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…

Ave Maria

“Maria!” calls Angel in a high falsetto. “Hola! Maria.” There is the sound of water trickling over leaves, wind in the canopy, far off birdsong. The forest is breathing around us but of Maria there is no sign. Arthur and I shuffle awkwardly but Angel gives us a reassuring smile. “Sometimes she is far away. She might need some time. Oh Mariiiia!” He cups his hands at his lips and lets out a mournful quavering hoot. “Venga, venga, venga!”

We walk up and down the forest trails following Angel. He rattles the tub of maggots, our gift. He makes his haunting calls. A perplexed note enters his voice, “Maria ¿donde estás? Yesterday she was just here,” and he indicates a thicket of vine leaves, as if we might pull aside that glossy curtain and find Maria crouched there, a wing coquettishly folded over her eyes. You found me!

“Who or what exactly is Maria anyway?” murmurs Arthur again. I shrug, I have no idea. Twice I have asked Angel this but he always responds in his birdwatcher’s whisper which, together with the thick Andean accent, makes things difficult. We should have done our research before the tour.
“He just said something about pitta,”
“Do you think you can just call a bird and it will come like a dog?”
“It doesn’t appear that you can.”

Angel seems crestfallen. Our sighting of the prized Andean Cock of the Rock was only a flash of scarlet tail feathers and now Maria has let him down too. The tour is going badly. Angel Paz is a titan of the birdwatching world and he has a reputation to uphold, even if it’s only in front of two gringos who clearly know little about birds. We might still write disparaging things on Trip Advisor. He mooches along for a while, then he pulls himself out of his gloom, he smiles. “There is still the quails to see,” he says waving at the wooded ridge above us, “We will find the dark backed wood quail here. Very rare. Very beautiful. Come, come!” Onwards and upwards we trek.

But wood quails will not come out to play today either. They are away with Maria. We squat for a long time on a little mountain trail above a clearing where they ‘always’ come. Angel makes new bird calls; lower with staccato throat sounds.

Arthur and I have a moment of mild excitement when it seems that his calls are answered. The response draws closer. The creature that emerges from the bush is no quail alas, but clearly cut from Angel’s genetic cloth. Stocky, dark, dressed in forest green, eyes like woodland pools. “Mi hermano Rodrigo”, Angel mutters to us, and they converse for a while in low voices, pacing, shaking their heads. Then Rodrigo melts back off into the jungle, his clucking and whistling soon lost amid the leaves that rustle in the wind.

It is nearing ten o’clock now and we have been out here in the woods since half past five. Slow dawn hours watching for birds, but all we have actually seen so far is a single fleeting blaze of red tail feathers through a gap in the trees.

The elusive Andean Cock of the Rock

We have not had any breakfast yet, no coffee even. I am getting grumpy and Arthur is bored, snapping twigs and hurling pieces into the undergrowth, badly imitating Angel’s bird hoots. Angel himself is reduced to showing us videos on his phone of other more successful tours when rare and beautiful quails pecked around camouflaged ankles as real ornithologists tower serious and awkward above them, bristling with long lenses and military-grade optics.

After we have had enough of staring at leaves we drive up to the mountain lodge and Angel’s wife brews us a coffee. “We have a bird watching hide somewhere over there,” indicates Angel sadly, “perhaps you might see something. There are plenty of tanagers and hummingbirds who come. They are not rare of course but they are pretty…”

The bird hide blows our mind. Strange crucifix wood sculptures are staked out in the woods with bananas tied onto them. A vivid blizzard of birds swarm around, wheeling, landing, jousting, swooping; fighting balletic midair duels for a peck of gloopy banana. We see a toucan barbet, tanagers of all colours, golden orioles, a fairywren, cotingas, trogons. I fumble around with Menna’s camera, which I have borrowed, but the autofocus can’t cope with the frenetic motion and I give up quickly.

Later Angel and Rodrigo march us back into the forest, down to a gully where to their delight we see both Shakira and Beyoncé. We are told with some reverence that they are rufous antpittas: small round brown birds, neckless, tailless, long blue legs; quite plump and cute as they hop around on the forest floor, but perhaps a little unflattering to their namesakes.

Arthur and I try to look interested but really we just want to go back to that rainbow glade, sit with a coffee, watch those hypnotic streaks of colour shoot across the mottled green like a Jackson Pollock painting in motion.

Angel sits himself down on a stump and a kind of calm settles on him. We have seen antpittas. He has delivered. The trip has been redeemed. Now it is time for a tale. It is about a child from a poor family, one of seven. He has little schooling and is destined for a life of labor in the fields, but a love of birds saved him. A tourist paid the young urchin ten dollars to lead him into the forest to find the Andean Cock of the Rock. A dream was born. A business was started

Then one day tracking deep in the mountains, our hero spotted a strange bird. A giant antpitta. So rare! So misunderstood! “I decided this bird with long legs and a big beak should be my friend” says Angel dreamily. So a strange courtship began, Angel calling and singing deep in the forest, bringing gifts of worms; shunned at first, his resolve tested, before the relationship began to bloom. “The forest was my new home. Day after day I try so hard to make friends with her…”

Shakira

I later look at Angel Paz’s website where this exact story is repeated almost word for word under the bold heading Antpitta Man. He has built a life and an identity around this small nondescript bird. He is famous in ornithological circles. He has created a bird sanctuary on reclaimed farming land. A true legend of the cloud forest.

I look at Angel’s crucifix necklace and think about his faith, his acts of devotion deep in the woods.
“You named her after the Virgin Maria?” I whisper, “Because of her purity, her spiritual nature? She is a miracle!”
“No! Maria I am naming after my wife. She is like this bird!”

I nod solemnly, appreciating the gesture. No greater love can man show his woman than to name a small fat bird after her. God willing I too may one day bestow this honour on my wife.

