It’s late; on board the Similie everyone is asleep but me. I can’t find sleep this night so I sit on the deck and ponder. We’re anchored in a small bay. Above, the stars twinkle, seemingly reflected in the odd phosphorescence sparkling in the water when disturbed. From the jungles covering the nearby island the sound of frogs and cicadas drift over, along with the gentle lapping of waves. It is tranquil and I am happy.
We’re a few days in to a weeklong sailing trip around the remote Mergui Archipelago in the far south of Myanmar. These islands, home to Moken sea gypsies, have not been open to foreigners long but the signs are there that it is an area set to grow in popularity with a number of resorts planned and an increasing number of boats, like the Similie, doing charters around the islands.
For now, however, it still feels very untouched by tourism. All week the only people we come across are Moken and fishermen. As we sail we visit deserted islands with long white-sand beaches and dense jungles. On one island, known as Snake Island we spot monkeys on the beach. On another we are told wild elephants have been spotted coming out of the trees on to the beach.
On this same island there are mangroves and early one morning we gather the paddleboards and kayaks and head for a peaceful paddle amongst the trees. The sun is gentle and warm as it breaks through the branches above and the water is still in mangroves. We paddle till the waterways are blocked and turn around. As we approach the beach at the mouth of the mangroves we stop briefly and spot what looks like a large cat paw-print in the sand. Whilst we don’t know what animal the pugmark came from there are tigers on some of these islands. There are also sand flies and these send us off rushing back to the water and the boat.
Sand flies, in fact, are the only shortcoming of the week but even they don’t prevent us from enjoying a barbeque on a beach one night. The menu includes fish, freshly caught by the captain, along with delicious sides prepared by the cook who, despite being English, has learned numerous Thai and Burmese dishes. One such dish, new to me, is tealeaf salad which is fantastic.
This trip is a relaxing one, we spend our days lounging on deck as we sail from one island to the next, going for refreshing swims when we set anchor. At times we don mask and snorkel and explore reefs, or offload the paddleboards and mess around a secluded bay. One day we arrive on an island where there is already a resort, though the resort is currently closed. From the back of the resort is a trail through the jungle leading up to some viewpoints. It is a hot hike up the path and ropes have been set up in places where the muddy trail is particularly steep. A couple times we have to climb over trees that have fallen over during the recent monsoon season but reaching the summit is worth the effort. The view is breath-taking: below, the trees lead to the long empty beach and beyond to the turquoise waters of the bay, the shadow of coral reefs beneath and in the middle of the bay Similie sits alone. From a viewpoint, higher up, some of the other islands appear stretching across the Andaman Sea.
At night some people head off to bed early, whilst the rest of us share a few laughs and a few drinks of Myanmar Rum and coke. This is one of those drinks which when on boat in the middle of idyllic islands tastes heavenly, but no doubt, were I to bring a bottle home it would taste sickly and unappealing. Still it lubricates jovial conversation until, finally, we all disappear down our rabbit holes, as the cabins on Similie are all accessed by different hatches.
And then, one night, when everyone is asleep but me, I find myself enjoying the peace and quiet of the deck, staring up at the stars and listening to the cicadas.
Our plane circles over the Pacific as it manoeuvres to line up with the short landing strip in Nuqui, a small town in the remote Colombian province of Choco. This region is only accessible by flight or a long, arduous boat ride from the port-city of Buenaventura. It’s got a proper end of the world feel to it as the jungle comes right down to the coast. Waterfalls tumble over cliffs into the ocean and, every year from June to October, Humpback whales come into the bay to calve. This is why we’re here, we’re hoping to see some of these Humpbacks, hopefully breaching.
There are still signs of the area’s recent past when rebels operated here, such as the posters at the check point leaving town calling for weapons to be dropped and to move forward in peace, but those days are gone. Nuqui is just one of numerous parts of Colombia which are opening up as the country moves forward, away from darker days.
Waiting for us at the airport is Pozo, the local manager of El Cantil Lodge. He directs us to a small building across the street and suggests we may want to get changed into clothes that can get wet. The weather is turning, and the sea a bit choppy, as we board the boat that will take us to the lodge – and we get wet, or at least I get very wet. Sat on the edge at the back I get drenched as wind pushes the splash from the waves and the rain on top of me. No matter, this just adds to that feeling of adventure, of going somewhere remote.
