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.

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…

Adiós Costa Rica

It is with regret that we leave Costa Rica. In our six weeks here we have criss-crossed the country backwards and forwards. We know the dirt roads and potholed highways, the river crossings. We have seen the terrain change from jungle to swamp to grassy plains. We have eaten at roadside shacks on mountain passes and drunk coffee in townships under smoking volcanos.

To have come back here with Arthur and Matilda, and to see it all again through their eyes, has made this trip quite emotional for Menna and I. Particularly in a time of declining biodiversity. We often felt the shadow of generational guilt over the ecological uncertainty that we know our children will inherit. Now in a little minibus, rattling along the northern roads heading to the Nicaraguan border, we talk again about the wildlife and nature in this extraordinarily rich corner of the world. We make sure to preserve the memories.

The flock of toucans circling around our cabin, chattering and screeching, then sweeping down the hillside to attack a fruit tree below us.

An iguana making a suicidal dash across the scorching tarmac as we drive down the coastal highway. His feet flapping as though he was trying to run over water.

Poison dart frogs squatting on leaves, glistening with a strange sticky luminescence.

Dark shaded forests with strange mammals in the undergrowth: agoutis like great ginger hamster-dogs, their hind legs strangely pink and hairless; dark and muscular herds of tusked peccaries shouldering their way through thickets; elegant coatis and giant squirrels; spider monkeys linking limbs to make bridges between branches far above; mossy sloths hanging like green termite nests. Howler monkeys roaring at dawn.

There was an encounter with fer-de-lance, the most aggressive and venomous snake in the region. We passed a step away from where it lay coiled in the leaves, cold and unmoving like a twisted liana, only realising it was there when a park ranger behind us called us back. I wonder how many other snakes we have brushed past unseeing – or nearly stepped on – in all of our forest walks; how often we have unthinkingly grabbed branches from which they had slipped away silently only seconds before.

We leave with a whole mosaic of Costa Rican birds imprinted on our retinas: Tanagers, oropendulas, trogons. A trio of lineated woodpeckers at work high up on a telegraph pole. Kingfishers looping and dipping along the ocean shore. Scarlet macaws at sunset. Ospreys above a volcanic lake. A green toucanet in the Quetzales cloud forest, utterly still on his branch like a mossy outcropping.

We saw an anteater climbing a tree, slow and graceful, inhaling a trail of bugs as he went. It was a frantic morning and we were trying to pack up camp in a hurry, but he held us all transfixed, pointing and grinning, for ten minutes amidst the chaos.

Nature wasn’t always our friend. Matilda remembers being hit in the face as she trailed behind us in the Cahuita National Park. It was a heavy green fruit and the shock and pain of it made her scream. Then another fruit crashed into the sandy path right next to her, and suddenly they were raining down. There were no fruit tree above us though. It took us a while to spot the troupe of white-faced capuchins high up in the canopy. They were cackling and hooting, hopping on their branches, deliberately pelting us. Their aim was good and we had to run.

We have learned to live with the mosquito, the fly, the sea louse and many other biting and stinging creatures that left their marks on our skin. We have rolled in jellyfish tentacles in the waves, leaving acidic burns coiled around my forearm, angry red stripes across Arthur’s torso. I have had a cockroach run across my face in the dark.

We were excited to see a raccoon and her cubs wandering up to us once as we eat dinner outside. She was so pretty! As I stood to shoo her away, she held her ground and snarled at me, a row of needle-sharp teeth in her pretty little mouth. Then she stepped towards me! She was totally unafraid and I was not sure what to do. I wasn’t overly eager to get a raccoon bite then a series of rabies injections. So I sat back down ashamed and let her forage at her leisure. A long dark night of the soul ensued (faced down! By a small mustelid!) as I was forced to question my place in the food chain.

On goes the memory game, as the miles roll past, trailing us through kingdoms and species, branching down taxonomic lines. Our minibus is filled with the sounds of the forest, with colours and smells, awe and excitement, with fear relived.

We will come home from this trip poorer, and re-entry will be hard. But converting our savings into the currency of memory and experience is something we will never regret.

Costa Rica ¡Pura Vida! Adiós.

Trouble in Paradise

It is a perfectly timed crime. Arthur and I are out surfing, the girls have just arrived on the beach, half hour behind us, bringing the school bags. Matilda is now doing spins on her bodyboard in the white water while Menna guards camp.

