Lost in the Amazon
On day 315 of Stafford's trek along the Amazon, he encounters a flooded forest near Pevas, Peru.
Credit: Peter McBride
Ed Stafford stands about 6 feet tall, wearing flip-flops, tattered cargo pants, and a filthy T-shirt, and walks with the bouncy gait of someone who has just set down a heavy load. He has two weeks' growth of beard, an easy laugh, and dark glimmering eyes. He introduces me to his ex- pedition partner, Gadiel Sanchez Rivera, a 28-year-old Peruvian nicknamed Cho. It is 3 am, and percussive cumbia music blasts from the town's only bar, where we drink beer as Stafford fills me in on his story so far. In more than 10 months of walking he has faced poisonous snakes, navigated perilous footpaths above Class V rapids, and had his life threatened by angry tribesmen. He has traveled about 2,000 miles so far and is almost halfway to the Atlantic. "Unfortunately, this has been the easy half," he says.

Inauspiciously expelled from his posh British private school at age 17 for chopping down a tree planted by the queen, Stafford spent four years in the British Army, making the rank of captain. He was once a competitive rugby player and has a false incisor in place of the one he lost on the cricket field. He organized security logistics for the UN during Afghanistan's 2004 elections and led an expedition for a BBC nature documentary in Guyana. He wanted a life of adventure, like that of his hero Sir Ranulph Fiennes, so he and a colleague named Luke Collyer brainstormed possible expeditions they could undertake. Stafford's jungle experience in Belize and Borneo – expeditions he led to raise money for charity – gave him the idea of walking the length of the Amazon. To their surprise, it had never been done.

The expedition began on Peru's Pacific coast in April 2008, with Collyer. The pair hiked up the Colca Canyon and into the Andes, traversing several of the possible sources of the Amazon to cover all their bases. They crossed the mountains with pack burros, and from 18,000 feet began their long descent into the Amazon basin.

As Stafford sees it, there was an imbalance from the beginning. During the months of planning, securing sponsors, permits, and equipment, Collyer was busy with work, so Stafford handled most of the logistics himself. When Collyer arrived in Peru he was out of shape, didn't speak a word of Spanish, and had gotten engaged a few weeks before. "He was totally unprepared for what we were about to do,"Stafford tells me. "And that became more and more apparent as we went on. His heart just wasn't in it."

Three months in, Collyer placed a supply order that contained just one MP3 player. Stafford got angry and asked why Collyer hadn't also gotten one for him. Collyer announced that the player was for Stafford and that he was quitting the expedition. The breakdown had been a long time coming. "The MP3 player was just the final straw," says Stafford. "He claimed he was leaving because our friendship was more important to him than the expedition. For me the expedition is more important than anything." The two men haven't spoken in five months.

When I later contacted Collyer for his side of the story, he e-mailed a polite "no comment": "A lot of time has passed and I've removed myself from anything to do with the expedition," he wrote. "And I'm happy to keep it that way."

Stafford continued on alone, walking with a succession of local guides. Then, in August 2008, he met Cho in the town of Satipo, Peru. Cho had worked for some time as a forester, hiking deep into the jungle to find large specimens of the most desirable timber hardwoods: mahogany, cedar, tornillo. He had initially agreed to walk with Stafford for five days. The two didn't get along at first, but Cho grew enthusiastic about the mission and proved a tireless and loyal companion, and so Stafford brought him on as a paid partner for the remainder of the expedition.

"He's got balls of steel, and he's as keen as I am to complete this expedition," says Stafford. "He's taken the whole thing on as a sort of personal challenge as much as I have. And to find someone like that has been a real key. You just can't do something like this alone." Stafford now has someone to share the weight of food and gear and help bridge the language gap, but Cho's greatest value is psychological: the sheer relief of having someone to watch your back. They have been walking together for seven months now, and Cho has committed to sticking with Stafford until they reach the Atlantic, however long that takes.

Which may be a very long time. Stafford originally planned to travel about 10 miles a day, which he soon realized was "vastly overoptimistic." At that rate he would have reached the Colombia-Brazil border by Christmas. But it was already February, and Colombia is more than 100 miles east of us. The rainy season is in full swing, and the forests alongside the main channel have begun to flood. Stafford and Cho have gotten a taste of that in the last two weeks, crossing the wide delta where the Rio Napo joins the Amazon. "The forests were completely flooded, waist high, sometimes head high," Stafford tells me. "We were scrambling over tree trunks under the water. There's a species of palm here where the entire trunk is covered with three-inch spikes. They were like needles driving straight into our knees."