Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Up the Solimoes. Hopefully not in a barb wire canoe without a paddle.




Thursday morning. We had to be showered, dressed, breakfasted and ready by 0700. TV Amazonica wanted to film us strapping our gear on the bikes, interview us at some photogenic spot, then film us riding across a newly built bridge spanning the Rio Negro. I dressed in my freshly laundered, nicely dried, sweet smelling gear. They filmed, we did our thing, I led out of the hotel car park as the fcuking heavens opened up. This is the tropics. This is the Amazon. No where else does it rain like this. By the time I rode back into the car park I was soaked. Manaus' wet season had started with gusto. The other three were dry. I was the only silly bastard wet. We waited half an hour while the streets flooded. Cars and people were nearly washed away. Julio grabbed one old girl, saved her from being swept away. This was a serious thunderstorm.

It was a little scary riding through a strange city, in peak hour, with it pissing down pick handles and on a new back tire. We lost the TV Amazonica film crew, our film crew and our Native Indian Guide.

Eventually they found somewhere dry and scenic to do the interview and we shot through. Our Indian Guide led us out of town to a settlement to meet a local Indigenous Tribe. It rained all the way. My clean gear was again covered in mud and slush.

Marcelo interviewed the Head Woman for his doco. What a lovely bunch of people. It was an extraordinarily interesting few hours. I have only seen an Armadillo twice. Once on a jungle walk in the Pantanal with Dale and Lindsay and today. Unfortunately, today's was being cooked over an open fire. We feasted on Armadillo and turtle eggs, washed down with a drink made from some nuts from the jungle. Tasted a bit like chocolate flavoured muddy water. Only a little above Karva on the taste scale. I suppose, when in Rome etc, etc.

Our transport for the next 40 or so hours to Tefe was to be the N/M Severino Ferreira, a 45 metre, 3 deck passenger/cargo river ferry. She carries about 400 passengers, and 386 tons of cargo on the bottom deck, and in two cargo holds. Powered by a single 6 cylinder Yanmar. Everything imaginable was loaded on, including 30 new Honda motorcycles (now those guys knew what they were doing) and a several of pallets of beer. After the bridges on the BR319, wheeling our bikes up a see saw style plank and over the forward bulwarks was relatively easy. Marcelo had hired a cabin. Not for us to sleep in. To store our gear in. The camera and sound equipment are worth a motza. A side benefit is having our own shower and toilet.

Beth and Mariana slung our hammocks among the masses while we loaded the bikes and stowed our gear. There are only 6 cabins, everyone else sleeps in hammocks. Nearly 400 of us. Our own little space is about 500-600mm wide. We line up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The tucker's is pretty good. Although, maybe I have just been away from home to long!

The Solimoes is the colour of Karva, which is the colour of the water in puddles on the track to Ron, Whitey or Tony's farm, after a week of rain. We swim in it, shower in it, do our washing in it, even clean our teeth in it.

But, worst of all Severino Ferrfira is a dry ship. Fcuk me. Nearly 40 degrees and almost 100% humidity and we can't get a beer. Lucky I have an 1125 of rum. We buy cans of coke and drink our rum Neva style.

N/M Severino Ferreira's owner, Giselle is on board. I showed her, and the Captain, the photos on my phone of Sydney Ferries Rob Gawthorne gave me. Giselle was more than impressed, blue toothed them to her own Samsung phone. She asked a lot of questions about HCF's operations.

Our Ferry stopped at several towns to unload cargo and passengers. The scenery is bordering on spectacular. The other river traffic is extremely interesting. Our fellow passengers and the crew are all friendly. Our Captain's navigation skills are second to none. At night it is as black as the ace of spades. No navigation marks or lights at all. Most small vessels are unlit. I don't think anyone has ever studied the Col Regs, particularly XXXXX (lights and shapes). N/M Severino Ferrfira does between 9 and 11 knots. (SOG)

Our 600km or so voyage to Tefe' has been relaxing and very, very enjoyable. Stinging for a cold beer though!

Unloading at Tefe' was a snack. The pontoon was level with our deck. We had to unload the 30 Hondas before we could get to our BMW's. Our bikes and gear are over 200kg, the little Hondas probably not even 100kg. They were child’s play.

Our F800's are the biggest bikes ever grace the roads of Tefe'. No one can remember the last time Foreigners were here either. Except for the 14 Cuban doctors working in the hospital.

