SOUTH AMERICA OVERLAND #10

08-July-2010: Manaus (Brazil)

Journey through the Amazon! Our journey through the heart of the Amazon would begin from Porto Velho, Brazil, downstream along the Rio Madeira for about 1000 kilometres until we reached the confluence with the Rio Amazonas, where we would then journey upstream some 200 kilometres to reach the inland city of Manaus, Brazil, 3 degrees south of the Equator, with a population of over 1.6 million people.

What an exciting day for us as we arrived early at the Agencia Moreira at the Cai n’ Agua cargo loading area on Rua 13 de Mayo, Porto Velho. When we first arrived in Porto Velho and enquired about taking a barge to Manaus, the agent led us to the riverbank and pointed out to us the cargo barge that we would be on. We saw a flatbed cargo barge (70 metres long, 15 metres wide and 2 metres deep) with a simple tarpaulin roof. It already had many sacks of sugar loaded and secured in the hull and main deck of the barge .That was two nights ago. Today, they were busy loading bananas, eggs, soybeans, carrots, cauliflower and a very full container of fish.

From past experience, we have learned not to expect Troopy to be loaded onto the barge until much later than we have been advised. So we were content to just spend the day watching all the action on the riverbank. The scene before us was reminiscent of our ferry crossing across Lake Victoria in Tanzania, Africa, where Troopy waited all day till all the cargo was loaded, before being lifted by crane onto the ferry. Here in Brazil, the barge was moored just by the riverbank with wooden planks placed at very precarious angles, forming a narrow and unsteady walkway for the labourers carrying not just one but two or three crates of produce on their shoulders, heads and backs down the steep embankment. It was incredibly hard manual labour in hot humid conditions with no modern sophisticated cranes to lift cargo. Many of these fit young and middle-aged men were of slender build with a very muscular torso and broad shoulders. They wore only shorts and thongs (flip flops).

One by one, they lined up behind the produce trucks waiting to have the crates placed on their shoulder or back using a piece of cardboard or a towel to protect their skin from being splintered by the rough wooden crates. With pursed lips and silent determination on their faces and perspiration beading from under their skin in very humid conditions; they balanced themselves skilfully on the roughly cut path leading down the river bank to the narrow wooden planks across to the barge where they would be relieved of their load. Then up a different set of planks to bring more cargo down, all done with very little fuss. The men were paid by the truckload so the faster they could empty each truck, the more money they could potentially go home with that day.

It was late in the afternoon when we were asked to drive Troopy to an area where the banks of the river are not as steep for vehicles to drive straight onto the barge. It was another hour of heat and humidity before we spotted a very heavily laden barge bulging with cargo up to about 2.5 metres tall and sitting only 30 centimetres above the water line. It was pushed from behind by a little tugboat with a massive 6 cylinder Scandia diesel engine.  We wondered how we were going to stay afloat on the Amazon River for the next 5 days. Will the crocodiles climb on board and join in the picnic or will the piranhas jump out of the water to take a bite out of us?

It turned out that Troopy was not the only vehicle. We thought we were going to have room to set up our camping table and chairs but it was not to be. There were another 6 vehicles to be loaded on and some farm equipment as well. Suddenly, there did not seem to be room enough! It took some manoeuvring to get all the vehicles onto the barge. We were very pleased that Troopy was parked to one side edge of the barge which allowed us the luxury of opening the passenger door over the water and access to Troopy’s back door. We were also able to set up our roof top tent for sleeping at night and be safe from the blood-thirsty mosquitoes. All the other cars were parked so close to each other that it was impossible to even squeeze through the tiny gap left for the inward folding side mirrors. When all the vehicles and farm equipment were loaded, the barge pushed off from the riverbank and we were quietly on our way escorted by two pink dolphins. The breeze picked up and there was immediate relief from the uncomfortable heat and humidity. We were parked right next to the bananas and one of the crew picked out a bunch for us for our journey.