Maaarriiiia!

Montage

Many other things happened in Nicaragua but it’s late now and I am weary. I’m peering back at distant memories. The stories here have lagged some months and thousands of miles behind the present moment: a sweaty armchair on a veranda, the equatorial humidity of Brazil, a worried and trapped family right in the Coronavirus epicentre.

What we need now is a cinematic montage to wind up the Nicaragua chapter, a happy mashup of the highlights and magic moments of those last three weeks, set to a uplifting electro-pop soundtrack. Something with meaningless lyrics that would fit almost any situation. Empire of the Sun perhaps.

We are always running for the thrill of it, thrill of it
Always pushing up the hill, searching for the thrill of it

First is a soft-focus arrival shot in the city of Granada: A small taxi draws up, comically overloaded: surfboards tied to the roof with string, a boot which will not shut over a pile of luggage. The Nicholls spill out, hot and sweaty after a two hour drive without air-con and with many of their bags on their laps. The camera sweeps back to reveal the colonial majesty of the town square as they unload their belonging into Selina Hostel, a baroque villa dosshouse, all hipster graffiti and leafy inner courtyards.

Then we go aerial to take in the whole of this beautiful city, shining white and crumbling gently in the tropical heat. Pillared facades, walled gardens, old cathedrals, balustraded walkways, covered markets, tree-lined squares. Then higher still, a majestic sweeping shot: the backdrop of mountains and volcanos, the endless lake to the east.

There is a time-lapse sequence of the Nicholls attacking the city of Granada like Pac-Man chasing eggs around a maze. They traverse the streets from the port area to the mountain side, scuttle up the bell tower, disappear into no less than three museums. We see them marching back and forth, occasionally finding themselves in dangerous areas and doubling back again to safety. They stop to refuel – papaya smoothies, green tea, cinnamon buns.

A meal sequence next: breakfast plates of waffles dissolve into pittas loaded with falafels for lunch, tacos al pastor, quesadillas. Now they are cramming in burgers, cakes, more smoothies, then a steak restaurant! Chins glistening with grease, tomato stained shirts. Have these guys not eaten for a week? Fade to black, music swells.

On and on and on we are calling out, out again
Never looking down, I’m just in awe of what’s in front of me

Another comical taxi ride! We’re bumping through the countryside past huge smoking volcanos, Mombacho to the left, Massaya on the horizon. There are roadblocks. Money is demanded for no apparent reason. A new arrival – and where are we? Laguna de Apoyo! A cerulean crater-lake some 10km wide. As the camera pans slowly across, the otherworldly colours shimmer and we see prismatic light effects on the water that then blur into white. Casa Marimba comes into focus, a terracotta hostel nestled on the slopes of the lagoon amid wood-groved terraces full of hammocks and loveseats. The light is dappled through a venerable old tree in the courtyard (is it a ceiba?), the movement of monkeys and mot-mot birds brings the canopy alive.

There is a floating platform out on the lagoon and our heroes swim out there for a slapstick sequence of dives and bellyflops, near-drownings, kayaks borrowed, left untethered then lost in the fierce wind. There is laughter. There are tears. We see Will and Menna on a sunset run around the lake (way too cheesy – cut!).

A long walk around the lake and a montage of rainbow bird sightings: an oropendola de Montezuma, parakeets, trogons, an osprey, lots of motmots – the national bird of Nicaragua -, various types of large kingfisher. The music dips and we hear Arthur’s reedy little voice solemnly listing them out: Great collared! Amazonian! Rufous!

Now it’s changing all the time
Living in a rhythm where the minute’s working overtime

That taxi sequence again – a sped up two hour cross-country dash, ending in a dusty one-road fishing village that looks like it hasn’t seen any development since the forties. Suspicious locals peer out from dark doorways. The taxi pulls off the Nicholls look worried. But surprise! The bare walls of the Miramar surf hostel are unprepossessing from the street but look inside: there is a skate park, racks of surfboards, a yoga platform, sun decks, swimming pool, flags. Everything is made from local timber, palm fronds, bamboo. A perfect wave breaks on the reef just in front.

The place is run by some a crew of charismatic Brazilians and each is frozen for a moment on screen with their caption: Sergio, ‘the Comedian’; Rafael, ‘Spear-Fisher’; Leandro, ‘Skateboard Guru’; Eduardo, ‘the Philosopher’. We have a party shot – wives and children, beers, music, a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. There are no other actual guests in the camp, but the hosts are larger than life and the the Nicholls are pulled into their extended crew. We see shots of surfing, yoga, fishing, Arthur gutting a barracuda to make ceviche, Will surfing right into the rocks, wrecking his board and his feet. There is a birthday party, a boat expedition, a spear fishing trip. Ten days of sunshine and great waves.

Don’t stop, just keep going on
I’m your shoulder, lean upon
So come on, deliver from inside
All we got is tonight, that is right ’til first light

The final taxi sequence takes us into the sprawling urban grit of Managua. A grey filter is subtly introduced and it bleaches the colour out of the scene. The music winds down into the final repeated lines of the track. The Nicholls are holed up in a shady motel in the slum area of Managua – fussing and packing, discarding excess weight, piling up bags. The room is bare. A small fan rotates noisily in the corner. They will get up at 4am to catch their flight the next morning

And here the montage finally fades to black. There is long and arduous travel ahead, at the end of which the family will find themselves in Mexico. And that of course is a totally new episode.

Final refrain and credits:

We are always running for the thrill of it, thrill of it’s
Always pushing up the hill, searching for the thrill of it
On and on and on we are calling out, out again
Never looking down, I’m just in awe of what’s in front of me

Tarantula

He is sitting on our doorstep, waiting.

We have been tucking up the kids and Menna slips outside first. She immediately bounces back into the room, all twitchy and wide-eyed, jerking her head like a marionette. She’s got some kind of palsy, I think.