Tefe' is a town of 25,000, surrounded by jungle. No roads or tracks in or out. There are several Indian Communities nearby. Marcelo had a contact, Atenielson, who could take us to visit one. Now here was an likeable, interesting guy. With a terrific sense of humour. Atenielson knows everybody, has 14 kids, 4 wives and rides a small Honda without a front brake. With wife No4 and their 3 month old baby on the back.

Good dirt roads and more interesting scenery. Marcelo interviewed the No 2 ranked Headman, who was around 30, had seven kids. I forget how many wives. These people are lovely. JC and I ended up taking a heap of kids for their first motorcycle ride, three at a time. Two on the back and a little one on the tank. I was careful not to drop it on the rough dirt track with all those kids on board.

We were fed, showered and ready for bed by 8pm. I went in a vain search of wifi to post a Blog. Only a couple of places have it and the heavy rain stuffed their satellite reception.

As it was Saturday night, JC and I decided to hit the town. Panorama Bar is the place to go. We had a beer. OK but frozen. Ordered a Caipirinha. A good Caipirinha is made with Cachaca, which is Brazilian fire-water at the best of times. These bloody things must have been 85% Cachaca, 5% lemon cordial and 10% cats piss. Talk about totally fcuking undrinkable! We tipped them into some plants and gave the game away, went home to bed. Bet the bloody plants were dead by sunset the next day.

Sunday morning and we had to be at the Port at 0700 to take our bikes across a lake, ride 14kms to a wharf, catch a ferry to Tabatinga. Easier said than done.

Loading two big, laden bikes into an overgrown, narrow beam tinnie is no fcuking joke. Marcelo and JC went first. I thought we would never see them, or their bikes again. They laid one bike down and stood one up. These Boatmen have never been to one of Dick Gandies stability classes. They don't know what a “C of G” is. A righting lever is probably a big stick to them. They most likely think Metecentric Height is the top floor of a shopping mall in Manaus. JC said Marcelo was worried about BMW Motorrad Brazil's bikes. JC was worried about his life. I'm on JC's side.

They loaded both Julio and my bikes standing up. I have never been on a vessel so tender. It definitely would have flipped. I convinced then to lay Julios down. Mine stood up with me straddling her. I thought, if she goes I will probably get caught between my bike and the boat. I will be fcuked. Even if I end up in the water clear of the bike I will still be fcuked. Has anyone ever tried to swim in a pair of BMW GS riding pants and Forma Adventure boots? And lived to talk about it? Probably not.

Our skipper took off across the lake like he was being chased by the Police. My GPS showed 18 knots. It was nearly 8kms, the longest 15 minutes of my life. JC and Marcelo laughed when we arrived. They too, had been to hell and back!Then, a pleasant ride to a pontoon on the river at Alvaraes. I wished I could get that damned tinnie skipper on the back of my BMW for 15 minutes. I'd show that fcuker what being scared was.

We arrived at 0900 for a 1000 Ferry. Eventually, our Ferry turned up at 2000. Another de-hydrating almost no food day. Try two beers and a dry bread roll with two sardines each. Tasted good though.

During the day, when the sun was at its highest, trucks started turning up to our pontoon and unloading 60kg bags of Farinha. Being a smart arse, I carried one from a truck to the pontoon, on my shoulder. Almost like the locals. The other boys did too. So I carried a second one. So did the others. JC ended up carrying six. Superman!

Now Farinha is like a coarse flour. Made from the root of a locally grown plant, Manioc. It is crushed and ground then baked and dried. Brazilians love it. They smother most meals with it. Marcelo is an addict. Beth and Mariana are a little wiser and avoid it like the plague. They are arguing over its merits as I write. I think it looks and tastes like sawdust. I even broke I filling trying to get to like it. Sally, what's the name of your Dentist in Mona Vale?

We were still waiting at sunset. Prime malaria mossy time in a prime malaria area. We smothered ourselves in good old Aussie Bushman Insect Repellent. Supposedly the best in the world. The bloody mossies still bit us, through our 'T' shirts!

Our new vessel is N/M Itaberaba-1. Also a three deck, single screw, 6 cylinder Yanmar powered steel mono hulled vessel. This one, 48 metres. We are on board for 4 or 5 days. So much cargo on board we only just managed to squeeze our bikes on. I counted about 18 new Hondas on board. This boat is six years old, although recently had a major refit after a galley fire. Not many passengers and very good food. Our storage/bathroom cabin is roomier as well.

