Balwyn meeting report: September 2015
Speakers: Val and Peter Fowler
So − you like to think you are adventurous. I know I did before I heard of Val and Peter Fowler’s adventures in Peru. I mean to say it’s one thing to go gadding around the world using real public transport, even going wild into Australia’s deserts for weeks on end, with all its risks. But that is nothing compared with travelling through a country like Peru, usually using local buses and taxis rather than simply going on an organised bus tour. It did have some advantages. They could stop whenever they wanted to get out of the taxi to watch or photograph some birds, much to the amusement or frustration of the driver. It had its disadvantages too, such as nearly being run down by a bus, almost falling into a raging torrent, and in some border towns, being under the very real threat of robbery. Furthermore, they had to carry their gear, with changes of clothing for the different climates they would experience.
But they did it ‘Their Way’, and they had a blitz of a time! And saw over 278 birds, far too many birds to mention here.
In 2013, Pete had three months long service leave, so they decided they would go to South America, spending two months in Peru. Val’s sister had been there and she gave them lots of tips and encouragement – not that they needed much, for they were experienced bush walkers and travellers. However, everyone they knew who had gone to Peru had either been robbed or knew someone who had been robbed, sometimes on three separate trips. It’s probably a vital National Industry. Because they were going to Peru for winter, and then to the Amazon they had to have several changes of clothing and had to carry everything. And everything stored had to be secured under netting.
They flew into Cusco, and travelled to Machu Picchu and Manu, then south towards Bolivia and Chile, then up the coast past Lima to the Ecuador border. They were a bit worried about the altitude of 3326 metres, but Pete had no trouble there. He had been much higher in the Himalayas, although Val was puffing a bit as they went uphill.
Even in Cusco there were plenty of birds in the main square, unconcerned with the people. They continued to Aguas Calientes, the starting point for Machu Picchu. They were close to the edge of a cliff, when a bus came down the hill fast and very nearly hit Val. As she stepped backwards Val slipped and nearly fell into the raging torrent below.
This was where they were looking for the White-capped Dipper and the Torrent Duck, that Val had only just avoided meeting underwater. However, they did see the birds above water, although they wondered how they avoided being swept away. They got to the terminus early, but there were already lots of people waiting for buses to Machu Picchu and they had to catch the seventh bus. Don’t be worried about the video cameras fitted in the buses. They are there just in case of accident; in case they can’t find you. Val and Peter had wanted to climb the mountain behind Machu Picchu, but only 400 people were allowed each day and it was fully booked. Instead they got permission to go to the top of Mount Machu Picchu. It took them three hours to get to the top (although they were continually being told it is only a half an hour to the top), and about an hour and a half to get down again. I suppose more birds got in the way going up! There was one guy who walked up the mountain every day, waited until the tourists had left, then came back down again collecting the rubbish the tourists had left behind.
Next day they visited an expensive hotel, the Inca Terra Hotel ($500 to 950 a night). Val’s sister had said that if they went in and said they were birdwatchers they would be allowed into the grounds. Although they were restricted to where they could go, they saw lots of birds in the beautiful gardens while the guests were out, sight-seeing.
They had booked (in Australia) a tour with Manu Wildlife Tours, owned by Barry Walker (British Consul General) and his wife, and had to make a final payment, but it was hard to find the place. It was finally found, looking like the back of someone’s house with lots of warnings about robberies. It must officially be a National Industry.
The tour took them first to see pre-Inca ruins near Lake Huacarpay but there were unexpectedly few birds on the lake; probably just the wrong season. In a market place there were piles of coca leaves that the locals chew to help with the high altitude; perhaps as well as everyday worries, for the leaves contain low levels of cocaine. The next stop was the southern most tip of Manu Forest National Park, a cloud forest only accessible to researchers. But there was good birding along the edge of the forest. From there they travelled past more land-slips and road-works to the Cock of the Rock Lodge, a site for one of Val’s important must-see birds. Val only got the briefest glimpse of the Cock of the Rock, until much later. However, at the Lodge Val and Peter were told of a humming bird that could not be identified. It was not until Val managed to get a photograph that they found it to be a humming bird hawk moth, behaving and sounding very much like a small hummingbird. It was a good spot for birding.
On the way to their next stop they were happily held up for two hours by road works – a good opportunity for birding. Surprisingly, there was a party of American birdwatchers also trapped in the jam − who never got out of their car. Two hours later the tour arrived at at the Rio Madre de Dios, a fast flowing river that was quite choppy, with rocky banks. They were too late to stop, but saw lots of birds and a family of capybara churning up the bank like 4WD hoons. There were precariously placed houses on the riverbank that could have easily been swept away, and dangerous trees and logs in the water. They arrived after dark at the Romano lodge on the Manu River, which turned out to be much sandier and many birds were seen there.
