Jungle journey

When nature’s rioting all around, your fellow adventurers will get you through, Kaye Fallick discovers in the teeming rainforests of Peru.

We have been warned about the Amazon Basin. Even in early spring it will be hot, humid and enervating. We have been told what to bring, the required vaccinations and the consequences for the unprepared (yellow fever, typhoid, perhaps rabies) and have a passing knowledge of the creatures waiting in line to kill us – anacondas, piranhas and, to my husband’s extreme distress, the candiru, a tiny bug which swims up a stream of male urine, implants itself in the penis, causes massive swelling and the eventual ‘explosion’ of the male member. Kaboom!

So it is with a degree of fear and trepidation that we have loaded ourselves, and far too much luggage, onto the flight to Puerto Maldonado, a fast-developing ‘frontier’ town located at the junction of two rivers, the Rios Tambopata and Madre de Dios, in the heart of the Peruvian jungle.

Although we are awash with tales of the perils of the jungle, we know little of the history and ecology of the Amazon Basin, which occupies half of the landmass of Peru but is home to barely five per cent of the people.

This lack of knowledge is about to change, courtesy of Julian, our guide and mentor for the next five days. Born in Puerto Maldonado, Julian is one of seven guides for InkaNatura, an ecological touring company specialising in ‘real’ experiences for travellers who are keen to understand more about life in the jungle. Our trip is split between two lodges – Heath River Wildlife Centre and Lake Sandoval Lodge – and, although brief, offers a once-in-alifetime opportunity to check Western civilisation at the door and abandon ourselves to nature at its most luxuriant, rampant and remote.

Our first inkling of the power of nature – and our immediate surrender of any notions of comfort and ‘control’ – comes as we board our motorised canoes for a six-hour voyage upstream to the Heath River Lodge.

It is late afternoon and the river is swollen due to higher than usual rainfalls in the Andes, a direct result of the south Atlantic friaje, a cold front that has blown in from Chile. Despite the exhortations to pack light and dress for sweltering heat, we are shivering – the temperature has dropped to just 12 degrees, and every spare item of clothing is hastily pulled from bags and donned. The old joke about parties really ‘taking off’ when everyone changes clothing appears strangely true. The three couples in our tour group – Tracey and Katie from the US, Tony and Michelle from the UK and David and I from Australia – at first seemed to have little in common. Suddenly thrown together on a canoe bouncing down a swollen river full of floating jetsam, cold wind whipping, even colder spray dousing all, we bond instantly over the sharing of any fleecy-lined item anyone can produce. Julian, our guide, is highly amused at the spectacle.

We make just two stops during our six-hour voyage – firstly to ‘leave Peru’ on the southern bank of the river, and shortly afterwards, to our surprise, to officially ‘enter’ Bolivia at the mouth of the Heath River. For whilst we have been promised a Peruvian jungle adventure, the Heath River Lodge is actually located in a Bolivian Nature Reserve.

The true heroes of the voyage are the helmsman and navigator. Picture this. Light has faded at 5.30 p.m. It is now pitch black. And if Cat Stevens once thought he was Miles from Nowhere, let me tell you, we are in a far greater pickle. The river is huge, a relentless rush against our relatively small craft powered only by an outboard motor. The helmsman is tucked away in the stern, his successful navigation dependent entirely on the teenage boy in the prow, who holds aloft two spotlights which he swings from side to side to reveal floating trees, logs, the occasional caiman, and some menacing-looking rocks midstream. The floodlight shows the water to be an angry yellow brown. It also occasionally catches the glint of eyes of creatures on the banks as we bounce and weave our way upstream. Except for the rushing of the water, and the reassuring throb of the Yamaha, all is eerily silent, and totally surreal.

The skill and intuitive communication of the two-man crew (remember, one is in the stern of the canoe separated by 10 metres, random piles of luggage and half a dozen tourists from the other) are remarkable. Somehow, the pair manages to manoeuvre our tiny raft past all obstacles while pointing out monkeys, fish and night-hunting birds.

None too soon a collection of crazily arranged kerosene lamps hoves into view above a simple wooden landing almost eclipsed by the swollen waters. We’ve arrived. We lurch out of the boat, filled with gratitude for a safe and relatively dry arrival, and climb up the stamped earth steps to Heath River Lodge.

Here we are given a welcome fruit cocktail, room keys and an invitation to freshen up for dinner, to be served in 30 minutes.

By the light of our torches we follow the soft sawdust path to our individual cabins. There is no electricity: just three candles illuminate our ‘jungle hut’. Mosquito nets grace the ‘matrimonial’ bed, adding a certain magic to the atmosphere already created by flickering candlelight, the scent of citronella (used as a mosquito deterrent) and the calls of birds navigating their way through the dense black sky.

