A bird's-eye viewpoint

Feeling twitchy ... a violet-bellied hummingbird.
Feeling twitchy ... a violet-bellied hummingbird. Photo: Getty Images

Through landslides, power cuts and flooding, John Huxley continues his search for the Andean cock-of-the-rock.

Jose, the manager, has disappeared after a brief, Basil Fawlty-esque appearance. Several guests are believed to be stranded, possibly swept away, by a landslide. And now, the power has stuttered, spluttered and, quite sensibly, gone out.

It's mid-afternoon on the first day of our post-Galapagos gallop through northern Ecuador and we, too, are supposed to be out walking, bird watching, book reading and eating.

Instead, we and an elderly Canadian couple are stranded in the San Jorge Eco-Lodge, an 18th-century hacienda set high in the hills above Quito, feeling increasingly like players in a scene from an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

The amusements in the bar prove unamusing. The dartboard comes with only two blunt darts that bounce off the board. The balls on the pool table migrate to one corner when released from the wooden triangle that positions them. Table football proves a similarly lopsided task. Playing downhill, I defeat my wife 6-0 in less than two minutes without any of my hand-operated "players" touching the ball. And soon it's too dark to read.

At least the Albertans, bless them, are happy, whiling away the time searching for wood, building a fire, watching it go out.

"It's a national pastime," Rita says, as Murray adjusts a headband light and heads outside for more fuel.

Eventually, a resourceful retainer, Vincenzo, materialises with candles, followed by matches and, much later, hot food.

Then the missing landslide "victims" turn up. They promptly storm the undefended bar. "Americans," Rita says.

Predictably, it was a dark and stormy night, spent in fridge-cold rooms reached by a short but literally breathtaking climb up the 3000-metre mountainside.

The next morning, one of the Americans reports finding a live scorpion in his bed.

The shifty San Jorge power may still be off, the manager missing, the scorpions tucked up in guest beds, but thereafter our trip - like the weather, which had caused flash flooding in Quito - improves rapidly.

Suddenly, in the morning sun, the lodge looks postcard pretty. Its gardens shimmer with hummingbirds. Its views over white-washed Quito dazzle. Its network of paths, to destinations such as the Sacred Waterfall, is inviting.

On a four-hour hike out past the old Inca Trail with a sharp-eyed local guide, Pedro Alves, we see more than 50 species of birds new to us before the next storm flattens Quito.

The San Jorge lodge is on one of seven nature reserves and sanctuaries on the Magic Birding Circuit, created by Dr George Cruz, a local veterinarian, conservationist and artist, whose pictures decorate the lodge.

Each reserve has a distinct ecosystem - from high, barren plains to montane cloud forests - and a different set of wildlife. Indeed, the reserves are home to more than 1000 of Ecuador's 1600 species, almost twice as many as in Australia.

Over six days, we visit three of the reserves: San Jorge, Tandayapa and Milpe, each within a couple of hours' drive of Quito - except when the land slides, or when the weekends are long and the capital empties to the coast at Esmeraldas.

It's off season, so the guest-to-staff ratio is generous. At Milpe it is two to six: the Huxleys and the peripatetic Pedro, a birding amigo and a family of four who, it is explained, fled Colombia and its narco-traficantes for a quieter life in Ecuador. By day they lead birding expeditions; by evening they cook and serve imaginative, "sin carne" four-course meals by candlelight, before resuming the search for fireflies, owls and nightjars.

At Tandayapa lodge - a cloud-forest eyrie whose bedrooms afford sublime 270-degree views of the surrounding hills - the ratio is even: four to four, or four to five if "watching man", as Ecuadoreans call the armed guard who patrols the property, is included.

Most of the work, though, is done by one man: "fiftysomething" manager Jose Estalan. In shorts and a pair of ancient gumboots, he greets visitors at the bottom of their 20-minute climb from roadside to roost.

He then runs ahead carrying their luggage - our two cases weigh 35 kilograms - on his back to the top of the hill. His best time, he explains proudly, is 14 minutes. "Mas or menos," he adds, hinting at future improvement.

Moments later he emerges in long pants and a casual shirt to identify the birds that each day swarm around the balcony feeder trays and to lead hikes through the mist-covered mountains.