As I step out I immediately see him on our doorstep, waiting. There’s something primal that grips me then. A pattern recognition that fires up some ancestral protocol deep in the medulla and my leg muscles spasm before I even know what it is I’ve seen. I leap high. Then I land and the prefrontal cortex takes over: I laugh nervously; act nonchalant.

It’s the biggest fucking tarantula I’ve ever seen, there on our doorstep, waiting.  

It is not one of those short-legged stripy tarantulas with the hairy abdomen that they call pica-caballo here. No, this is a much larger, better-proportioned arachnid with long muscular-looking legs. He is entirely black and sits motionless, coiled like some clockwork contraption that has been wound-up tight and is now ready to explode. Lit up by a single overhead light, each of his legs casts a stark shadow so it seems that there are sixteen of them.

Menna and I regroup a few meters away for a whispered conference. Through one of the two doors in front of us, our children are drifting off to sleep. Matilda is a committed arachnophobe, and to even suspect the existence of such a spider as this would catapult her to hitherto unseen levels of hysteria. She must never know of this nighttime visitor who sits on our doorstep, waiting.

What to do? I have a lifelong rule never to kill animals unnecessarily, except for flies and mosquitos (and occasionally fish which I intend to eat later). Furthermore this tarantula is – despite that visceral first reaction – a truly majestic specimen. He has mesmerised us and now we can’t take our eyes off him. He crouches there with a malevolent calm, an ancient predator from an older time: ageless, impassive, alert. We are in his thrall. His legs are long and elegant, his low centre of gravity speaks of power and agility. He holds some legs flexed on the floor while others rest on the perpendicular stone in front to provide torque as he leaps. My vertical frame feels ungainly as I sway in front of him. I am too slow and clumsy on my single pair of legs.

To kill such a creature would be petty and mean-spirited. I could shoo him away of course, but I have heard that tarantulas are territorial. He would come back again later, and next time we might not see him there on the doorstep, waiting. Matilda might step on him with her little bare foot as she comes wandering through to our room to talk about some vivid dream at three a.m.

In the end I go down to reception to ask for help. There is no one there but I manage to find Silvio, the old cook, who we have befriended. He is a solid chap, sparing with words, face lined with unknown worries. A dependable choice for this task, I think. He doesn’t quite roll his eyes when I tell him that there I have a spider problem, and he manages not to snort derisively when I tell him that my preference is not to have this spider killed, merely removed to a good safe distance.

Silvio has clearly had a long day but nonetheless he will come and help. He wearily picks up a tub and a broom. We head back over to our cabin and find Menna still transfixed, eyes locked on the tarantula who stares back at her from our doorstep, waiting.

“Pero sí ¡Es grande!” Says Silvio and I feel vindicated.

Then we get to see how a local Nicaraguan deals with an oversize spider. Silvio bends down and in one gesture he sweeps the tarantula smoothly up into the ice cream tub that he is holding. Job done! He stands up and smiles at me. Young soft European lad, his eyes say, you still have much to learn.

I cannot help feeling that Silvio has committed a fairly basic oversight here, but I am not sure how to articulate it. Before I can say anything though, the tarantula simply runs out of the open ice cream tub and up his arm.

Silvio does a kind of reflex jump that is not so different from the one that I myself performed ten minutes earlier. When he returns to land the tarantula is no longer on his arm but is on his leg instead, all eight limbs locked tightly into the fuzz of his well-muscled calf. Silvio slaps at his leg and knocks the tarantula to the floor. Menna and I both leap back in perfect synchronicity. The tarantula runs. Silvio sweeps wildly with his broom. On his second or third attempt he catches the skittering creature and sends it scudding across our porch and into a bush.

We all take a couple of breaths and wait for our hearts to slow down. Silvio rubs a hand over his bald head and makes a kind of shrugging gesture. We thank him profusely and he potters off into the night. It feels to me that both he and the tarantula have been somehow robbed of their dignity in the exchange. Silvio’s native competence has been called into question. A lord of the ancient world has been humiliated.

I worry too that we haven’t really dealt with the problem. Somewhere in that dark bush an angry tarantula sits, biding its time, right by our doorstep, waiting.

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.

No Direction Home

Christmas is coming on like a freight train. Our festive plan was originally to skip across the border to Nicaragua, but everyone we speak to grimaces and shakes their head. Security is so bad right now, they say, hurricanes, revolution, covid, crime, poverty. So we’ve done an about-turn, and decided to go the other way instead. We will head to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean south coast for Christmas, then we’ll skip across to Panama for New Year. As we’re currently up on the Pacific north coast this will mean diagonally crossing the country – a 500km drive along some pretty poor roads.

Various bear traps lie in our path: our Costa Rican visa expires on Christmas Eve, so does our car hire agreement and our travel insurance too. We haven’t bought a single present yet, and perhaps more pressingly we have nowhere to stay. It is now the 21st December and time is running out.

Directionless and uncertain we start start bumbling our way cross country anyway, for we have been kicked out of our house in Playa Grande. We stop en route to spend a couple of days with London friends, Ohad and Yael, who are on holiday here, bravely travelling with a cluster of four small daughters. This is not a family who believes in relaxing on the beach. No, they have built themselves instead a challenging itinerary of volcano hikes and climbs in the rainy highlands and it is all laid out carefully on a spreadsheet. They are data scientists. We intend to insert ourselves carefully into this schedule for a couple of days as we work our way across the country. Overlay some of their order onto our chaos.

Our rendezvous is on Volcano Tenorio.  It is a four hour drive and we rattle up in our dirty jeep, surfboards bouncing on the roof, only forty minutes late. We have an inflated belief that we are now Costa Rica experts and will be called upon over the next couple of days to deliver a series of impromptu lectures on local flora and fauna, offer some well-meaning snippets of advice.

