Destination: Peru, Colombia, Brazil
It isn’t the hostile natives, or the jaguars or the poisonous snakes or the ba-zillion mosquitoes that pose the greatest danger. It’s boredom.
The big surprise revealed in Walking the Amazon: 860 Days. One Step at a Time. turns out to be a fundamental of brain science. Even when every move you make has to be calculated to help you survive, if you’re doing the same thing every day for more than 800 days running, your mind says, “Enough already!” It craves novelty.
Ed Stafford, a wilderness expedition leader, looked for a new and unique challenge. And amazingly, he found an adventure that not only puts him in the Guinness Book of World Records, but establishes him as one of the all-time great explorers of the unknown.
He realized that no one had walked the entire length of the Amazon River before. Someone had kayaked it, and Luke, whom he recruited as a partner wanted to go that route. When just about everyone they talked to said that it would be impossible to walk the distance, Stafford just got more excited. Walking the Amazon relates the adventure. Only Stafford made the entire walk from Pacific to Atlantic–more than 4,000 miles. Luke dropped out early on. Many locals came along for short stints as guides. Several journalists and friends joined up for a few days here and there. A Peruvian forestry worker named Cho joined after the first four months for a short stretch, and wound up going the distance with Stafford.
Unlike some 19th century explorations into totally unknown Africa or the polar regions, or 17th century oceanic explorers, Stafford would be traversing some trodden paths–even roads into towns. But he still hacked his way through untouched jungle in places and covered areas that even the natives said no one had ever crossed. It was only made marginally easier by using a GPS, and flood-stage maps. Google Earth turned out to be a real life saver.
This was a thoroughly 21st century expedition with the GPS, computer, solar batteries, satellite communications and video and digital cameras. While that may sound cushy, those items all add weight that must be carried. Furthermore, they break down, wear out, get wet, and generally cause problems all along the way, with their demand for batteries, charge-ups, sunshine, keeping dry. Additionally, he took notes in a waterproof notebook with an astronaut pen, which writes upside down.
Al that technology also imposes extra chores. Stafford committed to blogging, videotaping every significant moment, taking digital pictures, running a website and hosting visiting journalists from time to time.
When he reached a point after about five months where he neglected navigation checks–relying instead on the local guides–he said,
...the walk had now turned into an existence rather than an expedition. We were just walking loosely following a river and my perspective and handle on many things had shifted a lot due to my preoccupation with matters such as safety and financial worries.
The mental challenge becomes the theme of the book and what makes it valuable reading for anyone who faces any kind of challenge. Stafford is ruthlessly honest about his own emotions and shortcomings and shares his attempts to get control over his mental state. His mental state, however, does not resemble that of the ordinary tourist. Stafford relishes hardship and even enjoys not using things like head nets to protect from mosquitoes, and high-tech boots.
…so I enjoyed experiencing the Amazon as locals did, without the flashy gringo trappings. There was a pride to be taken in doing the walk in the manner of the people who lived there.
Admittedly he took advantage of some advances over “the people who lived there.” He had handy inflatable one-man rafts that fit in a backpack so he and Cho don’t have to stop to build a raft each time he needs to cross a tributary. And they have backpacks and high-tech tarps and all that electronic equipment, that the “people who live there” do without.
The reader whose idea of a challenging walk is 6 hours instead of 860 days will find his love of depredation hard to understand. But here it is again in the last year of the trip in a chapter labeled, Starvation.
To us, unwashed, exhausted and starving, that morning represented everything that, deep down, I wanted from the expedition…We had a deficit of over 3,000 calories a day for the past eight days and we had no option but to put the facts to one side and continue as normal.
Stafford’s task in this book does not include giving us a portrait of what the Amazon looks like. Rarely, he mentions the surroundings. Rather this man of action describes actions–physical and mental. And toward the end of the trip, his determination to “continue as normal” slips and he says,
No matter what people said, it was impossible to stay positive all the time. Our minds screamed for new stimulus and were revolting against the placid, polite conversations we had daily with local people about how bonkers we were. There were times when I couldn’t give a toss about the fate of the Amazon…Chop the whole forest down–I just wanted to be at the birth of my first nephew.
In this unlikely frame of mind, he gives us, ironically, one of the few descriptive passages of the book.
Chronic tiredness can sap one’s passion for anything and at times we passed majestic trees covered in orchids, walls of interwoven lianas and vines and sandy-bottomed streams of the purest crystal-clear water and paid them no attention whatsoever. Would it help us get through the day? No? Sod it then.
A collection of photos in the center of the book help us visualize what it looked like, and Stafford’s website has plenty of photos and videos to fill in the blanks. Would you like to take a bit of a stroll along the Amazon? Stafford provides a helpful four-page list of the gear they wound up carrying, wearing and eating. I found it fascinating. But not fascinating enough that I’m booking my ticket to Peru to get started at the Pacific and walk over the mountains, through the drug smugglers, through villages of natives who think white people must be there to steal their organs, over mining roads protected by guns, and wading neck-deep/swimming through flooded fringes of jungle in order to walk the length of the Amazon.
You might want to take a slightly easier route. Green Global Travel did a series on a boat trip down the Amazon. It starts in Peru with links to the rest of the articles at the bottom. And I reviewed the book, Along the River that Runs Uphill which considers risk vs. adventure, on a river trip in the Amazon basin.
Disclosures: The publishers provided this book. The opinions, however, are always my own. The links to Amazon in this article are affiliate links. That means if you use them to shop at Amazon, although it costs you no more, I make a few cents. Good idea, huh?
The photos here are NOT from Ed Stafford’s book or website. You can find many wonderful images there, as mentioned above.