Updated: Nov 8
On the 19th of June at around 0600 we pushed off from Santana into a giant glassy mirror that was bulging occasionally from the upward pressures of underwater currents. Our two canoes were like tiny flecks on the shiny blue surface, reflecting the pale sky. The morning was cool, dead quiet and completely still. We were seduced by the tranquillity after the stressful evening before. In such a vast area of still water, you forget that you are moving at around 4 noughts. On more than one occasion I was amazed and confused by a stick moving across my periphery in the distance like some strange animal, then I’d realise that it was me moving past the stick which was staying completely still.
Suddenly our peace was disturbed by a splash, somewhere close behind us, then another. We sat motionless waiting to see what it was and then - there it was. The shape of a big pink creature, breaking through the pristine surface and flopping back into the water leaving a golden mist, highlighted by the morning sun. For the next
hour as we floated, we were accompanied by a pod of these animals as they hunted together. Some were pink in colour, quite large and lacking a prominent dorsal fin, others were dark, much smaller, and similar looking to a bottlenose with a curved, pointed fin on their back. Now that we were a three-man team, we’d be rotating days where one man would be alone in the cargo canoe. This was my first day on my own and for a little while I held back from the lads and enjoyed the silence with the mysterious freshwater dolphins of the Amazon.
Two hours into the day we reached a big expedition milestone. We paddled down the last few kilometres of the Pastaza River and entered the Marañón, our last tributary before meeting the Amazon. At the meeting of the two rivers there is a community who it seems have left their traditional name behind and rebranded themselves Puerto Industrial. As mentioned, our new plan was to stop and ask permission to pass at every town. We hoped that this would reassure villagers and stop them from feeling the need to forcibly take us ashore to search us. We went ashore and Jake and Ian put breakfast on as I went with some men to show our documents. The men seemed entirely disinterested, a stark contrast to Santana, two hours upriver, but I asked them to write me a document anyway, stating we’d been there. After some deliberation they refused, saying that I did not need one. This was a refreshingly quick evolution and we continued onward, bellies full of porridge.
We paddled further, through most of the day and decided to stop at San Isidro, the next town on our maps. Just before we arrived there, I noticed a small river entering ours from the north delivering hundreds of floating plants (possibly some kind of lily) from somewhere deep in the forest.
For the rest the expedition, we’d be following these floating gardens as they meandered through the huge areas of open water, indicating to us where the fastest flow was. In some instances, they’d bunch together creating thick rafts of vegetation that we’d have to fight our way through. When they became ensnared at the banks, they’d shoot down roots and take up residence.
As we approached San Isidro, the call went out and a group started to gather on the bank. We waved cheerfully and asked to see the Apu (local authority). I slowly stepped ashore and showed our documents to the most important looking man who eyed me suspiciously before taking them. He studied the paperwork for some time, and I wasn’t sure if he could read or if he was wondering what to say in return after receiving such a rubbish gift. Soon another man came and together they analysed the document before agreeing we could go! Great! We thanked them and made ready to leave. As I turned, the crowd was becoming more excitable, and I heard a raised voice as another older man pushed through to the front. I wasn’t sure about him, he seemed agitated and then insisted that we must be searched.
My heart sank. It was about 1500 and we had hoped to cover at least 10 more kilometres that day. For the next hour we opened every bag and showed the villagers what we had. Initially I was angry, swatting away horseflies and mosquitos as Ian and Jake emptied their bags. If we’d bypassed this place, would we have been stopped and dragged back later? Ian and Jake went through the motions, carefully opening each dry bag and showing the contents. I shrugged off the attentions of a large young man with a machete, wearing a yellow hard hat. He’d positioned himself next to me, assuming we were a threat. After half an hour and about 50 mosquito bites it was my turn to show what was in the canoe. As I opened a dry bag full of clothes, I saw my kilt and explained to the man in charge of searching that it was what Scottish men wear. He was astounded so I offered it up to my waist and began to move my hips explaining that I was a “mujer” (woman). By this time the crowd were in good spirits and laughter erupted. A younger man approached who could speak perfect Spanish and we told him about our journey and the trust issues we were having with native communities. Yan asked him about signing our documents and he asked us to wait before disappearing. Whilst he was gone Jake brought out his tobacco pipe and passed it round. The affect it had was brilliant and we all sat in a circle sharing it and laughing.
The villagers accused one of the men of being a “gringo lover” and said we could take him away. The barriers were broken down and it felt like we’d be invited to stay if we waited much longer. Soon after the man came with another document that he and the elders had written out. It had an indigenous stamp and stated that
we had been searched and were permitted to pass. They told us to use this document instead of the Police one as we moved down river because indigenous communities had more trust in each other than in the authorities. Clearly, the strong arm of the Peruvian law had no sway in the outlying villages.
Thanking our new friends we pushed off, grateful for the extra document. During the two hours on the bank at San Isidro, my legs had been ravaged by a cocktail of sand flies, mosquitos and horse flies and I vowed to put on trousers when approaching all future villages. After all, who remembers to take their malaria tablets on a daily basis??
We paddled away from the village back into the main vein of the river and within an hour I could hear an engine shadowing us. For some reason I had an uneasy feeling that we were being stalked, perhaps by an opportunist that had spotted us in San Isidro. We paddled hard over a couple of kilometres and reached an island, then attempted to cut into a narrow inlet that passed through the centre of it. We made it into the stream, me in front with the other canoe behind and were just about to round a meander, out of sight from the mouth, when an engine sounded loudly behind us, and someone shouted for us to stop.
