On a Wing and a Prayer: A Journey of Self-discovery on the Trail of Central American Wildlife
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When writer and intrepid traveler Sarah Woods set about discovering the jungles of Central and South America, her quest took her into some of the most remote tangles of vine-knotted jungles on the planet. In Panama's rain-soaked Chiriquí highlands, she navigated seemingly impassable trails with a machete to reach quetzals with resplendent jewel-tone plumage.
Sarah sought the native wisdom of the indigenous Embera, deep in the Darien Jungle, in order to encounter the world's largest and most powerful birds of prey-the elusive harpy eagle. Using razor-sharp talons to hunt and kill sloths and monkeys with deadly precision, these mammoth, winged dinosaurs hide a lesser-known, softer side: devoting great care to raising their young for the first two years of their lives. Seldom seen in the wild, Sarah struggled to demystify the fear-riddled legends and superstitions that earned the harpy eagle its name from early explorers.
Her voyage taught her much about the rich glories and mesmerizing spectacle of the natural world and also its challenges and dangers. She met the albino “moon children” of Kuna Yala, swam in the Panama Canal, encountered left-wing guerrillas at the heart of Colombia's five-decade conflict, and witnessed Amazonian beliefs and customs surrounding shape-shifting and the jungle afterlife. Sarah survived landslides, crash landings, mammoth floods, and culture clashes in mysterious untrodden lands, learning much about aspects of herself from the incredible wildlife and tribal peoples she encountered-arguably her biggest journey.
metres up. This magnificent beast has stood up on its hind legs to full height and dragged its claws down to the ground. ‘A big male,’ Hernan grins. ‘These tracks are fresh, maybe a couple of hours old at the most, and it looks like he has visited this tree numerous times. He’s a regular – and probably still around.’ The airport official tells us, in almost incomprehensible Spanish, that this jaguar moves through the forest like a ghostly shadow, leaving the remains of carcasses in the
enough to allow jaguars, pumas and white-lipped peccaries to pass underneath, we check that the nets are sealed to keep mosquitoes at a distance – essential in this malarial hotspot. Then we rub the ropes with a citrus and diesel mix to help deter red ants, scorpions and spiders; the killer bees and horseflies don’t like this either. Often, I have only just climbed into my hammock when a small, inquisitive furry thing pops up briefly to say hola. Tonight, in the wee small hours, it is a flabby
complete eccentric and seemed blissfully content in her odd little world of mouldy sandwiches, made-up songs, missionary work and nightly episode of Crossroads (a mundane television soap opera renowned for its wobbly sets). During the school holidays we would spend time at Norton Common in the heart of the town, picking blackberries and elderberries, and marvelling at the cuckoo pints and butterflies. We didn’t stay in Letchworth long, so I barely got to know my new classmates before I was
car. Between protruding ears, his small, beady eyes stare out of a tapered head with a long, tubular snout that sniffles in a constant twitch. With thick, bristly fur, he looks good enough to scoop up into my arms – until, that is, he unleashes a powerful musk from his anal glands. It is eye-watering. Rapidly, I move onto another pen containing a rehabilitated hawk that is almost ready for release into the wild after being nursed back to health. It had ingested lead from a carcass, its
utterly captivating, and I have longed to see boto in the wild ever since. Around 200 live in and around the waters of the Amazon’s tri-border region, where the waters are rich in fish. One of the largest established populations is found in Tarapoto Lake, a large, magical expanse of water edged by ficus trees, about nine kilometres west of Puerto Nariño. Steeped in legends relating to a strange green light that glows beneath the night sky, the lake is approached with caution by local fishermen,