Monday, 31 March 2014

In The Jungle. The Mighty Jungle.

 After toying with the idea of 'doing the rainforest' from Peru, Columbia and Equador we opted for Bolivia instead. It's cheaper, less touristed, and now the major floods have passed (6 weeks ago c1000 families saw their homes washed away on the river banks), accessible via a short flight from la Paz. 

The amazon basin accounts for c40% of Boliva and is mainly divided into Pampas (low lying swampland), and jungle. The temperature is around 35 degrees in the day time, 25 at night, and humidity hovers around 95%, day and night.  We got there one week before the rainy season was officially over but the climate doesn't stick to the calendar and it was due to pour down most days. It didn't disappoint on that front. 

After a short wait at the small airport in La Paz, we were informed that we'd been called for boarding prematurely because they were still sorting engine trouble.  One of the passengers from the previous incoming flight on our plane didn't seem too comfortable with their experience - they had to be wheeled away from the plane in a wheelchair while sucking on an oxygen mask.  From that point nobody was comfortable with the prospect of a 19 seater propellor plane across huge snow-capped mountains with the potential for panic attack inducing engine problems. Everyone had seen 'Alive' and we were starting to weigh up the relative nutritional merits of each other.  Needless to say despite a completely smooth 40 minute flight, the nervous flyers (including Gayle) were on the highest possible alert and didn't blink throughout.

We touched down to a unanimous relief in Rurrenabaque, where there's just a runway (and the ground marshalers used their flags to chase horses off the runway rather than direct the planes).  We stayed the night at a hostel and had a slap up dinner while we got used to the idea that there may be some uncomfortable moments ahead given we don't like insects, spiders and general discomfort - although you may have already read that we'd have been getting better over the last 6 months.

At the start of our Jungle trip we met Ron, our Guide.  He is the size of a 12 year old (as we shook hands, his disappeared completed as it was enveloped by my less diminutive paw).  He has a great passion for wildlife, a really sharp eye, always had a chuckle and a story ready and also had the heart of F1 racing driver - I'll explain more in a bit.

1st, The Pampas - river / swamp area - 3 hour drive on a terrible road, where our driver giggled at the drivers trying to dig lorries out of the mud, giggled at other drivers' trepidation at picking the remaining solid parts of the mud road, giggled when he shared a joke with one of the many fellow travellers he knew, giggled when he filled a canister with petrol - there was a defining characteristic in there somewhere.  He didn't mess about getting us to the river from where we had a short boat ride to our lodge.

From here Ron took us on many excursions over the next 3 days.  The 1st was Swimming with Pink Dolphins.  Smaller (and pinker of course) than their seafaring cousins, they were still impressively large animals (twice as big as us) - and as friendly and beautiful as they are, it's not a natural thing to jump into the murky river water with them.  But that was what the excursion involved and who were we to change the itinerary?  Thankfully we were assured that the Dolphins would beat up any errant Alligators for us, unless they were really big, but these are almost never seen.  Oh, ok then, fine, in we jump...  They did entertain us a bit by constantly popping up behind us, surrounding us or splashing our faces - they thought they were hilarious.  

That night we went out spotting reflective Alligator eyes.  It was incredible being on the river in near pitch darkness.  There seemed to be a hundred times more stars than I'd ever seen before, and yes the Alligators eyes did reflect Ron's torch.  We didn't get to actually see the rest of them though, but no fear it turned out there was a 2m long specimen that camps out near our boats.  This little fella was destined to provide a lot of entertainment on our last day...

We also fished for Piranhas - which is a novelty thing really given the typical non-South American thinks they are as dangerous as portrayed in James Bond.  Still they are quick aggressive little buggers who took no time at all to eat the bits of beef from my fishing hook, leaving the hook completely alone!  Ron had a little more of a killer instinct and produced 3 specimens for us to get a closer look at before letting them go (hoping they can find a Piranha infirmary somewhere).  Ron's version of leaving wildlife completely alone and ours differed greatly. 

Throughout our stay other critters of note were:
- Families of Capybera - Believe it or not, they are rodents but they can grow up to 100kg.  That is one bloody big hamster.

- Mopho butterfly - difficult to get a piccy (you can always go on Google!), but these things are bright blue and the size of a dinner plate.  I'm no great fan of any bugs, but seeing these lazily flap by is pretty mesmerising.

