Tuesday October 16th, 2001
Another dawn start after a late finish.
Janot, Ali and John were on the bow with the searchlight until we anchored - keeping a lookout for logs and floating grass islands that are now becoming more frequent. Many insects were attracted to the light - sometimes flying into the lookout’s eyes.
Even back in the pilot-house, they clustered outside the screen door and over the windows - trying to reach the light over the chart table inside.
Some succeeded - but all are dead this morning - all except some small cricket-type creatures that seem to have found their way into my cabin.
We motored past the town of Parintins before the smell of fired bananas for breakfast started to waft from the galley. Here, in Parintins, there is a festival every June with 10,000 people taking part. It is an event that has tourists flying in from all over the world.
The town, viewed from the river, looked quaint but a little worn, in that rather lovely Amazonian way. Dominating the skyline were 2 large churches (or maybe cathedrals). Some boats had been sunk in a storm a few nights ago - and the remains of a couple could be seen poking above the surface, in near the shore.
We have not had any rain for the past 11 days or so - but the river keeps flowing as fast as ever, even though this is the dry season.
In November, the snows in the Andes start to melt and the river will begin to rise once more.
10am: We are in between two tugs pushing loaded barges along a section of the river that used to be off-limits for large vessels - but now is one of the main routes, cutting off a number of miles.
Huge trees line the very silty-looking banks, heavily undercut in places and with many trees lying in the river.
When this place goes wet, the landscape changes.
Many brightly painted river-boats have been passing by, heading the other way - their tween-deck spaces full of hammocks.
This endless brown ribbon seems to go on forever.
I have been reading “Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro” by Alfred Russel Wallace.
Wallace was the co-discoverer, along with Darwin, of the principal of natural selection as the main agent in the evolution of species. He spent 4 years in the Amazon between 1848 and 1852.
Wallace travelled from Belem to Santarem by canoe - along a similar route to Seamaster - only it took him 3 weeks or so.
He recounts: “Numerous flocks of parrots, and the red and yellow macaws, fly across every morning and evening, uttering their hoarse cries. Many kinds of herons and rails frequent the marshes on its banks, and the large handsome duck is often seen swimming about the bays and inlets. But perhaps the most characteristic birds of the Amazon are the gulls and terns, which are in great abundance: all night long their cries are heard over the sand-banks, where they deposit their eggs, and during the day they constantly attracted our attention by their habit of sitting in a row on a floating log, sometimes a dozen or 20 side by side and going for miles down stream as grave and motionless as if they were on some very important business. These birds deposit their eggs in little hollows in the sand, and the Indians say that during the heat of the day they carry water in their beaks to moisten them and prevent them being roasted by the glowing rays of the sun …porpoises are constantly blowing in every direction, and alligators are often seen slowly swimming across the river.“
Maybe it’s the time of year, but while we have seen many dolphin - both pink and grey, that seem to congregate where tributaries join the main river - we have seen few of the birds that he saw and no alligators (caimen) yet.
Maybe it’s a sign of change.
Maybe it’s the same indicator that one gets almost anywhere in the world.
Wallace saw no cattle farming - while we are watching an endless ribbon of farms fronting the river-banks.
The river in his day was lower - the average level is now much higher - and increasing.
Many of the indigenous people here still exist as they did in Wallace’s day - but there were originally 6 to 9 million of them - now down to no more than 200,000 - ruled by the “newcomers”.
As land was “discovered” and “civilization” advanced, they were massacred, perished from diseases to which they had no immunity, or were absorbed and ended up the poorest of the poor.
The bio-diversity count in the Amazon is mind-numbing. Life here is almost uncountable - there is so much of it.
The following are all approximate numbers, because no-one knows for sure, and most estimates seem to vary enormously - sometimes by a factor of 10 or more.
Trees: up to 300 different species per hectare
Plants: 60,000 to 300,000
10:30 am: Two fishermen in a dugout canoe have just waved us down by holding a fish up for us to see.
We are out of fish, so Paulo bought their entire catch - a dozen Tambaqui (a fruit eating fish) - for 25 Reals (about US$10)
The fishermen, who had their two small sons with them, were pleased. The boys didn’t display any emotion whatsoever, obviously not at all sure about this big grey metal monster with the two tall sticks,
We’ve now changed to the opposite side of the river, still following the faster of the tug/barge combinations. It is virtually skirting the river-bank to keep out of the current - while we stay a little further out.
The chart is way out, having us on land a number of times.
What are some of our impressions of the Amazon, compared to what we expected?
We thought it would be a wide brown river where we would be unable to see either bank at times.
Not so. While it is huge, we can almost always see the other bank, and the trees, and the houses, and the people.
We thought there would be many biting insects - particularly mosquitoes (malaria and dengue fever!!).
Sure the insects gather at night, attracted by our lights, but otherwise we have been remarkably insect-free. Particularly interesting was the time spent in the Rio Tapajos and its tributary last week - where there were almost no insects at all.
And we understand that the Rio Negro is also very good in this respect - due to the acidity of the river water. The bugs don’t like it.
We thought there would be at least one heavy shower of rain every day.
This is the dry season, with October being the least rainy month. There have been a few showers - some torrential - but nothing at all for the past 11 days.
We had no idea that we would see so many signs of population:
There are almost always houses in sight, with small villages and larger towns at regular intervals along the river. There is much activity on the river, which is the main highway as well as the fishing ground.
Why are we here?
Because it provides a backdrop to some of the biggest problems facing mankind - ever!!
To sit in an office, or a comfortable chair at home, and occasionally wonder about the environment is one thing - to be here right in the midst of what is considered one of the most critical pulse-points of the planet is another.
To actually see and begin to understand the vastness of this region, and how vital it is to the overall ongoing health of the planet, means experiencing it - breathing it, smelling it, listening to it, feeling it.
Then one starts to comprehend what we are being told - about why it is so important to save this tropical rain forest as it is - why it is vital that it is not further cut down for short term gains by only a few.
You may read this and think: “well, this doesn’t affect me - this is another part of the world - why should I take note?“
You should take note because it does affect everyone.
Not caring for the environment is a global attitude problem that we all have to do something about.
It applies not solely to the Amazon - but to every part of the planet - with no exceptions.
Few of us are “clean and green” - apart from perhaps the very people in danger of extinction in this tropical forest called the Amazon - and similar peoples in other parts of the world - who live a sustainable lifestyle - sustainable within their surroundings.
The rest of us do not.
Change is necessary.
It’s time - to “make a difference”.
Think about it!!
All the best from the Seamaster crew.
1) See WWF publication “Atlas of the Environment” for statistics and information that will have you lying awake at night.
2) “Travels on the Amazon” by Alfred Russel Wallace - it may be hard to find but definitely worth the effort.
3) “Andes to Amazon” - a BBC publication by Michael Bright. Very easy to assimilate and covers far more than the Amazon.