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Down Amazon River by Raft - 1963

From left, Bob Webb, Joe Brooks, Lander, Pedro My Amazon adventure started in Lima, Peru where I went over the Andes Mountains by bus and train. Then from Pucallap, Peru I traveled down river by riverboat to the Peru, Brazil border where we built a raft. Along the way I met three other travelers: Joe Brooks from South Africa, Garcia from Bolivian who spoke English, and Pedro a Spaniard who spoke no English, and myself who spoke no Spanish. The four of us decided to continue the journey on a raft. The following is taken from my log.

October 24 — Amazon River, Benjamin Constante, Brazil

Benjamin Constante is a small sleepy town, wedged between the jungle and the river. Buildings and walkways are on stilts to survive the frequent floods. Outside of town, we walked along the river where many boats were tied up, and asked every boat owner if they were going to Manous, our next destination down river, about 700 miles. No one would speak to us. They only shook their heads no. Then we asked if they knew of anyone. Again a "no" head shake. Perhaps they did not understand us.

We went back into town where we met a German fellow, who said he had been trying to get out of town for a week now. He said there should be a river boat in 30 days. We said we could not wait that long.

I suggested that we buy a large canoe and paddle down river. Again we walked the river front asking all boat owners if they knew where we could buy a canoe. We got the same head shaking answer, "no." Still, no one would speak to us. Perhaps they were suspicious of us for some reason. We never found out why we were treated like that.

Joe said he was going to build another raft and go by himself if necessary.

We said we wanted no part of it. So Joe took off.

I wanted to go with him, but didn’t have the courage to say yes. With all the problems of this trip, I seemed to be forgetting my purpose for coming here, to learn how to use the jungle resources. Also, am I forgetting all the training from my co-workers of doing the impossible?

Garcia, Pedro, and I went to a cafe for lunch. While eating, I said, "If Joe leaves on a raft, we will wish we were with him. Why don’t we go and help?"

Garcia said, "OK."

I asked, "What about Pedro?"

Garcia said, "He will go."

I said, "You did not tell him of our plans."

Garcia said, "He will go." And he did.

[Lashing Balsa logs with vines]We found Joe at a pile of balsa logs. We asked if we could all go together and Joe said, "OK."

We cut seven balsa logs 20-feet long. Then got some vines from the jungle and lashed the logs together. Joe engineered the project since he already built one raft. We built it long and narrow, 20’ by 5’, so as to have some control while paddling. By dark the raft was finished. It had no roof, only an open deck. Building this raft turned out to be a high point of my studies.

All along the river, I had been taking notes and making drawings of building and boats that were held together with materials found in the jungle. With proper techniques and ingenuity, strong usable structures are possible. The basic techniques are: notching, lashing, and driving hard wooden stakes through soft wood. For roof and sides, palm branches are woven or just laid flat. A roof of palm branches is not only dry, it keeps the inside very cool.

October 25

Each of us put one dollar in a kitty for supplies:

4 pounds of rice
2 pounds of yuca
4 pounds of sugar
2 pounds of coffee
4 pounds of dried fish
1 stalk of plantains
1 loaf of bread
1 pound of salt
1 pound of lard
2 pounds of rope
2 pounds of nails
6 fish hooks
Total cost, $3.70

[Our Amazon Raft as we head down river] After buying our supplies, we shoved off. Word spread around town and it seemed that everyone was out to watch us leave. Still, no one said anything to any of us, which felt strange.

This was to be a drift voyage. I figured that the current is two knots. If we drift 24 hours a day, we should cover 50 miles a day. In 14 days we should complete the 700 miles to Manous. By sunset, we covered six miles. We did not reached the Amazon River yet. So much for planning.

We stopped so Garcia could cook supper. While eating, a fellow coming down river stopped to talk. When he found out what we were doing, he told Garcia and Pedro all the dangers of a raft trip. He spoke in Spanish. Joe and I did not understand all that was said, but we understood enough. We wanted him to shut-up and leave.

After the traveler left, Garcia and Pedro were making the rules: no night travel; stay near shore; watch for snakes. Joe and I argued that we had to keep going day and night. This was our first argument of many and the first time Pedro had an opinion.

I had a time problem. I had only two more weeks of my vacation, then I had to be back on the job at the Panama Canal. Also, I had little Brazilian money and a few US dollars. All the rest was in travelers’ checks and there are no banks in the jungle. So I needed to get to Manous before time and money ran out. I told Garcia, "We have to keep moving 24 hours a day."

