Title: Cruising the Upper Amazon.
Length: 2300 words.
Previously Published. Rights available: SBSR and non-UK rights.
Travel operator: Abercrombie and Kent.
About the author: Derrick Grover.
I had heard so many stories about Piranha fish that I was wary of putting my hand in the water. The prospect of falling in as I sat on the side of the Zodiac made me careful to lean inwards. These inflated rubber craft, propelled by a 50 hp outboard engine, were planing across the Upper Amazon river. We were to explore the tributaries between Iquitos in Peru and Leticia in Columbia. The river had been swollen by rain from the Andes and had risen 30 feet. The forest alongside had been flooded and we could forage half way up trees whose roots were submerged below the water. Some 150 species of trees are there for inspection; many of them host to a variety of creepers, some trailing roots into the water and all fighting to reach their share of sunlight.
. . . . . . . . . . .
All around us the jungle emitted its inimitable sounds: from exotic birds we had never seen before, to frogs with strange croaking sounds like the hammering of a wooden plank. This was an ecological system in equilibrium where plants, birds and insects sometimes fought, and sometimes nurtured and protected each other.
We were on the Amazon Adventure cruise organised by Abercrombie & Kent aboard the MS Explorer II, affectionately known as The Little Red Ship. It is 238 feet long with a capacity for 100 passengers and has a shallow enough draft to reach where other cruise ships cannot go. Expeditions up the tributaries and into the forest were organised every day; early in the morning and late in the afternoon to avoid the heat of the day.
After staying the night in Lima at the Hotel del Olivar we flew to Iquitos, a city of a half million people, which was founded in 1863. It is 2300 miles from the Atlantic but navigable for some sea-going vessels. The rubber trees were of immense importance to the economy and the rubber boom of the nineteenth century attracted many European investors. The decline set in about 1910 when the trees were cultivated more economically in Asia. Examples of its former prosperity are still to be seen in some of the buildings.
My first expedition into the terra firma forest was in the Yanamono area. I chose the Interpretative Nature Walk led by John Harwood. Once clear of the river we discarded our life jackets as we entered the calm waters of the tributary. The electric outboard was switched on and we floated through an avenue of trees in water. At intervals the blazing orange of wild flowers could be seen, and a kingfisher flashed by, too fast for the camera. We saw sloths and iguanas basking in the sun in the tops of trees. Beyond was the jungle, impenetrable except by monkeys and tree living creatures.
It was a practice of John, when spotting some interesting flora, to steer the zodiac between the trees for a closer look. We took care to lean away from the branches lest the ants which lived in them were brushed onto our backs. Every so often a trailing vine would lift out of the water to slide over the back of our neck and wipe its slimy root around our cheeks.
Our destination was a quay made from floating logs. A ladder also made from logs led up to the jungle path. It was somewhat muddy due to the rains of the previous week. Our guide strode purposefully through in his wellington boots. It was important for those of us clad in canvass shoes or trainers to meander to the side of the path where the leaves and broken branches were drier.
At intervals we would stop to be instructed on the vegetation and the symbiosis of plants and insects. The variety of trees is considerable and nearly 200 different species have been counted over an area of 3 acres; among them the rubber trees which would ooze latex if jabbed with a machete. The machete was important and no guide ventured into the jungle without one.
It was easy to get a false sense of security when living on the air-conditioned ship with all its modern conveniences. Perhaps it was to remind us that we were entering a different world that the ship's staff checked us so carefully when disembarking onto the zodiacs. Life jackets had to be on correctly and we were careful to have cover from the sun.
The bird watching expedition in the afternoon travelled through waters alongside the river with a panoramic view of the countryside. Numerous birds flew overhead; a tanager sat on a tree, and an egret nestled amongst the reeds but only so long as we remained some fifty feet away. Then in spite of the quietness of our approach, the bird rose and flew further up the river much as herons are prone to do on European waters.
I never failed to be impressed with the keen eyesight of our guide who could recognise a bird sitting on a far away tree. As a keen ornithologist he had many clues to the species whether by habitat or behaviour in flight. Binoculars were essential to appreciate the variety of plumage and a bird book was at hand to verify them. As I trained my binoculars to the top of a dead tree a toucan obligingly opened its massive beak and turned to give me a side view.
More than 1000 species of bird live in Amazonia but one of the disappointments of the trip was their unwillingness to stay close enough to be photographed. It was difficult to keep a telephoto lens steady for a good picture due to the movement of the zodiac, which rotated as we drifted through the water. Whereas this gave everyone a good view, it was not possible to set up a tripod to hold the camera.
After a warm expedition the benefit of a shower in our cabin was welcome. The second bed converted to a sofa by the porthole for the daytime and there was space for a double wardrobe. Dress on board was casual but smart. Jacket and tie were expected for Captain Uli Demel's cocktail party; his humorous welcome was entertaining but reflected the confidence of someone who has everything under control. The Cruise Director, Peter Graham, created a relaxed and friendly atmosphere on board which was characteristic of the cruise.
A nighttime expedition was organised for the third day. Now as we glided under the power of the electric motor there were different frogs making different sounds, a bat flew low over our heads and an owl hooted from the bank. Presently there was a call from another zodiac. A baby Caiman had been found. These reptiles, which can reach a length of 30 feet, are related more to the crocodile than the American alligator and just as deadly. During the flood season they are less likely to be seen since they retreat further inland amongst the submerged forest.
