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Every delay in this journey leaves me feeling anxious. I left Requena knowing that I had to reach Pucallpa before the rivers flooded again. I could not have known that the flood would come early, leaving me a long way from Pucallpa and having to go further inland now to avoid the deepest part of the floodplain. Inevitably, the journey becomes more complicated and time-consuming, and forces me once more to adopt the old motto que será, será..
In many ways, this leg has been more challenging than any other. I have been dogged by a raft of illnesses including a tooth abscess/infection, regular fever, stomach infections and skin infections. The logistics have been horrendously complex, with cashflow issues, broken kit and guide problems being just a few of the many many issues.
As has often been the case on this journey, some of the biggest delays have been caused by the need to involve other people in my mad exploit. I have to accept this for many reasons, chief among them being the need for constant negotiation along the way, but there are times when I dream of breaking free and running alone into the setting sun (or at least southwest). Maybe the dream will come true once I ascend the Andes, but until then, I must grin and bear the interminable waiting, the recruiting, the training, the paying, the organising of kit, and the paying off of walking companions.
I think a lot about the relationships I have with those I involve or am involved with here. I believe it is mostly positive both for them and for myself, although at times I feel uneasy or irresponsible when I invite other walkers into my high-risk exploits – especially if they have a young family dependent on them, as is the case with Jorge, who accompanied me on this leg. I have to be constantly thinking about how easily things can go wrong, and all my decisions must take into account the other person’s strengths and weaknesses, needs and wants.
I strive to deal openly and honestly with everyone and to treat them on equal terms as fellow human beings, but on this leg in particular, I found myself doing some soul-searching. Not only did we find ourselves in a life-threatening situation at one point, involving my first ever SOS alarm, but I lived vicariously through the very real trials of Jorge’s family. Whether it was receiving satellite messages from his wife saying his younger brother Pedro had been taken seriously ill, was in hospital, and subsequently was recovering from an operation; or being advised that his one year old son was very ill and cash was needed for a doctor and medicine, his predicament tugged at my heart. Jorge wanted to visit his brother and needed help with money, too, so as soon as it was possible, I organised a halt to the expedition and a return to Requena. It took three days to get back, but from there, Jorge (Spanish pronunciation Hor-hee) was able to get a fast (4 hour) boat back home to Nauta. There, he lives in a very simple wooden house with his young wife and two little children. It has a dried mud floor and they have no running water.
In the end, it took us two weeks to get back to last point of walking. Then, just as we got moving again – maybe four days in – Jorge received the tragic news that his 32-year-old brother had suddenly and unexpectedly died when he was recovering well. Once again I decided to help Jorge get back to home. By now, we were in very remote territory indeed – a hundred kilometres up the Ucayali tributary known as the Tapiche – where hardly any boats pass. In these areas, some sort of craft may pass every two or three days if you’re lucky – and these usually full of people and loaded to the gunnels with fruit and veg for sale at the market in Requena. Jorge was understandably desperate to be at his brothers funeral, and another three days and three uncomfortable canoes later we were back in Requena again. I now needed to get the cash to pay Jorge in advance so that he in turn could help with the funeral costs. By the time he made it back, he had missed the funeral by a day, so he visited the grave with his mother and sister to say his goodbyes. This time, it took us almost three weeks to get back, eleven days of which were lost to the fact that we had to wait for the only cargo boat to get a full load before it would sail for the Rio Tapiche.
While I waited, I studied the proposed trail and used my experience to try to figure out a better way forward. Up until now, we had been walking through more-or-less dried-out floodplain forest with tough vegetation. At times we were having to hack through thick tangled vines intertwined with bamboo spikes the size of nails, and razor grass and matted roots above and below knee-deep black watery mud that swarmed with stinging ants, mosquitos and wasps. It was often so bad that I had to ditch my pack, then hand cut 50 metres or so ahead, then return for the packs, and then repeat the same thing over and over. Sometimes we advanced less than a kilometre in a day. Now, waiting for Jorge to return from Nauta, I was able to consider the pros and cons of other route options over higher ground.
The aborted sos call
When we did finally return and get moving again, to our horror we found that the upper river Tapiche had risen dramatically to full height two months earlier than everyone had expected. We managed to get a few days walking done and arrived in another community. After the usual explanation of my quest, we were encouraged by a short conversation with the locals.
“If you walk quickly enough, you can get to the next community the same day,” they solemnly advised.
“Not with our 30kg backpacks we can’t – especially if there’s water in the forest now,” I replied.
