The dawn over Manaus was a spectacular one, and the river like glass as we glided eastward down the Rio Negro towards the meeting of the waters. We had factored in an average speed of 20kph, incorporating reduced speeds for rough weather and lay-ups for thunderstorms, but on day 1 at 05:30 we were happily skimming along at 40kph.
The river levels were already up to 28m a.m.s.l., (see separate entry) and this also makes travelling easier, so we were able to speed straight through the Paracuuba shortcut between the Negro and the Solimoes (at low water little more than a dangerous and often impassable gulley), and onto an equally calm Solimoes. This is the major tributary of the Amazon, and in fact is considered to be the Amazon when calculating its full length. It runs from the high Andes down through the Peruvian rainforest and a further 1000 km to Manaus, where it is joined by the Negro to form the Rio Amazonas. Keeping close to the north bank, to minimise the effect of the current (6-8 kph in mainstream), we made superb time to our first refuelling stop, arriving at Manacapuru by 08:10.
A quick stop to refuel and buy bread and ice, and we were off into Lago Manacapuru. This had been a last-minute change of plan, to pursue the reported link between this lake and the Paraná Arara (McCaw Way, literally).
It is always good – especially when travelling upstream – to avoid the main watercourses, which can be very rough in bad weather. We sped through the huge lake and homed in with relative ease on the entrance to the link, nestling behind some trees in the northwestern corner. If you look at it on the map, it appears tiny, but of course in the Amazon these things tend to be BIG, and so our little stream was a good 200 – 300m wide as we entered it. Excellent, we thought! Anama here we come! We sped along the stream (anything that links anything with anything else is generally known as a “paraná”), enjoying sightings of dolphin, eagles…and quite a lot of trees…until, rounding a bend, we were confronted by a wall of floating grass and weed, stretched between the banks. We crept closer and tried to find a way through, but to no avail. The Brazilians call this stuff capim, and it is treacherous stuff – the floating grass grows in long fronds up to several metres in length, and if you get it wrapped round your prop, well, you’re going nowhere. This is irritating at best, but add the remoteness of some of our routes into the mix, and there was a possibility that if we got stuck in the middle of this stuff, we could potentially sit there for months. So we turned round, and did the only thing one can do at these times – made some coffee.
It was now 11:00am, and as we sat drinking our coffee and contemplating a 3 hour back-track to Manacapuru, a small motorised canoe with a little 10hp direct-drive prop appeared around the corner, heading straight for the capim. “Could they get through?” we asked. “Oh yes.” “Could we get through?” “Oh no.” However they did suggest that if we went back a few kilometres and headed north, we could then get around behind the capim and emerge back on the paraná further along. Hmm. I’m not generally too keen on accepting this sort of advice, particularly as the river courses change from day to day. But we looked on our maps and the advice didn’t seem too bad, so off we went.
To cut a looong story short, we ended up back-tracking 5km and ‘hanging a left’, from where we prodded and poked our way West, then South, then (worringly) North again, then (equally worringly) Northwest. Assisted by advice from what locals we encountered en route, we finally ended up at the town of Caapiranga at around 12:30. We weren’t lost exactly, but we were certainly ‘directionally challenged’. Every route we tried out of what is quite a major lake system, was blocked by the dreaded capim. We asked the locals and they pointed us this way and that. We faithfully tried this way and that and had to come back and report failure every time. Finally a very nice chap told us that in fact there was only one way through and that he was going in that direction and we could follow him. We decided it was worth a try – in fact we had reached a point where the only other viable options were returning to Manacapuru, now four or more hours away, or sleeping in the boat.
So off we went, through squeezes so tight we could not possibly have found them or navigated them alone, until we reached another lake, at which point our hero pointed vaguely to the distant southwest and told us there was another paraná up there and that we “couldn’t possibly miss it”. (Always a danger sign, in my experience, along with instructions that begin “Simply….”). And of course we missed it. Several times. But finally we got a bit more local input and groped our way into it (it was blindingly obvious once we were on it, of course).
Freedom! We were on our way! We sped along this most beautiful of flooded-forest paths, zig-zagging merrily between the branches of trees which a few months ago would have been 5 or more metres above our heads. The path was pretty windy, but large enough for us to keep up a good average speed, and we were just getting confident when we rounded a bend and….wall to wall capim again.
A few mild oaths later, and we did the only thing we could, backtracking the 19km we had just covered, and stopping for lunch. It was now 13:30 and we were just resigning ourselves cheerfully to sleeping in the boat…when the rain started.
To be continued….