Friday, November 25, 2011

Sacha Lodge 19 Nov 2011

19 Nov 2011

Sure enough, at 5.00 there was a tap on the door and we rushed around to get ready to go out into the jungle on foot.  Although there are few mosquitoes around the lodge, there were several other things to bite us, so we had been issued with wellington boots in addition to long-sleeved shirts we had bought with us.  Suitably dressed and covered in 'deet' insect repellent, we headed down to breakfast, fresh fruit, scrambled eggs and bacon and excellent Ecuadorian coffee.

Outside our room we found an Agouti in the vegetation outside our room


Our trek was going to take us out to a forest canopy walkway suspended high above the forest floor.  It was just daylight as the six of us left and we traipsed quietly through the jungle.  There was lot exotic foliage along the little track and many palms with aerial roots and giant Kapok trees with massive buttress roots.  We discovered that all the trees, regardless of height only have roots going down about 1.2 metres because the soil is so poor.  To make up for this, some of the Kapoks have roots that spread 150 metres outwards.

Eventually, we reached the tower we had to climb.  From the bottom, the top of the tower was lost in the early morning mist.  The tower itself had been carried into place piece by piece with no heavy machinery, or wheeled transport used.  The walkway consists of three steel towers, each about 50 metres high and looking like an electricity pylon with walkways suspected on steel hawsers between each tower.  The walkways, 240 metres long and 43 metres about the jungle floor takes you into the forest canopy where most of the wildlife lives.

Needless to say, climbing up stairs in the tower to 43 metres was a bit of a slog, but we all made it.  From the top, we could just see the jungle floor and looking along the walkway we could just make out the central tower.  We set off towards the middle tower with just two cables holding the wooden slatted walkway and two steel cables as handrails - not for the fainthearted!

Aerial Walkway in the mist

As the sky got lighter and mist started to clear, the birds started to appear.  First were Palm Tanagers sharing the tower with us followed by a Double-toothed Kite, White-throated Tucans, Channel-billed Tucans, White Hawks, Ivory-billed Aracari and spectacularly blue Contingas.  The Kite sat in a nearby tree for ages allowing me get very close and get a few pictures!  In the distance, I caught sight of a King Vulture sunning itself in a tree, quite a rare sight apparently.

Double-Toothed Kite

Finally, after a couple of hours up in the jungle canopy we headed back down to the ground and started our walk back to the lodge.  En route, we found a pair of large Crested Owls roosting in a tree and several Owl or Night Monkeys huddling in a hole in a tree.

Once back at the lodge after a midmorning snack we decided to freshen up with a swim in lake Pilchicocha - the same one we had seen the Caimans in the night before!  The lake is also home to Piranha and Electric Eels.  Fortunately, Caimans only hunt at night and the Piranhas and Eels are largely more concerned with smaller prey than humans.  The lake was deliciously cool and very refreshing.

Later, after lunch, most of us went for a second jungle hike to explore the vegetation and insects.  We trekked out to a swampy lake stopping to look at plants and trees en route.  Some of the Kapoks were enormous, over 50 metres high.  On one we found several bats roosting.  Once we got to the lake, we got into a canoe and paddled throught the swamp.  We saw and heard several woodpeckers during this part of the trek.

As the light started to fade, we got back out the canoe so we could walk back to the lodge in the dark.  As it got darker, the noise of the cicadas and frogs got louder.  By the light of our torches, we saw several enormous cicadas and a few tiny tree frogs.  As we passed the largest Kapok tree, Julio found a Wood-Creeper roosting in a corner of the buttress roots.  Just before we got back to the lodge we found another large Tarantula hiding in a hole in a tree.

Back at the lodge, the staff had set up a BBQ on the sun-deck that looked out across the lake.  After a very tasty meal and a couple of beers we headed back to bed knowing that we had a lie-in the following day until 6.00.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sacha Lodge

18 Nov 2011 (continued)

Over a three course lunch in the open-air dining room, Julio, our guide, explained our plans for the next three days.  Our first chance to explore would be around 3 in the afternoon in a small canoe.  He then walked us around the jungle camp, showing us the butterfly-house and the rest of the facilities.  Finally, we were taken to our room out in the jungle.  Most of the rooms are 2 roomed, thatched-roofed bungalows, and ours, number 21, was the last in a row of bungalows.  The lodge can has 26 rooms with facilities for 52 guests, so it was pretty quiet.

