Manu National Park (part 1)
The main path through the village of Boca Manu followed a rectangular route with shops on two sides. On the third side, it crossed a bridge over a marsh. As we approached the bridge I thought I could hear police car sirens – it was frogs!
We passed a five year old in the dark who, unlike the other villagers, was keen to chat. He told us that his father runs a hostel.
Lodge in Boca Manu
The 'Vilca Espediciones' lodge is made of dark timber. Each room has two beds, fitted with mosquito nets and a insect screen ceiling for ventilation. A tin roof covers the whole structure to provide shade and shelter from the rain. Because of the lack of solid ceilings, noise carries, so when someone's alarm went off at 1am, we all woke up ... except the owner of the alarm clock. Later we woke again when Lucho raised Climaco at 4am to prepare our breakfast and box lunches. We were ready by 5:30 but the Manu River was still shrouded in mist so we ate breakfast at the lodge.
At the jetty, a group of women and children watched us with interest. They seemed different to the other villagers who treated us with polite indifference. One of the boys had a bad cut on his foot which looked like it had been treated. All the kids were black up to the chin, from the 'huito' fruit dye, a natural insect repellant, that Lucho had been looking for in Diamante. I exchanged pleasantries with the women in Spanish. Later Lucho told me that these people were from way up river and possibly had never seen tourists before.
Boca Manu from the river
We had a new pilot, Juan Carlos, who steered our boat up the Manu River. Cesar was fast asleep on top of the luggage; the night before he'd been invited to drink 'cava', an alcoholic drink made from yucca roots that leaves you feeling pretty rough. To refuse the invitation would have been very rude.
Our boat at the Limonal jetty
Franco at Limonal park rangers’ hut
We stopped off at Limonal to sign in at the park rangers' station. We were entering the 'reserved zone' where limited tourism is allowed and hunting banned. The rangers are Machiguengas (a local tribe) and intrinsically understand the needs of the villages and the environment. One of them explained to us in Spanish that we were authorised to go as far as Pakitza at the top end of the zone and reminded us how we should behave in the reserve. Beyond Pakitza, the upper reaches of the Manu River flow through the core zone of the national park. A few miles in, there is a research station and a few indigenous villages where the inhabitants survive from hunting and gathering. Beyond is the wild jungle where no one knows how many un-contacted communities still roam. These people would be susceptible to western diseases, if exposed.
At the rangers' station we put on our wellie boots and walked to a tower with a good view over a wetland. On the way we saw our first monkeys and macaws.
Our first monkeys, a capuchin
Ceiba buttress with Franco for scale
Franco puzzling over what appear
Next we headed to Cocha Brasco, an oxbow lake. These are formed when a wide meander from a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water. In Manu, these lakes are a valuable habitat for the animals, particularly when the river level fluctuates. As we walked the short distance between the river and the lake, we heard (or felt) a deep rhythmic sound, possibly a cough or a grunt. It was hard to say what it was or where it was coming from but the whole jungle seemed to throb in unison. Lucho looked pleased:
"That noise, it's a jaguar!" he told us. The large cat must have been walking parallel to us, but we never saw it.
At Brasco, the park rangers have constructed a raft on two floats (catamaran) which is available for groups to use. Our oarsmen for the day were Climaco and José. As we drifted along, Bob, Franco and I were amazed at how many different species of birds we saw, including the hoatzin, a species left over from prehistoric times, which looks suspiciously like the Phoenix in the Harry Potter film. I was very excited to see my first real caiman, up until then I had been "seeing" crocodiles in every fallen log on the river.
Hoatzin, a prehistoric bird
First caiman - just the eyes
Greater Ani (Crotophaga major)
Muscovy ducks (wild and streamlined)
A tree stump in the water was a bat roost. We couldn't see them for looking they were so well camouflaged until a hundred or so took off as we approached.
Back on the river, we continued our journey upstream. The water level was relatively high so the banks were covered, not good for wildlife spotting. Cesar had woken up and started whistling, he'd noticed a family of capybara on the shore. Slowly Juan Carlos steered the boat towards them. The two adults hid in the bushes but the youngsters were fascinated by the sound, peering in the direction it came from. Lucho explained that the litter would have been of at least 6 but only the two remained. Maybe the well known proverb should be rewritten: "curiosity killed the ... capybara".
Young capybara fascinated by Cesar's whistling
By the end of the day we had spotted nearly a hundred species of birds and animals that we had never seen before in the wild, of which we were able to positively identify fifty-three. In South Georgia we had been amazed by the sheer number of animals, here it was the incredible diversity that impressed.
At dusk we reached Camp Paujil owned by 'Vilca Espediciones'. Juan Carlos, who had piloted the boat all day, is the caretaker and he quickly prepared our huts which involved making the beds, fitting the mosquito nets and checking there were no unwelcome bed companions. Each hut is a timber platform with a palm roof and the walls are half canvas, half insect screen. The kitchen/dining room and toilet block are more substantial buildings.
Lucho's instructions were clear:
"Wear your rubber boots at all times around camp; there are snakes, particularly at night, and don't wander off into the forest alone, we are in jaguar country."