El Cantil is set up on a hill rising up from a small beach with rocks protruding into the water. There are a handful of cabanas with hammocks in the front and some nets to stop bats flying in. Electricity is available in the dining room from 6-10 every evening and meals are taken communally with the other guests. The food is tasty but this is a fish-lover’s paradise. Arrangements are made for vegetarians and people who don’t eat fish, as long as they’re forewarned, but if you do eat fish, be ready to eat it at every meal, fried, grilled, in passion-fruit sauce, in coconut sauce, in soup, in empanada, as ceviche.
Upon arriving at the lodge we’re shown our rooms and have time to relax before lunch. That’s when we spot our first whales, swimming just off the coast. Time to get excited.
Our first whale-watching excursion won’t be till the following morning, however, so that afternoon we go for a walk down the beach and head a short distance into the jungle to a couple small waterfalls accompanied by Memo, owner of the lodge. When Spanish conquistadors first travelled south from Panama it took them several attempts before finding a place where they could land and head inland. This ended up happening much further south in Peru. As I walk along this jungle-fringed empty beach, I can’t help but think of these first Europeans sailing past this coast in search of the gold and riches they coveted and how foreboding it must have looked. To us, however, it feels like a small corner of paradise.
The following morning we head back on the boat to look for whales. The weather is much better than when we arrived and we remain dry as we scour the water for the large cetaceans. It doesn’t take long, mere minutes and we spot some. A mother and baby, heading along the coast, gliding along the surface as they come up for air. We follow them, then head towards some more whales. Sadly they don’t breach, not even flukes (tails), but they put on a good show. As we explore the bay further we spot something just on the surface – a sea snake, this is almost as exciting as seeing the whales.
The whales are seasonal but dolphins can be found here year-round. They’re harder to spot than the whales in season so we’re lucky to come across a pod of them. They swim in groups and, on occasion one or two of them leap up out into the air, seemingly displaying for us. Over the years I’ve been luckier with dolphin sightings than whales but this is probably the best one yet.
As we head back to the lodge for lunch there’s one more surprise, a turtle, swimming on the surface – or so we thought. As we approach the smell is the first tell-tale sign, this turtle, sadly, isn’t swimming, it’s floating, dead. Most likely having choked on plastic that may have been dropped locally, or could, just as easily, drifted here on currents from elsewhere in the Pacific.
That afternoon we take a walk to the nearby village of Termales named for the nearby hot springs. There’s a small surf-school in the village that teaches local kids how to ride the waves. This developed over the years out of an initiative from El Cantil (Memo being a surfer himself). An unusual social project but a great one. These children from a remote Colombian village now have the opportunity to do something they never would have otherwise. Four of them, in fact, even got to travel as far as Australia earlier this year.
A new day and we’re off again looking for whales, we’re hopeful that today we’ll see some breaches, but we don’t. In fact our whale sightings are not as good as yesterday as we see only three and they tend to dive for long periods of time. The silver lining, however, is that as they dive they display their flukes. Memo suggests we head further along the coast to see how the scenery changes. As we get to a cape at the southern end of the bay the views are spectacular. Cliffs, covered in rainforest, fall into the sea as waterfalls flow right over the edge of them. Waves crash onto big rocks covered in Blue-footed boobies and Frigate birds.
Following form, this afternoon we head to another village, Jovi, where a community association, run by the formidable Carmen, offers tours, including by dug-out canoe up a local river. Trees grow over the river creating a natural tunnel effect, various birds, fly off as we approach only to return to their perches as we pass by. It’s relaxing, soothing. At one point I see a solitary cow, reminding me that fish is probably on the menu for dinner (I forgot to mention, I’m not that fond of fish).
After our river excursion the lodge’s boat is waiting to take us back, they tell us that those who went whale-watching this afternoon saw a whale breach – right off the shore by the lodge, 15 times. And we missed it. Luck of the draw. We head out and the sun is setting when Memo spots a whale: ‘it’s jumping’ he shouts and we turn and head for it. The whale is a baby (accompanied by its mother), the jumps are small, it is probably less than a month old. It may not be an adult doing big leaps but this is the first time I see a whale breach, 3 times and with the sun setting.
The following afternoon we did see one more whale, from the lodge, quite far. The guys here tell us we were really unlucky, that may be, but this is still, by far, the most incredible whale-watching experience I’ve had. Though our trip wasn’t over yet.
