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.