The Law of the Jungle

After staying two nights at a unique community called Jerusalem, that sits atop a rare hill with wonderful views across the forest canopy and a large lake, and then several days later stumbling across the tiny village Nova Informa do Uruá, we were now supposedly heading for an island community named Tupi, near the Solimoes river. It was not marked on my map, and I could see nothing on Google Earth, but the four Ticuna hunters we had met at Nova Informa insisted it was there. It was a large community, they said, and even had a shop. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and we certainly could use a shop.

“We will show you the trail. We’ll get there by this afternoon, and you can buy food supplies there!”

So that was settled, and three became seven, with the hunters, armed with shotguns, now walking up front. Crispin came next, playing his Ticuna music loudly on his now re-charged little pendrive music box, and Jonny and myself followed behind. We left Nova Informa still somewhat hungry despite the huge amount of barbecued fish, Farina and Pupunha we ate the night before. We now had no food apart from coffee and a small amount of sugar, but although somewhere at the back of my mind I was uneasy, we marched happily along the cleared track, thinking about all the goodies we would buy at the promised Tupi village shop later that day.

Much later that day – in fact, 10 hours and 20 kilometres later –  we were exhausted, after contending with a series of almost-impassable tangled swamps and few running rivers to speak of. We had lost any sign of a trail, and when night descended, we found ourselves in the middle of a low-lying, tangled, muddy, spike-filled palm swamp. We were not in good shape. I was particularly dehydrated, but everyone needed water and food. The four guys had nothing but a bag of farinha between them. Suddenly, Crispin disappeared into the dark, off to look for a water source. He had been muttering about it for some time, but I had asked him not to go off on his own at night. So.. seven became six, and I decided to make camp for the night, before we lost anyone else. An hour passed with no sign of Crispin, and I became increasingly concerned for his safety. In fact, I felt responsible for the whole lot of them at this point, and was wondering whether we would ever see Crispin again.

We took turns to whistle and call, but after a further 20 minutes, there was still no Crispin. Then one of the hunters heard a distant, low, booming sound. When I listened, I recognised the sound of metal on wood, and knew it was Crispin doing what I had taught him to do and banging on a ‘sounding’ Kapok tree. We moved out as a group, carefully edging closer to the sound, and finally, 25 minutes later, we found him. He was happy as Larry, proudly pointing to a dubious-looking muddy puddle he had found. To Crispin’s mind, clearly it was we who were lost, rather than him, although when I told him we would not have heard anything at all if it had been raining, it briefly wiped the grin from his beaming face. I could not stay angry, however – after all, we had water now – and we boiled six pans of water in a row and filled our empty bellies – bladders, at least – with cup after cup of hot, sweet coffee.

After a very poor night’s sleep, the next morning we headed directly for the Solimoes river, where we turned left along the riverbank, and eventually found the mysterious Tupi Ticuna community late that afternoon. I bought three large chickens, 2 bags of rice, 20 bread rolls, vegetables, farina and bottles of fizzy drinks, and we all had a feast, thanks to a local family who prepared the food and put us up for the night. The six Ticuna were laughing and talking late into the night, but I could not understand a word. Utterly exhausted and bleary eyed, I drifted off into a deep sleep in my swaying hammock, listening to their quiet, dulcet, tonal language against the backdrop of nocturnal forest insect noise. The following morning, I thanked the guys for walking with us, and paid for a boat to take three of them back along a network of small connecting rivers to their home in Nova Informa. Then Crispin, Jonny, Analdo and I (Analdo declared he wanted to go on to Tabatinga) headed for the town of Feijoal.

Feijoal is a very large Ticuna community, sitting on the south bank of the Solimoes/Amazon river. I had not originally planned to enter the place, as my route was to take me directly to Benjamin Constant via only a few remote communities inland, where I would resupply with basic foodstuff and maybe pass the night. It was a pattern that had already served me well, and when I had a guide with me he would chat with curious community members and sometimes join in a football match. It provided a brief respite from the grueling journey, without any complications. But Crispin decided that he must get back to his family. He was worried about them not having enough food, and also there was another important Ticuna festival on September 7th that all Ticuna participate in. It is also the date of the annual celebration of Brazil’s independence, and now, as we neared the Ticuna communities strung out along the river banks, from dawn till dusk we could hear the distant rhythmic drumming from villages up to 7 kilometres away practicing for the event. No danger of getting lost here, I reckoned. The idea was that Crispin and Jonny could get a boat back home, on the promise that they would return to complete the journey with me to Atalaia do Norte on the winding Javari River that marks the border between Brazil and Peru.

