November 14, 2012

Karel and I are here in Manaus, Brazil at the start of our South American trip. We are waiting for a ride to the port to board a tour boat for our four-day trip on the Rio Negro, a major tributary of the Amazon River. We are only starting, but it has already been quite a trip.

Anchorage to Chicago, to Miami, to Manaus, 1,000 miles up from the mouth of the Amazon River. Nearly 24 hours in travel status with about 14 hours of air time just to get here.

Manaus is interesting though we really haven’t seen much of it. Our first flight started at 11PM so our trip across town was around midnight the next night. We had hoped to take a Manaus city tour after our river tour and before we relocate to Rio de Janeiro but that day is a Sunday and apparently, things pretty much shut down on Sundays so we will be traveling instead.

November 15

We are on board the Amazon Explorer. It is nearly 6AM. We were out last evening in the darkness looking for wildlife.

First, some business items.

The Amazon Explorer. Our home for three more days. 32feet long, an interesting old boat. A bit more like the African Queen than the Queen Mary. She rides smoothly, steadily, and evenly to the steady pump and whir of an old diesel engine. Fourteen passengers and about seven crew, plus Christopher, a German expatriate, our guide.

We are just south of the equator so day length is easier to predict than if one is farther away. Six AM to six PM with only slight variation through the year and with a very brief twilight period.

This means that it was very dark-dark last evening while we were out searching for critters to see. We were in our “canoe”. All of us. The canoe is more like a long dory or long boat. About 22 feet long and six feet wide at the rails and we chugged along with a 7 hp kicker. We sat two abreast with three crew – a boat operator and two searchlight operators.

We found a variety of night birds and big and small bats. Two caiman, a cane toad, and various small frightened fishes that leapt out of the water to escape. One, in fact, struck Karel on her thigh. You can imagine that caused quite a stir. But the whole experience was much more than, “Oh, there is one.” They ran the bow up onshore and the bowman leaped out, barefooted and tracked the target with a light. He chased into the rubble and caught something! He brought the a caiman to the boat and Christopher gave a lengthy impromptu lecture as the catcher slowly walked down the gunnel so everyone got  a good look and pictures. The catcher went back ashore and carefully released the animal.

It is now mid-afternoon and we are at anchor. We had breakfast at 7AM and we cast off again in the canoe by 8AM. Up a side stream, out of the canoe, and into the jungle, eventually, a trail. We hiked about three hours and we stopped about 15 minutes for another impromptu Christopher-lecture on some topic that was stimulated by something we encountered along the way – usually, flora or fauna. Flora included medicinal value of a tree or plant, Native use of an item, or commercial importance. He made a small slit on a rubber tree and discussed latex. He scratched another tree and extracted a teardrop of chickle which led to the history of chewing gum. Brazilwood and rosewood and some political discourse, too.

Fauna was a bit more limited because the jungle is so dense. But we did see a very colorful kingfisher flash by during both our inbound and outbound canoe ride. We heard howler monkeys – howling. But probably the most abundant and most diverse fauna in Amazonia is ants. We (he) found and discussed three of the many ant species. One should be respected because of its very nasty – but non-lethal – bite. Another very small ant that swarmed when the nest was tapped had a beneficial use by Natives because it was rich in folic acid. Another was nearly ¾ inch in length and quite robust. Never get near these and don’t sleep on the ground. These are meat eaters. They will take bites from any piece of flesh they encounter.

Finally, a demo of the Native way. Blowgun, of course. Spear manufacturing and how to kill a jaguar with a spear. Never mind that we will have no chance to see a jaguar. “Maybe we might if we could travel four or five days upriver.”

Just now we have cast off. We are relocating to another reach of river that is defined as the world’s largest archipelago. In an hour, we will board the canoe for a cruise amongst the islands to look for more birds and wildlife; just before dark.

It has just occurred to me that I may not have properly defined where we are. We are actually on the Rio Negro or Black River. The name is derived from the clear, dark, tannin stained water. The Rio Negro is a major tributary of the Amazon River so technically, we are not actually on the Amazon River which is a large silt laden river. The Rio Negro water is more acidic so it is less productive and has less diversity than the Amazon. The water surface elevation here is 80-90 feet above sea level and we are about 1,000 miles upstream from the sea. The surface elevation changes about 40 to 50 feet between the annual rainy South American winters and dry summers.

Already a change. A thunderstorm with a wind has blown in. The wind is strong enough to be a hazard and the rain would keep our heads down. As we waited for the scheduled trip – and before we learned of the change – Karel suddenly jumped up to get a better look at a commotion on the water. Something chasing fish. For the next hour, we were treated to a series of “shows” by river dolphins! They came closer, milled about, and eventually moved on. Most were bottlenosed dolphins but some were the pink river dolphins. Christopher appeared, explained the plan change (we will tour the islands in the morning), give a discourse on Brazilian society, and a brief lecture about the dolphins. As it happens, here is also when Karel sacrificed her jeans to the river gods. It seems that she had washed them and hung them to dry and a wind gust took them overboard.

