The Transamazon Highway

Tour Reports Part 1: Belém to Rio Tocantins


Belém to Tucuruí (Rio Tocantins), 400 km

Deutsche Version The following text was written on tour Oct. 11th 1999 in Tucurui, Brazil and originally posted on the Mailing List:

After a long overnight flight I arrive at sunrise at Rio International Airport.

My well-packed bicycle is down in the baggage compartment, but it will take some more time before I can release it from its cardboard. My connecting flight to Belém, in the north of Brazil, will leave only late in the evening. This gives me enough time to catch the next bus in front of the terminal to escape to the other end of the city, to the places where the "Cidade Maravilhosa ", the marvelous city, is worth to be called so, to the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.

I feel very tired after the long overnight flight, yet I have to defend myself already that early in the morning of ambiguous offers of friendly ladies. It is quite warm, but cloudy, so that today - except the ladies working here "with tourists" - hardly any Carioca can be found.

Fortunately I made an appointment for the afternoon. I met with Lucia, a cyclist from Rio, whom I met while preparing this tour on the Internet. A quick phone call to combine the exact meeting point, fortunately the beach bars are numbered, so that one can hardly miss each other. Lucia takes me to an excellent Churrascaria in Ipanema. For those who don't know, let me explain: A Churrascaria is the nightmare of every vegetarian: Only to show your good education you serve yourself with some salad and vegetables from the buffet. Then you sit and wait. The waiters run by with huge junks of meat, roasted over the open fire and cut fresh pieces of all kind of meat on your plate. Apart from a healthy appetite the only way to defend against the attack of the waiters is a kind of traffic light, that is red and green card or piece of wood, which one can flip over to the red side in order to surrender.

At night I continued to Belém, yet another 3 or 4 uncomfortable hours in economy class. Now I'm really looking forward to ride my bike.

Walking out of the air-conditioned terminal was kind of shocking. It was already midnight, but still 30° C, and very humid. Instead of assembling my bike and cycling 15 km in the darkness I opted for a taxi to reach a hotel in downtown.

I had another easy day on the beach. This beach was actually not at the sea but on the Tocantins River, a smaller tributary to the Amazonas system. ("Small" in Amazonian terms still means something about double the size of the Mississippi...) It's quite a strange feeling to swim in that River, with hell knows what kind of fish there is...

At night I had an appointment with Kleber Olivera from the Belém bike club. When I went down to the hotel launch I was surprised by the whole bike club that came to welcome me. Together we dived into Belém's nightlife, so I had another night with almost no sleep.

The following morning they showed me the sights of their city and helped to buy supplies. My shopping list is long, because until today no one could tell me exactly about the situation along the Transamazon highway. The information given differs from "excellent" to impassable" to "does not exist any more". So I have to buy sufficient food for the worst case, for 10 days or so, and the bags I carry back to the hotel are very heavy.

Before they said goodbye my new friends showed me the departure point of the Rio Capim ferry, where my tour should start the next morning. Really very nice guys.

Finally I was ready to depart, and early in the morning I left the hotel under the applause and farewell of hotel staff and guests...

It's been a long time since I've last cycled with lowriders and that much gear and so I bounce through the morning rush hour to the ferry.

The uncertain begins somewhere over there. First of all I must go south for 400 kilometers, in order to reach the "official" Transamazonica, which runs there from east to west. The first 300 km will be on a paved road and should not be a big problem. Then I want to catch a small side road shown in my map, but for that section I have even less information than for the rest of the Transamazonica.

Travel time to the other side of the river is more than half an hour and by the time I got there the heat was already incredible... I'm still used to my lovely 15° C at home, but this 35° here are ridiculous... At noon the sun shines exactly from the top and there is no shadow. Well, I tried to do my best, but I had to stop every 30 minutes or so to swim in on of the thousands of rivers or to have some cold drink in one of the few bars on the roadside.

