Friday, 5 December 2008

Where the Condors Soar.

I would be lying if I said that I enjoy travel. What, I hear you cry? How can someone who does not enjoy travelling spend four months travelling around South America? Well, let me explain. I love the end result of travelling, arriving at my destination to be thrilled at what is waiting to be found there. What I don’t like is getting there, be it by car, train, bus, aeroplane, bike, boat, mule or on my own two weary feet. The same goes for getting back again. As you may have already read, getting to the Manu Biosphere Reserve was quite an adventure in itself. Getting back again was no different. It involved another long boat trip followed by a rather harrowing car journey along a road that will eventually span the South American continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Right now, it is “under construction”, a euphemism for a dirt road that has bollards down most of its length, 90% of the vehicles are dump trucks and visibility is reduced to nothing every time one barrels past. Add to this a windscreen that has so many cracks in it that the driver appears to have resorted to the use of colourful stickers to hold it all together and you have a recipe for a very stressful four hours. The stress did not finish once I arrived in Puerto Maldonaldo, since Mr. DBM, who was in a different vehicle, did not. After two hours of the guide telling me not to worry, he would be here in ten minutes, he did finally arrive, none-the-worse-for-wear. It appears that the car he was in got a puncture, then it broke down and then they decided to tow it back with them using a towrope that broke about 14 times. It must have been a very short towrope by the end of the journey. Still, all is well that ends well.

For our next little adventure, we were going up in the world. Yep, back up onto the Altiplano of Peru. We were heading for the Colca Canyon in search of the condor. I am very torn by the high plains of the Andes. I love the wildness and the bleakness, the way the weather changes in a matter of minutes from glorious sunshine to hail, sleet and snow. The sky is so pure and bright, the colours vivid, vibrant and ever-changing as the light strikes the land at different angles. Everything feels so clean and fresh, the air is untainted and you feel exhilarated as you draw in deep lungfuls of glorious, refreshing, bracing, ........... wait a minute, here is the catch ......... oxygen-depleted air. You see, I may delight in the beauty of the Altiplano, but I have no energy to explore its splendour. I didn’t even have the energy to go shopping – gasp, what, that can’t be so. Well, you may gasp, and that is exactly what I was doing as I was trying to buy a jumper (sweater for all you North Americans) for my Mum. I cannot recommend high altitude shopping. First of all, I didn’t even make it passed the first stall to scrutinize the variety of goods available at the other stalls (I wonder if you have to pay a premium to get that prime selling position). Then, I didn’t have the energy to peruse all my jumper-buying options at the stall I did make it to. As for bartering, well, that fell into the category of “here is my purse, help yourself”. So, I am guessing that my hypoxic purchase may have been a little on the wrong size, wrong colour, wrong style, over-priced side. Oh well, at least my Mum can wear it with pride and let everyone know that it was acquired at 5000m above sea level.

Aside from the low oxygen levels, there are other difficulties associated with living on the Andean Altiplano. These include the scarcity of water, due to the rain shadow formed by the Andes, rapid changes in temperature, from very cold at night, to searingly hot during the day, strong, drying winds and high UV levels. The Altiplano is a harsh place to live and any tourist who travels there can attest to this. However, a tourist does not live here and can retreat to their hotel room with lots of hot water and warm bedding whenever they need to (note, I did not include central heating here, since I have yet to find a hotel that actually heats their rooms – perhaps I need to find more upmarket hotels? Instead, you end up getting crushed every night under a mountain of blankets). The fauna and flora of this region have no such luxuries, so how do they survive? You will now expect to ooooh and aaaah over some cute, furry creature and learn how its fur keeps it warm at night and how it can cool off during the day by hiding in burrows and rock crevices. But no, I will not. It is time for a closer look at an example of the flora of this region. Yes, a plant. I once had a student who asked me “Why do we have to study plants? They are so boring?” And my answer was.........“What have you eaten today?” Think about it. Can you think of any food that you have eaten in the past week that does not, directly or indirectly rely on plants?

The very interesting plant that caught my eye on the Altiplano was the yareta. This is a very compact plant that hugs the ground, forming large mounds that look like huge, soft pillows of moss. Don’t let appearances fool you, and never jump onto a yareta plant thinking that it will be nice and soft. It is, in fact, rock hard, because the individual plantlets making up the mound are packed together so tightly. This compact growth form minimises water and heat loss, allowing the plant to survive in its harsh habitat. The yareta is so well adapted to the high levels of solar radiation found on the plains that it can no longer grow in the shade. Due to the unforgiving conditions here, this plant grows incredibly slowly, around 1mm per year and some yaretas are thought to be over 3000 years old.

