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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Brazil’s best-kept secret: a night in the Amazon rainforest

Brazil’s Amazon rainforest is one of the last undiscovered frontiers on earth. Hayley Skirka spends a night under its canopy

Many of the Amazon's secrets have yet to be discovered
Many of the Amazon's secrets have yet to be discovered

The croak of a tree frog echoes in the air. I hear it, but only barely, so lost is it in the amplified hum of the rainforest’s cicadas. Famous for their drone, these insects can create sounds in excess of 90 decibels – that’s louder than the whirr of a motorbike. As we trek through the rainforest, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, the din dips and peaks, mixing with the rush of a nearby river or a twisting squawk from a tree-perched macaw. The whistle of the wind through millions of fluttering leaves is the underlying bassline for these rainforest soundmakers.

Suddenly, Samuel – our jungle guide – stops, signalling with his hand for us to do the same. He looks around, his eyes darting from side to side, his body almost motionless. Slowly, he raises his head, pointing his nose in the air. He inhales deeply. “Can you smell it?” he whispers. I sniff the air. It’s a balance of damp soil, rotting plants, wet tree bark and pollen-filled tropical flowers. But I don’t detect anything different.

 Amazon guide Samuel Basilio constructs camp equipment out of the rainforest's resources. Courtesy Malte Clavin
Amazon guide Samuel Basilio constructs camp equipment out of the rainforest's resources. Courtesy Malte Clavin

Samuel nods his head in a northerly direction. I try again, focusing my nostrils to where he’d alluded. I inhale deeply. Nothing. I look to the others in my group and am relieved to see they’re also sniffing bewilderedly. Samuel shrugs, as if he cannot comprehend our inability to detect the change in the air, and whispers one word: “Jaguar.”

At once, I’m both thrilled and terrified. My eyes scan the foliage-sodden ground, although I quickly realise this is futile – Samuel’s trained eye would spot any trace of an animal long before my dulled western senses would. As a second-generation descendent of an indigenous Amazonian tribe, Samuel is in awe of the largest of South America’s big cats, and it’s no wonder. The creature’s bite is deadly – its jaws can slice straight through bones. Just a few days previously, he’d told us about a distant relative who had been taken in the night by a prowling jaguar.

Jaguar versus human

“We didn’t try to kill it for revenge,” Samuel explains. “We respect the jaguar, so instead we hunted other animals, a boar and a capybara. Then we offered these to it in exchange for the bones of our friend.” In the jungle, jaguar trumps human.

A chill goes through me as I hear something move a few metres away. But as quickly as Samuel’s mood had altered, it switches back – the threat of the jungle cat apparently having passed. He takes a machete from his belt and hacks at a branch snaking across the floor in front of us. He grabs one side of the chopped tree, then tells me to open my mouth. I oblige and he tips the narrow edge towards my lips. Cold, fresh sap rushes on to my tongue. It is much appreciated. The humidity in the rainforest is stifling, and my bottle of water has long been emptied.

Samuel explains that the branch is in fact a root belonging to a Sumaumeira, the tallest of all the rainforest’s trees. Chopping it precisely where he did means that the tree root will seal itself off and, within a few weeks, another offshoot will have sprouted, without any impact on the tree itself.

We continue our trek, quieter now – perhaps conscious of a looming jaguar. Occasionally we slow down, stopping to watch Samuel craft a spear from a tree branch (“perfect for catching armadillo”) or wind a rope out of the internal bark of a tree (“for hoisting things into the trees at night”). At our last stopping point, he somehow creates a working bow and arrow that stands about a metre tall. “No need to worry about the jaguar now,” he jokes before adding, “No, but this would catch a paca rodent – they taste like chicken but fattier, tastier.”

Setting up camp

About an hour later, we clamber around an embankment and hear the rush of running water. We’re back at base camp. When we’d arrived at the clearing just a few hours previously, that’s all it had been – a scrap of jungle plain worn flat by years of river overflow and home to just a couple of palm trees. Remarkably, it now resembles a fully functioning jungle camp.

Using those trees as a base, the Amazon Emotions team had crafted a structure out of ipe wood. On this, seven hammocks were hung. Double-layered giant philodendron leaves had been draped across the top of the branches to act as rain shelters. In the centre, a table for barbecuing on had been fashioned out of wood salvaged from the jungle floor. Underneath it, a fire glowed orange. On top of the table, two giant tambaqui fish were already roasting, recently speared out of the river.

Dinner is served, Amazonian-style. Courtesy Malte Clavin
Dinner is served, Amazonian-style. Courtesy Malte Clavin

As dinner cooks, we make for the river, strip off our rain-soaked jackets and plunge into the cold Amazonian water. I lay back on a rock, dipping my sweat-soaked hair into the river below. As the cool water rushes over my ears, the din of the jungle melts to a hazy drone and I look up.

