Walking the Amazon: Interview with Ed Stafford

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Last month, English explorer Ed Stafford became the first person to walk the length of the Amazon from source to sea, a grueling journey of over 4,000 miles in 860 days. His goal, in addition to achieving a world-first feat, was to draw attention to the complexities of the Amazon by inspiring blog followers with a badass adventure. Now that he's back in Blighty, he's writing a book about the expedition and plotting new adventures. I got a hold of him to get the lowdown on his life in the rainforest.
–Nick Davidson

There are seemingly so few firsts left for adventurers. Where did you get the idea to walk the Amazon?
I Googled it. All my jungle experience beforehand had been in Central America. Belize, Guyana, Guatemala, and some expeditions in the Far East, in Borneo. I'd never been to the Amazon, and I wanted to do a big expedition there. I'm not a great kayaker, so it was a bit of a no-brainer. I just thought, “Has anybody walked it?” thinking somebody must have, but they hadn't. It ended up being a far bigger expedition than kayaking it would have been.

Were you influenced by historical explorers or expeditions?

I became friends with Bruce Parry, who did a program called Going Tribal, where he went and lived with indigenous tribes. He and I used to work for the same expedition company after we both left the British military. He went to Papua New Guinea and did an amazing expedition made into a film called Cannibals and Crampons, where he met cannibals in New Guinea and climbed an unclimbed mountain. That was my inspiration for thinking you can take the skills you've learned from the military and leading conservation expeditions and turn it into something really big, really exciting. So it wasn't inspiration from Ye Olde explorers. It was far more a case of seeing what guys are doing with their skills now and realizing I could do that as well.

You've encountered pit vipers, been chased by machete-wielding natives, and had a bucket of cement dumped on you. What was your toughest moment?
The toughest thing was invariably the slog, putting on your wet clothes every morning, carrying your heavy rucksack and keeping going day after day. It's not the exciting, sexy story at all, but that was the bit that was hardest about the expedition—it's duration.

But you did have some exciting ordeals.
The most dangerous moment was undoubtedly being detained at arrow-point. We were using the HF radios they've got between the different communities to announce our arrival and to ask permission to go through a very closed area of Amerindians. They said, “No, if a white person goes through, we'll kill him.”

So we came up with a plan to cross to a sandbank island in the middle of the river in order to avoid this community. We got to the end of the island, and we were about to get into the inflatable pack raft to paddle back to shore. Then Cho said, “Look behind you, Ed.”

There were five dugout canoes full of Ashaninka Indians. Half of them were standing up at this point in an impressive display of aggression with bows and arrows pointing at us, some with shotguns as well, and all the women with machetes. They beached and ran towards us. Because we'd had that threat of being killed the day before, I thought they were coming to kill us. We were ultra-friendly and smiling, as non-threatening and non-aggressive as possible. But over time we realized we weren't about to be killed. They ended up not being from the community that had threatened to kill me.

That was probably the only time I genuinely thought we were about to die. I think had we been aggressors, they were ready to come out and fight. The look in the women's eyes especially was just waiting for permission to be launched. That was a fairly hairy moment.

Is that a standard greeting?
It sounds rather dramatic from a Western perspective, but they've been through such a load of violence. They've seen whole generations of men slaughtered by the Shining Path in the 80s and 90s. So it isn't actually as far-fetched as it seems. These guys live in an environment where they've seen and experienced a lot of death and a lot of fighting.

What did you miss most from home?
Family and friends. Initially, my Spanish wasn't great, and I felt very cut-off. Had it been some sort of military trip, I would've always had people of my own type around me to bounce ideas off of. You end up being a comfort to each other, and going through something like that together with other people is far easier. So I think it was the isolation and having to deal with it all on my own that ended up being quite an ordeal. But over time my Spanish got better, and I ended up walking with Cho, who's a Peruvian forestry worker. Over the course of the expedition, and as my Spanish got better, we became good mates.

How was the expedition rewarding and meaningful to you?
Invariably when people say that something is impossible, it's very rewarding to deep down have an inkling that you can do it and then prove people wrong. Say we walked seven kilometers a day. There was no one seven-kilometer stretch that was impossible. And if it's possible to walk any one little bit, then certainly you could do a bigger expedition.

Running into the ocean at the end of it, and all the media attention—getting the public so excited about the expedition, and therefore getting them interested in the Amazon and having all the schools following—it all felt so rewarding. What would have already been a satisfying thing just to complete the expedition was made even better by the amazing response.

What is the one piece of gear you couldn't have done without?
The pack rafts were phenomenal. Without them, I think the expedition would have been nigh on impossible. There are so many tributaries that sometimes you're inflating the rafts six or seven time a day.

Any more adventures in the works?
I've got one planned for September of next year, but I'm keeping it a secret, mate. These things are just ideas, aren't they? If I announce it, then any old person can go have a crack at it. So I'm keeping that to my chest.