Ed Stafford walked the Amazon with a Hennessy Hammock
A report from the field as Ed Stafford describes the contents of his rucksack as he attempts to become the first person to walk the entire length of the Amazon River.
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS: KEITH DUCATEL
As Luke and I dipped our toes in the Pacific Ocean to start the transcontinental walk that would take us over the Andes and down the length of the Amazon River, we could hardly stand up. ‘Your pack is ridiculous!’ I mocked. It looked like Luke had an overflowing garden shed strapped to his back.
‘You can talk,’ he retorted. ‘Look at your shoulder straps, they’re torn already.’ It was true: the first day of a two-year expedition and I’d ripped the top shoulder adjuster clean off the harness.
Editor's note: this is an older article, but we felt it has enough human interest to repost here. This article from the May 2009 issue of the Royal Geographical Society's magazine Geographic was supplied to us by Ed himself. He successfully completed his venture in 860 days. You can read his full account of the journey at www.walkingtheamazon.comWe had more than 45 kilograms in each of our packs: a sign of our lack of any notion of what lay ahead and what we would need to tackle it. At the end of the first day, the woman who owned the village shop invited us to put up our single-skin, one-person tents in her back garden. She must have thought we were very appreciative, because she received binoculars, phrase books, spare hats, spare trousers and fishing hooks and line in return... the list went on and on as we desperately tried to find more things to ditch.
This is the fifth expedition to attempt to navigate the Amazon River from its farthest source in Peru to its mouth in Brazil. Only one of these expeditions started, as we did, from the Pacific coast. That was Mike Horn’s inspirational hydrospeed expedition in 1997–98. We wanted to do the whole thing on foot, which has never been attempted before. We got so annoyed by everybody telling us that it was impossible that, in true British fashion, we had to go and prove them wrong.
Seven months on, I’m tucked up in the sweaty jungle town of Contamana in the northern Peruvian Amazon. With well over 1,600 kilometres under my belt, the arid coast and the snow-capped Andes are now just distant memories – as, too, is Luke, who left the expedition after three months. My pack is still functional only because many hours of crude sewing have made it so. It now weighs a more sensible 31 kilograms without food. When I’m walking, I no longer notice it.
This is now an out-and-out jungle expedition. My Gucci salopettes and Bavarian goose-down jacket were parcelled up and sent home a long time ago. So what makes up the 31 kilograms of weight?
First, there’s the rucksack. No, it doesn’t need wheels. No, it doesn’t need to double as an over-the-shoulder suitcase. It does need to be top-loading, have an adjustable harness, and be able to accommodate at least 75 litres of kit. In the mountains, mine was a whopping 95-litre workhorse; for the jungle, I’m switching to an 80-litre climbing pack. Its lower profile allows me to get under vines and branches much more easily. I don’t need as much kit in the jungle anyway.
I’ve customised my pack to hold two water bottles and two pouches on the belt. One bottle is for drinking; the other contains water being purified with iodine. It’s a rotation system that ensures I have water on hand at all times, which is absolutely essential in the jungle, where dehydration is a constant threat.
The other two pouches are for my GPS unit, compass, suntan lotion, waterproof head torch and DEET-based mosquito repellent. These are all the things that I need to have to hand. I’m not sure if I should admit this, but I also always have my toothbrush and toothpaste in these pouches. I hate having unbrushed teeth.
Everything inside the pack is stored inside a 100-litre waterproof rucksack liner. Within that rubber liner, each item is compartmentalised and has its place. It may seem rather regimented, but it’s essential for me to know exactly where everything is at all times. I don’t want to be searching for the medical kit or the satellite phone when an emergency arises. It also means that I’m on autopilot each morning and, from sleeping, can be up and walking in about five minutes, unless I want to eat breakfast.
I’m now using a hammock sleeping system rather than a tent. Hennessy Hammocks is a Canadian company that makes an ingenious all-in-one hammock and mosquito net that you enter through a flap in the bottom. Having used the old military hammocks in the past, I love the Hennessy concept. Its hammocks are lighter, quicker to erect and pack up in seconds. You can sprawl around and turn over as much as you like.
The one drawback with the version I’m using is that it isn’t completely mosquito-proof if you sleep with your bare skin against the hammock. That’s because your body weight stretches open the fabric just enough to allow the little blighters access to your blood. To its credit, Hennessy has acknowledged this and has made me a bespoke double-skin version. I sleep with a lightweight single-season sleeping bag and use a silk liner – both to stop the bag getting too stinky and on its own as a cooler option on hot nights.
All of Hennessy’s hammocks come with the option of the superb Hex Fly, which is an enormous hexagonal waterproof flysheet. It covers the hammock with room to spare, allowing you to cook, administrate and even have meetings with four or five people out of the rain.
On the subject of rain, the one thing that’s surprisingly unnecessary is waterproof clothing. The humidity and temperature are so high that I’m normally drenched with sweat all day long. Days when it rains are actually more comfortable, as I find the air is fresher and less sticky. The one concession to this is that if you’re going to move around in an open vehicle or boat, you may want a lightweight waterproof jacket or poncho, as the resulting windchill can make life rather nippy if you’re wearing a wet cotton T-shirt. Personally, I prefer to save the weight. I could theoretically use the Hex Fly as an improvised jacket should the need arise.
Clothing is very simple and doesn’t need to cost much. I carry two sets: one for the day (often wet) and one for the night (always dry). Long trousers and long-sleeved shirts are the rule, but I just wear a cheap, locally bought T-shirt during the day as this garment has less material to get soaked. A quick-drying fabric is great, but make sure the trousers are tough enough to resist rips from thorns and spiky plants. I impregnated my clothing and mosquito net with the insect repellent permethrin before I left home as it definitely helps prevent bites, but I’m well overdue a re-dipping now.
After years of smirking at walking poles, I now love using them in the hills. But they have no place in the jungle. I need to use my hands as stabilisers on branches and for wielding my machete.
A young boy’s dream and a tool with a fantastic diversity of uses, the machete is invaluable in the rainforest. My preference has always been for a slightly longer machete rather than a shorter Borneo-style parang. I think it probably comes down to where you were first introduced to jungle living. For me, a 40-centimetre blade cuts through most things. The key is to use the weight of the blade and to keep it scrupulously sharp, as it then requires much less effort to cut through vines and branches.
There are probably more than 1,000 river crossings over the course of this expedition. At the river’s mouth, some of these crossings will be more than 16 kilometres wide. My personal solution has been inflatable pack-rafts with travel paddles. They are the size of a roll mat when deflated. Without them, this expedition would not be possible. It means that when we reach water, we inflate them in less than two minutes, attach our packs to the front, and paddle across.
I’ve been walking with three guides recently. Two are indigenous Asháninkas and one is mixed-race Peruvian. It was taking us forever to cross the rivers because we had to shuttle the two one-man craft back and forth to get everyone across. The bold answer was simply to try fitting two people and two full rucksacks in each boat. It worked – beautifully – and this has now become our standard practice. The total weight in each boat is around 195 kilograms.
Finally, I have an MP3 player, which I’m using to help me learn Portuguese as I approach Brazil, as well as getting my daily dose of Kate Nash’s music. Life would be unbearable without her.