18th March 2010
Posn: 01deg45´.64S 52deg14´.24W
Porto do Moz
Well, we had to do it. St Paddy´s Day of course. In a minute ... the update first.
You wouldn´t believe it but there´s a whole bunch of Scousers here on the Amazon. Yup, after Breves, on 14th March we went the 54nm to ... Liverpool (01deg´.98S 50deg57´.38W).
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We strolled down the High Street and up Main Street. Well, actually, after motoring for twelve hours from Breves via some narrow tributaries and the three-miles wide main channel we arrived at a small village where there was some wooden boatbuilding, a church and about a dozen houses and the streets are basically jetties and walkways on stilts. And, it is called Liverpool. The story goes that the villagers found a piece of wood from a ship and on it was the word "Liverpool", and they liked it so much they decide that was what they wanted as the name for the village. No shops but all the houses had satellite TV.
The following day, 15th March, we were up again for a 0615 departure for Mojui (01deg20´.47S 51deg38´.61W) ... and motor-sailed the 48nm for 12 hours, with 1.5 to 2kts of current against us, arriving at what was essentially a lay-by. It was a bit of a recess in the riverside and shallow, so that´s where we anchored for the night. We just had time for a quick bathe in the river - it makes your hair quite soft - some dinner and into bed as the following day we were off again at 0600 for Porto do Moz. The intention had been to stop at Macacos (another lay-by) but it was supposed to be full of logs and iles flottantes. It wasn´t and we think it was a ruse by the organisers to get us back on the original timetable. We piled on the revs and did the 48nm in 10.5 hours - we still had 1.5 to 2kts of current against us. We arrived in a squall with the wind reaching 40kts, and waited for it to pass before anchoring in soft mud (again). We moved from our original selected spot as other boats were (we thought) too close. We didn´t bathe as the rain came on fiercely and we had dinner watching an amazing display of celestial pyrotechnics with the clouds being lit up by the lightning and forks crackling to the ground. It was beautiful, but the handheld GPS, VHF and EPIRB all went in the tin box and the oven. Then it was to bed as tomorrow was a big day.
Incidentally, the French have a very interesting habit of racing into an anchorage, picking their spot and dropping the anchor regardless of where other boats are or whether they have finished letting out chain and digging in. We now head for the outer limits of the anchorage and preferably upstream of the other boats - no holding tanks in use and if they drag their anchors we are clear. And what a good decision that turned out to be as there was another squall last night at 0230 and five boats went walkabout, with a couple dragging clear through the anchorage and out into the channel. Our anchor chain was making a lot of noise as we swung about (we had 30 metres of chain out in 2.5 metres of water) and woke up, so we were up on deck keeping an eye on our anchor. All was well but we have let out another 10 metres to-day.
And so, to 17th March. It just had to be celebrated ... and in style ... well, as much style as we could muster under the circumstances. We were up at 0700 and blew up 150 balloons - that was 50 green, 50 white and 50 orange. Best of all though it was still raining - yes we felt as if we were back in NI (well at least weather-wise). Thinking that everyone would be awake because we were, at 0900 Norma went on the VHF and announced in her best French that it was St Patrick´s Day, everyone was invited to Minnie B for a drink between 1700 and 1900, and then we finished off with the three of us singing "Ireland´s Call". The we waited ... nada ... no response ... nothing. Was the VHF not working? Was everyone shocked by this weird behaviour? Were they still asleep? Oh well, ever onwards. We the got in the dinghy with a trio of balloons for each boat and went to each one in turn (it was still raining) and either handed them to people with a brief explanation or just tied them to their boats. We checked with a few people and no-one heard our transmission as they were all asleep!