When we finished eating, it was dark and we continued our journey down river. We could hear many noises, including frogs and crickets along with other jungle creatures we were not familiar with. There were loud splashes from time to time. The imagination could picture a crocodile, but it was usually a mud bank sliding into the river. The mud is undercut by the river, then it falls in.

The Amazon is constantly shifting. It silts on one side while cutting away on the other. No matter how large the hill, the river in time will bring it down. This is how large trees fall into the river. Along the cutting side of the river there are lots of fallen trees anchored in the strong currents. Hitting them can sink ships and rafts.

Joe and I argued with Garcia and Pedro continually, trying to keep them at ease. Finally at midnight, Joe and I gave up arguing and stopped near an Indian house. Garcia and Pedro went to the house while Joe and I stayed on the raft.

October 26

At 5 AM we started our drift down river, and soon it started to rain. We had two sheets of plastic that we wrapped around ourselves. It kept us dry for a little while, then the wind blew and it rained harder. The waves were getting large, so we were getting wet from below also. We finally gave up trying to stay dry, wrapped the plastic around bedding and paddled to shore.

We saw some dugout canoes tied along the shore and decided to stop there. To anchor the raft, we pushed long stakes between the logs of the raft into the mud below. The system worked well.

We followed a path back into the jungle about half a mile when we came to an Indian house. These houses have no sides; they are thatched roof and a floor made of small logs resting on stilts three feet above the ground.

The Indians invited us in out of the drenching rain. We introduced ourselves from four different countries. They were very impressed. We had not eaten anything and they must have sensed we were hungry. They gave us smoked fish, hot yuca, and bananas for breakfast. After eating, they showed us their possessions from the industrialized world. A peddle-operated Singer sewing machine, shot gun, and an American dollar bill. An Indian lady was drying clothes over their cooking fire.

We told them of our arrival by raft and that it had no shelter. We asked where we could get palm leaves to make one. An Indian said he would be right back and ran off into the jungle. Soon he returned with a palm leaf shelter on his back. It was the right size for our raft. He had it by his house and gave it to us. Two Indians and I went to the raft. The Indians drove six hard wood poles into the balsa logs and propped the roof on them. Everything fit perfectly. I thanked them and gave them some coffee.

Joe made a fireplace at one end of the raft, so we could keep moving while fixing meals. Now we were in the middle of the river and had no firewood. There were plenty of fallen trees anchored in the mud. All we need to do is grab some branches as we drift by, so I thought. We paddled to where the raft would drift into a tree. Garcia was complaining about something.

I said, "Stop arguing and grab the branches before we drift by."

Just as we were reaching for a branch, we hit a submerged limb that suddenly stopped the raft. Joe went flying into the water, the rest of us were thrown on the deck, grabbing for something, so we wouldn’t go in also. As Joe climbed back on board, he said he didn’t know how to swim. I wondered what he was doing on a raft if he didn’t know how to swim. We then realized how powerful the current is and decided it was wiser to stop along the shore for our firewood. After gathering wood, we built a nice cooking fire.

Again, just before dark, two men came to us by canoe and told Garcia and Pedro of the dangers of the river. This time they did not get as scared, but they were concerned. Joe and I had been keeping the raft near the center of the river. When the visitors left, Garcia said we had to stay near shore. We pointed out that there were more dangers, such as fallen trees, near shore that the center. If the raft went under a low limb, we would be wiped off. After more arguing, Joe and I said we would stay near shore. Joe and I took the first watch and let the others sleep. As they slept, we moved the raft back to the center of the river.

Sunday — October 27

About 1 AM, we suddenly found ourselves near shore, seemingly caught in a large whirlpool. In the darkness it is easy to imagine many things. In reality, our raft drifted into a counter current and headed into fallen trees. We woke the others and they helped paddle away from the trees, the raft bumping the last tree we saw. This time we all paddled toward the center of the river. Joe and I said it was our time to sleep, and Garcia and Pedro took over the watch.

When Joe and I had the watch, we stayed quiet, saying very little, and enjoying the serenity of the night river. When Garcia and Pedro took the watch, they argued and paddled and argued some more. After about an hour I was almost asleep, adjusting to the noise, when the mosquitoes attacked. I woke to find us near shore. I asked what was going on. They said we were stopping for the night. We had another long argument. At this rate, we would never get to Manous. The mosquitoes helped settle this one. Joe and I said we would take the watch until dawn. They said OK, as long as we stayed near shore. Again we agreed. When the others fell asleep, Joe and I went back to the center of the river that was free of trees and mosquitoes.