Falling out of the car in our dirty vests and broken trainers, we immediately see that they are much better prepared for this expedition than we are. Stout walking boots, utility trousers, headwear, large camera, bulging backpacks, exotic kit (a UV ‘black light’ torch whose sole purpose is making scorpions glow in the dark!). Furthermore they seem to be very well researched and with some prodigious wildlife sightings already under their belts (tarantulas, crocodiles, sloths, something called a olingo that I have never even heard of). As we set off on the trail, we find ourselves upstaged: recipients of travel tips, students of wildlife facts.

It is interesting to be back with other humans again. Over the months on the road, as new landscapes have unfolded our social sphere has shrunk, particularly for the kids. Travelling families are rare; local kids don’t hang out at hotels or on jungle tours and when we do meet them Arthur and Matilda have only the most basic rudiments of Spanish and are shy and uncommunicative. So they hang out with us instead. All day, every day, in close proximity. Since arriving in Costa Rica three weeks ago, we have stayed in nine different places – hotels, tents, cabins, hostels. We have all shared a single room for seven of the nine. Now, reunited with their schoolfriends, our kids are suddenly flutter off like leaves in the wind. It feels like having a plaster ripped off – a sudden tear then the forgotten touch of air and sunlight.

Matilda and Shiraz flit along the trails, hand in hand, whispering secrets to each other like a pair of woodland ghosts. Arthur and Eden run, climb, shout, they hang upside down, try to outwit each other and fabricate animal sightings. Menna and I find ourselves deep in grown up conversation. We are rusty.

We trek along the trails and find the psychedelic turquoise waters of Rio Azul. The Ticos say that after painting the sky, God washed the blue out of his brushes in the waters here, but Yael tells us it is aluminosilicate particles expanding in the acidic volcano waters. We cross Indiana jones style rope bridges and see a bold coati that saunters past us like he owns the place. Further on we see an obese family feeding it chocolate bars. Ohad catches a lizard.

It is a new thing for us not to own our time and pace. We are swept along, passive to someone else’s agenda. In a busy 24 hour period we complete the Rio Celeste hike at Volcano Tenorio, then drive cross country over to Volcano Arenal. I blow out a tire on a mountain road and have to do an exciting pit stop with a local lad who is sitting on the roadside. We stay the night in a hotel that reminds me of the Overlook in the Shining, swapping kids between rooms so they can have sleepovers with their friends. We listen to Ohad’s statistical analysis of Covid lockdown efficiency and we play chess. In the morning we loop our way around the 17 hanging bridges of Mistico Sky Park (and spot a Motmot), we grab lunch in La Fortuna (and spot a toucan) then more waterfalls and a swim in the rocky pools (and spot a sloth with a baby on its back). Arthur and Eden are very taken by the big rope swing that drops into the rocky pool and do it time and time again, chattering with the cold.

All the time the spectre of Christmas looms. Yael and Ohad don’t celebrate Christmas and feel no stress – but we do, and our kids have picked up on it. They have no home address to put on their letters to Father Christmas, and are nervously asking if he will even come to find them in Costa Rica. At this point we can’t honestly say that he will.

Ghost Town

When we were last here in Playa Grande we lived with a wild crowd. There was Rob, a Bahamian drug dealer who had done some fairly serious jail time in Miami. I forget his girlfriend’s name but she was pretty with semi-dreadlocks. She had lived through tough times and this had left her with a vicious streak and a tendency to hysteria. Then there was Benny, an alcoholic chef, flushed and vitriolic at work in the kitchen then soft and wet-faced in the early hours; he would occasionally proposition Menna and then pull me aside to apologise, sagging and spitting into my ear. There was another English boy there too at the time: Ollie. They called me posh, but he was posher. He worked as a hotel manager nearby. His parents would periodically send him food parcels and once a hamper from Fortnum & Masons, which he would consume unabashed, occasionally throwing tidbits to the crowd of ravening travellers lounging around.

Other surfers, punks and lost souls drifted in an out of Casa Iguana. We surfed and smoked weed, got loaded, played pool at Kike’s joint. Someone would come home with five bucks of fresh tuna from the fishermen on the beach and we would eat it raw with chilli and tequila shots. We hung Benny’s bike from a tree once while he was passed out drunk in a hammock. It stayed there for a week.

Now we are back at our old haunt. We are staying in Casa Iguana once again, but over the intervening years it has shrunk, the big sunny garden has been divided with a wall and gravelled; shaded by tall cycads and leafy rubber trees. The place is run by a neurotic South African lady. The ghost of Rob is still sitting in the corner though. “You wanna bump?” he asks as I unpack the bags and stack the surfboards.

“The beach is this way.” says Menna brightly to the kids, “Let’s go and watch the sun set.” We have been in the car all day and now we can hear the waves, or perhaps it just that we need to step out of this garden that is full of shadows and nostalgia. We head out into the dust and sunlight of the road, but the access routes have changed and we go the wrong way, down into the forest, past barking dogs, on a winding swampy path that leads us for twenty minutes to the estuary edge.

We finally emerge from the twilight of the trees. We find the river mouth lit up like tin foil under strip lights and I am rocked by a deep sense of déjà-vu. For a few months in 2005 we lived in Tamarindo, on the other side of the river, and we used to paddle our surfboards across this estuary every day to seek out the better surf break. Sometimes if the tide was coming in fast and the water was high, we would get swept right up-river when we paddled homewards at dusk. Menna and I would wind each other up with tales of the huge apocryphal crocodile which was said to live in the muddy river waters. It turned out the crocodile wasn’t so apocryphal after all. It surged out of the water a couple of years ago and took a bite out of an elderly man who was standing in the water. It mangled his leg pretty bad and he had to have it amputated. The victim was a high court judge and he took the town to court, won himself a big pay out. The upshot is that these days you can’t paddle across the river any more, but have to use one of the boatmen that sit like mosquitos on the water, whistling at you from their dugouts.

