‘Oh wow. Look at this. It’s a Looks-like-prehistoric Turtle.’ Jaime, our guide on the night safari, leans over, dips his hands into the knee high water, ferrets around for a bit, grabs something, drops it, makes a lunge to his side, finally pulls a squirming, writhing mass from the water.
He carries his catch over to the edge of the flooded part of the rainforest, where Ami and I are standing, before lowering the reptile to the ground. The turtle coils up for a moment, its oddly misshapen head and neck drawn in tight to its shell. Its tiny eyes peer at us nervously. Then, spotting safety in the flood waters, it makes a dash for the river. Jaime lets it run a few metres, and reach the shallows, before wading over in his rubber boots and retrieving it, bringing it back for us to examine. It has a thick, knobbly shell; a head that looks like a wad of decaying leaf litter.
Amazon River night safari
‘You call it a Looks-like-prehistoric Turtle?’
‘No other name for it?’
‘No. We call it Looks-like-prehistoric Turtle because of the shape of its head. You see? These turtles get really big. Like this.’ Jaime stretches his hands out as wide as they can go, like a fisherman describing an elusive catch. These turtles catch small fish by hiding amongst the leaves in the water, where they are camouflaged. When a fish swims past they suck them into their mouth, like a vacuum cleaner.’ He picks up the turtle again, brings it closer. It smells like roadkill.
‘You eat these?’ I ask.
‘No. Not when they are this small. This is a baby. When it gets full-size, maybe.’
‘And you’re allowed to eat them?’
‘No. It is forbidden. All these animals are forbidden to eat; the turtles, the caiman (an animal similar to an alligator), the paiche (a type of large freshwater fish); but people eat them anyway. Now though, if a person catches a caiman, or a paiche, they take it to the market and sell it, and bring the money back and share it with their village. Not like before. People used to catch a caiman, and keep all the money for themselves. Now they share it out. It’s better.’
Jaime puts the turtle down. It sprints for the water, covering the metres surprisingly quickly considering its awkward, jolting stride. It disappears beneath the floodwater, merging with the detritus on the forest floor.
‘Okay, let’s go. More night safari. Vamos amigos.’
Jaime yells out to his friends, two young men, who tramped through the rainforest with us at the commencement of our night safari. The men came bearing torches and machetes, the latter used to bash at the surface of the floodwaters, striking at sleeping fish. I haven’t seen them catch anything yet.
We get an answering yell. They’re staying here. We move on.
A tree stump, a hundred metres from the water’s edge, bears a spider the size of child’s hand.
‘This is a Palm Spider. The bite is very painful. Don’t touch it.’
I have no intention of touching the spider.
‘And look here.’ Jaime has moved to a tree five metres away. ‘A Whip Spider.’
This spider, unlike the last, is devoid of menace. Its legs are fine and spindly, like beetle antennae. This spider appears timid, and unlikely to bite or jump. It seems more likely to float away in the breeze. It’s big though; the size of a dinner plate.
‘They walk like this. Sideways. Like a crab.’
I pull out my camera again and prepare to take a snap. A dozen or so mosquitos land on my hands as I do so – a problem of the night safari, and the Amazon rainforest in general. I shake them off, but they immediately resettle on my hands. I leave them there. It’s the only way I’ll get the shot.
The first photo is blurry. I need another. More mosquitos alight upon my skin and clothes. I can feel their needle fine proboscises piercing my shoulder blades – through two layers of clothing – also my ear lobes, my forehead, my cheeks. Each photo I take is costing me at least a dozen mosquito bites.
I get the shot, return the camera to my pocket, slap my hands, my back, my knees, my forehead. I kill a few of the aggressors, the corpses left smeared on my body. I’ll clean them off later.
Jaime sets off again. We squelch through deep mud, step carefully over splayed buttress roots, duck beneath liana vines, flashlights beaming this way and that.
We stop at a meeting of paths. Jaime looks left, he looks right, he deliberates.
I use the time to flash my torch over the vegetation that surrounds me. My headlamp is by far the weakest. It’s about a quarter the strength of Ami’s, and a tenth the power of Jaime’s, so I am not really expecting to find anything.
A branch near my head holds a strange, misshapen lump, akin to an ant’s nest, which I zero in on. Something triggers in my brain. I’ve seen that shape before.
‘Sloth,’ I say, pointing to the dark blob.
