One thing about the rainforest that might seem obvious, but becomes very relevant when you’re in the thick of it: it rains.
Okay, listen. It rains A LOT. And not like “oh, today was a rainy day”. No, it rains, and stops, and rains, and gets sunny, and rains, and then it starts raining WHILE its sunny. It rains (and no exaggeration) about 6 TIMES A DAY. As you can imagine, this poses some comfort difficulties, but it also poses some pretty major production difficulties: you never know exactly when it’s going to start pouring on your equipment, but you can sure bet it’s going to.
Replete with naive grins, we prepared to hit the river.
Another thing about the rainforest: it’s about the most transient environment you can imagine. Things grow so fast you can almost see it: Jorge had led another expedition down this route just 3 months prior to ours, and already the path to the river was so completely overgrown with thorns, plants, trees, and knotted vines that we had to machete a path for the rafts. Things die just as rapidly and violently – things like this enormous tree which had fallen recently enough that its leaves were still green, completely blocking the river such that, once again, we had to literally hack our way through its branches -
- haul the raft bodily through the hole we created -
- and out the other side.
Even when we weren’t cutting through trees, the first day was action-packed. The river was low despite the rain, and full of “slippers”, or sneaky evil rocks resting just below the surface that stop your raft dead on impact. About half the time we were on the raft – the rest of the time, the raft was on us, as we pushed, hauled, scraped, and pulled it over these obstacles. At the worst of the rapids, we had to actually unload and carry our gear – and the rafts – through jungle portages in order to access passable water again.
About halfway through the day (so on rainfall #3), we passed by the first illegal fishing camp. To me, the abundance and diversity of life we had seen already was staggering: birds of every color and shape, whitefaced, howler, and spider monkeys, jaguar and tapir tracks, and huge fang-toothed fishes. But as we pulled over to investigate the second camp, Jorge spoke with sadness.
Over the last 20 years, he had seen a devastating decline in the numbers of wild animals. He described rapids teeming black with Kuyamel, a fish that is now so endangered as a result of poison and dynamite fishing, it’s hard to glimpse even a pair.
At the hunting camp, he held up the feathers of a large raptor that had been killed, pointed disgustedly to the trash left behind. “The Indians don’t do this,” he said. “When they make a camp, a week later, you would never know they were there. They fish sustainably.” These people from the outside, he said, were different. They had a hatred for the forest. They left trash, destroyed animal populations with weapons made for war, not hunting, took too much and didn’t leave enough for populations to recover. And there were more of them all the time: last Easter, on Robert’s previous expedition down the Rio Platano, they documented over 50 illegal hunting and fishing camps.
There was another troubling observation we made which was more immediately relevant: these camps were fresh. Whoever these people were hunting and fishing illegally, they were most likely still on the river, and they might be nearby.
Further on, our suspicions were confirmed. A wooden raft was moored to the side of the river – not a Pipanti canoe like the Pech and miskito Indians use; this was the work of outsiders.
Jorge cut the rope holding the raft and sent it downriver. “There is no enforcement here, no protection,” he said. “I do what I can to make their lives hard, but what can one man do?”
We struck camp in the shadow of a massive tree, with roots that spread the length of our canvas. Exhausted from the day’s efforts, we rested and ate, but there was a new tension present. Jorge regarded the river’s waters with a gaze that had darkened since our first day. He was thinking about the signs of the hunting part we had seen that day, and what might happen, so far from any kind of civilization, in the event of a confrontation.
(bullet ants and other things with stingers next time, promise)