On our first full day in the wilds, we decided to spend the whole day on the river with an ultimate destination of the National Park of Jaú. Jaú is the largest forest preserve in South America and became a World Heritage site in 2000, though it has been a national park since 1980. Jaú is named for the gilded catfish that glides through its water (and we ate on numerous occasions).
We touched only the very tip of the park. It is a place I will and must return to in my lifetime–its sheer size is enticing in every way. Tall trees, mysterious paths, dark water. And the place that I have experienced some real terror. But not yet, not in today’s blog. Today the biggest danger is ants.
But before I get there, it is time to introduce a new character named Aurecir. He was our assigned river guide for two days and a more relaxed and confident guy never existed. This would be the saving grace for us when we battled the Amazon-ado later that day. He patiently and good-humoredly explained plants, trees and animals to both my kids then debated conservation and biology with my biologist mother-in-law.
We took off up the river in the small boat we had used the prior night in Anavilhanas. Heavy leather gaiters were piled at the front of the boat –handy (footy?) for evading bitey critters on the forest floor. We had also brought along rain gear and a change of shirt even though the day was crystal clear and hot and humid. This would prove critical to our happiness later on…but enough foreshadowing.
As I said in a prior blog post, I could just motor around the Amazon all day. What a river. Technically it is still the Rio Negro, with its dark water and sparkly backsplash against the boat. We motored for almost two hours up the river, passing all kinds of boats of differing levels of apparent seaworthiness, alternately hugging the shore where the trees stretched up high above us, then back to the middle of the canal where said trees looked like tiny bushes in the distance. The sky goes on forever.
Finally we round a small point and find Hamburger Rock. Well, okay, slightly better named than that: Sandwich Rock. Which does indeed look like a sandwich. As we pull in to the shore, there is a small decrepit and open hut which is uninhabited, though Aurecir tells us that it was occupied until just a couple of years ago when the owner had to move to the city for health reasons. We follow a tiny footpath through the woods, Aurecir carrying a large machete and strapped into his leather gaiters. I tried not to think about the necessity for either item.
We got a wonderful lesson in the plants and trees of the forest, but I will tell you what stuck out (and to, as it were) our family. The pilia. Known to us as the “clapping ant.” Though of course it doesn’t clap, but if you want to see them, you clap near the tree and they all come scurrying out in self-defense. My kids, my mother in law and my husband all start clapping like lunatics and the ants go crazy. I went a little further down the path and therefore was far and away when the ants finally marched up to my kids. And crawled up their pants. And annoyed the heck out of them. They don’t bite but they do seriously annoy. One kid was pretty much naked at one point as he pulled off every piece of clothing trying to get them out of his clothing. Sigh. Smart kids. Glad we brought those gaiters for protection.
We also took a look at an ant called the tocandira or bullet ant. Not because it goes fast or is a member of the NRA, but because if it bites you, the wound will feel like a bullet hit you. Fortunately the kids had learned their lesson from the clapping ants and gave those a wide berth.
When you are walking this narrow trail, you can’t help but think about the impenetrable of the Amazon. And the fact that only your guide knows what he’s doing and how to drive a boat and even where you are. Also there are snakes. Well, we didn’t see any but clearly they were lurking ready to kill us. Right? Right. And you feel like maybe you’re the last people on the planet, and who cares? The beauty. The heartstopping beauty of the primal forest.
As we rounded a “corner”, suddenly we were in a cavern. Well, not a cavern really but perhaps a grotto. Open to the air, huge rounded rocks, hundreds of tiny bats. This area had been discovered more recently and the trail was rough and exciting. The rocks were formed from water pooling and flowing, shapes and troughs making sculptures in nature.
As we climbed out of the grotto area, Aurecir had to show the twins a cipó, which is essentially a Tarzan vine. So of course they both had to test it out–my elegant ballet son swung like someone in an Esther Williams movies with a wide smile, out and back in a coordinated swoosh. Then the soccer son grabbed hold, took off, hit one tree, ricocheted off the other and fell off into a pile on the ground. And then went again and did the same again and again. I always take these moments to calculate how far we are from the nearest hospital. It’s not comforting.
We wandered the trail back to the boat, giving bullet and clapping ants a wide berth. We snacked a bit, then loaded up for the next adventure: the Japanese hermit. But that waits for tomorrow.