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Call of the Amazon

Camping overnight in the world's largest rainforest, swimming besides dolphins and watching the glorious sunset provides a truly immersive experience of the jungle, but mind the piranhas

Samar Srivastava
Published: Jun 11, 2016 06:17:47 AM IST
Updated: Jun 20, 2016 06:33:31 PM IST
An aerial view of the meandering river in the Amazon forest
Image: Corbis
An aerial view of the meandering river in the Amazon forest

It’s a little past midnight and I’m lying wide awake in my hammock. Every few minutes, a mosquito whizzes past my ears. I impulsively swat at it, dislodging my balance; if I swat too hard, I could fall. In any case, the mosquitoes will be back. The cacophonous cry of howler monkeys, muffled due to the distance, provides relentless background music. Not a pleasant start to my five days beside the mighty Amazon river and its myriad tributaries and distributaries.

Earlier that day, my wife and I had arrived at a small clearing near the Brazilian leg of the fabled river for our night in the Amazon rainforest. Our plan was to hang hammocks protected by mosquito nets, chop firewood, cook a simple meal of marinated chicken and have some beer before turning in by around 7 pm—before the mosquitoes make it impossible for us to sit outside.

Soon, we realise how impractical our aim of speed was. It’s hard to wield an axe without prior experience, starting a fire with twigs can take as long as 30 minutes without kerosene, the chicken reared by the locals is among the largest and softest we had seen and it takes an hour to cook it on the low flame. But the sumptuous meal made our three-hour effort worth it.

I imagined myself as one of the first explorers of this rainforest, sans the machete, as they foraged their way through virgin territory. This was a real camp, after all, and we had done a lot of the heavy lifting too. But while Day 1 had been tiring, it had proven enjoyable.

There are many ways to get a true experience of the Amazon basin. One could do a quick fly past, which serves as a clear and quick souvenir of the vastness and sheer majesty of the Amazon river. For instance, flying over Manaus airport in Brazil’s Amazonas state, all I could see was water out of the window. Then there’s the luxury ship experience where you cruise down the river making short stops at towns along the way. Finally, there’s the camping option—that’s the one we picked and it didn’t let us down.

Image: Getty Images
The Amazon Theatre (opera house) in Manaus

We chose to enter the basin from Manaus, the gateway to the Amazon river on the Brazilian side. The city had seen its heyday in the early 1900s when rubber was first exported for commercial use to Europe—initially for erasers and later for car and truck tyres. Remnants of that era are on display at the opera house in the centre of the town. Most visitors spend a night in Manaus gorging on river fish and catching a free show at the opera house.

With its high ceilings and immaculate viewing booths, it’s not hard to imagine a time when the town’s gentry made their way to shows that became all the talk as far as Rio de Janeiro. Manaus is also the last point to stock up on supplies before setting foot into the river.

Lying on hammocks is one of the best ways to relax in the Amazon rainforest
Image: Getty Images
Lying on hammocks is one of the best ways to relax in the Amazon rainforest

The next morning, we set off from Manaus Port with our guide Sameer Abdul Gandhi, who proved to be an entertaining presence on the trip. Of Indian origin, he often spoke about his grandfather from Uttar Pradesh who left India in the mid-1800s. Although Gandhi had no links with India and no knowledge of Hindi, he spoke fondly of the curry and chapatti he would have during his childhood in Guyana in northern South America.

Our first stop, 10 km from Manaus, was for a quick glimpse of the point where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões tributaries of the Amazon river meet. The confluence of the black waters of the Rio Negro (the largest left tributary of the river and the world’s biggest backwater river) with the sandy-coloured waters of the Rio Solimões is the draw. The tributaries run alongside for 7 km and tourists and locals alike marvel at the cool currents. The calmness is punctuated by dolphins jumping out of the water surface.

Our camp is still three hours away as we switch to travelling by road. We now have a window-side view of the changing vegetation—from sparse to dense—and the quality of the infrastructure—smooth roads that we travelled on for hours, while passing only two vehicles. A couple of hours later, we hop on to another boat for the last leg of our journey to the jungle lodge—our base camp for four days.

Tour companies along the Amazon work with indigenous groups. The unwritten rule is that they arrange for customers from Manaus and contract guides, while the locals run the camps and provide the boats, food and electricity. There are no shops for even basic supplies at the lodge and (thankfully!) no internet. They price themselves reasonably and customers include backpackers (who opt for dormitories and hammocks) as well as well-heeled travellers (who choose single rooms with private baths). We opted for a dormitory. With the mercury hovering around 35 degree Celsius, sleeping threatened to be little fun but I was surprised at how fast the body acclimatises.

Hungry and exhausted after the five-hour trip to the neatly laid out camp, our group of 17 gorge on the food—local catfish cooked curry style, chicken curry, meat (usually pork or beef), baked beans, rice, noodles, bread and fruit. We eat copious quantities as there would be nothing available for the next six hours.

Image: Getty Images
A caiman

We are free to decide what we wanted to do over the next four days (two activities on any given day)—from spending a night in the jungle, fishing, canoeing, a jungle trek, snake and caiman (a crocodile-type creature)- watching. Six of us decide to start with the toughest—a night in the jungle.

