When a bird sounds like a jet plane

I went for a walk in the jungle at dawn. Alone. Of course I did. Still jet lagged and awake at at 5am, it seemed sensible to be up and ready at the gate of Tikal National Park in time for the 6am opening. With no electricity and not a huge amount to do during that hour, I was early, arriving at the gate around sunrise. It’s possible to be admitted to the park before the opening time, but you have to pay extra and have bought your supplementary ticket at the main gate around 15km away, as well as be accompanied by a guide. I was expecting to wait, having only a regular ticket, but the attendant was kind (or unconcerned) and let me in when I arrived.

The turkeys were awake already, meandering by the side of the pathway, and a creature I took for a cat until I saw its face was hopping around by a water source evidently looking for a drink. It turned out to be an agouti, a red-brown guinea pig-like animal with long legs that had conjured the image of a cat. Reaching the first trail junction, I took the road less travelled, a path leading off to the left signposted Templo VI. The temple was indicated as being 1km away, with nothing of note along the way, which I assume is why it is left off the guided tour routes. But this morning I wasn’t really there to collect the highlights. I’d come for the details, for the ambience, for the immersion.

Surrounded by the dense jungle, I listened to the sounds of the creatures, trying to tell them apart. The monkeys disturbing the treetops, not close enough to register an alien presence and making no sounds other than the rustling of leaves and the cracks of branches. The toucans diving through the branches by the most direct route, unlike any of the other birds that seem rather to hop, branch by branch to their destination. The background noise of the jungle chattering away before the sun comes up isn’t enough to cover the sound of the wings, which seem as loud as an aeroplane as birds swoop across the path.

It’s not peaceful. Not at all. It’s alive, for sure. Energetic. And it puts me into a state of alertness through its tempo. I’m not afraid, but alert. Watching for snakes and bugs. Knowing I’m over a kilometre from the nearest humans.

The jungle at dawn

Against the backdrop of humming insects, the songs of a thousand birds, and the whispering of the foliage of the canopy, I was suddenly aware of a drumming. Slow. Regular. Reverberating. Getting faster. I felt the familiar squeeze of increased blood pressure, and a flood of visceral warmth as my adrenal glands dumped adrenaline and cortisol into my bloodstream as I froze and looked slowly around. It was a turkey. The drumming sound eventually develops into a much more turkey-ish gobble, but those few seconds, the mind plays tricks. Vivid images of tribal rituals, human sacrifice, and fire ceremonies to appease angry gods. Thank you, Hollywood.

Temple VI was fascinating, and I thought about how few visitors to the park probably come to see it. It’s unusual, having a low-rise base and doorways that suggest it was never a temple at all. It’s main feature is a large panel on the back of the tall roof comb covered with inscriptions which remain undeciphered. Whilst it appears to be a list of events with dates, it makes no reference to known people or events.┬áThe earliest date in the text is a long way back from Tikal’s peak, over 1,000 years BCE, and there are names mentioned, so there are some theories that it records founding events or historical record. However, the inscriptions are on the back of the structure, which otherwise faces a walled plaza, which might suggest they were never intended to be publicly visible. Mysterious.

Temple VI – the Temple of the Inscriptions
The tall stone in front of Temple VI

The path towards the centre of the park was smaller, rockier and less obvious, and I was brushing spider webs and waving off mosquitoes much more often. As I reached a familiar trail junction, I heard a snoring sound. All I could see was a large black bird on the ground in the undergrowth, with a yellow beak. Surely not the source of the sound. After looking around for nearly 15 minutes, I moved on, taking another path that looked like it wanted wear. It was signed Templo V and Templo 38. The path was barely wider than my feet, and strewn with rocks and roots. I was so focussed on my footing, that I was startled by a sudden flapping in front of me. A butterfly.

The forest giant owl butterfly

By 8am the jungle had quietened down, and I went to sit in the main plaza to sit and enjoy the change of pace. The birds continue to chirp and sing, and the hum of the insects is constant. But the sounds are much less intense. Much less busy. It’s as if the creatures know the sun is warming the world above a happy moving-around temperature, and they become obediently still and sluggish. So far I’ve seen around 5 people in 2 groups, and I’m sure that that’s only because I’ve been sitting in the main plaza for half an hour. It’s somehow ridiculous to think I’ve had the whole place to myself for 2 hours, but now the spell is broken and I’m a tourist again. As I leave the park, I stop to watch a family of coatis playfighting and chasing each other round the trees. It’s a moment of joy that makes me laugh out loud, cementing the contrast between the solitude of the early morning and the grounding of humanity.

Coatis having a whale of a time
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