The light is perfect and the waves are good. Menna steps away – just a few feet down towards the water to take photos. This is enough. While her back is turned, they slip silently out of the mangroves, snatch both of our bags, and melt back through the wall of leaves and twisted branches.

We chase them of course, right out of the water, all bare-foot and salty. Or rather we chase shadows and the idea of who they might be. Menna and Arthur run over the rickety walkway back home to find our car and then tour all the coast roads, peering suspiciously at anyone they pass, checking in litter bins for discarded possessions. Matilda and I push into the mangroves and come across a tracery of overgrown trails that lead back into the darkness. We find the first bag ripped open and dumped just behind the tree line, our swimming costumes, goggles and towels not worth their effort. Of the rest of our stuff there is no trace.

We talk to a pair of lazy police officers, who are reluctant to leave their car, and we ask at Lola’s Beach Bar. This kind of theft is fairly common, we hear, there have been a few this year. Nicaraguans probably, or Colombians. Or someone from somewhere else anyway, indicates our waiter, smoothly shifting all blame to those symbolic ‘others’.
“They will have been watching you” he adds ominously over his shoulder as he walks off to serve a new table. A local gringo emerges from the undergrowth, barefoot and carrying a machete, and is initially a suspect but then he speaks long and bitterly about the time he himself was robbed, and his theories about the thieves.
“They dig holes in the floor man and they stash the shit in there.” He says, waving vaguely at the mangroves, “So you can’t catch them with your stuff. And then they’ll walk out all casual. Someone’ll come back later after dark to collect it all. Assholes!”

We hold a family council in Lola’s. The police aren’t going to help, the locals aren’t interested, we are on our own. The school bag contained a lot of stuff: two iPads, a laptop, a GoPro, Menna’s diary, the kids school books, pencil cases, suncream. None of it is covered by insurance.

We will head into the mangrove swamp, we decide. We will follow the paths and look for tracks, try to see signs of fresh digging. Perhaps they have discarded some of our less valuable stuff – the books and diaries will just be excess weight to them. Perhaps they are still in there and we still surprise them with a crafty little ambush. The hunter will become the hunted!

We buckle up with our remaining possessions and walk along the beach. We find an entry point and plunge into the mangroves. It is dense in there and there is lots of scratchy undergrowth, thorns pull at our shins and leave toxic scratches that burn long afterwards. It is nearing noon and the day is hot, but we have no water – they have stolen all but one of our bottles. Things move in the undergrowth and we wonder how many of Costa Rica’s twenty three species of venomous snake are native to the mangrove. I am only wearing flip flops. At the beginning we carefully note each broken twig, and stop to examine indentations in the mud.
“Fresh footprints” Arthur mutters knowingly “probably half an hour old”, relishing his role as child sleuth. After while our conversation gets more sparse as we get hotter and more parched, then it dries up completely. We grimly fight our way onwards.

Sometimes we step ankle deep into swamp mud and pull back hastily, for who knows what is squirming away down there beneath that thin surface crust? The tracks twist and fork and I find them disorienting – the mangroves go back half a kilometre inland and run for several kilometres along the beach. Arthur and I get separated from the girls and then we quickly get lost. The impracticality of this quest is starting to weigh upon me. What if we do suddenly come across a gang of hardened Colombian thieves in their swamp hideout? What will we do then? Wave Arthur’s penknife and the one remaining water bottle at them, then perform a citizens arrest? Mosquitos bite our ankles and spiders get in our hair, magpies shout mockingly at us from the canopy.

We decide to call it a day and head blindly towards the sound of the ocean. The path has disappeared and so we must fight our way out through brambles and the clutch of dead wood fingers. We finally emerge hot and sweaty out of a thicket, right behind an elderly couple sunbathing on the beach.

We walk back along the sand to join the girls. Arthur and I have a deep discussion about materialism, wealth inequality and the ethics of punishment. But as Arthur sets out his case for knifing the thieves to death in the mangroves I am only half listening. I am distracted by a noise in the background, carried faintly on the wind. It sounds like a far-off chuckle, drifting out from the woods.

They are in there somewhere. In their underground den perhaps, beneath the hollow tree. They are reading Menna’s diary and listening to my playlists on Spotify. The kid’s drawings are pinned up neatly on their wall. They are writing this blog post on my iPad.

