Since childhood I have had the Amazon rainforest rammed down my throat. It was heralded as the last bastion of earthly paradise, encroached from every side by oil-spewing industrial evil. A haven for the wild and wonderful and a region of such rich biodiversity that miracle cures sprout like mushrooms from the forest's ferny floor and six-headed, tree frogs dance mystical jigs at the command of fairy princesses (or was that just in FernGully).
It seemed like every week at primary school I would be arrive with a can of tinned peaches or beans for yet another Bring-and-Buy sale. The idea was to buy acres of the rainforest so it couldn't be sold to the wicked oil companies who probably want to build twisted, singing pollution monsters (or was that just FernGully again).
The bottom line, I had been well and truly indoctrinated into the Amazon myth. So, at the age of 32, and entering the Amazon rainforest for the first time, it felt like meeting my favourite celebrity from childhood. Although in my case that would be Timmy Mallet... which somewhat destroys my simile because going to rainforest felt nothing like meeting Timmy Mallet, I know because I met Timmy Mallet.
I rode into the Amazon on a motorbike. My sat-nav told me I had descended 4,000 metres that day. The crisp Andean air was replaced with the stiflingly hot fug of the rainforest. The cultivated valleys had given way to the sort of impenetrably dark forest where wild, red eyes might blink into life.
|Lucy outside our cabin in Cotococha lodge|
Our lodge had no electricity and, after dinner, we had to make our way back to our cabin by candlelight. We were thick in the jungle and at night the forest really comes alive. I wondered how I would sleep with the heat and the crescendo of wild noises, but I did.
The next morning we took a motor boat along the river. It hadn't rained for a few weeks and the water level was low, in some places just over a metre deep and this created choppy, fast-flowing rapids over the stony floor.
|Entering the Heart of Darkness (or Aguirre Wrath of God, Herzog fans)|
|The banks of the Rio Napo|
We'd found the Rio Quijos Eco-lodge and hopped on a bus out of Quito. I was sat next to a sleepy Indian girl. She was on her own and I felt sorry for her so I gave her my chocolate bar. In exchange she told me all about the legend of Siete Cabezas (Seven Heads) who haunts the lake by her village. Apparently old Siete Cabezas is a type of snake and the villagers had to summon a wizard to kill it. My memory is a bit foggy because the bus flew over a humpbacked bridge so fast that I hit my head on the roof.
The Eco-lodge was beautiful and the sun was shining. Hummingbirds were thick in the air and an albino rabbit hopped along like Wonderland.
|Rabbit in the Amazon|
"It's easy," I lied (for some reason).
"The trout is a tricky customer but I'll show you how to catch one," I lied again, irrecoverably.
Annoyingly the eco-lodge had three fishing rods and plenty of bait so I had no excuses, I was going to have to lead the fishing expedition.
Five minutes later and I'd got the line so twisted and tangled around my rod that it needed to be cut free by Antonio (the teenager who worked at the lodge).
Antonio showed us where to fish, how to bait the hook and how to cast off.
"Ah, you're using the old double-ratchet reel," I lied. "I usually fish with the Smithsonian Squire method."
He nodded politely in bemusement.
Fortunately I was something of a natural at casting and even Antonio was impressed, which helped to salvage some pride (pride that would shortly be trampled into the muddy banks of the Rio Quijos once more). I gave the girls a few pointers about casting techniques - keep it smooth, flick the wrist.
After ten minutes Emilia got bored and went off kayaking with Antonio.
My line twitched, I gave the rod a tug. There was something on the hook, I'd landed a trout the size of Siete Cabezas. Slowly, slowly I reeled him in. My rod was almost bent double from the strain. I had rescued my manhood from the brink of irretrievable collapse. Tonight we would fatten ourselves on fresh trout. How would I cook it? A simple barbecue, or perhaps a beast this size deserves something more special, I wondered. A delicious garlic sauce... or we could stuff it and roast it?
|Trout fishing on the Rio Quijos|
Are you ready for the punchline that you've already guessed? I'd caught a big stick. Lucy was very kind about it all. Instead we ate wood-fired pizzas at a remote restaurant run by a Dutch expat.
We also had to leave the eco-lodge. Beautiful as it was, there was no water (due to a burst pipe) and we all wanted a hot shower.
We ascended the mountain and found Hacienda Cumanda perched like a lofty eerie overlooking a stunning valley. Swallows (or swifts, if you're as pedantic as Eric Rayner) circled high above the river, casting flickering silhouettes against the snow-capped volcano of Antisana. We were out of the rainforest and back in fresh mountain air, the smells were incredible... but better than that, there was a table tennis table where I managed to lose to Lucy's mum.
The hacienda owner lit a roaring fire and we all drank cold Pilseners as the sun set through the evening mists. Lucy's mum got matey with the owner and his pal and they all starting fagging it. Lucy's face when she saw her mum smoking was a picture. She told her off in a strange role reversal and sent her outside in shame.
During the trip I was taking photos. Two of which made it onto Flickr's Explore. There are 60 million photos uploaded to Flickr everyday and only the 500 most interesting make it onto Explore, it's like winning the lottery - twice - in the space of a week. Here they are:
|Swallows and Amazon|