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Virtual Walk Ecuadorian Adventure

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’, this week the team are back visiting Ecuador.

It was my last day of a two week birding trip to northwest Ecuador. With my guide Dusan and our driver Rolando we transferred to Macquipucuna Lodge which lies in the cloud forest near Quito. Here we met a local guide Arsenio, who was attached to the lodge. He told us that a couple of weeks ago there had been spectacled bears feeding on fruits in the surrounding cloud forest trees, but he thought they had gone now.

We told him that we would still like to look for them. Although Arsenio was pessimistic he agreed to give it a go. Very early the next morning we met Arsenio and Rolando drove us on a rough dirt road high into the cloud forest where we could look down over the tops of huge trees that ran for miles away into a deep valley. We left the vehicle and decided to walk down the road for a while looking for birds.

I wandered down the road with Arsenio, while Dusan was some way back and Rolando was guarding his vehicle. Arsenio stopped and said he could hear a branch cracking. I listened and he was right. The sound was coming from deep down in the valley. Arsenio became excited and told me it was a bear making the noise. Definitely. I scanned the treetops with my binoculars and could see the bear high in a tree feeding on fruits.

Arsenio told me to wait and he would go and investigate, which meant he had to fight his way down an almost vertical slope, consisting of a thick bed of slippery wet leaves and mud with a tangle of vines, leaves, branches, roots and tree trunks of varying size to further impede his progress. He disappeared over the edge. Fifteen minutes later he was back, showing great excitement, sweating in the humidity, hair plastered to his scalp and bits of leaf stuck in his clothing.

“BEAR! BEAR! There’s a bear up a tree down the slope. Come! Come! Come quickly!”

I yelled to Dusan, ‘BEAR!’

Dusan yelled to the distant Ronaldo, ‘BEAR!’

He misunderstood and came running.‘Noooooo!’ we cried in unison. ‘ Our cameras – they are in the pickup’.

“BEAR! BEAR! There’s a bear up a tree down the slope. Come! Come! Come quickly!”

Rolando sprinted back to the vehicle and drove it fast down the road stopping just short of us. We grabbed our cameras from the pickup and the three of us followed Arsenio over the edge of the ravine.

I had no idea what I had let myself in for but was prepared to risk all to see the bear. Virgin tropical cloud forest, unsullied by any human footprint for years, stood between me and a bear and it was a daunting prospect. I tried to follow Arsenio but he was already out of sight going downwards at speed, enveloped and hidden by the dense foliage and tangle of vines and branches. The barely discernible path he had made plunged downwards at a dizzying angle. The ground was wet and slippery, a treacherous trap of tangled roots and wet leaves.

Inevitably I lost my footing and crashed to the ground bruising my back. That hurt but there was no time to lose. Rolando took my camera so my balance was restored and I had two hands to steady myself. We plunged downwards, our faces and bodies whipped by twigs, branches and strap like leaves. A thorn inches long missed my face by a fraction. I could hear Arsenio crashing down through the jungle but he was completely out of sight in the all-encompassing vegetation. I was slowing as my body rebelled at the ordeal I was inflicting on it.

Dusan diplomatically suggested he go in front and I follow in his footsteps as it would be easier for me and this probably saved my life. It really did. Ten seconds after we changed places Dusan went several shades paler and screamed

‘STOP!! Oh my God look at that!’

‘What?’ I queried.

He was pointing at something on the ground.

‘Don’t anyone move. My God, it’s huge!’ ‘Don’t anyone move. My God, it’s huge!’ ‘Don’t anyone move. My God, it’s huge!’

‘What Dusan? What is it?’

‘A snake,’ he shouted. ‘Can’t you see it? It’s a fer-de-lance. It’s the biggest one I have ever seen. We have to go back’.

I still could not see the snake but he pointed it out; coiled and wonderfully camouflaged in the dead and rotting brown leaves, just feet in front of us. My blood ran cold. I would never have seen it and would have stepped on it with the inevitable result of being bitten by a deadly poisonous snake that kills more people in Ecuador than any other. I learned later that if bitten you have around thirty minutes to get an antidote. I would have had no chance as the nearest hospital was ninety minutes away.

We looked warily at this coiled menace sunk in its bed of rotting leaves. With the adrenaline still pumping hard in my veins I suggested we do not give up but beat a path through the vegetation around it and resume our plunge down the ravine to the bear. Rolando took the initiative and set off, crashing a path through even denser vegetation to make a wide detour around the snake. Dusan shouted to Arsenio to find out what was happening with the bear and Arsenio shouted back he had the bear trapped up a tree, but if he left the tree the bear would come down and run off. 

We told him to stay where he was and not to move on any account and we would find a way to get down to him. How had he managed not to get bitten by the snake, as his trail went directly over where the snake was coiled? By good fortune he must have stepped over it and by luck the snake did not take alarm. We crashed and slithered downwards, barely in control of our momentum, and finally met Arsenio standing on a less precipitous part of the slope.

He pointed upwards to the tree above his head and there was a spectacled bear looking down at us from the top of the tree. It was not happy and was muttering away to itself in anxiety at our presence, clearly uncertain what to do. It obviously wanted to come down the tree but was unsure about us. Constantly chuntering a low subdued growling it walked along a huge horizontal branch from one tree to the next and deciding enough was enough commenced descending backwards down the trunk of the tree. According to Arsenio bears are not meant to do this!

It was chaotic. Trying to stand and balance on an almost sheer slippery slope in a cloud forest whilst pointing a camera vertically at a bear descending a tree is not an everyday occurrence. I lost my footing as I adjusted my position and fell on my back but just lay there and kept shooting with my camera anyway. I got to my feet as the bear came ever closer, inching backwards down the tree, using its long black claws as crampons. Its huge black furry body and behind was now very close, seeming even closer in my telephoto lens. Periodically it would stop to look at us and check what we were doing. Slowly and warily, it edged further down the trunk coming ever closer. It was now no more than twelve feet from us and still grumbling.

Turning its huge head it took one more look at us and then it leapt from about eight feet up down onto the forest floor, landing with a huge whumphh as it hit the ground and hurtled off into the undergrowth. The last I saw of it was a large, black, squat behind and four short, sturdy, furry black legs propelling it to safety further down the slope. It was all over in minutes and there was no time to be afraid.

We were high on adrenaline. What an experience. Handshakes and high fives were exchanged all round. Well done Arsenio. The climb back up to the top was long and arduous but we were propelled by sheer elation. We came to where the snake was still coiled and Arsenio said it would have to be killed as it would be unsafe to leave it. I said I wanted to leave it in peace, as did Dusan, but Arsenio was insistent. We had no choice but to let him despatch the snake with several blows from his stick. I am aware that many would say this was a travesty but we were in Arsenio’s territory,and he knew the dangers, potential or otherwise. So we reluctantly went along with his decision.