EARTH’S BEATING HEART Words and Photos: Chester Carr There is never much to describe on a plane journey other than the stuffy time warp so many people go through daily, so instead I will begin this piece of badly scrawled writing (on the then clean pages of my journal) in Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon where this expedition begins. The heat is the first thing that summons my conscience as I step off the plane into the blazing sun, causing me to immediately feel overdressed even in my shorts and t-shirt. The airstrip is littered with old planes and encroaching greenery, which makes a refreshing change from the gaudy budget airline logos you see back home and the airport is a small building about 100 metres away, baggage reclaim seeming to be the only feature. Once we had picked up our packs and left the airport, a dilapidated bus rambles to a halt nearby which we file onto. Iquitos viewed from the road is a sprawling mass of tuk-tuks (a cross between a taxi and a motorbike), tin roofs and hints of the surrounding rainforest and although there don’t appear to be any views directly into the Amazon, its influence is enough to give the whole place a tropical charm. Old VW beetles line the roads, half finished rebuilds left to rust, black vultures fill the clear blue sky but what I notice most is the distinct lack of western tourists. The only disadvantage of this is, of course that we stand out like a sore thumb with our pasty British skin and trekking gear on. Within moments of getting off the bus a string of locals surround us with their produce consisting mostly of what they claim to be Jaguar teeth on strings (which was disheartening to say the least) and straw hats. I make the mistake of letting my name be known, which inevitably leads to their sales technique
becoming somewhat more personal and ‘friendly,’ and by the time I come out of the hostel again a few hours later it seems the whole of Iquitos knows me by name! A short walk from the hostel reveals a wide expanse of river and forest, with ramshackle huts built on stilts casually dotted around the landscape. An indeterminable amount of farmers toil in crops, their heads occasionally popping up from their work, and smoke rises from a fire below the walkway on which we are stood. Looking past the stilted huts and workers, the rainforest stretches as far as the eye can see, eventually fading out into a misty white, vultures soar over our heads arousing a few surprised cries as they barely miss us and fly out across the landscape. The ‘walkway’ reminds me of a cross between a Greek harbour and something from a 90’s skateboarding flick, the white stone pillars crumbling into decay. It is dark by the time we go for food,
down past the walkway and out towards the stilted huts. The ‘restaurant’ we choose is literally floating on the river. The gangway to the buoyant structure is a precarious ten metres with dark murky water on each side made darker by the pitch black night sky. The building itself is barely four inches above water level and the staff nervously rush us into our seats to spread the weight as quickly as possible. The first taste of ‘Amazon food’ consists of rice, peas, and a selection of tough meat, fresh fish and more rice. After the meal a few of us take a stroll through lamp lit Iquitos, heading through the main square where we happen across a plastic llama and help a man retrieve his glow stick from a palm tree using a two man shoulder lift and a broomstick. These events were following the purchase of a tasty orange coloured juice
from a street vendor, but I remain positive that the juice was untainted and these unusual happenings were in fact, happenings not hallucinations! Waking up on a hard floor is always easy, never pleasant. The water in the hostel has run dry and this means no final shower before embarking down the river. On the bright side of things, South American coffee never fails to impress, and is enough to get me and the others out of the ‘no shower blues.’ Today we are to board a Large Amazon Vessel called ‘The Eduardo’ which will take us into the heart of the Amazon to a village called ‘San Martin’ where we will jump aboard a pecci -pecci (dugout canoe) that will take us into the ‘Pacaya Samiria Reserve’ which lies 93 miles from Iquitos. The ‘Pacaya Samiria Reserve’ has been protected by
