Samona Lodge, Cuyabena Reserve
11.12.2007 - 14.12.2007 40 °C
Lago Agrio ('Sour Lake') is only a short flight from Quito, but it's a vastly different landscape to the majestic Andean valley seat of Ecuador's sprawling capital, photographed here at dusk the night before we left it.
Situated in dense amazon basin rainforest near to the Colombian border in north-east Ecuador, the town is an unattractive jumble of concrete, laid out in the usual grid pattern. Its low altitude means that it's much hotter than Quito, and much wetter. Lago Agrio is not the safest of places - its uneasy proximity to Colombia's active border is made apparent by the presence of armed soldiers at the small airport. We were two of the very few tourists on board the flight; a small plane full of businessmen as smooth as the local oil they trade, and some additional military personnel. Interestingly, one of the latter, a woman, was studying a document on the preservation of the environment local to Lago Agrio - either an encouraging sign or a meaningless piece of red-tape.
We were met by a driver with a van, and rattled off up the road. Three hours later, including a stop in a sweltering and unfriendly road-side cafe for a stale ham roll, we were beginning to wonder how far away our rainforest reserve was. The agent I had booked the tour through had been vague, and our driver was a deeply taciturn man. Finally the road literally ended at a high fence, and we got out. This was the 12km military zone between Ecuador and Colombia, as close as it's possible to get by public road.
We had passed an air-strip, which we later learned was a private airport, owned by a chinese enterprise. On our way, we had noticed much deforestation and settlement either side of the road. Most depressing, however, was the aged pipeline which ran the entire way with us, its discoloured, cracked surface a stark reminder of the large-scale destruction the oil business has wreaked on Ecuador's rainforest. No attempt is made to disguise the 30 year old pipe, propped up by often inadequate supports. It sags and bulges in places and I was later told that much oil leaks into the ground along its length. It's hard to understand why this monstrous conveyor of Ecuador's 'black gold' is not kept in repair, to at least prevent wastage, which in turn would prevent further unnecessary damage to the environment. I was told it would cost too much to repair, but this unsatisfactory answer fails on many levels - we hear constantly of the value of oil,and Ecuador's elite rich class is testimony to that, so surely the upkeep of the pipeline should be high priority?
We were now at the gateway to the Cuyabena river wildlife reserve. After registering at a small office, we boarded our canoe, a sturdy boat well capable of carrying ten people, their baggage and plenty of supplies for the lodge. There were, however, only the two of us bound for Samona lodge that day, and two Colombians who were headed for another jungle lodge on the river. Lodges are restricted in number in this protected area, and are few and far between.
Our canoe had an outboard motor which chugged us along gently in the muggy heat for over two hours. Although our guide was not with us - we would meet him at the lodge - there was a very knowledgeable man in charge. He spoke good English, though both Jan's and my Spanish is by now up to guided tours in that language. He pointed out several bird species, and identified monkey cries in the dense jungle to either side of the river. The water is a murky brown so it's not possible to see what lurks within. Huge kapok trees reach for the light, some covered by parasite strangler vines, while the river's edge is festooned with trailing aerial roots dipping well below the surface and conveying water up through each tree with maximum efficiency.
Every so often, something would turn in the battleship coloured brew - a fin or a limb, it was hard to say. The Cuyabena is home to freshwater dolphins,or Boto, as well as the world's biggest freshwater fish, the Arapaima, which can grow to 15 feet long. Then there is the enigmatic Manatee, (same species as the saltwater sea cow or dugong) http://usuarios.lycos.es/monte1/manati.htm, which lives throughout the Amazon river basin as well as in many of its tributaries. This species is the smallest of the sirenians, an order that includes all manatees and the dugong. The Amazonian manatee feeds on aquatic vegetation and vascular shore plants. It is preyed on by caiman and sometimes jaguar. Due to commercial hunting, now banned, Amazonian manatee populations have drastically declined. The Amazonian and African manatee's status is now officially vulnerable. We were lucky enough to see an Arapaima turning several times in the water, and the nose of a manatee appearing at intervals to breathe, at a deep bend of the river one morning, as well as two dolphins making a quick appearance above water. We saw many caiman (related to the crocodile) basking on the riverbank, or if we didn't see them in the dusk, we saw their eyes glowing red in the light of our guide's torch. Usually they shot forward into the water with a loud splash when they saw the boat approaching. There are piranha in the river too, which we saw up close when one of the guides caught one.
As we were still motoring down the main waterway, en route to our lodge, we weren't really prepared for what happened next. While passing a small mud bank, one of many, my eye was caught by a strange shape at the water's edge. Unmoving and very large, it took a while for me to realise what it was, and in the same moment the driver saw it and the motor was cut amidst hushed, excited exclamations.
It was a giant anaconda, the biggest water snake in the world, but there was something else - our temporary guide was apoplectic as he whispered "this anaconda is strangling a caiman". We didn't understand until we saw there was something wrapped inside the massive snake folds.
