So here it is – the big “off”. I’ve assembled my supplies and the forest stands waiting. It’s seven in the morning in Macapá, a small Brazilian city in the heavily forested state of Amapá, which lies on the north bank of the Amazon. Already here on the equator the dank smell of vegetation rises up; the sun bears down. By the time you read this I’ll have long since set out in the pickup and, not so far up the road north from here, walked off into the undergrowth. I’ll have vanished. But of course I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe I’d reappear in due course, safe and sound. That’ll be in four weeks – five or six at the outside.
With me, as the plan goes at the moment, will be a couple of frontiersmen – a smooth, moustachioed geologist of sorts called Pedro and a skinny bloke with lots of scars, a lad called Paulo. I won’t, I think, take the two loud characters presently standing around hopefully, machetes to hand, watching me write this.
But can I really depend on men such as these – people who are, after all, complete strangers to me? Well, it wouldn’t be the only time I’ve got things wrong. Then again, I’ve spent my adult life doing such expeditions and making just these judgments, the sort on which my life will depend. I must put all such doubts aside. Or at least keep them to myself: time to show commitment to these probably decent men and my objective.
And so to the job at hand. It’s something that I’ve kept from even my closest friends. I did tell my lovely agent Jo and a couple of trusted pals in confidence a while back, and also my long-suffering wife Lenka – someone who seems to have an unquestioning belief in me, as she only asked to be filled in last week. However, those who are closest to me understand that in order to stay safe I need to focus and not be distracted by anyone else’s judgments, concerns or hopes, however well meaning. I accept that what I do most people would not chose to do. And I must get this right.
My “mission”, if I might call it that, concerns a certain someone who had a very close brush with death, back in 1983. Aged just 22 and believing he was immortal – as most people that age do – he set out from home without any relevant skills, hoping to trace a route across a great swathe of the northern Amazon. He emerged from the forest half dead. Attacked by goldminers – they crept up on him with knives – he fled to his canoe which soon capsized, and swam ashore having lost almost everything. Then the walk out: he struggled for maybe three weeks and a 100 miles through the undergrowth towards the outside world. Succumbing to one strain of malaria, then another, he staggered onward until, semi-delirious, he finally broke through to the sunlight.
Well, that naïve young man was me; and for the first time in my life I’m going back to the forest which should, by rights, have killed me. After a lifetime of chasing my demons, pressing on through seemingly endless deserts, trees and icefields around the globe, seeking to know – it seems to me now – why I had been allowed to survive that ordeal, my hope is that in the coming days I’ll be able to get to the bottom of what happened.
Don’t get me wrong: my expeditions have been full of joy. I’ve been a privileged witness to so many glorious encounters, met so many unimaginably generous people and seen so many amazing things. But now seems the right time to go back, to see what has driven me on. I’ll retrace my exact steps – face those 100 miles again.
Why now? Why wait four decades to come back? Well, I might have left things as they were, continued to fight off my “survivor’s guilt” – or PTSD, if that is what it is – but just recently the indigenous people of the area, the Waiapi, had their own unfortunate encounter with goldminers. In July 2019, just before the pandemic, a 68-year-old chief called Emyra was found dead, his body floating in the shallow waters of a local river, covered in what were reported to be stab wounds – just as mine might have been.
So it seems to me that my intended trek holds a wider significance than that of just one more European intruder who wishes to revisit the folly of his youth.
But wait: perhaps I’m just trying to justify a journey that I’m hell-bent on doing anyway. Is this trudge through a malarial forest – in which, to this day, knife-wielding goldminers lurk – really worth it? I’m a dad, after all.
Look, I’d love to say I’m certain about what lies ahead for me, and whether the possible rewards will be worth it. But I’m not. And perhaps that’s part of the point of being a modern-day “explorer”, if that is what I am. It’s about coming to terms with risk – real and perceived – and questioning what we truly know of unfamiliar people and places. Above all, perhaps, it’s about letting go – having the courage to leave the safe certainties of home behind. And it strikes me as more important than ever, in this interconnected age, that at least some of us on our precious planet disconnect from the rest.
Well, these matters should be debated but not now – not with the forest waiting, and two potential recruits beside me having a last smoke. Time to trust to my weeks of preparation and not waver.
I would add only two things. Firstly, that I do not see myself as a risk-taker. Rather, just like my test pilot father, I spend my time assessing and mitigating risk. Secondly, I am very aware that I have three children whom I happen to dearly love. I must not let them down – just as, back in 1983, I was determined not to let my own parents down, as I staggered through the thicket.
In summary, I have every intention of coming back, and have triple-checked and stress-proofed every conceivable scenario. Yes, there are obstacles to overcome – as there are for a test-pilot, fireman, or a soldier – but this is my job, and my skill set.
There are precautions I will take – a survival kit, malaria tablets and so on, a Plan A, B and C. And there are things I will NOT take – a GPS and satellite phone – because I believe in the value of trusting my companions, and especially indigenous people such as the Waiapi, surely more efficient at extracting anyone from forest than any helicopter, and who have kept me safe in the past. I’ll be heading to them first, to be sure to travel on their terms.
The separation from loved ones, of course, comes at a cost – chiefly, the worry of those who are left behind. For my part the worst thing will be the weeks of loneliness, day after day plodding on while not being able to reach out, make that reassuring call.
But enough. It only remains for me to say that, of all that lies ahead – the leeches, the marauding goldminers, the Great Unknown – nothing, nothing looms as much in my mind as the fear of not coming back. And to maintain that fear is important.
So, I’ll now head due west from a road called the Perimetral Norte, striking out into the forest towards a river Jari, from where I once staggered out, eventually trampling a poor frontier farmer’s maize crop. The goodbyes are behind me, the challenges but also new friendships, wonders, and countless discoveries lie ahead.