Beastly busi­ness

Next to na­ture in Ecuador’s lively rain­forests

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - TIM POZZI

You see the gi­ant kapok tree at two o’clock?” asks our guide. “On the left there are three smaller trees. Be­hind which are two big­ger trees. Then a palm-like tree, and next to that, about two-thirds of the way along the crest of the tree… You can just see its head. A three-toed sloth.” Tense si­lence. Mut­ter­ing. Baf­fle­ment. Then, “Oh yes!” “Wow!” It takes sev­eral min­utes for us all to lo­cate it. “Um, which tree again?”

Hap­pily the sloth is in no hurry. It lazily sur­veys its king­dom with what looks like a hint of a smile. A huge metal­lic blue mor­pho but­ter­fly flaps lan­guidly to­wards us, its flight more rem­i­nis­cent of an ea­gle than of its smaller, flick­er­ing cousins.

At the best of times, the Ama­zon is in­tox­i­cat­ing. At Ya­suni Na­tional Park, one of the most bi­o­log­i­cally di­verse places on Earth, even I spot frogs, taran­tu­las and mil­li­pedes. Some of the larger beasts re­quire more ef­fort. Sud­denly there is a shimmy and a rip­ple through the wa­ter hy­acinths about a me­tre to our left. “Caiman,” says Freddy. We are all too slow to see it. Then, on the other side, a thun­der­ous splash among the ele­phant-eared philo­den­drons. “An ara­paima,” Javier an­nounces. “A very big fish.”

We en­ter a nar­row chan­nel of tea-coloured wa­ter, sun­light fil­ters through the branches that form a tun­nel above us, bounc­ing off the wa­ter to dance on the un­der­side of leaves. Vines and roots de­scend to the still sur­face like cur­tains. We see the foot­prints of a tapir. An anx­ious tou­can eyes us be­fore de­cid­ing to take flight. Then, sud­denly, Freddy sig­nals to the man pad­dling us. “It’s a mon­key group,” he whis­pers ur­gently. A troupe of be­tween 20 and 30 squir­rel mon­keys, smaller than cats, ap­proach to within about 18m. For a quar­ter of an hour we watch as they gather fruit, shak­ing the branches, be­fore cross­ing from one side of the wa­ter to the other via the bridge of trees and dis­ap­pear­ing into the for­est.

Two decades have passed since I last vis­ited the Ama­zon. Then, I slept in a tent and the in­sects, heat and rain made it deeply un­com­fort­able. This time, an hour and a half af­ter my jun­gle en­coun­ters, I am back in my cool, spa­cious cabin aboard MV Anakonda Ama­zon, stretched out on crisp linen and con­tem­plat­ing lunch. Thirty min­utes later, I tuck into smoked pork chop in pas­sion­fruit sauce and cur­ried mahi mahi with harusame noo­dles.

There are other ves­sels on which to ex­plore the Ama­zon, but the 45m-long MV Anakonda, built in 2013, is the only lux­ury boat ply­ing Ecuadorean wa­ters. It takes just an hour to fly from the cap­i­tal, Quito, to Coca, where MV Anakonda is moored on the Napo River, a trib­u­tary of the Ama­zon. A map of our cruis­ing route east from Coca, to­wards the bor­der with Peru, re­veals only a hand­ful of place names and lit­tle more than a few other wa­ter­ways wrig­gling through a mass of jun­gle. On board our river ship are 17 other two-berth cab­ins, with names such as Ot­ter, Jaguar and Pi­ranha, oc­cu­pied by a mix of mostly English but also Aus­tralian, Amer­i­can and Ger­man pas­sen­gers. My cabin, Mana­tee, is in min­i­mal­ist browns and creams with a Jacuzzi bath and shower in the bath­room, a desk and a small but de­light­ful veranda. MV Anakonda also fea­tures an ex­pan­sive ob­ser­va­tion deck, small spa and an al­fresco lounge with stun­ning river views; at our dis­posal are three ca­noes and 10 kayaks.

