Into The Wild


Image by: Katherine Griffiths Photography

Hundreds of dragonflies dart haphazardly around me, fracturing the silvery pink light. They snatch at small clouds of gnats and unsuspecting mosquitoes as afternoon turns to evening. The humidity slowly drops. Standing in the ‘open window’ that is my bedroom wall, I witness the sounds of larger forest life quieten and the smaller insect world increase in crescendo.

I can hear distant laughter and the tinkling of glasses. The sweat on my arms and face dries as the air cools. It’s now the twilight. The dragonflies feed with less abandonment, the forest with her large palm fronds and the vines near to me, morph into one giant silhouette against a now blue-black night sky. The last of the light disappears and standing in the dark I reflect on what an amazing place I’ve landed in.

I’m in Tambopata National Park in the South East of Peru with the award-winning ecotourism outfit – Rainforest Expeditions. I’m here to experience the Amazon, to search for the elusive Jaguar, Anacondas, the very rare Giant River Otter and the Harpy Eagle. These four species are considered, by my guide Aldo, as the top four endangered predatory creatures in the area.

Squinting at the glow of my watch I realise I’ve almost missed sundowners at the lodge bar. With the smell of dinner in the air I grab a torch, stroll the walkways to the main hub of ‘Refugio’ (the lodge) and find some of the guides and other guests already at the bar, tucking into Pisco Sours and discussing the coming days’ activities.

Refugio Lodge
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography


Lodge walkways.
Image by Kate Walker

The perfect spot to while away the afternoon hours…
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

His incredible ear for faun calls and eye for the tiniest of movements sees me witnessing Saddle-back Tamarinds for the first time, different species of Tucan, teasing Chicken Tarantulas out of their ground burrows (this is not for the faint-hearted) and learning about the stranger of beasts (Screaming Pijas and Hoatzins to name a couple) in this huge conservation area.  We pass Walking Trees, Strangler Figs and Kapoks – the incredible and majestic trees that inspired James Cameron in the making of the film ‘Avatar’.Life, in this part of the world, is at its busiest early in the day; I’m up each day at around 06:00am to the awakening calls of Howler Monkeys and within the hour, walking the forest trails with a belly full of breakfast and in the footsteps of Aldo.

Chicken tarantula
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Tambopata NP really is a special place. It has one of very few Macaw research/conservation and protection centres in all of South America and along with Colombia it is ranked the top spot for bird watching in South America.

Tambopata lies within the larger region of Madre de Dios (Mother of God) where 52 per cent of the forests are protected by the government. Of the 120 ‘world climates’, 80 can be found in this setting and wider Peru. This nook in the world is all about halting development and promoting conservation – it’s fantastic to see.

One of many forest trails..
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Perched silently in a hide overlooking the clicks, I watched vibrant yellow, red and blue Scarlet Macaws socialise and parakeets group together in their tens. Bird enthusiasts can sit glued to telescopes and high-tech binoculars for hours, so if you’re all about the avian world – this is the place to be.Traipsing the forest trails and crushing dry vegetation underfoot is not conducive to glimpsing some of the more shy fauna in the region. So this is where the Clay Licks come in handy. A Clay Lick is an area, usually on the edges of a riverbank, where creatures great and small gather around exposed soil and eat the nutrient-rich clay to assist in their digestion of fruits and other vegetation. Some also believe it’s a place where Tambopata’s 1,800 species of bird come to socialise. And, Tambopata is home to the largest ‘Clay Lick’ in the world.

All you need it a cold beer and a spot to perch.
Image by Kate Walker

Afternoons saw me scaling canopy towers allowing a peak at the expanse of green I’d been moving under for days. By night there’s the opportunity to go Caiman spotting – these creatures that grow up to two meters long are far more active at night. And if the reptiles are proving difficult to hunt out then a boat ride with your head hung over the side is just as good – the stars and clarity of night sky in this corner of the planet is incredible.

Fading light on a sandy bank.
Image by Kate Walker

Sadly, I never got to see any of the mentioned top predators but I saw a huge array of other wonderful species and I’m far richer for the exposure. Refugio’s guides and staff make the experience; the lodge is an oasis of comforts in what is a wild, remote part of the world.


