The Amazon! 5.5 million square kilometers of pristine rainforest! Home to 10% of the world’s animal and plant species! Crossed by the largest river on Earth! Accountable for a quarter of our planet’s carbon dioxide absorption! It is without doubt the largest area of true wilderness, and most certainly one of the last too. Many explorers along the centuries have been drawn to its natural richness, legends of giant animals, hidden civilisations. Still today, the mighty jungle fascinates by the misteries and secrets still held behind the dense and thick foliage. And for the same reasons, it intimidates too. In January this year, my best friend Bérenger and I decided it was time to take on this great journey, venture deep into the Amazon and be ourselves the explorators of a small part of this natural wonder.
So here is the plan. We fly to Iquitos, a city isolated in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest and the largest in the world without any road access, and make our way to an inhabited and remote area of high biodiversity. Altogether, the expedition is due to last 3 weeks. I have three things in mind: first, spot rare wildlife like anacondas, tapirs, anteater or even jaguars and other wild cats; second, engage with the local amazonian tribes and discover their culture; third, survive in a hostile environment on resources that nature provides. Of course, such trip requires planning and training. Long hours of running, cycling, days of hiking, preparation for carrying my heavy backpack, a long list of equipment, from map and compass to knife and first aid kit. But the most important is the imagery gear: full DSLR kit with tripod, multiple lenses, filters; chest mounted gopro, handheld video camera and, specifically for this trip, two motion triggered camouflaged camera traps. I should be able to capture every moment of the unique journey we are about to take on…
Finally the date comes, 31st of July… I meet with my friend Bérenger at London Heathrow airport… It feels so great to see him after almost a year since the last time, and knowing that we’re heading for the greatest adventure of our lives… WOUHOUUUUU! 🙂 At 22:40, the plane takes off, direction The Amazon!
After a 38-hour journey with very little sleep, in the planes or on the uncomfortable airport floors, we step on Amazonian soil in Iquitos, Peru at 7:20am on the 2nd of August. There is someone waiting for us in the tiny airport to take us to Amazon Explorer office where we meet Hector, our expedition leader. The excitement soon replaces the tiredness as he gives us a brief introduction for the trip.
Day 1 Iquitos – Requena
The travel plan for today is not very demanding. We hop on a bus and drive on the one and only road out of Iquitos for about 180 km (where it ends) to the town of Nauta. We get our first glimpse over the rainforest looking through the window, but nothing very exciting. Also, there is human presence alongside the road for the entire distance. The 2-hour journey is a great opportunity to get some sleep. In Nauta, the road ends and we need to change our mode of transportation. The bags are offloaded and placed on the roof of the boat. That’s a 4-hour ride, without any legroom, the engine noise right into my ears, and again, a more natural but still monotonous landscape. Finally, we enter Requena, a large village lost in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. We are joining with the rest of our crew for the first part of the expedition, natives from the Matsés tribe, Dennis, Hernan, Wagner and two other young guys. Tonight, we ‘re staying in a hotel, our last night in a bed before heading deep in the jungle, a very welcome rest before a long trekk of 50km tomorrow.
Day 2 Requena – Quecu
We’re up at 4:30am this morning to take breakfast and begin the journey. We’ve got 50km to go and the plan is to do it all today. I need to point out that the original plan was to fly with the Air Force of Peru to the military air strip of Angamos. Much easier than hiking of course, but as the landing strip is a dirt track, it has been made muddy by recent rainfalls. Depending on the conditions on the day, the plane might go or not, so it’s more reliable to make the journey by foot. Luckily, two motokars (the local tuktuk) are taking us as far as they can into bumpy dirt tracks. When I say bumpy, I mean very bumpy!
But comes a steep hill, which the machines won’t climb. This is it then! The moment to carry my own backpack, leaving the modern world behind and venture deep into the Amazon on foot has arrived… I’ve been waiting for this moment for months, dreaming of it, and here I am. The emotions and feelings from hiking in the jungle emerge from my previous trips to Guatemala and Borneo. Only this time will last longer and be harder. With all the camera kit, my bag weighs over 25kg. I am prepared for a struggle towards the end of the day but for now I’m just enjoying every second of being back in nature.
At the start, the path is large and relatively flat, allowing for a quick pace. But the forest soon draws closer around us and water streams get in the way. Their crossings slow our progress a great deal. We’re using tree trunks placed by the Matsés regularly using this path. But the humid environment and regular use make them very slippery. I have to be very careful, especially because my balance and center of gravity are strongly affected by the weight of my backpack. This is not the time to take risks and break something. After about three hours since the start, comes one more challenging than the all the previous. The river is too wide for a single trunk. The first one is wide, at the water level for the first 7-8 meters, up to that point I’m fine. But now I need to step on a branch, much narrower and rising steeply to about 1 meter above the water… now I’m stuck. Oups. It doesn’t sound like a big deal but I’m pretty sure I’ll fall into the water with my bag and camera around the neck… So we start a very precarious operation: taking my bag off and passing it to Dennis, still in equilibrium on a narrow tree branch. The shift of the 25kg is tricky, affecting balance at every movement. I thought myself falling a couple of times but finally I get rid of my burden. I’m so light now, I can get up that branch, step to the next tiny straight and round trunk and walk the remaining 10m without hesitation. Ouf! Needless to say, I already had mud up to the knee at that point, and the rest of my buddy soaked in sweat looking at Bérenger completing the crossing.
