When I took this photo I remember thinking that it was like we were gazing out of a window, from one powerful life source onto another. We were in remote Yasuní National Park, a protected corner of Amazonian Ecuador and we were looking out onto one of the mighty Amazon River’s tributaries, the Río Napo.
It was 9.17 in the morning and we’d soon be lost in the Amazon Rainforest.
But before I get onto that…
The most adventurous day of our Amazon Rainforest trip began at 5am, stirred awake in our cabins by a marching band of howler monkeys. Their sound is often likened to the roar of an oncoming train. I would go further and say they sound like an entire Clapham Junction station of oncoming trains.
We had arrived less than 24 hours before at our temporary home of Sacha Lodge, one of a number of smart rainforest lodges that are popular with those who can properly afford them (i.e. retired groups) and a few youthful chancers, like us. ‘Sacha’ in the Quecha Indian language means ‘forest’ and this ‘Forest Lodge’ was launched in 1992 by a Swiss man named Benny, who had visited Amazonian Ecuador in the 1970s.
In its launch year, Sacha Lodge comprised 1,200 acres of land and six guest rooms. Benny kept the land purchases going, and today the lodge sits within 5,000 acres of land. Nearby Napo River runs at over 1,000km in length, crossing the entire length of Amazonian Ecuador and beyond, finally feeding in to the Amazon River in neighbouring Peru.
Travel between Sacha Lodge and the Napo River is by traditional dugout canoe, carved from tree trunks in the traditional way. Still very early, we crossed inky Pilchicocha Lake – mosquito free because of the tannins in the water – with our keen naturalist guide and Quito native, Gus.
Retracing our steps along the forest-edge boardwalk, we encountered more red howler monkeys (this time launching between trees above our heads) and some almond-scented armoured millipedes. A beautiful arthropod, just going about its day.
Transferred now into an electric canoe, we coasted down the vastness of the Napo, stopping on the Yasuní boundary at a riverbank ‘clay lick’. Many birds, as well as mammals, rely so much on the abundance of nutrients and minerals in cliffs of clay like this. We saw Mealy Amazon and Blue-headed parrots, Dusky-headed parakeet and Chestnut-fronted macaws. A skittish sea of green above a silty ribbon of river.
We had made it as far along the Napo as we would be going, now within the protection of Yasuní National Park. The park became a biosphere in 1979 and later a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Pristine, in part, but also staring into a dangerous future.
Traces of the oil industry and illegal logging weren’t too hard to spot on our travels. The gateway city of Coca along the Napo River grew out of the oil business, and we saw shady signs of industry dotted about on the riverbanks on our way to Sacha Lodge.
Fast forwarding to spring 2020, huge levels of erosion and oil spills have been reported along the Napo and Coca rivers. Bound to this sad story of erosion, Ecuador’s largest waterfall, San Rafael, disappeared in February.
Among the people most affected by a trio of threats – climate change, oil and illegal logging – are Amazonian tribes, including the Waorani. In 1990 they won the right to a reserve of land that overlaps with Yasuní, but have had to fight hard in recent years in particular to halt the government’s oil drilling agenda.
There is hope though.
Last year Waorani from Pastaza, south of Yasuní, won a landmark legal victory which means that half a million acres of land are protected from oil exploitation.
Around the same time we visited, cameraman and naturalist Gordon Buchanan lived with a group of Yasuní Waorani who venerate anaconda snakes. Despite the dangers, they search for green (aka common) anacondas, catching and releasing them (humanely) in a show of strength but also affection. With them, Buchanan uncovered one of the biggest anacondas on record, a whopping 5.3m long!
A silent race
What struck me most as we left our boat and set off walking was how varied all the plants and trees were. Sounds obvious but it immediately felt different to the ground-eye view at the more accessible Sacha Lodge. You could feel a remoteness attached to every step.
Pointy fronds, pencil thin many-trunked trees and spotty leaves, stencilled by leaf cutter ants. Trees with spindly, twisty vine-like branches or giant jagged leaves. The occasional fiery stem of a bromeliad flower, poking out among 1,000 shades of green. Casual flypasts of large butterflies like the lustrous Menalaus blue morpho butterfly, impressive and bird-like in size. Or the Brown owl moth, so called for the huge eyespots on their wings.
The further we walked, the closer together and taller everything got, embraced in a silent race to reach the canopy first. Some of the loftiest were the gigantic Kapok, or Ceiba, trees. Even the younger ones had roots the size of marquees. Immense and Jurassic, their bases looked to me like a series of dinosaur claws.