Today we don’t want to cross the estuary to Tamarindo anyway, we want to walk back around the headland to get home. The sunset is pretty much over and it wasn’t a good one anyway. The moon will be full tonight and we have a springs tide at its peak, running high and stormy. Waves are swamping the beach, throwing foam and flotsam right up to the tree line. We can’t walk around the point to make the main stretch. We get soaked trying and are forced by the waves back into the undergrowth. We clamber back over broken foliage, get scratched by brambles, sink into waterlogged sand. The ghost of Benny rattles dimly along the forest path behind the tree line. He is weaving erratically on his bike and shouting something I don’t understand. Matilda falls over and cuts herself. Dark is falling.

We finally make it back to our apartment, which is both hotter and smaller than we remember. We bargained hard on rent and in a last negotiation twist, the neurotic South African lady removed the air conditioning remote and will only give it back for another $10 a night. A thin phantom dreadlocked girl sits in the hammock and nods with a tight smile at this righteous manoeuvre. The kids don’t understand what is so special about this cramped apartment anyway; they are tired of listening to our old stories and don’t want to share a bed in a cramped room. Without the chatter of the ghosts and the film of drunken stories the place is just a rundown set of rooms. “This place is absolutely totally nowhere near as good as our last house” says Matilda definitively.

The surf is glorious though over the next few days, mellow and glassy, visible lines stretching right out to the horizon. Arthur and I surf morning and night. The break is near empty yet at the same time it is crowded with ghosts and memories. I fail to catch a cracking wave and watch as Rob slips silently into the barrel. “I missed so many good waves while I was inside,” goes his calypso lilt as he paddles back out afterwards, “Now I’ve got my freedom again man, I’m just gonna catch right up.”

And over there is Bob on his sky blue epoxy board, paddling and hollering. Behind him is the German man we call Jesus, with his flowing blond hair and Teutonic precision, his girlfriend on the beach applauding another text-book ride. There are those dark Mexican brothers with the perfectly trimmed beards and the film-star cut-backs. I can see that scary muscle guy with the neck tattoos who keeps snaking my waves. A crowd of ghosts live in this ocean and they are waiting for us every evening. Together we see in the sunsets, call out the sets, we fight for the peaks and float in the lulls.

But Arthur is out there too, my own warm little surfer boy, my flesh and blood; full of life; smiling and chatting non-stop, wanting to make sure that I’ve seen every single wave he’s caught. He silences the ghosts and pulls me back to the present.

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

Welcome to the Jungle

Arthur and I are somewhere in Los Quetzales cloud forest, high on the mountain face. We are starting to wonder if we have made a mistake. A jungle after dark is a scary place, full of whispers and insinuation. Spider webs brush across our faces and we have no idea how large or how venomous are the weavers. Roots twist and curl under our feet – or are they snakes? Things fly at us out of the darkness. It has been raining most of the afternoon and the path is slippy, the undergrowth around is thick. Our head torches cast thin beams straight ahead, but the light bounces back off wet leaves and the shadows behind have the glistening fluidity of ink. Every time I look towards Arthur he dazzles me with his torch and I lose my night vision.

This is our first foray into the forest, and venturing out at sunset was misjudged. The girls turned back a kilometre ago and now Artie is starting to get that quaver in his voice that says that his courage is failing. But we are men! We don’t admit fear or acknowledge our mistakes. Misadventure is a burden we must bear. We are still on the trail at least, or I think we are.

“Do you think we should turn back soon Dad?” It is the opening I need.

Happy to go back if that’s what you want…”

“Is it what you want?”

“Well, I could go on a bit. But I don’t want you to be scared.”

“I’m not scared! I just feel a bit tired. Hungry I mean. Hungry and tired.” Next to us in the undergrowth something large suddenly rustles and I jump.

“Jaguar!” I shout. It is intended as a joke but I get the volume wrong and Arthur leaps like a gazelle. His sudden movement startles me, and then we are both running, slipping, slithering our way back down the trail, through the spider webs and over the snakes. We are both hungry and we are tired, but we are not scared. It is time to go home.

We take the trail again at 5:45am next morning. Walking through the forest at sunrise is a whole different experience. Although once again we are in near complete darkness when we start, it is not so terrifying. We can feel the house lights are being gradually raised, black turns to grey and then to drab green. Olive notes show through then mossy tones, it gets brighter, deeper, until finally around us is every shade of green imaginable. At a point we know that the sun has hit the canopy because the leaves are glowing and painted in impossible colours and some have gold lining. The bird song gets louder and wilder. There is a ticking humming, buzzing that seems to rise from the forest floor. We come across gullies and streams, deep clearings with mossy floors, pockets of mist, sudden sunbeams slanting through the trees. We see a toucanet, hummingbirds, a flock of large black and white birds. There are always movements in our peripheral vision.

After about an hour hiking we emerge from the forest at the top of the mountain and into the sunlight. We find ourselves in coffee and avocado fields. A huge valley stretches out below, vultures and eagles circle above. We walk back down the mountain like heroes and have rice and beans for breakfast.

This is the start of our jungle life. By the time we leave Cedrela Eco Lodge two days later, Arthur and I have done the 5km jungle trail four times. We are hungry for more off-grid adventuring. When Menna and I were last in Costa Rica fifteen years ago, our focus was firmly on surfing, bars and beach life. This time around we are chasing nature not waves.

