Wild Roots – Coming Alive in the French Amazon
Author: © Donna Mulvenna
Publication Date: July 11, 2016
Author Links: YouTube, Goodreads, Pinterest, Facebook
“And there at the camp, we had around us the elemental world of water and light, and earth and air. We felt the presences of the wild creatures, the river, the trees, the stars. Though we had our troubles, we had them in a true perspective. The universe, as we could see any night, is unimaginably large, and mostly dark. We knew we needed to be together more than we needed to be apart.” – Wendell Berry
Pushing and pulling a fully laden Canadian canoe over scrubland for a kilometer was, I assumed, going to be the most strenuous part of the week long trip. It was arguably the most dangerous because of an ill-tempered snake that has a penchant for open grassland and prime riverside real estate. This snake stays awake looking for moths and insects long after other less dangerous vipers have gone to sleep. It was just my luck they were out scouting for food while I was tramping through the scrub in a pair of trekking sandals. Not that I could have seen anything sinister in my path, as even with the sun still low in the sky, a steady stream of sweat was running into my eyes, effectively blinding me.
The first time I stumbled upon one of these snakes was during a field trip to Nouragues Reserve. Whack! I slammed into my friend’s back. “Oh boy,” she said. “Look at that!” In the middle of the path lay a snake that looked like the long lost twin of Australia’s common death adder, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. I didn’t need a field guide to tell me this snake meant trouble.
My internal database went into overdrive: malaria, dengue fever, Leishmaniosis, and there it was: Lance-head viper (Bothrops atrox). Locally known as the grage, and the most dangerous snake in French Guiana, it was listed in the pre-field trip notes alongside a warning that read, “Never catch snakes bare-handed, especially when you do not know them and bear in mind that helicopters cannot travel at night.”
This grage was not moving for anyone. Backing up to a safe distance, we stomped our feet, waved our arms, tried to look menacing ourselves and yelled, “Hey you, it’s the middle of the day, you are not supposed to be here,” but it refused to budge. Only after twenty minutes of studying and discussing every inch of this stubborn snake, and retrieving our GPS and map to decide on an alternative route, did it sense that it had won, and slide off into the undergrowth.
My guides for this trip were four men all more than qualified for a sojourn into the jungle. Then there was me, that girl covered in mud, blowing her too-long fringe out of her face, trying not to be a burden. My qualification for the journey was as part-caterer, and because I had been nagging for months to join the men due to a passion for all forest creatures. Well, almost all of its creatures. I hold a strong aversion toward ants. I find them the most hostile and ferocious beasts in the jungle.
I tried to stay focused on where each of my footsteps fell, but from time to time I would look ahead to where the scrubland gave way to the coolness of the forest. These moments of lapsed concentration, although rare, always ended with the canoe being hauled out from under me, sending me stumbling forward at the same time trying desperately not to reach out for the nearest tree, almost all of which were covered in skin-piercing thorns, poisonous insects, disgruntled ants, or all of those things combined.
Finally, I stumbled into the shade of the forest where I could shelter from the onslaught of the equatorial sun. A little way further, the men enthusiastically announced the discovery of the creek. However, rather than feeling relief, the sight brought further frustration as the creek more closely resembled a drain. As the canoe was dragged and pushed through the shallow water, I held on fast to its stern, desperately trying to free my feet from knee-deep mud before the canoe was hauled from under me, quite a regular event that resulted in me lying face-first in the newly disturbed murky water.
Insects I could not identify were biting me, and soft objects wriggled from underfoot, all in a place that appeared to dish up more hostility by the minute. What sort of paddling trip was this? Each time I neared a bend in the creek, I would silently pray that there was deeper more open water just around the corner. However, Nature was intent on stalling our progress, her toppled trees forming natural barriers. Each time the canoe needed to be hoisted up and over this debris my thoughts would try to convince me that I was actually having a really bad day. However, these were the times that something miraculous would pull me back to the wonder of the forest. Perhaps, an enormous buttress of the moutouchi tree (Pterocarpus officinalis) stoically holding up hundreds of kilos of vines above a seemingly immovable foundation or a river cocoa tree (Pachira aquatica) that displayed a gathering of long hard pods that exploded into full techno-colored life when I tapped them on the back of my hand. Then there was the appearance of the undisputed jewel of the forest, the blue morpho butterfly (Morpho rhetenor), whose metallic blue wings reflect the sunlight in dazzling flashes across the water.