And we are not from Colombia cabrón! We are Venezuelan!

The End of the World

There’s a dead macaw in the sand. Arthur finds him on our first afternoon and calls me over excitedly. He was damming a stream and suddenly he spotted the bird there, propped up on a tangle of roots with wings half-open, reclining. He has clearly been dead for a while and the vultures and coatis have been busy. Much of the upper body has been eaten away but his head is still there, attached by a length of vertebrae. His beak is closed, his eyes are open. We hook a long stick into the base of the skull and pick him up with it; he is surprisingly heavy. We take him ‘flying’ over to where the girls are sitting. Menna loves macaws.

After all the screaming is done, we start to feel bad about the desecration of such a magnificent creature, so we take him back, retracing the trail of vivid red and blue feathers to his final resting place. Earlier that morning I had been walking along the beach in the mist, searching for a wayward son. I was seized then by a coughing fit that came out of nowhere and surprised to find my mouth full of blood. I spat it out, and it made bright red frothy trails on the white sand. Now looking at the confusion of scarlet feathers I am reminded of that secret moment and then I wonder what it would be like to find yourself propped up, dying, on this beach. We place our Macaw upright against a tree, looking out over the ocean. The next morning he is gone, reclaimed by the jungle.

This is a wild land that we find ourselves in. There is nothing for several miles in either direction of us, just an endless sand strip that fades away into cloud and water, a dark line of jungle behind, large birds of prey circling above. Waves smash down on the beach with a relentless roar. It is haunting and obviously beautiful, not like a postcard scene, but in a lonely and savage kind of way.

Together with our friends Josh and Meg, and their daughter Marlowe, we’re staying in an eco camp out by the Leona ranger station on the edge of the Corcovado National Park, a place that National Geographic calls “one of the one of the most biologically intense places in the world”. All that separates us from this biological intensity is thin canvas, for we sleep in safari tents under the strangler figs. We must carefully shake out any folded towels before use, we are told, as scorpions or snakes often crawl inside. We seven are the first visitors to the camp since March and it seems that in the interim the jungle has moved to reclaim it: twisted roots and hanging lianas have swallowed the rearward row of tents; the spa cabin is now nothing but collapsed bamboo struts and palm shoots, and has been colonised by Capuchin monkeys; the hammocks are covered in moss and lichen. We have a cheery hotel manager and a cook staying somewhere on site. A food delivery comes daily by cart. The bar is empty.

To get here we had to drive to the southern outpost of Puerto Jiminez, an erstwhile  gold-mining and logging centre, now a dusty jump-off point for eco-travellers wanting to provision before heading into the wilds.  We handed over a large amount of cash there to a chatty big man with a tour-operator’s wolfish smile. He directed us onwards – three hours bouncing over potholed dirt tracks, driving fast against a tight deadline – to make a rendezvous with the pony cart before high tide. We forded several rivers, saw brown water pouring through our engine grills and agreed to forget the car rental disclaimers that very specifically forbade us from doing this. We crossed wooden bridges one car at a time. We stopped to photograph monkeys, coatis, toucans, caracaras picking ticks from oxen. We reached the end of the dirt road and abandoned our vehicles besides a disused airstrip in Carate, and in the driving tropical rain we set out on foot for a further five kilometres along the beach to find our camp. We were late and we missed our rendezvous with the cart driver, so we left our luggage piled up in a palm frond shack, not knowing if we would ever see it again. 

Now we are here at the end of the world and as the sun goes down, everything bleeds into crimson: red-gold stains of sunset, a swirl of scarlet feathers, the veins of my eyelids lowered against the glare, secret blood streaks in the sand. There is single macaw that flies low across the beach, squawking, and I wonder if it is the surviving member of the pair. These birds are said to partner for life. She is calling out to her mate perhaps, wondering where he has gone.

When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber

Winston Churchill

SOMAD

Almost all of our time in Spain and Portugal had taken place during the summer holidays, and so when school term rolled around again in September it really disrupted our carefully constructed lack of routine. Menna and I had to call an emergency meeting on the evening before term started to take stock and build a plan.

We had some resources (various maths and English books, stationary, old exam papers, downloaded versions of the curriculum), we had amazing grandparents, generous with time, ready and willing to support via video link. One of Menna’s many jobs is as a senior lecturer for a london medical school, so naturally she would be headmistress of our little school and do the bulk of the teaching, while I would work on various side projects and pop up occasionally with esoteric and unsuitable ideas.

