I was sitting in the little Igapo Açu Pousda alone, unable to find anyone who would walk with me, and thinking about attempting a solo crossing.
I could see what looked like an indigenous guy sitting at the other side of the room. I went over and asked him if he was from a community up-river, and to my surprise it turned out he was from Colombia and had been walking around South America for the last few years. His name was Cayetano, He told me that 20 years ago he had worked as a petrol runner (carrying petrol for…) crossing the Darian Gap many times. He told me he knows the route like the back of his hand but he got out of that game and became an evangelist. I don’t think he had any money, so I bought him a meal.
Unbelievably, Cayetano decided he wanted to cross the jungle with me – but just for the fun of the thing, to accompany me while I did the navigating and cutting up front. He said if there was any money in it, he could use it to return home.
I was all set, but the head of the local community refused to allow us to enter the jungle anywhere south of the town without permits from Manaus, so instead of taking a straight 63km line from the road, we had to walk back 5km. This would make the (diagonal) crossing over 30km longer, and involve two additional dangerous river and flooded forest crossings. So be it. We prepared for a difficult traverse of around 15 days.
I sent Cayetano’s possessions – books, rucksack and extra clothes that he didn’t need to carry – on to Manaus, so that he could then return by boat to collect them later. I briefed him on the kit, and we had a training session in the pack-raft. We walked the 5km back down the road, took a deep breath, and entered the jungle. The next 23 days involved so many incidents it is difficult to single out the ones I should talk about.
At one point we just couldn’t see a way out of the flooded forest. All around, it was flooded very deeply and completely closed – much too dense to pass with one of the packrafts inflated (sometimes we put two backpacks in one raft and tow it… it’s easier). I didn’t know where or when we would encounter high ground, if at all, and it was already mid-afternoon and raining heavily. I was cold and had little energy left, but we had no option but to try to swim, with me cutting up front. The water was rushing past, our heads were submerged again and again, leaving us coughing and spluttering, often finding ourselves trapped in or under things and hanging on to anything for a breath. At one point Cayetano said “it’s a beautiful place to die – and the day you die is the most beautiful day of your life” (he is an evangelist, after all), but I firmly informed him – and anyone else I thought might be listening – that I was not ready to die just yet!
It was terrifying, but we kept calm and carried on at the snail’s pace of about one metre every few minutes. Finally, after what seemed like hours, I saw a patch of high ground – a tiny island in our sea – where we gratefully strung our hammocks. Most nights we made an extra effort to make a comfortable camp, making a good fire and sleeping remarkably well, but here we had no food and no fire, so we just stripped off our wet clothes, got into our hammocks, and passed the night as best we could. I hardly slept, shivering all night because my sleeping bag was saturated.
Finally, after 23 days and 100km of deep, unforgiving, at times impenetrable jungle, Cayetano and I could see in the distance the welcome light ahead that told us we were approaching a large river through the tangled, dense, low-lying semi-flooded forest. With just a few more steep rises and swamps to pass, we were now running on empty, having not eaten for several days. We struggled breathlessly on, every small step a laboured agony. I was thinner than I’ve ever been in my life, and after water entered my pack and soaked everything including my sleeping bag, I was constantly shivering trying to keep warm in the non-stop rain, and my water-logged backpack felt 10 times heavier than when I set out. I had extremely painful infections on the soles of my feet and had to take ibuprofen for this and two broken teeth, two machete wounds, and a mass of sores, spine punctures, cuts and insect bites. I was also now deaf in one ear, had some sort of throat infection. My clothes were torn to shreds and the jungle claimed two compasses, one machete, and an expensive carbon paddle.
I can honestly say it took all our God-given strength and more to climb and crawl up, over and through those last few very steep tangled hills one tiny, agonising step at a time, and through neck-deep swamps while being attacked by clouds of mosquitos, bees and flies. But the overwhelming relief to see a passing passenger boat chugging serenely down the beautiful, wide, slow-flowing Rio Purus, brought tears to my eyes. My legs finally rebelled, and I found myself falling to my knees. We had made it back to civilisation.
Melodramatic-sounding or not, the last few days felt like a life-or-death struggle for survival. I felt that the candle wax was all gone and the flame was flickering, but for some reason found myself obsessed with not triggering the SOS button on my Garmin Inreach.
