The Trio have no words for measures of distance. Instead, distance is expressed in terms of the amount of time it takes to travel it. We have travelled one sunset so far. We have two more to go.
I roll out of my hammock at four thirty. It is dark and so time still sleeps. I am anxious to wake the crew and get on with the day. Our trouble with the motor coupled with unexpectedly shallow water has set us back at least six hours. If we want to make it to Sipaliwini tonight we’re going to need at least eleven hours on the water.
Ipiroke is the first to rise. He emerges from beneath his palm-frond roof wearing only a blue Speedo-style swimsuit.
“Andu!” he yells, as he makes his way to the river by flashlight. “Andu!”
We are on the water by seven. The motor behaves itself and we let out a cheer. The river winds as if carved into the earth by a child. We pass a pile of boulders in the middle of the river and a colony of bats bursts out, enveloping the boat for a few seconds in a squeaking black cloud.
After we pull the boat through the first set of rapids, the sun finally breaks above the canopy and washes the river in light. To my left, a thick bamboo stand turns translucent in the sunshine, like the filaments of insect wings. We pass a kankan tree that leans over the river with the weight of more than fifty orapendula nests. Then Lukas cuts the engine and Ipiroke stands with his rifle. Mawa jumps out of the boat, wades to shore, and disappears into the bush.
Ipiroke aims at a branch fork near the top of the majestic tree and fires off a round. The gunshot echoes up and down the river and a huge mass of green plummets from the branch. It lands with a thud in the underbrush and Mawa yells. A chase ensues. From the boat, all we hear are Mawa’s yelps and frantic footsteps. Suddenly, the injured animal crashes out of the bush — an iguana, nearly two metres long, desperate to save itself. Just as it stumbles to the water’s edge, Mawa bursts out of the forest behind it and snatches it up by the tail.
He hands the writhing reptile to Ipiroke as Lukas starts the engine. Ipi digs the blade of his machete into the iguana’s chest and I hear the whoosh of life escaping its body. He splits the animal open from its neck to its tail, its innards splashing into the water as he cuts them loose. In ten seconds the animal is empty, nothing but meat on bones, its lifeless fingers long and wrinkled, its gorgeous rack of blue-green spines slumped into its gaping body cavity. Ipi tosses the corpse into the hull and rinses his hands in the river.
Lukas taps me on the back.
“Ewana switi,” he says. Iguana tastes good.
We pass Agarapi Kreeki and the river narrows. Again we pull our boat up rapids, each of us up to our waists in rushing water, struggling to keep our footing. Lukas decides to motor up a particularly rough patch so we climb back in, and as the engine struggles against the current a metre long anyumara — an oily river fish built like a tank — leaps into the boat. With a flash of steel, Mawa pins the fish to the hull with his machete. In seconds, its liver, intestines, and air bladder are floating past me.
This jungle teems with life. During the dry season, hardly a soul travels these waters, and even when the rains come it is rare for anyone to make the trip. Consequently, the region is stocked like a supermarket. We come upon a forest turtle swimming across the river. Lukas aims straight for it and Mawa scoops it out of the water and places it in the boat.
Walaba trees line the shoreline, their seed cases like thick boomerangs hanging from pieces of string. As we pass beneath a massive wasp nest, two metres long and thick as a tree trunk, Lukas yells something in Trio and turns the boat down a side creek.
Mawa and Ipiroke quickly reach for their rifles again. They load their guns as Lukas aims the boat at the shore and cuts the engine. The boat scrapes up onto rocks and the men leap out. They scramble up a steep embankment into the bush and I scale the pile of equipment and follow them.
The jungle floor is still dark. The men race through the underbrush and I struggle to keep up. When I finally reach them, both men are whispering to each other and staring straight up into the canopy. A lump forms in my throat as I recognize the scene. The men are hunting monkey.
Forty metres above us, an adult red howler monkey sits with his back to a trunk. He does not move. He just stares down at us through the thick foliage. His bearded face is dark and ghoulish, his fur glimmering gold where it catches the rising sun. These are the monkeys who howl like banshees.
Mawa raises his gun but cannot get a clear shot. Lukas strips a young sapling and, hefting it like an axe, bashes it against the trunk of the monkey’s tree. Now both men grunt loudly from deep in their throats, impersonating a predator or perhaps a jungle spirit. They are trying to scare their prey into moving, into exposing itself to Mawa’s rifle.
In seconds, the monkey is leaping through the canopy. The men keep grunting as they track the animal. My training in primatology kicks in. I see flashes of red escaping to the west — two juvenile females, one juvenile male, an adult female with a baby on its back. I almost yell to the others but stop myself. Instead, I watch the monkeys disappear into the green, leaving their doomed patriarch behind.
I used to study monkeys. Now I’m hunting them.
A gunshot shatters the morning.