Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’. This week we have a very special walk from a volunteer, Ewan, who usually writes our regular wildlife of the week feature in the Walking for Wellbeing newsletter. He has shared with us his once-in-a-lifetime trip to the cloud forests of Ecuador to fulfil his dream of seeing the rare harpy eagle.
It has been a lifelong ambition of mine to see a Harpy Eagle and I finally achieved it with an unforgettable trek through a Cloud Forest in Ecuador. Here is my recounting of the experience which, although arduous, was spiritually uplifting in so many ways.
We disembarked the 4×4 at an inconsequential looking gap, no more than two metres wide, in the edge of the forest. It looked so innocuous, a small, wet, leafy opening to a narrow trail disappearing into the dim green light of the forest’s wet interior. If only I had known what was in store. Once in the forest the humidity and fecundity of the forest floor enveloped us in a warm and earthy aroma and the light diffused through a million leaves, faded to a half light of shade and mystery.
The vegetation is so dense and prolific in the forest that for most of the time you can really only see a few metres around and in front of you. Many creatures here do not ever properly see the full light of day and huge butterflies, dark as the rotting leaves on the forest floor or ethereal with transparent wings, flit along at knee height amongst the hanging leaves of a myriad plants, specialists in this nether world of deep vegetative litter and green gloom.
Small birds of bewildering variety, usually tapaculos, antbirds, antwrens and manakins skulk in the dark green depths of the forest. Tiny and seemingly invisible, they made strange unfamiliar calls as I wiped sweat from my eyes. It can make a grown man cry trying to differentiate the outline of a tiny bird that looks just like the thousands of leaves around it. Sometimes I managed to see the bird but often was left in frustration at my apparent ineptness.
The trail, needless to say, was never really level. I either found myself climbing perilous muddy banks, ten, twenty and thirty feet high with minimal footholds, or descending similar vertical banks; dropping, twisting, turning, ducking under tree trunks and around fallen branches, wading through streams, slip sliding and sinking in cloying mud. It went on and on and would last for two hours all in wellingtons.
Sweat poured from my body. The humidity and still air contrived to stick every item of clothing to my skin. I had made sure I wore a long sleeved shirt today to keep off the mosquitos but it was soon sodden with sweat. After thirty minutes I called a halt as I badly needed water to replenish my body’s depleted reserves. We stood and drank from bottles for ten minutes and then off we went again along yet more of this natural roller coaster, looping up and down, slithering along the narrow trail through the forest. I dared not ask Gabo or Pedro, my guides, how long we had been walking — for fear, on learning the time remaining until we reached our destination, it would be too disheartening. I was struggling. Although for my age I am supremely fit, I was now entering into uncharted realms of physical endurance. However there was not a chance I was going to give in.
At my request we made another stop to drink yet more water and then on we went. I had no idea where we were but trusted Gabo and especially Pedro who knew the forest intimately. Despite the trials and tribulations I suffered, there is something truly romantic about wandering this wilderness, looking at plants growing naturally that I normally only see in hothouses or garden centres at home. Here I was in the most natural hothouse of all.
Finally, after another long spell of arduous walking, we went up a slight rise and came to a small open natural viewpoint looking out through the forest. There, some hundred metres beyond, was a fully grown young Harpy Eagle sat on its eyrie in the largest tree I have ever seen.
A lifetime of dreaming had become reality.