People told me to ‘enjoy! the adventure’, but there was nothing – nothing – enjoyable about this traverse. I guess it’s the price you pay for attempting to do these things. Without doubt those last 23 days were the toughest and most challenging of my life to date, and a very steep learning curve for me, I fundamentally underestimated the length of time the section would take based on previous short crossings North of the Rio Amazonas, where the terrain was much more open and there was much less water under the canopy. Looking on the positive side (it has to be done), this experience will help me prepare better for the next sections, and as the Brazilians are fond of quoting, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
I won’t provide stats for every jungle leg, but for this one I will ….
An estimated 12-15 kilograms in body weight (Me)
2 teeth while starving hungry (we found a pod of Brazil nuts and opened the shell with our teeth)
1 set of paddles for packraft
ALL clothes, torn to shreds
1 pair of gloves
Bottle of chlorine ( water purification)
2 compasses – the first cracked and liquid escaped; the second I caught with my machete while constantly cutting a path and it shattered into a million pieces (amazingly Cayetano found the north-south pointer in the wet leaf litter)
1 cellular (mobile) phone, due to water damage.
1 basha, torn
2 straps broken on new backpack
At least 100 small holes in my 109 Litre dry bag (Ants got in & chewed holes to escape)
2 pairs of boot laces snapped
Agonizingly painful sore feet (the beginning of trench foot, I think) due to constantly wet feet in the rainy season. (even though doing careful foot care regime every night)
Intestinal problems due to pack belt pressing on stomach.
Chigger, fly sandfly and Mosquito bites galore.
Constant intense, irritating itching at night, especially feet and legs
Infected sores due to wet pack rubbing on my hip bone (solved this, but had to take a course of Amoxicillin).
Pinned finger to a tree with point of Machete after slipping on a wet log, then cut my hand again retrieving machete from swamp bed.
Throat closed up after multiple bee stings to my face and neck – couldn’t talk for 16 hours and had a fever.
Malnutrition & serious exhaustion due to a very restricted food intake, then no food at all for the last 5 days, yet burning several thousand calories per day. (I think this was the biggest problem and overshadowed all other problems)
Heard a massive tree fall nearby, with such force it shook the ground and took several other trees with it.
Pit viper struck after i stepped on it but it only caught my trousers.
A large venomous spider ran out of my pack, as I reached into it.
Many many animals passing during the night, including peccary & jaguar.
Fell down several holes up to our hips at times, i missed falling on machete by inches once.
At least 1000 mosquito bites per hour (Cayetano thinks much more)- So Increased risk of contracting malaria Dengue Zika and other due to malnutrition.
Risk of drowning twice, diving to retrieve paddle then crossing what seemed an endless tangled deep swamp during a storm.
Bootlaces getting caught on hidden branches, then not knowing when we would hit higher ground whilst traversing deep flooded forest (very scary but no panic)
Water rushing thru flooded (usually near to rivers) forest wedging us against logs, trees, and giant spiked covered palm trees.
I would like to say a big thank you to Cayetano whose patience and laid back attitude helped me get through. He also got a terrific fire going each night despite the wet conditions and made great soup from our limited supplies and never complained once. I apologised profusely to him for my vast underestimation regarding the time it would take, and paid him a bonus.
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Cayetano training in pack raft. Igapo Açu Amazonas Brazil
A flock of vultures sunning themselves at Igapo Açu before we left. I jokingly said to Cayetano “they’re waiting to see if we survive the journey ahead.”
Cheaper than a cremation I guess!!
A fire and well arranged campsite was very important, but last 4 days we had zero energy to make fire. The wood needed a lot of work to prepare as it was soaking.
Altberg boots. Made for the terrain. Amazonas, Brazil
Cayetano walks behind. Sometimes the only bits of clear forest were where trees had fallen.You can see how claustrophobically closed the forest was either side of the fallen tree. Amazonas,Brazil
Me already looking very thin a week before we ran out of food. I was stupidly trying to save money whilst in towns by reducing my food intake – never again!
I’m eating for England now!
Many strange plants inc Blue mushrooms. Amazonas,Brazil
My feet were incredibly sore and pitted the final few days. Amazonas, Brazil
Many of these large colourful bugs shared our campsite each night. Amazonas, Brazil
Garmin Inreach tracking map shows the route taken. I had to limit tracking points due to low battery power.
Map: Pan and zoom to see more detail