Chapter One – First Morning
Rob Yonaitis on Skiff
After the welcome to the ship I went down to my cabin and unpacked. The expedition leader had told us that the first boat out would be leaving at seven AM and that was something for which I wanted to be ready, but I knew I would be tired. I hung the “knock on my door to wake me” sign outside of my cabin, set my alarm for 5am and then went to sleep. Yes, day one, 2-3 hours on ship and all I wanted to do was sleep.
At 4:50 am I woke up and did not go back to sleep, all I wanted to do was get up and get started. So I rose quickly and went over to the shower to check it out. It was a good shower – wood, glass and a little device that was an electric heater for the hot water for the shower. I turned off my alarm to make sure that it woke no one else up and shaved one last time. Now, as per tradition I had not shaved for a week before this trip and this was to symbolize that I had slowly started checking out from the real world of the daily grind to the world of adventure. So I put some shaving cream on and shaved of the last bits of scruff that no matter how I cut, all the gray hairs that fell in the sink proved how old I was becoming. When I completed this I pushed in the shower door, turned on the water heater and then turned the shower on. Needless to say this was refreshing and the first few seconds were heaven…
By 5:15 AM I was awake and headed up to the top deck to get a cup of coffee. No one was awake yet really besides the crew (as far as I could tell), the wake call was supposed to be at 5:30 for a 6:00 skiff ride, so I beat the crowd. Now, I sat back and watched as night was about to turn to day and as the wildlife began to stir. I had a few great pictures just sitting there as I sipped my coffee; the deep blue color of the night seemed to show so much quiet power in the shot that it was time to put the camera away and just watch things as they happened around me. Be it Africa, be it New Hampshire or even in Philadelphia there is something powerful in watching the daylight creatures began to stir as the world begins another day. I sat there, drank my coffee and checked out to a state somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness.
I was on the second Skiff out on this first trip into the flooded forest on a stream called Pahuchiro off an upper Amazon River tributary called the Marañon that is part of the Peruvian Amazonian basin.
Figure 1 – Delfin II Skiffs as seen from the Third Deck
Now according to our expedition leader this was a forest that was underwater for around four months a year. Now that was interesting because that meant the whole forest floor was submerged on a regular basis and what was a realm for only land creatures would now be shared with water creatures. This included the Anaconda, which lived in both realms so either way he would be home. One thing that our naturalist did not describe, was what happened to the land dwelling animals during that four months, do they live high in the trees or do they die? We were told that there are no bridges on the amazon and thus stuff that lives on one side does not live on the other bank of the river. Perhaps this is an oversimplification. I am sure some poor unsuspecting soul ends up making the treacherous journey during the flood!
As we moved along different trees were pointed out, many different bird species and some Sloths and Monkeys (Squirrel Monkeys) and one other monkey breed that I do not recall. The one bird that decided to put on a show was the Jesus Bird, his/her long feet allowed it to walk on water per se (better put-the floating vegetation).
Figure 2 – Bird walking on Floating Vegetation (Jesus Bird – Walking on Water)
As we went round and round looking for wildlife and enjoying our first morning on the Amazon basin, it occurred to me that I was in a different world and that this week would be unlike anything that I had experienced in the past. Right before we put on our life vests to cross the river to head back from the submerged forest a large white bird flew past me, and I snapped off four quick shots of this bird in flight and one came out perfect. (Name Later). It also occurred to me that it was the exact shape of a “Klingon bird of prey”, Loving Science Fiction I sometimes wonder how they come up with shapes for ships and perhaps the creators of Star Trek may have been inspired by a bird! We crossed the river and got off the skips and headed to breakfast. Our first cruise is the skiffs far exceeded my expectations and the next journey would be a hike into terra firma.
Today would be our first steps on land in the forest and it would be a hike up and hike down in the Amazon Rain forest, Casual Park. But to accomplish this we would need breakfast and like every meal this was made of local food and my favorite of the morning was coquina juice. As they put it, this fruit, was related to the tomato family and the fruit looked very similar to a cherry tomato. Many people did not agree but I put it to the test, I closed my eyes and had a taste. Now if you forget the texture of tomato juice the taste was very similar. And I would never expect it to be the same exact taste as this was grown locally in Peru and there would be no way for it to taste exactly the same. The breakfast was OK and the plans for the day were described. We still did not have the map that had been promised, however I was beginning to think that I would not be happy with the quality, not because this trip was not of high quality, but instead it simply did not seem that they liked to get locked down to any real detail albeit I was sure they can get there.
So after breakfast we headed off onto the skiffs again. The skiffs are long aluminum boats that have a slightly off the bottom wooden grated floor and small chairs (ten) for passengers to sit in and a spot for the pilot and one naturalist to stand. To get on you take a short step from the boat landing to the skiff and then down a few steps to get into the boat and walk to your seat. In itself this is not difficult and frankly I do not see who could not get down there regardless of physical ability. Once everyone loaded into the Skiff we would push off and be on our way to wherever we were headed. So that is the Skiff. Please note that I will include photos in this journal I will have photographs of the items that I describe so I will not belabor any descriptions here unless there is some fact that is my own feeling or an impression of an item that could not be interpolated from the picture itself. With that housekeeping done it is time to get back to the story.
After loading onto the skiff we took a short, ten minute, boat ride down river to a landing point where there were some local guides and residents. A quick comment on the Skiffs, there were three of them and we were rarely together, all three boats would head off in their own directions. Getting off the boat we immediately formed up in our group and got ready to head into the forest. This was our first step onto terra firma or better put terra not firma (or mud) and we then gathered up into our group of ten and went across a tree bridge (one tree) and this also had a railing to hold onto. We met our local guide, who was familiar with the area, and then were off on our adventure. We would walk through the tropical rain forest but would stay on the path. I would occasionally go a few feet off the path but never much further. The guide from the Delfin II stayed on the path and talked with us as the local guide went off in the forest to find us things or better-put creatures or oddities for us to observe close up.