“No! There’s no water – it’s dry ground all the way, if you walk direct.”
Always keen to help, someone else suggested that they could transport our packs to the next community up river by canoe.
My first reply was ‘thanks, but no thanks’. I knew I would feel naked without my backpack, and of course there was always the chance that we might never see our packs again! However, after chatting with them for some time, Jorge decided they were pretty honest people, and I felt somewhat reassured. I reluctantly agreed, and we set off with only our machetes, compasses, GPS, Garmin Tracker, and water. We felt exposed as we made our way out into forest. I had done my calculations and warned Jorge that we would need to cover the proposed 7km section before nightfall – a difficult enough task, if the vegetation was anything like what we had experienced so far on this river. However, without the burden of our backpacks, and with good weather seeming to be with us, we felt reasonably confident of our ability to make it with time to spare.
The first three hours gave us high hopes of getting there in good time. We waded boot-deep in the water, which was not quite the ‘dry ground’ we had been promised, but was comfortable enough. Then, it all started to come apart. The water started to get deeper and deeper. And then the rain started thundering down, and suddenly we were thigh deep, then waist deep, and then chest deep. This is the X-factor that you always try to consider in your calculations, but which is an unknown that can make a mockery of the most careful plans. The quantity of rainfall, the capacity of the river, the height of the river banks, the detailed relief of the land, the nature of the water course: all are unknown – and apart from this, Jorge was getting twitchy about caiman and electric eels. So, what to do? I checked the GPS and found that we still had over 3 kilometres to go to reach our destination. Judging by the quickly rising water (just) below us, and the stubbornly unmoving thunderstorm above us, a quick calculation told me it was too late in the day to turn back, so on we went. In these situations you can’t just make a run for it, as hurrying through the flooded forest is a recipe for a serious accident, so we went doggedly on, at times swimming across deeper sections, and at other times finding fallen trees to rest on.
At about 16.30, neck-deep in the swirling black waters, we came to a halt. In front of us, all we could see was water rushing at speed through the forest. It would soon be way above head height, with no land in sight anywhere. I decided that the water dumped by the storm had caused the river to overflow its banks and find the line of least resistance, cutting across the meanders and flowing direct through the forest. Gravity was doing its job, and we were in the way. I wondered angrily why I had allowed myself to be talked into this – and without any gear including the pack rafts to get us out of trouble. I was furious with myself and my decisions. I knew Jorge was not the best of swimmers, but I suggested we try to swim from tree to tree. He was understandably afraid, so I suggested that instead, I would try to swim ahead 100 metres or so to see if there was any higher ground, then I would return to help him across to it. Well, I got about 10 metres out before the sheer force of the water grabbed me. I tried to hold on to a tree, but I was washed deeper into the flooded forest. It was a real struggle in the end to fight my way slowly back to Jorge, but I eventually arrived coughing and spluttering, with no hope of higher ground to offer him. Jorge had by now perched himself in the upper sections of the buttress roots of a big fallen tree, the only place above the surging water. I dragged myself up and sat with him, and we considered our limited options. I again suggested we just keep swimming from tree to tree until we reach higher ground nearer the next community, but my heart was not in it now. It was getting late and would soon be dark. We had no lights, and Jorge did not want to risk swimming through the fast flowing water. It was all just too dangerous.
As the light dimmed, I sent out satellite messages to a few people explaining the situation and asking if they could possibly contact somebody in Santa Elena to rescue us (Santa Elena being the only community on the Tapiche with a mobile phone mast). The messages took ages to get through, with the storm defusing or confusing the signal, and as I waited I realised it was a pretty crazy idea anyway: Santa Elena was so far away, and our position so far off the main channel, that the chances of them risking motorised canoes in the flood water at night were very small indeed, never mind the fact that no-one would know our route or exact location anyway, and the coordinates we could confidently provide were completely meaningless without a GPS or a map. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
As we sat miserably in our upturned tree, I speculated that if any more water fell into the system further upriver, we were still in danger of being washed away, and would have to climb another tree to stay above the water level. It was pretty scary now, in the pitch black of the rainforest night, with the only relief being the occasional flash of lighting and the dim light from my Garmin Inreach when I was desperately checking for messages.
In the end, the decision was easy, because there were no choices. We would wait for daylight and hope and pray for no more rain.
By 3 am we were being eaten alive by mosquitos and red ants. It was a great party for them, and more misery for us. Jorge, who is evangelical, was praying earnestly for someone to find us, and was talking about his two young children.
