OK so I haven’t really been in the state of mind to blog recently. For the past couple of years actually. Part of me could reach for the excuse that I didn’t have an “real” expedition on and that I had no content to write about. But that’s utter drivel – life’s been extraordinary. I’ve just been hiding.
Naked and Marooned, as punishing as it was [read the epilogue of the book to get a raw taster], was over two years ago now and the subsequent survival 9-part series Marooned finished filming in July this year.
Now, as we head into 2015, after months of talks with Discovery Channel, we’ve found what I believe to be the best series concept yet…
Authenticity has always been the starting point. I never want to pretend anything. And as discussions have gone back and forth it has remained a key point. So too now is self filming – something that I enjoy and have no intention of giving up.
Nakedness has gone. Been there done that. Nobody likes a willy waver after all. I hate them. So too has the sense that we have to strip everything that could possibly help me out so that life would be suitably excruciatingly difficult. Within its admirable intentions, that too has led to artifice. Why go to such artificial extremes? What are you trying to prove? For me the self analysis is almost over – there are only so many days you can sit naked and alone in the wild – and I’ve clocked up 140 for Discovery now.
But with bringing back the practicalities of expedition kit and basic supplies, suddenly the door is open to explore the furthest flung parts of the planet. To go further, for longer, into more inhospitable – and sometimes much colder – places. This is what really drives me, and this is the more expansive and exploratory feel to the new series. What is the concept exactly? Contractually I can’t say yet. But my desert boots and shemagh are packed and a very remote desert is my destination tomorrow for episode one. The aim is that the series will start airing in the second half of 2015 so I guess I have some adventures to be having between now and then.
For me the big grin on my face is because it feels like I’m coming home. This is much more like Walking the Amazon. Bring it on.
Wow I just looked at the date and realised a year ago to the day Cho and I held hands (very macho) running into the Atlantic Ocean at the end of our 860-day expedition.
The night before I’d collapsed at the side of the road from exhaustion and then we nailed the final 75 kilometers in 17 hours. It remains the happiest day of my life.
A few months later we brought Cho over to the UK (it took a couple of well-worded letters from Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Michael Palin to the British Ambassador in Lima to swing it!) and he has a great few months over here living up in the country with my mum and playing a bit of rugby at my local club. He even got “Overseas Player of the Year”. Nice touch lads.
Cho’s back in the jungle now with his dad but hopes to return to England next year. I’m planning my next expedition to another far flung part of the globe – and start pitching for sponsorship in September. Life is great – I can’t complain at all – but there is a bit of me itching to get out of London now. A year is a long time.
On Tuesday was my first book launch in Waterstones Piccadilly. An amazing day for me and thanks to everyone who came down. The video below also highlights the dates for the theater tour that is happening throughout June.
Mark Barrowcliffe is an author and journalist who recklessly volunteered to come out and walk with me in the Amazon during my 860-day journey. He has also worked as a stand-up comedian and enjoys a laugh and he will be chatting to me about our time together in the jungle as well as the expedition as a whole.
Find out what it was like to wade through swamps full of piranhas, hack through dense jungle, pass through notorious drug trafficking zones and stay with some of the world’s most remote indigenous tribes.
The event takes place on 1st June in the National Geographic store on Regent St in London. Click here for details.
I am wading fully clothed through a fast-flowing, waist-deep stream in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. No white man has been across here in living memory and we’re a week’s walk from anything resembling a town. It’s a thrill, but the pack on my back is heavy and the force of the water threatens to flip me over at any minute.
“Why isn’t the local guide coming over?” I ask one of my Spanish-speaking companions.
“He won’t cross, his friend drowned here three days ago.”
Welcome to the world of Ed Stafford, explorer, adventurer and the man bidding to become the first in history to walk from the source of the Amazon in the high Andes to the mouth of the river in Brazil. This is no TV-friendly trip with fixers, boats and planes, soundmen, directors and translators – this is a 4,000-mile slog through some of the most hostile territory on the planet, wonderful and terrifying in about equal measure.
You are welcome to this world too, if you’ve got what it takes. Ed, six months into his trip, is looking for a new walking partner after his original one went home. To cut a long story short, they didn’t get on. Which means that now you can apply. It’s the ideal trip for the daring and the fit. I spent a week with Ed on the Ucayali river, one of the Amazon’s major tributaries, to see what you’ll be in for, and to get a taste of Ed’s real Boys’ Own adventure as he attempts something no one has ever tried before.
