6 mins

World's Greatest Journeys: Track jaguar in the Bolivian Amazon

Welcome to the jungle – the Amazon rainforest isn't just confined to Brazil and Peru, and the jaguars wander where they please...

Jaguar (Mark Carwardine)

I was too frightened to sleep for the first night.

The guide had told us not to go outside because of the jaguars, but  I felt no safer in the cabin. The noise in the dark beyond was unearthly, ringing out with all manner of coughs, barks, scuffles and snarls. Booms echoed in the distance; something sniffed and snorted a few feet away from the door; and all that separated us from this rumbling wilderness was a millimetre of plastic gauze across a gaping window – hardly protection against a cat weighing in heavier than Lennox Lewis.

In the end I tried to scrounge a few hours sleep in the shower with the door bolted, much to the chagrin of my wife, Gardênia: "It was you who wanted to journey somewhere really wild," she complained, "and now you are too scared to face it!"

Another world

She had a point. For years I'd cherished a David Attenborough-induced dream of getting into the heart of the living forest. It had taken me on treks in leech-infested Sumatra, through Australia's Daintree and to the Mayan temples of El Petén in southern Mexico.

But here, in Bolivia's Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, all these trips, and many others besides, seemed quite literally like a stroll in the woods. This was another world entirely.

Noel Kempff Mercado may be one of Bolivia’s handful of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but its remoteness on the distant frontier of the country’s Amazon territories has meant that, except for a trickle of scientists, dedicated birders and intrepid tourists with more than a backpacker budget, few have ever been here.

Percy Fawcett – a moustached and pipe-toting Edwardian, who mysteriously disappeared searching for the mythical city of Paititi – was probably the first European to visit. His tales of tabletop mountains lost in jungles thick with giant, bird-catching spiders and five-metre-long, double-fanged surucucu snakes (bushmasters) inspired his friend Conan Doyle to write The Lost World.

And it was reading his diary that had initially inspired us, too. We subsequently heard about Huanchaca Plateau – the giant mountain that dominates the park – and the wealth of wildlife that lives there.

Like Fawcett, we began our journey in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. He remembered it as a town whose people were so hot blooded that guards with guns had to invigilate at the local cinema to calm the moviegoers who were worked up over the Hollywood melodramas.

Sadly, we found modern Santa Cruz as dull as the acres of soya that surround it, and were glad to hop on board the tiny Cessna and head for the rainforest. After an hour of bumping over chessboard plantations we reached the edge of the Amazon, stretching out below like endless broccoli and flecked with the occasional black-and-white flap of a soaring harpy eagle.

I remember thinking that this was the edge of an ocean of trees that stretched all the way to the Orinoco, nearly 3,000km to the north, broken only by the ravages of gold mines and logging camps in Rondônia, Brazil. Another two hours later, with dusk looming and the dull grey hulk of Huanchaca Plateau looming on the horizon, the pilot veered sharply and descended towards a red gash in the trees, sprinkled with a few cabins and a radio mast – it was the only break in the green we had seen for some 300km.

When we got out of the plane I saw that the runway was pitted with scores of jaguar prints, deep from a heavy tread and as large as a wrestler’s fist. Our cabin, where I lay cowering in the shower, sat right on its edge, facing the forest.

Heading for the falls

Everything looked less frightening in the safety of the dawn sunlight and, after brushing the roosting bat from my jacket and emptying a frog from my boot, we headed for breakfast.

“Hear the jaguar barking last night?” asked Titi, the park guard. “Get much sleep?” I brushed aside my shame and mental cobwebs, and downed a thick, black Bolivian coffee.

Half an hour later, Gardênia and I were rocketing along a dirt road in the back of a pick-up. Dozens of homeless, saucer-sized, green-and-black spiders clung to the bull bars and wing mirrors – a few clung to us. Soon we had left the forest and emerged into a large savannah, slowing briefly as grey foxes and crab-eating racoons ran frightened ahead of us.

We stopped altogether to watch a rhea, South America’s giant flightless bird, amble through the grass; the weird, distant booms I had heard the night before had been their mating calls.

We were heading for the Huanchaca Plateau itself and a trek to El Encanto: ‘The Enchanted’ – one of the dozens of beautiful waterfalls that spill from the mountain’s edge. Fewer than 500 visitors had ever been there before us, and the path that wound its way through the gallery forest swathing Huanchaca’s flanks was rocky and overgrown. The cut of the machete startled black spider monkeys who swung away from us in the canopy above.

Just as our walk was shifting into the meditative rhythm of a good hike, we rounded a corner and became overpowered by a thick, pungent smell. It was followed by a sound like the rattle of a dozen muted castanets.

“Up the tree! Now!” shouted Titi. We staggered up the buttresses of a giant rainforest fig.