Approaching midday, the heat starts to increase and the temperature rises. We must have done around 15km by now and it’s been relatively easy. But now it’s reached the next level of difficulty. In those conditions, it takes so much more energy to keep going. Moreover, the Amazon isn’t flat as I thought. The terrain is a succession of hills. Every single climb is taking me out of breathe. My body is over heating. My backpack feels heavier. I am now having to stop every half hour to cool down, and drink lots of water. Our progress is so slow that I am doubting we’ll be able to complete the 50km today. I have done it before but, in these conditions, it actually seems a little ambitious. Hector and Dennis are ahead and probably will be waiting for us in a place where we can have a long break. After what felt really long hours, I can finally hear their voice down. Hector comes up and confirms my thought, we won’t be able to complete the trekk today. We also take a break here, I’ll have a bath in the river, refill the water bottles and relax for a bit. The last obstable is this very river which need to be crossed. Easier said than done. The ground is around 5m below the trunks and I need to step down from the first to the second half way through. Falling will certainly hurt.
The priority now is only to relax. I immediately take my clothes off and slide down the 5m slope to the brown water… The cool water feels absolutely amazing. My feet sink into the muddy river bed, I can’t see what’s in the water around me, but none of that matter given how relaxing this is. We take this opportunity to refill the water bottles. It’s a bit sandy in the mouth but at this point, that’s only a detail of no importance.
As good as it is, the break can’t last forever. We’ve only completed 23km, not even half of the total distance. It’s time to load the bags again and complete the final leg of today’s section. We’re going to spend the night in the old park guide house called Quecu, another 13km away. Quite fortunately rain starts to fall soon after we leave. Fortunately? Yes, because it cools the air down and it’s easier to walk. But the path is now very very muddy, soon the sun comes down and light barely reaches us under the forest canopy. Guided by the light of torches, we reach the house completely in the dark, well after the sun has disappeared behind the horizon.
Hector opens the door to an army of cockroaches on the floor. As I walk in, it’s quite obvious that a large part of this wooden house is rotten. Some of the floorboards seem really fragile and about to crack. And me? Really exhausted. I think we all are. It’s already quite late so we’re not going to hang out for too long. Just the time to set up the mosquito nets, eat a can of tuna with some bread and get to bed right on the wood for a night which promises to be uncomfortable.
Day 3 Quecu – Matansa
We should have a relatively short hike today, we’ve got “only” 22km before Matansa on the river Lobo. There is a large communal house where we’ll stay for the night before taking the boat to our next stop. The sun is up and there we go again going uphill, dowhill, crossing rivers. Just before midday, same difficulties, the heat becomes unbearable. It’s actually a lot worse today. We haven’t eaten much since yesterday, a can of tuna, a bit of bread, some jam and that’s it. So I haven’t fully recharged my batteries. A couple of hours since we’re walking and I’m already feeling drained. I need to stop to catch my breathe after each hill climb or every 20 minutes, whichever comes first. My bag feels even heavier and my back is aching. I even lose balance and fall from a high tree trunk while crossing a water stream. Luckily I am able to catch another trunk to stop the fall, now having my feet in the air. Dennis has to help taking my backpack off so I can lift myself up back on the path. But there is no going back, we have to finish this trekk. And the quicker the better. It’s time to ignore the pain, bite the bullet and push to the end of this 50km trekk.
Finally, the river appears, we’ve arrived. What a relief for both Bérenger and I. Now the boat is going to come and pick us up. No more pain. “…” No, false hope! We actually have to continue, the boat is another couple of hundred meters downriver… Right, it’s almost there… I continue, actually quite enjoying the moment. To me, that’s the best moment in hiking. I know I’m almost finished, I’ll be able to relax, but not quite yet. Now I see the boat, a pirogue actually, and the smile on my face gets even bigger. 😀 Now is time for celebration!!! We all jump on the pirogue, cross the rio Lobo and step at Matansa, the large communal house in sight.
On the other side, my legs can barely carry me. I’ve only got enough energy to get my backpack off the pirogue and sit next to it. The house is just a dozen meters away, but that’s too much to ask for now. I urgently need to rest and cool down… THE RIVER! I can’t be bothered to take my clothes off, I step into the stream all dressed… oh that’s great…
I can just let myself float at the surface, relax my muscles in the cool water… With a bit more energy, I can take my bag to the house, hang my dirty wet clothes and put dry ones on. And while Bérenger and I stay to relax at the house and talk about the adventures to come with Hector, Dennis and Hernan go hunting in an attempt to catch meat for dinner.
They come back at dawn with 2 birds they call “perdiz”. Another couple of hours snooze and they’re cooked. The jus is extremely tasty, which feels like a bit of a luxury here. The meat is great too and immediately recharges the batteries after the efforts of the last two days. And so will the long night to come.
Day 4 Matansa – Buen Peru
Waking up right after sun rise, between 5 and 6am, has now become the norm. We should be having an easier day ahead: a filling breakfast with the second perdiz, sitting on the pirogue down the river Lobo to the Matsés village of Buen Peru all day and the sleeping mats in perspective for tonight (sleeping directly on wooden floor is getting painful).
