The Flooded Forest

Thursday and Friday were the next pair of stupid travel days. First we boarded a van along with nine other passengers and two staff, and drove four hours on a not-great-not-horrible dirt road to Lethem, the Guyanese town on the Brazil border. We cleared customs, and decided to walk across the border. In Guyana, they drive on the left; elsewhere in South America, they drive on the right. There was a little overpass where the lanes switched right before going over the river bridge into Brazil. We cleared customs, and noted that taxis are expensive. Basically, they are little SUVs that like to charge about $65 for the trip to Boa Vista; we got ours filled up with five passengers. In Boa Vista, I changed some money with some effort to pay for the taxi, who dropped us off at the bus station.

We had tried to book bus tickets to Manaus way before we left, but the website of Eucatur, the preferred company, was hostile to non-Brazilians, asking in particular for the name of our neighborhood. Of course I could make up a neighborhood (Sky Londa) but my credit card company doesn’t know about that, and the card kept coming back as invalid. I called one travel specialist in Los Angeles a few months back but she said they don’t do buses. At the bus station we headed to Eucatur but they were entirely sold out, even on the extra buses they’d added for the Day of the Dead holiday weekend. A Eucatur representative said they were aware of the website problem.

We found that Amatur had some space left on the 8:30 bus, the last of the day, and bought tickets. We were left with six or so hours to kill before the bus left; we found a bit of grilled sausage and kebabs across the street, but mostly just sat around. No post cards at the bus station. Two of our taximates had gotten a hotel room, which probably would have been a better idea. The bus itself was pretty nice. The seats are spaced well apart and recline quite far, and a pivoting platform supports your legs. For me, the only problem was that my seat would not sit up straight — as soon as I leaned back, it reclined. Fortunately it didn’t bother the guy behind me, but it was a bit annoying. I took an Ambien and slept peacefully until the bus stopped at 3:30am at some roadside checkpoint where the military police wanted to record the passport info of all travelers. Dumb. We arrived in Manaus 11.5 hours after we left, at 8am. We found a taxi to the airport ($12.50 for 7km), and took our little flight to Tefé. We and five other lodge guests were greeted at the airport, taken to a nice little cafe for lunch, and then taken to the dock for the one-hour boat ride to Uakari Lodge.

The Amazon River is the conjunction of two other great rivers, Rio Negro and Rio Solimões, which meet at Manaus. Tefé is upstream from Manaus, on the Solimões. Uakari Lodge is a little further upstream in the Mamiraua protected area, which is between the Solimões and Japura rivers. It is located in the várzea, or “flooded forest”. In the wet season, especially June and July, the river rises 12 meters and covers all the land, leaving only the treetops uncovered. The trees all have this level marked with mud and dead branches.

The lodge floats on the river; many of the communities in the area have houses built on stilts which are above the water. Unfortunately, last year, the water rose 15 meters, and many of those structures were under water. Only species which can live in the trees for a few months do well in this environment. For example, the mosquitoes which transmit malaria cannot live there, so the residents don’t have to worry about that. (There are plenty of other mosquito species who do just fine, however.) As we entered the little canal leading to the lodge, there were suddenly great numbers of birds. Cormorants and anhinga were fishing and drying their wings in great numbers. There were many egrets and jacanas. And there were hundreds of long-billed terns, birds you’d expect to see in Antarctica, but with beaks more adapted to river fish. Ringed and Amazonian kingfishers flew back and forth. The eyes of several caiman protruded from the water as they swam around.

After checking in, we met the staff. André was in charge, a young biologist who spoke great English, and did a great job of identifying wildlife and managing tourists over the next several days. The other guides are all from communities in the area, and all are very familiar with the wildlife, but are still learning to speak English; only one of them could really talk to us. There were many birds and fish in the immediate area of the lodge: rufescent tiger herons and striated herons and kingfishers would sit on the railings; we saw many fish jumping, including the two-foot-long monkeyfish and the two-meter-long pirarucu. Since the oxygen level is often low in the river, these fish have lungs as well as gills, and jump so they can breathe. We boarded a little boat which took us to a trail (all excursions start on a boat, since the lodge is floating on the river), where we walked around and saw more birds and a few monkeys. After dinner, there was a video of the activities of the Mamiraua conservation area, which were basically the same as the ones we saw at Iwokrama (except that there is no logging). The video was much more polished, and perhaps Iwokrama will adopt that format at some point.

The meals at the lodge were quite consistent and consistently good: for lunch and dinner there was always salad, rice, beans, vegetables, starch, fish, and chicken. But other than the rice, each of the items were completely different at every meal. Breakfast was fruit and a cake, with eggs or tapioca pancakes served to order. All meals had juices, almost all of which were made from obscure native fruits. None of them were very sweet, and they were all pretty thin, but they were all quite interesting. And the desserts for lunch and dinner were all delicious: one of the most memorable was some pineapples cooked in caramelized sugar, which were completely brown and sweet.

