Leaving Venezuela, I headed to the land of the legendary Amazon. Brazil stands as an oasis of relative development in a continent dominated by poverty. This much was obvious as soon as I crossed the border into Pacaraima, as the condition and age of vehicles improved markedly. The cost of fuel would also take a turn for the familiar, but for the moment I could enjoy the last almost free fuel and explore one of the most remote parts of the world. But first I needed a vehicle permit.
Having crossed the border on a Sunday, I had to wait in Pacaraima until Monday morning when the customs office would be open. This turned out to be one of the easiest crossings I've done so far, despite the warnings that it could be difficult. Having got through immigration when locals weren't travelling, it was peaceful. Come Monday morning, I was there bright and early & waiting for the office to open up. As the hotel was about 100m from the border post, I left most of my gear in my room, which meant I wasn't sweating it out in riding pants and jacket. It was all very civilised, and I aim to try and replicate this on subsequent crossings.
For now though, I had 1000km or so to cross before reaching Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state which lies on the river of the same name. I headed out from Pacaraima, and set my sights on Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima and nearest town of any size. The trip was largely uneventful but beautiful - entertaining enough that I rode all the way to Boa Vista (round 250km) without pausing, using up most of my Venezuelan fuel.
There wasn't much to see in Boa Vista, so I headed off early the next day in the direction of Manaus. Having a quick look at the map, it appeared that I would be covering approximately 300km without a soul in sight, let alone a fuel station. I quickly bought a few spare fuel containers, and headed down the rapidly deteriorating road. As it turns out, I didn't need any spare fuel - there were towns (most too small for traffic lights) all along the road, and fuel every 150kms or so.
For those of you who know about the route I had originally planned to take through Brazil, from the East coast following the Amazon River along a dirt track: I stopped at the intersection with that road and had a look. It was a disaster zone - potholes that could swallow a human, let alone a tyre. This was a place where axles come to die, and take their human riders with them. And this end was apparently the good part - it gets worse further on in the jungle. I swallowed hard, and was thankful that my previous research had suggested that the road was pretty much impenetrable.
I was making good time and reached Rorainopolis in the afternoon. It looked like it was going to rain again soon, so when I saw a reasonable motel that proudly displayed that it had internet, I pulled up. It wasn't far until I would reach the Indigenous area of the Waimiri Atroari, an autonomous area run by the tribe. As it is absolutely forbidden to stop on the 125km stretch of road that passes through the area (which closes at night), I thought it prudent to reach such an area in the morning. There wasn't much to do in town (it's not in any map of a usable scale, and wasn't on my GPS), but I went to the grocery store. The radio was playing pop music, all in English. I found it fascinating that in a town where I was the only Anglophone, the music was all in English. I guess it goes to prove that pop music is similar to porn - the dialogue doesn't matter.
The next day I headed out to complete the 480km to Manaus, crossing the equator in the morning. From now on, the days would start to get longer and drier! I took some photos, and had a quick celebratory drink. There wasn't much there - if I wasn't paying attention thanks to the GPS, I may have missed it.
Next was the indigenous area. There were fuel stops on both ends, but as I had filled up already, they weren't needed. The signs at the entrance gate were pretty obvious - no stopping, no photos, no feeding animals, no leaving the road. The people who live within apparently live as they have for centuries, and are somewhat a law unto themselves within this area. I spent the whole time both in awe of the intense jungle that seemed to attack the road, and praying that Izzy wouldn't break down. Everything went smoothly, and a couple hours later I arrived in Manaus, checking into my hostel and walking out to explore the city.
Manaus is an unusual city - a metropolis of over 1.7 million people and a hub of manufacturing for Brazil, all while surrounded by 1000km of thick jungle on all sides! The Amazon theatre stands out as a perfect example of the European influence in Brazil - the theatre was built in the late 1800's when Brazil was officially the seat of the kingdom of Portugal (as opposed to a regular colony), on the back of the rubber boom. It is a truly beautiful building, and a feat of construction when you consider that each brick had to be shipped 1500km upstream.
The next day I began my search for a new exhaust camshaft for Izzy - she had been running pretty rough since Venezuela, and I was keen to get some parts. Considering Manaus produces Kawasakis, I thought it would be simple to buy a part. Not so. It appears that Manaus only produces whole bikes, then ships them all to Sáo Paulo, where they are then distributed throughout the country, including back to Manaus. Frustrating doesn't even begin to cover my feelings at that point. In Perth (which is more isolated distance-wise than Manaus), I could visit either of the motorbike stores within 500m of my house and order any part for almost any motorcycle. If they didn't have it in stock, they'd have it in a week at most. I know this is a different part of the world, but still....