There you go, an interesting plant. And for those of you who would still prefer something cute and cuddly, I give you the viscacha. This gorgeous little guy is a close relative of the chinchilla and it lives in amongst the rocks and crevices at high altitudes in the Andean mountains. Its fur is soft and dense, to keep it warm and to make sure that it is as cute as a button for our viewing pleasure.

Now, let's get to the canyon. The Colca Canyon is sometimes said to be the deepest canyon in the world, more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. However, this is much disputed, since it seems to be a matter of opinion as to where the top of the canyon is. As far as I was concerned, the top of the canyon was where our vehicle was waiting for us after we ascended from its depths. Facts and figures aside, I can tell you this - if you only ever visit one canyon in your life, make it the Grand Canyon. It may not be as deep, but it is way grander! Aside from its deepness, the Colca Canyon is probably the most famous for its Andean Condors. I was so looking forward to seeing them soar above the canyon walls, wheeling effortlessly in the upwellings of warm air, the majestic kings of the canyon. You can guess what is coming next, can’t you? Yep, lots of hanging around in the freezing cold and not a condor in sight. Not that I was too bothered at that point, since we had two more days in the canyon and I was being quite entertained by the hummingbirds. I have now finally got my much sought photograph of a feeding hummingbird. OK, so it was the largest and slowest hummingbird that I have ever seen, but a hummingbird is a hummingbird.............

The next morning, we headed down into the canyon. And down, and down and then some more down. It got hotter and drier the further down we went, until we were greeted by a little oasis of green, swimming pool, bar and all. Of course, I was too tired to take advantage of these amenities and I retired to my tent for a nap. On the way down into the canyon, I noticed an increasing number of prickly pear cacti. Our guide picked one of the leaves and showed us a very interesting creature. The question, Bugs' Biological Brainteaser of the Day, is – what is it? As a clue, I have included a picture of the guide’s hand immediately after squashing the mystery animal.

What goes down, has to come up again and so the next morning was destined to be a long, long, looooooonnnnnng haul back up to the top of the canyon. I was really not looking forward to this part of the hike. You see, it took me about three and a half hours to get down. The guide seemed to think that I would be able to hike back up in three hours. After witnessing my look of incredulity, he attempted to explain that people hike faster going up than coming down since they are less likely to trip and fall. OK, I can buy that, but he seemed to have neglected to factor in the fact that it requires a lot more effort going up and that I am a terribly slow hiker at the best of times and that the lack of oxygen at the higher altitudes has significant effects on my abilities to do anything, let alone hike up a very steep incline. The answer to this apparent dilemma came in the form of a mule and a $10 US bill. So, a three hour plus slog or a $10 mule? Do I look stupid? To those of you who know me, you don’t need to answer that question and for those of you who don’t, well, I wear glasses, so how stupid could I be? The mule it is then and let me tell you, that was the best $10 I have ever spent. I have to admit at this point that, at times, I take a perverse pleasure in other people’s suffering. There is Mr. DBM and I, admiring the view, letting our mules do all the hard work. Then there were all those people who made the decision to hike out. There they were, all red-faced and sweaty, huffing and puffing their way up out of the canyon and there I was, on my mule, and the only muscles doing any work were those required to smile. I couldn’t help but indulge in a quiet little chuckle, greeting them all with a cheery “Hola!” as we passed. Well, they could have taken a mule, couldn’t they?

So, did we ever get to see the condors? Well, technically, yes, I can say that I did see the condors at the Colca Canyon. But after a bum-numbing hour of sitting on rocks on the rim of the Canyon and only seeing a couple, very far away, I feel less than satisfied with my sightings. But, who knows, perhaps I will get the opportunity to see them again, just like those giant otters...........I live in hope.........well, you have to, don’t you?

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Stinky Birds and Howling Monkeys

OK, all you armchair travellers out there - lace up your sturdy boots, tuck your trousers into your socks (who knows what might nip up your trouser leg while you are not looking) and douse yourselves with DEET - we are off to the jungle.............

At the end of my last post, I was looking forward to descending from the high altitude cloud forest into the lowland rainforest of the Peruvian Amazon. I was anticipating well-oxygenated muscles and some heat for my cold weary bones. Imagine my indignation when, three hours into our boat trip up the Manu River I discovered that I was freezing to death. I could not believe it – I was going to die of hypothermia in the supposedly hot and sweaty jungle! There I was, in my down jacket, enshrouded in my enormous poncho that has enough space under it for all the passengers in the boat, wishing that I had put my thermal underwear on that morning. The wind was whipping in our faces and spray from the river was cascading over the side of the boat, raining down on our huddled forms. I was not happy. The caimans, perched menacingly on the banks of the river, seemed to be enjoying my discomfort, grinning from “ear to ear”.