So, back to Minnie B, dry off, cover Minnie B in balloons and try again on the VHF - success. We were invited fr pre-lunch aperitif on "X-Trem" and had a nice time with an interesting discussion about how minorities get on in Switzerland and Northern Ireland. We then spent the rest of the day cutting up limes, buying ice and preparing for 67 adults and 9 children to visit Minnie B for a green drink ... caipirinhas ... well, there wasn´t a barrel of stout to be had in Porto do Moz. Well, it was a superb party and most people made a big effort to wear something green. Also, it was hats off to Alubat and their wonderful Ovnis - at one stage we had 55 people on board and Minnie B was barely down on her marks - and no flexing of the deck. Mind you, Julia had to work hard to get the fore and aft and port and starboard distribution of bodies right. Then as the sun went down we were asked for a reprise of "Ireland´s Call", so we insisted that everyone joined in. We walked them through the lines and then struck up - what a sight, all these French people singing Ireland´s Rugby song as the sun set. Brilliant. We finished off the evening with dinner ashore and happy but exhausted.
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Sunday 4th April 2010
Posn: 02deg30'.01S 54deg57.12W
Alter do Chao
We are now on the Rio Tapajos, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon, and it is named after a tribe of Indians who, some 500 years ago populated the banks of the river and had "cities" inland. No more. John and Eddy gave us a superb book "Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon" by John Himming, a former Director and Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, leader of expeditions and research projects in the Amazon and participant in several first encounters with native people during the 1970s. It is brilliant in its coverage and the clarity of its descriptions and information. This has enhanced our knowledge considerably so that we don't just see the picture but we also understand.
Anyways, our diary has been silent for a couple of weeks because of poor internet facilities and our failure to get the SSB working or the e-mail on the satphone operable. The latter problem has been solved and we have discovered that when using HTML version of googlemail because of slow connections ... yes ... it doesn't automatically save .. and the diary piece we prepared in Monte Alegre ... disappeared into the ether.
So, this update will cover a couple of themes to capture our experience since Porto do Moz rather than be just sequential.
First, our PASSAGES AND ANCHORAGES. We have been leaving our various stopovers at 0600-0700, when it becomes daylight, for the 30-40nm passages which take a long time as we have between 2kts and 4kts current against us, despite hugging the river banks. Our usual practice is for Phil and Norma to get up and raise the anchor, while Julia sleeps on. She gets up about 0900 and then steers and looks after Minnie B for the rest of the morning. We take it in turns to rest and usually arrive at our night anchorage between 1600 and 1900 (when it falls dark again). We have to maintain a very careful lookout for logs and isles flottantes, but even then we are not entirely safe as there are sunken logs - we hit one of these on the way from Furo Outeiro to Monte Alegre and with the keel lock off there was no damage to the keel as it came up a bit and the safety disc on the rudder worked too - there is a small brass disc in the hydraulic system which bursts and depressurises it so that the rudder can kick up. We now have eight discs left so we are a bit like the cat with nine lives. On a couple of occasions boats have had to be towed by the lead boat (Sao Joao) as they have had mechanical problems. In very narrow and shallow channels we go in single file and in a predetermined order with an Ovni (Ti'Ouane) and a catamaran (X-Trem) behind Sao Joao, then the boats in order according to what they draw, with lifting keels and cats at the back - we are fifth from the back. Sometimes it is a free passage and then for a change of scenery we will go near the front of the fleet. Mostly it works but occasionally you get the "I'm not letting you in" phenomenon (usually resolved by some pithy comment on the VHF) or boats do not maintain speed and distance so it's a bit 'stop-go' and very annoying at the back of the fleet as boats bunch up. All in all the passages have been fine, and it has given us a taste of motor-boating ... well, we'll not say anymore.
The anchorages have varied:
Alemeirim (20th-24th March - 01deg31'.93S 52deg34'.30W) off the town with a lot of traffic up and down, in 10m depth. Couple of boats go walkabout.
Novo Horizonte (24th-26th March - 01deg41'.19S 53deg02'.45W) in a narrow river with about 2kts current, along the village river bank, in 8m depth and soft mud. Three boats go walkabout.
Furo Outeiro (26th-27th March - 01deg48'.17S 53deg31.69W) in a very narrow river, off a village but no going ashore as late arrival, in 7.5m depth.
Monte Alegre (27th-30th March - 02deg00'.77S 54deg03'.93W) in a shallow channel off the main river in <2m depth, surrounded by grassy plants and lined with Egrets in the mornings. Fixed keel boats in the main river and lots of iles flottantes - boats look as if they have gardens around them.