But soon I realize that what was supposed to be an easy day will instead give us further difficulties. Countless trees gave fallen across the river and block the way. The first couple only require to find the clearest passage through, lower our heads and pass underneath. Some are more challenging, Dennis or Hernan having to chop large branches with a machete to free the way. My thought right now is that we are definitely going to get stuck at some point, and going through won’t be as easy as it’s been so far. In the mean time, I enjoy sitting on the pirogue and going through pristine and untouched nature. There are lots of parrots, taking off as we approach, flying above us and disappearing behind the forest canopy loudly, breaking the quietness of the rainforest.
A couple of hours and several trunks later…
…there is one that blocks the river from one end to the other. Just imagine this, it’s almost straight (this point matters very much for the story), perfectly aligned with the water level, which means we can’t go over nor under. Only at the very left end, it’s only slightly above the river level (because of the slight angle). But low enough so we can give it a go. The pirogue aligns and goes full steam towards this tiny space. I hang onto what I can, waiting for the hit… Suddenly the pirogue makes contact but stops the next second… stuck on the tree. Bummer! We’ve got to hop off the pirogue so we can pull it back on the water. It’s going to take some efforts to get us through this obstacle. And ingenuity. Hernan suggests to cut piece of tree bark and put them on the tree. It’s going to be like soap and help the pirogue slide. But we need to enlarge the space. Dennis grabs the machete and literally cuts in the ground. The soil is quite soft, it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes to enlarge the river of half a meter. Now, time for the physical effort. Standing on the river bank, we all grab the side of the pirogue, push it into the newly built gap, over the tree barks and to the other side.
Now I need to jump back in it quickly before it goes too far. After half an hour of hard work, we restart our progress down the river.
As we reach a larger river, rio Galvez, there isn’t any more trunks to obstruct the way. But rain starts to fall. Heavily. I take my poncho out and finish the close-to-8-hour ride hiding under it. The Matsés village appears behind a corner. That’s a relief, after the long journey to get here, but a bit of apprehensiveness too. I don’t know what to expect. Are they going to be shy, concerned, engaging? How do I need to behave? Am I going to offend them doing things that aren’t correct in their culture? We brought a couple of bags of chocolate to thank them of their hospitality, are they going to appreciate it? We quickly reach the river banks under the village and step out of the pirogue. Lots of children have come around, curious to see us I guess. Hector introduces to Armando, Dennis’ father who is going to join us for the expedition deeper into the forest. A little girl approaches and seems really impatient to greet us. She puts her hand forward to shake mine: “Hola”, she says in a whisper. Immediately, she greets Bérenger and Hector as well. She even insists on a little boy and another little girl to do the same. This is funny 🙂 We grab our bags and head to Armando’s house, where we are introduced to the rest of the family. I take the chocolates out of my bag, which are perfectly fine after the long trekk in the heat, and offers them to our hosts. They all seem to really appreciate that which is very warming. Dennis also brings some fruits from the rainforest called aguaje. They’re like purple litchis, with a skin really hard to remove. It’s thousands of tiny little pieces that come off separately. Even the edible bit comes off. But the very little that’s left when I’m done peeling it is excellent! It is shortly followed by a meal (which I can’t either call lunch or dinner, it’s about 5pm). On the menu, fish and yuca. I know what it is from watching those survival Bear Grylls programmes. But I’ve never had the chance to try. … … It tastes like potatoe… The fish itself is smoked, ane even though I’m not a big fan, I really like it. Also I know that I won’t have the luxury to eat stuff that I like so I better get used to that.
Now we’ve got a couple of hours ahead of us before it gets dark. We take the opportunity to have a wash in the river and stand by the water hoping for pink dolphins to show up. They are an endemic species of the Amazon rivers and often spotted in front of the Matsés village. Just not tonight. So Bérenger and I walk through the village as the sun is disappearing behind the horizon. It is solely built almost as a straight line alongside the main alley. To my great surprise as it got darker, the lights came on… There are lamp posts just above us which I hadn’t notice. I have to admit I wasn’t expecting electricity to come this far. But that’s not over, as we step back into our hosts’ house, a desktop has been installed on the table where we had dinner. That’s not far from being the last thing I was expecting to see here. Shortly, Hector comes in the house with breaking news. Local villagers have found babies of a type of dog living in the Amazon and brought them back. There are three of them and they’re very very young, probably only a few days old. The parents escaped and left them behind. This is a sad, they have very little chances of surviving on their own, even less making it back to the wild. I am looking through my book and identify it as a short-eared dog. It’s dark now, so we’ll go and see them in the morning. Now it’s time for soup and bed (which I’m looking forward to, we’ve got sleeping mats). Tomorrow, the main part of the expedition starts as we’re going to enter an inhabited area of the Amazon rainforest, very remote and almost never frequented by humans.
Day 5 Buen Peru – Chonco
I awaken with the sunshine coming through the spaces between the wall wooden boards and the surrounding activity in the village. All the kids are up too, playing and laughing just outside the house where we sleep. It makes me feel joyful as well, probably also because we are entering the serious part of the expedition today. By the way, there is no lazy morning, it’s not even 7am that we are coming out of our mosquito nets for breakfast. It’s amazing to sit on a bench and eat at a table, it seems like a luxury after the tough days we’ve just been through (and the ones yet to come). As Bérenger and I are having a quick wash in the river, a pink dolphin finally make an appearance, the sign for me to run grab my camera. It’s really exciting to have our first sighting of an Amazon animal. There is another one soon coming to this part of the river. They hang around for an hour, playing at the surface. (Unfortunately, this memory card failed later in the trip and the pictures on it are all lost). Now Hector is calling us, we’re loading the pirogue with all our supplies for the next 2 weeks, ready to depart.
