Photograph by Keith Ducatel
By walking the Amazon from source to sea, Ed Stafford completed one of the last epic, undone adventures.
A river greater in length and volume than any in the world, and no one had hiked along its entirety. A jungle the size of a continent, and no one had managed to cross all of it on foot. When Ed Stafford found out (after some Googling) that the Amazon had never been walked, he decided he was the one to do it. And he did. Stafford trekked more than 4,000 miles through the Amazon—surviving hostile locals, venomous snakes, and huge distances without food resupplies—for nearly two and a half years (860 days). The latter part of the expedition was with a Peruvian forestry worker, Gadiel "Cho" Sanchez Rivera, who accompanied Stafford from his home town in Peru all the way the Atlantic Ocean, arriving on August 9, 2010. It was the first time Cho had ever seen the ocean. It was the first time anyone had walked the entire length of the Amazon River.
—By Ryan Bradley
IN MY OWN WORDS
By Ed Stafford
A Partnership Forms
I was going through an area of Peru called the Red Zone, which is notorious for drug trafficking and terrorism. Cho was a forestry worker, and he'd been out of work for a few weeks. He knew that area and told me: “I'll walk with you through there.” It wasn't just dangerous—it was bloody terrifying. Everyone we met said we were going to get killed—even the Peruvian police force can't enter this lawless zone. But Cho really enjoyed those five days and said, "Well, I'll walk with you to the next town if you like, Ed." And at the next town he told me, "Well, if you can get me a passport, I'll come with you through the southern tip of Colombia and into Brazil." Cho, in fact, never went home and ended up accompanying me for the remaining two years.
My main sponsor was hit by the financial crisis and couldn't continue funding me after a year and a half. It was only through an online plea for funds we were able to keep going. An individual from Hong Kong gave nearly $10,000; some school kids in America even donated their pocket money. It was quite humbling. The mobile Internet unit I carried enabled me to broadcast the expedition live, uploading videos and blogs. The Internet created this expedition, and it also ended up saving it.
Some of the Amerindian communities in Peru are quite closed off, and there are a lot of myths about outsiders. They believe in this pela cara [“face peeler”] that comes in and kills villagers and takes their body parts. Unfortunately, this pela cara looks a lot like a gringo, and convincing people I wasn’t a human body part trafficker was quite tricky and draining. A few times we got held at gunpoint and arrow-point. As a result of the atrocities inflicted in the '80s and '90s, a lot of people were angry or scared when they saw us. Many indigenous communities live in a permanent state of defensive alertness.
Broke but Happy
We ran out of food quite a few times, our GPS broke, and as we had no money, our insurance lapsed. I think this section when we were really remote and everything was going wrong for us ended up being the highlight of the trip. It was just Cho and me in the jungle having to use our wits and experience to survive. We were so remote and far from the river that if anything had gone wrong that needed immediate medical attention. we would have died. That was the bottom line. As the Brazilians would not let us use their detailed military maps, and the GPS had broken, we ended up navigating using a compass and a 1:4 million map of the entire Amazon Basin!
We fished each night, often the easiest fish to catch were piranhas. Once, when we ran our of wire "leaders", we had to daisy-chain sewing needles together to stop the piranhas biting the hook off the line. On another occasion when we were completely out of food, we found a red footed tortoise and we were so starving that we killed it, then salted and smoked it over the fire. This was our only food for the next few days. Cho justified it as a gift from God.
The Good Life
In the middle of the rain forest we slept in very comfortable hammock systems with big mosquito nets. Sure, we were going through swamps and flooded forests with mosquitoes and biting ants, but we loved our time in the jungle. There were no stresses like in the towns. It was a simple life. People pick up on the fact that I had a bot fly living in my head or the skin disease leishmaniasis, but these were trivial really; the jungle’s not as bad as everyone makes out. It was an almost idyllic life at times.
A Partnership, Continued
The level of trust built up between Cho and me was absolutely undisputed. He's just been granted his English visa, and he's planning to visit the UK to learn English and play rugby. I owe him a huge amount and it'll be lovely to have him here, pay him back, broaden his horizons a bit.
An Honest Agenda
Having schools follow the journey and learn about the rainforest was a fantastic bonus but I have to admit, deep down, the primal drive that kept me going was really the desire to be the first person to walk the river. World firsts are quite hard to come by these days.