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Amazon jungle queen

There are blood-red eyes shining at us from all directions. Sitting in a small wooden dug out canoe in the dead of night on the Juma River, four mag-lite totting British tourists are searching out “man-eating caiman”. Apparently, according to our intrepid Amazonian guide John, he is going to catch one “to show us” he said with a glint in his eye and a broad grin on his face.

Even as we sit crouched in our precarious canoe, torch in hand, straining in anticipation of red caiman eyes reflecting from the banks of the Amazon, I didn’t really believe he would catch one until without warning he slipped headfirst off the bow, reappearing caiman in-hand, broad grin intact from the eerie black waters below.

For a novice it is difficult to tell if the eyes belong to caiman, sloth, jaguar or, on one occasion, a toucan, this is the art of catching caiman by dazzling them into submission with torch beams. This 71 cm (small we are told) female seems nonplussed about being manhandled by intrigued tourists and interrogated by the beams of our torches before slipping back into the murky waters with a swish of her spiky tail. 

We arrived in the Amazon in torrential rain in a five-hour transfer from Manaus airport. Sat strategically hunched in a canoe attached to an outboard engine under a makeshift tarpaulin roof, watching pebble sized raindrops plop plop into the mighty Amazon as we chugged headlong into its mysteries. Crammed on board trying in vain to keep the only change of clothes I had for three days wearbly dry. It doesn’t just rain in the Amazon, it pours great dumps of water. You have to shout to be heard. Mosquitoes and trees rejoice, lightening flashes and thunder rolls like a beating drum. When it rains in the Amazon, you wonder if it will ever stop. 

We puttered along past acres of virgin forest, passing small farming annuals on the waters edge, and huts with faded grass roofs standing proudly on stilts, sodden red earth pouring torrents down steep banks. A pod of blancmange-pink river dolphins cavort flirtatiously in the wake of the boat, the constant rise and fall of caiman snouts, toucans and macaws overhead.
We are staying on a rood shaped floating lodge surrounded by the deep, murky waters of the Amazon. This morning I was woken by a bull frog and the cat-a-walling of brown cappuccino monkeys as they unlock the fruit at the tops of the trees then race down en troupe to catch it, wailing as they go as though in torturous pain.

On the day we arrived at the Amazonian Lodge on a tributary of the Juma River, our guide asked us if anybody would like to swim. “Its lovely,” he said with his inane grin. “You must swim.” Despite the humidity and a scorching sun: a resounding “no”. By the final day love nor money couldn’t have dragged me from the bath-tub hot Amazonian waters, jam-packed with small, leg-tickling, translucent fish. Gone the concerns of bungalow-sized anacondas, voracious piranha, giant catfish or electric eels.  The water is addictive.

For three days we have explored the tributaries of the Rio Juma; the apparently sealed lakes of the Amazon discreetly concealing scores of smaller jungle-clad tributaries. Some are too narrow or to shallow to pass through by boat now while the river is relatively low. But by June, the landscape will have drastically changed as vast acres of forest are submerged once the rains come (according to our guide the seasonal rains would produce an extra ten metres of water). Already treetops poked precariously out of the rivers – a sign of the forest world below. Each new water level renewing the eco system with a new forest floor – ground on ground, water table on water table, canopy on canopy; an endless cycle of the rivers rise and fall.

The Amazon is a world of water; a landlocked infinity of deep, brown, mysterious rivers most of which have never been touched by a human presence.

We have spent our easy, dreamy days visiting local families, picking exotic fruit with scores of children in the orchards. We have been enticed with persistent cries of “piscina, piscina?”, (swim, swim) from local children spellbound by white skinned interlopers and intent on diving with us fearlessly off muddy banks despite the fact that the youngest couldn’t swim.

Dogs everywhere. Children wearing Reebok hand-me-down trainers. Time worn faces of men and women who appear to ooze tales of Amazonian history and survival. I was taken aback by the harmony of life in the Amazon. It is subsistence living and there are obvious signs of the encroachment of the Western world but the people seem to be completely in tune with the environment as though having struck a balance between modernity, nature and survival.

The people of the Amazon are enchanting. This irrepressible and diverse population have a vibrant history and a fascinating culture. They also make engrossing guides. Extracting sap for medicine, face painting with the stamen of an indigenous flower, eating witchety bugs to stay alive (they are high in fibre I was assured, and can keep you going all day). Both Amazonian John, and his tracker and navigator Scary, like everyone we met offered a mine of information on forest survival as well as endless anecdotes of mythical creatures including a river dolphin that poached a young maiden from the banks.

Canoes are the only way to traverse this, the world’s most unspoilt rainforest and the planets most biodiverse ecosystem. This versatile, if manoeuvrably challenging, boat offers an ideal wildlife platform as we slip noiselessly through the waters encroaching on sheltered river banks, negotiating the tops of underwater tree canopies and gigantic floating tree boughs washed away in the torrents of water.

Tarmac hasn’t touched the Amazon. You either go by water or you walk. And I learnt from my very first forest walk that despite the mythical tales there are very few mammals that thrive here; just a plethora of blood-sucking insects.

As the sun set we dangled primitive fishing rods – sticks with wire attached to the leftovers of lunchtime’s beef stew – over the side of the canoe eagerly anticipating our first piranha bite. As daylight disintegrates, the water reflects the rain forest creating a disconcerting mirage effect and the illusion that river and forest are joined. It is impossible to see where the water ends and the forest begins. The setting of the burning orange sun changes the whole Amazon paint palette. Gone the browns and the greens, deep mauve, orange and fire red palettes emerge.

Distracted by the moment, it was with both surprise and horror that I found myself on the receiving end of a large, angry fish. My immediate reaction was if a piranha is coming on board I am leaving the boat. But after the initial panic, and having sustained a bloody nose as the helpful elbow of a fellow fisherman sought to assist in the fight, it turned out to be a large river bass.

Six piranhas later we sat in pitch darkness bathed in contentment in front of a blazing fire on the banks of the Amazon River eating barbequed piranha and river bass accompanied by boiled manioc – a kind of potato wheat – against a backdrop symphony of howls, screams and wails from the rainforest.

The moment coincided with a dreamy plan to stay in the Amazon. I decided there and then to set up permanent residence and have butch Amazonian John build me a small wooden shack on stilts by the waters edge and make baskets and jewellery for the occasional passing tourist. No more news desk deadlines. Having clearly mastered the art of fishing, I had fallen hook line and sinker for the charms of the Amazon. I would live among the river dolphins, eat fruit from the orchard and search out the not so scary caiman.

But suddenly I hear the rustle of undergrowth, a loud thud from the dense, black forest skies, the wild flashing of torchlights and the dream was gone. Like a shot I was back in the canoe ready to return to the tranquil safety of my cross shaped floating lodge and the routines of daily life. Perhaps I am not quite ready to live the life of the Amazonian jungle queen.

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