On an eco-tour in the Bolivian Amazon, Danielle Ramaekers went in search of an anaconda, then found one where it shouldn't have been.
Adventurous travellers know that when nature's involved, there are no guarantees, which is why I'm staring at a seven-metre anaconda where I least expect to see one.
This bundle of lethal scales is curled up where it shouldn't be. Not in the jungle, but in the small Bolivian town of Santa Rosa de Yacuma; a place where children run barefoot across dusty roads, oblivious to the giant snake lying in their own backyard. A creature that squeezes its prey until breathing and circulation stops has slithered in like a serpentine secret.
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My companions and I have forgotten about the grasping heat and the way our clothes crunch under multiple layers of insect repellent. We can't believe our luck.
"We've been searching for a week," whispers Jade. "I can't believe we finally found one."
The snake's expanded stomach is covered in thick brown scales that camouflage it against the dirt. Locals crowd around, tracing plans of extraction with their fingers. One man steps closer and peels away a handful of shrubbery, exposing metres of coiled scales that thin out into a tail as thick as a tree branch.
"No es normal," he says. Now that it's been found out, the townsfolk must decide what to do with the anaconda before it gets hungry again.
According to our local guide, Norman Valdez, an anaconda's mouth stretches open wide enough to swallow its prey whole.
"Prey like that one," Norman had explained during our river tour earlier that day, pointing towards a capybara surveying us with hooded eyes from its side of the 570km long Yacuma River. At 66kg, the world's largest rodent looked like a guinea pig on steroids.
Norman grew up around the Bolivian Amazon and worked most of his life in Madidi National Park, in the upper Amazon river basin. You could tell by the way he wielded his machete. Experience had taught him that anacondas were challenging to find in the wild.
We knew all about that. Before the river tour, we'd spent four days and three nights staying in the depths of Madidi National Park. There'd been no shortage of tour companies to choose from, though most had invested more in assuring anaconda sightings than they did in sustainability. As a result, we'd chosen Madidi Jungle Ecolodge for its commitment to sustainable travel and protection of local wildlife, leaving the promise of finding anacondas up to Mother Nature, or Pachamama as South Americans call her.
In the jungle, we'd caught piranhas by baiting home-made hooks with raw meat, and watched spiders spinning webs by the light of our torches, but our two afternoon anaconda missions were unsuccessful. The Pampas river tour had been our last attempt at finding an anaconda in the wild.
Uncovering one back in town, after all the tours were over, goes well beyond the odds of finding one to begin with. I stare at the anaconda's eyes. They're as dark as the scales patterning its body, and, sitting above two pin-prick nostrils, look as glazed as my own after Christmas lunch.
According to Jesus Rivas, the world's leading anaconda expert and author of Natural History of the Green Anaconda, searching for anacondas requires you to trudge through "miles of knee-deep swamp water". Norman had agreed, so we'd spent half the afternoon squelching through bogs in thigh-high gumboots before making our way back to Santa Rosa.
Now here I am, watching one of the men tie a thick knot of green rope around the snake's middle, right in front of me. We stand back so the men can form a line. They take hold of the rope in rough hands, and the veins in their forearms bulge as they lean back and pull.
As they take small, backward steps and stunted heaves, the anaconda starts to emerge on to the open grass. The mesmerising unfurling of what local people have called "Madre de Aguas" — Mother of the Waters — is as gripping as their belief that anacondas are enchanted and must be protected.
"I can't believe it still hasn't moved," Grant murmurs, without taking his eye from behind his camera lens. After spending many hours swallowing their prey, anacondas can take a lethargic week or more to digest it.
The men drop the rope and wipe their brows. A small crowd has gathered, and people are prying apart the two neat rows of barbed wire fence guarding the side of the property. One man throws the end of the rope underneath the fence and signals towards us. We follow them and carefully step through.
By the time we're on the other side, the men have resumed pulling the anaconda. The rope strains against the snake's stomach. A local dog trots over, takes one sniff of the cold-blooded giant sliding along the grass and whimpers away with its tail curled between its legs.
'So, how big was it then?'
More people arrive, some with cameras in hand. Someone's brought a tape measure, and I recall Norman's words earlier that day: "I've seen anacondas before, maybe two or three metres big," he'd whistled.
Leaving the rope tied around its middle, the men stretch the serpent from head to tail along the grass. Children from the town have come running over, and they jump up and down when the man with the tape measure stands up and bellows "Siete metros!"
"Seven metres!" Jade squeals. "Norman is going to be gutted. I can't believe he's missing this."
The men stand over the anaconda, pointing to the most substantial bulge halfway down its body. "Caiman," one of them says to me with a grin. As well as capybaras and caiman, anacondas will also feast on birds, pigs, tapirs, and the occasional jaguar.
Just then the snake lifts its flat head off the grass and the growing crowd of what seems to be the sum total of Santa Rosa's 4319 inhabitants step back in unison.
The anaconda's head falls back on the grass in time with our exhales and a few Spanish expletives. The creature that can sense the moment its prey's heart stops has caused mine to miss a beat.
One brave man steps forward and firmly ties a second rope below the anaconda's head. Once secure, the men begin to fold the anaconda's body in towards itself. It takes three men to lift a third of the creature's 100kg-plus weight, and wrap it inwards. They repeat the process one third at a time until the thick, muscular creature is compacted into a box-shaped coil.
Then they use more rope to secure the anaconda, but its voluminous tail escapes being tied down. They pick up the trailing end as if it were an extra thick ribbon and curl it over the anaconda's untameable bulk.
"How do you think they'll get it out of here?" I ask Jade.
"Um, that," she exclaims, pointing past two dazed-looking cows towards a faded red tractor grumbling down the road towards us.
The crowd step back again, 90s-era camcorders rolling. The driver reverses the muddy tractor and trailer into the driveway, right up to the men who lift the anaconda up on to the trailer's edge. "Un, dos, tres," they count and with vigorous grunts slide the anaconda forward until it spills into the bottom of the trailer with a thud.
The men wipe their brows, smiling at the crowd's cheers. The driver wastes no time, and the tractor kicks up a cloud of dust as it disappears down the unpaved road.
"Where are they taking it?" I ask our driver in fractured Spanish.
"Back to the Amazon," he replies.
We gaze down the street. The predator at the top of its food chain has a 100km trip back to the Yacuma River. Everyone is talking about it when Norman appears.
"So, how big was it then?" he asks. "Two or three metres, right?"
How do you tell a man committed to the preservation of his own environment and the wildlife in it, that he's missed a sighting everyone will remember far longer than the anaconda's 10-year lifespan?
This was harder than anaconda hunting. "Seven metres, Norman," Grant finally says.
"Dios mio!" Norman gasps, "Que suerte, you are very lucky. Pachamama must have been looking out for you guys."
Madidi Jungle Ecolodge and Chalalan Ecolodge are both reputable, sustainable travel operators with eco-lodges located in Madidi National Park. Both companies offer a variety of environmentally friendly packages with offices in La Paz and Rurrenabaque, the closest town to Madidi National Park.