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Rio Jatapu – Brazil 1990

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Victor and his family lived in the last hut on the banks of upper Rio Jatapu, a few hundred kilometres below the Guiana Highlands and the last habitation for three thousand twisting kilometres to the mighty Amazon. We had met in a cafe in Boa Vista two years before and I was tempted to return to Brazil to visit Victor and experience once more the feeling of remoteness and isolation; where you rely only on your skill and wits and the gear you have with you. Our plan was to kayak down the Jatapu for one hundred and fifty kilometres then turn into the Ciudade O’Velho and paddle upstream as far as we could, to see what was there, where we would be far from anything remotely civilised. I had never before been in such vast isolation and knew that few places on the planet could offer more. We took with us on our journey supplies of rice, sugar, salt, coffee, and Farinha. The rest of our food we would hunt in the forest and catch in the river.

After a week of paddling we reached the junction of the two rivers and set up camp. This is when the rain came tumbling down. From my diary I write:

The next morning we found that the river had risen several meters. The rain was still falling hard. Victor didn’t want to begin paddling upstream until he knew that the rain was going to stop. This time of year the rain usually comes in squalls. You can see it moving across the tree tops and down the open rivers. However, this rain is persistent and covered the entire region. How far, we can’t really tell. Perhaps the wet season is upon us early? We decide to wait a few days and see what happens. If the rain doesn’t stop we will head back home. Either way we will be paddling hugely voluminous waters for quite sometime.

I am glad to be resting my tired muscles. We have only been paddling a week and something is already happening between me and the jungle. No matter what I do to make myself comfortable I feel completely and helplessly uncomfortable. I can’t do anything about the sun that cooks me or the rain that chills me or the rivers that simply ignore my entire existence. Victor doesn’t like resting. He has to keep busy so the jungle doesn’t ‘take him over’. I didn’t really understand what he meant by this until I’d spent the day swinging in my hammock, watching the rain through the trees and for the thousandth time following the river in my mind to its very end. At the end of the day I begin to realise what he meant. I have never felt anything like this before in my life – a fear of the land I am travelling through.

Through the choking heat, the imprisoning rains, the vast fortress of jungle and my enormous human imagination, I feel a huge weight upon my shoulders. I feel it’s been there for a long time, but I have only now just recognised it. My immediate reaction is to get rid of it. In the isolation of a million miles and a labyrinth of wild rivers, I just don’t know how.

We hike through the forest in the pouring rain, away from camp. It’s good to move. We find a Brazil nut tree and collect the nuts lying beneath its bows. We brew some coffee, shell the nuts and nibble on them for the rest of the day. The weight on my shoulders worries me and grows heavier. The rain keeps falling.

As the river rises dramatically we decide to retreat back up the Jatapu.

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Up-stream, two weeks later…

Victor is taking down his tarp. I am carrying my bag to my kayak which lies on the leafy forest floor. Looking out onto the flooded river I’m startled by two men in a dug out canoe gliding through the vines towards me. Before I can alert Victor the two Indians have landed their boat and are greeting me with handshakes and huge grins. I’m grinning back, but it’s a mask that hides a confusion deep within me. The last, and the only other person we had seen since we started this journey was a crazy Brazilian on the run from the police, wanted for murder, or so he said. He was quite mad. You could see it in his eyes. He had been hiding in the vastness of the jungle with his dog for more than five years. Up near his house Victor had once rescued the man from drowning when his canoe capsized and got stranded on a small island in the rising river. We found him by chance one day as we were shooting the rapids. We heard the dog bark and saw him frantically running away through the forest. He thought we were the police. Victor called after him and he soon calmed down, then came to meet us. We kept our distance as he was sickly yellow – probably hepatitis. That was only a few weeks ago. He may well be dead by now.

I had mixed feelings meeting these Indians. In my romantically adventurous mind I always imagined myself meeting ‘wild Indians’, but never did I think it would really ever happen. The image before me – the archetype – of the ‘wild man’ was what startled me to my bones. Not one but two men of the forests stood there before me. On one hand I was afraid, on the other I wanted them to spirit me away. They speak to me but I don’t understand. I’m still in a startled state and my mouth doesn’t seem to work. Victor speaks to the men in Portuguese. They don’t understand. I watch Victor’s eyes grow wide. He looks at me and I know that these guys are truly wild. All four of us are excited at the meeting. I feel my anxiety. Their canoe is filled with bows and arrows and their grins seem to suggest that they know something we don’t. Victor knows some words of the local Wai Wai and tries them. They understand a little. They speak a dialect of the same language. We communicate mainly with hand gestures and facial expressions.

Over the last week the men had made contact with a tribe who studied the Bible and cooked with metal pots. Things they knew nothing about before hand. They had traded bows and arrows and acquired a pair of pants each. We are the first white men they have ever seen. The men were now on their way back to their own village deeper in the jungle. The older of the two is the spiritual chieftain. The younger, the warrior chieftain. You can see how their chests are large with muscles for pulling back large bows, releasing long arrows in constricting, confined forest spaces.

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Victor pulls out his box of fishing tackle and shows them lines, hooks, traces and sinkers, explaining the use of each then giving a demonstration, pulling a piranha out of the water within thirty seconds. Clearly impressed the warrior chief lifts out some bows and arrows from his dug out and hands them over to us. Victor gives him some of his fishing tackle.

