The morning greeted us to the near-imperceptible flap of a long nosed bat and gentle flurry of notes from Luis’ panpipes, our breakfast call. The previous evening’s brown scorpion—stuck to our shower curtain like a brooch—had scuttled off. Into a small wooden canoe we climbed, clasped a paddle and off the three of us went into the watery wild. Clouds haunted the surface water as we forged our way through the creases and folds of the forest’s labrinth of watery highways . A distinct and rapid tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap ensued. I had no idea that a woodpecker’s tongue is curled around the back of the head between the skull and skin—or that a thick, spongy bone buffers its brain—befitting a lifetime’s worth of hardcore boring with its chisel-like bill. Now there’s a bird that can’t turn around to its partner and say, ‘Sorry darling. I’ve got a headache.”
A rarely sighted ringed woodpecker appeared to have fed well that morning; the strong sun was welcome; its young were long gone from the year’s nest. He was happy to perch on an old gnarled cedar and cock a bright eye at the curious comings and goings below.
A troop of mocha brown woolly monkeys, including a pregnant mama seated on the mid branches in the tree tops, stared intently at us—wondering what we’d do next. Their prehensile tails facilitate the movement and dexterity of a fifth hand, and boast such Olympian level agility, I was simply awed by their ‘blink and you’d miss’ nimble movements. I sharply turned low and left, it’s a challenge to stay focused on one species when there’s always something else vying for your attention—like the pygmy kingfisher—swooping down over the water. Or a three-metre pink river dolphin coming up momentarily for a bubbly breather.
Monkey business doesn’t even begin to do the capuchins justice. A family of these intrepidly clever capuchins were lured into our lodge—taking their name from a cap of hair on the head which has the appearance of a cowl. We watched the interplay of hierarchical power cascading; the alpha male exerting his dominance over his young, successfully intercepting any banana swung their way. Others relented early on and took to snoozing on a branch, at an arm’s throw from us. Probably one of the closest displays of fiery jungle life, for which we had the ‘right-place-at-the-right-time’ fortune of seeing.
The yellow rumped Cacique bird was something else altogether. Jet black and mustard in plummage, the male in particular comes prepped with an innate talent to imitate the calls and cries of other species. Multilingual, it can lucidly shriek: “Shove off mate, you’re encroaching my crib!” The male is also adept in assuming an overarching role of leadership. The champion of delegation but a chauvinistic taskmaster, the male will often have up to ten wives with which to crack the whip. Its raucous squawks are reverberated—purely to coerce the females to tirelessly labour in retrieving threads for nest-building. Once the belligerent vertebrate deems sufficient material has been gathered, it screams some more for its married-to minions to start construction work. So many required nests in fact, this little dictator is able to oversee and implement the perfect decoy for its predator, the toucan. Only one centralised nest will contain all of the Cacique’s precious eggs (don’t think they belong to the female counterparts), concealed by a massive clutch of empty nests. Aggressive tyranny but an effective ‘Survival of the fittest’ result all the same.
A seemingly sedate spectacled caiman came to the water’s edge now and again, lured by Luis’ ‘educational purposes’ bits of bread. Those beefy reptiles can emulate a floating log better than a floating log. I was told a true story about a native woman who’d encountered a particularly aggressive caiman—seconds away from taking her. Without hesitation, she hoisted her spear-sharpened canoe paddle and plunged it into the soft spot on his head before he could steal the claws of victory. As menacing as the reputations preceded such crocodilians, the one metres away from our cabin was as placid as Playdough. Despite being terrorised by biting insects in bloody hot pursuit of it; I would’ve been on the brink of madness.
The older I get, the more fascinated by birds I become. Courtesy of the vivacious jay, another screeching bird, sounds a call so piercing that Luis frequently makes use of them. He finds the origin of their terrorising signals—emitted to deter whatever has walked into its territory uninvited—as failsafe indicators as to where there is something else worth seeing. Cue an unassuming baby boa constrictor that had slithered inadvertently into the jay’s patch. While pouring over the intricate pattern of the snake, Luis recalled upon seeing an owl once, all but skinned alive by the jays; bird of prey feathers fluttering in the air akin to a kid’s pillow fight at their first slumber party. Don’t violate the terms of a vivacious jay, you will come off worse..!
