Not all who wander are lost

7am. We sit in the canoe waiting to leave camp like grizzled army vets about to be extracted from the theatre of combat. “Man, the things we’ve seen here! Life will never been the same,” says Menna, hands trembling as she rolls a cigarette.
“We’re not the same people who came into this jungle five days back,” mutters Arthur, his blue eyes emptily staring into space from under his bandana. Matilda scowls and twitches, tests the edge of her knife with a thumb, snarls at her reflection in the water.

It’s true, we’ve been deep. Those sunset swims with anacondas. The swirl of bats overhead. That boat trip after dark where we shone torches down into the water and found ourselves floating right above a giant black caiman, silent and menacing; as long himself as our ten-man canoe.

We’ve stood our ground to marauding monkey troupes. Our blood has nourished more winged and slithering creatures than we can count. We have bared our souls to the shaman in a smoke-filled hut while thunder boomed outside.

As we sit in the boat we are weary, saturated, still processing crazy visions. Goodbye to the Amazon! I am somehow deeply sad. We are leaving this wild crucible that seems like the heart of the world. We may never see such things again. Perhaps in a few decades much of this will be gone. I have my bags by my feet and my poncho folded neatly on my lap.

The Ecuadorian girls behind me start scuffling, they stand suddenly, rocking the canoe, their voices go high. We are used to this – they are of a nervous disposition. Diego looks over and his sharp intake of breath is much more worrying. Diego is the most calm and implacable guide you can imagine. This inhalation is the only sign of worry I have ever seen him exhibit in the whole week.

“This, my friends, is the Banana spider that I have told you about” he says, “Also known as the Brazilian Wandering Spider. Will, perhaps you can move slowly away.”

Diego has indeed told us about this spider. Aggressive, fond of humans and one of the most venomous creatures in the entire jungle, it now sits on the gunwhale of our boat, some centimeters from my thigh. It was not there moments before, because it has only just emerged from within my poncho.

(I tuck this fact away for later, promising myself to spend some good time, ideally late at night, dwelling on what might have happened had I put that poncho on with the spider still inside)

I shuffle away and watch as Diego carefully inches forwards, places a paddle underneath the beast and flicks it away.

In balletic slow motion the spider tumbles in a low arc, turning two or three times in the air before executing a perfect landing with all eight legs on the river surface. It them proceeds to run lightly over the water back to the boat, where it disappears from our view, climbing somewhere up onto the underside of our hull.

We have now pissed off a highly poisonous spider who is hiding, biding its time, waiting for revenge somewhere on the boat. None of us is going to relax much during the three hour journey downriver.

And this is our jungle farewell. The Amazon breathes and moves and whispers all around us. “You see,” it sighs, “I could have taken you at any time. Run away back to your civilisations now, you foolish mortals. But be sure to dream of me.”

“Symptoms may appear within 10 to 20 minutes after the bite, and death within two to six hours, where severe pain radiates to the rest of the limb, systemic effects include tachycardia, increased blood pressure, vertigo, fever, sweating, visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing and paralysis.

Death is usually caused by respiratory arrest.”

Brazilian Wandering Spider. Wikipedia.

Beware the Otter

Today we have left the motoroised canoe behind and we are progressing upriver Indian style, by paddle, at dawn. We are on the trail of the giant Amazon river otter.

Diego has a lead. He has heard of a suspected otter nest a few miles upriver. We will approach it by stealth, paddling silently through the swamp waters and hopefully catching a sight of this rare mammal.

The giant otter is the largest of the mustelid family, a beast that grows to roughly the same length as Menna (though at 35kg, it is somewhat more svelte). Over the last few decades the population of giant otters has been decimated. It is the usual story of encroaching humanity: fur hunters, mercury poisoning, loss of habitat. It is now listed by the UN as an endangered species.

A ‘few miles upriver’ turns out to be a couple of hours of hard paddling. It is a fairly intense early morning workout. We make our way up the main Cuyabeno, then we branch off to follow a section of smaller tributaries and channels deep into the jungle. Branches hang down all around us, bromeliads spurt up from the banks, occasional orchids hang down and there are some bright red flowers I don’t recognise. We find ourselves paddling through wide muddy pools then punting our way through interconnecting passages that are really no more than muddy ditches.

“Quiet!” says Diego, as he so often does. Our kids are arguing and hitting each other, they need a swift kick. There is a hoarse shouting sound somewhere up ahead. “We are close.”

