Rickshaw travel gave me a choice “you can take a zip wire over the canopy” said Paula “it’s really thrilling.” For a moment I was hooked (in a kind of ‘poop poop’ Toad kind of a way) then I thought ‘I can do that in the Forest of Dean…in fact I have done it in the Forest of Dean accompanying my friend Lesley in a terrifying 60th birthday celebration at Go Ape.’ “You’re the only friend I thought would say yes” she said when she invited me. True, it was really thrilling, and more than a little challenging for someone whose knees go weak when anyone goes near a cliff edge, and I was excited by the zip wire bit flying half a mile over the tree tops to skid along some wood chip and crash into buffers at the end. However, why would I want to speed over the rainforest when I could be in it, wandering about avoiding snakes and looking for sloths and monkeys? I changed my mind and Paula booked me a hanging bridges hike instead.
It was clear on the day we went for the skywalk in the Monteverde Cloud Forest. That’s unusual; most visitors walk through a bean souper. It was also cold and a bit drippy. Our guide Oscar wasted no time telling us “I knew a woman, tipped me big because I found her a bird that has 8 different songs.” He found us that bird too, not so rare as it happens, and what birdwatchers call an LBJ (little brown job). I don’t remember it’s name, he was too busy telling us about the size of another tip he’d had from another woman. After quite a lot of wandering and seeing nothing he found us a red kneed tarantula holed up in a bank. Tessa was thrilled. “Oo look… don’t you want to see it?” I peered into the hole reluctantly. Couldn’t see a thing. I tried again, without success. Tessa loves spiders, and tells me I should leave them alone in my house. I’ve had to train myself to remove them to the garden (gently in a hankie) but she will have none of it. I can’t bear it when they plop heavily onto my bed and wake me up. I tried again, and, once I’d realised I needed to put my reading glasses on, got a faint glimpse of its hairy red knees. We walked on to our first hanging bridge. I was fine on the ones like the one above, with opaque sides which gave me a false sense of security.
“Anyone afraid of heights?”asked Oscar. I took a deep breath walked carefully to the middle, avoiding looking down and the bounce that had begun as the others crossed ahead of me.
We walked on to the next bridge the sides were just flimsy looking netting. Clear sided bridges are another thing altogether. Tessa stopped to take a picture down to the forest floor. What you see is the moment before she leaned over, phone in hand to get a better shot. “Argh don’t do that” I shouted “you’ll drop your phone.” I felt a jolt in the base of my spine watching her. “I probably will now you’ve said that” she complained. Of course what I was really afraid of was that she’d drop over the edge.
One of our party made the mistake of holding on to the rail supporting the netting. “Euww, what’s this gooey stuff?” he asked. We had just reached to the place where howler monkeys are known to hang out. People we’d passed earlier going in the opposite direction said they’d watched howlers dancing about on the bridge for a full ten minutes.They were there alright, way up high in the canopy, making a wild rumpus in a face off with some capuchins. Their ‘hoo hoo hoo’ resonated around the forest, a sound that is audible many miles away. I don’t think they appreciated the interruption of a good fight by a bunch of gawping tourists. We heard a loud SPLAT a few feet away, and another, and another. Our companion realised what he’d just put his hand on.
“Jeeze we’re under attack” I said “shit hurling howler monkeys.”
“Shall we move on?” said Oscar.
Whilst I have to admire a creature that can shit on demand, in its own hand when needs must, I was happy to move swiftly on. I recalled a family story, oft recounted with mean sniggers by my brothers, of their visit to London zoo with their friend Giles Dymock. They’d been admiring monkeys in a cage when one of them, seemingly sitting innocently on it’s hand, took aim and got Giles smack in the face. I wonder if it was a howler? Giles grew up to be a stock broker, I bet he often had a shit day.
We tipped Oscar reluctantly, it stuck in our craws tired of the dozen or more brazen hints he’d dropped for us to do so. Until then we had followed the Rickshaw advice and had been only too happy to acknowledge the guiding we received.
It was soon forgotten when we noticed a coati pottering about in the car park, tail up like a happy cat, reminding us of its racoon cousins. It was rooting around in the scrubby margins looking for something to eat. Tessa said she thought I looked just like one rooting about in my backpack for a snack bar.
