WALKING THE AMAZON
Ed Stafford (1975- )
Ed was adopted as a baby by the Staffords who lived in a small English village. At an early age he showed a predilection for outdoor activities and during boarding school he became known for his skill at playing rugby. He graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in Geography and immediately joined the army. After four years spent partly in Ireland he sold out and resigned, having attained the rank of captain. Being interested primarily in open air pursuits, he began working in Central America for aid-related organizations and gained a lot of experience in managing expeditions and dealing with officialdom as regards passports, visas and travel permits. While working for Trekforce in Belize he decided to go for a world record of some sort and realized that no person had ever walked the length of the Amazon river.
Since Ed was not wealthy, he used his knowledge and networking abilities to obtain a list of sponsors who donated money for his projected excursion. April 2, 2008 saw Ed and several companions walk down to the beach from a small Peruvian village, Camana, to dip their toes into the Pacific Ocean, signaling the beginning of a 4,345 mile hike through some of the most arduous country in the world. Initially they set off boldly to go where no one had gone before and they made 2.5 miles and checked into a local hotel. Somewhat chagrined, they lightened their loads and set off, still determined, the next morning. Even after paring down the weight of their packs, they were carrying 40-50 kilograms each: at 2.5 lbs/kg, that came to around 100 pounds apiece. Ed was 6'1" tall and was in good condition, but his companions were not quite so strong. Oz, a local guide, was short and skinny and, soaking wet, barely tilted the scale to 120 lbs. Luke Collyer, another experienced expedition leader had agreed to go along even though he wasn't in quite as good shape as Ed.
The three toiled up the Andes, overlooking some of the deepest canyons in the world, sleeping outdoors for the most part, and enjoying the meals prepared by Oz, who turned out to be an excellent make-shift cook. Tiptoeing their way through a recent rockslide, they noticed a few mummified Incan corpses that were first seeing daylight after some hundreds of years: hopefully not accurate prognosticators of future events. The trio walked through small villages quite frequently and in one of them they were able to rent a donkey to carry some of the heavier gear. Eventually they topped out on Nevado Mismi, a mountain overseeing the true starting point of the Amazon, 200 kilometers and three weeks from Camana. The Apurimac river begins with a small spring on the mountain slope and trickles north, joining with many tributaries and increasing in volume until it becomes the Amazon.
By the time the party reached Cuzco, disagreements and arguments over routes and rates of travel were beginning to proliferate between Ed and Luke. It wasn't long before Luke decided to leave and left Ed to carry on with his guides and occasional walking associates: figures from sponsoring bodies and local interested persons. One of the latter started out as a guide and ended up accompanying Ed all the way to the Atlantic Ocean even though he often iterated that he needed to return to his wife and children. This was Gadiel Sanchez, known as "Cho", without whose aid and psychological support, Ed would very probably not have finished his walk. Route-finding was occasionally problematical. In its lower reaches the Apurimac rages through a series of narrow canyons that are impossible to walk through, therefore paths on one side of the canyons or the other needed to be traced. Several times they became uncertain of their location and suffered torments of thirst before they happened upon the right track.
Approaching the low lands, local denizens warned them not to enter the "red zone", a section of the river that was occupied by hostile indians and controlled by gun-toting drug runners and belligerent loggers. But with frequent offerings - presents of food and pocket knives and the like - as well as picking out pathways that avoided well-known dangerous areas, they managed to pacify the local indian chiefs and reassure trigger-happy drug lords. All this time they were traveling through dense jungle, hacking their way through with machetes and commonly having to retrace their steps due to impassable swamps or flooded regions. Shotgun traps were common. The indigenes would set up shotguns to kill any animal that wandered through; a sort of lazy persons hunting scheme that could be disastrous for the casual stroller. They did a lot of wading through boggy areas in which they were up to their necks in crocodile and snake infested waters. At one point it took them ten days to cover 25 kilometers. When they were lucky, they might find a small islet to camp on and cook some food, but only if they shared it with spiders, bugs, beetles, millipedes and ants by the million. Not to mention the savage hordes of mosquitoes and piranhas. And the occasional anaconda.
When a year had passed, Ed and Cho were by themselves, making their way via Google Earth, as all three of their GPS systems had died. They lived mostly on farine (pasta)and fish: smoked piranhas were a delicacy but not always available. Cho was a genius at making do. He once made a fishing line out of a pack of needles that he heated over the fire and then welded together by pounding on them with a rock. They were excited one day, after seeing no other person for weeks, by coming across the tracks of another couple who were apparently traveling just ahead of them. It was some time before they became aware that they were walking in a circle.
They finally arrived at Manaus, where the Rio Negro joins the Amazon and took a break for a week. Ed had been depressed for weeks because of loneliness and anxiety. Cho had helped him break out of his self-imposed melancholy, and he became better after awhile, learning to live one day at a time, and even one minute at a time, and to experience and enjoy his surroundings, seeing the true miracle of the living forest around him.
They ran out of money and had to live off the land. Sometimes they traded fish for farine, or the rare isolated farmer would feed them gratis. But they kept on keeping on and at the end of their two-year hike, began to realize that they would probably make it. Things still went wrong: following the wrong trail, blundering into swamps and marshes and snakes, dealing with pugnacious miners and loggers, having to sneak around official check points (they had far outstayed their visas and were actually in Brazil illegally) and were forced to bribe the infrequent country policeman. When they saw, at last, that they were getting close to the end, they began to drive themselves harder. On the final leg, they covered 85 kilometers between midnight and 4 pm the next day, appearing like ragged ghosts from the green jungle and falling into the Atlantic Ocean like stained wraiths from some sort of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious labyrinth.
Ed calculated up some of the numerical features of the trip: they had walked 9,000,000 steps, suffered 200,000 mosquito bites, walked 8,000 kilometers, received 600 wasp stings, 12 scorpion stings, lost 10 video cameras, worn through 6 pairs of boots, destroyed 3 GPS units, and set 1 world record.
This was truly an amazing story. Ed's singlemindedness was incredible, and i've never heard of anyone persisting to the end like he and Cho did in this adventure. The writing was good and descriptive and easy to follow, if occasionally harrowing in some of the incidents that transpired; Ed still is interested in conservation and helping people in the area. He gives inspirational talks around the globe and so far as i'm aware, has not returned to some of the places he struggled through. This account recorded perhaps the most extreme feat i've ever come across between the covers of a book. recommended...