Apologies for the big gap since my last blog. All the goings-on over the last few months are far too numerous to mention in detail, but here`s a quick overview to give you some idea.
The main task was to complete the final leg of the Brazilian Amazon from the large Ticuna community of Feijoal, to a small village on the bordering rio Yavari. It should have been a relatively easy job: first, a 4-5 day walk through various Ticuna and other communities along the exposed, low-water banks of the Solimõ es river, to Benjamin Constant. After this, there would be a day’s stroll along the 28km road to Atalaia de Norte, then another 9-10 day crossing through the rainforest, to the Rio Yavari via Palmari. Following this, I would offically exit Brazil and enter Peru. Simple. Simple except that it was like being parachuted blindfold, in the dark, and without a map, into the middle of a minefield of problems, risks, and real dangers. And being forced to wear dark glasses. In the end, it tested my nerves, patience and resolve to the absolute limits.
It all started (and nearly all ended) when my two Ticuna guides failed to return, to walk to the border with me. I had sent money to them in advance, and I waited as patiently as possible for them, watching the rivers rise, for almost four weeks. In the end, I received a message from another Ticuna chief, advising me that they could not return from their community (Tambaqui, near Amaturá ). So I returned to Feijoal (my last point of walking) by boat, with another indigenous Ticuna who had good connections in FUNAI, the Indigenous Indian agency. I thought I was in good hands and wouldn’t have any problems at all. We planned to ask the Cacique if she could grant us permission to walk along the banks of the Solimões and exit Feijoal in 20 minutes. Unfortunately, she was in Benjamin Constant. This little bit of unfortunate timing then kicked off a chain of events that led to us both being arrested, searched, interrogated, threatened, and locked up for the night. Dé jà vu! Another uncomfortable, sleepless night ensued, with what felt like half the community outside the building, battering the windows and shouting.
As is often the case, these things can go one way or the other on a whim. They could have easily decided to let us pass – end of story, thank you very much and goodnight. But luck was not on our side. Bureaucracy and its ugly sister corruption raised their heads. We were told we would need to get sundry documentation from FUNAI and other governing bodies, which we all knew could take many months to arrange, and with the very real possibility of someone, somewhere, just refusing to grant permission. Alternatively, it was suggested, we might like to pay a fee of, say, £2,000, and then we could do what we liked. Well, as appealing as the idea was at that particular point, it was out of the question financially. I would have to think again.
I must say here that I have enormous respect for the Ticuna people and their understandably defensive stance. All the communities I had passed up to this point were kind, generous and hospitable beyond words. These people are on the interface with so-called modern society, faced with dealing with the overwhelming task of policing the physical and cultural border between a traditional way of life and the temptations of modern society. It has been my policy to avoid contact wherever possible, entering indigenous lands on tip-toe and exiting as quickly as possible, leaving nothing behind but my footprints.
Thankfully, we were released early the next morning, and walked west along the bank to find a boat returning to Benjamin constant. I said to my Ticuna guide “It`s early. There are only a few people here. Let’s just keep walking and see what happens.” It was an idea born from previous experience in the Brazilian Amazon. I was sure things would be okay. But the guy was worried about his job with FUNAI, and insisted we returned to Benjamin before we were caught again. I understood, so I suggested I would just go on alone. He was adamant – I would just be stopped at the next community, and all hell would let loose. My heart sank into the mud beneath my feet – was this stretch really impenetrable? I was frustrated for sure… but I was not about to give up so easily. I would just have to come up with plan B (or F, or H, or whatever it was by this time).
Meanwhile, of course, the rivers were rising. This was jeopardising my chances of crossing the jungle to the Rio Javarí using the route I had planned. I needed to cross quickly, before the forest was inundated above head height with the onset of the rainy season (see NASA image below). Over the following weeks, I searched and researched, poring over different maps and speaking to all sorts of people as I searched for a solution. I would not give up. There had to be a way. I was just not going to skip a 60km section. Despite the warnings, the high risk, and well-meaning friends who kept telling me that it was ‘only 60km out of 8,000 – who cares?’, I could not abandon it. I had to do it! And then in stepped Diego…
I met Diego in Atalaia de Norte, a small town connected to Benjamin Constant by a 27 kilometre road (Estrada Pedro Teixeira) and situated at the mouth of the Rio Javari. I was asking people at the market if they knew of anyone who wanted to walk to Eastiron with me, and a motorcycle taxi guy immediately mentioned someone called Diego who lived in the Palmari community, further upstream on the Javari. They said I would need to hire a boat to go there, but as we were speaking, who should come along but the man himself. He had been visiting the town and was on his way home, but after speaking to him for 25 minutes he agreed to do the crossing with me, and also to return to complete the section from Feijoal to Benjamin Constant. I stayed in Atalaia that night and went to the Piraracu Festival with Diego and a few of his friends, feeling more positive than I had done for a loooong while.
Without revealing the details, I did eventually manage to come up with a solution for the completion of the 60km section. The route was very high risk, and much longer and more difficult than it should originally have been. All the details will be in the book, but briefly, the trek took us through back to back rain storms, fast flowing rivers and interminable, steep slippery forested hills and riverbanks with the weakest trees and branches being excised by the wet season and falling all around us.
After all the warnings about walking in the forest near the Três Fronteiras border, and the constant threat of encounters with armed drugs traffickers, defensive indigenous groups, illegal loggers & hunters, I can’t describe the overwhelming relief I felt when we finally reached the small friendly community on the meandering Rio Javari. I had finally done it: the vast Brazilian Amazon stretching from Marajó on the Atlantic coast all the way to the border of Peru on the Rio Javari, was finally behind me!