The rain forest more than lived up to its name, when the slightest inclination to retrieve my camera from its dry-bag opened up the heavens. The rain, the type that buckets down with so much force that it stings your skin, brought forth a frog-concerto so loud that I needed to raise my voice to a dull roar to be heard. These frogs, although so clearly heard, were difficult to see. Especially the coveted and brightly-colored Dendrobate who no doubt was hiding due to a human tendency to use their bodily fluids as dart poison so that we can run around spearing and killing each other.
What people often don’t realize about frogs is that they can sing. This singing regularly takes place when I am trying to sleep, there being many a time I have gone on a midnight rampage to find the culprits, a futile exercise as they fall silent the moment they hear me approach.
Some fortunate frogs have a vocal pouch that serves as a resonating chamber. By blowing air while simultaneously blocking their nose, they can deliver a tune almost pitch perfect. For the others who don’t have this musical apparatus, they just croak. And it isn’t a croak but a call, and it is described in accordance to where you live: America – ribbit, England – croak, and France – coa-coa.
When frogs aren’t singing, they have a tendency to be quite wild. This wildness is most often played out in my outdoor shower, where the sight of a bare-skinned almost translucent white human sends them into some kind of a frenzy. They leap wide-leggedly, bulging-eyed and completely randomly from the shower wall and on to me, and, there is something mildly disturbing about that.
However, they do possess a touch of magic. During 1971, the late Loren McIntyre, who discovered the source lake of the Amazon, was rescued by a group of isolated whiskered Amerindians (nicknamed the cat people) who happened to lick frogs. When a magazine editor learned of this bizarre practice, he decided to visit the tribe and try it out for himself. He said afterward, “My blood pressure went through the roof, I lost full control of my bodily functions, I passed out in a heap, I woke up in a hammock six hours later, and felt like God for two days.” The wonderful thing is, hallucinations aside, the peptides in the skin of the green monkey frog may turn out to be one of the strongest natural antibiotics in the world.
It was with great relief we reached more open water. However, this wide expanse just brought bigger and more hazardous obstacles. As the men hacked their way through a maze of fallen logs and branches, I balanced on partly submerged logs, all in varying degrees of decay. Some held my weight, some did not. At the close of the day, my body was scraped and chaffed from heaving myself from neck-deep water over logs, my face was puffed up from having stumbled upon a wasp nest, my limbs had been impaled by sticks, and my shins displayed a suspicious purple hue from being bruised and battered. It was a tough day.
When we floated into our chosen campsite later that evening, my earlier feelings of, “Will this day ever end?” were replaced with, “I’m tired, I’m dirty, I’m hungry, and I am most certainly poisoned.” But it went from bad to worse when I learned we had covered only one-fifth of the planned route.
I strung my hammock high between two trees, my arms making it known I had exceeded my work quota for the day. I prayed for an easier day tomorrow but surprising fell asleep humming along to the lyrics of Don McLean’s “Vincent,” a tribute to Vincent van Gogh, who revealed it was the views of a star-spangled sky from his hospital bed that helped him recover from a mental breakdown.
A couple of hours later I was startled awake by a loud noise only meters from my hammock.“Something really big just plunged into the water,” I yelled.
Don’t worry about it, go back to sleep,” was the reply.
“But I’m scared. It was really big and I think it is headed this way.” I said.
“Donna, go back to sleep.”
My thoughts ran wild, but in addition to the panic, I felt something else. It was that jolt of wildness that comes when you are deep in nature.
At 5am I was wide awake but it wasn’t the steamy tropical heat that woke me. It was that incessant roaring. The first roar woke me from half sleep. It was just one roar that sounded like someone in unbearable pain had cried out for help. But soon, other howls began echoing back and forth, until the entire jungle was alive with howling, roaring trees. When the red howler monkey is awake, nobody else in the jungle sleeps.
Breakfast was the most important thing on the minds of the men, but I was more eager to learn what creature had caused the disturbance during the night. I was brushed off with an explanation it had only been a harmless capybara, the world’s biggest rodent, and nothing to worry about. “I am not worried about the capybara,” I retorted. “I am worried about the jaguar that probably chased it into the water.”
“Do you think we will see a jaguar?” I asked. “Probably not,” I was told. “But a jaguar will see you.”
