This trip is the quickest impulse decision I’ve ever made in my life. An early morning of November 2014, I was reading stuff on the internet about shark diving. I was curious about it and thought of doing that myself. But many people do it and I was trying to find something unique. Orcas crossed my mind and I couldn’t remember anyting about people diving with large marine mammal in the wild. I started to look this up and ended on Strømsholmen Sea Sports Centre’s website. They were organizing the only expedition I could find to get in the water with orcas. In fact, the season only lasts a few weeks from late November until January so spaces are very limited. Half an hour later, my mind was made and I was booking mine on the MS Sula for January 2016, 14 months away. It meant I could dedicate that time to freediving training with the aim of getting underwater with the animals. 🙂
After a long wait, comes the 15th of January 2016, time to fly to Tromsø, Europe northernmost city inside the arctic circle. My greatest concern is the amount of daylight being that far north in the winter. While at the airport, I check the forecasts, out of curiosity. Today, the sun has not come up at all, it’s polar night. Tomorrow, the sunrise is planned for 11:50am and the sunset for 11:58am… Plenty 😀 But nothing can affect my excitement when stepping out of the plane onto the snow covered tarmac of Tromsø airport and later enjoying a juicy reindeer steak for dinner.
Tomorrow, I’m getting onboard the Sula for the Orca Expedition!
It’s still pitch black when I get up at 9am. But the light level slowly but surely increases while I’m having breakfast. I’ve got some time this morning to explore the city.
My first observation is that, although the actual amount of time the sun spends above the horizon is only 8 minutes today, there is a lot of residual light before and after. And that is due to increase significantly in the next few days.
At 2pm, I head to the meeting point for the start of the expedition. I meet the people who I’m going to share the next 6 days with: Udo, Simon, Caroline, Kerry, Michael, Gwen, Blaž, Andy, Carole & Régis and the crew: Olav, Pierre, Gijs, Alessandro, Norbi, Krisztina, Murielle & John.
It’s an old fishing boat so not the luxurious type, the cabins are tiny, the beds have little headroom. But it gives it so much more character, the common area is very comfy, we are going to have such a great time here. Let me take you on a quick tour.
We’ve just entered through this door, from the deck, into a the middle deck narrow corridor.
Just left of where I took the previous picture, is the access to my cabin in the lower level.
Down the stairs, right door is a four-bed cabin. I am glad there’s only three of us though, cause it’s quite small. 🙂
And like I said, the comfy living room, accessed from the middle deck main corridor. 🙂
Later in the evening the snow continues to fall.And covers the Sula of a white blanket.
After dinner, we receive the expedition’s briefing covering safety measures but mostly the diving guidelines to ensure the best possible interaction with Orcas in the water. Finding sleep is hard tonight, I am so excited about getting in the water tomorrow. 🙂
The boat leaves the harbour in the twilight, passing through wonderful and superb landscapes, on the lookout for our first orca encounter.It is only a couple of hours before the first humpback whales appear at the surface, and very soon after, Orcas! I thought I was ready in my mind for this moment but I’m just absorbed by what is happening around me. Seeing these large dorsal fins cutting through the water, I have to let that sink in and realise where I am. I’m quite happy to let the first group get ready and prepare myself mentally for getting in the water. There is actually a lot for me to be ready for, getting into the cold water in a wet suit, holding my breathe, the presence of an 8 meter predator.
A detail which has its importance, I need to stop by the toilet to make sure I don’t pee in my suit. The view is great 🙂
But finally, it’s time to get on the rib boat. I am trying to relax, slow my heart rate but I can’t. I’m way too excited about that. I’ve been training for this for more than a year. It doesn’t take very long before the skipper maneuvers around a group of Orcas to get us into position: “DIVERS GET READY!”, Gijs shouts. My heart is beating at 100 miles an hour! I’m sitting on the edge, in position to let myself fall back into the water immediately, scuba diving style. But we have to let the orcas accept the interaction, both Gijs and Pierre observe their behaviour to know when it’s time to go. The minutes are long, sometimes it feels we’re in a perfect position but the killer whales change direction at the last second. But finally: “GO! GO! GO!” That’s the signal we were all waiting for. I fall backwards, camera in hand, into the water. I feel the cold water on my face, all my face and into my eyes… My mask just came off! Damn it! The couple of minutes it takes me to put it back is enough for the orcas to swim by and disappear into the blue… and I missed them… I feel like an idiot!
We get back on the boat quickly so we can move closer to them. But it’s a long wait, they are either resting, or travelling fast, never in an environment allowing us diving. About 45 minutes pass before we get another opportunity. This time I’ve learned, I sit again on the edge but this time the legs already in the water. Much better. When the signal is given, I get in the water without any trouble, take in a deep breathe and dive. I can see the big male but it got really dark and the visibility isn’t great. I focus on my camera to try and take a picture but it’s rubbish. And before I’ve had the time to enjoy the moment, it is over. It’s also way too dark for us to have another go so we are heading back towards the Sula. Not a great experience but definitely worth getting in the water to get more familiar to the conditions and the environment.
Back on the boat, lunch is served and right after that is lecture time! The other particularity of this trip is the orca biology course given onboard, by the world renowned shark and cetaceans expert Alessandro De Maddalena (https://www.facebook.com/orcaexpedition/). He is also an amazing photographer and took an amazing one of me in the water today.
Tonight we are back in the harbour near Tromsø. We keep an eye out on the aurora forecast but it is snowing again so it doesn’t look very good. Now that I have had a glimpse of orcas underwater, I can’t wait to go again tomorrow and hopefully have more time underwater with the animals.
As I guess it’ll be everyday’s routine, we rope off in the dark so we can be out in the fjords finding orcas when the light is bright. We find humpbacks almost immediately.
I’m out in the deck and I feel that today is colder than yesterday. There is a bit of wind which makes the perceived temperature at about -15 degrees. Pierre already advises that we probably won’t be able to get in the water today. It’s a shame, the conditions are great, there are no clouds so visibility must be better than yesterday. We find the orcas in a nearby fjords surrounded by gorgeous landscape.
I am standing in the front deck when I see something incredible about to happen. A few orcas are very near the boat. One of them is playing right in the front, on his side in the water. He lets the boat comes so close, we’re so close to hit him. But fortunately he dives into the water at the last second. But that’s only to put on a greater show. He joins other individuals and four of them swim towards the boat in perfect synchronization.
They are very playful and all decide to begin frenetic tail slapping a few meaters away from the Sula.
They continue past the boat, right underneath where I stand, absolutely incredible!
After such a parade, they take their distance in a magical setting.
As the sun disappears behind the horizon and we are heading back to the harbour, the orcas travel out to sea as well.
Of course, Orcas and fishing boats are both after the schools of herrings. It is no surprise to see them cross path!
I am staying out on the bridge until the last minute of light available (which was at about 3pm :s), in order to spend as long as I could with the animals.
After lunch, the lecture, relaxation, dinner and an animated game of times’s up, we head out on foot in the town to try and see northern lights. We soon see some shades in the sky but the street lights stop a good view. I find the perfect spot, on top of a snow hill, to observe the aurora dancing in the sky
It’s Tuesday! As usual, we are out looking for orcas at first light. It’s taking a lot longer today and it’s a bit past midday that we finally locate a pod. The first group gets ready and on the boat. But the orcas are really spread out, they’re very difficult to approach. Today, I’m leaving my camera on the boat and will only have my GoPro, so I can enjoy the time underwater with the orcas. The first attempt is the good one! Head above the water, I can see the big dorsal fin of a male coming in my direction. I need to time my dive properly so I can be underwater when the animal is nearest to me. Now that I have lost sight, I take a deep breathe and get underwater, here it is…
The feeling is fantastic. The underwater environment is completely silent, no one is shouting, no engine is roaring, it’s just me and the animal, graceful, beautiful. I swim next to him for a short 10 seconds before being brought back to the surface by the buoyancy of my 8mm wet suit. Short but magical!
