Up the Amazon with a paddle

 

Go Brazil: MIKE MILOTTE takes to the mighty Amazon where a cacophony of sound, colour and smells conjures up an unforgettable encounter with nature

PINK RIVER dolphins arch gracefully through the delicate waves as a congregation of lumpy yellow-eyed caimans glide past in menacing silence. Overhead, what sounds like thousands of howler monkeys roar in a spine-tingling cacophony, while enormous slouching sloths peer languorously from the treetops.

Tiny, brilliantly coloured frogs stare at us as we drift past, and mesmerising electric blue butterflies the size of dinner plates flap around our heads. The air is thick with the intoxicating scent of an as-yet-unseen flower.

The experience is dream-like, without comparison. Welcome to the Amazon.

Our personal guide, Francisco, kneels in front of us in our two-person dug-out canoe, paddling noiselessly through the descending gloom of the várzea, the flooded forest, stopping regularly to indicate another fantastic species which he identifies by pointing to a captioned photograph on a laminated card. He holds the canoe perfectly still while my lens whirs and clicks.

The birds are spectacular: dazzling yellow rumped caciques and enormous horned screamers on one side; mysterious crested hoatzins and fluttering wattled jacana on the other. A rufescent tiger heron puts on an elaborate show just for us, or so we think till we see the chestnut-eared aracari watching from the branch above.

A majestic ornate hawk eagle glides by, almost within reach. The constant red flashes are macaws, the blue and green ones, kingfishers.

Weird and wonderful bird noise fills the humid air – a piercing screech; a descending whistle like a falling bomb; a rusty croak followed by loud boom-like calls, near and far. The tumult is unceasing yet ever-changing. All the senses are engaged.

And this is just the first evening of our visit to Uakari Lodge in the isolated western reaches of the Brazilian Amazon. It has been named after the elusive white-haired monkey with bald head and bright red face, unique to this region, but glanced tonight only in distant silhouette as the sun sinks behind the darkening canopy.

Uakari Lodge is matchless among tourist destinations in the Brazilian Amazon: ecologically unassailable – unlike most which apply the “eco” prefix opportunistically; co-operatively run by local people rather than faceless businessmen, and integrated into the experimental Mamirauá Ecology Reserve whose jungle and river-dwelling inhabitants have committed to sustainable hunting, fishing, and forestry, subsidising their consequently reduced incomes from the lodge’s profits.

But as well as being a worthy venture, Uakari Lodge is hauntingly beautiful, dreamily relaxing, and just great fun.

The lodge has 10 double rooms in floating straw-roofed cabins linked by a narrow pontoon. Power is solar generated, and precious. Our spacious bedroom has fitted mosquito nets and ceiling fan.

The en-suite shower room has limited – but sufficient – hot water, and our private veranda sports two hammocks where we doze, watching the basking caimans and huge river cormorants diving for fish. The food is simple, local, plentiful and delectable.

Throughout the night, intriguing jungle noises persist: the shrieks and screeches of nocturnal birds; loud watery plops as giant pirarucu fish pitch outside our window; dull thuds as caimans criss-cross beneath our floating cabin; and mysterious rustling sounds all around.

THERE ARE NOroads in Mamirauá. We go everywhere by boat. In fact, just getting to Uakari Lodge is a large part of the Amazon experience.

The journey begins in Manaus, bustling, down-at-heel capital of the Brazilian province of Amazonas, built around the now defunct rubber trade and boasting the celebrated neo- classical opera house where regular performances are either free or as good as. For some reason, sandals are prohibited.

We had booked a tiny out-of-town guest house on the internet because of the glowing reviews. Its website said guests would be met, free of charge, at the airport but as our flight from Sao Paulo arrived at 1am, we didn’t expect any such bonus.

So imagine our surprise when not only were we greeted by our host, but we quickly discovered he was from Bangor, Co Down – my hometown!

Clive Maguire, a former finance chief at the NI Educational Libraries Board, and his Brazilian wife, Naice, were wonderful hosts – and they have a glorious swimming pool, a bird-filled garden, and a shady loggia, complete with ubiquitous hammocks, perched right at the jungle’s edge.

We take a day-long Manaus river excursion in Clive’s boat, Shamrock. He learned his skills on Lough Erne. We slip through flooded forests where we see our first caiman, and emerge at the not-to-be-missed ’meeting of the waters’ where the black Rio Negro collides with the white Rio Solimões to create the Amazon-proper. Because of their divergent chemical compositions – acid and alkaline – the two rivers merge very slowly: it is 30km before the black and white give way to a uniform muddy brown.