We pull through a curtain of branches and suddenly there they are: dark shapes rearing out of the muddy water, spinning and slithering around in the sunlit shallows. It’s hard to count them because they are in constant motion, but there must be five large adults and a couple of tiny pups.

The otter group spots our canoe and they collectively freeze for a second. Then a delegation of three males turns and heads over towards us.

Otters are like pretty much the cutest animals in the world right? Furry, intelligent, playful. They float on their backs and hold hands. They slide down mud banks. They have expressive eyes and funny whiskers.

But not these frickin otters.

These ones are large and scary.

Diego mentioned the other day that the giant otter could take on a jaguar, but I didn’t really get the implications of this. Now I very clearly see what he means.

They come straight for the boat, rearing up out of the water like aquatic prairie dogs, barking and shouting in a very unfriendly way. Their teeth are yellow, their eyes are red and and their claws look sharp enough to rip your stomach open with a single swipe. The Spanish name for the giant otter is lobo de agua, the water wolf.

“We are too near the pups. We will back off gently,” says Diego quietly. “They can attack the canoe from underneath and sometimes they are strong enough to turn us over.”

Images of the seven of us thrashing around in the dark waters while sinewy fur streaks slip and swirl around in the gloom, scratching, biting, butting. Blood clouds, bubbles, piranhas clustering, alligators slipping in from the shores.

We retreat back some meters and then the otters all submerge, and unsure whether we are about to get torpedoed from beneath, we brace. The rest of the family melts away back into the mangroves. The sounds of the forest return. No otter faces emerge and we are left in stasis, silent, slightly shaken, awestruck by this close-up encounter with such an magnificent mammal.

Onwards we paddle down these lost waterways, heading deeper into the wilderness, or so it it feels though I have no cardinal reference points. Have we crossed into Colombia or Peru? I have no idea how Diego can navigate in this world, so far away from our lodge, where trees are dense and prolific, where water and land merge into unsubstantial floating vegetation, where secret channels hide beyond curtains of hanging foliage.

We push our canoe through gaps between tree roots and bushes, we duck low branches. “Careful!” Diego whispers, “Don’t touch!”

There is a seemingly impenetrable wall of leaves that Diego wants us to pass through at one point. We paddle the canoe straight for it and then like magic we glide right through to find ourselves in a deep and silent black pool encircled by the most ancient looking buttressed trees. It is the stuff of fairy tales. As we look around awestruck, absorbing the enchantment, there is a noise. A yelp, hoarse and high, then another louder one. What is this?

It takes me a moment to realise that this cry is not an aquatic mammal guarding its territory, but my daughter. She is sobbing in high gulps and tearing at her top. The foliage that we just brushed through is home to a colony of fire ants and many of them are now trying to colonise Matilda. They are roaming inside her clothes, biting and stinging her back and chest. She screams.

Then I feel it too. I have several inside my collar and they really fucking hurt. The bites burn, like, like… fire!

We settle, we moor up, we console Matilda, we scratch our wounds. We are tired from paddling so we fish for piranhas, using old bacon on handheld lines. The fish are too cunning for us though. Within seconds of putting the line down into that febrile water, there are tugs and shivers, the bacon is surgically stripped away, but the hook keeps comes up empty. Down in the murky depths beneath us there is a lot of movement.

Matilda is still whimpering and writhing. Menna is bent over her like a mother chimpanzee, stroking her, grooming her, pulling off ants. We have spotted a huge spider lurking immobile on a tree root right next to our canoe and it’s mildly freaking everyone out. I need the loo. We are stiff but we cannot stretch out, any attempt to leave this small craft means stepping into a hostile quagmire, sinking down into a seething mulch of hungry creatures.

This right here, I think to myself, is what exploring is really about. Unimaginable beauty, true wilderness but it must be paid for in the currency of discomfort, fear and danger. I feel proud that my children have paid the price and will take these moments back into the world with them. We go adventuring to collect vivid memories and experience the rush of extreme sensations, but it is not always fun in the moment. No-one is relaxed in our canoe right now – except Diego who is impervious to discomfort.

On our way back we come across another otter lodge. This time we are at just the right distance. Close enough to see the full antics, far away enough not to pose a threat. We see the otters climbing up the bank and slithering down, playing, messing around. They are submerging themselves and rolling, wallowing in the muddy shallows. Sometimes they appear to be laughing.

