A PLANT COLLECTING TRIP TO THE AMAZON
I first heard about a possible trip to the Amazon through friends involved in growing aquatic plants. It seemed a distant possibility at the time but the more I thought about it the more possible it became. Not only would it be an exciting trip but also I could go with friends that had mutual interests. It was too good to pass up. When would I ever get to the Amazon if not now?
The trip was organised by the Tennessee Aquarium and headed by a friend of my friend, Karen Randall. Charlene Nash is in charge of the plant exhibits and enhancements at the Tennessee Aquarium and was keen to have an Amazon trip with a focus on plant life instead of fish. I signed up.
Several of us congregated in Miami a few days before the flight to Brazil just to make sure we got there on time and also to meet beforehand. We were a mixed bag from San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Vancouver and England. I was the only Canadian on the trip. We were computer geeks, a doctor, a minister, an aquatic storeowner, a mechanic, an orchid specialist and all of us aquatic plant/fish hobbyists.
We arrived safely in Brazil though our plane left early (some folks almost got left behind) and made an unscheduled stop in Caracas. The Amazon air was wonderfully muggy, and smelled very lush and green. It's a shame there is no way to record smells.
Our home for the next eight days was a riverboat called the Harpy Eagle. We lived in comfortable cabins for two with their own bathrooms. The whole bathroom was the shower so one had to be careful to remember to move the towels to a safe place first. Brazil is the only place I have showered where it is colder under the water than in the air. But the temperature on the river was very pleasant especially while cruising with a slight breeze. It rained most days for a short period... very warm rain. Plenty of buffet style food was served up three times a day and was very good. We ate a variety of local fish... some such as Peacock Bass and Piranha that were caught by the crew or the trippers themselves. Safe drinking water was in ample supply along with a fully stocked bar.
Each day we would get into long, thin motor boats they called "canoes" and go out exploring the riverbanks and flooded forest. As it was March the water was at medium high level. The river is at its highest in June but it was hard to imagine how much higher the water would be as we were already able to motor over many fields and through forests and even over roads marked on the maps but underwater. This is not considered "flooding" but a normal part of the yearly cycle.
The first few days were spent focussing on collecting and photographing the Victoria Amazonica Lily, a truly magnificent plant. The lily pads grow up to eight feet across with beautiful white or dark pink flowers as big as melons. There is a conservation society that is solely concerned with this lily and several people on the trip were working for this conservancy and collecting data and specimens. It was interesting and rewarding to help them.
We spent one day exploring Manaus, an amazingly large city right in the middle of the rain forest. Then we left lily territory and cruised up the Rio Negro for the rest of the trip. We saw birds and animals, such as toucans and monkeys. We collected aquatic plants and cuttings of terrestrial plants, seeds and seed pods. Orchids were admired and photographed but left strictly alone as they are protected and it is forbidden to disturb them. Several people came with nets and caught fish. We went walking in the forest and saw claw marks on trees left by jaguars, trails of leaf-cutter ants, tarantulas and all kinds of interesting plants, fungi and vines. There were few to no mosquitoes anywhere. Some people were bitten by chiggers, a nasty little land mite, but that was because they forgot to be careful when walking in grass.
We swam in the warm, black Rio Negro waters... a real treat. Contrary to popular belief one doesn't have to worry about piranha. However, there is a very tiny catfish that every Brazilian fears. It swims up your urinary tract and lodges there with fierce spines. Needless to say, we all wore tight clothing while swimming.
Some mornings we were up before the sun and paddled quietly listening to the forest come awake. Some nights we went out in the dark to find caymans, spiders, snakes and birds with our flashlights. The sounds were incredible. I wished many times that I had brought a tape recorder. Fortunately, Erik Olson brought his video camera and has put together a wonderful documentary of our trip. It was an unforgettable experience and watching that video takes me right back there.
When it came time to leave we were all sad. We had barely scratched the surface of this mighty rainforest. Those with fish and plants to take home spent a day packing up. We had our last swim in the Amazon and all said goodbye to our boat captain at a lavish dinner at his house in Manaus. Then it was onto the plane and back to the everyday life of our ordinary existence.