After a few moments he was coming back, in his hand a leaf and on the leaf a caterpillar or something I think. Then there was a bit of a commotion and he dropped the caterpillar and with machete walked over to where I was standing, a few feet away and that is when I noticed the green snake that was the target of his attention. The guides carried Machetes for cutting brush, vines or path / off path work and now I was going to see it up close and in action. He raised the knife and squatted down close to the snake that was slithering out from below the leaves as it headed toward our group. The machete had a red plastic handle and a blade that was about two feet long, similar to a Roman gladiator sword. He was moving slow and I was a bit confused. I thought it was actually a bit odd, like he was being overly cautious and it instantly made me think back to my childhood as this guy seemed a bit scared of this green Amazon forest snake. I would step on the snake slightly behind its head if he evaded the guide to stop it in its tracks.
I was a bit surprised when the guide turned the machete sideways and pressed in down on the snake right behind its head to hold it in place, he then reached down rather quickly and grabbed it behind the head and picked it up. I leave out that everything I discussed took place in a split second and when you have snake approaching you and a guide going toward it in a second that the whole incident took an eternity.
Figure 3- Snake trapped by Machete
The snake as I said was green in color and had a yellow underside; it was perhaps three foot long stretchered out.
Figure 3a – Local guide holding the green snake
When it hissed it would flatten out his head and we all got to take pictures of the snake and thus our first experience with an Amazonian reptile had occurred. What was a bit odd was that the guides did not know if the snake was venomous or not nor did they know the exact type. The wildlife is so diverse here that one of the naturalist said they had not seen this snake ever before or it had been so many years ago that he was unsure, but you could tell they felt no sense of danger and the situation was under control.
We continued walking and talking and learning about the ground on which we were walking. The trees were pointed out to us and local folklore was discussed. We learned about vines, trees, flowers, and superstitions about the animals and plants. One of the plants that were pointed out to us was the “Snake Bite Plant”, I forget the technical name, and it grew straight up in a single stalk and had a few leaves. Is bark resembled a snake. Now, if you took the roots and boiled them reduced it you could then drink it/rub it on the snakebite wound (something like that) and that would save your life until you could get other medical attention back in civilization. We also learned about other plants and their purpose.
The next wildlife creature we came upon was a Poison dart frog and it was amazing. It was about the size of a quarter and the fluid on its skin is poisonous. It had a red back and legs with large dark spots. It was interesting to see this up-close. The color red seemed to mean poison or it is used to fake poison, like young leaves may be red until they reach maturity because this color makes animals ignore the leaves and the potential nutrition. Some trees also have red roots or bark for the same reason, as animals love to eat the bark but the red protects the tree.
Figure 4 – Poison Dart Frog
After this excitement we got to take a break by a huge tree, with Tarzan like vines. This became a photo shot area for the people on the trek through the forest. Like the towering redwoods these trees showed just how small we are against nature sometime. The soil in the forest is nutrient rich at the top so the root system for these trees is more near to the top. So like a stand to a drum symbol, this tripod style root system spreads out and of note for this writing is these large thin roots looked huge and like the side of a house and the person standing next to it would look very small in the photo. I sat there and reflected on the day, the snake and the stories of the villagers and their traditions.
It was not long before one of the local experts came up to our group and brought the monster snake, the anaconda, a snake god actually to the people of the Amazon. As the story goes; you have animals that can live on the land and animals that can live in the water exclusively. The anaconda however lives easily in both and this is why the locals considered it a god and if you killed it for food that would be very bad for you. So no one eats Anaconda Snake meat here. The snake itself was large and when the guide came it was wrapped around its hand, wrist and forearm.
Figure 5 – Anaconda
The guide approached us with machete in hand and the snake in the other. It was brown/tan in color with dark spots and on its side and bottom deeper yellow and some yellow spots. Its jaw opened up in a way that could never be described as fear. One of our group members helped the guide by grabbing the anaconda’s tail and stretching it out so we could get a feel for the snake’s actual length; it was four to five feet. So with the break over we continued on and almost instantly came upon an armored millipede whose size was perhaps 3-4 inches. It was black and brown and its back was a hard-shell and that is how it got its name.
The hike continued on for about another hour and we saw other odd frogs, plants and animals. There were also countless birds and there was a huge contingent, in our group, that were avid bird watchers and I suppose this was the place to be for that. I heard all kinds of names from terns, cranes, and Jesus birds and of course them Green Tyrant bird. I enjoyed learning the names and looking at the birds, hawks, and nests but that was the extent of my interest, I have decided that I am not a birdwatcher beyond understanding how to design the perfect aerodynamic bodies.
Figure 6 – Some kind of Frog
Another local remedy that was discussed and could work back home involved termites and the naturalist took his machete and cut open a termite’s nest. He let them crawl all over his hands to demonstrate that they would not bite or harm him. We all took pictures kind of amazed but I can honestly say we did not get why he was doing this, it was a neat trick I guess. As I was thinking this he crushed the termites on his hand and started rubbing the liquid on his arms and hands – he exclaimed it was a natural insect repellent and I looked at him and imitated the guide, as did others. If anything could stop the insects I was all in!
Figure 7 – Termites as insect Repellent
We loaded the skiffs and were back on the boat for lunch and a much needed shower. While we had been very lucky and we had experienced no rain the humidity was around 90 percent and we were in a tropical rain forest after all so a shower was in order.