The jaguar that almost was

Just recalling carrying my backpack ridiculously loaded down over the hills, slippery rocks and face slapping wet leaves makes me cringe. My guide would skip over a log, or seemingly float across a muddy patch. However, when I attempted to follow, the logs would break or I would find myself sinking alarmingly into the mud. I tripped over roots and twisted my ankles on innocuous looking stones that would shift and displace under my weight. I stopped asking how much further, content simply to faceplant into the nearest stream and gorge myself on water before continuing on. Occasionally I would stop toss down my pack which landed with a heavy thump and I would wring out my clothes. The water spilled from my shirt like a dirty monsoon and I would continue on, several pounds lighter. However tired I became though, I was constantly urged onwards by a swarm of horseflies that stabbed me with their sword-like mouthparts, drawing blood to feed their young. However tired I became I always had enough energy to slap at the irritating flies.

Horsefly with elongated proboscis. Kanuku mountains, Guyana.

Ages passed for the foot weary. I could feel the blisters forming within my sweltering rubber boots. “Do you hear that?” my guide stopped suddenly in front of me. To tell the truth I couldn’t hear anything over my own panting breaths. “Yeah” I say raggedly “What is it?”. “Jordan falls”. I nearly drop down to my knees in relief, at least I think it was relief, though it might have been that I was finally losing my battle with the backpack. We continue on until even I can hear the pounding of the water. Carrying a 77 pound + bag and sweating profusely makes it a little difficult to photograph the slowly passing flora and fauna. Nonetheless I was forced to stop when the guide spotted a beautiful iridescent butterfly by a small stream.

Iridescent blue butterfly (Rethus periander) in a fungal macroscape. Kanuku mountains, Guyana.
Bird’s eye view of iridescent blue butterfly (Rethus periander). Kanuku mountains, Guyana.

After snapping a few shots and guzzling gallons of water I was ready to tackle the final push. I clawed at the steep muddy banks tearing roots free and bending saplings as I used every muscle to propel myself forward. My boots sloshed with the perspiration from my feet, and I shuddered to think of those poor drowned and wrinkled prunes. At last we arrived at camp, I dropped the my bag and I gradually straightened from my bent, grandmotherly posture. I swayed in place lightheaded with elation and the sudden rush of blood from syncope. Tottering down to the falls my guide looked at me concernedly though said nothing, probably chalking up my odd gait to yet another of my eccentricities. It was still light so I was able to get a good look at the falls. They were impressive, made all the more so by the heavy rains which had swelled the falls into a raging torrent.

Jordan falls in high dynamic range (HDR). This is an image composite taken from 3 photographs with bracketed exposures. One lower exposure, on in the middle and one higher. This enables proper exposure of the shady areas as well as the bright ones. However the tone mapping was slightly overdone.

Hot and sweaty I found a spot where the water slowed reasonably to bathe. The water was wonderfully cool and felt my entire body relax, until I slipped on the slick rocks and was starting to be pulled over the falls. I flailed about in the water, being pulled closer and closer to the edge of the falls when I reached out and caught hold of a branch. It was old and it groaned, creaking, trying to support me. I pulled, my muscles weakened from the hike strained still further. But I could feel myself inching closer to safety. The water pounded at me relentlessly, the branch swayed back and forth precariously, threatening at any moment to break free and cast me into the water. I groped blindly forward until I collapsed, naked and weak onto the river bank, coughing up water as I saw the guide look down on me from his spot in the sun, smiling as though he hadn’t witnessed my near drowning. I gave him my best scowl, and forced myself up and back to camp to change and recover.

The following days were spent in recovery, slowly walking the riverbanks searching for any animals I could find.

A caterpillar chrysalis camouflaged as a leaf gall. Leaf galls can be caused by infections or by parasitization of the plant by certain flies and wasps. The gall usually manifests itself as a warty protuberance though it can assume many different forms.
Orange Ctenid spider.
The blue eyes of a dragonfly.
Cenid spider with a green cockroach (Panchlora sp.) hanging from a silken line overhead.

The pickings were fairly slim at the falls and there were limited trails, so after a couple of days I had recovered sufficiently for the hike back. I donned my backpack, lightened of several days of food and fuel and we slugged our way back. Up and down the hills, crossing streams and those slippery rocks. My head was determinedly fixed on my feet, so that I nearly crashed into my guide who had come to a halt. “Wha-” “SHHH” he cut me off shortly. I looked around with my myopic eyes completely bewildered as to what had gotten my guide so excited. He stalked forward, careful to avoid the dry twigs and branches, just the slight rustle of leaves to mark his passage. I followed, my pack suddenly light, buoyed by the adrenaline. That didn’t stop the twigs from snapping under our combined weight though. “What is it?” I ventured again. “Jaguar” he whispered and crept forward. I loosened and dropped my pack, all tiredness forgotten. “Where is it?” He pointed forward and to the right of the trail. “I don’t see anything”. “It looks like a yellow leaf” he said unhelpfully. I strained my eyes but still couldn’t make out anything or more specifically everything looked like a yellow leaf. We slither forward a little closer on our bellies and poke our heads up over a log like twin periscopes. The guide looks about and then stands up, and hunches his shoulders a little looking defeated…”it’s gone” he laments, head down in shame as though it were his fault and he were awaiting punishment.

If this sounds anti-climactic, just imagine actually being there. Covered in leaves, and ants quite literally soiling yourself in anticipation only to be told that your Jaguar is gone, or had been a leaf to begin with. PFFFFFFFFTTTTTTTTTT….that’s the sound of being deflated.

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