South American Chronicles: Rubber Boots and Blunt Machetes

Amaru Mayu lodge

(If you haven't already, click here to read the previous chapter)

As we set foot on the shore, I found myself smiling like a 15th century explorer on his first arrival to a newly discovered land. The sun rays, shining through the thick vegetation, fragmented into tiny drops of light, were rolling on the ground and dancing around our feet. With little hesitation, we walked over what vaguely resembled a man-made staircase, made up of a few rocks and stones pressed against the slippery and muddy ground. A hundred meters in front of us was our cabin, a very simple building clinging to the rocks, overlooking the river, almost engulfed by the surrounding vegetation. Metal poles made its backbone and thin sheets of fibreboard acted as walls. Laid on top, looking old and slightly out of place, was a patch-work of corrugated and partially rusted metal sheets. They didn't look pretty, I'll have to admit, but their did serve their vital purpose as a roof, and protected us from the many torrential downpours in the month to come.

As soon as we approached the cabin, the three other volunteers staying at the camp came to meet us. These were Juan and Marta, a young Spanish couple from Madrid, and Ruben, a veterinarian gone photographer, who was also from Madrid.

It didn't take us long to explore the rest of the camp. Next to the cabin was a cooking area that looked like the entrance to a cave, carved into the rocky mountainside. The facilities, if you can call them so, were limited to a couple of large gas canisters connected to camping stoves, an old wooden table and some large plastic containers to store the food away from ants, wasps, bats and pretty much all other living things that were after it. Even though the place was quite simple and the most delicious food you could hope to eat was a fried egg, I have very fond memories of it. I grew to love cooking salted rice in the darkness, with the occasional water drop falling from the rocky ceiling onto my forehead, lit exclusively by the candles stuck into the rocks, surrounded by dancing moths and other night creatures.

The kitchen, with Juan, Marta and Ruben

Fifty meters downhill from where the kitchen and the cabin were, right next to the river, was the toilet, with only three walls and a breathtaking view over the water and forest beyond. If it wasn't for the occasional tailless whip scorpion crawling between your feet and the armies of fire ants quite literally chasing you away with their sharp pincers, they'd be with no doubt the best toilets in the world.

No one else was present at the camp. Dante, the manager of the reserve, was meant to arrive in a couple of days with Karina, and in the meanwhile we got given a half dozen eggs and two large breads to feed us as we waited for their arrival. We thought this was a good thing, as it would give us a couple of days to settle down and explore the area, before getting started with the real work, the filming and the sound recording.

On our first day, we went for a walk with Ruben, Juan and Marta, who had already been there for a few weeks and could show us the path. Rubber boots at our feet and blunt machetes in our hands, we begun the long and quite strenuous hike to the top of the mountain. The path was very poorly maintained and in parts it involved climbing over rocks, grabbing ferns not to slip in the mud and holding onto tree branches to lift your body over obstacles, praying you wouldn't accidentally disturb a bullet ant in the process. After a long hour climbing and stumbling, with barely any stops and in complete silence, we got to the top, drenched in sweat in ways I didn't know were even possible. The other three, quite clearly more adjusted to the hot and humid climate, looked vaguely more fresh than we did, but I can assure you there was none of the white linen suited British explorers you might have in mind from looking at pictures of young Attenborough in Madagascar.

Thick jungle, at the top of the mountain

The mountain top was a fairly large and flat area, the perimeter of which took more or less a couple of hours to navigate your way through. This interesting place, now covered in thick jungle, used to be a natural lagoon once. The lagoon filled itself with water during the rainy season and dried up slightly during the dry season, but a still fresh water mirror would always be there all year round, attracting huge numbers of animals and creating a naturally rich ecosystem. Fish would swim in its waters, attracting birds and caimans, as well as an incredible variety of insects, small mammals and large predators. What a wonderful hotspot of biodiversity it must have once been! Unfortunately a few years ago, when a particularly torrential rain fell over Amaru Mayu, the water levels raised too high and one of the natural dams surrounding the lagoon collapsed. Water started flowing down towards the river at the feet of the mountain and a natural waterfall was formed, almost completely draining the lagoon and reducing it to nothing more than a small swamp.

The area where the lagoon once was is today a beautiful patch of uncontaminated forest, still inhabited by monkeys, jaguars, more ant species than you could ever know or count and swarms of butterflies of obscure patterns and unthinkable colours. Still, every time I walked and explored that section of forest in the weeks to come, I couldn't help but think how much more beautiful and attractive that place must have once been and how simple it would be to block the water flow once again and allow the lagoon to slowly come back to life, again.

Maybe a project for my next visit...


Rhetus Periander and its staggering colours

Greta, Oropendola Productions