In A Hammock
Between Two Trees
Outside A Bar
Middle of Nowhere
Nr. Brazilian/Peruvian Border
I decided to start another letter now and write it in instalments because I tend to forget things that happen and then remember them again after I've written. 1st instalment - 10th October.
I hung around for a few days on the road South through Venezuela heading for Brazil and the Amazon until Peter and Ruth, the Swiss couple, turned up. I knew I was in front so it was just a matter of time. The road as far as the Brazilian border has recently been paved and is no challenge whatsoever. Lots of Venezuelans now go down as far as the border for an "adventurous" holiday as this is a gold mining area and was previously very difficult to get to. They still regard it as pioneer "frontier" country. Lots of real characters, and villages built of oil drums and other junk, but complete with bars, hotels, brothels and generally all the things a chap needs. If I didn't like travelling so much I could well be suited for gold panning or something similar. As always, when I was travelling alone I met far more people and everybody was much more friendly and interested, than when travelling with a group. Now I started bumping into the "jungle safari" tour types, mostly German but a few Brits. Everything organised for them to rough it in the Jungle.
When we arrived in Venezuela we thought it was rather relaxed; not wanting any documents for the bikes, and saying we didn't need any papers to drive in their country. When we tried to leave they wanted us to surrender the documents we hadn't got. Fairly predictable really and not a real problem. We were having a spot of bureaucracy trouble entering Brazil, when an unexpected visit by some officials from the capital, including a government minister arrived, and suddenly everything was very efficient and "Have a nice stay in our country, sir."
The road in Brazil is most definitely not paved! It is almost 1000km to Manaus on the Amazon, and you have got no choice. If it’s wet, tough shit! If its dry, get on with it before it rains again, we took four days, we saw a lot of mud but only had to ride through a few sections. Mostly dust - we were very, very lucky. The day after we arrived in Manaus it rained. A couple of times I nearly had to take all the luggage off the bike, because of the mud, the ruts from the trucks were so deep, the panniers were resting on the sides. It was fun for Peter with the sidecar because the ruts were too far apart for his wheels, so he had to have the chair wheel on top and the bike in the rut. Makes for good photos. Anyway we didn't hurry, although we rode for most of each day. Sometimes you could float along at 50-60 mph, other times you're lucky to do much more than walking speed. I had been given a Yamaha baseball-type hat in Venezuela which I nearly threw away, but I wear it every day now as it is just too hot and humid to wear a helmet. The cap is perfect for keeping the sun off, yet it's well ventilated. When I put the helmet on, within ten minutes I can't see for sweat in my eyes and on my glasses. I doubt if you could imagine the humidity here: You stop at a stream or waterfall, strip off and jump in for ten minutes, and by the time you've got dressed again, you're sweating as much as when you started.
The bridges on that road are very interesting. Most are built of wood, but are not as good as they once were. It's best to stop and walk them first to decide which line to take. Strength is not a problem - trucks and buses use them all the time - the problem is that bits are missing! There are heavy planks lengthways over the bridges, for the wheels of the trucks to run on, and spread the load over the cross-beams, which are a few inches apart. A lot of these planks have come loose, and when you ride onto one end, the other goes up in the air. Also, a lot of cross-beams are either broken or missing, so if you have to stop, chances are there is nowhere to put your feet except in the river which may be 40-50 feet below. I now understand why you are so good on the Safari, if you can't reach the ground its a bloody good incentive to not need to, and keep going. I never knew I could balance so well. If all else fails I'll get a job in a circus.
Purely by coincidence I crossed the equator on my birthday. Quite significant to me as I've never crossed it before, never mind on my bike, but Peter and Ruth have crossed it a few times in Africa, so it's nothing to them.
Manaus is a much bigger city than I imagined. It was until recently a free port to encourage people to use the place, but the recent change of government changed that. Most contact with the outside world is by air or river (it's 1000 miles from the sea up the Amazon) and not too many people come by road covered in red dust, (and I mean covered - like a reddy brown flour grader). People were blowing horns and waving to us as we rode through the outskirts.
Finding a cheap hotel was a problem, mainly because of the usual requirement of having somewhere safe to park the bikes. This is much more of a problem when travelling with Peter because of the sidecar. Most hotels in this part of the world are quite happy to put a bike in the hall, or even in your room if it’s possible, but the sidecar was a definite disadvantage. We found one eventually as usual. I would have been happy to stay in Manaus for a few days, but I went to the freight ferry terminal and talked to the truck drivers about the road to Porto Velho, which is 950km South-West towards Bolivia. They said they use the river because the road is too bad, also, as there is no bus service it's a good chance that some bridges are missing and it's not passable. That meant getting a boat and as the first went in two days, and the next in two weeks, the stay in Manaus was cut short.
The freight ferries take only freight on big barges, no passengers, so we had to get a passenger ferry and negotiate for the bikes. Picture a much smaller version of the Mississippi paddle steamers, but without the paddle wheel, double-decker and all open for ventilation, we went first class, which meant space to hang your hammock upstairs instead of downstairs where it's hotter. The boat was grossly overloaded, but well below it's permitted limit of 92 passengers. All the hammocks are touching each other, so if one person moves; everybody moves. You know those toys? (I think they're called Newton's Balls) where you have a row of weights on strings, just touching each other, when you swing the one at one end the other end flies up in the air. It was just like that. Still it wasn't too bad, it only took seven days.
They lifted the bikes on, and then we almost had a fight as we refused to pay all the men who rushed to help without being asked. We had negotiated a price (far too high) with the Captain for the bikes delivered onto dry land at Porto Velho. Getting them on and off was his problem. The poor people in second class had to hang their hammocks above, and round the bikes. They used them as tables for eating etc. Food is included, but we had the same meal twice a day for seven days. Course I was getting used to it by then. They also sell beer, so life could have been worse.
The boats travel all night, but have no radar or electronic depth sounders - just a spotlight. We spent the first night aground! It took almost a day to get free, after they had taken us all off in canoes to a nearby village, and tied empty oil drums to the boat to give it some lift, they got a tug in the end and eventually got it off. We then stayed moored by the village for another night and day while they decided they couldn't repair the damaged propeller shaft. We had a game of football, the boat against the village, and things were generally getting like one of those disaster films. When somebody caught a fish we all started thinking maybe we wouldn't die after all. What happens when they run out of beer? What we didn't know, because no one would tell us, was that they had arranged for another boat to come and take us to Porto Velho, but they couldn't find us. They eventually did, and it arrived already half full of passengers, we transferred the bikes with the two boats tied together out in the river. It's best not to watch! So off we went, more crowded than ever. We ran aground another three times but they got themselves free. They also damaged something mechanical on some rocks and we spent thirteen hours tied to a tree while they played with it. To be fair, the river level changes by about 40 ft and it was at it's lowest because it's the dry season in the Andes.
Managed a few swims when we were stopped but you have to be a bit careful. The fish they caught were mainly piranhas and in the evenings we sat and watched the alligators. We eventually got to Porto Velho and got ashore at the third place, after we had refused to let them unload at the first two, because it was too steep and dangerous (across a plank). Stay a day or two and set off south on a paved road 2,500km in a semi-circle to the Bolivian border at Corumba. That was the plan but it was Peter and Ruth's plan, not mine, and I always fancied Peru. Peru was not too far away but the map showed no road. More research uncovered tales of trucks coming from Puerto Maldonado in Peru, but I couldn't find anybody who had actually done it. It was only four or five hundred miles, so I could go back if I had to, but saved a couple of thousand if it was possible. (I know I keep changing from km to miles.) I'm writing this about 50-100 miles after the tarmac finished, heading West.