Snakes, Spiders and Salmon - The Bolivian Jungle


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South America » Bolivia » Beni Department » Madidi
August 11th 2011
Published: September 18th 2011
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The jungle was my personal challenge.



Doing a trip into the jungle of South America is probably the most obvious trip for a tourist to do whilst in the continent. The prospect of spending time in an environment that contains giant spiders, snakes and every other creature that lurks in the nightmares, I couldn't wait to get there. The pampas tour is an easy animal spotting tour. The jungle was my personal challenge.

We emptied our backpacks of all our possessions except for a couple of toiletries and a change of clothes before heading to Mogli's office and being loaded up with what felt like several tonnes of gear. Included in this heavy was a sleeping bag, a mosquito net and a bag of what we were told was food but felt like bricks. Joining Ciaran in our group were two Germans, Mattis and Maria; in a separate group were two English couples. The English girls were shocked and not impressed at the weight in their backpacks and so enquired as to why the weight was so great. It turns out that even in the Bolivian jungle almost everything is fried and hence everyone was carrying a heart busting amount of cooking oil.

We walked from the office to our boat, crossed the river and purchased our Maldidi National Park entry tickets before heading upstream away from Rurrenabaque. Our long, narrow boat passed between a narrow gap formed by cliffs hundreds of metres high on either side. Our boats men guided the craft through the river by using long sticks to check depth so not to get grounded. After a long couple of hours we turned off the main river and were navigated up a few smaller rivers and if traversing a suburb before we eventually reached our destination.

A brief walk from the boat introduced up to the sweaty jungle environment before heading into our camp. This consisted of a few simple buildings; a kitchen with a dining area, a large wooden hut split into two sections for visitors, a tiny shack for the locals and a small bathroom structure. Each crudely hand built bed housed an upright stick at each corner to hang a mosquito net on. I can't say that I regarded it as protection from mosquitoes, they are an irritant, my net was my personal safety from every other creepy crawly in the jungle.

Whilst lunch was being prepared we had to negotiate with our guide, Milton, for what activities we were going to do over the next few days. It was a long procedure, even though we had already paid, the guides would love it if every tourist simply wanted to stay in the camp - they do not like entering and sleeping in the jungle proper. Whilst this continued, breaking several times for various reasons we entertained ourselves by firing a bow and arrow at an empty water bottle, chopping wood and swimming in the muddy river whilst getting chewed on by fish.

I deteriorated rapidly after lunch, something I ate in Rurre had disagreed with me and I got diarrhoeal. Of all the places I have been sick, the jungle is possibly the worst. Despite feeling increasingly lousy I joined my group for a jungle walk.

We walked amongst the bases on huge trees for three hours on a loop through the jungle. I had the horrible experience of needing to jump behind a tree on several occasions to get out of the view of the others, bagging my rancid tissue papers so not to soil the jungle even more than necessary.

Several series of footprints were spotted during the walk from a wide variety of animals, the most interesting being from tapirs, jaguars and pumas. The concept of us being in the same environment as these animals gave an incredible feeling and realisation of where we were.

Milton appeared to be falling for Maria quickly, her perfect Spanish and cute, but enthusiastic demeanour appealing to him and proving invaluable to our group. We were introduced to many different types of trees and their unique properties and how they are used by the local people. One produced blood red sap, another was thin when cut revealed itself as being completely full of fresh and naturally filtered water. Another tree wreaked of garlic, proving itself as a great natural mosquito/woman repellent. The most interesting to me was one that had a unique type of bark which is used by the native jungle habitants to aid stomach problems. On return to the camp it was used to produce a tea which helped me enormously.

Still on our walk, we stopped at a large termite mound, which Milton sliced with his machete, revealing the thousands of little creatures inside and the structure of their lair. Unpleasantly we were offered, took and ate a few termites each - a crunchy and protein enriched jungle snack. Shortly after we encountered a line of large ants, each carrying a small purple flower, several times their size. These are the strong men of the jungle, and clearly they were out to impress.

Just before we arrived at camp, with me feeling incredibly faint and dehydrated, Milton spotted something that I had desperately hoped he wouldn't. A smooth round hole in the ground meant only one thing and before I could see the devil inside I had to run away once more to find a buttress root.

On rejoining the other I was horrified to see a colossal and hairy eight legged monster moving slowly around the floor between my group. The tarantula was the size of my hand-span and it was completely black except for a tuft of brown hair at the back end of its large body. To calm it down, Milton blew cigarette smoke on it, before picking it up.