I thought he was being overcautious.
In the jungle camp there is no electricity so Climaco had gone to work immediately preparing dinner. He still finished cooking by candle light and produced a delicious beef stir fry, followed by dessert, a nice change to chicken and rice.
The jungle kitchen by night
As we sat down to dinner, Climaco shouted something from the kitchen, a note of concern in his voice. Lucho heard him and turned to Franco and I.
"By the time we get back to Atalaya on the last day of your tour, it will be very late, so you will be travelling back to Cusco on those terrible and dangerous roads in the middle of the night, arriving in Cusco (if at all) around 3am. It might be better if you just stay for the 8th day and we all travel back together."
Franco thought this sounded like a good idea. At this point he hadn't realised we would be getting back to Cusco the SAME evening as we would be catching the bus to Puerto Maldonado to meet our friends Suzanne and Charles.
"What time would we get back to Cusco?" I asked.
"Five thirty at the latest," replied Lucho confidently.
Lucho told us he would wake us at 4:30 the next morning so it wasn't long before we were all wrapped up in our mosquito nets.
At breakfast Climaco was uneasy, he had dreamt of a mirror. In Quechuan culture, this means that you are cuckold. Many of the jungle guides and staff are away from home for long periods, often for weeks at a time as the companies expect them to do back to back assignments and this puts a lot of strain on relationships. Many breakup, as in Lucho's case, he was teasing the younger men:
"When you get home, your kids will call you 'Uncle'."
None of them thought he was funny, the joke was too close to the bone.
At daybreak we set off in the boat, headed for Cocha Salvador, another oxbow lake. Lucho and Cesar were hopeful that we would see giant otters. These can reach 1.7m and unlike other species of otter, live in social groups and can be very vocal.
The boat suddenly slowed, Cesar had spotted a caiman on a beach.
Cesar at the helm
Caiman on a beach
It was drizzling when we arrived at the landing spot for Cocha Salvador. The lake was a short walk away through the forest and here too, there was a floating platform for public use. Our oarsmen were Cesar and José.
Cesar and José
Kath wandering through the jungle 'á l’Anglaise'
At the far end of the lake we could see splashing: otters or snake bird, we couldn't tell.
Cesar, who is good at imitating animals, was making a high pitched ululating sound. Lucho explained:
"Cesar is imitating a female otter on heat."
Cesar gave him a quizzical glance, as far as he was concerned he was imitating a large macho male otter!
The lads propelled the raft to the far end. No otters but plenty of wildlife, including a magnificent aerial display by a pair of blue and yellow macaws (I thought of them as the 'angels' because of Lucho's pronunciation, it sounded like 'blue angelo macaws') and a pair of scarlet macaws.
The scarlets were nesting in a hole half way up a dead palm tree and were determined to keep the 'angels' away.
Scarlet macaw at its nesting hole
Agami heron (some birders visit Manu specially to see this bird)
On the way back down the lake we swapped our 20HP engine for a 60HP!
60HP engine while the youth rest
Kath and Lucho also took a stint but Lucho quickly found an excuse to hand the paddle back to José.
"Hoy Cesar, the Señora wants to take photos."
He isn't the first South American to lay the blame on me!
Kath paddling as hard as the guys (or harder)
Back at the jetty we thanked Cesar and José for their efforts.
"Not good enough," said Cesar, "we didn't see an otter." He was really disappointed.
As we walked back through the forest listening to the familiar 'Ré - Mi - Fa#' song of a bird we never saw, we came across a trumpeter, or at least its white bottom disappearing into the undergrowth. Lucho walked ahead waving a machete in front of his face to avoid yellow horned spiders. The bite is no worse than a wasp sting but itches for weeks. Above us in the trees saddleback tamarins gazed down at us curiously.
Trumpeter (the name says it all!)
When we got back to the boat we realised a paddle was missing. Cesar went back to look for it, taking the machete with him. The path was clearly marked and not overgrown but all the men held a latent fear of the jaguar.
Yellow horned spider
Caiman on the way back to camp
After our chicken, rice and fried potatoes dinner we walked through the night from the camp towards another oxbow lake called Otorongo. The noise of the frogs and crickets was deafening and the undergrowth alive with creatures.
Type of coral snake
Bob and I found a small beetle which, when touched, turned two lights on, on its back. Fascinated like small children, we couldn't leave the poor thing alone.
The path down to the river was now a leaf cutter ant motorway. Each ant brings back a piece of leaf several times larger than itself. Back at the nest, the ants break down the vegetation into food suitable for a particular type of fungus which they cultivate. The fungus is then used to feed the larvae. (The adults feed on leaf sap.) The fungus and ants rely on each other to thrive.
In the middle of the night I stepped outside our hut for a pee. A bright light was shining from the direction of Lucho's cabin.
"Surely he couldn't still be awake, when did the man ever sleep?" I wondered.
Suddenly a parade of lights came on near the toilet block.
"Oh dear, everybody is up," I thought confusedly. "I must have overslept!"
More lights... this time in the trees, moving towards the forest edge. Fairies leading me astray?
Shaking myself fully awake, I realised they were fireflies but the magic remained.