The Long Way to Monkey River

The Heart of the Jungle
Ceiba trees
Ceiba trees feather the night sky (Photo © Erik Gauger)

We commission Winsley Garbutt, a Garifuna lobster fisherman, to boat us as far as the river will go, to the end of the Bladen and Swasey river-shed tributaries. We board his launch and motor upriver for ten slow miles. In the dry season, passage is laborious; the river is as shallow as a hand's breadth.

The launch cuts up the river, and we watch bare-throated tiger herons and Amazon kingfishers dispersing from their nests. We pass under branches filled with bats. Our motor cuts out, and we drift into the bamboos, scaring a giant iguana sunning itself on a stump. The trees—cohune palms and sapodilla trees and the giant Ceiba tree—survive the chokehold of strangler figs, powerful infestations that will overrun a tree, wrestle it to death, and eventually send it tumbling into the river. The tree's rotting corpse will become the nest of crocodiles, which vie with the jaguar for the paca and the River turtle.

I asked Winsley about the fate of the monkeys after the hurricane.

"I guess you could say the monkeys had a really rough time aftah hurricane. He swim across the river, he fall out of the tree. He really get blown outta da tree during the hurricane."

Winsley spent most of the year building lobster traps, placing them as deep as 90 feet off the coast of Monkey River Town, and bringing them to market in Belize City. I was familiar with the horrible deaths suffered by fishermen from Belize to Nicaragua when diving for lobster. Untrained, they rise too fast and die of the bends.

"Scuba or air compressor?" I ask.

"No, no. I free-dive."

When the water drew to less than three inches, we shifted our weight, skimming over the sandy bars with the raised motor sputtering water. Shallower yet, we jumped ship and pushed the launch through the brackish water, forging through branches infested with sleeping bats as dusk fell.

By evening, we had approached a simple sandy bank, surrounded by the impenetrable curtain of jungle and the flow of tributaries. Winsley rammed his boat into the shore, helping us with our bags, and then he left. We sat there on the beach, sharing a can of beans and some jelly sandwiches, sitting on sand filled with crocodile tracks.

We hear a great howl. A roar, almost a cough.

Vance gives me this look.

"Big cats," he said.

"Wild pigs," I replied.

"Jaguar," he said.

"Does a jaguar roar?" I said. "I think it's the wild pigs."

The roar becomes louder. And finally we realize it's the howl of the howler monkey. The giant Ceiba tree on the other side of the river is filled with a small troop, a family with one baby. They just kind of sit there, chewing leaves, occasionally looking down at us. As we set up our tents and watch the sun go down, we begin to see and hear brilliant parrots, toucans, and black and yellow Montezuma oropendulas—so named for their swinging, pendulum-like nests.

Vance says the next morning, "You know, I expected Monkey River Town to be this hopeless place. I imagined a dying town. It's the opposite. The people hung on, they stayed. They're rebuilding their town."

Published: 16 May 2003 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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