From this distance they really are quite cute.

Night Walk

Humans are not well equipped to deal with the nocturnal environment. This becomes ever more apparent as we grope our way along the jungle path; leaves, creepers, spider webs tickling our faces in the darkness. We inch forwards following the intermittent light of Diego’s torch somewhere up ahead, weaving through tangled silhouettes like a willow the wisp.

We have seen frogs and spiders tonight – lots of spiders – mainly venomous. Scorpions too. We have watched seething lines of ants devouring cicadas on a thorn tree. I have come face to face with a snake (type unknown) that uncoiled itself and slithered away between the tree roots with impressive speed, leaving me frozen, crouching in an awkward unbalanced position, unnerved and very glad that it had chosen not to insert its fangs in my unprotected nose. There were slithery movements in the rivulets that could have been caimans or anacondas or perhaps they were just forest rats.

Despite Diego’s requests for us to stay together and stay silent, the two Ecuadorean girls in our party are doing a lot of nervous whispery chatter and occasional screams. I am worried that their noise will scare away any of the more interesting nocturnal sightings: armadillos, tapirs, big cats.

Diego stops to give a hushed lecture about a chrysalis and I wander on a few paces ahead. I slip round a corner and then I am alone. I hold my torch clenched in my fist, so my hand glows red and thin spears of light emerge out from between my fingers. It is dim enough to protect my night vision but just enough to make out a ghostly path.

I can still hear the group talking behind me and I have an urge to get away from the voices. I push on down the track. I have this vision of slipping away and communing somehow with the forest, silently becoming part of the ecosystem. A witness to prowling shadows as they slip through the glades. Perhaps I will come face to face with a jaguar. We will look into each others’ eyes and share some timeless moment of mutual understanding. I will come back wiser and wilder, with the faraway look of the forest shaman.

And now suddenly the daydream is real and I am totally alone. No sounds, no lights. I switch off my torch and stand there silently in the utter darkness. I can see a few faraway stars through gaps in the canopy, but their light does not penetrate to the forest floor. I wait to see the jungle come alive.

And all around life surges forward.

In the absence of sight all noise is magnified and takes on a layered texture. Slithering, rustling, croaking, calling, twitching, scratching, trilling, growling, chirping. It’s like a three dimensional world builds suddenly outwards, like a radar view or a heat map. A contoured living landscape all around me, seething and moving.

Then a heavy foot cracks a twig not far away and at the same time there is a significant squelching sound to my left. Something else runs across the back of my neck and immediately all my zen is lost. I am suddenly very scared. Everything around here is predatory or poisonous. I am the only creature here without decent teeth or claws. I have no finely calibrated flight reflexes. All I have is a finely-tuned imagination and it is going wild right now.

I remember Diego’s story about a guide who took a wrong path and was lost in the jungle for three weeks. He emerged like a skeleton, half-deranged, with broken fingers, fungal infections and supporating insect bites.

I switch my torch on and shine it around wildly. Too fast! Was that glittering the reflection of eyes in the torch beam, or was it moisture dripping off leaves? I run back down the track. But is it back? Which way did I come from?

And then I round a curve and I have found a kind of safety, clattering into the group who are now discussing a fungus. “Shhh!” says Diego. I pant and edge my way into the safety of the herd.

“Are you scared Daddy?” Says Matilda. “It’s ok. You can hold my hand”

The Shaman

Diego played a trick on us yesterday. “Press this root to your forehead,” he told us, handing around something like a small spongy potato, “You will feel a tingle, but then the ancient wisdom of the forest will flow into you.” This morning we all have indelible purple stains on our foreheads yet none of us are any wiser.

It seems that we must seek the wisdom of the forest elsewhere. So today we will go to see the shaman.

There is an indigenous community that lives half a day’s hike away, deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. There, away the flow of modern life, Siona tribesmen and women still maintain the old traditions.