From El Cantil we are taken to the Utria National Park where a local communitarian association runs a small lodge. The place, once again, is beautiful; it’s at the far north of the bay and across from a small peninsula. The lodge abuts a mangrove forest and whales come here to birth (though we didn’t see any). There’s a boardwalk through the mangroves and some of us went on a brief exploration by kayak.
Nearby is the only white-sand beach in the region, it’s vaunted as an idyllic spot to come, relax, maybe snorkel so we head over to it. The problem, however, is that we go there at high-tide, much of the beach is submerged and what remains is littered with logs and the odd plastic bottle brought here by the currents. I’m sure that at low tide it is another piece of paradise, but as we saw it, it wasn’t all that special. The beach is called Playa Blanca but we re-christen it Playa Basura. Still, just one minor blemish on a fantastic week.
The following morning we head back to Nuqui, hopeful for a final sighting of whales but it’s not to be. We return to the airport and find that we have a slight weight issue (our combined weight of people and luggage, apparently, being too high – the plane can fly but it goes against the limits set by their health & Safety protocols. We’re not carrying anything more than when we came and are pretty sure that even damp clothes and a few meals of fish don’t account for now being 60kgs over the limit. Patricia, our Colombian host, ends up staying behind, catching a later flight, but upon arrival in Medellin we go and get weighed again to double check. Lo and behold, we’re within the limit, even if we add the weight of Patricia left behind in Nuqui. One of my travelling companions even lost 30kgs between Nuqui and Medellin. A faulty scale in Nuqui is the only likely explanation.
Medellin, sadly, marks the end of the exploration part of the trip. We’re here for business meetings, but the time spent in Nuqui was amazing. The whales, the jungle, the local Afro-Colombian communities are all fantastic and I’m keen to return, perhaps at a different time of year when you can dive with rays, Whale sharks and even a sardine run, or maybe I’ll return for the whales. After all, if we were unlucky with our sightings, what must it be like when you are lucky.
Colombia is opening more and more. In the five years since I last travelled here, many parts of the country have become accessible as peace spreads through this amazing country. Even just a few days after my return the UK Foreign Office update their travel warnings reducing the number of places they warn against further. With unparalleled natural diversity and rich, proud culture, this may just be the best country I’ve visited. A few days later, returning home and feeling a little dazed from jet-lag, I find myself looking up flights back to Colombia, keen to go back and explore more of these newly accessible regions.
Channel 4 in the UK is currently airing a series called ‘Worst Place to be a Pilot’ which follows a number of pilots working for Indonesian airline Susi Air. These pilots fly to some of the country’s most remote areas where landing strips may be simple dirt paths carved on a mountain ridge, where volcanic eruptions and storms can cause turbulence and where general air safety records are some of the worst in the world (though improving).
Flying is often a means to an end when it comes to travel – when you fly you skip a lot of the good bits, the changing scenery, the encounters, the adventure, but sometimes it is a big part of the adventure. Only very rarely does this happen when flying in big jumbo-jets. Even so, I remember one of my very first long-haul flights; I was going to Zimbabwe via Johannesburg from Zurich. The flight started by going over the Alps before reaching the Mediterranean in time for dinner. As we crossed over into Africa night had fallen but I couldn’t sleep and kept staring out the window in wonder. Heading over the vast plains of East Africa I could see lightning flashes far below.
Over the years I have taken many such flights, the novelty may have worn off but looking out over a cloudless landscape is still something special. Whether it’s seeing the vast sands of the Sahara or Norwegian fjords or flying past Aconcagua, South America’s tallest mountain at sunset, there’s something magical about seeing the world from up high.
For the real adventure, however, you have to fly in much smaller planes, the kind of plane where passengers need to be weighed along with their luggage. Firstly these planes, Cessnas and Caravans, fly closer to the ground giving great views of the land below, but also, they tend to fly to more remote places, islands, jungle enclaves, going off the beaten path, and that is exciting.
Last year I spent two weeks in Suriname and Guyana, two countries on the edge of the Caribbean in South America. On this single trip I took five such flights, some of the best I’ve taken. The first, which I’ve already discussed in a previous post, was in Surinam, flying to a remote jungle lodge over 100kms from the closest community and 100s of kilometres from more developed civilisation. Flying over an endless sea of green is fascinating but it’s the final approach, suddenly, out of nowhere an open field appears into the view and the pilot circles and descends, finally landing and taxiing… right to the lodge.