Crèche days with UMPMRS …14Jun12 – 26Jun12

Our yellow home in Roupa Suja
Image by: Kate Walker

From our yellow house – boasting a trio of marmosets, mango trees and sweeping views; it’s a three minutes trot down the slick paths of Roupa Suja (meaning Dirty Washing) to the day care centre.  We never quite break the three minute record as 07:50am sees humanity on the move. Kathy and I break out into ‘Ois’, ‘Olas’ ‘Bom Gias’ and an array of other colourful and probably incorrectly remembered phrases  as we skirt the edges of our path, backs pressed to crumbling walls, to allow workmen to pass. Mothers with troops of kids (some theirs and some tag-alongs) stream up and down and dogs barrage past – a few happy at the new day and new folk to greet, and some intent on a point beyond us.

Music sweeps out of houses and down the warren of streets from early in the morning to the close of night. Neighbours compete for volume and we have grown used to the sounds of Favela Funk intermingled with Adele and sometimes a little Flo Rida. Kathy (or Faffy – as my mother calls her) has on occasion sung along to the lyrics of Adele and passing kids smile and shout ‘gringa’. It’s getting easier to hear.

Morning walk to the day care centre
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Five or so minutes later and we’re ascending the front steps of the day care centre and into a kitchen smelling of freshly baked pão (bread), bubbling fejioã (black beans) and boiling coffee beans. The coffee is the strangest brew I’ve tasted and I’ve only managed to sip half a plastic cup. By day two, Kathy and I figured we’d do better to sort breakfast at our yellow pad. We now have a routine of papaya, banana, apple, yoghurt and soya mango juice (yes –  a strange carton we thought we’d give a go) before starting our descent to the centre.

Weekdays by 08:00am and most babies, toddlers and up-to-five-year-olds have been deposited. Kathy spends her day mingling with the one to two year olds in classrooms well equipped with age-old toys, books, mini furniture and tiny nap mattresses. She’s an exhausted heap by the time I see her for our lunch at 11:30 – always beans and rice with occasionally some Frango (chicken) or veg on the side. Her hours are spent dancing, jumping, feeding, colouring and attempting to maintain peace and order along with two other local crèche ladies.

Kathy´s creche group
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Me – I’m up the top with the babies. Five to 18 month olds. Mornings kick off on the floor with up to nine bubs crawling and tottering to loud Brazilian baby music tapes. We clap, gurgle and bounce for hours with my role mainly being the master of proper toy distribution so that no rowdy fights ensue. There’s a lot of nose wiping to be done and the two other women I work with (Tynara and Mynova) sort all nappy cleaning and bathing of the little ones.  Windows are flung wide, we get a terrific breeze through what would otherwise be a furnace box, and mozzies are near to none. A massive relief, as we often hear the locals talking about Dengue. Dengue, it turns out is the same word in Portuguese.

Baby Luna
Image by: Kate Walker

The wee ones – Moises & Isabelly
Image by: Kate Walker

Twin Ana Larah & Moinova
Image by: Kate Walker

Very few of the adults dropping and picking up the babies are older than 25. Tynara herself is 19 and already has two children. The first when she was 14…

I’ve since learnt from Alessandra – our go-to lady should we ever have a serious issue, that the majority of mothers in Rocinha are not married and simply have children with multiple partners.  Their children’s names are tattooed to the underneath of their forearms. There are a multitude of what I think are young girls walking the streets of Rocinha with tattooed arms…

Sitting on a tree stump in the sun is my favourite spot for lunch. And it’s a long lunch while all bodies under the age of five sleep for three hours. The centre is quiet, the ladies chat and laugh amongst themselves quietly and Kathy and I are content to sit and watch on in post rice/bean haze.

Nap time
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Afternoons from 14:00pm are optional. We can carry on with entertaining and generally being involved or we have the choice to say ‘ciao’ and ‘até mais’ (see you…) until the following morning.

