A surprise of Amazon proportions
Two weeks before their trip, Jason McLaughlin and his wife Charlotte knew they were going away, they just didn’t know where.
You see, the couple were the winners of an Intrepid mystery trip competition, so imagine their delight when Jason and Charlotte turned up at the airport and discovered they were going to explore Peru and its astounding Amazon Jungle…
“The driver kills the engine and for several moments the boat sits in darkness in what equates to silence in the jungle – the polyphonic hum of the cicadas, the occasional whoop of a nighttime bird and the excited wails of unseen monkeys, somewhere, maybe far away, maybe watching us from the shadowy trees which overhang the river banks. We gaze at stars I can’t remember seeing before. The constellations I recognise, The Plough, Orion, Pegasus are there of course, but between them are sparkling clusters of light which, I swear, just don’t exist in the city.
We watch the fireflies dip and skim across the surface of the water, alight for moments before vanishing, and then, amazingly, one errant insect deviates from its course and flits through the boat’s canopy, lighting the faces of our group, caught for a freeze frame moment of natural awe. You don’t get this on the telly.
At the bend in the river, on the horizon, the night sky pulses intermittently with the silent lightning of a distant storm. I half wish it would head our way. It’s very, very, very (I could keep adding very’s until the piranhas come home) warm here. Following the damp, slightly salty mistiness of Lima and after acclimatising to the dry, warm days and cool evenings of the highlands, the 30 degree plus temperatures and near 90% humidity are, maybe not unexpected, but being from the UK it’s always hard to imagine in advance what such a climate actually feels like. Until you’re standing in it. Or sitting in a boat, even at night, in silence and darkness. But that’s enough of my thoroughly British preoccupation with the weather; the driver starts the engine once again and the guide standing at the prow switches on his spotlight. We’re off to spot caimans, those shy river crocodilians, in the Amazon once more.
Later, as the boat pulls up to the eco lodge’s landing spot (rather optimistically called ‘the puerto’ by our guide – it’s really just a muddy sand beach with some wooden steps leading up into jungle), we’re all a little deflated. We’d spotted a couple of small caiman, quickly waddling their way back into the inky safety of the river after being caught for too long in our spotlight. And maybe one in the water. Possibly. If it wasn’t a fallen branch. I’m sure they were eyes. But too late – if it was, it was now gone, vanishing beneath the surface, perhaps to have a toothy giggle at the foolish European types trying to get one up on the jungle.
We trudge, still sticky in the nightime heat, through the jungle for the ten minute walk back to our lodge. I furtively cast the beam of my torch to the sides of the path, hoping maybe to catch some new wonder, but no, there are plenty of trees, vines, leaves and probably a hundred different wonderfully camouflaged bugs unseen in the gloomy torchlight. Then the group ahead of me stops. There’s excitement suddenly, the hubbub of my companions intensifies and the guides hush us urgently. Then the word drifts back, quietly but expectantly.
This is something new. Something entirely unexpected. Even the guides are finding it hard to mask their excitement. You just don’t see sloths on the ground. They come out of the trees maybe once a week at most and the chances that one should choose to do so on such a well trodden trail are miniscule. But here it is. The sloth.
I move forward to where the group has crowded round at a respectful distance and glance at him between legs and over shoulders. He doesn’t seem to mind our presence for the moment. He nuzzles the path.
Not really made for this ground walking, the sloth, his unwieldy limbs have evolved for long lazy days in the branches, not for scrabbling over the compacted red clay of a man made trail. He seems happy to sit there, shyly faced away from us, showing us nothing but the shaggy blond hair of his back as we take excited turns to photograph the unlikely encounter.
Then he begins to move, slowly (he is a sloth afterall), extending his arms in measured reaches to pull himself across the clay and gradually finds purchase on the bark of a nearby tree. He hugs the trunk in his wide embrace and begins to climb with more practiced speed.
Our guides hush us once more and signal us to move on. They don’t want to stress the sloth.
We file quietly past the climbing creature, much more agile now attached to the tree, sharp, wide eyed face pointed upwards, focussed on his goal, returning to a world where those strange creatures, those rather oversized, sweaty monkeys, with faces grinning like caimans, are nowhere to be found. I hope he got his business done while on the ground. A week’s a long time to be stuck up a tree. Adios, mate.
Peru is such a wonderful destination, a country full of contrasts, and gosh did we see them.
Let me list the feelings I was going through in the build-up to the big reveal: excitement, fear, curiosity, fear again (with added trepidation), anticipation, some more excitement, a little bit of nervousness, a kind of tingly indefinable feeling not entirely unpleasurable, and ,oh, did I mention the excitement? And the fear. Basically, I hadn’t felt this way since the morning of my wedding day!
Definitely no fear now. But the excitement’s still there. I don’t think it will wear off until Christmas. Actually, I don’t think it’s going to wear off until our next Intrepid trip!
So, Gracias Intrepid. And hasta la vista. We’ll be back.”
Photo of sloth © Shane Partridge.