After two unsuccessful starts with different Ticuna guides, I was looking for a third-time-lucky break.
I was resigned this time to doing a solo crossing, after having had to turn back twice, the second time being much more of a challenge. It had taken two days and a looong river paddle to get back to their community near to Amaturá, as we were four days into the crossing when one of the guides suddenly insisted that he must return. I’m still not sure why, but he was adamant that he must get home, despite the inevitable difficulty of doing so. I have observed already that many of the young indigenous people who live in or around the relatively new settlements, are reluctant to enter the forest. I find this detachment from the forest a little saddening, considering they’ve been fiercely independent and self-reliant for thousands of years, and I often find myself musing over the advantages and disadvantages that integration into and dependency on the modern world brings for the indigenous Indians. But it is not my place to pass judgement. I did find, however, that the two guys who accompanied me on this latest abortive attempt, were not used to entering deep into the forest, and neither of them could be persuaded by any means to cut and walk up-front, leaving me to do all the hard work including making fire morning and night.
In short, I had decided to go solo. I was fed up with waiting to find another suitable guide – one who would not let me down – and I wanted to get out of the town. I was beginning to feel like part of the furniture. So, after meticulously weighing all my gear and food, removing items to reduce weight, I prepared my pack and also changed the route. I was fit, ready, and eager to move… until, just before I was about to leave, Crispin contacted me. Crispin, Ticuna himself, had been working in Benjamin Constant and had just returned home to his community Cordeiro de Deus. He heard about the problems I had had, and contacted me to offer to cross to São Paulo de Olivença with me. I was hesitant at first, as I was psyched up to go it alone, but after chatting with him I felt reasonably confident that he could be the right person to make a successful crossing with me.
I also received welcome help, advice and hospitality from Ticuna Kokama Chief Laurindo, who teaches Portuguese and the original language to children in the Tambaqui community, and my confidence in trusting a local guide returned after being somewhat dented over the previous goings on. Laurindo helped me on occasions when I was being threatened by some of the more volatile but understandably defensive members of remote Ticuna communities I wanted to pass, managing to diffuse the situation by contacting them to explain my mission. So In the end, I decided to wait, and after another room-pacing delay while Crispin prepared himself and his family for his absence, we finally set off to reach the point where I had broken off the earlier attempt with Flávio and Johnny.
Crispin, like the others, was not very keen on walking up front, so on this leg I led the way through the knee-deep necromass of leaf litter navigating, cutting and climbing, over and under a labyrinth of fallen trees and buttresses of the many giant kapok trees and through the winding rivers. Rain, heat, blistering sun, lung-bustingly steep forested hills, toucans, macaws, calling monkeys… ants running before us in all directions, clouds of mosquitoes enveloping us, my heart pounding, sweat pouring from my brow, and my breath rasping as my lungs worked to suck the oxygen out of the humid rainforest air. I felt “life running through my veins”, and carried on, ever hopeful that I wouldn’t accidentally tread on any venomous snakes in my dogged progress.
My senses were on full alert… every sight, every sound, and the incredible assault of scents and smells from brushing past giant leaves and saplings, or wading sandy river beds. Crispin kept pausing to cut the bark on trees, snap small branches, or pick different fruit and foliage. He worked constantly with his sense of taste and smell to understand and recognise the jungle and its multitude of tree and plant species. I also find myself increasingly tuned to this great forest, especially when we are buried in the canopy for long periods. The temperature is vastly different below the cooling umbrella of trees, which naturally conditions the air and shields the ground from the drying equatorial sun. You can sense when it’s going to rain by the smell in the air, the burgeoning wind, and the temperature changes. Sometimes I can smell nearby animals, rivers, fallen trees or certain plants, all of which offer the careful traveller messages. Even the differing altitude of the terrain seems to offer distinct and recognisable aroma, and the drier, higher forest, especially in dry season, has a more pleasant familiar smell to it. And of course after we smell it coming in the air, when the rain does fall, its cleansing, cooling, replenishing effect on the forest is so welcome.
