Cycling the Transamazon Highway

Part 5: Rio Tapajós to Rio Madeira

River ferry

  Rio Tapajós to Rio Madeira, 800 km

Deutsche Version

Hi fellow cyclists

I finished typing the next part of my diary. Here is part 5: Rio Tapajós to Rio Madeira.

Nov. 7th

The last guests of yesterdays party stumbled home at 5 in the morning, when I headed out of town.

The hotel staff was out of service today, so I left the money in the room. I tried to pay the day before, but I had only two R$10-notes. The bill was R$12 (=U$ 6, including two beers in the hotel bar), but they had no change. All over South America it's very difficult to change notes bigger than the equivalent of U$5. Outside the big towns it's almost impossible. Try to pay a bill of let's say R$2 with a R$5-note and they will shake their heads. Try to pay with a R$10-note and they will spit at you. Try to pay with a R$50-note and you will be assaulted at the next corner...

Well, I hope they found the money and did not need to hang out a "wanted, dead or alive"-poster in town... On the other side I'm lucky to escape without seeing any personal, because yesterday they were quite busy to organize a truck for me to bring me to next town. I never asked for that service, but they insisted that it would be impossible to cycle that far, "almost 300km". (The argument that I already cycled 2000 kilometers from Belém to here did not count...) The truck would arrive "tomorrow" and I shall wait in town.

At sunrise I was back on the Transamazônica, and some hills later it really flattened out. The road was built on a dam through the swamps. Unlike the other part where they just sent a bulldozer to cut the way, this part required some more engineering. There was a very smooth surface and till noon I made almost 100 km!!

95% was still native forest, but once in a while I passed farms or these strange bamboo huts. I learned that these bamboo huts are inhabited by Indios of a big local tribe (I forgot the name) who still live the traditional lifestyle. They clear small areas for farming and move on after a couple of years to a place with fresh soil. Probably they noticed me long before I passed by and hided somewhere in the bushes, that's why I never saw anyone...

Later the day the clearings are more frequent, the hills also, and, yeah, I met the first vehicle in 5 days on the Transamazônica: A local cyclist visiting his neighbor, some 10 kilometers ahead... He's as surprised as I am to met another cyclist, and his first thing to ask is how I survived all these dangerous Indios and the hungry jaguars without a fire weapon. He has a big old gun striped to his antique bicycle, but I wonder what's that good for if an onça jumps into your back... And finally he has to confess that he himself never saw one, but he knew that a friend of his neighbors friend saw a dangerous jaguar disappearing anxiously in the jungle "recently".

The Brazilian state of Pará is roughly the size of France, Germany and Italy together. Today I crossed from Pará into the state of Amazonas, which is about one United Kingdom bigger. Two of it's 3 Million inhabitants live in the capital Manaus, the rest is spread over an area of 1.5 Million square kilometers.

Amazonas welcomes me with a heavy shower. As usual the rain comes in so fast that I have no time to find shelter. I'm on a smooth uphill, within seconds the road transforms into a river and I have no chance to continue. Instead of struggling against mud and water I make myself comfortable in the mud, covering the bike and myself with a big plastic sheet. I can see blue sky at the horizon, but this stupid cloud stays with me. In situations like this I always remember the words of the guys of the bike club in Belém: "Don't worry, it's just the rainy season now. The very-rainy season starts only in December..." It poors down for 30 minutes, than it stops as fast as it started. It takes me half an hour to cover the next kilometer through the mud, until I reach - within 10 meters - dry land. I have to cross several sandy stretches and other stretches where it rained short time before. Both results in a considerable speed reduction, but until nightfall I cover more than 150 kilometers, my best result on this vacation so far.

No farm in the late afternoon, so I pull into the jungle to find a nice campsite. It's very difficult to drag a loaded bike through the jungle, so I lean it to a tree while searching for a flat place with few plants for my tent. I find a good spot, but still it takes some time to prepare my 4 square meters. I swing my machete for several minutes and by the time I'm pleased with the results it's dark. No problem, I've set up my tent hundreds of times, I can do that with closed eyes... But where is the bicycle???

I'm somewhere in the dark Amazonian jungle, with shorts, sandals and a bushknife, and my bike with all the pleasant things like tent, mattress, food, water, flashlight and insect repellent is somewhere 10 or 15 meters away... I stumble around, cut down every plant in my way and finally find back to the road. Out here there is still enough light to see the tracks of my bike, so I can re-discover the place where I entered the woods. I go ahead into the darkness until I hit my knee on the rear wheel. Then I need another 3 or 4 minutes to search with the flashlight for my clearing...

At night heavy rain drums on my tent, and my right foot, which I strapped yesterday with the liana hurts.

Nov. 8th

Next morning the wet road slows me down, but the sun soon dries it out. I'm locking forward to reach a small village marked in my map, but all I find are some ruins and an old, abandoned filling station, with trees and bushes growing in the gas tanks. Many homes along the Transamazon have been abandoned, and lots of the remaining settlers have posted "For sale"-signs. Obviously the euphoric 70's are over...