And always the hum of insects.
Creatures small and great
All four of us were covered in all manner of insect repellent, almost as if taking part in a laboratory trial. I wore Avon’s Skin So Soft spray, which features natural repellent citronello, completely coincidentally. The Royal Marines are rumoured to use it.
Mosquitoes can seem to either like or dislike your natural scent – even your blood type. I don’t think they liked either of mine much, I was barely bitten. Two of my friends, however, seemed to be top prize. Manu in particular was under constant attack from dive-bombing females (the ones who actually bite), his bloodied and ripped shirt a testament to their tenacity. Not all the wildlife was trying to eat us though.
We saw and heard four species of monkey – Poepigg’s woolly, Red howler, Golden and Black-mantled tamarin – and we caught the whisper of a highly venomous Fer-de-lance pit snake as it slinked off to even quieter depths. Spiders sometimes spotted clambering over leaves.
We crossed ways with a Yellow-spotted river turtle and False coral snake, non-venomous despite their alarming, neony colours. Meanwhile, we learned a big story about tiny ‘Lemon’ ants.
An hour into our walk we came upon a strange clearing known as a Devil’s Garden, so-called because in the mythology of the Amazon Rainforest it’s thought that evil forest spirits called Chullachaki or Chuyathaqi inhabit them, killing the plant life around them.
A clearing without trees might not seem odd, but in such dense rainforest, it is. The scientific answer? Those Lemon ants. They use their own herbicidal poison on plants and trees they don’t eat, only leaving the species they savour. Some Devils’ Gardens have been known to grow to the size of hundreds of trees with millions of ants and thousands of queens.
Although these local superstitions mean that tribes would be wary of coming into such clearings, we huddled round a colony and took turns to try a couple of the ants. Mine tasted just like sherbet.
There and back again
Enjoying such awesome encounters with wildlife, and happily ambling along as we had been for hours, we jumped down onto a shallow, rocky riverbed. One that looked a bit familiar.
With a dread realisation that trickled over us in turn, we knew we had crossed this river already, I’d even taken a group photo hours before. A hut along the trail was meant to mark a turning point but we’d missed it somehow. Our guides had suspected as much before the river, they just hadn’t let on. The four of us assumed we’d been advancing in the right direction, but here we were off-trail, having gone in the wrong kind of circle for who knew how long.
I wasn’t too worried at first. We were with experienced guides, one of whom lived in the rainforest. They had marked our route using their machetes, and we could surely retrace our steps and look again for the turning. It wasn’t too late in the afternoon.
But rainforests are fickle friends, unwilling to let you go in a hurry. And as the name suggests, they don’t really stay dry for long.
The weather was changing and sounds of thunder in the distance poked at our ears – a very unwelcome storm was approaching. We couldn’t tell how big, but we knew enough about the risk to visualise our tracks washing away in heavy rain, perhaps a night spent sheltering beside a giant tree.
When you realise you’ve ‘gone wrong’ somewhere remote, certain thoughts can seem to run around your mind carousel-like, over and over. Our water bottles no longer looked sufficient. Our last meal had been a few lemon ants. No-one outside of our group knew our exact location. Our guides weren’t smiling any more.
And rain, heavy and warm, had arrived.
But it sprang our tired limbs into action. No, it was too risky to aim to find the missed turning. Yes, it was much safer to follow our steps back and hope the storm was brief. We forgot our hunger and our encroaching thirst. We hastened to follow our guides, feeling apprehensive and increasingly soggy, but determined to walk fast and find our way back.
The next few hours were a bit of a blur, as return journeys sometimes are. Nerves were jangling, hoping the weather would clear, looking for signs we had rejoined the trail, wondering if we’d retraced earlier movements yet.
Looking at all my photos from the day, there is a gap of over two hours where I took nothing, camera stowed away from the rain. It rained on us for a while, we heard thunder, perhaps even saw some lightening, but the storm worked out to be the kind that passes over quite swiftly, leaving you clothed in mist and humidity. Praise be.
By a certain point I was quite sure we’d landed back on the trail. Spotting the eerie ’Devil’s Garden’ clearing gave me a kick of adrenaline. My friend Preeti took some convincing, but, finally, at 2pm, after 5.5 hours exploring and getting lost in Yasuní National Park, we came upon a view that everyone could agree on.
We were back at the rainforest window among the trees.
Which meant we were 45 minutes from our canoe. Looking out from that window a little more wisely, and a little more thankful.