23.02.2011 - 28.02.2011 37 °C
It was time to organise my exit strategy out of South America. If only I could 'stopover' in Africa on the way home to the UK, visiting all seven continents in one year hmmmmmmm way too tempting, let's see what I can come up with......
I took a late night flight from Rio to Manaus, a city bizarrely in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon. I adored Rio and would have loved to have stayed longer but it was just so expensive, 30USD just for a bunk bed in a dorm, and I was getting a bit sick of sharing, I needed my own space for a while. The four hour flight to Manaus took us over jungle, jungle and more jungle. The impressive vastness of the Amazon basin suddenly giving way to the bright lights of the city, this city in the middle of nowhere, alongside the legendary Amazon River. Experiencing the Amazon, with all its biodiversity, was another one of my lifelong dreams that I was about to realise. I booked to join an eco tour of the river leaving in a couple of days then set about to find a cheap hotel with free wifi. Sorted. Now where do I need to go from here? Cheapest flights to Europe please?
Practically two full days on the internet, phone and skype and my plan was hatching. Best flights to Europe seemed to be from Colombia to Madrid, so there you go, that will do for my final South American country. But then, the best bit, good 'ol Easyjet, 30 Euros Madrid to Morocco, seventh continent here I come, just way too tempting. Card details entered, submit, WAHAYYYYYY!!!!! When I flew out of Los Angeles to Quito several months back, they forced me to book me a return journey out of South America, so I then had the joyful experience of trying to get a refund on my Quito to Texas flight that I had no intention of taking, it was just to please immigration. Communications failure, and a falling out with Skype, ended in an afternoon queueing in the Continental airline office, before realising that no way was my Portuguese, or even my Spanglish, going to cut it with this complicated request. Then getting stranded in this office when it absolutely chucked it down, real rainforest rain of biblical proportions, then reverting to hanging on the telephone for another hour to speak to an English translator. We got there in the end though and I felt a weird mixture of relief that everything was sorted and I didn't need to do anymore planning, excitement of my adventures yet to come but also more than a tinge of sadness that my dream was coming to an end in just over three short weeks...
Time for some jungle action..... I joined a small group, a young couple from UK doing a conservation project and a middle-aged German couple here on a holiday on an organised eco tour, staying in a lodge by the Rio Negro, an important tributary of the Amazon. From Manaus port we caught a car ferry across the Amazon which at this point is several miles wide. We then travelled overland for a couple of hours before catching a small motor boat along the river to the eco lodge, in a beautiful peaceful setting full of colourful birds and butterflies the size of birds, exactly what I had hoped for. The tour was to include treks in the jungle, piranha fishing, and a night time safari and was led by Dirk, an ex- Greenpeace protestor from Germany who was now researching the impact of deforestation, and a local guy, Bob (cannot remember his name so will call him Bob) loopy guy with no fear, born and bred in the Amazon, a bit of an overweight Brazilian version of crocodile dundee.
On our very first expedition out into the jungle, Bob spots a sloth high up in a tree. All I could see when I looked up were spider monkeys but Bob, determined to prove it was there, decided to climb the tree, bare foot, to show us the sloth. NO WAY!!!! The poor little bugger didn't like Bob getting too close so tried to commit suicide, dived from the top of the tree into the river and surfaced, clinging hold of a water weed looking all cute. I felt terrible for the poor thing but he seemed OK as Bob prised him out of the water and passed him to me for a cuddle!! Heavy thing too and difficult to grab hold of as it had a very taught, stiff body. Couldn't believe I was here, stood in the amazon with all kinds of insects biting me, the intense humidity, the scary wild animal surround sound, holding a sloth! After a little trek to see some awesome huge water lillies, next up was piranha fishing, oh yes, we had to catch our dinner! There we sat holding makeshift rods with bits of chicken as bait. Most of the little bastards managed to take off with the chicken without getting hooked but I was over the moon to catch two of them. Well, one jumped back in, the other I had on the BBQ. Bob of course caught about 15 red belly piranhas without even trying and demonstrated some teeth action by force feeding some reeds. Didn't really like the taste of piranha, a bit tough, but I did really enjoy the fresh amazon eel we also had for our dinner.
One night we went out to hunt for caiman crocodiles, not having a clue what to expect, and a little freaked out by the loud jungle noises by night. Dirk warned us to be careful of caimans jumping into the boat, especially after we had caught them. WAIT, we are catching them? WTH? Bob stood on the front of the little boat with a big torch and told us that the bright 'cats eyes' we could see illuminated under the torch light were actually crocs eyes! Yikes, they are everywhere, all around us! Bob then steered the boat towards the sides of the river and right into some reeds, then in a single swift movement, swiped a baby caiman from the river with his bare hands! OMG OMG OMG!!! He tried to pass me the caiman for a 'cuddle' telling me to grip his neck real tightly so he doesn't bite me! NO WAY!!! Hang on, then again, what the heck, I must already be on life number 9 on this trip and my luck will run out sooner or later but when will I get another chance? So enjoy the photos of me cuddling a crocodile in the wild. As if that wasn't scary enough, the next one caught was at least double the size. This time though, Bob tied its mouth before handing him over to me. I wonder if my travel insurance covers these kind of activities? Oh well, too late...
Up at 4am next morning to catch sunrise over the Rio Negro. We sat there on the boat in the middle of the river in silence, as the jungle slowly came to life and the sky turned pink then orange. A couple of toucans flew overhead, maybe some parrots too. Early morning layer of mist over the river giving an eerie but exotic atmosphere. Perfect sunrise reflections in the calm waters, I realised this may be my last special sunrise of my adventure. After a hearty breakfast and a chance to fuel my cupuacu (tropical fruit) addiction, we trekked deeper into the jungle to look at plants with medicinal properties. Dirk gave us a mini lecture on how to try and survive in the jungle, the 'sangre de grado' tree whose sap cures stomach upsets , quinine-producing (antimalarial) cinchona trees, the unmistakable scent of rosewood and teatree. This was very much worth suffering the ridiculous humidity and mental mosquitos of the jungle. I swear, my skin was practically melting with all the DEET mosquito spray but the buggers here were still seeing me as a tasty treat!
A relaxing afternoon spent chilling in a hammock surrounded by nature, completed the adventure. Dirk also gave us a little lecture on the ecosystem and how the trees have specially adapted to survive widespread annual flooding of the Amazon basin and severe lack of nutrients. The jungle here is fully mature and is living a life in delicate balance. When trees are chopped down to make way for farms and settlements, the nutrient-deprived soil cannot sustain new growth. Clearing these forests then has a devastating long term effect on the natural habitat and biodiversity of the jungle for all kinds of animal and plant species. There of course is also the concern of the effect of destroying the forest and releasing harmful level of carbon dioxide to have its wicked way potentially accelerating global warming. Scary stuff, but Dirk believes that by educating the farmers and providing them with alternative ways of earning a living is key.
Back to Manaus for an unfortunate nights stay in a hostel. It is not really that I mind the occasional stay in a party hostel but when your room is right next to the main lounge for 200 or so drunk and excited backpackers having a 'pizza all-nighter', and your bed is crawling with bugs, catching up on some post-jungle sleep is maybe a bit too much to ask..