.
It was marshy and swampy and absolutely full of mosquitoes once again, I got bitten to pieces, it was relentless and I keep feeling cold and shivery despite the intensity of the heat and I still had waves of nausea.
After several hours of this miserable dark hike and being constantly bitten with mosquitoes even in my nostrils and eyes it began to wear me down, my mood changed and I felt as though the slightest small thing would make me snap, again this is just the forest playing games, it happens out there.
We continued on through sinking mud and bogs getting across by balancing ourselves over fallen trees of which there were many, there was not much light and not many of the insects I wanted to find with the lack of sun patches, this was the darkest forest that I had ever been in.
We did find a Forest Anole which is a fantastic looking leaf lizard, its deceptive disguise as dead leaves is impressive and it had a prehistoric look about it.
At last we turned back but we still had some hours walking before we reached the canoe again, Jonas it seems can just keep going, he is built like a Marine and seems hardened to bites and the sickness that comes with them, I wish I had that steely exterior, but I was completely covered in itchy welts from the mosquitoes that were driving me to distraction. They seem to like some blood more than others.
After trekking for what seemed ‘ever’ we got back to the canoe and paddled back through the dark water channels and had some food at the little dock hut so I knew we were now only 2 hours from camp before canoeing back on that last bit of journey.
I found so much wildlife here at the dock as it was foresty but with more sunlight and there were frogs and insects on every leaf almost, I also found a clay patch which was covered in moths and butterflies, all different kinds of swallowtails, they were simply stunning to look at.
We paddled back, I had so many bites, I counted over 80 just on the front of me so I am estimating it must have easily been double that, some of the bites looked different from the mosquito ones and had quickly formed into blood blisters, I wonder what those were, but I had a lot of those too.
We arrived back at camp just as the rain clouds opened and more water poured out of the sky, as usual Marcel the barman was there to give us a refreshing drink of fruit juice after our days hiking which was always such a welcome treat to get back to, I quickly came to rely on it as a treat.
I had a cold shower to wash away the dirt and sweat of the day and sooth the bites, the blood blister ones were strange, on examination I still could not work out what they were and contemplated bursting them but knew better than to do that out here with so much risk of infection.
I went up the lookout tower and sat watching the lake looking for the crocodile eyes to start appearing and any birds, etc. It was always a good end to the day of which we now only had two left.
Though there had been daily frustrations and ‘little pinchings’ between Jonas and I, he is still a good companion to travel with on these trips as we understand each others need to go off and get the job done in finding the wildlife and filming or photographing it, there is no time to consider anything else, it is purely about that.
Also in these far off places there is a period of adjustment that we must go through as an individual and it takes time to settle into a routine, so whoever you are with it can sometimes feel challenging, for me usually as I will fight to have space and time alone in the forest, that is really what I crave.
After this time in the area I felt as though I could feel the rhythm of the surrounding forest, the bit I knew, not the darker ones we explored earlier, but these parts where I knew the Red Howlers would appear each morning to wake us, where I got to know where certain insects and amphibians lived and could walk back and re-visit them and where the tracks I would walk along down at any given opportunity had just my footprints in.
As the light faded I continued gazing out across the lake, watching the Caimans hunting, the eye shine and moving lines of water giving them away.
The last bit of time at NAPO I spent alone going on my own walks into the forest where I had the happiest time discovering some of the weirdest and exotic insects I have ever seen, it was just incredible, one insect was sparkly and looked like a toy.
I was still getting bitten constantly but here the bites were not as intense as the dark forest, though still annoying beyond words. I looked for snakes also using a stick but did not find any, though plenty of poison dart frogs, they are everywhere here, if you delicately use a stick to move the leaf litter you will see them jumping.
The next day Jonas and I were packed and ready to leave, I savoured every second of the canoe ride across the lake and through the narrow channel, it was dawn and light was just coming through.
Bats flew in circles around us as we passed and we watched the Howlers moving through the trees as we passed, then all of a sudden this large, ungainly looking mammal was swimming stright towards us.
It was a Forest Peccary and had up to this point not seen us, I quickly got my bags open and instantly started to film it, then as it got closer it sensed us and made a crying noise as it scrambled out of the water, up the mud bank and into the forest in seconds.
It was very rare to see and we were extremely lucky to have that experience, it felt as though it was a parting gift from the forest on the day we were leaving.
After the encounter with the wild Tapir we continued canoeing down river two hours as the light began to dawn and the bats continued to fly around us as we progressed through the narrow channel.
Once we reached the boat house it began raining really heavily again and we had to shelter under the wooden podium, Pedro and some of the staff at NAPO were also heading on the same journey to the airport as they were having a break.
We then scrambled down the steep embankment with our backpacks and onto the larger boat for the open water where we had another 2 hours or so to get to a small town where we travelled on the back of an open cattle lorry to the airport.
The cattle lorry was covered in thick dirt, had open sides and the seats had no springs in them, neither did the vehicle have any suspension so going around the potholed corners was challenging at times with camera bags, etc.
The first airport was tiny, we waited in a hot room where there was little air for what seemed to be a very long time then finally we flew back to the city of Quito which is where I began my Amazon journey.
We arrived at around 1pm so decided to make the most of our free afternoon and after buying some cheese rolls and an ice cream each we walked through the city park and across to the Botanical gardens.
These gardens were full of interesting plants, the most fascinating being the tropical Venus Fly Trap plants which hang down like huge oval shaped pitchers with a lid hinged on to the top and will bang shut once an insect goes inside and sets of the tiny sensors inside the flower.
It was a really good afternoon, the rain stayed away and it felt so relaxed just to be walking about with ease out in the open again, Jonas and I both had slight headaches from the altitude but they were mild, it highlights though how the heights affect us, even from just flying to a higher area.
The next morning we flew back to Miami where there was a good two hours wait for customs, then onto the UK which is home for me and I had a hot chocolate with Jonas while he was waiting for his final flight out to Denmark.
All in all, it was a successful trip in the amount of wildlife that we saw and experienced, I really also value the insight into the Tribe and even the medicine, but there are some changes that I would choose to make for another trip such as this.
Time to start thinking of where to explore next, I already have a few ideas, I hope you have enjoyed reading this piece for a full gallery of Amazon Images, please go to:
Thank you for reading this