Saturday morning we took a boat to a nearby community for a visit. That is where we learned about how they are rebuilding their houses even higher to deal with the increased rise of the river during the wet season. We met their pet parrot, who regaled us with human laughter and crowing rooster (to which other roosters replied — why don’t they take parrots on birdwatching trips?) and a little turtle that they are protecting from people who would eat it before it reproduces. The village is giving the turtles a chance to grow. They sold a few trinkets, and we returned for lunch. Late in the afternoon, we headed out to Lake Mamiraua, getting to the end of it and staying to watch the sunset. On the way, we saw hoatzin, a pretty crazy-looking bird, and learned to see the several hawks in the area, including black-collared hawks (the collar is very minimal, mostly you see their white heads and brown bodies) and yellow caracara and osprey. Just before sunset, all the trees on an island got filled with cormorants and egrets roosting for the night. We were wondering how we were going to find our way back in the dark, since it was a little over an hour back to the lodge. Not to worry — they pulled out lights and started looking for more nighttime wildlife; there were lots of caiman eyes reflecting their lights, as well as a couple of common potoos, birds we’d seen at night in Trinidad. We’d seen a boat-billed heron sleeping during the day in Guyana; here there was one who was down next to the water, doing his nighttime fishing. We saw some spectacled caiman, who were white rather than dark gray, only two meters long, and sitting on the bank rather than swimming. After dinner, one of the researchers gave a presentation on the shrinking habitat of jaguars, and the work he has done over the last ten years to track a few of them in the area near the lodge.

Since we had expressed more interest in birdwatching than other group members, we got to team up on Sunday with another guest Chris, who is quite an avid birdwatcher, had all the right equipment and his own bird book, and was already familiar with many of the birds. There was a bit of rain in the morning, but it quickly tapered off and we were able to go on a nice hike in the forest. We were warned not to touch the trees because they had spiders. We saw several birds darting around and often getting a nice glimpse in the binoculars before they flew away. One of the most spectacular was the scarlet-crowned barbet, which I discovered sitting on a branch about ten feet away. Yellow-rumped cacique and black nunbirds were easy to see. A blue-crowned trogon was also quite beautiful. There were a few squirrel monkeys jumping around in the trees as well. In the afternoon we went on a boat ride, along with another guest Antonio, whose ability to speak Portuguese to guides, French to his wife, and English to us, came in very handy. The highlight of that trip was probably the crane hawk, pretty much solid gray with a white band on the tail, and beautiful long orange legs. There were some bushes filled with yellow-headed blackbirds. We also caught a view of a couple more sunbitterns like we’d seen in Guyana.

On Monday we were greeted with pouring rain for several hours. It was supposed to be the day when many of the guests who arrived with us would leave, and fifteen others would arrive later in the day. But the flight from Manaus to Tefé and back was canceled. Someone supposed that it was because of the thunderstorms, and Tefé’s lack of an instrument landing system. We found out a few days later that it had been canceled for lack of interest; only thirty people had bought tickets and it’s only profitable when there are 65 or more. So the departing guests were stuck in Tefé for the night, missing their connections, and the arriving guests were stuck in Manaus for the night, missing one day at the lodge. Sigh. We missed a morning of activity because of the rain, but it cleared up at lunchtime, and we went on a little canoe trip, allowing for quieter approaches and potentially being able to see more birds. I’m not sure that really happened in practice, though. Still it was nice silently gliding along on the canoe. The idea was that the guide would paddle and we would watch, but Ray insisted on making it an exercise opportunity, doing half the paddling himself. I enjoyed watching.

Tuesday we took a pair of hikes with the only two other guests left, Antonio and Martine. The morning one was supposed to be to a “beach”, to see sandpipers and things. But the river had risen, and the sand was all covered up; we landed on grass and walked into a soft forest. The afternoon hike returned to the island across from the lodge, and the mission was to see the Uacari monkey, white with a red face. Indeed, when we arrived, the guide picked up a piece of fruit and told us that this is the kind of fruit this monkey eats, and that it had been eaten very recently. We set off looking for it, but never found it. We did see a group of red howler monkeys, and one of them descended the tree a bit and had a nice 30-second stare at us staring right back at him. There were also several groups of squirrel monkeys. We started hearing extremely ominous thunder-and-lightning sounds, and half the sky got really dark. As a beautiful brown bird landed right next to me (later postulated to be a strong-billed woodcreeper), the rain began, and we made a beeline down the trail, emerging from the forest across from the lodge. The boat wasn’t there; we yelled and about ten minutes later it crossed over and picked us up. The fifteen new guests had arrived (having not been trained to report when people are yelling at you from across the river, in case they need to be picked up). It would be a completely different experience for André, dealing with 15 young men and women, instead of the eight of us mostly over 40 who had been there.

Wednesday was our day to leave Uakari. We boarded a fast boat to Tefé, and immediately after leaving the lodge some insect or debris flew into my eye. So much for getting in some last snapshots or even binocular views as we left the beautiful forest. (It took a couple of hours for it to finally wash out.) Some researchers from Barcelona who recorded at the lodge using underwater microphones, with automatic analysis of the recorded audio, shared this boat trip, and refunded half of what we’d paid for it. I accepted the refund and handed it back to the lodge staff to use as tips, which we’d forgotten to leave in the bustle of departure. The airline staff couldn’t really speak English to us (they were just trying to say “boarding starts at 12:20”) hooked us up with an airplane mechanic who had become a US citizen, and had served in the US Army fixing aircraft, to do translation. He was the one who told us Monday’s flight had been canceled because of undersubscription instead of weather. We landed in Manaus, paid the exorbitant $18 for the 7km taxi ride to our hotel downtown, dropped off the luggage, and explored the main town square a block away. The main feature was the Teatro Amazonas, built at the end of the 19th century to be a place where rich people could show off their wealth. We were able to catch a 4:15 English-language tour. The fresco on the ceiling was meant to look like you were standing under the Eiffel Tower. There were five levels of box seats; the highest ones were the most expensive. Though they provided the worst views of the opera, the point was being noticed as someone who could afford to sit in them. It was a beautiful building, and it is still used; the next opera will be performed early next week.