“But will we corrupt them with our gadgetry and western free-market ideology?” I whisper to Diego.
“They are not children. And they are not so isolated any more,” he says, “they go to upriver to the town sometimes when they have money, and the government have even given the village a computer with internet to educate the kids. Also los petroleros are often there.”
“Really? Oil men? I thought this was a nature reserve”
“Yes, it is. But still there is drilling. Much of the forest here is supposed to be for the indigenous communities but the government is greedy, they squeeze the territory and the oil companies come in. You know about Texaco?”
“I know they have a load of gas stations in the UK.”
“They were the big oil company here, they built Lago Agrio, the town that we passed through. They drilled in the Amazon for many years and during this time they spilled many millions of gallons of oil in the forest and created crazy amounts of pollution. Toxic waste pits, villages abandoned, whole rivers contaminated. In 2011 there was a law suit against them and they were ordered to pay nine billion dollars of damages for the pollution they had caused. But they had already pulled out from Ecuador. They left nothing behind except mess, and still not one dollar has been paid.” I have not seen Diego angry before.

We head out of the back of the lodge, straight into deep vegetation. We cross a tributary river in a small canoe, Arthur and Diego acting as ferrymen for the rest of the group. Then further and deeper into the forest we go. There is muddy path and there is marshy path, and there is the quicksand path which Diego tests with a stick before deciding to take a detour.

It is humid as we walk – oppressively so – we are soon sweating. Mosquitos and flies attack. The jungle buzzes and trills and rustles all around. We must be careful never to grab branches, even when we slip. There might be thorns or poison ivy on those branches, there might also be bullet ants or fire ants, tarantulas, wolf spiders, eyelash vipers, vine snakes or bushmasters. This place is beautiful but deadly.

At one point Arthur screams and we all freeze. He has kicked at a branch that lay across the path, and a cluster of fine thorns have punctured his Wellington boot, going straight through the rubber into his toes. He cannot take the boot off, it is literally pinned in place. Diego has to remove more than twenty needles before Arthur can wriggle his bleeding foot out. I consider what protection our feet have from snake fangs if thorns can slip through so easily.

We make the village by early afternoon, damp with sweat, muddy, scratched. We find a rudimentary set of wood buildings randomly placed around a grassy clearing, some wooden canoes tied to a jetty. Most of the huts are thatched but some have aluminum roofs, “Given by the oil firms” mutters Diego. The local kids run and hide when they see the rabble of muddy ecotourists that have invaded their village. We hear them giggling from behind bushes and outhouses. Someone throws a tamerind over at us.

Diego leads us to a long building in the village centre. There are no windows and it is dark and smokey inside. Despite the heat outside there is a fire burning, red embers heaped up and glowing upon a raised platform. The air is thick with smoke, we see tendrils curling up to the roof illuminated by sparse light beams that pierce the thatch.

An amerindian lady is waiting for us in traditional dress. She says some words of welcome then promptly puts us all to work. Under her grave instructions we pick yams, we peel, wash and grate them, sift and pat the flour into balls which are then flattened out and cooked over the open fire. The result is a dry chewy cassava pancake, which we eat with tuna salad and chili sauce. It’s really good.

The shaman comes in after lunch. He is small and stocky but light on his feet, decked in jaguar claws and floral wreaths, his face lined with druidic wisdom and years of ayahuasca. He takes his place in the centre of the hut, and we, poor sinners, arrange ourselves cross-legged at his feet.

The shaman talks long about the spirits of the forest and cures to modern ailments that might be found in realigning the spirit and balancing natural energy flows. Diego translates for us. He speaks about his peregrinations in time and space. He touches upon Covid and how it ravaged the Indian communities and then he shows us the antidote that he has concocted. A dark jar is passed around in which lie various roots and leaves, some foul smelling liquid, the body of a scorpion. It has stopped the infection and saved many lives we are told. We may buy a bottle for $10.

The shaman shows us his art. He performs purification rituals on many of us. It is a eerie process involving chanting and dancing, hand movements that channel the air around, gentle beating with sticks and leaves, then a finale that involves an iron grip on my temples and long rasping inhalations, as if the shaman is sucking evil vapors right out of my skull. I have crazy tingles running down my spine.

We are all given a thimble full of ayahuasca from another brown bottle that the shaman passes around. It tastes of bitter cough syrup. He tells us about the role of this powerful psychedelic drug in the indigenous community. It is taken as part of a ceremonial passage of manhood and it brings truth and self-knowledge to the tribesmen. As a healer he takes ayahuasca regularly to diagnose conditions of the spirit and understand hidden illnesses. We are not given enough of a dose to trip out properly, no-one journeys to the ethereal plane. The kids are disappointed not to even have any mild hallucinations, but we have a long jungle hike ahead and I suppose it’s for the best.

