Amazon Our snake-phobic reporter braves a nighttime hike in the rainforest.
Illustrations by wesley m erritt
by robert Kiener
ight comes quickly in the Amazon rainforest. One minute I’m drifting down a shallow, coffee-colored river in a dugout canoe, enjoying a spectacular sunset that bathes the jungle canopy in a brilliant explosion of purples, crimsons and golds. Fishing bats, just one of the 950 species of bats in the Amazon, dart over me and swoop low above the river, as do swallows, swifts and flycatchers. Twenty feet ahead of me a sleek silver arowana, which locals call the “monkey fish” for their jumping prowess, leaps out of the water and expertly nabs a dragonfly in its mouth before crashing noisily back into the river.
course in jungle survival skills, showing me how to make a fire in the nearly-always-wet rainforest, build a rudimentary shelter out of palm fronds, fish with a handmade spear and find and eat a protein-rich, white beetle grub, the tapuru. His advice: “Bite the head off, spit it out and swallow the rest.” I did but didn’t ask for seconds. Every day I have traveled through this lush flooded forest in outboard boats or dugout canoes and returned
Then, just moments after the last flicker of the sunset has disappeared, the scene goes dark. It is as if someone has dropped a black curtain over the river and jungle. The rainforest’s thousand shades of green have turned to black. I switch on my flashlight, point it toward the shore and see scores of eerie red reflections glimmering back at me from the water’s edge. “Those are the eyes of caimans, our alligator,” veteran jungle guide Enrique Sanchez tells me as our lights spot a half-dozen more along the shore. As we paddle our canoe to the jungle where we will sleep tonight, he adds, “That’s why I told you it is not a good idea to go for a swim or bathe in the river at night. The caiman are always hungry.” Like many tourists, I have come to the wild Amazon rainforest for an adventure. And for the last week or so it hasn’t disappointed. Some 70 miles and almost a day’s travel by taxis, | 05•2014 [[1L]]
boats, buses and canoes south of the Amazon River town of Manaus, Brazil, I have fished for, and even swam with, piranhas (see “Swimming With Piranhas,” May). I tried to track down the region’s fabled pink river dolphins and massive anacondas (no luck), three toed sloths and wild pigs (some luck), colorful toucans and parrots (lots of luck), and visited some of the local, simple-living ribeirinho or river dwellers. I have also come across plenty of the Amazon’s larger-than-life denizens; Brazilian wandering spiders that can kill with one bite, leeches the size of small snakes, scorpions, bullet ants (so-named because their bite hurts as much as a bullet wound), vampire bats, a tarantula the size of my face, electric eels, 12-foot caimans and— seemingly everywhere—mosquitoes that carry yellow fever, malaria and the deadly dengue fever. Enrique, 59, has given me a crash-
The jungle now looks dark, dense, even primeval; so different from the daytime version I’ve grown used to. to the comfort—and safety—of my riverfront eco-lodge at night. However, tomorrow I will go on the “Overnight Camping and Jungle Walk” that the lodge offers. I’ll trade my comfy, queen-sized bed for a hammock slung between two trees deep in the rainforest; miles away from any hint of civilization. After setting up camp and having dinner, we’ll go on an hour-long nighttime walk through the jungle. It will be the perfect ending to my week of adventures. The next afternoon Enrique and I pack several hammocks, a fishing
