It would take us 2 whole days to get to our final destination in the heart of the Amazon Jungle....
Our fellow travellers were an English husband and wife, an English brother and sister and an Italian Father and Daughter, and of course our guide Nicholas who had a PHD in Dung Beetles. It was together that we would fight off wild beasts, escape from a grounded boat, survive a torrential tropical storm and of course become familiar with one anothers bathroom habits as we shared jungle style conveniences.
One hour after leaving Cusco we knew we were in for a bumpy ride. The mini bus we were travelling in had minimal suspension, lots of heavy gringos with their even heavier luggage, and Tim and I were sitting over the wheel. The bumpy road we had left Cusco on suddenly became even bumpier as it changed in to a very rough single dirt track. One hour down, only 7 to go until we reached the Cloud Forest where we would be spending our first night.
We had soon left civilisation as we know it. Thats the thing with Peru, it is such a darned big country with so few people in it that you don't have to travel any distance at all to feel like you and just a few sheep or llamas are the only inhabitants.
We jouneyed high into the Andes, eventually going up and over them, the higher we got the dustier and drier the landscape became, and although spectacular in its size and sheer vastness, the lack of any colour but brown also gave it a certain ugliness. The few houses and farms that we did see were simple windowless boxes made from mud and straw adobe bricks, all the trees and vegetation was stained a sandy brown colour from the volume of dust that was blown around or kicked up by passing traffic. The roads were incredibly steep and very narrrow and we were glad to find that the most traffic we met were farmers herding sheep or cows, or often a combination of both. We looked on as people worked on the land bare foot, ploughing, digging, and tending to crops by hand. Despite the fact that farm machinery rarely seems to exist here the fields of crops are beautifully tended and well cared for, and the fields are some of the neatest and most orderly we have ever seen.
Our first stop was at a pretty small town where we watched lots of school children parade around the square, holidng hands and singing. We had our last chance to use a real loo before we would reach our lodge for the night. We all soon became very adept at hiding in the bushes at the necessary comfort stops that followed.
Unfortuantly soon after our lunch stop it began to rain quite hard so that we were unable to do the planned hikes that we had hoped to do. Consequently we carried on driving and eventually after leaving Cusco at 6am, we arrived at Manu Cloud Forest Lodge at 3pm. A bit shookup and sore.
The lodge is set in the middle of cloud forest on the side of a noisy stream, which all our rooms looked out onto. We were the only guests at the lodge and we were welcomed with a warm log fire and tea and coffee. We gathered by the fire until the rain stopped and we were able to make our first foray for wild things.
We were on the look out for Perus National Bird 'Cock of the Rock', a bright red creature with a quiff spectacular enough to rival Elvis Presley. We were in luck, 5 of the showy birds had turned out for us. Neither of us are exactly avid bird watchers, but we were pretty impressed by these striking fellows as they preened themselves and flew around the hide we were in, exhibiting their glorious red bodies. From here we went on a gentle stroll in search of Woolly Monkeys. Again we were in luck, and although they were a long way from where we were, with binoculars we had a great view of them swinging through the tops of the trees as if they were trapeze artists. All in all a good first day, and good first introduction to the jungle.
Due to the extremely remote location of the lodge we only had electricity from 6pm to 9pm, so we had no choice but to be in bed early, although following such a long day and the promise of a 4am start tomorrow we were only to happy go to our rooms and go to sleep with the wonderful sound of rushing white water outside our room.
After a huge 4.30am breakfast of pancakes and eggs and bacon, we were on our way to the Jungle. 2 hours in the mini bus along yet more very bumpy roads and then a further 9 or 10 by boat and we would be in the Jungle!
We picked up our boat, a farily long, spruced up dug out canoe with 2 rows of fairly padded seats and a large space at the back for all our luggage and the food we would need for the next 5 days. The crew were 2 native guys who we were told were half fish and half man and that we would be very safe in their hands. They looked capable enough and we had no reason to question their skills until about 1 hour into the trip when the guy at the front fell over board as he was trying to manouvre us out of a sticky spot, still he came up smiling and we continued merrily on our way.
We had been warned that during the dry season the river gets very low and we would quite likely often scrape the bottom of the river bed, however we had nothing to worry about, this was very common. We weren't at all worried. However, after another hour when we had become well and truly grounded, so that the crew and our guide had to jump in and were unsuccesfully trying to move us we started to feel slightly apprehensive. After much huffing and puffing and pushing and shoving by the very good natured crew it was very obvious we were going nowhere. Our guide asked for volunteers to jump in and try and dislodge the grounded boat. Fearless chap that Tim is he didn't need asking twice and before I could say Crocodile he had whipped off his shoes and socks and was manfully helping to save the day. With the help of him and one or two other passengers, the boat did eventually move and after a loud round of applause we were once again on our way. Not very much later we were happily cruising along enjoying the beautiful jungle scenery and the many tropical birds, when there was a shout of 'Caimen', we all looked to the sand bank ahead of us and there sat a very large black and hungry looking Croc. Just as well we hadn't seen him before the grounded boat incident.
Fortunatley other than the odd stop to respond the call of nature the rest of the journey was fairly uneventful. The further we journied into the jungle the hotter and more humid it became, and we were all glad for a brief stop at the rangers station mid afternoon. Here we had to be signed in. Manu Biosphere Reserve has a very strict policy on the number of visitors allowed per year (only 3000) so in-comings and out-goings are monitored very carefully. Manu is a National Park the size of Switzerland with very restricted access. We were told about 2 uncontactable nomadic tribes that live very deep in the Jungle. Our guide said he had a sighting once on the river bank from a boat of a group of native men wearing nothing but feathers, carrying spears and hunting turtle eggs. When the men saw the tourists they began throwing their spears at the passing boat. No research has been done into the way these 2 tribes live, so very little is known about them other than they eat tourists.
Eventually at 5pm, feeling very hot, tired and thirsty we arrived at our final destination, only to be told we had to walk the rest of the way, only a 20 minute walk but as we navigated unfamiliar terrain at the end of a very long day it felt much longer.
Manu Jungle Lodge was a little Oasis waiting for us with cold drinks. We all collapsed and sat in the dusk as we waited for the lights to come on at 6pm so that we could go and shower. During this time Nicholas thoughtfuly relayed us with stories of snakes being found in peoples beds and the one about the guide that had been eaten by a Jaguar just a couple of months ago. Just as he was warming to his theme the lights came on and we were thankfully able to go off for showers. There were only 3 showers and 3 loos, and they were a good walk away from the building in which we would be sleeping. Tim and I very early on made a pact that if one of us needed the loo in the night the other one had to go too! Who knows what might be lurking out there in the darkness.
After a very good supper and a briefing on the next days planned events we all retired to our beds which were heavily screened by very thick mosquito nets. The end of our first day in the jungle.