Amazon Riverboat Exploration
Five years ago my partner sent me an email with a link to the Earthwatch website, with the subject line "I think this is you". She was right. My first Earthwatch expedition was back in 2004 on Human Origins at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, staying at the original campsite of Louis and Mary Leakey.
Each day we'd sift for hominid remains at a dry site that is 2 million years old. It was a thrilling experience; camping and working in a place that had a historical association with the scientists who first discovered it. This time though, I wanted to experience a more luxuriant life. Most of all, I wanted to see the wild Amazon.
The Amazon Riverboat Exploration expedition starts in Iquitos, in Peru, the largest city in the world inaccessible by road. Once on the river, after a night in Iquitos where our team met up and bonded over dinner, we stayed aboard the Ayapua, a magnificently restored boat from the rubber-boom period.
Our expedition involved four days of river travel, down the Amazon and then up the Yavari, simply to get to the research area. We spent eight days there doing the work, then another four days travelling back. Even without the work this was a magnificent experience, sitting on the boat watching the great forest move past on either side. There are small settlements along the way, but this is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world. It was wonderful to travel through it.
After mooring the Ayapua at one of our research sites, we set off into the forest. It was teeming with rich layers of life - ground, middle and canopy - much of which falls to the forest floor every year when the river floods. There was such an abundance of life, existing apparently for no purpose other than its own sake. We got to experience its beauty time and again through our varied research activities: including monkey, macaw, cayman, dolphin and fishing excursions.
Our expedition leader Dr Richard Bodmer led the Earthwatch volunteers with inspiration and vision for his project. To listen to his sometimes apparently crazed but visionary dreams for how this all might be saved, his deep knowledge and careful explanations of the ecology of the Amazon and the issues of sustainable-use conservation that underlie his project was inspiring. There was a certain grand romantic melancholy behind it all, as well as some interesting science. The field staff were exemplary - knowledgeable, helpful and warm.
I had some wonderful experiences: watching the early mist on the rivers; the transects - hiking through the forest - magnificent!; canoeing in the soft rain, which kept clearing in sudden outrageous bursts of sunshine as we'd go fishing and otter and bird watching; and paddling on the lakes with toucans flying overhead and piranhas swimming below us.
I joined this expedition for the personal experience and for a vacation, but I also learnt a great deal. As an amateur in matters of biology and conservation, I've read about this but the actual experience of the river and the forest had a very strong impact on me.
The Amazon Riverboat Exploration was a glorious experience - a splendid mixture of luxury accommodation, wilderness and useful hard work. It reinforced for me that you have to go to exciting new places while you can, without hesitation.
I love the quote from Mark Twain on the Earthwatch website, and have made its message part of my life: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."