After looking online, I found a company in the US that will send parts anywhere in the world, within three weeks. Then I found out that to import anything into Brazil, you need a tax number and have to pay the entirely unreasonable tax of 60%! I opened up Izzy (I'm getting pretty good at this), and found that the damage had not worsened since Valle de la Pascua in Venezuela (about 2000km back). After this, I decided that I would risk it and get to Bolivia - even if I can't get parts locally, Bolivia seems to be more reasonable on importing parts. I reasoned that if Izzy broke down, I could explore Bolivia by bus, while waiting for parts to clear customs.
The next thing to organise was a boat down to Porto Velho. I had hoped to be able to ride the BR319, an infamous road that runs through the middle of the Amazon. At 885km long, mainly through uninhabited areas, it is somewhat of an adventure. The recommended place to sleep? Inside the locked gates of the cell phone towers (why they have towers without people, I'll never know). This isn't to protect you from other humans, but rather the vast array of deadly wildlife that are at the top of the food chain out there. One rider reported seeing 3 Jaguars on a single trip, which sounds exciting but also terrifying. I was both disappointed and relieved to learn that the road is impossible to traverse without a long range fuel tank - it's at least 400km between opportunities to fill up, which was well beyond Izzy's capabilities. I'll mark that one down for a later trip, with a bigger bike and a partner.
The boats to Porto Velho are supposed to leave every Tuesday and Friday, and take 4 days, but supposed is a strong word down here. Come Friday night after I had given up on repairs in Manaus, I booked a jungle trip for 3 days, planning to be back in time for the Tuesday boat down to Porto Velho, which is about 500km from the Bolivian border.
We left from the hostel early the next morning by car, bus and then lancha (a small, thin boat used by fisherman and locals to move goods/people) for a few hours to reach the jungle lodge on the Rio Urubu. The lodge was stunning, with several thatched huts for houses, dining areas, a dorm and a several story watchtower. We got settled in, had lunch and then headed out to catch dinner - Piranhas.
Paddling out by canoe, I couldn't help but think of the horror stories that have featured the carnivorous fish. As it turns out, there isn't really much to fear from them: Humans aren't normally part of their diet, and they generally would only attack at the height of the dry season when falling water levels reduce normal prey and trap schools in puddles or lakes. They do like chicken and beef though - when we started fishing (in the second spot we tried), it wasn't long before we were hauling in fish after fish. I almost caught one, but it got free about a metre from the boat. The second fish wasn't so lucky - it was dinner no matter what. About the size of my hand, it didn't look particularly threatening, until I tried to remove the hook and saw the full extent of its teeth. Small but razor sharp, it's easy to see why they're so feared.
After catching enough for dinner, we continued on (mercifully using an engine) to find the non-human predators of the piranha - the Amazon River Dolphin. It was nearly sunset before we spotted a group playing nearby. While I've seen plenty of dolphins back home, some of which travel upstream past the city, I've never seen dolphins so far upstream, and certainly none that are pink in colour. They are unusual to say the least.
After returning for dinner, we headed out again to look for another animal - the Caiman. A small member of the Crocodilian family, the Caiman is notoriously shy and is really only visible at night, when the light from a torch beam is reflected off their eyes. We motored through the flooded forest, and it wasn't long before our guide had jumped off the boat and run through the marsh, returning with a Caiman measuring about 60cm long. At that size, they're not intimidating but I couldn't help but think of its much larger relatives back home in Oz. We took some photos, and headed back to the lodge for a comfortable sleep in a hammock.
We woke around dawn, and headed out into the forest for a nature walk. Being dry season, animals are not easy to spot but I am indifferent to monkeys at this point. The range of medicinal plants here are incredible - of particular interest is the plant that has been scientifically proven as a cure for malaria (concentrated forms are used by local hospitals). Native forms of cloves and eucalyptus were also interesting. One animal we did get up close and personal with was a tarantula. By close I mean I stayed back a good 2 metres, but the guide coaxed it out of its hole, and took photos from about 5cm away. Another interesting fact - they extract their poison from their prey, so while pet specimens are largely harmless, you shouldn't mess with wild tarantulas.
We headed back to the lodge for lunch, and then packed for a longer hike, after which we would camp out in the jungle. The night was clear, so we were able to set up our hammocks under the stars. Cooking dinner over a campfire and making our utensils out of wood felt pretty cool, but had to get out of my Australian mindset and stop worrying about the fire spreading.
After a nice sleep (the jungle here in the dry season is much quieter than in Borneo's wet season), we had brekky. Tip for the day: if you're making coffee using grounds and don't have a strainer, you can quickly mix the coffee with a hot piece of charcoal before serving. The charcoal causes the coffee grounds to sink to the bottom, don't ask me how. Or just use instant coffee, either way.
