Last night we sat in the Bahuaja lodge drinking Peruvian lager listening to tales of tourists who had been dragged into the water by anacondas, never to be seen again; and of lonely trekkers being stalked by jaguars.
Having little knowledge of this environment, I became alarmed at the idea of tarantulas hiding in the wooden shack that was our toilet. It seemed bad enough that the lodge’s adopted ‘pet’ Paca, cute guinea pig-like face or not, had taken to trampling on my clean shirt and used it for a litter tray.
Carlos, the local medicine man’s son, had interrupted with news of a jaguar in the area. With booze-encouraged excitement, we followed him down to the muddy bank of the river where he began to “call” the beast to our camp. The strange grunt-like noises made us giggle and even Carlos laughed in the end. It was fun, a game even, but now, as I sweated in the mid-morning heat alone, it was a different story.
The Singing-Tree Trail seemed to narrow and become a suffocating throw of shade and humidity. The hum of the cicadas became a shrill shriek: a soprano to the painful beat of my heart.
A grunt echoed around the tightly knitted trees but I couldn’t pinpoint where it came from. I clenched my jaws, my hands already tight balls by my side. I was beginning to regret the decision to come out on my own to photograph a termites’ nest I’d spotted on a previous hike.
Another grunt: definitely to the left. A huge buttress root, at least fourteen foot across, was in my direct line of sight.
I swallowed back a whimper. Despite the heat pulling beads of sweat from my forehead, a cold shiver swept down my spine. That grunt was just like Carlos’s imitation last night: a jaguar.
I forced myself to remember the instructions we had discussed: what to do when face-to-face with a jaguar. One thought came to mind: If I run, it’ll think I’m prey.
But there was no need to stop myself from running; my feet had become cemented on the earth, unwilling and too weak, it seemed, to move for anything.
I remembered someone had said: if you see a jaguar and are in danger, scream at it so that it doesn’t think you’re prey.
Right, I nodded to myself, business-like to cover my fear, if it looks like it’s going to eat me: scream, wave my arms around and look like a complete idiot. Reason told me that screaming at a dangerous creature was not a good idea, and I tried to remember whether it was someone experienced who had recommended it. Besides, I couldn’t help but think that if I did see a jaguar leaping out of the forest with my jugular in its sights, the screaming part would come naturally anyway.
The seconds trickled past and the emptiness of panic was drifting away, I could think more clearly. If it’s grunting, it can’t be hunting, right? I felt the tenseness ease from my shoulders. My hand tightened around my camera as I realised that this could be one of those rare opportunities to take a photograph to be proud of, but the stories from last night made me hesitate.
I took a step backwards. My foot caught. A root? I closed my eyes tight as I felt the brush of fur against my trousers. There was a shrill shriek. Was that me, I wondered, as I waited for the inevitable agony of teeth sinking into my thigh. Wait, I didn’t scream. A low gasp escaped my lungs, catching in my throat.
I looked around. The paca’s dark brown eyes stared innocently back.
‘Sassy!’ I said between rapid breaths. The sudden release of tension made my head feel helium-light. ‘You little…’ It hadn’t been the first time she had followed me into the forest.
I reached down and ruffled her fur; I felt a fool.
‘Come on you,’ I said, as I picked her up, ‘I think we’ve had enough adventure for today, don’t you?’ I giggled to myself as I walked back down the path.
An hour later I wasn’t so amused. An afternoon trail-hike with the rest of the group had led us down the same trail and there, not far from where I had been standing, was a paw print in the mud. It could only have belonged to one animal, and that wasn’t the paca.
Afterwards, I was annoyed at believing tall-tales and for not trying to get the shot of a lifetime; the photograph I kept of the paw print was just not the same.
I made sure I found out what I should do when face-to-face with a jaguar, but never went into the forest alone again.
(NB: This was an article I wrote for a nature-writing competition a couple of years ago).