The baby caiman was 18 inches long and appeared docile but it was being held carefully. If the grip was relaxed its powerful tail could launch it from the caring hands and its sharp teeth inflict injury. Its skin was blackish and firm to the touch; its eyes regarded its surroundings with equanimity but vigilance, ready for the first opportunity to escape.
Dress for the expeditions from the ship should provide protection from the sun and insects. A long sleeve shirt and long trousers were recommended. I sprayed all points of access to my skin with Jungle formula insect repellent and suffered no mosquito bites. My hand, however, experienced some biting ants - but they were not troublesome. The temperature ranged from 26 to 30 degrees centigrade. The jungle foliage screened out the sun and the speed of the zodiacs generated a cooling breeze. Back on board the swimming pool was welcome and of such a size that you could boast of swimming many lengths.
A trip to the Bora and Huitoto Indian villages was arranged for the Thursday morning. On the way up the Ampaiyaco River we saw the pink river dolphins which are native to this area. Further along were the giant water lilies said to be able to bear the weight of a baby. White flowers could be seen at the edges and we were careful not to damage the blooms. A troop of monkeys climbed across a branch between the trees. They were somewhat timid and moved one at a time; a mother carried her baby on her back.
The village meeting house was the setting for the sale of Indian handicrafts and a demonstration of ritual dancing. A tree trunk the length of the house was supported between two blocks about 6 inches above the ground. A line of warriors, staff in hand, stamped on the trunk in unison. It banged on the ground to provide a compelling beat for the dancers.
Lining the walls were masks carved from the calabash tree and straw dolls with plaited hair. I bought a string hammock for 40 soles nuevos, equivalent to about 9 pounds sterling. Their sign language implied that they would like to barter my shirt in exchange for their goods. It was the first time a young lady had asked for the shirt off my back. I had a spare one in my backpack which I exchanged for a mask.
Lectures, held in the theatre, were a valuable supplement to our expeditions. The importance of the rain forest for the region was described by Bob Meade who has made an extensive study of the region. The flow of the Amazon is 20 times the flow of the Mississippi although the water basin is only twice as large. The climate is determined by the easterly winds which bring rain from the Atlantic. The subsequent evaporation from the leaves of the rain forest is greater than from a similar expanse of water. This causes the magnificent banks of cumulus clouds which float along the skyline and contribute to the memorable sunsets. Without the rain forest the recycling of evaporation and rainfall would not occur, and the region would become arid.
The qualified lecturers led our expeditions and gave further presentations on topics such as birdlife, botany, ecology, anthropology, flora and fauna. Included in our travel pack was a 150-page expedition notebook containing a wealth of information about Amazonia.
Leticia, the farthest point of our cruise, is in the region of Columbia which fronts onto the Amazon. This was to be a leisurely morning. Breakfast was served before disembarking to look around the town. Whereas the town had been subject to drug trading in recent years it has now been cleansed and is policed to ensure the safety of tourists. Twenty of us had visited a disco the previous evening. An abundance of fruits of curious kinds hung from stalls in the market which spread from the town centre to the river. All kinds of goods could be bought whether a battery for the camera or charcoal for a barbecue. The public library houses anthropological exhibits and a guided tour was arranged. Tio Toms bar was the popular meeting place where our tutor took up residence to answer queries.
Some of the passengers dined in the town in spite of the abundant food on board. This was preserved in the ship's extensive refrigeration units from the time it was taken on board at a Western port. Breakfast, buffet style, offered all the fruit, cereals and cooked ingredients that one could want. The five-course dinner gave a selection of dishes with an extensive wine list.
Brazil is but a short distance down the river and so it was after dinner that we sat in the Explorer lounge, entranced by a troupe of young Brazilian dancers. The women's head dress of feathers brushed the ceiling as they swayed beneath them, and the ripple of their hips to the Chickety Chickety Chi could be simulated by no one else on board. Some lithe young men made up the ensemble. It was an evening to linger in the memory long after they had returned.
Our second jungle walk started at Pixana from a small Indian settlement. We followed a pathway through a clearing in the jungle, made for crops of bananas, and then onto the virgin forest. A termites' nest was situated about 15 feet up a tree. They had built a tunnel which led all the way to the ground to protect themselves from predators. Hugo Hoyos, our Peruvian naturalist guide, pointed out a nest of Tulandeira ants. These 3/4 inch (18 mm) creatures were said to have the sting of a wasp. I steered a careful path around them and made a note of their position for the return journey. A feature of the walk was the unusual birdcalls. They sounded strange, as though a human were trying to imitate a bird song and not quite succeeding.
Some of us had difficulty with our cameras when moving from the air-conditioned ship into the warm humid atmosphere. Moisture condenses onto the cold lens and takes time to clear. More serious was condensation inside the camera. It affected the electronics in one of mine. It went into a time delay mode before taking the picture.
Throughout the cruise I was surprised that my concern about the Piranha fish was not shared by the Indian children who bathed in the river oblivious to their presence. Some of these fish were caught on the fishing expeditions. I felt the teeth of a dead one; they were sharp enough to cut my finger. What was the answer to this conundrum? Normally the piranha eats small fish. When the dry season comes they are trapped in a pool with no food; then a thousand starving piranha fish will scour the flesh of an animal and live up to their reputation. The wet season is a good time for a cruise.
Photographs supporting this article.
Explorer; Indian boys on boat; Lagoon; Backwater; Indian Meeting house; local flora; Jungle tour, etc.