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Stage 2 - The Broken Barge

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

We were abord the Walter Junior 1. As it turned out, Andoas wasn’t going to give us up easily, in fact it seemed almost impossible to leave. We found out that leaving time was delayed till 0500 the following morning and we all groaned and wondered if we’d taken the right option.

At around 19:00 that night, the captain arrived and told us to make ourselves at home in the galley and we gratefully slung our hammocks. He was probably in his late 40s, broad and squat with a gruff, rumbling voice perfect for shouting orders on the water. He was a rough, direct man, with a few days stubble on his chin, but he had kind eyes and anyway, a friend of Shanghai’s would be a friend of ours. His spouse was half Italian, half Peruvian and she injected some serious glamour onto the Pastaza River. Her laugh was shrill and infectious and came during most conversations from behind her retro, sparkling, disco sunglasses. She was quite amazing actually, almost 6ft tall, towering over the captain. If the wine glass description could be given steroids, she’d be on a strong dose. I wasn’t sure if she had bum implants or if Latin America was still surprising me, but either way, she was a remarkable looking woman. Her fashionable jeans, covering thighs sturdier than Yan’s were deliberately ripped with holes so big that you couldn’t help but notice the black lace lingerie body suit beneath. It really was quite a sight. Considering her attire, she seemed completely at ease with life on the river, making this aging, rusty and incredibly dirty barge her home.

They both told us, like so many had before, about the dangers down river. “Indigenous people will kill you, people will steal your organs” and the barge mechanic added the part about the 30-meter anacondas which would surely gobble us up, canoe and all. We just accepted it and thanked them for the warning; we didn't have the energy to explain the expedition goals and our experience again and again. The captain then took us upstairs and unlocked his gun cupboard, showing us a selection of weapons and different ammunition. A rifle, shot gun, sawn-off shotgun (in case they are boarded), and two pistols.

He then fires the shotgun into the water, the bang resonating off the metal walls and bouncing around inside my skull leaving my ears ringing. “For the indigenous in case of attack” he half jokes. "Tranquillo. You're safe on my barge.” I wanted to believe him but when we returned downstairs, the disgruntled ambulance driver was milling around near our equipment. I had a feeling that if he was going to attempt anything, it would that night, whilst we were still alongside, near Andoas. I decided we should post sentries all night until 0500. This was the first time the expedition had any kind of military feel to it, and although I didn’t want it to turn into an exercise, it felt right on that occasion. We did two hours each between the 3 of us; Jake, me then Yan.

During my watch, every time there was movement on the shore, I’d shine my blinding Petzl headtorch to indicate that the canoes were being watched. It's unlikely anything would have been taken, but this was just a deterrent and thankfully we had an uneventful night. At 05:00, I awake to an almighty shuddering and the sound of metal clanging as the old barge warms up her engine. We're finally pulling out of Andoas. Our prison sentence is over, and the expedition can continue! I get out of my hammock to join Yan whose just finished his watch and Jake joins us too.

We all smile and enjoy one of the most beautiful sunrises we’ve had so far. We remain at the railings until we have passed Topal, then retire back to the hammocks to enjoy the motion of being on the move. It seems to me like the cool breeze in the galley is blowing the pages of the last frustrating chapter over, to be forgotten about for now. The pages in front of us are waiting for the pen.

Pretty soon it was obvious that there were two issues with our passage. One, the water was very low for that time of year (June), we were repeatedly running aground on sand bars. In the first 4 hours we only covered 10 miles, heading down stream, meaning that unless we improved, we'd need 4 days to reach San Lorenzo instead of 36 hours. Secondly, the engine, which could be felt shuddering through the entire barge, did not sound or feel right.

At around 14:30 the barge goes into a spin and bounces off the west bank, snagging trees. It then careers straight over the river for 500meters heading perpendicular to the East bank and not slowing.

Yan shouts "Brace!" and wait for the collision as it bounces off muddy banks and trees. The crew run down to the front of the barge and grab branches to hold her in place. I run down with Jake and Yan to help too, and we grab a branch! Within seconds my hands are crawling with biting ants, and I notice Jake flailing around whipping his shirt off. Its comical, one calamity after another! Every day, Amazonia will hit you with another unexpected problem, be it people or nests of insects, you have to expect the worst in even the most trivial tasks (like holding onto a branch). The mechanic opens up the engine over the next 3 hours and it's apparent that it is fucked. We spend the night attached to the back in the middle of nowhere. We've done 30 of the 260 miles we were supposed to cover that day.

When we’d been invited upstairs during the weapon demonstration, Yan had noticed to his dismay that there were two very young kittens locked in a crate. But to our delight, they had been released and were now exploring the barge as the new ship cats. One was slightly smaller with white, ginger and brown in her coat.

At one point I noticed her walking on a ledge on the outside of the boat, I was impressed and filmed it on my phone but then got distracted and thought nothing more of it. Unfortunately for the rest of the evening we couldn’t find her and it became apparent that she’d fallen in and was almost certainly caiman food.

Next day I awoke to the Captain’s gruff invitation for breakfast as he shouted “Coffee e pan!” in the galley where our hammocks were slung. This means a jug of highly sweetened coffee and salty bread rolls. Jake and I really enjoyed it as a change from chicken and yucca.

