Sunday, 15 September 2013

One mission, two cases of diarrhoea, three countries, four paddle boards.....

WE MADE IT - Thank you all for your support x ... here is the blog from the last week.....

Monday 22nd July – Took fast boat to Timicurillo then the rickshaw taxis back to Mazan. It is surreal concrete pathway 3 m wide that connects the Amazon and the Napo at its shortest land distance. We found our boat intact and in good order (we had been worried because we had rushed off and then had second thoughts about leaving the outboard attached even though it had a chain and lock), pumped up the boards bought some precooked lunch and fresh veg before setting off about 11am. This section that loops round to connect to the Amazon has much less traffic. Late afternoon we talked to Roy and his family who were returning by boat from a village meeting and he invited us to camp under shelter in their house. Beautiful sunset on bluff overlooking the river – our last night on the River Napo.

Tuesday 23rd July – after 5 hours paddling down some small channels off the main river we emerged into what could only be the Amazon - and saw our first ocean going vessel of the trip. The river is huge and lower than the Napo with exposed sandy beaches ideal for camping. That night we camped for the first time on a beautiful beach just west of San Salvador with dolphins on the shoreline and a small swamp just behind. As the light faded we learned a good lesson about camping next to a swamp... mosquito heaven.... At the turn of midnight we sang Marcia Happy birthday from the safety of the tents!

Wednesday 24th July – Pebas (Pevas) The day started fine and we paddled with a good current beneath us. As the day proceeded a headwind came up and grew and grew in strength. We arrived at the inlet to Pebas and were now making almost no headway on the paddle boards with the wind continuing to grow and getting colder. We decided to pull in to Pebas to have lunch and consider our options. This small Amazonian town lies on the north of the Amazon River. We pulled up on a fairly professional looking harbour and walked up the jetty. A few moto taxis waited – Sam chatted to one and said he did not like the feel of the town. Leaving Lorenzo to look after the boat we decided to have a quick scoot around town as the wind was going to make it almost impossible to continue. At the top of a flight of stair there was the recently painted main square, to the left we followed a path and along to a road where a portal to the left said ‘Grippa Art’. We wandered down into what can only be described as the perfect set for a horror movie. Walking though the creaking balconies on the relic of what once must have been a showpiece we suddenly came across a door and inside were transported into a magnificent art studio and face to face with Francisco Grippa ‘the Gauguin of the Amazon’. Magnificent paintings adorned the walls. It was indeed a surreal moment.... He offered us accommodation for the night and although some feared our blood might be drunk I was keen to stay. Looking around at the paintings one in particular caught my eye ‘The bull that fell from the sky and lived’ – a local myth. We collected Lorenzo – organised to leave the boat at the port and settled in. In the evening we went to the square where we drank a few beers in a restaurant run by the last of Grippas 7 wives and waited for a meal as the town prepared for the festivities of the 28th July (Independence day). The meal took hours and we were half cut by the time it arrived although it was the best we had had so far. We wobbled back to the house of horror and bedded down for the night with the wind howling around the rickety wooden structure. 

25th July: Pebas to Mosquito Island (Isla Zancudo) - At about 4am I got so worried for the boat that I wandered down to the dock to see if all was well. We were up at 6am discussed what to do – we decided to wait for the wind that had rendered the place grey and actually really cold (some 15C) to decrease before we headed off. I wandered round the gallery once more – I also decided that I wanted to see how much the painting I liked so much was and got into dealing with Francisco. We agreed on a price that included a couple of wonderful indigenous lithographs and he proceeded to wrap it up so we could carry it down the Amazon. After a breakfast at the Taverna with the wind still howling Daniel Lorenzo and Juan went to try and see what the state of the river was like and took the boat out of the protected harbour area. It proved to be possible to paddle but the wind was still strong so we decided we would buy lunch and leave at midday. We motored out of the harbour and began paddling – the wind had dropped but the wind against tide in the middle of the river had created waves of 1 m (wind against tide) that were incredibly choppy. At one point we decided that the paddlers would need to cross and the boat would look for a safer place to cross and meet us. It was an exciting ride across but as we did so we had forgotten that the river had really grown in girth and lost complete sight of the boat. With Mosquito island ahead of us and us headed to the left channel around it we waited and waited for the boat with no sign. We did not know what to do as we started to realise that the low draft of the canoe would mean that it might be very dangerous for the canoe (with Lorenzo and Marcia on) to cross. We paddled back against the current to try and see if we could spot the boat on the other side... after some 15 minutes we saw a shape coming across the waves. It was the boat – when it arrived we were so relieved and we learned another important lesson that we should always accompany the boat as the river could change character extremely fast and the river was now large enough to completely lose sight of boat or paddler from bank to bank. The crossing by boat had been risky with the motor lifted out of the water by the waves but Lorenzo was an extremely good pilot and had managed to get them across with only a few adrenaline filled moments. Although the islands moniker was Mosquito Island we found a beautiful beach and small inlet channel where we could moor the boat alongside us and began to set up our second camp. Thank god this place did not live up to its name.
Camp setup was getting more routine now – it did however involve setting up a goalpost type formation from drift wood (or more like drift trees in the Amazon!) over which we draped our 4 x 6m plastic sheets under which we set up our tents. Tents themselves were unlikely to survive a serious Amazonian downpour. Lorenzo went fishing with a machete and came back with a catfish.....

