Into Ama­zo­nia

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS - By Peter Heller. Pho­to­graphs by Tom Fowlks

There's no bet­ter way to ex­plore the rich bio­sphere of the Brazil­ian rain for­est than by a small-boat cruise.

There’s no bet­ter way to ex­plore the rich bio­sphere of the Brazil­ian rain for­est than by a small-boat cruise along the tributaries of its leg­endary river. On a se­ries of kayak­ing and pad­dle­board­ing ex­cur­sions, PETER HELLER dis­cov­ers a wa­tery won­der­land full of rare birds and ex­otic crea­tures.

THE OROPENDOLAS SOUNDED LIKE A DRIP­PING FAUCET.

We couldn’t see these dark, yel­low-tailed birds in the dusk, but their calls seemed fit­ting be­cause we were glid­ing through a world of wa­ter. My wife, Kim, and I were deep in the Ama­zon rain for­est. We were pro­pelling our stand-up pad­dle­boards along a nar­row chan­nel of Brazil’s Rio Ne­gro.

The for­est floor on ei­ther side of us was flooded.

The sky, fi­nally clear af­ter hours of heavy rain, had burned to a dusky rose over the tops of the trees.

“Lis­ten!” Kim said, then pointed. A tou­can, perched on the limb of a tall fi­cus tree, cried out a pierc­ing, flute­like note. Its sil­hou­ette seemed mostly made up of its huge bill. It felt like a mir­a­cle that it didn’t top­ple for­ward. Then we heard a sud­den racket: a dozen scar­let macaws sailed over­head like a vol­ley of ar­rows.

“It’s go­ing to be dark soon,” I mur­mured. “And the guys on the boat said they saw a big caiman.” A caiman is ba­si­cally Brazil’s ver­sion of a croc­o­dile.

“I know,” Kim replied, but kept pad­dling up the creek, far­ther from safety. She was in thrall to the for­est. A few min­utes ear­lier she had guided us into a gap in the trees, where a troop of ca­puchin mon­keys dropped figs on our heads. Now I looked over my shoul­der to make sure there wasn’t a mon­ster caiman rip­pling be­hind us in the last light of the day.

WE WERE 370 KILO­ME­TERS

up­river from Manaus, the jun­gle cap­i­tal where the Rio Ne­gro merges with the Solimões River to form the Ama­zon. We had flown to the city a week be­fore for a 12-day river voy­age with Amazô­nia Ex­pe­di­tions, a Brazil-based com­pany that spe­cial­izes in cus­tom­ized tours of the re­gion’s wa­ter­ways. The trip was or­ga­nized by Ian Miller, a pa­le­on­tol­o­gist at the Den­ver Mu­seum of Na­ture & Science, and his wife, Robyn, a flo­ral de­signer. They had as­sem­bled a loose group of friends, mostly from Den­ver, for a voy­age to see some of the most di­verse wildlife on the planet. The Dor­inha, our com­pact, tripledecked boat, was made es­pe­cially for the Ama­zon Basin. It had a dozen cab­ins and a din­ing room fin­ished in teak and ma­hogany; its open up­per deck was lined with ham­mocks. It towed four ca­noes with out­board mo­tors, which we used for ex­cur­sions ev­ery morn­ing and of­ten at night.

We had spent the first few days of the trip on the busy Solimões, vis­it­ing vil­lages, squeez­ing up small tributaries, and bird-watch­ing on re­mote lakes. Then we re­turned to Manaus and headed

up the wilder Rio Ne­gro, whose wa­ter is dark with tan­nin from the thou­sands of square kilo­me­ters of trees that bor­der it. Once we’d mo­tored for 80 kilo­me­ters, we rarely saw a soul. This was the Ama­zon rain for­est I’d al­ways dreamed about.

The Ama­zon Basin has long been steeped in myth. Think of Fitz­car­raldo, Werner Her­zog’s film about a would-be rub­ber ty­coon’s ob­ses­sion with build­ing an opera house in the jun­gle, or English ge­og­ra­pher Percy Fawcett’s doomed quest to find the ru­ins of an an­cient civ­i­liza­tion, as re­counted in David Grann’s The Lost City of Z and its movie adap­ta­tion. To­day, it’s dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate the real from the imag­ined. Af­ter cen­turies of ex­plo­ration, the re­gion is still lit­tle un­der­stood. The World Wildlife Fund es­ti­mates that it con­tains mil­lions of species, most of which have not even been iden­ti­fied. Its forests pro­duce 20 per­cent of the planet’s oxy­gen. They are un­der grow­ing threat of de­for­esta­tion, and sci­en­tists fear that they may be lost be­fore we even come to know them.