November 16

We are steaming farther upriver. It is a slow but steady process. We have a headwind and and are going against a current of about one mile per hour and steaming at about 10 or 11 knots and we are on our way to visit a Native village. We have just finished a late breakfast after a two hour canoe ride. Here, I guess that the river is two miles wide but a bit before daybreak, the boat abruptly began to shudder and shake. It did not last long and soon settled into its steady rhythm. I believe that was when we passed through some narrows with swift current. Our canoe ride was mostly a birdwatching venture. We found a rather nice variety but I certainly had trouble understanding, spelling, or repeating many of the names.

Christopher just came by and he was sure was chatty. And I certainly had things mixed up. I learned that we are already heading downstream. No sun so it is hard to orient. Later, we will be on another birdwatching tour, but it will be on a stream with Amazon River water influence so it is more fertile, with more fish, and even more birds.

Here is a crude record of what we saw this morning. First was a rather large bird, a hoatzin, that is somewhat primitive. Hatchlings have claws on their wings so if they fall or jump from a tree, they use the claws to climb back up. Several kingfishers including the smallest and most colorful of the group. It was just bigger than a chickadee. Cormorants, parrots, egrets, various waterfowl, and eagles. Herons: green, blue, grey, tiger, and another, too. Also some caiman and a big, brilliant blue butterfly.

Karel and I are now on a plane and pointed toward Rio de Janeiro. Yesterday turned out to be quite a busy day. It started early when Christopher banged on our door at 5:30 AM and we boarded the canoe by 6 AM. During the previous evening, we cruised some five or more miles and stopped at the mouth of a small channel with silty water from the Amazon.

We took the canoe upstream in the last hour or so before dark and found a whole different collection of bird species. Big silver egrets and a smaller egret. A beautiful unknown scissortail something. Brown and tiger herons. Kahinga (sp?), black collared fish hawks, Amazon and Martin kingfishers, cormorants. And spider monkeys. We also came upon two boatloads of people fishing, mainly for piranha. There were no less than 20 people, each with a 10 foot cane pole and 10 feet of line with a baited hook. Then we spotted a five foot caiman near the shore. There was a little silver flash and the caiman sprung forward to grab a fish that had been caught and tossed ashore.

We cruised farther downstream that evening and under the very dramatic highway bridge over the Rio Negro. There is a long approach from each side to the central arch to accommodate ocean-going vessels. And don’t forget that seasonally, the water surface will change by 40 to 50 feet. There is s central tower with cables to support the spans with large thick cables. In the darkness, the bridge is designed to show a delightful display of red, blue, and green lights.

When we awoke this morning we found ourselves beached at a crowded little spot and we were rousted out again for another 6 AM hike and we came upon a small pond and right there was a small collection of the famous giant water lilies. Except, these were not giants. They were big but not terribly impressive. Now, keep in mind that this is the end of the dry season. In months, this forest will be filled with about 20 feet of water depth. The stems will need to grow longer and the pads will grow larger.

Shortly, we stopped for another talk and someone spotted a gentle movement of some leaves and a dark mass that morphed into a small sloth. This one was not larger than a football and about 2/3 of its full size. It was exceedingly well camouflaged and barely moving.

After our morning hike, we steamed farther downstream while we ate breakfast. Abruptly, there before us was the meeting and mixing of the two great rivers, the dark, tannin stained Rio Negro and the silty gray-brown Amazon. We turned back upstream, under the bridge, past the port, and to our mooring. We disembarked by 11AM. As we checked in at the hotel, we talked to a travel agent and by 1:30 PM, Karel and I were on a 3 ½ hour tour of Manaus.

I am afraid that I cannot recommend traveling to Manaus for the purpose of experiencing the city. The opera house, built before 1890 during the rubber industry boom was impressively ornate. The waterfront was a very busy place with a great variety of boats ranging from container ships to 1, 2, and 3 person canoes. Most are transports of one sort or another. All are colorful. It is clear that the Rio Negro is the lifeblood of Manaus as well as the rainforest.

The market and the fish market were closed. After all, it was a Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend. I suspect that the fish market would have been the highlight of the Manaus tour. Sadly, the neighborhoods adjacent to the waterfront reminded me of poor neighborhoods in Mexico. Other neighborhoods were nicer but we did not go through upscale areas. This was an ad lib tour and was not scripted. The driver encouraged us to visit the small zoo. It was interesting but on the primitive side by most US standards.