26th July – Isla Zancudo to Isla Santa Elena. An expedition is inherently stressful either physically and/or mentally. There is a saying I first heard when on a training course for disaster relief. When a group of strangers come together to work under pressurised situations there is normally a 4 stage process known as forming, storming, norming, performing. This can take weeks to work through and the storming – or arguing stage – is a natural step in the process of generating a team capable of efficiently executing a mission. In our case the fact that we all had up to 7 hours on a paddle board, allowing solitude, reflection and inherent meditation in this enormous river, meant that the storming (in its most extreme form!) never took place. Paddling through the various moods of the river from glassy surface to wind and rain blown mania calms the most tormented of souls! 

It is clear that the season on the Amazon is different to that on the Napo. The Napo was in full flood at the end of winter whereas sunny skies were more dominant of the Amazon. It is incredible thinking back on how much the character of the river changed both spatially and temporally. We were now paddling a vast river divided by islands that ended to give a real glimpse of the size of the river that discharges the highest amount of freshwater in the world and has more species of fish than the entire Atlantic ocean! On this stretch of Peruvian Amazon there is also more settlement. Juan had been asking about hunting and wildlife in conversations with local communities and it is also clear that the human footprint is also heavier here. At the upper stretches people said they saw primates within an hour’s walk – here people said wildlife and hunting could be found only after 4 – 5 hours walk. 

At about 4.30 we took a southern channel past Isla Pucaplaya and just after the village of Sargento Loreto we pulled into an island beach and set up camp. With a few swampy areas we were aware that today was going to be another mosquito challenge! Although we had a smoky campfire we were driven to our tents by 8pm... We had now used almost every tool we had brought with us as the mallet was put to use to crush peanuts for a satay sauce..

27th July - Now used to the routine we were up again at 5am to cook breakfast and take down the camp – to be off by 7am. Today we would paddle down with the aim of getting to Chimbote, a Peruvian naval checkpoint. Once again our total ignorance of the paperwork would be challenged. With flow beneath us speeding us along at rates that ranged from 7km/hr to 14km/hr when we would find the main flow and the river narrowed we arrived in Chimbote at about

3pm on this Saturday. We had planned to check in if the post was open but if closed for Independence Day would continue on to Colombia. Chimbote surprised us in being very small – no more than a village. We checked in with the police who asked us for passports then Daniel went to the naval office. The major challenges here, according to the police was drug transportation. This region is renowned for a history of Coca production and cocaine processing. In the past, especially during Pablo Escobar’s reign as the top drug lord the Colombian section was littered with illegal landing strips and cocaine processing plants – employing a large percentage of local indigenous communities. With Escobar’s fall and bombing of the airfields the Colombia region is now mostly under government control – but plantations are still common.
When I walked in to the naval section there was trouble... it was being explained to us that we could not move the boat because it was not registered (matricula) – the document we had tried to get in Ecuador was what we needed to proceed. Things were looking bad so close to the end of the trip and for a moment I regretted ever having stopped – imagining the drunken horror of having to stay in Chimbote for independence day as a foreigner! Fairly miraculously, as we explained the objective of the expedition the official relaxed and said he would give us a break and let us continue... as fast as we could we bought water and paddled furiously away before he could change his mind... we had been exceptionally lucky with officialdom! We paddled and approached the Colombian border. This region was suddenly less populous – a trend we had seen when approaching border regions. Juan and Daniel spotted a campsite for the night and we pulled over near a fisherman from whom we bought some fresh fish for the barbecue. At this stage I must admit that the culinary quality had been rapidly dropping and the thrill of rice and beans as a staple was again wearing off my western palette – dreamed of fresh salads...