The journey on the Rio Galvez is much quieter than it was on the Rio Lobo. There aren’t any trunks to stop our progression and the forest is very silent.
Apart from another tens of parrots, it’s without much action that the day goes by. We finally approach the river bank to make a stop. There is a wooden construction above the river bank, it must be where we’re going to set up camp for the night. But it’s not. Hernan has spotted an anaconda in a swamp nearby recently. We’re going to have a look. We take a short trekk through the forest. There is no path anymore and it takes us to clear our way with the machete. But when we reach the swamp, we notice that the water level is very high and the surrounding forest is flooded. That means we can’t find a spot with good vision because of branches and leaves, and we can’t explore the area to search for the giant snake. Dennis says there is definitely one here, showing the mark it’s left on the ground: a one-meter wide, half a meter deep channel. F*** me that anaconda must be huge! We follow the channel for a couple hundred meters until we reach another swamp. In the mud are the prints of the animal living here. It’s not an anaconda but an alligator. That doesn’t make it less impressive though, still a huge deadly beast.
I get all excited when we hear Armando whistling, calling for us. The only thing I can think of is that he’s found the anaconda. Hernan, Dennis, Bérenger and I rush to join him. There is a snake, but not quite as big as expected. It’s actually a very small one, about 75cm long. “Es un anaconda?”, I ask (a young one I mean). No, it’s a boa. Armanda and Hernan keep it within sight. Hector tries to catch it, approaching its hand to the head of the reptile. But it’s in a defensive mode and strikes back, mouth wide open, in an attempt to grab the flesh with its pointy teeth.
Now it’s my turn to take it off Hector’s hand. It might not be venomous but it’s got nasty teeth, which I don’t want to see ending up in my skin. I am very cautious when it’s time to take control of the reptile’s head. But that’s not the case of Hector when it takes it back. The snake exploits the first opportunity to strike and bites him at the finger. “Me mordió!”, he says… laughing. 😀 It must be fed up with us playing. Hector pulls the reptile’s tooth out of his flesh and give it its freedom back. The search for its bigger cousin is unfruitful so we head back to the pirogue to continue our journey.
It’s only half an hour later that we reach our final destination for the day. We offload what we need from the pirogue and start building the camp. There are remains of shelters constructed earlier in the year which are still strong enough for us to use. While Hector and Dennis stay to get everything ready, Armando, Hernan, Bérenger and I head out into the forest for our first real search for animals. There is a path, leading to what the guys call “una colpa”. It describes natural sources of water, rich in minerals, therefore frequented by animals for their daily intake. And where there is a high concentration of animals, there will be predators. Of course, don’t imagine we’ll reach a place where we can find dozens of them at the same time, it’ll still require a lot of luck to encounter any wildlife at all. We progress in silence on a narrow muddy path. Armanda leads the way very confidently even though sometimes I just can’t tell where the path has gone. Finally after an hour and a half we reach the “colpa” and slow down to make as little noise as possible. We use really deep channels, probably up to 2m, carved into the ground and descending into the sandy glade. They are tapir’s paths. It gives an indication of the size of this rare animal, endangered because of extensive hunting. We also find fresh footprints into the sand… Exciting 🙂 With every step, my feet sink into the sand. I have to be extremely careful when making another step not to make too much noise. Having gone through the colpa from one end to another and not seen any animal, we sit on an elevated position with good view over it, and wait… Only a few minutes. Given that it’s going to take us another hour and a half to get back to camp, I anticipate that it’ll be dark by then, an hour earlier under the canopy. Bérenger and I didn’t take our lights. That means, we have to go now. It’s a bit frustrating to take such a long hike for nothing, because of a stupid error. But that’s the right decision. There is less and less light, it’s harder to know where to step, trying to avoid holes or branches sticking out of the ground. Now I can smell fire, indication that the camp is nearby and probably that water is boiling and that we’ll have a coffee immediately.
It’s now completely dark. After dinner, I’m tempted to go out again. Hector points out the very bright moon, meaning a relatively clear night, during which predators are particularly active. That’s enough to convince me, I’m going back. Bérenger is tired so it’s just Hernan and I. Walking through the night feels very different during the day, it makes me lose the notion of time. Hernan stops and looks towards the dark. I look but can’t see anything. He steps into the bush slowly, and I hear the noise of an animal running away rapidly. “Majas”, he says. That’s a large rodent, Paca in english. He also says that the meat is very tasty, hopefully we’ll get to try it. We continue to walk until Hernan stops suddenly and indicates me to come closer, but silently. There is another majas just next to the path, this time I can see its eyes behind the leaves looking at us. The mutual observation lasts ten seconds until the animal runs away again into the darkness. We soon reach the colpa again and slow down to remain absolutely quiet. It seems even more silent at night. We descending into it and immediately see another majas on the other side. It stays within reach of your headlights and doesn’t seem to mind. Hernan urges me to take a picture but I didn’t take any camera. First because my GoPro batteries are flat and my camera can’t take good pictures at night. Second, because sometimes I like to lift off the pressure of carrying the equipment and seeing things through a lense. Tonight, is just me and the wild.
