Tickling A Tarantula Up The Tambopata

The business end of the snake was already inside a hole in the bank but enough of it was still sliding across the path, shiny black in the torchlight, to make me to wonder why I had fancied a few days in Peruvian Amazonia. I hadn't yet even reached the jungle lodge where my room would have only three walls, the fourth left open to enable what was enthusiastically termed 'interaction' between me and the environment. Two fat striped flying insects had started interacting with me within moments of my stepping onto the tarmac at Puerto Maldonado airport; something unseen had leapt out of the water and touched my hand as it rested on the gunwales of the longboat that had taken us three hours up the wide brown Tambopata River; I had just stepped over a tree root being used as an overpass by a stream of giant ants; and now there was a snake. "Welcome to Refugio Amazonas," said Luis without irony.

Softly lit by paraffin lamps, a steep thatched roof soared up into a black sky where stars twinkled through gaps in the rainforest canopy. My room was at the end of a wing and surrounded by jungle on three sides: one of them, as promised, merely a railing between me and the dark trees and whatever was making the eerie screeches and howls echoing through them. The mosquito net swathing the bed seemed hopelessly insubstantial, the single candle produced more shadow than light and there was a frog in the shower.

When Luis tapped on the floor outside the curtained doorway next morning, I didn't know whether to be more shocked that I had actually slept, or at the hideous hour of 4am. Stumbling back down the path to the river, we climbed into the wooden longboat which lurched alarmingly as the pilot worked it free of the mud. An hour further up the Tambopata and forty minutes' walk into the jungle, we stood listening to cicadas whining like chainsaws and the slide-whistle cry of the screaming piha. Grey dawn crept along the river, revealing the orange clay bank where we hoped birds would land to feed on minerals. A pair of scarlet macaws drifted over the water, long tail-feathers trailing, and flocks of green and yellow parrots and parakeets clustered in the trees, hanging upside down and squabbling, but something was worrying them. Abruptly, in a cloud of colour, they scattered.

A sudden wind shook the treetops and the morning darkened. We heard the rain before we felt it, and had time to pull ponchos over our backpacks before it worked through the canopy down to the forest floor. Like a line of multicoloured Quasimodos we scuttled along the path, leaping in fright when a nearby tree crashed to the ground. The river was churning brown and white, much of it inside the boat, and we gripped the sides as a gust tipped it sideways. Ponchos flapping, we surfed down the river, thunder and lightning overhead, trees thrashing in the wind. "Welcome to the rainforest," said Luis.

For the next two days we kept bird-time, watching from a high tower as dawn flooded the forest with colour, tinting the pockets of mist gold and pink. Toucans, macaws, tanagers and parrots swept past, woodpeckers tapped invisibly and monkeys rippled the canopy as they swung through the branches. The middle of the day was for napping and chasing butterflies: black, orange and iridescent blue, so big I could hear their wings flap.

At evening roosting we were out again, the twitchers in our group spinning in circles, binoculars clamped to their eyes, frantic not to miss anything: oropendulas, jays, flycatchers, troupials. We sat in a boat on a lake with three centimetres of clearance between us and the piranhas, and saw a row of surprised-looking hoatzin on a branch, ungainly as chickens, with garish turquoise eyeshadow and Mohican manes.

It wasn't all birds: capybara, the world's biggest rodent, grazed calmly along the riverbanks. We saw tamarinds and squirrels, agouti and blue lizards. There were 2cm-long bullet ants that would sting as well as bite. "Twenty-four hours of pain," said Luis. And then there was the tarantula, tempted out of its hole in a woodpile when Luis tickled it with a twig. It came out with a rush, black and hairy, sturdy legs waving, before it realised the trick and retreated.

Near the lodge, shrieks and hoots echoed through the trees. More monkeys, I wondered? "Guests," said Luis.

P Wade

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