By Jessica Groenendijk:
The otter changes course and heads into a crystalline, shallow tributary. I snatch up my binoculars and see it flush a large catfish, water surging as it chases its prey over a sand bank. The fish escapes and the otter, too, is swallowed by the jungle. How will we identify it now?
“Quick, let’s follow on foot,” I say to Frank. “We might be able to catch up.”
Frank gestures to our boat driver, Zacarias, to nudge the bow of our fifteen-metre canoe into the mouth of the stream. I grab the day's provisions and tug on a pair of light trainers, token protection against sting rays. Then I swing my legs over the side and lower myself into the current, enjoying the shock of cool water on my skin. Frank follows, the camera and zoom lens slung around his neck. Zacarias reverses the engine; he agrees to moor the boat nearby and wait for us.
It is mid-morning. The sun is a hot weight on our shoulders and leaches the green from the surrounding vegetation. We are nearing the end of our annual giant otter census in Peru’s Manu National Park. We have already filmed all the resident families, but the nomadic solitaries present a greater challenge. They are elusive, silent, and secretive. We still smart from our failure to film the throat marking – as distinctive in giant otters as our fingerprints are unique to us - of a lone individual sighted yesterday.
I push my feet through the water, feeling the thin cotton of my trousers swirl against my legs. Pristine, crescent-shaped beaches flank the banks of the meandering stream. Water slips sinuously between rocky shelves and over drifts of sand, nibbling at miniature, sculpted cliffs until they crumble and dissolve. The polished trunk of a majestic ceiba spans the current, its bark long gone, its sun-warmed wood smooth and satisfying to the touch. I revel in the freedom of walking in the stream, after so many hours spent in the dense, claustrophobic forest.
There is surprisingly little wildlife. No sign of the otter, only small schools of fish flitting from pool to pool. I disturb a sting ray, a tiny spurt of sand staining the water where it had been resting. Lime and lemon butterflies shiver on damp soil where a tapir urinated at dawn. Twice I spot the tracks of capybara. I know it is the wrong time of day for animals to be out and about, yet I am disappointed.
Sand bunches in my socks, rubbing raw the skin between my toes, and the vicious sting of a horsefly enhances my discomfort. By now, I have given up hope of seeing the solitary otter again. A shady spot on a beach tempts me and I whistle to catch Frank's attention.
“Let’s stop awhile, have something to eat,” I call to him. The sound of my voice makes me wince. Like shouting in a cathedral or an ancient library, it seems wrong, irreverent.
Frank flops down next to me. “I feel like Alfred Russell Wallace,” he says, looking at our tracks on the sandy canvas. “Like we’re the only humans ever to have ventured here.”
I nod, conscious of an all-too-human desire to claim this remote pocket of rainforest as our own, by right of first passage, even if only in spirit. A kingfisher arrows past, it's challenging chatter ringing in my ears. I push myself off the sand and brush my hands. “Let’s keep going.”
The channel narrows and trees tower on either side. The beaches all but disappear. We penetrate deeper and deeper, and with every step I feel more alive. My senses hum.
Frank’s voice beside me is low and taut. I glance at him and follow his gaze. About one hundred metres upstream, a tree has collapsed from bank to bank, forming a bridge over the water. On it lies a jaguar.
Frank lifts the camera from his chest. But even with the zoom we are too far away. We walk, our paces measured to avoid splashing, our eyes never leaving the jaguar. Excitement wells in me. Nothing but air separates us from the big cat. Not the metal and glass of a car, nor the wooden hull of a boat. Here we are on an equal footing, as we were meant to be.
My eyes burn and I blink. In that split second the jaguar is gone. There is no in-between, no slow slinking into the forest. Anywhere else I would have regretted the loss. Here it feels right.
“Strange,” says Frank. “I didn’t think he’d be so scared of us.”
The sun is lower in the sky, the foliage now luminous, greens burnished with old-gold. Although it is tempting to explore further, we will find ourselves spending the night unprepared if we do not turn back soon.
“What do you think, just one more bend?” I ask. Frank agrees without hesitation.
As we round the meander, a beach, larger and higher than any we have seen so far, slopes gently up into the forest. Our shoes squelch as we step out of the current and walk onto the sand. Hollow, blackened tortoise shells litter the ground. There must be over fifty of them: pathetic, tiny domes, the size of cupped hands, scattered amongst great carapaces. Three stout baskets, woven from a single palm frond, lie abandoned next to the charred skull of a brocket deer and the voice box of a howler monkey.
Frank and I stare at each other.
A pair of macaws flies overhead, their agonised cries startling me. We pick our way through the clutter. A dozen makeshift palm frond shelters dot the beach. At either end of every shelter are the ashes of a small fire over which the tortoises were roasted. Alive? I grimace. Between the hearths is space for two or perhaps three people to sleep.
Frank’s soft “Hey!” interrupts my thoughts. He motions me to the water's edge. At his feet is a set of human footprints, unexpectedly large, even allowing for time’s erosion.
A cloud blocks the sun. We both know what we have stumbled upon. The hunting camp of a group of so-called ‘uncontacted’ people, known by outsiders as the Mashco-Piro but who call themselves the Nomole, meaning “brothers”. People who, due to past traumatic conflicts with what we call civilisation, choose to live in complete isolation from the rest of us, rejecting all we represent. People who walk naked, hunt with bows and arrows, use stone axes, and eat almost exclusively meat. I recall the jaguar’s fear.
It seems inconceivable that only a few hours’ walk from here, engine-powered boats pass by daily, laden with tech-savvy tourists.
Logic tells us the Nomole are unlikely to be nearby – there is no acrid smell of smoke and the footprints are not fresh – but I cannot shake the feeling we are being watched. My skin prickles. We might have walked straight into them. What would have happened then? Would they have shied from us, run into the forest? Or would they have attacked us? Judging from what we’ve heard, an encounter might well have been fatal.
With this comes the uneasy realisation we are intruders. The stream is not ours. It never was. We are trespassing.
I take a last look at the silent camp, suspended in a web of gathering shadows. Frank cannot resist taking some photographs, and even this benign act feels like an invasion.
We retrace our steps, subdued in thought, trying to reconcile what we have seen with our lives outside. We have not witnessed the past, nor the future, but a different present. The otter and jaguar, the Nomole, and ourselves: three separate, parallel worlds briefly intersecting, almost colliding, on the banks of a rainforest stream.
Jessica is a Dutch biologist turned conservationist and writer. She fuses her work in conservation and her personal experiences of wildlife and wild places with her passion for words and photography to help connect people with nature. Her writing has been published in BBC Wildlife Magazine, Earth Island Journal, The Island Review, and Africa Geographic, as well as in Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine and Zoomorphic. Her blog Nature Bytes was Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards. She is a member of The Society of Authors and is currently working on a book on giant otters and their conservation. Follow her @WildWordsAuthor on Twitter and Facebook and find her Words from the Wild at www.jessicagroenendijk.com.