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Magical journey into the heart of the Rio Negro

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.

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Ghillean Prance showing the spiny undersurface of the Victoria water lily (Victoria amazonica) Image: S. A. Mori

Lyme Regis Botanist’s Hairy Adventures in Amazonia

Sir Ghillean Prance is a qualified outboard motor mechanic who lives in Lyme Regis and has been on 39 expeditions to the Amazon.

He has other credentials (so many, in truth, they’d fill up this entire page, but to give just one example, when he was Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, he was the first winner of the International Cosmos Prize) but he himself has always been proud of his ability to fix boats. Which makes sense. If you’re exploring the regions surrounding the world’s biggest river, you don’t want to find yourself going over the top of a waterfall in a canoe because your motor has failed to start. This accident once occurred on a New York Botanical Garden expedition to the Amazon, and two people were killed.

Sir Ghillean — known for short as Iain — worked for the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) for 25 years, from 1963 to 1988. His new book That Glorious Forest: Exploring the Plants and Their Indigenous Uses in Amazonia is published by the NYBG Press and is an account of his many expeditions. It was written in part when Iain was laid up with his leg in plaster after snapping his Achilles tendon while dancing the samba in Brazil. He was leading a group of eco-tourists at the time. As he rather ruefully acknowledges, what a way to come a cropper, after all the dangers he went through on expeditions!

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