Here it was obvious that some spots were more popular for birds and butterflies. It turned out that these was where the boatmen urinated while waiting for their passengers; you know − increased nitrogen, increased algae, increased water insects, increased vegetation, more birds. Just like the WTP. The Manu Wildlife Centre was very disappointing. Val reckoned that whoever produced the list of 600 birds there was flying on coca leaves, although there were numerous tiny black dots on faraway trees. There were, however, good paths and hummingbird feeders. Here they met the tapir that drooled as Pete scratched it behind the ear and under its chin. There was a clay, salt-lick that was very disappointing, with only a solitary common parrot visiting.
From there they flew back to Cusco and started towards the coast, past Lake Titicaca with its floating islands of reeds. There was a walkway, and paddle boats for kids and although there was a lot of rubbish there were still plenty of birds. But it was so cold at night they had five blankets and it was difficult to turn over at night. At one place, Val and Pete hired a taxi for a half-day trip to ruins with a nearby lake. The driver was amused that they were more interested in the birds on the lake, looking at his watch and anxious to get on. They visited the Colca Canyon, which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and saw the Andean Condors soaring on thermals. When they stopped for lunch, Peter got blue lips and serious symptoms of altitude sickness and there was concern he could go no further, but given a cup of coca tea, Pete started to feel better. However, going over a high pass later, Pete still wanted to stop the bus to get a photo. He had no more trouble with altitude sickness. Instead, three days later in a plane over the Nazca lines, Pete was green through motion sickness!
While walking up the coast towards Lima, they met a guy staying at a hotel nearby. It was lunchtime so they decided to stop there for a sandwich lunch. They were startled at the price – til they realised the hotel was sister to The Hilton. Eventually they reached Lima on the sand dunes. There had been no rain for 10 years and all the water had to come down from the mountains. Here they saw a local girl being robbed – the local National Industry in action again. Val and Pete visited Kennedy Park, home to numerous wild cats fed by locals who showed clear favouritism for the prettiest ones. From there they travelled north to Chaparri Lodge. The Reserve (in photo below) was owned by the local community and employs only local guides. It was the first reserve sponsored by the 2004 British Bird Fair and was established in 2000, comprising 34,000 hectares. This was Val’s favourite spot on the entire adventure.
Then, surprise, surprise, at Chiclayo, Val and Pete were invited to a meeting of the 2nd bird challenge rally. This event was much more serious than any challenge count that they had been on. There were six teams: two from the USA, and one from each of Spain, Brazil, the UK and South Africa. There were six members per team and the leader had to have proven conservation experience. In addition, they had to give conservation plan advice to each local community visited. The winning team counted 636 birds in eight days and overall, 864 birds were spotted − 10% of the world population. While there, Val was given a bird book by an artist on a park they had not intended to visit. So they had to go there! Bosque de Pomac had pre Inca ruins and good birding with Blue-white Swallows covering the walls of the Sipan pyramids, that Pete simply had to get permission to photograph. In the ruins, Burrowing Owls took no notice of people – who incidentally took no notice of them.
From there Val and Pete travelled inland to Chachapoya where they hired a taxi (complete with a mad taxi driver) to go to Huembo, which was also sponsored by the British Bird Fair, but near where two British birders were murdered while looking for the Magnificent Spatulatail Hummingbird. This bird was on Val’s most-wanted-bird list and they safely found it.
From there they visited the Cerros De Amontape National Park, the largest dry tropical forest in the world. Val and Pete were aghast at the ruthless slashing of riverside vegetation for access by stock. What was worse, even their guide was slashing vegetation in the park, perhaps in the manner of an explorer in jungle that we so often see on TV movies. They were now very close to the end of their Peruvian holiday as they entered Tumbes, a border town between Peru and Ecuador, where they nearly fell foul to the National Industry. All they wanted to do was walk down the road to the nearby supermarket. However, as soon as their intention became clear they were stopped. ‘Don’t go!’ they were told. ‘You’ll be robbed before you get halfway!’
So ended what must have been one of the most interesting and exciting holidays Val and Peter had ever taken. Peter told us that he had spent a couple of months planning the trip using the Lonely Planet Guides, whereas Val looked at trip reports first. If you have plans to travel overseas, to even less difficult places, you would do no harm chatting to these intrepid wanderers. Even to Europe; I have been robbed twice in two separate journeys to Italy. It’s actually part of the International Tourist Industry!
Thank you, Val and Peter. I haven’t enjoyed myself so much for seventy years, since I read of intrepid explorers in ‘Boys Own Magazine’.
Illustration and photographs by Val and Peter Fowler
Contributor: Ron Garrett