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Cruising the deepest Amazon

Our cruise started in Porto Velho, a city on the shores of the Rio Madeira, one of the main tributaries to the Amazon river. This small city is a major gateway for all traffic up north, as there are really no more roads worth mentioning. Our boat had no cabins so I went shopping for a hammock and a specially designed mosquito net which could be wrapped around the hammock, leaving the bugs without a chance to steal your blood. Lots of supermarkets were spread around the harbour, their main purpose selling alcohol to make your life on board more bearable.

My first impression of the boat was that is was rather small. Our home for the next five days had three levels, was not longer than fifteen meters and entirely made of wood. The lowest deck was for luggage and storage, the main deck was basically a large open space which was converted to a bedroom at night. On the upper deck a small wooden table with some chairs provided a sitting space, covered by a canvas roof.  We left just before sunset, bolts of lightning flashing in the distance. So close to the equator it is pitch dark at six. The evening was spent sitting on the upper deck enjoying a cool breeze and gazing at the milky way while the boat was puffing away. After a whole night of cruising we were truly in the middle of the rainforest. No signs of civilized life and only an addict would try his cell phone here. During the morning shower I had my first encounter with the local wildlife. Due to the humidity in the shower hundreds of grasshoppers had made their home in it. Therefore the choice was either not to shower for five days or to doing so with bugs in your hair.

It was barely eight o’clock when we left for a two-day trip in the forest. The crew had set up two small canoes, one for the passengers and one for the food. For seven hours we cruised down a small tributary of the Rio Madeira, so small it was not even on a map. Several times our path was blocked with plants, causing us to jump in the river to create ourselves a way through. Just like in the African Queen with Humphrey Bogart. I never had so much spiders, grasshoppers and who knows what else around me. At a certain point you stop thinking about it and just get on with the job, hoping you don’t get bitten by a poisonous one. The river itself was full of pirañas as well, but despite what you see in movies they’re not really dangerous for man. It’s very peaceful to sit in a canoe and watch the scenery going by. Time has a whole different meaning here. We spotted birds in all kinds of colours, pink dolphins and even a sloth high up a tree. Monkeys were few as people hunt them, so the animals stay away.

A tarantula was seen crawling around the roots of a tree. As we got further into the rain forest the vegetation slowly changed. Apparently the word jungle means desert, but no word could be further from the truth. The guide showed us rubber trees – they have white blood – and trees that walk. What’s that? Well, apparently some kind of tree which is able to move itself up to a meter over a period of several months in order to get more sunlight. Another small plant was hollow and filled with water. Handy when there’s no supermarket around to buy a bottle. One of the guides climbed 20 meters up a branchless tree with nothing more than a rope he’d just made from the leaves of a plant to pick some berries.

The original plan had been to go bush camping, but a cloudy afternoon suggested rain was coming. When we hit a local fishing who suggested we were welcome to stay at his place we were happy to accept. Everyone was aware of how hard it rained here.  The man lived in a very small village consisting of no more than a few wooden shelters on the riverside. We were generously offered a whole house to put up our hammocks. The place boasted several power poles but had no electricity. A local politician once promised to donate a generator, causing the villagers to set up a few poles, but he wasn’t elected and the poles had no use. Each family had about eight kids. What else is there to do?  After dawn we had another canoe trip where we spotted several cayman and lots of bats. At night we were all soon sound asleep, a full moon shining on the river. Over the course of the next few days I developed a love-hate relationship with my hammock, which is great to relax in but a bit less for a good night sleep.

The second day started with an early morning walk, as the hours at dawn were the best to see wildlife. Unfortunately that’s also when mosquitoes are plenty abound. Even with long trousers, long sleeves and a lot of insect repellent I got bitten. Constantly I was wiping my face, arms and neck. Under no circumstances whatsoever should you wear a dark shirt, as dark colors are like a magnet to the bugs. Bites on my knees showed the mosquitoes are able to bite through your clothes. In the evening the houseboat docked at a small town a few hours further upstream. Coincidentally the town was celebrating its anniversary, which seemed as good a time as always to have a look around. Walking around on the central square in front of the church – there’s always a church – we noticed that everyone was very well-dressed. No matter how poor a Brazilian is, he or she will always be well dressed. With all the buzz, stalls selling drinks and food, loud music and the people it was very hard to imagine we were in the middle of the rainforest.

On the fourth day we left early in the morning for another two-day trip. By now the houseboat was as safe and comforting as any home I ever had in Europe. We enjoyed breakfast in the canoe, which certainly is a bit of a surreal experience. The luxuries of cheese, ham, bread and water melon in the middle of a river. In the afternoon it rained again, so when we passed a house on the shore our guide asked if we could shelter for a while. All fourteen of us hid on the porch under nothing more than several layers of bamboo leaves. During the next two hours not a single drop of water seeped through this primitive roof. The man of the house was bare-chested and muscular. The result of a life getting up at dawn everyday to go hunting. No Sundays or paid leave, no education for his five kids who had little hopes of a more civilized life. It was almost embarrassing, we were waiting on his porch for the rain to end while each one of us had resources he could only dream of. 

The spot where we would camp for the night was chosen by our guide based on the availability of enough trees to put up our hammocks. Yet again I was impressed with his helpers who set up a regular base camp with nothing more than a huge plastic sheet and a few wooden sticks they’d cut off with machetes. I spotted two trees nearby each other and put up my hammock. Obviously only after I had made sure there were no spiders or red ants around. Entirely wrapped up in my mosquito net I prepared to spend a night outside in the rainforest. Something moist fell on my face, I brushed it aside and hoped it was nothing but some fruit from a tree above. The itching from the ant bites and dewdrops falling on my chest prevented me from getting a good sleep, so I was quite happy when I saw one of the guides getting up to prepare our breakfast. That meant it was five o clock and a new day was coming.

The fifth day was also our last day on the houseboat. I wasn’t too unhappy about that, as all those hours in the canoe had taken its toll, my bum was hurting as hell. In the middle of the river we waited for the ferry which would take us to Manaus. The boat approached and slowed down next to us, allowing us to climb from one boat to another. Not quite like a bus stop. Even though the capacity of the ferry was 72 there must have been at least 200 people on board. Some change from the private intimacy of our houseboat.

On the main deck dozens of hammocks were swinging next, above and under each other. In front of the boat the captain, a truly big fellow, stood behind a giant wooden wheel. The door to the steering cabin was wide open for all who wanted to chat. Knowledge of Portuguese required. In the rear of the boat I found a few toilets, showers and the dining room. This dining room was nothing but a big table with two benches, seating fifteen people. About twenty minutes before food was served, people would queue outside. When food was ready, the first fifteen were allowed to come in. While they ate everyone else waited outside. After the first group had finished, the table was set again and the whole process restarted. The food was not as bad as I had feared, but if you turned up late for breakfast you’d be left with nothing but a few dry crackers. As breakfast was at 5.30 AM this happened to me more than once.

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