From Quito, it’s a 25 min flight at 21,000 ft on a well worn Icaro plane to Coca (also known as Puerto Francisco de Orellana). The two hour departure delay sets in motion a chain of events with repercussions for the rest of the day. However, it’s a smooth flight over the mountain cordillera, the flight attendants are hustling to serve 80 snacks on board. Unexpected was the gift of a yellow rose to every departing passenger – a ‘sorry for the delay’ gesture? (One of Ecuador’s largest exports is roses). Certainly a nod to customer service that North American airlines could pick up on!
Coca is an oil shanty town which grew rapidly in the 1980’s. Dusty, frontier like, a scrabble of single story wood sided shacks mix with concrete cinder block dwellings. A din of people, traffic, music blaring from roadside stalls - the common thread of many small Ecuadorian towns. Our contact, a Swiss gal who has been living here for years, Francesca, meets us with the open sided van ( a ‘rancheras’?). A quick stop at the market to buy some flimsy plastic rain ponchos and we are off.
road side food - bush meat
The trek starts with a 3 to 4 hour drive to cover the 80km southward on the ‘Via Auca’ – a part paved, mostly gravel road. The first part south of Coca is paved and the driver wastes no time despite the ups, downs and blind corners, overtaking scooters, heavily loaded trucks, ancient Japanese econo imports (when is the last time you saw a Datsun 510), women in colourful skirts, kids with school satchels and so on. Jungle crowds the road, freshly cleared rainforest exposes red brown earth, naked and raw. Dirt side roads kiss the main route before snaking away, hidden by the forest.
Francesca inspects the load after some hard bounces
Wood side houses follow the same general plan: 1 storey, raised off the ground on 10’ 3m wood stilts, screened glass free windows, tin roofs. Lines of colourful laundry, hang limp in humidity. Natty dogs lounge in the heat, chickens peck haphazardly.
A few shabby looking schools with big fences, open air classrooms. Stucco finish white washed churches. Tiny stores with Coca-cola signs advertise as well as the ever popular thirst quencher, ‘Cristol’ beer. People (mostly men) sit on broken chairs, benches taking shelter from the sun in the shade the store provides, dulling watching traffic pass by. I raise my hand but rarely get a response.
The Texaco pipeline, constructed in the 1980’s, brought development to the region as well as deforestation, cultural annihilation and a host of other evils, snakes along the road. No need to worry about frost heave or subzero temperatures, this tangle of steel ribbon unrelentingly follows roadside twists and turns.
After 30 minutes, the paved road jarringly ends with a bump and its gravel for the rest of the way. Choking dust envelops us. Having caught up to dump trucks or oil tankers – yes, slow moving 18 wheelers – our driver makes several attempts to pass, ignoring corners and any semblance of the most elementary road safety rules. Holding my breath, I tell myself that the driver must know this road intimately. Still it’s a huge relief when we pass without incident. Rusting hulks of previous auto wrecks dot the ditches as a testament to not always successful road games.
we give a lift to some school kids
At the bank of a large river, the gravel road ends. A metal gate across the road bars further passage, marking the start of Huaorani territory. A fast flowing muddy brown river, the Rio Tiguino, a tributary of the Amazon, runs between mud banks. Long steel hulled boats in the shape of dugout canoes, are pulled up on shore. Plastic fuel drums lie scattered.
A small group of men and women mill around under the elevated hut. Our van lurches to a stop, skidding slightly in the mud road. The sky, which had been threatening rain, chooses this moment to unleash buckets of water, pelting us and wetting padded seats of the van. Ralph and Francesca dash the few meters from van to covered shelter. I wait, content to return the gaze of people studying us, the new jungle arrivals.
In a few minutes, the rain lessens and I make the dash to shelter, enticed by the sight of food. Francesca offers a boxed lunch, packed by Bataboro lodge, in anticipation of our arrival. It’s a welcome cold meal of roast chicken, lentils and rice washed down with warm coke - my guts growl in agreement, long since empty from this morning’s airplane meal of cookies and coffee.
Four or five men, clad in shorts, worn T shirts and rubber boots finish loading our stuff into the boats. These steel hulled ‘canoes’ approx 40 to 50’ long are powered by Yamaha 75 engines. Crude wood benches with backrests and pillows are obviously intended for the tourists, the local men taking up positions along the canoe, resting on piles of plastic tarped cargo. Wood planks line the bottom, keeping feet dry. Five dozen eggs, nestled in their carriage of paper fiber holders, tied with string, balance in the middle of the load. Jugs of water (I assume), blue drums of gasoline (diesel?), liters of engine oil and small plastic shopping bags complete our entourage. With a push and shout, our bow man shoves the canoe into the water before leaping in.
Downstream, some 3 or 4 hours away is Bataboro Lodge, our destination for the next 4 days. I settle in, stretch my legs out and let the rocking of the boat calm my guts after the 4 hours of nail biting drive. Squirming on the seat, it feels good to breath the moist air, rid my lungs of road dust. The occasional whiff of boat exhaust coupled with the revving of the engine ferries us deep into this remote location. Wow, Amazon jungle! For the first time, the reality of location sinks in - I get the feeling of rain forest with all its fecund potential.
Bataboro lodge is located inside the Huaorani Reserve, a parcel of land set aside by the Ecuadorian government for the use of this Amazon Indian group. According to Julio (our English and Quecha speaking guide), about 2,000 Huaorani people living in 8 scattered villages. Bataboro Lodge is a cooperative project between Kempery Group (the tour company we contracted with) and the Huaorani Indians - a first step in sustainable ecotourism.