The en-suite room had no windows, just insect screens.  It also had a balcony, complete with a hammock, which looked out into the jungle.  The room also had one unusual feature, a humidity box.  This box was for cameras and electrical items to prevent them getting damp in the very high humidity.

Smooth-billed Anis

Red-Capped Cardinal

Before our boat trip, we walked out to the sun-deck where lots of noisy Yellow-Rumped Caciques were nesting in a palm-tree.  In the nearby trees we also saw Tropical King Birds, Greater Anis, Smooth-Billed Anis and Red Capped Cardinals.  Also to be seen and heard were Oropendolas that build very long hanging nests to avoid predation by monkeys.  They had a very loud, unusual and obvious call that sounded like a drop of water falling into a pond.  We saw many of these birds during our stay.

We then got into our canoe with John and Rita, a couple from Hinckley, that formed our small group along with Julio our Ecuadorian guide and Jaime, our indiginous native assistant guide.

We were slowly paddled back across the Pilchicocha lake toward what looked like inpenetrable  jungle only to find a very small waterway hidden between the trees.  These waterways, often only a couple of feet wide and surrounded by jungle, were to become quite familiar to us during our visit.  Right at the entrance to the waterway, we came across a night-heron camouflaging itself in a semi-collapsed tree, we managed not to disturb it.

Only a few yards further into the jungle, Jaime (who only spoke Spanish and Quechua or Kichwa) spotted something in a tree just above us.  After quietly manoeuvring the canoe we were treated to the sight of a three-toed sloth dozing in a tree just a few yards away.  It was very well hidden, and true to its name, it slowly turned its head to look at us before turning back to more important things, sleep.  Both Julio and Jaime were suprised to see the sloth so close to the lodge, what a start to our visit.

Three-toed Sloth

After heading back to the lodge, we relaxed in our room until dinner time.  We headed down to the dining room and the bar located about where we quenched our thirst with a pre-dinner beer.  John and Rita joined us.  Diner was at 1930 and we discovered that we had soup, salad, a main-course and sweet to eat, this set the scene for all our meals at the lodge.  The food was delicious and during the meal I discovered that John used to be a language teacher at RAF North Luffenham - what an amazing coincidence.  We had many mutual friends and colleagues!

After dinner, we headed out by canoe again for a jungle exploration by night.  One of the first things we saw, by the light of a torch, were Greater Bulldog Fish-Eating Bats, they swooped low over the water of the lake grabbing the fish from just under the surface of the water, an amazing sight.  In another very narrow jungle waterway, we came across a large Tarantula Spider only a foot or two from the boat.  We couldn't go all the way along the creek, because a Caiman was nesting there and had previously been quite aggresive, chasing the canoe and leaping out of the water onto a canoe.  Needless to say, Jaime was not keen to repeat the experience!

Back on the lake, we saw several pairs of Caiman eyes gleaming in the distance, but never got close to them.  Back at the lodge, after a very long day, Julio told us that we would be woken at 5.00, have breakfast at 5.30 and leave on our next excursion by 6.00 the next morning - the joys of wildlife watching!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Quito to the Jungle

18 November 2011

Quito to Sacha Lodge
Just to get us used to early starts planned in the jungle, we were up by 0600 and in a crowded breakfast room not long afterwards.  We abandonded one of our bags in the hotel baggage room, and at 0725 met our travel rep in the lobby.

Andean Snow-covered Volcanos
It was a pretty quick drive to the airport although the traffic in the airport area was chaotic.  Inside domestic departures wasn't much different.  We were lucky that a rep from Sacha Lodge was on hand and she managed to check in our bags and get our boarding passes.

Security was interesting, it seems that taking full bottles of water through is quite OK in Quito!  Our flight to Francisco de Orellan (otherwise known as Coca) was delayed so we sat and watched several flights heading out to the Galapagos.  We also watched several tourists getting rather nervous as the departures information board was next to useless and there was no information about our flight. We were reassured when three or four locals sat opposite us holding boarding cards for our flight.