the Peruvian Government since 1940 and is the largest reserve in Peru, and the second largest in the Amazon basin, meaning many areas of the reserve are virtually undisturbed by any outside influence. The expedition is split into groups we are calling ‘fires.’ I belong to ‘The Electric Eels’ and our first phase is to trek across thick jungle to reach a Scientific Research Camp where we will undertake various conservational surveys and spend time researching the surrounding wildlife. The Eduardo is to depart in the evening, which gives us ample time to do a bit of pre expedition shopping. Myself and a few of the ‘Eels’ head into ‘Belen Market’ which is an experience that likens to going back in time. Men and women sit behind their overflowing wooden market stalls selling herbs, spices, fish, meat and other local produce, their eyes lighting up as they see Westerners walking through, automatically assuming we have pockets overflowing with cash. Naturally, we don’t, but it was still advised not to head too deep into the market due to stories of muggings. We treat ourselves to some spices and herbs to brighten up the rice we will be living off, eventually managing to communicate in our broken Spanish that we would like ‘paprika’ and ‘curry sauce,’ or at least the bright orange powder and the bright yellow powder. Machete’s are also a commodity in the market so we each buy one and a sheath, spending roughly 8 soles (two English pounds) each. We arrive at the Port on the old bus with the last of the daylight, it’s a hubbub of activity, the orange-brown mud and dust providing a neutral palette over the vibrant vegetation of the Amazon. The setting sun provides a dim haze through which rows of rusty river ships, large tankers and Peruvian flags are silhouetted. The view from atop the Eduardo is stun-
ning, yet in a different way to the usual use of the word considering it mostly consists of slums, mud and ruined boats, but the last light of the day casts a beauty across the scene that is something to behold. Below deck we set up our hammocks amid the locals, and the picture than unfolds is akin to what you might imagine a butterfly farm would look like, rows upon rows of hammocks with bags
and provisions dumped in the middle, the only thing protecting us from the threat of rain and tropical storms being a hastily thrown up tarp around the edges of the boat. The deck is lit with a few lamps at intermittent sections of its spine, painting the place with flickering shadows, the yellowy light reflecting off the blue tarp and creating an almost surreal image. The first night onboard â€˜The Eduardoâ€™
gives little chance for sleep. We watch the stars shine brightly through thick cloud cover and relish the cool night air. Sleep comes in stops and starts, mostly upon the string hammocks which donâ€™t really give enough spread to lie upon properly and the sun eventually rises at around 6, showing little evidence of its arrival other than the light that erupts casting an incandescent blue-grey arc that spans the sky.
Breakfast is a sweet oaty liquid, lumpy yet edible and the rest of the day lazes on by with little excitement other than the first pink river dolphin slighting and some distant, yet interesting looking birds. Lunch is an improvement on breakfast, featuring some solid meat, and dinner comes just as the sun is setting. The day may have been monotonous, but the night sky is lit up like a Japanese city, each star as distinguishable as the next. The Milkyway is visible and so is what I believe to be Mars with its red haze glowing proudly. A shooting star cuts its path through the atmosphere and is followed by another shortly afterwards. Looking down from the night sky I notice the whole place is brimming with miniscule lifeforms, mosquitoes, moths, cicadas and a host of indeterminable species all flock around the bare bulbs that hang across the boat.
