With imagery and sounds that amazed and often scared people out of their skin, many found the journey insightful, inspiring or even inscrutable, but all were entralled by the beauty, scale and research that was carried out by a group of students on a BSES expedition this summer.
Most recently, one of the leaders, Lucy Grewcock won the Guardian Travel Writing Competition for this piece about her experiences – well done Lucy and hope you enjoy the Antarctic as much as the rainforest!
Before taking the measurements, I Sellotaped the crocodile’s mouth shut. But as I placed a ruler across its brow and dangled its inflated belly from the hanging scales, sharpened canines protruded over its lower jaw, and marble-like eyes glowered back at me in the moonlight.
As soon as I removed the Sellotape, the juvenile darted back into the inky water and we resumed our navigation of the lagoon, or cocha. “Too big,” José informed me when the prehistoric head of an adult motored past us. Later, when a smaller pair of eyes reflected in his flashlight, he whispered “ready?” and reached out to grapple another scaly torso into our dugout canoe.
After three hours of crocodile surveys, José steered us back towards camp. I sat in silence, listening to the plop and pull of the hand-carved paddle and watching the sputtering remains of an electric storm light up our jungle home like a flickering cinema screen.
I hadn’t wanted to visit the Amazon as “just another tourist”, and so, deep within the Pacaya Samiria national reserve, I had joined a team of Peruvian scientists to help monitor key species in a protected segment of the world’s biggest rainforest.
Home was wherever we made it; levelling the shrub layer with machetes, stringing up hammocks and building a campfire each evening was all part of the routine. Every night I would lie in my hammock watching fireflies dance through the sinuous trunks, allowing the clicks and burps, hums and screeches, whistles and whoops of a billion jungle beasts to sing me to sleep.Each morning, we’d awake before sunrise to cook porridge, pull on sweat-drenched clothes and pickle ourselves in Deet before setting out to search for flame-red snakes, pink-toed tarantulas and neon butterflies. As the sun’s heat warmed the undergrowth, the forest would come alive with the smells of candyfloss and burnt toffee, freshly mown grass and warm hay, fried onions, wet dogs, crushed garlic and Turkish delight.
During the afternoon river surveys, we’d steer our canoes down unmarked tributaries, track giant river otters as they chased down the waterways, disturb flocks of white egrets as we emerged around meanders and, where the river bed widened, watch pink river dolphins leap through the piranha-filled waters.
It wasn’t until I left Peru that I realised just how remote my adventure had been. As the aeroplane rose out of the jungle-locked city of Iquitos and levelled out over the reserve, I pressed my nose to the window and scanned the rainforest for a dent in the trees where our hammocks had been, or a whisper of smoke from an evening campfire.
Five million acres of impenetrable green stared back. Unbroken, it reached out to the horizon, touched the sun and then dropped off the edge of the earth. Nothing, not even the cocha, was visible. Beneath this mass, my jungle home lay concealed, the teeming life of the reserve masked from the world above. The realisation of how utterly isolated I had been was incredible.
Lucy Grewcock – Fire Leader for the Amazon 2011, won the Guardian Travel Writing Competition.
The prize: A 20-day Spirit of Shackleton Antarctica trip for one person, worth £11,339
I, like Lucy, had had the most amazing experience and I look forward to taking another 60 students in 2012, to return to our friends, the Cocama tribe in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve for more science and adventure in this incredible place….and tell the rest of you all about it all over again!
For those that missed my talk this time, I am intending to do another one soon, this time on both the Amazon and Mongolia…