Deep, deep in the jungle
I am under a mosquito net in a blind deep in the Amazon jungle of Peru. When we first arrived in dusk, a caiman had been below, lethal and menacing, occasionally snapping at hummingbird moths that flitted around it. Then a troop of howler monkeys screeched past.
Now it is pitch black and I feel alone, a million miles from civilization. As the jungle crackles, hisses and occasionally screams, my childhood fear of monsters under the bed is in full flight.
Journey to the jungle
I landed in Lima a few days ago. Most visitors make a beeline to Machu Picchu, but I was drawn to the primordial Amazon jungle.
Four colleagues and I boarded an airplane and soared across the ice-capped Andes Mountains. An endless verdant jungle interlaced by braided rivers greeted us. Soon the plane bumped down on a small grass airstrip hacked out of the dense growth. The smells were ripe and rich. The foliage was luxurious and alive with strange caws and chirps. Sweat dripped down my back.
Into the Amazon
On a narrow native boat we travelled down the Rio Madre de Dios (River of Mother of God), a fast-flowing, wide tributary of the Amazon, ever deeper into the jungle, ever deeper into an unfamiliar world in which I feel totally helpless.
Late in the afternoon, we leave the wilderness lodge hiking single file to the blind following a muddy, root-laced trail. Much of the way we are accompanied by a long line of leaf-cutter ants each bearing an enormous piece of green leaf.
Bushes laden with large thorns, trees enshrouded in vines, brilliant flowers and towering kapok giants surround us. No sunlight penetrates the dense, humid growth. Our goal is to see a tapir at a salt lick. Problem: tapirs only feed in the middle of the night, perhaps to avoid the much-feared jaguar.
Where the wild things are
I must have dozed off when, “Pssst,” Jose, our guide, whispers, breaking the darkness. “A tapir is coming.”
He turns on a searchlight revealing a most unusual animal. The tapir is grey, about 500-pound and pig-like with a snout like a short trunk. It lumbers to an earthen bank where it licks at the clay, oblivious to our prying eyes. The lamp throws long, harsh shadows encouraging my imagination to make the scene even more ominous. Once full, the tapir ambles into the foliage.
Out of my element
I climb down from the blind in pitch black feeling like I’m lowering myself into a pit of danger. Sweat drips down my back and my boots slither on the dark trail. Jose’s sharp eyes and flashlight are constantly finding a scorpion, a snake or a tarantula, which I have totally missed.
"Don’t touch that frog,” he warns sharply. “Natives use its sweat to make poison for their blow-darts.” I cling desperately close to the group; if separated, I won’t last an hour.
On returning, we chatter about our adventure over a candlelight dinner (no power). Lightning and thunder crash through the night. An immense torrential downpour shakes the roof with primal power. Exhausted, I sleep through it like a baby.
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