We will make this so much more fun than real school, we exclaimed, bubbling with good intentions and red wine. On top of the normal curriculum, the kids could learn astronomy, languages, philosophy, sculpture, bushcraft! With a few hours of dedicated coaching each week, Arthur will totally ace the 11+ exam he is due to sit in November.
“We’ll call it SOMAD! The School of Mum and Dad…”

And on the first week it goes pretty well. We cover core subjects first thing while the brains are fresh, then we switch to project work. The novelty of the situation brings attention and enthusiasm from everyone. We cover fractions, refraction, prefixes and prepositions. We design a renewable energy strategy for our last campsite, Terra Sangha. The research and schematics are impressive, energy high, collaboration strong. The children present their ideas to a virtual audience that we have roped in on Friday evening. They are proud of their work.

Amazingly quickly the excitement wears off though. There’s a strange sullenness that creeps into the air on a Monday morning. A petulance in the voice. Slumped posture, fidgeting, window-staring. Tears might appear mid-lesson. Our gentle, well-modulated teacher voices falter and harden.
“I’m sure you never cry like this in real school!” We hiss.
“This isn’t real school.” comes back the sulky response. Emotions flare up rapidly and suddenly the air is heavy with barely-restrained shouts that might be unleashed at any point.

I realise that part of the issue here is the unease of redefining our relationships for those few hours on a weekday morning. From being easy-going parents we suddenly flip into being teachers. Where does this sudden new authority come from? How should the kids adapt their attitudes and responses? Our tolerance levels suddenly flick down into a much lower setting. We have unrealistically high expectations and we are instantly critical. We judge the kids on their ability to absorb what we are telling them; we judge ourselves on our ability to impart knowledge. All are found wanting. The kids probe us for weaknesses. It feels like this really matters, and that removes all levity from the proceedings. We become like two Victorian schoolmasters.

“No Matilda, I’ve told you this so many times. If you can’t take away from the tens, then you have to borrow from the hundreds column. Will you listen!… No, look. Now there needs to be one less in the hundreds. Cross it out and write it on top… No! Write it there… THERE! Now you have to add that to the number in the tens, Oh no – don’t just stick a one in front of it… I tell you what, just give it here. I’ll do it. Ah, that’s better. Now look how easy that was. I’m just going to do the next one too…”

“Arthur, if you spell ‘hopeful’ with two ‘L’s ONE more time, I swear I will make you write it out a hundred times! …LOOK! LOOK! You did it again! Right! That’s it my boy. …Well, yes, I know that says ‘meaningful’, but it’s still the same ending and you spelt it with two ‘L’s, just right after I told you! One hundred lines. ‘All words that end in ‘ful’ are spelled with only one L.’ – write it out.
Well, no, yeah, Ok, that’s the exception. Good point! But ‘full’ is a whole word, it’s not an ending… No! I am not writing it out 100 times. I know my spelling! Do NOT be cheeky with me!”

“Isosceles is the pointy one right? Hey, Menna, help me out. It’s the thin pointy one, isn’t it?“

Eventually after a few weeks we find our groove – well, a groove anyway. We chill out and stop caring so much. It’s only education after all. They’re bright kids, they’ll catch up. Arthur can do a B-tech in skateboard design, if such a thing exists. If Matilda doesn’t become a doctor, she has expressed a desire to be a baker, or run a leggings shop. Lesson plans start to become a little more fluid, that is to say they mainly get made up on the day.

Fast forward another month and somehow homeschool has morphed into the freewheeling non-curricular event-driven education that I had always dreamed of. We find a dead snake and bring it home to observe it decompose over the course of a week. Arthur embalms a dragonfly in a jar of hand sanitiser. We get a workshop in fluid dynamics by a local surfboard shaper. We see a live octopus while snorkelling and go on to study its lifecycle in depth using Netflix. To support Matilda’s project on teeth we extract the incisors from a dog skeleton we find washed up on the beach. We identify the zodiac constellations. We understand the atmospheric conditions that cause swell. One Grandpa does daily maths tuition, the other Grandpa does poetry workshops, the Grandmas read literature and host art sessions.