- A troup of Squirrel Monkeys.  Typically cheeky and curious little fellas - and you can't help loving them as they look and express themselves so much like a 1ft tall person.

There were hundred of Birds & Monkeys that we saw from far away, Ron would use his driving skills to try and get closer, which entailed manoeuvring the boat with a subtle engine noise: "HHHHHHNNNNNNNGGRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEIAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!" And as the wildlife in the surrounding area scattered towards Argentina he would declare they are 'afraid of cameras'!

Our days were filled with beautiful scenery, a lodge which had comparative luxury for Bolivian jungle, hot food & drink.  (No wine though - this was roughing it!)  I should mention that Gayle was being driven mad as she was bitten to pieces by bugs each night - even within a mosquito net and 90% DEET.  She picked up around 70+ bites, while I lay around in the same bed under the same net and picked up One.  One tiny one on my finger, which didn't attract much sympathy for some reason.

We spent a lot of time getting rained on or sunburnt while Ron took the racing line around the area in the boat, or walking not to see an Anaconda.  We had been a bit spoilt by the immediate availability of wildlife in the Galápagos Islands, the relentless activity of Macchu Pichu and the constant socialising in both.  We had one girl with us on the first day - then we were the only customers from that point - generally it was a bit quiet.

We also noticed a couple of things about Ron.
- If you asked him a question that he didn't understand the he would just answer 'yes' or with the answer to the question he wanted to answer

Us:    'Is a Caiman a name for an Alligator or for a Crocodile?'
Ron:  'Yes'
(Bases covered I suppose)

Us:    'How often do the Squirrel Monkeys have children?'
Ron:  'There are 2 or 3 males in a family.'
Us:    'Erm, thanks'

He also had a plethora of stories that involved people getting into trouble with animals (usually young women in a state of undress for some reason) like a tarantula crawling into bed with them.  These people (read inventions) always required him to come to the rescue.  I somehow doubt a tiny man with a scant grasp of what is being asked is often asked to rescue anybody.

On our last day in the Pampas Ron spotted a snake in the forest surrounding the lodge.  Having spent hours searching for illusive snakes earlier in the week he offered his trophy for my photographic pleasure.  Then the snake took off towards the river and the resident 2m long Alligator (looked it up and they were actually crocodiles!) who didn't take much encouragement to start flipping the unsuspecting snake around like a rag doll.  Again not the kind of 'don't touch' approach to animal conservation we were expecting, but I did get a cracking video of it.

The Jungle

Part two of the trip, we left the swamps and headed to higher ground. 'The Giggler' drove us back towards Rurrenabaque where the rain had left a much more difficult prospect and even his spirits were hit a bit when 5 jeering friends of his had to push his van out of a muddy ditch.  The 4 hour drive back was incredibly uncomfortable as the rain and lorries had lain waste to the route. Instead of getting an hour break in Rurrenabaque where Gayle could pick up some much needed drugs to combat a growing recurrence of a kidney infection, we were pushed straight down a muddy bank onto the boat for the Jungle.

This part of the journey did afford some astonishing views of a raging river in great surroundings, but we did arrive after dark after crashing into a fallen tree.  Queue scrabbling up a muddy bank and into a lodge where everyone is waiting for us so dinner could commence.

We decided a rest was needed rather than a night walk, so we retired to our room.  I picked up a huge leaf like insect called a 'Katydid' that took a fancy to my t-shirt.  This prompted me to practice an odd pogo dance move with the intention of persuading it to leave me alone without actually having to touch it.

Then there was bed - I found a 1" long ant on our bed inside the mosquito net, so decided I had better 'deal' with the situation lest we get (more) bitten in the night.  The little bleeder took a huge amount of compressing within my Sudoku book before it finally gave up the fight.  The I was free to drift into a restful sleep (read frantically check the whole net again before hardly sleeping).

The next day was to be our Jungle trek with overnight stay in the wild.  For entertainment the best prospect was a 4 hour walk to see some Parrots and then ride on a raft back to the lodge - you can almost call it luck that Gayle was feeling increasingly ill and dehydrated at this point and after 4 hours of ducking weird spiders in a hot wet jungle we called time, walked back to camp and were on the boat back to relative civilisation - which was characterised by antibiotics, pizzas and red wine.

Quite the hardy adventurers.

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