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Deep in the Jungle

“These are smoking sticks,” said Wilson, our diminutive Brazilian guide, cutting a slender branch into four-inch sections. He lit and passed us each a wooden cigar that smouldered gently and tasted of baked almonds.

“When National Geographic came here we smoked these after the Marlboro ran out.”

Timber and mining companies may deservedly get a bad press over Amazon deforestation, but no one mentions the glossy magazine photographers and journalists that are slowly smoking their way through the canopy.

The world’s largest rainforest, which covers the top half of South America like a giant, arboreal chest wig, provides more that just a mild post-prandial puff. It is the larder, the tool shed, and the medicine cabinet for generations of both indigenous tribes and countless relative newcomers who choose to follow a traditional way of life. Having spent most of my traditional life in an air-conditioned, strip-lit office, and being guilty of using up the few breaks I get finishing John Grisham novels on the beach, I decided it was time to venture forth to one of the truly wild places of the world. They don’t come much wilder than the Amazon.

Loading an Amazon Ferry, Jack Barker

One of the best entry points to the rainforest is Manaus. A rapidly growing city of 2 million, Brazil’s sprawling jungle metropolis lies 1,800 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro and 800 miles west of the nearest city Belém.

The reason for its remote location is the Amazon River itself. Manaus lies at the confluence of the Rio Negro and Amazon, which join to form the world’s most voluminous river. The inky-black, water of the appropriately named Negro doesn’t readily mix with the muddy brown Amazon and the two colours run side-by-side for 15 miles before finally merging. As my flight from Rio approached, banking over the huge waterway, the ‘meeting of the waters’ was strikingly visible – a two-tone channel some six miles wide.

A hot and friendly city, Manaus became a settlement of note during the rubber boom around a hundred years ago and has grown rapidly in recent times as a commercial centre for the entire Amazonas region. In 1896 it was graced with a towering, rainbow-tiled theatre that still stands glamorously in the middle of town, like a rotund opera dame, airlifted in from Lisbon.

Once I’d seen the sights of the town, and to be honest a day was enough, I had a choice to make. Trips to the Rio Negro generally offer a more comfortable experience, as the oxygen-deprived water means fewer biting insects, but subsequently less wildlife. The Amazon on the other hand has a greater number of mosquitoes, but a better chance of seeing monkeys, river dolphins and maybe a jaguar. Now, given my aversion to creepy-crawlies the obvious bet was the Rio Negro, but I’m also quite partial to monkeys, so ultimately the Amazon won.

I plumped for a four-day excursion to the Rio Juma, a tributary of the Amazon about 100 miles south east of Manaus. The guides, Wilson Castro and Gerry Hardy of Iguana Tours both grew up in the rainforest, experiencing at first hand the way of life that relies so heavily on self-sufficiency and a respect for the environment. They don’t bother with the Rio Negro, as apparently it’s a little dull.

With five other tourists, all of whom had been ensnared by Wilson’s irrepressible enthusiasm and largely toothless grin, we started on our adventure by crossing the meeting of the waters, pausing to marvel us close at its sudden transformation in colour. Then a brief road journey took us through the somewhat decimated landscape that immediately surrounds the city. When they first arrived in the area, Portuguese settlers introduced Dutch Friesians in the hope of vast milk yields. Unfortunately the cows succumbed rather quickly to the intense heat and died. Instead Indian cattle were brought in and have taken to the conditions a little too well. Ice cream may now be plentiful in Manaus (surely a good thing), but you have to travel further and further to see the unspoilt forest.

Amazon Riverview, Jack Barker

In a tiny settlement at the end of the tarmac road we transferred into an extremely narrow, motorised canoe with an outlandishly big motor. Wilson grinningly assured us it was capable of forty knots, and he was right. After an exhilarating four-hour journey, skimming through narrow, overgrown channels and cornering the meandering river at absurd angles, we arrived at the group of river huts that would be our home for the next three nights. Most homes in the Amazon are built either on stilts high on the banks, or on rafts. During the rainy season (Dec to May) the river rises over ten metres, flooding vast tracts of land.

Over the three days we explored the surrounding jungle spotting troops of capuchin and squirrel monkeys careering through the treetops, pausing to watch us quizzically. It was during these short treks that Gerry and Wilson started to explain the mysterious world of the jungle. We paused to sample various pieces of bark that tasted of cinnamon or lemon, or contained quinine to ward off malaria. They demonstrated the wide, hollow trees that are the jungle telephones – a firm strike with a log making a deep, booming sound – and how particular creepers filter the rain and provide fresh drinking water, while others can be stripped and plaited to make incredibly strong rope. We also sampled a smoking stick, though not for very long.

In the evenings, once we had finished gawping at the bright pink, river dolphins playing as the sun set over the trees, we would sit down for a sumptuous dinner comprising the catch of the day, accompanied by chips made from the locally farmed manioc root, and copious amounts of water and salt to replenish what’s lost through sweating. Gerry would then produce the locally grown Amazon tobacco and a bottle of rum, and the hut would fill with pungent smoke and very bad singing.

Accommodation for the three days was of the rustic variety – hammocks in a mosquito-proof hut. But with busy days, a very full stomach and with a cool breeze wafting across the bank, sleep was very easy and very deep indeed.

On the penultimate day we made a short canoe trip up the river to meet Marcio, the local rubber man. At 70 years old, Marcio still farms his private group of rubber trees, making neat cuts in the bark to harvest the precious sap and runs a nifty line in rubber goods, including rubber balls for the children, tobacco pouches, and cow teat-covers, to stop newborn calves taking all the milk. As we gathered round in his small hut, he demonstrated the art of making rubber boots, dipping a mould into the milky liquid and then smoking it over a fire made from a special nut, the smoke vulcanising the rubber. After several more coats, the boot is removed from the mould and hung in the sun where it turns from smoky-cream to deep brown and is ready for wearing.

Afterwards he invited us into his humble home for a small cup of teeth-clenchingly sweet Brazilian coffee, our seats overlooked by the a framed picture of one of the nation’s undying heroes – Ayrton Senna. The rubber boom may have ended prematurely when the British obtained seeds from the Amazon and planted more productive plantations in Malaya, but the locals of Rio Juma still consider Marcio’s boots the height of fashion and practicality.

Hammock Life, Jack Barker

The river is the heart of life in the Amazon. For us it was the main road, the bath and generally the larder. Having relied on our hosts for food on the first two days, Gerry suggested it might be a good idea if we caught our own dinner for the last night. So handing us some bamboo canes, fishing line, hooks and some scraps of chicken as bait, we made our way for the canoe expecting a trip up river. But no. We would be fishing off the edge of the hut’s raft, for piranhas. Right where we had been bathing. Although we were continuously assured that piranhas represent little or no danger to humans (unless you’re bleeding copiously), it is a little unsettling to pull fish after ‘man-eating’ fish from the spot where, just hours earlier, you were submerged up to your neck. Although our dinner was pretty tasty (if a little bony), on our final morning we all decided independently that we might as well wait until Manaus before washing again.

Before we left we just had time to say goodbye to our hosts, to the dolphins and to the forest in general, before setting off back to Manaus. This time we were going up stream, against the current, so four hours became six and we arrived back in the city tired, bruised and very ready for that shower and a cool beer. Luckily I’d kept a smoking stick in my pocket specially to round off a truly memorable trip. Oh, and insects? Hardly noticed them.

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