In Search of Anacondas

9:17 PM

I was three weeks into my self-propelled trek through the Peruvian Amazon when I first felt the real possibility of seeing one of the world’s true super predators.  I say self-propelled because I’ve always been of the mindset that to experience the world one must try to keep things as uncomplicated as possible, and so I love to just drop myself into a situation and enjoy the experience of figuring things out as I go.  This is what I did in the Amazon: five weeks of nearly complete solitude as far from any civilization as possible.  It tests one’s self in so many ways, but the richness added to one’s life is invaluable.

I was in the Madre de Dios region, about four hours upriver from Puerto Maldonado.  My beard was mighty, and the paltry five t-shirts I packed to last me over 30 days in 30°C heat and 100% humidity had long ago revealed themselves to be a bad idea (maybe I should have brought six or seven?).  Fortunately, the animal I was in search of is unlikely to be put off by my scent.  I was one with the jungle.

It was on the first day in the new location that I met a local Peruvian, Pluma (the ‘feather’ reference was apparently an homage to his slender frame; however, I assumed, that must have been a long time ago).  Pluma told me that there was a palm swamp about an hour or two from where I made my home base, and that in this swamp there is likely to be a Green Anaconda.  Just the words got me excited.  The knowledge that I was in the vicinity of such an admired animal from my childhood was positively euphoric.  My mind soared on wings that was, in hindsight, perhaps partly due to my brain’s dehydration.  What I knew then was that I had a real chance at realizing a dream—and that alone is nearly as powerful as succeeding.  I let myself enjoy the hope, as I am well aware of (and experienced with) the extreme unlikelihood of finding anything you set out to see.  But that’s often the prize, so long as you know how to appreciate the things along the way.

I made it a mission to visit the swamp as often as possible.  I didn’t want to make this my only goal, or even a dominant part of my life at the time, as it is impossible to not feel a sense of failure if things do not go as hoped.  However, one sure way to not see a Green Anaconda is to not look for it, and so I made the very long trek through the jungle nearly every other day for the first two weeks.  The hike can be fairly short or especially long, depending on how distracted I get.  (I’m the type to flutter along after a butterfly for what seems to me like seconds, only to eventually realize the significantly displaced hands of my watch are telling a different story.)

The swamp is small, about the area of a football field.  The hardest part about getting there is the last bit of the hike, as it requires a fairly significant change in elevation: a steep descent and seemingly steeper ascent.  A brutal climb when you factor in the heat and humidity.  When I first arrived at this hallowed ground, I saw that there was a dugout canoe and carved paddle.  The canoe was almost completely submerged and the waterlogged paddle weighed about 15 kg.  (I am still not sure why there is a canoe down there, but it would serve me well.)  I readied my bailing hands (by cupping them together!) and set to work on extricating what turned out to be a few hundred handfuls of water.  With my (leaking) canoe ready, I shoved off into the swamp ready to see the fabled creature.  I spent all day paddling around the perimeter of the swamp.  I stayed standing the whole time (like a Venetian gondolier) to provide for a better, albeit incredibly dangerous, vantage point, since I was mainly looking deep into the floating vegetation mats that littered the perimeter of the swamp.  I am a herpetologist by training, and a reptile expert by experience, so I was using all of my intuition to deduce when and where the snakes would make themselves visible.

My mind was playing tricks on me on that first day (again, I’m pretty sure I was always dehydrated).  On numerous occasions, I was absolutely convinced I was approaching an anaconda.  Just the way the grass seemed to bend in distant vegetation mats, yielding to the great bulk of these creatures.  But every time I approached what my mind had convinced me would be a sure thing, it would turn out be nothing at all (though, the depressions had to be caused by something, which of course only caused me to let those dreaded expectations get to a dangerously high level).  I struck out on that first day.  I struck out on the second day.

And so it went for two weeks.  Until that truly magical day when one of those grass depressions contained not a mirage constructed from hope and fatigue, but a six-metre-long female Green Anaconda (for those in the know, they don’t get much bigger than this, despite all those common misconceptions out there).  She was far into the vegetation.  I could only just catch a glimpse of her slowly gliding through the water and grass until she was out of sight.  I was elated.  I nearly choked on every breath as I sat there reflecting on what had just happened.  I was fully intending to hold onto that image in my mind as one of my life’s most prized moments—something that could never be taken away from me.  I worried that to go back to the swamp and look again on another day would somehow take something away from what I had just experienced.  So, even though I had a few days left in the Amazon, I resolved to not return to the palm swamp.  That resolve lasted all of 24 hours... 

Green Anaconda skin, Photo by: Ryan Bolton
- Ryan Bolton

Stay tuned for Part: 2, the conclusion of "In Search of Anacondas" which will be posted shortly.

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  1. wow... I can imagine what it must have felt like! totally jealous....


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