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I can’t express in words how relieved Pizarro and I were to finally arrive safe and sound in Pucallpa almost 8 months later than expected. The Covid pandemic and lockdown in Peru had made us prisoners of the forest, effectively, unable to move from community to community, and therefore unable to progress at all. The significance of getting to Pucallpa had grown out of all proportion, and over those 240 days I became obsessed about my arrival. It was a target I had set my sights on to keep myself motivated during that time.
As soon as we got our clearance to finally move, we were off. Happily for us, the river levels seemed exceptionally low for mid-November, and in the first 17 days of our traverse, it only rained once. For most of the last few years, abundant water has been something I could take for granted, and in fact the raging torrents of the high-water season were often a physical danger. Now, I was increasingly concerned about finding enough fresh water to drink. Pizarro told me he could not remember it ever being so dry before, at this time of year. Many of the small quebradas (streams) we crossed were dry, and on more than one occasion we were left gasping for water and feeling dehydrated after running dry, which led me to think deeply again about how easily we all take fresh water for granted. As Benjamin Franklin said, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” These thoughts have been on my mind so much, that I include a few facts below, perhaps more for younger readers (but recommended for everyone!). For those more interested in the traverse itself, please scroll down to the section on the Traverse.
It must surely be obvious to everyone that the course of humanity in the twenty-first century is likely to be substantially influenced by a single resource: drinking water. Without it, we know that life – animal, plant, or human – cannot exist. Without it, we quickly fall prey to the many variables that threaten our existence.
The Ancient Egyptian civilisation worshiped the Nile river as a god because it meant everything to them. Every year the Nile flooded, and with the floods came prosperity and life to the floodplains of Egypt. it allowed the people to farm and live successfully. It was the same story in India with the Ganges River, still considered a most sacred river. Practically all cities, communities and civilisations have developed alongside a river course.
Unlike some less fortunate parts of the world, especially parts of Africa, the Amazon is stupendously rich in fresh water. It contains 20% of the world’s fresh water, and the river system is a natural super-highway, branching out in every direction across the vast Amazon basin, and supporting a huge variety of fish that people depend on, and a whole range of other flora and fauna, all contained in a vast ecosystem we do not yet fully understand.
With impassable jungles and limited roadways, the Amazon River is still the primary mode of transportation for many people in the region, particularly the mestizo and indigenous populations. River boats, small canoes and giant cargo ships commonly shuttle citizens, tourists and goods from one area of the Amazon to another.
At an average discharge of about 209,000 cubic metres per second —approximately 6,591 cubic kilometres per annum (1,581 cu mi/a), greater than the next seven largest independent rivers combined—the Amazon represents 20% of the global riverine discharge to the ocean. The Amazon basin is the largest drainage basin in the world, with an area of approximately 7,000,000 square kilometres (2,700,000 sq mi). The portion of the river’s drainage basin in Brazil alone is larger than any other river’s basin. The Amazon enters Brazil with only one-fifth of the flow it finally discharges into the Atlantic Ocean, yet already has a greater flow at this point than the discharge of any other river. Wikipedia
Who knows how long this “elixir of life” will continue to flow abundantly for the people here. With the ever-diminishing rainforests and increasing global temperatures, some scientists say the Amazon is close to a tipping point and could eventually become a desert. The massive deforestation and global temperature rise could produce much less rain, resulting in dried-up riverbeds and an extremely hot, hostile and uninhabitable landscape driving people towards overcrowded coastal areas that paradoxically would be subject to flooding because of the rise in sea levels.The millions of people who live out their lives here, depend entirely on the fresh-water rivers and rainfall across the Amazon basin, and consequently on the seasonal flooding and glacial meltwaters cascading down from the Andes mountains that also replenish the rivers. In fact, half the world’s population depends on seasonal melt from high-elevation snow and ice – deposits that are dramatically threatened by global temperature rises.
Netflix recently uploaded to YouTube the superb complete series Our Planet, narrated by David Attenborough, to help with education during the Covid pandemic and for those who can’t afford a Netflix subscription. This episode – “Fresh Water” – is highly recommended (see below).
It is worth remembering:
- Water is one of the five basic elements of nature (the water molecule H2O contains 1 part oxygen and 2 parts hydrogen atoms);
- Up to 70% – two-thirds – of the human body is water; and 70% of our planet is covered in water, (hence the name “blue planet”). Also, 70% of all the water we use, is used in agriculture.
- Water is a fundamental human right, and primal need for all forms of life. It is all around us, and we take it for granted and often forget its amazing properties. It is unlike any other substance found in nature, and exists in three different states of matter – as a solid, as a liquid, and as a gas – all at normal earth temperatures.
- Water’s other unique characteristic is that it is most dense at 4°C (39°F). This means that water is denser than ice, which allows ice to float in water instead of sink. All the fabulous animals that live on the ice would not exist without this little detail!