We progress through and see a turtle into the water. We’ve already seen more wildlife than in our earlier visit. Hernan is convinced that a tapir is around because of more super fresh prints in the sand. We stop at the same spot, looking down into the colpa. Only now we’ve got all the time we want. We turn the lights off and wait… I never expected to say that but the situation is a bit overwhelming. In the modern everyday life, we never experience true darkness. Moon light or street lights, there is always enough to perceive the surrounding world. Now the moon light doesn’t go through the tree lines, it’s pitch black. Also, I’m in the Amazon rainforest, home of hundreds of predators and deadly creatures. There could be one near me that I wouldn’t even know. And last, my life is not in my own hands. It’s in Hernan’s. Not that there is any reason but if I were to end up alone, there is absolutely no way I can make my way back to the camp. So every now and then, I turn my light back on, primarily to look for animals, but also to reassure myself. Let’s be honest, if there was an animal, Hernan would hear it and see it way before I would be able to. In such darkness, the wait continues… Five minutes… I can hear and feel the bats flying les than a few centimeters from my head… Ten minutes… We regularly turn lights on but there is nothing… Fifteen minutes… Still nothing… Twenty minutes… Now there’s something!!! Hernan got all excited and is pointing is finger right in front of us. I can’t see! It’s got to be the tapir, I look hard, I look everywhere, I look harder, NOW I SEE! A pair of eyes, 10 meters from us, reflecting the light of my torch!
First, I think of the tapir we were looking for. But the eyes are small and close, the animal moves very gently. A WILD CAT! That’s incredible, I’ve never seen a feline in the wild before!!! I have been looking for jaguars in Guatemala, clouded leopards in Borneo, sinally I find one. It’s moving slowly towards us, stops for a short sip, looks around. I can’t describe my thoughts at this point of time because I can’t think. My attention is solely on the animal, watching it, taking in every single second of this moment. We’re both placing our lights onto it, there has got to be a point where the cat notices us, gets scared and runs away. In fact the exact opposite happens. He walks towards us, slowly and calmly… He’s now a some 8 meters from us… 7 meters… My eyes are fixed on the feline… 6 meters… It’s so graceful… 5 meters… He’s so close, he’s going to have to stop soon… 4 meters… No he doesn’t… 3 meters… He’s bigger than I thought, probably 1 meter in length… 2 meters… The thought that he might come right into us crosses my mind (as well as what he might do…)… 1 METER!!!!… It’s absolutely incredible, I can almost touch him!!!! He changes direction, going around us. I can fully appreciate the absolute beauty of the feline, of his fur pattern. What strikes me right now is how clean and pristine it looks (especially since I’ve only been in this forest for a week, I’m covered in mud and sweat and I probably stink too). I watch him for as long as I can, disappearing into the forest behind us.
(I have taken an image captured by WWF through one of their camera traps to give you an idea of what the animal looks like. If you’re interested in the work done by WWF to study and protect all the animals of the Amazon, follow this link)
I finally exchange a look with Hernan. Even though, he’s probably seen tens of them, I can’t tell immediately that he is as excited as I am from what’s just happened. “Que es?”, I ask. “Tigrio”, he replies. With a huge smile on my face, I turn the lights off again. The last two minutes have made my day, I would never have imagined such a close encounter with rare wildlife. Felines are experts in the art of hiding, making them so hard to see, let alone that close! My thoughts of being lost in the dark are now replaced with the images of the tigrio which I will never forget! Hernan turns the lights back on, the tigrio is out again. A lot further into the colpa, he’s caught something and carries it in his mouth before heading back behind the tree line. It’s time for us to go back, we walk through the colpa and have a third and last glance of the feline, calmly eating its prey, a poor frog. No sign of the tapir tonight. It doesn’t matter, we’ve seen something much better. During the hour and a half which separates us from camp, my brain functions at 100 mph. “Only if I had a camera, I could have captured this moment!” “But if I had a camera, it might never have happened, or I would have made some noise while he was far from us, scared him away and he would have never come this close” A french expression says that, with a lot of “ifs”, we could put Paris in a bottle… Not sure of the origin and what he really means, but basically, no regrets! I’ve just lived a unique moment, through my own eyes and not through a lense. It’s really important to do that some time. And like I thought before heading out, tonight was all about me and the wildlife. Nothing else. Everyone is asleep when we arrive at camp. I get into the tent as quietly as I can. What a day it’s been, and what a start for the serious part of the expedition! I can’t wait to tell Bérenger and the others in the morning…
Day 6 Chonco – Camp 2
My first thought when I wake is to wonder whether last night was real or only a dream. No, it was real. I describe what happened to Bérenger, Dennis, Hector and Armando and then look into the book to identify the species we saw. It’s an ocelot, third largest cat in the Amazon after the jaguar and the puma. Of course the pacas were great too, but seems nothing compared to the feline. After a breakfast made of eggs, galletas and of course coffee, we are back on the pirogue to push on further into the unknown. There isn’t a single cloud, the sun is really hot. There isn’t much activity apart from more parrots flying above the canopy. We play cards, sleep, chat, and a bit after midday, we are dropped on land with Hector and Dennis. The last time they did the anaconda expedition (and only time actually), they found the fresh carcasse of a tapir, killed by a jaguar. Since these big cats are very territorial, there is a possibility that he’s still around. But even though, chances of finding him are slim. Hector and Dennis look for prints on the ground. There some fresh, from a tapir, some older ones which can’t be identified. I am amazed by how silent the forest is. There isn’t a single noise, which make us extremely loud walking on dry leaves and branches. There are a number of streams going through the land and we seem to come even closer to the tapir, finding the mark of its attempt to climb up the river bank and sliding back down. Another hour and a half of search are unsuccessful, time to call for Hernan to pick us up. The Matsés use a different whistles to communicate between themselves and also cover our presence from wildlife. It’s a lot less intrusive than shouting and scaring off all the surrounding life. He is alone, as he has dropped Armando upstream to prepare lunch. When we arrive, it’s nearly ready. He’s caught a few fishes called tucunaré which are almost cooked with yuca (ou manioc pour les français).
