At just about 4 o’clock and two and a half days (give or take a few confusing time differences) after the start of my journey, I finally reached the southern edge of the Amazon rainforest, stretching like a green wall on either side of our straight red road. A further fifteen minute drive through a green tunnel saw the road suddenly incline sharply down to the edge of the Teres Pires river – far wider here than any English river and still thousands of miles before its waters eventually empty into the Atlantic at the mouth of the Amazon via goodness knows how many other rivers.
The logistics of the Cristalino Jungle Lodge are impeccable. As I jumped out of the truck and walked down to the waters edge, I heard the hum of a powerful outboard and two minutes later a long narrow Amazon river boat scrunched its nose on the bank and I was shaking hands again, this time with my Portuguese bird guide for the trip, Jorge.
Baggage, me and Bill bundled into the boat and we were off at a diagonal across the Teres Pires to the mouth of the Rio Cristalino and a twenty minute voyage to the Lodge. Blue sky with towering clouds, the high dark green virgin forest tumbling into the river on either side – some old friends – swallow-wing puffbirds perched obligingly on the highest branches they could find, anhingas stretching their necks and outstretching their wings, lovely little white-winged and white-banded swallows bursting from the topmost twigs of submerged trees to skim the water yards away, was that a toucan flying across the river?, some rapids to shoot up at speed, round a bend in the river, suddenly a floating pontoon with sun umbrellas and loungers and a sign on the shoreline announcing in big letters that this was Cristalino Jungle Lodge!
Cristalino Jungle Lodge is a commercial eco-tourist operation and on the front of its publicity brochure, underneath a stunning aerial picture of its location (which we’re trying to get hold of for the Blog) it also announces itself as ‘An Amazon Sanctuary’. It is both!
Interestingly, it describes itself as being in the ‘highlands’ of the southern Amazon Forest (not a word you normally associate with the Amazon but doubtless we shall see). A further 514 miles to the North West is Manaus, which does actually stand on the banks of the great river itself right in the heart of the Amazon. My starting point in Brazil – Sao Paulo – is just a little matter of 1,525 miles away (sorry, got it wrong in yesterday’s Blog) to the South-East, close to Brazil’s Atlantic coast, and last night’s stopover, Cuiaba, 395 miles due South.
Cristalino is in a way a place of curious contrasts. Luxurious VIP bungalows to basic dormitories. Spectacular food and candlelit dinners, hammocks, a library and comfy armchairs, sunbathing on the floating pontoon, swimming and snorkelling in the river.
The ‘activities’ it offers include walking (trekking) in the forest, guided observation of animals, birds, butterflies and flowers, canoeing and camping expeditions and rock climbing.
But let’s put this little haven of civilised eco-tourism into its environmental context. If you look at an aerial view of the Lodge, nestled on the left bank of the Rio Cristalino, it is barely visible, enveloped as it is by its pristine forest.
The Lodge buildings stand in three or four tiny sunlit enclosures and are immediately surrounded by a private Amazonian rainforest reserve of 26,000 acres. In turn, this private reserve is enfolded by the much bigger Cristalino State Park, contiguous itself with other private and state reserves totalling 5.5 million acres of primary (unlogged and untouched) forest with exceptional biodiversity and, as we have already touched on with the ‘highland’ Amazon, a range of different Amazonian habitats. I hope to find out more about these Reserves and their status during my stay at Cristalino.
So, from Bill an introduction to the Lodge and its facilities and my spectacular ultra-modern accommodation with the rainforest 20 yards from my front door. Half an hour on the floating pontoon as the Amazon daylight fades quickly away and the nighthawks flit overhead, introductions to other guests, dinner, a bash at the Blog and bed.
And so back to the inky, sleepless blackness of the early hours of December 1st.
Birdwatchers always get up early. Morning is emphatically the best time of day to see birds. Jorge had arranged breakfast for 4.30 a.m. 4.15 saw me emerge into total (can’t see a hand in front of your face) darkness, festooned with binoculars, telescope, backpack and million candlepower spotlight. My bungalow was the most distant from the restaurant/library compound. No problem the night before – generator still roaring away and knee high lights to lead me along the gravel paths to my front door.
But this morning was a different matter. Set out confidently and five minutes later was totally lost with the forest sticking in my face. Hadn’t taken enough notice of the landmarks. It took me another quarter of an hour – and then frankly with some lucky guessing – to get me to two spoonfuls of raw porridge oats with milk and sugar and a cup of coffee. There was a splendid variety of goodies on offer – but too early for me!
Jorge arrives. Bill already there. Handshakes. “Como esta? Bien! Vamos!” And we’re off along a narrow path into the dripping darkness of the primary forest. We are heading for one of Cristalino’s spectacular attractions – its 50.3 metre (154 feet) high Canopy Tower.
This is a free standing galvanised steel structure (vaguely like a square mini Eiffel Tower) with three observation platforms (respectively about 20, 30 and 50 metres above the ground) which allows you to look at the intricate web of wildlife which inhabits the different eco systems, arranged like the layers of a cake, as you climb higher into the forest canopy.
50.3 metres doesn’t sound very high does it? But, I can tell you, it’s way above our normal comfort zone and, according to Bill, impossible for a minority of visitors to cope with. One courageous middle-aged lady, so he told me, got as far as putting her head through the stairwell leading onto the very top platform and then could simply go no further.
We go prettywell straight to the top. Nerve-tingling and breathtaking with backpack and telescope constantly snagging on the open galvanised framework. But when you walk out onto that top platform you have a 360 degree view of the lush, forest canopy from horizon to horizon. The crowns of the trees form a dense continuous, infinitely variable patchwork of leaves 20 metres below us and it is only the emergent giants which reach our level and above. The forest isn’t flat. Range upon range of low, undulating hills stretch into the distance and on this misty morning, low cloud fills the hollows.
I choose to look in the direction which feels like North (now I come to think of it, I’d no idea which way I was looking).
‘How far to the banks of the Amazon from here then, Bill?’ A quick consultation in Portuguese between Bill and Jorge.
‘We think about 600 to 700 kilometers’
‘And what’s in between?’. Another quick consultation.
‘We don’t think anything but unbroken forest and a few scattered gold mining settlements’.
We all start to look at the treetops and the sub-canopy in earnest. Bill is used to ‘eco-tourits’ rather than ‘birders’ (that’s how the guests are classified on the planning board back at the Lodge) so he’s more used to searching for mammals rather than birds. And he finds dark shapes in the trees 200 yards away which, with the benefit of 60 times telescope magnification reveal themselves as a troop of white-whiskered spider monkey with their striking facial adornments.
They look for all the world like nuns with black cowl and white forehead band – but nuns with a difference because they also sport a magnificent pair of skywards pointing white Edwardian moustaches.
More in my next post…