- As the saying goes “where there’s water, there’s life.”
Source: YouTube, ©Netflix
I was immensely pleased to have Pizarro with me on this traverse. He is one of the few remaining Kapanawa people of the Alto Tapiche, who speaks fluent Kapanawa and Spanish. He had previously crossed from Santa Elena to Limon Cocha (Alto Tapiche) with me in February. He approached me five months into lockdown, after paddling upriver from his village in a tiny, weather-worn canoe, and locating the remote farmhouse where I had been living on my own for months. He had let me down badly on an earlier traverse, but now said he wanted to walk with me to Contamana on the banks of the Ucalyali river, and then on to Pucallpa. He said he was feeling remorseful about letting me down earlier, and that it had been playing on his mind. I was skeptical at first, but he seemed sincere and said he also wanted to know the forest and mountains that I had planned to cross to get to Contamana. So it seemed it was not all about any money he might earn, but about a basic thirst for knoweldge.
Two more months of lockdown passed and Pizarro visited me a few times at the farmhouse and helped me get into the community to buy supplies and get occasional Internet access at the medical center to update my FatMap maps. I changed the route to avoid passing many small pueblos along the banks of the Ucayali, to minimise the risk of contact with people due to covid.
The new route I had chosen was going to be more remote, more challenging, but also more interesting. However, first of all we would have to travel by canoe three days up the Alto Tapiche to get back to the point I had previously reached when everything had come to a such an abrupt halt way back in early March. This turned out to be a challenging adventure in itself! After two costly and time consuming failed attempts, we finally made it up the almost-dry river to San Antonio, a pueblo abandoned but for two families – a frontier village where two worlds collide, not that far north are areas of uncontacted tribes.
As usual, I was warned that we would certainly die on our traverse: nobody had ever crossed these mountains, there were many large black Jaguars living there that would eat us as soon as look at us, oh – and by the way, the terrain was utterly impassable.
Despite problems finding water, and some very steep ascents and precarious descents with our extra heavy packs, the combination of careful, strategic route planning and navigation, together with Pizarro’s vast knowledge, physical strength and determination, paid off. It is so hard to convey to anyone reading this how difficult, yet at times how amazing, the journey was. We walked beside towering walls of rock, over thickly forested mountains, across waterfalls and canyons – some of it perhaps unseen and untouched for tens – perhaps thousands – of years. It felt like we had gone back in time to a Jurassic world, where I half expected to see Pterodactyls swooping out of the sky. At these times, I feel words can be inadequate – you just have to be there, to truly understand.
So hard was this first traverse, that on our arrival in Contamana, it took over 4 days rest before legs, knees and feet had recovered in any significant way. To be fair to those who forecast our doom, the terrain was without doubt some of the hardest I have had to cover. It is also true to say that we regularly heard jaguars – and other wildlife – at night, very close to our campsite. I was comforted by the thought that it is extremely rare for Jaguar to attack a human, so I slept soundly most nights, except for the night a swarm of leaf cutter ants destroyed my mosquito net.
After swimming across the Ucayali and making a significant diversion around a breathtakingly large palm-oil plantation (see satellite image below), we were fortunate enough to find curving trails, tracks and eventually roads that led us all the way to the sprawling tropical metropolis of Pucallpa.
As we approached the city, we kept a respectful distance from people, and frequently used masks and hand-sanitiser to minimise the risk of contracting or passing the Covid virus, but all the places we passed – mainly Shipibo-Conibo people – told us that Covid19 had “been and gone” months ago now.
On this traverse, Pizarro showed me some amazing bushcraft skills he learned as a child, and he seemed to know the names of a huge variety of trees, plants, animals and insects. He was at home and confident in the forest, but when we arrived in the city, he was like a fish out of water. At one point, we took an elevator to the top floor of a building to look at the view of Pucallpa, and he was very nervous. It was his first time in an elevator, and when we reached the top, he was clearly uncomfortable about the height and could not look down.
Although he had insisted (and I believe him) that his decision to accompany me was driven by a thirst for knowledge and adventure, Pizarro was pleased to be able to spend his earnings on a new motor, a fishing net, a chainsaw for cutting firewood and renovating his wooden house, and a shotgun for hunting (the standard tools most families own in the villages now). He has now returned to his home village as previously planned on the Alto Rio Tapiche – an uncomfortable, week-long journey on various connecting boats to get back to his family. I understand his need to hunt for food to survive, and to cut wood, and I believe his impact on biodiversity is negligible and localised in comparison to the huge commercial logging and farming practices currently ravaging the Brazilian and Peruvian rain-forests.
As a bonus for his hard work, I also purchased Pizarro a reasonably cheap mobile phone, and set up a WhatsApp account (on his request). I imagine it will end up in the hands of his 13 yr old daughter, as he currently has absolutely no idea how to use it!