We glide home via the pulsating harbour, bursting with colourful river ferries, where scores of nimble porters balance massive loads on their heads and weave across narrow slippery gangways swaying over the caiman-infested waters.

Our short stay with the Maguires has acclimatised us to the heat and given us a foretaste in microcosm of what awaits us.

And now it’s time to start our daring 600km trip upstream to the remote Uakari Lodge. As we’re not on a package tour, we have to make our own way to Tefé where we will be met.

Tefé is a crumbling riverside town 40km from the lodge and there are three options for getting there: plane (2hrs), speed boat (12hrs), or unhurried river junk (48hrs). We choose the slow boat, and manage to find the right one in the seething harbour by following the porter we get to carry our bags.

We are the only Europeans on board, but never a source of curiosity. Everyone is friendly. They help us sling our hammocks across the deck – like the rest of the passengers, and point us to the canteena at meal times.

We also booked a cabin – just a windowless broom cupboard with two narrow bunks – but it is air conditioned, a godsend when the afternoon temperatures soar. And it has a gurgling loo and spluttering shower.

Our boat hugs the shoreline the whole way, providing an unparalleled opportunity to view river life up close: people fishing, herding skinny cattle, tending sparse crops, and washing – clothes, pots, themselves, their children.

Small wooden houses are built on stilts against the floods, many incongruously bedecked with satellite dishes attached to TV sets powered by petrol generators.

AFTER ANastoundingly engorged sunset, we sit on deck watching the stars come out and fill the sub-equatorial sky in dazzling profusion. From the fo’c’sle, strains of the Bee Gees’ I Started a Jokewaft absurdly on the warm night breeze. I don’t want this journey to end.

When we get there, Tefé is steaming under a vulture-laden sky. But before long we are met by the Uakari Lodge boatman, and along with a dozen others who either flew here or came by speedboat, we are soon heading upstream to our floating paradise and first evening with Francisco in our canoe.

The rest of our visit passes all too quickly: several canoe trips to diverse parts of the flooded forest, each revealing exhilaratingly different flora and fauna; a night trip into the forest where we watch a snake hanging from a tree lunging at passing bats.

We shine huge torches on the pitch-black water and see hundreds of caimans’ eyes glow bright red like car brake lights in a midnight traffic jam.

We visit a riverside village where we clomp through sticky mud, guided by proud community leaders happy to explain their philosophy of ecological sustainability.

This is the only occasion when we can buy local produce: delicate jewellery fashioned by shy young women who were embarrassed to take payment. Commercialisation creeps slowly.

After bidding Francisco farewell and exchanging e-mail addresses with fellow adventurers, we return to Manaus by speed boat, which necessitates a memorable night in Tefé – sleepless thanks to a violent storm. The boat trip is remarkably comfortable, and lunch is included.

We have had an unforgettable encounter with nature, and can only hope that if our presence in this delicate and threatened landscape did any damage, it was offset by whatever benefits our passing trade brought to the people of Mamirauá.

Amazon where to . . .

Stay


Uakari Lodge, uakari lodge.com.br. Three-night stay costs €550; four nights €650; six nights €1,000. Prices include transfers between the lodge and Tefé, all meals, guided tours, trips and lectures.

Maguire’s Guesthouse, 28 Rua Modolva, Tarumã, Manaus, maguirenet.com. See also Clive Maguire’s guidebook at visitmanaus.com for alternatives.

Tropical Hotel, Manaus, tropicalhotel.com. This is the biggest tourist hotel in town. Rooms start at about €150.

Hotel Oliveira II, 112 Rua Marechal Deodoro, Tefé. Basic but clean, about €30 for two sharing. Breakfast included.

Eat

Fish and Art, Manaus. Next to the Opera House, simple and exceptionally good value. You might even buy one of the owner’s paintings.

Quitutes da Fatima, Tefé. A spotlessly clean, inexpensive buffet-style experience.

Panorama Hotel, 90 Rua Floriano Peixoto, Tefé. Fine dining in a picturesque location.

Getting there: TAM airlines (tam.com.br) flies from Sao Paulo to Manaus (fares from about €200 return) and from Manaus to Tefé (about €350 return). Slow boat from Manaus to Tefé one way, with cabin and all meals, about €90pps. The speed boat costs about the same, with one meal included.