We had trodden the pavements of the big cities of South America – Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Rio – but now we were surrounded by vibrant green (every shade) and noises of bugs, birds and frogs.
Virgilio was the first of the colourful collection of Iracambi staff that we met, and he gave a warm welcome and fresh coffee. He is a font of knowledge and provided us with an understanding of the great work that happens at Iracambi. We had arrived at a camp that was made up of two main things, firstly the forest and secondly the people.
After allowing us plenty of time to settle in, volunteer coordinator Jose Luiz presented us with a list of projects to get our teeth into. The idea seems to be: if you want to do it, go for it. Iracambi is a haven for those that have a project in mind. If you want to make a study of spiders in this region of the Atlantic Forest, collect data around water quality, provide a series of workshops for schools educating about the importance of conservation, then here is a place where it is possible.
While you can establish your own project there are also ongoing aims and ambitions of the centre. One main project at Iracambi is called “Forests 4 Water”. Fagner is head of the tree nursery and he has created a miniature forest with huge potential. Thousands of seedlings were lined up in an orderly fashion, ready to be handed over to local farmers to plant on their land. The idea is to reforest parts of their farmland in order to hold more water in the soil and help revive lost water resources. We enjoyed helping with this project and delivering the seedlings to the local farms.
Another area where we felt we could help was trying to revive the vegetable garden. Elise, a lovely Dutch volunteer, showed us the ropes. We cleared the undergrowth and dug and planted some beds. With a bit of love and luck, over the summer months many carrots, beetroot and okra might find their way to the Iracambi table.
The trails around Iracambi are a way to access the dense, vibrant jungle and we spent many happy hours helping to maintain the routes. Tom took the high trail late one afternoon to camp up in a beautiful spot of relatively untouched forest. Though he heard lots of noises that night, there were no night time encounters with pumas.
Another of our favourite projects allowed us to explore the trails more fully. Again with Elise showing us how, we set camera traps around the trails. Sadly, we only managed to capture the movement of cows, some dogs, and the tail of what was probably a coati, a type of South American racoon-like creature. However, the work that Jose Luiz has put in over the last few months showed us the potential. He had captured shots of many animals including an ocelot not far from the centre, and in previous years a puma has been photographed on the high trail.
We did come across the fresh, half-eaten remains of a large snake on the high trail, but we were unable to film or find out whatever had been snacking on it.
The forest is a stunning place to explore, and at times the sound of the insects, birds and frogs can be almost overwhelming. For us Europeans, the sight of so many unfamiliar species of animals can be confusing, but resident biologist Marina very generously lent us her bird book, as well as her own knowledge, to help us decipher the countless little brightly coloured birds we saw.
Robin was kind enough to give us a tour of the area in his Land Rover one morning, and we learned about past and future plans for Iracambi, which he is still obviously very passionate about.
Getting used to sharing accommodation with deadly spiders has its challenges, but it all adds to the character of living in a rainforest. What with hummingbirds, the distant sound of monkeys, setting camera traps and watching the transportation of leaves by the tireless armies of ants, there is no denying that the Atlantic forest is an unforgettable natural wonder, desperately in need of protection. We are very grateful to have been part of the work at Iracambi for a short time. We would like to say a big thank you to Jose Luiz, Arielle, Marina, Virgilio and João for making us feel so welcome and allowing us to share their living space with them, and of course to Robin and Binka for making it all happen.
Emily Langdon & Tom Ball