The torrential rain that delayed our departure from camp at last dwindles to a fine mist. Half an hour later, a watery sun glints on polished leaves and highlights drops trembling at their tips. The forest is hushed, the cicadas and crickets seem chastened by the downpour. We set forth in subdued anticipation. People rarely visit Peru’s Manu National Park during the wet season and the neglected trail beneath our feet is a level, cleansed canvas. Any animal tracks that we encounter will be fresh.
Soon, Frank points silently at the ground by his boots. Expecting the fairly commonplace signature of a peccary or agouti, I glance over his shoulder and am confronted with a perfect jaguar track. All toe pads are clearly outlined, the edges crisp. It is as though the cat deliberately and carefully placed his paw in the saturated rainforest soil. Here I am, he says. The immediacy of the jaguar’s presence is palpable and I scan the vegetation, convinced I will glimpse a crouching form. Frank holds a finger against his lips. If we’re quiet we might be lucky, his eyes tell me. I nod in agreement.
A short while later, another set of imprints, like exclamation marks. My heart beats faster. Our heightened senses grope for a whisper of sound, a twitching leaf. In my mind’s eye, I watch the jaguar amble over tangled tree roots, black rosettes sliding over powerful shoulders. See, here he has stopped to scrape restlessly at the earth. Perhaps to listen to the distant duets of dusky titi monkeys, just as we are now. Frank glances at me and I know the tension in his face is mirrored in my own. We tread quietly, the damp leaf litter for once not betraying us.
But the tracks vanish as suddenly as they appeared. I scrutinize the forest floor, expecting to find another sign. Nothing. An increasing feeling of disappointment, almost of loss, replaces my excitement. Frank shrugs in resignation when I look at him. Elusive as ever, the jaguar has stepped out of our narrow world and has entered the jungle where we cannot follow.
The afternoon loses some of its magic as we continue along the path. We clamber over fallen tree trunks, skirt around a frantic horde of fiery red ants. Has their nest been flooded? A wood quail explodes from the nearby shrubs as we pass. I reflect wryly, if that had happened moments earlier, my heart would have stopped. My thoughts wander to the giant otter family we are hoping to find on Lake Otorongo. So do Frank’s, I notice, because he speeds up a little and sweat begins to prickle my forehead. I am grateful for the cool forest air; on the water the heat will be stunning despite the sun’s late arrival.
As we approach the shore, without warning, Frank stops dead. An involuntary grunt escapes him. I am trying to avoid trampling the ant trail, and almost stumble into him. His hand reaches for mine, urging me to be still. Taken aback, I look up. Straight into the taut, yellow eyes of a jaguar.
We are all transfixed. I cannot comprehend that he is actually there, barely five metres away. He growls softly. At the sound, joy thrills through my every nerve. I begin to take in details, how the jaguar is half lying down, his upper body turned towards us. I realize that, eager to escape the soaked jungle, he sought out the lake observation pier and was basking in the sun’s warmth until jolted awake by our abrupt arrival.
Seconds elapse. We stand immobile, pinned by his unwavering stare. Finally, he blinks, breaking the spell. Inch by inch, the jaguar lifts a paw, indicating his wish to leave. I sense he feels trapped because we are unintentionally blocking his only exit. Slowly grasping Frank by his shirt, I motion him to step backwards a few paces. There we await the jaguar’s next move.
Reassured, he walks towards the entrance of the platform. I smile when, remembering to affect unconcern, he pauses to rub his broad head against a wooden cross-beam, like a friendly housecat. Then he glides leisurely down onto the trail, which we now share. The jaguar is full grown, in splendid shape, half-tailed. Without looking back, he soundlessly merges into the greenery. All too soon, he is gone.
My breath whooshes out and I turn to Frank in jubilation. He grins at me. Hours later, I am still aglow with our experience. No previous big cat sighting in the rainforest has conveyed such a heady awareness of having, somehow … communicated.
Note 1: A week after the events described above, we returned to Lake Otorongo. Incredibly, we saw the same jaguar, Half-tail, again resting on the observation platform. But this time we observed him from the water, in our inflatable canoe. The circumstances were more relaxed, which is how I was able to take this photo.
Note 2: This story was a runner-up in a BBC Wildlife Magazine Travel Writing competition (I think it was in 2005) and was first published online in the 2014 May issue of Jotters United.