Jungle Fever

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Amazon River, Brazil

We were picked up at 8am and jumped in a fancy nice van with a french couple. Well not couple, a larger, odd looking guy and a girl. They were speaking French but were Swiss.. ‘from the French speaking part’ as we were told. ‘Papa Ben’ as he liked to be called had been here before, this time he was escorting his friend who having recently broken up with her boyfriend, (a friend of Papa Ben’s) had flung herself overseas to escape the heartache. From the outset they weren’t an overly friendly couple and spent most of their time jabbering to each other with little to no interest in us. But in the van we soon arrived at the boat port and meandered around the port, lead by our guide Nigel, who pointed out the different varieties of river fish, all of which either looked completely alien, had some monstrous proportion of some kind, or radically wild colourings. We saw black and red piranhas with their razor sharp teeth, and the zebra patterns and whiskers of the enormous Amazonian cat fish. All were iced up for sale and the market was bustling. It wasn’t overly fishy smelling either, a sign of freshness I suppose. We dropped in at a Pirarucu fish farm to feed and wrestle the big Amazon fish. They’re absolutely massive with red and black stripes and throw their heads around like dogs in the water, wrestling for fish.

Nigel our guide, was something else. An openly fanatical Steve Irwin fan he was 33 with this childish excitement and infectious passion for his work. Guys in this profession are tough, real tough. The Amazon isn’t a place to meander around; not knowing what you’re doing, picking flowers and munching on them, thinking the way out is ‘just over this way’. You need to know. There’s no maybes. Nigel learned this lesson early when at 11 he was stung on the ballsack by a scorpion while taking a dump in the forest. First two lessons learned. 1.. don’t ignore your fathers advice to.. 2. check when you’re dumping. He’s got scars on his hands from Piranha bites and wrestles caimans from the Amazon river. He’s had malaria, he can live in the jungle and understands which trees you can eat, which you can’t, how to make shelter and fire. So what? It’s just in a days work. Got a paper-cut when you went to change the paper in the copier? Go tell Nigel. Or Paula, she’s co-owner of the tour company and is accompanying us to the lodge. She was attacked by an anaconda who tore a chunk from her calf, while it coiled itself around her body. She bit it’s face in rage of fury and it screamed a little snake scream before uncoiling itself and swimming off, defeated. Go tell her about your little cut. Pussy.

So as I mentioned in the last post, Manaus is on the confluence of two of the Amazons biggest rivers, the Rio Negro originating from Colombia and the Rio Solimoes from the Andes in Peru. True to it’s name the Rio Negro is black and warm, full of decomposing forest matter. The Solimoes is brown and cold, full of mountain sediment and snow run-off. The two smash together just outside of Manaus but they don’t combine. They run together for 12 kilometers until finally the water blends. The effect of this as a tourist is that you cross a discernible line of colour in the water, and if you put your hand in the water as you do, you can feel the sudden change in temperature. They used to put tourists in the river at this point so they could swim through it but recently a tourist was bullied by a resident giant river fish so this doesn’t happen any more. It’s a frightening prospect getting into the water there; it’s so turbulent, choppy, full of debris and twirling currents.

Eventually we get to the other side of the river, climb the river embankment and meet an old VW Combi to take us 40 kilometers or so further into the jungle. Papa Ben has realised at this stage that given it’s the rainy season and he is without a rain-jacket he’s likely to get very wet. The couple duck into a local supplies shop and emerge 10 minutes later with bright yellow plastic trench-coats. He’s a big lad, and despite getting the largest size the buttons don’t quite meet and he looks like a waitress from Hooters. But we’re soon on our way.

The road, we’re told, is paved for about 130 kilometers before it becomes dirt. Even still, the road is so frequently washed away by the rainy season that the government is growing tired of constantly repairing it. We can see by the water marks on the trees the road would be well underwater by the middle of the rainy season. Brazil hosts the World Cup in 2014 and Manaus has 4 games. At the moment, you can fly into Manaus or risk the conditions of the road. It’s a point of concern for the government considering the expected influx of tourists but there’s as yet been no decision on what to do. Along the roadside are hammered together wooden houses up on stilts with watermarks right through the middle of the place. It’s a dilemma these people face annually. A lot resort to simply living on the river in floating houses and instead ride with river. The result of the huge amount of water in the region is rich green landscape and shallow river estuaries and ponds. The air is warm and fresh as it sweeps through the van as landscape passes. It’s overcast which means rain is probably on it’s way. Hot or clear weather in these parts means that there’s some serious evaporation happening and you can expect a serious downpour in the next few hours. The timing of this is a bit haphazard, and considering the downpours are monstrous it’s worth becoming one with the weather gods, and knowing when to be undercover. Mostly because wet clothes dry hard in this environment. As we’d learn.

