Amazon dreams dashed

Du Plessis recovering in Lima / courtesy

Davey du Plessis, a 24-year-old South African adventure traveler, is in critical, but stable condition recovering in a Lima hospital after a harrowing run-in with Peruvian villagers along on the Ucayali River on Saturday. Attempting a solo, human-powered, cycling-hiking-tubing-paddling descent of the Amazon, du Plessis hoped to become the youngest person to navigate the river system source-to-sea. Tragically, a pair of young men shot du Plessis multiple times (with shotgun shrapnel lodging in his face, neck, torso, and arms), robbed him, and left him for dead along the river before he managed to find local help. After assisted transport downstream to a clinic in the city of Pucallpa, he contacted family, who secured help to airlift du Plessis to the Lima hospital.

Much of the tragedy unfolded over Facebook, as du Plessis had been regularly updating his World Wanderer Facebook page via satellite connection. His Friday FB post just prior to the run-in was telling as aggressive river dolphins forced him from the middle of the current closer to the river shore: “One of them came up to the boat and hit it from under, it nearly destroyed the kayak … I am going to paddle close to the edge of the river to avoid this again … It gets quite harrowing at night, when you have the local indigenous fisherman, banging on the tent, fortunately thus far they are just inquisitive But enough to frighten me!”

Unfortunately, by early Sunday morning, du Plessis’s Facebook page had turned into a sounding board as the adventurer’s mother, Robyn Spence Wolff, posted updates and attempted to put the pieces together from her home in Mount Edgcombe, South Africa.

According to an Independent Online (South Africa) news story, Spence Wolff got a call from her son early Sunday after he managed to escape the scene with only the clothes on his back, making his way five kilometers through the jungle to secure help from villagers: “He tried calling out [to the tribe], but because of the gunshot to his neck, no sound came out,” she said in the story. “He managed to attract their attention and ask for help. They wanted money to help him and when he said he didn’t have any, they took him to another tribe where he was left in a boat for four hours while the people argued about who was going to help him, until he started vomiting blood.”

A veteran of cycling expeditions, du Plessis summitted what some consider the Amazon’s Andean source, 18,363-foot Mount Mismi in late July. However, du Plessis was new to kayaking for the paddling portion of the trip, setting off from Kitani in early August to connect the Rio Urubamba upper Amazon tributary to the Ucayali. According to du Plessis’s Facebook post on Aug. 8, “Turns out I grossly underestimated the whitewater and also the fragility of my kayak. On my first day paddling, managed 70km but a lot of walking with the kayak and on my last stretch I went straight into a rock and capsized the boat. Almost lost everything in a very short few seconds. Due to the whitewater, I have opted to swim with a tube down river. Its about 40km with a steady flowing 4-5knot current.”

West Hansen, who is currently in the midst of his own National Geographic Amazon Express expedition, attempting a source-to-sea speed record, contacted du Plessis and confirmed in a recent post on his expedition website that du Plessis was traveling the Ucayali River between Pucallpa and Bolognesi in his inner tube — contrary to the Associated Press story that he was traveling in his kayak at the time of the incident — when, “two guys, about 20 years of age came out of the jungle and shot him with no verbal interaction or pretense.”

Folbot owner Eric Thome said that though his company had helped arrange the transport of his 15-foot Folbot Kodiak along with some expedition equipment, that du Plessis had bought the kayak on his own. “Definitely a scary situation and we unfortunately do not have a lot of news or details,” Thome said. Du Plessis had admitted on his expedition website that he “had absolutely no experience paddling a river, especially of this scale, nor had I ever paddled in a foldable kayak.

“This was going to be many first for me, but I decided to do what I always do – take precautions with a pinch of salt, trust in my capabilities and remain naive to any opinions or news,” he wrote. “At the end of the day no matter what I hear, my path has been chosen and what happens will happen, so I opt for ruminating and believing in the positive and remaining optimistic. Naivety and a lack of knowledge is sometimes the best way of remaining positive and optimistic.”

Stay tuned to for more updates on this story, on Hansen’s descent, and on Rocky Contos’s current source-to-sea Amazon expedition. Check out the ExplorersWeb story that puts this trio of Amazon efforts in the context of the river’s historic, successful source-to-sea expeditions.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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