“Nobody will find us here,” I said. “We are deep in the forest, and the river is miles away.” The depressing statement prompted feelings of guilt about the man whose life I had put in danger, and jogged me into taking some sort of action. With the wind picking up, promising a fresh thunderstorm, and the battery level on my Inreach tracker low, I decided I had to do something. “Don’t worry, mate,” I said, as encouragingly as I could. “I can trigger the emergency SOS on my Garmin Inreach, and someone will find us.” If I managed to smile, Jorge would never have seen it. So, for the very first – and hopefully the last – time on this expedition, and with a lump in my throat from thinking of all the potential consequences of a rescue, I activated the SOS. The display turned an emergency red colour (would green not be more comforting?) and counted down 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 … SOS sent!
The text message response was pretty quick. I had to explain the situation and confirm that no-one was yet injured. I suggested borrowing a small canoe from a nearby community to get through the forest to our location would be an option, as an (expensive) helicopter rescue would likely be impossible.
“The emergency services have been contacted in your area, and are working on a plan to get to your location.”
By 5.30 am the threatening storm had evaporated and along with the dawn chorus of birds and growls of Howler monkeys the blessed pre-dawn light was arriving. I imagined that only now would things start to move with any search party. It would take many hours to organise and get to us.
We settled in for a long wait, made only slightly more comfortable by the dim but spreading light.. and then, well, perhaps miracles sometimes do happen. At just after 6.30 am, Jorge suddenly said “Mira! Mira!” (look!) “Over there in the distance!” He had spotted a tiny canoe with a lone fisherman paddling through the forest, We called him over – “ayudanos por favor ayudanos” – help us please. He said it’s rare for anyone to paddle in here, but he just thought he would venture deeper into the forest today – as the river had risen so rapidly in the last week. he thought it might improve his chances!
The canoe was so small that he had first to take Jorge to his community, and then return a few hours later for me. In the meantime I managed to send a message to cancel the SOS, and get confirmation of it just before the battery died on my device.
Later that day, in the sunshine, we returned to the same point with the help of a larger canoe escort. I switched on my tracker and swam alongside the canoe for almost a kilometre until we got to dry ground. Here the guys assured us that it was dry ground all the way to the village, we found a trail that passed a few yucca and banana plantations and we did eventually get to our destination, albeit one day later than expected. On arrival Jorge told me he had had enough and wanted to go home, and I could hardly blame him. In fact, he continued on with me for almost another week through more flooded forest (but only waist deep), so that we could reach the next big community from where a weekly cargo boat would take him back to Requena.
Frustrating as it may often be, when I am thinking positive, I know that the immersion and time scale of my journey is giving me a more profound understanding of the rainforest and its biome than I could ever have had by charging across it. (“Out of my way, I have places to go and things to do”). The obstacles and solutions are points on a long learning curve, and I am enriched by the contact I make with the people, and with all the flora and fauna. We are all on our own journeys through time and space, and whether I am helped or hindered in reaching my destination, in the end, it is the journey that counts.
There are several remote, large-ish communities scattered along the Rio Tapiche. Among those we passed are Galica, San Vincent, Yarina, Nueva Reforma, Belen De Urco, Alpha Omega, Villa Monti Sinai, San Salvador, Callao, Buen Jesus de Paz, Nueva Esperanza, Pueto Angel, San Pedro, Palo Verde, Palmera, Santa Elena, Limon Cocha, and Fatama. All have been very welcoming to us when we have asked to buy supplies and rest or asked for advice about trails. Sometimes community members have walked with us. Only a few people (usually drunk on sugarcane spirits) have said ‘Pela Cara!’ to me, (the ‘face pealer’ – an apocryphal gringo organ trafficker who hides in the forest waiting to kidnap children to steal their organs). The myth probably stems from the rubber boom era when gringos kidnapped, enslaved and often brutally murdered many indigenous people over 100 years ago.
In the dry season here, the nights can get uncomfortably hot, and we often string our hammocks at the back or front of a wooden house where it is cool. When the petrol generator (if they have one) is turned off, usually at 9 pm, the community is plunged into silence and darkness (apart from the soothing nocturnal chorus of insects and the glowing fireflies). At such times, I love looking at the night sky, since light pollution here is practically zero when there is no moonlight. I look for Orion’s belt, then the Orion Nebula, and sometimes, if I’m lucky, the faint distant light of the billions of suns in the Andromeda spiral galaxy, arrive at my retina after travelling 2.5 million light years – light from the most distant object visible to the human eye. Hopefully I will have more opportunities to do some serious star-gazing when I reach the clear, cool skies of the Andes. Apparently, the Inca empire aligned the layout of the streets of Cusco and Machu Picchu with the constellations and celestial bodies of the night sky.
