Where to start? So much has happened and there are so many stories to tell it’s going to be hard to explain it all but I’ll try and give a very quick glimpse for you of my last six months travelling the length of the Amazon.
Tarran, my travel companion and I set off in June for Lima, Peru where we spent a few weeks packing up our kit, sending our kayaks and expedition food to the point we’d start kayaking and notifying all the relevant authorities of our plans. With that all done we made our way to the most distant source of the Amazon, located at the headwaters of the Rio Mantaro high up in the Andes near the town of Cerro de Pasco.
We’d been told to find Mauro, a local shepherd to take us to the source. We had no phone number, no photo, didn’t know where he lived and he didn’t know we were coming, but having asked about a bit we found his house so we laid in wait. And for a price, yes, he could take us. Great. We spent the afternoon acclimatising - the air was so thin it hard to breath and it was so cold, dropping below zero overnight. Despite having 40kgs+ of kit in each of our backpacks we clearly were not prepared for these conditions. It was going to be hard. The following day we set off with Mauro, past his herds of llama and alpaca before finding the icy trickle that would turn into the largest river system in the world. It was a little underwhelming if I’m honest though the views were incredible.
The High Andes
We spent first week hiking up and down over the High Andes, away from roads and essentially off the grid. It was beautiful. Huge valleys, vast expanses of open plains with the river meandering its way beneath us topped off with bright blue skies and sunshine overhead.
We clambered over fences and into fields of golden knee-high grass, scrambled over rocky outcrops, trudged through boggy heathland, passing cattle, sheep, llama and alpaca as we went. Eventually we reached the road – the road we would spend the next 500km walking along.
The long and winding road
The road was by no means flat. It wound its way up and down steep hills, along valleys with sheer drop offs and through villages and towns. We took the time to stop in Huancayo and Ayacucho to rest our tired bodies, take in some of the tourist sites and eat as much as we could including many plates of rice and chicken and my favourite, Lomo saltado – a stir-fried dish of steak, onions, peppers and potato served with rice…a welcome contrast to our dehydrated meals. Huge trucks, buses and cars buzzed past us, each one hooting as if they were the first vehicles we’d seen in days.
Aggressive dogs ran at us, growled, barked and bared their teeth as we walked past their turf, often only backing down when shown the end of the stick or feeling the dust bounce up from the stones we’d have to throw. It was hazardous! But on the flip side we were shown exceptional kindness. People would give us food and drink as we passed, inviting us into their homes for the night. Their generosity and warmth was humbling and is unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world. As we descended the final 4,000m high mountain and down into the jungle, we hoped this generosity would continue along the river.
Kayaking the Red Zone
Having completed the 600km, 36 day walk along the Rio Mantaro we’d reached Pichari where our kayaks had been driven from Lima. We spent a few days packing all our kit into them, squeezing in as much food and supplies as possible. We met up with our Red Zone guide, Cesar, an essential requirement, and tracked down the permissions we needed to get through the Red Zone, the tribal-governed, largest cocaine-producing region in the world. With these in hand the three of us set off. The first few days were much tougher than we anticipated. Rough rapids turfed us out of our kayaks on a regular basis requiring us to pull over and bail out before setting off again. To add to that, we were regularly pulled over by shotgun wielding Rondero to check our paperwork. Each time all was in order and we were invited in for Masato, an alcoholic drink made from chewed yucca which is then spat out and left to ferment before being drunk. It really was as disgusting as it sounds!
This relatively narrow section of the river was incredibly intimate and certainly my favourite stretch. It’s a five-sense immersive experience as you see and hear the wildlife in the environment around you, take in the sweet jungle smells of trees, flowers and water, taste the fruits and fresh waters of the rainforest, while constantly getting attacked by the bugs and trees out to get you! After just over a week we were through the most challenging section, or so we thought.
