Lewis Dartnell dons his naturalist hat and ventures into the Amazonian rainforest of Eastern Equador
Two years ago I’d formed the somewhat misconceived notion that travelling could never amount to anything more than a GAP year of one of three expensive and clichéd models: booze & bifta fuelled tour of East coast Australia, pestering Gurus with mind to “discovering myself” or scouring the Lonely Planet Guide to Kenya for that one extra shrink-wrapped Experience that would distinguish me as a traveller. It seemed to me Tourist is to backpacker as MacBeth is to thesp, and Alex Garland’s Lord of the Flies “Beach” was doing no good in convincing me that this was my copa de mate. After two years of trying to equate Paddington delays to the travelling tales of friends in the Kings Arms, however, I decided that enough was enough and it was time to broaden my horizons.
The upshot of all this therefore was that I arrived with Pete (travelling veteran, “did” S.E. Asia in his GAP year) in Quito a travelling Virgin, keen to scuff my embarrassingly new hiking boots and muddy my backpack. Equador has a tripartite geography, like Neapolitan ice cream if you will, with the Andean backbone sandwiched between the warm coastal region to the West and the Amazonian heartland of South America densely stuffed to the East. Quito, the capital (a fact loved by general knowledge quizzes), is nestled on the waistband of the world. After a day of sightseeing the touristastic Mitad del Mundo equatorial monument (sadly 300m off target due to colonial miscalculation) under the guise of “acclimatisation” Pete and I booked a five-day excursion into the Cuyabeño Nature Reserve. Billed by the tour agent as primary rainforest I was expecting this corner of the Amazonian rainforest (curiously named after a mythical tribe of Greek barbarianesses) to be crawling with the pick of the crop (excuse my metaphor mixing) of the planet’s biodiversity. I envisioned myself machete-hacking a trail through the dense undergrowth and coaxing leeches off my ankles with a Zippo. The anticlimactic reality became abundantly clear though as we drove into Lago Agrio, as close an approximation to the armpit of the world I have ever seen. Lago Agrio is a frontier town for the American petrochemical industry, and we practically followed the pipeline to the river’s edge.
My biology undergraduate enthusiasm was restored, however, by the four hour canoe ride to the campsite, as the guide furiously pointed out a wealth of different birds and trees, and with each was imparted a fascinating titbit of information. The Hoatzin bird for example, has evolved a system of separate stomachs like the cow in order to subsist off its staple diet of unnutritious leaves.
Faced with the same problem as the Hoatzin, the worker caste of these ants, more commonly known as “leaf cutters”, bite off patches of leaves and carry them back to the nest in great columns on the forest floor. The organisation is startling; a lane of leaf-bearing ants on one side, next to an outgoing, unladen lane moving in the opposite direction. Since the workers have to carry the leaf in their jaws they are very vulnerable to predators, and so an ant of the “minima” caste hitchhikes on top of the leaf and defends. The ants don’t consume the leaves themselves, but culture a single species of fungus (and “weed-out” all other types) that only exists in the nests, breaking down the tough plant matter and producing specialised “fruits” that the ants then eat. The leaf cutters have thus earned themselves the accolade of first agriculturalists in the world, tens of millions of years before the Mesopotamians.
The camp itself was somewhere betwixt London Ritz and Bangkok Hilton; stilted huts in which the floor is shared with the cockroaches but the rafters are rat territory, and where toilets are of the long-drop model. Food consisted of roasted chicken and rice washed down with juice made from jelly crystals, a habit ubiquitous in South America that leaves your teeth and tongue feeling infuriatingly gritty. In bed at night you hear the whine of a nearby mosquito suddenly stop, triggering a surge of paranoia that it must have just landed on your neck. In the delirium of half-sleep that is only ever encountered in oppressively hot climes my mind concluded that this is what wartime London must have been like, when the drone of a doodlebug suddenly cuts out. Is that sensation its penetrating proboscis or just the prickle of sweat?
Day three brought with it the joys of piranha fishing. Our group paddled down river on a raft of planks and plastic drums lashed together with rope, reminiscent of summer Scout camps. The trick was to well and truly secure a small piece of Spam on a hook and line (otherwise the blighters would either tear it right off or just nibble round the hook), toss it overboard and then thrash the surface of the water with the tip of the rod like a madman. The theory behind this being that piranha hear the disturbance, think floundering animal and swarm in. Pete caught one with particularly demonic eyes, I sulked. Pepé the guide (incidentally with an impossibly large mole on his cheek; I half expected it to grow into a full blown rival head, Richard E. Grant style) urged us to sample the cool, but less than crystal-clear waters and promptly dived in, taking soap with him. Dilemma: evil carnivorous fish vs. 3 days of stickiness. I asked the Israeli couple on the other side of the raft to double their thrashing efforts and rolled into the water. It took a nervous few minutes before I dared to unclench hands and feet, valuing all twenty of my digits.
Another walk that afternoon emphasised the medicinal properties of many of the plants. The matico plant produces anti-inflammatory substances, the sap of the lechemayo is akin to milk of magnesia, and the dragonblood tree exudes a ruby red liquid that can be used as an antiseptic. We all had a tentative nibble on quinine bark, an extract of which is used in tonic water for its antimalarial properties, and hence the colonial penchant for G ‘n’ Ts. The sap of one hanging vine, curare, is a powerful toxin that blocks nerve impulses in the brain, and is smeared onto blowpipe darts by indigenous tribes to paralyse prey (skin secretions of the ruby poison dart frog are sometimes also used).
The canoe ride back to civilisation brought us across the Greater Ani. Its Quechwa name (language of the Incan civilisation, which dominated the majority of Equador for a good 300 years before the onslaught of Spanish steel and disease) translates as the cooking bird, because its call sounds for all the world like a pot of boiling water. The Common Potoo is also known to indigenous tribes. Its song sounds particularly harrowing, and local folklore has it that the bird is the embodiment of the lost soul of a girl who died unable to be with her true love.
Pete and I arrived back in Quito with another 6 weeks of Equador and Peru stretched before us; Baños, Pisco, Arequipa, Puno, Cusco and the Inca Trial, but another story another time. I had a happy ache in my legs, a thick crust of fertile topsoil on my boots, and had lost my sceptical-bastard outlook on travelling.