Near Tapara (30th-31st March - 02deg26'48S 54deg36'39W) in a river off the main Amazon in 12m depth and very soft mud - we re-anchor as first attempt did not dig in.
Alter do Chao (31st March to date - as above) in a lagoon, in 4m sand and mud. This is beautiful - one of the finest anchorages. A bit busy to-day as Easter Sunday and there is a sandbank forming the lagoon which has lots of bars on it.
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ENVIRONMENT AND EXPEDITIONS
We have been offered opportunities to see much of the countryside, the flora and fauna away from the river and some of the local economic activity. The latter is a big issue as it affects the environment for the whole world. A few important facts: one-fifth of the water that flows into the world's oceans comes from the Amazon; it is 4650 miles long (we have travelled about 450nm up river); the Amazon basin is three-quarters the size of continental USA; there is 2 million square miles of closed canopy forest - the size of Western Europe; it has 55,000 plant species of which 17,000 are endemic and therefore unique to the Amazon. So what is the threat? Essentially, forest clearance - easy and irreversible - for timber, cattle ranching and crops such as soya, and two-thirds of Amazonia is unprotected by law. Land cleared for single use crops is fallow after two to three years and land for ranching is useless after five to seven years without the use of artificial fertilizers. We are shocked and appalled by what we read and some of what we see - there is an enormous soya washing and drying plant and deep-water port at Santarem, built by US company Cargill in 1999 without proper process, and despite protests against its illegality it is operating as we saw, and can shift 2-3 million tonnes of soya a year. Notwithstanding this, we have seen efforts to protect the forest in its many forms and to ensure that the people can farm and undertake economic activity sustainably.
In Almeirim, Norma and Julia went on a trip to a nearby village called Nova Avumbada to visit a community whose economy is based on the brazil nut - growing and processing. Nova Avumbada was previously larger than Almeirim, but has declined in importance because of the river changing its course. However, the present village is beautifully kept, and the people very friendly. We were taken for a hot and sweaty walk up a steep hill where we were rewarded with fabulous views down to the main Amazon river basin. On the way down, it started to rain, and the ground became treacherous, but the trusty bombeiros were with us to assist so no harm done. We were also taken for a lovely canoe trip around the village, and had the usual tasty lunch with different varieties of fish on offer.
At Novo Horizonte we saw a community that was formed in 1999 by some 60 families that had previously been stretched out in isolated homes along a huge swathe of riverbank, but had come together in one place so that by scale economy they could have a school for the children, electrical power from a generator, a nurse and midwife, and regular visits by a doctor. It has become a RIDS tradition to donate 20-30 litres of diesel from each boat and this keeps their generator going for 3-4 months and saves them precious income. The people live by some government funding (child support), fishing, cattle raising (zebu) and buffalo. At this village the people were very welcoming and cooked stews of fish and buffalo for us, with the children putting on a dance display one evening. They also laid on canoes to take us on night-time searches for caiman (small crocodile) - we were taken through narrow channels connecting small rivers, beneath overhanging trees and bushes under a moonlit and star-sparkling sky, with just the whoosh of the boat through the water and the plopping of water drops from our boatman's pole as we were punted along. It was magical. Our boatman took us into grass-filled marshes and there was our caiman, about 1.75-2 metres long with its tail right beside our canoe and within grasping distance. We were not sure what the head might do so we looked and didn't touch. Then at the speed of light it spun and dived - we nearly jumped out of the canoe, we were so startled.
Monte Alegre gave us the opportunity to see something of the pre-history of South America and we visited some of the rock art on stone outcrops near the town. These remarkable paintings have been carbon-dated to 9200-8000 BC. The paint is a mixture of red earth and fish oil and the representations include the sun, the moon, houses, women giving birth, a lunar calendar and many hand prints (not sure there is much significance in the latter as it was probably the painter just wiping excess paint off his/her hands). Now if ancient man can get paint to last for over 11000 years why does Dulux have such a problem getting it to last more than three or four?