The other attempts will not be as successful and we are heading back to the Sula as the light has almost completely disappeared.
The afternoon passes with the movement of the boat at sea. We are travelling south and will stay in a different harbour tonight. We arrive just before midnight and rope just next to a fishery. The snow is red from the blood of the fish and it smells like guts. There is nothing to see around here tonight and now that the boat is still, I can head to bed.
I wake up with the sound of the engine, clearly indicating our departure. Odd… we weren’t due to leave that early. Well, I later find out that the fishermen had to unload their catch of the night and needed us to leave. Looking on the brightside, we find orcas really early. A lot of them with humpback whales in a deep channel. The problem is that this area is exposed and a little bit too rough to get in the water. We move on trying to find them in a fjord.
Some people are out on the deck, I stay in the warmth of the captain’s cabin.
But after a couple of hours of search, we’re unsuccessful and decide to head back to the channel.
The spectacle is somptuous!
Humpbacks? More than 50!
I don’t know where to look, the landscape is stunning, the light surreal.
Magic happens everywhere I look!
And even when the light is gone!
I do not regret for a second not getting in the water. Of course it would probably have been exceptional but so was staying on the boat. What a show!
The fantastic captain, Olav, is taking us back to the safety and comfort of tonight’s harbour!
In fact, we rope in a much more welcoming place, actually a little resort town which even has a bar. 🙂 To add to that, I hope today’s fantastic spectacle will continue as the aurora forecast looks great.
A few of us head outside before dinner to see if the northern lights are out. We find a nice spot with a 360 degree view over the ocean, the mountain and the town.
The shapes it takes shows that nature is often a very inspired artist!
After dinner, the activity is almost inexistant, there is no point freezing outside. It’s the perfect opportunity to make the most of the area and have a couple of beers in the local bar. 🙂
But as we’re almost finished with the second pint, Pierre appears to let us know that the hot tub is almost ready? “The HOT TUB you said?” Yes, a hot tub on the boat. It’s very traditional, sea water warmed up with wood to a lovely 39 degrees, héhé :D. A couple of minutes walk back to the boat, changed and I’m in.
(Merci Carole pour la photo.)
The only thing is, it comes with a less motivating aspect… jumping in the sea, where the water is about 4 degrees…
I stand up in the cold air, climb down the stairs, cross the deck, step onto the small rib, walk on the snow and jump… Youhouuuuhouuuu, it’s bloody freeeeeezing! I swim towards the rib’s ladder as quickly as I can, climb up and run back to the hot tub. It feels so great just to re-enter the hot water. Although it feels like I’m being stung by a thousand needles at the same time, it also heats up my entire body instantly! And you know what the saddistic thing is? It feels so good that it’s worth the pain of going in the cold water… so I do it again… and again… Three times is enough though and it’s time to call it and head to bed.
We’re leaving the lovely harbour this morning, still plunged in the dark of the artic circle.
We are heading back to the deep channel where we found hundreads of orcas yesterday.
And as expected, they are still here. The first group gets ready for getting into the water while Gijs brings to rib to pick them up.
We’re going to have a long time in the area today, great. After a couple of hours, it’s finally our turn. It doesn’t take very long until we have an opportunity to jump in the water and observe the orcas again. I’m really happy that my breath hold has become a lot better. I guess I got used to the environment: the cold water, the 8m mammals, etc. I’m a lot more relaxed and I can spend longer underneath the surface. And then, the special interaction happens.
I can see the orcas coming towards us from the rib. I jump in the water and without hesitation, take a deep breathe and dive. I realise that I’m swimming right above three of them at about 5m depth. The moment continues as they overtake me and end up on my side. Suddenly one of them stops and looks straight at me… That’s the moment most magical. I have dived with marine animals before but nothing similar to this. Eye contact, ackowledgement of my presence, curiosity, communication, never I feel threatened but only blessed by that short emotional moment with this orca, only a few meters away. 😀
Pierre was right, it’s addictive. 🙂 I jump back on the boat only hoping for more. A very similar experience happens again, only longer, closer and even more intense, WOUHOUUUU 😀 It’s really hard to describe how it feels but that’s really fantastic. The cold has no importance, I’ll take every single moment I can even if I have to lose a toe for it (cause I can’t feel my feet anymore, they’re completely numb).
However every good moment has an end and ours comes as the light drops. Going back onto the big boat is a bit harder as the sea is a bit choppy but I soon find the warmth of the cabins safely. Now we’re heading back towards Tromso, in the harbour where we boarded.
It’s a little weird to open the door to a landscape very familiar. It does give a “this is the end” type of feeling. We are back where we started and tonight is the last night. But as it has been the case since the start of the expedition, what a laugh spending it with the rest of this crowd! 😀 But hey, that’s not over, there is tomorrow left and who knows what it might bring.
This is the last time I wake up on my tiny bed, the ceiling only 50 centimeters above it that I keep hitting my head. But I’m going to miss this. Carole and Régis are leaving this morning, time to say goodbye, sign an approaching end.
We’re on the move by 9am but we’re struggling to find Orcas. When we do, they’re very spread out, not too welcoming and the weather is depressing… Is it worth getting in the water? Yeah, I want to! We’ve got nothing to lose, if we don’t get in the water or engage with Orcas, at least we’ve tried. It’s our last day. But destiny has got other plans for us today. There is someone talking on the radio emergency channel. I can’t understand but Olav is taking notes, it must be important… a fishing boat has lost engine power in the area. Not a major incident for now but we’re the closest ship so we’re asked by the authorities to move towards the area in case the situation deteriorates and the fishing boat needs assistance. I’m so disappointed to leave the Orcas behind…
We travel for about 45 minutes when we see the fishing boat in question. But there is also another ship coming towards it from the opposite direction to us, which gets on the site first.
The rescue operation lasts less than 5 minutes and we only get to watch. I know safety is the number one priorty but it does feel like we’ve come here for nothing… We head back to the fjord where we left the orcas and observe them for a bit of time but the weather is awful, the light is getting low and the animals are still very spread out. This is it then! That’s the end of the expedition and time to head back to the port for the last time. On the way, we are giving the last lecture by researcher Krisztina Balotay from Ocean Sounds. She is showing fantastic images of Orcas in the wild, both heart warming in their beauty and heart breaking in the horror humans cause to these animals, mostly when caught in fishing nets.