Later I reach another river with ferry crossing. But the ferry anchored at the other side, and there is no one to see... The guy who operates this ferry must be somewhere around, I wait, walk some up and down, but it seems to be siesta time. I pull of my shirt to swim to the other side, but when I enter the water I can see someone paddling his canoe upstream...

It's Carlinho, an old fisherman. His grandson saw me from the distance, wondering what's going on and they came to see if I need some help. I just want to know where I can find the responsible for the ferry, and while giving the directions his grandson finds out that my "Moto" is not a "moto" but an ordinary "bicicleta". For some reason a lot of people think I'm travelling by motorbike. Either it's because of my black lowriders, or people just reckon that it has to be a motorbike to come here... However, we load the bike and all my baggage on the canoe and cross over. Unpleasant: The handlebar bag with two very important things, money and toilet paper, hangs into the water and is completely soaked...

Behind the next corner there is actually a small village, and while I have lunch in the local "restaurant" I spread out my banknotes on the desk to dry them out...

The road continues mostly flat, with only few hills. I make a good speed, and so I hope to reach Apuí today. Cold beer, Churasco, ice-cream.... It's now 6 days without any traffic, nothing except the airplane in "Kilometro 180", the cyclist I met today and the cars off the road in Jacareacanga. And I still haven't seen the truck they wanted me to wait for. Only late in the afternoon I reach settled land, 30 kilometers outside of Apuí. Some 20 Kilometers outside I met the first Jeep, and some minutes later even an old schoolbus!! At 6:00 pm it's dark. It's still 15 km to town, but I try to continue. It's difficult. The light of my flashlight does not help a lot, I have to slow down to see the obstacles on the road on time. In a distance I can see some lights. At first I think it's already the town, but it's only a farm with its own generator. The farmer just walks into his entrance, so I stop to check out the distance to town. It's only 7 kilometers and there should even be some asphalt, but he insists that I come in for a short break. The short break is then extended to a complete supper. The family is of Italian origin, so I think I don't need to explain about the quality of the food. And while I still enjoy the excellent meal a room is prepared where I'm expected to sleep tonight. I confess that I did not resist for long before I called it a day.... It's quite a big farm, and the only place with a television around here, so the farmer has always visitors. Some neighbors are here and I have to answer a lot of curious questions. Already weeks ago I stopped to try to explain that I do this just for fun and to relax from work... No one will understand that. It's much easier to tell that I have to fulfill any promise or that I need to win a stupid bet with a friend...

Nov. 9th

When I wake up at 5 in the morning my host is already up to milk the cows. I left my bike outside yesterday, so I don't have much to prepare. It's only 10 minutes to Apuí's "airport", and after the airport it's really paved. But if I had continued at night I would probably not have noticed. The quality of the pavement is such that I wish it wasn't... I'm surprised about the size of the town. It's much bigger than Jacareacanga, there are several shops, a small hospital, schools, even a highschool, and a bus terminal! From here on there is even regular public transport to Porto Velho.

While doing some shopping I learn about Sister Theresa, a German nun who takes care of the local orphans. I try to find her, but she's out of town today. I leave some present's for her, the books I finished 1000 kilometers from here and that I still carried around.

It's a very hot day and I have to cross some steep hills. Scenery changed, there are a lot of big fazendas now. It's the end of the "dry" season, and that's the time of the "quemadas", the burning of forest to gain new ground for cattle grassing. They have to move on year by year, as the soil doesn't stand the intensive use for long. Some farms already reached the horizon and left desert at the roadside, where they started years ago.

At noon the road is blocked by a big herd of cattle. The herd is supervised by two cowboys ahead and two at the end. I cycle along with the cowboys, but these stupid cows seem to be afraid of bicycles. I increase the distance, but the cows still push forward while the two guys in front of the group try to slow them down. The cows continue pushing, and suddenly they all turn around and run back into my direction!! I jump off my bike, hop over the ditch and over the fence, then I can see a cloud of dust, hundreds of white Zebu cows, and 4 cowboys, shouting and waving with their hats, trying to stop the stampede.

They disappeared in a cloud of dust behind the hill.... My bike was still OK, I just had to remove some cow sh..t. (It did not make much difference though, as dirty as it was before...)

It's a really busy highway here, 3 trucks passed by today, all 3 westbound. At 4 p.m. I reach the Rio Aripuará, and that's where I find out why no truck came the other way: The ferry is out of function. The 3 trucks that passed me in the morning are still waiting, several trucks and the bus that runs between Porto Velho and Apuí are waiting since yesterday on the other side. Passengers and drivers already set over with small canoes and they all gathered in the small restaurant at the "harbor". These are the moments when everyone looks jealous at you and your bike: I could put it on a small canoe and continue!! But at first I eat in the restaurant, and I drink a lot, as everyone calls me to his table to inquire explication about this stupid idea to cycle here... They have quite good beer in Brazil, most common trademarks are "Antarctica", "Skoll" and "Brahma". They come in 600 ml bottles, and the bottle is considered public domain for everyone at the table, so I lost counts about the amount of beer I had that afternoon... Everyone is quite happy, as the repairs are in their final stage and the ferry is promised to run "de aqui a pouco". And really, an hour later the bus is loaded on the ferry and it crosses over. Legend has it that the river is 90 meters deep here, so I take advantage of the big ferry instead of a small canoe. I set up my tent on the soccer field of the small village on the other shore. It's a wonderful place. Sun sets down over the river, I drift in the crystal clear, warm water until darkness.

