Wading and swimming through rivers deep in the Amazon!
Some of you wanted to hear more about the retrieval expedition that I posted about a few days ago on this subreddit. Something that came up as point of interest was about the crossing of a river by foot/swimming. As it was a long expedition with a lot of stories to tell I will focus with this post mainly on just the crossing.
Just to quickly summarize our mission was to retrieve equipment that had crashed in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest west of Manaus. We had to travel over 900 KM by boat over 4 different river systems and then the same distance back again. The second river had been closed down for over 14 years but we were lucky enough to get permission to enter this river. The wildlife in this area was off the charts but as we were on a schedule we had little time and so we didn’t stop for anything. Many amazing things happened during those 4 days of travel but those are stories for another day.
We were 3 quarters through the second river when the maps and navigation we had started to serious lack in precision. We realized quickly that we were not going to have enough gas for the way back, luckily we brought a smaller boat which lay on top of our main boat. After reaching the 4th river we really reached uncharted waters and our navigations besides general direction were just useless as this point. We decided to move in to our smaller boat and went on from there. The plan was to find a 5th river that would lead us within 1 KM of the retrieval coordinates. On the early morning of day five we found this 5th river with quite a strong current however unfortunately it was blocked by dense bushes and so we were not able to enter. This was of course quite the set back but something we had prepared for.
This is where the problems started as the equipment was on the South side of this river (it was flowing east to west) and there was no solid land north of this river just flooded forest. There was however solid land not too far away on the North side of the river so we tied up our small boat there left some of our gear in the boat and moved inlands from there. Now the problem with this was that once we would get close to the coordinates we would still have to cross this river however we hoped that further inland the river would be nothing more then a stream. After 4 days trekking and cutting our way through the jungle for 10 - 12 hours a day we set up camp about a half day walk to the coordinates. Now at this point our rations were running thin and we were skipping both breakfast and lunch and our first meal of the day would be around 8 PM in the night and on a few occasions as late as 10 PM. Honestly we are used to it and its not that big of deal for us… Of course we did eat a few snacks in between. We also picked up food on the way if it was easy to gather. This would usually be fruits or nuts. Especially the famous Brazil nuts are a great snack!
That morning we woke up that morning around 4.30 AM and started walking at first light. We packed light and left most of our equipment at the camp.
Covering distance in a dense rainforest can be a challenge. Even though your navigation coordinates as the crow flies is for example only 1 KM away you might only be able to get 500 meters a hour closer to the point. It’s honestly quite frustrating at times. Of course there are multiple reasons for this. Firstly because well cutting through the rainforest is slow and if the forest is dense it can really take a long time. Further there are lots of large trees and fallen trees that you need to walk around so walking in a straight line is just not possible. The worst of this would be a rainforest with Bamboo which you find more in the south west near the borders of Peru and Bolivia. Bamboo grows horizontally and can be hard to cut through. Even worse once you cut the bamboo it becomes very sharp and can cut you everywhere in return. Just a week before this expedition we were on a expedition in the borderlands of Brazil, Peru & Bolivia in cartel territory which was a whole other adventure by itself. Luckily the forest of this expedition was for the most part a “normal” jungle though with lots of spikes everywhere. The main issue here was that there were large tracts flooded forest everywhere that we tried to avoid. This made us move a lot slower because we would often have to go around not getting any closer to the coordinates.
A bit more background information; I twisted my knee during the last expedition I just referred to and was barely able to walk on it. We visited a indigenous shaman who lives alone in the rainforest near Manaus to work my knee and it honestly did wonders as I was able to walk normally again even though it was still sore. My team mates for this expedition are all Brazilian who have lived in the rainforest for most if not all of their life. They are either indigenous or ex military and have so much experience. They are also all a lot shorter and weigh a lot less compared to myself. I am around 6’2 in height and weigh over 200 pounds without any gear while they are all quite a bit shorter while still being just as strong or stronger when it comes to carrying equipment for example. So with the advantages of sweating less, being lighter on their feet and just have so much more experience these expeditions are quite a bit more harder on me then they are on the rest of the team. Why I mention this well.. going through the flooded forest is even worse for me as I sink way further in to the mud then they do. This makes it a lot more difficult for me to get through a flooded forest and get myself unstuck constantly which was really not good for my knee. After this expedition it took me about 3 months before I could run more than a mile.