Still, as with all good things, all bad things also come to an end and, after six bone-chilling hours, we arrived at Manu Park Lodge, in the heart of the Manu Biosphere Reserve. I rushed into the Lodge and straight into a lovely hot shower .......... oh no, wait, there were no hot showers – it is the hot, sweaty jungle - people want cold showers here, right? Oh well, at least I could don my trusty thermals and another layer of fleece. I was tempted to snuggle down into my down sleeping bag, but there was a rainforest out there just waiting to be discovered...........

So off we trot on our first walk in the forest. Our guide takes a lot of time explaining to us that we might not actually see anything. He understands that we all want to see the jaguars and the giant otters, the tapirs and the peccaries, the huge snakes that can swallow a cow whole, but, well, there are a lot of trees in the way and the vegetation is quite dense and the animals are very shy and most only come out at night so really, we should be happy if we get to see a couple of ants and perhaps a spider or two. The funny thing is, while I would give my eye teeth to see a jaguar and I really did come all that way to catch a glimpse of a giant otter, I actually was quite excited to see a couple of ants. But then, these were no ordinary ants – these were huge bullet ants. One-inch long, jaws that look strong enough to bite your finger off and a nickname of the 24-hour ant, so called because if one does bite you, you will be in pain for the next 24 hours. Our guide certainly earned his tip when he held up one ant on a stick for 10 minutes while I tried to get some good photos of it not biting his finger.

I was also happy just to be surrounded by all the life of the rainforest. The many species of trees, all reaching up to the sunlight, draped with lianas, with ferns and bromeliads using their branches as perches high up in the canopy, competing for their own little patch of sunlight. Down on the forest floor in the carpet of leaves, colourful grasshoppers leap off in all directions as your foot descends on their little patch of undergrowth. Ants march in orderly lines, always apparently knowing exactly where they are going and what their role is within their regimented colony. Flashes of colour flirt with your peripheral vision – was it a bird, a butterfly, a falling petal from a flowering tree? Fungi sprout from fallen trees, delicate white caps on long slender stalks, orange and brown shelves jutting from the sides of dead, but certainly not lifeless, trees. The long, cylindrical body of a millipede goes trundling by on the undulating waves of its many legs. A spider gets to work repairing the trap that you have just destroyed as you wander along through this web of life. You may not be able to see the jaguar stalking past or the harpy eagle snatching a monkey from a nearby tree, but you know that they are all out there, you can feel the living forest breathing, moving, constantly changing around you.

Having said all that, I really did want to see something big and furry........

You know that when your guide suddenly stops and starts staring intently into the forest, his hand held up, motioning for silence, that there is something out there. In most cases, you do not have a clue what he might have seen or heard. No matter how hard you look or how much you strain your ears, as far as you can tell, there is nothing there. However, there are times when even I could tell something was afoot in the jungle. You would hear branches snapping, see the canopy moving, and large objects would start falling from the canopy onto the forest floor below – were they falling, or were they being thrown? The sound and the movement would travel towards you and then, suddenly, the forest would come alive around you. Monkeys! Large family groups of squirrel monkeys and capuchin monkeys, moving through the forest, from one tree to the next, not worrying about being quiet or staying hidden from view. Acrobatic leaps from one branch to another - Cirque du Soleil eat your heart out! Every so often, one would stop and stare down at you, bare its teeth and then throw something in your general direction. I am pretty sure it was just bits of branches, but I was always a little wary of being in the line of fire of gobs of monkey poo. We might love to watch these furry little fellows, but they were not so keen on being watched or having their territory invaded by us.

Early the next morning, I was woken by, well, I was not really sure at the time. To begin with, I heard what sounded like a gentle breeze rustling through the leaves of the trees. This breeze increased in strength to a wind blowing through the branches, up to a gale howling down the valley, screeching around the building, tearing through the branches. It was as if a freight train was barrelling towards me or a wall of water was thundering down upon me. I was starting to worry, when the maelstrom of sound began to coalesce into distinct hoots and bellows and, as the sun dawn, it dawned on me what was making the noise – howler monkeys. Every morning and every evening, as sure as the sun rises and sets, the male howler monkeys ensure that every living creature in the jungle knows where they are and what part of the jungle is their home. The males actually have specialised throat chambers, made from an expansion of skeleton that they use to produce these amplified sounds. For me, the howlers made a very convenient alarm clock, and I knew that it was time to get up and head back out into the jungle.

I love the jungle in the early morning. It is still cool and that layer of sweat, which will inevitably cover you as the heat builds, has yet to form. As the sun rises, the mist that hangs over the lake slowly burns off and the sun lights up the surrounding forest. Many of the animals of the forest also appreciate the cooler temperatures and it is a great time to be out and about looking for those elusive giant otters and jaguars. OK, so, maybe you won’t see them, but you will certainly see many birds and other animals. One morning, we took to the canoe and went gliding silently over the still waters of the lake, searching the forest edge for signs of life.

The stillness was abruptly and rudely broken by a group of stinky birds. Now, I got to know the stinky bird quite well while in the jungle. It was quite difficult not to, the amount of noise and commotion that they make wherever they go. To me, the stinky bird was quite fascinating, just because it seemed quite the opposite of almost all the other animals in the forest. It was loud, noisy and obnoxious and it appeared to be quite useless at everything. It stumbled around in the branches, crashing from one bush to the next, only capable of flying for around 20 seconds at a time. Unlike other animals of the jungle, it was never hard to find a stinky bird. If you couldn’t hear one screeching, squawking, growling like a cat (I actually thought that I had two jaguars fighting behind my room one night, but it turns out that it was two stinky birds growling at each other), you could see them crashing into some bush or tree on the side of the lake or you could smell them from quite a distance – stinky by name, stinky by nature. Now obviously they were doing something right, since I saw more stinky birds than any other animal in the forest. The question is, what? I needed to do a bit of research about this intriguing creature.

As a biologist, I will often look at an organism and marvel at how well adapted it is to its environment. An eagle with its superb eyesight, razor sharp talons and a ferocious beak that can rip into the flesh of its poor hapless prey. A penguin, that on land may appear comical and useless, but underwater becomes a graceful torpedo, slicing through the water with ease and grace. Think of a hummingbird, with its incredibly light skeleton and wings that can beat faster than any other bird, allowing it to hover and manuever with skill and precision. Now, lets look at the stinky bird. It certainly breaks no record as a flyer, only managing 20 seconds at a time. It is not graceful, it is not fast. It is no good at being quiet and it certainly does not use camouflage to blend into its background to become invisible, like a nightjar on its nest. It is not a ferocious predator, nor does it have any ability to stalk or ambush prey. So, just how does it survive? What does it eat and why isn’t every carnivore in the forest chowing down on this very visible but not very mobile bird?

Well, let’s just look at some of the adaptations that make the stinky bird, more properly known as the hoatzin (Ophisthocomus hoazin), so special. For food, they make use of fruits and leaves that many other animals find hard to digest. They are able to do this because they have an enlarged crop that acts as a fermentation chamber, in a similar manner to the rumen of a cow. This system is unique among birds and leads to unpleasant odours emanating from the bird, hence the local name. Another side effect of the enlarged crop is the lack of room for flight muscles, hence the lack of any grace or endurance in flying. So, the stinky bird does not need a whole lot of skill to find its food. Instead, it is fabulously adapted to use food that other birds cannot. So, that answers one question. But what protects this unique bird from its potential predators? It turns out that the stinky bird not only stinks, but it also tastes foul! So, you can catch it, but would you want to eat it?

Before I leave the stinky bird, I have to mention another bizarre and unique characteristic of this most unusual bird. The chicks have two claws on each wing. This allows them to cling onto the branches around the nest and allows them to climb back into it if they are daft enough to fall out of it and into the water below. Is this a link to their reptilian past? Many biologists have tried to work out the history of this bird and how it is related to other bird groups, but all to no avail. Even with DNA sequence data, the taxonomic position of this bird remains obscure and greatly debated, so much so that it remains in a family and suborder all by its stinky little self.

While the hoatzin is a very conspicous inhabitant of the jungle, many other animals are much smaller, quieter and harder to spot, particularly those that only come out at night. To see these, you have to venture out into the forest at night, armed with a flashlight and a large container of insect repellent. I figured if the predators wouldn’t eat the stinky birds due to their foul taste, they certainly wouldn’t eat anything doused in 95% DEET! Secure in the knowledge that no jaguar with functioning tastebuds would take a chunk out of me (just because you never see them, doesn’t mean that they are not out there........), off I went in search of the small. Being an entomologist, obviously I was drawn to the insects that I saw. Many belonged to the grasshopeer and cricket family and most of them were very good at looking like something else. As you can see with this brown katydid that is disguised as a leaf that has already been half eaten. This might put off insectivorous predators, but I would be a bit concerned that some herbivore might sneak up behind me and try to take another bite out of my leafy behind!

