A small crack, only just audible above the pec pec pec of the outboard, sent the two guys dozing on the narrow benches at the front scrabbling on the mucky floor of the boat, using their mobile phones to pierce the thick dark. A grunt and a splash and the small fish who had made an unfortunate leap in the dark, was pitched back into the river. These guys, employees and freelancers of the Amazon Rainforest Lodge are relatively affluent: I sense their forefathers would have seen it as a gift from the river gods.
We set out in total dark from the lodge at 4.00 am, after a night of spectacular crashing thunder, rain and an amazing light show, but the river was still dangerously low, so the trip that would have taken about an hour in the metal speedboat with its big butch 70 HP Johnson outboard had to be done in a little wooden pec pec. These boats, mostly open, but a few with palm thatched roofs, have small and highly manouverable outboards with very long prop-shafts like cake whisks. They form most of the traffic on the Amazon and its tributaries and you see families pec pec pec-ing their way down river in the early morning to sell their goods in Iquitos: charcoal and bananas forming the main cargo, with boats loaded to an inch or two of freeboard. Often the whole family will go, to enjoy the day out and mix business with pleasure. Kids wave at passing boats and grannies shelter under multi coloured umbrellas and makeshift shelters: odd mixture of traditional and modern as palm leaves vie with plastic. (Plastic water bottles act as net floats and bouys, warning of sand bars and sunken logs. Little is wasted)
Our particular pec pec of this morning was covered with blue plastic which dripped condensation on us, but was a bit special, as the driver was a professional. Our personal guide, Jimy, stood in the prow with a flashlight, playing it across the surface of the water from one bank to the other, trying to pick out the standing ripples that warn of a sand bar just beneath the surface. We could occasionally make out a night bird´s call above the engine, and once or twice Jimy caught a white bird in his torch beam. It was an eery and tense experience, and I was thinking of it as a bit of jolly adventure, in a sort of Boys´ Own kind of way,with a nice feeling of peril, without any real danger, when we hit a sand bar hard, and the boat slewed round and tilted; the freeboard on my side reduced to about 2 centimetres. Then I really was frightened: were we going to be tipped into the muddy and probably freezing cold water? Were the piranas we failed to catch the day before waiting to turn the tables on us?
There was much rocking of the boat, plenty of prodding and shoving and lots of noise from the labouring cake whisk, as the driver put it into reverse, stirred the muddy river up even more, and finally got us afloat again. Then I felt foolish- there really was nothing to worry about- these guys live on the river, and getting stuck on a sand bank was certanly no worse than us getting a flat, or needing a jump start.
Later that day, we emerged from the Rio Momon- "our" tributary onto the mighty Amazon itself, where our heroes of the dark night turned into our personal David Attenboroughs, and whistled up a couple of pink river dolphins for us.