28th July penultimate leg to Amacayacu National Park - Another 5am wake up and we all knew we could easily make the Amacayacu National Park by the end of the day and Lorenzo would get home in time for his youngest boys birthday party. With Colombia now on our north coast and Peru to the south we paddled a millpond Amazon in high spirits. We were going to pull in to the Colombia village of Puerto Narino to allow Lorenzo to pick up supplies, a present for his son and some huge community cooking plots that we had bought for community meetings as part of the project. In contrast to all the communities we had visited Puerto Narino was spectacular – it was well organised and clean (every morning the community got together in an inappropriately named ‘minga’ – a community work group to clear litter). This was a town that based its income on tourism and had dedicated to offering an organised jungle experience. In all my travels I had always been particularly impressed by Colombia – in a country with so many perceived and real problems I had always found the Colombians particularly organised and efficient... I slipped off the boat for a coffee and cake and brought some back for everyone and we set off for the hour or two to the inlet of the river Napatu (after which our boat was named). We pulled into this beautiful little river that marks the western limits of the Amacayacu National Park. It was incredible how at home we felt – most of us had visited, worked or lived in and around the park. For Daniel this was a real homecoming – he had lived for 2 years as a park ranger in Amacayacu and nearly everyone we passed was delighted to see him. Of course for Lorenzo this was home! We left the boards tied up to the rangers post at the mouth of the river and motored Lorenzo upriver some 20 minutes to his home at San Martin. As we pulled up his wife and a couple of his kids were washing clothes in the river. The Tikuna are not known to be over emotional and it appeared that Lorenzo had only just nipped down and back from the shops based on his initial reception! Apparently this was the Tikuna way – we walked up the street to his house where he showed us his latest developments ‘Boutique hotel Gregorio’ (his surname was Gregario) – a basic but beautiful ecohotel he had built! The family slowly gathered to sit around the kitchen when Lorenzo asked us all to join him at the table for a quick speech. Lorenzo said that he had had a fantastic experience with all of us where we had all been like brothers (and a sister) – with a tear in his eye that set Marcia off crying we hugged and said goodbye to the soul of the trip. All melancholy we motored back down the Napatu to pick up the boards for the last hour of paddle to the National park base where we would spend a couple of nights.
Some 50 minutes later we passed the entrance to Amacayacu National Park and paddled 100m up the small river to the left to the rangers section. We pulled in, delighted that we had made it this far. The after completing the paperwork at our final destination Leticia, a day’s paddle away, the boat would return to be moored here at the Park for use in conservation and sustainable development projects with local communities such as the one Lorenzo lived in – San Martin. For Daniel this was a real homecoming and we all settled in for 2 nights in real beds! Luxury!

29th July Amacayacu National Park – we slept in today, must admit the body was feeling the wear and tear of 21 days of travel and paddle. The boat was unloaded and we sorted out equipment as donations for the Park, Makuchiga (the primate rescue centre) and for Lorenzo and his community. In teh afternoon we took the equipment and a huge barrel of petrol we had not used up the tiny river some 20 minutes to where Maikuchiga were based. They had recently moved the house that had been close to the rangers station in the national park for 2 reasons – firstly the floods had damaged the housing and secondly recent changes in legislation had impacted on their work as they used to show tourists around the rescued primates. New legislation meant that it was illegal to exhibit animals in national parks – which has huge benefits but side effects on the efforts of this rescue centre! The house on stilts was now relocated to the only piece of land known to never have been flooded and on indigenous territory where legislation was slightly different. On arrival it seems that Pancho – the teenage rescued howler monkey took exception to my face and had a couple of good runs at attacking me – with huge teeth that could crack nuts a bite would have been a serious affair – the wounds from these teeth heal slowly and can leave terrible scars. Sarah, who runs Maikuchiga has had a number of injuries from primates over the years – they can be rather unpredictable! Talking to Sarah we could see that the closure of the park from flooding has had major impacts on the local economy.

30th July Amacayacu to Leticia – we woke up early with plans for a 5.30 start – we ended leaving about 6 am and started our last paddling day down to Leticia. Every day was different on the river – today a fog with the morning sun poking hazily through made for a surreal paddle. The fog cleared to leave blue skies and sunshine. We stopped at Isla de Monos (Monkey Island). The previous owner of the island had populated it will a zoo of animals – most had died out as the river islands did not have the carrying capacity to maintain populations of large mammals such as primates. The squirrel monkeys have survived and it is now used as a tourist attraction. We heard that a jaguar had once swum over and made the island its home – ate a few of the animals and terrified staff and tourists before swimming away again one day!
As we approached Leticia we popped the cork on some cheap imitation champagne ($8 worth) from Peru (not of the highest quality but sweet and bubbly ... and warm...) – we moored the boat up on a floating house that guarded the national park boats. The current around this floating home was very strong. Life on board seemed tough – the house needed regular tweaks to the anchors and poles that kept it mid stream and needed to be moved up and down the banks with the annual cycle of flooding and drying of the river. The boathouse owner explained that one particularly heavy storm saw only 5 houseboats remained (of which his was one) – the rest had been swept downstream!

With mission completed (and only the paperwork to hand over the boat to the NGO Entopika to do tomorrow) we unloaded the boat got to our accommodation and set about celebrating – a meal in El Cielo (Heaven) and a bottle of Black label later and we wobbled back to sleep – the wobble was a combination of the booze and the strange wobbling sensation one gets after being at sea for a time!
We hope to put together a small ebook of the trip that explores some the the themes we encountered in greater detail – the future of uncontacted tribes, conservation of wildlife and oil exploitation are some key themes that our team-members are working on...

Thank you all for your support of this project – the boat you bought will play a key role in allowing Entopika to carry out its incredible work in and around Amacayacu National Park. Thank you all x

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