After meeting our guides, Yuber and Albere, along with the rest of the tour group the night before we left Cusco at 7:30am on a truck which had been converted into a bus (see photo no. 2). The ride was comfortable enough and we made quite regular stops along the way to cater for bathroom stops and points of interest.
We were both immediately impressed with our lead guide Yuber who spoke excellent english and was absolutely full of really interesting information. Stops along the way included an Andean village to visit a traditional Sunday market, another town where we had lunch overlooking the river and some pre-inca burial tombs that also just happened to be at the highest point of the drive - 3,900m. At all of these places we were mobbed by kids and locals who were intrigued by us.
We managed to communicate through a willingness of both parties to gain from the exchange and we got the very clear feeling that these people were incredibly friendly and welcoming.
As we drove along the dusty and bumping mountain tracks Suzie and I developed a serious respect for these people who mostly make their living as farmers, but not farmers as we understand in the Australian sense.
These people are farming on mountainsides no lower than 2,500m with no modern technology and soil that could not be described as fertile. They walk everywhere, or if they are lucky they have a donkey or bicycle. They are indeed a tough people, but for all this hardship they constantly smile and always waved happily as we bumped past leaving them in a cloud of dust.
The first day was indeed a day of long driving, but the contrasts from city to arid mountains to cloud forest keep us all interested. No doubt the expectation of what was to come also made the bus ride more bearable.
We arrived at our first lodge in the dark but were all immediately impressed (see photo 2) and had no trouble dropping into bed and off to sleep.
Our first real day in the jungle started early, nothing unusual as we were to learn, with a pre-dawn pre-breakfast walk to a nearby bird hide. This bird hide was set up to view the Peruvian national bird - the cock of the rock - perform its morning mating dance. As we all sat in silence the light gradually grew more bright and the calls from the trees more loud. We didn't have to wait long before could see the brillantly coloured male birds flying around each other flapping wings, bobbing crimson heads and squarking to attract the favour of the comparably dull coloured females. We were treated to quite a show and as we wondered back to camp hungry for breakfast contemplated why they perform this dance every day when recent studies have confirmed that the females choose the same male every day.....
If the first day was a day of sitting on our bumbs covering distance then day 2 was going to be a day of action. No sooner had we managed to demolish breakfast then were we equipped with bikes, and helmets and set off down the trail to an unknown destination apparently 4 hours away. The track was bumpy but not too challenging and mostly downhill. So everyone managed to coast at a speed comfortable to them while also taking in the beauty of the cloud forest and its wildlife.
After 4 hours we found ourself on the flat and in a much more humid environment that confirmed we had moved from the cloud forest to the rain forest. We had time for a quick bite of lunch and then it was into bathers and boardies and aboard white water rafts for the next part of the journey. We travelled down the Madre de Rios for around 2 hours encountering small rapids along the way and basically having a really good time -even stopping at a jumpoff rock known by the river guides.
This mode of transport took us to a small town on the edge of the rain forest that marked the point where you could travel no further by road. As soon as we got the raft off the river we grabbed our bags and all piled into motorised canoes for the next leg of our journey. These canoes are the main method of transport in this region of the forest where the only roads are the fast moving water ways.
A short journey took us to Erica Lodge, a beautiful camp on the river where we would spend the night. Upon arrival we were are quickly greated by the locals - a macaw and juvenile native pig. After dinner and few warm beers everyone was ready to crash, all wondering "are we going to keep this pace up for the next 6 days?".
Day 3 saw the contiuation of heavy rain that had begun the night before and this meant our plans to travel to a nearby macaw lek were dashed. So instead we all boarded the canoes for what would be a long ride down the river to a campsite just outside the reserve zone of the Manu National Park.
The Park is the largest in the Amazon and has three broad zones: the exclusive zone within the very centre of the park where only authorised scientists can visit; the reserve zone which surrounds the exclusive zone where access is limited to endorsed tour operators; and a more general use zone on the extremities of the park where more activities and more general access is permitted.
We were on our way to the reserve zone, where we would spend the majority of our time with the greatest chance of spotting rare and beautiful animals in their natural habitats.
The canoe ride to our ultimate destination was long and surprisingly quite cold, but we didn't mind as we relaxed watching and marvelling at our driver who manouvered the canoe over shallow rapids with ease.
Into the reserve zone we noticed immediately the difference as the siting of animals increased both in terms of frequency and number of species seen. Macaws, hawks, parrots, herons, caimen (alligators) and even the shy capyvarra became common place. The canoe was truly a perfect wildlife spotting vehicle and all inhabitants constantly combed the trees with binoculars looking for anything that might be there.
We saw many many critters before landing at our campsite within the reserve zone where we had time just to down bags, scoff some dinner and pull on some "wellies" before following Yuber into the jungle to search for creatures that like the cover of darkness.
Yuber was an amazing guy, it was very obvious that this was far more then just a job to him - it was his passion. This was great for us because we got the most out of every expedition be it a day or night jungle walk or a cruise on the river. You got the sense that he wanted our little expeditions to go all day so he could keep exploring in and out of every crack and crevice.