Most of the time, jaguars just want to be left alone. They are shy, solitary, stealthy predators that are feline, not canine, so they will never become endeared to you. They are aloof, distant, cold, and calculating because they are cats – the ninja cats of the Amazon.
Culturally, we love to identify with predators. Whether it’s a wolf, lion, tiger, bear, or jaguar we embody them in tattoos, corporate logos, bumper stickers, and clothing. However, when it comes to co-existing with them, we are positively terrified. That is human nature. We strive to be wild on the inside, while we wipe out the wild on the outside.
With our gear packed away into waterproof drums, I watched one of the men for any symptoms caused by an earlier spider bite. I had always assumed that if you were bitten by an Amazonian spider you would see it coming, but this spider was no bigger than a pinkie fingernail.
Some of the Amazon’s spiders are so small their only means of capturing prey is to band together with friends to build webs. To give you an indication of how many friends, the webs are large enough to support a fallen tree or have grown men climb on them.
Spiders are spiders, not insects, and they are related to scorpions. Of the 42,000 recorded species of spiders living in the world, the majority of them live on the ground, up trees, amongst the bushes, and in the homes of French Guiana. That includes the biggest spider in the world, the Goliath birdeater (Theraphosa blondi), a member of the tarantula family.
A few years back a Harvard entomologist encountering a Goliath birdeater said, “I could clearly hear its hard feet hitting the ground and dry leaves crumbling under its weight.” “I pointed the light at the source of the sound, expecting to see a small mammal, a possum, a rat maybe. And that is what I thought I saw – a big, hairy animal, the size of a rodent.”
An hour passed by without any sign of symptoms, so we flipped the canoes right-side-up and pushed them out onto the water. I was pleased to learn I would be in the faster lighter canoe. It was going to be a good day.
Before stepping into the canoe, one of the men advised me, helpfully, “Donna, make sure you have a pee now because you cannot pee in this river.”“What?” I asked, horrified.
“You are telling me now that the river is full of those lethal cat-fish parasites that swim up your urine stream, attach to your internal organs and then you die?”
Shaking his head from side to side he said, “No Donna, we will be drinking from it.”
I set off ahead of the group but quickly fell behind each time I stopped paddling to watch spectacular green ibis, admire a floating seed pod or inspect the remains of a decaying fisherman’s hut.
Two hours into the day the canoe arrangements were changed. I recognized immediately my easy day was over and the remainder of the day gave way to a new hell. Now, rather than pushing a canoe through quicksand-like mud and navigating through a heavily barricaded creek, I was having to navigate a larger and heavier canoe down a heavily barricaded fast flowing river. It wasn’t quite the white-water rapids of Saut Maripa on the border of Brazil, but it was enough to get my heart pumping.
Now seated in a canoe for two, my job was to keep the craft facing forward and to look out for rocks and submerged trees. But when you are sitting in an open canoe at water-level things just appear out of nowhere. I couldn’t see far enough ahead to make an informed decision on which path to take, which side of the river to pass by fallen trees, or where to attempt a stop. As for the direction of the canoe, the river had its own agenda.
Sometimes I chose the right path but then had to change my mind at the last minute because the river wouldn’t let me follow through with my plan. In those times, I did whatever I could do, which ordinarily would have been to scream, but because I was in the company of others was to take decisive action. I made good decisions and bad decisions, missed chances, took risks, and had many surprises. I helped to hack through vines and branches, fell on my face, swam blindly under submerged logs, and was sampled by every unruly ant that lived on the tree trunks I was obliged to scramble over.
Ants bring out the fury in me. It isn’t that they bite if you disturb them, but that they launch a full-scale attack without any provocation at all. You can never remain in the one place for too long, and you have to be aware of everywhere you put your hands and your butt. Nevertheless, as the day wore on, I must have began to hallucinate because every time I came face-to-face with a group of angry ants I would start humming along to Queen’s melody, We are the Champions, and admire their persistence and determination. Nothing phases them, not even carting a dead insect about one zillion times their size. They just pool together and soldier on. Just as I was having to, but they did it without complaint.
There were several times when I got it completely wrong. “Oh, blast!” I would say under my breath, “I thought we would make it!” But inevitably the canoe made a horrible scraping sound and came to an abrupt halt on one of the countless submerged tree trunks. We tried to rotate off by using some powerful sweep-strokes, attempt to paddle through with some serious effort, or push off using the paddle blades as leverage, but when none of that worked, which was often, all we managed to do was get more beached.
