Camping out in the Amazon

Earlier this week, I set out from the Amazonian research station where I am based with with two Kichwa guides, three hammocks, food for two days, and six camera traps. The intention was to place as many camera traps as possible within those two days.

Image 1 - The Churuyaku is born on the west side of Armadillo Hill, Payamino's tallest point, and snakes
around until it ends up east of the mountains and near the village, where it spills out into Rio Payamino.
If you have followed this blog, you will know that I don’t just set camera traps anywhere. Unfortunately, according to the project design I sometimes regret, I don’t bait or set them in places that look like they’d get particularly many camptures. Instead, my camera stations are predetermined with a GPS to be 1 km apart from each other in a 3 x 3 km2 grid (four cameras a side, sixteen cameras in total). See this previous post on my project design.

The research station finally has enough camera traps to allow me to place up to eleven cameras at once, so I sat down with the satellite map and GPS and decided to try to place six by staying overnight in wilderness of the Andean foothills that roll into the greatest remaining rainforest in the world.

Since I have already covered the eight closest camera stations to the research station (taking a full day to place 2-3 cameras at a time), it was clear that it would take a long time just to get to the first point we were aiming for. After eight hours of crawling up over hills and down into valleys, crossing rivers and cutting through unfriendly undergrowth, we reached the first point. Or as close as we could get to the first point, because it turned out it should have been somewhere near the top of a 60 degree angle rock face on the other side of the river. But I have placed cameras 100 metres from where they should be before, so that didn’t bother me too much. However, to calculate the grid points northwards I would need to get to the exact coordinates of either this point or the next, which had been calculated from its neighbouring point to the east. The fear had been growing on me that we would not be able to reach the next point northwards, given how the terrain was shaping out as we got closer to river heads and the peaks of Armadillo Hill.

Image 2 Another bit of the Churuyaku. In Kichwa, the name of the river directly translates as "snail river"
For then, all we could do was search for a good place to make camp before it started getting dark. We climb up and away from the narrow rocky riverbank we had landed on. It was an incredibly steep hike – and having clambered about Armadillo Hill and its surroundings, I’ve had a fair share of them already. The guides were convinced that, if we kept climbing, the other side would bring us a smoother slope back down to another part of the river, in the hope that it would be more suitable for camping at.

Image 3 - David (front left) and Marcelo AKA "Diablo"
We came to the top of the ridge and, surprise surprise, it was a sheer drop down to the river one way and a small dip on it’s way to another steep climb the other way. There was no point in going back down from where we had come from, so we found a spot with enough reliable-looking trees to hang our hammocks to. As David and “Diablo” (Image 3; I decided perhaps it was best to query him on the origins of his nickname once we got back to the village or the research station) conversed in Kichwa about the best hight at which to place their hammocks, I singled out the word “puma” various times. In Kichwa, “puma” can refer to any wild cat, but usually jaguar. When Kichwa people speak in Spanish, they just call all wild cats “tigres”. My hammock was set considerably lower than theirs – partly because I was afraid to stretch it out too much and rip it; partly because I had no idea (and remain clueless) how they were going to get into their hammocks at that height.

Image 4 - Camp for the night
Once camp was set up (Images 4, 5) , complete with hammocks, tarps, clothes lines, and fires, we ate the remainder of the stale food rationed for that day and went to sleep. Lying in my hammock strung between two trees on a hill engulfed by Amazonian rainforest, I felt a strange combination of peace, adventure, and nervousness at sleeping in jaguar country. I had intended to set up a camera trap in camp just for kicks to see if anything wandered around us at night, but I went out like a light and slept like a log. Albeit a log that kept sliding down to one end of its hammock and having to move straiten out again every couple of hours.

Image 5 - Dying camp fire
The next morning it was time to worry about how we were going to reach the remaining points we’d set out to cover. We would have to reach the research station before dark that day, because we only had enough supplies to last us until then and it is best to be back on a trail or at least familiar lands by dark. Although Diablo and David were my guides, most of the time they had no idea where they were and they certainly did not know any more about where we were going than I had explained to them. So I was a little nervous about leading this mini-expedition, especially as the extent of my knowledge and experience navigating with satellite maps and using a GPS comes entirely from the little time I have spent working around Armadillo Hill.

As it turned out, it did not look like there was any plausible way of reaching the next point of the camera grid from where we were. That side of Armadillo Hill is so cut up by birthing rivers, it would seem the only way to get to each of the remaining points on that side of the mountains would be to ascend to the peak of Armadillo and descend to the point, climb back up to the top and descend again at the next point, and so forth. If we had tried that idea that day, we would probably not find a trail back to the station before dark or before we ran out of food.

In light of the circumstances, and seemingly to David and Diablo’s relief, we decided to start heading back to the station that very morning. It’s incredibly frustrating to go so far and get just one camera out, so to make myself feel better, I placed another – although 500 metres from the next grid point. I may not be able to use it in my data analyses, but it might take some cool photos (then again it might not take any!). It didn’t take as long to get back from the station, because Diablo reckoned that if we could reach the top of the mountain ridge we were half way up, we would eventually find the remainder of an old hunting trail. Thankfully, he was right. Bizarrely, at the top of the ridge there was phone coverage, a luxury we are without down at the research station. I phoned my dad in Spain for a moment just because I could, which felt a bit surreal.

Image 6 - Snail river again
Image 7 - "desbanque"
We continued our journey following the overgrown hunting trail through the jungle until we lost it, but by then we knew more or less where we were, especially since we ended up near where I had previously placed a camera. After a few steep hills and small valleys, and crossing the Churuyaku river (Images 1, 2, 6)  what felt like a million times, we came to the “desbanque” (Image 7) – a wide opening in the forest which connects the trails leading to the village with those to the station and other fincas.

Now I need to sit down and consider how many more points of the grid I can realistically cover before I leave, for which I will have to enlist the help of orienteering genius Gabe Svobodny and station manager Javier Patiño – I’ve been doing this project far too long to give up on it!

And to rap it up, a picture of a cute little tamarin we saw.
Image 7 - We saw a group of tamarins on the way back. These are a common site, even in the trees
surrounding the station; but it is the first time I've managed to get a photo of one of the little buggers!


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