A Swashbuckling Amazon Adventure for the 21st Century

I find it immensely reassuring that in this 21st century of texting and twittering, there still remains a little room for good, old-fashioned, swashbuckling adventure such as the one about the man who traveled the entire length of the Amazon River – from source to mouth – on foot!

As inconceivable as it seems – in a world of radical sports enthusiasts, overachievers, and Guinness World Record breakers – the 2 ½-year journey that 34-year-old British former army captain, Ed Stafford, completed last week constitutes a historic first. Although there are 6 prior expeditions that have followed the Amazon from its source in the Peruvian Andes to its mouth, near the Brazilian port city of Belém, all of them have involved navigating portions of the 4,200-mile (6,760-km) river by boat. Stafford, however, had the guts and stamina (not to mention the free time and patience) to make his entire way by foot, a feat that took 859 days.

Like any tropical jungle adventure worth its sweat, this 859-day journey was filled with plenty of hair-raising perils.

Stafford began his stroll, on April 2, 2008, on the Pacific coast of Peru, in the company of a buddy from the U.K. When the friend dropped out after 3 months, Stafford continued on alone, although friendly locals often joined him for a few miles (or days). One such local, a 31-year-old Peruvian forestry worker named Gadiel “Cho” Sanchez Rivera, got so caught up in Stafford’s mission that, after 5 days, he decided to accompany Stafford all the way to the Atlantic.

Like any tropical jungle adventure worth its sweat, this 859-day journey was filled with plenty of hair-raising perils. In terms of predators, they ran the gamut from giant anacondas and 18-foot (5.5-meter) caimans to deadly scorpions, electric eels, and the parasitic botfly that literally lodged itself, for 2 interminable days, in Stafford’s head. Less dangerous, but definitely irritating were attacks by roughly “50,000 mosquitos.” Although in Hollywood’s Amazon flesh-eating piranhas are often a problem, for Stafford and Rivera, they were a godsend that provided (delicious) nourishment when food supplies were short.

There was even a classic case of hostile natives. The episode occurred 5 months into the voyage. When Stafford radioed ahead to a native community for permission to walk through their territory, he received a response to the effect that any trespassing gringos would be killed. Not about to press their luck, Stafford and Rivera circumnavigated the community, only to fall into the clutches of Indians from another village who captured them and brought them to their leaders. After undergoing a rigorous search and having a machete confiscated (shades of a U.S. airport???), they were allowed to continue on their way, albeit only in the company of hired tribal guides.

In terms of threats, however, Stafford considers the worst one to be the shocking devastation of the rainforest that he witnessed firsthand. Although he came away extremely cynical about the role of corrupt local politicians and greedy, short-sighted companies, he was impressed with the environmental consciousness of the average Brazilian – a fact that leaves him with a tempered optimism regarding the rainforest’s survival.

Although one of the main goals of Stafford’s expedition was to help bring awareness to the plight of the world’s largest rainforest – his $100,000 expense budget was largely sponsored by environmentalist groups and private donations – Stafford is the first to admit he is no “eco-warrior.” In an August 9 interview with the Associated Press, given upon reaching (and plunging euphorically into) the Atlantic Ocean, he confessed that “if this wasn’t a selfish, boy’s-own adventure, I don’t think it would have worked. (In the end), I am simply doing it because no one has done it before.”

Spoken like a true adventurer.

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