Take an insect and add an extra couple of legs and you end up with my favourite group of creepy crawlies that send shivers down my spine, the arachnids. Now I think that I have made it abundantly clear that spiders do not make me all warm and fuzzy inside, and yet I cannot help but find some beauty in their form and function. This does necessitate me getting close enough and staying close enough, long enough, to actually get a good look at them. The photo of this little charmer was taken using a macro lens, not a zoom lens, so you can appreciate how close I had to get to her. The things I do for science!

Along with spiders, there are other much cuter creatures that are out and about at night looking for a tasty six-legged snack. One of my all time favourite animals and one that I have spent many an hour looking for in the bug-infested jungle when really I should be tucked up safe and sound in my mosquito netted bed, is the tree frog. Of course, there are many species of tree frog out there, but I am not fussy about which I see, since they are all just so endearing, with their bug-eyes – all the better for seeing you with in the dark, their wide mouths – all the better for eating you with, and their splayed toes with flattened pads on the end, all the better for clinging to the leaves and vegetation of the jungle with. Of course, the question arises – why spend time looking for them in the jungle when the reality is that there is nearly always at least one living in the toilet or the shower? I don’t know, but it is somehow just not the same seeing them in the bathroom.

So there you have it, a glimpse of just some of the myriad of life that can be found in the Peruvian jungle. I never did get to see the giant otters, but that just gives me something to look forward to on my next trip into the jungle. I am bound to see them then, aren’t I? I shall finish with a little biological brainteaser for you. Here are just two of the gorgeous lepidopterans that I saw and actually managed to capture on film. Now, most people think of butterflies as being the belles of the ball and moths as the drab, ugly ducklings. Given that, which one of these is the moth and which the butterfly? I think that we can all agree that whichever the moth is, it is no ugly duckling.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Shining Jewels in the Clouds of Peru

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………

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Machu Picchu - The Lost City of the Incas.

At the end of my last blog, I had conquered the Inca Trail. I had made it to Machu Picchu, the Lost of City the Incas. Was I ecstatic, excited, thrilled to be standing at the heart of a long dead civilisation? No. Quite frankly, I was knackered and I needed a lie down. I was also very disappointed that it was chucking it down with rain and that I could only see small portions of the ruin at any one time. But don’t fret, dear reader, that is not the end of my Inca Tale. For the sun will come out tomorrow.......

4am – The Sun was not out, yet, but Mr. DBM and I were up bright and early (well, definitely early). We planned to get the first bus up to Machu Picchu so that we could enjoy the mystical and magical ruins of the Lost City in solitude, peace and quiet. Imagine our surprise when we reached the bus stop at 5:15am, only to find at least 10 bus loads of people already there! So much for our solitude, peace and quiet. Oh well, this is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, so perhaps we should not have been quite so surprised. It turns out that most of these people were heading for Huayna Picchu, the mountain that towers over the ruins in all the pictures and postcards. Only 400 people are allowed on this trail per day, so if you want to do it, you have to get there early. I did toy with the idea of doing it, but only for about 24.7Āµsecs. Who was I kidding, the sight of just the flight of stairs going up to our hotel room was enough for me to break out into a cold sweat. So, while streams of people headed off towards Huayna Picchu, Joe and I headed back up towards the Sun Gate.

I may not have been paying much attention to my guide the day before, but I could remember him saying that the best views of Machu Picchu were not all the way back at the Sun Gate, but at a small series of terraces about half way back. Phew! I am pretty sure my tired limbs could not make it back up to the Sun Gate, but they did make it back to the terraces. As we reached our destination, I looked up, straight into the face of a llama. Just imagine my surprise and delight as I gazed into those deep, brown, liquid eyes, surrounded by long, curved lashes that any model would die for. I was captivated by those eyes..............but then the llama moved its head and I ended up staring straight into a mouthful of rather misaligned and somewhat too large teeth. I decided that the whole effect was delightful and immediately fell in love with Quido. I am not sure that the feeling was mutual. After all, I have blue eyes and, thanks to a good dentist, my teeth are relatively straight, but he did tolerate me for a while.
We then moved onto several viewpoints to get that view that I had been looking forward to every painful, arduous, grueling step of the way along the Inca Trail. Finally, there it was, spread below me in all its ancient glory, wisps of clouds clinging to the peak of Huayna Picchu, tendrils of mist reaching out and curling around the walls and buildings beneath me. I sat on a terrace wall, with my legs dangling over the side, Machu Picchu hugging the contours in front of me and grazing llamas behind me. I smiled. I just sat and I smiled. This is what I came for.