After camping out, We headed out on another walk through the jungle, this time making blowguns and bracelets from various plants. It's safe to say that the only animals I would be able to kill with a blowgun would have to be tame. I have the lungs of a pack a day smoker compared to the hunters who use these things. After embarrassing ourselves, we headed back to the lodge to pack and return to Manaus. I can safely say that while I had a great time in the jungle, I've pretty much had enough of it for one trip. I now dream of beaches, of cool salty water and wide open plains.
The Tuesday boat was cancelled, due to low water levels. More time in Manaus, of which I had seen plenty. The receptionist said there would be a boat the next day, so I didn't worry too much, and instead said goodbye to some friends from the tour, and headed out with Paolo, an Italian who I had also befriended on the tour. When we got the same news on Wednesday, it was time to seriously consider the possibility of other destinations, or of riding the 319. I bought some supplies (including a machete and mosquito net), and resolved that if the boat on Friday was cancelled, that I would look at other boats, or try to organise a fuel drop along the 319. That night, several of us from the hostel went out to a roadside stall for dinner, which was beautiful.
It was more of the same for Thursday and Friday, although the boat was confirmed so we (Lea and Nicole, two Germans from the hostel and myself) checked out on Friday and waited for the agent to pick us up. I got worried as the scheduled pickup time came and went, but eventually he made it. The girls piled into a van with some of my stuff, and I followed on Izzy. Although we were assured there would be plenty of room, we arrived to an almost full boat. We strung up our hammocks, I got Izzy on board and we waited. The crew weren't too happy about Izzy - they had only asked about the size of the motor, not how big she was, or about saddlebags. But we were on, had paid for tickets, and nothing short of an atomic bomb was getting me off. We were supposed (there's that word again!) to leave at around 1800 - we left around 2230 (apparently - I was fast asleep by then). And so began our journey through the Amazon on a boat.
It didn't take long to get into the routine on board - the days tended to revolve around meals. At dawn, we'd wake to have breakfast, which consisted of the sickeningly sweet coffee that is ubiquitous here and some crackers and bread. Lunch and dinner were more complete meals consisting of rice, noodles, meat and sometimes vegetables. There was always enough food to go around, but after several days it got monotonous.
The rest of the day was spent generally shooting the breeze. I took to upping the intensity of my Spanish (I have stubbornly refused to learn Portguese, to avoid confusing the two once back in Spanish territory), and reading some ebooks. I did enjoy my hammock (It's better for my back than some of the rock hard beds I've stayed in), and learnt to slow down a bit. Local boats sifting silt for gold, river dolphins and the bar provided useful distractions for such a long journey.
However, considering how many people use this form of travel, I'm surprised more comfortable/touristy options haven't appeared. I would have happily paid more for a more interesting experience - similar to the San Blas cruise, but with an Amazon flavour. A 6 day riverboat cruise/Amazon adventure/Party sounds better than 6 days on a boat, slowly heading upstream with little distractions. But maybe I'm the only one.
Eventually we arrived at Porto Velho, our destination. At 4am. None of us foreigners were particularly keen to get moving then, so we slept on board until a more reasonable time, then headed out for breakfast. I got coffee with milk & without sugar - sublime. After doing some shopping (in which a local drove us to the electronics store I needed), I said goodbye and headed back for Izzy.
After 6 days rest, she really didn't want to go. Eventually (after much cajoling and swearing), we headed for the border. It felt great to be back in the saddle, and everything was going smoothly until some of the gear started to come loose behind me. I pulled over to tighten everything back up - big mistake. No matter how hard I tried, she wouldn't go again. The motor was turning over fine, but as soon as I disengaged the clutch, she would die. I was stuck. Thankfully, I had stopped next to a small town (Araras), so we walked back and found the local dormitrio - a basic hostel for people stuck like me.
I got settled in, and went to the adjoining bar for a well needed drink. Again, it seems when I'm feeling down or need help, the locals come to the rescue. We had a good chat, helped by the fact that some of the locals were actually Bolivian, and spoke Spanish.
The next morning, I headed over to the tyre repair place, hoping he dabbled in motorcycle repair. There wasn't much he could do, but he got the attention of a local taxi driver who agreed to take Izzy and I to the border. It was expensive, but it was what I needed, so I agreed. We put Izzy in a trailer, and sped down the last 100km or so to the border. The driver was nice enough (I was probably going to be his only fare that day) to take me to the different border posts to get clearance to leave Brazil and enter Bolivia. Around lunchtime, I put the non functioning Izzy onto a small boat, and we crossed over to the Bolivian town of Guayaramerin, with a slight dread, yet full of hope.
Would this be the end of the trip? No way. Would it be the end of Izzy? Only time (and a Bolivian mechanic) would tell.