BE­FORE DAY­BREAK

on the morn­ing af­ter our pad­dle­board ad­ven­ture, a week into the trip, a record­ing of Pavarotti sing­ing in La Travi­ata blasted over the ship’s speak­ers. This is the way Cap­tain Moacir “Mo” Fortes likes to roust his pas­sen­gers. It means you have 20 min­utes to hit the ca­noes. I looked out of the port­hole. We had trav­eled all night, and some­where along the way Cap­tain Mo had turned up a side chan­nel and en­tered a broad lake. I could see the first ruddy smudges of dawn over the trees on the far shore and the shapes of small is­lands scat­tered across the wa­ter. The whole coun­try seemed to echo and thun­der with the sound of howler mon­keys greet­ing the day.

I met Cap­tain Mo on the lower deck. “Are we go­ing bird-watch­ing?” I said. “Or look­ing for mon­keys or sloths?”

“No, Pe­dro,” he said, with a gleam in his eye.

“We are go­ing fish­ing.”

I soon learned that he meant fish­ing for pi­ra­nhas.

The crew tied the Dor­inha to a tree at the edge of a trib­u­tary called the Igarapé Água Boa, which now, at high wa­ter, looked noth­ing like a river. Dur­ing the sea­sonal flood­ing, from Jan­uary to

June, it had ex­panded and spilled over the shorter trees. We climbed aboard the ca­noes and slipped along the west­ern “shore”—the tops of the taller trees. Mo said the wa­ter was prob­a­bly five me­ters above what was, in dry sea­son, the river­bank.

Mo showed us how to bait our lines with pieces of raw chicken and then bounce the bait off the riverbed. My meat never got there. I would feel a fierce tug, but when I jerked up­ward I would dis­cover that my bait was gone. I’d heard what pi­ra­nhas can do to a dead cow, and I shiv­ered think­ing that we had swum off the side of the boat the night be­fore.

But Kim had the touch. She be­gan bring­ing up one red-bel­lied pi­ranha af­ter an­other. Their lit­tle teeth were ra­zor sharp. Af­ter she caught more than a dozen, Mo looked at her with the re­spect one great fish­er­man gives an­other. That evening, af­ter a slightly ner­vous swim, we dined on a pi­ranha fry. The fish were bony but de­li­cious.

IT WAS HARD TO BE­LIEVE

that this flooded world, with lit­tle dry ground any­where, was a sea­sonal oc­cur­rence—and that the an­i­mals and plants had evolved to live with it. We saw swim­ming snakes, tur­tles sun­ning on logs, fly­ing squir­rels that sailed through the lower canopy, and squir­rel mon­keys leap­ing from tree to tree as if they were tak­ing a stroll.

Kim and I had packed in­flat­able pad­dle­boards and a fly rod. Her fish­ing prow­ess in­spired me. Why couldn’t I pad­dle out into the flood and fish off the board? It would just re­quire a lit­tle bal­ance.

The next day—the eighth of our trip, and the fourth up the Rio Ne­gro—I pad­dled along the edge of tall woods, won­der­ing where I would be if I were a pea­cock bass. Most likely I’d be hunt­ing the smaller fish hid­ing in those is­lands of brush, I thought. I moved into them and found my­self in a maze of broad-leaved thicket that had trails and clear­ings like mead­ows—ex­cept that it was all wa­ter.

I tied on a fly made of a clump of feath­ers the size of a spar­row. The guy in the fly shop in Den­ver had said, “Down there, when in doubt, go big.” I be­gan to cast. A squall of dusky-headed para­keets flew just over my head, which cer­tainly never hap­pened on my lo­cal creek. I dropped the fly just off the brush. Some­thing jerked it hard. I told my­self to keep my bal­ance, re­mem­ber­ing that I wasn’t stand­ing on the bank of a river but a mov­ing board. The fish hauled me to­ward the trees. I yelled with glee. I fought the fish for 20 min­utes, but when I brought it in I was shocked to dis­cover it was a small pea­cock bass. I was work­ing the hook out, mar­veling at the fish’s crim­son lower fins and green flanks, when I heard a crash a short dis­tance away. I thought of the three-me­ter caiman we had seen on the river at lunch. I be­gan to hurry to­ward the boat, hop­ing I could re­mem­ber where it was.

That night we had a dance party on the top deck. One of the crew hauled out an elec­tric key­board. Clouds massed and cov­ered the stars as House of

The Rio Ne­gro, the Brazil­ian river that flows into the Ama­zon near the city of Manaus, floods the sur­round­ing rain for­est for much of the year.

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