Flight to the Jungle

May 27

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The alarm clock went off at 7:20, in time to deal with morning rituals and breakfast before the trip to Manu. The breakfast buffet offered a wide selection of food and fruit, but knowing that we would be flying on a small plane to the hot and humid climate, we opted for simple bread with little extras. Still suffering under severe headaches, we booth added a generous dose of Advil and some Coca tea, which is locally highly recommended against altitude sickness.

We deposited our big bag with the hotel storage room, the passports and other goodies in the safe, and off we were. First stop was to pick up the third passenger to come along with us. We were only moderately surprised when the 17-year-old girl turned out to be a 70-year-old lady. Very robust and energetic, mind you, but in every regard not a teenager.

At the airport both our luggage as well as ourselves were weighed, and nobody said a word about the extra weight in addition to the allowed 25 lbs which I was causing thanks to the photo gear. Maybe part of it was due to the fact that the lady was traveling with a smallish bag which might as well have been an oversize purse. Divided by three, we were within bounds.

When my friend Rupert came to "visit" for our wedding (well, it was a business trip, really, since he was hired as photographer) he was relieved by the airport screening guys of his Swiss Army Knife. Kinda foolish of him, I thought, since every child knows that since 9/11 even toothpicks are banned by the screeners, at least depending on their mood. You need to check your knife, or else. Hardly 6 weeks later, a very nice Peruvian screener got a gift from a not so genuine Swiss citizen (me) in the form of a Swiss Army Knife.

Click on the first image to start a slide show for this day (43 pictures)
Images shown below are a small selection.
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And off to the airplane we were. A cute, single prop, 12-seater plane with a scale placed right next to it, to make sure we didn't gain any weight between the terminal and the runway. Once seated, we were told that we would not be departing yet due to "light rain" at the airstrip in the rainforest. I thought that airplanes should be used to light rain, but then I am just a smartass, bitter that my powerbook is in the checked bag and so I can't use the time and write the travelogue or do some other nerdy things. So we took a nap.

Two hours later we embarked again, this time for real, and took off. The flight was short and surprisingly smooth (let's face it, I was hoping for some bumps), but also tiring: Flying at 6000m (or about 20,000 ft) in a not pressurized cabin leaves you with little to no oxygen, and so not surprisingly more half of the 9 passengers were knocked out / asleep. And then we landed. My across-the-1-ft-aisle neighbor who was wearing noise protecting headphones during the whole flight, clearly taking the dork prize away from me as I had absolutely nothing to compete with that, tapped on my shoulder exclaiming that "there is the airstrip". As the plane had the nose moderately down, indeed, about a mile ahead was a narrow gap in the vegetation, itself looking very lush and green. The landing itself was very soft, definitely better than of any Alaska Airlines flight I ever got to enjoy, and the braking was ... well, interesting. Since we landed on a grass strip, the plane didn't necessarily go strictly where the pilot was pointing it, but rather some modest attempt at dancing were detectable, even without gyroscopes. Eventually, we were standing, and everyone seemed very happy about that.

The airport terminal in Manu is also memorable. About two dozen people were already waiting on the runway, others were approaching the airplane from the small wooden hut. Before I could even locate and grab my photo bag, the plane was already taxiing away with the previous load of guests, heading back to Cusco. What a masterpiece of efficiency. We scrambled to put on some Jungle Juice, the appropriately named insect repellant obtained at REI, sporting 95% of the active ingredient, whatever it is, compared to 10% in the next best choice. And indeed, the invasion of flying insects was quickly stopped and the enemy forces did retreat. Quickly I assembled and put on my dorky photo belt / harness, and we marched on to the river where our boat was waiting. It soon became clear that we would not suffer from overcrowding on the boat, as we were three passengers, Alvaro - our guide, and two drivers.

Our first quick stop was in Boca Manu, a small village about a mile off the air strip. There we loaded some lunch, purchased a 2L bottle of water for 6 Soles ($2), enjoyed watching a dog chase some chickens, and continued our journey. Initially, we didn't see much: first, we didn't really know what to watch for, and were all too excited about the brown water, the tall trees, and everything. A few minutes into the boat ride we docked again and had to check in with the ranger station at the entrance to the national park. After that, however, we were in for a three hour ride all alone on Manu river.

We saw many birds, ranging from the very common Egret to the less frequent Heron, a whole group of storks, probably going to deliver some babies. On the reptile side, we saw many turtles happily getting a sunburn, and a few caymans, not too far from the river. We also saw a happy family of Capybaras, the biggest rodents on Earth, and thus very true RoUS's. They didn't seem to be too concerned about much, really, including the jaguars which reportedly live around here.

Because this is the rainforest, it has to rain: as we were almost there, a nice shower, really, came down on us. Thank you, Canon, for good sealing in the 1Ds and the L lenses, I thought as I was happily snapping away at the very moody landscape.

By the time we docked my pants were dry again - this synthetic stuff really does dry quickly. We picked up the most essential parts of our belongings and headed on a 20 minute walk through the rainforest to the lodge. Our main bags would be brought to us later on. On this brief stroll we got to see some giant termite houses, giant ants (about an inch long) which are reportedly unfriendly, and as a special bonus we saw a family of Black Spider Monkeys, who were very elegantly swinging from branch to branch up high in the trees.

At the 25-person lodge we are the three only guests. We were shown our room, the dining area, and the separate bathroom building. It's a very nice, simple house made of local wood, more or less free of bugs thanks to mosquito nets all around. The lodge sports its own family of Vultures, who like to hang out on the roof of the building. You can clearly hear when they come and go. Inside the lodge, there's a mosquito net around the bed, "just in case". They have power, too - between 6 and 9 in the evening, we are told, courtesy of a small generator, which is reportedly flaky. Well, the cameras are being recharged as we speak (and as Essan sleeps). Indeed, we didn't get that much sleep on this vacation yet, and there doesn't seem to be a change in the trend.

The dinner at the lodge was excellent. I mean, really, really good. Wonderful cream soup, beef with rice and cream sauce, and some fruit. We exchanged stories and around 9pm retired to our rooms.

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