Writing up this blog from the comfort of an air conditioned cafe in Georgetown, I’m struggling to recall the emotions I felt on exiting the forest. So below is part of the email I sent my family when I hit my first town on the Amazon River:
“Safely out of the jungle after a month of journeying with 3 Wai Wai guides. We´re a little stuck in Oriximina, so ploughing through logistics today but should be on our way to Manaus tomorrow.
It´s been the most intense experience I could have imagined and it took a great toll physically and mentally. Just starting to sink in what we did and it was truly the exact trip I had in mind, so totally satisfied that we´ve battled through one of the most remote regions of the Amazon. We saw no one for 20 days until we hit the villages, which had never seen a Westerner other than the odd missionary before. They were afraid and then loving it.”
Below are pics to help tell the exped story:
Wai Wai guide, Tema, anxiously looks on as we cut through trees blocking our path up the narrow Chodikar River, a small tributary leading to the mountainous border with Brazil.
Andre unloads the dugout after a 10 hour day fighting our way up the Chodikar River.
Our first camp, deep in the Acarai mountains. My 40kg bag, in the foreground, made the 3 day crossing the hardest physical challenge I have experienced.
We were following an ancient Wai Wai trail, which has been employed by Wai Wai people living in Brazil or Guyana for hundreds of years to visit relatives or find wives over the border. An old powis tail shelter, built by a previous Wai Wai team, was there for us to shelter under for the night (if well built they can last for over 6 months).
Having crossed the border into Brazil, we now needed to build a dugout to descend the headwaters of the Rio Mapuera. You have to choose your tree carefully, as some can split when the shaping begins.
3 very physical days later and we carved out our boat. High stakes throughout, because any damage to it meant we’d have to start again and our rations were limited. Busy building the boat and unable to journey down river, we were only able to shoot a monkey and a caiman for much needed protein.
This was a period of great hunger and annoying head rushes, so strong that I thought I would faint every time I stood up.
Nervous times as we heat the dugout to stretch out its interior, being very careful to not split it.
We’re finally on our way down the headwaters and Andre (far left) shoots a tapir (bush cow) with his bow. An expert shot to the heart and we have our first proper meal in 6 days.
The most dangerous day of the expedition. 1.5km of uninterrupted rock falls, requiring very risky maneuvers, putting our bodies and boat in danger. At this point of the expedition, we’re so deep into the forest that any trauma to ourselves or damage to the boat would have been very serious.
A very relieved face as we finish 7 hours of intense concentration and labouring through the 1.5km of falls. I’m tracking our route on my GPS.
Smoked tapir is wrapped up in the green leaves. The stench of it, day and night, became horrible.
After 20 isolated days in the forest, we come across our first village. Having earnt the trust of my guides, they happily introduce me to their Wai Wai relatives and friends in numerous villages that we stay in on the Rio Mapuera. This is a unique opportunity to learn about their little known culture, one which is still completely founded upon living off the land and sustenance farming.
I earn my share of fish in the first village by teaching the kids English and geography in their wooden church building (they are Christians due to the missionaries contacting them in the 1950s, the only Westerners they have ever had contact with).
After a 5 days of motored transport by boat, staying at villages down the Rio Mapuera, we finally reach the town of Oriximina, where I’m able to buy food for myself and the guides. I eat a whole 250g tub of margarine with salted crackers in 20mins!
We have a lovely boat journey up the Amazon to Manaus, eating plenty and relaxing in our hammocks. From Manaus we take a taxi back to Lethem, Guyana. Crossing the border at 7am on a Saturday morning, we exit Brazil and enter Guyana without facing any checks. A good thing as I had no entry visa for Brazil and the guides had forgotten their ID documents in their village where we started the expedition 5 weeks previously! An immigration issue that had caused me much worry and had led to multiple phone calls to the British High Commissioner in Georgetown, on the sat phone, for advice.
All in all, this journey blew my mind and I’ve never felt so vulnerable. It’s an interesting experience to put your life in the hands of 3 people you’ve only met the day before and share their company every minute of every day in such an intense fashion for 5 weeks.
They spent much of the time bantering away in Wai Wai and there would be whole days where I would only chip in the odd comment or gag in English or in the limited Wai Wai I learnt. I met my ex-SAS officer friend in Georgetown two nights ago and it was weird to speak freely and fast again!
For now, I’m spending some time in Georgetown writing up an example book chapter for a literary agent in London and organizing the film footage, of which I shot plenty on 3 different cameras (Canon 60D, Gopro and waterproof Fujifilm).
I look forward to catching up with family and friends in November xx
(I look stressed below but actually greatly enjoying a coffee and some casava bread for breakfast in Mapuera village, the capital of Wai Wai country in Brazil, with some 1,000 people living there)