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As Star Peru’s flight 1181 made its approach to the airstrip of the Peruvian frontier town, Puerto Maldonado, we were afforded a birds’ eye view of the rust coloured Tambopata and Madre de Dios rivers, the waters of which would eventually drain into the Amazon river.

After weeks of travelling in the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes following the Inca trail, often at an altitude exceeding 4,000 metres, my two friends and I decided that a visit to a lower altitude would be welcoming. The Amazon Basin of Madre de Dios looked interesting and challenging and at an average altitude of about 256 metres, appealing.

Puerto Maldonado, a city of an estimated 91,000 people (2012 estimate), which owes its existence to gold panning and forestry, is a gateway to the South West Amazon Basin and is the main town in the Peruvian State of Madre de Dios, so named after the river which flows through it. This State has extensive lowland rainforests and is regarded as having the highest biodiversity indices in the world. Much of it is relatively untouched by human habitation. In a State one third larger than the size of Tasmania, an estimated 71% of Madre de Dios’s total population live in Puerto Maldonado.

We were met at the airport by our local indigenous guide who was to stay with us while we were in the rainforest. After a short stop to load stores for several days’ stay we headed off to what was to be our home in the jungle. It turned out to be thatched rooms on a cleared section of jungle on a hill – a perfect place to look over the seemingly unending miles of rainforest and observe the many species of birds going about their daily life. Unfortunately it was also home to particularly vicious mosquitoes.

Freddy, our guide, did not give us time to dwell on this and indicated that he would take us on a short walk to familiarise ourselves with the flora and fauna in this part of the world. As a former national park ranger Freddy was a font of knowledge and during our walk lasting several hours and covering a few kilometres, pointed out the wide variety of plants including walking palms with their stilt roots, coffee, cocoa, mangoes and the coca plants commercially grown elsewhere for the extraction of cocaine.

Every day in the jungle was a new adventure with many notable events to describe, but several stood out.

We were told early in our stay to be prepared to set out at 6am for a six kilometre walk through the rainforest to Loboyoc creek where we would take a small boat and search for caiman and other wildlife found in the jungle along the banks of the river. It was pouring with rain and as Freddy observed, ‘We are in a rainforest after all’. Freddy produced gumboots and ponchos, handed them out and we set off in steamy conditions with warm pouring rain beating down.

At first it was fairly easy walking but the track soon wound its way up and down hills, over swollen water courses and through dense vegetation and mud which seemed reluctant to let our boots go. We were soon to discover this six kilometre distance was a straight line distance and did not take into account the terrain. It was a relief, we thought, to reach the boat so we could sit down. Our relief was short lived. A short distance downstream a tree had fallen across the creek, so with Freddy hacking a path with his machete through the dense vegetation we were required to drag the boat overland around the fallen tree and back into the creek. No easy task considering that a few moments before we had just passed a caiman lurking in the undergrowth.

Another day we were required to start out at 5am to visit the salt licks along the bank of the Madre de Dios. Much of the fruit in the rainforest which the parrots eat contains toxins. This adversely affects the birds so twice a day they flock to the salt licks to obtain substances which neutralise the effect the toxins have on them. It was a quite spectacular sight with birds ranging in size from small parrots the size of our lorikeets to the magnificent plumaged macaws all attempting to access the licks.

A visit to Sandoval Lake, an oxbow lake, a home of the elusive endangered giant river otters and black caimans was another experience not to be missed. To get there we had to walk five kilometres from the banks of the Madre de Dios river through jungle to again board a small canoe which we were required to paddle. No motor because of the presence of the giant otters which can grow up to two metres in length.

The diversity of vegetation around the lake, not least the 30 metre tall Maurita palms, was breathtaking as was the bird life. Monkeys foraged in the trees at the edge of the lake, tortoises balanced on floating logs and the giant otters gambolled in the still waters of this vast lake while the caimans tried to hide at the lake’s edge.

A night walk through the jungle was challenging. Setting out with torches and Freddy with his trusty machete, we hiked through the jungle, our destination a watering hole. Without light the jungle was dark, so dark you literally could not see your hand in front of your face. But in the darkness we were treated to a display by the brightly lit fireflies which rivalled that of fireworks. When we reached the water hole the eyes of the caiman shone like bright beacons in the light of our torches.

The sloth moving as though it was in a slow motion film, the tarantula hiding in the leaf litter along the path, the wonderful variety of bird life, the awe inspiring vegetation, the brightly coloured fungus clinging to fallen trees, the large numbers of different species (1250 reportedly) of butterflies which flew in our paths as we walked in the jungle, the slash and burn agriculture which brought high school geography to life and Freddy’s expert knowledge of the rainforest combined to make our Amazon visit a real life adventure.

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, December 2014, pages 10 and 11.

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