Monday 14th September 2015 –
“It’s the bear necessities, the simple bear necessities…” I sang as we floated down to the river on the way to the lodge. It might have been under my breath though, I hadn’t really got to know everybody yet. You know the situation, no one is quite ready to put themselves out there, or make a fool of themselves, for the first hour or two anyway. Regardless, I did sing it at other points in the jungle and it was awesome.
By this point I had at least met all our group though. I won’t name too many names, admittedly mostly due to my poor memory of them, but there were seven of us all in all. A Slovenian couple, a German couple, a Canadian girl, a French guy and my British self. To set things straight, they all spoke English far better than I did their languages, Canada aside of course. Over the coming days our group would fluctuate.
Going on a tour, everything was very organised. More so than I’ve been used to anyway. Most days we were split into morning, afternoon and evening sessions, mainly to avoid the midday sun. The morning’s journey to the lodge was not wasted though, as we stopped for an explanation and quick gander at the meeting of the waters (where the black Rio Negro meets the the muddy Rio Solimoes) and Simon, our French representative, introduced me to acai ice cream. A definite bonus to any hot minibus trip. After switching onto a small boat we powered along to the lodge, only some people getting wet on the way. Suckers.
Emerging from the otherwise unbroken expanse of forest, the lodge was a rustic haven, though certainly not perfect by any means. A crowded dorm in the central building that came complete with I’ll fitting mosquito nets, not quite stretching over the feet, was a demonstration of the sparsity of luxury. That’s not really what the jungle is for though, is it?
That afternoon we set off for an exploration of the flooded rainforest, via simple wooden boat. Monkeys leapt through the trees above us, I’m pretty sure making it intentionally difficult to see them. Sloths didn’t move about quite so quickly, but nonetheless did their utmost to make things awkward by hanging about in the top of the trees and looking as innocuous as possible. It’s just selfish, really.
Twisting in the tight spaces between the trees was awesome, but there was better to come. This began the next day with trekking through the jungle, finding tarantulas, some people eating witchetty grubs and rubbing ants over ourselves in an attempt to keep the mosquitoes away. It’s surprising how little persuasion everybody needs when they’re getting bitten from all directions. As treks go it was pretty easy, but we were all sweating profusely anyway, due to the combination of jungle humidity and the long pants and sleeves designed to protect ourselves from the mozzies.
That afternoon, after some expressing a desire to go swimming, our guide Kennedy took us to a large open expanse of water. With the knowledge that we were going piranha fishing next, Kristin checked with Kennedy that the water was safe. “No piranhas” came the answer. Returning from the cooling water safely, we powered over the gentle expanse for a hundred feet or so, before coming to a rest at the edge of the flooded forest. Kennedy started passing out our simple fishing rods from the front, as if nothing was untoward. Everybody slack jawed in horror, one voice exclaimed “I thought you said there were no piranhas there! We’ve barely moved!”
Before long, piranhas were attaching themselves to everybody’s hooks, with the exception of Simon’s and mine. Shockingly, I know, as it turns out, fishing is probably not one of my greater skills, piranhas skilfully managing to eat the bait before getting themselves hooked. I did manage to catch a branch though. Twice in fact. I was impressed.
Considerate of the limited success of some of us, we moved over to another possible piranha spot where, would you have it, I actually caught one! My first fish a piranha, or so I thought until I told my dad. If I caught one in the past I certainly don’t remember! Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and encouragement, Simon suffered the ignominy of not catching one. He didn’t seem too bothered though.
Caiman hunting was reserved for after the fall of dark. Apparently, they only come out into the observable open when it gates late, and the older the caiman, the later you have to stay up to have a chance to find it. Since we were out about seven o’clock, we weren’t hunting the big ones. Kennedy said it would be too dangerous. Miserable.
Beaming spotlight head torches at the ready, Kennedy and our ever present boat driver searched the reedy edges of the river, looking for My signs of the tiny red reflections that would signify a caiman’s eyes. While the rest of us sat as ignorant as a blind man would have been, Kennedy spotted one and pounced. A tiny baby one, about a year old and maybe fifty centimetres in length. After holding it up and showing it to everyone, we were given the opportunity to hold it. Only three accepted.
