27th Sept 2022, from the Daily Telegraph
"Are you sure this is such a good idea?” I asked myself as the frontiersmen chucked ashore my gear – my rucksack, my rations, anything that might help me cope out here alone for a few weeks – and reversed the boat from the shore.
A quick selfie taken when alone in NE Amazon a month ago. (c) Benedict Allen
I stood there in the blistering heat, left all by myself on the riverbank, about to launch off into the rainforest – and again tried to absorb the news. It was worrying enough that on the very day I’d departed with all my gear from the state capital, Macapá, two journalists – a fellow Brit, Dom Phillips, together with Brazilian Bruno Pereira – had disappeared over on the Javari, at the Peruvian border. But now we’d learned that even the army was getting involved, some 250 men about to comb the region for them. At a time when the Brazilian Amazon was subject to all manner of illegal incursions, by loggers, “wild cat” goldminers and cocaine traffickers, it didn’t look good.
Yet here I was, also about to head off into the trees – and without so much as a guide, GPS or satellite phone. True, this was my skillset. Immersing myself in little understood worlds was what I’d done my entire adult life. But dealing with a threat from the Amazon’s numerous opportunists, on top of any issue posed by the actual forest, was a different matter.
Back in 1992, I had had my own “run in” with a gang on the Javari – a couple of loggers had guided me along a trail up in the headwaters – then ran off with my bags, leaving me with nothing.
As for the venture I was engaged in now, I had come to this spot because it was the very place where things had again gone badly wrong because of fellow humans – and, as usual, not indigenous humans.
Back to the future
On that occasion, my very first expedition, way back in 1983, I had been attacked by two goldminers – they had come for me in the night with knives. Aged just 23, I’d dashed to my canoe, capsized here on the Iratapuru in the rapids, and then had to walk to the Outside World. For three weeks or so I had stumbled on without possessions, contracting first one strain of malaria and then another. Yet somehow I had made it, eventually collapsing into the daylight some 65 miles to the north east.
And now, at last, having spent my life ever since exploring the lesser-known corners of our globe, I had come back. I wanted to know what had kept me alive at such a young age, all that time ago.
On the first expedition, a traverse of the northern Amazon in 1983, before the attack by goldminers. (c) Benedict Allen
I lifted up my rucksack and took a deep breath. And immediately, entering in among the trees, it came back to me – how it was back then as I ran for my life. The forest was the same – the dank odours, the Blue Morpho butterflies zipping through. I was not the same, though – that was the difference. And as I pressed on through the stifling air, splashing through the mud, parting the leaves, it was made obvious to me that I was following in the footsteps of a very much younger man. For the rainforest has a way of picking people apart.
It comes to us all, I thought to myself as I panted and sweated. Slowly, despite our best efforts, we succumb to the years. The grip on our machete loosens, the length of our stride shortens. We must apply what energy we have more judiciously, planning, delegating, trusting to the wisdom we’ve garnered, we hope, through the years. And we must banish those creeping doubts that afflict us – but not the young.
As I made my way, fending off mosquitoes and ants, I reassured myself that this time too, everything would be all right – just as long as I didn’t bump into any more marauding goldminers, most of whom should be just to the west. Each day I followed in my youthful footsteps along a north-easterly compass bearing, and each evening, just as I used to, I slumped around the campfire, sought encouragement from the flames as the darkness closed in, just as it used to.
A young man's game
There was of course much joy to be had – the satisfaction of gathering up Brazil nuts, the simple beauty of a fragile orchid among the warring trees. Once, a tortoise woke me at night, knocking against an obstructive root as I lay in my hammock.
However, as time went by, it became ever clearer: repeat the momentous journey of my youth and I would die, regardless of any fellow intruders encountered. For being an explorer is a young man’s game, it seems, and one benefit of fleeing for your life with little more than what you’re wearing is that you don’t have to stagger onward through the thorns carrying 25kg of luggage.
All those years ago I’d trotted along free of possessions and buoyed by youthful self-belief. I’d kept going, I understood now, because there was no other choice if I wanted to see my mum and dad again. That knowledge too, had unburdened me.
Alone on the first expedition of 1982-83 (c) Benedict Allen
Finally, I decided to turn around. I made my way back through the trees, reminded all the way of the lesson of four decades ago. Yes, it was a tricky business to hike day after day alone in this humidity – of course it was. But this time, once again, I hadn’t succumbed to any of the interesting creatures that populated the tales of so many explorers – the jaguars, snakes and spiders, or razor-toothed piranhas that I presently enjoyed as a snack. The greater threat lay elsewhere.
On the return journey from the Iratapuru (c) Benedict Allen
So, when I did finally make it back to Macapá and read the sad reports that Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira had been found dead, I was not the least surprised to hear that the culprit was not an anaconda or some such wild beast but an illegal fisherman or perhaps gang of them – just the kind of opportunists who had long ago almost killed me too.
I should be profoundly grateful, I reflected as I headed home, that my own journeys had had a more favourable outcome. Once, long ago, when I too was set upon, the Amazon had become like a hell to me – a horizonless prison from which I thought I’d never make my escape. But now it seemed to me that all those trees had, in a sense, shown a very great forbearance, and rather more than my own kind.