And for pretty much everything else, we have downloaded an app.

Away from it all

Our stay up in the São Mamede plateau was the closest yet to how we had imagined this year to be. Off the beaten track. Out in the wilderness. A simple life, miles away from the rush of the city – both physically and figuratively. It was an antidote to those moments of regret and mournful rhetoric about our altered plans (but we should be beside tropical waterfalls right now!) The self-pitying mindset is insidious and Portugal is an epic place.

The Terra Sangha project still felt in the early stages but was underpinned by a conscious attempt at slow living, traditional farming, sustainability, a rejection of digital life. It was a rugged and beautiful place, and it clearly took some work to maintain. There were olive groves, walnuts, figs and lemon trees to tend, terraces to clear, rutted paths to pave, irrigation channels to divert, log buildings that needed building. In one dusty terrace Ben had cleared a sparse vegetable patch where tomatoes, courgettes and pumpkins grew along with a few hardy flowers but full self-sufficiency still felt some way away. There were dogs, chickens and donkeys roaming around, and a fat pig called Madam Chestnut who captivated our children with her greedy charm. I couldn’t work out at first how she fitted in with the vegetarian eco vibe, but she was a long-term resident, not a food source, a survivor of the pig farm that once stood here. She reared up on her gate and grinned at us whenever we walked past and soon had the kids eating out the palm of her hand – only it was the other way around. Clever pig!

Aside from the domestic animals the place was teeming with hidden wildlife. There were the rooting marks of wild boars under the trees and we heard that pine marten and otters tracks could be found in the soft mud down by the river (though we didn’t see any). Porcupine quills and snake skins lay tangled in the scrub. We saw no traces of the Iberian Lynx but it was out there somewhere. We imagined a nighttime procession of creatures slipping and slithering down from dry hillsides to find their way to the river. Behind Ben’s farmhouse was a watching spot, a flat stone shelf by the water where he had an old mattress underneath dream-catchers, candles and other esoteric paraphenelia. He told me he had seen kingfishers there, hoopoes, egrets, a rare stork, golden orioles.

One day we drove out on a reconnaissance mission. Matilda called in an early sighting: red-green-orange swirls, gliding around and eventually solidifying into a flock of bee-eaters (or perhaps a cannonade of bee eaters). They perched for a while on a telephone wire overhead and we hung out there on the roadside beneath them, eating figs from a nearby tree and watching them through binoculars. Half a kilometre later we had to pull the car over again, as three Bonelli’s eagles (or golden eagles even?) emerged from behind a hillock right next to us, and wound their way up on the thermals, followed by maybe twenty huge griffon vultures, indistinguishable from eagles themselves but for their long necks. For a few minutes the sky was full of these huge tawny birds circling above our heads, and we were frozen there in awe, maybe a bit scared of talons and hooked beaks, like prey transfixed. We watched in silence as they drifted lazily upwards, until as tiny specks they were blown far away over the plains.

We drove on that day to Marvão, a mediaeval town perched high on the mountain top. It was a maze of glaring white houses, steep cobbled streets, a ring of churches and an old Moorish fort at the peak. There are layers on layers of historical masonry in this part of the world and this was another epicentre. Marvao was a breakaway rebel enclave in the ninth century, revolting against the moorish Emirate of Córdoba. It became a strategic stronghold through the Christian Reconquista, the war of the Spanish Succession and several exotic sounding wars I’ve never heard of (The Fantastic War! The War of the Oranges! The Peninsular Wars!). Away on a far off peak we can see another white mountaintop town, Castillo de Vide, flashing it’s battlements competitively at us. Perhaps there is a string of these fortifications all the way down the border, grimly holding back invaders.

High on the battlements of Marvao we found ourselves with views that stretched for hundreds of kilometres in every direction, and there again, against the hard blue sky, we picked out eagles patrolling the plateau below. We had been talking about how these stone ramparts were over a millennium old, but now it felt like this symbol of military power was undermined somehow by those overlords of the skies, circling, watching, enforcing their more ancient dominion over the land below.