spear, a half-pound bag of white rice, canteens of water, coffee, manioc root, a bowl, spoons and plenty of mosquito repellent into our boat and take off down the Mamori River with Renato Cascas, a local fisherman who knows the region intimately. Just after the light fades we reach our campsite, a small clearing that guides have hacked out of the jungle, big enough for a fire pit and a crude lean-to that will shelter us from the rain. Mosquitoes, moths, and other flying insects contribute to the electric drone that envelops us as we tie up our hammocks. The jungle now looks dark, dense, even primeval; so different from the daytime version I’ve grown used to. And it’s come alive with noise. Scientists estimate there are as many as 2.5 million species of insects in the Amazon rainforest and it sounds like all of them are suddenly on high alert. Cicadas call out to potential mates with a buzz as loud as a chainsaw. Frogs belch out eerie, basso-profondo mating calls. As Renato uses his machete to chop up a fallen tree for the fire, Enrique and I fill a battered steel bowl with white rice and water that we will cook over the fire. In minutes the fire bursts into life and the flames cast flickering shadows onto our campsite and against the rainforest’s massive trees. Aside from the firelight, the jungle is pitch black, dense, dank—and forbid-
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ding. Just as I’m wondering how safe it is to be here I’m startled by a rustling some 30 feet away from where I am sitting, then a shrill, piercing cry. Enrique tells me it’s probably an Amazon bamboo rat; harmless. “It’s at night that the animals come out of hiding,” says Enrique as he explains they are less visible to predators under the cover of darkness. “The roles are reversed; now the animals are watching us.” I look into the dark and imagine an Amazon menagerie, everything from jaguars to venemous spiders to anacondas, watching—and waiting. “Jaguars?” I ask him. “Yes but they are rare,” he answers. “Panthers?” “Even rarer.” “What about snakes?” I ask. Snakes scare me. And the ones that scare me most are the pit vipers: the fer-delance and the massive rattlesnake known as the Bushmaster. Both can kill a person with one bite. Each year about 100 people in Brazil die from pit viper bites. Both snakes thrive deep in the Amazon rainforest, which is exactly where we are, and they are active at night. “Yes, there are snakes,” Enrique says. “But we have these,” he says as he holds up his two-foot-long machete. I ask him if he knows anyone who has been bitten by a pit viper. “Yes,” he replies with a matter-of | 05•2014 [[1L]]
factness he’s perfected after working for three decades as an Amazon jungle guide. “He was a good friend and was bitten by a Bushmaster, the surucucu.” It had been nestled in the crook of a tree some five feet off the ground. As the guide walked by the tree the ten-foot snake lashed out and sunk its fangs into his neck. After a brief pause he looks me straight in the eye and adds, “He died. Very sad. It wasn’t pretty.” Then, “Thank God it was quick.” It’s just after ten at night and Enrique, Renato and I have finished our delicious dinner of rice and pirarucu, a prehistoric carnivorous fish Renato caught tonight and cooked over an open fire. It’s time to leave the comfort of our camp—and the security of the blazing fire—for our hour-long night walk into the jungle. Before we set off, I have a question. “Snakes,” I ask Enrique, somewhat hesitantly. “Do you think we’ll come across any on our walk?” “We may see a snake but we’ll be careful,” says Enrique. “Snakes are usually more afraid of you than you are of them.” Then he rolls up his left pant leg to show me where he was bitten by a venomous rattler, the cascabel, and holds up the middle finger of his right hand where he was tagged by the venomous pit viper, the jararaca. “Both times the surgeons wanted to amputate. But I refused,” he tells me.
