We arrived in Iquitos in the evening and the heat and humidity hit us like a wet blanket. The streets were clogged with motorbikes and three wheeled moto-taxis celebrating Peru’s entry into the world cup. Everyone was tooting and cheering and it was almost impossible to cross the street. Iquitos is the largest city in the world not accessible by road and with all the young people celebrating it struck me as a real frontier town. Of course it is the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon and that was where we were headed.
The next day we caught a motorboat 140 km upstream to a lodge deep in the jungle. After a quick lunch we travelled further into the jungle and began a two-hour hike to look for monkeys. It was hot and steamy and even without walking the sweat dripped from our faces. The jungle was thick with mosquitoes and other insects and seemed foreign and inhospitable. Tales of anacondas, jaguars, tarantulas and piranhas combined with the heat to make us feel like we were in another world. We come from a different place, a major city in a developed country with all the amenities. Here we were plunged into a jungle that seemed potentially full of things that could harm us and it felt very strange.
I had to wonder – is the world a friendly place or one to be feared?
Being used to a large city I am used to feeling relatively safe from the natural world. When I go bush I am aware of snakes and biting insects but because I have been brought up with these the Australian bush mostly feels like home. And the big cities hold very few fears. But the amazon jungle felt so foreign that I wondered how I would survive if I had to live there. The heat and humidity I might get used to but the unknown of the jungle and the animals and plants that inhabit such a place made me really question whether this particular world was friendly or not. As we hiked through the forest I felt like we were walking in circles and had no idea of how to get back to our boat.
We visited a local village and discovered that the houses were all built on stilts because for some months of the year the whole place was flooded. People used boats to get around. I wondered how little children were kept safe from the water. We saw young boys cutting the grass with large machetes and I thought of all the possible machete injuries. Everything seemed more dangerous than the world I knew yet these people lived within the forest and depended upon it for their survival.
More walks into the jungle revealed details of which plants were used for which ailments or which trees were used to build houses or boats. The hot humid conditions were ideal for growing food. The rivers and streams meant plenty of water and fish, easy transport and play for children and adults. We boated on the river at night and walked into the jungle. Fireflies lit our way and the stars were brilliant in the darkness of the jungle. Tarantulas proved hard to find and not at all aggressive. We fished for piranhas and discovered they aren’t as terrifying as in the movies. Over just a few days the seemingly dangerous and inhospitable jungle proved to be friendlier than I had imagined. Sometimes our fears are just about the unknown rather than based on reality.
Walking up a mountain in fog and drizzle is sometimes just a process of putting one foot in front of the other. The body moves in a certain rhythm and the mind tends to become more meditative. Wreathed in protective gear with water constantly trickling down my face I begin to feel like I’m in another world; an otherworldly place. Reaching the top of each hill doesn’t seem such an achievement when all I can see is fog. I could be anywhere. We start down again but I only know it’s down because different muscles are hurting.
The mystical properties of Cradle Mountain in Tasmania reveal themselves in varied ways. Fog makes most things invisible but there is a sense of being enveloped by nature. Cocooned in the mist, cocooned in wet weather gear, trusting that the path will take you where you want to go. I notice I am paying more attention to the small things. The wet leaves, the occasional flower, the water running along the path – all draw my attention away from the mist that envelops us. I stop wondering what is beyond the fog and start to enjoy the peacefulness of walking.
The next day the weather clears and I see where I have been and I am a little stunned. The fog had shrouded not only the visual beauty of the place but also the dangers – the steep inclines and cliffs, the scree and boulder fields. Places I had trudged the previous day with my head down now demand my focused attention. With the fog cleared away the mountains and lakes are revealed and the bigger picture of where I had walked clicks into awareness. There are trees of different shades and types, cliffs reflected in the mirrors of lakes and clouds now far overhead. I feel like I had visited a different place the previous day.
The moods of wild places are part of their mystical charm. The weather can change in an instant and suddenly the blue skies turn grey and snow begins to fall. We have no control over the weather but when we live in cities and towns we think we are insulated from the wildness of nature. When we venture out to the wilderness we rediscover our lack of control over the elements. We are like a small speck in a foreign landscape. Yet it has not always been so. Once we lived with the land instead of simply on her. Once we knew her moods and respected her changes. Once we lived as part of the whole rather than as individuals. We looked after the earth because we knew we needed her to look after us.
Sometimes we need to go back to nature to remind ourselves who we really are. We are not just individuals but part of a much larger system and we want to feel connected to the larger system. When we feel our feet rooted to the muddy path we know that we belong to the earth. The mystical properties of the wilderness lift our spirits as we climb mountains and marvel at the beauty but they also help sink our roots into the ground. Wild places help us connect our spirit to the earth. And we need to find that connection now more than ever.
Last week I spent four days in the magical Tarkine. This relatively unknown location in Tasmania is a great place to experience old growth forest and get in touch with the natural world. The Tarkine is located in the north west of Tasmania and houses some of the most spectacular forest on the planet.
This rainforest is unique in that many of the plant species are ancient and there are many species that don’t exist in other places; it is said to be a living remnant of prehistoric forest. To spend a few days walking and camping in such a place is rejuvenating for the spirit and soul. We desperately need to protect such wilderness areas as they are still under threat from mining and logging.
The Tarkine has been listed as one of the top ten places to visit before it disappears and the main threats are not just logging and mining but also climate change. While such cool climate rainforests are generally fire resistant because of their moisture content increasing temperatures and droughts may dry out the forest making it vulnerable to fire.
To help protect the Tarkine there are a number of things we can do. The first is to visit it and experience its magic. The second is to work to preserve it by opposing mining and logging in the area. Go to Save the Tarkine website for more information. Thirdly we all need to recognize climate change as a major threat to the ecosystems of this planet, including the Tarkine, and work to change our reliance on fossil fuels and other pollutants. Our health depends upon the health of our planet.