In Praise of Guides

In Praise of Guides

Sometimes you just get lucky

No matter how knowledgeable you are, if you are a naturalist and photographer travelling away from home turf, there are few things more important than a good guide with a sound knowledge of the region’s flora and fauna. It is simply invaluable to have someone who understands what you want and knows the best ways and places to increase your chances of success. Over the years I have been very fortunate with my travelling companions but on my trip to Peru in spring of 2017, spending time working with the guys from Rainforest Expeditions in Tambopata, I really won the prize with my guide Uriel Gonzalo.

Inevitably, there is a slightly pensive period when client meets new guide and guide meets new client for the first time. The long suffering guide wondering if he will be saddled with a total pain, the client wondering if the guide is quite the expert they had been hoping for. Uriel must have been doubly anxious, he was going to be stuck with me for weeks!
We were heading for a region of the Amazon I had never visited before and, despite my calm, confident exterior, on the inside, as usual, I felt like a kid in a sweetshop. I’m the first to admit that when it comes to wildlife and new environments, if I have a local guide, I can be like the child in the back seat, who is constantly asking, “Are we nearly there yet?”. With every sound, I find it impossible not to ask, “What’s that over there?” or, “What was that call?” -  “and what about the higher pitched one” etc etc.

Whatever he felt on the inside, Uriel never so much as raised an eyebrow. All my excited questions were met with confident identifications, and you have to bear in mind that I wasn’t pointing at anything for visual IDs, I was asking about sounds and calls. “Russet-Backed Oropendola”, Uriel told me, “Spix’s Guan”, “Paradise Tanager”, “Dusky Titi Monkey”… Birds, frogs, monkeys, it didn’t matter, Uriel seemed to know them all.
Uriel and myself, dwarfed by an enormous Kapok tree
Uriel and myself, dwarfed by an enormous Kapok tree
Russet-backed oropendola
Dusky Titi Monkey
Above: An inquisitive Russet-backed oropendola
Above right: Dusky Titi Monkeys can be fairly noisy members of the jungle community
Below right: Spix’s Guan, like a tree-dwelling, jungle turkey

I confess, to my shame, that even though we were getting along splendidly, by the second day I began to wonder if he was having a laugh at my expense. Many of my questions were met with identifications I had never heard of before and he could just as easily have been telling me that I was listening to the call of the purple-striped jungle unicorn, I wouldn’t have known any different.

The clincher came on day three. We were not far from the lodge and Uriel bent down to take something from his rucksack. Well, I say he was taking something from his bag, the truth is I have no idea what he was actually doing. I just know that he was down on one knee with his bag open in front of him, maybe sobbing quietly into a handkerchief…

Suddenly there was an almighty crash from high up in the trees, as if an overweight monkey was leaping from branch to branch. Barely had the syllable, “Wha…?”, passed my lips when, without even raising his head to look, Uriel shouted, “Leeaaf!” and the next moment, an enormous dead leaf fell from high in the canopy and dropped to the ground a few metres behind us. Suffice to say, I never doubted another word he said.
Spix's Guan

Above: Hawkeye spotting birds amongst the reeds on the oxbow lake.
Inset: A black-capped donacobius amidst the reeds
Left: A mosquito, abdomen swollen with my own blood. At least she had the decency to pose afterwards.

Aside from recognising every sound I picked out, Uriel’s eyesight is as keen as a hawk’s and I was often left wondering whether I needed to make an urgent appointment with an optician. On one occasion in particular, we were walking through dense jungle in conditions that, from a photographic point-of-view can only be described as appalling. It was at the tail end of the rainy season and, one of the least talked about aspects of rainforests, is that after heavy rain, the jungle can carry on dripping for hours. We were wet, sweaty, and it felt as if we were being bitten by every midge and mosquito that had flown in from a twenty mile radius.

Uriel, eyes upward, paused in a gap between two trees, pointed and in a quiet whisper said, “There’s a sloth in the top of that tree.”
I looked in the direction he was pointing and… I could see a tree.
“Where?” I whispered, “I can’t see anything.”
“You see where the branch comes out to the left?” The hushed tones continued.
“Yes, got that.”
“Keep going up, there’s another branch that bends sharply upwards.”
“Yes, I see that.”
“Go straight up about three metres from that bend, it’s in the leaves there.”
I could see a tree.
“I can’t see anything.” I whispered…
Forest Density
Above: It can be extremely difficult to spot wildlife amongst the canopy’s dense tangle of leaves and branches.
Below: A glimpse of sloth fur. All that Uriel had spotted between the leaves.

Uriel, eternally patient, pointed and guided my eyes up through the foliage. Yup, definitely a tree. I said something along the lines of, “Are you having a laugh?” and once again, we visually bounced from point to point, up into the high canopy. Honestly, I could see nothing but leaves and branches. I do wear glasses, but that’s the point, I was wearing them! Having established that I was indeed looking in the right place, We waited a while but there was no movement. I took a photograph of the leaves anyway, the way you do…
I think you’ll get an idea of what I mean, but particularly for the photographers amongst you, the picture here is a tight crop, shot at 560mm on a full frame sensor. That is what Uriel could see from a distance, against the light and high in the canopy. No movement, no face, no limbs, just a trace of fur camouflaged amidst the leaves. By anyone’s standards, that’s seriously impressive.

It is only fair to say that all the Rainforest Expeditions guides are highly skilled and experienced. If they have only half the knowledge and skill demonstrated by Uriel, you really couldn’t ask for more in a travelling companion. So if you ever hear me talking about someone called Hawkeye, you’ll probably know who I mean.