It had been a bit of a shoo-in to arrange a guided hike in Curi Cancha. I’d struck up a relationship with Darlene in Monteverde Travel over our emails. At first it seemed impossible, costing over £100 for an afternoon with a guide and then being told it couldn’t be arranged for just one person anyway. Then Tessa joined me on the trip and with good natured cooperation between Darlene, Paula and myself we juggled the timings and managed to fit it in. Tessa and I would have our own guide for the whole afternoon and it would cost us just $46 each. “Call in to the office and you can practice your Spanish” Darlene said in her last email. I was saved the shame (come on Duolingo, 50%?) by the rush to get back to Cala Lodge in time for a quick turn-around for our ride to Curi Cancha.
Davide met us at the visitor centre. Tall, skinny, 22 years old, with a stylish flat mohican, his face lit up when he saw our binoculars “you are birders?”
I explained “No, not really, but we like birds very much, bird appreciators I’d say, and plants and animals. I’d really love to see a Resplendent Quetzal.”
“Ah, difficult” he said sucking on his teeth “but I will try my best.”
The thing about Curi Cancha is that being at a lower, warmer elevation there is a much better chance of seeing the abundant wildlife that lives there. It’s a small private reserve, with far fewer visitors than the Cloud Forest. It wasn’t ideal to visit in the afternoon you always see more birds in the early mornings, but it was our only chance.
Davide reminded me of my grandson Nils, bursting with enthusiasm on all matters related to wildlife. I could picture Nils (with his hair recently styled just like Davide’s) being a guide himself one day. Now 13, he has grown up without television but allowed to watch David Attenborough documentaries for a treat. He can name nearly every animal on the planet. (It was Nils who sat through my bird pictures with a loaned guide book helping me to identify them.) A few years ago I wrote to Attenborough to thank him for the profound and beneficial influence he’d had on Nils and his sister Nina, and their cousins Indigo and Rubin…children all over the world in fact. I’d got them to do him some drawings. Such is the graciousness of the man I had a hand written reply to them from Sir David. I read it out to them at our Christmas dinner. They blushed with delight. He thanked them for their drawings not in a ‘that’s nice dear’ kind of a way, but showing he’d taken a real interest in the details. I love that man.
We knew we were on a winner with Davide when he led us off on the hike making bird calls. He took us to a meadow and showed us a coati waking from it’s nap in the fork of a tree branch and made a video for us with his scope. Walking past a coffee hedge on the outskirts of the tended garden we were startled when an agouti raced past chased by a coati, then settled under a tree for a nap. Like giant terrier size rats on long legs they would be really spooky if those legs were shorter and they had a long tail. But I think I know now what the ‘giant rats’ were that were caged with a bored, gum chewing woman in a green sparkly bikini in a kind of glass box at Gloucester Fair when I was a child.
Padding silently around the trails, we only passed half a dozen other people. Davide led us to an area where tall avocado trees were in fruit – a favourite of the Quetzal. We stood near him for a half hour or more waiting. Davide wandered around making their soft call from time to time, we stayed still and silent. Nothing. I tried not to be too disappointed. The problem was we were just a bit too early in the season and the fruit was not yet ripe. The bird that had entertained me for two years or more as my ringtone with it’s crazy alarm call would have to remain a future wish of mine.
Hot and thirsty we rested a while in the ‘hummingbird garden’ under a lemon/tangerine type of citrus tree watching the birds work the blossom on the cat-tail hedge and quenched our thirst with the sour fruits. “What’s that bird up in that tree over there?” I asked Davide.
“Oh my god, oh my god, you found me my favourite bird…oh look at that, it’s a squirrel cuckoo.” My chest puffed up, I’d just found a real birdwatcher his favourite bird, and if anyone deserved it it was the extremely knowledgeable Davide. If any place in the world was going to make me a birdwatcher proper it was Costa Rica. And if you do go to Curi Cancha I’m going to bet you won’t do better than to ask for Davide. I wish you well young man, you have a great future ahead of you, and if I ever find your business card I will send you the promised picture of a badger in my garden.
The Resplendent Quetzal, left and Squirrel Cuckoo Centre Right