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
In the morning the children of the village sit in a hut to watch a badly dubbed version of Jean-Claude van Damme's Kickboxer, and then spill out into the intense sunlight to practice their new moves. They watch raptly as Stafford, Cho, and I organize our gear. My frame pack is stuffed with a waterproof canoe bag; within that are smaller dry bags and Ziplocs, a system that keeps things dry while making them impossible to find. Stafford's bag, a battered 100-liter monster that weighs in at 75 pounds, contains everything he needs to be a self-documenting one-man 21st century expedition. "My kit would be a lot lighter if I wasn't trying to blog this whole thing," he says, as he double- and triple- bags the sensitive electronics that are his only link to the outside world.

Part of Stafford's mission statement is to document the customs and perceptions of the tribes he encounters and the environmental issues facing the region, as well as raise $200,000 for a host of charities. Yet he is the first to admit that he is doing this mainly because it has never been done, and because he wants to have an extraordinary life and support himself with adventures. There's something anachronistic about the project, a "because it's there" attitude that could be criticized as a risky ego trip. I ask Stafford if he feels as if he belongs in an earlier era, perhaps that of Captain Cook or Admiral Byrd. "I feel like I was born at exactly the right time," he says. "I don't think a middle-class individual would have been able to do this sort of thing before." And he admits to an "element of pride about the whole thing," adding, "If anyone has got a problem with it, they should come try it themselves."

Stafford has acquired a full set of 40-year-old National Geographic Institute of Peru 1:100,000 topographical maps, still the most accurate available. In conjunction with his handheld GPS, they actually provide fairly decent route-finding. He shows me his new route, tracing a band of altitude that should – he hopes – help us avoid walking through a swamp and make for faster travel. "One of the odd things about walking the length of the Amazon," he says, "is that you don't actually see the river very much."

For each leg of his walk, Stafford tries to hire a local guide, someone with knowledge of the forest who can help pick the most efficient route. In Oran he has engaged the services of Mario, a 62-year-old farmer and father of 12, who has been hunting these forests for five decades. Mario doesn't stand an inch above 5 feet, and his gear is the minimalist opposite of Stafford's: Everything he needs is stuffed into a small flour sack that he carries by a cloth strap across his forehead. The only other items he has are rubber boots, a machete, and an ancient rusting shotgun, in case he stumbles across dinner.

Shouldering our packs, we turn away from the river and cross a cow field behind the village, the tropical sun crushing down on us. A few 100-foot shade trees have been left standing alone, a sobering indication of the original height of the rain forest's triple canopy. This part of the Amazon, too remote and flood-prone to be easily exploited, still offers glimpses of the devastation wrought elsewhere.

We make our way up a slope, and within minutes we plunge into the tangled green wall that closes off the edge of the forest, leaving the bright world behind. Even at noon on the equator, the jungle is dim, the filtered green sunlight offering little sense of direction or time. The air is cooler, sounds are muffled, and the line of sight is reduced to a dozen yards through the dense understory tangle of creeping vines, lianas, and sprawling root systems. Huge trunks shoot up through the canopy, clung to by vines and strangler figs, giant bromeliads hanging like chandeliers. An astonishing amount of biomass claws upward, trying to bridge the gap between the limitless water of the ground and the limitless sunshine of the forest roof. You can almost hear it growing. The leaf litter on the ground is a foot-deep cushion, and there is no sound but the drone of insects and the distant calls of birds.

Mario leads the way along a barely perceptible path. His machete seems to be an extension of his body, and he parts the jungle with deft ease, using only the tip of the blade to slice thick vines and huge leaves. Stafford has also become adept with the indispensable machete but still relies on brute force to hack his way through obstacles. The diminutive Mario doesn't even sweat and seems to expend almost no effort as the trail parts before him with a flick of his wrist.

Taking up the rear, I'm already soaked through with sweat as we balance our way across mossy logsspanning tea-colored streams and scramble over waist-high buttress roots. Mosquitoes swarm around us, and hordes of stinging ants brush off from overhanging leaves or the trunks of trees. Even the vegetation has evolved with its own aggressive microspecializations. There are spike-covered roots that seem to grow exactly where a handhold is required, vines like rubber bands that wrap around my ankles, and thorny tendrils that snatch the hat right off my head. The worst by far is serrated razor grass, which slices through clothing and skin with the lightest touch. Stafford has been told there are endless stretches of razor grass down river in Brazil, another obstacle to add to the preposterously overfull roster that stands between him and the mouth of the Amazon.

A few times Mario stops dead and points off into the underbrush. I see nothing moving at all. "Pit viper," Stafford tells me. I've researched enough about the variety of horrible deaths on offer in the Amazon to know that a pit viper's hemotoxin causes massive hemorrhaging, bleeding from the eyes and ears, necrosis, then death. "Oh, don't worry," Stafford says cheerfully. "We've got six doses of dry antivenin, enough to last 18 hours, and there's a military rescue helicopter in Iquitos. The worst-case scenario is if you were bit at sunset, because the helicopters can't fly at night. But we'd be able to keep you alive until dawn." Well, then. No worries. The expedition has already come across 10 pit vipers, all but one of which have been quickly dispatched by their guide's machetes. In stark contrast to our own conservation dogma, no local guide would let a poisonous snake escape if he could help it.

The only anaconda they had come across while walking was a beautiful 12-footer that Stafford stopped to film. When he'd finished, his native guide hacked the creature into pieces. "He said it was to feed to his dog," Stafford tells me. "But one of the things I learned early on was that there was no point in trying to impose my Western sensibility on the people who live here. They do what they do to survive. They don't think of animals as having any value except food."

In late afternoon we find a small stream and stop for the night. After months of sleeping out, Stafford and Cho have reduced setting up camp to a science. I have not reached that point and very nearly dismember myself with the machete while trying to clear an area of underbrush. Eventually I get a tent fly strung between two trees as a shelter. This way camp can be made even in a driving rain. The key piece of equipment is the expedition hammock, enclosed by mosquito netting and entered via a Velcro- sealed slit in its bottom.

Cho and Stafford assemble a structure of damp green wood on which to build a fire and support the cook pot, gathering standing deadwood from the forest for fuel. It's a miracle the fire will catch with wood that is drenched daily, but Cho soon has a crackling blaze and puts on a pot of stream water. Dinner is boiled rice with canned tuna bought from a supply store in the last village we'd passed through. "When I first began, I thought there would be much more of a survivalist element, fishing and living off the land," says Stafford. "But as it's happened, we come across villages often enough that we can resupply or pay villagers to cook for us. That's been the most surprising aspect: how much we've had to deal with people. I had imagined it would be emptier, more man versus nature." He realized that the cultural interchange with the people of the Amazon was an integral part of the expedition. He also realized that it was easier to start a fire with a cheap plastic lighter than with flint and steel.

Even though we're coated with DEET the mosquitoes are swarming around us, and as the equatorial night drops fast I crawl into my hammock and close myself in. A symphony of insects performs, multilayered, shockingly loud. Thousands of mosquitoes tap against the netting, probing for an entrance. The cough-like whoops of howler monkeys echo in the distance. Then a low hiss builds and builds, until the temperature drops and the rain opens up like a jet taking off, drowning all other sound, enshrouding the night.

In the morning I put on my still-wet clothes from the previous day. Wrung out is as dry as any of us ever get, and Stafford tells me to look out for foot rot, staph-infected cuts, and all the other bacterial and fungal delights of the Amazon's petri-dish environment. In an uncaffeinated haze I remember that you are supposed to shake your boots out before putting them back on in the jungle. I tap one upside down and a cricket the size of a sparrow clambers out and hops away.