Dinner is delicious – local ingredients are used in a simple pork stew served with manioc and a rice pudding follows. But still there is no rest for the wicked. As we think of settling into the lodge for a chat and after-dinner drink, we are “strongly encouraged” by Julian to join a short trek through the jungle to identify more creatures of the night.

Life at Heath River Lodge is busy. Early morning and late night treks are mandatory to try to see the vast array of flora and fauna in the Reserve.

We have struck gold with our guide, Julian, a patient, courteous and eminently knowledgeable local man aged about thirty. He works us hard – the first morning we are woken at five for a quick departure to a thatched blind (a floating hut in the middle of the river) from which we will view the macaws and parrots as they visit a clay lick. This ritual helps the birds balance their diet and line their digestive tracts to counteract some of the more poisonous fruits and leaves they have ingested. Larger animals such as deer, tapir and monkeys also indulge at various clay licks on the river edge.

The afternoon brings another walk and chance to experience the silence and majesty of the jungle, to stand in awe beside trees hundreds, if not thousands of years old, to bend down and watch an army of leafcutter ants transport half a forest of foliage on their tiny backs.

That evening we take a short walk to another blind, where staff from the Lodge have created separate sleeping compartments for our group. Here we rest while the trusty Julian stays awake, hopeful of a visit from a tapir, so he can wake us to watch its nocturnal wanderings. This time we’re out of luck, but have enjoyed our jungle ‘sleepover’ nevertheless.

The next day we journey back downstream to Lake Sandoval. The Heath River has risen even higher overnight – we are hurled downstream by the swift current, rejoining the Madre de Dios River, before docking below Lake Sandoval. Then the fun truly begins. It’s on with our gumboots for a soggy 50-minute trek to the lake. The ground is very muddy – the rainy season just having ended – so it is a relief to stop at the ranger’s hut to register and to learn about the Tambopata National Reserve and the river systems that traverse it.

At the end of the trek, we board smaller canoes and are gently paddled down a narrow canal for a short distance before suddenly gliding into Lake Sandoval – a tropical wonderland, lit golden by the late afternoon sun. Lily pads, palms, mahogany, rubber and fig trees line the shores. Chattering monkeys and a cacophony of birdcalls emerge from the canopy. As the sun sets the nocturnal creatures begin to busy themselves. Julian identifies red howler monkeys swinging from tree to tree, beady-eyed caimans, frogs, turtles, tadpoles and varieties of birds too numerous to mention.

And, as the sun slowly disappears behind the horizon, first one, then two, then twenty, thirty, a hundred, a thousand stars become visible in the vast inky sky.

Another steep pinch up the stairs and we arrive at Sandoval Lake Lodge and receive yet another welcome ‘mocktail’ and room keys. This time, thanks to a diesel generator, we have lights and electricity – for part of the day at least. Luxury!

The main dining room and recreation area also sport brightly coloured hammocks positioned in front of the windows and offering a full view of the lodge gardens and lake beyond. Our stay at Lake Sandoval is as busy as the program at Heath River Lodge – Julian guides us on walks, canoe rides, and shares his extensive knowledge of the local flora and fauna.

By our last evening our group of eight – six tourists and two locals – have shared more than windcheaters and Bushman’s Repellent. We’ve also enjoyed extraordinary experiences, good conversation and laughs, family photos and email addresses, and genuine friendships have formed.

We head out for one last paddle on the lake, this time in search of giant otters. Michelle, a school teacher, starts a list of all the creatures she has seen. Monkeys (common squirrel, red howler, brown capuchin, spider), ocelot, capybara, green frogs, brown tree frogs, spectacled caiman, yellow spotted river turtles, kingfishers, hawks, vultures, geckos, red-tailed boa, an anaconda (deceased), herons, green parrots, blue and yellow macaws.

We all chip in.

Blue-headed parrots, tarantula, bats, stinky birds, kingfishers, humming birds, toucans, swallows, fly catchers, leafcutter ants are added to Michelle’s list.

The sun gently glides below the horizon. We stop the list, aware we have barely scratched the surface. Julian sits immobile at the front of the catamaran, and the eight of us, from four different continents, sit in silence and wonder beneath the vast starry sky.

Kaye Fallick travelled courtesy of LAN airlines to Peru and InkaNatura Travel in Peru and Bolivia.

LAN Chile flies daily ex Sydney to Lima via Santiago, Chile.
Web www.lan.com

InkaNatura Travel offers a diverse range of ecological touring options in Peru
and other South American countries.
Web www.inkanatura.com

Keen to brush up on candiru?
Web www.damninteresting.com/?p=797

Written by Kaye Fallick