I have now become familiar to the perception of wildlife that this type of expedition gives me: fantastic but yet so fragile. The population of Orcas is unknown so it is difficult to say how endangered they are. But the crew have already observed changes of behaviours that are most definitely a result of human activity. For example, humpback whales usually feed on tiny plancton, krill, leaving the herring for the orcas. But the big whales have recently started to feed on the fish as well, probably as a result of overfishing and krill shortage, taking hundreads at a time through their gigantic baleens and pushing the orcas away to struggle to find another food source. However the encounters with the big cetaceans has been truly unique. They’re so grateful and observing their moves underwater was mind blowing. They’re capable of communication with us, through eye to eye contact and interactive swims which I found heart moving. And again, the experience and passion of the crew completes the picture for a successful expedition. I only got a glimpse of Pierre’s unique relationship with Orcas but I can only understand his drive to get in the water again and again. His will to share stories, knowledge and respect for the animals intimacy is inspiring. Many thanks Pierre, the rest of the expedition crew and my fellow guest companions for this amazing adventure! 😀
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Please share your thoughts and comments, or even if you have any question, I will be happy to help. 🙂 You can also visit and like my facebook page for regular updates on my adventures; Happy travels!
Today we’re leaving. There is clearly a lot of life in the area, but we’ve struggled to find it. On the bright side, the camera trap has caught the image of a paca, the large rodent we saw at the start.
I’m pleased to see that they start to capture good images, which is promising for the next ten days. The journey on the pirogue is long, the weather threatening again. It seems to be the continuation of the curse from entering the mysterious lake, Boca de Sanco. We stop on the way to look for anacondas but there aren’t any (it’s normally possible to tell from various prints left on the forest floor). At mid day, we stop for lunch. But before eating it, we have to catch it. We take the fishing rods out and head out to a nearby swamp. A few minutes in, the sky breaks and we’re getting absolutely soaked by the tropical rainfall, but the fishing successful.
I feel like my contribution is minimal, given the fact that I don’t catch many fishes. And the ones that I do catch, aren’t good to eat, there’s too many fish bones. Anyway, we are having a really fun time with the guys, laughing at the fishes that escape, sliding in the mud into the water. There is even a fish, a big opening on its head from the hit of the machete to knock him out, that makes its way back to the water despite Bérenger and I, stepping on it. We finally catch it back on the edge of the water as it had almost managed to get its freedom back. After an hour, we’ve got enough fish, we can go back to cook them, eat them and continue our journey back down Rio Galvez.
Excitement! The pirogue stops and goes back a dozen meters! An eagle!
It looks like harpy eagle, apparently very rare to find and see.
Shortly later, Dennis, sat at the front of the boat, gets tense, looks ahead, indicates to Hernan to slow the pirogue down and suddenly urges to stop… There is tapir on the river bank just behind a river corner. After climbing up rapidly into the bushes because of our approach, it comes back down in confidence that we do not pose any threat.
And a bit like it wanted to make a show, the tapir goes for a swim.
This is amazing! We’ve all got our cameras in hand, shooting this rare and endangered animal. After a few minutes of observation, it goes back to the forest and disappears behind the trees. Wow! This was such a great sight! Only seeing the tapir was absolutely fantastic but out in the open like this, posing for us is even more incredible.
Hidden under our poncho and plastic sheets, we soon find the place where to spend the night and offload the bare minimum. It’s not raining too much but the number one priority is to build a shelter in case it gets heavier. We’re all very busy chopping branches and large leaves, and build a very basic cover for us and our bags. Excellent call, almost a few minutes later, the rain becomes torrential and we can wait under our shelter, definitely not dry, but at least not as wet as we could be. However that’s by far the heaviest rain of our trip, not far from the first of the monsoon season I experience in Guatemala. It goes on and on and on… The night is falling, we have to take some more stuff out of the pirogue, put the tents together thanks to our head torches and hide inside. Also, all the cookware and cutlery is still in the pirogue. A fire and cooked food aren’t going to happen tonight. Instead, it’s canned tuna, with our own fingers.
Day 10 Camp 4 – Harpia
The rain has stopped during the night, but everything is wet and the sky is still very dark. That’s not very promising for today. However, I want to remain positive. Yesterday, rain has brought us 2 amazing sights, demonstrating that nature reveals its secrets when we expect it the least. But we actually are very miserable. Some went hunting for perdis during the night, they found one but the rifle didn’t shoot. It was too wet. We haven’t had any meat since the end of the first trekk to Casa grande, more than a week ago. The wood is wet too. Lighting the fire is proving challenging. And all our clothes are soaked. We hang them wherever possible but I can’t imagine them drying at all. So like I said, miserable! However, there is great positivity in the camp. Every one of us is still joking, teasing and laughing. It can seem like nothing but in fact, this positive mindset is probably the most important element of successful survival. We all are on the same boat and know that we can count on one another during hard times. It helps to stay alert, continue to go out in search of wildlife, instead of falling into a negative spiral. This morning for breakfast we’ve got an omelette with onions and potatoes, the richest of all. It doesn’t seem like much, but for us it’s a luxury.
Now it’s time to continue exploration. As we come back down the river bank, I observe that the water levels have gone up by a meter at least, definitely because of yesterday’s rainfalls. We are heading to a colpa, a little upstream. I have got the camera traps in the bag. The plan is to assess whether the area has got potential for wildlife. If it does, we’ll stay another night. If it doesn’t, we’ll head further downstream. During the hour-long hike, we come across a few more groups of squirrel monkeys.
When we arrive at the colpa, we realise it’s flooding. The water level is increasing every minute, again a consequence of yesterday’s heavy rain. Therefore, the banks are very, very muddy. My feet go deeper at every step. And the deeper one foot goes, the more I have to push on the other to get out, so the deeper the other foot goes. To the point that both my legs, up to my knees, are stuck in the mud. I can’t get out. Dennis brings a branch for me to step on and avoid sinking again when I get my first foot out. But that’s too late. I have to extract my feet out of my boots and leave them in the mud.
Fortunately, Dennis helps out to get them out while I’m waiting in socks in the nearby mud.
and manages to get them out. 🙂
It’s been again a good laughter with the guys and another great memory. 😀
But unfortunately, the conclusion is that nothing is going to happen in this colpa because of the flooding. As the water reaches the trees, even if animals come here we won’t find a good angle to have a good view and capture them on camera. We’ll move on. On the way back to the pirogue, we encounter another species of monkey, a borwn capuchin monkey.We arrive back at camp, where the river level has gone up further. And then Bérenger captures my attention “Regarde ce qu’il y a au dessus du feu!”, he says (“Look at what’s above the fire!”). A bird! Hector and Armando have caught a bird! Finally! They call it pukakunga and after a week of only eating fish, today we’re having meat. You can’t believe how great this is.
While it’s being prepared and cooked, Dennis, Armando, Bérenger and I hop back on the pirogue to explore two cochas nearby.
At the first one, nothing. Not a single mark or evidence of the presence of an anaconda. That doesn’t really disappoint me anymore, we must have done a dozen cochas and never saw any snake. We cross the river and step on the bank to explore the second one. That’s the moment chosen by the sky to open and let rain fall. Dennis looks at me, in an attempt to ask: “what are we doing?”. We continue!
