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Rafting expedition

9th March 2015

We have been planning some Untamed Photography expedition-type trips to some outlying, nature-filled, though challenging corners of the Madre de Dios region of Peru. Rafting down one of the picturesque rivers here is definitely on the cards, but we have to test the procedure out first to ensure it’s an activity that fits within our acceptable risk (health and safety) envelope and still allows us and our clients to get the most out of our exertions in terms of expedition and adventure photo opps and memorable experiences.

The rafting expedition test was set for December 2014. With our good friend Juan Julio Durand and his brothers (who are from the Infierno Native Community on the Tambopata River and eat jungle expeditions for breakfast, i.e. they are very experienced), and with Ellie (a Fauna Forever wildlife research intern from the USA as our stand-in for a client, as she’s always up for a new experience), I helped load a small boat powered by a two-stroke engine with just enough food, fuel, camping and cooking equipment for the 4-day trip. We didn’t plan to go too far and within 3 hours we were already heading slowly up our designated stream towards our proposed destination, where we would rest, camp, and then build a balsa-wood raft to travel back downstream on, experimenting along the way to work out the configuration of people and equipment that would allow for safe steering and safe photography. This is when things began to get interesting however.

The rainy season was late coming and the stream was not as deep as we had expected. The long shaft of the pequepeque motor began hitting the sandy bottom increasingly frequently, and before long we were all up to our knees in the water pushing and hauling the boat over the shallowest stretches. The GPS showed that by 4 pm on Day 1 we had only covered six of the main bends in the stream, of the 20 or so we were planning on putting between ourselves and the mouth before building the raft and floating back down again. So, with the sun now low in the sky, we eyed the closest sandy beach and hauled the boat towards it. We unpacked our brand new Hennessy hammocks (tough hammocks with canvas roofing, perfect for rainforest expeditions), slung them between appropriate non-ant-infested trees, placed our personal pocessions below the canvas roof, and then set up the camp fire and began cooking a plantain, chicken, and vegetable concoction that we all wolfed down as soon as it hit the plates. With digestion only half accomplished, I grabbed the camera from the waterproof Pelican case and began walking up the long, bending beach in search of photographic prey. I spent about 30 minutes time imaging a small flock of ancient-looking Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin), before heading back to the hammock for a well-deserved sleep.

We were all up at 4 am the next morning, still quite dark outside, in order to make a quick departure in our attempt to make it to our destination. The last task before jumping on the boat was to bury the camp fire, as part of our standard practise of trying to leave no trace of our presence (bar short-lived footprints). The water level had risen very slightly, maybe due to rains much further upstream, but not enough to eliminate having to walk long stretches of river. In these circumstances we had to be careful not to step on stingrays that bury themselves in the sandy bottom. Walking loudly and splashing as one goes. We stopped for a rest and a bit of food around lunchtime, before pushing on upstream once again. Shortly after we came to a full stop, as the stream depth reduced dramatically and we were faced with a rocky outcropping that crossed the whole streambed. This was Mother Nature’s way of telling us we’d gone far enough.

So, with little prospect of continuing upstream, we set up camp nearby and once again began preparing our expedition cuisine. Bees then descended upon us from nowhere, harassing us for our salty sweat (salt is a scares resource for any animal in the jungle), and invariably some of us got stung – sending us running into the water or into the thick vegetation in our efforts to get away. Later, we spotted a Giant ant eater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) crossing the stream in the distance, unfortunately too far away for any descent photography, but always a pleasure to see these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.

Raft making now became the priority. We searched and quickly found a tall Balsa tree and began to fell it with a pair of machetes. These trees are very common, grow quickly (this one was about 5 years old), and are frequently used by locals to make rafts for transporting fruit and other agricultural products to markets downstream. Nearby we also found a smaller fallen Balsa tree (probably blown over in the wind), which we also chopped into manageable pieces and manoeuvred them all into the stream, where we planned to build the raft. Using long strips of bark from the tree that we felled as rope, we lashed the now floating logs together to make our sturdy raft. Not quite up to Kon-Tiki standards, but perfect for our purposes and it only took two hours to make!

With our raft in front of us in the stream, and floating nicely despite the shallow water, we loaded it with our photography and other equipment, and even lashed one of our GoPros to the prow. With a couple of long poles cut from wild cane, we climbed on board and punted slowly downstream at virtually the same speed as the water – very relaxing and definitely beats hauling the boat (which made its way down behind us with motor off, now relieved of most of its cargo). Floating noiselessly downstream is what we were after too, as obvious human noises like boat motors will scare some species away. We had large flocks of birds, including parrots and macaws, fly right over us, we slipped past Side-necked turtles sunbathing on logs in the stream, and spotted rare Razor-billed curassow patrolling the edge of a beach. As night fell we stopped on another beach and pitched camp. The following day we reached the mouth of the stream, and pulled in to transfer everything back into the boat. We had made it!

Other than losing my balance and falling in the water once, not to mention a splinter in my foot (wear shoes on a raft, always), the rafting test was a success. We also managed to thoroughly test our waterproof Pelican cases and GoPro equipment, which did what it says on the tin (impervious to water, even when forcibly submerged).

We are now a GO for expeditions that include rafting!

Story written by Chris Kirkby