Amazon Primed

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

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.

Treating the local sights with the respect they deserve

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

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.

The splendour of the opera house in Manaus, outside…

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.

… and in

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.

Quick snack of ants

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”.

Up close to the wildlife

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.

Probably the star of the show

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.

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.

A day to savour.

The one that got away was huge

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.

The meeting of the waters as the Amazon proper forms

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.

Flying free

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.

Farewell to the O Rei Davi

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.

Sunset on the Amazon
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Rum, Manatee & the Mash

THE rising sun found its way through the canopy of trees along the riverbank before filtering into the mosquito nets which surrounded our hammocks.

Not a bad way to be woken early from a comfortable night’s sleep, swinging on the porch of the huts which made up our jungle lodge home.

Home for the night

And, considering some of the options we experienced in terms of transport and sleeping during our crossing of Guyana, waking up early in the jungle to the sound of howler monkeys and the local birds – think chickens crossed with vultures – hopping about us was pretty normal.

Or as normal as things get at the moment.

We have, via delays, illnesses, change of plans, sleeping on the move and a spot of carnival, made it to the sweltering Brazilian city of Manaus – capital of the Amazon – pretty much on schedule.

We are here for three nights (complete with trip to the ballet) before heading off on a boat to Colombia for five or six days and catching a flight to Cartagena which, hopefully, will bring us a reunion with the truck.

That last bit was always part of the plan – Will and Spongebob heading overland while we drifted down the Amazon to catch us up somewhere in northern Colombia.

What was not part of the plan is them being an entire country and several days behind us before we even board the boat.

Spongebob tries to hitch a lift
Picture: Will Dreyer

The latest news, following the truck being a touch too tall to fit on a replacement ferry, is they should finally break the magnetic pull of Suriname and start catching up tomorrow.

Fingers crossed. Touching wood. Stroking any good luck charm you may have to hand.

While we were enjoying the delights of Georgetown (and the comforts of an extended stay in relatively luxurious hotel rooms) and finding our own, idiosyncratic way back into Brazil, Will and Spongebob have been going nowhere fast.

Finding a barge to cross was sorted relatively quickly, raising hopes of a swift reunion.

But with paperwork and immigration issues over arriving at an unofficial crossing port, complicated by a national holiday and a looming election, things dragged on.

On the road to Georgetown – genuine village name

And on. And on.

When we finally thought everything was in order and the green light was given, all of a sudden it turned to red, permission was withdrawn and Will was heading back to Paramaribo to await the proposed return to action of the original ferry which was tied up, out of action as we boarded its replacement.

Complete with troublesome arch.

Which is where you left us, the remaining 18 of us crammed into a minibus alongside all the luggage we had grabbed to last us until a reunion with the truck – or everything for the four leaving us in Georgetown and two who depart in Manaus.

We did our best to lighten the load by breaking into the duty free supplies, helped by the driver buying us beer due to the total absence of local currency between us.

The effects of Guyanese rum come to the fore

We had managed to load up on Guyanese dollars at the hotel before the first of several trips to the Red Bar down the road – via a hole in the wall cheesy chips place – with one of Danny’s contacts.

Buying the round is simple – one bottle of local rum (very nice it is too), one bottle of Coke, a bucket of ice and cups for everyone. Repeat to fade.

It all made Lisa and myself grateful our flight to Kaieteur Falls (cancelled, then moved to another operator after a terse email exchange – remind me not to get on Lisa’s wrong side) had been shunted back a couple of hours.

Kaieteur Falls
Cute but apparently deadly

It would have been a shame to have too foggy a head for such a natural wonder, well worth the hour flight each way over dense jungle.

The Falls may not be in full flow – dry season is something we would come to appreciate – but the 226m single drop is still spectacular, however close to the edge you choose not to stand.

Or sit for that oh so daring Instagram pose.

Cock of the rock. Honestly

Throw in sightings of the small but deadly golden frog and the colourful cock of the rock bird and it made for a great day out, rounded off by a trip across town to a T20 cricket match to kick off the holiday weekend which was more notable for the antics of the colourful, if sparse, crowd than the actual contest.

Georgetown itself is very much part of the Caribbean – rum, cricket and speaking English may have given that away – and comes with a different, if slightly rundown, feel to its continental neighbours.

A group of us spent much of the next day exploring some of its delights – the chaos of Stabroek Market, the cathedral with touches of Olde England, drinks on the seawall and an afternoon feeding the charming, huge manatees who live in a lake in one of the city parks.

A manatee in search of an easy meal

Punctuated by a trip to hospital for a few tests on one of our number. Not the last test for dengue fever in the group over the past few days, although only one back in Europe has come back positive.

Just one drink we said. Trouble is, the drink is a bottle. No conversations had that night are legally binding

The night could have ended relatively early but popping into the bar for just one drink when that one drink is a bottle is unlikely to end quietly.

Which made for a slow start to Mashramani – the annual Guyanese celebration to mark becoming a republic in 1970, four years after independence from the UK.

Thankfully, things did not kick into gear until the afternoon, by which time things were very hot, very colourful and very, very loud if you got anywhere near the competing sound systems.

Rare picture of Mashramani without Danny in it

It is, essentially, one long carnival – measure it in hours – with every suburb, town, village and organisation in and around Georgetown out to make the biggest impression.

Those who were not taking part seemed to be lining the sides of the road and, if some members of our group were anything to go by, joining in at every opportunity.

For those still nursing the after effects of a few rums, it was all a bit much after a few hours and we sloped off for a quiet night.

Normal service resumed

Which turned into a quiet extra day, night, morning and most of an afternoon as things gradually eased back into life after the holiday, plans were redrawn and we finally headed out of Georgetown around 5pm in two small minibuses heading for the jungle.

There was a reason we did not see any roads when we flew over the jungle – they do not really exist.

There is one rough, unpaved road which would eventually carry us all the way to the border town of Lethem.

Our transport and our home for the night. Thankfully not all of us

Thankfully it is dry and we made good progress, often at fairly rapid pace, to reach our overnight stop near a ferry around 1am.

We were woken from what sleep you can grab in a minibus four hours later to catch the first ferry and make the short journey to our rendezvous with the boats from the Rewa Eco Lodge, which carried us the two and a half hours back up the river, spotting caiman, otters and assorted bird life, to our home for the night.

And the waiting hammocks which we seized on gratefully to catch up on lost sleep.

Most of did make it up for one venture out of camp – four of us spending a very pleasant sunset hour or so at a secluded lake filled with giant lily pads and bird life.

There was little delay in heading back to the hammocks in the evening and, having pulled ourselves out for breakfast, we were shuttled back up the river for another cramped minibus journey on rough roads.

Thankfully, Lethem was just a couple of hours away.

A slightly more comfortable home for the evening

Wish there were tales of exploring what it had to offer, but even the guy at the hotel – who defied his local accent by claiming to come from Hull – admitted we would be lucky as we headed out in search of a meal.

He was wrong, we did find one.

Whether that was really lucky is another matter.

Our stay in Lethem and Guyana was ended just after lunchtime as we rolled over the border and back into Brazil, waving goodbye to cramped minibuses and welcoming more roomy, comfortable coaches.

If the one which whisked us from Bonfim to Boa Vista was pretty standard coach fare back home, the one which carried us through the night to Manaus was on a different level – double decker, reclining seats, WiFi, power sockets.

Who needs Spongebob?

We do. 

Settling in for a night of luxury on a bus
Picture: Danny Taylor
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