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Stage 3 Beautiful Encounters

Updated: Feb 8

On the 28th of June at 0730 we left Nauta for Omaguas, a small settlement around 60 km down river as it meanders north towards Iquitos. We were all excited for this section because we knew that after about 10km, we’d reached a very important expedition milestone. Just outside the town of Nauta, the Marañón tributary meets another gigantic river, the Ucayali River. This impressive tributary of the Amazon has travelled for 1701km from its source near Cusco in southern Peru. The Marañón itself has travelled for 1737km, from a glacier in the Cordillera Blanca region of the Peruvian Andes. With the joining of the two rivers, the Amazon River is born. The Amazon discharges more fresh water into the oceans than the next 7 largest rivers combined, and this was a fact that I’d been spouting off regularly in the lead up to the expedition. Having now travelled along some of the rivers in the Basin, I was finally able to understand what that kind of volume of water actually looks like. Considering our route from the Ecuadorian Andes, and the knowledge of how many other tributaries there are, thoughts of the vastness of this place and the volume of water is truly baffling.

We had reached our final river, the greatest river on Earth, travelling down our own five tributaries for over 1350km. We’d come from the summit of Chimborazo, the Amazons highest source and the place on Earth closest to the sun. Not only had we made it here, but we'd done it following our 5 tributaries so closely. We had become intimate with every single one, standing in the rocky barren source, gorge walking, abseiling waterfalls, paddling rapids and sliding round giant rainforest meanders. The Rio Chimborazo, Rio Chibunga, Rio Chambo, Rio Pastaza and Marañón were now all behind us and we were the only team on Earth to have made that journey. We'd followed Chimborazo melt water into the Amazon River through extremely remote wilderness, battling adversity and high stress situations and crucially, not once had anyone broken down or even overreacted. What a team! I wanted to take some time to appreciate this moment and reflect.

As if to bless our achievement, a pod of pink dolphins appeared and began splashing and blowing around us. They seem to show up frequently where connecting rivers bring nutrients from different habitats together and mix it all up in bubbling and boiling eddies. Clearly the fish are more plentiful in those places.

We made it to Omaguas just before dark as an ominous black cloud burst upwards on the horizon. The only sign of a town was three local canoes tied to stakes that were driven into a sandy beach on the inside of a giant, hairpin meander. We noticed a man sitting on a grassy verge, about 50 meters in land and behind him we could make out the familiar grass roofs of a small settlement, half camouflaged amongst the dense vegetation. Introducing ourselves, we made a show of stretching and exclaiming it had been a long day. I asked if we could stay, to which he replied, yes you can sleep here on the sand. This was a generous enough offer considering the man didn’t have a clue who we were and if we were trustworthy.

The clouds on the horizon, sand flies, lack of tents and absence of trees to hang our hammocks meant it would be a very uncomfortable night though. Eventually an elderly man named Oscar approached us and told us to get in his boat. We were not sure where we were off to, but we thought we'd heard through our poor Spanish that there were trees good for hammocks up stream where we’d come from. He took us about 500 meters back upriver in his peque-peque, with our canoes tied along side. Soon we arrived under some silt cliffs on the south bank, they were about 5 meters high with a mud staircase cut into them leading up into the trees. We moored the canoes next to two local boat that were floating just under the surface of the water, victims of a recent heavy downpour, then followed him up the steps to the forest above. At the top, a path snaked its way through a beautiful lemon grove, leaves glistening with the pitter patter of drips falling onto the muddy floor all around us. We passed a half-constructed boat and then eventually made it to a big hut on stilts. “You're staying with me." he said.

We were taken aback by the kindness of his offer. 30 minutes ago, we were looking at sleeping on the sand with the sand flies and a thunderstorm overhead and now we’d be slinging hammocks under a dry roof. When your mentally and physically exhausted, gestures of kindness like this are huge boosts and our moral restored. There was only just enough space for us to sling three hammocks inside whilst Oscar, our host, had a sectioned off an area in one corner by hanging some sheets. We set up some seating around our multifuel stove and Yan began chopping up some vegetables for our evening feast. Suddenly the stove began pissing fuel, dripping flames onto Oscar’s wooden floor. I was closest to the door and grabbed it, running outside before the hut went up in flames. Thankfully the humidity in the air meant that we were able to douse the flames in time. I was still unsure if the stove was a good bit of kit or likely to blow up in our faces, but the more we used it the less these accidents happened. I was surprised to see Oscar didn't even bat an eyelid. To him, this situation was three random gringos he knew nothing about, losing control of an unknown fire throwing device in his wooden house with thatched roof. He was completely unphased. The humidity in forested areas of the Amazon Basin is so great that fires aren’t concerning, or maybe eight decades of living had reduced his desire to react to such trivial matters as house fires. Either way we got it under control, brought it back inside and cooked up a feast of Adventure Nutrition Green Thai Curry mixed with ginger, garlic and super noodles.