When we clocked various pods of pink river dolphin, you can’t help but state, “They’re not pink.” Marvellous observation, Miss Morris, there’s no flies on you. That’ll be my jungle-strength repellant. Indeed, they’re grey. Their skin only turns a rosy shade of pink when—just in the same vein as people—they become flushed from frolicking, fornicating and other forms of excitement. They also have the ability to turn their heads 360 degrees to optimise intake of the nutrient rich soup in which they swim, but never sleep. Their constant need to breath every five minutes or so means it’s impossible to take even a siesta. How they’re not pathologically tired is beyond me.
I beg your pardon, back to birds. Amid the rare orchids, bromeliads and bamboo cane, hanging vines and shrubs all worked together to protect the ‘broken branch tree’ bird, the potoo. Nocturnal, this stealth creature by day is so heavily camouflaged that it took our group the best part of 20 minutes to all spot it; perched upright in a tree next to, well, several broken branches. Equally as challenging to clock is the pocket monkey—a pygmy marmoset—about the size of a mouse engorged on too much cheese. It’s roughly the length of your little finger, weighs about 100 grams and mayhaps the most adorable creature I’ve laid eyes on. The mother always gives birth to twins twice a year but when she does, the parental care is shared between the troop. Tough love in the jungle; I guess that’s nature—poor little mites, I mean monkeys.
Our guide Luis had a crop of dark hair, and that sunny indigenous skin I was seeing so much of in the jungle. He was quite short with a solidity of body, without actually being fat. Passion oozes from this guy’s pores. Never to raise a false alarm, spotting wildlife that shows almost imperceptible movement is his forte and seeking out anything stealth is his speciality. I guessed half the time he instinctively just knew where things lived. He’s a living Crocodile Dundee—indulging his daily soft spot for snakes while paralleling the passion of Steve Erwin’s fixation with wildlife. But far less gun ho and far more trained by his tribal father at grassroots, the textbook and in the field. Numerous bouts of malaria, Dengue Fever, stings from bullet ants, bites of spiders and snakes—including one from a viper, has left him with quite the battle-scarred set of limbs. Not to mention an impenetrable immunity from all the venom and neurotoxins having coursed his veins. Always a silver lining.
Our ‘Man of the Forest’—seems more fitting than ‘Luis’—grew up practically naked in the jungle. (Remember it is 99.9 per cent humidity there, give the guy some slack(s). Offer him a pair and he’d probably deferentially decline; unless they were light weight and quick drying.) And was blessed with the teachings from his father of the Shuar tribe and mother from the Kichwa clan, which was pretty controversial to marry across different kinfolk once upon a time. When Luis’ father taught him to fish for example, he showed him where to locate a particular tree sap—along with all the other purposeful trees—with a soap-like substance, collect just enough to release into fishy waters, which subsequently gives fish a light gill-irritation bringing them to the surface in order to seek richer oxygenated air. Up the fish poke, and landing the catch of the day is easier than shooting fish in a barrel. What enviable if not invaluable local knowledge.
Luis’ father, and I forever digress—in the winter of his days—was persecuted for participation in ‘head-shrinking’. It’s an ancient ritual that among other less savoury and more gruesome purposes, preserves the human spirit once the body has deceased. This is achieved by shriveling the removed skin of a human head, treating it in a conserving concoction, and keeping it close to the living so they may continue to live in close proximity. I can’t help my morbid curiousity around this and would love to see an example in the withered flesh.
To complete the kudos and credentials, Luis is fluent in both of his parents’ native languages, plus a third picked up as a child. Then he naturally adapted to Spanish, saw the benefit of speaking English and is self-taught in German. I’d also add there isn’t a species in the Amazon that he doesn’t know in Latin to boot. After retiring as an instructor in the army for five years, and amongst being headhunted to guide for various National Geographic projects, Luis has been a naturalist for 17 years. A résumé with which David Attenborough would be hard pressed to beat, eh David? “When you come back to the jungle, I invite you to come and stay in my village, with my family. And then we go into the forest looking for snakes!” were Luis’ parting words to us. Man alive, I’m looking forward to that invitation.