In the evening, he dons a white shirt, grey waistcoat, black pants and a waiter's demeanour to serve local wines and tasty meals, including empanadas, ceviche and unfamiliar fruits, cooked by his wife. "Habla Espanglish?" I joke. "Of course, senor," he replies.

Our Ecuadorean adventure is topped off - almost literally - by a three-night stay at El Monte, located 1300 metres up the west side of the Pichincha volcano in the Andes.

It is here that we hope to see one of the world's most sought-after birds, the Andean cock-of-the-rock. Seriously. It is a big, bright, flamboyant, flirtatious, unmistakably flaming orange- or red-headed bird. At least, the male is.

Earlier in our adventure, we had crossed paths with the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, and the American ambassador, Heather Hodges, who was being expelled over a diplomatic cable divulged by WikiLeaks. Cool. But neither would be as noteworthy as a male cock-of-the-rock.

It's late afternoon when we arrive at El Monte, in Stygian gloom. The rain is biblical. The nearby Mindo River rages over its banks. All "activities" are suspended.

But just as suddenly as it started, the rain stops, revealing a village of A-frame, thatched-roof, riverside cabanas with showers, lights and good-size beds - comfortable, but as close to nature as you can get without the risk of falling in or being eaten by it.

With its bicycle-powered blenders, solar- and hydro-powered lighting and "tarabita", or hand-pulled, cable-car crossing of the river, it is the ultimate in sustainable eco-friendliness.

Created by American Tom Quesenbery and his wife, Mariela Tenorio, El Monte divides visitors, some of whom even complain about the rain in the rainforest. But, like us, the majority love it.

Apart from the luxuriant environment, attractions include a butterfly farm, a natural swimming pool, horse riding, zip lines, orchid gardens, nature walks and, of course, the birds.

Mistaken in our belief that we had paid our trip organiser in Sydney in advance for a guide - not so much to the birds as their habitats - one was provided at short notice, and free, by Quesenbery.

Some of the most beautiful birds, such as the sunbittern, can be spotted stalking unconcerned through El Monte's flooded vegie gardens. Others require a special campaign, plotted by the intrepid Julia.

On our final day, we wake in the dense, pre-dawn dark to go in search of the famous cock-of-the-rock. It starts with a bumpy, 30-minute taxi ride to a remote farm, followed by a muddy, land-slippy, 15-minute climb.

Halfway we cross a stream, hopping nimbly from rock to rock. At least, my companions do. Realising too late that the stepping stone ahead has not been vacated, I have no option but to drop, thigh-deep into the fast-flowing water.

At such times, the possibility of a broken leg is of less concern than damage to an expensive pair of binoculars. Fortunately all is well, albeit wet. We press on, high into the forest.

In what seems to be the middle of nowhere, Julia stops. "Esperamos." We wait. And wait. And wait, until just as dark turns to dawn the silence is broken by sounds of commotion ahead.

The cock-of-the-rocks are clocking on. The lek - a gathering of males for the purposes of a competitive mating display - is assembling. Suddenly, it is show time in the tall trees.

For the next half-hour, the puffed-up males hop around, bowing, flapping, squawking, posturing, trying to attract partners and repel rivals, the level of activity related to the proximity of females and the intensity of the light.

All too soon, the sun breaks through, the frenzy subsides and silence returns to the forest, as the show ends and the human audience happily wends its way home.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

LAN Airlines has a fare to Quito for about $2370 low-season return from Sydney, including tax. You fly to Santiago via Auckland (about 17hr, including transit time), then to Quito via Guayaquil (about 8hr, including transit time). Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect.

Touring there

El Monte (ecuadorcloudforest.com) and the San Jorge lodges (eco-lodgesanjorge.com) each offers a variety of activities, some of which are included in the price of the room. But taxi fares, bus rides and organised tours are very cheap, especially since the Australian dollar has strengthened against Ecuador's currency, the US dollar.

Staying there

Bookings for El Monte and San Jorge lodges and the Dann Carlton in Quito (danncarltonquito.com), where the author spent three nights, were made before departure as part of a package including a week-long trip to the Galapagos Islands. Rooms at each place cost from about $100 a night, depending on the season and the length of stay.

Comments