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The Mayor, The Navy and Deadly Snakes

On the 22nd of July, Yan and I returned to Iquitos from our successful border run. We had the required stamps on our passports now, which meant that (hopefully) we’d be able to cross into Brazil more easily. Our immediate route ahead looked like this; we’d have a tough 6-day paddle to a point where the Colombian border stretches down from the north, and then another 2 days to the Colombian town of Leticia. For these two days on the Amazon, Colombia would be to our north whilst Peru would be to the South. Leticia sits on the banks of the Amazon at a very particular point. Just there, a river named Rio Javari joins the Amazon from the south. On one side of the Javari is Peru, but on the south bank lays the seemingly endless forests of Brazil, stretching into the distance in a sea of swaying green. So, this unique place is the tri-border of Peru, Colombia and Brazil, a melting pot of cultural diversity that we eagerly anticipated.

Before setting off on Stage 4, we had a list of jobs to do in Iquitos to prepare ourselves for what would be our longest leg. One of our jobs was to turn our two canoes into a catamaran. With that in mind, we chose to stay at Morona Flats and Pool, the accommodation that Yan and Cara had stayed in previously.  Firstly, because they are beautiful apartments that surround a swimming pool and garden. But more importantly, Emmanuel, the owner, generously allowed us to keep our canoes inside the walled grounds that were under 24-hour security surveillance.

Having relocated from France, Emmanuelle had built the tasteful flats from scratch. Fortunately, he had as much of an adventurous head as he did a business head on his shoulders. He was more than happy to have a couple of rag tag explorers check in, and he didn’t bat an eye lid when we started bringing timber into his gleaming pool side, sawing and banging into the early hours as we transformed our beloved canoes into a Viking war ship.

On the first evening in Morona Flats, we invited Joe Plumb (British Honorary Consulate in Iquitos) to join us as we wanted to discuss our future plans with him. Besides that, Joe had been incredibly helpful when we’d had our visa issues earlier in the month, so we wanted to thank him with a couple of beers. Alongside Joe, we invited an established tour guide based and finally, a man named Fernando Torres. Fernando was someone who had been recommended to us though a friend of Yan’s.

The five of us had an interesting chat and it was quickly apparent that Fernando was a good man to know in Iquitos. He was former Navy and had since set up a snake venomary in town. When not in town, he would travel the surrounding area looking to rescue rare snakes from areas where their natural environment was being depleted. So, his knowledge of the nearby communities was good and what’s more, he was free with it. He also had friends currently serving in the Peruvian Navy and detailed maritime maps that would serve us well down stream. He had spent many of his early years in the USA and had a family there, but like our friend Osmund, had chosen to return to Iquitos. By the end of the meeting, we had a plan to go to the Navy Headquarters in Iquitos and Joe honoured us further by setting up a meeting with the city’s mayor. During the meeting, Fernando and Joe both stressed the dangers of piracy and drug runners down river. They had multiple stories of assassinations and disappearances and stressed that we needed to be extra careful around the tri-border.

Unfortunately, the guide was well outside our price range, and his business was aimed at recreational tourists anyway. I should stress that recreational tourism in the area is generally safe. It’s in the locally governed and sometimes lawless areas between the tourist friendly locations that you can run into trouble. It was necessary for us to explore the option of going with a guide, but due to the cost it was now apparent that Yan and I would be cracking the rest of the trip alone, making use of as much local knowledge as possible.

The meeting with Vladimir Chong, the mayor of Iquitos was a special experience. He and some senior members of his staff honoured us with an hour-long meeting in the conference sweet inside La Municipalidad de Maynas. Through Joe and Fernando, who acted as our translators, we discussed our mission and made clear our hopes to raise environmental awareness in the area. This point seemed especially important to everyone there. We were told that according to their local data, the river level was as low as it had ever been. This is a strong sign of global warming but critically, it meant bad news for the locals, who depend on the waterways being navigable for food and goods deliveries. Some rural communities have air strips, but generally, barges and small craft provide the only form of transport. We’d passed through indigenous towns and were impressed by their self-sufficient farming. Men would travel up and down the river in the early hours of each day to harvest vegetables and fruit such as plantain and yucca. Then they’d drink chicha during the heat of the day whilst the women prepared the food, amongst many other chores. They’d hunt for bush meat and catch fish to supplement their diet and the combination had kept them alive for millennia, barely impacting the environment that supports them. With modern western influence, communities are becoming more reliant on foreign goods, shipped in by giant barges that sometimes make the 4000-kilometre journey from the Atlantic Coast. For these reliant communities, who have started to become disconnected to their historic way of life, low water levels are very concerning. Despite the worries, we had a positive chat and were sent on our way with a warm farewell. The kindness shown to us in that room will remain with me to my dying days.