Another early morning start so that we could walk in the jungle at dawn and by doing so give ourselves the best chance of spotting animals. After walking as silently as possible for around 45 minutes and siting a few birds we were taken by surprise when there was a massive CRASH in the trees just in front of us - spider monkeys. some of the largest monkeys in the Amazon spider monkeys are all black with very long limbs and tail. This small troup stayed quite high in the trees and moved far faster then we could hope to keep up with.
After another 15 minutes CRASH, this time we knew what it meant, but not spider monkeys rather a joint troup of cappachino and squirrel monkeys. These were quite a bit smaller but luckily for us far more curious. The monkeys leapt through the trees all around us for around an hour - happy to put on an acrobatic display and every now and then gaze down at us to study us just as we were studying them.
We marvelled at their agillity and could have spent the whole day there, the simple fact that we were not watching them behind bars made a huge difference because if they didn't like us they could have easily disappeared in a moment.
That afternoon we visited a village of some amazonian indians who lived very much in isolation from the modern world - apart from the occasional visit from westerners like us. Although the indiginous had agreed for us to visit we couldn't help but feel that there was some uncomfortableness and I was certainly happy to leave them be.
From there we hiked to an oxebow lake where we were hoping to spot giant otters. An oxebow is formed when the flow of the river changes and cuts off a body of water forming a lake. It was truly a beautiful spot and the bird life was spectacular, along with more monkeys and the ever present caimen. To maximise the chance of spotting the otter we travelled not on motorised canoes but rather a large timber catameran that we paddled. But as if to remind us that the animals could not be scripted there was no otter sitings - never mind we had another chance tomorrow morning....
On the oxebow again at first light and after around 20 minutes of silently paddling the catameran the guides razor sharp eyes spotted a disturbence in the water about 250m away and soon confirmed that it was indeed a group of otter. The rest of us could hear them before we could really see them. These otter are the top of the food chain in these water - even despite the presence of caimen. Their size (around 1.5m for mature males) and their ability to work as a team means that they have no trouble ganging up on caimen and driving them out of good fishing grounds.
We caught up and observered them for around 45 minutes for a distance of 10-100m. We saw them fish with a lot of success for a variety of species including piranah, chase caimen and all the time they were constantly communicating to each other. They used different calls which appeared to say "lets stick together" "there are good fish over here" and "back off you are getting too close".
If that wasn't enough the rest of the day was spent walking through the jungle spotting more monkeys, birds and every variety of insect the Yuber was able to find hiding under a leaf or log. But to top all of that as we cruised down stream on the Manu River on our way out of the Reserve Zone there was a high level of excitement as at the same time four of us all saw the same amazing site on the river bank. It was Yuber who was first able to vocalise the startling site - not one but two juvenile jaguars resting on a log! I think they saw us just as we saw them and it wasn't long before they jumped off and darted into the forest but not before we got a great look at them.
While jaguars and not necessarily endangered, there numbers are not great and they are also know to be incredibly stealthy so to see two was indeed a rare event - so rare it was also a first for our guide!
That night, despite our tiredness, we all stayed up drinking warm beer and cask wine because a large part of the group would leave the next morning by air. The group consisted of 16 people and we were just about as diverse a bunch as you could imagine - but we all shared a common interest in wildlife and its preservation. Over the course of the trip everyone had got to know each other pretty well and shared plenty of laughs so it was nice to relax over a drink and just enjoy each others company - including our guides and helpers.
Pack up time for some of the group and a short canoe ride to the airport. Suzie, I and the others who were staying on said our goodbyes and left those who were leaving at the airport which was covered in a thick fog. Our smaller group boardered the canoes and headed up river for Erica Lodge. For us there was still much to be excited about because day 8 brought the possibility of revisting the macaw lek we missed because of rain on day 3 and a cruise through the treetops on a series of five flying foxes the tour company had rigged up.
We awoke to a beautiful morning so no reason why the macaw lek wouldn't be a happening thing and it didn't disappoint. The lek is essentially a cliff face that has an exposed surface that is visited by parrots and macaws each day (when it isn't raining that is).
The birds consume around 10g of clay at each feeding, and the clay is a supplement to their more usual diet of fruit which is deficient in important minerals.
We arrived at the lek just on sunrise and settled in quietly to observe what was about to happen. Shortly parrots in groups of 10 - 20 flew and then macaws in groups of 3 - 4 flew from the trees in a wide circle above us before again landing noisily in the trees. The purpose of this exercise was to satisfy the wary birds that there were no predators waiting for them. It makes sense, given that this is a daily ritual.
Anyway this was good for us because we got to see the birds in all their glory as they circled time and time again before as if someone said "its now OK" they landed en masse on the clay cliff face. It was all very amazing and just made what was a beautiful morning even more spectacular.
We made way back to the campsite, quickly inhaled some breakfast and as soon as the last mouthfull was done with we were off to be kitted up with harnesses for our canopy tour.
The canopy tour is best described as a series of 5 flying foxes that transport you through the treetops some 25 metres above the ground. It was a real buzz and for a moment we all felt like the monkeys we had watching with envy for the past week.
That was pretty much it for the fun stuff. What remained was an hour long canoe ride over incredibly shallow water and a 12 hour bus ride that, well, the less said the better.
Sitting hear remembering all our experiences in the jungle is kind of surreal - but we actually did, it all happened, sensational.