Tonight we are staying near another colpa, where we’ll be able to leave out the camera traps for the first time. It only takes a couple of hours to reach it. The main difference with yesterday is that it’s not a long hike away from the river (and camp since we always stay near it for mobility). It’s right on the river. We decide to set the camp up on the other side of the river, about 200 meters upstream to make sure we don’t disturb the wildlife. Without waiting, Hector, Dennis, Bérenger and I head immediately to the colpa to set the cameras up. We leave the engine off, using the river stream and the paddle to guide us there. We step on land very silently, look for a great location to place the cameras. It needs a straight tree, big enough, looking into an open field of view without anything blocking the way. Once the job is done, we hop back on the pirogue and join Armando and Hernan in camp.
It’s been a couple of days since we washed, it’s time for another bath. However, I only realised last night that the river was infested with alligators. It’s seems logical but I didn’t really appreciate that before. So the swims to cool down, water at neck level, that’s over. I keep the water level below my knees, wash as quickly as I can and get out! The rest of the night is very quiet. After night fall, Hector takes out the megaphone that he brought, in order to play the jaguar record and try to attract one of them.
This is really exciting! That’s a bit scary too. We’re trying to attract a deadly animal in the night, who can see us and we probably can’t see him. But that doesn’t balance the fact that I want to see a jaguar so bad. Unfortunately that’s not successful. So we take the pirogue and head out on the river. Pointing the lights towards the river bank, we hope to see animals that come out to drink or feed. But I’m so tired that I fall asleep on the pirogue. I am sure the people who know me would not be surprised by this. 🙂 Anyway, apart from tens of alligators, I didn’t miss much and I am quite happy to arrive back to camp and go to bed for a good sleep. Tomorrow morning, we’re picking up the camera traps, hopefully for great footage.
Day 7 Camp 2 – Sanco camp
First things first, camera traps. On the pirogue, to the colpa, untie the cameras… nothing. Dennis looks on the ground, no prints either. Disappointed. Breakfast.
Another couple of hours, penetrating into a much denser part of the rainforest. There isn’t special signs, but everything seems more wild, clearly undisturbed by humans. We stop at a nearby “cocha”, describing an inland body of water, a bit like swamps. At first, I don’t understand what’s going on. Armando breaks into the water with his machete. But what for? Well, he’s catching tiny fishes, which he then places on the hook at the end of our fishing rods as bait. They are as basic as they can get, a stick, a nylon string and a hook. I have one myself, but no sign of any larger fish whatsoever. The rain starts to fall so the fishing is over and we finish our journey to our camp near “Boca de Sanco”.
The last time this place saw humans was around 2 years ago, for the last anaconda expedition. The remains of the camp made back then are still visible. We need to clear the area first, before we start making our own. We are due to stay here 3 or 4 days. That means we’ll also spend more time and efforts to make it more comfy, more homy. Of course, I want to participate. We bought two machetes back at Requena but they need sharpening. While Armando is doing that, there isn’t much I can do. So I head back to the pirogue, grab my fishing stick (haven’t lost the bait), and put it in the water. It seems very active here. It doesn’t take long before I feel something pulling the string. I wasn’t expecting such resistance to take the fish out of the water that it escapes quickly. It has eaten some of my bait but not all. The hook just back in the water, I’ve got another catch. But again, I can’t pull the fish our of the water. But this time, it’s eaten all my bait. S***, I need to find something else. There is a banana next to me, maybe the fish like that? I take a piece and put the hook back in the water… Nope! I don’t have a single catch in the 10 minutes that follow. Right, I need to find something else to do.
At the camp, Bérenger has cleared the “floor” off small trees, leaves, branches, for us to install our tent. I can move our backpacks and the rest of our stuff there. Ha! I didn’t realise I had placed them on an ant nest after taking them off the pirogue… Well, someone’s going to have to do it. I lift the first bag and walks it closer to the tent. The ants immediately climb up my arm and bite. Tens of them at the same time. They also get from the bag onto my leg and reach my waist. Lots of them. And because I’m not wearing any tee shirt, they can bite there as well… Second bag, same story… Ouch! I’m glad they don’t have venom, it’s a painful intense sting but there is no scratching after that.