In Guyana the road to the interior is long, and the country’s biggest attraction, Kaieteur Falls, is only accessible by multi-day hike, or flight. Again the flight passes over vast expanses of jungle, and again, appearing out of nowhere our destination appears, a mighty waterfall, nearly 100m wide and 221m high as the Potaro River tumbles over a limestone escarpment. After a stop at the falls, we continued our journey to Iwokrama, by then the weather had turned and it was raining, this made landing on the dirt runway a tricky business, and probably one of the hairiest landings I’ve experienced as the plane touched-down and skidded slightly before the pilot, in perfect control, stabilised the Caravan and taxied us safely. It was a hairy landing, but, once again, it was exciting.
After a few days of exploring Guyana’s interior with its savannah and rainforest we had to catch a flight back to the capital, Georgetown. Our transfer to the landing strip was by boat, which, let’s face it, is another fantastic way to travel. Arriving at the landing strip, the plane wasn’t there yet so we sat on the grass and waited. And then it arrived, flying very low, just over the trees. We boarded and the pilot asked us whether we wanted to fly above the river. A little confused we consented and the pilot took off over the trees, only to come back down and fly just a couple meters above the river following its course. He may have been a bit of a show-off but it was exhilarating.
In some places we chose to catch a small plane purely for sight-seeing purposes, over the Nazca Lines in Peru or the Okavango Delta in Botswana, but the most memorable scenic flight for me was in Zambia, at the mighty Victoria Falls where there used to be the option of flying over the falls in and old Tiger-Moth plane. This plane, dating from the 1940s, is open to the elements and has only two seats, one behind the other. This was a training plane and there are controls on both seats so after passing over the falls the pilot offered to give me control of the plane, nothing fancy, just keeping it straight for a couple minutes, but great fun non-the-less.
French photographer Yann Artus Bertrand has made a career out of taking photos of Earth seen from the sky, getting in an aircraft, big or small, and looking out the window, it’s easy to see why his photos are so popular.
It’s the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, not that that matters where I find myself, on a ship, in the Arctic Ocean, around Svalbard (aka Spitsbergen). It’ll be another couple months or so before the sun sets here and it’s messing with my head. Having to put sunscreen at 2am is just not natural. But it is wonderful. After all, we would never have spotted that bear on the ice-floe at 1:30am the other day had it been dark. When was it? Yesterday? The day before? I’ve lost all sense of time. But this disorientation is a very, very small price to pay for the opportunity of being in this amazing place looking for Polar bears and other Arctic wildlife.
It all started in Longyearbyen, a Norwegian mining town at 78’10 North (we eventually went as far as 80’07’North), and the northernmost ‘city’ of over 1000 inhabitants in the world. Here it’s daylight for about five months of the year and dark for another five months; mean daily temperatures soar to 5’C in July and drop to -17’C in February, though that’s not accounting for the wind-chill. Not the kind of place you’d expect to find a sizable Thai population. In fact, at about 70 people, Thais form one of the biggest ethnic groups after Scandinavians in Longyearbyen.
The only reason we’ve come to Longyearbyen, however, is to board the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, and ice-ready ex-soviet research ship which now spends most of its time taking tourists around the Arctic and Antarctic. And so our adventure begins.
Over the next 10 days we explore this forgotten corner of the planet, up fjords, along ice-floes, to bird-cliffs and ice-walls and through a stark and stunning landscape of tundra, granite, snow and ice. One afternoon we approach a massive wall of Ice, the third biggest ice-sheet in the world, and Jeremy, the ship’s barman, plays the theme to Game of Thrones – it couldn’t be more apt. The sun is shining, gentle wisps of clouds are scattered in the sky, the sea is mirror-calm, everything is perfect as we board the zodiacs for a cruise in what is, possibly, the most jaw-droppingly beautiful place I have ever seen. The blue-white cliffs stretch for 120kms, whilst brash-ice and a scattering of small icebergs make up the foreground of this natural masterpiece. The hum of the zodiacs’ engines are the only sound breaking the chilly silence (elsewhere the ice crackles as ancient air-pockets pop with the ice melts, but not here). Even the sun is surrounded by a cornea – known as a sundog – to add to the serenity of this place.
