January 23, 2011
RODERICK Eime journeys into the seldom visited Peruvian Amazon rainforest and finds much more than monkeys.
No sooner have I dropped the little chunk of prime tenderloin in the muddy water than the battle begins.
It starts with a teasing nibble but quickly becomes a ferocious tug of war as the ravenous little fish gets a hold of the hook and the line is quickly veering in all directions.
A solid jerk on the line and he's stuck. I flick the rod, really just a bit of pointy stick with some line crudely tied, and a flash of silver and red is flying into the boat.
Ola! exclaims Roland our field guide, this is the big bad boy of the Amazon. He's only a few hundred grams, but the short-nosed, red-bellied piranha is the nastiest little brute in the family, of which there are 35 known species. His razor-sharp fangs will easily take off the end of your finger.
I'm travelling aboard the 40m, 400 tonne MV Aqua, based at the river port of Iquitos in Peru's northeastern state of Loreto, the last word in luxury river cruising in these parts. With just 24 passengers doted on by the same number of charming crew and guides, Aqua transports us into remote primary jungle wilderness inaccessible by any other means.
Giant panoramic windows open on to an ever-changing riverine vista, while dining includes many dishes using the produce of the jungle, such as heart-of-palm soup, camu-camu fruit and the ubiquitous and delicious catfish.
Most clients prefer the wet months between December and May when navigation is easier, but during the dry season the forest comes alive as animals and local Riberenos (river people) feverishly gather fish and fruit only abundant during the low-water months.
The majestic Amazon, the world's largest river by volume and more than 7000km long, is fed by more than 1000 tributaries, such as the evocatively named Yanayacu (blackwater) and Ucayali (canoe breaker), and home to more species of fish than the Atlantic Ocean.
Sublime pink dolphins, almost blind, chase schools of all types around the forks of streams and creeks occasionally breaking the surface for a breath of air. Another, the mysterious paiche or Amazonian cod (arapainia gigas) once grew to more than 3m long and weighed several hundred kilos, but fishing pressure has restricted the rare, partly air-breathing and tasty, creature to less than a metre.
The Amazon though is much more than simply a river. The entire basin, called Amazonia, covers 6.8 million square kilometres within Brazil, Columbia, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador and at any one time contains more than 20 per cent of the world's freshwater reserves.
Tens of thousands of plant species, a great many with life-saving medicinal properties, thrive along the banks, lagoons and within the rainforests. Described by some scientists as "the lungs of the word", this almost incalculable mass of vegetation is responsible for re-oxygenating much of Earth's CO2-heavy atmosphere.
Notwithstanding the priceless contribution to the world's breathable air, vast tracts are vanishing at an alarming rate every day to make way for farms and grazing land. Legal and illegal logging is also taking its toll and the sky is often heavy with smoke from burn-off.
Add to this the effects of global warming and you have this dry season's lowest river levels in recorded history and they're still dropping. Many times our tender runs into the mud and must back out.
Most of our time is spent within the expanse of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, one of several that consume virtually the entire state of Loreto but attract just a few thousand visitors annually. Almost the size of Sri Lanka, the reserve is supposed to protect the fragile biodiversity within its largely unpatrolled borders. Naturally, poaching and illegal harvesting are rife among the poor Riberenos families looking to feed their average of six children.
Instead of policing draconian laws and stiff penalties, Aqua's management are working with the 280 local communities to reinforce the importance of preserving their important resources and cultivating sustainable farming practices.
The villagers are drafted as volunteer rangers in exchange for manageable fishing and farming rights. Hunting is forbidden anywhere in the reserve.
During our seven days on the river, we visit villages and are welcomed with open arms. School supplies, simple medicines and toys are distributed to eager, smiling children who have little more than the grubby clothes on their backs. Ali and Ari, young dentists visiting from Canada, gleefully distribute toothbrushes and toothpaste. I leave a pile of T-shirts and a handful of pens while Raoul, the ship's medico, examines infants and toddlers while comforting worried mothers.
As we're readying for a reluctant departure, Aqua Expeditions CEO Francesco Zugaro, joins us for a coffee and tells us his plans for a second vessel, due for launch in April 2011. "MV Aria will have 16 specially designed cabins with floor-to-ceiling picture windows and is built from scratch." Aqua, on the other hand, is a reclaimed hull with 12 suites.
The wildlife may be plentiful, but it is not the deluge you'll experience in places like the pantanal or Galapagos Islands. We see several species of monkeys, iguanas, pink dolphins, sloth, caiman, scores of bird species including the bizarre, pre-historic hoatzin and curiously dubbed horned screamer, while the botanically minded guests go crazy.
Eco-tourism is much more than turning up to ogle exotic species and swanning about in luxury. The best operators adhere to a policy of consultative interaction with local communities that give them tangible benefits such as better health and education while helping preserve the indigenous culture and environment that makes them such an asset.
We leave smiling, waving children clutching books, pens and a feeling that someone, somewhere gave a damn, even for just a moment.