Pretty in pink

MARGARET TURTON
Last updated 11:43 25/07/2013
Amazon_Landscape
Margaret Turton

AMAZON RIVER: Giant water lilies on the river.

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Dolphins, pink and grey, inhabit the lakes and slow-moving tributaries of the Peruvian Amazon.

We encounter them when we slip into a safe swimming spot within Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a 2 million-hectare flooded forest that can be accessed only by private boat, in our case aboard the small river cruise vessel Delfin I.

We venture deeper by aluminium skiff, dive into the water and, as if on cue, pink dolphins appear and perform a water ballet. Some are pink and some are grey. Of course, the pink ones really raise the wow-factor.

The reserve lies between the Maranon and Ucayali rivers in Peru. On our four-night cruise we'll see these major tributaries merge to form the Amazon.

We'll engage with nature and meet the remote riverside communities whose livelihoods remain directly linked to these waterways' resources.

The tributaries, lagoons and lakes here all teem with marine life. Thousands of species have been recorded and more are identified every year. The same goes for the plants and wildlife.

Our transport, the 21-metre Delfin I, was built in the 1980s and refurbished in 2010 by a Peruvian couple who fell in love with the Amazon and wanted to become involved with the region.

Delfin I is rather exclusive. It carries just eight passengers in comfort and luxury, concepts that hadn't really figured in my expectation of an Amazon adventure.

The ship has four massive suites, each with an oversize balcony, beautiful bathroom and stylish fittings. Deluxe suites are 34 square metres, while master suites are hardly less impressive at 32 square metres.

A second vessel, the 37-metre Delfin II, built in 2009, carries 28 passengers: eight in the vessel's four 22-square-metre master suites and 20 in smaller, 20-square-metre suites, some of which are interconnected for families.

We board Delfin I in Nauta, having been escorted 100 kilometres by road from the regional capital, Iquitos. Remoteness is a highlight of this river cruise. Iquitos, a former rubber boom town, must have been very fine in its day. Nauta, a tiny riverside town, underscores the fact we are leaving the chaos of the Western world and sailing into pristine territory.

There are kayaks on board but most days we take excursions in skiffs. Our guides know every inch of these waters and we slip deep into the jungle via streams and small lagoons.

We see orchids and bromeliads flourishing in their natural environment. And fish.

Sometimes thousands of small ones, their rapid movements creating the impression of rain on what was previously the mirror-like surface of a backwater stream. On night safaris, catfish wriggle like a moving carpet, just beneath the surface of the water.

There is noise, too. A rustle in a tree can signal an ear-cracking row among squirrel monkeys. Their screeches shatter the tranquillity and scatter the birdlife. Macaws soar above.

Peru's indigenous people sometimes fish these backwater streams but village life takes place on broader waterways, such as the Zapote River. During our journey the crew will buy fish, vegetables, fruit and rice from the river folk.

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Free-range chicken and meat has been purchased in Iquitos.

Our vessel has a first-class chef who transforms produce into beautifully presented meals combining colours, textures and tastes. One would think we were dining in Peru's great capital, Lima, such is the quality of the cuisine and the style of the dining room, with fine china and crystal ware. There is also the novelty of dining in a jungle environment.

One morning we have an exquisite breakfast of local fruits and freshly baked bread rolls made from yucca and sweet potato that are sliced, dried in the oven, crushed to the consistency of flour and made into dough.

The fact we eat this while in skiffs, surrounded by water hyacinths, raises the level of enjoyment even higher. That, and the lagoon filled with giant water lilies we have glided through.

I had not seen Victoria amazonica growing in its natural environment before. We drift among the dark green pads in search of lilies and are overjoyed when we find them blooming.

Some guests are equally passionate about the birds - toucans, white-winged swallows, egrets, wattled jacanas and striated herons.

The other wildlife draws me in quickly: red howler monkeys; monk saki monkeys, their faces hooded by a thick band of fur; the spectacled caiman, a crocodilian reptile that's common hereabouts; and the three-toed sloths hanging languidly from overhead branches.

We fail to see the paiche, a freshwater fish that grows up to four metres long. We do, however, see piranhas - there are 25 species recorded so far - but our guide wrecks their reputation as ferocious carnivores, insisting that here they like nothing better than to feast on fallen forest fruit.

There's something very special about exploring the upper reaches of a great tropical river. And, when its two major tributaries merge, this fast-flowing water presents another spectacle as the Amazon is born, gathers its own force and dashes off towards Brazil.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION delfinamazoncruises.com; peru.travel

 

CRUISING THERE Adventure World has a three-night Delfin Amazon river cruises. Check the website for prices; includes airport transfers,  a suite with private facilities, meals and guided excursions. Complimentary river kayaks are available on board. adventureworld.co.nz.

AMAZON TWO WAYS

IN THE WATER

The pink dolphin is an ancient river whale. Sightings are a definite highlight of a cruise in the Peruvian Amazon (see picture on opposite page). No one really knows why these dolphins have such unusual hues. Water temperature and level of activity are among the theories, and scientists believe increased blood flow close to the skin may contribute to the distinctive pink flush.

AND ON LAND

Village life is very simple in this part of Peru. Families live in small houses made of materials gathered from the forest. They earn a living from hunting and gathering, fishing and small-scale agriculture. Our world and theirs meet on the Zapote River, where goods are exchanged. It is a privilege to meet these gentle river folk.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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