Ecuador Rainforest

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It's a jungle out there
Ecuador Rainforest

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Ecuador’s teeming rainforest is noisy, steamy and just a little scary. Sarah Shuckburgh doesn’t
mind a bit.

Everything is warm and damp in the jungle. Our clothes, hanging from pegs, hang limply in the humid air. Shoes gather mould; towels are clammy. And the temperature hardly falls at night, when the squawks, croaks and chirruping of the rainforest merge with our dreams. But Sacha Lodge is as comfortable and luxurious as a jungle hotel could be. From the hammock on our verandah, spiky fronds of palm-thatch frame a vista of a million shades of green. A purple hummingbird - one of Ecuador’s 123 species - darts through the undergrowth, its delicate tongue zipping in and out. A huge turquoise butterfly lands on my book, fluttering its iridescent wings. Tiny black-mantle tamarin monkeys leap through quivering branches. Behind me, in our wooden cabin, a large fan hums.

In the small departure lounge at Quito before the flight to the rainforest, we filled in a questionnaire about our interests - a cunning ploy to identify like-minded guests, and to separate fanatics. I wondered whom I would get. Not, I hoped, those bird enthusiasts, binoculars at the ready, boasting loudly about rare sightings. Nor that gloomy Swiss couple in black lycra. But I didn’t want to be with my fanatical husband either - Guillaume is an entomologist, and will spend the whole time peering under logs and sifting leaf mould.

The flight is short but dramatic, with breath-taking views of the vast Amazon jungle. Looking down on such fecundity, it is easy to believe that it is home to half of the world’s species. We land at Coca, a shabby, steamy frontier town, where barefoot children play in the dust outside corrugated shacks. Salsa music blares as saucy prostitutes loll in the shade of thatched cafes, and off-duty oil-workers drink whisky and beer. We travel on by boat down the turbid Napo river, weaving between sandbanks and over small rapids, passing riverside hamlets with narrow fields of crops, and rickety dugout canoes full of children. Eventually we see nothing but dense, uninhabited jungle.

After nearly three hours we clamber ashore, shed our lifejackets, and proceed on foot along wobbly boardwalks and muddy jungle paths, as dozens of squirrel monkeys jump from branch to branch above our heads. Then we glide across a black-water lake in canoes, watching turtles swimming beneath the water hyacinths. And finally we arrive at the cluster of thatched, stilted cabins where we will spend the next four nights - ‘Sacha’ means ‘jungle’ in the local Indian language, and you can feel the brooding, timeless presence of 2.5 million square miles of Amazon rainforest all around.

Beneath the boardwalks, the shallow swamp shelters baby caimans from their older cannibalistic relations in the deep lake. Dozens of cylindrical nests dangle from a tree - home to a colony of yellow and black oropendulas. Extraordinary hoatzins, looking like colourful dinosaurs, clamber along branches, chewing leaves. A tame grey-winged trumpeter tiptoes right up to me and pecks at my feet before feasting on a banana.

As predicted, Guillaume spends his days erecting gauze flight-interception traps and collecting species of beetle previously unknown to science, but I am lucky. I join a group of three elderly Americans, who prove to be excellent company. We are issued with Wellington boots - a precaution against snake bites - and, as darkness falls, we set off for our first wildlife walk with our two guides - Richard, a young South African, and Sergé , a local Indian. Within minutes we have spotted a mouse-like opossum huddling in a hollow log, two huge hairy tarantulas, emerald-green crickets, spindly stick-insects, an elegant salamander on a leaf, and a wide-eyed marmoset only a few inches long, with an even smaller baby clinging to its back. Richard points to a procession of insects at our feet:

“One bite from these conger ants and you’ll be ill for 24 hours,” he says cheerfully.

“Muy venenosa,” agrees Sergé .

My torch casts a weedy beam, which only intensifies the inky blackness all around me. Every fallen log looks like a deadly snake, and I imagine a jaguar eyeing me from the shadows.