The dramatic landscape of Spitsbergen, however, is only one of the highlights; the other is the wildlife that calls this harsh environment home. The big draw is, of course, the Polar bear and, as a ship, our final tally will be of 13 bears, some on land and some on ice, but undeniably the best sighting of all, and the one which tipped this trip into being the best I’ve ever done, occurred one afternoon. The sea and ice had prevented us from making a second visit to the bird-cliffs and it looked like not much was going to be happening for the rest of the day. I was just heading back to my cabin for a little shut-eye when I sensed something was happening as I passed a couple people looking excited in the stairs. I headed up on deck just as confirmation came – BearS – three of them, a mother with two cubs resting on the ice-floe. A quick trip to the cabin to get my camera, binoculars and eight-layers of clothes and I was back on the top deck as the ship made its way into the ice.
The etiquette is simple. The ship will go to the bear but keep a certain distance and absolute silence. Mostly the bears are not bothered by our presence but if they are, and start heading away, we don’t follow. Mostly, however, the bears don’t mind us and we spent the next, I don’t even know how long – 2 hours? 3? – observing the antics of the two cubs, playing with snow, tumbling and even waving (ok, we may have anthropomorphised the bear but it’s hard not to when he sits on his hind legs and raises a single paw whilst looking straight at us). Ian Stirling, a renowned Polar bear specialist, who was on board, later told us they were about seven months old. It was one of those wildlife encounters high in emotion and the high number of teary-eyes were not solely due to the cold. Only three times in my travels have I felt like this: seeing the gorillas in Rwanda, seeing my first nesting Leatherback turtle in Costa Rica and here, with these Polar bear cubs in Svalbard.
After that everything else was just a bonus. But one hell of a bonus it was. As we slowly started back on our journey to Longyearbyen, John, the expedition leader, started telling us of Diskobukta, a bay with a colony of tens of thousands of kittiwakes but a difficult landing due to the tides. Lack of tidal information and a shallow bay at low-tide mean few people actually land here, but those who do are rewarded with carnage. Kittiwakes, an Arctic bird, it turns out, are vicious. Their fights for the best perch to nest would excite even the most stoic cock-fighting Filipino aficionado (of which there are plenty as I discovered on a recent trip to the Philippines) and I witnessed one gouging the eye out of another. And the cherry: an Arctic fox!
Due to the ice floe blocking off the northern coast of Svalbard we have to make the long journey south, back the way we came. That means a day at sea, no land, no ice, no bears, a day to relax and reminisce. That is, until blow (no, not the Mexican type) is spotted in the distance: a Blue whale on the horizon. Again a big score, Blue whales were extensively hunted in these waters and are only slowly starting to make a comeback. Sadly this particular whale was swimming away from the ship, and at a much faster rate. The consolation prize are some dolphins – something I didn’t expect in these frozen waters, but nothing to write home about. And then another whale, another BLUE whale! Right by the ship, an immature whale still measuring 15 or 20 meters and doing something which Blue whales are not in the habit of doing. It’s swimming with the ship, instead of heading off it swims back and forth in front of us, and to the side, surfacing again and again until it eventually tires of us and disappears. Later that day, as a few of us enjoyed a late night session at the bar, we were rewarded with two more whales – humpbacks this time. So much for a day of thumb-twiddling at sea.
On our last day we were preparing for our final landing, when the announcement came – Bears! Again, a mother and two cubs, right on shore. Though this time we’d have to get into the zodiacs and go to the end of the fjord. So we did. I was in the first zodiac, but sadly by the time we got to the end of the fjord the bears had gone over a ridge and disappeared. We waited, patiently, hopeful for just one more sighting, one more amazing experience. But it wasn’t to be. Not this time. Still, it wasn’t a low, we were just being greedy.
Bears, reindeer, foxes, whales, kittiwakes, guillemots – I haven’t even mentioned these incredible birds lacking all coordination out of water yet in the habit of swimming 1,000 miles to Greenland before they can fly – gulls, dolphins, walruses, seals, midnight sun and ice, brash ice, ice floes, ice cliffs, icebergs. I’m now sat in my warm, comfortable flat, I’m only wearing one layer of clothes and it’s actually dark outside, as it should be. Still I wouldn’t mind midnight sun.
Let me set the scene: a tranquil bay, a small village, the melodic call to prayer drifting through the still air. You stir, groggily open your eyes and see the soft pink light low on the horizon, hinting at the rising sun. Is this bliss? For me it was. 10 days into a trip taking me to some of Indonesia’s wildlife hot-spots, I was just rising from a night spent on the deck of a boat which was about to set sail for a place called Manta Point.
