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2013 and earlier

Must Like Snakes

Adventurer Ed Stafford is looking for a partner to accompany him as he walks the entire length of the Amazon river. Journalist for The Guardian, Mark Barrowcliffe, joined him to find out what the successful applicant will be in for...

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.
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. The man who is looking for a partner to accompany him along the way. This is no TV-friendly trip with fixers, boats and planes, soundmen, directors and translators - this is a 12,000km slog through some of the most hostile territory on the planet.

Ed had broken his walk to meet me in the town of Pucalpa, 400 miles from Lima - a ramshackle jungle river port of unfaced brick and corrugated iron roofs, 38°C 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 - 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. It’s a safety measure but also, explains Ed, basic politeness.

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.

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. Luckily a visiting Shipibo English teacher championed us and the village voted to let us stay.

The next day, it was time for me to go home. I caught the colectivo river bus for a 12-hour trip back to Pucalpa, 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 - 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.

In August 2010 Ed completed his journey, accompanied to the end by Cho.




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