Each day starts at 5am, long before dawn, with a knock on our cabin door. One morning, we paddle through a swamp of freshwater mangroves to a narrow creek - a green tunnel of hanging creepers and dense undergrowth. Black and red dragonflies hover in the shafts of sunlight which dapple the tannin-black water. It is utterly silent apart from the splash of the paddles and the occasional song of a bird. Tree-trunks twist and coil round each other, the bark festooned with tumbling yellow orchids, sprouting bromeliads, and dangling hummingbird nests, made of a mesh of gossamer spiders’ webs. We hear the call of the dusky titi monkey, and eventually see one, scampering down a tree, its long dark tail curling.

We climb a wooden ladder which winds round the trunk of a giant kapok tree, emerging high above the canopy. At 150 feet, this is the tallest tree for miles around. The massive trunk is supported by surprisingly slender buttresses, and its branches produce delicate balls of white fluffy kapok which waft away, following thermal currents. Richard sets up a powerful telescope, and focuses it on black vultures hunched on a branch, and burly howler monkeys eating fruit at the top of a distant tree. Clumsy-looking toucans reach to the tips of branches with unlikely yellow beaks to swallow fruit whole. On the way down, we spot a black striped owl on a branch three feet away. It stares at us, and we stare back.

We follow winding trails through the tangled forest, and Sergé introduces us to traditional medicines - white lichen from a tree to keep snakes away, bark tea to cure headaches, palm fronds which aid digestion, a red antibiotic sap for infected cuts, and purple palm fruits which cure baldness. He points out treatments for malaria, cholera, sore throats and toothache. I munch half a dozen menthol-flavoured ants - effective breath-fresheners. Then I try some white rubbery sap oozing from a slit in the bark of a tree - the local chewing gum. Most daringly, I eat some wriggling maggots, which pop when I bite them and taste pleasantly of chewy coconut.

The forest supplies every need. The stones of palm fruits are as hard as ivory, and make buttons, brooches and ornaments. Vines can be twisted together to make strong ropes. A favourite meal is the agouti - as large as a hare, with a rat face and long back legs. But the jungle is also full of perils. Of the thousands of types of mushroom, only four are edible. We admire a jewel-like frog, with blue belly, red back and yellow armpits, which is used to make deadly poison darts. Sergé traps a six-foot rainbow boa and Richard picks it up, its huge shimmering body tightening round his arm and torso.

This is one of the greenest places on earth, but the soil is poor and thin. Fallen trees have roots only a few feet long. Jumbled aerial roots in unlikely shades of orange and red, or covered in white lichen, fan out like wigwam poles around sturdy trunks. Buttress roots spread like folds of a heavy curtain, or form arches - flying buttresses - which we walk under. The symbiosis of the rainforest flora and fauna is more incredible than fairy stories - we learn about a frog which lives only on debris created by leaf-cutter ants, and about figs which are fertilised by the burrowing of a single species of wasp.

At mealtimes, each group sits with their guide, and a strong sense of rivalry develops. The three Americans and I agree that our guide is the most knowledgeable, the bravest, and the most handsome. The bird watchers look suitably peeved when we tell them that we have seen a rare agami heron. And we’re sure the lycra couple haven’t spotted seven species of monkey, as we have.

One afternoon, we hear thunder grumbling in the distance. Dark clouds loom, and the air becomes stultifyingly humid and close. Tiny midges buzz round my face. Suddenly the rain starts; huge splashes leave circular splodges on our clothes. Squelching through instantly-deep puddles and slithering down slippery mud slopes, we return to our cabins and watch as sheets of rain slice through the air, bouncing off the boardwalk, and forming ribbons of water on the tip of each frond on the verandah. When the rain stops, the air feels thick with moisture, but the forest glistens, and the rising arpeggios of the screaming piha birds soar through the pristine air.

In the evenings, Guillaume reappears, covered in mud from head to toe, but triumphant at his day’s discoveries. As the sun sets, we swim in the silky black water of the lake, mercifully ignored by the carnivorous caimans and piranhas lurking below. The oropendula’s two-toned gloop-gloop merges with the chirps of crickets and frogs, the yelps of the white-throated toucans and the strange wind-like roar of the howler monkeys. Huge fishing bats swoop overhead as we sit on the jetty and watch as dusk turns rapidly to cacophonous night.

Our time in the Ecuador rainforest has allowed us to glimpse a profusion of life that is rapidly disappearing elsewhere in the South American continent - four days to see a natural paradise of unparalleled biodiversity, unchanged for 400,000 years.

Sarah travelled with
First published by the Telegraph

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