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Travel Story

Napo River, headwaters of the Amazon

The Napo River heads on the crest of the Cordillera Occidental. It winds through the jungle-choked lowlands of eastern Ecuador and northern Peru, and finally empties into the headwaters of the Amazon. Near the small village of Ahuano, where we are working our way slowly upstream against the current, the Napo is already a formidable river.

Our boat, carved from a single log, is about 10 metres long and just wide enough for two people to sit beside one another. Betty and I plus our three travelling companions and a couple native women are squeezed into midships amongst a pile of freshly cut green bananas. In the bow an elderly Spanish gentleman, with a flock of grey hair and matching moustache, sits facing the stern. He is impeccably dressed in a grey suit, tie, and shiny black oxfords.

We are on the return leg of our visit to Cabanas Anaconda, a jungle-style lodge where we spent the first few days of our Napo River adventure. The young indian boatman, barely visible over a stack of red jerry cans, guides the boat skilfully upstream – gunning the 40-horse kicker through stretches of fast water and throttling back as he weaves from bank to bank avoiding the shallow bars and riffles.

Then the engine quits!

As we drift backwards the driver frantically shakes one empty jerry can after another, finally gives up and strains to tilt up the outboard. It won't budge. The power leg hits bottom, tilting the boat precariously and launching our slender craft into a series of uncontrolled slow-motion pirouettes. The current finally sweeps us up against a steep bank overhung by dense jungle foliage. Everyone grabs a vine and hangs on for dear life – everyone, that is, except the grey mystery-man in the bow. Throughout the entire ordeal the expression on his dark, handsome face never changes – inscrutable, detached – he could have been sitting at a board-room table, waiting for the end of a boring speech.

Half an hour later we hailed a passing skiff and borrowed some gas from a native family who viewed our predicament with considerable amusement.

Three days earlier our trip downstream from the village of Misahualli to Anaconda Island was much less exciting. In fact the cruise down river provided welcome relief after the white-knuckle bus ride from Banos, a village perched high on the flanks of Vulcan Tungurahua. From there the road descends almost 1,000 metres of precipice-bounded switchbacks before levelling out at Puyo in the upper Amazon Basin.

Our bus driver, obviously in a hurry, makes no concessions to blind outside corners that seem to be suspended in space. In places the route is notched into slopes so steep that waterfalls spill directly onto the road. But the views of the upper Amazon Basin are spectacular, and thoughts of failed brakes and blown tires are forgotten as we anticipate visiting a corner of that vast jungle-covered region below us.

At Anaconda Island we are met by Sonia, guide, naturalist, and infinite source of knowledge about the river and the people who live along its banks. She leads us to one of the thatched cottages and warns us not to leave small valuables lying around. Our cabana is perched on stilts, which provide a measure of protection from wandering peccaries and other less agile critters, but monkeys slip nonchalantly through holes in the walls and roof in search of combs, watches, or anything else they can heist.

Cabanas Anaconda has no electricity or hot water but our stilted cottage has a small bath and two comfortable beds hung with mosquito nets. This is malaria country and bugs drift in with the cool evening breezes that blow through the bamboo walls and thatched roof. For the next few days this is our base – the place we return to each evening after exploring the river by dugout canoe or hiking through the jungle with a local guide.

In places the river hugs the base of almost vertical cliffs where flying foxes, large fruit bats, dart in and out of the dense overhanging canopy of vines. The valley widens and we wave back at native children playing in the shallows near their village. Our guide pulls into shore, beaches the boat, and we follow him on a long hike through the jungle.

Almost every plant has some special use as a tonic, a medicine, a narcotic, a food, a poison – the list and our guide’s knowledge of applied botany seem endless. He selects a vine that looks to us like any other, hacks off a length with his machete, and we are treated to a refreshing cool drink from the hollow core of a water vine. Farther on he folds back a deformed leaf revealing a colony of tiny lemon ants. We are invited to taste them. Tough on the ants, but they do indeed taste like lemons.

Back at Anaconda the evening meal, prepared and served in a well screened dining cottage, features local foods – fish from the river, fruit and nuts from the jungle, and a variety of vegetables and meat from local farms. We could happily stay for weeks but the next day we are scheduled to move back up-river, unaware of the close call that awaits us.

Still smarting from the humiliation of his gas problem our young boatman delivers us silently back to the dock at Misahualli. The man in the grey suit disappears into a waiting limo and is gone. We pile into the back of a 4-wheel drive truck and head out along a narrow dirt road to the local indian community of Capirona. Forty-five minutes later we are greeted by Delfin who leads us around the washouts at the end of the road and down a trail to his home.

Delfin Pauchi is a Quichua Guide – a friendly, soft spoken man with a deep reverence of nature and an intimate knowledge of the jungle where he grew up. We are introduced to his wife, Astella, and their five outgoing children who immediately welcome us as their guests.

Astella brings snacks and a cool fruit drink into a thatch-covered breezeway between the family home and a small sleeping wing that Delfin has added to accommodate guests. Everything is made of local materials – bamboo, thatch, and woven fronds. Delfin hopes that tourism will provide a living for his family and save his land from the ravages of logging and mining.

The children are curious about where we come from and anxious to show us their world. We go for a dip in a nearby stream, come back and practice shooting balsa-wood birds with darts from a long blowpipe. The kids are incredibly accurate!

Astella calls us in for a sumptuous meal of fried chicken and roasted plantains. Afterwards, Delfin brings out his bongo drums, his daughters sing, and before the evening is over the kids have all of us dancing on the packed dirt floor of the breezeway. By the time the first fireflies begin to light up the edge of the forest we are all tired – ready to slip under our mosquito netting and drift off to the drone of cicadas and distant chatter of monkeys.

The next day Delfin leads us on a long hike, beginning with a visit to his neighbour’s still. The fellow is busy cutting sugar cane but puts down his machete and greets us warmly – clearly anxious to show us around. The pungent smell of fermenting cane wafts from a wooden tub just below the small cane field. The distillery itself consists of a 45-gallon drum over a smoldering wood fire. A length of copper pipe coils through a smaller drum filled with cool water piped in from a nearby stream, and the final product drips out the end of the pipe into a glass bottle.

Delfin’s neighbour pours me a glass. It burns all the way down and leaves me gasping. "Very strong," he says proudly.

Skirting his neighbour’s cane-field Delfin picks up a trail screened from the sun by an impenetrable canopy of epiphite-covered branches and hanging vines. We come to a stream and follow it up past a series of small waterfalls. Delfin stops at one of the plunge-pools and pulls a gold pan from a niche in the rock. Scooping fine gravel from the creek bed we take turns panning. Every pan yields a few more flakes of gold, each carefully added to a vile that is left with the pan.

Delfin explains that he is collecting the gold for some more dental work and proudly shows us the crowns previously fashioned from his own gold.

Our route gets steeper – each waterfall higher than the last until the way is blocked by a 10-metre cliff. The stream cascades into a shallow plunge-pool where we strip down and let the cool, refreshing water cascade over our bodies.

This is what Delfin is striving to preserve – a small corner of the vast Amazon Basin as it was before the devastating impact of mining, logging, and land-clearing fires. I hope he makes it.