Seeing is Believing
Talking of my retina and being thankful for my reasonably good vision, I’d like to ask you to please take a look at a blog I wrote before I started this trek, about the charity I am supporting and the amazing work they do to help the visually impaired improve their eyesight. Please take a look at Seeing is Believing.
The seasonal torrential rain storms started in late October and the rivers have risen early. As noted above, my next big target is Pucallpa. Although I wanted to arrive there before the forest became inundated again, I will now just have to seek higher ground to continue. I have arranged for an indigenous guy in one of the communities to walk with me for a while, so let’s see how we go.
Jorge Luis Shica.
A huge thank you to Jorge, who now has a job as a maths teacher in a local school lined up for the new year. This is the work he loves. Despite his lack of jungle experience, Jorge did very well, and we survived! His English improved immensely, as did my Spanish, and he proved very knowledgeable and worldly-wise overall – as well as being incredibly patient when things were not going well. I will always remember him singing in his hammock at night (his other passion). We will stay in touch.
I will write another blog from Pucallpa when I finally arrive there, and I am working on a Funding page now, as I know I will be broke before I reach Pucallpa now.
In this age of competitive, attention-seeking social media bloggers and vloggers, I really appreciate anyone taking the time to read this. Please stay with me and continue to follow! Seasons greetings to you all.
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Header photo. “The darker the night, the brighter the stars” Zero light pollution coupled with a clear night sky is perfect for star gazing. The faint light from the trillion-star Andromeda spiral galaxy (not in photo) hits the back of my retina after travelling for 2.537 million light years. San Pedro ,Rio Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
On its last legs? A family live in this house on the riverbank, not sure I could sleep well if it were my home. Requena, Loreto, Peru
River market. Many boats arrive in the bigger towns to sell their harvest. Requena, Loreto, Peru
Cooking up a treat. A typical kitchen set up at the back of the wooden house.Three generations of a family preparing rice, fish and yucca (Cassava) for breakfast. Community Galica, Rio Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
We are all on a journey. The returning boat to Santa Elena, Rio Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
Building friendships. Jorge chats to Blas in Galica, as he builds a house for his son. Rio Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
River of life. The abundant ever-flowing and life-giving fresh water of the Rio Tapiche. Comunidad Santa Elena, Loreto, Peru.
Coolest kid on the dock. Boy staying cool under the tropical sun in a rain-filled canoe. Santa Elena, Rio Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
Room with a view. At one community we were given an empty building to sleep in. Jorge brushing teeth before we set off again. Rio Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
Bath time, jungle style. Me washing in a small river. In 3 month’s time this river will be several metres higher. Loretta, Peru.
Facing the terrain. Satellite image of a section of the zig-zagging Rio Tapiche. This image will be stuck in my mind for a while as it looks like an ugly face. We were cutting a direct line across the meanders, but the jungle here was impossible: dense, low-lying, tangled swamp. On one day, we made less than a kilometre. Rio Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
The singing guide. A big thank you to Jorge, who bravely accompanied me the last few months. In the new year he returns to the work he loves, teaching mathematics. I will miss his constant calculating of timings and distance. His night time singing in his hammock wasn’t bad either! Loreto, Peru
Joining the aquatic residents of the Tapiche. One of several swims I had to do to continue walking on the other side. Loreto, Peru.
Prioritising education. We were kindly invited to the end of term party in Santa Elena. The adults dance the night away later in the evening. The children break for three months now, returning to school in March. Rio Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
Vital jungle tool, the machete. Clearing the reed/grass on the dried out river bank to plant crops before the water rises again. Tapiche, Loreto, Peru
A festive photo! These grow wild in the middle of the jungle. A stark contrast to the endless green. They remind me of red wax candles with a flame. Loreto, Peru
The timelapse film below shows how much the Ucayali river moves and changes over the years. In Nauta some houses are close to falling into the river. When they were built, 25 years ago, the river was 50 metres away from the buildings. Also i was told there were much more fish in the river back then.
Pan and zoom map to see more detail. I will add all the tracking data map to the next blog from Pucallpa as internet WiFi is much better there.