Travel Writers: An Ape Amongst Monkeys

by Roderick Eime

Location: Eastern Ecuadorian Rainforest, South America

Chuka perched precariously on the rear of the slender canoe

The jungle is almost silent. A natural mossy junkyard of tree corpses and opportunistic vines line either side of the narrow rivulet while tall, spindly kapok trees merge overhead forming a verdant archway. Invisible birds call sporadically to each other in shrill chirps shattering the silence like distant gunshots. Chuka is perched precariously on the very rear of the slender canoe and barely makes a sound as his paddle caresses the still black water while my eyes dart in all directions fruitlessly trying to locate the source of these occasional noises.

The archetypical Amazonian Indian, Chuka is long-haired and cherub-faced with bright, laser focussed eyes continually scouring the canopy for any sign that might indicate wildlife. Hunting (photographically) for prey in the dark anarchic igapo is both exciting and frustrating. Subjects don’t come and neatly present themselves at a conveniently pre-focused distance, rather duck and weave in and out of the foliage at the furthest reach of your telephoto lens – if you can even see them! A Cocoi Heron peers at us from behind a large palm frond while a colourful Macaw perches way up in the canopy.

Then there’s something – deep in the forest. To me it’s just another random shrill. To Chuka it’s an alarm! In a hushed but urgent tone, he urges me, “Monkey come!” My impatience and frustration is already showing, but Chuka knows his careful efforts are about to yield results. “There!” he motions frantically toward a distant kapok frond bobbing tell-tale against the rain laden sky. I can barely make out the silhouette of a tiny squirrel monkey as it explores the loftiest branches in search of ripe morsels. Presented with this meagre opportunity, I put down my SLR and instead video the little rascal as he darts in and out of the tree forks and leafy clumps.

“There, there, there!” explodes Chuka, his brown arm extended in six directions at once. Left, right, up, over! Damn! Where now? While I was concentrating on the pathfinder, the rest of the troupe had caught up and were now crashing noisily from branch to branch and launching themselves across the gulf between trees. It was raining monkeys!

Oh, for a ball-jointed spine. I try painfully to orientate myself toward each little honey-brown and white opportunity as they poke their faces out from bushy nooks and crannies before launching themselves deeper into the trees. All the while I am haunted by the fearful thought of capsizing the narrow canoe with my twitching, clumsy bulk. By now I’m shooting at everything that moves; knowing that a scant handful of shots will be useful after the commotion is over.

Confident of the limitations of Chuka’s English, I curse loudly and liberally as each little rascal escapes my viewfinder as the SLR’s autofocus struggles to lock in the gloom. As the last vestige of opportunity disappears into the dank undergrowth, I sigh the sigh of the newly exorcised and turn to suddenly realise two canoes full of camcorder-toting tourists are as equally amused by this ape as the quickly escaping minor primates.

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Photos and text © Roderick Eime. All rights reserved

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