Catherine Turner - Conservation & Environment, Rainforest Conservation in Peru
So, how can I describe it? How can I possibly tell you what this experience is like? I can’t. But, if I can help you to make that decision; to just do it; if I can inspire you to dream a little, then you will find out for yourselves just how truly unique a trip to Taricaya is.
I arrived, full of nerves and excitement. The first view of the rainforest as we cleared the Andes was spread beneath the plane: a dark green canopy stretching away from me with nothing but creamy brown rivers winding their way through it all. Even when we came into land at Puerto Maldonado you could still only see trees until virtually the moment we touched down and the runway suddenly appeared!
Having met the other volunteers, explored Puerto Maldonado a little and discovered its fantastic, colourful and busy market where you can buy pretty much anything you could possibly need, I was ready for our boat journey to Taricaya itself. Eyes wide open, taking in all the new scenes before me: the bustling Port Capitania loading cars, bikes and people onto the ferries to the other side of the river; the bright orange of the life-jackets; the green banks of the Madre De Dios river; the setting sun…all seemed beautiful and serene.
Then the boat got stuck.
The river being low at this time of year, as we approached the lodge, sand banks appeared in the middle of the river. At first we were able to help rock the boat from side to side to urge it just bit further along, but then there was no moving it. We were stuck. Trousers rolled up; everybody out and we lined up along the sides pushing the boat as close as we could towards the bank. Job done, and we watched as Rich, one of the members of staff, decided to wade the rest of the way back to the shore…it was all going fine until he disappeared suddenly into an unexpected dip under the water!
Everybody said I would feel like I had been there forever after just one day, and in many ways they were right. My first activity was lodge maintenance - an opportunity for me to meet all the animals and get a first feel of what Taricaya is all about. You learn quickly here. I was asked to collect the empty food trays from Brooke, our baby howler monkey’s cage, as Daniel (staff member, a biologist…or I should say herpetologist…i.e. likes frogs and things!), disappeared off up into the Nursery to sort out the food. It seemed a simple enough job. She was gorgeous, but surprisingly strong! I went into her cage and she immediately jumped onto my shoulders and clung to my back with her tail gently, but firmly, wrapped around my neck. She was determined to stay there. Some time later Daniel re-emerged with a glint in his eye as he saw I was still in the first cage attempting to unwind Brooke’s tail from my neck and tempt her with food so I could leave! He showed me what to do then, what he’d known all along - I just bent down next to a branch and she wandered off me, perfectly happily - just like that!
Taricaya is made up of a collection of wooden lodges with palm leaf roofs and wire mosquito net windows, dusty floors, cold showers (lovely when it‘s hot! Or there‘s always the creek to cool off in), and a collection of string hammocks hanging between some trees in the middle of all the buildings. The hammocks are lovely to lie in, but you have to choose your time carefully because the mosquitoes and sand flies tend to be quite active near them. There is the main, kitchen part of the lodge where we sit and have meals, play cards, make jewellery, read or listen to music and there is another area for the (occasional rum-based) evenings, called the Bar, although there’s no alcohol there! It’s a BYO event. There is a DVD player though, and a collection of DVDs. As well as that, there are the cages for the animals dotted about, three Pale Winged Trumpeters and a cat who wander around, saying hello occasionally. Trails and walkways lead out into the Rainforest and around the reserve.
During my first few weeks and throughout the subsequent months, I had so many new experiences it is so hard to decide which ones to write about! Perhaps, camping out in the jungle, lying on my back listening to constant background noise of insects, frogs, birds and animals, watching the sky darken into night, watching stars appear above the canopy, watching the fireflies flit about, gleaming like stars about my head. It’s an experience I won’t forget, but we were there to work as well.
The previous week had been spent setting up Mist Nets at intervals along the trail. It was my first attempt at using a machete, as we cleared the undergrowth at certain points to make space for the nets. My hands were hot, sweaty and slippery and I did not feel the safest person with a blade…still there was plenty of space between each of us if the blade did fly out of my control! I got plenty of practise with a machete as time went on: trail clearing, cutting flowers to sell in Puerto and more. However, back to the mist netting. The fine, black mesh netting was set up to catch small birds that fly through the lower part of the forest as these are less easily monitored by our daily observations at the platforms set up around the reserve. Our job was to patrol the nets at hourly intervals and untangle any of the birds we found, take them back to the camp and weigh, measure and photograph them, before releasing them again. Although the birds look pretty tangled in the net, the staff are good at getting them out unharmed.
Through daily observations of the birds from platforms situated around the reserve, I was soon able to impress newer volunteers with my astounding knowledge of birds: Yellow-Rumped Caciques, Russet-Backed Oropendolas, Vermillion Flycatchers, Greater Anis, Paradise Tanagers and the difference between the assorted parrots and parakeets that we spotted flying or perching all around us. Frog-hunts on wet evenings brought us the delights of amphibians; day-walks and night-walks enabled us to encounter groups of Squirrel Monkeys and Capuchins springing through the trees, a small black scorpion injecting its venom into a unlucky centipede, a night monkey with its big eyes shining back at us, and a rare sight of Kinkajou up in the branches.
I could write so much more: watching baby turtles emerging from their nests; chasing through the undergrowth after oblivious butterflies; the Taricaya vs. Palma Real football game; the invasion of Army ants and even the Bot fly! But I think I need to leave some surprises for you when you get there.