I awoke upon my fourth day in the jungle to find that the water levels had risen by half a metre or so overnight. This might have been nice if we were venturing down a shallow river, but today our tour group was going in search of more Caymans, pink dolphins and the feared anaconda in the nearby Cuyabeno Lagoon, and a rise in water level meant such creatures had many more places to hide.
Even so, I certainly wasn't disappointed with the days viewing at Cuyabeno Lagoon. The difference between the animals viewed here, and the day before was unbelievable. The lagoon seemed to be home to all kinds of wildlife, especially birds, including toucans, parrots, macaws, kingfishers, jacanas, eagles and storks, taking the total number of bird species seen close to 50, which isn't surprising when you consider that Ecuador is home to around 1,600 species of bird, one-sixth of the world's total.
With swarms of butterflies at every turn we pulled into the middle of the lagoon and up to the shore for a 2 hour walk through the jungle. This time around we had much more luck in viewing wildlife, seeing five different types of monkeys in the space of 10 minutes. Our guide was ecstatic, saying this was a new record for him in all his 12 years of guiding. It was strange to see so many species of monkeys in such a confined space, as normally when different groups of monkeys invade other groups territories there is fighting and bloodshed.
Although we came across various animal tracks of the capybara and tapir, we weren't able to find any of these larger rodent mammals, but after all the monkeys, I certainly wasn't complaining. On the walk back through the jungle to our waiting canoe we were able to watch the very strange sight of normal house flies attacking a fully grown tree frog, slowly biting him to a slow painful death. Being one for letting nature be nature, I didn't want to intervene, but another group member, being an avid collector of frogs stepped in and saved the frogs life. He seemed rather pleased with himself. I'm sure he will be going to heaven now, that's for sure.
In between another bout of piranha fishing, which again proved fruitless, we ventured again in the early evening back to Cuyabeno Lagoon after hearing reports of an anaconda spotting. By the time we arrived though, the tour group that had originally spotted it revealed that after harassing it for close to an hour for a variety of photos they had let it slip quickly into a hollow tree trunk. After boastfully showing us their photos they carried on with their excursion and although our guide tried to coax the anaconda out of its hole, even trying to destroy the hollow tree it was hiding in, we returned back to the lodge empty handed and a little disappointed. Hating snakes though, my girlfriend seemed to be happier than ever.
To make amends though on the return trip back to the lodge, as dark was closing in all around us, our guide decided to try his luck with a bit of Cayman hunting, after our disappointing efforts of spotting Cayman on a previous night. This time around proved a million times more successful, almost resulting in the loss of my own precious life.
Although we had seen many red eyes of the Cayman shining back at us as we slowly progressed down the Cuyabeno River, one pair looked like they belonged to the devil himself, huge, round and filled with fire. Upon closer inspection we saw that this adults head was a good 1 metre in size.
Everyone seemed very happy with seeing one so close and many a photo was taken. If it had been me, I would have asked the canoe driver to carry on back to our lodge, where our evening meal was waiting for us, and liking my food I never want to be late for a meal. Our guide and driver had other ideas though and tried to get even closer to this scaly beast.
Unfortunately the canoe driver misjudged the power needed to reverse closer to the Cayman, accidentally taking us so close the canoe hit the Caymans head. Now, the Cayman, like I am sure anyone would feel, wasn't best pleased with being hit in the head by a 12 metre canoe and I’m sure it must have smarted. The wise words of our guide, frantically shouting to keep our hands inside the canoe, expecting the Cayman to seek revenge came in the nick of time as only seconds later it attacked.
It just so happened to attack exactly where I was sitting, its jaws crashing against the side of our canoe, followed by a swinging tail and a wave of water, drenching me from head to toe. I must say that to have a flimsy wooden canoe attacked by a 5 metre 200 pound prehistoric animal isn't the most pleasant of experiences and I’m sure if I hadn't heeded the warnings of our guide and had let just one finger slip over the side of the canoe, the Cayman would have had a tasty meal that evening. It's certainly the closest I ever want to come to such an animal again.
If this encounter wasn't enough to cope with, a few minutes later we came across another Cayman, which our canoe driver tried to capture with his bare hands. In comparison to the monster we had met previous, this was just a baby and I don’t think could have harmed anyone even if it had wanted to. The canoe driver failed in his attempt and continued on the drive back to our lodge. If my legs weren't already shaking from fear, they certainly did do when a couple of freshwater sardines decided a joint suicide attempt, jumping out of the water into our speeding canoe, one landing directly into my lap before flapping around and falling to the floor. This made me squeal like a little girl, scaring everyone else in the boat in the process. There were a few bouts of (nervous) laughter from people when realising what had made me scream!
After discussing the eventful evening with our guide I asked him if this rated amongst his scariest moments. Although admitting that his heart was in his mouth and he doubted that even he, a guide of 12 years experience would ever want to get so close again, this wasn't the worse moment of his guiding career. His worse moment happened several years ago when in the jungle with a group of 16 British teachers. After arriving into the jungle and walking to their first place of stay for the night he realised that one of the members was missing. He hadn't originally noticed this as half of the group were being led by another guide.
With no sign of her trailing at the back of the group, everyone went back into the jungle to search for her throughout the night but the shouts 'Theresa' didn't yield any results. The next day the army was called in and it wasn't for another 2 days until the girl was found needing psychiatric treatment and having over 400 insect bites all over her body. During this period she also hadn't eaten or drank.
At this point you might think that the guides and tour operator were to blame for acts of negligence after leaving a poor helpless British teacher in the jungle to fend for herself. This is what the newspapers wrote and the guide was made a scapegoat. The truth soon became apparent though as the police became involved in what was turning into a very expensive lawsuit.
The poor helpless British teacher wasn't so poor and helpless after all. The reason that she had left the other group members was due to spotting a falling tree trunk sprouting 16 mushrooms full of magic. It is believed that after eating this delightful little fungus's she became disorientated and no one could come to the conclusion at how long during the 3 days and 2 nights of being missing she was intoxicated by this substance. From the evidence the police found, she had eaten at least 8 of them during this time and still had signs of the drug in her system after going through tests when she was found. This was obviously a relief to the guide, as when this evidence was presented, the teacher dropped her lawsuit and left the country on the next flight. As well as keeping his respect, he was also given $2,000 by the tour company, probably compensation due to the stress that he had gone through after taking all of this blame.