Trekking Through The Amazon, Dark and Daunting (2013)

Trekking Through The Amazon, Dark and Daunting (2013)

It is hush hour in the Amazon jungle, where a tentative twilight before dawn casts ghostly shadows and silhouttes on the vegetation all around.  Even the birds have not yet woken up to begin their celebratory cacophony. We are paddling as quietly as possible through a narrow creek enveloped in a dense chlorophyll canopy.  Suddenly there is a warning grunt followed by some argumentative squeals and there are ripples on the surface of the water. In a moment, a bobbing head with impressive whiskers and beady eyes emerges only to disappear in a flash.  Another ripple some distance away and one more face pops out of the water, takes a quick look at us and dives back. We are privileged to be in the company of a family of river otters on their early morning foray.  

We are deep in the Amazon jungle, in distant Ecuador. The previous day, we had taken a flight from Quito the capital of Ecuador perched at over 9000 feet in the Andes and landed straight on the forest floor -well almost- in a town called Coca on the fringe of the forest. This part of the Amazon is claimed to be probably the most bio-diverse spot on planet earth by none less than National Geographic. A speeding motor boat took all of six hours on Rio Napo, as wide as the ocean, to bring us to a spot from where we were shepherded into a paddle canoe. After another hour of rowing through a narrow creek, we had reached our jungle refuge built by the local Anangu community on a river island. 

The lodge sits loftily on caiman-infested waters and can be accessed only by canoe. Our guides had coaxed us awake well before dawn and herded us into the canoe to introduce us to the denizens. Slanting rays of the rising sun send shafts of piercing light through the thick forest canopy only to collapse on the forest floor in spangles. In the dawn blush, we notice that the forest, virgin as she is known to be, is veiled seductively in a glorious mist.  Through the mist we spot giant Kapok trees with buttress roots soaring into the stratosphere like pillars in an ancient temple. The trees are slung about with bromeliads and orchids which dangle like lanterns.  Thick vines, as fat as our forearms wind around the trunks in a strangling embrace. Some trees sprout hundreds of berries as big as your fist straight out of their trunks.

The forest floor is teeming with life – insects, amphibians, mammals and of course, the cacophonous avians of every hue and cry, literally.The Huatzin, a native of the Amazon is as ubiquitous as it is eye-catching. Even today, scientists are unable to decide whether these birds should be categorized as pheasants which they resemble quite a bit or as an aberrant bovine since they have stomach chambers that digest their vegetarian diet through fermentation, much like cows. They are also called stink-birds, but we are too far away to be affected by their olfactory assault. Then there are kingfishers, toucans, parrots, parakeets, macaws, herons, snail kites, smooth-billed anis, snake birds, owls, a whole host of oropendulas, harpy eagles etc.

We return to the lodge for breakfast and again set out into the jungle, this time on foot. I have liberally sprayed myself with anti-leech liquid and am booted upto my knee after my Borneo experience where leeches had attached themselves to the nether regions of my body.  But leeches are only a nuisance, not deadly. Here in the Amazon, even the frogs and toads are highly poisonous and accidentally touching them could lead to paralysis of the nervous system.  There are toads that mimic the leaf they sit on, snakes that watch you with wary eyes wondering whether you’re going to step on them, millipedes that are not even aware that they are going to be trampled in a moment. Leaf cutter ants file past carrying their cargo.

Capuchin monkeys leap from branch to branch, warning their family to keep off, spider monkeys stop in their tracks to help themselves to a juicy berry, colourful tamarins shinny up the trunk so fast that if you’re not alert enough you’d miss them. A lone sloth clings to very top of a tree where it would spend a few days before mustering enough energy to climb down.For the next three days we explore the rainforest intimately from a canoe and on foot.

We climb up a 50 foot observation tower supported by a gaint Kapok tree to get a closer look at toucans, sail to a claylick to watch hundreds of colourful parrots, including blue-headed birds, eat chunks of clay to cleanse the toxins in their body, pad quietly to another claylick to see riotously coloured macaws do the same.

The rainforest is not for the fainthearted. As we stumble through the awesome jungle clumsily, we trip over turtles, toads and snakes in our path, get clobbered by falling branches, are perpetually wet from the continuous drizzle, get bitten by an army of angry red ants every time we clutch a vine or tree trunk, get our toes sodding wet while walking on the steamy, squishy forest floor piled high with fallen leaves and even get rodent visitors outside our meshed windows at night.  Every time we paddle, we run the gauntlet of caimans. Above all, a trip to the Amazon has left a gaping hole in my wallet. Yet, I can’t wait to get back there again.

(Published in The Times Crest in 2013)