The title of this blog is a little misleading. Let me explain…
I was surprised to see a vast array of books on the shelves in the small school in the indigenous community of Terra Vermelha. This tiny village, (literally `Red land`) is a protected indigenous area (although I was initially unaware of this), but Pasquale, the community`s president, was happy to grant me permission to spend some time there before continuing my trek. Its school is basically a large, blue and white-painted, wooden shed, that sits on the highest point of the indigenous land overlooking the sun-scorched football pitch. Football seems to provide the focal point, meeting point and heart and soul of almost all of the communities I’ve passed through. I have always been invited to play, and have taken up the challenge a few times – although because of the lack of team colours, I’m sure I often pass the ball to the wrong team. Fortunately, no-one seems to mind too much.
Anyway, the school had all sorts of books, ranging from astronomy and mathematics to the works of William Shakespeare, and I was amazed. But why? Some of the community are already bi-lingual, speaking their native Apurinã as well as Portuguese, and they visit the larger towns to trade and work and visit family, so of course they need the resource to fullfil a natural desire to learn and educate themselves in this rapidly changing connected world. What could be more natural?
The technological advancement of the human race is fueled by our eagerness to learn, to discover, to understand, to resolve, to fabricate, to communicate, to imagine, to always want to see what lies beyond the horizon. For better or worse, you can’t restrain innate human curiosity.
Jose had been working as a teacher at the school for the last three years. They have classes most weekday evenings between 7pm and 9pm – classes of mixed ages, including some adults from the community. We chatted about my adventure and Jose wanted to cross to Coari with me, but unfortunately he recently had a leg injury and was still recovering. He also had family and work commitments. However finally, after a few weeks of searching different nearby communities, and with the generous help of Jose, I found a guide (Jhonatan – see guides page) in the next nearest town of Beruri, who was willing to traverse the 120-130 kilometres of jungle to reach Coari with me.
Jhonatan was now training to be a motorcycle mechanic, but had previously worked alongside his father since childhood, hunting and fishing in the Amazon forests. He was street, jungle, and world wise, he told me he lives in “os pulmões do mundo” (the lungs of the world). After organising our supplies and kit in Terra Vermelha we both got a canoe back down the Rio Purus to Aruma and stayed the night on a floating house. Then, in order to start from the endpoint of the last traverse, next morning we walked along the newly exposed southern banks of the Purus for 20 kilometres until we reached Terra Vermelha. I then swam across the now narrow Purus river, and Jhonatan took the pack-raft.
We rested for a day and then the following morning after a breakfast of Banana fritters & coffee at Pasquale`s house, we finally and enthusiastically set off for Coari. My main concern was finding enough water on route, but the previous night`s big tropical storm lessened my concern somewhat. Our plan was to follow a connecting network of small rivers, so that we would never be more than 4 kilometres from a river. The only problem was that it only rained once in the first ten days, so many of the small streams (igarapés), where we hoped to replenish our water, were dry.
Most of the time we were walking in dried-out forest that is flooded for six months of the year (February-July). We could see the watermark on the trees at times five or more metres above our heads, it was an eerie feeling to think that in six months time fish would be swimming several meters above our heads, and I couldn’t get rid of the crazy feeling that we were, in a sense, walking under water.
Based on my earlier near-death experience traversing floodplain with rising waters, It would have been completely impossible to cross this section, one of the lowest points of the Amazon basin, on foot – or even swimming, for that matter – during high water.
The earlier experience played on my mind now, and made me wonder what other threats were out there, but I know now that at times we have to let go of our fears. Fear exaggerates our concern over potential hazards, and I find I need my mind to be relaxed. If I thought constantly about all the things that potentially could go wrong, I wouldn’t put one foot in front of the other. I have to take the risks, although I do what I can to minimise that risk without compromising the task of moving forward.
In addition to concerns over nature’s hazards, I also worry on many levels about contact with people. I try to let go of negative expectations in favour of positive thinking. I immerse myself in the encounters rather than lying low when in communities or towns, and generally this seems to open doors of opportunity, understanding, and trust – with wholly positive outcomes most of the time.
