Welcome to the Jungle – Part II

Published: April 13th 2011
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I crossed another South American Border today and said ‘chau’ to Brazil and ‘buenos dias’ to Venezuela. I’m officially half way through the 70 day crossing of the continent and the past 2 weeks have been a delightful break from the ardours of travelling on Rosita, our Truck (someone call a chiropractor!). As you know, we sailed nearly 2000kms up the Amazon River and then from the state capital of Manaus headed deep into the Amazon Jungle for a few days.
This was my second foray into the Amazon rainforest (hence the title of this blog update. Click here for my Ecuador experience back in 2009 http://www.travelblog.org/South-America/Ecuador/blog-518952.html). Given the sheer magnitude of the Amazon, this was a totally different experience to El Oriente in Ecuador over 2000kms away.

The Amazon is the largest and most diverse tropical forest on the planet. It’s intrinsic to the Earth’s biosphere covering an area of over 6 million sq kms – half the size of the whole of Europe. It contains over 6000 species of plant, over 1000 species of birds, numerous mammals, reptiles and only 210 human tribes, 30 of which are still considered ‘primitive’. To be going back into it was a privilege. I am conscious I have used this word a lot during my travels and being in the Jungle for 4 days brought back that blast of excitement at being in such a special and unique place. It’s literally intoxicating….a rush of feeling so alive and yet paradoxically so insignificant compared with the complexity and power of the nature surrounding you.

Leaving Manaus at 7am, we drove 180kms East abandoning the city far behind as the land became lusher and greener with giant redwoods rising up out of the ground flanked by rubber trees, Queenwoods, Cedars, and Brazil Nut trees. On the banks of the Rio Uruba, a tributary of the Amazon, we clambered aboard little ’tinnies’….dugout fishing boats which sped us along the river for an hour to the lodge into ”transitional” rainforest. Virgin rainforest so close to Manaus is hard to come by ….having been explored and cultivated by Indians, missionaries, and rubber gatherers over the centuries.

This was to be our base for the 3 nights…a rustic eco-lodge with the most basic of facilities and no electricity. With not another lodge or human habitation in sight we were in the middle of nowhere, our co-residents being iguanas, pink dolphins, macaws and thousands of black fire ants which bite like hell as my feet can testify.

The days were spent exploring the swollen Rio Uruba by canoe and its flooded forests (igarapo) where the water levels are 2-3m higher at the moment as it’s the wet season. The trees are submerged in the brown waters creating infinite reflections. At sunset the pink dolphins come into the lakes to feed and we sat in the canoes watching the water surface broken by their dorsal fins. I got the opportunity to have another go at piranha fishing but it was far less satisfactory than in the Pantanal. There I merely lowered my line into the water and the water bubbled with a frenetic churning as the piranhas competed to get the meat. I could simply jerk the hook and was guaranteed to pull a writhing beauty out of the water… in 40 minutes I managed 5 piranhas. Here, they appeared to nibble on the meat so you could feel the line twitching but every time I yanked my hook up, I was met with nothing. Deeply disappointing…we ended up relying up the expertise of the guides to catch enough piranhas for our dinner.

One of the most exciting nights was the evening that we hiked into primary rainforest and camped for the night in hammocks. The Tucan Group was divided up and I jammily ended up with just 2 of us and a guide each. I’m getting to a point on this trip where every opportunity I have to go in the opposite direction to the Group I am taking. Being constantly cooped up with 30 people wears you down. There are just too many egos and personalities to deal with all the time. I’m used to being alone so much of the time and I need my personal space so I grab it when I can hopefully without coming across as anti-social. It’s a delicate balance!

To be in the jungle with just the lovely Pip and our two guides was an unforgettable and magical time. We walked into bush teaming with birds, insects and plants…. mindful of snakes and spiders and set up camp – hanging hammocks tied to immense tree trunks under a huge tarpaulin to protect us from the inevitable rains, stripping the damp wood off branches with a machete to reach the drier centre to build a fire and cooking the most delicious steaks skewered on a tree branch which we hung over the flames so their fat dripped and sizzled creating a heady fragrance in the air. I peeled and prepared the veggies in the adjacent stream and we boiled them with rice in a giant ‘billy-can’ over the fire creating a satisfying mush to accompany the chargrilled meat. The guides carved us rosewood spoons from branches and stripped huge palm leaves for us to use as plates.

The smoke from the fire floated upwards into the rainforest canopy filing the clearing with its rich aroma whilst the cicadas and frogs sang and croaked as we sat and enjoyed the darkness of the night before bedding down in the hammocks.
I did hear rustling in the night but the likelihood of jaguars being around was minimal and our guide thought it was probably anteaters. However, there was a moment in the predawn dark where I shone my torch into the forest to make sure there was nothing ’out there’ and spooked myself just a wee bit!

