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Stage 4. The Storm

After what seemed like an age spent away from the river, Yan and I finally paddled out of Iquitos on the 27th of July. Leaving the bustling and vibrant town that we had grown to know so well marked the start of Stage 4. It was to be the longest Stage of the expedition by some distance. The leg would cover a total of 2099 kilometres, and I had conservatively estimated 39 days of paddling, giving us time for the inevitable delays of South American travel. It would take us from Iquitos in Peru, into Colombia for a short while and finally Brazil, terminating at Manaus, the capital city of Amazonia. Thanks to our extended break in Iquitos, we started this daunting next step well prepared and brimming with confidence and anticipation.

The Amazon River would bring us through the most biodiverse forest on the planet, past Jaguar reserves and historic settlements. We’d be passing through a number of different indigenous territories, each with their own culture and language but linked by a strong Amazonian pride. The stories I’d read from old books my father had handed down to me and Ed Stafford’s Walking the Amazon, had given me a real thirst to connect with indigenous people further down river. People moulded by a lifestyle, created having spent perhaps thousands of years in the centre of the largest rainforest on Earth. For so long they learned from and respected the environment, and I felt there was a lot to be learned from them.

The first day brought us to the town of Indianna on the northern bank of the Amazon. Due to having built the catamaran that morning, we left later in the day so only covered a mere 37km. We were already quite familiar with Indianna because we had travelled through it twice on our science and border trips on the Napo River earlier in the month. We arrived in a heavy rain storm and a kindly old man welcomed us to tie The Laura-Joyce along side his floating shack and then allowed us to sling our hammocks under his roof. As we set up, his young family dangled lines for small fish with sharp spines protruding from their mouths. They caught many and as far as I could tell from the bones and barbecue in a corner of the hut, the little fish would be devoured for dinner. We’d seen Arapaima (giant amazon fish weighing over 100km) in an aquarium in Iquitos and I was shocked that they’d consider eating such tiny creatures.  The larger food sources are becoming scarce, and I wondered if these small fish were a last resort.

Once we were set up, we left the hut and climbed the steep muddy bank to the town square in search of food. Whilst we were eating, two soldiers approached us and asked us if we were ok. They took pictures to send back to their hierarchy and wished us well. Captain Burneo’s support had filtered down river and it was comforting to know that his men would be watching our backs for the remainder of our time in Peru.

The following day (28/07/24) began well and we made good speed eastward, taking a data recording opposite the mouth of the Rio Napo by 11am. The river widened out at this point due to the joining of these two massive rivers. The area was more a massive lake than a river and as we approached, we came upon a giant rusty boat, sitting on a sand bank. My adventurous side wanted to get closer to investigate but something felt ominous about it so we passed by silently, swallowing down a feeling that we were being watched.

It would be a lie to say that Ian and I weren’t on edge for a large amount of time in Amazonia. We had to be aware that at any time we could be approached by pirates and some areas had a likely feeling about them. Now that we were only a two-man team, the feeling of being exposed and unsupported increased. We had faith in the abilities of each other, considering what we’d been through in the military and previously on this expedition. But being only two made us a more tempting target and this fact created an uneasy feeling inside us.

Around 1400 that day we began to feel a change in the air. The faint breeze that had blessed our morning voyage had vanished, replaced by a sickly dead heat that made our shirts cling to our shoulders. About four kilometres downstream, we observed a thick dark cloud rumbling and boiling above the river.

We didn’t know it at this point, but we were about to experience our first convection storm. I gawked with amazement at the unique cloud. It was compact, like Thor had taken an entire grey Scottish sky, and crushed it into a dark, violent and destructive thunder ball in his muckle hands. Then like we were witnessing magic, in a narrow column the river water beneath the cloud began to rise up towards it. My initial thought was tornado and with this in mind we should have made straight for land. But it was so beautiful. We stood up in the boat and watched as it the column widened eventually covering the entire width of the river before us.

At this point we were sitting directly in the centre of the Amazon. To our left, about a kilometre away on the northern bank was a muddy beach. To our right, about the same distance were muddy silt cliffs leading up to dense forest. We came to our senses and turned the boat around and started paddling frantically against the flow. I wanted to head for the beach to pull the boat onto land but Yan deemed it farther than the silt cliffs and insisted we make for them. His maritime experience in the marines was more extensive than mine so I conceded and we made for the south bank. We paddled hard, looking over our shoulders as the heavy rain gained on us at an alarming rate. The heat had now gone, replaced by a cold wind that whipped up waves that broke in small white horses against the flow of the mighty river. Before long the waves were cresting the edge of the canoes.

Thankfully, in Iquitos we had fashioned two tarpaulins out of camouflaged ponchos and bungee cord. They were both pulled tight over the two bows of our catamaran and meant that most of the water from the waves slipped off the front and back into the river. Then suddenly the tail wind brought the heavy rain and our tarpaulins began to sag allowing more and more water to enter the bellies of our already overloaded canoes. We swapped roles, one bailing whilst the other furiously paddled towards the bank, then swapped back as the other hull filled up. Finally, slightly shaken and up to our shins in water, we made it to the river edge, a slippery, muddy wall. Tucking the boat as best as we could behind a jutting earth mount, we turned again to face the incoming waves. There was no option to drag the boat up a 5 meter viertical mud wall to the shore, so we’d just have to ride out the storm right there. Yan, being on the side closest to land was able to hold onto a hanging branch as I bailed my side. I was bailing with a half cut water bottle as fast as I could as the waves smashed against the outer hull, and as I threw the water out of the boat, the bottle left my hand with it. I exclaimed with dismay that I’d just littered the Amazon with even more plastic and we both started laughing. We were now down to one bailer. After 20 minutes of swapping between bailing and holding her steady, the waves began to ease and the sky above us brightened. Amazingly, the crossbeams on our catamaran had survived despite the beating we’d taken and the tarps, although ripped at by the wind, were still in useable. As the surface smoothed out to glass once more, we finished bailing the boat, checked our kit, then let go of the bank. The flow, which due to the wind had entirely changed direction on the surface was now going down river again so we joined it, anxious that is was now 1530 and we hadn’t found a place to sleep.

By around 1730, as darkness closed in around us we eventually found a suitable clearing on the south bank to spend the night. A small river called the Rio Yanashi converged with the Amazon and often at these outlets, we’d find indigenous hunting camps. This one was just a small area of cleared forest about 5 meters above the river which was perfect in case the water level was to rise in the night. We hauled everything up and then put the head torches on to set up the hammocks, batting off a tirade of mosquitos as we did so. The trees we attached out hammocks to were crawling with ants but by this time we had no choice but to use them. We applied Deet to the hammock cords, stripped off our saturated clothing then jumped into the hammocks until the mosquitos died down. As we lay resting, the familiar put-put of a peke-peke engine grew closer but thankfully, it passed by our campsite and the day’s drama came to an end.

We ate a fine meal of noodles and ginger and talked and laughed about the lessons learned that day but before long we were back in the hammocks fast asleep, exhausted by our efforts. Despite now being down to only two paddlers and having spent an hour fighting against a storm, we had covered 81km in our overloaded catamaran. We had stayed afloat through our first major storm and only lost 1 bailer during the ordeal! That felt like a real achievement.


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7 days ago

Finally! One of the most awaited entries! Well done guys!!

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