My machete is sharp, I can also help with cutting wood. Hernan needs a strong tree to make a table. I have watched the guys do it, seems easy. I chose a straight tree and start chopping. Of course, we take no more than we need, whether its food or wood, in order to preserve the environment. It goes without saying but we are very careful to leave absolutely no garbage behind us. After 15 minutes, I bring the tree back in order to continue building our structures. Right, this job is done, next? Going back fishing with Dennis and Bérenger. I quickly turns into a competition, who is going to catch the first fish. The start is quite frustrating, the fishes bite into the hook, but escape as they are taken out of the water. The good thing is, there are lots of them and they are very hungry. The bait stays no more than a couple of minutes in the water before the catch. And after a not-too-long 10 minutes, Bérenger has his first. They’re piranhas. We’ve got to be careful taking the hook, they’ve got very sharp teeth. Soon, Bérenger has got the trick and already caught three. Me? Still none. At one point, I thought I had my first but it escaped almost at the very last minute, 1 meter above the meter, generating a good laugh amongst the audience. But finally, I get a few and it’s time to go cook them and have a great lunch/dinner. The rest are smoked to keep them longer.
Day 8 Up Rio Galvez
It’s the middle of the night, I wake up with a sense of fear. I hear something near the tent, the sound of it walking on the forest floor and raucous roar. I’m thinking “I must still be in my dream, there is nothing”. But that’s before the Matsés wake up and talk. They must have heard the same noise. So it’s not in my dream. Is that a jaguar? We played the megaphone again last night, would it have worked? It’s just before 4am, I decide to get out of the tent to see for myself. (I know it does sound crazy, but seeing a jaguar is the greatest thing that could ever happen on this trip) I can see the light of Dennis and Hernan’s torches, coming back towards me. They’re saying it was perdis… and I thought it was a jaguar… Idiot! 🙂
I’m not going back to bed, this is the best time, just before sun rise, to go and explore the surrounding rainforest, when the wildlife is most active. At the beginning, complete darkness doesn’t allow us to see anything. But as the sun appears, light reaches below the canopy. There is a group of black spider monkeys, a very similar species to the ones I saw in Guatemala but of a different colour, some common whoolly monkeys, very recognisable because of their thick fur and last, brown capuchin monkeys, the smallest of all three. Unfortunately, the pictures of the animals are lost with the rest of the content of my first memory card, which didn’t survive the harsh conditions of the rainforest.
Back for breakfast, the usual eggs but this time with the smoked piranhas from yesterday. Today’s we’re taking the boat further upstream onto the Rio Galvez. We’re going to reach the furthest point of our expedition, the most remote area, one that never sees human, undisturbed, supposingly rich in wildlife. At the start, progress is fast. We come across a another group of spider monkeys, travelling at the top of the trees. But soon, it becomes a lot more difficult. The river is now very narrow, thick bushes, growing and fallen trees with numerous and dense roots are blocking the way. At every obstacle, Dennis spends a dozen minutes chopping the branches to let the pirogue through. In a tree on our right, another species of monkey that’s called Tocon here. It’s a titi monkey, but I can’t tell which one exactly.
But still no sign of anaconda. We’ve spent a few hours on the river now and we still can’t find any proof of their presence. I have a chat with Dennis, who explains that there is a large cocha at the end of the river which is supposed to host a large concentration of anacondas and other wildlife. The only thing is that no one has ever been there so we have no idea how far it is. However, this is the first time that they make it this. They had to turn their back way earlier during their first attempt as the water levels were too low. This legend re-motivates me immediately. I already imagine breaking through this never-explored area of the Amazon, a bit like a 17th century explorer, entering some kind of sanctuary for large reptiles to breed, rest or maybe they even come here to die. We know so little about these creatures that no theory could be ruled out. But we could be half an hour away of 6 hours away, nobody know. And the progress is getting harder and harder. I’m thinking that it must mean we’re getting closer. But every obstacle we go through only reveals another, and another, and another, endlessly. Up to a point where it becomes impossible to go any further. We have to turn around… s***! I’m really disappointed!
On the way back, the plan is to look for colpas to place the camera traps. The area is unknown so we’re just going to have to go on foot, searching for them. It’s going to require a lot of luck to find one. We’re splitting ourselves in groups. Bérenger, Dennis and I going in one direction, Armando, Hector and Hernan going in the other. We search for a long hour, turn around, explore as much ground as possible but nothing. There are small clearings with water but they’re just stagnant from the heavy rains. Suddenly Dennis stops walking and seems to concentrate his attention to something. I listen, now I hear it too, some kind of roaring not too far away, a bit like a howler monkey. It must be one of them. Dennis looks at me: “Jaguar!” … REALLY??? “Vamos?” ABSOLUTELY!!! I’m really excited, I did sound relatively close. We progress very silently through the forest. I hear it again… closer. My heart is beating, it’d be amazing to see a jaguar. But Dennis tells me it could his dad… Aaaaand… right it’s Hernan… Haha, we got all excited for nothing… It’s time to go back to the pirogue, nothing around here.
After dinner, we head back into the forest and walk as far as we can. And guess what we see? Yes, a monkey. A monkey in the night? That’s a night monkey!
…bigger than a compact camera…
Day 9 Boca de Sanco
This morning I head into the forest alone with Hernan to pick up the cameras. For the first time, one has captured something. It’s an armadillo. (you can stop playing the video after the first 5 seconds, camera traps are a standard 1 minute or 1 minute 30 seconds videos).
