Just over 24 months ago I was asked if I would be interested in attending an expedition in the Amazonian region of Northern Brazil. The idea had been proposed to a small group of senior officers from 225 Medical Regiment, an Army Reserves unit based in Scotland. The weekend of training included a ‘Dragons Den’ styled presentation exercise where anyone within the Regiment could put forward an idea for adventurous training for the following few years. The Amazon trip was picked out as the winning presentation and shortly after the planning and preparation began.
Initially there were 22 volunteers and I was one of the lucky ones that got into the final 14 to be short listed to go on the expedition which would take place on the Urubu River, surrounded by the Amazon rain forest, an austere environment which few of us had ever experienced before. We had several briefings as to what to expect including identifying hazardous flora, fauna and animals. Several of the group had also completed Combat Health Duties (CHD) courses, and we also had an Environmental Health Officer as part of the group and an nurse with specialist knowledge of Tropical Medicine. Even so, we were all keen to stay well and avoid were possible, getting ill or being bitten by any of the wide range of species living in the jungle where we would be kayaking, canoeing, eating and sleeping for 9 nights and 10 days.
As part of our preparation we also attended canoe and kayak foundation courses to ensure we were all confident in both crafts. The courses lasted up to two weeks and covered a broad syllabus including basic paddle strokes, rescue techniques, paddling on both slow and fast-moving water, negotiating rapids and navigation. Following on from this, the group also took part in several one or two-day river trips in the Scottish Highlands. These took part at the start of the year and allowed for the group to become more familiar both which each other and the three Army Instructors that would be accompanying us on the trip. One of the key objectives of the expedition was to build leadership skills through managing the group whilst on the water, and this was an early opportunity to start building on these skills. Later, during the expedition itself each one of us would be nominated to lead a section of the river, therefore it was essential that we were proficient and confident in doing this.
On June 1st we left the UK and after several flights arrived in Manaus, the capital city of the region, home to a little over 2 million people. We had a day or so to acclimatise and prep’ our kit which was beneficial although we were all keen to get to the river and start our expedition which would take us over 150 miles through the heart of the rainforest. We also met our guide, a Brazilian local who had extensive knowledge of the area both on and off the water, which was invaluable as several times during the trip we trekked in to the jungle and learned many skills and techniques vital to survival in the jungle from shelter building, where to find clean drinking water, how to get a fire lit and hunting and foraging for food.
The river itself was the colour of black coffee. This is caused by decaying vegetation from the nearby forest and causes not only the characteristic colour but also higher than normal acidity levels. This benefited us as it keeps the mosquito population down which reduced the risk to us of Malaria and meant using face nets and insect repellent were only necessary on a couple of occasions when making camp. The river, although relatively narrow initially (approximately 15m across) was slow moving and allowed for us to observe a few the larger animals native to the area including, Sloth, Monkeys, Toucan, Vultures, Condor and snakes. Our normal daily routine would be up at 0600hrs, pack up our equipment, change into our wet clothes to paddle and pack the boats prior to breakfast. At around 0700hrs we would be given breakfast, sausage, egg, fried banana and fruit most days. After breakfast the duty student would brief the group on the next 24hrs and any safety briefs required ensuring we were on the river for 0800hrs daily. Each day we would paddle between 2 and 4 hours then stop for lunch depending on the distance we were required to travel that day. After lunch a similar distance would be covered to reach our final destination for the day normally around 1630hrs giving us 90min to set up camp prior to last light at 1800hrs. Evening meal would normally be served at 1900hrs and everyone would be bedded down by 2000hrs.
The river did have one significant rapid on it which we were forced to portage as the boats we had weren’t fitted out for rapid running. We were also heavily laden with personal kit including, hammocks, spare clothes, spare paddles, drinking water and medical supplies. As the expedition progressed the river became wider, and slower on the last leg of our journey.
At various points along the river we were able to stop at small farms, called Plantations, these were often run single handedly by a farmer, all of whom gave us a warm and friendly greeting, they spoke to us about the crops they grow, how they make their living, how to craft tools and equipment they need from what’s around them and how they manage to survive so far from civilisation with no electricity or running water. We were all struck by how simple their living was and how much physical hard labour goes into producing a modest harvest of bananas, potatoes and pineapples. Everything they eat is either grown, caught, or hunted. As the expedition progressed we encountered more people on the river and had the opportunity to speak to them including a group of hunters, although our guide spoke English most people we met only spoke a local dialect or Portuguese. Some of us had tried to study the language before arriving in Brazil but still struggled beyond ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and resorted to hand gestures and pointing. Everyone we met seemed friendly and was as interested in us as we were in them.
By the midday of our 10th day on the river we had completed our planned route, having paddled in all 227Km, paddling on average for 6hrs a day, often in temperatures of more than 40c and humidity of over 80%. We had been relatively lucky with the weather, only having to paddle through a couple of heavy rainstorms, and other than one or two cases of sunburn and swollen insect bites, we all came through the experience unscathed. On the 2 ½ hr journey back to Manaus, we had a chance to reflect on our time on the river and in the jungle. For me, I got exactly what I hoped I would out of the trip. I got to see a lot of wildlife I’d never seen in the wild before, I’d had the chance to literally live and sleep in the jungle under the stars and got to meet some of the people that make their home on or near the river. I expected there to be the odd falling out between team members but overall everyone worked well as a team and there were very few problems. Even our guides vague timings and estimations of distances although frustrating at times, became more of a good-natured banter with all timings being the standard ‘40 minutes ‘regardless of how long we’d been on the river and all water stops and final camping sites being ‘just round this next corner’. For me this was the trip of a lifetime, and I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to experience it. I would like to thank Leslie Bike’s, DPS, JSS, FiFab and Kwikpac for their very kind donations.
LCpl Trevor Stewart East.