Suddenly, our flight was called and we got an Embraer jet for the 30 minute flight down to Coca.  I say down, as Quito is at 2800 metres and Coca is not much higher than sea-level.  Once again we flew around several snow-covered volcanoes before heading across the rain-forest.  On the ground, it was very warm and humid, something we have to get used to for a few days. The airport is extremely basic, the baggage carousel is a concrete shelf in the open-air arrivals 'lounge'.

Once again we were met by a rep from Sacha Lodge and put on an aging Chinese coach along with a puppy and a few locals for our drive into town.  Coca is an oil town and is less than 50 years old. It is rather scruffy, but developing fast.  We first went to a 'house' where we found clean loos, lots of iced bottled water and some fruit.  We had a short briefing and collected life-jackets and after a short break headed down to the Rio Napa and our motorised canoe.

The Rio Napo starts in the high Andes and drains into the Amazon, passing through Ecuador, Peru and Brazil before meeting the Atlantic Ocean. Whilst the Rio Napo is classed as 'white-water', it is in fact a dirty brown colour from all the sediment it carries.

The long narrow canoe had two huge outboard engines on the back and had a sun shade over the length of the boat.  Passengers sat in rows of two, the width of the boat inches from the waterline.  With a muted roar, we were off on a 50 mile journey downriver which was due to take 2 hours.  Let me tell you that 25mph, inches from the water in a narrow canoe, is a heck of a ride.  Although the Rio Napo is probably half a mile wide in places, it is fairly shallow.  The ride is all the more exciting as there are numberous sandbars and lots of large floating timber in the river.  Rarely did our boatman ease off the throttle, weaving his way between logs and sandbars.  We did hit a few sandbars, but apart from a jolt, we powered on through.

After two hours we pulled into a dock in the jungle, where there was a chance of a 'comfort break' before we headed down a board-walk through the jungle.  This 20 minute hike got us up close the jungle very quickly with lots of strange sights and sounds.  Some of the vegitation was very colourful and the trains of leaf-cutter ants all bearing enormous pieces of leaf were rather spectacular.

Sacha Lodge Dock on Rio Napo

Sacha Lodge on Lago Pilchicocha

At the end of the walk, we found ourselves on another dock on a large 'black-water' lake. Black-water describes the colour of the water very well.  Black-water is rain water and gets is colour from all the millions of leaves that have fallen into it.

Cue another canoe, this time hand-paddled.  A short journey across the lake took us to Sacha Lodge and a welcome drink.  After being allocated a room, we sat down to lunch with Julio, our guide for the next few days. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Amsterdam to Quito

Tulips from Amsterdam
16 November 2011

Following a good nights sleep, we repacked our hand baggage and headed back to the Dutch Kiktchen for breakfast.  Freshly cooked eggs, bacon and coffee were reasonably priced, for an airport!  The airport was heaving and we were amused by the almost nonstop announcements about final calls for specific passengers telling them they were holding up the flight and that their baggage was about to be off-loaded.

Our flight on a KLM 777-300 was due to leave around 1000, so we headed for the gate. For some reason, everyone was put through full security (no liquids etc) at the gate despite the fact we were already airside and everyone had been through arrival security at the airport.  They must have thought we were a 'dodgy' lot.

We encountered an interesting method of boarding the aircraft with one of the 'ramps' going up and over the wing to allow passengers at the rear of the aircraft easy access.  A good idea which permitted quick boarding.

Tucked into our row of two seats, window and aisle, almost at the back of the aircraft, we were impressed by the legroom we had.  This was as well, as we were about to spend about 12 hours in those seats!  The departure was slightly delayed by the late arrival of some connecting flight.

Once airborne, we headed back over the North Sea and England!  The route took us back over London and across the middle of England and Wales before crossing the coast in mid-Wales.  The next land we would spot would be the Dutch Antilles, Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba.

Food and service on the flight was very good and KLM crew very friendly and helpful, Once we had got used to all announcements first in Dutch, followed by English and then Spanish.  Dutch to me still sounds like a throat clearing exercise.