We all licked our plates clean, including Oscar. Jake, forever the savourer of good food and by far the slowest eater I have ever met, licked his plate 20 minutes later. It had become customary for Yan and I to watch him enviously every night after we had finished our own scran.

We were sorry to leave Oscar in the morning but also very impressed by him. He was hacking out a living in the wilderness at 80 years old and didn’t show signs of stopping. He paddled his boat to Omaguas and back every day and he took in strangers like they were his family. His lemons were his livelihood and we assumed they were transported to Iquitos to be sold at markets. His wage must allow him only just enough to survive and he showed no sign of complaint, in fact I think he chose this healthy, simply lifestyle. He wouldn’t have the luxury of a government retirement plan, only the kindness of the community to help him through tough times that wouldn’t be far ahead considering his age. The night before, he had warned us not to approach the tops of the cliffs. Each year, more of the bank would tumble into the Amazon River, 5 meters below, taking some of his precious lemon or plantain trees with it. I hoped that his house, which was about 30 meters away from the top of the approaching cliffs, would remain there to the end of his days.

Having had the negative experiences with people on the Pastaza, we needed this experience with Oscar. He was a shining example of hospitality and humanity within the Peruvian Amazon. His kindness towards us was extremely rewarding and we hoped there'd be more Oscars down stream."

We left his stilted hut at 0600 with a wave and a selfie and began the long paddle to Iquitos. We had decided to go for it today, 90 or so kilometres and we’d finish Stage 3. The first 15 or so km was great with a fast flow. Then, on Oscar’s advice, we took a straight but narrow tributary that cut out a large meander, but unfortunately, we completely lost the flow. We were realising that when local people see our small canoes, they always recommend the areas with still, slow water. It’s better to be safe than sorry in the wilderness and quite often they’re transporting large amounts of fruit or root vegetables. We on the other hand, needed the fastest water possible to reach our checkpoints in time. This was the last time we’d divert from the main flow, unless we heard of other dangers like pirate activity.

We threw on some music, put our heads down and began a hard paddle for another 10 km, making it back to the flow by around 1030. This flow took us to a town called Tamshiyacu by lunch time and we jumped out for a quick raid to buy some salty supplies. Tamshiyacu is very close to Iquitos (the capital of the Peruvian Amazon) so we finally came into contact with the regular tourist trail. Groups of pale tourists milled about on the floating docks, looking either completely spaced out or slightly apprehensive depending on if they were on the way to, or returning from an ayahuasca retreat. Yan and I got some supplies and Jake went for a walk in the town to take some time out. It did feel quite comforting to be on the tourist trail and I had an interesting conversation with a Spanish tourist who was returning from a life-changing ceremony in which he had been reconnected with mother nature through ayahuasca. It was something I wish I'd had time to try, but requires at least 5 days to be dedicated to the experience. Time that we did not have. When Jake returned, we got straight back into the flow and hit the paddling hard, we aimed to be meeting Cara in Iquitos by sundown. She was flying in that day and it’d be an impeccable logistical effort for us to arrive the same day as her considering the previous month we’d had.

Down stream, heading straight North at this point, the river splits 5 times because of four large islands, one of them as long as 14km. We decided to take the first right fork and to our relief, the flow was good. Eventually we rounded the last corner and, in the distance, on the golden horizon we could see the suspension bridge of Iquitos. It was still a good 15-20km away so we threw on some sea shanties, put our heads down and got into the mindset where pain doesn’t exist. Just keep on paddling.

By dusk, we made it to Iquitos, our longest day yet of 85.5km. We didn't fully realise that once arriving there we'd have to turn back on ourselves and paddle up stream on a tributary to get to the part of Iquitos we needed to be in. This last stretch was gruelling, exhausting and paddling through the early evening when mosquitos are at their worst. The lights of the town reflected on the water and we could smell a mixture of sickly human waste and the preparation of food.

Eventually we rounded a jetty and paddled to the bottom of a long flight of wooden stairs. We were rewarded by Cara’s beaming smile, underneath her head torch on the hostel stairs. It was a lovely moment to see Yan and Cara reunited after the long months apart. She was a picture of health and cleanliness, in stark contrast to the three dishevelled men she had come to greet. I will mention that the amount of plastic on the banks and smell in the water was quite shocking. In most areas along that part of the bank, you can’t see the ground for plastic.

Our last effort of the day was to lift all the kit including both boats up the rickety wooden stairs at the back of the hostel and lock them on a balcony above the water. Jake, being at the back of the second boat and a few stairs lower down when it was flipped, was showered in some filthy canoe bilge water. We all laughed, he didn’t care, he’d be in a shower in 20 minutes having just paddled from Ecuador to Iquitos!

Stage 3 complete!


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08 feb

A good read, Johnny. Great folk on your journey.

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