At night a thunderstorm comes up, with very strong winds. I have to get out to secure my tent.

Nov 10th

It's raining. And it's cold. The temperature dropped down to not much more than 20° Celsius, and that makes you really freeze if used to 30 or 35. It's not raining hard, just some spray, but today the rain is not the pleasant warm shower as it was the days before. I have some company today. João "da Vila" is commuting to work, to a fazenda some 20 kilometers ahead. He carries a gun, a machete and a chainsaw on his bike, a real overkill. His job is to cut down trees to clear new land, and while we pass a big burning field of another fazenda he comments that the weather in Amazonia is not as it used to be...

It's not enough rain to turn the road into mud, but still it makes it difficult to cycle on soft, wet dirt. There are Billions of small black flies around, and each time I stop I lose half a liter of blood.

In the afternoon I reach another small, nameless village, with a dirty, but good restaurant. I have to slow down, there is an Indian reservation some 20 kilometers ahead, and non-Indios are not allowed to stay overnight without permission.

I learn about two other cyclists who came here "recently", only 2 years ago. They were probably US-Americans, but no one knows exactly, as they did not speak a word of Portuguese. They cycled in from Porto Velho, stopped here for two days and then gave up and returned to Porto Velho by bus. That's why I never heard about them in the villages before...

I continue for some more kilometers and then camp on the deserted land of an old, abandoned farm.

Ants are probably the most annoying animals in the tropics. They might be very important for the environment, but if they constantly crawl over you, bite you and attack all your food that you don't pack into clean plastic bags you start to hate them. I had once (on another tour) my tent "attacked" by Leavecutter ants. They seemed to like the thin mosquito nets of the inner tent and simply started to cut them into pieces. When I woke up I could see them carrying away thousands of green leaves - and some white parts of my tent. Since then I use anti-ant powder. Don't worry, I do not poison the soil. I put it on top of the big plastic sheet I put under my tent, and on top of the inner tent. It might not be very healthy to sleep in there, but for sure it's better than waking up without mosquito net, but with malaria, yellow fever and dengue. It worked fine all the time. But here, on the poor soil of the deserted farm, they seem to be more hungry. Hungry enough to ignore the white powder and to cut through and enter my tent... probably I shouldn't have crushed Chocolate cookies inside... Good luck I noticed on time. Now a midnight cleanup is required - and some more insect powder.

Nov. 11th

I enter the Tenharim Indian Reservation in the morning mist. The reservation gives me the opportunity to cycle another 30 or 40 kilometers through unspoiled jungle. It's a good change from the boring cattle ground I passed the day before. The road passes 3 small Indian villages.

Locals warned me of the "wild and uncivilized Indios", but for sure that's not true. Of course I do not stop to intrude into the villages for sightseeing, but those I met on the road are very friendly. None of them intends to kill me with poisoned arrows or to chop of my head to make some soup. An older couple even supplies me with fresh ananas for free. The biggest village is situated at the Rio dos Marmelos, in the middle of the reservation. They have a First-Aid station, a school and even electricity. It's very funny to see huge satellite dishes near small bamboo houses....

It's not far to the Rio Madeira, maybe 120 kilometers. I cycled a distance that I expected to take almost two weeks in just 6 days, at an average of more than 130 km per day. That means I don't need to hurry any more. I find a small bar at a clear, cold river where I stay for the whole afternoon.

At night I camp in an old banana plantation.

Nov 12th

50 kilometers to go. It's a hot day again, but it's easy cycling on a flat, recently maintained dirt road. I can see some clouds at the horizon, but now rain has no chance any more. At 9:30 I reach the Rio Madeira, a 3200 kilometer long and, at this place, 1000 meter wide tributary to the Rio Amazonas. It's water comes from a huge area, from almost the whole Bolivian Amazon and the Eastern Bolivian Andes and from big parts of Mato Grosso. It's brown and muddy, and lots of big trunks ("madeira") drifting downstream make it quite dangerous to navigate.

Humaita is just on the other side of the river. Finally I reach known land. I've already been here on another vacation 4 years ago. The official "Transamazônica" continues for another 200 kilometers to the small town of Lábrea and then ends in the middle of the jungle. Most maps however mark another road as the continuation of the "Transamazônica", the BR364, which runs from Porto Velho to Acre, the most westward Brazilian state.

Next part will bring you there.

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