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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

The Search for Sirena

I slapped at a nagging mosquito. Mozzies? In broad daylight? “This is just ridiculous,” I muttered.

“Well,” Frank said, consulting the compass, “I think it’s to the south.”

Jose shook his head. “No, no, to the southeast.”

In truth, we were mystified. How was it possible a lake we’d visited during a giant otter census only six months earlier had vanished without a trace?

Sirena was one of several lakes in the Peruvian rainforest that my husband and I surveyed regularly with our two local field assistants, Jose and Carlos. Earlier that morning, we had established our river camp and set off for the lake, expecting to arrive at Sirena within the hour. Jose wielded a machete, clasping under the other arm a ripe pineapple - we planned to eat it later, while watching the otters. Carlos backpacked the heavy, inflatable canoe and carried a spare machete. Frank was in charge of the compass and camera, while I juggled the oars and pump. We realized too late we’d forgotten our map and GPS but that didn’t worry us; we knew what we were doing.

We chatted as we ambled through the forest, pausing frequently to taste wild fruit or enquire about a tree. Jose sliced through corkscrewing vines with competent flicks of his wrist. A large, electric blue butterfly winked past, its lilting flight surely a ploy to avoid predation. I kept my eyes peeled for larger wildlife. After walking an hour or so, certain we must be near the lake, we stopped for a brief rest. The sun burned white through the forest canopy.

“Just a few hundred metres now,” Frank said, wiping his face with his sleeve.

I sighed and eyed the pineapple. “Let’s keep going.”

As we continued, the conversation became peppered with remarks like, “This way,” “No, I’m sure it’s that way,” and, finally, from an exhausted Carlos, “Where the hell is the lake?”

It was no good. After another break, we decided to go back to camp and return in the afternoon.

“With the map and GPS this time.” I looked meaningfully at Frank. He was our map reader; maps were his responsibility.

Wearily collecting our gear, we headed towards the river instead of retracing our steps along the tortuous trail we’d cleared in our search for Sirena. A short-cut direct to the river seemed a good idea, and then we’d simply walk along the bank to camp.

Soon, we stumbled upon a tortoise - a symbol of misfortune to jungle residents - plodding across our path. Frank and I glanced at each other, grimly amused by our shared thought. How ironic. I stooped to stroke its sun-warmed, patchwork shell as I passed, thinking fondly of my pet tortoise of long ago.

Seconds later, I heard a dull thud behind me. I swung round and saw the tortoise lying helpless on its back in the leaf litter, its head retracted into its shell. Carlos stood neaby, breathing hard, his face flushed.

I found my voice. “Jeez, Carlos! What did you do that for?”

His eyes refused to meet mine.

“It’s just a superstition,” I added, trying not to shout.

Carlos nodded slowly, shamefaced now.

Picking up the tortoise, I examined its shell before placing it back on its feet. “It’s okay. No harm done.” But morale was low as we wordlessly resumed our hike in single file.

Jose, still clutching the pineapple, hacked a way through dense undergrowth of thorny bamboo with renewed vigour, apparently optimistic the river was close by. As time passed though, his slashes became more perfunctory and we were forced to drop to our hands and knees to negotiate the greedy thorns. Vicious, red ants swarmed up our limbs whenever we faltered, and mosquitoes the size of leggy bluebottles whined in our ears. My pump and oars kept snagging on the vegetation.

What the hell are we doing here? I found and yanked a bloated tick from my ankle. My shirt clung to my back, and there was a long tear in my trousers. This whole, damn forest should be chopped down and turned into matchsticks. Right now.

We eventually staggered into camp. Speaking in terse monosyllables, we assembled in the large tent we had erected on the beach. Jose slumped in a chair and inspected the blisters on his hands. Taking a GPS reading, our first since making camp, Frank and I pored over the map we had forgotten. A puzzled silence followed, while Carlos listlessly sliced the pineapple. Frank’s finger pinpointed our position.

I stared at him, dumbfounded.

“Oh, for Chrissake,” he groaned. “We’re nowhere near Sirena. It’s much further upriver.”

For five sweaty, laborious, painful hours we had searched for a lake where none existed.

Minutes later, we were spluttering with laughter, our mouths full of juicy pineapple. Jose, still chuckling, clouted Frank on the shoulder. “Just a few hundred metres now, huh?” After all, it was Frank who had identified the wrong river bend as our starting point.

Frank grinned ruefully and licked his fingers. “Well, is it my fault these meanders all look the same?”

The next day, Carlos discovered we’d left our spare machete behind in the bamboo thicket. We looked at each other. The decision was unanimous.

“Leave it. The ants and mozzies can have it.”

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