The only way to describe them is as an â€˜insect cloud.â€™ Finally the Eduardo grinds to a halt and we board a wooden longboat, powered by a modern engine. It takes us in the pitch black to San Martin giving us ample opportunity to admire the night sky, although this phenomena is often interrupted by suicidal fish leaping into the boat. We arrive in San Martin with only three hours to sleep until we get on the next boat, into the heart of the Jungle. Shattered, sleep comes quickly. The boat is waiting for us as we awake, bleary eyed but willing to push through tiredness for the wonders the Amazon has yet to offer, we all manage to pull ourselves off our unforgiving roll mats. The route to Jungle Base Camp is along a
beautiful stretch of river where a wide range of birds, egrets, herons, kingfishers, macaws, black collared hawks to name a few fly in abundance. River dolphins provide their presence frequently too, teasing us as they dip in and out of the water just managing to show off their unusual pink colouring. The journey provided a mostly relaxing experience once the roof of the boat proved to be a good sun-soaking and wildlife watching platform. Frustratingly I let my eyes close for a matter of ten minutes, only to awake and find out what was suspected to be a Jaguar cub had been spotted swimming near the shore. It turns out that a more likely suspect is the Jaguarondi, a smaller, sleeker wild cat that is either all black or all brown. We arrive at Jungle base camp in the full heat of the day. A path from the river takes us up past the â€˜kitchen,â€™ which was nothing more than a cleared area with a tarp (where we later dug a fire pit) and then on to the sleeping area, a much larger tarp held up by large logs that the Pe-
ruvian guides had cut down a few days prior to our arrival. Further down the machete cut path, behind a tree with enormous buttress roots is the long drop (toilet), consisting of a hole and a few large weaved leaves for â€˜privacy.â€™ The rest of the day is spent preparing for both the night and the next day, putting up mosquito nets, building fires, collecting water and most importantly sorting out
(and delving in) our rations. We wash in the river where pink dolphins splash and play a mere forty metres or so away, the river beach is a sandy bank lined with dead and dry trees, the water is a murky brown and full of silt, but once boiled it can be drunk safely (even though it retains its colour). We settle down for the night after dark, the lack of light leaving little else to do (other than clear a three inch wolf spider from the nets!), and all fall into a deep sleep until the morning light. We leave early and begin the trek in the sweaty heat. Our Peruvian guides, Marco and Gavino, glide through the forest as if it was their back garden, and to a certain extent I suppose it is. They pause, look at the sky and then begin cutting through the undergrowth, more efficient than a modern sat nav. After an hour of hiking we stumble into a bog. A fallen and rotting tree lies most of the way across, so with a little machete work we are able to construct an adequate bridge using sticks as supports so our heavy packs donâ€™t topple us into the thick mud. The deeper into the jungle we get the more ants there seem to be, they fill the trees, and as we tramp through their territory they stream over us, nipping and biting as we all squirm about uncomfortably thrashing at them and slapping our necks and arms. One ant we come across is believed to be a bullet ant which can supposedly paralyse a fully grown man with one bite, its poison often lasting up to twenty four hours. We reach our camping spot as planned, only to find our water source had all but dried out. This leaves us with no choice but to turn around and head back to Base Camp, which we have named â€˜Arturo Possaâ€™ which is the local name for the area. According to our guides, the area gets its name from a boat that sunk here
whilst collecting rubber, a valuable resource that was hard and dangerous to come by back then. Having set up base camp once again we are treated to a mesmerising display by the pink river dolphins in the lagoon as we wash. They playfully trail just below the surface, occasionally emerging to show their full splendour before disappearing under again. The guides tell us that the dolphins live here in the lagoon, hence their daily appearance. Thunder has been sounding through the trees for the last hour, yet there has been no sign of rain. The guides have put up their tarp and both sit casually under it, yet nobody among us has uttered the word â€˜rainâ€™ yet, wishfully thinking that it wonâ€™t come. But inevitably the skies open and in a matter of seconds everybody is in a mad rush, ripping tops off and grabbing spades, machetes or using bare hands to clear trenches for the now constant flow of water which is already pooling in our tarp. The sound of rainfall is