And so it was that the four of us stumbled out of the swampy, low-lying jungle at high noon, humping all our gear wearily across a local football pitch. Within minutes, hundreds of people gathered around and followed us, until finally we were joined by local law enforcement in the form of two security guys dressed in black and carrying truncheons. They guided us – marched us, more like – to the community Chief (Cacique) and thence to a local FUNAI building where we were detained and questioned for what seemed to me like hours. I realised it was the indigenous police force I was dealing with, and no less worrisome for that. I was dehydrated, exhausted, sweating, itching, and suffering with sores and blisters on my hips and feet. All I wanted was a bucket of water to drink, and another to wash in. If I could just get clean and change my clothes, I felt I could sleep for a week. It was frustrating, albeit predictable, that after all the time I had previously spent getting permission to pass through the indigenous lands, with endless meetings in Amaturá and informing FUNAI officials in São Paulo de Olivença, nobody here had been informed of my journey. Then, I learned that the local law was not too sure what to do with us, and the guys were considering contacting the Brazilian authorities – deeply concerning, since it would open a Pandora’s box of problems for me at this stage, and I knew that it would only take one over-zealous official for me to be deported at a stroke – with Peru within my grasp and almost in sight! Fortunately, Crispin chose this moment to redeem himself, and after talking in Ticuna to the Chief and the security guys over the course of a few hours, they kindly decided the lid on the box could stay closed. Thus ended my brush with the law.

We were released without further ado, and told we could stay at the Cacique’s house that night. After washing in the dark on the banks of the Solimoes, I decided it would be best if we all got the next boat to Benjamin Constant, which departed at 3am. There, I could also withdraw much-needed cash to pay the guides, and get them safely back home – although I knew I would need to return to Feijoal in due course to complete the onward journey, hopefully with Crispin and Jonny.

The Ticuna have done a remarkable job of retaining their lands and protecting their people, traditions and language, despite the vagaries of four hundred years of colonisation, slavery and unbelievable atrocities committed by outsiders in the past. All the communities we have passed so far have been welcoming, gentle, and generous beyond words, and I must express my sincere gratitude to all the Ticuna people for permitting me to peacefully pass through their lands. I hope this continues over the month or so ahead.

The next step will mark the final Brazilian section, although the journey will continue through the rainforest for many miles yet, deep into Peru and right up the lower slopes of the Andes. And in many ways I have grown accustomed to it. Away from towns and cities, deep in the forest, there are no shops, no hospitals or restaurants, no telephone network or WiFi, no police to enforce law, no roads or traffic lights… it is just you and the jungle. The stakes are high and the risks numerous, making it a truly Darwinian existence – and yet I am content with the prospect of plunging back into the “dark heart” of the jungle, there to give it my all. Make or break, success or failure, live or die – I am comfortable now with the real law of the jungle.

POSTSCRIPT As I was writing this blog, I heard the sad news about the fire at the Brazil national museum in Rio de Janeiro, that destroyed practically all the collections. It has been headline news here for the past three days. All the years of restoration work the scientists, historians, archeologists, and people who work there have put in – all gone in a few short hours. It has prompted me to make sure I pay a visit to the Ticuna museum (Museu Maguta)  here in Benjamin Constant.

I have an insatiable appetite for learning and understanding, and I miss watching the science and nature programs on BBC iplayer back in the UK (can’t get it here). I believe we should learn from the lessons of history, and the Ticuna museum promises a trip through a history of traditional sustainable living, and a glimpse of the tools and implements of indigenous peoples, their diet, hunting skills, agricultural methods, and construction techniques. I am also inspired by the thought that so many ideas, inventions and medicines have come about through studying nature, especially in this incredibly biodiverse rainforest system.

They say “never look back”, but I feel we sometimes need to look behind us to remember where we’ve come from. We can use this knowledge to move forward, and avoid past mistakes – maybe to inspire hope rather than offer only despair to the future of all the new people just arriving, all around the world. Perhaps we can still move forward without further messing up this fragile, marvellous earth-machine we all live on. As someone once said, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”.


Header Photo: From left to right, Crispin, myself and Jonny. Washed, fed, rested & ready to go again. Ticuna comunidade Jerusalem, Amazonas, Brazil.


Ticuna comunidade Nova Informa do Uruá, overlooking Lago Uruá. Click & pan image to see more detail.  Near Feijoal, Amazonas, Brazil


Guns replace blow darts. Crispin, Jonny and the four Ticuna hunters from comunidade Nova Informa. Near Feijoal, Amazonas, Brazil.

These guys only hunt & fish occasionally for food for their community, not for commercial gain or trophy hunting.


Cacique and school teacher Nibson in comunidade Tupi, saying goodbye to us before we headed back into the jungle. Tupi: near Feijoal, Amazonas, Brazil.


Cooking fish. Comunidade Jerusleam: Near Sao Paulo de Olivença,, Amazonas, Brazil.


Popular, cheap, plentiful. Armoured catfish from the lakes and rivers of Amazonas.


Room with a jungle canopy view. Ticuna Comunidade, Jerusalem, Amazonas,  Brazil.


A large Tapir (Anta) charged past us during a thunderstorm, missing me by inches. Crispin writes the Ticuna word for Tapir- Na-Cu – on a tree.


Jonny was astounded by the clarity of the sand-filtered water in some of the rivers we crossed. “Agua mineral,” he would say. Near S.P. de Olivença, Amazonas, Brazil.


Sound bite….  Listen briefly to Crispin chatting to community chief (Cacaqui) at Monte Sinai comunidade using his first language of Ticuna ….


NOTE: I am still unable to access my tracking data maps due to poor mobile internet connections, but I plan to upload ALL the Garmin Inreach track data, showing the route traversed, once I get a better connection.


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