Magical journey into the heart of the Rio Negro

Piranha fish ready for the grill
Piranha fish ready for the grill

Ryall farmer Michael West and his wife Betsy recently explored Amazonia on an eco-cruise up the Rio Negro, which is also Sir Ghillean Prance’s favourite Amazonian river, ‘because of its striking beauty. The water is clear and black because of all the tannic matter dissolved in it. This makes it likes a mirror’

“You won’t see anything but trees,” said one of my more cynical friends, as my wife and I set off to fulfil one of my lifelong ambitions, to explore remote Amazonia.

We travelled on the Rio Negro — 300kms from Manaus up the left bank and 350kms down the right bank to the Meeting of the Waters, where the espresso Negro joins with the café-au-lait Solimoes to become, again, the Amazon proper on its journey to the sea. The Rio Negro is immense, some 2250kms long and, at times, 30kms wide; the longest blackwater river in the world. Unlike the Amazon, there is little river traffic apart from local tradesmen visiting the very few sparsely populated villages along its course. The depth of the river increases by 17 metres from the dry (less wet) to the wet season.

We left our boat three or four times a day, to trek through the jungle with no sound but soft footfalls and the drips of sweat on the forest floor. We floated in a small pirogue along the many inlets, before dawn when the sounds of the forest increase with the rising of the sun and after sunset when eerie eyes reflect in the rays of our torches. As we glided along the inlets, we entered a world of magical realism where the semi-submerged trees are reflected in the still, dark waters and it’s difficult to see where the magic ends and the realism begins.

Apart from the dozen or so passengers on board, we saw no sign of human life other than a score of riverside villagers going about their remote daily lives. Few people, no radio, no television, no phone signal, no wifi; only the silence of the river and the gentle chug of the diesel engine. For a week we felt as if we were in a different world, perhaps on the set of The African Queen (yes, I know that’s a different continent) or Fitzcarraldo or the pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Our boat, the Tucano, anchored
Our boat, the Tucano, anchored

Back on shore, as a “collector” of opera houses around the world, I was bowled over by the theatre in Manaus; it really beats the lot for sheer opulence, craftsmanship, architecture — and wonderful acoustic withal. Glass from Venice, marble from Carrara, roof tiles from Alsace, furnishings from France, stone from England, ironwork from Glasgow; only the wood is from Brazil. And, presumably, the slave labour.

Contrary to my expectations, we did not succumb to malaria or yellow fever, we were not attacked by poison darts or anaconda, we were not bitten by piranha (although we did catch a few and eat them); we also ate a different variety of river fish each day. We did, however, survive attack by a horde of aggressive piranha bees nesting in the ruins of a jungle mansion built by a long-dead rubber baron.

Meeting of the waters
Meeting of the waters

We saw over 70 bird species, howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys and squirrel monkeys, sloths, tree boas and caymans, all manner of invertebrates from tarantulas the size of my hand to bullet ants, walking trees and blowpipe trees and vegetation used by the Indians to cure disease and ward off the evil eye.

It was the journey of a lifetime and we’d do it again in an instant. Nothing but trees, eh?

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