Welcome to the Jungle

by

It’s a pitch black night. We are sitting in a wooden canoe in the middle of Lago Sandoval deep in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. We are searching for Cayman crocodiles.

Joining us in the boat are Victor, our jungle guide, and a crazy 60-year old Italian named Giovanni with his 30-year old Venezuelan girlfriend.

Victor has already caught a baby Cayman with his bare hands, passed it to each of us to hold and thrown it back into the lake.

Cradling, not strangling, a baby cayman

But now we are looking for its rather larger relatives.

Flicking on his torch, Victor sends a ray of light across the lake. Scanning the still waters we suddenly see a flashpoint, like a solitary shining star in a blackened sky. It is the eye of an adult Cayman.

“That’s a big one”, says Victor. I’m not sure whether to encourage him to approach or tell him to head back to shore. The decision is taken out of my hands as I hear a guttural sound emanating somewhere from Victor’s throat.

“Wobwob, wobwob,” repeats Victor. Almost immediately, the crocodile turns and swims towards us.

At first I’m spellbound by the Cayman’s graceful glide as it propels itself on the water using only its tail and hardly causing a ripple on the surface. But then I see its size. At over two metres long it is one of the bigger Caymans that frequent this lake at night.

It stops next to our canoe. It is about two feet away and with just its right eye it seems to stare each of us down simultaneously. For a moment we are entranced. Then, there’s a sudden splash!

We all jump. The canoe rocks. But the Cayman is gone, probably more scared of us than we are of it.

I was too focussed on the animal to think about reaching for my camera but it is a memory I’m unlikely to forget. And this was just the first night of our jungle adventure.

A few hours earlier we had flown from Cusco to the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado for a three-day trek in the Amazon.

The Tambopata River, a tributary of the Amazon

The 35-minute flight (as opposed to a 14 hour bus ride predominantly on dirt roads) was worth the price as we had a birds-eye view of the Amazon and its many tributaries snaking their way through the acres of dense green foliage that make up the Peruvian jungle.

We had booked our three-day adventure with an independent guide based on Yann’s recommendation. Victor didn’t disappoint, mainly because he was much cheaper than the many ‘eco-lodges’ that promise the same experience.

He met us at the airport and took us straight to his home to have lunch whilst we waited for Giovanni to arrive. Of course, the crazy Italian had travelled by bus from Cusco. He turned up with his t-shirt on back to front, a Nikon D60 SLR that he didn’t know how to use in one hand and a compact video camera that he would frequently talk into with the other. His girlfriend was dressed all in white – not exactly the outfit most would choose for a jungle trek.

Victor took us downriver for about an hour, where we got off the boat and trudged through a muddy jungle track for a further hour and a half (thankfully Victor had provided us each with wellington boots to tackle the trail). We then got in a canoe, rowed through marshes for about 30 minutes until the trees parted to reveal Lago Sandoval. We rowed silently across the lake as dusk was settling in and watched as the last rays of sun glistened on the water.

Sunset on Sandoval

Victor stopped the canoe at the opposite side of the lake and we walked to our rather rustic lodgings.No lights, no fans and no comforts. This was to be true jungle living.

Jungle Chic

Jungle Chic-er

Luckily, we had been given head-torches as a gift at our London leaving party (thanks Nat and Gary) and these proved to be extremely useful, especially as there were cockroaches, tarantulas and bugs of many kinds lurking in all the dark corners. The mosquito nets around our beds saved us from having to worry about this whilst sleeping but it was a nightly battle to get ready for bed whilst dodging the wildlife in and around our hut.

Of course, jolly Giovanni didn’t have a torch and Victor had to lend him one. Despite not speaking any English, Giovanni was actually a very nice, jovial guy but we weren’t too displeased when we found out that the odd couple were only staying one night. The reason – because they had booked themselves on a four-day cargo boat down the Amazon to Manaus in Brazil. I couldn’t imagine anyone who could be less prepared for such a journey where he would be sleeping hammock to hammock with the local workers and eating whatever livestock was on the boat. The guy was as mad as Fitzcarraldo and just as determined. I almost wish we went with him just to see what he was going to try next.

A pair of Scarlet Macaws

The following morning we were up early to see the many colourful macaws and parrots that proliferate the forest at sunrise. After breakfast, Victor then took us on a three-hour jungle trek where we were astounded by the giant trees with leaves that were twice our height. At one point we came across a fat toad almost as big as my head. Victor kindly (to us, unkindly to the toad) prodded it in our direction so we could take a good picture.

roar

He also introduced us to the many fruits of the forest. After trying and failing to make us eat a worm that grows inside a large seed, he settled on cracking open a couple of pods of Brazil nuts. Inside each pod lies about 12 nuts each in their own hard shell. Victor pulled out his penknife to prize them open.

“That’s not a knife,” I said, “this is a knife.” And I pulled out the large Leatherman we had been given as a gift at our Paris leaving party (thanks Paris friends).

Why everyone needs their own Leatherman

But I must admit that even Crocodile Cutler was no match for Victor when it came to nutcracking (or anything else in the jungle). Still the Brazil nuts were large and delicious and I was glad to put the Leatherman to good use.

No piranhas, but not complaining

After the amazing experiences of that morning and the previous night, the afternoon was a bit of a disappointment. On our monkey trek, Victor failed to find any howler monkeys and we had to make do with a few capuchins. Later he also failed in his attempt to catch a piranha, with only a small sardine to show for his work.

Relaxing on the lake

Following dinner we went on a night trek, which is rather disconcerting when the jungle is full of animal noises and you can hardly see what’s in front of you. What made it worse was that we only had to walk about 20 metres from our huts before Victor showed us one of many tarantula nests nearby.  These were tarantulas of the largest, hairiest kind and it didn’t help when Victor informed us that one touch of their hair is extremely poisonous and that they could jump a metre in the air.

As big as my palm

In the end we were glad to get back to the relative safety of our huts. And the next morning we were eager to get back to civilisation. Our adventure in the jungle was an incredible experience but two nights of profuse sweating and intermittent bug bites were enough for our city-dwelling bodies.

As we trudged back to the boat, stopping of course to see more macaws and monkeys, it was hard to imagine a time when we’ve been dirtier, sweatier or more tired. But you couldn’t wipe the smiles from our faces.

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6 Responses to “Welcome to the Jungle”

  1. Patrice Fiset Says:

    Wow sounds amazing!

  2. merv Says:

    wow, scary ass spiders! i would have freaked.
    sorry not been intouch only just got internet at home again and bit busy at work. will look back and catch up asap. Alls well here. Merv (Ps cuts I am batman!)

  3. cynthia cutler Says:

    Hi Marc and Manna I am beginning to not recognise you both because of your sun tans, The ever sensible, and always worried mum says hope you put on lots of SPV protection. Continue with your stories they are fascinating. xxxx

  4. lyn Says:

    What an adventure! will manchester & london ever be the same after the amazon! go cutz! cant beleive you are both going for the whole jungle/amazon experience & looking like you are loving it! lucky! ;)xx

  5. big sis b Says:

    Litttle Lewis has a cool uncle but we have our own adventures here like taking a little one on a steam train all the way to ramsbottom x x x

  6. Alexandra Says:

    Wow! I have only now been able to catch up with all your adventures – thanks to the time difference of Ozzie F1 land with the rest of Europe! Sounds amazing – Marc, was probably best decision yet to leave your hard-pressured colleagues in Paris to go on this world tour! Really jealous! Alexandra

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