I slapped at a nagging mosquito. Mozzies? In broad daylight? “This is just ridiculous,” I muttered.
“Well,” Frank said, consulting the compass, “I think it’s to the south.”
Zacarias shook his head. “No, no, to the southeast.”
In truth, we were mystified. How was it possible a lake we’d visited during a giant otter census only six months earlier had vanished without a trace?
Sirena is one of several lakes in the Peruvian rainforest that my husband and I survey regularly with our two local assistants, Zacarias and Benjamin. We had established our river camp early that morning and set off for the lake straightaway, expecting to be on Sirena within an hour. Benjamin backpacked the heavy, inflatable canoe, while I juggled the oars and pump. Frank was in charge of the compass and camera, and Zacarias wielded a machete, clasping under the other arm a ripe pineapple - we planned to eat it on the lake. We realized too late we’d forgotten our map and GPS but were confident we’d find Sirena with ease.
We chatted as we ambled through the forest, pausing frequently to taste wild fruit or enquire about a tree. Zacarias sliced through corkscrewing vines with competent flicks of his wrist. A large, electric blue butterfly winked past us. After an hour, certain we must be near the lake, we stopped for a short rest. The sun burned white overhead.
“Just a few hundred metres now,” Frank said, wiping his face.
I sighed and eyed the pineapple.
As we continued, the conversation became peppered with remarks like, “This way,” “No, I’m sure it’s that way,” and, finally, from an exhausted Benjamin, “Where the hell is the lake?”
It was no good. After another break, we decided to go back to camp and return in the afternoon. Wearily collecting our gear, we headed towards the river, just as a tortoise - a symbol of misfortune to jungle inhabitants - plodded across our path. Frank and I glanced at each other, wryly amused by our shared thought. What a coincidence. I stooped to stroke its sun-warmed, patchwork shell.
Suddenly, before I could stop him, Benjamin swept the tortoise up in his arms and, lifting it high over his head, hurled it against the ground. It landed with a dull thud and lay helpless on its back in the leaf litter.
I found my voice. “Hey!” I glared at Ben. “What was that for?”
His eyes refused to meet mine.
“It’s just a superstition,” I said, more calmly.
He nodded, shamefaced now.
Picking up the tortoise, I examined its shell before placing it back on its feet. “No harm done.” But morale was low as we resumed our search in single file.
Zacarias, still clutching the pineapple, hacked a way through dense undergrowth of thorny bamboo with renewed vigour, apparently optimistic that the river was close by. As time passed though, his slashes became more perfunctory. We dropped to our hands and knees to negotiate the greedy thorns. Vicious, red ants swarmed up our limbs whenever we faltered. My pump and oars kept snagging on the vegetation.
What the heck are we doing here? I found and yanked a bloated tick from my ankle. This whole, cursed forest should be chopped down and turned into matchsticks.
We eventually staggered into camp. Speaking in terse monosyllables, we assembled in the large tent we had erected on the beach. Zacarias slumped in a chair and inspected the blisters on his hands. Taking a GPS reading, our first since making camp, Frank and I pored over the map we had forgotten. A puzzled silence followed, while Benjamin listlessly sliced the pineapple. Frank’s finger pinpointed our position.
I stared at him, dumbfounded.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” he groaned. “We’re nowhere near Sirena. It’s much further upriver.”
For five sweaty, laborious hours we had searched for a lake where none existed.
Minutes later, we were spluttering with laughter, our mouths full of juicy pineapple.
Zacarias, still chuckling, clouted Frank on the shoulder. “Just a few hundred metres now, huh?” After all, it was Frank who had identified the wrong river bend as our starting point.
Frank grinned ruefully and licked his fingers. “Well, is it my fault these meanders all look the same?”
The next day, Benjamin discovered we’d left our machete behind in the bamboo thicket. We looked at each other. The decision was instantaneous and unanimous.
“No way. Let the ants and mozzies have the silly thing.”