The Reality of Dreams
I joined Earthwatch's expedition to the upper reaches of the Peruvian Amazon. It is a glimpse of paradise. It is also a taste of our planet's distant past. The river boat Ayapua that I have travelled on with my fellow volunteers is itself like a time capsule, locked in the year 1906, when it rolled out of a Hamburg shipyard. The landscape we have moved gently through can have looked little different when the first ‘conquistadors' began their tentative explorations 500 years ago.
Not many of those intrepid Europeans got as far upstream as we have, to the Pacaya-Samiria national reserve. Writing now, a few days after arriving back in the UK's sub-zero temperatures, to our comparatively colourless winter, the contrast with where I've been could not be starker. Forest people in Amazonia say that everyday life is merely an illusion, behind which lies the reality of dreams. I feel like I have woken from a dream of Arcadia.
Conor with the Ayapua's football team.
Our group of 19 assembled in the friendly, frenetic city of Iquitos, the largest human settlement in the world (400,000 people) with no road links other than a two-hour stretch to Nauta, where we meet the Ayapua. She is beautiful, lovingly restored after years of dereliction, original features salvaged from scrap yards and carcases of other riverboats beyond redemption.
She was re-floated in 2006, on her 100th anniversary, upgraded for the modern traveller, the pioneering conservationist. The Maranon river here at Nauta is a mile wide, coffee-coloured and surging, flecked with flotsam, some from the Andes, several hundred miles upstream.
Restoring the Ayapua, and the Casa Morey in which we gathered the night before embarking, has been part of the dream of Dr Richard Bodmer, the expedition leader here. Conservation extends beyond the natural environment to encompass cultural and historic elements like these, and the lifestyles of people. The dream is sustainability, the preservation of this earthly paradise and its people.
In a series of short presentations in the main dining room on board, Richard sketched out the ecology of Amazonia. He emphasised the importance of our expedition. Our surveys will inform understanding of the impacts of recent climate changes here. The wettest year on record has been followed by the driest. Impacts on river dolphins have already been noted, and the flood forests that make the Pacaya-Samiria national reserve so special have entered uncertain times. We rely on Amazonia to air-condition our planet. There may be evidence now that the Amazon itself is malfunctioning in a world changing too rapidly for it to cope. Our work will add to that evidence base.
The sun sets on another day of research.
Richard also set out the vision: community-based conservation, working with people locally on management plans that incorporate their needs. This approach has resolved conflicts, and Earthwatch surveys indicate it is helping species to recover.
Our final destination lay two days upstream, after we left the churning silt- and debris-laden waters of the Maranon and forked left into the tannin-rich ‘café negro' waters of the Samiria. Here the channels narrow, the water reflects bright sky, scattered canopies of cumulus clouds and looming trees, and ripples with the curved spines of dolphins, fishing languidly around us. We moored by a forest ranger station.
Most days began at 5am, with sunrise and the firing up of the generator, replacing the night-time chorus of frogs, crickets and owls. With the moon receding, and butterflies taking wing, we sat quietly in open boats, recording macaws. Between macaws, ornithologist Alfredo confirmed the identity of the many other bird species calling, flitting and swooping around us.
Volunteers stay aboard the Ayapua.
We surveyed dolphins every day, drifting with these gentle animals for several hours, noting all we saw. We also helped set up a study of white-winged swallows. We installed around 50 nest boxes at the edge of the lake and river channels. And we released baby turtles as part of a scheme to help them recover in this part of the reserve.
We studied fish in the river and in the vast ox-bow lake a few kilometres upstream, a place I grew to love. We caught, weighed and measured piranhas and primitive fish species. In the forest, we walked long transects, noting the primate species and other larger animals we encountered.
After dinner each evening a boat was despatched to survey caimans of three species. I'll never forget caiman-spotting under the glare of a fizzingly intense full moon, complete with halo covering half the sky, as we scanned the shorelines for eye-flash. Our biologists on the prow would gently noose these great reptiles, haul them aboard, tape the smiling jaws, restrain the thrashing tails, and take the necessary weights and measurements.
Moving back down river on our final days we visited the Cocoma people of the village of Bolivar and the larger settlement of San Martin. We gathered at Bolivar's schoolhouse, with most of the village joining us to share brief words of welcome and thanks. We were tested by local children on our knowledge of the local wildlife we had been studying. To round things off, three musicians struck up some vibrant drum and flute music, and we danced away the final hour of a Saturday morning with the children, a touching and memorable finale.
The rainforests of the Amazon contain a diverse array of plant and animal species.
I was honoured and delighted to be part of this Earthwatch project. The group, the scientists and the crew were all hard-working, good-humoured people I am glad to have met.
Anyone choosing to join this project can make a direct contribution to Amazonia's conservation. As conservationists we dream of a world that protects forests like this, that recognises their reciprocal value to people who live in and with them, and to all of us. The dream of a sustainable Amazonia, and planet Earth secured for the future, has to become a reality. A dream like this is, in the end, the only future reality that we have.
BBC Wildlife Nature Writer of the Year award winner Conor Jameson
Find out how you can join the Amazon Riverboat Exploration project as a volunteer.
Read more: Amazon drought results in dramatic fall in pink river dolphin populations.