I am surprised to discover so much greenery so close to Belém, with its millions of inhabitants. The State of Pará is infamous for its environmental policy. Large portions of the country are sold to large, international companies, which can basically do whatever they want. Perhaps in this part here it is simply too swampy for cattle or there might be any other reason why no one cleared the annoying forest.

The road was still paved and pretty flat. People told me that it would be more hilly and muddy further south...

I made nothing more than 100 km the first day, and I was so exhausted that I hardly could set up my tent. Setting up a tent is not so easy in this part of the world... It took me more than 15 minutes to clear out some space in the jungle. Done this I just crawled into my tent and felt asleep. No sleeping bag needed here anyway... I woke up several times at night with some strange noises around my tent, but I didn't care that much... are there any dangerous animals in the Rain forest??

Next morning I started before sunrise to make some kilometers before it heats up, but soon temperatures reached the normal. It feels like cycling in the sauna, with absolutely no wind to cool you down.

As so often during the day, I stopped at a small river to cool down and to rinse my shirt, when I noticed another cyclist with a small backpack passing by. He saw my bike parked up on the road and stopped to say hello. Unlike me he's not bicycling for fun. He worked for several months in Marabá (some 400 km south of Belém) and is now on the way home to Belém, saving the money for the bus ticket by cycling... He asked what the hell I'm doing here, but it would have been impossible to explain to him that I have spent 10 of his monthly salaries, just to fly 10.000 km to Belém and to cycle around for my personal entertainment... He drank some water of the river where I just washed my shirt and then continued his journey.

For cool drinks I still prefer to stop at the small bars, which you find now and then, and usually completely unexpectedly, on the roadside. A cold beer on top of an empty stomach is funny and facilitates the correct Portuguese pronunciation. Contrary to my thirst my hunger is on a very low level. I ate almost nothing the last days but nevertheless I'm not hungry at all. For some reason I do not long for nutrition in form of food...

Landscape further south became more and more deserted. There were fewer houses, but also the forest disappeared for most of the way. I cycled for long parts along areas that seemed to be a desert rather than rain forest. It was not flat anymore, I already entered the Serra de Carajas. This is where the worlds largest iron ore mine is situated, thus why they cut out all the trees to produce charcoal for steel production.

The hills are not very high, but very steep. I had to get of the bike and had to push. The heat came up my feet and along my whole body, I had only hot water to drink and I felt like a sausage on a summer barbecue...

I called this Serra the "Smokey Mountains", paying tribute to the hundreds of bushfires and charcoal piles. Sometimes the smoke was so dense that cars and trucks had to turn on their lights... I've seen something like this on TV last year, somewhere in Indonesia or the Philippines, but now I'm myself a big step closer to lung cancer... At least, the smoke blocked the sun and gave me some shadow.

People are extremely friendly, and most of them are very curious. But sometimes it's difficult to understand them. They speak a very strange accent in some rural areas... However, some of them just stare at you like you were from another planet, saying nothing at all...

What happened yesterday must be another Murphy's law: "If it's terrible hot and you wish some refreshment, it will not rain, as long as you are on a paved road" and "It will rain as soon as you reach the dirt road". And so it was. After 3 days of sunshine it started raining exactly when I reached the end of the pavement. Exactly!! On the minute!

It continued raining for the whole afternoon, and after a while I gave up. There was a small bar at the roadside, and a truck driver who stopped there offered to bring me back to town, some way off the main road. Tucuruí is a nice town at the Tocantins river, where they have built one of the worlds biggest river dams, in the middle of the Amazon. I did not plan to stop in Tucurui, but under these conditions it makes no sense to go on. The owner of the bar kindly offered to store my bicycle until my return and so I accepted the ride back.

Here I am now, in Tucuruí, Pará, in the middle of nowhere, but with Internet access and air condition, and 2.500 km to go...

Next message probably in two weeks from Santarem or Itaituba.

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