The Juruá-Purus forest eco-region lies in the western part of the Brazilian Amazon basin between the Solimões (Amazon) and Purus rivers. This area lies entirely in the lower Amazon basin, and the terrain is mostly uniform, consisting of flat, forested plains dissected by large rivers that are characterised by endless meanders, frequent oxbow lakes and thousands of small streams, all of which flood annually.
Between low and high water each year, the rains generally raise river levels throughout the basin by around 8-9 metres (roughly equivalent to the height of a 3-storey building). Once waters rise above the level of the riverbanks, they inundate the forest, creating the seasonally-flooded Varzea. Occasionally, the difference between low and high water can reach 16m or 17m – or the height of a six-storey apartment block, when high water levels approach 29m or more above sea level. Rarely, levels creep towards 30m, with an all-time record high in 2009 of 29.97m. (AMSL Level taken from the mouth of the Rio Negro)
This year, levels are forecast to hit record highs, and as I set off up the Rio Purus to continue my journey, the Rio Negro was already four metres higher than this time last year. Despite this, I hoped that there would be some miraculous way to traverse the next 600 miles of the Amazon basin. As I made a painfully slow and frustrating recovery from the latest traverse, I spent hours – days – weeks – painstakingly plotting a route using topographic maps, satellite imagery and meteorological information from several sources. I thought I could see a way…
Making the long, winding and at times turbulent boat journey to return to the Arumã community on the Rio Purus, I put the last difficult traverse firmly to the back of my mind. I was optimistic, determined, and strong enough again to continue my walk “come hell or high water” from where I last walked to with Cayetano. I could clearly see that the river levels had risen dramatically in the weeks I had been away (see images below). Even the boat crew were surprised to see me return, especially after the bad physical condition I was in when they last saw me – but they could not know how desperate I was to get back to walking, or that I had a cunning plan.
My idea was to start from Terra Vermelho (Red Land), 14 kilometres further up river from the Arumã community. It would mean swimming the 14km from my last point of walking, but I felt fit enough to do this. The only other thing I needed to do was to find somebody from one of the local communities to cross with me as far as Coari.
We arrived at the community on a quiet Friday morning, and after helping with the unloading, I quickly broached the subject with the locals. I met uncompromising negativity and what felt like a wall of bloody-minded intransigence, but it was – as I realised over the next few days – simple common sense. I shrugged off the doom-laden advice I received from everyone and spent my time researching, exploring by canoe, looking at the terrain and talking to everyone I could. And finally, the truth trickled through the cracks in my desperation and I had to accept that it would be very foolish and in fact totally impossible to attempt the crossing on foot with the current high flooded forest levels, also no person wanted to attempt to cross with me until the water was lower. I had, in short, missed my window of opportunity.
People call me crazy (and other worse things too, no doubt), but I do try to minimise risk within the parameters of what I want to achieve, and take the line of least resistance whenever possible. With the rivers still rising until the end of June, and already only a few metres below some of the highest points I identified on my planned route, my only option is to wait until September before moving on. A community member from Arumã has agreed to walk with me then, and also to contact in advance the two communities further along my planned route that we will need to pass.
It is unbelievably frustrating having to wait, now that I am fit again and raring to go, but I must bow to the forces of Mother Nature. So I will try to use the time wisely -to improve my Portuguese, work on my physical fitness, and learn how to build basic structures using traditional methods, including weaving a roof using materials from the forest palm leaves. I will visit an indigenous community further up a nearby tributary, and of course I will be planning and revising my route through to the border of Columbia. I will also start writing the first few chapters of my book about the expedition.
I’m trying to see this as a rest period, which will contribute to the overall expedition, and my mind will remain focused on the expedition. I’m not in a race, and my journey has so far been one where I have seen and learned much more than I ever would have just travelling on the network of rivers by boat. Since my expedition mode evolved into a plan to walk and at times swim – without using a motorised vehicle or boat to move forward, I am much more reliant on and in tune with the people and the landscape and all its incredible creatures at ground level.
Between now and September the basic challenge is to support myself in the Amazon, stay mission fit, and to spend as little money as possible (I don’t yet have enough funding to finish the entire walk to the source of the Amazon). I hope to do some work in return for food and accommodation over the next few months.
I plan to put out a few blogs between now and August to keep everyone up to date on what I’m doing, so please sign up for the email below if you want to be notified. Also, see my Twitter feed on the left, to get more frequent updates.
Updates can also be seen on the Explorers Web website.
Many thanks for your support so far.
Header photo. A passenger boat heads down the Rio Purus. Amazonas Brazil.
The passenger boat I took back to the Aruma community on the Rio Purus. I helped the crew unload some goods at various communities along the route. Amazonas Brazil.
A floating village along the Rio Purus. The houses sit on logs and rise and fall with the river levels.
Manaus port a few months ago. You can see the exposed sand bed with cars and market stools. Compare it to the photo below, taken recently from the same position. The water level is about 10 metres higher now and rising. It is forecast to hit a new record high this year.
Rio Negro: Manaus, Brazil. Compare this with the image above.