A place in the ecosystem

Towering lupunas crisscross above, diffusing the hot Brazilian sunshine in a million directions. A scarlet macaw sits on a branch up above me. I catch a glimpse of movement high in the trees and see a tiny flash of monkey tail disappear beyond the canopy. In that moment, I feel at one with the jungle.

A tap on my shoulder snaps me out of my thoughts. A giant boa has been spotted downriver, so it’s time to come out and dry off. As I do, I notice that the light is changing. Within a short space of time, the jungle has gone from a sunlight speckled emerald forest to a shadowy space touched by the mist of twilight. And so it’s time to eat. Samuel hands out palm tree leaves to use as plates and wooden spoons that he has just carved out of fallen branches.

One of the rainforest's many soundmakers. Courtesy Leonide Principe
One of the rainforest's many soundmakers. Courtesy Leonide Principe

Fed and watered, it’s time to turn in for the evening. Before we make our way to our hammocks, Samuel scours each one with his flashlight and then beats the surrounding branches with a thick stick – a technique used to deter snakes. He scoops up a scorpion perched on the end of one of the other camper’s tree straps and releases it on the riverside of the camp.

When he returns, he has a fiery orange rainbow boa curled around his muscled bicep. Non-venomous and spectacularly beautiful, even by torchlight, the reptile is gently set down on the dense jungle floor where it can slither into the night, hidden from birds of prey.

When night falls

I don’t expect to sleep much, but I stretch out into my hammock and close my eyes. Somehow soothed by the night-time din of the jungle, I drift off. Around 1am, my eyes flash open. Samuel is already on alert mode, machete in hand and flashlight scouring the trees that back on to our camp. A thundering sound, like someone sawing through a thick cut of wood, fills the air and the vibrations cause my hammock to sway. I turn on my headlamp and catch Samuel’s eye. He smiles and mouths “jaguar” and it’s impossible not to detect his excitement. I watch him prowl for a while, but somehow drift back to sleep, the swinging of my hammock rocking me gently back to dreamland. I wake a few more times in the night, but on each occasion, I’m calmed by the sight of one of our guide’s trusty flashlight beam, methodically scanning each swaying hammock.

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When I wake again, the light of morning hovers and the air fills with the scent of coffee. I join some of the other early risers to sip steaming mugs of the thick brown liquid, served to us on the blade of Samuel’s trusty machete. It’s set to be a hot day, so we rouse the other campers and get to work dismantling the camp. It’s a part of the journey that’s pivotal on an Amazon Emotions trip.

For one night only, people are taken out of their comfort zone and placed into the rainforest ecosystem. Everything is natural; sleeping in a camp constructed from trees and using fallen leaves as shelter, bathing in a freshwater river that’s shared with all the jungle’s creatures and eating food foraged or hunted using native methods. As quickly as the camp had been erected, it’s gone – the branches returned to where they had fallen, and the leaves back on the forest floor.

For Vanessa Marino, managing director of Amazon Emotions, this is critical. “We want to give people an ephemeral experience. To be in the rainforest and to truly experience that, but without disturbing anything. It’s a beautiful pop-up experience, but it’s temporary,” she explains.

Our trek back to the Amazon Emotions lodge takes around two hours and then there’s a rush to get under the outdoor showers and wash off the scent of the jungle. Bowls of fresh açai and mango juice are devoured greedily.

Home comforts

Located in the rainforest of Presidente Figueiredo, about 120 kilometres from the Amazonian capital of Manaus, Amazon Emotions is a truly family-run affair. Originally from Venezuela, Marino and her partner Leo Principe – a Franco-Italian conservationist and photographer – purchased the land, before building a house, small vegetable farm and guest lodgings on it. The couple call the tree-shrouded lodge home and live here with their three children and Marino’s mother. I felt like I was being invited into a family home, rather than staying at a lodge.

An open kitchen serves as the central hub. This is where grandmother prepares the vegetables brought to her from the family farm, and where Kinan, 17, bakes the most delicious tapioca bread I’ve ever tasted, while his older brother Geo, 18, brews his own kombucha tea. Every morning a colourful breakfast of hand-picked fruit, eggs and vegetables appears, always with at least one ingredient I’ve never seen or heard of before.

Hammock Time is all about slowing down and taking in the moment. Courtesy Malte Clavin
Hammock Time is all about slowing down and taking in the moment. Courtesy Malte Clavin

Another crucial part of a trip with Amazon Emotions is the concept of daily hammock time. Perched high above the rainforest canopy overlooking a landscape so spectacular that it’s emotional in itself, the guest lodgings are fitted with coloured hammocks upon which visitors are encouraged to lounge. This morning, as I climb into my hammock looking at the clouds gathering above the rainforest canopy below, I cannot help but feel a huge sense of privilege.

Having spent a night beneath her canopy, I feel that I’ve learnt some of Brazil’s best-kept secrets. Of course, there are so many more – many of the Amazon’s largest tributaries remain unexplored and thousands of its species have not yet been classified. But, for one night only, I was part of an ecosystem that ignites the imagination like no other place in the world.

Updated: March 19, 2019 03:01 PM

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