deafening as each individual gradually filters into a job. Some of us work stretching out the tarp, wrapping bungees around clumsily, whilst others get up on shoulders and frantically tie down more protection from the relentless rain. The trenches fill up as quickly as we dig them, but they seem to achieve their purpose and our ground sheet appears to still be dry. The guides work alongside us from the first drop, not a word of complaint or even a telling look to say ‘you Muppets!’ They simply toil away (at three times our pace) with grim determination. In very little time our camp is waterproof, and we all note to ourselves that maybe next time we will make it so from the start! Yet despite the fact we are soaked to the bone, covered in mud and will probably remain so for a while, morale is high and as the rain comes to an end we tuck away our evening meal a smile on everyone’s face. Having decided on a new camp spot after the first ones failure to yield, we decide to split into two groups and take our large pieces of kit to a designated cache point in order to make the further journey possible. The first party depart and I stay with the other half and we continue preparing the group kit for departure, putting the food into daily ration bags, washing the pots and pans and keeping on top of things. We expect the others to arrive back at around lunch time as agreed, and with some help from Marco a few of us strung up some fishing rods and sat on the river bank hoping to catch some lunch. The rods only catch a few small, inedible fish, and eventually Marco decides it would be better to fish deeper out, so we abandon the project. It gets to nearly two o’clock and we decide to cook up some lentil soup for ourselves since the others still haven’t arrived. Two hours on and with no sign of them we begin to question their welfare and attempt to contact them using the satellite phone to no
avail. The light is fading fast and we estimate that they have about two hours left till dark so we begin to organise a search party. Marco leads the party and we go at a considerable pace, taking only essential kit including machetes, first aid and water. The jungle flashes past in a darkening blur but we reach their last known location with an hour of light left. It appears they decided to take a different route back so we follow their tracks for another ten minutes before our only choice is to head back. The canopy is already casting dark shadows and the noises of the night begin to ring around our heads as we arrive back in camp. Half an hour we wait in the dark, but finally we hear, and then see the other group clattering through the bush, their head torches lighting the way. They arrive, exhausted and hungry so we rush into action to water and feed them. Three people are down with injuries, Inigo with an unknown spider and suspected bullet ant bites, Jamie with a twisted knee and Liv who passed out from dehydration. Three backs down and with more kit to carry than intended we leave ‘Arturro Possa’ at around ten o’clock. We collect the kit from the cache point, the trek whirring past in a sea of green and continue to the point where we decide to set up camp. Every last one of us has run our energy to the ground, but we have no choice but to grit our teeth and begin cutting down the foliage, taking trees of up to around six inches thick down to the very roots. The fire is going before too long and the tarps are up leaving everyone hanging by a thread of energy. An ant crawls out across the tarp and suddenly we notice that the whole area is teeming with them. There is little we can do other than spray a border of deet on the tarp and hope that they don’t bite us to sh*t during the night. Tom and I, instructed by Gavino cut down a large palm tree which the guides cut up to find the ‘heart.’ The
palm heart makes a deliciously refreshing salad when drizzled with fresh lemon, so everyone enjoyed this side dish with dinner. The first sign of rain, a light shower comes just as most of us had hit the sack and nodded off, yet there is no time to waste in making the same mistake we had made at Base Camp so we jump up, not letting the sleep in our eyes get in the way of digging trenches and we waterproof the camp once again. There is an enormous tree, standing on two thick buttress legs that twist and turn into each other shading the camp and casting magnificent rays of light through the morning mist as the sun rises, beckoning us back into the jungle. We are ready to move on once again and begin the arduous journey deeper into the trees, stopping a few hours in to enjoy the sun we find on the river bank. The ‘bank’ is better described as a dried up estuary, a muddy snake slithering from the depths of the forest into the lazily flowing river, but it
