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Staying healthy on a tropical jungle expedition is vital. I’ve had all the inoculations (yellow fever, typhoid, rabies etc), but there are still diseases lurking for which there is no prevention other than awareness and luck – e.g. malaria, dengue, leishmaniasis, and more. Over the course of this expedition I’ve had unexplained fevers and various skin & tooth infections, and giardia more than once, but on the whole I’ve been lucky so far not to have contracted any of the potential life-threatening tropical diseases, or been bitten by any venomous snakes. Having said this, it is unfortunate that it was tropical illness that stopped us reaching Atalaya on this leg (although we did manage to get well over half the distance of very challenging leg before we had to evacuate).
On this occasion Gadiel or (Cho) and I were walking and wading in remote rainforest far from the main Ucayali River. God was watering the plants with a vengeance, and the rivers in the sky cascaded down on us for several days non-stop, providing perfect conditions for the mosquitoes too, which were absolutely relentless. We passed various Shipibo and mixed-race villages, some of which we both agreed made us feel like we were walking through a wild west movie set – all wood buildings and people on horseback wearing Stetsons. The theme music from movie The Good Bad and Ugly briefly came to mind.
Two weeks into the traverse, involving swimming across the Rio Patchtia, Rio Ucayali, (the main Amazon tributary) and various smaller rivers, Cho uncharacteristically complained of feeling weak and being very tired. He was having regular fevers and shivering, starting at about 4 pm, so I started him on 1000 mg of paracetamol every 8 hours to try to control this – especially his progressive night-time fevers. He put on a brave face, and said it would pass in a few days, but unfortunately it didn’t. We were deep in the jungle heading for the Rio Sheshea, and the first of many Asheninka villages on our route for resupply and rest. There, I hoped I could do a DIY test for malaria for him.
After eight days crossing primary jungle, we found a long track leading to the village, but it was flooded with energy-sapping, knee-deep mud in places, due to the persistent rain and flat terrain. It was slow going, especially as Cho was now lacking any energy. As we approached, I was apprehensive about how the Asheninka would react to us – this was one of the most remote villages, and quite a way inland from the main Ucayali (Amazon) river.
Thankfully, I had got myself all worked up over nothing: we met an Asheninka family along the track as they were heading to collect firewood, and they were fine once we showed our documents and explained ourselves. Within the hour, we were seated at a table in their house overlooking the now full, tea-brown, Rio Sheshea, with two huge plates of rice, grilled bananas and beans in front of us.
Even with this welcome rest and some food, it was clear that Cho was now too ill to continue. The malaria blood test kit I was carrying indicated positive for plasmodium vivax, although he would need more reliable official hospital tests back in the city. He also had a sore on his foot that wouldn’t heal (and later, back in the city, he had to have intravenous injections for leishmaniasis).
For anyone concerned, Gadiel, about eight months earlier had been sick with Covid19 and recovered well. Also, before we started, he had tested negative for Covid, He now had the classic malaria symptoms according to my medical book, but no respiratory issues (so we ruled out Covid).
We spent two days in the village repairing and washing our kit and trying to coordinate an escape. I knew from our location that it would be a logistical nightmare to get back to Pucallpa. Obviously, if money were no object, we could have called for a private speedboat with security guards or even a helicopter to get us safely back in a few hours – rather than risk the perilous 2-3 day journey in small canoe. Or, had Cho managed to walk another 4-5 days, we would have been in a town nearer to Atalaya, and back on the main river channel where we were told a daily fast boat passed, going to Pucallpa. We did try to find someone in the village who might continue on with me, while Cho was helped back, but without success. The local Asheninka also warned me not to go alone, so I decided there was nothing for it but to accompany Cho on the difficult journey back home, where we could sort out his money and backpack, and I could collect a new hammock that was sent out to me, and consider my options.
In the village, we were given the local wood-built church to sleep in. This was great, although unbeknownst to us, the young Brazilian missionary, Pedro, who had been living in the village for the past eleven months, held a 6am service every day for the Asheninka. We had hung our hammocks above the wooden bench seats, and were woken early to find we had become part of the church service. Bibles were pressed into our hands as we stumbled bleary-eyed out of our hammocks, much to the amusement of the gathered worshipers. We got dressed as best we could, and were encouraged by the enthusiastic Pedro to join in and sing along to the hymns.
We left the village at 3am the next morning, a full moon illuminating the swollen river. We were seen off by Pedro, who had helped us organise a canoe and driver to get us to the mouth of the winding Sheshea River. There, we would have to wait in the dark on the opposite bank for the fast passenger boat to pass at about 7am, Pedro was very concerned for our safety, and as we were leaving, he sat on the moonlit riverbank and said a prayer for us.
Gadiel and I left the village with the Asheninka canoe driver, Victor, and I was grateful for Pedro’s help and his calming prayer. The incredibly bright moon illuminating the river course also made me feel more relaxed and ready for the journey ahead, and because of the clear night sky and full moon, we didn’t need to use any lights. But it wasn’t long before I started to think, ‘how the hell am I going to get back here later?’.