During the five day trip the barge travelled at an average speed of 10 km/ hour. Whilst travelling downstream the average speed was around 14km/hour. We had a very smooth journey except for a few hours where the waters were rough at the confluence of the Rio Madeira and Rio Amazonas.  The barge often travelled close to the riverbank so we saw a lot of impenetrable jungle vegetation. The Rio Madeira is a huge river with murky brown water and can be as wide as 3 kilometres at its widest point, but mostly just over 1km wide. We had very good weather. The clouds often built up in the afternoon to provide a wonderful sunset, but only a few scattered light showers. At night the temperature dropped providing a welcome relief from the humidity of the day. The barge travelled throughout the night, navigating by spotlight until the moon came out. It was quite a highway with many other passenger boats and bulk cargo barges plying the waterway.

It was quite a balancing act to get from the front of the barge to the back and climb into the tug boat for all our meals, toilet and showers. As the whole barge was filled with cargo, the only room left to walk from the bow to the stern to access the tugboat was along the narrow edge between the cargo and the water. One had to be very careful not to slip and fall into the river but to hang on tight to the ropes securing the cargo. During the day, Kienny often sat on a picnic chair beside Troopy but Geoff had to tie the chair down to Troopy to prevent Kienny from being catapulted into the river in case we hit a bow wave from another boat, since the chair just fitted between Troopy and the edge of the barge.

We had a crew of ten people including the Captain and the cook. There were four tiny cabins for the captain, cook, assistant captain and diesel mechanic. The rest of the crew slept in hammocks wherever they pleased. We felt very sorry for these guys sleeping out in the open at the mercy of mosquitoes during the hours of dawn and dusk. There was only one small shower and toilet cubicle utilising river water. The crew often washed themselves and their clothes at the very back of the barge with water from the river. They would even brush their teeth with river water! Everything seemed to get thrown into the river from food scraps to plastic bags and drink bottles.

The meals we had were very simple but hearty meals of rice, beans and a meat dish. The cook used her pressure cooker for all her cooking. Everyone was very friendly and helpful and they were a cheerful bunch. One might think it boring to be cruising so slowly along the river but we found it very relaxing after a hectic two weeks’ of driving through Argentina, Bolivia and into Brazil. Geoff was able to do a couple of small jobs inside Troopy in the mornings when it was cool. The afternoons were spent reading in the roof top tent or sitting with the crew at the Captain’s bridge. We had a bird’s eye view of where we were going which was also great for spotting photo opportunities. Late in the afternoons or early in the mornings, we could hear hundreds of screeching birds in the trees just adjacent to the riverbank. Sometimes, we passed a small village or a lone house in a small clearing in the forest.

The rest of the time was spent observing the comings and goings of the crew. They seemed to just eat and sleep a lot during the day, since they had to keep watch while the barge travelled all through the night by spotlight or moonlight. There was no sophisticated depth finder or GPS equipment, just a two-way radio, spotlight and a cassette player. The captain had over 30 years on the Amazon and knew every bend and shallow water of this waterway. He would use a spotlight to illuminate the way ahead and to spot the continual stream of water craft.

We also discovered some fishy business happening on our barge. One day the crew would come to the barge and carry a box of eggs back to the tugboat. On another day, we discovered the barge had big storage holds about 2 metres deep containing cracked wheat and soybeans. One crew member was down there scooping a bagful of soybeans! Yet another day, Kienny discovered the men were tampering with the seal to the fish container. They managed to somehow undo the seal, obtained 3 bagfuls of fish and replaced the seal.  Needless to say, fish was on the dinner menu that night! We were amazed and felt rather guilty that the crew kept breaking into the produce to feed us. However, we discovered that this was common practice amongst the workers in the cargo docks. Even the captain and barge owner helped themselves to the fish, bananas and tomatoes as they were being unloaded. In our minds, we imagined we were travelling on a pirate’s barge...Yo Ho Ho!

We stopped at a few towns to deliver some cargo. At Humaita, we picked up another vehicle, making eight vehicles in total including our Troopy. Then we stopped at Manicore to deliver a whole consignment of household furniture and electrical goods and picked up many cases of empty Coca Cola and beer bottles. Late one night, we called into Novo San Jorge to deliver eggs. We chugged along covering about 250 kilometres per day. As we neared the confluence between Rio Madeira and Rio Amazonas, the going got quite choppy. Since the vehicles had not been lashed down, the vehicles and farm machinery moved forward gradually until they touched, scratched and dented the cars in front. Fortunately for us, Troopy did not sustain any damage. The bonnet of the car behind Troopy already had a small gash from making contact with the ladder of our roof top tent when the owner was driving it on board the barge. We tried to jam the mooring ropes under the front tyres of the vehicle behind us to prevent it from running into Troopy and causing further damage to the other car’s bonnet. We were a little concerned that the ladder of our roof top tent could get bent. We shuddered at the thought of the reaction of the owners of the damaged cars when they came to claim them. We would have been very upset!