The way the eight legs moved was terrifying, slowly and in perfect smooth motion. I don't fear many things and will often be the first person to put myself forward to do something stupid, but there was no way that I was going to be the first of our group to hold a personal nightmare. In turn everyone held the spider cautiously and as it was passed between people I realised that I was going to have to take a turn eventually. I was so glad to have only just gone to the bathroom.

My turn came far too quickly, I know that much, but I have no concept of how long it took to reach out and invite the arachnid onto my shaking hand. "Tranquil tranquil", Milton said repeatedly, as if I was going to try to move in any fashion other than a mortified slow one, with this beast on me.

The tarantula walked slowly over my hands,, every step meant a different one of its eight legs flicked up into the air. It started to walk up my wrists, I could feel the hairs pushing against my skin with every touch. The spider changed its mind about its route up my body, an initial relief, I didn't want it climbing any closer to my face, however as it turned it started to slide downwards. The hairs were grazing my wrist on its way down, an immeasurably horrible feeling, causing me to panic, flapping my wrist rapidly to get it off me. It held on for what seemed like an eternity, all I could think of was the threat of being bitten. After time had ended it finally fell to the ground and raising its front two legs angrily in the air, ready to attack.

I have never been more relieved in my life than in this moment when the tarantula was finally off me.

Using the same method as before, Milton calmed the spider down again before grasping it and holding it upside down. Using the blunt side of his machete he pulled the spiders gum back revealing a set of teeth, the size of which I would have considered impossible on a spider. He decided this was also a good time to inform us just how poisonous this species of tarantula is, a bite can paralyse a limb. We continued to stare at the teeth in horror as we contemplated the fact that we had just held a deadly animal.

Satan was returned to his hole and we returned to camp. I was so wretchedly ill at this point that I spent the remainder of the day between the toilet and my bed. For some reason the toilet bowl was populated by hundreds of wasps, swimming around in circles as if it was a resort. I had to try to flush them down every time I returned, but (an odd fact) wasps don't flush very easily. I had no time to work alternatives out however and as dangerous as it probably was, my illness made me grimly amused by what I was spraying onto them.

Whilst I was wasting away, sweating and huddled in a ball on my bed the others finalised plans for the following two days, fished for salmon and went for a walk through the jungle in the dark. My comfort during the evening was my bottle of tree root tree which our cook had kindly prepared for me.

I awoke in the morning after a rough night of broken sleep still feeling fairly wretched. The jungle juice was definitely working its magic though, and I was going to the bathroom less. Following breakfast, of which I managed to eat a little, we set out for another hike.

A short while into this hike, my body was feeling completely and utterly devoid of energy. It was at this point, whilst my vacant body was at its worse, that everyone started running, following Milton. I was feeling truly lethargic and beaten down. It was at this point that everything started to run, following Milton and my legs were forced to attempt to keep up, despite having no idea what we were running for.

Suddenly we were upon it - the it being a three metre long Yellowtail Cribo (that's a big snake to you and me). Unlike the anacondas on the pampas, this snake was fast and angry, racing awake from Milton, gliding across the jungle floor as if by levatation. Milton chased and moved around t snake, eventually pinning it to the floor with a stick so he could pick it up. As he did so the snake spat venom, landing on Milton's cheek, narrowly missing his eye.

He held the snake for a while, showing us some of its different features. This snake, the Yellowtail Cribo, does not have a venomous bite, but instead has one of the strongest bites in the jungle. It eats basically whatever it fancies, easily killing its prey. The size and speed of this snake, combined with the strength of its jaw allows it to effectively take what it wants, when it wants. They will happily attack and swallow whole, the most poisonous species of snakes in the Amazon. Its scales were incredibly beautiful, brown on its top and yellow underneath with large circular eyes snakes, we observed it for a while before Milton placed it back on the jungle floor for it to make its escape.

The excitement of this snake had perked me up somewhat and everyone had some adrenaline flowing. This came in very handy a few minutes later when we gave chase once more, this time in the direction of a heavy roaring sound. As we raced I pictured a hippo giving birth. Unsurprisingly that was not the cause of the sounds, but what was surprisingly was that this tremendous noise was actually coming from monkeys, Howler Monkeys. We watched these vocal primates from far below as they fooled around until they spotted us and swung off over the canopy.

After walking for some time we stopped to rest in a small clearing between the trees. During this period we all started to explore a little of the jungle on our own, trying to find something interesting. I found a rather large spider nest *shudder*, Ciaran found a wonderfully colourful scarab beetle clinging to a tree trunk and Maria was happy to simply find her way back to us after getting lost briefly. Whilst we were off exploring Milton had been sitting with a branch from a palm tree, cutting and cross thatching it into two very fine and useful fans.

