Welcome to the jungle

Making our way along the Napo River.
Making our way along the Napo River.
The Amazon is not just a jungle, writes Eleanor Hughes.

Luis points out a wandering palm tree.
Luis points out a wandering palm tree.
My  trip notes inform me I'm going deep into the Amazon jungle. I envisage wild animals, creepy-crawlies, few people, undiscovered tribes, razor-toothed piranhas - I'm just a little apprehensive.

Civilisation is left behind in Coca. In a motorised canoe, a daypack-width of room between opposite traveller's knees, we're propelled east along the milky-tea-coloured Napo River. The boat's orange plastic roof protects us from the sun, the ride bringing a welcome breeze to a sweat-dripping morning. A backdrop of greenery on either bank, several hundred metres apart in places, is broken only by the odd red flower, black vulture turkey or a hoatzin - a grunting bird that looks like a tail-less, punk-rocking pheasant. Twice we clamber over the wooden sides to help free the boat when we hit sand bars. I make sure I'm back aboard when water gets over my knees in case of piranhas. A tributary of the Amazon, the Napo is little deeper than a paddling pool in places. Occasionally tree trunks and branches jut from the water, embedded javelin-like in the river bottom. Sandbanks form islands mid-river. Over five or so hours spent on the Napo, in northeastern Ecuador, we hear tales of missionaries murdered by never-before-seen tribes, of Spanish adventurers centuries ago searching for El Dorado - a man covered in gold dust - and of a shaman who cured Luis, our guide, of kidney stones by shaking a fan of leaves from a certain tree over his body. We pass by distant raging orange flames - a small oil field. Not what I expected in the Amazon Jungle.

Fishermen in the Amazon.
Fishermen in the Amazon.
Neither is the cell tower, dirt roads, street lights and concrete buildings we come across after a half-hour walk from landing. Limoncocha, within the 4613-hectare Limoncocha Biological Reserve, is a small Kichwa-Amazon community and no, the people aren't clothed in leaves. Locals play football in a field opposite Cabana Pusara, our thatched accommodation. Where do they find the energy? I'm lethargic.

As dusk descends, high-pitched chirping and whistling crescendoes from the surrounding greenery. The jungle is alive - out of tune and noisy, the musicians invisible. What drops on the shoulder of the girl opposite as she eats her dinner I don't think is responsible for any of the music, but is for the screams which ensue. We scatter. The blackish-brown, furry tarantula is nearly the size of the schnitzel on our plates.

Amazon Jungle tour guide Luis shows the group an owl moth. PHOTOS: ELEANOR HUGHES
Amazon Jungle tour guide Luis shows the group an owl moth. PHOTOS: ELEANOR HUGHES
I wake at dawn to a Star Wars' laser gun sound. Pew-pew. A sing-songy bird joins in. On the mosquito net covering me, a foot above my face, rests a spider. Its legs are longer than my fingers.

Luis says he was inspired to further his knowledge of the rainforest when he met David Attenborough in the Amazon about 30 years ago. Over several hours, with background sounds of chirping insects, bird calls and the odd Howler monkey, Luis leads us through 40m-high, dense growth, an artist's palette of greens, and shows us the help-yourself-pharmacy of the Amazon jungle. The lack of labelling on the medication is a disadvantage to those not in the know.

Plants which I would've walked past and thought nothing of have Luis excited. A pale green spongy moss is used to soothe mosquito bites. Monster, black jellybean-like, fungus grows on a tree trunk. Pluck a jellybean off, break it open and inside is white liquid to treat ear or eye infections. Clinging to another tree trunk, a whitish brown fungus slightly resembling half a tiny lily pad, is pulled off by Luis. He peels it apart to reveal a very thin skin-like layer. Placed over a wound it will stay on until the injury has healed. Nature's sticking plaster.

Luis stops at a palm tree. Its roots, above the ground, resemble a tepee frame. He tells us the palm can wander the forest floor when needed for a sunnier position. I don't spot any roaming around, or any undiscovered tribesman skulking behind them. We wade through swampy mud, which sucks off somebody's gumboot and swallows it. It brings to mind a movie scene in which quicksand slowly devoured someone.

We catch sight of a squirrel monkey dropping from branch to branch high above and as I step over a bobbing, green line of pedestrian rush-hour-paced, leafcutter ants bearing segments of leaves, Luis cries, "Wow!''

His knife comes out. He's spotted the plant which Amazonian tribes use the bark of in their blowpipes, or blowguns. It paralyses the nerves. Pain is still felt, but nothing can be done about it. Enough of it in your system and you are slowly paralysed to death. Luis puts a tiny amount on his lip, which he soon finds difficult to move.

"Anyone want to try?'' he mumbles.


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