As I sat, I started to imagine what life must have been like when the city was in its full Incan glory. It was built around 1460, and was designed as a religious retreat for the rich and famous of the Incan Empire. It contains everything a priest could want – temples, sanctuaries, parks and residences. There are the all important sacrifice stones for those yearly child sacrifices. Apparently, llamas were the normal sacrificial victims but, every-so-often, it was deemed necessary to step it up a notch and offer up a virgin female to the Gods. A stock of suitable young girls were kept handy, chosen for their good looks and exceptional talents and skills. It was a great honour to be sacrificed to the gods and the lucky girl’s family was greatly rewarded. Oh well, that is alright then, although I am not sure what the poor girl got out of it. A few years of pampering and then.........Still, let’s look on the bright side, at least they had the decency to slip her a few drugs before the deed was done so that she didn’t scream or make a scene or anything. As a child, I was ugly and not particularly talented at anything, so I would have been alright, but if I had been pretty, I think that I would have been particularly useless at everything or poked my eye out with a sharp stick – they wouldn’t want a one-eyed beauty for the slab, would they?

As the sun continued to rise over the ruins and the mist and clouds began their daily retreat, Mr. DBM and I headed down to explore the narrow alleyways, buildings and terraces that make up Machu Picchu. As we wandered in and out of buildings and down the quieter, less visited corridors and alleys, I could almost hear children’s laughter echoing between the walls , I could almost see them running through doorways and down staircases, the past flitting before my eyes and teasing my ears, so near and yet so long ago. The spell was broken when a rather large tourist came barreling around the corner, telling his wife that he was planning to visit the hot springs of Aqua Calientes that afternoon. Great, now the only image burning itself onto my retina was large rolls of white flesh concealing a barely present Speedo.......shudder........

One of the things that has impressed me about the Incas is their skill with stone. Now, I know that I have complained, grumbled, moaned, whined and generally objected quite strenuously to all the stone steps that I have had to climb and descend on my way to Machu Picchu, but that does not alter the fact that I have been impressed with every single one of them. OK, so I didn’t want to have to tread on every single one of them, but one cannot help but be amazed by a trail that has lasted for over 500 years with very little maintenance. You can also see evidence of their stone masonry skills when looking at the walls of the more important buildings of the city. These are built with blocks of stone that have been cleverly cut so that they lock together like a jigsaw, without the need for mortar or cement. The walls all tilt in slightly and doors and windows are trapezoid in shape. Since no mortar is used, all the stones can move slightly relative to each other and then resettle without the wall collapsing. Such subtleties in design make these buildings very resistant to earthquakes – there are walls in Machu Picchu and other Incan cities, such as Cusco, that have been standing for centuries, while modern buildings collapse around them.

The most intriguing mystery surrounding Machu Picchu and one of the things that makes it so fascinating and enigmatic is the reason behind its abandonment only 100 years after its construction. There are, of course, many eminently sensible suggestions as to what led the Incas to abandon their most holy of cities. The most likely one is a combination of diseases, such as small pox, that were introduced by European invaders and wars, both with the Spanish and within the Incan Empire. Both led to a decrease in population, resulting in diminished manual labour and increases in costs of maintenance. In essence, Machu Picchu became a luxury that the Incans could no longer afford. My own pet theory is that there were just too many damn stairs that everything had to be lugged up and down and, one day, some bright spark suggested that they all go and live down by the river instead. Thus ended an era of pure mountain air, views to die for, llamas grazing contently on the terraces and calf muscles bigger than any Olympic athlete.

This picture has been added for the viewing pleasure of all, but particularly for Drowsey Monkey, Olga the Travelling Bra and my friend Cortes.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Inca Trail 1 : DBM 1

02:46 – I wake up, gasping. I take several deep breaths, drawing much needed oxygen into my lungs. Am I having an asthma attack? Why am I gasping for air? I need oxygen! Then I remember where I am – Cusco, Peru, 3310m above sea level. All my life, I have lived close to sea level and I have never really appreciated all the lovely oxygen found at lower altitudes. Now, I am really missing that abundance of life giving O2. Up here, on the Altiplano of the Andes, the air is much thinner and oxygen levels are lower than low altitude dwellers are used to. This can lead to many problems, such as headaches, lethargy, nausea, listlessness and, as I can now attest to, sleeplessness. Just walking down one of the cobbled streets of Cusco has me gasping for air and this has me worried – how on earth am I going to hike the Inca Trail if I can barely make down the street to buy some water?

