The day started not-so-bright and very early as we left in the omnipresent fog for the Manu Wildlife Center. As the boat ride was fairly calm and the animals weren’t out yet, I spent much of the ride sleeping and reading. However, we did see and hear a few water birds, including a muscovy duck with her babies (a rare sighting), a wood stork, and the horned screamer, which sounds just like a seal barking.
But the real highlight of the morning was spotting the one jungle animal I hoped to see but hadn’t yet – the capybara. The largest rodents in the world, they’re a lot cuter than their cinematic counterparts, the Rodents of Unusual Size. It was standing in the reeds on the bank, blending in with the mud nearby. It was so still that it looked stuffed until it turned its head and flicked its ears. It exactly resembled a giant mutant guinea pig, like in the one South Park episode, except not evil. (I don’t think.) I wanted to go hug it.
Leaving the Manu River, we zipped down the Madre de Dios, arriving at the Manu Wildlife Center just in time for lunch. The places we had already stayed were pretty nice, considering how remote they were. But Manu Wildlife Center easily beat them all. It had a large lodge that included a full bar, hammocks, reclining seats, a small library, and a large dining area. The cabins included bathrooms, like in Cock of the Rock, but they were much bigger and better appointed. Plus, they had electricity for a big six hours a day! It was about as much luxury as you could get in the middle of the jungle. However, we did have two minor problems. The first was deja vu all over again, as our hot water wasn’t functioning. After Chris took a cold shower, someone from the lodge fixed the natural gas tank the “natural” way – with a stick. The other problem was that the lodge had a surprising number of bugs. It was close to the river, and despite being covered in screens, still managed to let in little tiny sand flies. They were like gnats that bite and leave painful tiny blood blisters.
The big event of the day was the visit to the tapir lick, an area of muddy clay about a mile and a half from the Wildlife Center. Tapirs and other mammals visit it every few days to swallow clay that has the essential minerals missing from their vegetarian diets. Unfortunately, despite their giant size, they’re so skittish that they only come at night. They also stand near the site for a long time before eating to ensure that no predators are waiting. As they have excellent hearing, you have to be very quiet both before and during the tapir’s arrival. Or as Chris said, “You know, just like on The Wire. You have to check out your job two hours ahead.” I had to stifle my giggles in response to the image of a tapir in a police van with headphones.
While the hike was great, the vow of quiet once we got to the site at was hard for me. I’m inherently an unquiet person. After playing pen-and-paper games with Chris for a while, I went outside and just listened to the sounds of the jungle. At first, I was small-child impatient. I couldn’t identify any of the bird noises and I didn’t want to bother Fiorella, who was comparing birding notes with another guide. The greenery was still, with nothing but plants within sight of our platform. Praying silently, I felt the message, “Hush – just listen.” So I did, allowing the landscape and sounds to wash over me without judgement or analysis. At first, the jungle sounded like an orchestra tuning up, with random unrelated noises. As dusk settled in, the parts began to fall into place, creating a sort of harmony. The hum of the crickets and the other insects established a base, with birds adding trills or short solos. One bird had a long, clear note like the shiny silver whistles that train conductors use.
Once it was dark, I climbed onto the mattress covered in the mosquito netting with Chris, who was already half-asleep. Falling asleep, I had several dreams where we had given up on seeing a tapir before waking up and realizing we were still there. In the middle of a dream about drunk tourists, I felt my foot being shaken and Fiorella whispering, “Get up – the tapir is here!”
I scrambled to get my headlamp and make my way out from underneath the netting as silently as possible. Over at the outlook, the other guide was turning on a very bright light, then turning it off for a little while in an effort to startle the animal as little as possible. We later joked that the tapir must think, “It’s the weirdest thing. Every time I go to the clay lick, the sun comes out again.” After a few cycles, the guide left the light on, allowing us to get a good look.
Tapirs are very strange-looking animals. They have a huge, fat, slate-gray body with short legs, like a pig . Despite this body shape and size, they move through the jungle almost silently. The only reason the guides knew it was there was because they were listening carefully for the crunching of dry leaves on the forest floor. Its head was stout, and somewhat square-shaped. Its short nose appeared to move independently from the rest of it, like an anteater. It stood there calmly, licking up and munching on chunks of red-brown clay. It looked at us a few times but must have decided we weren’t much of a threat.
After 15 minutes, a deer wandered by, then decided it didn’t want to share the space with the much larger tapir. It looked much smaller and more delicate than our white-tailed deer, like the endangered Key deer in Florida. About a half-hour in, the tapir suddenly walked away. We think the deer might have walked by again.
As it was already 8:30 PM and another tapir wasn’t likely to show up for at least two hours, if at all, we headed back to the lodge. Some people have had to wait until 10 PM to see it, and a few groups never do. In contrast, the Canadians got exceptionally lucky. They saw a tapir at 5:30 PM and then saw two more – a mother and juvenile – at 6:00 PM!
Now what most people would see as the most challenging part, although I found it easier than being silent – walking back through the jungle in the dark. At a mile and a half, it was a long time to think about the creepy-crawlies lurking just beyond the trail. Keeping my eyes down to ensure I didn’t trip, I actually felt pretty calm. My individual trek to the bathroom a few days before had prepared me psychologically. Plus, I was between Fiorella and Chris – if anything came out of the woods, it would grab one of them, not me. Although Fiorella said one of her friends once ran into a jaguar at night, we were probably making too much noise tromping through that anything could hear us coming from a distance.
Arriving back at the lodge, we took one last good look at the wide expanse of stars before heading to bed.