I have come to the most bio-diverse patch of land on earth, Madidi National Park in Bolivia, in the hope of finding rare birds. I am inspired by a man called Joel Sartore.
The World Conservation Society called this 19,000 square kilometre patch of land stretching from Amazon jungle to Andean peaks one of the most bio-diverse places on earth. More than 1000 of the world’s known bird species live here.
But not all the wildlife is friendly – in his Madidi diary Sartore writes of sandfly bites that turn into deadly infections, wild pigs lurking in the jungle, botfly larvae pulled out of skin, termite infested tents, bat urine falling from the sky and impossible heat.
I expect nothing but the absolute worst.
I arrive at the Madidi Jungle Eco-Lodge on the Tuichi River by canoe at dusk. It’s a comfortable hotspot of wildlife activity where bushwalks are like a trip to the zoo, and the days are punctuated by a four-hour siestas in hammocks.
At night, I am neatly cocooned in a Guantanamo of insect-proofing, with clean sheets and two barriers of fly-screening, plus layers of insect repellent. The candlelight is a sepia-toned nod to the old days of jungle exploration. Within minutes of arriving a small bite and a bit of redness turns into a blister.
My guide for the next five days is Alejandro, 50, from the Sao Jose de Uchupiamonas community upriver. I ask him whether my blister is dangerous, hoping for an emergency, and three guides gather around my stricken finger and shine torches on it, tutting. It’s a joke to them.
“It’s not good,” says Alejandro with a mock-serious shake of the head. Their recommendation is to pop it with the spine of a lime tree. Instead I fall asleep in my fly-screen box listening to the calls of jungle insects, thinking that life here is overwhelming in abundance.
My blister is growing. I hear the jungle animals calling. They sound like wooden blocks hitting each other (a woodpecker), beeping (a poisonous frog), sprinklers (cicadas), and ascending tones (an oropendola).
I spend the day exploring the park with Alejandro. Soon a pair of macaws squawk and fly over the top canopy. Then I hear the crash of large, black spider monkeys looking for fruit.
On the ground we have seen fresh tracks from tapirs, armadillos, wild pigs, a puma (possibly tracking the pigs) and the giant rodent capybara. In the trees we have seen toucans, toucanets, parakeets. Alejandro gets excited. “Monkeys. I can smell them,” he says.
From the canopy a polygamous family unit of howler monkeys stares down at us.
On the way back it is dark and we find a night monkey in the trees close to base camp. My blister has now quadrupled in size, and my group-mate Kristi has been bitten by an ant; redness has started to spread like a rash.
It’s 7am and Alejandro is awake. He wants me to come into the jungle and shows me a tamarin monkey, separated from its group and calling with a high-pitched squeak.
It moves along the middle strata of the forest below the canopy and we track it through the jungle. At times it is only a few metres away from me.
Later Alejandro tells me he has been discussing my blister and thinks it might have been a “stinkybug” that has urinated under my skin. It’s still no better.
Over lunch I quiz Alejandro about the threats to the park, he is not concerned about the hydroelectric scheme that would flood the valley because it has been discussed over and over, but it has never been built.
“We have a law protecting (our interests in) this park,” he tells me.
A greater threat is oil and gas exploration that is getting closer to Madidi, and it is nearly at its border, he says.
We find a lime tree spine and prick the blister, and it oozes.
Time is running out to get a decent tropical illness, but today could be the day. My blister has refilled and been drained three times since we popped it, but it still hasn’t settled down.
Alejandro and I take the boat to a raised platform over a salt lick. Eagles are spotted on the way. The platform reminds me of Joel Sartore and his hot three day wait for pigs on a similar platform, having his skin impregnated with botfly larvae and being urinated on by those bats. We are luckier. Pigs surround us.
Alejandro tells me a story of being swarmed by a pack of 100 pigs, dangerous numbers, but he stood his ground and defended himself with a machete while his guest climbed a tree.
In the afternoon we are lazing in hammocks and I am watching a hummingbird as the sounds and smells of peccaries invades my bliss. Pigs are swarming the back of the kitchen, eating food scraps. They come right up to us, not scared when food is on offer.
This afternoon we don gumboots and walk through possibly-malarial mud ponds to see some truly gigantic trees. The tree bases remind me of elephant faces.
As we trudge through the mud I am thinking about getting trench-foot and Alejandro stops to pick a few sticks of a black-skinned fungus that he says will cure an ear infection. It’s almost a shame I don’t have an ear infection – but there are some dark patches of skin appearing on my hands. I monitor these closely.
We are covering old ground to see the monkeys again. As we start to walk Alejandro stops dead and listens to jungle noises. “Toucan, toucan!” he whispers and he is off into the forest again.
I follow and see two white-throated toucans eating fruit at the top of a ficus tree. There are five in all, but two visible.
Alejandro stops on the trail, then leaps into the forest to shave bark off a tree. He emerges with a long strip of yellow wood, which he says is useful for treating stomach trouble. What about blisters?
Soon it is time to return to base camp, and then on to civilisation. The dappled light and tranquil order of the Amazon is replaced with the dusty roads, harsh sunlight, motorbikes and music of South America.
And the blister? It heals. And I almost miss it.
Dan Moss is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist travelling in South America.