Jaime shines his torch at the object; the branch lights up. It’s dead. That’s my first thought. That balled-up creature in the centre of the beam is dead. It isn’t, though. It just looks that way. It’s the hair; it’s unnaturally stiff, unnaturally bristly. And there are all those parasites running wild on its back. It has the appearance of a week-old carcass decomposing on the side of the road.
‘This is the Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth,’ Jaime announces. ‘The sloth, he only come down to ground once a week. The rest of the time he is high up in the branches, in the canopy. He only comes to the ground to defecate. He digs a little hole in the ground, and he defecates there. Then he climbs the tree again.’
A mosquito lands on Jaime’s eyelid as he is talking. Jaime takes a different approach to the mosquito situation. He lets them land on him, bite him, suck his blood, and fly away again. He does not attempt to swat them. It’s the jungle way, I guess. I watch as the mosquito’s abdomen becomes engorged. Jaime’s eyelid is already starting to swell.
Jaime continues talking, unfazed.
‘Most of the time the sloth is in the rainforest canopy because that is where they find the young leaves that makes up the bulk of their diet. So you are lucky to see Mr Sloth so close to the ground.’
‘And you see the sloth moths on his back? They are feeding on the algae that grows on the sloth. The sloth moth and the sloth have a symbiotic relationship.’
‘Hello Mr Sloth. Hello Perezoso.’ Jaime is trying to wake up the sloth. He gives a loud, high-pitched whistle.
‘You want to hold him?’
‘Yeah. You want?’
‘No, thank you.’
‘It’s okay. It’s safe.’
‘I know, but I don’t want to disturb him. Just leave him where he is.’
Jaime whistles again, the same high-pitched tone that descends in pitch towards the end. There is something familiar about that whistle.
‘Wake up Mr Sloth. Wake up.’ The whistle again.
The sloth opens its eyes. Its body remains immobile. It still looks dead, even with its eyes open. Jaime whistles again.
‘Is that a hawk whistle?’
‘Yes. It wakes him up. The hawk is the only predator of the sloth.’ He whistles again. ‘Come on. Wake up. Wake up Mr Sleepy.’
‘It’s okay. You don’t have to wake him up.’
‘No?’ Jaime is surprised.
Jaime wanders off; Ami follows. I remain beside the sloth. Darkness creeps in; wrapping itself around my shoulders, lowering itself over my eyes. My torch gives off just the feeblest purple glow. I am not scared of the dark, I tell myself. I rotate around, examining the darkness. The torch beams of Ami and Jaime have dwindled to distant orbs. I turn my back on them, and peer into… nothingness, a rainforest I cannot see, trees that might as well not exist, animals that might or might not be there. I turn and scurry after the others.
Jaime has stopped beside the twisted, tentacle-wrapped trunk of a strangler fig. His torch beam is focussed between the buttressed roots.
‘Giant Jungle Frog,’ he reports, holding the torch over the enormous amphibian. ‘This is one of the biggest frogs in the world. It grows to twenty centimetres in length.’
The frog is the size of a kitten. It sits between the buttress roots, unmoving, not even blinking. It remains in place as we tramp past.
A few minutes of silence, torches flicking this way and that as we pick our way through the rainforest.
Jaime stops. I can see he is excited again.
‘Shh,’ he hisses. ‘They are very shy.’
In the centre of his torch beam, a metre off the ground, hairy coat glistening, is another huge spider. This is surely a tarantula.
‘It’s a Pinktoe Tarantula,’ Jaime confirms.
It does have pink toes, and very fine hairs that appear to have a pink frosting.
‘Not dangerous,’ Jaime continues, speaking in a whisper, ‘but very shy.’
Voices coming towards us, flashlights in our face, the tarantula bolts up the tree, disappearing behind loose bark. Jaime’s fishwhacking friends have returned.
‘They don’t know the way home,’ Jaime says, shaking his head. ‘Very dark here, very easy to get lost. You don’t want to be lost in the rainforest. Time to finish the night safari, time to head back to camp.’
Tourists wishing to undertake a night safari on the Yanayacu River (an arm of the Amazon) will have to fly to Iquitos, Peru, and board a passenger boat that will transport them 140 km upstream (it takes 3 to 4 hours in a speed boat). There are several eco-lodges operating in the region that provide transport, accommodation and guided activities. More transport info here.
Read more on the Amazon Rainforest in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.