Guess what? She is dry too. Lucky I have an 1125 of Wyborowa vodka. One of my favourites. Tastes great, Russian style. Straight. Except for Marcelo, our whole team are vodka drinkers now.

Apart from us, N/M Itaberaba-1 has another problem. A bent blade or two on her prop means she is only making 7 knots. They carry a spare prop on board and sent a diver down to try and change it. He couldn't free the nut so she has to be slipped next time in Manaus. The Captain knows his stuff but is a cranky prick.

Last night it pissed down pick handles. All night. Our Captain had to slow for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he couldn't see where he was going and secondly he was worried about running over freshly washed down logs. JC and I saw one gigantic tree sweep past. The Helmsman told Beth he tries to steer as close to the river bank as possible, mindful not to go so close the mossies can fly on board. We don't wear repellent while on the river as it is a mossie free zone. He must have gone a little close once or twice last night as I have a couple of bites.

Today our boat stopped for 4 or so hours at Santo Antonio de Ica. The towns pontoon was washed away last wet season and is high and dry on the wrong side of the creek. No drama. Our man ran his vessel ashore and unloaded the freight via the longest plank in Brazil. We walked into town and had a couple of coldies.

We steamed for another 8 hours before berthing at Amatura. This was a long stop, about 11 hours. The pontoon had a little shop. With cold Bramha beer. The Guys went ashore to explore. I turned my ankle on something on the cargo deck (before beer) and retired to my hammock. Time for a post beer siesta.

We found out why all the river Ferries are dry. On long Ferry trips Brazilians like to drink, as do Aussies. But, when the Brazilians drink, they like to fight. The Police banned alcohol sales on board and fixed the problem.

This afternoons stop was a little weird. There wasn't a town, a pontoon or a wharf in sight. Our Skipper just nosed into the bank, bow in the jungle and small launches came from a little creek and loaded their freight.
We have a guy on board we call “The Chicken Man”. The vessel is carrying 5,000 boxes, each holding 6 of his frozen chickens. At every stop shops buy box after box of frozen chickens. For cash. He runs to the local Bradesco Bank to deposit his loot. Always manages to jump on board before we leave. The locals eat fish all week and their weekend family treat is chicken. I think “The Chicken Man” is the wealthiest guy on the river. Apart from the owner of our boat.

A 45-50 metre river boat, in good condition, is worth about $2,500,000. They gross about $50,000/week and pay them off in 2 years. New buildings are nearly 70 metres and have pretty flash passenger cabins. The masses still sleep in hammocks like we do though.

Our last stop was Benjamin Constant. Not a bad joint, just across a 15 metre wide creek from Peru. We berthed at 0600 supposedly for 4 or 5 hours. After 9 hours the crew was still working cargo so we jumped ship, caught a water taxi to Tabatinga, 30 minutes at 25 knots. Itaberaba-1 and our bikes, would theoretically arrive sometime that night.

Now, Tabatinga is a shit hole. A typical 3rd world border town. It ranks with Birganj in Nepal or Medan in Indonesia. We caught a taxi across the border to Letica in Colombia. Also a border town. But lovely. The Hotel was great, air conditioned, a pool, a bar, we slept in beds. Lovely after 6 night is a hammock. A magnificent meal, several beautiful Colombian beers and I was primed to fight with the internet. It was crappy.

Next day was Saturday. Marcelo wanted to get out of town that night as nothing happens on Sundays. Except Church. We were going to be busier than one legged blokes in an arse kicking contest.

We collected our bikes from the ferry. Marcello went to sus out Customs and Immigration in both Brazil and Peru while we visited another Indigenous tribe to film and interview them. Quite close to Benjamin Constant, only about 10kms out of town, over pretty good clay tracks. Dry as well.

Another group of lovely people. One old girl could talked under water.. I haven't seen anyone sweat as much as Mariana. She had to hold her boom microphone in an awkward position in the heat and humidity, while the old sheila rambled on. I thought she might melt. Miguel was a little luckier, he could set and forget his camera.

We loaded our gear onto the bikes back in Colombia. Then it bucketed down. Just as we rode away to Brazil Immigration. Try filling out forms when water is still running down your arms. Fortunately, I had paperwork to show I had paid my fine from 2013, as it still doesn't show on their computer.

In the last 24 hours we have entered and left Colombia 3 times. No one in authority even knew we were in their country. Weird eh?

Our river changes its name again. This time from the Salimoes back to Amazon River.