Here in Alter do Chao we have had our first opportunity to see the primary forest (i.e. pristine rainforest growing on terre firme which is land not subject to flooding). So we chartered a river boat with Frank and Martje from African Seawing and set off for two days. On our boat, "Rio Pianco", we had a skipper and one crew, an Indian guide called Rui (although he is probably what is known as a 'caboclos', which is mixture of Indian, Portuguese and Black people, producing a very hardy peoples), and his assistant called Julianna and who is visiting from Sao Paulo. What's missing? Oh yes, the cook, but more of that later. The boat had a main sleeping cabin amidships and on the lower deck, where the five of us were to sleep in hammocks, the cooking area and heads etc on an aft quarter deck, a small seating area aft on the main deck and a right aft up a level was the main dining and sitting area with a sun cover but open at the sides to the rain. Our first stop after three hours up the Rio Tapajos was at the community of Jamaraqua. The people here are also cabaclos and earn a living by some rubber tapping and manufacture, some work in the Tapajos National Forest, and by acting as guides for eco-tourists. In addition, the government is building brick and concrete houses to encourage the people to stay in their communities. First though, Rui had to organise a cook and so cycled off to the next village, returning with a woman who would make our lunch while we trekked in the forest. Our walk took us through secondary forest which had been cleared but grown back (secondary forest does not grow back with the same diversity of plant species and fauna as primary forest). We had an additional guide, Lourdes, and she pointed out plants that were used medicinally and those that were poisonous. She found much pleasure in her work and laughed easily and frequently, but her piece de resistance was amazing dexterity with palm fronds. She showed us how they used palm leaves to make the roof coverings for their houses and then produced delicate ornamentations, a basket for Julia, a backpack for Frank and children's toys. Following a superb lunch of chicken on board, Lourdes and Rui took us in a canoe through some different countryside - varzea, which is land near the edge of rivers, floods frequently and with flora that matures quickly. This was a birdwatcher's delight. We saw Wattled Jacana walking on lily pads, Aracari Toucan imperiously perched high in trees, a Black-collared Hawk that seemed most annoyed by our progress through the varzea, fast-moving Great Kiskadees with their brown wings and yellow bodies, Woodcreepers pecking holes in trees, brilliantly blue Swallows, and Oriole Blackbirds with bright yellow bodies and black wings. Eventually, we could penetrate no further as there was a bridge across the stream up which we were being paddled and Rui said now was the time for the face masks and snorkels. So, in we went - not the best but there were fish and it was curious to see the underwater world of sunken logs and tree roots. We returned to the "Rio Pianco" just in time for a tremendous downpour which lasted into the night. Dinner was a barbecued river fish with rice ... oh, and pretty good capairinhas too. None of us had slept in a hammock before but after some trial and error it was possible to find greater comfort than just the banana shape of lying on your back. The trick is to lie diagonally across the hammock and therefore be more horizontal.
On the second day we went on an 18km trek in the primary forest with our guide, Renildo, to see a 55 metres (180 feet) tall Samauma tree with huge buttress roots (the soil is so thin and nutrient-deficient that tree-roots remain close to the surface and buttress roots are needed by tall trees). It takes 25 people holding hands to circle the tree. The primary forest has tall trees with sparse cover at ground level, and lots of vines and lianas hanging down There are Brazil nut trees, rubber trees, Guarana vines, Cacao, and Bromelliads that have set up home on the branches of other trees, along with brillaint red Helliconia flowers. We saw Green Iguana, lots of leaf-cutter ants carrying huge pieces of leaf, many different butterflies, multi-coloured frogs and an Olive Whipsnake. This was one of the main attractions in our motoring over 400nm and spending a couple of months travelling the Amazon. Our visit ended with lunch in the community of Maguary at the house of the people Rui had engaged to cook our food - Joaquim and Maria produced a mountain of lovely food and we were sated by this and a few beers. Here we also saw some still-tapped rubber trees that remained from the great rubber plantation that the Ford Motor Company started in 1934, having had a disastrous attempt with a plantation started in the 1920s further south on the Tapajos at Fordlandia. They were not successful and despite investing tens of millions of dollars, sold out to the Brazilian government in 1945 for just half a million dollars. You can't win 'em all.
From Alter do Chao we go to Santarem, on Thursday, and hope for wifi so we can upload some of the many hundreds of photos we have taken.