Travelling up the reaches of the Amazon, Diana Streak meets a man of the jungle who is saving the animals he once hunted.
His eyes are the colour of the river he calls home – muddy brown with glistening flecks of green. He was once a hunter and is now a preservationist. His name is Gerry Hardy and he owns the Juma Lake Inn, an eco-lodge on the banks of the Paraná do Mamori, a tributary of the immense Amazon, where the water level can rise and fall by an incredible 12 metres.
We had set off from Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, that morning on a taxi boat which took us up river, stopping briefly to view the confluence of the two rivers where we spotted a couple of the famous pink dolphins. The “meeting of the waters” can be quite dramatic, as the black water of the Rio Negro and the lighter Rio Solimões River merge – but do not mix for some kilometres – into the Amazon river.
After a few hours, we reach an embankment where a sturdy white Kombi van took us to the next waterway and a smaller boat for six passengers: with Gerry at the helm, we zoomed along the narrow, twisting waterway until it opened in Lake Juma and then headed for the lodge. Gingerly disembarking, we were helped onto the floating jetty that rises and falls with the seasonal water level and given a raucous welcome by Lord the German Shepherd, Fenix the black Labrador and Schnapps the poodle!
Once we’ve settled into cabins, having climbed hundreds of stairs to reach them up the steep bank, Gerry greets us in the communal dining area which will become the centre of our lives for the next four days.
Two years ago, Gerry tells me, a jaguar killed one of his dogs. “The only thing left was his right paw on a log, covered in blood.”
Welcome to the jungle.
Decades ago, Gerry headed expensive hunting trips for rich foreigners to shoot the local wildlife. This included jaguars (top prize), pumas, anacondas, sloths, tapirs and alligators. It was a five-star expensive experience which seriously rich clients were happy to fork out for. “It was fabulous money, I was earning $US2000 to $US3000 a day,” Gerry says. “Some Europeans would pay up to $US9000 for a jaguar skin, $US1000 for an anaconda skin and $US500 for an alligator.”
The hunting guides would put a pig in a cage to attract a jaguar or puma and aim for a clean shot through its eye to get a perfect skin.
Gerry grew up near the Venezualan border and learned English listening to the BBC and Voice of America. His English skills made him sought after as a hunting guide. Business was booming until the early 1980s, when the Brazilian government changed the laws and hunting was banned. After a period of adjustment, Gerry turned his attention to the backpacker and student market and the eco-tourism experience they longed for.
“The hunters were not very nice people. They were always the boss and none ever said thank you. It’s great now to be working with nice people, happy people,” he says. “I didn’t realise then how much blood I saw and today I realise the bloodshed was not necessary but it was driven by human ambition and the power of money. When the laws changed, we changed and we have managed to change the mentality of the whole area.”
With jaguar numbers having increased, they are now considered a nuisance by some locals as they have killed people, cows and dogs, including Gerry’s. But there are stiff penalties for killing jaguars – up to 15 years in jail. This has led to some locals hunting jaguars and feeding the corpses to the piranhas. But generally there is little poaching because access is difficult, people have enough money and pioneers such as Gerry have changed the thinking in the region, reducing the use of plastic and implementing more of a shared economy.
“In the last 20 years we have made a difference,” Gerry says. “At the schools we teach kids to stop shooting birds and killing lizards. Those kids are now parents, so there is now a second generation who is working the same way, and recycling is becoming profitable. We have moved away from capitalism and developed a communal economy of sharing resources instead of competing. So one day someone will get fish and another will get fruit and it will be shared, which means no begging or stealing, so people are keeping their pride.”
But, of course, it’s the wildlife that has drawn us here. Before heading out for a night camping in the jungle, Gerry makes no promises we will see jaguars but warns us not to swim off the banks of the river because sting rays, electric eels and caimans lurk there. Instead we launch ourselves off the floating pontoon into 10 metres of brown water rich with tannins which leave my skin tight as it dries.
After we attached our hammocks to the rough shelter and learned how to slash palm fronds for mats, we settle in for a very dark and very long night. Above all the scuttling, snuffling and scratching from above and below soars the astonishing sound of the howler monkeys calling out to each other across the tree tops. It’s a melodious roar, like a distant wind.
One of Gerry’s philosophies is that guests should have shared meals so they get to talk to each other and share their experiences. Drinks are paid for on the honour system but all the delicious meals, which include huge freshly caught local arapaima fish and forest fruits, are included in the package.
On our way back from the jungle camp, satisfyingly tired and scratching a few ant bites, a tropical shower drenches us but we laugh as the jetty nears, looking forward to a refreshing beer, lovely food and sharing tales of our adventures.
The first night was an experience I will take with me forever. Hanging suspended in a sturdy cloth hammock, surrounded by invisible but noisy energy, gives one a perspective of one’s place in the world.
The sunsets and sunrises are beautiful bookends to days and nights of wonder.
As the sun drops and the howler monkeys start their calls, we leave this magical place. That night, back with the traffic of Manaus, I imagine a jaguar sniffing along the fence of the lodge wondering what strange smells have intruded into his world. TTW
Diana Streak travelled at her own expense. More at jumalakeinn.com. Photos © Diana Streak and Zora Regulic