But soon after, Dennis hears something and stops, exchanges a few words with his father and confirms: “Jaguar!” The decision is quickly made, we’re going to try and find it. We split the group, Dennis walks alongside the cocha while Armando, Bérenger and I progress as silently as possible through the forest. This is so exciting, I am careful at every step to avoid walking on branches or dry leaves. The rain keeps falling, the noise of the drops touching ground prevent me from hearing the jaguar. But Armando is sure of the direction and continues progress. I stay alert, camera at hand, ready for the first opportunity to arise. But the first sign comes from my left. Suddenly Dennis calls for our attention! He tries to make as little noise as possible but seems very excited in his movements. It has to be something extraordinary, he’s never been like this for a monkey. I start running towards him, as quickly as possible and close the 50m between us in a matter of seconds. He points towards the other side of the cocha: “Anaconda”. I look and see a big branch. “Mira”, he says. It must be somewhere on it. But after a few seconds, I still can’t see it, how can I miss such a giant snake? Dennis continues to point out in the direction of the big branch. That’s when I realise, that’s not a branch, IT’S THE ANACONDA! Massive! He’s resting next to the water, most of his body above it. His head is just at the surface, most certainly alert to his surrounding environment. I climb on a tree, which leans over the lake in order to get closer. I’ve got the perfect view.I’m not thinking about anything but admiring the giant reptile. To give you an idea, I can see from where I am that the diameter of it’s body must be as big as a football… We couldn’t hope for a better view. But after a few minutes, the branch I was hanging to breaks and falls into the water. Now made aware of our presence, it slowly escapes into the water, showing the length of its body, maybe 6 or 7 meters.
I come back on the ground, everyone is still so excited from what we saw. However, Dennis confirms it was much bigger than I thought, around 10 meters. Apparently, it’s the largest one that he’s ever seen. And living in the Amazon rainforest, believe me, he’s seen quite a few of them… But that’s not it, I suggest we walk around the cocha and see if it comes out of the water again. Everyone else is up for it. Here we go, for more anaconda action. After 30 minutes, we reach the other side. Armando and Dennis climb onto a large trunk, I follow, it’s there!!! But it escapes as soon as it hears us and all I can see is the trail of bubbles at the surface. There is no chance for it to come up again, it’s scared and will now be hiding in the water for some time.
We head back to camp and as we arrive, the pukakunga is ready. But before this, we’ve got a story to tell… Hector is really excited about it. And I have to say, this is what I love about this crew, they’ve seen many of these creatures and yet they share our joy and excitement when we find rare wildlife. But now is time for the best lunch of the trip so far. It’s the perfect occasion to look back at today. This morning, we were miserable, completely wet, and this morning has turned the day into the most amazing, having seen the giant anaconda we’ve been looking for and we’re eating meat. I would highlight that the mood is also at its best but this is about this whole trip, not just today. As soon as we’re done, we load the pirogue and head towards the next camp. We stop at the same cocha, just to see if the anaconda is here but he’s definitely hiding. I think back to the fact that rain has always brought us fortune, a tapir yesterday, an anaconda today, I’ll take rain every day if it continues to reveal more animals to us. Maybe a jaguar?
The journey to Harpia takes us through changing weather. First threatening…
… then much more welcoming.
We reach Harpia a little before night fall. There is no time to lose, torches in hand, we walk towards the colpa in order to place the camera traps. Apparently, this one shouldn’t be flooded since it’s a lot higher than the river. So I’m hopeful it’ll reveal something as interesting as the first one where we saw the ocelot. Also, we’re staying two nights, so plenty of chances to see cool stuff.
On the way back, near camp, Armando and Dennis spot a perdis, sleeping on a branch. “Que hacemos?”, Dennis asks me. Of course we kill it. I don’t mean to be horrible, but that’s our dinner. The only thing is that we don’t have the rifle with us, so Dennis uses a stick, moves silently and hits the bird as hard as possible. Suddenly woken up for a deep sleep, it’s definitely K.O but manages to fly away in zigzag, hitting many branches and leaves on the way. After 30 seconds, I hear a dull sound. It has hit the ground. It takes less than a couple of minutes to find it and bring it back to camp. After a very tasty dinner, it’s time to go to bed, end to probably the most fantastic day of this expedition.
Day 11 Harpia
As we agreed last night, Dennis wakes me up at 4am. We’re going hunting for more perdis. To me, that’s also the opportunity to be out in the forest before dawn when the wiildlife is most active. In the dark and under the stars, we let the current flow carry the pirogue down river. We’re keeping an eye on the river bank, looking for potentials preys, but there isn’t any. We attach the pirogue to a tree and venture to the forest on foot instead. Almost immediately, Dennis hears something (which I don’t :s). He produces some kind of groan. The animal replies immediately in the same tone. To me, there is little hesitation possible, it’s a jaguar! I recognize it from the megaphone. And it’s close. Dennis repeats the groan, the animal responds back again. “Caiman”, he says. It seems that his response is a sign of aggression, which means it’s probably a brave big male. He could attack us if we got too close. But apart from that, still we can’t find anything to eat. The sun is coming up, it’s time to head back to camp, and me? I’m going back to the tent for a snooze.
Breakfast and we go for exploration again. Dennis, Hernan, Bérenger and I head to a cocha while Armando and Hector go hunting. For us? No sign of anaconda, so we start fishing. Again nothing for Bérenger and I but enough food from the two Matsés. Time to move on. We go to another area on the other side of the river, and we follow a path for about two hours, in complete silence, not even a monkey.
We do find a forest creeper, from which water flows in abundance, drinkable.
When we arrive back at camp, I can tell something’s happened. Hector is excited but also very teasing. He took a picture of something, orangish but difficult to recognise: “Que es?”, he says. A puma!!! They saw a puma! But that’s not all, I notice something hidden under leaves at the back of the camp.What’s that?
They caught a peccary! We’re going to have an absolute feast, guaranteed meat for the next few days. This is absolutely fantastic. I spend the next hour watching Armando preparing the animal, already thinking about the tasty lunch we’re about to have.
Soon, it is skinned, cut into pieces and placed above the fire. Once smoked, we can keep the meat for up to a week.
The first pieces didn’t go into the smoking area though, but straight into the pan and now is time for lunch. In the rainforest, this is like a banquet in a 5-star restaurant.
Knowing that we can see big cats around here, I am even more motivated to continue exploring the forests and try and find a jaguar. Now we are taking the pirogue upriver and hike towards a colpa. An hour later, we haven’t reached it but the sun is coming down and its getting darker. We need to go back without unfortunately seeing any wildlife. It’s dark by the time we arrive. We’re keeping the engine off and let the current carry us back. But again, the forest remains completely silent. We keep looking towards the river bank but I am not hopeful. We’ve never seen any animal during our night river explorations. However the rain starts to fall. Lightly at first. My initial thought is that we’re about to see something, as it’s always been the case when we were getting drenched. However, it gets much heavier, time to turn the engine on and rush to camp… This is not saying I was wrong. We can hear and see some movement on our right behind the trees. There is an animal running. We can see its eyes glowing in the dark. Hernan thinks of a paca at first. Wrong. It breaks through the leaves and enters the water. It’s another tapir!
It swims towards us, takes notice of our presence. I thought it would swim away but does something else that I wasn’t expecting at all instead. It dives and disappears below the surface. I peer into the darkness, waiting for its head to come out. After a short suspense, it reappears near the shore and returns into the forest.
That’s the moment chosen for the sky to open and rain to fall incredibly heavily. We got used to it by now, and even though this is probably the most challenging element of this expedition, I remain positive. As I’ve said, rain has brought us many surprises. And the heavier the rain the bigger the surprise… Not this time. As we reach camp, I run straight to the protection of our tents. Only to discover that the water has come through, there is a 10cm deep puddle in the corner next to where I sleep. My mattress is wet, my pillow is wet and my sleeping linen is wet. Fortunately my clothes are still dry (kind of) but we have to come out again to sort out the tent cover and get soaked even more. However, I could take all this on based on the comforting idea to eat some more peccary for dinner. … Nope. It’s probably not smoked yet, so we’ve got more fish on the menu. I ate as much fish in the last 10 days than in the entire year. I thought I’d at least have a break for a couple of days and enjoy meat in abundance. So here I am, sat in the tent, wet, in the dark, seeing from the flickering light of my head torch, eating the fish with my hands cause my fork can’t access the flesh, hands which I won’t be able to wash up cause I’d have to go back outside under the torrential rain. And it’s still full of scales… The more I struggle, the more I think about the peccary meat. Tonight, I’m miserable! Pissed off! I struggle to remain positive. I’ve just had enough for today. I’m not sure why, cause that’s been a great one still. But if we all have to go through a moment of weakness, this is mine. Finally I’m done with it and leave the remains just outside the tent. Tomorrow is another day.
