Expedition Diary: Inside a Rain Forest Quest

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Even if we were to walk out—the fazenda is in the next valley over—we'd have to abandon our gear, perhaps even our cameras and recording equipment. Maria Alice would have to return later via helicopter to pick them up, an expensive proposition that could delay the expedition's other field surveys by weeks.

"What would I tell National Geographic?" Maria Alice worries.

It could be a lot worse: We have food.

Monday, December 8, 2003

We pack for the hike out to our study area and by 9 a.m. are on our way. The rain has eased a bit.

We hike to the tree line, but all we hear are black-and-golds. There are no gray-winged cotingas here.

By lunchtime we're back in camp—wet, muddy from boots to hats, and smelling of rotten vegetation. And there's still no sign of a helicopter.

After a thousand-foot (300-meter) climb, we get radio and phone reception. We call the pilot, who again—and incredibly—thinks that we were going to call him to let him know when to come.

The pilot says he tried to retrieve us yesterday but turned away when he encountered clouds some 10 miles (16 kilometers) away. In any case, there's no way he can make it to us in time today.

(Later we'll get a helicopter bill for the equivalent of a thousand U.S. dollars—for a trip that didn't come close to us, at a time when the weather was good in our valley.)

The way to the fazenda is simple and daunting. It's not far—a few miles. It's just that there is a very large mountain in the way, with nearly impassable bamboo thickets on its lower flanks and nearly unscalable granite faces on its higher reaches.

Luckily we reach the fazenda's administrator by radio—and that's important news. He'll send a crew to get us via a nearby valley, though how is beyond me. Something about a tractor, I'm told.

Later, Gilmar and I head up to steep, but just accessible, granite slopes, where we hope to spot the fazenda's crew. Through a small cleft we see a spectacular valley that joins another, even larger valley.

At the far end of the larger valley is one of the Três Picos—three giant, sheer-sided pillars of granite rising several thousand feet from the forest below. Beyond, thick white clouds cover the lowlands east of Rio de Janeiro.

Everything we can see is forest—surely one of the largest tracts left in these mountains. This is a glorious, wonderful place to be stuck!

At the valley's end—it looks miles away and thousands of feet below us—is a bright green spot. It's a pasture, and we see three men, tiny specks even through binoculars.

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