The shaman asks if anyone among us needs healing. Arthur’s hand shoots up immediately; the shaman gives him a long silent look. “What ailment troubles you child?” he asks wordlessly.
“I have… a bad knee,” Arthur says and limps over to the healing stool. The shaman looks grave. He stands behind Arthur and peers into his soul for a while. Then he starts to chant, placing hands upon Arthurs leg, drawing out the evil. He pulls out a selection of herbs and leaves from his bag, which he ties up into a bouquet. Then he proceeds to beat Arthur’s leg and knee, softly at first and then harder and harder, singing loudly. For a long time this goes on until Arthur is grimacing in pain and his eyes are shiny with tears.

Later outside Arthur shows me his leg. It is red and sore, covered in grazes. The astringent herbs have left a violent rash of raised white bumps like nettle stings all over his knee and thigh. “It burns!” he tells me.
“Artie, I never knew you had a bad knee,” I say with sympathy. “You managed that hike well.”
“Huh, oh yeah. Well. It’s pretty painful.”
“Even worse now I bet!”
“Yeah!”
“You made it up to get some shaman magic didn’t you?”
“No.”
“Didn’t you?”
“Ok. Yes.”
“Foolish child! You thought you could trick him? His ancient eyes can read the secrets of your soul as if it were a kid’s comic! Of course he knew you were faking it. He has beaten you with poison leaves to teach you a valuable lesson in life. Never lie to a shaman!

Amazon

When morning breaks we are stiff and grumpy. We have been tossed around on dirt roads all night, jolted over speed bumps, woken by angry motorbikes buzzing past us in the darkness. We’ve passed through roadblocks and forded rivers, squirming all the while, trying to find comfy positions in the back of the bus while the children’s heads loll like pendulums with each turn. I feel like every spring of that worn seat has scored its curved imprint into my buttocks.

We all spill out into the village at dawn. Buildings on stilts list heavily over the river, peeling paint, warped boards, lianas tangled round gables. The water moves past, thick like treacle. Somewhere above us we hear the metallic skiffle of iguana claws on corrugated roofs.

We eat breakfast in a dusty wood space looking out into jungle: rice and beans, guava juice, a small cup of instant coffee. Talk is limited. There is an outhouse with a toilet back in the woods, but it doesn’t flush and everyone needs to go.

Deep in the Putumayo region, somewhere near the Colombian border, this village has no name on the map. It is merely a stop off point on the Cuyabeno river, a jump-off point into the Amazon, a backwater in the truest sense of the word.

A motorized canoe glides up and moors on the jetty. We board clumsily. We are handed lifejackets and ponchos, our luggage is stowed under tarps. I look around at my companions properly in the daylight. There is my family, looking dazed and pale, two Ecuadorean girls chattering, a young looking boy from Norway and our guide, Diego, a slight, elfin character, alert and bird-like. At the tiller is Carlos, our local riverman. He has broad impassive indigenous features, a wide white-toothed grin, bare feet.

Then we cast off and we enter a new world.

The river is bronze and torpid (“Café con leche water, rich in tannins and sediment,” says Diego) but then we skim through patches of black ink (“Agua negra, poor sediment. See how it is thin…”). All traces of mankind disappear behind us, we see no more villages, just thick curtains of leaves. The canoe glides along with a growl, banking around the bends in smooth lazy curves. Occasionally we cross another canoe and sometimes Carlos waves or shouts a greeting in local dialect. Mainly the river runs slick and silent around us, bubbling and swirling, merging into low hanging branches and shrubbery that in turn blend up into endless stories of green primary growth.

We see many wild things on that first voyage. Diego runs a low commentary, voice rising to signify the rarity of the target, pointing and calling, directing Carlos from one side of the river to the other, doubling back for a missed monkey troupe or to investigate a rustling in the bushes. Six or seven types of monkey we spot, deer, Ananinda birds, ancient prehistoric turkeys, kingfishers, spiders an eagle? Arthur wakes up, becomes more and more animated, pointing and chirping like a little cricket: “Is that a white-throated toucan Diego?”

At one point the grey skies above us open up and we cruise on through a deluge, everyone scrambling to put on black rubber ponchos, peering out from under dripping hoods. All sounds recede beyond the drumming of droplets on wet tarp. Birds disappear, movements on the river are masked by the splashing. Carlos grins and guns the boat forward through vertical sheets of water.