We arrive at a small port, 90 or so kilometers from Manaus and get into a dingy with a motor and canvas roof and start motoring down the Rio Araca. The clouds grow heavier and suddenly the rain starts. The river surface, previously flat as glass is pocked by the falling the rain. Reeds at the edge of the water sway and the dense jungle beyond the river banks emits a steamy mist. There’s a few other local boats with cheap outboards in tow on the river, but that’s it.. it’s a pretty awesome moment.

We soon arrive at Pousada Araca, on the banks of the river. There’s a social area built up on the bank and it’s not overly welcoming to see a bunch of local’s smashing a slab of beer on the porch as we arrive. We gather around on the porch for a bit, Paula shows off her scars to some other tourists and Luis tells us we’ll gather again in a few hours for some ‘area orientation’. We check into our little wooden hut with barely a bed, mosquito net and fan. The door doesn’t even shut properly. The shared bathrooms are knocked together tiled and concrete rooms with swarms of insects and mosquitoes.

But staff at the lodge serve up a wonderful lunch of local fried fish, rice and beans and salad. After lunch we jump in a little wooden canoe with Nigel at the helm and putter down the Araca. The rivers quite wide and we’re told quite high at the moment given the season. It immediately reminds me of the Noosa Everglades in Queensland because the river meets the trees beyond the river grass and disappears into the jungle. Vines grasps at the trees as they reach for the sun and hawks and kingfishers fly from branch to branch across the river. The surface of the river is glassy until it opens up to another confluence of rivers where Nigel cuts the motor. There’s a massive exhale of air and we turn to see the pink dorsal fin of the rivers dolphins arc and disappear beneath the black water. On the other side of the boat a pod of 3 grey dolphins surface and disappear. The two species of dolphin are resident in the confluence of the river as it’s such a rich source of food, but the two don’t get on and often fight. The pink are a
native species and have evolved independently. They’re able to move their heads from side to side; whereas the grey’s have originally come from the oceans and adapted to fresh-water, they’re closer in relation to ocean dolphins. Neither can see very well in the cloudy, black water.

Nigel starts the motor and we turn into a narrow estuary off the side of the Araca. We may as well have entered a cave, the forest canopy encloses us completely overhead. Vines drip down into the water like giant straws. There’s silence as Nigel kills the motor. We can only hear the sound of birds and insects and his paddle as he maneuvers us through the narrow river. Now that the air stills, the mosquitoes launch their attach on any uncovered, unsprayed skin. And they’re pretty relentless, despite the humidity we’re wearing our rain-jackets and they’re helping to keep the mozzies off our skin. We nearly get ourselves through an opening in the trees to the lake but the canoe runs aground and prevents us from getting any further. We’re in piranha territory Nigel tells us, so no-one volunteers to get in and un-wedge us. With some careful paddle prodding we’re unstuck and heading back to the Araca. As we emerge from the estuary to the river we find two sloths, slung over the top-most branches of a tree lining the river. Their icon sly grin visible from the boat. That all disappears when Nigel emits a sound like a hawk, the usually lazy sloths startle to attention. Hawks are their natural predators it seems.

We motor back to the lodge and chill out until dinner. Nightfall brings the bugs and forest comes alive with noise. 80% of creatures living in the jungle are nocturnal and it’s now that they awake and emerge to begin hunting. This includes caimans, a kind of alligator. Nigel reckons they get up to 6 meters and I chuff, but I check him on it later and he’s right. Typically though adults are in the proximity of 3 to 4 meters. Nothing to sneeze at. Though tonight we’ll go hunting them. We pile into the canoe and paddle only a short distance to the bank outside the lodge. Nigel flashes his torch up and down into the bank scrub and we see the reflection of the caimans eyes, like a little cat in amongst the dark vegetation. Our boatman silently maneuvers us through the reeds and Nigel lies down out the front of the canoe like the wooden maiden on a pirate ship. He suddenly plunges his arm into the reeds and brings back a small caiman, yelping this kind of guttural utterance for it’s mother. Caimans will stay with their mothers for a period of only about 5 months. After that, the mother is likely to eat them if they hang around too long. We all have a gander at the frightened beast before it’s thrown back. We paddle off silently along the river, the reflection of the moon and clouds mirrored in the glassy river. We turn into a creek off the river that opens out into a kind of water forest. Trees emerge from the water in amongst reeds and grass and overhead the larger canopy trees meet, enclosing us in this spooky night forest setting. This time Nigel soon pulls an impressive 1 meter, 4 year old caiman from the murky river. He doesn’t get that close to us with it as it’s squirming and evidently really strong. For it to get loose in the canoe would be bloodshed.

Day 2 and we’re up early to have breakfast and then paddle downstream to begin a jungle trek. But behind us the sky is this looming and lumpy light blue and grey. Papa Ben’s shown up without his yellow Hooters jacket.

‘Go get your rain-jacket’ Nigel says to him. John, who owns the lodge and will be coming with us, chuckles a toothy smile.

