THE BLOG

A Hungry Walk Up The Amazon (PHOTOS)

09/27/2012 07:16 am ET | Updated Nov 27, 2012

The following is an excerpt from Ed Stafford's book "Walking The Amazon," now available for Kindle, which chronicles his record-breaking hike.

On the eighth and last day of rationing we ate all our farine at breakfast knowing that we needed to walk twelve-kilometers to reach Maruá. The jungle had become swampy and gnarled again as it was the flooded forest of the upcoming River Juruá. This meant the going should have been slow, but as we had no food in our packs now, and because the end was in sight, we crashed through the stunted black trees at a phenomenal pace.

At 7 p.m. we'd gone straight through the coordinates that the map had given us and we were a full kilometer beyond our goal. Our heads dropped as we realized there was no settlement and we'd punished ourselves all day to arrive before nightfall. It was now completely dark and we hadn't seen water for hours so we just decided to put up our hammocks and sleep. Without even clearing a space in the undergrowth we each found two trees quickly and hung our hammocks. Unfed and unwashed, we went to bed. The grimy layer of sweat and dirt on our skin made the night unpleasant as well as dispiriting. We took tiny sips from our almost empty water bottles and tried to sleep.

In the morning, with sleep our mood had lifted and nearby we found some aguaje fruits, a nut with a soft, orange flesh with a vague smell of vomit, to complement the last of a single dried piranha. We sipped the dregs of our water, which was brown as it had come from a puddle rather than a river, and had no option but to continue. All we had by way of edible provisions was a half-kilo of salt.

To us, unwashed, exhausted and starving, that morning represented everything that, deep down, I wanted from the expedition. We were 150 kilometers from the main channel of the Solimões (Amazon), about 25 kilometers away from the next big tributary, the Juruá. We had had a deficit of over 3,000 calories a day for the past eight days and we had no option but to put the facts to one side and continue as normal. No words would make any difference, no blame, no analysis. We just had to go on and deep down we expected to be O.K.

There were no rivers so we ate only palm hearts all day. Our first trial at sourcing all our carbohydrates from the jungle worked but you have to eat a lot of these salad vegetables to fill you up. Palmitos, or heart of palm, in fact became our salvation. Normally we wouldn't have cut these down because, in order to get to the soft, white palm heart in the centre at the top of the tree, you cannot avoid killing the whole palm. In our feeble state, each palm was quite an effort to fell with our machetes but the white flesh inside was the best salad vegetable I have ever tasted. These patches of palmitos were sporadic at best, however, and so we kept our eyes peeled for the tops of the trees, looking for the distinctive red stems.

Cho looked like a featherweight boxer now and I, too, had never lost so much weight. My normal weight is about 92 kilograms. I had dropped to about 88 kilograms before I set out on this leg of the expedition and by the time I arrived at the banks of the Solimões again I would be 81 kilograms. As we walked we stumbled frequently and snapped in and out of blood sugar crashes as we impaled ourselves on spiky vegetation in our half-aware state.

The following day everything came good. Cho walked straight into a huge tortoise weighing in at around 10 kilograms. It was morning and so we couldn't lose time by stopping and preparing the animal. We would just have to carry it. We took turns to pack the lead-weight live animal into the tops of our packs.

Eventually we came to a large river, the first we'd seen in a week or so, and I set about cutting up the tortoise. I'd watched Boruga and the Asheninka men do this before and so I knew how to do it; but I never expected it to be quite such a horrific task. If you are not used to killing animals a tortoise is not the best to start with. You have to turn it on its back, hack at the exoskeleton shell between the foot holes until the bottom is loose and then peel it back like the lid of a tin of beans. Except that the bottom is clearly attached to the tortoise still inside and needs to be sliced off with the machete. The underside of the shell has to be off before you can kill the animal and so I grabbed the now defenseless head and cut it off to kill the creature as quickly as I could. The body then kept twitching for the whole time that it took to cut out the rest of the meat and remove the intestines. I washed everything and used the upturned shell as a bowl and cut the tortoise up into small strips which I then salted. Cho made a drying rack and we had a huge amount of meat cured and smoking over the fire. Our morale was flooding back and we were elated by the prospect of food.

I realize that some people might be shocked and distressed about the killing of tortoises, but I think it has to be put into the context of where we were and how long we had travelled with so little food. In our natural state we humans are designed to be omnivores and the jungle is a place where we could survive if we took advantage of what nature had to offer. Although the physical process of killing the animal was quite an ordeal, I won't pretend I was sad -- this was a natural way of living and the tortoise was part of our food chain. I had begun to see animals in the forest as the locals did. Rather than exotic beasts that needed to be preserved, I saw food.

In the morning we crossed the river simply by walking through it. It was perhaps 40 meters wide, but it was shallow and the small part that we had to cross was easy. We strode out on the far side and could immediately tell that people had been in the area. Small paths turned into what appeared to be a logging road that we followed in the hope that it would lead us to people. We ate only our tortoise-meat jerky throughout the morning and had not eaten any carbohydrates, save the limp palm hearts, for over three days.

At about 1 p.m. we saw a wooden shack with a tin roof on top of a hill and made straight for it. As we approached, a woman came to the door and I explained what we were doing. I have no idea what we must have looked like after thirty-seven straight days of jungle from Amatura. The woman called her husband who had been making farine and he came and spoke to us. They were amazed when we told them where we had come from; they said that, to their knowledge, no one had ever made that journey before. They were about to have lunch and invited us to eat.

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