Once the barge turned upstream along the Rio Amazonas the going once again became as smooth as glass. It was the morning of the last day and there was a lot more to see as the barge was travelling very close to the riverbanks. We wondered if it was less choppy closer to shore than being out on the vast open waterway, which looked more like a sea than a river. The river traffic here was much heavier as the Rio Amazonas is the main waterway linking the Amazon to the Atlantic Ocean. There were more villages, floating houseboats, cattle and horses grazing on marshland. A few areas looked to be like wetland areas with thick grass and trees growing in water. There were lots of palm trees growing beneath the canopies of the taller Jacarandas and other rainforest trees.

From up high on the captain’s bridge, we could see the reddish brown waters of the Rio Negro and the light brown waters of the Rio Solimoes which merged into the Rio Amazonas.  The waters of these two rivers do not merge for over 20 km. It is just like having two rivers in one, each having a different colour and water temperature. In the distance, we could see big cargo ships, gas and oil tankers plying the waterway of the Amazonas which drains into the Atlantic Ocean.

We pulled into Manaus just after lunch. As all the mooring points were full, we had to dock beside another barge that had just been unloaded. Almost immediately, the labourers gathered alongside our barge. One team began to unload the bananas.  Another team began unloading the boxes of eggs. We got our picnic chairs out and sat ourselves down on the empty barge to watch the hive of activity on the docks. We knew we could not move Troopy until some of the produce was first unloaded. It was a couple of hours later that our barge moved to a different jetty. Again, more labourers and truckies descended upon our barge and started to unload the tomatoes, potatoes and the rest of the bananas. Another group went to the fish container to unload the fish into the refrigerated hold of another small boat. It was early evening and the sun was setting and it looked like we would be spending the night on the barge docked at the Manaus Port. The barge crew swept the rubbish and broken wooden pallets from the barge straight into the river. A water truck sprayed water on the main jetty and everyone left. We were given another fish dinner and we went to bed in the roof top tent again watched by the inquisitive boat captains and crew. We felt very safe sleeping the night there despite the stories we heard about the areas around the ports being a bit rough and seedy. The Port was very well lit and each barge had a security man on duty to guard all the unloaded cargo.

The next morning saw us being woken at 5.30 am in the morning by a few labourers sitting on the egg boxes in front of Troopy. They began to unload the rest of the tomatoes and eggs and it was looking more hopeful for us to be able to drive Troopy off the barge. Finally, one of the crew came walking in our direction holding a plastic bag full of keys to all the other vehicles. The crew very skilfully manoeuvred each vehicle and drove them off the barge. Then it was Troopy’s turn as it needed a bit more room in which to manoeuvre. Finally at 9 o’clock in the morning Geoff drove Troopy off the barge.

At first we were disappointed that we were unable to drive the officially closed BR-319 road from Porto Velho to Manaus, since this road runs through the heart of the Amazon. The Rio Madeira parallels the BR-319 road. Having now done the barge trip, we are thrilled that we had the opportunity to travel on a cargo barge as it gave us a good insight into life in and on the Amazonas.

We plan to stay in Manaus for two nights to post our newsletters and photos onto our website and also see if we can get tickets to attend a show at the majestic Manaus Opera House.

We hope you will enjoy the photos. It was very difficult to decide which ones to publish on our website. We have tried to show a little of what we saw on our journey by barge through the heart of the Amazonas.

The pictures for this section of our trip can be found by clicking
here and here or by selecting the Next arrow button at the bottom of this page.
 

A map of our trip can be seen by going to http://dreamers1.com/americas/GoogleMaps/SouthAmerica.html or by selecting the Map button at the bottom of this page.

The WEB site containing our travels in Africa, Russia and South America is http://overland.dreamers1.com or by selecting the Contents button at the bottom of this page.

Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

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