“It’s just up here” called out Gemma our guide, pointing to a small opening in the side of the riverbed. We slowed the pace of the canoe down to navigate some overgrown flora as a small family of Capybaras kept their eyes nervously glued to our progress along the river from the safety of the banks.
We were heading up the iconic Amazon basin into the heart of Peru’s largest rainforest reserve the Manu national park – one of the most eco-diverse, populated and threatened areas of the Amazon rainforest.
As we slipped our way between two outstretched vines we allowed the canoe to silently drift into the opening and make its own way along a narrow corridor as the high-pitched call of a flock of nearby birds began to pierce the rainforest’s looming ceiling.
“Toucans” whispered Gemma grabbing a spare paddle from the back of the canoe. “Here”and with one push of the paddle he’d forced the canoe out of the corridor and into the entrance of Manu’s famous Cocha lake.
“Just there” he murmured pointing to a small gap in the lakes surrounding woodland where a number of Toucans had gathered. Unfazed by our presence they remained delicately perched upon their branches as we manoeuvred the canoe closer towards them. As we reached for our cameras their high-pitched call once again began to echo around the neighbouring jungle this time answered by a lone bird with a distinctive extended beak.
“Ah an Aracari” grinned Gemma, he’d warned us before we set off to expect birds, with Manu being believed to have the highest concentration of bird species in the world – one out of every nine is found here. As we moved along the edges of the lake it wasn’t long before he was ticking off a hit-list of various species that were lurking in the trees; gold macaws, harpy eagles, fronted jacamaws and even a rare collared trogon.
We took the Canoe across the lake approaching a patch of shore on its far side, passing numerous turtles, frogs and even a statue like stork that had taken up residence on some of the many floating branches . Just as it began to touch the surface of the forest a titanic splash rung out from behind the back of the canoe, we spun round to see an extended group of giant otters making their way towards us.
Their initial warning snorts turned into whistles as they determined we were no threat and despite the destruction of their habitat and an excessive amount of over-hunting making them one of the rarest animals on earth, they were eager to demonstrate their playful nature to their indulgent audience. We watched as the group made up of some 14 Otters up to 6ft in length basked in the lakes reflective sunlight taking it in turns to dunk each other under the water or engage in their own game of tag.
“Come on let’s leave them be, we have places to be” uttered Gemma. Reluctantly we moored the canoe and after grabbing our supplies waded further into the jungle.
Following one of the overgrown inland trails that not only help to make the park inaccessible by road but also assist in providing a sheltered sanctuary for some of the endangered 15,000 species of flowering plants and trees that thrive in the jungle’s humid natural greenhouse, we trekked past glistening moist ferns and tumbling vines pausing occasionally at the glimpse of a howler monkey, collard peccary or giant anteater.
Suddenly Gemma stopped in his tracks, he grabbed a broken branch and hurled it violently into the forest floor.
“Ah nothing to worry about” he called back, and with one fell swoop he’d scooped up an object from the Jungle floor and hurled it straight into the middle of the stationery group behind him. A collective shriek seemed to ring out as together we stared down to see the distinct outline of a venomous Tarantula lying just inches from our feet.
“It’s dead, it’s dead” chuckled Gemma who’d got a thrill out of watching the reaction of the group and would now have to contend with being cursed over the next few miles of the trek.
Two hours later our path led us over a ridge and into a desolate clearing where the remains of broken tree stumps and decaying flora began to reveal the ugly truth behind deforestation. As we paused for a moment to fully comprehend what we were witnessing Gemma strode into the middle of the empty forest and addressed us in a sombre tone:
“This area used to house a Quecha community, – before then it was home to some of the forest’s biggest and proudest Rosewood and Kapok trees who supported thousands of the Jungles native animals.” He turned his back on the group and looked across the clearing to where the Forest began again, “Let’s get out of here” and with his head down he marched across the empty land and back into the remaining forest.
Silently we followed, continuing back onto the trail and away from the debris left behind by the deforestation.
It wasn’t until an hour later that we began to chat again, spurred on by sightings of various spider monkeys, Tapir’s and a solitary bright red cock-of-the-Rock that was singing and dancing in a desperate attempt to attract the favour of some nearby females.
When twilight approached we found ourselves back alongside the riverbank and heading towards a camping spot directly facing a giant claylick, where a flock of macaws would gather at dawn for an early breakfast. As we began to ready dinner and the blackwater river began to merge with the darkening sky above, Gemma slowly rose to his feet.
“There” he said, the excitement evident in his tone as he directed our attention to the opposite riverbank. Amongst the reflective eyes of the rivers leathery black caiman’s there stood an infant jaguar curiously watching us.
There were gasps of admiration as we watched its parents stride up to it and usher it back it into the sanctuary of the forest.
With the jungle’s many inhabitants beginning to add to the level of nocturnal noise we sat back with exhausted grins etched across our faces, none more so than Gemma who, with the memories of deforestation forgotten, spoke once again to the group;
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a young jaguar in this forest” he beamed “Today, was a good day.”