Our lodge is a fairly rudimentary affair. A boathouse by the riverside with a couple of hammocks and some bare wooden steps. A raised duckboard trail leads around a square of cleared grassland wherein lie piles of lumber, home no doubt to various highly venomous snakes. There is a feeling of jungle torpor, the smell of decay and lethargy. A basic canteen area houses a long single table and benches. There is a row of thatched cabins with dormitory style rooms. We have a double bed and two singles in our bedroom, each tented with a mosquito net. The walls are bare, there are no shelves, no chairs, a basic bathroom out back. No electricity of course, except for two hours in the evening when the diesel generator is switched on to charge cameras and essentials. There is no phone signal, no hot water, no WiFi. This is the Amazon. “We are explorers!” I tell the kids, “Not poolside lounge lizards.” Matilda gives me one of her most lizard-like looks:
“I am not an explorer,” she says, flicking out a forked tongue, “long live lounging!”

We’re back in the canoe a few hours later, venturing down sinuous tributaries, spotting an anaconda curled on a submerged branch; pink river dolphins breaching in the distance; a mother sloth with cubs on her back. “Is it a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth Diego?” asks Arthur.
“Show-off” I mutter.

And then we round a bend and we’re at an unexpected lake. It is vast, lost somewhere deep in the forest, encircled by ancient woods. A flood plain, Diego tells us, those floating bushes we see are actually the canopies of tall submerged trees. We dive off the canoe and swim. The water is sweet to the taste and I imagine it rich and dense, teeming with a million bacteria, microbes, nematodes, wild diseases that they don’t even have names for yet. The sun is setting and the lake water is dark around us. We see dolphins breaching in the distance, I am sure that they are not the only creatures splashing here. Arthur and Matilda turn into river otters, they dive in time and time again, duck each other, scream, laugh, try to pull Diego into the water, dive down to find river weed. I am happy to return to the boat after a few minutes. Menna does not go in.

Later over dinner, Diego asks us to guess what creatures were swimming with us in that lake.

Piranhas?
“Of course! The piranhas are everywhere in the river. Maybe we will go fishing for them tomorrow.”
Crocodiles?
“Caimans in fact. Especially the black caiman. It is the largest one – up to six meters long. He will grab you with his jaws then twist and roll to break your bones. Then he pulls you down under to drown. For large mammals like you, he would probably store you underwater a while to rot before eating. What else?”
Anacondas?
“Yes too. They will be hunting once the sun falls. We saw one once the length of three men, round as a barrel in the middle where it was digesting something… big. There are many snakes there in the water too, coral snake, water moccasin, maybe boas.”
Beavers?
“No. River otters though, very aggressive. Will fight a jaguar.
Other reptiles?
“On the mud bottom you will find electric eels. They use low voltage electricity to sense and to hunt, kind of like a radar. Then they can generate a high voltage charge, enough to stun a tapir. They have a suction bite so they clamp on to their prey, then they can shock again and again. No charger needed!”
Oh good. What else?
“The most dangerous of all… the candiru, the toothpick fish. Never pee in the Amazon! He will swim up your urine and right up into your, ahem… penis! And he sticks out his sharp umbrella spines so you cannot pull him out again. Then my friends, he will start to eat…”

When the conversation dies down we go to bed, for there is nothing else to do. It is dark and there are no lights in our cabin. Despite the overnight bus ride and the long day we have just had, sleep does not come easily. We lie for some time under our mosquito nets listening to the sound of the jungle around, imagining snakes on the floorboards and tarantulas under the pillows, feeling river-borne parasites squirming in our guts.

Our dreams when they come are slow and heavy: brown waters and submerged coils, shadowy shapes moving in the murky depths, the lighting flash of the electric eel, that first agonizing bite of the bloody toothpick fish…

Wild Water

The river surges around us like angry whipped chocolate. It is muddy, foamy, bubbling, fast. There are grey skies and driving rain above, grey rocks and churning water below. Either side of us the river cliffs loom up into steep forested banks that then fade into mountain mist. We are somewhere on the Rio Pastaza, at the edge of the Amazon Basin, bumping along in an inflatable dingy.

There are six of us in the boat. I’m up front with Spanish buccaneer, Fernando. Menna and Arthur sit in the middle, Matilda and Captain in the rear. It is the end of the rainy season and the water is high and fast. There are no less than three rescue kayaks around us.