The penis fish or vagina fish, depending on your preference, is an aquatic species that comes with a fathomlessly ghastly purpose. Its humble beginnings start as a small catfish, but is capable of instinctively entering almost any orifice where there’s sustenance. Including any human male or female waist deep in water having a pee, or menstruating, respectively, via the genitalia. Why the catfish-in-hell would it wish to do that? Simply, to tear through tissue until locating its favourite dish, your blood. The creature will grow at an astounding rate, striving for maturity at around 14 centimetres and won’t stop devouring your fortifying lifeblood until it does. These things commonly swim around the the white waters of the Amazon, but by no means are contained to such areas. I went for a ‘refreshing dip’ on a few occasions in black water but each time wondered ‘What if…’ Don’t think about it—the probability remained low. It’s the caimans or piranhas that are going to smart.
One of the highlights was a day trek—deep in the rainforest. As I squeezed through the thicket of jungle, a police bird’s siren put me on high alert from the outset. Relaaax, your adrenaline levels are spiking already. Luis piped up, “Don’t fall off the slippery log now Lisa, it’s waist deep swamp water below you.” Oh look, an army of bullet ants, akin to a viper’s neurotoxins. I’ll just side-step around those bad boys. When Luis got bitten by one in his teens, his father collected a few of the culprit ants, mashed up their backsides into an organic pulp, which made the perfect anti-venom. Boom! The excruciating pain fades away. Other ants—known as ‘Take-your-clothes-off’ ants—are still used by the people of the forest when their dogs for example, become languid. They place them in a biting nest of these blighters, which does rather more than energise the dog; it just about keeps it on its toes for the rest of time. The indigenous must really loathe laziness.
Talk about balance. Pachamama—Mother Earth is all about control, hasn’t she always been? Spiders for example produce prolific numbers, which is wonderful from the arachnid perspective but there are only so many predators of the spider—they simply can’t keep up. It’s not unusual for a spider to produce a clutch of around 1,200 babies. Cue the fungi-curbing. The ‘zombie fungus’—cordicep—chooses a creature, in this case a spider as the host; plays mind games with it; and convinces the arachnid to move to an optimum spot in which the fungus can thrive. The fungus can then relax and concentrate on devouring its host, tasty too, and start to sprout vine-like appendages from the inside-out. Seems quite fun-gusizing for the cordicep. It leaves the corpse caked in a crystalline powder of white dust. Thank fungus there are those in the forest.
Back in our canoe, we all leaned comfortably on the backrests. I gazed up and let the Amazon wash over me. Lowering my eyes from the skies rife with birdlife and with the sharp eyes of Luis, led us to the tail of a yellow crowned brush tailed rat. A hermit in the hole of a tree trunk. Rodents out here can grow up to 20 kilograms. What?! The same afternoon gave us an intimate encounter with a tamandua anteater, seen only annually. These mammals have a 20 centimetre long tongue in which to suck up their preferred dish of insects like a lemon slurpy. And don’t get me started on the power of an anteater’s enzymes.
Low and behold, we caught sight of a two-fingered sloth, inverted for the best vantage of spotting its predator, a harpy eagle. Conversely, we later saw a three-fingered sloth seated upright in a meditating Bhudda position, peacefully slanting its head from side to side keeping a beady lookout. The quintessential couch potato of the rainforest. As precocial as sloths are—practically independent from birth—they do in fact have a symbiotic relationship with the sloth moth and algae. The sloth descends from its tree once a week to defecate, providing a breeding ground for moths that live in the animals’ fur and nutritious gardens of algae that supplement the sloths’ diet, the latter of which camouflages the sloth’s fur from its predators. What an nourishing exchange.
Darkness crept across the wide expanses and intimate lights started breaking out within the lodges. That evening, the lights started to come on in my head when we sat laughing with Luis. Having witnessed one of nature’s greatest shows—my heart was suddenly penetrated by unexpected joy. I felt a sudden wild and unfamiliar happiness. The person I loved was with me. The effects of alcohol gave this a Spielbergian radiance, as if we were sitting at our own movie, awaiting the final scene and credits. A sunset of brilliant colours and patterns played off the few clouds that had waited in the wings to become central actors in this unique presentation. I’m a rich woman, I thought to myself, in all the ways that mattered.