On one occasion we tried to dislodge the canoe by rocking it from side to side. However, rather than dislodge the canoe, our motions dislodged all the gear, which then slammed into the port-side and sent me hurtling over the edge. It was something I wasn’t too pleased about when wide-eyed, I watched an electric eel pass within arm’s reach.
There were many barricades that appeared impassable to my untrained eye. Yet despite my hesitancy, my companion would urge me to keep paddling, a course of action I was certain would result in my decapitation. Just before the moment of expected impact, I would carry out an implausible backwards-folding maneuver, and with unforeseen surprise emerge unscathed on the other side of a log, having just watched tree-bark and ants pass millimeters from my face.
Other times, after the canoe became beached on a submerged trunk, my companion would spring from the rear while I rushed forward into the nose, all the while clinging desperately to the gunwale, knowing the canoe could lurch forward at any moment. Neck deep in water, he would then give the canoe an almighty shove, sending it lurching forward in an authoritative motion, while at the same time he leaped into the rear, causing it to buck wildly.
I had expected a full day’s paddling to be a test of endurance and perhaps border on monotonous, but this was turning out to be a battle of the wits.
During the tough times, it didn’t escape me that I could have stayed at home in the comfort of my living room, watched all of these things on YouTube, and slept in a comfortable bed, but that isn’t the point, is it? Later, when I was told, “We knew you could do it. We are glad we didn’t have to turn back,” I thought to myself, “If only I had have known that was an option.”
But in reality, I never did want to turn back. I wanted to be part of the experience, to live it and breathe it, to marvel at the easy times and survive the tough. To see it through until the end, and there were moments when I did want it to end.
However, these feelings were short-lived when I saw evidence of jungle cats and tapirs, watched tamarin monkeys play in the canopy, or stared mesmerized at a haphazard trail of leaf carrying cassava ants.
At one time, I almost fell overboard with fright when a giant otter materialized just meters from the canoe to issue a warning snort. Up ahead I could see the unmistakable waves of his family making a dash for it. We stopped dead. The otter dived, resurfaced about twenty meters away, and started to watch us again. When he thought we were at a safe distance, he turned and hot-tailed after his family, leaving me feeling every bit the intruder.
We drifted downriver in silence. A few minutes later I heard the unmistakable sound of an otter swimming: a loud inhale “UHHG” followed by a soft exhale and “ah,” then silence, then “UHHG-ah.” As we turned the bend I saw a wave of water along the farthest bank and just beyond a family of otters playing on the riverbank. In a sudden flurry, the otters headed for cover. They move unbelievably fast. One moment they were there, the next there were only ripples over the surface of the water, calm and silence.
That night around the campfire we consoled each other over our wounds, tallied sightings of wildlife, and noted our varying degrees of exhaustion. As the men retired to their hammocks, I sat silently by the camp fire watching it dying out to make way for the stars. During that moment, I understood what Erazim Kohák meant when he wrote about feeling both peace and awe at the same time.
With my headlamp shining brightly, I clambered up into my hammock and thought to myself, “Yes, this is the perfect place to spend the night.” I was at one with nature, an almost ethereal experience where I felt an overwhelming joy and gratitude for being exactly where I was – home.
Despite the hardship, I never turn down an opportunity to venture into the jungle. These voyages offer the unexpected such as being caught in a butterfly storm, forced to take refuge in neck deep water because the ferocity of a deluge stung my skin, and learned how to suck the juice from the segments of the wild monkey fruit.
Journeys such as these create opportunities for laughter, reflection, and stories. They build lifelong friendships, allow everyone to share learning and teaching, test your strength of character, and reinforce personal ties with nature.
You do not really remember the struggle, but you remember everywhere you went and everything you saw. It is a gathering of memorable moments and a union of humanity with nature.
Never would I have guessed that some of my happiest moments would be spent in the middle of the jungle with a swollen face, tired and dirty, reeking to high heaven, and not being the least bit self-conscious about it.
I am still a long way from being a Jungle Jane. I enjoy my comfort, a zone where I can relax and appreciate all the things I don’t have when I leave. After all, the last thing I want is for my forest ventures to become commonplace.