Our week at Terra Sangha was over in no time. It was a proper adventure. Rough living. A fend-for-yourself kind of environment that suited us just fine. Crockery and cutlery were in short supply, there was no means of refrigeration, the water was suspect. The clean bedsheets waiting for us had disappeared from the washing line. The solar panels were out of action and we had no power. Although the website alluded to sunrise yoga classes, vegetarian dinners served by candlelight with homegrown ingredients, none of this seemed to be available and we found that we weren’t bothered. Instead of organised activities there were endless woods to explore, mountains to climb, a river that you could trek up for miles and stone ruins to poke around in. There was a a stone citadel where you could play guitar and watch the stars. The simplicity was part of the charm. Terra Sangha was a primeval place that and to have too many comforts would have diminished the edge.

There’s nothing like answering a call of nature as nature keeps on calling all around you.

Stone and Water

We spend several days exploring Terra Sangha and the mountains around. We climb up ancient terraces that are carved into the hillsides and buttressed with lichen-covered stonework. Further walls criss-cross the land like a maze and the ghostly outlines of old, old buildings can be seen in certain clearings. From the hills above we can clearly trace the foundations of the Roman and then Moorish settlements that must have dominated this landscape for miles around. This was once the heart of a thriving civilisation, but nothing beside remains, only a stone farm with a few outbuildings, some olive groves and a couple of wooden hunting lodges that now house occasional travellers like us. Poking around under the ground we find pottery and iron fragments that we think might once have been arrow heads.

When one evening we climb the mountain behind us to watch the sunset, rather than risking snakes in the the bracken, we balance our way upwards on top of one of these creaking ancient walls. It is a simple thing of dry balanced stones with no cement, and clearly hasn’t been touched in centuries, but is so carefully fitted that four of us in succession pass up safely with barely a stone moving.

In this dry land we become obsessive about water, and from our cabin, the chatter of the river is a siren call. We find shade down at the river, we swim there to cool off, we use it to chill our milk and beers, we make complicated dams and stone towers. Arthur is in his element here and irrepressible as a water rat. He splashes, hangs from trees, throws stones, catches lizards and chases dragonflies, carves a bow, whittles arrows, makes elaborate snares in the bushes, diverts water into a series of fish catching pools. Matilda meanwhile sits on a sunny rock and sings to herself.

Our cabin has an outside tap with water that is pumped directly from the river.
“Don’t worry. The water is filtered,” Said Ben when we arrived “and the pressure is pretty good right now because I’ve just changed the filter.” He turned the faucet with a flourish. It hesitated, shuddered, coughed out a spray and then subsided to a dribble.
“So we can drink it then?”
He thought a while. “No-o. I wouldn’t advise you to drink it. It can be drunk. But I don’t think your insides are ready for it.” Looking at our worried little faces. “Don’t worry though. We’ve got a spring on the site. You can fill up bottles from there. It’s very pure.”
“Oh right. A mineral spring. Like your own Evian?”
“Um yeah. Like Evian.”

We don’t want to use our car unless we have to, it seems against the subsistence ethos of this place, and who can argue with a natural mountain spring? Arthur is dispatched cross country to fill our water bottles every day. He doesn’t complain, but when I go with him to fill up at the spring one evening in the half light, I find it teeming with worrying wildlife and full of over-rich organic smells. You must descend down some steps to a dank pool that is full of frogs and mosquito larvae, thick spider webs and who knows what else. The ancient donkeys of Terra Sangha come to water here and the air is pungent with the smell of their piss. The precious spring water trickles out of a mossy pipe inches above this dark pool. Your water bottle must be slotted onto the pipe with some dexterity to avoid contamination with the stagnant water beneath, and then you must push downwards and submerge it in the slime to find an angle so the bottle will fill. You squat there for several long minutes, hunched in the darkness, waiting for the water to trickle in while sly reeds pretend to be spiders on your neck, frogs splash around and small biting creatures drone in your ears.

A few days into our stay I have a wild and feverish night, roaming and tossing in the darkness, creatures running over me in strange smothering dreams. For some hours I battle my demons until at 5am I give up and leave the cabin to wait for dawn. I wrap myself in the Indian rug that I call my bearskin and take myself down to the river. Crossing the stepping stones to the far side I wedge myself between two tree roots that trail over the water and settle in for sunrise, hoping to see kingfishers. I have a strange hallucinatory time there in the half light, immersed in the sound of the river. I find myself slipping beneath the surface to slither through pebbles and submerge myself in the silt. Reborn slippery and grey in the ancient coiled roots under the river bed I take on many forms. The kingfishers don’t come.

