In the jungle, the mighty jungle

Trip Start Nov 03, 2004
Trip End Nov 23, 2006

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Where I stayed
erika lodge

Flag of Peru  ,
Sunday, July 3, 2005

Manu Biosphere Reserve is within the Amazon catchment and covers 2million hectares of primary and secondary jungle.

We set off in trucks converted to ecotourist transports and swapped travel sagas as we climbed towards Peru's cloudforests. At about 2000m we left behind the agricultural land and placid brahmin cows decorating the landscape and the view became desolate brown scrub with cloud wisps swirling like wraiths across the hillsides. At 3500m we were into lush, dripping, rainforest, less intense than Costa Rica, but still a tangled maze of trees, ferns, strangler vines, waterfalls, bromeliads, orchids and bugs, bugs, bugs. Birds warbled unseen and, no doubt, other animals smirked as we roared past oblivious.

The next morning, we set out to see the mating display of the cock of the rock (no better in Spanish, gallito de las rocas). This uninspiredly named bird is the national bird of Peru. The males are tomato red with black lower wings. Their heads are torso shaped because of a feather protruberence which threatens to engulf their beaks. The females are brown (of course). Every morning, for no explainable reason, the males come to a spot nowhere near any known nesting sites to pick up chicks. Every morning bleary ecotourists, dazed and bug bitten, come to watch and unsuccessfully photograph. Seven males appeared this morning and one seemingly unenthused female. The males display by "making a nice vocalisation" (sounds like squawking to us), squabbling among themselves (lots of pecking,
ruffling and flapping at each other) and, here teenagers could take a hint, cleaning. Apparently the cleanest male gets the girl. Today's offerings weren't up to scratch and the female left in a huff leaving deflated males behind.

After mountain biking down the torturous, narrow hill road we whitewater rafted to our next stop. The river was Grade 2 so it was a nice drift watching the wildlife, a nice dip in the bit with no piranhas and an opportunity for every bug in Peru to have a piece of me. The bugs were a small price to pay for a close-up view of two tiger herons settling gracefully on a branch just above us only metres from the 3m mouse snake, looking like a ball of wool a cat's been at, entangled in the branches overhanging the river.

We overnighted at Erika Lodge on the banks of the Rio Madre de Dios - throw yourself in the river here and in about a month you'll end up floating down the Amazon. Erika Lodge sported a macaw named Coca, a peccary named Yipta (the ash chewed with coca to release its alkalies) who ruled the lounge as imperiously as any pampered feline,
bugs immune to three types of insect repellant (and, finally, a cocktail of all three) and a zip line canopy tour/adventure. David zipped through the trees 40m above the ground for half a kilometre, frightening any local wildlife except the local troop of capuchins, who think the cables are a great game, and rappeled back to safety. I relaxed and exercised by swatting bugs. We unwound in the evening with homemade sugarcane hootch cocktails and a group "why George is a sneaky, election rigging, scary guy" session. [Absolute demographic:
if you meet an American travelling for pleasure in the Third World they did not vote for Dubya].

Parakeets and macaws have teeny, tiny, little, bird brains - their food of choice makes them indigestive and, instead of investigating alternative nutritional choices and a healthier lifestyle, they eat dirt (with an appropriate mineral content) to make themselves feel better. Early (why don't animals do anything at a civilised hour?) next day we motored down the river to watch birds chaw on the cliffs. It takes the parakeets quite a while to decide whether they're coming down into camera range and whether an ocelot lurks 12m up the cliff face. While deciding they congregate in the trees and foray out in their hundreds, swooping and wheeling, in black clouds like bats off to start their evening. Eventually, about a dozen will decide that the indigestion is too bad and settle down to lick clay.

Travelling by motorboat on the rivers David kept making "great, gray- green, greasy, Limpopo" references, but really the rivers were a sort of Baileys creamy-biege and travelling fast enough to riffle over the stone and sand banks. They were littered with the bleached skeletons of enormous trees washed away from the banks in the rainy season and stranded wherever the flow or shallows deposited them - each tree building up its own ecosystem of debris and birdlife. The rivers are changeable enough that navigating was a full-time job for the boatdriver and the boy rode the prow ready to make fine directional changes with a pole. We only ran aground once and were freed only when the guide, driver, boy and the three Welsh chaps man-handled us off the bar - not sure if that was brute strength or 600 pounds of Welsh prop abandoning ship.

The jungle, with its hidden wildlife, came right down to the banks of the river with the occasional border of giant cane, grassy verge or graveyard of skelatal trees above a fine sandy beach (the sand disguised treacherously slippery, glue-like clay beneath). White
caymans floated log-like and sinister just below the surface, a family of a dozen capybara (world's largest rodent, up to 70kgs) fossicked happily among the mangroves, herons stalked fastidiously through the shallows, macaws streaked noisily overhead and hawks, kites and falcons kept a beady eye on our progress.