The view from the window was predictably boring for most of the flight, unless you were a cloud-spotter!  However, once we crossed the coast of Venezuela, the scenery became spectacular.  Our route took us across the mountainous interior of Venezuela into Columbia passing between Bogata and Medelin and further into the Andes to Ecuador and Quito.

The airport approach at Quito is quite remeniscient of the approach into the old airport in Hong Kong at Kai Tak, weaving between hills and buildings.  The current airport is showing its age and a new one is being constructed to the north of the city.

Arrivals at Quito was fairly chaotic and we queued for over an hour to get through immigration.  Once through this, we found our checked-in luggage (all there, but one bag damaged) and we then had to queue again to get through customs, where all bags were again subjected to x-ray examination.  Although we had been sitting for a long time on the flight, we certainly did not enjoy the long queues here.

Once out of the airport we quickly found our travel rep and waited by the curbside for our transport.  The traffic here was entirely anarchic and the airport police appeared somewhat overwhelmed by the traffic scrummage despite much whistle-blowing and arm-waving.

After a wait of about 20 minutes, our van-driver managed to make it to the curb and we quickly loaded the luggage and jumped in.  In fairness, it was rush hour in Quito, but the traffic was pretty mad and reminded me of traffic in Naples.

We got to our hotel, the Dann Carlton, in the business district and joined yet another queue to check-in.  The lobby was full of a party of very loud Americans seemingly organising their dining arrangements, as everyone got to hear!

I'm not sure at the moment if we got a last-minute upgrade at the hotel but our accommodation is a suite with a huge lounge, enormous bedroom, large dressing room and a bathroom.  Doubtless we will find out if this is normal when we check back in here later in the week.  We have two nights here before flying to Coca and onward to a lodge somewhere in the Amazon basin.

Although we are in Ecuador we ate Japanese food at a cafe a few doors down from hotel, a bowl of terayaki seemed preferable to large meal after all the food we had consumed on the flight earlier.

London to Amsterdam

15 November 2011

After a night in Bristol, we joined the morning traffic on the M4 heading for London.  To be fair, the traffic wasn't too busy and in less than two hours we arrived at the Holiday Inn at Heathrow where we were parking the car.

Having sorted out the formalities, we ordered a taxi to take us to the airport.  A swish new Mercedes turned up and whisked us round to Terminal 4 and dumped us at departures.

The usual airport chaos didn't seem to be so evident at T4, especially as most check-in is done on line or on self-service computer terminals.  Seat allocation for the long-haul, which had been an issue, was resolved and we printed out boarding passes for both London to Amsterdam and Amsterdam to Quito.  Following a quick coffee, bag check-in all the way to Quito was quickly sorted.  Will our bags turn up in Quito tomorrow? Tune in for the next episode.

The rigours of the security were relatively painlessly endured and there was time for a drink and a snack before our flight.  The terminal was really quiet compared to other times I've been there.

The small, very full,  'City-Hopper' KLM jet took 45 minutes to get us from Heathrow to Schipol Airport, Amsterdam.

We had booked to stay at the Mercure Hotel inside the airport terminal, but it took us some time to actually find the hotel near the 'F' area of the airport.  Rather unusually, this hotel is 'airside' so the choice of food, drink and shopping was pretty good.  The hotel itself, is very quiet and well equipped, but unusually,  none of the rooms have windows!

Dinner was eaten at the Dutch Kitchen, decorated with giant wooden tulips and delft-ware followed by locally brewed Heineken beer.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The suitcases have been dragged out of the attic and found to be worn out!  No matter, TKMax seems to have some bargains that will do the trip.  How can I fit nearly 4 weeks of clothes and 'essential' travel items into 23 kg?  We are likely to be in high mountains, tropical jungle and equatorial islands, so choice of clothes is an issue.  Repack a few times and leave options open to discard a few more items at the last minute.

For reasons beyond my comprehension, we can't check in on line until 30 hours prior to flying. We have chosen and paid for specific seats for the long-haul part of the flight, but will KLM stop interfering with my seat allocation?

Oh well, I guess all will be revealled at Heathrow on Tuesday afternoon.