When Menna finds me some hours later I feel very cold and have a sickness deep in my stomach.

I face down the illness. I am determined that I will not lose a day with my family in this special place. It is just some food poisoning from the chicken kebabs I barbecued last night (they did taste mushy in the darkness) or perhaps a small stomach upset from swimming in the river, a germ from dirty hands. It will pass.

We go out walking in the late morning climbing up to the eastern peaks that face down onto the property. We have been told about a high viewpoint from which you can admire the topography of the São Mamede plateau. I lag behind on the ascent and sweat a lot. We make it up to a high point and see an undulating landscape of yellows, browns and deep greens. The trees bring life to this dusty world: sage colours of olives, walnuts and twisted corks up on the higher mountain faces, the deeper greens of oaks, limes, poplar, birch and hazel amassed around the hidden river below.

We try to make a homeward circuit and get totally lost up there in the hills in the midday heat. Our landmarks for safe return are strange rocks and twisted trees, a sunken path, a certain hilltop ringed with white stones. These milestones shift and change from different perspectives; similar features trick us and take us clambering up false paths. We end up following circular goat tracks that end in impenetrable thickets, always convinced we can hear the river close by and will somehow overcome the banks of thorn and brushwood to find it; that one true path home. We have no water and the whole thing is slightly nightmarish though I am determined not to indulge in further dream cycles of death and rebirth. One mustn’t panic in front of the kids.

We are on the mountain for a couple of hours until we find a path that leads to the river and finally we see the Roman bridge that means safety and I nearly cry.  We make it home, bruised and scratched. It is 3pm and kids are hungry for lunch while I collapse into the hammock and pass out for hours. The kids take secret pictures of me asleep. It is a horrible sight.   

Two days later Menna looks at our water bottle as it is illuminated in a shaft of light. There, in the ‘Evian’ spring water we have been drinking all week, are tiny nematodes, long as a finger nail, furiously alive and hungry. They coil and twist like malevolent worms. I feel mixed emotions: a resurgent nausea, vindication at a bona fide parasite to blame, slightly bitter that I was the only one to fall sick. Am I now the weak member of the herd?

We don’t drink any more water from the spring and when we leave at the end of the week, Menna doses us all with her most potent antiparasitic medicine.

Ghost Story

“What does it say Dad” asks Arthur in a quivering little voice. The sign was nailed to a tree right in the middle of the woods. We could just about make out the writing in the faint torchlight of my phone. It was in an old and ornate script.

“Well, it’s in Spanish of course, but I would translate it like this:

We the dead lie under your feet.
Like you we roamed the forest at night,
Then they came, they caught us, as we ran.
Listen and you will hear them now.
They are coming, coming, coming!

You walk on the path of death.
You walk on the path of pain.
You walk on the path of torment.
They are coming, coming, coming!

You must run.”

We stop still and listen for a long moment in the darkness. The forest around us groans and creaks and whispers.
I jump. “I think I can hear something!” I grip Arthur’s arm. He lets out a kind of moan
“No Daddy, no. It’s not real right? You’re being stupid”
“I think they’re coming…”

We run to catch up the girls. Arthur is in quite a state. I get badly told off by Menna but, flushed with wine and encouraged by the excellent reaction I have managed to get, I can’t help periodically creeping up to Arthur in the darkness and whispering “They’re coming, coming, coming!”

I do this all the way home.

This is how I ruin the night walk back from the restaurant in Boal. By the time we arrive back to Hotel Solanda, our farmhouse up in the mountains, both kids are in a real panic and Menna is absolutely furious with me. The silly ghost story has overshadowed the bats we saw, the hissing snake that crossed our path, the fine dinner down in town, the woodland path that we thought it would be romantic to take in the moonlight. My proposal to Menna that we might sit up and chat about life, drink whisky and look at the stars, is shot down angrily. I am sent out alone while she tries to restore calm.

“What did that sign really say?” ask the kids once they have been finally cajoled into bed. It is a chance at redemption, but I just can’t bring myself to say that it was only something dull about hunting restrictions.
“It said that they’re coming, coming, coming. I would be very careful tonight if I were you.”

And this is why I spend an extremely uncomfortable night on the sofa bed while Matilda takes my place next door in the master bedroom.

They never did come.

Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor.

