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Published: August 16th 2013
Episode 3: The Amazon
The mighty Amazon River and rainforest. I will not carry on with superlatives, except to say that this river is the world´s second longest after the Nile, but, in terms of water discharge, it is greater than the next seven rivers combined, and it is huge - the distance between Sydney to Singapore. Large ocean liners can ply its waters, and, when we were on it, it felt like we were on the ocean. Its accompanying rainforest harbours staggering biodiversity.
We have spent the past week in the Brazilian Amazon, fliying in and out of the sprawling jungle city of Manaus, four hours flying time North of Rio and not far from the equator. Hence, it has been hot and humid. Today, Manaus is a ramshackle and rather decrepit city, but was not always so. Rubber was discovered here around the time that automobiles appeared, feeding a huge demand for rubber (car tyres). The city grew very wealthy in the 1800s, and boasts some fine buildings built on the proceeds of the rubber trade, such as the handsome Teatro Amazonas, (the opera house), located in a lovely town square that would not be out of place in ,say, Vienna. But when the Brits smuggled rubber seeds out, and set up plantations worldwide, the boom times for Manaus ended and it started to crumble.
From Manaus, we did a four day organised tour of the Amazon, a remote trip that which took two minivans and two boats to get to a basic lodge in the jungle. There were six others in our group- all twenty something European/ UK backpackers, who were fun overall (but half our age !) . We were not on the Amazon river per se, but a vast river tributary network, with lush forest ad lots of mosquitos, and a galaxy of other insects, larage and small. It was bucketing with rain when in the minivan going in , and the mud was unbelievable. The driver was amazing in traversing the slipppery, muddy ,rain soaked track in pelting rain- steering wheel full lock clockwise, then full lock counterclockwise, so that we basically slide along in a straight line ! But by our arrival the hot sun was out, and I had started photographing my first critters (snakes,brightly coloured lizards, and birds). The overtall experience was awesome with too many great things to describe but here are the highlights:
- jungle trecking, learning about all the weird and wonderful plants, many of which are used by local folks for medicinal purposes (from upset gut, to impotence, to a crushed leaf that induced abortions).
- lots of time spent on the river in motorised canoes.Nightime was magical. Fireflies lighting up the jungle on the riverbanks. Not just the jungle, but also amongst the water lillies and mats of vegetation floating on the river. Like a set from Lord of the Rings. We caught caiman and spear fished under a full moon.
- fishing for piranhas. We all caught at least one of the red and silver bastards, which were taken back to the lodge for frying up with garlic and onins.
- Animals spotted included squirrel monkeys, iguanas and various birds, including the curius hoatzin, a brown thing with crest ad pale blue face. (Again, another creature I had dreamt of seeing when I was a teenager).
- swimming with pink Amazon river dolphins (they feel like rubber and they have small beady eyes).
- One late arvo, I saw a mother agouti and baby outside our hut (rabbit sized rodents with grey fur). I shouted to Ross inside "There are two agoutis out here."
He shouted back " Are they Brazilian cocktails? If not, I am not interested."
- One late arvo, we were travelling via motorised canoe along a section of the river that had basic human dwellings. Ramshackle precarious wooden houses on stilts with some chickens running about underneath and scrawny dogs and a few humans occupants leading a subsistence lifestyle. It turned out that some such structures had beer and operated as sporadic "jungle bars." Our guide, Sean, a cool guy from neighbouring Guiana, suggested we do an Amazon pub crawl. So, we dived from the pier and swam in the river, then emerged for a beer. Then we got back in the canoe and went along to the next jungle bar, tended by an amiable old guy with a smile like a postcard of the twelve apsotles. We swam again, cavorted and had another beer. This process was repated a few more times till we finally made it back to camp. The tour guides and all of us travelllers were by then well bonded thruough the international language of booze.
I should lastly mention the affair with the sloths. Our guide was Sean, a 21 year old guy from Guiana who came form a poor family but came to Brazil as a tour guide and he was bloody excellent and a lovely, gracious and friendly guy. He could climb trees like a monkey - I am not gidding, it was phenomenal. On our last day, I said to Sean:
" I would love to see a sloth up close, if you guys could find on on our last canoe trip, it would be ace."
Well, we went out for ages and didn't see one, but just before dusk on the last day, Sean spotted one very high in the trees of a flooded forest. The guys adroitly manouvered the canoe amongst the trees, and Sean suddenly leapt from the canoe into the tree and scaled effortlessly up its heights. I could not see the sloth in question. The guides - Sean and the boatman, had used machettes to hack through some overhaging branches and had inadvertently opened a fire ant nest. The ants came out angrily, pouring into the canoe and up everyones legs. The girls in the group started screaming, the boatman did his best to ward them off, but Sean was by this time high in the tree, extracting the sloth from the dizzy heights above. Then we heard a splash. Then another. While coming down ,Sean has dropped two sloths - a mother and its baby ! The girls then stared to doubly scream, thinking that the sloths would drown. but I indicated that sloths can swim just fine.( This is the Amazon after all.) Then, at the back of the canoe, Ross and the boatman were startled shitless by a large pink river dolphin that surged from the water and plunged back in right beside the canoe . The girls in the group screamed a third time - ants everywhere, poor sloths lost in the water and now some huge river monster had just attacked. The kerfuffle soon receded, the sloths got rescued with oars, the ants brushed off as best we all could, we managed to reversed back out of the flooded forest, we all photographed the sloths and then carefully returned them to a suitable tree branch. I'm not sure about the ethics of grabbing wild sloths but the opportnity to see one up close (not as close as I had really wanted ) was too great and spontaneous. Back at camp, we all recounted the event to others over some cachaca.
The only downside to the Amazon jungle trip was the bland food, but you could hardly expect haut cuisine in such a remote and potentailly logistically challenging locale. One night, the generator briefy shat itself and the whole joint lost lighting during dinner.
"Oh, thank goodness", said Ross.
I said:"Why? What do you mean? I cannot see what I am eating."
"Exactly," said Ross.
On another occasion, I said to Ross:
"The water I just took from that fridge is hot. I don´t think the fridge in this place meets food safety standards."
"The fridge?" he questioned." I don't think the FOOD in this place meets food safety standards."
Anyway, we had a fantastic time here in Amazonas (Manaus and the Amazon river and jungle), despite the cuts and mossie bits sprinkled over our arms and legs. It is such an amazing environment, and I am totally in awe and humbled by it. I am equally impressed with the excellent local guides here - always laughing, smiling, and willing to help, and to share stories over a beer while all manner of frogs croack nearby at night.
The next leg of the trip see us heading back south, to Cuiaba and that Pantanal wetland: Animal Central !
Craig and Ross
(ps. we can be reached via Craig´s yahoo e-mail)
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