provides us with a spot where we can fish for piranha. Gavino and Marco are superhuman when it comes to fishing and we soon leave them to it, realising that the fish are clearly more interested in their bait as they whip their rods in and out of the water, a new catch every time. After a relaxing afternoon of fishing and a lunch of ‘a cereal bar’ we continue onto the spot of our final camp across the Cocha Caro Wuin from the research camp. The new camp provides us with sightings of a Cuvier’s Toucan and some small black monkeys which lightens everyone’s mood in preparation for setting up the camp once again. I’ll never think anything of putting up a tent ever again, it just doesn’t compare to the effort and time on everyone’s behalf it takes to create a jungle camp. We have finally learnt our lesson in waterproofing so we dig the trenches and put up the extra tarps from the very start, even though the chance of rain appears to be minimal (frustratingly in an odd sort of way.) We arise from our last night of being eaten alive by ants (they crawled on top of my mosquito net and bit me on the head, pinning me to the mesh because their backsides were too big to fit through!) and enjoy a large breakfast consisting of all our remaining rations. A wooden boat emerges from a floating island across the river (obscuring the research camp) and slowly grows bigger as it reaches our side of the Cocha (lake). We are all amazed by the ‘luxury’ of science camp. The trenches are dug already, the tarp is up and there is a toilet – with a seat! The research base is a local looking wooden building consisting of a fairly large room and a small kitchen, its roofs thatched with leaves. A large clearing is the main feature of the camp and the intense sun (which we haven’t seen much of under the canopy) has baked it into a solid grey flat. The food here is a
big step forward too, consisting of mostly the same old rice and spaghetti, but with a wider range of ingredients and cooking options. Our time here will be spent doing wildlife surveys, either on the ‘Cocha’ working with caiman, fish and birds, or in the surrounding jungle where we will undertake ‘transects’ which are marked out routes where we note any wildlife encounters in detail. The data we collect will be used in a database for a much larger conservation project that is aiming to keep the Pacaya Samiria reserve healthy and raise awareness for the importance of such reserves. The Peruvian government has been known to be difficult to deal with so the local scientists have a very tough battle to fight in order to keep the Pacaya Samiria and other similar reserves going. The surveys we shall be doing will be taken at dawn and dusk when wildlife is most active. The rest of the day will be spent recouping data and enjoying life in the jungle. Caiman Survey Myself and some of the other ‘Eels’ are on Caiman survey tonight. We test the water at the lower regions of the Cocha and the mid regions – the upper regions cannot be reached due to ‘floating islands’ (thick masses of small plants and trees floating in clumps) blocking our access. Once the water is tested and the data noted down we begin scanning the edges of the Cocha with an intense beam of light. Black Caiman eyes reflect a globular red glow and White Caiman (or Spectacled Caiman) reflect white light. We ‘measure’ (estimate) a number of caiman, having a close encounter with one that was two or three metres and eventually manage to catch a juvenile Black Caiman. We thoroughly examine the creature, taking all the necessary data before releasing it.
Transect 1 It is dark by the time we arrive at the first transect start point and our head torches are inviting an incredible amount of mos-
quitoes to a free buffet. The transect appears to be a popular destination for frogs (and mosquitoes), seeing as we stumble across an eight inch diameter Marine Toad and a variety of other treefrogs including one that was disguised as a leaf with horny spectacles like something from a Roald Dahl book. The first few days of research have already yielded a number of interesting wildlife encounters, including a transect group who heard a Jaguar (less than 100 metres away) a fishing group that found a four metre Anaconda wrapped around a net, a troupe of howler monkeys and a Matamata which had got caught up in yet another fishing net. Fish Survey
We set up a net from our dugout canoe across a section of the Cocha and leave it to go across to the other side of the water and fish from rods. Most rod catches are
piranha, both common, and the vicious red ones that give the species a bad reputation. A large bird flies over our heads and we snap our necks up to look at it as it glides behind the trees never to be seen again. Antonio, the Peruvian scientist with us is pretty sure it’s a juvenile Harpy Eagle, his thoughts backed up by sightings of two adults the previous week. Unfortunately we can’t be certain, but the prospect that we may have seen an elusive Harpy Eagle is enough to get me extremely excited. We return to the fishing net we deployed which yields a large number of exoskeleton Carachama (Pinecone Sucker Catfish) which are supposedly good eating, so we take some back to complement lunch. The net also had a small turtle caught up in it which we released.