Unfortunately, we find out that Yan has been up with a fever and diarrhoea all night. If you could see the state of the toilet he was hobbling in and out of in the dark, you’d have maximal sympathy for him. He was not in a good way but hadn't been sick and he was still moving so we hope it would pass. After a few hours, as Jake and I are smoking Jake’s pipe on the deck above, Yan emerges from the toilet beneath, and bends over double on the deck complaining of severe stomach cramps, looking like the creature Gollum. Yan’s not a man to show pain and so the sight was worrying. We scramble to help, and I dive into the boats bags to find some medicine. Liam’s comprehensive first aid kit then gets emptied into the canoe and we search for the right pills. Pain killers and antibiotics seem to do the trick and Yan's then able to rest more comfortably for the remainder of the morning. Jake and I take the opportunity, whilst stranded, to explore the immediate rainforest. We find some unknown fruits, termite nests and spiders a plenty, but the forest isn't what we'd hoped for because there is no old growth. We had hoped to climb a monster tree for the views.

The captain later told us that the forest is only five years old, prior to that it had been an area used for oil extraction. It is actually incredible how quickly the forest had regenerated and how diverse it already seemed to be. There are multiple tree species, vines, fruits and flowers. Some trees look so mature, it’d take a spruce 20 years to get to the same height in the UK.

To our amazement, one of the crew, who had been off hunting, returns with the lost kitten who he had found in the forest about 500 meters down steam from our barge.

Shortly after returning from our forest walk, a second barge arrived, lashed ropes to the Walter Junior 1, and began towing us further down river, deeper into indigenous territory.

Halfway into the afternoon, after making some good headway through the minefield of sandbanks and narrow channels, we did eventually get stuck. This time we were unable to get unstuck.

Each barge normally tows a smaller boat for quick trips ashore. Despite pirouettes, high revs and even using the two smaller crafts to try to push the barge free, the sand bank didn’t loosen its grip. After two hours, both crews gave up and we resigned ourselves to the fact that we'd spend another night on the Pastaza.

Later that afternoon we were tasked with moving the Walter Junior 1’s engine onto the second barge. The mechanics had the mammoth job of completely stripping it, then once the housing was ready, we pushed it over wooden boards onto the deck. The 600kg, colossal chunk of metal then needed to be pushed up a ramp, over the gap between the barges and down the other side so that it could be taken to Yurimaguas for repair.

I spent the evening reading Ed Stafford's "Walking the Amazon" and wished I had read it earlier. He encountered many of the same problems that we did, especially in regard to dealing with natives. In Peru, if you don't stop at communities to gain permission to pass, big trouble can happen which is not only very stressful to deal with but very time consuming as well. All his experiences of this were basically a carbon copy of ours. Between reading I'd try to update my memoirs on Samsung Notes on my phone, inspired by Jake who wrote his the old fashioned way.

The following morning we were told to jump ship onto the working barge and so we moved the canoes and equipment over. Waving goodbye to our Captain, his buxom missus and his motley crew, we were told that they’d be there for 15 days waiting for the engine to be returned. Two mechanics from the Walter came with us to accompany the engine. Part of me was sad to be leaving them as they were all growing on me immensely, I watched as the view of them slipped away, stranded on their tiny slip of sand. They had understood the rules of hospitality which seemed rare since entering Amazonia. They asked for no money despite feeding us and it was such a rushed crossover that we didn't have time to give them any token of thanks. I hoped they had enough salted bread to last, but they were hardy, they’d survive on bush meat if it came to it.

The new barge was much cleaner and smaller. She was called The Don Miguel and made good headway right the way down to Ullpayaku. On the way we passed by Mushacarusha, the dangerous, armed community that we had been warned about on numerous occasions. We were on guard but there was no movement from the banks. It seems they only pray on small canoes and not large barges running at 20 noughts.

The Pastaza in this area splits into three main flows. We took most western tributary which we were told had incredibly dangerous currents. From the safety of the barge deck we watched the swirling swell beneath us and to be honest it was very powerful despite being flat. The pressure of different currents forcing themselves on each other make the surface rise, creating mid river hills and dips. We’d have managed in our overloaded canoes, but we’d have been on edge. Jake and I sat up front and watched small birds (possibly swallows) catch insects on the surface whilst Yan recovered in his hammock inside.

We were in Ullpayaku for a total of 10 minutes before hitching a ride on a small boat carrying the two mechanics who had become our friends. They laughed about their Captain’s predicament, but we all hoped that the river didn't rise too much, or The Walter Junior 1 would be adrift with no engine, heading towards Mushacarusha. The small boat struggled its way for about 10 miles with our canoes sat across it’s sides like giant red wings. Eventually we reached our destination, a road! Being so close to San Lorenzo and the hope of a cash point, we decided to tip the driver.

We arrived at Centro Poblado Recrea del Pastaza at around 1700. From there you can drive over land for 14km to San Lorenzo. We were desperate for cash and a food resupply, and this was the end of Stage 2, so we moored up the canoes, threw our bags in the back of a 4x4 with the mechanics, and headed to town. San Lorenzo is situated on the Marañon River, just upstream from where the Pastaza joins. So, we'd have to come back to this point to recommence the journey. That would be the beginning of Stage 3.


Stage 2 in a Nutshell:

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