Of course I accepted! What sane person wouldn’t? It was the chance of a lifetime. From here, following in Steve Irwin’s shoes could only be a matter of time. When we crossed upon another, this about three years old and considerably larger, I was again the first to greet he challenge. While not quite allowed to hold it by myself, it was awesome nonetheless. Much further into development, its scales were much harder and drier, no longer soft to the touch. This was a real caiman. On a side note, it should be mentioned that these animals are protected here, having previously been endangered. Caiman’s below 3m in length are illegal to be killed to enable those younger to breed.
The next morning we were taken to one of the local houses to see how people live in the area. As Kennedy said, it was a family who they visited often, so tourists were nothing new to them. Under Brazilian laws, everybody was connected to the electricity supply a few years ago, so even these remote houses can have fridges and freezers now. Most of them have televisions too, which mainly came into use for last year’s world cup here. Our German friends had to be a little wary, just in case they received any retribution for the humiliation Germany gave Brazil that fated night. Despite these luxuries, the families still slept in hammocks that came down from the ceiling of the main room and still lived off the land, most of which involved growing cassava. We saw how they go through this process behind the house and also how they get acai berries for the juice. This involves climbing up a tall tree with no branches and cutting off the big branches at the top. Most of us gave it a try, but only a few got any distance off the ground. I actually got pretty far, if not near the top. I might not make a fisherman, but climbing I can do.
That evening we would sleep in the jungle. Our prep for the trip was of utmost importance; going down to the local store (that floated on the water) and getting some beers. They’re a jungle requirement. We arrived late in the afternoon, after picking up some local Brazilians from a house nearby, and quickly got stuck in setting up hammocks and fetching wood for the fire. This needed to be done before sunset at 6pm, when the mosquitoes would come out to play.
After a bit of dinner including chicken roasted open over the fire, some more drinks and a few games that got steadily sillier (and definitely did not involve me falling on my arse) it was time for bed. Each praying that we had no mosquitoes under the nets, and after some adjustments inspired by Kennedy to stop the nets resting on us (my versions were slightly more rudimentary), we were able to sleep soundly. Like babies, the sounds of the jungle rocked us into peaceful reverie. Until the inevitable that is.
Yes, after a few beers it’s going to happen. I needed the toilet. Gracefully falling out of my hammock, I began to stumble to the edge of the campsite, only to hear a loud rustle right next to me quickly dash off into the jungle. Not at all shaken, diligence with my torch became much more absolute, just in case anything else decided to sneak up on me. Fortunately nothing did, the excursions only further worry being if the mosquitoes would bite.
The next day was defined by patience. We were searching for signs of dolphins, or snakes, an unfortunate task for Simon who mistakenly revealed his fear of them. His was a true fear, as evidenced by the look on his face when I pretended a snake had risen out of the water to land on his shoulder. Priceless.
For a long time, it appeared as if the pink dolphins would elude us, reluctant to rise to the surface in the heat of the day. Eventually though, we found them. A pink fin here, or a disturbance in the water there, their appearances to brief to be photographed, only to be seen. At three metres in length, pink dolphins do not leap out of the water in the conventional manner, but merely glide on the surface. Much to Simon’s relief, snakes were not found. Extra disappointingly, no giant anacondas either. Gutting.
As it got later into the afternoon, we ventured for our last night to stay in another local house, again in hammocks. By this point we were but four. Meagan, Simon, Kristin and myself, the foremost two having extended their trips in anticipation of another good night. It appeared as if it was some sort of gathering at the house, though I honestly couldn’t be sure if it wasn’t just everyone who lived there normally. After hanging out with them (where they further confirmed the Brazilian inability to pronounce my name) and eating their lovely food (seemingly before they got the chance to; only so much space at the table) we set off for some spear fishing.
In a precarious balancing act, we each in turn stood at the front as one of the guys from the local house paddled about the shallows, looking for sleeping fish. He would launch the spear and catch the fish easily. I would be too slow for the lightning quick fish, or a couple of times be the proud catcher of a misidentified leaf. After much trial and error though, I finally got one. In fact, we all did.
We had one last morning before we left, and we spent it working. We attempted to climb acai trees again (where I got even further), we spent ages pummelling the acai in an attempt to make juice, and we briefly helped out peeling cassava. I was even offered a job! It was all over too quickly though, and after drinking our juice (with sugar; its rather bitter without) it was time to leave.
Looking on the bright side (less mosquitoes) there would be more adventures ahead. We were all going in different directions once back in Manaus, but good friends had been made nonetheless.