I’m recently back from a two week family holiday in Brazil. Jane’s brother moved out there at the end of 2009 to take up a position as deputy head of the British school at Rio de Janeiro and he helped us put the holiday together – the party was me and Jane, the children and Jane’s mother. We had a few days in Rio at the start of the fortnight and the second week we spent in a rented villa on the coast in Buzios about two hours drive from Rio. In between times we headed up the Amazon for a brush with nature at its finest;
We get up at 6:00 am to catch our 6:30 taxi to the airport at Rio – we are catching a plane to Brasilia and connecting from there to Manaus, capital city of the state of Amazonas in the north. Manaus is at the confluence of the Negro and Solimoes rivers – the black and the white – which come together to form the Amazon (these days most definitions have the Solimoes as the upper Amazon and the Negro as a tributary, but they are similar in size). Manaus is a remarkable place – there was vast wealth created there in the rubber boom of the late 1800s but it disappeared as fast as it came leaving behind some extraordinary architecture. The opera house, now called the Amazon theatre, is an incredible building to see in the heart of the Amazon basin.
We leave Manaus airport at 2:30 in an old minibus. An hour later we are getting plenty of attention as the only tourists aboard a rusty ferry crossing the Rio Negro. The river is 5km wide at this point – at its widest it is 16km. Off the ferry we drive for three hours on the one good road in the region – the vegetation is light immediately around the road but the deep jungle is never far from view. Finally we turn off onto a narrow and very bumpy dirt track through dense jungle – 5km later we are at Anavilhanas Lodge, the ultimate middle of nowhere.
We disembark and have a look around – it is extremely basic but it looks clean and there is a small swimming pool. My heart sinks – it has been a long day and I am wondering if bringing four small children and an old lady to this remote outpost is an act of pure folly.
In the morning, after an unusual breakfast with a lot of unfamiliar fruits we head off for our first excursion. We climb aboard a motorised canoe and head down river – there are no signs of civilisation anywhere, indeed we will see no signs of life outside of our camp until day 3. The water is black and nothing can be seen below the surface. We turn into a small creek and pull up in an area of flooded forest – our guide breaks out the fishing rods. We fish for forty minutes – Dora catches two piranha, one of which gets away. These are black piranha – not as aggressive as the red bellied version but still with razor sharp teeth. I have a few bites but nothing I can get above water level. We throw the fish back.
After lunch we head out to a remote spot where it is possible to climb up the river back into the dense jungle. Leandro (our guide) gives us a strict talking to beforehand. This is a dangerous place if we don’t watch ourselves – tarantulas and black widows abound and the last two times he did this walk he saw the second most poisonous snake in the Amazon region. We proceed with care, never straying from the path Leandro sets. Leandro talks expertly on the flora and fauna and points out the homes of the various insects and snakes. He pokes a stick into a spider hole and a huge and very angry bird eating spider rushes out – it is as big as my hand. Later he tries to winkle a tarantula out of his home but the tarantula stays put – I’m not disappointed.
In the evening we take a boat trip to see some of night dwellers. As we come up to the boat there is a little caiman (a type of alligator) sitting on the jetty. Finding the animals in the dark is a lot easier than during the day – their eyes light up in the spotlight like lightbulbs. We see more caiman, some large birds, a rainbow boa constrictor (so close I could almost touch it) and several sloths high in the trees.
We go to bed early but I can’t sleep – in the early hours I pick up my blackberry and go to the lodge reception. No-one is there but a moth the size of a bat is flying around the light. I’m worrying about the danger I have put my children in – comments such as ‘it’s been a few years since a caiman has made off with a child’ and ‘a black widow’s bite is rarely fatal to an adult’ have done little to calm my nerves. There is a good reception for the blackberry and I do a little research – the more I read the more relaxed I become and I head to bed feeling happy.
In the morning we take a boat trip around the islands. There are countless islands on this part of the river and it is easy to get lost – most of the islands will become flooded forests at some point (we are still a few weeks away from the highest waters) and as a result there is a lot less insect life. Jane’s mother collects a variety of unusual seed pods to take home and try out in her greenhouse – we see a lot of birds and black dolphins.
In the afternoon we go out in three canoes. we head down a long creek and into an area of flooded forest – the further we go in the denser the forest becomes. Eventually it is too dense and we have to turn back. Back at the lodge an agouti has wandered in and is causing a lot of interest – he is friendly and will take nuts from our hands. There are numerous large chameleons around the pool when we swim later. We have a chat with Leandro and he tells us a little about his life. He grew up and a hut in the Amazon forest but left for the big city as a young man. His family still live in the Amazon – his grandfather is 109 and still tends his garden daily (he has recently been visited by the Guinness book of records).
Day 3 kicks off with a trip to a small village up river. There is a woman who runs a cafe on the beach, and she has befriended a number of pink dolphins. This highly endangered species can only be seen in this part of the world – they are friendly and come and eat fish from our hands. In the afternoon we head down river and eventually arrive at a small commune on the riverbank – 11 familes, part amazonian indian and part settlers from the days of the rubber boom. They grow all their own food and live simple and old fashioned lives – they are cheerful and friendly. We wander around the plantation – the variety of plants being cultivated is extraordinary.
Day 4 we leave the lodge and head back to Manaus. There is time before our flight for one last trip, and Leandro meets us for a speedboat trip. We are away from the acidic black water now and the sustainable bird life is very different. We go to a floating house where a small girl greets us – in the front room is a huge anaconda. The children stroke it tentatively and I pick him up and put him around my neck. He starts to tighten his coils and I can feel his immense power – I put him down. Anacondas are easy to handle out of the water – they are so heavy they cant do a lot – but in the water they are lethal. The girl leaves and comes back with a sloth – he has the sweetest smiling face imaginable and he takes hold of my finger with his strange claw.
We have a short break at a floating restaurant where they farm these massive and fairly aggressive fish called pirarucu. After this we head to the confluence of the two rivers – amazingly the black water of the Negro does not mix with the whiter muddier water of the Solimoes for over 5km giving the river a weird two-tone look at this point. The water of the Negro is 6 degrees warmer and a lot slower moving – we lean over and put our hands in the water to see for ourselves.
Later we are heading back to Rio, and it has been a wonderful trip. The river is absolutely vast and the variety of flora and fauna is incredible – it’s a wonderful insight into the balance of nature and how all these things work.