So far on my travels in South America I have conquered the Inca Trail, just, and been spellbound and awed by the ruins of the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu. But, let’s face it, I am a biologist at heart. The time has come to find me some fauna and flora that I can oooohhhh and aaaahhhh over, whose intricate lifestyles I can learn about, life that can mesmerise me with its beauty or even captivate me with its ugliness and sinister good looks – OK, so I may admire nature in all its glory, I can fall in love with anything furry, with cute little insects, bugged-eyed amphibians and intricately patterned snakes, but I am the first to admit that there are certain animals, particularly those with eight legs, that just give me the willies. It doesn’t help that a certain individual from Australia keeps posting pictures of giant, sinister black spiders with grotesque, spindly legs, eating birds that they have caught in their webs. Thanks Baino! Now, I can appreciate that spiders play an important role in their ecosystems. They are marvellously adapted predators, generally of small insects, what with their silk that is stronger than steel that can entrap and encase their victims for later consumption and their toxic venom that can subdue and paralyse their prey. I will never kill a spider, no matter how much it may creep me out, but they just have two too many legs, they just look evil, malevolent and wicked and while I can admire them, appreciate their role in nature and even be intrigued by their adaptations, I just cannot help but feel my skin crawl, shudder a little and be just a little bit disturbed whenever I see a spider. Anyhoo, I digress..........
So, where does a biologist go to look for nature in all its glory? The most obvious place is that with the highest biodiversity on earth – the Amazon jungle. And that is exactly where Mr. DBM and I were heading next on our journey. Specifically, we were travelling by van, boat and plane to the Manu Biosphere Reserve, located on the eastern border of Peru. The reserve encompasses approximately 20,000 square kilometres (about the size of Wales) and includes highland cloud forest and lowland rainforest. Part of the park is a completely protected national park, which allows limited use for tourism, but no hunting, logging or any kind of development. Much of the remainder of the park is designated as a biosphere reserve, which means that limited use is allowed by the indigenous people that live there, including such activities as subsistence hunting, fishing and logging. This allows the people that lived in the region before the area was declared a park to continue living there, while still protecting the incredible biodiversity of the area. Manu is one of the best places to spot wildlife in South America and has one of the highest species diversities in the world. This was going to be great – jaguar, tapir, giant river otters, ocelots, peccaries, macaws, toucans................I was going to see them all, wasn’t I? Let the journey begin!
One sometimes wonders if all the effort to get to a place is really worth it, particularly when you are actually on the journey. Is it really worth all that bumping around in the back of a van, trying not to peer through the window as the van winds its way over mountain passes on very rocky, narrow roads with very large drop offs about 2 inches from the wheels of the van? I had great confidence in the driver, but he did always seem to choose the route closest to the edge of the road, the edge that could lead to certain death. I tried to admire the view, I tried to spot birds of prey wheeling in the sky above the van, I tried to take photos of llamas and vicunas as we crossed the high planes. But all this was in vain, my eyes were drawn irresistibly, with morbid fascination to that drop of death just inches from the van wheels.
Eventually, we crossed the highest of the passes and started down the winding road into the misty wonders of the Manu cloud forest. Cloud forests are one of my favourite ecosystems. They cling to the higher slopes of the mountains that enfold the Amazon Basin. The trees drip with water as the mist and the clouds condense on their branches. They also drip with an exuberance of epiphytic vegetation, branches covered with spongy mosses and long-haired lichens, being weighed down by bromeliads, ferns and orchids. The pools of water that collect at the bases of the bromeliad leaves form little self-contained worlds. These pools of water form homes for a great diversity of minute creatures, ranging from tiny insects, such as mosquito larvae, to the many larger predators that dine on these inhabitants, including carnivorous dragonfly larvae and the tadpoles and then adults of the some of shy and secretive tree frogs that inhabit the wet and luscious cloud forest.
The cloud forest is full of life, but as I soon learnt and much to my dismay, it is not always easy to spot. Much of the life of a rainforest occurs up in the tree canopy. You catch tantalising glimpses of colour flirting with your peripheral vision. You can hear the cries and calls of the animal life around you, but you cannot pinpoint its location or discover the perpetrator of the vocalisation. You know that you are surrounded by life, so close and yet so elusive. So, when you do finally locate an animal that is doing just what you want it to do – sitting perfectly still, just waiting for you to sort your camera out, get the right lens on and figure out exactly what white balance and aperture that you need - your little heart skips a beat and you want to cry out with joy. Just such a moment happened as we descended down into the cloud forest. This little jewel of the forest was sitting on a branch, right by the side of the road, preening his feathers, just waiting for our eager eyes and camera lenses to feed off his beauty. He is a quetzal, one of the most beautiful birds in the world. During the mating season, males will grow twin tail feathers that can be up to one metre in length and these feathers have been coveted by many native cultures for ceremonial proposes for hundreds of years. As you admire this little bundle of beauty, you forget the long tortuous hours of the van ride. You forget the misery and awfulness of the journey that bought you to this place. It really wasn’t that bad after all and you realise that was worth every bump and every heart-stopping moment along the way.
