Planet Hiker
2005-01-25 Canoeing in a jungle, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia


I woke up to the roar of the rain pounding against the roof. There were occasional thunders, striking somewhere near by, but they were dwarfed by the immensity of the tropical storm that was quickly flooding the town. We had little time to waist. After quickly packing a large duffle bag with the needed supplies, Matt swung the door open and without hesitation made a bold step out into the street, sinking knee deep in water. We knew that we are going to get wet, so there was no point of trying to avoid the rain. Marching through the middle of the streets, we made our way to the tour operator agency, enjoying the fact that we were not being bothered by the rain.

At the agency we were met with bewildered eyes. The previous day we made arrangements there to rent a motorised boat that would tow a dugout canoe (the type that is made out of a single piece of wood, still commonly used by the Indians) and us up the river far enough so that it would take us 4 days to drift down.

“You mean you want to leave in this weather?!! But it’s raining! You better come back the next day” complained the clerk. There were several other groups of tourists in the office and they were all being told the same. Of course, to Matt and I it was obvious that the boat drivers preferred to stay dry and thus the agency simply resorted to turning the tourists down, knowing that hardly any of them would object. But we objected.

“This is supposed to be an agency of professional guides” I told them, “and a little rain should not stop you from going up the river”.

“Oh, well, we sure can do it, but it’s you that we are worried about”, uttered the clerk, having his ego a bit bruised. But that’s exactly what I needed to hear. I assured him that getting wet is not a problem for us and to reinforce this notion, I took couple of steps out to the street and demonstrated that the rain does not dissolve me on contact. There was nothing left for the clerk to do other than to start preparing the boat for departure.

Soon, we were making our way up the river while dodging whirlpools and fast approaching logs, torn loose by the storm. There were many spots where the river was making sharp turns, or had tall waves generated by the turbulent currents. As we passed them, Jorge, the captain, pointed out how to safely tackle these obstacles. But it was unrealistic for Matt and I to remember every corner of the river, not to mention that the river conditions could easily change drastically in the matter of hours.

By the evening, after driving for 5 hours, Jorge pulled to one of the sandbanks and told us to unload. “How about a beer in 3 days?” joked Matt. But Jorge reassured him that it will take full 4 days of canoeing to reach Rurrenabaque. On that note, he pushed off and we were left completely alone, smack in the middle of the jungle. Using a machete, we cleared out a spot for the tent, tied the canoe to a small tree and settled to cooking dinner.

Even though the rain had stopped, the river was still rising and there was a very real possibility of waking up in the middle of the night with the tent being filled up with water from underneath. If this was to happen, we would abandon the tent and would try getting some sleep in the canoe, rolled up in a tarp. And to avoid having to fish for our equipment in the morning, we strung everything together with a rope and anchored it to a tree.

Fortunately, the rain did not resume during the night and the morning greeted us with a warm smile of the bright sun. We had breakfast, watching the colourful parrots race across the ski while stirring up the jungle with their loud cries. Since we were in no hurry, Matt unveiled his fishing rod and introduced me to the art of fly-fishing. Even though we did not catch anything after half hour of walking up and down the river, it was still a lot of fun just to be swinging the bait above our heads then flinging it way out into the river.

While the start of the day was relaxing and lazy, it all changed when we loaded the canoe and started our journey down the river. The storm from the night before had eroded the banks, toppling giant trees across the river. Navigating around these obstacles proved to be a tricky business. There were places where the river was wide and we had time to paddle to safety. But on two other occasions, the strong current slammed us against the fallen trees, capsizing the canoe. Having foreseen such a possibility, we tied our duffel bag, the daypacks and the ores to the canoe. The life jackets, however, in order to be of any use, had to be left untied. We decided to wear them while on the River Beni, as it was fast and wide, but not while floating down River Hondo, since it was no more than 30 meters across. Besides, every time we ran into a fallen tree, the canoe along with everything on it, would be pushed under the water by the strong current. Thus, a person wearing a life jacket would be caught in the branches and possibly drown, unable to swim out.