It’s really exciting to finally get an image of wildlife. Hopefully a good sign for today. Unfrotunately, we have to adapt to the conditions and re-plan. The rivers are really high in this area, making it it hard to explore. Also, the colpas are flooded. We’re making one more expedition towards Boca de Sanca. It’s a larger cocha near the rio Galvez which seems to have something a bit mystical. However, we have the same problem as yesterday, it’s a long way with many obstacles. Only this time is worse, we have to cut “tunnels” sometimes up to 10m long through bush and branches.
However, it soon looks like we aren’t able to go any further. The cocha is close but far at the same time, we’re going to have to finish by foot. The first thing I see stepping on land is a piece of dead snake skin. From an anaconda, it seems. But the first living thing we find is another tocon, or titi monkey. It distracts us for a while but we finally progress towards the cocha. When we approach, there is a very fresh snake-like print in the nearby swamp.
Verdict: given the size, it’s probably made by an anaconda. It was probably resting here and fled, hearing us approaching. But there might still be a chance to find the big snake. There is a big hole, under a tree just next to the mark, which could be its nest. Dennis throws a massive tree trunk into it, which should attract the anaconda out if it’s in there… But it’s not. Arrrgh, we’ve only missed it by a few minutes probably!
Anyway, we haven’t made it to the actual cocha so let’s go. Only a few minutes walk more and we’re there. We start throwing large pieces of wood in the middle of the lake. Apparently, that’ll attract the large reptiles if they’re brave. But after 15 minutes, nothing. We stand right on the edge of the lake, looking desperatly for some movements in the water. Actually, Dennis spots something. Ripples at the surface of the water. It’s moving fast towards me, but I can’t see what it is because the sky is reflecting on the lake. Until it’s about, 3 meters from me and now I can see… an Alligator!!! In a millisecond I jump back a meter further inland, away from the edge of the lake. The hunting technique of crocodiles and alligators is often to target animals on the land drinking, approach silently and rapidly jump out of the water to drag them into the water. Only this time, the target was me…
The search on foot is unsuccessful. It’d be much easier from the boat, if only we could reach the lake. We take the decision to head back and try to make it through the thick foliage and branches. We are very close, hopefully we’ll get in. I even spot something which confirms the presence of anacondas around: skin.
Soon, we are chopping wood again but not for long since the lake was only about 50m away. There is something mysterious about this place. It is completely silent, not a single noise. Birds seem to be on mute. But even the feel is bizarre, I feel like I am being watched. It’s like there is a dominating presence here. Maybe a giant anaconda? Exciting 🙂 We explore the shores, quietly, looking through the foliage for a pair of eye or anything revealing the presence of the rare reptile. The sun has been replaced by dark grey clouds. But now that we’re here, it’s worth we keep pushing. We head towards the second lake, linked to the first by a short stream. The weather is very threatening, we haven’t covered the food back at camp, we can’t let it get wet… Fingers crossed it won’t rain, we continue our progress but not for long as rain drop starts to fall. According to the locals, that’s the curse of the cocha! Engine full steam, we urge back to where we come from. Suddenly, I hear a very loud splash of water on my right. I immediately urn my head, there is a big animal in the river, I can only see the head. My first thought goes to “Anaconda”! It’s huge! Much bigger that I would ever have imagined, definitely deserves its description of giant snake! Maybe a bit too giant! After a second thought, I realise it’s a tapir, a big jungle pig with what looks like a trump instead of a nose. This is a great sighting! Tapirs are critically endangered because of extensive hunting and destruction of habitat, so they’re very rare to find. It rapidly swims across the river and runs away fast once on land. There is no point going after it, it’s already far.
We finally make it back to our camp, run to cover all our supplies and when we’re done, rain starts to fall. Every time when water falls, it’s making us kind of miserable. There is nowhere to go and we’re getting soaked. Hector spots something on a tree in the middle of the camp, which both Bérenger and I mistake for a squirrel. But it’s a monkey, the smallest species in the world called a pigmy marmoset. The rain has stopped and we’ve had lunch, we are heading back to the cocha. We’ve cleared the way, we need to fully explore the area. One in the first lake, we paddle around but there is no sign of wildlife. The sun is coming down, the environment very peaceful.
At last, Hernan spots something. We get closer to the shore to look through the branches. There is a clear mark of an anaconda. Going from land to water and water back to land, each passage eroding the ground, has created a deep channel. We’re following this mark back to land but still can’t find the big snake. It’s getting dark now, we need to head back. We’ve even got a bit of time to kill before night time, therefore we’re going spider hunting again!
The black tarentula from yesterday is still in the same nest but we also find a brown one.
Later and under the safety of my mosquito net, I think about tall that’s happened since we left Requena. We’ve now reached the half of the expedition and we never got closer to finding an anaconda than today. I know there was one out there, but seeing it is another story. Whether it’s fled into the water, hid underneath the leaves or stayed quietly in its nest, it seemed closed but so far at the same time. Not to forget, we did see a tapir. That plus the ocelot from a few days ago and the several monkey species, it’s already been a very rich wildlife experience. Although it has been very difficult and challenging, spending hours and days without any sight, I am even more determined to go further, search longer. I want to spend every single minute of time available hiding behind leaves, on the lookout near a colpa. And that way, I hope that our efforts will be rewarded!
(Second part of the adventure is there).