Day 12 Harpia – Buen Peru
When I wake up the rain is still falling but that as much as yesterday. Right after breakfast, we’re heading to the colpas to get the camera traps back. Also I hope we can see the puma Hector and Armando saw yesterday. We soon see signs of it though, fresh marks of claws on a tree.But we reach the colpa without any other sight. Hopefully, it did walk by the cameras in the last couple of days.
It didn’t… Nothing did… We find the prints of the puma but no other animal came here. That’s pretty much it for today, we won’t see any more wildlife for sure since we are going back to Buen Peru.
We arrive there around 1pm, time for a great picture with all the expedition members.
From left to right, Armando, Bérenger, Hernan, Dennis, Hector and me.
While the food is prepared, it’s time to relax, take a bath in the river, the first one for more than a week. I do not actually feel dirty but still has to wash up in respect for the people welcoming us in their house. On the menu today, smoked peccary and rice, succulent. There is no time pressure today, we’ve got nothing else to do this afternoon other than rest.
I take the opportunity to catch up with my diary, sitting outside Armando’s house with a coffee. A little boy and a little girl come sit next to me. They are very intrigued by what I do. They’re very shy and extremely polite.
Late afternoon, it’s time for a catch up with Hector. He explains to we have to go separate ways. The plan for us is to hike back from where we’ve come from to Requena. He needs to go to Angamos, the military colony with an airstrip where we whould have arrived, and pay for all the supplies that we got from there. We are not going because there is a high risk that the plane is cancelled if the air strip is too muddy. So we’re really hoping that he makes it so we can go for a drink in Iquitos before we fly back. Dinner is made of more peccary, fine by me, and then we catch a few pictures from the trip on the desktop. It’s very enjoyable to have somewhere to sit, a roof above your head, eating at a table and sleeping on an even floor. Better to make the most of it, because tomorrow we’re back in the jungle.
Day 13 Buen Peru – Camp 5
I wake up to the bright morning sun light and the sound of children playing near the house. We’ve slept for 11 hours. The long and nice breakfast that follows is equally exquisite. The children of the community bring the puppy of the rare jungle dog that they found when we first arrived 10 days ago. Sadly, there is only one left, the other 2 died. It was predictable that they would struggle to survive without their mother. But this one looks healty.
It’s very scared of us. I attempt to hold it in my arms, such a fragile little thing. It shits on my tee shirt of fear… But it obviously got very familiar with the children and keeps going hiding behind them.
It’s being very playful too.
It eventually gets used to our presence and allows to be held.
It still has very little chance of making it through adulthood, therefore, Hector will take it with him back to Iquitos, look after it and who know, maybe reintroduce it in the wild at some point. There isn’t any good rehabilitation centres for wildlife in Iquitos but I trust Hector will be an amazing job.
It’s almost time to go. While I’m packing, I hear Dennis calling my name: “Guillermo!”. Thinking that something cool is hapenning, I rush back to the house. “Feliz cumpleaños!!!”. Ah yes, it’s my birthday today, the 15th of August. Dennis has a gift for me: a Matsés bracelet and Armando gives me a traditional bow and arrow, both about 1.5m long. That’s such a nice attention. I couldn’t really hope for better gifts, they’ve got a meaning, a direct link to this experience shared with the Matsés that I’ll always remember.
I have to admit it’s quite an emotional moment. Even though we’ve got a few more days, it feels a bit like the end of the expedition. Maybe it’s because Buen Peru is really the gate to the heart of the Amazon and being here means that we are definitely on our way back, also because we have to split for the last leg of the trip. But I also feel really happy because this trip has already well exceeded my expectations and the guys have been amazing. It’s time to say goodbye to everyone, including Hector and Armando, a brief one though, hopefully we’ll see them again back in Iquitos. We embark on the pirogue, turn the engine on and slowly get away from the river bank waving at our hosts.
The camp for tonight is only 3 hours away. But first, we’re stopping to an other cocha, the Matsés said this morning that there is definitely an anaconda here, they’ve seen it only a few days ago. Apparently, it comes as soon as there is noise in the water. But we don’t see anything. Nevermind, there is another near the camp, where we arrive around midday. It’s a very tiny clearing, right above the river. We immediately go to explore the area. The bushes are thick, making it hard to see through. We do find prints, proof that the giant snake is here but we don’t manage to find it so we head back to camp. Hernan’s wife has been kind enough to join us and help with making our camp life easier. She has prepared some pasta with tomato sauce. It’s not very “jungly” but very tasty. The afternoon is only made of another unsuccessful exploration of a cocha.
Just before sun set, Dennis and I go hunting. We forgot the smoked peccary in Buen Peru, so we need more meat. I’m just hoping that I won’t make too much noise and scare wildlife off. After half an hour, Dennis appears to have seen something. He slows, walks with a lot more care and keeps looking in the same direction. I follow and soon sees the prey: a perdis on a branch. BANG! The shot goes and is followed with the noise of wings agitated on the floor, last spasm of our next dinner. Well, breakfast actually cause tonight we’ve got fish, urgh! At least we’ve got more cooked banana but fried instead, which is nice.
The evening river exploration turns out to be a good one, pacas, snake and frogs.
For the night, we’ve changed our set up. The tent has been left behind, we’ve got a linen mosquito net, under a plastic cover. The only difference is that it drops on the floor and, theoretically does not stop animals to sneak underneath at night, which a tent would do. But that’s not going to stop me having a deep sleep.
Day 14 Camp 5 – Camp 6
It starts with the traditional daily routine, going to get the camera traps. Since we had been relatively unsuccessful so far, I’ve covered the housings with mud, as an attempt to block any smell that might keep the animals away. It looks like it worked, Dennis spots large fresh animal prints around and desperately wants to know what it is.
It’s another paca.
But the second camera has captured a lot of activity too. First, a deer in the distance.
And a tapir, much closer.
On the way back, we find another group of monkeys, with a funny white moustache. They’re very curious and inquisitive and don’t escape seeing us. I think it’s a black-chested mustached tamarin.
Back at camp, the perdis we caught yesterday is ready. That’s an excellent start of day and now that I know what it’s like not to have meat for a week, I really enjoy every single day we do.
Since, we know there is definitely an anaconda in the nearby cocha, we go for a last exploration but it still cannot be found. Only, birds.
A very colourful bird.
And even an owl, who had to wake up in the middle of the day because of us. Oups.
We take off the last camp at around 11am. The plan is to stay there two nights. While everyone is asleep, I spot a massive fish coming to the surface. Given the size, it’s a paiche, larcgest fish in the Amazon reaching up to 4.5m. A bit later, there are two otters on the side of the river who dive into the water before I have the chance to take any picture.