Anyway coming back to the story at around noon we arrived at about 1.5 KM form the navigation point. Unfortunately as feared the river was still there and did not look any smaller as we had hoped. Further we could not see to the other end and the question was if there was even any solid land on that side of the river. My estimate was that this waterway of rivers and flooded forest was about 400 – 500 meters wide. Which in that case would take around an hour to cross or so. The current of the river looked strong and the moment we arrived at the river a snake moved in to water in front of us. A bad sign this was in the opinion of our team (lots of superstition in the Amazon).
The Lt. and myself looked at each other quite defeated and stepped aside to discuss the situation. We chatted about the situation and the thought of coming this far and having to return home without the equipment sank in us hard. We both still wanted to carry on but when you are responsible of other peoples lives who all have families back home this becomes a very different story. It’s one thing to put our own live in danger…
I mean we swim in Amazon rivers all the time in areas we know and where we are aware of all the dangers. There is also plenty of areas where we don’t swim because we know that there are large black caimans in the water for example. I have swam in rivers plenty of times when I could see a spectacled caiman laying in the water without worry about whether it would attack me. In Guyana on the other hand there are plenty of rivers where we don’t swim because they are filled with black caiman (who can grow over 5 meters/16 feet in length). Funny enough there is one area which we know that has a dominant huge Black caiman who chases away all other black caiman. We actually do swim in that river at times and have one person watch him. As long as he is visible we know we can go in the water without a problem.
In this same river but way further down we wash ourselves in the river on a sandbank with water that comes just above our ankle or so. I remember one time I was washing myself in the water at dusk, I kept my eyes constantly on 6 different caimans to make sure where they were. Some of my friends then came down from the camp to wash as well and pointed out to me that a 7th caiman that I had missed somehow was crawling towards me and had gotten within 6 meters of me.
Back to the story at hand; we did not know this area which made going in to the water all the more dangerous especially since this was an area where there were no people and there was no hunting or poaching and so the animals like Black Caimans and Anaconda’s were still huge in the area. Not to mention other creatures like stingrays, venomous snakes and electric eels. If any of us got seriously injured it would most likely mean certain death as we were at least 4 days away from the closest possible airlift location.
With that in mind we went back to the team and informed them that we decided go back to camp and call the mission a failure. The team at this moment were all sitting on a fallen tree. They all looked each other in agreeance and said;
No we came this far, we are going to swim.
Honestly I was so proud of our team in that moment. They are really a special amazing bunch and its such an honor to call them my brothers. And so off we went, we took off all our gear. Left our rifles and backpacks and took only some tools, knives and machetes.
And so on we went… some parts we had to swim while other parts we were still able to walk trying to step on the roots of trees so you wouldn’t get stuck in the mud. When walking the water level varied from up to our knees to al the way up to our chest. I live for adventure but I will admit I was quite nervous. Honestly you were kind of expecting to either step on a caiman (even the smaller ones will bite if you step on them and can hurt you bad) or see one coming out from under a bush to come right at you. Besides getting bitten and stung by loads of different kinds of ants we were slowly pushing through. We climbed on a little island made of roots and took a rest. At this piont we had been walking/swimming for about 40 minutes. We still saw no end of the water in sight and we were discussing whether there was even any land on the other side of this waterway. The situation just seemed to be too dangerous and seemed wiser to turn around.. We saw another area from where we could scout in the distance and decided we would move there and if we would still not see any land from there that we would return and go back to camp.
We arrived at the other island made of roots we climbed up and as we did our heart sank as all we still saw was water. We stood there defeated for a moment and just as we turned around to go to camp we hurt a very familiar sound: Bem Te Vi – Bem Ti Vi! Quiet our team said, listen! And there it was again: Bem Te Vi! This little famous Amazonian bird saved our expedition. Our team knows that this bird stays on dry land and so excited we followed the sound. Not soon later we heard the bickering of Squirrel monkeys another species that prefers to stay near dry land. Not too much later we saw the monkeys and they just stared at us in curiosity within arm reach, totally unafraid.
Not much later we saw it, beautiful dry land! We climbed up and with 1 KM more to go to the coordinates we took a breather and carved there our initials in a tree knowing that very surely we were first people to ever get there.