We move from the highland cloud forests of Quetzales down to the humid tropical jungle of Manuel Antonio and see monkeys at last – capuchins and squirrel monkeys – a huge emotional moment for the kids. We meet a tribe of iguanas on a deserted beach, a ranger points out the deadly fer-de-lance, Costa Rica’s most venomous snake, coiled on the edge of a path we have just walked. Fat agoutis scurry past us like dog-sized hamsters. The skies are alive and the kids are constantly spotting new birds, thumbing through their field guides to call out bright yellow kiskadees, hawks on telegraph wires, red tanagers, cinnamon hummingbirds, a pair of lineated woodpeckers. Then – raising the stakes – a pair of macaws blazing a rainbow streak against a misty blue evening (Matilda), a flock of toucans lunching on a fruit tree (Arthur).

We move on to Uvita where we stay in a ramshackle tree house up in the forest and get up close with the darker side of nature. There are scorpions in the beams, we see a poison dart frog on the terrace, a crocodile head surfaces in the lake, huge spiders give Matilda nightmares. We surf on black sand beaches and see more macaws flying against the forest backdrop, blood soaked and screaming murder.

‘More,’ we shout after two weeks of gorging ourselves on nature, ‘Iguanas no longer cut it, monkeys are commonplace. We need bigger game!’ Where are the tapirs and sloths, the anteaters and pumas? Where are the jaguars? We are forest experts now, hardened to insect bites, tuned into to patterns and shapes against the foliage. Our footfall is muffled, we communicate with hand signals, we dress in khaki and strap things to our belts. We need to get into real wilderness.

In the Osa Peninsula, at the southern most stretch of the Pacific coast, there is one vast untamed tract of proper primary rainforest that is said to contain sixty percent of all the biodiversity of Costa Rica and this is where we will head. We need to go to Corcovado.

Welcome to Gran Hotel Costa Rica

For the first two nights of our trip we stay in the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, an old haunt of ours in downtown San José.

This place is full of nostalgia for us; it is where I took Menna straight after she landed in September 2005. I had already been in country for three months at this point; wisely using that time not only to tour the land and find us a house to live in, but also to shave off all my hair, turn brown, lose ten kilos, lose my shoes, lose my manners, start wearing vests with local beer slogans and generally go native. Menna found it difficult to recognise me as I stood grinning at her in Arrivals, she later told me. She felt uneasy and lost. She imagined she had been kidnapped by a Mexican refugee.

¡Hola muchacha! Hey, you real pretty… Wanna ride in my car?

It was also here where we spent our last night in Costa Rica – happily restored by this point to a state of harmony and mutual recognition – and where we returned one set of good quality cotton sheets, now slightly frayed, which we had borrowed a year before and used in most of the cheap hostels throughout Central America.

The Gran Hotel Costa Rica has now been taken over by the Hilton chain and is recently refurbished. There is a slick new cocktail bar on the top floor now, but I’m sure it is the same tired old pianist who sits in the background, coaxing out another mournful rendition of Yesterday. The hotel is a lot smarter but I feel it has lost something of its ramshackle colonial charm along the way. I wonder if this is a sign of things to come, whether the fifteen years since we had last been here may have brought a kind of progress to Costa Rica that we might not find entirely welcome.

I look out of the window of our hotel room as the sun sets. At this moment the city is painted in a soft, forgiving light. The mosaic floor of the Plaza de la Cultura stretches out in front of us, then an ornate church, the Teatro Nacionál, a concrete tower block. I look past the shop lights and neon, beyond a sea of corrugated iron roofs, through barbed wire and electric cables and away to the cloud-topped mountains that surround the city.

I know the forests out there are teeming with nature in all its many forms. I can imagine the shifting, slithering, scuttling aliveness of it all. There will be furtive movements in the shadows, swinging shapes in the canopy, sudden bird calls, huge strangler figs silhouetted against the sky. Exotic bacteria are fizzing in the waters; snakes, frogs, sloths and howler monkeys hide among the leaves; jaguars slip through moonlit clearings; leeches wait to suck out our blood. It will be humid. There will be ancient layers of fungus and mud and leaf silt underfoot. All the sludge and the glory of the tropics is just there, outside our window, on the horizon.

After a couple of days in the city we all feel that it is time to head into the wild. Artie straps his new bush knife to his belt. We pick up a hire car, buy a map, pack up our room and check out. Wanting to set a good example for the children we do not borrow any sheets this time.

The jungle looked back at them with a vastness, a breathing moss-and-leaf silence, with a billion diamond and emerald insect eyes.

Ray Bradbury

Yurting Real Bad

We are staying in a yurt. It is decorated like a Mongolian warlord’s tent with animal skins on the floor, carved wooden chests and iron candlesticks. A claw-foot bath sits outside under the stars. All the beds are draped with gauzy mosquito nets that look like a fairytale to Matilda but look ominous to me.

The kids are spinning around and Menna is jubilant. She has a thing about yurts and has been trying to engineer this for months, overcoming a wall of passive resistance from others in our party (me). Now she has been vindicated.

Our yurt sits nestled up above the tree-line overlooking a small valley. Outside we can see wigwams and cabins, gazebos, other yurts, outhouses with sawdust loos. Artful lighting illuminates key features in the dusk. Flaming torches reflect across the lake, willow trees are uplit with soft yellow spotlights, candlelight marks out the paths. There are peacocks shrieking, moving around like satin shadows in the twilight. It is a beautiful scene, though strangely devoid of people for such a grand site. It feels like a festival where they forgot to book the bands but no-one turned up anyway. Except us.

“Isn’t this wild?” I say, and no-one knows that I am secretly referring to the sort of wild that drinks from your ankles and buzzes.

And this is true. October has brought rain and insects. The kids have circular mosquito nets that provide good protection, but the one that hangs over our double bed is comprised of four overlapping veils that inevitably come open as we toss in the night, so it lets mosquitos in then traps them inside! I kill twelve on our first morning, fat and ripe with our blood. Throughout the week we hear them whine past our ears, so we slap our faces in the darkness, hoping to catch one. One morning I wake up with insect legs and blood smeared down my cheek, proving that the strategy isn’t always ineffective.