So, life in the cloud forest is hard to spot. Our guide loved to point this out to us on every occasion where he had spotted something that was no longer there by the time we had sorted our binoculars out and looked in the right direction. I was starting to get a little peeved every time he said that we just missed a toucan as it flew overhead or that there a was a monkey in the tree over there, no, not that one, the one further back, oh no, it has gone now. So, you can imagine my scepticism when our guide told us that we were going to see Peru’s national bird – the cock-of-the-rock - that afternoon. He sounded so confident, so sure of himself. There was no perhaps, maybe, if you are lucky. There was none of the hedging and betting and quoting odds of between 10-50% of seeing one that I was getting so used to. He didn’t try to reduce our expectations, to soften the blow when we didn’t see one. I started to wonder how he could be so sure that we would see them? Have they got them tied to a tree somewhere just to keep us tourists happy? Do they have some stuffed ones glued to a tree branch, just far enough away so that we can see them but can’t actually tell that they are not real? What is the deal here?
It turns out that if you know a little bit about the biology of the cock-of-the-rock and you know where they breed, you will always be able to find them. Their name stems from the fact that they build their nests and raise their young amongst the boulders, rocks and cliffs that border the streams and rivers of the cloud forest. The males of this species are little ruby-red gems that congregate in certain areas, known as leks, near the nesting sites. Here they spend their time trying to impress the females. They perform a ritual dance, which includes bowing, strutting, jumping, snapping bills, flapping wings and noisy calling, sounding similar to squealing pigs. As with many birds, the females are a much more sensible colour, in this case a dull brown, and they do not exhibit behaviors that will attract the attention of potential predators. They just sit and quietly watch and then the choice is all theirs. They may not be as pretty to our eyes, but they get just what they want and the power is all theirs – isn’t that always the way it is with females?
Our first night in Manu was spent at the Manu Cloud Forest Lodge, a little bit of comfort surrounded by all the colour, noise and exuberance of the surrounding forest. After surviving the Inca Trail and its lack of anywhere near decent toilet facilities, a place with a hot water shower and a flushing toilet is a little bit of heaven to me. And the lodge had both! It also had a gushing stream behind it that I was assured would lull me into a deep, peaceful and serene sleep. Many people seem to share the view that the sound of running water is peaceful. To me, a trickling sound of water tinkling past my ear at night just makes me want to pee. In this case, it was not a burbling, gurgling stream, skipping over the rocks as it cascaded peacefully down the valley. Oh no, it was a huge, giant torrent of water, blasting and thundering down through the rocks and boulders right behind our room. How on earth was I going to sleep with that racket going on all night? It is not like the river was going to shut off for the night, was it? Turns out that I was either so tired or my body was so grateful for the extra oxygen found at these lower elevations compared to the altiplano, that I slept like the proverbial log. Or perhaps, just perhaps, that river did lull me into the most peaceful night’s sleep that I had had since arriving in South America.
The next morning, we continued with our epic journey to reach the tropical rain forest of Manu National Park. Just as I was settling into my journey frame of mind, the van came to an abrupt stop – monkeys! Not just the glimpse of one in some far off tree. Here was a family of woolly-tailed monkeys crossing the road right in front of our bus. I even had time to get my camera out! I am generally not a big fan of monkeys – they can tend to look just a little too human for my liking at times - but these furry little guys were just adorable. Just look at those cute but grumpy little faces. How could you not fall in love with them? Since they live in the cooler climes of the cloud forest, these monkeys are covered with a thick coat of fur. Their tails are long, prehensile and very strong and they can often be seen hanging from just their tails to rest or to free up their hands for feeding on fruit, leaves or small invertebrates. During the day, they tend to travel in small family groups, moving from one tree to the next, foraging for food. Watching these creatures move effortlessly from one tree to the next, mothers with babies, young juveniles and large, powerful males was just a perfect ending for our short, but sweet visit to the cloud forest of Peru.
Next stop – the hot, humid, sweaty Peruvian jungle. Finally, some heat for my poor chilled bones………