Itin­er­ar­ies are vari­able, de­pend­ing on weather, sea­son and wa­ter lev­els, and the moor­ings are sim­ply stretches of river bank and some­times lit­tle more than crum­bling stretches of red earth and trees tee­ter­ing to­wards the wa­ter. Yet what tourist in­fra­struc­ture there is makes all the dif­fer­ence. One ex­am­ple is the board­walk lead­ing to­wards Cual­la­cocha Lake that we saunter along one morn­ing. Sure, you can shuf­fle through the jun­gle on slip­pery nar­row paths, dodg­ing branches, watch­ing where you place your feet (mind those tree roots), try­ing not to bump into oth­ers, and slap­ping away mos­qui­toes. But a raised walk­way opens up a cor­ri­dor of magic. Walk­ing eas­ily, we make less of a com­mo­tion. We are free to fo­cus on the whis­tles and whirrs of the mostly hid­den birds and in­sects — the whoop of the weaver, the cackle of the speckled chacha­laca, the trill of the white-shoul­dered antbird. There is leisure, too, to ad­mire the vigour of the saplings, shrubs and trees thrust­ing up to gorge on the fierce equa­to­rial light.

The king of th­ese is the mighty kapok, which can grow to more than 60m high. Leav­ing the board­walk, we take the “stairs” — a green metal con­struc­tion, akin to some­thing with which you might storm a cas­tle — ris­ing up to a large decked area in the canopy of a mon­ster kapok. The ab­sence of sea­sons here makes it dif­fi­cult to age trees, but it’s es­ti­mated this one might be 500 years old.

Views of the rain­for­est’s roof are over­whelm­ing. More eas­ily grasped is the mag­nif­i­cence of our sit­u­a­tion, the majesty of this one tree hold­ing us aloft — along with a host of epi­phytes, or­chids, bromeli­ads, ants, bee­tles and who knows what else — as eas­ily as a gi­ant might sport a bird’s nest in his hair.

There are so many ex­tra­or­di­nary sights on this trip: pink river dol­phins; an agouti (a type of ro­dent) bat­tling the cur­rent to clam­ber ashore (cue ap­plause); a visit to a class­room full of bored and fid­gety but im­pec­ca­bly well­be­haved chil­dren; squadrons of ma­caws fly­ing high over­head; bull­dog bats danc­ing above the top deck; and an im­promptu af­ter-din­ner per­for­mance from Pepe the Latino bar­man who — with no mi­cro­phone, a no­tice­able lean to­wards the ladies and a hand flut­ter­ing in­side his jacket to sig­nal a beat­ing heart — croons crowd-pleas­ing songs.

Then there are the sun­sets. As dusk be­gins to en­close an­other la­goon at Li­mon­cocha Na­tional Bi­o­log­i­cal Re­serve, the mono­tone shriek of the ci­cadas in­ten­si­fies and the frogs take their cue to be­gin click­ing and belch­ing. We pad­dle across the oil-black wa­ter, the hot night air in our faces, the kapok trees turn­ing to del­i­cately etched sil­hou­ettes against the bur­nished tan­ger­ine sky. On lily pads at the wa­ter’s edge, mil­lions of tiny lights ap­pear — the lar­vae of fire­flies. Some clumps have bro­ken off to drift across the la­goon, look­ing like minia­ture float­ing cities. Sud­denly, the sky is ablaze with stars. We turn off our own lights and for a few mo­ments are swal­lowed up in the hum­bling, teem­ing fe­cun­dity of the rain­for­est.

TELE­GRAPH ME­DIA GROUP

MV Anakonda Ama­zon, main, and state­room, above left; an ob­ser­va­tion deck on the la­goon at Li­mon­cocha Na­tional Bi­o­log­i­cal Re­serve, above; blue and yel­low ma­caws, left; and in­quis­i­tive lo­cal frog, below left

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