So, some afternoons Kathy and I stay on until 16:00pm when young moms and dads or grandparents come to collect their children; and on other days we head into the bedlam of Rocinha and explore juice bars (ah there we go, as I type Adele’s Someone Like You is pumping out), pastry stalls, the few internet joints that there are and shop for our soya mango juice, bananas, apples and yoghurt…

Evening streets of Rocinha
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Hello Lapa…

Taking the corner at what was probably close to 60km/hr, our lunatic bus driver managed to just keep all four wheels on the ground. With windows wide open and winds whipping our hair straight back Kathy and I were in hysterical laughter. And we were the lucky ones – seated. Others, standing, grasped at anything within reach (often each other). The pay-your-money-to-the -woman-in-the-corner had a vice-like grip on her turnstile and anyone preparing to dismount stood wedged in anticipation of coming to a screaming halt. What the..? Where’s Keanu Reeves when you need him?!

For the last 30 minutes our bus had be crawling in terrible traffic and the driver must have spotted a gap. There was no question he wasn’t going to take it. Holy cow – Lonely Planet’s description of Rio’s bus drivers being “raving maniacs” is spot on. Many of them open the doors and continue to drive slowly along the side of the pavement while one is required to simply take a leap of faith. Then, there’s no waiting for formalities, asking directions or closing the purse strings. The bus is off and more often than not folk are hurled through the turnstile and near-trussed up alongside all those others lucky enough to make it on board.

Still giggling, some 15 minutes later, and having spotted the right signs; Kathy and I made the undignified leap off our wild Friday night ride and onto the streets of Lapa. What a fabulous place.

Without a map or any previous knowledge of the area we simply walked. People were out and about in their hundreds and the numbers continued to grow with each passing hour.  Pavement bars sprung up, roller doors opened to reveal samba clubs within, Capoeira ensembles appeared under walkways and in amongst market vendors – the place was pulsing. With crowds swelling so to was the number of pick pockets. Kathy was frisked three times but was quick enough to confront the culprit. No loss of belongings.

Sitting in one of the largest outdoor bar crowds I’ve seen in a long time, we sipped Caipirinhas, picked at olives, Brazilian salami, pão (bread) and people watched the hours away. Music pulsed from all surrounding bars, parking lots, street set-ups and windows. What mayhem, but it felt real. Young and old danced singularly as well as together, cachaça (a high-proof sugar cane spirit, pronounced ka-sha-sah) bottles appeared and shots sold for silly money.

Exhausted, Kathy and I decided to make this an explorative night. We’d come back to Lapa and get fully involved. But for now, weaving through throngs of locals and tourists alike, we needed to spot a bus and prepare for the light-speed ride home.

The first 30 hours – the cidade maravilhosa: 13Jun12 – …..

With (what looked like) a wing-tip skimming the sides of Pão de Açúcar – iconic ‘Sugar Loaf’ mountain and a sunset just kicking in; Iberia flight 6025 touched down in a light lilac haze. I had arrived in the ‘marvellous city’ known as Rio.

With a backpack I’m not used to hoisting around and pacing it out of customs a little heavy footed, I was met by a carioca – a local Rio resident; kindly alleviated of weight and transferred to Copacabana for the night. After managing to un-wedge myself and pack from the bedroom door frame of Che Lagarto Suites, it was a cold shower and an early night to bed, for me, with air-con purring.

Kathy – Ross’ other half/artistic photographer/lover of all things purple and cats…and my travel partner; tapped on my door early morning of day two. Managing to backpack-jump, jig and tap-dance her excitement to me at having arrived (finally?) she had a story to tell….

On leaving London Heathrow Kathy was to discover her Brazilian visa had already activated and she was down by a handful of days. And not only this, but her cabin luggage (camera equipment) was tipping the industrial scales at triple the allowed kgs. With brimming eyes and persuasion only Kathy can pull off – she actually made it onto the plane and with all her belongings in tow.

It doesn’t stop there… On arrival into Rio, the dear soul stood for an hour at her baggage carousel and collected nothing. Mr baggage-delivery-man eventually popped up and indicated she was waiting at the wrong delivery belt. A single backpack was circling close by – Kathy’s.