Penultimate Transect After crossing the cocha, walking half a mile and crossing another body of water we finally arrive at ‘Transect four.’ Not twenty metres in we stumble across a deadly but beautiful Coral Snake, black white and gold colourfully spanning its length. Coral Snakes are deadly if their bite manages to pierce both cloth and skin, and what’s more there is no antivenom, due to the rarity of bites meaning the investment in producing such a relief is not viable for commercial success in the US. Further down the track we come across a Jaguar footprint (it turns out that a Jaguar was caught on a nearby camera trap too) followed by a Tapir (also caught on camera trap) which was evidently what the Jaguar was stalking judging by the freshness of both tracks. The transect also offers us a troupe of Red Howlers, and two mixed groups of Squirrel and Brown Capuchin monkeys. No sighting of El Ti-
gre yet, but my fingers remain crossed! It’s been a week here and we reflect on some truly amazing experiences and sightings as we leave the Cocha for the last time, packed and ready to head home, and like a parting gift a pair of Red and Green Macaws fly over our heads and cross the body of water, the rising sun behind them. We pass through the Cocha guard station and begin the final fully laden jungle walk – two hours through the rainforest where we will meet our ride back to San Martin village. The boat transporting us back to the village is, once again, small but capable and thanks to the current we arrive back in San Martin in time for a lunch of Arowana, a large Amazon dwelling ‘superfish.’ Papaya and a fresh lemon juice also make a welcome appearance at the table, providing a forgotten luxury. We have a few hours to while away be-
fore being taken to meet the Eduardo so a few of us take a wash in the river, where the fish nibble us all over. They particularly like nipples and anything else that might resemble Amazon ‘fish food’ which induce many a surprised yelp as we bathe. We leave San Martin on the same rickety boat that brought us here and this journey provides us with one of the most magnificent sunsets I have ever witnessed, with ample opportunity to watch it from the very start until the sky is black, lit up by glittering stars and a strong moon. We get off the boat on a dark beach where we wait for the Eduardo which arrives in good time, rolling onto the sandy banks where we board over a wooden plank. We sleep a short night on board, arriving at a small town en route to Iquitos. The sun is still down as the Eduardo shores, a distressing scene unfolds as the boat pushes on up the sand. A rab-
Blue and Yellow Macaws are a frequent sighting
ble of locals swarm around below us where an ill looking cow lies right in the Eduardo’s path. The cow doesn’t move and we all look away as the boat rolls over the helpless creature. Fortunately as we disembark it becomes clear the beast had managed to narrowly avoid being crushed, a few inches being the difference between life and death for it. A bus takes us to Iquitos, arriving at around four AM. We kip down in the hostel for a couple of hours and rise early in order to make the most of our day in the town. A much needed breakfast is gathered together from a nearby supermarket and we hungrily gorge ourselves on all the foods we missed so dearly in the jungle! After eating we head into the markets
to buy gifts and a much needed lager. The rest of the day floats on by as is the nature of the Amazon, and we make the most of all the food and cheap beer available. We wander into a bar, attracted by the three beers for ten soles offer (less than a pound each). The bar is on the corner of a shanty town and its beaten down decor reflects this, the walls chipped and the toilets only a little different to what we used in the jungle, but the ‘Amazonas’ beer, Latino music and local atmosphere is very refreshing. We spend the last evening indulging in a small meal before continuing with our ‘local beverage tasting.’ A good time is had by all and eventually we fall into a sleepy stupor. The last night is over and
Below, a Jaguar captured by one of the camera traps we placed (copyright BSES 2011)
tomorrow we will be on a plane back home, sunny England. Itâ€™s been said before in words not so dissimilar but the Amazon rainforest is a place of wonder and intrigue, where beauty meets danger and life is both a struggle and a journey. We are lucky to have such a place left in this world and it is deeply saddening that we continue to destroy and abuse this privilege. I donâ€™t feel this is the last time I will visit the Amazon, and I strongly urge you to take any chance you can grasp to visit this ethereal place. Buenos Noches. You can see more about the expedition on the Conga website www.congalife.co.uk