What we were witnessing was a silent life and death struggle. Now we saw part of the caiman between the anaconda's giant overlaps. This baby was a good 5 metres long with matching width - to give you an idea, it can swallow a caiman whole.
In his eagerness to aid our front row view, the driver let the boat drift too close, and the anaconda lost concentration, became anxious and loosened her grip. The caiman lost no time in pushing its advantage. The scene broke up in a flash, caiman shooting off unharmed in one direction and anaconda slithering into the muddy depths with astonishing speed. We were glad for the hitherto doomed caiman, yet sad for the foiled anaconda, a creature which, due to its geologically slow metabolism, eats on average once every two months, and which can go up to two years without food if need be. Kind, animal-loving friends of mine have since urged me to bring an anaconda home in my backpack, as they feel they would have use for its asphixiatory skills which would benefit both snake and afore-mentioned friends' immediate social circle. I feel it would be just too cruel. The anaconda would never survive. There are some things you just can't swallow.
I suppose it could be said that after this extraordinary introduction to Cuyabena, it was all a gentle downhill. None of the men had seen such an incident first-hand before. It didn't in any way, however, take from the next three days' adventures.
Our lodge was a circle of bamboo and straw huts, themselves circular. A wooden jetty leads up and into the 'village' from the river, which is the only route through the jungle. One of the huts is very big and houses an open-sided dining room with hammocks, in true Ecuadorian custom. Our room had an en-suite bathroom with shower and flush toilet! The water was tepid, which in the wet heat was all you needed, and every night a candle was lit in our room, as there was only generated electricity for part of the day. We slept under a huge mosquito net, and deeted up every day, before setting out on the river or into the forest.
Manola was a baby woolly monkey who had lost her mother to hunters, and had been brought back by one of the guides.
She was absolutely adorable, and loved to hold your finger while clinging tight to anyone who picked her up. She slept a lot, usually in one of the hammocks at her adoptive home in Samona. Melon and banana were her favourite foods. Having grown used to human company, she will probably remain a well-loved pet at the lodge.
Samona lodge is one of about 6 tourist centres in the Cuyabena reserve. Each lodge is miles from the next, as this huge rainforest waterway system is strictly protected and monitored. Only a certain number of boats can operate within its boundaries and speed is limited to an uninvasive putter on the laguna, a place of awesome beauty and tranquility. We had never experienced anything like the dawn visit to watch birds on the laguna.
Wreathed in mist, trees and islands loomed out of the stillness, as our canoe drifted past.
We were very lucky to have Neiser Toro as our guide. A local man who grew up in Cuyabena, Neiser had been guiding from Samona for 8 years. There was very little he didn't know about the place, but the thing that really stood out about Neiser was his exuberant and completely infectious enthusiasm for every creature and plant he pointed out, undiminished after years in the field.
He also had the sharpest eyes and keenest ears imaginable, easily spotting and identifying precise species of birds from huge distances, when it was about all we could do to verify that there was indeed a bird there.
He knew particular branches favoured by tree boas, and the feeding place of the smallest monkey in the world, the pigmy marmoset. We saw a colony of these tiny monkeys, extraordinary living furry toys with the faces of ugly miniature lions.
In one day we saw, and heard, eight species of monkey: capochin, howler, squirrel, pigmy marmoset, woolly, rhesus, spider and sloth. The sapajou is there too, and the short-tailed, big-bellied and nocturnal monkeys, but we didn't get to see them. Without Neiser, we'd have been lucky to spot two of the above.
One memorable day, just four of us - Jan, myself, Arata (a Basque vet working in Lago Agrio) and Neiser - transferred from the big canoe to a small paddle canoe and took off down a narrow channel where the big canoe would not fit.
We paddled through reedy algae-laden waters, more like marshlands or small-scale everglades than the river or the laguna. There was an abundance of butterflies and dragonflies, and so many species of birds that we could hardly keep track.
Fish periodically leapt out of the water close to our boat. We went out on the sublime laguna, our favourite place, and floated through the lake forest, our oars dipping noiselessly in the shallow water. Out in the centre of the laguna it was possible to swim without fear of caimans, and some people in another boat did, but we...erm... declined, also being wary of certain water-borne parasites it's best I don't describe here.
It rained every day for two or three hours, even though this was the dry season. That's why it's called the rainforest. In the wet season, it rains torrentially for most of every day. We wore heavy rubber ponchos in the boat, which got just as wet inside as out. But at least it was a warm wet, as the rain could be surprisingly chilly when it was heavy.
We fitted so much into our three days, it would be difficult to record everything we learned at this wonderful lodge. It was a real education as well as a pleasure to get to know Neiser Toro, one of a growing number of Ecuadorians who realise that their country is unique, a hot-spot of bio-diversity contained within such short distances. Neiser is writing an educational text book on Cuyabena for local school children, something which is so encouraging to hear, as it is with this generation any hope for the future of endangered environments such as this lies.
But in all his years of exploring, spotting and guiding, Neiser has never seen.....
a fully-grown anaconda wrapped around a caiman.