09:00 saw us fed on super sugary cereal and now teetering under the weight of packs but at least out of the barbed-wire confines of ‘the suites’ and onto Rocinha (pronounced Ho-seen-ya) – home for the next two-ish weeks.

Rocinha – Latin America´s largest favela
Image by: Kate Walker

Rocinha is Latin America’s largest favela (shanty town) and apparently also the world’s largest slum area. Somewhat apprehensive, we were deposited onto the side of one highway under a limelight screaming ‘gringas who have no idea where they are and don’t speak the language’ and, thank heavens, after some skimming of the crowd we spotted a waving fellow gringa. Danielle, as it turns out, works for an NGO in the favela as an English teacher and she’d heard of our imminent arrival and felt we might need a hand embracing our new neighbourhood.

Rocinha – the view from our rooftop
Image by: Kate Walker

Horrified at Kathy’s triple kgs and the pack looming above my lofty 5f 3.5’’ frame, Danielle scouted two muscular cariocas to assist with the carrying. And there we were….striding up and into Rocinha’s bulging slopes. Ascending super narrow streets, well, really they’re half meter wide slabs of concrete/dirt/water-piped/pooped/slick/crumbling patches/bridges of space in flimsy slops; is a fine art. Even Brazilian branded Havaianas are questionable in their protection of my feet and one must be quick footed in order to dodge kids barrelling up and down with balls, folk moving ‘stuff’ across backs and rogue, balding dogs – as much residents as anyone else and not pets!

Roupa Suja – our neighbourhood in Rocinha
Image by: Kate Walker

Gracious, are we really doing this?

Passing shacks and throw-to homes, the thought of what our abode might be like was a little alarming. Arriving half way up, or perhaps 10 minutes into our ascent – actually I have no idea as orientation isn’t possible; we were met by Paolo and a spacious triple storey house. Basic, but an actual house with roof top patio and views to rival all postcard shots you’ve ever seen of Rocinha.

Our humble Roupa Suja abode
Image by: Kate Walker

Our home security wall
Image by: Kate Walker

The bright yellows, reds, greens and pinks across the way reminded me in some way of the vibrant Cape-Malay quarter in Cape Town and the Italy’s higgledy-piggledy and multi-coloured Cinque Terra.

Neighbourhood rooftops
Image by: Kate Walker

Unpacking and gawking at our situation could wait though, as our main reason for being here is to voluntarily work with “Union of Women for the Betterment of Roupa Suja” (UMPMRS) –  a community run (just 12 ladies), non-governmental, not for profit organization located in the neighbourhood of Roupa Suja. Roupa Suja is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Rocinha.

UMPMRS’s mission is to improve the quality of life for the children and families living in the community and the little Kathy and I would be offering – playing with and entertaining up to 50 little ones at a day care centre.

Day Care centre play equipment along with reconstruction materials
Image by: Kate Walker

Having led a super organised six and a half year career at STA Travel and with negotiation and communication being pivotal to my role; I naively climbed the steps to the day care centre believing there might be a sort of welcome pack or few points on what to expect and how our days would follow (and hopefully in English).

Nope. It was literally the deep end of anything I’ve ever experienced before and boy did we jump in. The rest of our day was spent corralling three to five year olds, breaking up biting matches, collecting what little toys they had and assisting with mini lunches, afternoon showers and naps. And, all of this achieved with our dignities and Havaianas flung aside, miming and gesticulating our way through the language barrier.

Evening found us slip-sliding our way back down Roupa Suja (heavens, it looks even more unfamiliar going the other way and in the half-light) being led to local supermarkets, fresh legume stalls, crowded spots which signified a multitude of bus stops and given a minute, ground level orientation of Rocinha.

Running across roads, dodging motorbike taxis (honestly, they’re like hornets on cocaine) and generally trying to stay abreast of the humanity here – it’s a lot to take on board.

After a few near motorbike hits (…there are no driving lanes or street rules) Kathy and I made the executive decision to recuperate from the safety of a street bar. With Caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail) in hand, our evening drifted to the sounds of funk, samba, ‘hornets’, street vendors and we watched beautiful, proud and smiling locals come and go all night.

Are we really doing this? Indeed, we are.