October 28

Early in the morning, it rained a little, but the rest of the day was very nice. We washed clothes and dried everything. There were no crew problems all day. We had time to listen to the sounds of monkeys roaring in the jungle, which sounds like thunder.

The Amazon River has many islands, so many at times that the mile-wide river is broken up into many small rivers, some no more than 100 feet wide. We drifted with the current and had no choice which side of an island to go on. Generally, the currents kept us in the fastest part.

About noon, we were passing an island, when on the far side of the river we saw a town. We were almost out of food and needed to re-supply. We paddled like mad, trying to get to shore. I was fully dressed with clean clothes, shoes, and ready to go into town when I slipped and fell overboard. I went under water so fast I did not know what happened. I looked around and only saw muddy water. I finally let go of the paddle and came to the surface. For a moment, the fellows on board were wondering if I was coming back up again. The current was fast and carried us past the town. We finally tied up about three miles down stream.

There was a trail along the river that made walking back to the village easy. The scenic path took us high above the river. As we were approaching the village, we saw many large empty cinder block buildings. People do not use the abandoned buildings. This was one of the many towns built during the Second World War for collecting and shipping natural rubber. There were some thatched houses where Indians lived and one small store.

The Indians would not sell us anything. They did not seem to have much themselves. The people just stared at us and little kids ran and hid. There was nothing left to do but return to the raft.

About 9 PM, we saw a thunderstorm approaching. We tied up where we thought we saw a house just inside the jungle. We followed a trail, trying to locate the house during flashes of lightning. Soon the sky turned the rain loose and we were soaked. We did not want to get lost, and went back to the raft.

By the time we got back, the storm was all over and we were soaked. We took most of our clothes off and the mosquitoes swarmed over us. We paddled back to midstream where it was free of bugs. We did not sleep much that night.

October 29

At daybreak, Joe started a fire and cooked breakfast from what little supplies we had left. A hot cup of coffee really warmed us on the inside. Later in the morning, we stopped and cut some palm branches for the side of the shelter. This offered some additional protection from the wind and rain.

After dark, we saw a town on a hill, lit up with electric lights. It was the first we had seen on our raft trip. We paddled to shore only to find that we were on an island and a branch of the river was between us and the town. We paddled around the island to the town, climbed the river bank to find a group of people playing banjos and singing. People stared it us and said nothing. There was a small store where we could buy rice. After stowing our supplies, we continued our drift down river.

Now, everyone agreed that we need to keep moving 24 hours a day and that we should stay near the center of the river. We were becoming better organized at standing equal watches. Each man would have a two-hour watch. But tonight, the rain broke up the watch system. We all sat under the tiny shelter. It kept us dry until the storm passed a few hours later.

October 30

The river changes character as it flows toward the sea. When the sun came up, we found ourselves on a river almost two miles wide and we were in the center. We needed fire wood. Both shores were so far away, it seemed impossible to paddle to either side. Wind and strong currents seem to keep us in the center. We finally gave up trying to paddle to shore. Without a cooking fire we could not boil rice, which was all we had left.

That afternoon, the town of Santo Antanto came into view. Garcia was getting tired of this trip. Joe and I were not interested in going to town because it was so far away. Garcia and Pedro paddled for two hours until they gave up. The current was fast and the town was now up river.

Late in the afternoon, Garcia hailed a passing boat. He asked the captain to take us down river. The reply was no, but the captain drifted with us while Garcia talked. After a while, he agreed to take us. His boat was a large 35-foot dugout, powered with an outboard motor, and had a cabin on it. He said he was going down river for three days and gave us the impression that we would find another river boat at his destination. We transferred our supplies to the dugout boat.

I hated to leave the raft because we were learning how to get along. The raft is the best part of the this river trip. We were learning the river’s moods, temper, and its dangers. So why did I get off? I did not want to continue the trip alone and I assumed Joe wanted off too. Also, I did not have that much self-confidence, even though I was supporting bolder action. I found out later that Joe really wanted to stay, we could have continued the journey.

That evening, our new captain went up a small river and stopped for the night. He sells and trades basic items such as fabric, sandals, flashlight, batteries, kerosene, and gasoline. We watched as he traded or sold three shotguns. We slept that night on the deck.

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