“Every tree in the forest is a fountain, sucking water out of the ground through its roots and releasing water vapour into the atmosphere through pores in its foliage. In their billions, they create giant rivers of water in the air – rivers that form clouds and create rainfall hundreds or even thousands of miles away”
This is a quote from a recent article that made me consider that the rainforests not only produce rainfall and rivers on the ground, but rivers above us in the sky also. Read the full article here…. Rivers in the Sky
When we finally arrived at the Rio Jandiatuba, we were to find that the river was surprisingly low. In fact, it had already reached its lowest point of the year and was (for once!) easy to swim across. Not only this, but the forest I had thought would be flooded on the opposite bank, was already dry. So there was some compensation for the long delay after all.
In the end, then, the crossing was not one of the most perilous I have faced, and even contained a few pleasant surprises. However the one major issue on this last leg for me was the hordes of blood-sucking, disease-ridden, itch-inducing, parasitical, micro monsters, the mosquitoes! They were relentless in their pursuit, and with precision timing, appeared each day at 6pm in their droves, as if they had been following us all day, calling in their friends and families along the way. Thousands upon thousands of them bore down on us, biting through clothing, socks, and every exposed bit of skin not protected by a solid layer of leather. Toward the end of this leg we had to stop walking early, so as to wash, make camp and fire, and eat before they arrived. The jungle was wet for the first 7 days, as it rained twice a day, so I guess this didn’t help the situation. In the mornings Crispin would lie in his hammock amusing himself by watching me trying to get a fire going at 5.30am surrounded by a buzzing, humming, blood-heavy horde. He would laugh at me doing the mosquito dance around the fire while making coffee. They were absolutely horrendous, and much worse than anything I have seen along the entire expedition. I hate the little blighters, despite the fact that I’ve come to believe they offer the forest some protection against human invasion. Read 24+ simple ways of repelling mosquitos here on Tipsbulletin
Now, I am cleaning and repairing my worn-out kit in São Paulo de Olivença, organising food for three, and waiting for Crispin to return here with his brother. Crispin did not want to miss the annual festival gathering, perhaps ironically celebrating Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travel. He plans to return with his brother to cross with me to the border of Brazil at Benjamin Constant. We still need to pass various Ticuna settlements en route, so they will be of key importance to the expedition at this point – especially as their native language is Ticuna.
A final note: when I set out on this journey, I did not realise just how difficult it would be to find anybody to walk with me. But this has now become (along with my precarious and worsening financial situation) my main concern, and ultimately the main reason for the timescale of this journey. And here I am once again patiently waiting for guides, preparing kit, writing this blog and occasionally looking upward at the rivers in the sky.
I will add the tracking map data displaying my route on the last leg ASAP. At the moment i can’t access the online map due to v-weak WiFi connection.
Ticuna Indigena Cacique Olveira and family at Tambaqui community. Amazonas, Brazil
Flavio and Johnny on the looong and incredibly winding journey in a tiny single person Packraft Returning down a small river to Tambaqui. I was in the other raft with two packs-70 ish Kilos of kit pressing on my legs. It wasn’t easy! Amazonas, Brazil
Header photo: Children and one of five Boi (Oxen) the community have. Community Tambaqui: Amazonas, Brazil
Canoeing along the Igarapé Amatura. Ticuna Chief (Cacique) and Tambaqui school teacher Laurindo whose help and advice was vital in restoring my confidence to make the crossing safely to São Paulo de Olivença
Crispin chatting in Ticuna to the first people we met on the Rio Jandiatuba after an 11 days crossing of mountainous jungle. They kindly fed us fish, rice and fried bananas to fill our empty rumbling stomachs despite the fact I was misinformed that they would be hostile. Amazonas, Brazil
Crispin during a rest break making a popular handcrafted toy/game from a heavy, hard-to-find seed pod, he plans to paint it with a Ticuna design back home. Amazonas: Brazil
Growth of some sort on a tree in the remote untouched forest. Not sure if it is a termite nest, a vine or a fungus. Any botanists out there know?