I begrudgingly jumped out and hauled my canoe around 360 degrees, pulling it over the shallow, muddy riverbed which was narrower than the length of the canoe. Back at the mouth we looked around and saw a peke peke drifting away downstream. Ian and Jake caught up to it first, only one man aboard. I had a flash
image in my head of him bringing up a rifle and shooting them. I eased my boat up alongside and we listened to what he had to say. It turns out he had very little to say, he didn’t have a reason for following us or for telling us to stop. He claimed he was out of fuel which I found odd, “So you sped to catch us using your engine, to ask us to stop so you could tell us you were out of fuel?” He then said that he would take us down stream. Everything felt off and at that point I heard another peke peke coming up stream towards us. For a brief moment I felt like we were about to be robbed but as the boat came into view, I noticed it was a family of four. We managed to flag them over and explained that the man needed fuel. As soon as they agreed to take him back up stream, we slipped lines and continued down river.
By now it was getting dark, and we urgently needed to find somewhere to camp. On the far bank Jake noticed a tiny fishing hut and we decided to lash the boats together and make a mad dash of about a kilometre to it. The hut was straight over from us, so it took a monumental effort to paddle up stream then cross the strong current to drift down to our desired location. It was perfect though; a small stream separated the main bank and led us to a deep, muddy beach below a stilted wooden hut in a clearing. We dragged the canoes up into some reeds, pleased to get them out of sight of the main river. Jake called out “HOLA, HOLA?” several times and heard no reply so we set up camp, unsure whether the owner would mind. We didn’t have much choice though and would leave it exactly as we found it.
It was deep inside mosquito hour, and they swarmed round us, biting any patch of skin that was showing. By the time we had our hammocks set up under the hut roof it was pitch dark so we dived straight into them to wait out the insect assault behind the nets. Above me, two ducks chattered nervously in the rafters, unnerved by the twilight commotion.
As we lay in the quiet dark, I realised that the river was especially busy. In fact, we could hear the sound of peke pekes in every direction. It was very uncommon to hear one boat at this time in the evening, never mind three or four. I began to feel convinced that we were being hunted.
I asked the lads to turn lights off, I really couldn’t face being hauled into another village, especially at this time. I realised that I was physically and mentally exhausted. Approaching new villages and never knowing how each interaction would unfold was taxing and that days paddling had been from dusk till dawn. The put-put of motors continued, buzzing like distant hornets in all directions as we took cover under the black sky. Beads of sweat ran down my forehead as I strained to listen. Then, someone was right at the mouth of our stream. They passed by heading upriver then the engine stopped, still close. We lay in silence, hardly daring to breath so as not to miss a sound. Eventually the engine started again and began to get louder. From my hammock I could see a small patch of moonlight reflecting on our stream. The hum got steadily louder, and then the moons reflection was broken twice by the shadows of two men in a boat, possibly holding rifles. “They’re on our stream” I breathed, just loud enough to be heard from within our position. I was tense but my senses were in overdrive, completely alert.
To my relief, the engine began to get quieter again as it continued up the steam, confirmed by the tell-tale sounds of birds and animals who reacted to the noise as it passed. I decided to risk a little light and check the Garmin map on my phone. To my relief I saw that the stream was a small crescent moon shape, leaving the main river to the west, then reconnecting where we were. With any luck the boat would re-join the main river and leave. “Let’s take an hour in silence here, then get dinner on if it’s all clear.” I said. The boys agreed.
All the engines seemed distant again and I began to relax. But they were still searching, and it frustrated me. “Leave us the fuck alone!” I thought. I really hadn’t accounted for this human induced stress in the two and a half years of planning. The two-legged problem.
Hauntingly, from not far through the trees to the west, the purring engine started again. A faint buzz, but this time coupled with a new noise from the other side of the hut, movement from within the forest. “Clever bastards…” They were masking the sound of their approach on foot, using the sound from their engine. They must have spotted our footprints in the mud during their last pass. I thought, we are about to be the victims of a pincer manoeuvre. I quietly unzipped my hammock, best to be ready. The boat soon arrived, this time with bright white torches, slicing up and down the dark bank in sweeping motions. Here we go! As the bow of the boat slid into the muddle bank, about 20 meters from the hut, I leapt from my hammock, cheerfully shouting "Buenos noches señors!"and waving. I gave them every lumen of candle power from my Petzl headtorch, straight to the face. Then lowered it respectfully, welcoming them and overloading them with basic Spanish pleasantries. If they were a threat, at least they’d be dazzled. One man was older and had a hard, weathered face, the other was younger and fairer but his expression was equally hard. Both carried rifles which were slung on their shoulders. I offered our indigenous approved document to them, and the younger man began to read it out loud. Thankfully, the older man began to relax as our reasons for being there were explained. He must have been equally afraid, being confronted by three gringos towering over him. He insisted on taking us to Libertad, a community downstream, on the north bank. I refused. I tried to explain that it was not possible for us to travel in the dark and that we would go there at first light. He insisted again and we refused again, counter offering with an invitation to share some of our dinner. He softened a little more, made a quick inspection of our canoes and hammocks, then they both disappeared down river in their boat.
We breathed a huge sigh of relief. Yan made a pot of freeze-dry rations mixed with noodles, fresh garlic, ginger and lime and we slurped it down. As was becoming routine, we then shared Jake’s tobacco pipe. I don’t know why I had been so on edge that evening. I had felt like a hunted animal. I had begun to think about the expedition in a tactical way and although I felt silly about it afterwards, it felt good to be careful. We were running on empty at times, we were in bandit country and although people hadn’t been openly aggressive with us, violence wasn’t something that we could discount. The fear of being hunted had awakened me to the dangers that I didn’t really want to think about.