Now, I must find funding to continue on to Atalaya. The rivers have again started to rise, so I may have to walk further inland close to the mountains to continue, upping the risks again – trafficking is rife along this route, and beyond Atalaya I will need to pass through the ‘red zone’, a former shining path area, still used for drug trafficking. At least there won’t be any shortage of that vital elixir of life, H20, now that the rainy season has begun.
I will also need to pass various Ashaninka communities, hopefully they will have been informed about me in advance and be aware of my expedition, as I have had contact with the Chief and have documents to show. I also plan to hire local Ashaninka as guides for security along the way.
It also seems strange to me that after so long crossing the continent, the next traverse will mark the beginning of my ascent out of the Amazon basin, and up into the Andes: Atalaya is a massive 50m higher than Pucallpa!
Although they will probably never see this, as they have no internet in their village, I must say a huge thank-you to Grober Tafur and Marilisa Sanchez for their help, generosity, kindness and trust, giving me a place to stay and food to eat when I had no money and had to weather the Covid19 storm for seven months alone on their farm in the Alto Rio Tapiche. It is an experience I will never forget. I am still processing everything, and beyond its being a few extra chapters in a future book perhaps, I plan to return to visit them some day and help them in whatever way I can.
I helped out on their farm, learning many new skills, improving my Spanish and staying strong. I had no internet access and no laptop with me, but I did have the absolute luxury of time on my hands during that period, and a close and personal insight into this amazing, vital, but rapidly changing part of our planet. So rich was the experience, that I have not yet finished compiling personal notes of ideas, solutions and opinions on plastic pollution, climate change, deforestation, over-population, biodiversity loss, renewable energy solutions, education, sustainable tourism, economic solutions/ideas and so much more. I have even written a screenplay idea (Not about this trek) which perhaps will one day see the light of day. @RealRonHoward Imagine entertainment
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Header Photo. Kapanawa people washing clothes. Limon Cocha, Alto Tapiche, Loreto, Peru
Walking into Pucallpa city. Province of Ucayali Peru.
A Parakeet feeds on freshly crushed yucca before it is made into Farina. Hundreds of these birds gathered in the trees around the farmhouse every evening. Alto Tapiche, Peru.
Children in the Kapanawa community Limon Cocha harvesting plantain, an important part of their daily diet.
Alto Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
A captive young Howler monkey becomes a pet after its mother was killed to feed a family.
Alto Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
Walking into Pucallpa city. The Shipibo-Conibo influence is strong here.
Children of the Kapanawa community Frontera. These gentle people are hunter gatherers, and some of the last remaining indigenous people on the frontier of so called modern civilisation. Thankfully they have managed to retain their original language.
Me, before lockdown. Learning how to weave palm-leaf roof tiles. Rio Tapiche, Loreto, Peru
Making Farina at the farm. Alto rio Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
Drying the crushed and sieved yuca to make farina i nicknamed “la comida dorada” the golden food, Alto rio Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
The aptly named Frontera, one of only two pueblos all of whom are Kapanawa. Alto Tapiche, Peru
The first concrete & steel bridge, 10km from Pucallpa city. Peru. Image ©Casey2020
The gigantic Palm oil plantation. We had to walk around the boundary to get past. North of Pucallpa, Peru
“In every landscape, the point of astonishment is the meeting of sky & earth.” – Emerson.
Photo; View of Port at Contamana, Loreto, Peru.
The mountains we passed to get from the Alto Tapiche to Contamana. Climbing gear and ropes would have been useful, but I don’t have any. Careful route planning, slow climbs and descents, and strong legs got us through – just! Image ©Casey2020
The amazing fatmap application helped me plot a route and navigate the mountains successfully.
Many thanks to Pizarro for being great company and sharing his vast knowledge as we walked. We will stay in touch. Photo: Port of Contamana Peru. Image ©Casey2020
Contamana Peru, known as the pearl of the Ucayali.
The mouth of the Rio Tapiche as it flows into the Ucayali (Amazon River) Image ©Casey2020
A large chameleon on a sandbank looks out over the low river next to the farmhouse I stayed at. AltoTapiche
The farmhouse. A panoramic photo at 5.30 am, my favourite time of day on the small farm. The river is on the right. The yucca & banana fields 500m to the left.
The wild cat I named Gato, sleeping on a heap of freshly cut firewood at the farmhouse was a great listener and helped me stay sane during lockdown. Alto Tapiche, Loreto, Peru.
Roof construction, all wood and tied with vines. Farmhouse. Alto Tapiche Loreto Peru. Image ©Casey2020
Garmin track maps.
My Garmin Inreach & tracking device is important for communications & a digital record of the traverse.
Sponsores. Nina Plunbe
Garmin Track data map 1 San Antonio village rio Tapiche to Contamana.
The gap I can’t explain, as my tracker was on all the time
Garmin Track data map 2 Contamana to Tiruntan Peru.
Garmin Track data map 3: Tiruntan to Pucallpa
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