The Rio Ucayali
Things started to get interesting for us here. On the first day of this stretch Cesar disappeared. Mixed ideas of what could have happened to him ran through our heads. Having spent over half a day searching for him, we took a call to continue downstream, asking in the communities if they’d seen him. No sign. We made phone calls to mutual friends in Peru and the US who contacted his friends and family to see if they’d heard anything. Nothing. Three days later we received a message saying that he’d caught a boat downstream to Pucallpa and was waiting for us there, a week’s paddle away. At least he was safe. A few days after saw us fearing for our lives as gunshots flew past our heads when we rounded a corner and paddled towards a boat full of trigger-happy men. It was only when they started to cheer, shout and wave at us that we realised we were not about to get robbed or killed, but that didn’t stop our hearts pounding.
Reaching Pucallpa we were buzzing with excitement. We must have been through the worst of it by now! The Peruvian Marines shadowed us for the next three days, restricting our movement somewhat until we came to an agreement that we’d be fine without their support from here on in. The river widened, slowing down in the process and almost flowing backwards at points. We’d take narrow shortcuts in the hope there would be some faster flow but were disappointed. Dolphins, both pink and blue-grey, performed acrobatics for us on a regular basis while at night jaguars prowled around our tents, investigating the strange domes and crafts that had appeared on their beach. A few weeks on and we reached Iquitos where we spent a few days in a jungle lodge, getting the opportunity to walk around trails in search of other wildlife. It was a different side to the jungle; it was magical.
Reaching the border
Rested up and re-stocked with more dehydrated food to last us the next two months we set off for the Peru / Brazil / Columbia border. It was only seven days in the kayaks but the dramatic weather conditions made it feel longer. We experienced 42 degree heat as we paddled through the midday sun struggling to find shade for our lunch break, shortly followed by darkening skies and the most incredible electrical storm I’ve ever seen. With nowhere to pull over and shelter we just had to continue in hope we’d not attract a stray lightning bolt! Another few military checkpoints, some illegal camping on Colombian beaches and we were there.
Freedom to move between the tri-border towns allowed us to visit three countries twice each in a single day, whilst we proceeded with the usual border formalities. We kept our kayaks out of view of the Brazilian authorities to avoid unnecessary questions or import duties. It was here that we made the most of our time in Colombia, taking in the different foods and music the town had to offer.
Onto the urban metropolis of Manaus
Over the border and we were into our longest single stretch on the river – 21 days in a row with no break. The river continued to widen by the day so we’d ask local fishermen for the best routes, receiving tips on which of the braided stream still contained water, or when to follow the faster flowing main channel. Where possible we took these narrow shortcuts; they proved far more interesting with wildlife to look at and small communities to stop in. We chose to stop in these villages to avoid the ‘Colombian pirates’ we’d been warned about so frequently, but these too came with their own problems. Whether we were cooking our dinner, washing or even trying to go to sleep, we were swamped by up to 50 people watching our every move. We felt like A-list celebrities.
One day Tarran and I got separated, spending the night on separate sandbanks a few kilometers apart. Fortunately with the help of our satellite phone, GPS tracker and my parents, I was able to locate him and catch up the following morning without much of an issue. It was still worrying that we’d let that happen!
Eventually we reached the urban jungle of Manaus, a gigantic city complete with colonial architecture, high-rises, beaches, tourist attractions including an opera house and a large industrial shipping port.
We spent a few days recovering, repairing a few leaks in the kayaks and taking in the Manaus Chamber Orchestra concert before setting off for the ‘meeting of the waters’. This natural wonder happens at the confluence of the sandy coloured Rio Solimões and the dark waters of the Rio Negro, two vast rivers that do not fully mix for a number of kilometers, to form the Rio Amazonas. It’s an impressive sight to behold, even more to kayak along it for hours.
The wide, wide river
Once the waters had fully mixed further downstream, we were truly underway again. The river continued to get wider with huge meanders that would take half a day or more to go round. The large rainforest trees that we’d become accustomed to began to be replaced by cattle ranches perched on the steep river banks as the river below receded and the dry season really took hold. High winds would force us to hug these banks while creating large rolling waves up to 15ft high. We negotiated these carefully taking care not to capsize, but we had more interesting things to come.
