What Bolivia offers in terms of natural diversity – desert, salt flats, highest-altitude cities, fresh lower-land days – is captivating in much the same way that South Africa is. But the hard to pronounce Rurrenabaque is whole new bag of tricks. Despite of how much I had seen of the country, I still found it hard to believe that things could change so dramatically, virtually overnight, and that after the dust of the south and the forests of the east, I would find myself in this place surrounded by storybook green, by the mighty Amazon Basin.
The mototaxis – chauffeurs and passengers’ heads always bare save for the beads of sweat that unite all who descend on this made-for-tourism town – buzz past the rows of near-empty restaurants and tour operators, and are the only things that seem to cater to locals. The severe lack of set menus (read: cheap food) confirmed this notion.
I was faced with a choice when I had fully come to terms with the oppressive tropical heat and the uplifting wet repose of Rurre: Into the jungle to “walk a lot and look at trees” or into the pampas (rivers and marshes) to “see the animals”. Didn’t need to flip a coin for that one.
I blame my upbringing for the sense of superiority that I inevitably feel when I am about to embark on any outdoorsy thing, offensively proud not only of being African but also, you know, “I grew up in tents. When all my friends went off to the beach for their summer holidays, we fucked off into the middle of nowhere so my father could hunt birds with his binoculars. We roughed it, bru. I read a lot. I resented it back then, but now I couldn’t be more grateful.” I saw all of Southern Africa for free, twice, before the age of 18 – people spend their life savings on the privilege.
The sense of superiority was strong the day I squeezed into the back of Flecha Tours’ van with six others, predominantly Germans and Dutchmen fresh out of university if their inability to deal with dirt roads are anything to go by. Nevertheless, ended up liking all of them a whole bunch by the time our two nights and three days had run out. Especially Petra, who sadly had to leave early but who did get to spot her elusive toucan before being whisked off.
About five minutes after embarking on our boat ride down the Rio Beni, Jimmy, our guide, pointed out an alligator. It was a big moment but eventually I stopped counting – the alligators must number in their thousands, keeping watch visibly from the banks of the river, and surreptitiously too, eyes poking out of the water.
Next thing we saw were the river turtles, unremarkable I guess except for that signature static frog-leap formation, baking in the sun on top of each other in a row, usually from big to small. Such a calculated move; never got old.
These hairy-piggy rats bake in the sun on the banks of the Rio Beni like it ain’t no thang. They socialise together in families, munching down on grass or taking a dip in the shallower waters. Way back in January, Francisco and I spent about a week trying to track down just one of these guys in the wetlands of the Corrientes province in Argentina; now, here they were nearly as numerous as the alligators. One fella demonstrated to us that the largest rodent in the world naturally also has the largest bladder. The babies are ridiculously cute.
Oh man, so many monkeys. Squirrel and cappuccino ones. Gregarious and brave, they dominate the treetops, curious but unafraid of the bipeds pointing and clicking from the water.
Pink motherflippin’ river dolphins, yo
Impossible to photograph and equally impossible to describe (though you know I will try), there are in fact dolphins in the Amazon and you can indeed swim with them. They’re not flashy like their saltwater cousins so they’re difficult to spot, only breaching the surface occasionally for a quick breath. We saw them every day out on the river, travelling in packs. They really are pink, and grey, and they have bottle noses, and they are the most bizarre but breathtaking thing you could ever wish to see in this far flung corner of our curious earth.
Jimmy tapped the side of the boat one, two, three times, and the dolphins responded playfully, giving us only a glimpse of their displaced beauty. A glimpse was more than enough for this non-believing South African, but as with all things South American, I would have faith thrust upon me.
Not everyone was keen to take the dolphin dip. Those of us who did have the nads to stay in the water – quietly, so that the dolphins can come to us – had our ankles nibbled and our hips bumped. They were evasive, but consciously so I think, giving us just enough contact to send us squealing and looking at each other in disbelief. When the waves of warm water rushed past us, we knew one or more were close, and then it was a matter of time to find out who would be the lucky recipient of a dolphin’s touch. In the Amazon.
You had to be there.
Birds and sundry
Jimmy has been in the guiding business for seven years, starting off as a jungle guide but moving onto the pampas, where he’s been for the last three years. In my broken Spanish, asking him many times to repeat himself more slowly, I learn that Jimmy was born and raised in the pampas. When I ask him if he enjoys his job – something I feel obliged to ask but which, probably a little presumptuously, I consider a rhetorical question – he raises his hands to his hips and smiles, never taking his eyes off the landscape. Of course, he says, “it’s tranquil, very good”. He says nothing more, but after a pause looks at me and chuckles, and I laugh too, embarrassed by the stupidity of my question.
A sunset cruise ushered in the rising of a spectacular full moon, which lit up sparkly pairs of eyes on the banks, beer-drinking tourists played soccer while dolphins splashed in the water behind us, flocks of birds performed their sunset rituals, the sun itself involved in its own ritual of making space for its lunar sister.
In between the thrice-daily boat trips we overate, hung around in fishnet hammocks, and I was especially fascinated by the fireflies, which seemed too numerous to be natural and which seemed to be flying way too high above the treeline. The only thing that distinguished them from stars up there was the fact that they were moving to and fro and flickering on and off ever so slightly.
That’s Mother Nature in a nutshell, I guess: abundant, surprising, no accidents, a constant echo of the cosmic universe.
- They pumped techno really loudly at the camp at night. Not cool. Never had the courage to tell them to turn it down – didn’t want to be that guy – but still: Totally unacceptable and really spoils the mood. That would never have happened on our family camping trips.
- There were monkeys at the camp and the others on the tour were encouraged to feed them. My folks will remember the time we were in the Polokwane (for the eclipse?) when I waltzed over to the crowd next to us who were feeding a bushbaby and gave them a piece of my mind – that shit does not fly with me. But this time I just put on my best bitch face and sneered and sighed. Do not feed the wild animals. Assholes.