It’s only a couple of hours before we reach the next camp, in the middle of the afternoon. We immediately go to place the cameras before the sun goes down and discover that there aren’t one colpa around here… there’s three! Great! Plenty of opportunities to find good spots. I only wish I had more cameras now. We find two excellent spots in a single colpa, the objective being to keep the other two for stake outs, hoping for another ocelot-like encounter.
Later during the night river exploration, I try to guide the boat, see how hard it is. We’ve gone upriver with the engine, so now it’s only about letting the pirogue flow with the current. I sit at the front, paddle in hand. On paper, it seems easy, I only have to guide the pirogue to avoid trunks and branches. In reality, completely another story. It only takes mes 10 minutes to get the pirogue completely stuck. There’s a trunk in front, branches on the left, river bank on the right. And the current is strong so it pushes the pirogue further into this dead end… I’ve done enough, that’s not for me. It’s best I give the paddle back to Hernan to get us out of this trap. The following couple of hours are a lot more quiet, too eventless in fact. And that’s not having seen anything that we touch the river bank and go to bed.
Day 15 Camp 6
I am awaken in the middle of my sleep: “Guillermo! Guillermo!”. “Hay un animal!”, Hernan whispers. That’s enough to get my brain working. In a few seconds, I’m out of my bed… in pants. I rush towards to tree, Hernan pointing to the top. It’s dark, really hard to see and the lights don’t really get there. The flash of my camera does actually reveal something.
I can’t tell what it is and it soon disappears behind the leaves higher in the tree. It’s 4:15 am, I’m not going back to bed, but to the pirogue instead for a river exploration. The sun starts to rise an hour later but we’ve seen nothing again, we’re returning to camp. Today is kind of the last day of the expedition. We’re not back to civilisation tomorrow, but we’ll be starting to make our way back, therefore ending our active search for wildlife. I really want to make the most of today.
We hop on the boat again towards a nearby laguna, the last one. Dennis goes one side, Hernan and us the other. I’m a bit annoyed, we’re being very loud, shouting at one another from one side to the other side of the laguna. If anaconda there is, he’s definitely gone hiding. They’re also throwing large pieces of wood into the water again. I know this is supposed to bring them out, but I haven’t seen this technique working.
“Salio!”, shouts Dennis with excitement (“It came out!”)
What??? I really had given up and definitely wasn’t expecting to see any anaconda. I run ahead to try find a clearing and an angle to see the snake. It’s in the water, I can only see its head.
For the moment it’s not moving, probably observing what we’re doing. Hernan has built a collar, to place it around its head and pull it out of the water.
But trying to approach it is very noisy, the anaconda dives to escape our attempt to capture it. It’s still somewhere underneath the branches. We stick poles down into the water hoping that we’ll make it come out again. I can see the bubbles at the surface and after 5 minutes, the head pops out of the water again closer to me. I’m standing on the very edge of the water, the anaconda is around 3m away. We don’t have time to bring the pole around, it disappears very quickly again. For about another hour, we continue trying to bring him out but it’s definitely gone this time. I’m so happy we’ve managed to see a second anaconda. It’s impossible to tell how big it is but the Matsés indicate maybe 6 meters length, which is not small.
Back at camp and while the food is being prepared, I look through my wildlife book to identify the animal that was up in the tree this morning. I’m thinking some kind of rodent, maybe like a coati. Hernan points out to another species much cooler. It’s a tamandua, a sub species of anteaters… I can’t believe we saw an anteater! OK, not the giant one which would have been amazing. But still, it’s very rare, even more than a jaguar. I only wish that I had seen it better, rather than a ball of fur up in that tree. That last day has started in a pretty amazing manner, which fills me with hope for the hike to come.
This afternoon we’re exploring the area around camp on foot. No particular site like a colpa or a cocha, just trying to cover as much ground as possible and hopefully spot a jaguar. That’s really the last animal we haven’t seen and it would be the cherry on the cake for this trip. Dennis spots many prints, including the one of a young tapir which would be cool to encounter. They’re spotted and look very different to the adults. But that’s as close as we get. We end the exploration at the colpas which we’ve kept “camera-free” and sit there for an hour. I’m thinking I’ve only done it once really, just to sit and wait, and I saw the ocelot. Unfortunately, nothing enters the colpa.
Back at camp, we’ve ran out of coffee. That doesn’t seem like a big thing but for Bérenger and I, it meant a lot, even though we hadn’t realized that until now. In the rainforest, we had no comfort whatsoever. We’d left everything that made our lives easier at home. Our cup of coffee in the morning, after lunch, in the afternoon, was the last bit of comfort we had. It’s annoying but we’re nearly reaching the end, we’ll be fine.
Dinner. Fish. Again.
“BANG!”… “BANG!”… 10 minutes… Dennis returns… Perdis for tomorrow! J
Another night stake out at the colpas tonight. An hour is the plan. I’m sitting in complete darkness, taking in every last second of our expedition in the rainforest. Soon we’ll be back in civilization, far away from the pristine nature. Every now and, I light up the colpa but it is very quiet again. Three hours have passed without I even noticed. There is still hope from the cameras, which we’ll go get in the morning…
Day 16 Last camp to Matansa
And actually, that’s the best shot of the expedition. A tapir has walked right up to the camera, I guess it must have smelt it.
All packed, the boat ride to the communal house of Matansa is relatively short and we get there just before mid-day. I feel another wave of emotions as I step on the ground and walk up the hill to the house. It represents the last leg of our journey, tomorrow we’re starting the hike back to Requena (which promises to be painful). This afternoon is all about resting. And what would have been great for that? Coffee… Grrrr
Just after night fall, I am having a snooze waiting for dinner to be ready.
“GUILLERMO! JAGUAR!”, gets me immediately on my feet, awaken. Camera in hand but without shoes, I run to the back of the house where Dennis already is. He points towards the bush. I can see a shade… but it looks more like a pig than a jaguar. It suddenly runs away into a sound of foliage. But the shade I was looking at is still there… Damn it! Bérenger and I hop on the pirogue with Leo hoping to see it from the river. But again I can hear it run away and all the other Matsés shouting, the animal had passed near the house again. I know at that point that it’s not a jaguar but what is it? Right, let’s grab the book and go through the images. A Capybara! It’s the largest rodent on the planet, around 1 meter in height. That would have been cool to see.
Hernan admitted later that he knew it wasn’t a jaguar but he was looking for a way to wake me up quick. J
He does wake me up in the middle of the night again, the capybara is back outside.
I’m really glad it came back and we had the chance to see it.
Day 17 Matansa – Aucayacu
We’re waking up with the early morning light of a beautiful day.
Soon the moment to pack all my stuff into my backpack and carry it on my own shoulders has come. I wasn’t really looking forward to this moment but the first few hours go surprisingly well. We even see a saki monkey, very hairy.
The heat hasn’t kicked in yet and we reach the old park ranger house where we slept coming here on time for lunch. Only this time, there is a lot of food to regain energy and we go again. It’s harder in the afternoon, the backpack feels heavier and the hills harder on the legs. But at the moment, nothing compared to the first day.
