In the blue pre-dawn light I’m standing in what feels like a deleted scene from Heart of Darkness. The river’s unyielding power marches infinitely past, framed in the towering walls of misty moss-bearded jungle. And so it is on this tributary for miles up river — for days and weeks up river. That is how long it takes to access the headwaters of Las Piedras.
Winding like a golden snake through the heart of Peru’s Madre de Dios, Las Piedras is the longest watershed in the region. The vast primary forest cover makes this river a sanctuary for the superlative biodiversity contained in the surrounding national parks of the Madre de Dios. There are more birds here than anywhere else, more trees, more reptiles and amphibians, and over 70 species of mammals. The river is also home to a substantial amount of isolated tribes. In short, this place is a real-life Avatar of colour, diversity, and mysterious culture.
In the pale light of dawn, I inflate my packraft and ready my paddle. This will be day six of my travels. It’s been as many days since I’ve seen another human, and I like it that way. On Piedras it’s important to avoid accidentally encountering nomadic (uncontacted) tribes. These are people who’ve been resisting contact for centuries, first during the Spanish invasion of Peru, then during the more recent rubber boom in the 1900s, and then again in the 1990s, when the lesser-known mahogany boom swept through the region. They’re a living anachronism. While we surf the web and fly on planes, they live naked in the jungle, surviving on what they can hunt with bows and arrows, and staying healthy with a jungle pharmacy that Western medicine could only dream of having access to.
As my raft glides through the smooth mocha current, I’m enveloped in the surreal mist of a jungle paradise. I work the paddle silently, steering past hanging vines. This is the best way to see wildlife, silently moving through the morning. Earlier in the week, I paddled beside a tapir crossing the river. Today, on an approaching beach, I watch a flame red brocket deer sip water beneath a floral tapestry 10 metres tall. Lying on the beach is a spectacled caiman waiting for the sun. Families of capybara are huddled in the river cane. The jungle here is wildlife paradise: primary, old-growth forest packed with life. But it may not be for much longer.
Just three years ago, this corner of the Earth was guarded by hundreds of miles of deep jungle. So inaccessible and pristine, it was a place few would ever see. Now things are different. A new road, an offshoot of the Tran-Amazonian Highway, has lacerated deep into the formerly pristine wilderness. The once-untouched wilderness is hemorrhaging timber, gold, and wildlife as fortune seekers enter to reap the wealth of the land. Now a very sinister race has started in this hitherto unheard-of corner of the globe. The road is like a tentacle of a geopolitical Goliath, steadily asphyxiating trees, wildlife, and tribes that call the river home. The two grassroots eco-tourism operations that are battling to protect the river are currently stretched, with one finger in the dike and the other hand brandishing the knife they brought to this gunfight. So it is in the Amazon’s Wild West.
Yet these stark realities don’t seem real as I float past the ghostly visions of towering trees above. The sun is breaking up the mist and rays of gold are lighting up the landscape bit by bit. Ahead I can hear screaming, cawing, a cacophony of chatter. Squinting, I can make out the fluttering and buzz of a macaw lick. This is a sheer cliff on the riverbank where exposed sodium deposits attract parrots and macaws; the latter of which are the largest of the parrots. They used to range from Mexico down through much of South America but today they’re endangered or extinct in most of their original range. The pet trade and the demand for their plumage, as well as local desire for their presence in the soup pot, has seriously cut down the numbers of these flying rainbow-birds. But on Piedras there are still thousands.
I lay my paddle over my lap and glide. The birds don’t know I’m here until the last second. When they spot me the scene explodes. Brilliant red, blue and yellow birds burst from the clay and the green forest above, striking into the sun’s rays with a collective shriek that shakes the water. For a breathless few moments I’m enveloped beneath a hurricane vortex of colour.
The birds lift and swing south, as my raft departs the scene. They then circle around over the canopy to return to their clay-munching. As their colour and chatter fades behind, I’m left in a state of awe. Las Piedras is still the most incredible place I’ve ever seen.
Paul Rosolie is a naturalist, author of Mother of God and award-winning wildlife filmmaker who’s specialised in the western Amazon for nearly a decade. paulrosolie.com
Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)