After the meeting, we received the following kind message from Joe:

“Thank you, John and Ian, for highlighting the depredation of the Amazon. The mayor referred to you guys’ as first-hand witnesses and pioneers in using a challenge to focus the world on this issue whilst raising awareness of PTSD affecting former military personnel and reminding us all of the beauty of the Amazon and its people. Every so often people come into your life who remind you what nobility and goodness look like…proud to have met you and in a little way, to have been associated with this challenge! Gina, the boys, and I have been enriched by your stay. Now get on with the mission and God speed! Joe”

Equally as special was our meeting with Captain Ivar Burneo at the Capitania de Puerto, a Naval base on the banks of the Amazon. Captain Burneo welcomed us like brothers in arms with a warm, firm handshake. He had an air of command, tall and broad and dressed immaculately in a green digicam uniform. The office was beautifully maintained, a neat wooden desk with perfectly positioned Peruvian naval flags and a sword hanging on the wall behind. We were all given a glass of ice-cold water before the conversation began. Joe and Fernando accompanied us again to act as translators and through them we explained our history as Royal Marine Commandos, our hope to raise awareness for PTSD and we covered our intent to travel safely to the mouth of the Amazon. Captain Burneo was impressed and wanted to provide us with support. We felt like we were in the company of another Royal Marine Commando because of the warm reception that suggested we were all part of the same military. We were given locations of safe havens that we could check in downstream, and he said that any patrol boats would be keeping an eye out for us to monitor our progress.

In addition, Cpt Burneo instructed his Capitan de Fragata, Carlos Oshiro (director of hydrography) to print us hydrographical charts which would help us immeasurably in navigating the waters ahead. The Yeoman shown in the video below made us up a chart book from scratch. At the conclusion of the meeting, we gave Cpt Burneo a Royal Marine coin and Royal Navy Commando flash that my former corporal, Lee Hennesy had given me for us to use as gifts throughout the expedition. We left the base with a real feeling of security and had built a confidence within ourselves. We had powerful friends and that meant that navigating the dangerous waters ahead would be much easier.

Fernando wanted to show us the work he did and so invited us to his venomary for a display. His house was on the outskirts of town, a hive of activity with tanks and boxes containing colourful exotic snakes in most rooms. There were boxes of juveniles with relatively plain colourings sitting out for us to see, but more interesting were the larger snakes in glass tanks behind Fernando’s display table.

There he had the two most poisonous snakes in the Amazon, the Fer-de-Lance and the Bushmaster. Alongside them was an Anaconda, and other boa constrictors including two Emerald Tree Boas, named that way due to their beautiful green hide. Separated in another room were cages containing the poor white mice that were bred for one unfortunate fate.

The venomary produces venom from snakes in painstakingly small amounts and is very risky work. Whilst we were there, a friend of Fernando’s was bitten at another location and there was discussion as to whether he would lose his hand. Venom is important in medical research and Fernando’s hope is to land a contract with a company so that he can continue his work, rescue endangered species, and make a living. This process seemed to be slow and unfortunately, he seemed to be in a constant state of financial stress about keeping the business alive. That year, with Iquitos displaying some of their highest temperatures on record, just keeping the venomary cool enough was a costly issue.

For the presentation, Fernando asked us to sit in front of a large table and then he began producing different snakes varying from juvenile to adult. He handled them expertly and his knowledge of each species was impressive. Working behind the scenes was his right-hand man Yanic. During venom work, they’d both hold each snake to extract venom safely, but for the display he was simply collecting the snakes that Fernando wanted to be brought to the table. The grand finale was a demonstration of the two most poisonous snakes of the continent. It was particularly important for Ian and I see the them close up because there was every chance we might come across them in the bush.