And not 2 minutes after we pile into the canoe the heavens open up and unleash an ocean. Water starts filling the canoe and Nigel begins siphoning it out with cut off plastic bottle. Our rain jackets are keeping our top-halves dry but my jeans are soaking and though my shoes are waterproof the run-off from my jeans has saturated my socks and now my feet are wet. It’s some 40 minutes of torrential rain in the boat which ironically stops as we arrive at the start of the trek. We’re all saturated, with wet shoes, feet and clothing but the show must go on. We clamber up a muddy river bank and are soon thick in vegetation. Nigel unsheathes his machete and starts cutting vines to clear the path. The mosquitoes are thick. Only our hands and faces are exposed but it’s not stopping them trying. Stand still for even a moment and you’re fighting off mosquitoes and ants, we all get into the habit of doing this kind of ‘need to go to the toilet’ shuffle whilst Nigel runs through various explanations of medicinal trees. In one instance he puts his hand on a massive ant nest, his hand is engorged by ants and he suddenly crushes them on his skin, rubbing them in.

‘Natural mosquito repellent’ he says ‘here..smell my hand’

‘Yep.. ‘ ..it’s not an everyday request but we do and it’s very jungle smelling. There’s a squelchy feeling from my socks every time I take a step. We’re shown plants that can help with symptoms of Malaria, constipation, diarrhea and general anti-septics. There’s monstrous termite mounds and muddy tubes where giant earthworms have ejected soil. It seems we’re on a small river peninsula and we round a corner before heading down the slopes to a narrow creek running across the peninsula. Here there’s a variety of Brazil nut trees that we all sample. There’s no doubt the jungle is vastly dis-orientating and Nigel marks several trees with his machete to keep us on course. He pauses often to take in the surroundings and chat to John. Eventually we make our way back to the boat and I ask him how the hell he knows where he’s going.

‘Well it’s the first time I’ve ever been in this area’ .. (wtf!) .. ‘so I brought John along.. and I’ve been marking trees’. So thankfully we arrive back at the boat to Papa Ben’s exhausted ‘Thank God for that!’

Back at the lodge we strip everything off and lie it out in the scorching sun that has decided to show up in the afternoon. Rain later this means. Later that afternoon, wary of wearing my last pair of dry shorts, I don my poofy speedo shorts and my rain-jacket and jump in the boat for an afternoon of piranha fishing. I feel like a flasher or park-bench pervert or something but as it doesn’t make sense to haul all our gear and we’ve only brought limited stuff.. this will have to do.

Motoring back to the lake, continually hitching my shorts down we throw over lines of chicken skin. There’s no reels, just line on a stick. Soon after it goes over there’s a nibble, then a bite and as you jerk the line up, out from the water, flipping furiously is a brightly orange red piranha. They’re tiny little diamond-shaped fish. And we whip up about 12 or 13 of them. Nigel grabs one carefully, wary of his scarred fingers, and shows us their lines of razor sharp teeth from protruding jaws, like an angry Shiht-Zu. I feel horribly vulnerable in my shorts.

Eager to leave I ask.. ‘Wow.. so how many do we need to get’

‘This is enough, when you’re ready we ca..’

‘Yep.. cool.. lets go’

That night we take the canoe on a silent adventure again, this time using a barbed trident spear to catch some local river fish for lunch tomorrow.

Day 3 and we motor across the lake, pass our old friends the dolphins to a local family house. There’s kids running around in only underpants, trailing locks of beautiful unkempt hair and rubbing their grubby faces. Their father emerges and Luis explains he’s the area’s most prized hunter. Their wooden hut it elevated on stilts and is basic but as we’re invited to poke around we notice there’s a washing machi
ne, television and stereo setup in the main room. Brazils government ran a torrid campaign to provide ‘lights to all’ and as a result from a straggly electrical wire running from who-knows-where, these guys have electricity. They pay a highly subsidised fee that works out at about $7 a month. To make this money, traditionally this family would hunt some of the Amazons most unique creates and sell them at the market. Preservation authorities rightly had a problem with this and now they process the Majorca flower to grain for sale at the market. This and a bit of income from the tour company and they can survive quite happily out in the middle of the jungle. All around them are mango trees, yucca trees, avocado and various other tropical fruits. In their hut, as tokens of their prior hunting victories are anaconda skins and a massive caiman skull.

By the end of the visit we’re heading back across the lake and river to lunch. It’s the end of our adventure in the jungle; Manaus feels like a world away when we arrive back. Traffic, fumes, noise and crime.

‘Welcome back to civilisation’ the guy at our hostel says. ‘Thanks.. we need to do some laundry..’ I say.

Well humored I thought but it actually turned out the hostel was willing enough to wash our wet clothes but they had no dryer. Luckily our room had some decent A/C so we strung up lines of cotton as washing line and hung up the garments over the room line Christmas decorations. By morning most of them were dry, including our shoes. The next night we jump on an early flight back to Rio De Janeiro, where after 10 months in Latin America, we would soon be leaving to the Middle East.

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