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.