What surprised me most was that they were both relatively dull to look at. Normally to me, poisonous meant bright avoidable colours, but both the Bushmaster and the Fer-de-Lance were well camouflaged, the perfect predators who’d blend in with the forest floor. Amazingly, Fernando trusted the female Bushmaster enough to handle her without protection and we were able to touch her and feel the remarkable, armoured mosaic that made up here tough skin, much different to that of a boa. On closer inspection, she was incredibly beautiful, especially as the colours intensified towards her tail; The orange/brown of an Autumn oak leaf, mixed with pixelated Pac-Man black triangles.

The Lancehead was not so trustworthy and for around 5 minutes we admired it from inside a clear plastic tube. The tube was a simple design, small enough that the snake could not bite the inside and waste venom, but large enough that it wouldn’t feel uncomfortable (I hoped). We marvelled at it and then at a beautiful Emerald Tree Boa before they were all put safely back in their spacious tanks. Ian and I left Fernando's place that afternoon feeling very grateful that we'd been given the opportunity to handle such rare and beautiful animals. We were now in a position where we'd be able to identify them in the wild and I sincerely hoped we'd see some more in the coming months.

For our remaining couple of days in Iquitos Fernando wanted to show us around and introduce us to his friends. One evening we enjoyed ourselves at a huge arena where it seemed like half the population of Iquitos had gathered to watch exotic dancers perform on stage next to a traditional Peruvian band.

I remember being particularly taken with one of the dancers and must have been obliviously staring at her. She noticed and for the next 5 minutes of the performance, she stared back at me as she performed. Standing a good head above the rest of the crowd, I began to feel very isolated and was sure she was about to drag me on stage, which would have made me the laughingstock of the party. I can say with absolute certainty that if I was in a dance competition with a million Latin people of all ages, I’d finish dead last. Thankfully, the heat moved away from me and I was able to get back to my laboured attempt at dancing with Fernando’s friends in our immediate company.

On second last day, Ian and I finished our boat at Morona Flats. We had made a deconstructable catamaran called The Laura Joyce. She was now a Queen of the high seas, complete with two new boards, acting as backrests behind our seats that would double up as food preparation tables. Her two crossbeams connecting the canoe hulls meant extra stability and we’d even constructed a hoistable mast that when lifted, would plunge a razor-sharp, wide but short, centre board into the water. This stroke of genius meant that we could make use of tail winds as well as crosswinds in water that was barely a foot deeper than our draught.

Due to the worryingly low rain levels so far, and the unpredictable nature of Amazonian weather, we wanted to be ready for all conditions. Despite pirates, our main worry for the Laura Joyce was if she would withstand the sudden storms of the Amazon Rainforest. The combination of hot weather and an abundance of ground water provides high levels of water vapour through evaporation, this vapour freezes in the upper atmosphere creating perfect conditions for convective storms. These storms can be deadly, bringing high winds, rain and swell and to the untrained eye, they can appear out of nowhere, engulfing an unsuspecting traveller. In those events we planned to make for the shore as fast as possible.

On our final evening in Iquitos, Joe’s wife Gina invited us to a special dinner of home-made lasagne. Ian and I, Gina, Joe and their two sons and Fernando all sat down to what was the nicest meal since arriving in South America. Although the food was delicious, I don’t make this claim for that reason. It was the atmosphere. Ian and I had made special connections with this group of friends over the last few days. They were a family away from home and they had helped us in many ways including some that I have not mentioned. For example, just before dinner, Gina produced official documents that she had written up and had signed by the appropriate authorities. With these documents, our boat The Laura Joyce was now registered on the Peruvian maritime system. The advice and help they had given us was already more than we could repay but, we were glad of this invitation enabling us to thank everyone in person. The meal was wonderful and reminded me of a family dinner in the farmhouse back home. We had wine, lasagne and buttered bread for dipping. The conversation was wholesome and positive and by the end of it I was stuffed and felt mentally refreshed.

The following morning we tied our canoes and bags to a couple of tuk-tuks and made our way to Puerto Bellavista Nanay. At the top of a slipway, in the baking heat and with the help of Joe and Gina’s two lads, we constructed the Laura Joyce, blew up the air sacks and pushed her into the water for her maiden voyage. She floated well and seemed to be easy to manoeuvre. We spent about 20 minutes taking pictures and avoiding the difficult task of leaving our friends. Then suddenly we were paddling away, I stood up to turn and wave one last time before other boat traffic obstructed my view of them. Pretty soon, Iquitos was becoming smaller and smaller behind us, our time in Peru was coming to an end.

Stage 4 had begun…


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24 may

One of my favorites! Great blog.

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