Peru Immigration and Customs are on Santa Rosa de Yavari an Island in the middle of the river. This dump makes Tabatinga look like paradise! We road and manhandled our bikes down a wet clay bank and into two large canoe style boats to take us from Brazill to Peru. They were powered by Honda 4 stroke stationary engines,Thai “long tail” style.

They pulled alongside our new ferry, the M/F Carlos Antonio. I have seldom seen a bigger heap of shit. A narrow beamed 35-40 metre mono-hull with a barge like swim end bow. Three decks and powered by a 6 cylinder turbo Cat. I don't think anything complies with any safety regulation anywhere in the world. The Skipper is the owner. Another cranky prick of a man. The oldest, crappiest davit and chain block lifted our bikes aboard. And the roof leaks.

Most, if not all, the catering staff are Lady Boys. Full on, like in Pattaya. The only thing clean about the Galley is the Lady Boys virgin white uniforms. So white they cannot possibly be washed in water from this river. Their hair and make up are always pristine. Get the picture?

We stopped at Caballococha for about 4 hours. Buggered if I know why. I walked up the river bank to the town. Typical Spanish influenced South American town with a lovely Plaza in the centre. Brazil doesn't seem to be as keen on them. Everywhere else has them. I love them. We wanted an ATM to get some Peruvian cash. JC got his, then the machine died.

Fortunately, we are only on this shit heap for about 40-50 hours. On our way to Iquitos. It is so filthy Beth and Mariana won't even have a shower.

There aren't wharves or pontoons on this part of the river. The skipper just noses the bow into the bank, runs ahead and everything goes up and down one of the magnificent tropical rainforest hardwood planks, that would be worth as much as my house.

This is the prime Peruvian and Colombian cocaine production area. Hence a large Police presence in towns and on the river. I still find the sight of uniformed guys brandishing machine guns intimidating. You never, ever see this in Australia.

Funny, but I am enjoying my time on this shitty heap of a ferry more than the other two. Beth is smarter than I. She hates it with a vengeance! Mariana isn't in love with M/F Carlos Antonio either.

The wheelhouse doesn't have any instruments or aids to navigation at all. Nil. No radio. No radar. No charts, paper or electronic. The spot light used would not be as good as the one Con Smith has for shooting. It runs from a motorcycle battery, charged by a really old battery charger. A young boy turns the spot on for a few moments occasionally. I imagine the charger won't keep up with the drain from the light. It is blacker than black outside. I don't know how the cranky old bastard sees!

We have finished our second breakfast. Same shit, different day. I imagine it was similar to that given to prisoners on the 1st Fleet. Lunch and dinner weren't any better. Our 50 hour voyage has turned into a 60 hours. I think I have discovered the Captains sexual preference and the probable reason for so many Lady Boys on the crew! We had a not so cold beer on Sunday evening. At lunch on Monday another, this time cold. Then they ran out. Fcuking dopes!

Yesterday they loaded a cow, a pig, plus a few chickens. The main freight is fish. In large supposedly insulated boxes, some are old fridges. They are packed in ice and theoretically stay frozen, outside on the deck, in the tropical sun, for up to 60 hours. The crew regularly wash away blood leaking from the “frozen fish”.

During the night the cow went ashore. This morning they loaded six more pigs. Animals don't seem to like boarding our vessel. I can understand why. Beth, Mariana and I went to inspect the pigs and our bikes. The first pig had been tied in
such a way it had been forced to stand on 3 legs for about 18 hours. Without being able to sit or lie down. Beth spoke to a crewman and told him to loosen its rope. Even a pig on its way to be slaughtered deserves to be comfortable.

The biggest danger in the Amazon doesn't come from Caymen, Anaconda or Jaguar. It's Candiru, also known as Orifice Fish. The simplest way to stop Candiru swimming into your body is by wearing tight fitting swimming costumes. In Belem we went to a sports wear shop and bought matching tight fitting costumes. Now look like we should be on a float in Sydney's Gay Mardi Gra. Bring back the budgie smugglers.

Had a long discussion with Beth and Marina over what constitutes 1st, 2nd and 3rd world. This vessel and the villages along the Peruvian Amazon, in my opinion, are 3rd world. Still, the people are all beautiful. Our last two Ferries and most villages on the Solimoes are probably 2nd world. Manaus and the Sao Paulo I saw are 1st world.

In the evening we did another pig inspection. The rope around the neck of a large Sow was to short to allow her to lie down. Luckily Miguel had some spare hammock rope. I think this poor animal was grateful.

