Jungle-boy I ain't

Published: August 18th 2010
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This morning we said goodbye to Lima and headed to the jungle ramshackle town of Puerto Maldonado. As soon as I stepped off the plane the humidity hit me like a tonne of bricks and I knew that I would sweat enough to fill Melbourne’s reservoirs in this place. We met our guide, self confessed jungle boy Luis, who was a baby faced 26 year old and very cheeky character. We eventually boarded our 5 hour boat trip at 2pm with Luis handing us a banana leaf full of fried rice as our lunch. On the boat were 5 American tourists - we met Frank, the smartarse botanist who was chief botanist at San Diego Zoo for 14 years and designed the emperor penguin enclosure and had made numerous Antarctic trips - he didn’t enjoy talking about himself much. He also loved his photography and was taking over 1,000 shots per day of wildlife - I guess he had time to go through them all because surely he didn’t have any friends. Another guy Paul was the youngest of the lot and also the strangest. He ran a website called Animal Explorer.com and loved animals a bit too much for my liking, particularly frogs. The guy was completely incapable of having a conversation about anything other than animals and he couldn’t wait to do some frog watching with his headlight tonight.

The boat trip took forever, the river was very low and we had to slow down to avoid rocks and getting stuck on sandbanks. Then at about 6pm, it suddenly got dark. All the way down the scenery was the same - very dense jungle, the occasional bird or capybara popping up. The river just went forever. Now, the guides had torches out directing the driver through the submerged logs. At 7pm we finally made it and I headed straight to the room to change my underpants after that boat ride.

Tired and thirsty of course the lodge is unpowered and as such there were no cold drinks on hand, only room temperature water. We had a spaghetti dinner cooled using gas generators they had (which also did the showers) and we retreated to our room early (8pm) to get sleep before our 4:30am wake-up call. We had to sleep under a mosquito net which was strange. It was very hot so no sheet was required. Surprisingly, I was able to sleep - when I woke up, I didn’t think I was awake - all I could hear was this horrible sound, like the devil or something evil breathing down on me. Turns out it was howler monkeys, who mark their territory each dawn by howling, their sounds reaching a staggering 3kms they are that loud. When I wake up I think one is in the bed with me. We never actually saw one in the jungle, they reside high up in the trees. The lodge was nice enough and the owner Catherine did all she could to make our stay comfortable. The chef did a great job considering what he had to work with and we had 3 course meals every day (soup, main, desert) including at lunch! Luis only had the 2 of us to guide as the Americans had a separate guide. As a result we got to learn a significant amount about him and life as a guide in the jungle which was great. I could never be him though!

The 4:30am wake-up call was not appreciated but as the monkeys had already woken us we were up and out. We went down to the river to the clay mud lick to wait for the macaws to feed on the clay. At 6:30am all we had seen was some green headed parrots and it was obscenely hot and bright for 6:30am. Why the hell didn’t they have daylight savings here, the sun is up at 4am and down at 6pm - it makes no sense!

We had some fruit for breakfast on the viewing platform in the middle of the river and stared at the clay lick while Frank, Paul and the others talked about how good their cameras were. It was so much fun watching the clay and listening to how knowledgeable these Americans were. For some reason I had expected the animals to be running around in front of us in the Amazon - I forgot that it is the wild, not a zoo and the in the wild, animals are actually scared of humans and at the first site or sound will run, kind of like how we were with American tourists. We saw some more parrots and parakeets but at 8am decided to move back and Luis took us on a jungle walk where we saw some monkeys, praying mantis, beautiful blue butterflies and lots of other insects that annoyed us. After 2 hours of walking in the jungle I was completely stuffed. Eaten alive by bugs and cut up legs thanks to tripping over vines, I wanted to call it a day at 10:30am!

We got back to the lodge and I lay on the bed - sweating - I couldn’t stop it, the heat was like a sauna. We had lunch and the black clouds started coming over and Luis explained that our 4 hour afternoon walk was not possible due to the likeliness of torrential rain. Sure enough, he was spot on and it poured. We stayed indoors all afternoon and thankfully the humidity and the heat backed off with the rain. I could sleep easy that night, and was very grateful for the respite from the heat - and I also had expectations of how I would wake up thinking the devil was in bed with me thanks to the howler monkeys.
The rain eventually subsided and we went on a jungle night walk. Over the course of an hour we saw many large insects and of course Tarantula’s. I got a photo of a massive one on a tree outside the lodge and showed it to Paul at dinner. Big mistake - after dinner he made me take him to the tree the photo was taken of - of course the spider had gone from it but he saw the nest on the tree. So while I held his torch, Paul reached into the nest to find it. I felt sick watching him. Instead, he pulled out a live locust that was no doubt dinner for the tarantula - he took it inside and let it crawl all over him - and me. Its legs were weird on me and I clearly didn’t get the same level of satisfaction from this than Paul did. I was off to bed before another 4:30am wake up to this time hopefully see some macaws!

Today was a bit of déjà vu. Howler monkeys wake us at 3:30am and I am still sweating! Up and shower and out by 4:30am - crazy! This time we go off to see the macaws with an Australian couple, cattle farmers from outback NSW. The man is very sick and doesn’t say much, except he noted what a wanker Frank was (Frank is the only one of the Americans that join us on day 2 - spruiking that after we left yesterday the clay lick was amazing). We wait patiently at the clay lick as the red and blue macaws slowly make their way in pairs towards the clay lick from the trees at the back. Looking through the binoculars they look so still and lifeless with their big eyes perched on the high branches. Just as the first pair get to the clay lick, something scares them and they all retreat to the jungle, all of a sudden at the top of the clay lick emerge a couple of big cassowary type birds wandering around which were the source of the scare. Luis notes that macaws are very easily scared, always travelling in pairs, they won’t eat from the lick until at least 4 birds are on it - then they feel safe as long as there are a few in the watch position. About half an hour goes by and then it all happens, the first birds arrive and start eating clay and then hundreds come and crowd into the clay lick, some even hanging upside down on broken branches to get a spot on the clay. They are flight loud and flap madly to mark their spot. After about 15 minutes, they finish and fly away and Luis takes us back to the jungle walking while the others head back to the lodge. We probably should have done the same as our jungle belly hit us on the walk as I struggled to keep myself from losing my bowels while Sarah failed about 20 minutes from the lodge. After that she walked at the back of the pack squelching in her shoes. We were not well at all after that for a couple of hours, but found the energy after taking necessary medication to go on an afternoon canoe ride.

Luis paddled a canoe fashioned out of a log along a beautiful lake created by the river and we watched great butterfly nests, lots of kingfisher birds and fish jump out of the water for a couple of hours with the sun setting as we finished. We had another early night before our 4am wake up again - this time to get the 5 hour boat trip back to Puerto Maldonado to get our flight to Cuzco. I was looking forward to leaving the jungle as the humidity and the upset stomach, not to mention the bugs and the lack of electricity, had completely worn me down and it was time to get back to civilisation!

Another early start, we watched the sunrise from the boat as we had a long journey back to Puerto Maldonado. I couldn’t face breakfast which was a shame as Luis had provided us with food. I couldn’t believe how much I could sweat before 9am. At 10:30am we were ready to board our flight, but it was delayed - another half an hour sweating it out in the tin shed airport was hell! We eventually boarded the plane and the air conditioning was bliss.


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