Crea­tures of the canopy

Ex­otic wildlife-watch­ing in Panama’s rain­forests

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - MIKE UN­WIN

What has hap­pened to the view? It is 5.30am and I am first up on the deck, binoc­u­lars in one hand and field guide in the other. But yes­ter­day’s breath­tak­ing for­est panorama has been swal­lowed by a pea­souper. Per­haps I should have stayed in bed.

Hap­pily, the mist hasn’t fazed the birds. The branches of the ce­cropia tree im­me­di­ately be­low are al­ready aflut­ter with tan­agers and eu­pho­nias. And as my eyes ad­just to the murk, I make out oth­ers. There’s a black-cheeked wood­pecker bound­ing up the trunk; a jaunty party of col­lared aracaris bran­dish­ing finger-length fruit like Grou­cho Marx cigars in their out­sized bills.

Back­stage, mean­while, the awak­en­ing for­est cranks up the sound­track. The whine of the ci­cadas clicks in as though at the flick of a switch, while a keel-billed tou­can starts up its comb-rasp­ing “kr­rit, kr­rit” and a gi­ant tinamou whis­tles mourn­fully from the depths. And from fur­ther down the slopes a throaty roar­ing swells the mist like a cross-chan­nel foghorn. “Howler mon­keys,” con­firms my guide, Alexis Sanchez, see­ing me start at this un­earthly noise. He has ma­te­ri­alised dis­creetly along­side me and is ready­ing his tele­scope for the dawn vigil. “It’s ter­ri­to­rial,” he says. “They start ev­ery day like this.”

Soon my com­pan­ions are emerg­ing through the hatch, cradling cof­fee cups as they take up fa­mil­iar po­si­tions. Af­ter four days, our pre-break­fast rou­tine is as ter­ri­to­rial as any for­est pri­mate’s. With the sun burn­ing off the mist, re­veal­ing on one hori­zon a sil­ver rib­bon of canal and on the other the gleam­ing tow­ers of the dis­tant cap­i­tal, the sight­ings come thick and fast — red-tailed squir­rel to the right; squir­rel cuckoo to the left. We clus­ter around Sanchez, jostling for a glimpse of what­ever he’s cap­tured in his scope.

For the three-toed sloth sus­pended just be­low me, how­ever, there are no such histri­on­ics. This same in­di­vid­ual was on the ex­act same branch yes­ter­day. As I watch, one shaggy limb ex­tends in t’ai chi slow-mo­tion to­wards a neigh­bour­ing branch. Grap­pling-hook claws clutch briefly at empty air then, as if on re­flec­tion, re­turn to their orig­i­nal grip. Why move to branch two, af­ter all, when branch one still has leaves enough for an­other morn­ing’s munch­ing?

So be­gins day four at the Canopy Tower, Panama’s most cel­e­brated wildlife-watch­ing bolt­hole. Perched atop the forested Sem­a­phore Hill in Sobera­nia Na­tional Park, just out­side Panama City, this in­con­gru­ous light­house-like struc­ture was once a US radar sta­tion. Lo­cal con­ser­va­tion­ist Raul Arias de Para has con­verted it into an in­ge­nious wildlife fa­cil­ity that dou­bles as re­search sta­tion and tourist lodge. In­side, the liv­ing quar­ters re­tain a no-frills func­tion­al­ity. But the beauty of the place comes on the top floor, where a cir­cu­lar lounge-din­ing room looks out di­rectly into the treetops and, best of all, a ceil­ing hatch opens on to an out­door ob­ser­va­tion deck, com­mand­ing a 360-de­gree vista of rain­for­est canopy. It’s a roof gar­den to beat all roof gar­dens.

With so much of their wildlife hid­den in the treetops, rain­forests can be frus­trat­ing places at ground level. That’s why this tou­can’s-eye view of the ac­tion is so spe­cial. And our viewing doesn’t stop at dawn; lunch yes­ter­day brings a 2m-long iguana clam­ber­ing up to din­ingroom win­dow level as we munch on our av­o­cado salad. And af­ter din­ner, as we set­tle in so­fas to tot up the day’s sight­ings, Sanchez’s torch re­veals first a kinka­jou — a lithe, fruit-eat­ing car­ni­vore — slink­ing along a branch, then a black-and-white owl perched lower down, its two-tone plumage etched with a cal­ligraphist’s del­i­cacy. These tree­top vig­ils are ad­dic­tive: both the check­ing-in daily with char­ac­ters we have come to know as in­di­vid­u­als, and the con­stant pos­si­bil­ity of spot­ting some­thing new, such as the punk-coif­fured Geoffroy’s tamarins that yes­ter­day came scam­per­ing around the deck. It would be easy to spend the whole week up top, mov­ing no fur­ther than a sloth, but Sanchez has other treats in store.

Day one sees us tramp­ing down Sem­a­phore Hill, where we find that ex­plor­ing the for­est on foot is very dif­fer­ent from peer­ing into it from above. At first it is mad­den­ing, a lot of awk­ward neck-cran­ing pro­duc­ing lit­tle more than glimpses. But slowly, un­der the pa­tient di­rec­tion of Alex and his ea­gleeyed assistant Domi, we ad­just our per­spec­tive, crouch­ing to in­spect an in­dus­tri­ous stream of leaf­cut­ter ants fer­ry­ing their jig­saw-piece tro­phies, or ad­mir­ing the elec­tric-blue pulse of a mor­pho but­ter­fly flit­ting through the gloom. With prac­tice, we be­come more alive to move­ment. There’s an agouti pat­ter­ing over the leaf lit­ter; an ano­lis lizard scam­per­ing up a trunk. Our guides, of course, keep some aces up their sleeves, and two night mon­keys peer­ing wide-eyed from their tree hole earn a cho­rus of gasps.

The truck al­lows us to ex­plore fur­ther afield. On day two we drive north to the Pipe­line Road, named af­ter never-com­pleted World War II plans for an alternative oil sup­ply in the event of an at­tack on the Panama Canal. To­day this for­est track is famed for its bird life. Our tally in­cludes soft-hoot­ing tro­gons and mot­mots, which hide their fin­ery in the shad­ows, and a pageant of hum­ming­birds — gems such as blue-throated golden tail and vi­o­let-crowned wood nymph — that zip around the feed­ers at the in­for­ma­tion cen­tre with high-octane ur­gency.

On day three we ven­ture fur­ther, to San Lorenzo Na­tional Park, on the Caribbean coast. There is no sign of the jaguars that re­put­edly haunt its forests, but we spy a tree-climb­ing anteater known as a taman­dua that has de­scended to cross the road. Rub­bery-nosed coatis snuf­fle through the leaf lit­ter and a troupe of white-faced ca­puchin mon­keys crash through the branches over­head, vent­ing their out­rage in a hail of sticks.

The hu­mid­ity at the coast is sti­fling. Cam­eras fog as we munch sand­wiches among the ru­ins of 16th-cen­tury San Lorenzo Fort, built by the con­quis­ta­dors to pro­tect the gold route from Peru. But our re­turn to the cap­i­tal by air­con­di­tioned tourist train, down­ing cold beers from the buf­fet car as swamp and for­est rat­tles past the win­dow, is a de­light. The track winds along­side the Panama Canal, a mir­a­cle of engi­neer­ing that claimed al­most 30,000 lives in its bru­tal con­struc­tion and now fer­ries about 333 mil-

Canopy Tower, a for­mer radar sta­tion, top; ru­fous-crested co­quette, above cen­tre; Sobera­nia Na­tional Park, above left; brown-throated sloth, above; harpy ea­gle, be­low

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