“A herd of collared peccary,” he whispered. “American wild boar. They are aggressive and can be very dangerous. The rattle is them gnashing their tusks as a warning of attack.” Thankfully, they moved on and, after recovering our nerves, so did we.

Night watch

After another hour or so, the path broadened and then, just as it became thick with morpho butterflies floating on the heavy air like electric-blue silk, it opened altogether to present El Encanto itself. All the tiredness of the night before and the ache and sweat of the walk dissipated in the face of one of the world’s greatest natural sights. It was like a vision from Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters: ‘And like a downward smoke, the slender stream/along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.’

The falls and the deep blue pool into which they poured were veiled by thin spray, which softened the ochre and mossy green of the sandstone cliff towering some 150m above us. Flowering orchids and bromeliads encrusted its surface, forest stretched all around and, as we walked into this verdant amphitheatre, a flock of scarlet macaws flew past as if on cue, adding a dash of brilliant red to the scene.

El Encanto was so enchanting that we stayed far too long and had a two-hour, torchless walk through the forest to the pick-up. Nightjars scissored in and out of the car beams on the way back to camp, disturbed from their dirt bath in the warm sand of the road.

When we arrived it was black as pitch and the forest was in full chorus. We stopped at the end of the runway and Titi switched on the pick-up’s halogen lamp. At the opposite end of the runway, near our cabin, two yellow-green eyes flashed briefly in the beam before disappearing rapidly into the dark of the forest.

“Even here,” said Titi, “where so few people come, the jaguars have learned to be scared of humans.”

I slept that night, and the following, and little by little began to hear the forest noises more as a living lullaby than a danger warning. The scuffles and sniffs were from coatis, little long-nosed racoon-like invaders from North America who colonised the southern forests when Panama crashed into Colombia; the snarls were opossums, whose various families make up the only marsupials found outside Australasia; and the short, sharp, dog-like barks were jaguar marking territory.

These sounds, and the whoops and wails from nightjars, potoos and owls, punctuated the underlying slow crescendo of tree frogs and cicadas like the brass and woodwind in an orchestra. The overall symphony became irrigation for ever more vivid and organic dreams.

Rhythm of the jungle

By the time we had been in Noel Kempff for five days we were deeply relaxed and calmed by the harmony of the forest and the rhythm of non-urban life. Our bodies had attuned to the rise and fall of the sun and although we slept less than at home, we slept deeper and felt more energetic when awake.

Every day brought a fresh surprise: the surface of the black water River Iténez (Río Guaporé) being broken by the bright pink fin of a blind river dolphin; the spray of the Arco Iris, another spectacular waterfall, forming a brilliant rainbow behind a giant green monolith standing in the middle of a rushing river; hundreds of butterflies and bees settling on our skin to lick our salty sweat.

Now, the day before we were due to leave, it was time for what we were promised would be the most spectacular sight of all: a flight around the mountain and a landing on its flat top.

The Cessna bumped and jumped in the thermals as we took off and curved round to come to within a few hundred metres of Huanchaca Plateau’s cliff face. It was dripping with waterfalls, some so remote that only a privileged few had ever touched their waters.

The green of the forest itself was broken in patches by splashes of red or yellow from the blossom of a giant tree. As we rounded the mountain we could see white-tailed deer grazing in the savannah grasslands below.

We climbed a little higher and were soon over the flat summit itself; an undulation of fawn grassland and patchy forest thick with buriti palms. Black-water rivers scored its surface, while thunderclouds hovered overhead. There were storms here so frequently, explained Titi, that Huanchaca’s top was often ablaze with fires caused by lightning strikes.

Top table

The plane descended and we landed on a flat near one of the rivers. Blue-legged seriemas – South America’s equivalent of the secretary bird – sprinted away from us, shrieking, and we clambered out to be greeted by clouds of voraciously biting flies.

Titi led us into the nearby strand of forest, to a derelict camp of barrels, makeshift tables, discarded tubing and rusting metal.

“This was once a cocaine refinery,” he told us. “We landed on the drug traffickers’ old runway.”

He then showed us a brass bust, a bizarre sight in the wilderness. “A famous Bolivian biologist fell in love with Huanchaca, and after many years of persistence persuaded the government to create this park. He landed here, too,” he said, growing more earnest, “on 5 September 1986, and was gunned down by the cocaine traffickers who made this camp. His name was Noel Kempff Mercado.”

I looked from the statue out over the cliffs of Huanchaca and the vast expanse of unpolluted and undisturbed wilderness that makes up Noel Kempff Mercado’s park. Tabletop mountains and forests all over South America – from Brazil’s Chapada dos Guimarães to Venezuela’s Roraima – are rapidly being tamed and taken by man. But here, in this remote corner of Bolivia, the wild clings on, all thanks to a man who died for the land he loved.

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