The motorman stands, one hand on the throttle. Scanning the river ahead, he alters the speed, surging the boat down the open straights while slowing and occasionally lifting the motor up to clear the propeller from debris hidden below in the rivers murky waters. How he knows when to do this I don’t understand – and only once did he miscalculate: a thudding jar as the boat hits a submerged something and the boat rolls slightly to one side.
Although its jungle, it is not as hot as I expected. Yes, humid and sweaty like a steam bath but no burning rays from an overhead sun. Is it the season, late January now, thus not so hot? Or are temperatures moderate throughout the year? Whatever the reason, my body happily adjusts to this new moist environment. Clouds of colourful birds flit high in the tree canopy, dashes of rainbow hues blur the overcast sky. Too distant to identify, their tweets and buzzes pepper the sound canvas.
The rain subsides enough to peel off the wet plastic ponchos – they get unceremoniously dump in the bottom of the boat. The river meanders back and forth between 6 to 10’ high banks, the boat riding the river like a motorcycle riding twisties. It’s hypnotic…trees of all shapes and size, names unknown: short stubby candles, long leafy fronds, mottled barks, robust 5 leaf segments, divided like fingers, leaves the size of trash can lids. Rubbery looking pipes that droop, long hose like branches, sucking at muddy water. All greens meld, into a canopy and blanket that surrounds us.
The boat driver stops several times so Julio can point out the monkeys cavorting high above, leaping effortlessly from tree to tree. He points, by the time I locate where, they have moved on. Only their calls echo in the forest, taunting me to find them...spider monkeys apparently!
Veering around a sharp sandy corner, the boat slows sharply – 4 men are standing on the bank. Equipped with large chainsaws, 3 gas tanks, litres of chain oil, it appears they have been waiting for a while. They seem well known to the boatmen, words pass between them as they pile into the other boat traveling along side us. I politely smile and nod, eager to get to the lodge, tired from the long day and once again, hungry.
The boat starts again, picking up speed, everyone sensing this is the home stretch. Suddenly, a shout, the boat slams sharply on to a sandy bank! Ahead, near disaster – a huge tree has fallen across the river, blocking all passage. Water piles up behind the solid trunk and swirls sieve like amongst the numerous fine branches. Silence as everyone assesses the situation – ‘how bad can it be?’, I think: ‘ in the Amazon with 4 loggers and their chain saws, no problem.’ Wrong!
The four of us are deposited on shore, clambering on to firm sand. The boat with the loggers proceeds 10m forward, the bow nudging the tree trunk and the loggers carefully deboat. Machetes come out, the branches slowly hacked off. It a painful process to watch – I wonder why they don’t fire up the chainsaws and simply trim the interfering branches away.
The moment of truth: 2 of the 3 chain saws do not operate and the last chain saw has an extremely loose chain – it sags, threatening to peel away from the teeth. I wonder why it is not fixed – no tools to tighten? As surely this is basic maintenance which must be regularly attended. Darkness starts to fall – I watch from shore as discussion prevails over action. On the plus side, there are no swarms of bugs. Then, something falls from a tree, landing with a thump on my shoulder – I don’t dare look before Peter brushes it away.
With our attention focused ahead on the tree and loggers, no one noticed another canoe until it pulls up and lands on the same sandy shore we are waiting on. Loaded with 5 or 6 drums of fuel, the three boatmen hop out to inspect the situation. With no machetes or chainsaws, they are unable to assist and retreat back to their boat, patiently waiting for an outcome.
One thing I learned about travel, be it in developed or third world or wilderness – always keep a headlamp handy (plus other essentials). Digging the headlamp out of my daypack, I switch it on, walk carefully along the slippery tree trunk and offer this source of light to the loggers who are now chain sawing in the dark. Only sparks from the chainsaw flicker, momentary bursts of weak illumination. Passing my headlamp to one of the men, he considers it carefully, and then looks me in the eye with a nod of thanks. I climb into the bow of the floating canoe for a first hand seat, watching the action only feet away.
At last! 30 minutes later, one last cut, and a notch big enough for the boat to sqeek through. The 36 inch stihl saw has done its job, blade buried deep under water, rope tied to the handle in case of user error. One slip and it could be gone. Happily, the safety rope was never needed – the men able to maintain balance while cutting, feet under water on slippery branches, current tugging at their rubber booted feet.
I, the lone passenger, opt to stay with the boatman while he test pilots the canoe through the notched tree trunk. If the boat capsizes, it will be scary swim down a fast current in the dark! If the canoe is pinned, I hope not to get caught up underwater by the sweepers. Blindly, I stay put and trust skill, luck and providence will thread this needle in the dark. The men standing on the tree shine the headlight on the notch, the boatman lines her up and with growing power, guns the boat into the gap! We made it! A big cheer from all, the loudest coming from me.
Without any delay the unloaded gear is stowed on board, everyone climbs in and off we go. A scant 20 minutes later, lights from Bataboro prick the darkness of the night. It’s a hearty welcome on the dock. Laughing, a bit hysterical from lack of sleep, lack of food and excitement, we give an abbreviated version of events. Hustling into the open air dining room, I fall upon the cold beer, salad, dinner without delay. What a birthday day to remember!
celebrating our arrival and my birthday today