Fighting the Amazon River in Bolivia

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Upon stepping down to the small pier on the fringe of Rurrenabaque, a tiny settlement on the edge of the Bolivian Amazon, the size and scale of the mighty river was overwhelming. The night before our scheduled trip up the river a thunderstorm had struck relentlessly, and the rain had taken a profound effect on the nature of the water. Where I was expecting a murky blue, the river was stained brown with the colours of the clay and silt that had been washed down into the basin by the rain. The water was also flowing fast. Very fast.

Approaching the rickety, unsteady wooden pier two young boys, no more than 15, were talking in racing Latin-American Spanish, gestliculating wildly and pointing towards the river. We approached hesitantly, and upon seeing us they stopped and beamed a bright welcome smile that we had become so accustomed to during our time in South America. After shaking hands, not a common word between us, a Bolivian in Steve Irwin-esque attire came down the pier and greeted us in broken English. “No worries,” he assured us, the fact that it had rained was good news. Water levels had been dangerously low of late, causing difficulty for those travelling upstream. Not convinced, but exercising trust, we nodded and stepped into the narrow, motorised canoe bucking wildly at the shore.

With a struggle, the two boys pushed the canoe out with long sticks and we began working our way upstream, keeping close to the bank where the current was less strong. Progress was slow, the guide working the motor and the boys occasionally levering us away from threatening rocks with their sticks, and as the heat of the rainforest rose like a mist from the canopy of the trees. Pulling our knees to our chests we pressed our way into the basin, eyes peeled for glimpses of wildlife, spotting colourful macaws nesting in rock faces, and capibara trudging along the banks, rodents the size of large dogs. All around us the weird and wonderful sounds of life were defiantly challenging the debilitating heat, each one alien, unfamiliar and mysterious.

The banks of the river were so densely lined with foliage that we could see no further than a few feet past the tree line before deep greens and lucious yellows crowded our vision and barred us from seeing any further. The whole experience was one of mystery, the rainforest shielding her secrets, the defiant river making every new corner a challenge. At one point we hit an unexpectedly shallow area of rock and ground to a halt. Without hesitation, the boys grabbed their poles and leapt into the water to begin levering the canoe off the gravelly riverbed. At another, a huge crocodile-like shape slipped silently into the water just ahead, and disappeared instantly into the reddy-brown water. The howls of monkeys drifted occasionally across the air, their sillhouettes marked out in the tree tops against the now risen sun. Life was everywhere, on the land, in the water, in the air, and as heavy going as progress was every minute was an absolute pleasure.

Which was as well, as it took us over 9 hours, squashed into the canoe, our backpacks under our legs, to reach camp. The return journey took just over 4.

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