Once again Ecuador was working its magic on me. I have never been a fan of ‘muzak’ but sitting waiting for breakfast the strains of ‘House of the rising Sun’ played on the Pan Pipes was strangely captivating. On the other side of the valley the massive glacier-covered dome of Chimborazo was emerging from the clouds. At 6,310-metres it is not technically the highest peak in the world but by virtue of being just south of the equator where the earth has a little bulge it is the furthest point from the centre of our planet and the closest point to the sun.
An hour later and the bus was tearing around corners as it made its way down the deep Rio Pastaza Valley west towards the Amazon Basin. The slopes were vertiginous with small fields of crops, bushes and trees seemingly stuck to them as they rose up to the summits. Small figures plodded up and down with handfuls of produce and here and there a tethered cow or goat levelled a circle of grass. The volcanic soil was black and metres deep in places, gravity defying in composition until softened by rain when it can slide off the bedrock in vast, road covering sheets. The Landslide season is a dangerous time.
The bus turned another corner and high overhead, amongst a barrage of cloud a dark bulk struck a line across a patch of sky. Mountains have always appeared to me so much bigger when a disembodied piece is cut off from the rest by clouds. So it was with Tungurahua, known as ‘The Throat of Fire’ in the local Quechua dialect and one of the region’s most active volcanoes. The black ash cone seemed impossibly high, steep and forbidding, a testament to it’s powerful eruptions: both feared and revered the mountains give and take life from those who live in their shadows. Way below the Rio Pastaza churned in chocolate-coloured torrents towards the lowlands of the Ecuadorian Orient. This silt-rich mixture is the lifeblood of the Amazon and all the flora and fauna that depend on it during its long meandering journey towards the Atlantic Ocean thousands of miles away.
That evening we sat in a garden and watched two wily old Scarlet Macaws deliberate over the seeds that had been put out for them by the kitchen staff. A Lobster Claw Heliconia curled down from a luxuriant Merito Palm and white and red Anthuriums covered the ground beneath. It was hot and humid and felt light-years away from our recent, wrapped-to-the-max, sojourn amongst volcanic crater lakes at 4,000-metres.
The following day in Puyo we spent 4-hours in the excellent and highly knowledgeable company of Chris, an American biologist married to a local Shuar woman, who has rehabilitated 18-hectares of grazing land into a wonderful ethnobotanic jungle park brimming with medicinal and culinary trees and plants. Four hours here passed all too quickly and left us with a deep appreciation of the Amazonian indigenous tribes’ understanding and far-sighted management of this extraordinary environment. Chris also shared with us his particular passion for sustainable sanitation, something we found ourselves wholeheartedly endorsing being keen swimmers in rivers, lakes and oceans – as long as they are clean!
This evening after looking through my drafts folder I noticed that there was a piece started a while back and intended to ‘glue’ a selection of jungle themed strays into some sort of post. So, here they are, fragments without a fully formed body: make of them what you will. After a decent break it’s good to be back in the jungle.
Started in Manzanillo, Caribbean Coast, Costa Rica, January 28th 2016
To begin. I have just spent over forty minutes removing a prodigious amount of wet mud from my walking boots. This task was not overly onerous, coming as it did on a warm afternoon so that sitting on an upturned bucket with a slightly dicky tap spraying water at a less than vertical angle was somewhat refreshing. To see the boots return to their original shape and colour was reward enough and now they sit drying gently on the handrail of the first floor balcony.
A lot of time has been spent in jungles over the last 3-months and today’s was by far the wettest and muddiest and has led to the realisation that I am now thoroughly ‘Jungled Out’. In the same way that one gets ‘Templed Out’ in India or ‘Museumed Out’ in London it has come to pass that this human being has spent – for the time being at least – enough time enclosed by thick tropical vegetation. But it has been a fantastic exploration of what often feels like an extremely alien environment.
In the Realm of the Jaguar – Cloud Forest:
White cliffs draped with forest rose sheer into the cloud that swirled through the taller trees clinging to the very edge of the drop. It was a formidable barrier and no mistaking. The ground was sodden with the night’s rain and already our boots were caked with a fine mud. Led by the ever-smiling Don Chico, our 77-year old guide, we advanced towards the foot of the cliffs. Steep and treacherous soon gave way to wooden ladders and ropes. The wood was stout but slicked with green slime and foot placement was crucial. Everything was done slowly and very carefully. At the top we entered the forest proper and the temperature rose in spite of the elevation.
The trees were delirious with moss, great swathes of it hanging off branches, a livery of wild Lincoln Green. Orchids and bromeliads snaked archly around everything, nothing was immune to their charms. A few still in flower gave a hint of what colour would explode into this scenery in the wetter season but for the most part green reigned supreme. Green and its alter ego, the wet brown and rusty tones of decay. All was life and death. With no summer or winter season there was just the continual cycle of growth and decay. The trees were festooned with long strands of vegetation as though some incredibly high flood waters had lifted the debris from the forest floor and then left it hanging there as they receded.
Stands of shattered bamboo were splayed over in all directions, many had been machete cut, their sharpened ends levelled in ranks much as infantry would have held their spears to withstand the charge at Agincourt. Stepping on the dead canes made a sound like walking on empty plastic bottles. Elsewhere the ground was leaf-deep soft, a runner’s delight, giving way constantly to sinewy roots that threatened to turn and twist an ankle at every step. A vine dropped 100-feet sheer out of a huge Matapalo tree, thick as a fireman’s hose, to anchor itself into the ground. Everywhere plants probing for the slightest nutrient rich patch of ground in which to insert a sucker or a root.
Don Chico called and pointed to a wet pug mark in the dark soil. The clear impression of a very large cat, a Jaguar, who must have passed this same way within the last 12-hours. As we stood up a flash of red to our right disappeared into the vegetation, “Coralito!” Hissed Don Chico, “Muy peligroso”. We had just been within spitting distance of one of the deadliest snakes in Central America, a Red Coral snake.
King of the Swingers – Lowland Tropical Rainforest:
Speeding across the barely-rippled surface of the ocean, the boat’s glass-fibre hull made only the lightest of smacking sounds. The land rose dark and solid to our left in the early morning light, trees cresting the short rocky cliffs at whose base a white necklace of surf scattered. A bulwark of primary forest forming a haphazard crenellations of treetops running in an unbroken wall from east to west, the odd canopy-busting giant silhouetted against a powdery blue sky. To add to the sense of skirting a massive fortress, buttresses of jet black rock, jagged as a dog’s canines, scythed out to sea in deadly, hull-splintering shards.
The Osa Peninsula that we were skirting is one of the most biologically intense places on Earth in terms of biodiversity. Only seventy people are day are admitted to the park in order to maintain its precious balance of wildlife. After the noise of the twin outboards and wind on the launch the inside of the forest was preternaturally quiet. So calm, so very still and surprisingly cool. Walking a little way from the group I stopped and watched as absolutely nothing moved, not a leaf, not a spider’s web, not a speck of anything. It was so wonderfully absent of motion, as though nature itself had hit the pause button and left only me to revolve slowly inside the snapshot. Then, from high overhead, a dead leaf seesawed ground-wards, landing with a gentle scratch.
Silence as it turned out was to be the code word to the day. One does not see wild animals, one hears them first. Thus, our modus operandi set out by Vincent our guide was to move softly through the forest, ears pricked for any and every noise. Being the dry season everything was tinder dry: we had to hear them before they heard us! And then hear them we did, chattering and swinging through the canopy.