It’s a trip fraught with danger, not least the question of “will I get on with a complete stranger in such a stressful environment?” Luckily for me, Ed turned out to be an affable, purposeful bloke, nothing like the Rupert his Uppingham public school and Army captain background might suggest.
Ed had broken his walk to meet me in the town of Pucallpa, 400 miles from Lima – a ramshackle jungle river port of unfaced brick and corrugated iron roofs, 38ºC heat and stultifying humidity. We had to take a boat back to where he left off. Getting marooned on a sandbank in the middle of the Ucayali on an unlit boat with night falling was a very Tintin way to start. We had to jump into the river to free the boat. As I looked to the distant banks I couldn’t help thinking: “I’m in the bloody Amazon! What else is in here?”
When we finally got back to the route we hit the ground running, almost literally. Ed has three main guides for this part of the trip, two from the indigenous Asheninka tribe – the tough Andreas and Alfonso – and one former logger, Cho. They really motor through the jungle. We saw Andreas and Alfonso for about 10 minutes of the way into the jungle. After that Cho just tracked them, though I don’t know how. Perhaps he used the trail of beheaded pit vipers left in their wake. Poisonous snakes don’t last long around these chaps.
The rainforest has an intense beauty that at times seems almost suffocating. The jungle is one twig short of impenetrable and the greenery seems to crowd in on you with a sensation that has been described as akin to snowblindness. The stuff I went through with Ed is secondary rainforest – many of the big trees have been logged – so sunlight pours in and the forest explodes with growth. We climbed over fallen trees or pressed ourselves into pools to get under them, fought off thorns, scrambled down banks, hauled ourselves up the other side, balanced and jumped, crawled and climbed along trails that are no more than areas of least resistance in the wall of vegetation. It was like a sprint through paradise. After 2km I was knackered. Ed had another 6,000 to go.
Brilliant birds flashed above us, around us giant buttress trees and carpets of butterflies. At night the moths were as big as sparrows and looked more likely to carry a candle off than fly into it.
It was when venomous snakes fell out of the trees – one directly onto a guide’s back – that the experience began to border on the terrifying; the deadly fer-de-lance snake seemed as common as pigeons in a British park, although I found it funny (ish) when, going to the loo, a poison dart frog hopped out from under my bum.
Most of the challenges were scary but manageable. The perilous balancing acts, negotiating slippery logs over neck-breaking drops with a full pack on were fun if you didn’t think about just how far away medical care was. You willed yourself through the physical challenge with cries of “come on!” At least I did. Ed later explained that he’d prefer me to suffer in silence. I suspect my attempts to gee myself along might have caused friction if I’d stayed with him for longer on the trip.
At one point we lost our guides, but even that was quite exciting. We had a satnav, so we knew where we were, if not which of 20 almost invisible trails we needed take to get to where we wanted to be. There was the nagging anxiety that something sinister had happened to the guides, particularly as our rendezvous point, a logging camp, felt like the Marie Celeste when we reached it. There were dinners left uneaten, half-full Inca Cola bottles with the tops left off. The guides eventually reappeared and we just had to conclude the loggers were just messy.
The persistent rain did make things grueling. There’s nothing like climbing back into soaking-wet clothes in the morning to make you feel like you’re on a hard-core trail, and the logging roads – mile after mile of sucking mud – sapped my energy, especially when moving at Asheninka pace.
But the Amazon is full of rewards, too. The sun setting on the Ucayali, with the Andean foothills in the background, and the taste of freshly cut papaya in my mouth restoring a body utterly shattered made for one of those ‘ones to tell the grandchildren’ memories.
There was one fact that I hadn’t properly considered until I met Ed: the biggest challenge is not the wildlife or plants, it’s the people. After decades of mistreatment, the local communities are understandably wary of outsiders.
Ed explained that there is a myth among the Asheninka and Shipibo people who live in this area, of a beast known as the pelicara. It’s a baby-eating monster that also steals the body fat of adults, sucks out their eyes and takes their organs. “What does this monster look like?” I asked Ed.
“You and me.”