All life on Earth is dependent on water to thrive. Along with carbon, it is one of the most important building blocks for all living organisms, from the smallest insect to the largest tree. Leonardo Da Vinci said that “water is the driving force of all nature”, and I have been blessed to witness it all first hand, having traversed the entire Brazilian Amazon on foot. The force and flow of the great river, the spectacular lightning and ear-piercing tropical thunder, the rain hammering down from earth’s troposphere, constantly replenishing the thousands of tributaries and smaller rivers spread across the vast catchment area of the Amazon basin. I have seen the incredibly diverse species of colourful birds, the billions of insects, the unique reptiles and animals that live out their lives here and who are dependent upon the water and the rain, seasons and weather, just like the people who live in the communities and cities along the riverbanks. I have swum in rivers teeming with life, including a vast array of freshwater fish, river Dolphins, manatee, caiman, giant otters and plenty of snakes. The rains carve out a million meandering streams that wend their way through the seemingly endless mass of lush green tropical forests, carrying all important nutrient-rich soil that helps feed the plants and trees – which in their turn produce oxygen, rain, food and medicine for us all. Or, as Wendell Berry put it, “Soil is the great connector of lives; the source and destination of all.”
In Peru, my journey upstream continues, as I head first towards the biggest city in the Peruvian Amazon, Iquitos. We will probably be in the depths of the jungle at Christmas time and new year, as there are no roads or tracks to speak of and just a few small towns and villages scattered along the main riverbank. No one-horse-open-sleigh here, sadly, but it is certainly jungle all the way!
A big thank you to Piotr Chmielinski for his continuing support and for helping to replenish most of my desperately worn out kit, despite the difficult logistics and expense of getting gear safely to South America. And a big thanks to Gilmar for guarding all the new gear stored in Iquitos. I now have two new Osprey packs along with new Hennessy Deep Jungle hammocks and flysheets, a new Iphone for the photography, mapping, communications, journal etc., and a few other vital replacements. They could not have come at a better time, and I can now navigate the rainy season knowing I will sleep more comfortably. Thank-you indeed Piotr.
About the Rio & Vale do Javari
Vale do Javari (Javari Valley) is one of the largest indigenous territories in Brazil, encompassing 85,444.82 square km (32,990 square miles), or an area larger than Austria. It is named after the Javari River, the most important river of the region, which since 1851 forms the border with Peru. It includes much of the Atalaia do Norte municipality as well as adjacent territories in the western section of Amazonas state. Besides the Javari, it is transected by the Pardo, Quixito, Itaquai and Ituí rivers.
Vale do Javari is home to 3,000 indigenous peoples of Brazil with varying sorts of contact, including the Matis, the Matses, the Kulina, the Mayoruna, and others. The uncontacted indigenous peoples are estimated to be more than 2,000 individuals belonging to at least 14 tribes like the Isolados do Rio Quixito, Isolados do Itaquai (Korubo), Isolados do Jandiatuba, Isolados do Alto Jutai, Isolados do Sao Jose, Isolados do Rio Branco, Isolados do Medio Javari and Isolados do Jaquirana-Amburus. These are believed to be living deep inside its reservation areas. The uncontacted tribes live in some 19 known villages identified by air. According to Fabricio Amorim from Fundação Nacional do Índio, the region contains “the greatest concentration of isolated groups in the Amazon and the world”.
Expedition Tech issues.
Connecting to the internet in the Brazilian Amazon has proved to be mind-numbingly infuriating to say the least. If anyone remembers how slow dial-up was way back when, times that (divide that?) by 20). I have waited sometimes for hours, watching the blue line creeping across the screen, just to load a webpage. Whether over a supposedly 3G/4G phone network or WiFi, or with or without the frequent power cuts here, uploading video is just not possible. I have spent at least four whole weeks over the last three months trying to resolve issues with my various online facilities/apps, including the website, the bank, Paypal, Skype, e-mail… everything. So apologies for the lack of regular updates. It is almost a full-time job, when I need to prioritise my planning and navigation and actually move forward.
Seasons greeting to everyone. I hope to put out another blog before the new year, so watch this space and please, if you can, share. Thank you!
Header Photo: The resident mischievous Tucan at Reserve Natural Palmari. Thanks to Axel for letting us weary travellers stay a few nights and for the use of the excellent facilities when we passed. Overlooking the meandering Rio Javari, it was an oasis in a ‘desert’ of green.
Diego and I arrive safe and sound at the community on the Peruvian Border on the Rio Javari, after a testing traverse. Relieved and happy. Rio Javari. Peru. Amazonas
Mouth of the Rio Javari at Benjamin Constant Port. Peruvian and Brazilian flags decorate many boats of upriver indigenous communities along the Rio Javari. Many people speak both Spanish and Portuguese.
After walking over 70 kilometres through the Jungle, Diego and I hit the 12 km mud road that leads to Benjamin Constant. We met a guy on horseback who said “I have just taken my friend to hospital in Benjamin on my horse. He was bitten by a large Pit viper snake and is very sick”
The recent run up to elections here bring many people onto the streets. Benjamin Constant.
Many indigenous & religious people visit the early markets in Benjamin to buy and sell their produce.
Overlooking Peru and the winding Rio Javari.
Tracking map 1 – Feijoal to Atalaia do Norte
Tracking map 2 – Atalaia do Norte to near Estiron. via Palmari on the Rio Javari & border.
Tracking map 3, showing Sao Paulo de Olivença to Eastiron – complete route.
NASA flooded forest data. Light grey is flooded forest, but it was just starting to flood as we crossed to Eastiron from Benjamin Constant.
Pan and zoom maps below to see more. (Click on OK) Trying to sort out a few problems, but the map still works.