The waters of Indonesia are renowned for their bounty, reefs with shoals of colourful fish and, in deeper waters, pelagic swimmers such as Mata rays. These graceful creatures can grow to over 6.5 metres and come to Manta Point to feed in the currents. By 08:20 we find ourselves scouring the waters around the boat in search of shadows gliding just beneath the surface of the water, mask, snorkel and fins at the ready.
As we spot the first ray Craig, an underwater wildlife aficionado, jumps in without hesitation. We follow quickly behind and upon the water covering my ears I find myself in a world of silence and emptiness, just me and a Manta; then two; then three. I’m hypnotised by them, their slow, seamless movements calling me to follow.
Eventually it’s time to go, we climb back on board and those who didn’t go in tell us that up to five rays swam past the boat, clear for all to see. Any day that starts this way can only be a good day.
The underwater world, however, is really only an extra, the two main reasons for our trip to this far-flung part of the Globe are terrestrial: Orang-utans and Komodo dragons. It is to look for the latter that our boat now heads toward the island or Rinca.
The dragons on Rinca are slightly smaller than the ones on Komodo Island, which we saw the day before, but the general experience is better. We drop anchor by some mangroves and take the zodiac over to the peer. Walking the short distance to the ranger station we spot a deer, a monkey and, excitingly, a dragon. We can’t go towards it, however, not yet. They are truly dangerous creatures and we need to be accompanied by rangers. These we meet at the station, they’re young and friendly and carry forked sticks to fend off any dragon that decides to take too much interest in us. They lead us towards the trailhead just beyond the kitchens.
As could be expected the kitchen’s aromas attract the dragons and it is common to see two or three hanging out, lazily beneath the elevated cabin. Watching these prehistoric-looking creatures up close with their forked tongues, stumpy legs, malicious eyes and scaled bodies, it’s easy to see why they’re called dragons. After spending a while observing and photographing them we continue into the woods and up the hill. It’s not an arduous hike but it is hot, and stopping to listen to the rangers’ stories of living in close proximity to these overgrown poisonous lizards is a welcome respite. We end up not actually seeing more dragons along the trail (unlike on Komodo Island where we passed a dragon sunning itself) but the views from the top of the hill are worth the effort and we do spot a wild buffalo and some wild hogs.
Returning to the station we stop for a welcome cold drink and a rest before returning to the boat. As we get up to leave, one of the rangers shouts ‘he caught something’ and rushes towards a young dragon. We all follow in pursuit and arrive at the scene just in time to see the tail of a baby dragon disappearing down the throat of its older peer, swallowed whole: Komodo dragons are cannibalistic.
Orang-utans, on the other hand, are not cannibalistic. In fact, other than the odd insect, they’re mostly vegetarian and, playing to the stereotype, they do love bananas, as we discover when visiting these distant cousins in the jungles of Sumatra. This is how our trip started, in the forests of Sumatra, a very long way from Komodo. In truth our trip starts in Medan, the island’s biggest city, and like many of Indonesia’s urban centres it is all chaos and traffic, so arriving in the village of Bukit Lawang, on the banks of a small river, feels like a different world.
There used to be an Orang-utan rehabilitation centre here as encroaching Palm oil plantations push these great apes into smaller forest areas. Today, however, the rehabilitation centre has closed down, and, happily, a number of Orang-utans have adapted to a semi-wild lifestyle in nearby forests of Gunung Leuser National Park. The one remaining aspect of the rehabilitation centre is the daily feeding for those Orang-utans who want an easy meal.
We take the back-road to the feeding station – a 2hr hike through the forest. On the way we come across numerous Thomas Leaf monkeys and Long-tailed macaques. Then, a flash of orange perceived through the foliage and we see our first Orang-utan. It’s a female, and she’s not alone, she has a young-one with her. With their big eyes, punk hair-does and long arms, they are incredibly endearing and over the next two days we will come across a number of them, both at the feeding station and in the forest. We also see plenty of monkeys, bats, peacocks and even a gibbon (who are often heard but less frequently seen).
This may have only been my first visit to Indonesia but it certainly will not be my last. It has its downside, not least being the horrendous traffic, but with so much on offer, wildlife, jungles, volcanoes, beaches, temples, culture, history, I can’t not go back and explore more of this incredible archipelago.
