Wednesday 6 April 2016

Travels in Amazonia - Why the Amazon is surreal

Amazonia? Sounds like a made-up place (even though that's the Spanish name for the Amazon Basin) and there were times on my recent trip there -- a week of river-cruising up and down two tributaries that merge to form the world's largest river -- when it felt like it.

In fact, that's why it's taken me a few weeks to post this; I needed time to put the puzzle pieces together, to make some sense of this surreal, wild place.

Amazonian doll-necklaces 
What makes it feel surreal? Its size, for one thing. The Amazon is unimaginably vast. The river runs through nine countries, its catchment covers 40 per cent of South America and it has more than 200 tributaries, 17 of which are more than 1600km long (!).

Then there are its inhabitants. Not only is the Amazon home to 20 million humans, its biodiversity is off the charts -- 20 per cent the world's bird species, 40,000 kinds of plants, 2.5 MILLION different insects (that we know of) -- and many of the animals you see could have flown or crawled out of a Philip Pullman novel.

The closest I got to a piranha
Three avian examples I saw: horned screamers (a sort of unicorned goose), hoaxin (which can climb and swim better than they can fly) and sand-coloured night hawks we drifted quietly past one afternoon, sleeping en masse during daylight hours.

On our first day, we put on gumboots, covered up with long pants and sleeves (there's malaria in these parts) and went ashore to walk in the rainforest. (Rookie tip: always carry a straw fan in the Amazonian rainforest to keep cool and ward off mozzies.) I'd expected to see an anaconda on every tree, but the Amazon is not like that.

The Goliath bird-eater
(a type of tarantula)
The wildlife is there, you (or your local guides) just have to know where to look. And when you do, wow. For instance: Before the trip, my biologist friend Matt asked me to please bring back a photo of a bird-eating spider. Sure, I thought, like we're going to see one of those... And it was the very first animal we saw, our guide having (somehow) coaxed it out of its burrow and onto a banana leaf. The photo doesn't do it justice. This tarantula was enormous, definitely big enough to eat small birds, though they generally eat other insects and frogs.

Then there were the mammals. Howler monkeys with eerie black mask-like faces lazing on branches. Squirrel monkey troupes travelling at speed, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-like, through the treetops. A spider monkey called Eduardo in a wildlife sanctuary.

Eduardo the pensive spider monkey
The other thing that gave this trip an other-worldly vibe was our accommodation. The Delfin II, chartered by Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, resembles a paddle steamer from the future. More accurately: a three-storey floating hotel with 14 Scandinavian-chic cabins -- each with timber-panelled walls, white bed linen, cinema-screen windows to gaze out at the river and thoughtful eco-touches such as biodegradable shampoo in refillable bottles and glass carafes of filtered water to reduce plastic waste.

The Delfin II tied to the riverbank
Every meal was a gourmet delight and some nights there was after-dinner entertainment too, thanks to our talented crew, including head waiter Pedro who plays guitar like Santana.

A few more dream-sequence highlights:

1. Swimming with pink river dolphins in tannin-stained, piranha-free waters -- well, close enough to hear them exhale and see their small dorsal fins. (We saw no live piranhas all week, incidentally, only their jaws made into jewellery in local markets.)

Gentle sloth and child
in Puerto Miguel
2. Patting a sloth in the village of Puerto Miguel. Wild animals are often kept as pets in Amazonian villages, for better or worse, though sometimes they've been orphaned by poachers. What struck me about this young sloth was that its fur was soft as a kitten's. And it was incredibly gentle.

3. The Delfin II had three incredibly knowledgeable naturalists on board, but my favourite was Ericson, whose enthusiasm for every living thing was infectious. He was like a cross between a Latin American David Attenborough and a game show host, exclaiming as he directed his green laser-pointer into the trees, "There! Up a bit, along that branch... Can you see it? Look at his be-you-ti-ful face!"

4. Having a (free!) full-body mud-pack treatment, courtesy of the Ucayali River. A small group of us stood on the riverbank in our swimming costumes, smothered ourselves and each other with thick mud, let it dry then washed it off in the river. My skin and hair never felt so soft...

The only jaguar I saw
Pic by Carlos Romero
5. Making accidental donations to local communities by buying pretty straw dolls and other things hand-made from local materials (pan pipes, a musical shaker) only to have them confiscated by Australian customs when I declared them back at Sydney airport.

6. Seeing a jaguar... made of balsa wood. One of the few souvenirs Australian customs let me keep, it was carved by an elderly woman called Doris, who told me she has seen only two jaguars ("tigre" in Spanish) in her life. Still you never know your luck, as our expedition leader Carlos Romero said, “I’ve seen one and a quarter jaguars in 40 years, but people can be here three days and see one. The Amazon is like that.”

Built for grazing: the 
eating end of a dugong
7. Hand-feeding three rescued manatees (dugongs) at a wildlife refuge in Iquitos before our flight back to Lima at the end of the trip. As gentle as sloths, with skin like grey rubber and tiny eyes, they have the oddest mouths: when you hold out a leaf of water-lettuce, two finger-like mouthparts grasp it from each side and feed it into the mouth.

8. Half an hour after leaving the wildlife rescue centre, while waiting at Iquitos airport, a woman approached Michael the photographer and me to ask in Spanish if we wanted to, um, buy a turtle -- and there it was, a wallet-sized live turtle imprisoned in a clear plastic pouch in her bag. I almost cried, and there was nothing we could do to free it. That's life, I suppose, wherever wilderness and poverty collide.

Sunset safari: dusk from
one of the Delfin II's skiffs
A week in Amazonia was never going to be enough but, like a homeopathic dose of a powerful substance, it was enough to affect me and to leave me even more in awe of the vast wildness of that part of the world.

Maybe that's what's so intoxicating about a trip like this, the fact that it swirls you around and forces you to temporarily lose your bearings before returning you safely to your regular life where you find yourself wondering, did that really just happen?

With big thanks to Lindblad Expeditions which runs 10-day Upper Amazon on the Delfin II trips departing from Lima year-round. See