Only 500m up the Manu River we saw something we had never hoped to see in the wild. Parked up in the shade, imperiously surveying his domain, lay a male jaguar. The excitement and wonder in the boat was tangible, even Carla and Raul managed to stay quiet, as we cut the engine and the driver struggled to keep us close but not threatening. The jaguar slowly scanned left to right, aware something was not perfect in his morning world. His gaze never actually lighted upon us but something had disturbed his morning zen. Tail tip flipping minutely but unconcerned he visibly debated whether whatever was worth the effort of moving. Reluctantly he decided it was. With a facial humph he unwound dinner plate-sized feet and struggled 20 feet along the beach before collapsing in slightly more shade and washing
a foot in dismissal. Five minutes of absolute magic watching a creature of postcards, National Geographic and, others', more fortunate, photos.

Our first jungle walk is in the last hours before dusk. Walking in the jungle here is like bouncing along a mattress the humus is so deep and springy. Unlike the cloudforests there is a whole ecosystem here content to live out its life on the jungle floor. Delicate,lacy ferns grow next to pigs' ear fungus under the waterlily pad leaves of massive haliconia. Wandering palms with their stilt like legs share space with hardwoods used for dugout canoes and strangler
figs looking for a host. Mahogany stretches for the sky with kapok and naked trees and bromeliads find homes on the floor, on fallen, rapidly disintegrating logs, in crevices and cracks. Flowers are rare at this time of year but butterflies abound - and fire ants and
soldier ants and really big other ants, termites, spiders, giant hoppers, flies, mosqitoes, midges. The palette is cocoa and silver and lime, the atmosphere a moist fug.

We have been paired for our walk with Carla and Raul (a Peruvian and a Spaniard on their honeymoon). Their world is voluble and they struggled to stay quiet for more than a couple of minutes at a stretch. (At night and in the early morning you can hear them talking from four or five rooms away). This isn't ideal for wildlife spotting but doesn't seem to bother the monkeys - they're always high enough that anything on the jungle floor is an entertainment rather than a threat. Within minutes we have seen a troop of white faced cappuchins and been pelted with sticks and fruit by some territorial woolly monkeys (often they throw less savoury things). An hour later we'd added a sinuous baby black cayman (they might be deaf), darting long nosed bats and we'd stood inside a strangler fig bigger than many Northland kauris. The strangler fig reaches the canopy by encircling an already established tree and growing towards the light. In the process the host tree is killed, reduced to mulch by
termites and other bugs and provides the nutrients for the fig to keep growing. Consequently the vines grow hollow and provide an excellent habitat for spiders and bats. On the way back to the lodge we stumbled across six fair winged trumpeter birds. These are, apparently very rare, so six was probably the kareoke team on its way somewhere. The guide was so gobsmacked she probably missed the boa constricter dance troupe following benind.

Salvador Lake is an oxbow lake playing host to a family of giant river otters. Forget Ring of Bright Water - these puppies grow 2m long and consume five kilos of fish a day. They are as playful as marine otters, sleek, lithe and as skilled at fishing (which considering the splashing, chittering, giggling and fooling around they indulged in is impressive - also there's nine of them, they're not exactly stealthy and they eat five kilos of fish each a day - how dumb can fish be?). They really do float on their backs, feet in the air while nibbling a fish. They're smart (we watched them stage an orchestrated pincer maneuver to scare off a heron encroaching ontheir patch), family oriented (those currently without a fish do regard caught fish as community property) and endlessly watchable. Ultimately they got bored with us and moved on. This was just aswell really - you could almost see Carla and Raul blowing up like
puffer fish with the effort of not talking for a whole hour - they were fairly close to explosion point.

By the time 42 Squadron of the Peruvian Air Force flew us out of the jungle, we had seen the prehistoric hoatsin (only eats leaves, digestive system of a cow - it's a bird) with its Viennese carnival mask face and the saddleback tamarind who moved faster in the trees
than its inscrutible Mandarin face should have allowed. We saw seven of the eight available monkey species (squirrel, brown and white faced cappuchin, black spider, red howler, woolly and dusky titi (not titty as the guide kept insisting)). We saw herons (fascinated tiger, blue, capped), snakebirds and wood storks. We watched yellow necked turtles, Orinoco geese and muscovy ducks, vultures (black and turkey), crimson crested woodpeckers and horned screamers. Kites, hawks, falcons, sunbitterns and pipers, parakeets, parrots and
macaws, oropendulas, flycatchers, swallows and tanagers. We came back tired, sweat impregnated, a bit mildewy, leprous with bug bites, able to grow potatoes under our fingernails, and pissy about the sheer Latinamerican-ness of the tour's organisation, but at the end of the day none of that mattered.

We had walked in an ancient, constantly renewing place. We had seen
the jaguar.
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