Deep into the Parque Nacional Da Amazonia I came face to face with one of the Amazon´s big cats. I had just finished a 12 hour day on the bike. I was trying to make some good distance through some of the most remote part of the jungle on the TransAm. My camp was set up and nightfall was less than 30 minutes away as a thunderstorm was just beginning. Then I heard the punctuated roars.
*After some further research, I most likely saw a Jaguar. Pumas, or cougars, although similar in size, are not part of the big cat family since they cannot technically roar. What I saw that evening could in fact roar.
I started my day on the bike at 5am using my headlamp to guide my way out of Itaituba. As soon as I left the outskirts of the city I slammed straight into mud. It had rained for a few hours the night before and left the road a sticky mess. After almost 1000miles and over 3 weeks of no rain it comes right when I am heading into the jungle.
As the sun came up the road began to dry out to some degree, however all day I hit pockets of heavy clay like mud. I quickly learn that is it impossible to bike in this muck. The tires pick it up and soon jam against the frame. The only option is to carry the bike through the mud and clean it off from the wheels to un-jam them until you can roll again. Definitely a painstaking process.
As I rode there were some nice views of the Tapajos river. Some of the nicest scenery of the trip so far. I entered the jungle reserve after about 5 hours of riding and gave a quick hello to the armed guards. They shook my hand, offered me breakfast, and off I went.
The road gradually narrowed after a few hours. There is work underway to improve and widen this stretch of the TransAm. It once was barely passable by jeep but now sees more regular traffic.
I see butterflies the size of my face, all sorts of birds, and little black monkeys with white streaks down their backs. They were much too fast and agitated to get a picture of however. The ants rule the jungle as far as I´m concerned. They are omnipresent, inescapable, and can permeate any container. Truly frustration creatures.
At the end of the day I found a mosquito infested brown pool to pull some water from for the night. I hope my Steripen works like its supposed to! I set camp up fairly close to the road as the first raindrops start to fall from a thunderstorm closing in. Then I start to hear the explosive huffs ahead of me.
At first I think it might be howler monkeys that sound like lions at dawn and dusk. I am hoping it is just monkeys. I have my umbrella out with my SAT phone in one hand and a sandwich of moldy bread in the other. I´m standing in the road trying to get a clear signal for the phone and ahead of me about 50m is a figure.
At first it looks like a calf with its back higher than my waist. But, this is the middle of the jungle and of course there´s no livestock here. Then my heart sinks. It´s a puma looking directly at me grunting deep repetitive barks.
Here is a sound clip very similar to what I heard:
Click to play: Jaguar Roar
This is different from the more hiss like cougar sound:
Click to play: Cougar
I freeze in the road and just stare at it, he stares at me, then turns broad side and walks into the jungle, the same side my tent is set up on. My thought process was:
- I need to move now
- I can´t go past him, need to go backwards
- I have less than 30 min until dark
- Do I have the time/strength to get out of his territory
- I´m not going to sleep tonight
- My machete isn´t going to protect me
- What are the chances of this actually happening?
By the time I pack up the hammock, throw my sandwich on the ground, and collect my things by the roadside (all the while looking around me in the bush for the cat) I here a glorious sound! A truck is revving its engine up the hill.
I run in front of the truck waving and sputter out in broken Portuguese, “Onça, Onça! Can´t sleep here tonight. Rode my bike, can´t camp. Can I come with you?”
There are three men in the cab of the fuel tanker truck and they quickly get excited as well. The rain has begun and the road will quickly become impassable, leaving us all stuck right there. I throw my bike and myself on top of the truck and we blast off down the road. The rain is getting heavier and heavier, the lighting is flashing blue in the sky, and the truck is sliding all over the road!
After a few minutes of clutching the vent at the top of the fuel container (there is very little securing me atop the tanker truck) I start to think I jumped from the pot and into the fire. One slide into the ditch on the side of the road and I am going to have a fuel truck on top of me. I have to admit though, it was a thrilling ride.
We went a few miles up the road. The driver was very skilled in the mud. On the uphills I was certain we were finally stuck, just sliding side to side and making no forward progress, but he managed it. On the downhills it was like being on an icy slope. The truck would just slide sideways and I could see steep drop off on either side. The men would get out and jam with wheels with logs and metal bars to keep it on the road.
By dark we reached a thatched hut by a wood plank bridge and river. There are 3 other trucks there and two light bulbs run off a gas powered generator. We walk in to the structure enclosed by netting to keep the bugs out and the truckers have a good laugh about my situation.
Evidently this is a work camp for the widening of the TransAm through the reserve. There ends up being almost 15 people in this long hut after a few hours and we all sit at a table and eat rice and whole piranhas boiled in river water. They´re very good but have many little bones.
Everyone sets up their hammock and I get about 7 minutes of sleep that night amongst the loudest snoring and hacking I have heard in my life I think. The rain keeps up all night and I worry about the road conditions the next day.