There is a bit of rain which helps to cool down. My camera is getting a bit too wet but I wouldn’t miss an opportunity a jaguar if one came to appear. We arrive at Aucayacu as a tropical rainstorm is about to break in the sky. We’re going to set up camp on the other side of the river, the one which we cross walking on the really high trunk I filmed the first time. First thing first, plastic covers up to protect us from the rain, bang on time! There is also lots of mosquitoes so we spend the rest of the evening a bit miserable, hiding from rain and getting biten. And my camera is dead, it didn’t survive getting exposed to that much water…
Day 18 Aucuyacu – Chakra
Another long day of hiking and tomorrow should be the arrival in civilisation. From experience, there is absolutely nothing better than the first cold beer after a long time spent in the jungle. The closer it gets the more I look forward to it. I hang to that thought to keep going. Again, the morning is completed without too much problem, even though I start feeling the tiredness earlier and stronger. I struggle more in the afternoon, my backpack is very heavy and have to slow down considerably to hike up the hills. I avoid too many breaks, we’re nearly there. Passing the same obstacles that we did when we started the expedition two and a half weeks ago brings back memories and reminds me of everything we’ve lived since then.
Suddenly, Dennis, walking right in front of me, stops and looks ahead. There is something in the bush right next to the path, I can see the leaves moving. It’s a group of pecary, the larger species. Also immediately, he takes the riffle, points to the bush, pulls the trigger… click! (this is the defective one that doesn’t shoot, damn it!) Let’s try again… click! I’m hoping so hard for the bullet to go, I’m already hungry for a steak tonight. But for about 5 minutes, I stand still, watching the riffle “clicking” every single time… We start progressing again, for 10 meters. The others are shouting something behind us.
The peccaries are charging! I have no second thought. I sprint as fast as I can. My backpack feels so light when it comes to running away from aggressive boars. We stop when we reach the top of the hill, completely out of breathe. To my greatest surprise, Dennis asks for my machete, leaves his bag behind and heads back into the bushes. Is he really going to try kill one with a machete??? That’s mental!!! I’m still hopeful, I want that meat for dinner! But he unsurprisingly comes back empty handed 5 minutes later.
It only takes half an hour to reach our camp for the night. Dennis explains that he’s going to push on to book the boat tickets for tomorrow and arrange for a tuk tuk to come and pick us up at the same place where we started. It should be only a short 45-minute hike away from here. The cold beer is getting closer. 🙂
Day 19 Back in the city
After the last night in the jungle, we finish the last few kilometers to Requena. The feeling of arriving at our destination is exhilarating. We immediately get a cold drink from the nearest corner shop. And Dennis has arranged for us to take a shower before we go on the boat, which is probably nicer for the other passengers. That’s fantastic. For the first time for three weeks, I don’t have to fear for my private parts to get bitten by insects while going to the toilet nor get eaten by a caiman while washing up. I put clean clothes on that I’ve kept in my bag during the trip. I feel so refreshed. The other good news is that Armando and Hector have managed to take the plane to Iquitos and we’ll see them tonight before taking our own plane.
This is it then! We’ve finished the expedition. It has well exceeding my expectations. From a nature point of view, we’ve seen what we came here for, a massive anaconda and many more animals. From an experience point of view, we’ve lived at the rythm of the rainforest, going through difficulties at times but thriving overall. But most importantly from a human point of view, I’ve been through this adventure with the most amazing people I could ever hope for, Bérenger, Hector, Dennis, Hernan and Armando. I am still into that dream, I will need some time back home to realise what we’ve just accomplished. Right now, I’m really looking forward to eating a massive steak with a bottle of wine, sleeping in a bed or simply having clean hands to put my contact lenses on. This adventure has certainly changed my life, my perspective on our modern society and the comfort we often take for granted. However, this natural environment is very fragile and under threat. Every day, an area the size of a football pitch is being destroyed. I’m personally going to take a more active role to protect what is the primary source of the oxygen we breathe and the medicinal plants used in modern therapy. And one day, I wish I’ll be able to come back to finally meet with the King of the Jungle, the mighty Jaguar!
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.
That’s the last leg of our journey for the most remote point of our expedition.
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!
And a big tarentula…
…bigger than a compact camera…
A reminder that there are deadly animals here, but that’s certainly not going to stop my sweet dreams tonight.
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.
And a scoprion spider (named after its appearance.
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!
Late on Saturday evening, I arrive in Chamonix for the start of the expedition I’m really excited about. I am going to attempt going to the top of Mont Blanc, highest mountain in Europe. But before things get serious, I still need to reach the village where we’re going to depart from. Les Contamines Montjoie is only 25km away from Chamonix so I’ve decided to hike. I’ve got the entire sunday free so why not exercise and enjoy the beautiful scenery offered by the french Alps and the Massif du Mont Blanc. The only little problem is that I have no map. I have a GPS which only tells me where I am and where I’m going but not how to get there. It only meant I took the wrong direction a couple of times and did an extra 5km. That’s no big deal, I still managed to find my way to the ridge called Bellevue at 1,794m. The view towards Chamonix and the valley is breathtaking.
It took me roughly 6 hours to reach the village of Contemines Montjoie. The first thing I do is stop at the local supermarket to buy some energy in bars and bottles for the next 5 days. I really don’t want to fall short of resources up there and miss the chance.
The tent set up, I return to the city centre, looking for a restaurant serving one of my favourite type of food typical of this region of France: la cuisine savoyarde. Made of very tasty, creamy and melted cheese, it is an ideal dish to warm up in the winter. But I miss those so much that, even at this time of the year, I go for a tartiflette. On the way back, the sun has gone below the surrounding mountains. Therefore the valley is in the dark but the higher mountains still under its warm light.
Day 1 – 3, Preparation
Monday 25th of August, day 1 of the expedition to Mont Blanc has arrived. I meet the rest of the group at 8am: Fabien, our guide, Christine, Michel, Bruno, Nicolas and Cédric. We take a dozen minutes to get hold of the necessary equipment for the technical portions: harness, crampons, helmet and ice axe. It leaves plenty of time to everyone to make comments about my bag being particularly heavy of all my camera gear, my bottle of syrup Teisseire (the french version of squash, only 10 times better). But I’ve been training with a bag of 30kg so the 15-20kg I have now should be fine.
The hike to the Refuge des Conscrits, at 2,600m, doesn’t present any particular difficulty. The weather isn’t great and the small showers make the rocks a bit slippery. Only a couple of hours after we’ve left, the guide tells us that the ascent of Mont Blanc won’t be possible. The weather forecasts are not good. What’s the point of making this comment at the start of the expedition? There is 4 days to go and the forecast is changing every day, there is plenty of time for the conditions to improve. A little bit annoyed, we pass the refuge de Tré la Tête and continue our way up. It’s after I’ve crossed a small bridge that I turn back and realise we can see across the valley.
After short encounters with local wildlife (marmottes, bouquetins and chamois), we arrive at the refuge des Conscrits around 3 pm and all we have to do now is rest. They’ve decorated it with those colourful prayer cloth that are very popular in Nepal (a bit pathetic, what’s the point of copying someone else’s custom?). The plan for tomorrow is to learn how to walk with our crampons on various glaciers up to the Col des dômes at 3,600m. However the weather doesn’t look promising so we delay the wake up time from 4am to 7am. There is no point getting up early to go out under the rain and facing strong cold winds.
We wake up for day 2 and the storm is here. The rain is falling horizontally (is it still called falling?) as the wind is so strong. Looks like we’re going out at all. We practice the use of the rope inside the refuge, simulating falls into cracks and recovery in the stairs. After lunch, I’ve had enough reading and I propose to go outside for a couple of hours. The wind has gone and the rain isn’t as strong as it was this morning. So Nicolas, Cédric and myself dress up and, with Fabien, go practice on snow slopes a few hundred meters above the refuge. We come back completely wet but it doesn’t matter. I’m happy I’ve been outside. The weather forecast for tomorrow seems better. The plan is then to wake up a bit earlier than planned so we can practice walking with crampons before descending all the way back down to Les Contamines.