After talking for about half an hour they say goodbye and slide their dug-out back into the swollen river and continue paddling downstream. Victor and I look at each other and the bows and arrows we hold in our hands. We are both stunned and amazed, privileged and humbled. But my confusion and anxiety re-surface. The encounter seemed all too quick. It was over too soon. I never had time to ask all the questions I wanted to ask. I wanted to go with them, back to their village. I should have asked. Now it was all too late.

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Up-stream further, two days later…

‘Primitive Rock’ came into sight as I paddled around the bend. It was clear Victor was anxious to get home – it was four days away and we’d been out a month. His kayak was already high and dry. I dragged my boat up into the forest and found him preparing dinner. He had shot and plucked a wild turkey and was preparing the fire. Exhausted, I put up my hammock and promptly fall asleep. My arms were aching from paddling up the flooded river and the nerves in my bum are numb from sitting in the kayak for so long. I had already told Victor that I needed a day of rest and that tomorrow I wasn’t going any further until I did.

I lie naked on the warm rock in the sun, swim in the river, wash my body clean of sweat, shave, then laze on the rock again. I walk in the forest and think about the wildness of this place. I can hear more birds, feel a gentler breeze and see the higher canopy through the mattered forest. A Black Howler monkey swings from tree to tree. I play on a giant leafless tree that grows next to the giant granite Primitive Rock. Its roots, as thick as the trunk itself, snake across the forest floor progressively becoming more and more narrow. I balance along the top of each of the five roots until I can go no further, until it peters out to a hair’s breadth fifty meters or so from the trunk. I feel the weight slowly lifting from off my shoulders.

Swinging in our hammocks in the late afternoon Victor and I tell jokes until we can think of no more. In the twilight I feel myself drifting off towards sleep. The noise of the crickets and frogs are less intrusive as my mind relaxes towards unconsciousness. I am almost there when all of a sudden a delightful fresh gust of wind sweeps through my soul. At the same time a vision fills my mind: a woman with two faces who is speaking to me in two languages. I sit up with a gasp as if I am drawing my first ever breath and look over to Victor to see if he had felt the same. He is sound asleep.

The next morning I stroll around the rock for the last time. We are almost ready to leave. I am thinking of the two men, the chieftains. I had wanted to ask them many, many questions. Deep down I knew that for a very long time I had wanted to ask them, because my own ‘tribal elders’ just weren’t listening to me. What ever made me think I could comfortably survive in this vast system of sky, trees and water; clouds, leaves and fish; stars, shadows and noise? How could have I survived in the state I was in – with the weight I had carried? How does anyone survive in that state?

Kneeling down on the rock I run my fingers around an axe grinding, washed clean by the river as if it had just been used to sharpen some stone tool. Like needles in haystacks the people here inhabit these forests and have done for millennia. I pray that nobody ever finds them. I realise the chieftains couldn’t have answered my questions either. Those answers lie within me – in the new space I have found.

The weight has lifted completely.

The last evening in the jungle:

In the mid afternoon of my second last day of the expedition Victor had decided he was going to paddle for home. He was missing his family. I, feeling exhausted, said I’d see him in the morning back at his hut and proceeded to find a campsite to spend my last night in the jungle alone; for the first time. That night a jaguar padded through my campsite. I thought perhaps I should have accepted the gun that Victor had offered me when he departed. All I had with me was a machete, to cut wood for the fire. I heard the jaguar approaching, moaning like a cow. A moan that came from deep down inside of him. The closer he came the deeper the moan. The jaguar had come up from the river where, in my hammock, above the roar of the rapids, I had heard an extremely violent fight to the death between two very large animals. I guessed a jaguar and an alligator, or a very very large fish that he had caught and dragged out of the rapids. The opponent was putting up a good fight so it may well have been an alligator. It had rained hard for weeks but now after a few days of no rain the water level was dropping dramatically, and the big game were frantic to get to deeper waters downstream. From the flat granite rock with a single narrow channel to funnel the water through, it was easy for the big cat. I had fallen asleep after the commotion had died down, but was woken by the moaning, coming closer, getting deeper, getting louder. The jaguar paused meters from my hammock, checking me out. It was pitch dark as the thick forest canopy blocked out all light. I wasn’t sure if I could see the light of the night sky reflected from the open river, reflecting in it’s animal eyes. But what I could clearly hear was the sound of it standing breathlessly still. If he could see my eyes in return they were as wide as a startled night owl’s. With the campfire gone cold I sat up in my hammock, machete in hand, peering through the darkness, wondering what he might do or what I should do. Our exchange was mutually curious and ultimately peaceful. A long, silent, breathless pause; then he padded off into the night.

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Back at Victor’s hut:

Down by the river an Indian boy in his canoe is plucking a macaw he had just caught, throwing great clumps of bright blue and orange feathers into the water. I sit on a log and watch him work. He turns to stare at me. I feel so much the visitor. To my surprise the boy then scoops two handfuls of feathers from out of the water and brings them up to me. His eyes, seemingly as deep as the river is long, draw me in to drown me. The boy extends his hand and greets me with the bouquet. Then with a smile he turns and climbs back down to the river.

For me, in this instant, the feathers I hold in my hand tell the story of freedom, of life; but at the same time they also speak of death. I recall the bow and arrow, complete with poisoned tips, that the chieftains had given me in trade down the river two weeks earlier. The hunting tools too talk of the necessity of death, but also sing of the wonders of the diversities of all life on Earth.

Sitting on this log in the middle of the vast Amazonian jungle it hits me deep – the realisation that everything is connected; the soulful understanding about the interconnection of all things in life and death.

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The lesson went even deeper as we listened on the shortwave radio the Berlin Wall coming down.

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