• Day269

    Manu National Park, Peru (Part 1)

    July 13, 2017 in Peru ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    The Amazon Basin.

    You wouldn't believe it. Cat, she who fears all things bug-like and most of all - mosquitoes, wanted to visit the Amazon. Not only that but she managed to convince me, he who fears all things hot, to join her. I anticipated disaster at best.

    When I say 'Amazon', I'm referring to the mind bogglingly enormous Amazon Basin, the drainage area defining the extent of the Amazon Rainforest (more or less). I've never been one to comprehend land area very well, but let's have a crack. The amazon basin covers an area of 6.9 million square kilometres. It covers forty percent of the land area of South America (the continent) which is roughly 26 times the area of NZ. That's gigantic! It turns out NZ and the Amazon have comparable rainfall so lets just for a minute imagine every single river, stream and creek in NZ were combined into one mighty river. Now take that mighty river and double it in size, then double that again and hell, double that two more times and you know what - add another half of that for good measure. That's how much water is flowing through the Amazon river. Despite coming in at a measly 7th longest in the world, the Amazon is the indisputable heavyweight of the world's rivers in terms of drainage. And no, much to my disappointment, we didn't see the Amazon River. Our trip to 'the Amazon' was to Manu National Park - a small part of the 13% of the Amazon Basin situated in Peru. I can tell you now, it was big enough.

    The Madre de Dios (mother of god) river flows through Manu National Park, which begins some four hours or so from Cusco, at roughly 3600m above sea level. It then takes another 3-4 hours by car (along a pretty horrendous gravel road) to complete the majority of the descent and reach the first town. We completed this part of the trip in a freezing cold van at 3am in the morning right off the back of our Machu Picchu trip. After some seven or eight hours on the road, we had breakfast in the lodge and began another two hour drive to the Madre de Dios river - the beginning of our journey to the deep jungle. Cat and I had endured nine hours of gravel road (largely in frost) off the back of four hours sleep and, to be fair, a rather outstanding fruit salad. With fatigue levels high and still building fast, I can't say we were in a good place to begin a rough and adventurous Amazon trip.

    Our guide was the 28 year old Fidel, born and raised in the jungle to a tribal father and Cusqueñan mother. His first trip to a city was at age seventeen but you wouldn't pick it - he has multiple properties, a five year tourism degree, study in ornothology, a wife and three year old, owns and operates his own business and speaks four languages. He is also never unhappy and fears cheese like the plague. Viva la revolution! If I'm going to nit pick (you know I'll find a fault!) he does have a fairly serious deficiency in organisational skills. Like, he'll make a Fijian look like a German at a job interview and unfortunately for him, our group was majority German. I let it slide...jungle time, island time, same same.

    After a few cheeky stops for spotting monkeys and birds along the drive, we boarded our river boat for the two or five hour journey downstream. It was sooooo good to be on a smooth mode of transport after nine hours of bollockings in the back of a van. Our group (now thirteen and promised not to exceed ten - still unhappy about that) was accompanied by a cook, a sous-chef, a captain, a deck hand, the van driver (not sure why), the lodge manager and of course, Fidel. We were quite the possy and our faithful vessel required quite a lot of attention to stay afloat. Fear not, we had life jackets and Fidel's vote of confidence in our skipper, what more could you possibly need?

    That river never ended. We stopped for lunch on the riverbank, and for monkeys and other animals and the afternoon passed on to early evening and we were still humming downstream. After some time I had to ask: 'how far to the actual Amazon?'. I will never know but apparently three weeks by boat will get you within shooting distance of the mouth. Given that we were less than 300m above sea level I was absolutely baffled: on average, you would descend a meagre 14m per day, the river itself less (as it is slower than the boat) and probably much less in the lower stretches. Surely the river runs out of slope before the Atlantic? Perhaps one day we'll see for ourselves.

    Finally we spun around and docked on a very natural river bank in what will most likely be the most remote location of my life. The best part of 16 hours transport from the nearest wifi, and five from the nearest shop. This is the jungle. What we weren't far from was bananas, mosquitoes, trees and vast quantities of mud. It was extreme isolation and in it, a five minute walk from the river, was a lodge. Fidel's lodge he had purpose built for tours. With a bed and running water (ish) and mosquito nets. Jungle luxury you might say. There were birds in the trees, papaya in the garden and the sun was setting. What a place!

    Cat and I tucked into some rest and relief from the bugs for all of about ten minutes before Fidel decided we would bring forward the night walk. I did not appreciate the disruption from my nap but it didn't take long before I was getting stuck in. Under the cover of darkness and some obnoxiously bright flashlights we saw snakes, frogs, tarantulas, dozens of spiders, grass hoppers, fireflies, giant rats and dozens of other plants and insects. But the best part was the stars. With no light pollution for who knows how far, the stars were the biggest and brightest I've ever seen. Absolutely incredible. I somehow managed to stuff up almost every photo I took, operating in complete darkness with a broken tripod and in somewhat of a hurry, but the milky way is seared into my brain like a hot grill to a juicy steak. Mmm. Nobody forgets a juicy steak.

    We dined that night on more rice mixed with spaghetti bolognese and chased with a chocolate mousse and vino tinto, after a toast to the jungle of course. It's the second time we've found ourselves unintentionally drinking the sweetened wine, a beverage we continue to strive to avoid.

    The dawn walk the next morning disrupted the sleep in we desired. However, the sunrise alone was worth the early rise, as we bashed through the jungle chasing the trail of banana skins left behind by hungry monkeys. Fidel got a little carried away (he seriously loves the jungle) and we ended up being late for breakfast. Breakfast was a little light and rather brief and before we knew it we were back in the jungle, tasting different plants, chasing monkeys and drinking bamboo juice. We walked three hours to the end of Fidel's vague track (cut with machete) before realising it was lunchtime and we had the same distance to cover in return.

    Everyone was spent by the late lunch after walking for nearly seven hours in the jungle heat. We feasted on a huge spread and washed it down with a warm beer. We then packed up camp and returned to our trusty chariot, which had been undergoing maintenance for most of the morning. I came to love that boat for the cool breeze, comfy seat and the implication that we wouldn't be walking. We spent the remainder of the day battling the current upstream, stopping only when we hit the bottom (which was surprisingly regular). Our destination was a spot with flat, soft land; we'd be spending this night under a tarpaulin.
    Read more