Ovid

Gorse Babies

We were walking up on the headlands and it was late. The wind had picked up, and out to sea there was an ominous black cloud line running right along the darkening sky. We were far from home.

Then I heard it, as the wind dropped for a moment, a little high pitched snicker, then a skittering sound of tiny feet scrabbling on dry earth. Arthur picked it up too. He has magnificent ears.
“What was that Dad?”
“It’s nothing” I say, “probably just a weasel in the undergrowth”. He moved in closer to me and we pressed forward in silence. I picked up the pace and hurried the family along.

We both knew that sound though.

The kids are familiar with gorse babies ever since that run-in we had with them in Dorset some years back. And now as we walk hurriedly back home, the rising panic of that sultry evening comes flooding back to me. I curse myself for not learning the lesson then. That too was a summer’s walk, only it turned into a nightmare as we gradually grew aware of their presence. First a sly rustling and snickering deep in the sea of gorse. Then a building storm, the foliage sighing and trembling all around us, as if the rooted foundations beneath stirred and seethed. Tiny hands pulling at the fronds, brown limbs entwined like snakes around the branches, yellow eyes glinting out at us from between the yellow furze flowers. There must have been hundreds of them. It was only through a commotion of shouting, stamping and hammering the path with a heavy stick that I was able to force us a route out of there. We shuffled homewards along the pathway for an age, clustered close together, the kids tightly guarded, Menna snarling and bringing up the rear.

I had never heard of the little creatures being so brazen before. It was simply not known for them to approach while adults were present. Usually it would be just an unattended child who might quietly disappear on the cliff top. Clearly we had run into a tribe that day, one that was powerful enough, or desperate enough, to attack a full family.

I would like to know more about gorse babies, those vile little creatures that fascinate and disturb me in equal measure. I’ve heard the stories, of course, vague and speculative as they are. That the first colony was started in Victorian times, somewhere in the south country, seems realistic. It was most likely a pair of very small children that were either deliberately abandoned on the moors, or became lost somehow. I always imagine a couple of smudged little tots, wide-eyed, tearful, holding hands as the dark closes in; their voices undetectable over the howling wind. They would have sheltered under those wide robust banks of gorse I guess, burrowing in deep to avoid the needles, cushioning themselves in the dry scree underneath. Perhaps they found rabbit or badger holes there. Perhaps they scraped away the earth with their own little fingers. Did the yellow beams of gas lamps flicker distantly in the night? Did the wind carry far off voices shouting their names with increasing desperation? Or were those first nights uninterrupted but for the slithering and scratching of wild creatures making their winding tracks under the fern and gorse?

Whether they were looked for or not, they weren’t ever found. Neither alive, nor as frozen bodies curled tight around the gorse roots. Instead somehow, against all odds, they survived. Some say the founders of the first great colony are still down there somewhere, enthroned in galleries of clay; an ancient and twisted little king and queen of the gorse world, surrounded by the wild civilisation they have created. I don’t believe this myself. That would make them well over a hundred years old. And to survive so long, in a life so harsh…

Our children didn’t sleep well for ages after that first Dorset encounter. They knew that they had had a very close escape. They were still small and malleable and could have so easily been snatched away and pressed down through dark holes into a new life under the earth. A life of slithering through tunnels, eyes straining and swelling in the darkness, bodies never to grow again, skin hardening, fat melting away, tendons, ligaments and bone gaining prominence. How long would it take them to forget their parents and their old soft lives in that subterranean world? Their backs would curve and knot under new muscle growth, their limbs contort to facilitate a life of scrabbling on all fours. Small naked bodies taking the colour of clay, covered in scar tissue and course matted hair. Teeth filed into little points; hardened claw fingers; flesh pierced with thorns and gorsewood. A life driven by instinct and tribal duty, squirming around the gorse roots, sleeping piled up with other small bodies in musky, airless underground chambers, nourished by the blood of rodents and who knows what else? They would have spoken that reedy, chirruping language, full of the anger and violence of wild moorland creatures. Many children have been lost this way.

Now though it’s different, Arthur is nearly ten and Matilda a plump eight year old. They would never flit through the tunnels that honeycomb the headland. Their bones have set, their haunches are soft and they have no value as conscripts to the tribe. Now they are simply prey.

The mist was rising as we hurried on into that yellow dusk. Around us the rustling and chittering slowly intensified like a locust storm approaching. I looked for a stout stick.