the fer-de-lance and the massive rattlesnake known as the Bushmaster can kill a person with one bite. He smiles warmly and adds, “Don’t worry. We will be okay tonight.” I can feel, and almost hear, my heart pounding as we set off. Renato, wearing rubber boots to protect himself from snakebites, leads the way, followed by Enrique, then me. Both guides slash their way through the rainforest’s dense undergrowth, using well-sharpened machetes to oc-
casionally hack away diagonally at thick palm fronds, hanging vines and tree branches. I continually duck under dense, low-hanging palm fronds and tree branches, worrying what kind of poisonous snake or spider or frog could drop down onto me if I crash into one of them. Walking is slow going; the ground is littered with fallen trees and vines that have to be stepped over. Under the dense canopy of trees, we can only see what our flashlights illuminate. It is as if we are walking through a tunnel of light; outside that tunnel it is pitch black. It is an eerie, otherworldly feeling. I continually swat away moths, mosquitoes and all types of airborne bugs that are attracted by my flashlight. At times it’s as if I am walking through a thick soup of flying insects. The jungle air is dank, thick with humidity, and heavy with oxygen. I breathe in deeply. The air tastes slightly sweet and sour, as if the jungle around me is decaying. In a way, it is. The rainforest is in a constant state of decay and rebirth. The damp, fertile ground is so alive with ants, insects, spiders and more that it only takes six months for the forest floor to recycle 90 percent of its organic matter. After stumbling over a vine the size of a python on the forest floor, I am suddenly startled by an otherworldly, ungodly screaming. It sounds like the combination of an aircraft engine starting up and a horror movie | 05•2014 [[2R]]
soundtrack. And it sounds alarmingly close. Trying not to show how shaken I am, I ask Enrique, “What was that ?” “A howler monkey,” he answers with a smile. “And it’s about two miles from here.” Later I learn that the howler monkey, thanks to a specialized shelllike vocal chamber, is the loudest land
I bump headfirst into a hanging tree branch that falls down around my shoulders. I let out a hearty scream. animal in the world. Every few minutes Renato stops dead in his tracks and cocks his head one way or the other. “He’s listening for animals,” Enrique whispers to me. Now and then Enrique uses his flashlight to show me a massive, vinecovered tree trunk that shoots hundreds of feet up through the rainforest canopy, or a technicolor spider, or a battalion of army ants devouring its way across the leaf clutter on the jungle floor. Most of the time, however, we walk in a single file and say nothing. Gone is the joking, the mild ribbing, the easy laughter that I’d grown accustomed to during my time with them. They are now serious and quiet. They | 05•2014 [[1L]]
walk slowly, deliberately over the footdeep, leaf-littered rainforest floor, careful not to disturb or surprise anything that could do them harm. Just as I’m recalling a quote I read about the Amazon—“In the rainforest, it seemed that every living thing was ready to attack, whether in offense or self preservation.”—Enrique suddenly stops, sniffs the night air and turns to me. “Do you smell it?” he asks in a whisper. “An anaconda or a python shed its skin around here recently. I can smell it.” I turn that over in my mind while I try my best to follow in Enrique’s exact footsteps, as he instructed. Every time I step over a fallen log I worry, “Could a venomous snake be lying here?” Intellectually, I know snakes will scatter when they feel the vibration of a human approaching, but I cannot get the terrifying images of the deadly fer-de-lance or the three-meter-long Bushmaster out of my mind. My heart is pounding and I am perspiring, even though the night has cooled down. I shine my flashlight down to the forest floor to watch army ants and when I resume walking I bump headfirst into a hanging tree branch that falls down onto my shoulders. I let out a hearty scream. A massive Peruvian pink-toed tarantula, bigger than my hand, scurries away on the jungle floor. Suddenly, Renato stops dead in his tracks as does Enrique. There’s a gentle rustling in the leaf litter about ten
feet to the left of us. None of us says anything. I feel my heart thumping. Eventually Enrique turns to me and explains, “It could have been a snake. But it’s gone.” Thirty minutes into our walk, as Renato once more stops in his tracks and stands dead still, I tap Enrique on his back and tell him quietly, “I’ve seen enough. I think it’s time to head back.” The dark, the rustling, the howling, the constant feeling that we are being watched and my overactive imagination have worn me out. I feel out of control, completely out of my element and, for the first time I can remember, terrified. An hour later, back in camp, Renato throws another log onto our
campfire. Enrique tells me, “I know you were scared. I could feel it. Remember, this is your first night in the Amazon jungle. All of us were scared once too. It is healthy to have a little fear—and a lot of respect—for the jungle.” Maybe I did let my imagination get the best of me. But this is the Amazon, two million square miles of myth and mystery. As I climb into my hammock and zip its mosquito netting closed, I hear a troop of howler monkeys screaming from miles away and listen to the rainforest’s nighttime symphony of frogs, insects, birds, bats, rodents and more. Despite the racket, I fall fast asleep within minutes, wrapped safely in my cotton cocoon, in one of the last of the world’s truly wild places.
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