Fear nearly scuttles Justine Tyerman's trip to a special place in the Ecuadorian Amazon ...
A vivid imagination is a wonderful thing — it's an asset for a writer but sometimes mine spirals out of control and recently had the power to sabotage a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Images of a tiny, single-engine Cessna being tossed about in a tropical storm, a jungle seething with spiders and scorpions, snakes coiled around every tree, caimans with their jaws wide open waiting to chomp off a limb, paddling up creeks so narrow I'm entangled in vines, dug-out canoes with only a hand-span of free board between me and the black water, and sleepless nights on full alert, awaiting a visitation from an UCC (unidentified creepy crawly).
I was so anxious, I nearly chickened out of a trip to the outstanding Napa Wildlife Centre eco-lodge in a remote corner of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
But none of these nightmare scenarios came to pass. The aircraft from Quito to El Coca was a sturdy jet twice the size of the planes that fly in and out of my home town in New Zealand; the flight over volcanoes and rainforest was smooth and incredibly scenic; the wildlife in the Amazon was abundant but by no means overwhelming; our dugout canoe expeditions were an absolute highlight; and no nocturnal visitors ever found their way inside the impenetrable mosquito net in my lovely cabana overlooking beautiful Lake Añangu.
It's surprising how quickly I adapted to the jungle, thanks to our excellent Ecuadorian guides naturalist Pedro and Amazon-born Patricio. I felt 100per cent safe in their company — to the point where my family hinted I might be getting overconfident when I told them I was heading off on a night expedition.
I felt unexpectedly at ease with the caiman floating just below the surface of the creek a metre from our canoe, red eyes unblinking, ever-watchful; and the scorpions, spiders and bats were more startled than I was when our head-torches disturbed them.
I loved watching the resident pair of tayra (like large weasels or martens), as they loped around the lodge grounds, scampering up trees in search of fruit and nuts, and the death-defying leaps of monkeys in the rainforest canopy.
At dusk one evening, I climbed to the top of the lodge's 40m-high observation tower and witnessed a magical watercolour sunset over the rainforest. The jungle was alive with birds of every description, a veritable paradise for twitchers.
An inverted V-shaped wake on the dark satin waters of Lake Añangu marked the path of a giant otter. A procession of turtles edged their way up a log, the last one plopping into the water not far from a caiman. A canoe skimmed silently across the mirror lake delivering guests to the lodge jetty.
As for my greatest fear, I saw photographs of boa constrictors and anacondas that lived in the vicinity but the only snake I encountered was a skinny red thread the size of a long worm.
I felt exceedingly safe and well taken care of at Napo Wildlife Centre. Located in the 2.5m-acre Yasuni National Park, it is the most biodiverse place on Earth, declared a UNESCO Biosphere in 1989.
The centre is owned and operated by the Kichwa Añangu people who built the eco-lodge on the shores of Lake Añangu, transporting all the materials by canoe and on foot. The 200-strong indigenous community are striving to preserve and protect their traditions, culture and natural resources in an area where oil and logging companies are encroaching on pristine rainforest. It's heartwarming to know that Quasar Expeditions, with whom I travelled, seeks out and supports such sustainable initiatives.
It took nature 23 million years to create the Amazon rainforest but, in the past 100 years, one third has been destroyed. I salute the efforts of the Kichwa Añangu and feel so privileged to have visited this special place. Their success is inspirational. I shudder to think I nearly reneged!
Napo Wildlife Centre in the Yasuni National Park on Lake Añangu is two hours by motorboat and about two hours by man-powered dugout canoe from El Coca.
Accommodation is in spacious, stand-alone cabins with en suite bathrooms. The eco-lodge has luxury cabanas with jungle-view spa baths and glass-floored lounge areas.
Justine Tyerman was a guest of Quasar Expeditions, www.quasarex.com, a leader in experiential travel in Latin America.
The mission of Quasar Expeditions. a boutique, family-run company, is to give guests the chance to visit some of the world's most remote, hard-to-access destinations while leaving behind the smallest possible footprint. The writer flew courtesy of LATAM Airlines, www.latam.com