Mr. DBM and I flew into Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire, over a week before we were due to start the Inca Trail. We knew about the perils of altitude and had worked out a plan to kill two birds with one stone. We would spend a week in Cusco to allow our bodies’ time to acclimatise to the altitude and we would go to Spanish school so that we would be able to communicate our wants and needs to the locals. I am not sure that the plan worked so well for me – my Spanish is, at best, still minimal and I was still suffering from shortness of breath and sleeplessness. On top of that, I managed to pick up some kind of bug a couple of days before we were due to start the trail. This purged my system of all its contents and left me feeling rather weak even before we started the hike. This post is therefore a testament to the strength, endurance, stamina and resilience of the human body rather than all the pretty flowers or the Inca ruins seen on the hike.

Day 1 – 12 km, altitude gain of 250m.

No problem there, I can easily manage 250m of elevation gain. We started hiking through the dry and dusty valley running alongside Rio Cusichca, aka the “Happy River”. Well, we were all happy at this point. The trail was flat and the hiking was easy. We passed small settlements complete with chickens, dogs and donkeys and hiked alongside prickly pear cactus and other desert flora. Then the trail started to ascend. Our guide kept telling us that it was just a short, slight incline, but I soon learnt not to trust a word he said. OK, so compared to what lay ahead, it was a short, relatively easy incline, but I was still knackered by lunch. And I was starting to get this very uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. No, it wasn’t something that I ate or the effects of altitude. I was worried. The first day was supposed to be the easy day, and I was already struggling. How on earth was I going to get through the second day? Still, after lunch, we ascended further up onto a plateau overlooking the river and enjoyed views of our first Inca ruins – Willkaraqay and Patallacta.

We then continued on to our first campsite. As I was closing the flaps of our tent, I gazed out at the towering mountains that surrounded us and saw a large, black bird glide effortlessly down the valley. Was it a condor, the majestic bird of the Andes, the ancient messenger of the Incas? It may well have just been a vulture, but I went to sleep with a smile on my face, imagining floating down the valley on the wings of the condor...........

Day 2 – 13km, altitude gain of 800m.

The uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, along with the altitude kept me awake most of the night. Today is the day we go “over the top.” If you look at the stats for the day, they really don’t sound so bad, do they? But what they don’t tell you is that there is a ruddy great big peak between the first camp and the second camp and that you have to go over this. It is known as the “Dead Woman’s Pass” and this is not making me feel any better. I am a little concerned that they will soon have to rename it the “Dead Women’s Pass.” It is the highest point on the Inca Trail, topping out at 4215m. Things do not get off to a good start. Mr. DBM also has an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Unfortunately, this is due to something he ate, and after about 1 hour of struggling up the trail he has to admit that he is now suffering from full-blown food poisoning and that he cannot continue. After a brief and tearful goodbye, he descended back the way we had come and I continued trudging on up and up, on my own, wondering if I would ever make it. The only thing that kept me amused were the hundreds of butterflies that fluttered and drifted through the trees, catching the light and my eye as they briefly alighted on the path before floating off back into the trees.

As I struggled up the path, I passed a large group of Japanese hikers. This gave me a little hope, since this meant that I was actually not the slowest person hiking the Inca Trail. I trudged on. I passed from the desert of the lower trail, through cloud forest and on up into the alpine zone of the high mountain pass. The pass could be seen, just ahead, but it never seemed to get any closer. It was a matter of just getting one foot in front of the other, climbing up one more set of stairs, getting from one bend in the path to the next. I tried to amuse myself by counting the stairs in Spanish. This was great for getting to around 20, but then I would have to stop and have a rest. Still, even managing only 20 steps at a time, eventually one will reach the top. And I did. Once there, I collapsed, threw up and then admired the view. You see, there are advantages to being one of the slowest hikers on the trail. I looked back down the valley, picked out the trail winding down its side; I could even make out a mixed herd of sheep, mules and llamas down in the valley bottom. But what I couldn’t see were any people. It was as if I were the only person on the trail, the only one admiring the magnificent view. My solitude was complete and I was elated. I had made the top of the pass and I was still alive!

