A Journalist's Archive

Walking The Amazon
Ed Stafford
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          If there were a contest for “DO NOT ATTEMPT” extreme-adventure books, Ed Stafford’s account of “Walking the Amazon” would take top prize. His achievement of being “the first man to ever walk the entire length of the Amazon Basin,” is monumental.
          Yet by his own admission, he suffered from depression over much of the 860 days it took to complete the journey. Consequently, he devoted little time or energy to seeing the Amazon watershed as more than something to be conquered. He only delivers tidbits of information about the vastly different environments he covered, and even less about the cultures he encountered. But if it’s adventure you want, “Walking the Amazon” has plenty!
          Stafford has a peculiar mind, one that can focus on the finish line, no matter what obstacles block his path. In 2007, he worked for Trekforce, a British organization specializing in “conservation expeditions.” After a night of drinking in Belize City, Stafford and Luke Collyer, another expedition leader, decided they wanted to accomplish a feat most of their colleagues would call “impossible.” Others had kayaked down the Amazon River, but they would hike the length of the Amazon Basin, 4800 miles from the Pacific coast of Peru to the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil. And to become enthroned in the “Guinness Book of World Records,” every inch must be walked, meaning: no riding donkeys, hitching rides, or floating down parts of the river.
          Having already lead expeditions through harsh environments, both men understood the importance of being properly prepared before striking out. They sought the necessary permits, purchased evacuation insurance, learned field first-aid techniques, and obtained various medications. Procuring a satellite link, phones, MacBooks, GPS units, digital and video cameras, they planned to broadcast their progress.
          Next they sought financial backers, but few sponsors were interested. “If you believe the experts, we had a good chance of dying,” Stafford wrote. Then, in a chance encounter, Stafford managed to obtain funding for “100 per cent of the expedition,” or so he thought. On April 2, 2008, they loaded their backpacks and began hiking from Camaná, along with a young Peruvian who would act as a guide and interpreter for part of the trip.
          When picturing the Amazon Basin, few people visualize mountainous terrain. But since the Amazon begins in the Andes, this part of the adventure included scaling mountains, descending into deep canyons, and enduring hot days with frigid nights. Staying hydrated was a constant problem, and Collyer quickly discovered his expensive hiking boots weren’t up to the task. Furthermore, their overloaded backpacks hampered progress.
          After three months of hiking, Collyer decides to throw in the towel. Nature has beaten him with terrains varying from cactus-covered slopes to mud-sucking swamps. Stafford’s insults and bossiness take away any sting of guilt Collyer feels about leaving. Besides, he has a girl friend waiting for him at home. He boards a bus in San Martin, Peru, leaving Stafford to continue the trip with the aid of local guides.
          The guides’ knowledge bears little relationship to the amount they expect to be paid. Some know about edible plants and the quickest way to catch fish, others severely misrepresent their skills. But one becomes invaluable to Stafford. Gadiel ‘Cho’ Sanches Rivera, a slim Spanish-speaking man from Satipo, Peru, agrees to act as a guide for five days, but stays with Stafford until they splash into the Atlantic Ocean, two years later. While their personalities and beliefs clashed, it’s doubtful Stafford would have accomplished his goal without Cho’s knowledge and companionship.
          Together they faced down five dugout canoes manned by Asheninka warriors. The women clutched machetes, and the men were armed with shotguns or bows and arrows. “Every sense is now alert and our minds ignore all that is not relevant to immediate survival,” Stafford writes. He quickly learns he has insulted the chief by not asking his permission to pass through the area. Many indigenous people are wary of outsiders, especially Anglos who are normally drug runners or petroleum geologists, both of whom threaten the Asheninka’s way of life.
          Readers do get a nugget of cultural information as Emily, an Italian anthropologist living with the tribe, explains the harsh reality of the Indians’ recent history. Stafford then reflects on their future; his ideas have merit and one thought-provoking passage contains a point South American governments should consider. I only wish Stafford offered this same type of insight when he encountered other cultures.
          As they enter Columbia, villagers start shouting “Pela cara” at Stafford. Translated it means, “Face peeler,” and Cho receives an additional warning. “Take care of your gringo or we’ll cut his head off.” In this part of Columbia, being white automatically means you’re a drug dealer. At this point it’s difficult to say where the biggest danger lies for Stafford and Cho, in the villages, mistakenly stumbling onto a drug plantation, or facing the seasonal floods hitting Columbia.
          In a January 26, 2006 diary entry, Stafford reports that they spent most of the day walking through water with only their heads sticking out, because the flooding was far more extensive than they realized. By evening, they could only find a 10 by 15 foot patch of dry land, with trees for their hammocks. The next morning, Stafford stepped out his hammock and into six inches of water. Their gear was wet and covered with spiders, ants, and various other bugs.
          Floods, bug infestations, snakes, caiman that eat their fishing nets along with the catch, all become everyday hazards as they venture through the Rain Forest. Walking the basin now requires hacking through thorny vegetation, alternating with wading through mud.
          Yet Stafford appears more apt at handling these problems than he is at maintaining his sanity. Being the only English speaking person makes him feel isolated. He goes to bed early, and becomes annoyed quickly when Cho makes the smallest mistake. “I should listen to others and try and interact more but I’m so tired that my Spanish isn’t advancing,” Stafford laments. Consequently, he appears to suffer from tunnel vision, focusing only on completing the journey, without conveying much information about the flora and fauna of the region.
          Permits become a gigantic headache for Stafford as they enter Brazil. Getting extended visas and permission from indigenous tribes to walk through their territories requires knowing, and paying, the right person. And Stafford’s limited knowledge of Portuguese is an additional handicap.
          Miraculously, Stafford’s black mood lifts as he becomes more proficient in Spanish, enabling him to have normal conversations with Cho. Together, they triumph over the legal and environmental hazards Brazil presents.
          “Walking the Amazon” certainly demonstrated Stafford’s self-determination. But miles traveled matter little, unless they increase your knowledge and understanding of a region. Oddly enough, it did that for Stafford. Since returning to England, he has given many speeches about the importance of protecting the Amazon Basin. Sadly, Stafford missed an excellent opportunity to share his knowledge with his readers. And no amount of near-miss adventures can appease me.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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