Between ‘I Bought a Rainforest’ and ‘David Beckham Into the Unknown’; there’s been a fair bit of Amazon Jungle on the BBC of late. And why not? The Amazon fascinates: vast, untamed, inhospitable and mesmerising all at once. A land where a single tree is a whole ecosystem, where there are tribes that have never, or seldom, had contact with the outside world, where you could be meters from a jaguar without ever knowing it. Of course, the reality for many parts of the world’s greatest forest is not that romantic, illegal logging, mining, oil, gas and slash-and-burn agriculture are all contributing to its gradual disappearance. Who knows how many species have disappeared forever before they were even discovered? But the romance is still there, both in our minds and, thankfully, and for now at least, in large swathes of the rainforest.
I remember being 16 years-old, sat in a history class and talking to a friend of mine about how, one day, we’d visit the Amazon. It was a daydream; it wasn’t something we believed we’d actually do. After all, the Amazon was very far away and was dark and unforgiving, it was a place where explorers went, not normal people. Sting might have been there but that didn’t mean we were likely to.
And then, one day, 10 years ago, I did go to the Amazon – and it didn’t disappoint. My first Amazon experience was in Ecuador, to a place called Cuyabeno, near the border with Colombia. To get there I had to catch a long overnight bus from Quito down the Andes to Lago Agrio, an oil-boom town where I was joining a tour for a few days. Here I met the rest of the group and our guide and we headed into the forest, by mini-bus and then by boat. Getting a boat to get anywhere instantly increases the sense of adventure, that feeling that you’ve reached the end of the road and kept going.
I think this boat ride was about 3hrs long. And it was amazing. We navigated, in our motorised canoe, along a piranha infested river with dense forest on either side, the odd flash of colour as a bird, possibly a macaw or toucan, flew by up ahead and a troop of monkeys foraged in some trees, but what really made this particular boat trip memorable was the sightings of two creatures. The first was my first sight of a Pink river dolphin – or at least of its dorsal fin popping up out of the water. The second was of an anaconda. Only a juvenile but already 4 or 5 meters long. I’ve spent considerable time in parts of South America where anacondas live but have not seen one since. This was my very first time in Amazon and the bar was set high, very, very high. Truth be told, it’s still right at the top of my Amazonian experiences – though I guess the first time will always be more memorable.
The next few days were incredible, we slept in a permanent camp where platforms were set up and mattresses were laid out beneath mosquito nets, under a thatch roof but open to the forest. We did boat trips, jungle hikes, visited a local village – where the reality of unregulated oil-extraction was brought to our attention; the modern world trying to change this little bit of Eden – we went piranha fishing, and then swam in the very same spot, just as the sun set, jumping off a tree sticking out of the flood-waters.
In subsequent years I’ve done many trips into the Amazon, especially around Puerto Maldonado (when I lead groups around Peru), but also around Manaus, Brazil, in Guyana, Colombia, Venezuela and Surinam. Other than my first Amazon jaunt, two stand out for different reasons.
The first of these was five years ago when, with a friend, we decided to go down the Amazon River over 3000kms from Iquitos, Peru, all the way to Belem on the Atlantic Coast in Brazil. We caught four public ferries (plus a fifth one from Belem back through the Amazon Delta to Macapa), sleeping in hammocks hung on the deck, playing dominos and listening to Forro music. We had a couple stops along the way, in Leticia/Tabatinga, on the Colombian-Brazilian-Peruvian border and in Manaus. We spent nine nights sleeping on the ferries watching the river go by and it was a hell of a journey.
On the first boat, a Peruvian cargo boat, there was a family who were dressed as though they had stepped out of the Levant circa biblical times – turns out there’s a tribe, or a community, who were converted by missionaries and all dress like that. We stopped in small towns along the way, dropping off people and goods from beer to fridges, and always with quite a commotion. As we headed entered Brazilian waters (at the point where Colombia, Peru and Brazil meet) we were boarded by police who searched everyone’s luggage – though presumably more for illegally imported goods than drugs. At times the river was so large it was impossible to see either bank as we navigated down the middle. Later, as we approached the delta, and the river narrowed, small boats from villages would race up to us and latch on to our ferry in order to climb up and sell food and acai drinks (made from a local purple fruit). There’d been terrible floods in this part of the forest and we saw villages, including churches, submerged so our fellow passengers had bundles of clothes, in plastic bags, which they would throw into the river at approaching canoes. And all the while we wallowed the hours away playing dominos, napping, chatting to our fellow passengers, and watching the forest go by. This was a journey about life along the greatest river on Earth.