Post-dinner, we are tucked into our hammocks by our Brazilian guide Sean. The mosquito repellent, slathered generously on our bodies, proves ineffective. Mercifully, it is a short night as we wake up at 5.15 am for a glimpse of the Amazonian sunrise and a quick swim in the river. We are also witness to the quickest dismantling operation ever. Hammocks are removed, our dinner packed into containers and loaded on to two boats—all in 30 minutes.

Guests are treated to delicious local food at camps
Image: Getty Images
Guests are treated to delicious local food at camps

At sunrise, the pollution-free air presents the sun as a flaming ball of fire. In 15 minutes, night gives way to day. Still sleepy, I jump into the river’s ice-cold water and am wide awake in a flash. That evening, sunset was to prove equally arresting—even after the sun sinks into the river, the night sky stays lit for an hour with the rays seemingly emanating from beneath the water.

Hey ‘guy’, check out this insect. Anyone wants to eat it?” That is part of Gandhi’s spiel during our walk through the jungle. He spends the next four hours regaling us with stories about how the Amazon forests had virtually every medicinal cure known to man, including an antidote for snake bites and a plant that keeps mosquitoes at bay (I can testify to that: It turned out to be more effective than our repellent).

Anna, an Italian who proved to be the bravest in our group (from holding a snake to catching a caiman, she did it all), gulps down the insect and says it tasted like coconut. None of us are willing to verify her claim.

When it inevitably rains, we stand under a thick canopy of trees and stay mostly dry at the end of it. To quell hunger pangs, nuts are on offer on the trees—we had gathered these with our hunting knives.
mg_87217_piranhas_280x210.jpg Image: Getty Images
The piranhas are known for their sharp teeth

It proves to be an educative afternoon, and we emerge exhausted yet wiser about what is stacked beyond the all-embracing canopy of the jungle.

Hey Indian guy, what you do?” That is Gandhi again sitting at the back of the boat guiding us on our fishing expedition. “I am a reporter,” I reply. “What will you report? No fish in the Amazon?” he guffaws. We are in a small clearing where the water is calm. Our fishing rods made from forest sticks have been suitably baited and we lie in wait for the piranhas. The fish is mentioned with barely contained dread in the accounts of early explorers of the Amazon. The fear is localised, as it were, in the teeth. Their sharpness is legendary, finding its way to movies and books.

A piranha has often played the quintessential predator in popular culture, and no movie captured its lust for blood as potently as the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice, where a piece of meat is shown being fed to pet piranhas owned by the film’s primary antagonist. Later, only a bone is raised from the water.

In his book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, author David Grann slips in the piranha’s tendency to attack the male reproductive organ, spreading terror among explorers and their guides.

I was perhaps only too aware of their insatiable hunger for human flesh.  

“Why you catch no fish?” Gandhi persists. We have been waiting with our fishing lines for over 30 minutes and while the rest have caught several piranhas, I am yet to open my account.

I would either wait for too long—and the piranha would escape with the meat—or pull too early, only to see the bait still intact. “Jiggle in the water like this,” says Gandhi as he uses his rod to work up some froth. Nothing. I try again. Nothing. Just as I am about to give up, the line goes taut and I pull at it. There it is—a piranha at the end of it.

The Amazonian sunrise is beautiful
Image: Getty Images
The Amazonian sunrise is beautiful

Heart in my mouth, I hold it up for all to survey before gingerly pulling it out of the rod and tossing it back into the water. I think that I could now go back with a suitable souvenir photograph, capturing both the joy of catching the fish and the horror when, a few seconds later, the fish jumped back from the water and (tried to) attack me.

That night, after an early dinner at 6 pm, Sean takes us out on a caiman spotting expedition. He paddles his canoe furiously in the swamps, shining his torchlight, when almost immediately we see two red eyes flashing back. He angles the boat over and picks the caiman up with his bare hands. We marvel at the smoothness of the skin of what, to us Indians, looks like a baby crocodile. Its nostril is divided into three chambers. A chuckle later, Sean tosses it back into the water.

Through the course of our time in the Amazon, I marvelled at how the native people still lead extremely frugal but fulfilled lives on the edge of the river. Basic services have improved remarkably over the years as the government has helped them with education and provided livelihoods. The natives have kept their bargain by keeping the river clean and not poaching animals.

Image: Getty Images
A macaw couple

We spotted a rich trove of capuchin monkeys (with a dark cappuccino coffee colour) and sloth. Birds would swoop up river fish for their meals. And snakes would frighten the hell out of everyone. My own experience standing in front of a fluorescent yellow boa constrictor, with its belly full of a sloth it had just eaten, was enough to petrify me.
As we prepared to trace our way back from our camp to Manaus, the thought of coming back for a longer (and tougher) adventure kept crossing my mind. Three Swedish men had just come back from nine nights in the forest. They had hunted for food (mainly fish) and set up a different camp every night. They had waged battles with mosquitoes and drank from streams deep in the jungle. They had experienced the exhilaration of seeing wild boars as well as the horror of coming face to face with snakes. They had spoken of it as a priceless experience with no guarantee of how it would end. Still, they’d do it again if they could. Gandhi spoke of a 20-day expedition with a German couple during which they trekked across mountains and cooked sloth and monkeys for their meals.

These stories evoked more than just a twinge in me. Four days did not seem enough. But, for now, they would just have to do.

(This story appears in the May-June 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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