We received instructions and a safety briefing before we set out. When the Captain says paddle we must row as if our lives depended on it. Fernando and I must shout time: ‘One-two! One-two! One-two!’ to set the tempo. If any of us should go under water then there is a rescue protocol: don’t panic, float on our backs until the kayak finds us, wrap arms and legs around the nose of the kayak so as not to flip it too. Allow them to transport you to safety. It all seemed easy on dry land. None of us thought to ask what happens if the boat capsizes and all six of us are floundering around in the rapids.

“What is the minimum age for this tour anyway?” I had asked when the minibus picked us up from the hotel at 5am.
“Well. How old are your kids?”
“Arthur is ten and Matilda is nine.”
“Oh. Have they done rafting before?”
“No.”
“Can they swim?”
“Yes. No! Well sort of. In a swimming pool they can swim fine, probably not in a fast moving river.”
“So they can swim. It is ok. They will be fine.”

Now, as we hurtle between rocks and the raft bumps into the hollows beneath standing waves, I can barely maintain my balance sitting up on the hull, one foot hooked under the central thwart. How will Matilda manage? Every time I turn around she looks frozen in fear and misery. She has given up paddling all together. The captain gives her words of encouragement but she just nods dumbly, unhearing, bounced around like a doll on a trampoline.

One member of our rescue team is a real kayak virtuoso. He hits the rapids with gusto, spinning and pirouetting, finding unexpected lines through the waves. He is also our photographer. We see him putting himself right into the middle of the most frenzied torrents, then flicking his kayak around so he can take pictures of us as we come hurtling down towards him. “Cheese!” He shouts as we paddle in fear of our lives. “Cheese!”

We go into a long section of waterfalls and whirlpools where all is noise and motion: ramping up wave faces, scraping past rocks, spinning one direction then another. Then we are in the calm of a pool and we clash our oars above the boat in the ritual high-five. We drift. Arthur behind me whoops and cheers, a huge grin plastered across his face. Is it river water on Matilda’s cheeks or tears?

The youngest member of the rescue team has been flipped though and remains inverted, trapped upside down in the water for a long half-minute, his kayak bobbing around in the rapids. Eventually his helmeted head pops up, spluttering, further downstream. Abandoning his boat he splashes over to shore and crawls into the shallows coughing. He looks scared. “This one is Pancho” Says Captain indulgently, “It is his first time.” Our rescue kayaker has never done this before?

The other two safety boats set off to retrieve the loose kayak, now drifting off downstream. Captain beaches our raft in the shallows and has some stern words with Pancho in some Ecuadorean dialect I don’t understand. We rest for a while before setting off again. “We have no support now,’” growls Captain. “Be careful.”

On we go through smooth passages where we glimpse egg shaped stones scattered like treasure beneath the water, then through angry, ugly sections where craters and boils appear, boulders jut out and the water surges up in white columns, spray and chaos. The rescue team swarm around us again.

We haul ourselves through a whirlpool where waterlogged trunks roll around like turds in an endless flush, and here Pancho somehow smashes one of his blades. He holds his paddle aloft helplessly, shouting out something which I interpret to mean “I can no longer turn! I am scared! Help!”. Photographer is up ahead, he turns and butts his way back upriver like a salmon leaping against the flow. He pulls alongside Pancho and swaps paddles, then skims off again with bravado. Having only half a paddle doesn’t seem to diminish his abilities, he changes his grip and uses it Indian style, holding the good blade down and deploying it one side of the boat then the other. “Cheese!” He shouts, taking a photo over his shoulder as he surfs down a rocky bank.

There are patches of river far ahead where the horizon is a blur of spray and mist and rain so sky and water are indistinguishable. It is the end of the world. There could be some epic waterfall there, white curtains roaring, smashing into dark rocky basins. Perhaps this is Captain’s surprise finale! I imagine our raft floating down white cascades like an Indiana Jones movie: gravity washed away, icy river water in our faces, lives flashing before our eyes.

We survive another heavy section of river. “That was grade IV,” says Captain with grim satisfaction. “From here on we can drift. You have made it. Well done!”

Pancho has a final trick for us. We hear his cries and turn around to see that he has managed to lose his new paddle and has grounded his kayak on a rock in the middle of the rapids. He sits there miserable, while the wild waters churn around him, unwilling to rock himself off his perch and fall back into the seething white foam.

Captain shrugs. We all laugh. “Hey Pancho!” shouts Photographer, pointing his camera, “Cheese!”. And even Matilda manages a little smile.

“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Kenneth Grahame