The 2nd visit which stands out is for the complete opposite reason. Last year, on a trip to Surinam we flew out to a lodge in the middle of the jungle, some 125kms from the closest community. The flight, from Paramaribo, took us over an endless carpet of trees, stretching in every direction. Until, that is, we slowly descended and an open patch of grass appeared in the middle of the jungle. The small plane gently made its approach and landed on the grassy strip taxi-ing all the way to the lodge where we were greeted, as is customary in such places, by a nice, cool fresh fruit juice as we got off the plane. We may not have been very lucky with our wildlife sightings (it’s not easy seeing wildlife in the jungle) on this particular occasion, and it didn’t have the appeal of watching life on the river, but this is, possibly, the best arrival to a lodge I’ve ever had, anywhere.
So the fascination lives on, and I will, I am sure, return to the Amazon. There are, after all many more areas of it I would love to visit and adventures I’d love to have. I would love to go to Manu National Park, reputedly the most biologically diverse place on earth (and the area talked about in ‘I Bought a Rainforest’), or possibly do a multi-day rafting trip which starts in the high Andes, near Lake Titikaka and ends deep in the jungle near Puerto Maldonado. This forest is a treasure, and one we’re not doing a terribly good job at looking after, but the romance of this green, unforgiving wilderness, can still be lived and is, truly, a wonderful experience.
There was a teen-age boy with big dreams, he was going to travel and see the world but life had other plans for him and he ended up stuck in a job in a basement. So he zoned out, he daydreamed. Until, that is, circumstance would force his hand and send him on the adventure of a lifetime.
In a nutshell that’s the story of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a film by, and with, Ben Stiller, and one which I have just watched. It’s a kind of fairy-tale for the modern age and resonates with me. Not because I relate to Walter’s situation, I’ve had plenty of adventures, but because I relate to Walter the dreamer.
It always starts with a dream, and let’s face it, I’m constantly dreaming of far-away lands. I picture myself sat by a fire, by a lake, along the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan or hiking through meadows as shepherds and their dogs care for their sheep in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. I’ll pick up a magazine and see a photo of Tokyo by night and am transported there in an instant, heading out to sing karaoke with the best of them (not that I sing much karaoke mind you).
And then, sometimes, the dream becomes real, and sometimes reality matches the dream. I went to New York many years ago. I’d not been there since I was 3 years old so it was all new to me, and it was all there, walking up the avenues, going up the World Trade Centre (as I said, many years ago), going to a free concert in Central Park. The best bit, however, the one that’s stuck with me most, was a short walk from the station to my friend’s apartment. She lived in Brooklyn, in a fairly residential area and her place was a few minutes from the subway (which by then was overground). On the way I passed some kids playing basket-ball, walked by a vent in the road from which steam was escaping, saw people sat on their front step watching the world go by. All that was missing was for a fire hydrant to have been opened and some children to play with the water. It was straight out of the movies and I loved it. After all, the dream doesn’t always have to be of Central Asian steppes or Bornean jungles.
Even now, as I should be packing in preparation for a trip to the Caribbean island of Dominica, I find myself dreaming of where next. Even tomorrow, when I’ll be sat on a plane crossing the Atlantic Ocean, I’m sure I’ll be looking at the flight-path map and start dreaming. No doubt I’ll see the Azores on that map and my mind will wander towards what it might be like to visit these islands, I may then spot Miami, a city I’ve visited (and am not too bothered about) but will probably start thinking of the Cayes, or Keys, which were home to the likes of Hemingway and that stretch to the south, or the Everglades with its ‘gators and Spanish-moss covered trees.
Then I’ll arrive in Dominica and my daydreaming will subside, just like Walter’s. I’ll let myself be enveloped by the island. No doubt I’ll try to imagine what it must have been like when Christopher Columbus first arrived in these parts (they say it’s the only island he’d recognise today), and will probably have some romanticised notions of the island’s pirates days, but I’ll also be beaming at just being there. I’ll be excited by the dense forest, lulled by the soft accents spoken here, and charmed by the sight of the sun setting over the Caribbean Sea, possibly with a rum-punch in my hand.
A few days later I’ll board a plane heading back to London and will look at the map, once more, and notice Iceland up at the top. That’s when I’ll start daydreaming about waterfalls tumbling over a green landscape and fishing villages of red and yellow houses