The amount of rubbish, particularly plastics thrown into the river is distressing. Both in Peru and Brazil.

Our Captain just drifted aground while loading a passenger from a launch. He broke a few branches off a tree getting under way again. Unfortunately our camera man was asleep.

Eventually our shit heap of a boat arrived at Iquitos. Just before daylight. Talk about fcuking chaos! The Skipper found a gap, marginally bigger than the beam of his vessel, and beached it between the many vessels already working cargo. I thought the fish boxes would be taken ashore. No way. The crew ripped the tops off them and multitudes of women, (fish wives??) came aboard and loaded bags with fish. I don't know how they measured or paid. Other freight was being unloaded. Through this chaos we wheeled our bikes, along a plank and pushed/powered them up the bloody steep riverbank.

The pigs didn't get to be dragged squealing across the plank. They were just dragged off the cargo deck onto the sand, about 2 metres below. Can't put brains in statues.

Police cars turned up. An officer came aboard looking for us. Someone was worried about our safety. Fearing we would be mugged and our beautiful F800GS BMW's hi-jacked, they had tipped off the Cops. Two cars and 4 officers turned up to escort us to our Hotel. I'm talking about the real deal. Flashing lights, sirens and running the red lights. Excellent.

I was showered and eating a hygienically prepared breakfast by 0700.

Caught a Tuk Tuk back to the port to look for a boat to take us to Yurimajuas, another 60 hours up the river. We found a good boat, the M/F Eduardo IX. She is leaving tonight, has a clean kitchen and toilet/bathrooms. Looks to have been loved by her owners, Master and crew. She is similar in layout to our last vessel, although about 45 metres and with a Volvo main engine.

After a long lunch and a few beers we checked out of our hotel, without even sleeping in the beds. The film crew were staying a few more days to interview another Indigenous Tribe and film the local markets. They will fly to Cusco via Lima. We'll catch them in about 7 days. Beth will spend her time in Cusco making arrangements for our ride to Nevado Mismi. With the amount of flying going on, it's a good thing Smiles is our major sponsor.

Loading our bikes was a snack. Just rode them up the plank and parked them inside on the cargo deck. The top deck is large has a few cabins and an awning to sling our hammock under. A slightly weird German couple were already there. Soon the rest turned up. A Swiss couple, two Italian Guys, one freak from god only knows where. Looks like Jesus Christ gone wrong. JC said he saw him walking across the water. The last two were French. He had lived in Australia as a young boy, she was born in Manly hospital. Turns out her Aussie born father is Bill Bradley's best mate. (yes Jess and the Manx team, your and Sydney Ferries Billy Bradley) Six degrees of separation or what!

M/F Eduardo IX is a well run friendly vessel. The main passenger deck is chock a block full of locals, sleeping shoulder to shoulder in hammocks. All friendly, all happy. I took a bottle of rum on board. The shop has cold beer. The cargo deck has 100 new Honda motorcycles and 17 new Auto Rickshaws or Tuk Tuks. (depending where you come from) No pigs, cows or chickens.

With the exception of the two Germans, the other ex pats are great. I love travelling with backpackers. The Germans are fcuking weird. They spend most of the day reading, aloud from a Kindle to each other. For about 6 or 7 hours. I had to pull rank last night when they started reading to each other at 11pm. My German Intrepid mates are nothing like these fruitcakes. They are the best.

Marcelo talked to some Malaria medical type of person. His town had 2,000 cases of the disease last year. That's 40 per week. Terrible. I think the Bill Gates Foundation will find a cure for Malaria.

About 24 hours upstream from Iquitos and the Amazon is no more. She is now the Maranon River. Lots of small fishing and farming communities. Plenty of magnificent virgin jungle. This has been the most enjoyable of the 4 ferry trips. We have spent 13 nights sleeping in hammocks and covered around 2,000kms up stream from Manaus. We are still only 120 metres above sea level!

It has been excellent. We are all over bloody riverboat food. Although thirteen days on these shitty boats was more than enough.

Unloading at Yurimajuas was easy. The Skipper nosed into the river bank, we rode off and up the river bank and hit the road. No plank needed. All to easy.

Peru has good roads. Bring it on.

Chris.
xx

4 comments:

  1. Great read Chris. Time for some spiced rum ☺

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  2. Motorcycle travel writing at its finest :) Keep safe you good thing and watch out for them mozzies!!

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