AMAZON KAYAK ADVENTURE
SHAWN BLORE SEEKS FOR ADVENTURE IN THE AMAZON
The tree soars off into an indeterminate
green zenith somewhere in a canopy far above.
It is two arm-spans wide with buttress roots
strong enough to support a stained-glass
wall at Chartres and thin reddish bark that
smells vaguely like deodorant. "Arabá,"
says Fortunato, a Tucano Indian from the
Amazon headwaters past Săo Gabriel da Cachoeira
and my guide on this expedition into the
rain forest. "A-ra-bá," he repeats,
over-enunciating for gringo-friendly clarity.
Flipping back through a waterproof notebook,
I see Fortunato gave this same name to another
tree the day before. Either this is the same
species, or Arabá is a family name, or Fortunato
is just tossing out plausible nonsense to
answer my incessant questions. There's really
no way to check. Unknowability, I'm discovering
on this expedition, is one of the key features
of the rain forest.
The expedition plan, as explained in
e-mails and reconfirmed over a crackly
phone line, was for a 10-day descent
Rio Urubu, a small tributary of the
that wends its way through the upland
about 200 kilometers north and east
The leader of the trip was a guide-outfitter
named Mateus, a Canadian who transplanted
some 10 years ago to Manaus.
We launched from beneath a bridge on
only road going north from the city.
quickly fell into a pattern. We'd roll
of our hammocks around sunrise, down
cups of hot, sweet café com leite,
into the kayaks and paddle for a few
in the cool of the early light. Now
we would be rewarded with the chainsaw
of a macaw, or catch a glimpse of a
toucan struggling to keep its rainbow
aloft, but mostly the hours on the
were an extended meditation on the
limitless palette of green.
Mid-morning we would stop for a long,
lunch of Amazon fish: pacu, tambaqui,
or piranha. There would be a hike to
thick with stalactites or to a seldom-seen
waterfall or just through the forest
at trees. Finally, a short paddle to
Once or twice in the evenings, we would
a car battery into one of the kayaks,
it up with bare wires to a spotlight
paddle out to look for wildlife. One
Fortunato's spot caught the telltale
gleam of caiman eyeballs. Before I
aware of what was happening, Fortunato
paddled over to the bank, leapt out
a half-meter caiman by the neck. It
from his hand, legs splayed, strangely
considering the oddness of its situation.
"Jacaré pedra," said Fortunato
- the most aggressive of the three
species. He passed it over to me, and
that I should hold on very tightly.
its neck with what I thought was a
grip, but clearly some softhearted
not to hurt the little beast was at
As Mateus reached forward a hand to
out the ridge of head scales that distinguish
the species, the jacaré thrashed from
grip and dug an incisor into Mateus'
ripping a nasty five-centimeter gash.
the way back to camp, Fortunato would
at the bloody slash on Mateus' finger
break out chuckling.
As intriguing as the wildlife were
A temperate coastal forest, like those
the fjords of Chile or the North American
Pacific Northwest, has about eight
dominant tree species; the Amazon is
to more than 5,000.
Classifying this cornucopia is clearly
but somehow, being human, one has to
Borrowing a page from Jorge Luis Borges'
Chinese encyclopedia, I initially began
up Amazonian trees into those with
(b) spines or (c) huge buttress roots
red bark that (d) look climbable, (e)
names given by Fortunato that I can
or (f) look like the splay-headed poufed
trees I used to see in Dr. Seuss books.
taxonomy goes it was fun, though perhaps
a little unscientific. Next I took
Fortunato on walks in the jungle, pestering
him for tree names. We developed a
He showed me a tree. I scratched at
sniffed the resin, parroted the name
species two or three times until I'd
of got it, then wrote down a phonetic
in my notebook. Poupouyarana, I wrote,
a kind of palmetto palm; Capichua,
tree that provides a natural bug repellent;
Inaja, for a big palm that you can
make cotton balls. Timbal is a kind
vine - chuck a meter of it in a small
and the fish float up dead. Mata can
in water to make tea good for the stomach,
liver and bowels.
The high point of this forest apprenticeship
came when Fortunato was casting about
an Invereira, an alder-sized tree,
of which comes off in a single long
and makes a cord strong enough to support
a grown man. I pointed out an overlooked
candidate just a couple of meters away.
that one?" I asked. When Fortunato
my guess, I glowed like the class's
promising student. Five days in the
One definite ID. Spend 68 years out
perhaps I could learn them all.
A sensible man, at this point, would
accepted that the Amazon is a vast
mystery, then settled back to appreciate
what was on offer - a small taste of
beauty and perhaps a little insight.
Not being sensible, I began searching
ways to impress my fellow voyagers.
history knowledge clearly wasn't going
cut it. Ditto woodcraft. That left
feats of physical daring and excess
Caipirinhas were the drink of choice
jungle. Alas, we all proved adept at
key aspect of jungle survival, even
Jean-Paul, a Parisian travel agent
come to investigate eco-tourism options
Fortunately, on the fifth or sixth
landscape provided an opportunity for
physical daring: a limestone fracture
which the normally placid Urubu poured
a sheer five-meter waterfall. The only
to shoot the rapids was by the left-hand
side of the river, where the water
down over two consecutive steps. This
pathway was obstructed on the left
by a huge
fallen tree and on the right by what
call a "hole," a place where
falling water flows back on itself
an endlessly circulating vortex. There
two holes, actually, one flanking the
step and the other directly blocking
straight-line path down from the first
To shoot the falls successfully, I'd
to sneak between the log and the first
execute a quick left turn to dodge
big hole, then lean way back so the
nose didn't submarine going over the
shelf. No problem in my usual nimble
kayak, but sea kayaks turn with all
of a long-haul truck. Fortunato and
the rapid. I toss a small log in the
hole. The river gobbles it up, gargles
in its maw for some 10 seconds, then
it out again. I toss another log into
lower hole. That one the river sucks
keeps. Miss that turn, and I'd be rotating
around in the vortex for a good long
I hike up to my kayak, then decide
my bladder before hopping in. I slip
mud bank and fall in the yellowed foamy
Not a good start. I fiddle with the
deck for a while, taking too long to
things right. Finally I'm paddling
the falls, pondering the wisdom of
Too late. I take the first shelf, then
the rudder to move the boat right.
but slowly. I lean far out and dig
in a paddle
blade, pulling the boat right but putting
it dangerously on edge as the second
arrives. The boat just skirts the monster
hole, canted at an awkward angle with
back lean. The landing kicks hard and
a quick paddle slap saves me from going
But I'm through.
On shore, there are high fives and
around. I hear a call and turn round.
is signaling he's going to give it
"Has he ever kayaked in white
I ask Fortunato. "No," he
We turn and watch Mateus descend.
He comes down the top sluice in perfect
digs in a paddle blade and, like an
flicks the boat onto a new course.
to make it. There goes my exclusive
on reckless physical daring. He's down
second shelf. No - he's forgotten the
lean. The nose submarines, the river
him up and sideways and he's over.
Fortunato drags him to shore, Mateus spitting
river water. That night around the fire,
I bring him a home-brewed tea. "Cerveja
de mata," I tell him. "It's supposed
to be good for the stomach."
Shawn Blore is a Freelance Correspondent
based in Rio de Janeiro