After some unsuccessful tapir and wild pig tracking we returned to the camp for lunch and to pack our bags, we were heading out to spend a night camping in the jungle.

Walking with our gear deep into the jungle, we were constantly punched in the face by the wretched aroma of wild pigs. Their stench is so potent and overpowering that not even the rotten whiff of travellers sickness is comparable. After a few hours of traipsing through bushes, crossing streams and swinging on vines we reached a clearing underneath a tremendous tree with colossal buttress roots - this was our home for the night. As soon as we dropped our bags, the stench of the pigs punched our noses once more, they were close.

We sprinted through the bushes and branches, jumping over logs, following our noses. After a few minutes of this exhausting activity, we were briefly granted a few glimpses of the rotten animals before they ran away, leaving a trail of filth behind them. Actually managing to see them was a big victory after a long day.

We set up our mosquito nets under a piece of tarpaulin before heading to the river to catch ourselves some dinner. We sat on the pebble beach as the sun set, holding small pieces of wood wrapped with fishing wire, waiting for something to take a bite. It took so long that eventually our cook brought us some freshly prepared salted popcorn, perfection.

Ciaran was the person who finally got a bite, two of them in fact. He reeled in a nice juicy salmon before deciding he would try to take it off the hook himself, this turned out to be a mistake as the fish flipped its head and snapped its teeth shut on Ciaran's finger, drawing blood. We had to laugh, I mean the man had been bitten by a fish - but more so we were just grateful that we'd have have something to eat. We returned to camp to deliver the beast whilst Milton stayed behind to try to catch more.

We ate the delicious grilled fish, putting it firmly in its place before being told that we were going to take part in Pachamama, which translates as 'Mother Earth' (near enough). This strange ceremony is essentially a ceremony to ask for good elements to help life in the jungle and is not something that is practised widely in Parque Maldidi anymore (probably because of over exposure to the outside world). It was interesting to see Milton's version of this ancient ceremony, although it seemed somewhat farcical to me. Milton spoke a few mumbled prayers and made some blessing on personal objects before blowing cigarette smoke in people faces. In turn we each had to take a drag on a cigarette before placing it in the mud, the burning end pointing upwards. Each of the cigarettes were left to burn, the idea being that the way the ash tower fell would define what sort of a person you are. Mine was oddly accurate, but Pachamama as a whole seemed fake, I imagine it is performed very differently elsewhere.

With the ceremony over, the group went to our mosquito nets to sleep whilst our guide and cook went back to the river to fish. Milton informed us that there are bad spirits in the jungle on Tuesday's and as such they do not sleep until after midnight and the arrival of Wednesday.

Our final morning was spent making jewellery from coconut shells - I am wearing the necklace I made at the moment. I made a ring as well, sanded and polished black, but like most of my possessions whilst travelling in South America, it vanished mysteriously. I wasn't overly into wearing a chunky black ring, but I would have liked to have given it to someone.

Once back at the initial camp we met the pair of English couple again and compared our time in the jungle. We had done much more than them and they were a little jealous as a result. To make it worse for them, we asked what they were going to be doing before the boat departed for Rurre. They were simply staying in the camp and chilling out, entertaining themselves. They were surprised to hear that we weren't even taking the boat, we were making our own.

Using vines we bound together four large inflated inner tubes and attached some thicker wood across the top to form a crude raft. This was the highlight of the trip, climbing aboard and rowing ourselves through the estuaries and mild rapids for a couple of hours whilst our feet were being nibbled by unidentifiable fish. It was both novel and under the cover of a beautiful sunny day, making a great trip.

We stopped after a couple of hours where the river was deep and spent a good amount of time swimming and jumping from a tree into the water whilst Maria covered herself in mud (unintentionally sexily) to keep the sun and the sand flies off.

Whilst we were in the river, the boat from the camp arrived so we dismantled our raft and jumped aboard to get back to the city faster. It sounded logical, but didn't pay off as the boat broke down several times, leaving us drifting and needing to wait for another boat to arrival to drag us the remaining distance. Fortunately and somehow, our navigator managed to use a hair band and a couple of pieces of wood to botch the engine back together - these guys really know their stuff considering they have no tools.

We toasted our successful trip in the jungle by sitting next to the river in Rurre, sharing a couple of bottles of Singani. Illness aside, the jungle tour had been fantastic, a crazy and very different experience to any I have had before.

The following day we popped a shot of vodka and a sleeping pill each and attempting to endure the hideous night bus back to the world's highest capital city.

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2nd October 2011

Fish Identity
Was the fish a Dorado?

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