Now all I had to do was get down the other side. When you are struggling up a hill, you always long for the downhill. However, once you start on that steep, never ending set of stairs leading down into the next valley, you almost wish for some uphill again. Note, I said almost! As I was making my weary way down, I met a porter coming back up the trail. He had a kettle and mugs and we sat down to enjoy a cup of mate de coca, a tea made from the leaves of the coca plant. This is all very legal in Peru, as long as you are just making tea and not trying to make or export anything else! It is said to help with altitude sickness and settle the stomach and it was one of the few things that I could keep down on the whole of the Inca trail. The porter then took my backpack and we descended that last few hundred metres into the camp. I fell into my tent and was asleep within minutes.

Day 3 – 15km, altitude loss of 1200m

This is the day that I stopped listening to the guide completely. I had done the high pass, it was all downhill from here, right? Look at the stats for the day, an elevation loss of more than 1000m. Yes, we had further to go, but the trail was all level or downhill, right? As the dawn broke and I looked down the valley, I could see a trail winding off up the side of the valley. Yes, that is right, up the valley. Well, obviously that wasn’t our trial, was it? We were heading down today, weren’t we? Well, apparently, not yet. First we had to ascend and conquer a second pass, nearly as high as Dead Woman’s Pass. As I was ascending this pass, I did briefly consider naming it “Dead Guide’s Pass”, but he was ahead of me and I was never going to catch him up and then have the energy left to kill him. So, I trudged on and up once again, finally reaching the pass at 3950m. Surely it must all be downhill from here? Well, apparently not, since the Incas seem to have a hard time building a level trail. Oh yes, they were great at building steps and staircases, going up and downhill, but there is very little flat Inca trail. According to Wikipedia, at one point the trail descends approximately 1000m, with one irregular staircase of 1300-1500 steps. Now, since I can only count to 20 in Spanish, I shall have to take their word for it,
although it did seem like a lot more steps to me! As we descended the second pass, we entered cloud forest once again, and, despite the fact that I spent most of my time looking at my feet, I did look up enough to see the unique vegetation that is found at these altitudes. There were trees dripping with mosses and lichens, adorned with bromeliads and ferns. There were tree ferns and cycads and many colourful, intricate and delicate orchids. And out of this misty, magical forest would loom Inca ruins that had been enshrouded in the clouds and vegetation for centuries before being rediscovered and revealed. I just wish that I had been a little less tired and had a bit more time to stop and explore this wonderful ecosystem, its flora, fauna and history. But, I had 15km to cover before dark and I had to keep moving........

Day 4 – 6km, altitude loss of 250m

The last day of hiking, the day I have looked forward to for a long, long time. It is the day we reach Intipunco – The Sun Gate – and I gaze down onto the greatest Inca ruins discovered, the Lost City of Machu Picchu. At least, that is how I always imagined it. However, the reality was quite different from my mental image. We were up at four, at the last checkpoint at five, where we had to wait in line with all the other eager trekkers to pass through the check point. It was then a forced march to the Sun Gate, with the goal of getting there just at sunrise, before all the tourists heading up to the site via bus, without shedding a bead of sweat or working a single muscle. Something is not right there........Luckily, the trail at this point was actually quite flat, and so I kept up with the pace for the most part. There were a couple of very nasty, very steep staircases to climb, but they were fairly short and I only needed a couple of breaks. One was to take a photo of one of the showiest orchids along the trail. What was most amazing about this orchid was not its size or its colour, but its abundance along the trail and around Machu Picchu. You could hardly miss these beauties!

As we drew nearer the Sun Gate, my heart began to sink, We had been lucky with the weather up to this point, but now the clouds were drawing in and, no matter how much I told myself it was just heavy mist, I could no longer deny that fact that it was starting to rain. As passed through the Sun Gate, I shed a little tear. All that work, all that pain and for what? A sheer expanse of whiteness, of nothingness. A man standing next to me stated that “It is the journey, not the destination that matters.” This bought about two reactions from me. One was to shed another tear, since I knew that that was exactly what my husband would have said had he been there with me. The other reaction was a little more extreme. I wanted to reach into the man’s throat and rip out his entire intestinal tract and then strangle him with it. After resisting this urge, I picked up my pack and wended my very weary way down the stone path and into the heart of Machu Picchu. There was only one thing that was going to lift my spirits now and put a smile on my face. I have never been so happy to see that balding spot on the back of my husband’s head. I picked up as much speed as I could muster down those last few steps and threw myself at him. “I made it, honey, I made it!” At this point, I really did not care about how Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu or why it was abandoned so many years ago. My body had pulled through and had achieved what it needed to, on very little sleep and even less food and now it was done. All I wanted to do was to lie down and never look at another step or staircase in my life, even if that meant moving to the Netherlands and living in a bungalow. Shame we were on the second floor of the hotel........aarrgghhhh........