Exploring the Amazon rainforest sounds like an impossible task. It is an impenetrable, unforgiving place. Countless explorers have disappeared in its depths, snatched by disease, starvation, animals, or hostile locals. Even now, when we know so much about the Amazon, it retains a certain aura. We know that the Amazon basin produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen; we know that it holds around one fifth of the world’s freshwater; we know that about half of the world’s species of animal, plant and insect live in the Amazon. And yet, we don’t know anything for certain. It is too big, too impressive, and too important for us to think we have conquered it.
Now, of course, there are relatively straightforward ways to explore the Amazon. The boat trip from the Brazil’s Colombian border to its Amazonian capital, Manaus, takes around four days and involves sleeping in a hammock and enjoying the consistently excellent sunset. The boat moves quickly down an enormous expanse of water, passing small, seemingly isolated communities, and all the while surrounded by imposing forest. Trees line the riverbank, teetering towards the water, as if on the point of leaping into the murky depths. Despite the tranquillity of sunset, high winds and torrential rain are liable to flinging tables and chairs at night, as Mother Nature reveals the extent of her powers.
The boat trip is effortlessly cool. Reminding yourself that you are in the depths of this vast space and imagining where you would be on a map is enough to make anyone smile. The meals on board are classically Brazilian, involving rice, black beans, spaghetti and farofa (a flour-based dish, strongly resembling sawdust), with a different meat for each meal. Meanwhile, you spend your time chatting with the affable Brazilians on board, who may assist you with putting up your hammock, or offer a tip about how to deal with mosquitoes.
However, the wildlife on show is distinctly limited, with all manner of creatures preferring the quieter, smaller tributaries, away from boat engines and prying human eyes. One such spot is the Juma Reserve near Manaus. This protected reserve is a flooded forest, where trees and dolphins regularly poke above the surface of the still water. The mirror-smooth surface of the water creates beautiful reflections of the sky and trees, which light ripples will occasionally distort. Howler monkeys swing overhead, as caiman, piranha and more occupy the territory below.
Spending a night in the jungle is a great way to experience the rainforest in all its glory. Catching fish, starting a fire, putting up hammocks and making a camp are the most basic means of survival in the jungle. It really highlighted my sheltered inadequacies, for without Max, our young Brazilian guide, I would really have been in trouble. Once the work is done and the darkness descends, the sounds of insects buzzing and small creatures rustling through the undergrowth come to the fore. An endless expanse of stars is visible through a blanket of tree canopy. In the morning, the rising sun and blue sky poke pleasantly through the leaves and branches.
For all the Amazon’s wildlife, its size is its most impressive feature. The jungle feels endless, especially when you consider how far you could go in any given direction before emerging from the trees. The vastness of the river in places is imposing, while in others, the reflections from the water serve to enlarge the view. Distant cries of birds and monkeys echo through the canopy and the constant buzz of insects reveal to what extent the jungle is bulging with life. To encounter more wildlife, one must venture further into the depths. The Juma Reserve, for all its charm, is very accessible in relation to the majority of the region. For a real insight into the power of the Amazon and the variety of its inhabitants, I recommend reading Mother of God by Paul Rosolie. The size of the Amazon, and the activity and life on show are endless. You are an immeasurably insignificant part of it.