And it is! We take a quick breakfast, put our gear on and head outside in the dark. We make our way up at the light of frontal lamps. An hour later, the sun starts to appear behind the mountains.
And as we ascend, we can see the entire landscape touched by the first sun rays.
We are now at 3,200m. It’s windy and cold and the GoPro is extremely slow. If it is being affected by these conditions although being designed for extremes, how would my camera react at 4,800m? It probably isn’t a good idea to take it with me then. It is time to start our journey back down to the village. We have lunch waiting for us at 2pm, 2,100m lower. But it looks like it’s going to be a good day as the sun continues to warm up the atmosphere.
On the way down, we take the direction of the glacier Tré la Tête. It is quite easy to walk with the crampons and the rope at the start, because it’s flat. But now we’ve got a steep descend to complete.
As you can see there is also a large number of stones which risk to fall down as the sun softens the ice. We all look at the bottom pretty anxious. If one of us slips and falls, we all follow. How are we going to make it? We start going down one by one and I realise the ice is really hard which makes it even harder to get some grip. My legs are burning but I can’t stop, we’re all attached. We make a stop about half way so the guide can descend to our level without any of us risking to fall. All good? Ok, let’s finish this. The second half is even harder than the first as our leg muscles are tired. It makes is more difficult to handle our weight on the ice and resist. But surprisingly and despite a few frights, we safely make it to the bottom. The glacier looks even more steep from there.
We then continue to walk on the glacier but the rest is completely covered by rocks.
We didn’t quite make it on time for lunch but it doesn’t matter. We had a fresh beer to start with, some nice pasta carbonara and a shower. All the ingredients for a very relaxing afternoon under the sun. After all, this is absolutely necessary so that we are in good shape for the final stage of the expedition, the ascent to Mont Blanc.
Day 4 – 5, the Final Ascent
This time, I have made my bag as light as possible. I don’t won’t anything to get in the way between me and Mont Blanc. We all gather at the train station of Le Fayet to take a train to Le Nid D’aigle at 2,400m. The ropes are made of 3 persons: 1 guide and 2 tourists. I am in the group led by Giovanni, an italian guide and Christine. As we start the hike up, the conditions are fabulous. But it doesn’t take long before a bad news strike. The weather for tomorrow morning is not going to be as good as supposed to. The consequence? Going to the top is very unlikely. The guides propose to try and do it in a day. In other words, push to reach the refuge du gouter a little bit earlier than planned and begin the ascent to Mont Blanc right after, instead of tomorrow morning. Of course, everyone is up for it… apart from my rope colleague who isn’t capable of going any quicker. It is full of frustration that I watch the others getting away…
After a couple of hours, we reach the refuge de Têtes Rousses at 3,167m. (what I learnt later is that at the same time, the firs group was reaching the refuge du Goûter, 700m higher). Here we take our crampons out and begin crossing the first snow slope. We soon reach the famous Couloir de la Mort (Death Corridor). It is called this way because rocks often fall into this passage. We have done less than 10m than other climbers shout “PIERRE!”, “PIERRE!”. We start running on the snow slope to avoid them. I take the time to look up to see the first stone rolling towards us. That one is fine, it’s going right behind me. The second one, however, is not fine. I won’t have time to run and avoid it. So I stop running so the rock passes between Christine and myself. I resume running and we reach the other side safely. Ouf, that was really close! Of course neither Giovanni or Christine realised how close the rocks passed. A break, some water and we begin the climb (literally) to the refuge du goûter (it’s on the picture below, at the limit mountain/sky, can you see it? 😉 )
Giovanni was slightly worried about my colleague’s condition who was really struggling in this challenging ascent. About a third of the way, he even wanted to stop and go back down. But she really wanted to pursue and at least reach the refuge. We continued the climb but our progress was very slow. As if the conditions weren’t difficult enough, she also ran out of water so I shared mine. She was giving everything she had as we continue to go higher on the sky.
We finally reached the refuge at 4:30pm. I admire the effort she gave to complete the objective she had set herself. Only it was quite late and there wasn’t a lot of time left to go to the top of Mont Blanc. From here it’s another 6 hours and we’ve only got 5 before the sun sets. And then probably another 4 hours to come back down in the dark. So we cannot waste time. I am feeling great physically, full of energy. So I peruade Giovanni to go. By 5pm, we are on our way to the summit.
Up there, it’s like being in a different world and the view is extraordinary.
Only there is a slight problem. Because I shared my water on the way up, I was far from being properly hydrated. And because we arrived at base camp really late, we didn’t have time to rest a little bit and eat. The consequence was inevitable and I start to feel the effects of altitude sickness. It started as a small headache which gets stronger and stronger. My mouth is now very dry. At around 4,100m, I ask Giovanni for a break so I can drink the coffee that we brought. But I start to feel nauseous and all the energy I had seems gone from my body. I realise I cannot go any higher… You can’t imagine how difficult it was mentally to call it off and accept the failure. I have been waiting for this moment for so long, trained so hard, I am in excellent physical condition but I have to go back down. It is so frustrating!!!
The descent was extremely painful. I had to stop several times to drink any kind of liquid we found but it wasn’t doing anything. I had lost all my tonicity and motivation for this. Back at the refuge, I ate quickly and went to bed straight away, so disappointed. I had half a litre of coffee to drink on the way down, we were in altitude, I was still a bit sick, you can imagine I didn’t sleep much. I had lots of time to think about the day. I am extremely disappointed. I feel like I wasn’t given any chance to succeed. The weather was perfect, no clouds, bright sun and apparently not very strong winds at the top. If only I could have had all the water and be hydrated properly and time to rest before taking on the last portion… Maybe I wouldn’t have reached the summit, but at least it would have been down to my own physical ability. Not to someone else’s.
As everyone in the dormitory gets up at 2pm to make an attempt, I really want to join and try again myself. I really hope that I didn’t blow my chance by wanting to go straight away rather than waiting for the following morning. But as it turns out, the weather was bad and nobody went a lot higher than I did. So the descent back down was in the clouds.
We can’t even see the bottom.
The rest of the day went particularly smoothly apart from the fact that I really can’t digest the failure. It’s a once in a liftetime chance and mine has been completely destroyed. As I’m sitting on the train going to the valley, I can see the path we took and can’t stop myself from thinking how stupid this is. I still can’t believe it. Of course I will try again but definitely in an other way. The only thing the agency does is book the refuge an hire a guide. I can do that. I will hire my own guide so that the agenda and the pace will be based on my ability. In the mean time, I have to accept the situation. My character pushes me to try again straight away something that I haven’t been able to achieve. But I won’t even have this chance either.
Like if that wasn’t enough, I hurt my knee on the hike back to Chamonix the following day. I quickly became extremely painful. As long as the angle of the path was high (up or down), I was ok. But as soon as it was more horizontal, I could only use my right leg. What had the potential to be an amazing holiday with a significant achievement, ended up being extremely frustrating. I never devoted so much time in writing an article in the same day. But I want this story behind me. Having to go through all these events again wasn’t enjoyable. I can now think forward and start planning my trip to Bornéo in October with my brother. I am sure it’ll be much more rewarding.