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Source of the Amazon – Peru 1987







My journey to the source of the Amazon River turns epic. I hitch a ride in an old 1960’s Mercedes Benz truck, that agonisingly winds its way up to 5,500 metres and then rolls gently down the dirt road, along the altiplano. The driver and his friend explain that the Shining Path terrorists are in the area, and that it would be dangerous for me to go to the town at the end of the road. They could ambush the truck at anytime. Not wanting to die, I abandon the vehicle in the middle of the moon less night high on the altiplano, where the grasslands meet the rubble of the decaying mountains. At first light, determined to continue my journey, I walk into the vast landscape and begin traversing a section of South America’s massive continental divide. It would be a five day hike with only two bars of chocolate, a packet of biscuits, and a jar of honey. Reaching the source seems the only way. The nearest safe town is then two days down hill from there.

During my days and nights I have a sense of being watched and followed. I sometimes look around, and look back the way I came to see who’s there. Could it be the fighting men of the Shining Path? This land is of no use to them. I’m convinced that I am totally and utterly alone. The lack of sustaining food at altitude soon takes its toll. I weaken by the hour. My pace slows to about 50 metres in 5 minutes, where I then have to take a rest. My determination to continue is unshakable. My determination to walk my own path, whether it shines or not, is unstoppable. I believe there is no way out, other than reaching the source and going beyond.

I keep looking back to see who it is that is following me. I see the nightmares of my childish mind out to kill me. Through the physical pain of this single journey I feel the emotional pain of my younger years. The pain of loneliness amplifies out of the landscape and plunges me into confusion – then anger – then pain. The confusion of who I am and where I belong. The anger of not knowing, fueled by the anger of my water bag bursting in my pack and soaking my sleeping bag, losing my only supply of water. I could walk half a day back to a creek but I take the risk and continue up onto the ridge, hoping to find something there. I move closer to the source. The source moves closer to me. The pain deepens, quickens.

On the fourth night, lying on a bed of boulders next to a tiny drift of snow, I’m convinced I’m dying of altitude sickness and huddle deeper into my sleeping bag to try and survive. In the darkness of the coldest night, my loneliness reaches all the way to infinity and back. It overwhelms me and hurls me into grief. In the darkness of my cocoon I feel overpowered by the vastness of this earth. I feel the absolute loneliness of my existence, my inability to fit in to my own society, my family, my friends. Always on the outside. . . I drift. . . I dream. . . I hope. . .

I begin to drown. I try to swim but soon exhaust myself. Gasping for air my lungs fill with water. Suddenly, I find myself on a large stone wall. It is cold and barren. Looking out I see a powerful whirlpool, its vortex dominant. I walk from one side of the wall to the other. It is far. On the other side lies the infinite ocean. I dive in. I swim freely. The friendly waters support my presence. I am a fraction of its existence but at last I know I belong.

In the morning I wake to a condor circling about 15 metres above me. It’s curious as to why a human should be out this far, away from his own kind. I wish that I could hold on to its talons so it could fly me down into the jungles far below. I quickly pack and head west across the ridge, across the continental divide, heading down into the Colca Canyon and down to civilisation. Alive. I am alive.

After this night my life becomes a conscious quest for meaning.



Post Script:

I was 22 at the time of this trip. I got the idea to walk to the source from the 1972 National Geographic article on the first ever expedition there, led by McIntyre. I found the magazine whilst wandering around a market in Lima a few weeks before. All I had to go on was the names of three towns, and one mountain. The mountain that held the trickle that would kick off the mightiest river on earth. Mt Mismi. I bought some topographic maps and simply set off in search of it. As far as I know it is a relatively unknown journey.

A few years later, in the comfort of my parents place in Sydney, I read another Nat Geo magazine which had another article in it celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Amazon Source expedition. Like Jacques Coustou after them, the Nat Geo team had used four and six wheel drives to drive through the desert landscape and then walk a few kilometers to the source. All their gear was carried in the vehicles. Audaciously, all I had was an old army duffle bag, and another bag full of books and things that I really didn’t need, but I didn’t know where to leave them, whilst I was away. So I took them with me.

But what was the most interesting thing in the magazine was the actual location of the Source. In ’72 they believed that Mt Mismi which fed the lake beneath it (soon named Lake McIntyre) was the source. The Nat Geo expedition reached this source, the top of the mountain, and also traversed the mountain ridges from north to south just to make sure that they took in all the mountain’s water courses. In the newer magazine it was revealed that the source was not the top of the mountain but coming from a creek further down the south ridge. I checked my map with the name in the article. It matched. The snow drift that I spent the night at is the actual source of the river. All those years I thought that I had fell shy of it by a kilometer or so. What a surprise. What a reward.

The route I took, I believe, had never been done before. Even by the wandering locals. The usual route to the source is directly up the river, or steeply up from the Colca Canyon, directly behind the mountain. I came at it along the divide, traversing other mountains and ridges, crossing other creek sources to climb up the south ridge of Mismi. In the truck I could see the mountains in the slender moonlight and matched them to my map. I jumped out of the truck exactly where it rolled over the divide on its way to Cailloma. The only thing I had going for me was that I knew exactly where I was.                                                                                                   NEXT

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