‘Look out for red eye!’ said Lewis, pointing to his own squinting torchlit eye.
This was the last piece of advice I heard from the Peruvian biologist, who had disappeared suddenly with the rest of the group into the sticky night.
In the blackness, the swamp was beginning to digest my feet. Its gungy, squelchy debris clung to my rubber wellies, holding me hostage for what seemed like forever. The water was rising slowly and my light impractical linen trousers were beginning to feel heavy as they stuck like wet cement to my legs. All 2.5 million square miles of Amazon and I was stuck in one of its puddles, typical.
It was Christmas eve and inside Peru’s ginormous tropical rainforest, I was collecting different species of frog that hadn’t yet been identified. Lewis had given the group airport toiletry bags containing wet leaves that would be used to carry the amphibians back to the eco lodge. Here, we could record their type and then return them to their marshy home the following day. He shined his torch in my direction only to discover my concerned face but responded reassuringly in his broken English by saying,
“Don’t worry…leaf help frog breathe.”
Feeling a little better knowing the tiny hostages wouldn’t suffocate to death in my hands, I began to drag my feet through the shallows of the swamp. I could hear the frogs toying with me as they croaked their colossal choruses from every angle. There were high and low pitches in legato and staccato, intimidating mating calls attracting females, repelling other males from their territory or maybe, researchers with plastic bags; I felt like a stranger in their curious world.
I was struggling to find anything other than the common tree frog that, in my opinion, was very cute but not needed in our research. It was becoming increasingly difficult to co-ordinate my search with my feet as they would suddenly get caught in old soaked tree roots and vine. It would take all my effort to release them from the watery forest floor. I was comforted by the sound of the group slurping their way through the swamp and the odd comment that reverberated my way,
“Nothing here, ooh what’s this?…oh green tree frog.”
The spongy depths were beginning to pull rank and the pungent smells of damp dog and eggs were beginning to infiltrate the senses. I may have pushed the boundaries of a different kind of christmas too far this time I thought to myself.
Having caught up with the rest of the group, Lewis pointed to a huge tree trunk that lay defiantly in our path. He motioned that we would need to climb over it and warned us that on the other side of the tree the water levels would be higher. I felt myself shake a little and then fear froze my legs. Even if I could defrost them, I wasn’t sure how I would heave myself over as there was nothing to hold onto. I imagined the bullet ant, aptly named for the pain it can inflict from one bite, waiting for me to put my hand down on the bark so it could shoot me; I shook my head. Lewis offered me his hand and with a little gentle persuasion, guided me over the tree and helped lower me into deeper water.
The sudden wet sensation on a dry part of my body alarmed me and I sucked in my breath whilst screwing up my already petrified face. The water was now up to my hips. I would probably be able to swim in it if it wasn’t for potential death by entanglement or whatever else was lurking beneath.
My group were getting ahead of me and I could see torch light dispersing into different areas. The yanking of my feet from out of the boggy bed to try and catch up with them was getting tiring and the water was now up to my waist; I wondered how much deeper it would get. The noises and light from my group were starting to fade and my desperation to be near them forced me to move too fast, which resulted in my feet getting lodged in something; I was stuck.
I suddenly couldn’t see or hear the rest of my group, unfortunately I had drawn the short straw with torches, mine being the weakest of them all. I could just about make out the long legged water spider that was darting gracefully to and fro next to my submerged body, perhaps signalling for help; wishful thinking on my part.
As I tried to dislodge my feet, I felt a slight tug on my trousers. I began to panic and realised that either there was a creature below who needed a pair of trousers or that the swamp was actually trying to add to my embarrassment by getting me naked. Every time I moved, my trousers would inch a little further down my hips, I took the decision to remain still and hope for the best.
Without warning Juan Carlos, the second Peruvian biologist appeared from behind me wielding a long green pole, the rachis of a leaf of a palm, (Aguaje). He presented it to me proudly saying,
“Here take this and use for walking.”
I accepted with gratitude as he turned and disappeared as quickly as he had revealed himself.
I dug the rachis deep into the sopping ground and used it to balance myself as I shuffled my feet out of their dilemma. When the bottom half of my body had found freedom, I headed towards the circles of light that were beginning to flicker across the surface of the murky water in front of me.
“Hey everyone, come quickly…over here!” Lewis signalled to us whilst shouting in a whisper to the group. We reassembled around a tangled bush where Lewis was pointing at his mouth for us to be quiet. He shone his torch into the water and poked and prodded the immediate area with his foot.
“What have you found?” I asked wondering what type of frog would be hiding under that level of water.
Before he could even say the word, an angry tail thrashed the water violently making Lewis and the rest of us spring backwards. I suddenly felt like one of those vulnerable wildebeest on the side of the nile that was about to be taken under by the predatory crocodile.
“Caiman, look…can you see?…red eye!” Lewis was shining his torch in the direction of the crocodilian.
I hardly had a moment to catch my breath before I saw that red glint skulk off into the darkness.
“Don’t worry they are shy…rare to see them” said Lewis trying to dispel our jitteriness.
Unfortunately shy or not they were out there somewhere, loitering in the shadows. In all my fear and frog focus, I had forgotten the instructions that Lewis had given me at the beginning of our research expedition. All I knew is that for the rest of the evening, I would definitely, with no shadow of a doubt, be looking out for ‘red eye’.