After a few hours descending the winding Rio Sheshera and crossing flooded forest and huge lakes in the small canoe, we arrived on the west side of the Ucayali. I climbed up the riverbank in the dim, pre-dawn light, stretched, and stood watching as the planet rotated us toward the life-giving sun. A few dolphins appeared, and as the heat from the sun’s rays made contact, a heavy mist rose from the river and canopy. Behind me, I could see the huge, distant forested mountains illuminated by the rising sun. We were in for a scorcher of a day – in stark contrast to the previous week.
This National Geographic video narrated by Will Smith explains this evaporation process creating ‘sky rivers’ above the Amazon basin in detail.
Cho was still sitting in the canoe with his head on his knees, shivering, and clearly welcomed the rising sun’s warmth.
We waited patiently for another two and a half hours, without seeing the promised fast passenger boat. Fortunately, I had asked the Asheninka guy Victor if he could wait with us for security, as I felt very exposed and vulnerable sitting with our backpacks on the open riverbank. Eventually, we spotted what looked like a blue tarpaulin and a few people further downriver, and Victor suggested we go talk to them. It turned out it was a family out fishing, and they told us the fast boat had passed early, at 5am, due to the fast flow of the river. They said the next passenger boat was not due until Monday morning, two days away.
“Well, there’s no way I’m staying here for two days and nights with no food and the risk of encountering river pirates,” I said flatly. I finally offered Victor a very good price to get us to a safer place – a large Shipibo town we had previously walked past, about 4 hours downriver, where I thought we could wait for the fast boat to pass again on Monday. Victor disappeared back to the other side of the river for an hour, looking for petrol from some forest workers he knew were there, and eventually returned triumphantly with the petrol, only to have changed his mind after watching the speed of the river “My boat won’t make it back up-river – the motor is old and leaking oil. It will kill my motor, trying to get back here”
I was desperate, and thought furiously. “Okay,” I said, “What if I pay you the same amount we agreed, but just to take us down river? Then I will pay for a larger boat and driver, who I know lives there, to tow you back here tomorrow. I’ll also buy you dinner and breakfast and pay for a room for the night in the town, and something for your extra time.”
”Agreed,” he said, knowing a good deal when he heard one.
We psyched ourselves up for the long ride, and I put a towel over my head to stop my neck from getting even more sun-burnt. As we started down the river, I calculated it would take about 5 hours to get there, so I also started to worry about what all this is going to cost me, not just in terms of money, but in lost time. Again.
Then, as luck would have it, maybe 40 minutes into the journey, I saw behind us a small speed boat approaching fast, with a lone driver.
“Cho!” I called. “Look! Let’s call him over and ask where he’s heading.”
Cho waved the guy over, and to our surprise, when he pulled up along side us and we had done the with the introductions, he told us he was heading for Pucallpa. ”Should be there before nightfall,” he said nonchalantly. We couldn’t believe our luck, and I immediately asked if I could pay him cash to take us and our packs to Pucallpa. We quickly agreed on a price and boarded the boat, Cho and I grinning like Cheshire cats – this thing had a roof, seats, and space enough for Cho to lay down and sleep. I paid Victor, and we said our thanks and goodbyes
“I’ll be back in a few weeks!” I shouted, as we separated.
A mind-numbing seven hours later, we were back in Pucallpa city. Cho took a mototaxi back to his home, and I headed back to the same room I had rented before. I dumped my heavy backpack and looked at my gaunt, sunburnt face and neck in the mirror. I had mixed feelings – immense disappointment and relief – and I think Cho probably felt the some way.
I am now still looking for an Asheninka guide, and trying to work out the most economical way of getting back. Cho is slowly recovering, but is not up to returning with me to continue.
My eventual arrival in Atalaya will be significant for me. As far as I can see, after studying the topographic maps and Google earth, in theory it will mark the end of navigating through primary and secondary jungle, and there are enough trails and roads ahead, next to the river, to get me to the Andes. I will finally have crossed the vast green ocean of the Amazon basin.
The earth’s rain-forests are rapidly being plundered and destroyed by humanity, just like the vast expanse of oceans, as we dismantle the intricate web of life that keeps earth habitable for all life. I will finish with the words attributed to the native American indian Chief Sealttle, in 1854:
“The earth does not belong to man – man belongs to the earth. All things are connected, like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself”
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Header photo. Asheninka village, Victor second from left in front of the church. Rio Sheshea, Ucayali Peru
Me in the Shipibo town of Iparia with mountain views behind.
Shipibo woman. Village Colonia de Caco, Ucayali Peru.
Cowboy hats are popular here. This guy helped us get to the next village in one day. Colonia de Caco
Ashaninka president Jirbati originally from a village on the RioTambo working at his house in Pucallpa
Gadiel Sanchez resting on route to the next village
Gadiel and me heading to Turnovista
Passing a cattle farm before entering the jungle
Tracking map. Pucallpa to rio Sheshea
Pan and zoom map to see more detail