We have arrived at the campsite the day after a staff wedding, our receptionist tells us as we check in, and consequently everyone is a little discombobulated. She is an Amazonian woman, tall and strong with high cheekbones and extensive tattoos and she doesn’t look at all discombobulated. Later we find out that she was actually the bride.

Through various conversations and clues over our stay we sketch the outlines of the event: a humanistic ceremony; the camp staff released from their duties to go wild; a small but committed contingent of international guests braving quarantines to attend; crazy decorations; extravagant outfits; several days of partying. Our imaginations shade in the missing texture: shamanistic vows, peacock feathers, bonfires and bongos late into the night, nude dancers emerging from the lake, copious psychedelics, Goa trance, tears and mascara stains. We used to go to parties like that, I think wistfully.

As we walk around over the next few days we find mementos of the great wedding scattered throughout the site like the relics of a lost civilisation. A plywood archway covered in peacock feathers lies overturned in the dust; a bottle of tequila sits among the cinders in the fire pit; hundreds of footprints swirl around the amphitheatre; in a far-off outhouse in the woods I find an enigmatic lipstick heart scrawled on the mirror while strange powders are smeared around the sink. A feather boa lies coiled around a eucalyptus branch.

There are no other guests for most of the week and so we eat with the staff each night, or rather ‘volunteers’, for as well as looking after the guests, they do eco work around the site for food and board. The wedding came right at the end of a busy season and everyone is tired and emotional. It feels rather fin de siécle. There are small flare ups at the table in Italian or German. Gardeners down tools and drape themselves over the sofas to smoke spliffs and mutter to each other. A blind dog hustles for scraps under the table. We lie next to a pair of volunteers down at the lakeside beach. They are having a long and indignant conversation in German and as I doze I hear fleisch emphasised heavily, salat and veganer.
“Someone put meat in the vegan salad. Total nightmare!” I whisper to Menna knowingly. There is a mutiny on Thursday when the chef refuses to fire up the pizza oven and I think it will go to blows, but alas no. It is typical for the Nicholls to arrive just as the organ fades to silence and the drapes are thrown over the carousel I think. This year has been a bit like that.

While I am watching the staff for drama, the kids are spotting nature. The peacocks move in an intricate hierarchy on the ground. Up in the air there are buzzards and flocks of blue-winged jays, even a hoopoe looping through the trees. Menna claims to see a turtle in the lake, which I secretly doubt, but then Arthur goes and actually catches it, and brings it back triumphantly for everyone to see. We find a dead snake on a forest run. I walk headfirst one evening into a thick web and come eyeball to eyeball with the hugest spider I’ve ever seen, and I properly scream like a six year-old child. It’s wild.

Berlenga

The far-off island that we can see from our roof terrace is Berlenga. It is a shadow on the horizon right where the sun sets; misty, distant, often hidden. Over time it has worked its way into our imagination: it is a fantasy place, an enigma. The kids are sure there are pirates there. We catch ourselves gazing at it – particularly Menna, when she’s in one of those wistful moods.

We head there by boat one day, after some early morning haggling on the Peniche quay. We travel in a rib to be precise, light and buoyant but with a ton of horsepower. With its inflatable hull and lack of keel, it feels like the wrong sort of vessel to tackle the unexpectedly large and brutish waves that greet us when we swing round the headland. The captain seems to know what he is doing though and we smash our way bluntly over everything that the sea throws at us, airborne at some points with engines whining, before skidding down into dark troughs where the sun disappears and the spray feels very cold. Matilda squeezes my hand throughout the journey, and lets out keening cries like a little storm petrel. There are no other signs of life upon the ocean.

After an hour the vague shape of Berlenga solidifies into a rocky mass in front of us. Cliffs soar, the sun steadies, and the grey of the ocean lightens into a post-card aquamarine. We putter into a bay where a ramshackle cluster of white cottages and a taverna are strung up the cliff road and the rocks are draped with fishing nets, lobster pots and buoys. We clamber onto the dock all damp and unsteady and lurch off to explore the island.

We’ve done this trip the Nicholl way – which is to scorn all of the organised tours but then to forget to do any of the research ourselves – so there is a period on the quayside where we march backwards and forwards waving our phones in the air to find signal and load a map of the island. In the end we give up and stride out to navigate by visual clues. The standard island symbols are all present here: a fort, a lighthouse, some ruins, the ubiquitous clifftop church. This much we can see without Google’s help. It turns out moreover that there is also one of those tourist information boards halfway up the mountain road. Peregrine falcons nest in the cliffs it says, and there is a huge cavern in the Northern rock face – a Catedral. Best of all though… pirates! It turns out actual pirates were here, ransacking the monastery, butchering monks and generally having fun.

We cover the island in a couple of hours, snacking on salt crackers and pomegranate seeds like true buccaneers. Berlenga is a windswept and rugged place, handsome from some angles but very forlorn. It is how I imagine the Falklands to be, only without the puffins. There is very little vegetation though there are plenty of epic rock formations. We see a lot of bird skeletons and Arthur is able to scavenge various interesting bones for his collection. We find the cathedral cave, which is truly awesome, but we do not sight any peregrines.

The highlight of the island is the fort, where you can read stirring accounts of the Spartan-esque heroics of twenty Portuguese soldiers who held off fifteen Spanish warships and a combined force of two thousand men in 1666 (though a little later digging shows that they simply surrendered once they ran out of ammunition). It is the Portuguese Thermopylae and we are honoured to be there. The Portuguese don’t have a lot of military victories to celebrate, but like the Scots, they savour their heroic defeats.

