Magazine article Geographical

River of Life

Magazine article Geographical

River of Life

Article excerpt

The Amazon. Its name alone fires the imagination. But while everyone has heard of it, few have any idea just how vast the region is. The entire Amazon basin, which includes the great river, its tributaries and rainforest, extends over nine South American countries. Brazil's share is by far the largest covering over almost half the country.

Dozens of boats, even ocean-going ships, ply the waters of the Amazon basin. There are 48,000 kilometres of navigable waterways. Dense forest and high rainfall make road construction difficult and maintenance a nightmare, so rivers are by far the most practical highways into the jungle.

Having spent the past three months on a series of riverboat journeys throughout the Amazon basin, I was now about to embark on the last leg of my voyage, travelling from Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas in northwest Brazil, to Tabatinga near the Colombian border.

Struggling with my luggage, I picked my way through the crowds that had gathered at the port in Manaus and I made my way towards the Dom Manoel, a three-deck 1950s gaiola, a typical Amazon boat. Riverboats like these are a lifeline in the forest, transporting people between villages, towns and big cities like Manaus, and bringing them mail, food, construction materials and friends - all the things the forest cannot supply. Having chosen a cabin in preference to a hammock, I settled down on the Dom Manoel and watched the commotion as people said their last goodbyes and dashed along the narrow, wobbly wooden plank that constituted the gangway.

When everyone had embarked, the boat began to shudder as it prepared to leave the port. However, despite the low roar of the engines and the constant churn of propellers in the water, nothing seemed to happen. The Dom Manoel was stuck fast. The river's water level had fallen considerably since the boat arrived and now, fully laden with cargo and people, it was struggling to free itself from the shoreline. The boat swung to and fro, then surged forwards and pulled backwards. Passengers were disembarked and once more the engines howled. It took 20 more minutes of pushing, pulling and swinging before the boat eventually heaved itself free and we were on our way - eight hours after I had boarded.

The first few days on board the Dom Manoel were uneventful. I watched the thin green line that constitutes the rainforest at the visible limits of the river. Life on board was simple. Breakfast of bread or biscuits and sweet, milky coffee was served about 6.30am. With a galley that holds only 25 people at a time, and with over 300 people on board, it was a slow, painful process. Lunch was at noon and the evening meal at about 6pm. Both meals consisted of rice, pasta, beans and something meaty or fishy. Upstairs on the top deck was the bar, complete with satellite television showing soap operas and football. Open all day it was the social hub of the boat.

I met Enio on my first day aboard. He had been to Manaus for hospital treatment and was now returning home to Peru. I was learning Spanish and, together with some of the other passengers, Enio found it amusing to help me. Using my phrasebook, we would go through various scenarios including arriving at an airport, checking into a hotel, buying food and getting on a bus.

It was on the fourth day that we got our first bit of real excitement. At about 10am, the boat suddenly stopped. It was obvious we were stuck on a sand bar. After struggling to relaunch the boat the captain decided that the crew should go over the side and help push. There were probably 20 Amazonian river dolphins feeding along the sandbar and around the boat, most likely on their favourite food - piranha. However, it did not seem to bother any of the crew in the water.

I followed, with camera in hand, over the side and into the river. I was only chest-high in water but I struggled to hold my place against the the current and the surge of water as the boat's propellers fought to pull the boat off the sandbar. …

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