Facing fears . . .
Justine Tyerman feels safe in the Amazonian jungle with ‘Encyclo-pedro' and machete-wielding Patricio . . .
I squelched through dense jungle in a steamy tropical downpour, wearing a heavy-duty rain poncho and sturdy, knee-high rubber boots. I was surrounded by creatures that once terrified me . . . but I felt surprisingly at ease, exhilarated in fact.
We were on a wildlife-spotting expedition in a remote corner of the Ecuadorian Amazon, an experience that frightened me so much when I originally read the Quasar Expeditions itinerary, I had considered pulling out of this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
However, in the short time since arriving at Napo Wildlife Centre on the shores of beautiful Lake Añangu, I had developed such trust in Pedro and Patricio, our capable, knowledgeable guides, I felt entirely safe in their company.
Our naturalist Pedro had a degree in eco-tourism and was an encyclopaedia of names, facts and the behaviour of every species in the Amazon. “Encyclo-pedro,” I decided to call him. He was very funny too.
Apart from reciting the Latin and botanical names of all the species, Pedro gave us their local nicknames too — fire ants are called “underwear-off ants”, because that's what you do if they get into your knickers, and hoatzin birds are known as “stinky turkeys” due to their foul, manure-like odour.
Patricio, who was born in the Ecuadorian Amazon, had vast knowledge about jungle craft and an excellent eye for spotting wildlife. He carried a scalpel-sharp machete and was one of those strong, capable, quiet men who you know would be equipped to deal with any “situation” which might arise in this remote rainforest wilderness. He often took my camera away to capture images of monkeys and birds that my untrained eye could not spot.
During our jungle walks and dug-out canoe expeditions on the black-water creeks feeding and draining Lake Añangu, we learned all about our location deep in the Yasuni National Park, the most biodiverse place on Earth. Declared a UNESCO Biosphere in 1989, the park covers nearly 2.5 million acres and is home to a staggering 600-plus bird species, 204 mammal species, 150 amphibian species, 121 reptile species, 500 fish species and 5000 types of plant. Ecuador has 8 percent of the world's animal species and 18 percent of the world's bird species . . . and the largest number of insects on earth — 100,000 different species in a single hectare. Believe me, you need serious insect protection in this neck of the jungle.
We were introduced to an abundance of wondrous wildlife — birds, monkeys, caimans, giant otters, frogs, sloths, turtles, tayras, scorpions, snakes, spiders, millipedes, bats, crabs, butterflies, ants and fish . . . but no piranha. They were there — we just didn't see them. Pedro had also seen jaguars, dolphins, electric eels, ocelots, tapirs and stingrays in the vicinity.
But the wildlife was never overwhelming or threatening as I had feared.
In fact, far from being intent on harming us, most of the creatures surrounding Napo Wildlife Centre were shy of or indifferent to humans.
I even plucked up courage to take part in a noctural jungle walk. I must confess my heart skipped a beat when Pedro told us to switch off our torches and sense the essence of the jungle at night . . . but an anaconda did not reach out to strangle me in the dark.
The indigenous Kichwa Añangu people, who own and operate Napo Wildlife Centre, regard the Amazon as a vast pharmacy of medicinal plants.
To name a few, the brownie plant is used as a contraception, ramana mushrooms are soothing to the eyes, wild ginger is good for stomach aches and influenza, tea made from guayusa is the jungle version of Red Bull, and chuchuguaza relieves arthritis and diarrhoea . . . but it also acts like Viagra!
Patience is a necessary virtue when bird-watching and wildlife-spotting in the Amazon. Animals and birds in the jungle are totally unpredictable. I learned to “expect nothing and appreciate everything,” as Pedro said.
We waited in silence for about an hour for the parrots to arrive at a clay-lick deep in the rainforest. I was happy to sit there surrounded by the sounds of the jungle — a cicada-cricket conversation overlaid with the pitter splatter of raindrops and monkey and bird-calls. There was plenty of time for quiet contemplation and reflection . . . it was deeply restful. The light, filtered by a myriad of green and brown layers of vegetation was soft and tranquil. The absence of bright sunshine had a soothing effect.
Every evening at dusk, I climbed to the top of the lodge's 40m-high observation tower and witnessed magical watercolour sunsets over the rainforest. The sights and sounds are embedded in my memory. The jungle was alive with birds of every description, a veritable paradise for twitchers. An inverted V-shaped wake on the dark satin waters of Lake Añangu marked the path of a giant otter. A procession of turtles edged their way up a log, the last one plopping into the water not far from a caiman. A canoe skimmed silently across the mirror lake delivering guests to the lodge jetty, their excited voices carrying across the still waters.
I loved watching the resident pair of tayra (like large weasels or martens), as they loped around the lodge grounds, scampering up trees in search of fruit and nuts, and the death-defying leaps of monkeys as they travelled highways in the jungle canopy.
I was also fascinated by nature's smaller creatures. Day and night, leaf cutter ants carted heavy loads of leaves and multi-coloured flower petals to their large nest beside the walkway. They made a colourful procession with green, white and pink flowers hoisted on their backs while others scurried back for their next load. I made sure I didn't step on them as I walked up the path to the restaurant. All life is precious in this place.
It was heartwarming to know that Quasar Expeditions, the travel company who organised my trip, actively seeks out and supports sustainable tourism projects such as Napo Wildlife Centre. The family-run company partners with conservation organisations and works with indigenous communities like Kichwa Añangu.
We spent a day with these fine-looking, proud people who are striving to preserve and protect their traditions, culture and natural resources in an area where oil and logging companies are encroaching on their tribal lands.
Read about my visit to the Kichwa Añangu community in the next episode . . .