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Posted at: Mar 11, 2018, 2:16 AM; last updated: Mar 11, 2018, 2:16 AM (IST)

Stumbling through the Amazon

From toads that mimic leaves to deadly snakes and from beautiful macaws to colourfully billed toucans, there’s much to surprise you here

Sudha Mahalingam

It is hush hour in the Amazon jungle, where a tentative twilight before dawn casts ghostly shadows and silhouettes on the vegetation all around. Even the birds have not yet woken up to begin their celebratory cacophony. We are paddling as quietly as possible through a narrow creek enveloped in a dense chlorophyll canopy. Suddenly there is a warning grunt followed by some argumentative squeals and there are ripples on the surface of water.

In a moment, a bobbing head with impressive whiskers and beady eyes emerges only to disappear in a flash. Another ripple some distance away and one more face pops out of the water, takes a quick look at us and dives back. We are privileged to be in the company of a family of river otters on their early morning foray. 

We are deep in the Amazon jungle, in distant Ecuador. Slanting rays of the rising sun send shafts of piercing light through the thick forest canopy only to collapse on the forest floor in spangles. In the dawn blush, we notice that the forest, virgin as she is known to be, is veiled seductively in a glorious mist. Through the mist, we spot giant kapok trees with buttress roots soaring into the stratosphere like pillars in an ancient temple. The trees are slung about with bromeliads and orchids which dangle like lanterns. 

Thick vines, as fat as our forearms, wind around the trunks in a strangling embrace. Some trees sprout hundreds of berries as big as your fist straight out of their trunks. 

The forest floor is teeming with life — insects, amphibians, mammals, and, of course, the cacophonous avians of every hue and cry, literally.

The hoatzin, a native of the Amazon, is as ubiquitous as it is eye-catching. Even today, scientists are unable to decide whether these birds should be categorised as pheasants, which they resemble quite a bit, or as an aberrant bovine since they have stomach chambers that digest their vegetarian diet through fermentation, much like cows. They are also called stink birds, but we are too far away to be affected by their olfactory assault. Then, there are kingfishers, toucans, parrots, parakeets, macaws, herons, snail kites, smooth-billed anis, snake birds, owls, a whole host of oropendolas, harpy eagles, etc. 

We return to the lodge for breakfast and again set out into the jungle, this time on foot. I have liberally sprayed myself with anti-leech liquid and am booted up to my knee after my Borneo experience where leeches had attached themselves to the nether regions of my body. But leeches are only a nuisance, not deadly. Here in the Amazon, even the frogs and toads are highly poisonous. Even accidentally touching them could lead to paralysis of the nervous system. 

There are toads that mimic the leaf they sit on, snakes that watch you with wary eyes wondering whether you’re going to step on them, and millipedes that are not even aware that they are going to be trampled in a moment. Leaf-cutter ants file past carrying their cargo. 

Capuchin monkeys leap from branch to branch, warning their family to keep off, spider monkeys stop in their tracks to help themselves to a juicy berry, colourful tamarins shinny up the trunk so fast that if you’re not alert enough you’d miss them. A lone sloth clings to very top of a tree where it would spend a few days before mustering enough energy to climb down.

For the next three days, we explore the rainforest intimately from a canoe and on foot. We climb up a 50-foot observation tower supported by a gaint kapok tree to get a closer look at toucans, sail to a clay lick to watch hundreds of colourful parrots, including blue-headed birds, eat chunks of clay to cleanse the toxins in their body, pad quietly to another clay lick to see riotously coloured macaws do the same.

The rainforest is not for the fainthearted. As we stumble through the awesome jungle clumsily, we trip over turtles, toads and snakes in our path, get clobbered by falling branches, are perpetually wet from the continuous drizzle, get bitten by an army of angry red ants every time we clutch a vine or tree trunk, get our toes sodding wet while walking on the steamy, squishy forest floor piled high with fallen leaves, and even get rodent visitors outside our meshed windows at night.  Every time we paddle, we run the gauntlet of caiman crocodiles. Above all, a trip to the Amazon has left a gaping hole in my wallet. Yet, I can’t wait to get back there again. 


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