Amazon Primed

IT is around 6am. In front of me, the first grey light of dawn is silhouetting the trees which have lined the Amazon for the last few days.

To my left, what was once welcome space has been filled by hammocks containing locals who hopped on board for the final couple of stops on our slow ride up the world’s longest river.

To my right you can sense the first stirrings from our fellow passengers with a few early-rising crew taking up their positions in front of the TVs by the little shop which makes up the centre of life on board – sometimes a little too loudly for those who took up residence on the roomier, breezier upper deck.

And nearing halfway down on the port side, you will find me, lounging at an angle which rises with my confidence in hammock dwelling.

Waiting for the breakfast bell to ring and spark the charge to find out what we have to fill the bread roll which makes up the bulk of the most important meal of the day.

Or the one you can definitely skip in favour of a bit longer in your hammock.

Sunset on the Amazon

And so begins another day on board the O Rei Davi, our home for six nights up the Amazon – or, to be more accurate, the Rio Solimoes – from Manaus to Tabatinga and across the border (basically a line in the road) into Colombia.

This is the part of the trip we were scheduled to be without the truck.

But instead of bidding farewell to Will and Spongebob in Manaus and rejoining them around Cartagena, we last saw them failing to get on a ferry in Suriname 12 days before boarding.

While we have wandered our way back to the Amazon, Will’s attempts to cross the river into Guyana have been scuppered by red tape and false rumours about a return to action for a larger ferry, leaving him facing more bureaucracy and a longer race to catch us up somewhere in Colombia.

More details as rumours, speculation and wishful thinking turn into reality.

What we do know is that without our scheduled transport, we arrived in Manaus in the early hours after an overnight bus trip.

Very comfortable it was, but sleep was at a premium which is perhaps behind my decision to join others in booking a night at the ballet at the Amazonian capital’s rather grand opera house, a relic from its days at the heart of the rubber industry.

It is certainly, as a morning walk around the city confirmed, the prettiest spot in town – Manaus is built for function rather than finesse, a sprawling, growing hub where two major tributaries meet to form what the locals deem the Amazon proper.

Assuming the boxes in the opera house were meant only for two people, given that is how many people can actually see most of the stage given the pillars which separate them – prompting angry words from one Australian at a photographer cutting out even the prime view.

Not that it was too big a blow – the performance of Aladdin appeared, given the cast and thrilled family audience, to be a local production full of youngsters given their role regardless of ability and what Danny (that acclaimed cultural critic) described as “five per cent ballet, 95 per cent running around in circles”.

It was mercifully short, in contrast to our hugely enjoyable boat trip exploring the local countryside which filled most of the next day.

It certainly started on a high as we plunged into the warm waters of the Rio Negro and swam with pink dolphins.

Well, they swam, under, around and, at one point, pretty much on top of us. We just sort of floated and splashed around with huge grins on our faces as another one emerged from the black water alongside one of us.

Our full day saw us head to a local village to watch traditional dances, fight in vain with huge arapaima fish in a tank (not physically fought, there would only be one winner, just badly on the end of a line), devour a huge buffet and meander through side channels spotting caiman, osprey, iguana and, high in a tree, the sloth we had waited to see.

Danny gets beaten up by a dolphin. Think the look on my face is because one has just swum between my legs

And we capped it all off with a trip to the confluence of the black, warm Rio Negro and the brown, cooler Rio Solimoes where they run side by side for several kilometres as they form the Amazon.

The Solimoes became our home as, having spent the final day in Manaus shopping for essential supplies, doing laundry and steeling ourselves for what lay ahead, we made our way down for an experience we had been anticipating and dreading in equal measure since the need to take this detour around Venezuela became inevitable.

And for the bulk of the six days on board, it was fun – a relaxing, enjoyable change of pace. 

So much so, Lisa and myself largely ignored the bijou cabin we had arranged to alternate with Izzy and Brad, opting to spend all of our nights in our hammocks, only using the facilities to shower, charge gear and for storage.

Only in the last 24-36 hours did the novelty wear off, two night stops seeing the space eaten up by new passengers and we had to be sharp to stop someone slinging their hammock between ours, which had already been moved to the point they were touching.

Then we did retreat to the cabin for some peace until it was time to hit the hammock.

But that was the final stretch, until then the top deck had been largely limited to the foreigners and crew, leaving enough space for us to sit around, read, watch movies, play cards, catch up on photo organisation, reach for whatever drink you had to hand or make return visits to the bar for a cold beer.

Or just lounge around a few feet off the floor – the higher the better for a comfortable night’s sleep,  although not for ease of entry.

We fell into a routine, largely based around three meals served downstairs – breakfast sometime around 6am (bread with egg or mystery meat to go inside it, a cup of porridge if you were lucky and some crackers), lunch around 11am and dinner before dark at 5pm.

The meals also fell into a pattern, giving rise to the game of guessing which mystery meat or fish would be served with the ubiquitous spaghetti, rice and beans – not that we were always able to work it out once we had eaten it.

All served up with a drink in your commemorative cup handed out on arrival. Unless you lost it.

By that final night, space was at a premium for any card games or the evening gatherings at the rear of the boat (at one point it was impossible to walk down the side of the boat from the bar to my hammock) and the countdown was on to the final destination at the port of Tabatinga – complicated by various reports of our scheduled arrival time and bouncing back and forth across time zones as the river meandered along the borders of Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

But early on that final morning, we took down our hammocks, did our best to shove them back in bags and returned to dry land and taxis for the short journey (not that short when we had to retrace our steps on foot in blazing heat for immigration) across the border to Leticia, Colombia.

And 84 days after first entering Brazil, we bade farewell for the final time.

Or for the first of three final times that day, but we will get to that next time.

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