Kaiak: Presidente Figueiredo, Amazonas, Brazil


The following is the second in a series of dispatches from South America sent by kayaker Chris Korbulic. You can read the first post here.

                            Manaus Airport Photo by Chris Korbulic
Our plane was on time to the Manaus airport, and we were only a little worse for wear after the multi-stop flight from Sao Paulo. All our baggage slid out onto the carousel in good time, except three very important pieces.

I went scouting for our kayaks around some corners and came back to see a tired guard watching a lonely backpack forgotten on the carousel, but none of the team. We'll have to stick together in far more difficult places than the airport baggage claim, and losing each other on the first day would not be the best start. Neither would losing the kayaks, but soon enough they appeared from a dark set of stairs, and we went outside to see a taxi driver waiting for us, holding a sign: “Grupo Kaiak extremo.” Pedro must have insisted on adding extremo.

After a short, fitful sleep, I woke with a start to the creaking metal door opening and filling the room with sunshine, and a silhouette holding a camera asking how I slept. I pulled the sheet back over my eyes. Outside, there was a veritable mountain of gear we were going to have to fit into two, too-small cars. The gear is going everywhere with us, and represents a huge change from the usual fast-and-light approach Ben and I take on expeditions. We always have our kayaks and plenty of rivers and waterfalls in mind, but this will be more than our typical expedition. This is one on which we are actors in our own “choose-your-own-adventure” story, and while we probably won't go so far as, say, Bear Grylls, we might say something extra brave for the cameras. And hey, it's not so bad to have people think you're extra brave.

                            Andressa, Photo by Chris Korbulic
Along for the extreme ride this year are Andressa, a Brazilian beauty from Santos learning to paddle, and two producers, Daniel and Ronaldo on the all-day quest for “the shot.” They round out the group nicely and add another dynamic to the already brewing pot in the Manaus heat. (Surprisingly, none of them packed the most kit. That dubious title goes to Pedro.)

Manaus commenced as a shipping center along the Rio Negro where it meets the Rio Solimoes, officially starting the Amazon, to facilitate trade and transport through central South America and to Atlantic ports. Rubber was both a blessing and a boon to the area, and when the rubber bubble burst, Manaus became something like a California ghost town after the gold-rush. To reinvigorate the economy, Manaus was turned into a tax-free trade zone, and now hosts manufacturers from Phillips and Panasonic to BMW. The waters of the Amazon aid this as much or more than anything. They waters also lured us in to see where the Amazon proper begins, the “Contra das Aguas”, where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes meet.

                            The Contra das Aguas, Photo by Chris Korbulic
A small tourist boat took us past massive cargo ships piled high with containers bound for ports on the Atlantic and out to the 'Contra das Aguas', where the black waters of the Negro and the yellow waters of the Solimoes meet and begin swirling together. I can't imagine many better places to take your first paddle strokes in a kayak, and Andressa had the good fortune to do just that. Going back and forth from the warmth of the Negro to the slightly frigid water of the Solimoes, she took to the new paddle quickly, as you might expect from a champion canoeist. Over the next couple days she got the chance to try her first rapids on the Rio Urubui. Concerned as I am about how she's going to handle the next 28 days on the road with five testosterone driven men, if nothing else, she can paddle.

                            A late night, Photo by Chris Korbulic
We moved north to small Presidente Figueredo and got the taste of our first set of falls and a surprisingly long day on the river that ended late into the night. Andressa is going to have to get comfortable with the idea of long days and unexpected nights out. The producers too, needed to be reminded to not really worry until the next day. It's a serious issue we have to take lightheartedly, as it happens fairly often, and more often than not a night out is just that, and all is well in the morning light. Getting acquainted with different mentalities and making them work together is always an adventure, and making all the kayaking/production/personality traits work together will be the make-or-break challenge of this trip.

                            Hitting the Bigger Whitewater, Photo by Chris Korbulic
Our first bout with a bigger piece of whitewater was a prime example of the different mentalities at work. I watched from the top of a waterfall as Ben hit an unexpected knuckle of sticky rock at the lip and tumbled down into a boiling cauldron, then out of sight. I was, to say the least, concerned. I ran towards the bottom of the falls—passing an impressed Andressa and the producers saying 'great shots!'—to finally find Ben laughing in the pool at the bottom. Pedro stayed behind him and had him do laps in the eddy to get the shot.

                            Off the waterfall, Photo by Chris Korbulic
Week one and three episodes under our belts, we are working it out, and doing great. Ben and I are getting to paddle; Pedro is paddling and banking up plenty of time in front of, and behind, the camera; Andressa is taking huge steps in learning to paddle; and Daniel and Ronaldo are getting all “the shots” they need.