The fort is an imposing structure, jutting out to sea but joined to the mainland by a stone walkway that zig zags over some very clear turquoise waters. We picnic here and spend some time snorkelling. We see lots of fish, some crazy underwater geology and then Menna spots a huge octopus. We follow him along, pointing and making excited whale-like snorkel sounds to each other, while he changes colours, squirts ink and finally folds himself away into a crack in the rocks to be rid of us.

With rash bravado I have opted not to bring my wetsuit and despite the sun I get very cold floating in the Atlantic waters. I drag the family out of the sea and march them back over the cliffs to catch the afternoon boat home.

A bare-chested chap in Hawaiian shorts is the Berlenga harbourmaster. He greets incoming boats, ties mooring ropes and bosses around a pair of barefoot urchins. His belly taut and rounded and he has a fine black moustache which gives him authority. We watch him explaining some important unloading procedure to one of his underlings when he astonishes us by throwing himself off the pontoon mid-sentence. It is a neat dive and he enters the water with barely a splash. Some seconds later he re-emerges on the slipway at the far end of the jetty, walking slowly and majestically up the ramp and it is like a messiah is rising up out of the sea. Best of all, he resumes his conversation as if nothing has happened, although he is now quite some distance away and has to shout. Arthur and I are deeply impressed.

On the way back the waves are with us and the ride is noticeably smoother. The boat is pumping out house music. We plane along the big rollers until we reach the port at Peniche. Then our captain decides to give us all a virtuoso finale. As soon as we are level with the ‘4 Knots. Speed Restriction’ sign on the harbour wall, he slams his throttle forward, revs up to maximum and slaloms his way through the breakwater at high speed, tipping the boat hard up on its side through several sharp curves. We are horizontal at points, thrown one way then the other and only our seatbelts stop us being ejected into the water. Everyone screams and an elderly Dutch couple look like they’re going to have a heart attack. It is a bizarre manoeuvre and I’m not sure if it is intended to generate tips, demonstrate his helming skill or as a anti-disestablishment ‘fuck-you’ salute to the port authorities.

Once inside the marina the captain kills his speed and glides smoothly into his pontoon slot. He cuts the engine, turns off the music and says nothing. We all turn to look at him but he is inscrutable behind his sunglasses.

We disembark and head off into Peniche to look around the prison, but it is shut on Tuesdays.

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.

Off Grid

The Serra de São Mamede is a spur of the Toledo mountain range, sitting high above the Alentejo, dividing countries and climates. On the eastern side you have Portugal and the Atlantic terrains, and on the west is Spain and the Mediterranean. We are staying deep in the protected national park that nestles on the Portuguese side of the mountains, and it takes us five hours driving cross-country to get there.

There is a symbolic aspect to the journey as we gradually leave civilisation behind us and wind our way up mountain roads into the wilderness. Towns become villages, vegetation thins out, roads get pocked and increasingly rutted until finally the asphalt ends and we bump the last few miles down a red dirt track, squeezing between rocks. Then we have arrived – that is to say there comes a point where we can’t drive any further and we abandon our car in a scorched sandy clearing and proceed on foot as the sun begins to set.

The domain of Terra Sangha stretches out over the hillside like a dusty crumpled blanket, seamed with dry stone walls and scored by a river’s crease. There is an simple farmhouse in the middle of it all and that is where Ben resides, cooking on wood and lit by candles. He has no power at the moment, the solar panels have been out of action ‘for a few weeks now’, but Ben does not let such worldly matters affect him. It won’t affect us either, he tells us as he takes us to our cabin, we didn’t have solar panels to start with.

After some months of relatively civilised living on the Iberian littoral, we are now going totally off-grid. That means living with no electricity, drinking water, flushing toilet, oven, shower, tv, window-glass, wifi, phone signal or refrigeration. “There’s a cool box somewhere if you need it. I can bring you ice.” Says Ben vaguely and disappears off into the dusk, leaving us alone in our glade.

Our car, full of the heat-sensitive provisions that we have purchased for this week, is about a kilometre away and darkness is falling fast. The evening is dry and windless, the temperature still sits obstinately in the low thirties. We have some work to do.
“Does anyone know where the head torch is?” Asks Menna pointlessly.

We toil backwards and forwards to the car, laden with many (un-eco) bags full of (non-vegan) provisions, (unsuitable) clothes and (unchargeable) electrical items.  We leave surfboards and bikes dumped on scrubland by the car. We climb walls, stumble over hidden obstacles, get scratched by tree branches and curse a lot. The night falls quickly once the sun has dipped behind the mountains and the darkness is complete and unequivocal.

Dinner is a basic pasta, cooked by torchlight outside on a rusty two-ring gas stove. Around us the night comes alive with wild calls and rustling that may be leaves in the breeze but may equally be prowling paws. The Iberian lynx still lives in these remote mountains I tell the kids, maybe bears too, certainly wild boar. They have both gone very quiet and don’t venture outside the safe sphere of light that the solar lamp throws over our trestle table. Matilda screams occasionally as flying creatures suddenly zoom past her head. This is a sanctuary for bats as well we remember, and our cabin has no window panes. They will come in and sleep in the rafters.

By ten o clock we are all tucked up in our single room, wide eyed in the darkness, listening to the forest breathing around us.

The best thing about arriving somewhere after dark is that you get to arrive all over again in the morning. Our cabin sits up on a flat terrace and when the dawn sun emerges over the shoulder of the mountain opposite, it throws beams between the tree tops and through our windows. The light illuminates the dust motes floating in our dark wooden room and falls across our faces of our sleeping children in their driftwood beds, making them look unwashed and strangely angelic. I stumble to the window and stick out a squinting sun-scrunched face to take in our new world. A glade of yellow grasses, a wall of poplar, cork and lime trees, the mercury flash of running water glittering in the shadows, mountains ahead and behind, forest all around us. Birds flitter through the foliage.

We can live without wifi for a while I think.