The crossing for the most part was difficult, and the inevitable “What the heck am I doing here?” question crossed my mind from time to time – usually when we were climbing over or under what looked like hurricane-damaged forest under the blazing tropical sun. It was not hurricane damage, of course, but the chaos caused by the seasonal flooding. With secondary growth intertwined with primary forest near the river junctions, the resulting tangle reveals the sheer force of the water at high flood.
Difficult terrain like this, coupled with the size and weight of our packs, makes the walking very dangerous and uncomfortable at times, and one slip could prove fatal if I fall onto a razor-sharp machete. But all the discomfort is self-inflicted, I remind myself. I try not to give in to “weak thoughts”, to quote Ranulph Finnes. We just have to stay positive and get past the tough bits. Every cloud has a silver lining, or something (it says here)………
On this traverse, we had to carry enough food for at least 20 days, as well as an extra two litres of water each as it was dry season. More than once we had to clean and purify very dirty water from basically blackish muddy puddles of old rainwater (Peppa Pig would have loved it)..
On two occasions we passed groups of giant otters, growling angrily at us along the river banks, and we had to run at one point (these ‘cuddly’ guys are over 5 feet long, with very sharp teeth!) We also had a close encounter with a herd of White lipped Peccary as they thundered passed in front of us. They may look cute, but they’re a genuinely dangerous proposition in a hunting pack. Jhonatan knew most of the wildlife we saw and heard by name, and reassured me one night when I heard what sounded to me like shotguns going off. The sound came in fact from giant Pirarucu (Arapaima) snapping their jaws shut when eating other smaller fish. As you can imagine, many incidents occurred during this section – too many to include in this blog. But if I eventually get to write a book I will fill in the gaps!
Jhonatan, as much as he wanted to, couldn’t continue on to Tefe with me. He needs to return to Beurui as his mother is ill, so again I need to find another guide in Coari ASAP. I would like to thank Jhonatan for sharing some of his vast knowledge and expertise with me and for the successful traverse. He now wants to plan a big adventure himself here in Brazil. I offered to send him some equipment when i reach the finish. Reviewing the trail data, we covered close to 135 kilometres of jungle in 22 days.
I would also like to thank Nina, who I met a year ago on the Amazon river, (we crossed paths on different adventures) for the very generous donation to my ever-diminishing expedition funds. This will be very useful indeed – now, rather than trying to fix my ailing GPS and risk it failing again, the money will go towards a new Garmin unit. My old unit decided on this leg that it had enough battering, water immersion and heat, and stopped working halfway across to Coari. Thank you sincerely Nina!
Onwards and upwards.
Header Photo: On day 7 we came across a track that led us 4 to 5 Km in the direction we wanted to go. The track belonged to a forestry protection agency. They use camera traps to monitor the wildlife. Our deep jungle Hennessy hammocks protect us at night from insects and mosquitos, and the frequent tropical thunder storms.
.Pasquale, President of Terra Vermelha, chats to Jhonatan about our proposed route. Pasquale was born there and had entered the forest many times over the years.
Brewing coffee under water: The river to the left will rise another ten or more meters in flood season
.We passed the very friendly Aiapua indigenous community 6 days into our trek on the Lago Aiapua, We feasted on Pirarucu, farina, banana, mangos, pineapple, sweet rice and coffee. Jhonatan third from left.
Getting the boat back from Beurui to T.V. with Jhonatan, Jose and his son.
.Me organising some of the food supplies for the long route ahead.
Spot the caterpillar about 100mm long.
Boy in Terra Vermelha climbs a tree to get the ripe red Cashew.
.Jhonatan points to the water mark on the tree about 4 meters above us.
Spot the wasp nest under the leaves. We were attacked at least once or twice a day when cutting through. Hard to see at times.
Jhonatan, Jose and his son sitting on top of the boat from Beruri to Terra Vermelha. click on the panorama image to see more detail
Tracking map one: . Aruma to lago Aiapua
Tracking Map 2, Aiapua to coari: Showing the route we took, the waypoints, and location of tweets and messages sent.
Interactive map: Pan and zoom map below to see more.