One morning I got stung whilst washing resulting in a panicked phone call to a doctor in the UK, who calmly told me to monitor the numbness and treat it like a weever fish sting, submerging the foot in unbearably hot water to draw out the poison . Within hours the numbness subsided and we could continue our journey.
As we neared the ocean, now 5,750 kilometers from the source, we started to see more islands appear in the main channel. We took a decision early on to stick to the right hand bank; eventually we peeled off down a narrow channel to reach the Rio Pará. The vegetation began to change to mangrove making it harder to find places to stop plus there was an increased risk of pirates (again!) hiding amongst the tree roots. We’d have to rely on the generosity of the people that live along this stretch of the river for a place to stop. Fortunately for us we had no issues in finding places and generally every household we’d ask let us stash our kayaks on top of their jetty, invited us in, gave us a slap-up meal of rice, fish or chicken, acai and manioc farinha before showing us to the hammocks they’d put up for us to sleep in. We even got to watch a container ship being hijacked by pirates whilst eating dinner one evening. It was like prime-time drama, only live. It was incredible.
Nearing the end of the narrow channel we really started to feel the influence of the tide, battling for hours against the flow but moving forward only a few kilometers before finding a place to stop, rest and wait for the tide to turn. This also meant that we had to change our schedule to a 24 hour day: six hours on, six hours off and repeat. We’d navigate the calm waters at night by moonlight before trying to catch a few hours sleep in the hot midday sun but with little success. This continued for seven days until the last push to the end.
Reaching the Atlantic
Having not had much sleep for a week by now, the tides were taking their toll. We took the decision to make one last push and reach the Atlantic Ocean later that day. We set off at 10.30pm, battling through the breaking waves to reach the calmer water. I quickly capsized, retreating back to the beach to bail out; not a great start. Second time lucky and I made it out. We paddled through the clear night avoiding the sandbanks that appeared out of the dark blue river. As the sun rose we were not far from the headland where we’d make our way out to the Atlantic. But then the tide changes - we had to wait it out. We managed to get a few minutes out of the kayaks before the tide forced us back into them and we were floating again. We headed over to the mangrove trees, tying up to a branch as the stream raced past us.
Time for breakfast. We were running low on fresh water at this stage so decided to add river water to our meals. I took one bite of the cold porridge and gagged; the salt content was way too much to even contemplate eating. I’d just have to go hungry. Six hours later and we were underway again. With the flow behind us it didn’t take long to reach the headland where a line of fishing boats had been waiting for the tide too. We paddled straight past them and onto a sandbank. The tide was receding fast so we had to make a quick retreat on foot back to deeper water and paddle around the apparently gigantic obstacle. We followed the fishing boats out along the sandbank to the Atlantic Ocean and kept on going. 12km from land we finally reached our ‘destination’! Emotions were mixed; elation; fatigue; relief; but the waves were huge, hitting us from all directions. We only managed a quick paddle high-five before retreating back towards calmer waters.
Was that it?
We thought that would be the end. But being 12km out from land we had to paddle back. The tide had washed us much further down that we’d thought too, so as we paddled we came across the same huge sandbank that we’d managed to narrowly avoid earlier. This time however we got stuck. The tide kept on washing us a bit further onto the sandbank, and as the water continued to rush past us, a bit further. It took us a full three hours to get off the sandbank. The sun was setting fast, the tide turned again and we had to battle against the stream to get into the river channel that would eventually take us to São Caetano where we’d finally be able to put our feet on dry land again some 22 hours after we set off. We were shattered, but our mammoth expedition was finally over!
Was it worth it? Definitely. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend an extended period of time in such a magical place and really get to know the Amazon, it’s people and how the two work together. I’ve come away with so many stories and memories of the experience, things that nobody will ever be able to experience again, not even me. It’s also given me the opportunity to realise where my passion lies and helped me understand what I want to get out of life. I just hope that I am able to continue adventuring in a big way, sharing my stories and inspiring others to step out of their comfort zone and follow their dreams.