The fire was lit again for breakfast at 6am and in the early morning light, we boiled eggs and made coffee thick with sugar to go with slices of the sweetest pineapple and tiny tasty bananas brought along. Neither Pip or I wanted to leave this sensational place where you work in symbiosis with your environment. The jungle in all its majesty can give you everything you need…. From a tree that bleeds a wax called breu which is highly inflammable to medicinal healing plants to wild foods….its all there. To witness this at ground level -the way Man can respectfully utilise the Jungle was very moving. Knowing how generally we have raped and pillaged the land, it was refreshing to be with guides who themselves were born in the Jungle, have grown up there and want to show its power and gloriousness.

Walking back through the forest to the lodge, the rains came, thundering down like percussion on the waxy leaves of the bromeliads. Wielding the machete we negotiated the soaking and muddy way back, disturbing toucans and capuchin monkeys so the canopy rustled above us and the air was filled with squawking. We arrived drenched to the skin, hair plastered down, clothes soaking and filthy but it was utterly exhilarating and we jumped straight into the River with all our clothes on followed by some celebratory gulps of straight cachaca courtesy of the guides.

Heading back to civilisation the following day was met with mixed emotions…. . A hot shower, air conditioning and a bed in a hotel with wifi was appealing as after being out in the wild for 4 days, we felt pretty manky. Yet leaving behind the enchanting Jungle was sad. With all my clothes soaking and smelly, I begrudgingly paid the 33 reals (c£12) to get my laundry done back in Manaus. Hand washing wasn’t an option. For dinner I tried the Amazonia dish, tacaca…a sour tangy soup made from manioc root (cassava) juice with dried salty shrimps floating aimlessly in it and handfuls of jambu…a spinach like leaf which anaesthetises your mouth when crushed and chewed. I cant say this particular culinary experience was enjoyable…i wasn’t too keen on the flavours of the soup or the strange unidentifiable opaque snot like sludge ladled into the gourd pot which sat heavy at the bottom of the dish. The jambu was very exciting to eat though…the tingling in my lips created a sensitivity which made each mouthful quite rousing!
Manioc is used as a staple carbohydrate here and eaten in one form or another with everything. Jungle bread consists of the root being crushed and made into tapioca flour which is then mixed with water to create a doughy vehicle for adding to other things. We tried it with slices of palm tree fruits and cheese. Eaten alone the Jungle bread is tasteless and reminiscent of ugali which I ate in Africa. Bland, white and pure cheap filler but intrinsic to the culture and enjoyed by all.

On our final day in Manaus, a group of us took the opportunity to visit the Meeting of the Rivers…where the black acidic Rio Negro collides mid channel with the muddy yellow alkaline Rio Solimoes to form the Rio Amazonas… for many kilometres there is a distinct line where the different waters fail to merge into each other. The colour differences are due to the higher levels of soil suspended in the yellowy waters whereas the dark water has more rotting vegetation in it. It’s quite striking but even more fun was stripping off and swimming across the line feeling the temperature changes.

From here the boat whizzed us to the Parque Ecologico do Janauary on one of the tributaries of the Negro. Through mosquito ridden swamp land and flooded forest we walked across a rickety raised boardwalk to a lake full of giant water lilies. Victoria Amazonica to give them their proper botanical name. Ive only ever seen them growing in Botanical Gardens so to see these huge plants in the wild was brilliant. Many were in flower and amidst this giant petri dish of lilies lurked the odd caimen. No anaconda were spotted here but on the way back we stopped at the floating house of some locals who have one as a pet. A huge beast of a snake some 4metres long, rippling muscle and scales with the power to squeeze the life out of its prey, we were able to touch it and I even had it up around my neck. The weight of it was unbelievable. The family also had a lugubrious sloth as a pet which was like an animatronic creature out of Jim Henson’s puppet shop. Absolutely adorable with its strange happy expression , chocolate brown eyes and soft furry body. I have decided that if I fail to have children then I will get a sloth…. Cradling it like a baby made me all broody...or perhaps I should say, even more broody….

So, that’s my Amazonian jungle experience.... Yesterday we left Manaus behind and drove c 800kms to Boa Vista through the tropical forest zone of the Waimiris tribe, with 50 rickety wooden bridges and a lot of unsurfaced roads which were spine judderingly painful. Today, we crossed the border and I am sitting in the grounds of a hostal in Santa Elena in Venezuela. Fireflies are in the night air and we are back camping for a week so already I’m feeling icky again, bathed in insect repellent. The mosquitoes were not too bad in the Jungle due to the acidity of the waters but I still got munched by all manner of other creatures but that’s all part of the experience…my legs will bear the scars for many years to come. Tomorrow we explore the Gran Sabana (Great Savanna), the undulating highlands in the basin of the upper Rio Caroni and then it’s on to Angel Falls…highest waterfall in the world. This is truly a trip of superlatives…..

Hannah x


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