Ed told me he has done everything he can to reduce the risk and allay fears. The real role of Andreas and Alfonso – whose village originally took Ed prisoner out of fear – was to liaise with the locals. They radio ahead to explain that Ed is coming through. They also get passes from local government and organisations representing indigenous people. It’s a safety measure but also, explains Ed, basic politeness. If you’re going to subject people to a new and potentially frightening experience, then it’s incumbent on you to warn them first and give them the chance to refuse to have you on their land.
The danger was brought home by the indigenous organisations, who warned us not to camp out in the jungle or arrive in a settlement after dark, or we would certainly be killed. The locals may wear football shirts and jeans, but some have never seen white people. Even in Pucallpa, among the motorised rickshaw taxis and ice cream parlours, there are very few gringos.
I can’t remember when I was most nervous in the next three days. It may have been arriving at those settlements after dark. Or it might have been camping in the jungle. Probably the latter, trying to sleep in my hammock outside the loggers’ camp. What were those footsteps under the din of insects and birds? Animal? Human? I followed Ed’s advice and took a sleeping pill. I loved this trip but, at certain points, I thought of my wife and child and began to feel quite irresponsible.
We weren’t deliberately taking risks, far from it. Ed is meticulous in his planning, but this is the Amazon. It eats plans, and everything else. Something that looks like an easy 30km through plantations on the latest – but still 40-year-old – maps can turn out to be an assault course through the jungle.
In late afternoon of the first day we reached a tiny local village – Esperanza – and, after the guides announced us, we were greeted warmly. However, one mother had doubts. “Are you pelicara?” she asked. We said we weren’t.
“Are you sure?” she said. “We’re sure.” “OK then,” she said, and I couldn’t help thinking it was all a bit Monty Python.
Later she cooked for us at her wall-less reed hut – a lovely soup of coriander and fish, served with plantain.
The people of Esperanza don’t have a radio, let alone a TV, and stared at us in wonder. We were put up in the local school, and the children filed in to ask us to sing for them. Marlene – a charity worker who had come with us for a day – was a good singer and piped up. One 13-year-old girl had the sort of expression worn by a child who has awoken on Christmas Day to find a pony with a bow on it in her garden.
It’s here that I got to talk to Ed properly about his motivations for the mission. He mentioned the charities he’s helping – Project Peru, Cancer Research, Action for Brazil’s Children, the ME Association and Rainforest Concern – but at the end of the day, he said it’s about being the first to do it. He wouldn’t be interested if anyone had got there before him.
He was also honest enough to admit that, today, being an adventurer is a career like any other. When he is finished in the Amazon he plans one more big trip and then a life of easier expeditions, speaking engagements, endorsements. I hope he succeeds. I was three days in the jungle proper and the effort alone nearly killed me, never mind the wildlife.
On my final day, a 12-hour jog through the soaking jungle, I was at the point of total collapse. The insoles of my boots disintegrated as we reached Samaria, a large, well-kept village. Our attempts at radio contact had failed. We asked to stay and were led before a growing crowd to speak to a man who was clearly drunk. His opening position was that we were almost certainly pelicara and we’d be lucky if all he did was kick us out into the jungle in the pitch black. The villagers seemed terrified of us. It seemed amazing that this place, with its football pitch, TV and thumping cumbia music can hold such fears. But then what do the oil companies, the loggers or God knows who get up to out here?
Luckily a visiting Shipibo English teacher championed us and the village voted to let us stay. We went to the school and finally relaxed. Then I looked out from the veranda and saw the men with the shotguns, about eight of them. They fanned out across the grass, creating a perimeter between us and the village.
“I think we’ve been taken prisoner,” I told Ed.
“Well, there’s not a lot we can do about it,” he said. Just a week before, the possibility of being surrounded by armed men would have filled me with dread but I seemed to have developed Ed’s “Oh, I’ll worry about it in the morning” attitude.
The next day, the men had dispersed, and it was time for me to go home. I caught the collectivo river bus for a 12-hour trip back to Pucallpa, travelling first class on a fifth-class banana boat. I slung my hammock below deck and slept out the journey. I felt drained, mentally as much as physically. I’d done adventure tourism before – the Himalayas, the Australian outback, Iceland – but the feeling was nothing like this. Just the three days I did in the jungle was an incredible challenge. Ed has 18 months in front of him.