The first time the canoe capsized, one of the life jackets did in fact get caught in the branches of a tree, that was fallen smack in the middle of the river, while we, along with the canoe, drifted down about 100 meters before being able to reach the shore. Since there was no way to swim up the river, as the current was too strong, I decided to walk through the jungle along the river and then swim across to retrieve the life jacket. Being fearful of the current, I took off my pants and the long sleeve shirt to minimize the drag while shimming. But the 15 minute walk through the jungle rewarded me with such a horrendous number of mosquito bites my feet swelled as if ligaments were torn in them. Never the less, I did retrieve the life jacket and after pumping the water out of the canoe, we were back in business, for a little while at least.

Second time around, the canoe itself got stuck and the current pushed it way down, burying it between thick branches. Pulling against the current was of no use so we tried pushing it through the branches. After about 20 minutes of shoving and tugging, we found ourselves exhausted, cold and approaching hypothermia, with the canoe being not an inch closer to freedom. Our problem was that we could not figure out which branch was pinning the canoe down and the strong current was making it very difficult to carefully examine its perimeter. Since we had no saw or a hatched to cut down the branches, the scary realisation that we may have to abandon the canoe was beginning to sip into our minds. In such a case, we’d cut the ropes that were securing the duffel bag to the canoe, swim with it to shore and then using the machete, try to construct a raft out of small branches and the life jackets. As the last act of pure desperation, we started yanking on the canoe in all possible directions, kicking the branches and putting weight on anything that gave way. Suddenly, I heard a loud pop of a rope snapping, and the canoe started slowly swinging around. Apparently, it was one of the ropes with which we attached the daypacks that was caught in a branch.

Once again, we pumped the water out of the canoe and continued our journey, but being too exhausted and hungry, we stopped at the first sandbank and prepared camp.

The following morning we took off early, as we wanted to make up for the lost time. We analysed our mistakes from the day before and came to conclusion that it’s better to pass on the outside of the turn when faced with an obstacle. With this approach, there would be a small risk of a tree falling on us, while we are passing by (you may think that the probability of this happening is insignificant but there really were trees falling every half hour or so), however, the current would be helping us by pushing the canoe away from an obstacle. Also, since there is a lot of complicated coordination involved when both people are rowing, we decided to try having only the person at the stern of the boat be active. Thus, the person at the bow would relax for couple of hours and then the positions would be swapped.

Passing the first half of the day with no accidents proved that the new arrangements are sound. In fact, things may have been working out too well, as by 1:00 pm we came to the end of River Hondo, where it joined with River Beni. With 6 hours of daylight left, we decided to make a run for Rurrenabaque.

River Beni was much faster but it was also two or three times wider, which made manoeuvring through it a much simpler task. With Matt being in control of the vessel, I felt fully relaxed. Instead of keeping an eye on the river, I laid back, watching the ski and listening to the sounds of the jungle. There was the constant racket of the insects played against the background of the river’s whispers, occasionally interrupted by the yells of the howler monkeys or agitated parrots. Pretty soon I closed my eyes, loosing myself in the fuzzy, borderline world of day dreams and reality.

When I woke up some time later, instead of seeing the trees on the shoreline come towards me, I was shocked to discover them moving away from me. I quickly sat up and in another moment realized that not only the canoe is floating backwards, but it is also in a gentle spin. I looked at Matt and found him sitting on the edge of the canoe, with his feet in the water, smoking a cigarette, having completely abandoned control of the vessel. There was something brilliant about letting the river carry us without our forceful interventions. The river knew where to go and it took us there.

I got up and sat at the very tip of the bow. Even though we were drifting at about 25 miles per hour, the relative speed to the water was near zero. There was a continuum of small turbulences raising sediment and swirling it in intricate, fractal like patterns. One of my favourite things to watch is how milk swirls in a cup of coffee and here, I was IN such a cup, with the swirls all around me. While looking at these patterns, I felt like I was standing still. But once I looked up, my sense of balance would be stunned by the images of trees zooming by just 30 meters on the side. It was in between these two, strikingly different worlds that we drifted for several hours without asserting any control.

While the canoe rotated, as if in a slow waltz with the sediment swirls, showcasing what the river looks like from different perspectives, we crossed a range of small cliffs and began to notice signs of civilization - we were getting close to Rurrenabaque. With a heavy sense of reluctance, we paddled towards the shore. In a few more minutes, we anchored the canoe for the last time, acknowledging that even though our adventure lasted for only 3 days, it was everything that we hoped for.

The only photo taken on this trip:


A few photos taken around Rurrenabaque: