Natal (Christmas) in Tefe, Amazonas for Pete Casey

Tefe – new milestone. Pete is fol­low­ing the mighty Ama­zon river in the most ambi­tious and inti­mate way pos­si­ble: walk­ing, some­times swim­ming every inch of the Ama­zon from sea to source, and in the process inter­act­ing with its peo­ple and its wildlife face to face at ground level.

The lay of the land

It would have been much quicker walking along the exposed banks of the Solimões (Amazon) river, but the risk of encountering river pirates was very high – so for this latest section, Coari to Tefé, we would just have to grit our teeth, sharpen our machetes, and cut our own path through the longer and tougher inland jungle route.

Jhonatan, my guide on the Arumã to Coari leg, having originally decided he could not join me on this section, had a change of heart. He now decided he wanted to accompany me all the way to Tefé… and could he bring his brother Erland? I reluctantly agreed after we came to a reasonable financial arrangement, and then I had to retrieve my spare kit stored in Manaus for the other guide (and was able at the same time to replace my GPS and Garmin Inreach device). And there we were – suddenly, for the first time on the expedition, I had two guides!

Running the entire expedition myself, including accounting, route planning, updating the website, paying the guides and getting them back home, with all the logistical nightmares to overcome, is hard work. Even if the toughest part physically and mentally is the walking, it is always a relief to actually get started each time on a new leg, and leave the ‘admin’ behind.

For the first two weeks, almost all the nights were dry, with clear skies. Normally, once the fire goes out, it’s so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face – but now, with the ambient moonlight and starlight filtering through the treetops and illuminating my fly sheet, together with the unusually large amount of fireflies surrounding my hammock, I sometimes imagined myself to be floating in space on some sort of transcendental meditation trip – spaced out on nothing stronger than an occasional coffee and a large dose of `life, the universe and everything`!

As always, it is difficult to condense a month’s eventful jungle traverse into a single blog post, so here are a few of the highlights:

First up, there was the terrifying task I had set myself of swimming across the three sections of the huge Lago do Coari (Coari Lake) and traversing the terra firma jungle in between (see map below). It was scary for various reasons: firstly, there was the very real risk of contact with river pirates who, we were told, pass regularly through the area; then there was the obvious risk of encountering hungry, sharp-toothed, aquatic residents; and finally, there was the possibility of rapid and unpredictable weather changes, causing intense storms with high winds, heavy rain, and very rough water that can overturn large boats. These events are known locally as maresia. However, luck was on my side on all three legs, and I had very welcome boat support from the local community. So, despite having a stinking cold, I can say I almost enjoyed the swims, especially when a group of river dolphins decided to join us and swam alongside all the way across the largest – 7 kilometre – section of the lake. Also, Erland swam more than half the leg with me, while Jhonatan filmed from the support canoe and looked after the backpacks. The luxury of having a whole team on the job!

Secondly, we were advised to avoid entering/passing certain communities near to the Solimões, and to keep a low profile. This was difficult, if only because I had planned to resupply at these points. We had an unplanned 6 kilometre armed escort out of one of the communities for our own safety after buying food supplies. Our escort was courteously arranged free of charge by the local indigenous reserve manager. Ominous though this sounds, once again I have to add that all the people we had contact with were unbelievably hospitable, generous and kind, once we had explained my mission. We were even given an empty house to sleep in, at one community.

Last but not least, let me talk about falling trees. “If a tree falls in the rainforest and nobody’s there to hear it, does it really make a sound?”, the old saying goes. Well without getting into philosophy or the science of sound-waves, perception and observation …..I can confirm that if you do happen to be in the vicinity, a falling tree in the middle of the rainforest makes a sound that’s pretty damned loud. (And after the deafening crash, there is an equally deafening silence, when all the animals and insects go quiet for at least 7 seconds. Regardless of our own presence, the animals are always there to hear it!) We were all awakened one night when a large tree fell very close to our camp during a storm. It was much too close for comfort, with one of the branches crashing through the fly sheet that protects the fire from rain. Falling trees and branches (branches some the size of a bus) are one of the dangers of jungle walking that is quite unpredictable. It is not really a manageable risk, so the best we can do is keep our fingers crossed while walking, and avoid making camp near old or leaning trees with overhanging dead branches. The problem is that at times, young healthy trees also fall victim to a sudden intense gust of wind during tropical downpours, and we have clambered over and under clusters of freshly fallen, quite healthy trees whilst walking.

It was good to be able to laugh and joke with the two brothers Jhonatan and Erland, something I would have found more challenging a year ago due to the language difficulties. Erland, the newer guide, is a young-looking 24-year-old and a forest worker since childhood. He possessed the strength of a Jaguar and practically skipped up the steep jungle hills with his heavily loaded pack, as I gasped for breath trying to keep up. He had an infectious laugh and good sense of humour, and was very skilled and knowledgeable, like his brother. This made the journey a bit more enjoyable with welcome doses of humour, especially when confronted with dangerous situations or near misses – one night, Jhonatan was woken up with a Jaguar sniffing near his head below his hammock. He rolled over and it ran off, and of course we all joked about it the next day. Not sure how funny I would have found it if it had been my head! I will be sad to lose these guys, since they both have other work to go to, collecting seasonal Brazil nuts in the forests near Beruri, but it seems there is the possibility of another member of the family walking with me on the next leg to Fonte Boa.

In the end, the meticulous planning paid off, and we made it through, unscathed but exhausted. We did have to put in some long,tough 9-hour walking days, as the guides were determined to get home for Natal (Christmas) to be with their respective families, and the 230 kilometre crossing took 27 days in all – but it was an inspiring experience, and we slept with full bellies every night.

Walking is perhaps the purest form of travel. When I am walking, I feel a tangible, spiritual connection with the earth, long-lost to us as we rush/drive about in our cities and developed nations. I am certain it all takes its toll on our mental and physical well-being. I know we are caught in the trap of needing to pay our bills, and for most people everyday life is difficult, without the luxury of much spare time or energy. I often wonder, are we really any better off or happier than an indigenous hunter gatherer community living off the land and surrounding forest? In an age of contact-less payments, social media, online shopping and motorised travel, I think we miss the close interaction with people and nature in our everyday lives. When you drive a car or use the Internet you are more isolated, encapsulated, and detached from the real world. I also think we are sadly judged and probably mis-judged by our online presence or what we have or don’t have. Do I really exist if I’m not on Facebook (perhaps I should ask If I’m alive and functioning but there’s no-one on Facebook to connect with me, do I really exist? 🙂 ). Communication and interaction with others, face to face, is important, I think. Don’t get me wrong – I love all the advances in technology, and some of the amazing products science, innovation, and engineering have brought us (I am a tech addict at heart), and I believe there can be both positive and negative results from technological developments, but sometimes I feel the yin & yang balance tipping slightly towards the dark and negative.

The next leg to Fonte Boa will, I’m sure, be much more challenging. The rising water levels and the beginning of the rainy season will make the going much tougher. But with more and more first-hand experience under my belt/backpack, traversing Amazonia on foot, I find my understanding of the terrain – it’s topography, it’s geography, it’s people, animals, trees, rivers and climate – growing. Perhaps I’m finally beginning to really understand the lay of the land.

By Pete Casey, December 22, 2017

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