It is a calm sunny day when I set off to paddle on the watery expanse of my world. As I lower the canoe into the river, I can’t help but marvel at the reflection of the mangrove trees reaching out across the surface of the water. The sky is a glorious periwinkle blue, the clouds high and fluffy and the cooling breeze creates a pleasant tailwind.
A short while later I watch as a dark shadow stretches ahead enveloping the canoe and the first of the raindrops bounce off the deck. I know from experience I have only seconds to take cover as this is the Amazon rainforest where rain is more than a shower or sprinkle-type affair. The deluge hits me as suddenly and as ferociously as a freight train. Within seconds I look like I have just stepped out of a swimming pool. The force of it is quite remarkable and it is an absolute delight even when I am trying to make some headway in it. I watch the water pooling in the bottom of the canoe and wonder which one of us will triumph. Will the rain stop as suddenly as it started or will I be forced to stop and empty the canoe? I tuck my chin in close to my chest, a flow of water streaming from the peak of my cap and bouncing off my nose. There isn’t another soul on the river, not of the human species anyway, which is not unusual on these heavily jungle-fringed rivers where a lack of places to rest make them unattractive to weekend mavericks on jet skis.
Occasionally, I startle a lone fisherman in a weathered wooden fishing canoe and I wonder what he must think of my bright fluorescent green and gold carbon sprint canoe on steroids. Sometimes I invite fishermen to try it out or to race me a short distance, a suggestion that is met with great hilarity and vigorous shaking of their head.
One species I rarely sneak up on is the Red Howler monkeys. My appearance sets in motion a series of deafening roars that reverberate across the jungle letting every living creature within a three-mile radius know of my approach. However, there are times when I drift along the river undetected and enjoy the most spectacular displays of wildlife in action.
There is something quite remarkable about coming face to face with wildlife. It is that moment when you and the animal stop, look at each other and share some sort of connection. This is when time slows down, you become oblivious to the outside world, and you are lost in nature.
Most animals flee in surprise when they see me, but sometimes, certain animals, especially those with the bravado of a fox, come closer. The human brain is an amazing entity that works on a database of pre-existing information. So, when the first thing I registered were black stripes and a round face my brain said, “Mmm. Interesting! An extinct Tasmanian Tiger, crossed with a raccoon with the demeanor of a fox living in French Guiana?”
The novelty of seeing a human paddling down the river on a brightly coloured log was enough to tempt the curious crab dog (Cerdocyon thous) from its den. It was as inquisitive about me, as I was about it. It looked at the canoe and tilted its head thoughtfully as if to say, “I haven’t seen one quite like that before.” Then it took a good look at me, made that magic moment of eye contact, and after ten seconds or so, trotted its stout little legs off into the undergrowth.
As its name suggests, the crab dog eats crabs, especially during the wet season. Other times it eats rodents, birds, turtle eggs, fruit, eggs, crustaceans, insects, and lizards. About the only thing it doesn’t eat is livestock, but mind-bogglingly, farmers shoot them anyway. They have a fluffy tale that stands erect when they are excited, but fortunately for them, their pelt isn’t as stimulating, so they have been largely spared from hunters’ sights, unlike others in their genus who were made into some type of garment and are now extinct. Wild rivers are where fantasy meets reality and miracles absolutely do happen. I almost leapt from my canoe with fright when a Giant otter materialised like the periscope of a surfacing submarine only metres from my boat to give me an angry warning snort. I stopped dead. The otter dived and resurfaced twenty metres away. When he had calculated I was at a safe distance he turned and hot-tailed it after his family.
Family life is important to Giant otters which explains why they have few predators. An anaconda, caiman or jaguar is less likely to attack a young otter if there is a chance it will be confronted by an entire family. Male otters swim like torpedoes, are strong, curious and brave. But it is the alpha female otter who is the undisputable Queen of the river regulating the hunt, resting and sleeping periods. To the outsider, it might look as if Giant otters in French Guiana lead a charmed life, and it is true that they spend much of their day playing, kicking back and fishing.
The Guiana Shield region offers an ideal habitat as it accounts for as much as 10-15% of the world’s freshwater, has the largest number of pristine or near pristine river basins on Earth, enforces a strict protection policy, and is largely uninhabited by man.
However, Giant otters remain in the “endangered” category of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, meaning that their numbers are expected to halve by 2030. No longer hunted for their chocolate coloured, velvet-like fur as they were from the ‘50’s to ‘70’s, they now face a new threat of habitat destruction and pollution mostly due to the gold rush that has swept across most regions of South America.
It isn’t just seeing wildlife from the water that is exciting. Stumbling upon the tell-tale signs of how wildlife goes about its daily business is exciting too, especially seeing the footprints of ocelots, and the trails of capybara and agouti, respectively the largest and cutest rodents of the rainforest. The more time I spend exploring the rivers, the more I feel connected to them and the life they sustain. Yet, despite my best efforts to drift along the rivers unnoticed, I am yet to spot the formidable Ninja cat of the Amazon.
But I know, without any doubt, a jaguar would have spotted me.
When Donna Mulvenna is invited to go to France with her new man, she didn’t expect to find herself in South America, sleeping under the stars, and living an extraordinary and isolated life in the steaming, humid jungles of French Guiana. But that was exactly what happened.
Placing her previous life of comfort into the far distant reaches of her mind, she expected the adventure to last for a few weeks. However, this drifted into a few years, until she felt completely at home in the sweltering heat and anaconda-infested rivers of this amazing country.
In Wild Roots, Donna documents her deep love and respect for the Amazon forest, while making some attempt to depict the awe, beauty and isolation of this always chaotic, often bizarre and constantly frustrating place, so that you can appreciate, in some small way, how it captured her heart.
Written with humour, a respect for nature and a conscious knowledge that we must somehow rebuild our relationship with it, the author shares with you an incredible life and a personal transformation, in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.
Photo by Filipe Frazao