ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER is a world on water of every color in the rainbow. Six foot tall birds walk like clowns on stilts past rodents the size of Jack Russell terriers. Spoonbills nibble the edges of a swamp inches from the staring eyeballs of submerged crocodiles. Hawks hover above forty-foot tall trees with Barbie pink flowers. The land that time forgot.
Species from a lost world survived here because South America was cut off when the land bridge to Central America closed over four million years ago. In this upside down world below the equator, summer is winter, downstream is north. The entire Amazon basin was once a great isolated inland sea. The rivers still feed eels, rays and pink dolphins. In the jungle, be careful not to trip over a ten foot long Anaconda, who is still king. (Rescuers are rumored to have discovered that a large bulge in the middle of one captured Anaconda was a Japanese dentist missing from an eco-tour.)
Our escort trucks get stuck with the skeletons of dead cattle on seas of drying mud that are the remains of perennial winter flood lands.
A few turn back. Some take the planes out before we enter the deep tunnels made by the trees of the jungle along the Amazon. I last saw the Hulk sleeping on the seat of his ATV looking a part of the vehicle like a centaur as curious Indians inspected this alien being with the big knife by moonlight.
But Lee, Jeff, David and I kick ass. Sort of. Jeff went in circles. I get lost. And then follows the scariest part of this adventure…
A BIG BLACK BAT THE SIZE OF AN EAGLE stares at me with a toothy grin and flutters to within an inch of my face. Dark. All alone. The path rises up to a muddy hump and is suddenly closed in on both sides by split rail fences keeping any jungle away. There is nothingness in front of me. I slowly creep into the dark then like a roller coaster fall straight down. Into water.
The river water is over my knees. Tires slither in the mud below, almost pulling the ATV out of my grip, but I make it to the dry bank and gain traction. The wall of mud now in front of me seems to go straight up and over backwards at the lip but the Honda drives into the sky, falling down to all fours on the other side. There is Jeff and David. I’m relieved but breathless, scared witless.
Spooky? Yes. Dangerous? Probably not. It should be said that while it’s true that the Amazon defines remote, about the worst thing that happened to any participant on the Caravana was a broken leg. The doctors patched him up and he was flown out later the same day. Some riders try to make the Caravana a race but most go slowly – I don’t think I ever hit 50mph. The weather, the terrain and the effort it takes to ride a vehicle that has as much torque as an ATV make the Caravana more exhausting than dangerous.
And what’s the point of racing through a jungle as mythic as the Amazon? Forests. Jungle. Jaguars. Tapirs. Wild pigs. Eagles. Egrets. Moths the size of doormats and beaucoup bugs if you stand still and let them have you for dinner. We ride the Hondas under tall ferns with leaves as big as grand pianos. Looking down at piranha, we cross bridges made of rotting wood slats almost too far apart for the axle width.
REST WILL EVENTUALLY COME in a lakeside resort with a bar right out of Casablanca. In Cobija, where hot pink and aqua buildings sun on hilly streets that circle down under shady palm trees to a winding river. The shops seem to have no doors and cash registers are wooden drawers under the counter. After a night in a bar right out of Casablanca, we sleep past noon in hacienda-style hotels with our doors open to the heat radiating from a tiled patio.
We are in Cobija for two nights of rest from the trail. Every hour brings some new variation on Bolivio’clock, but who cares? In Riberalta, Guayaramerin and Cobija there is a big public social club. Like a big western dance hall. The roof is open. The Brazilian cook and his lieutenants will outdo themselves with each meal. Fruit. Salad. Bread and rolls. Pate. Shrimp. Cornichons. Lox. Tomatoes. Roast suckling pig. Duck. Steak, fish, chicken. Rice, pasta, corn, every bean that ever came from South America, yucca and potatoes, carrots, asparagus, aubergines, beer and wine. Parking lot sized tables of deserts. Brazilian coffee. And wine, lots of wine. The mayor and the police will escort us to dinner and join us. Monkeys try to steal food from our plates. Musicians play guitar and sing to us of Bolivia.
We camp the last night on a 150,000 acre ranch someplace where they butcher a steer for our dinner because the supply trucks can’t get through the jungle. Beneath a grapefruit tree as big as a hotel lobby, our chef has been flown in to prepare the feast. (If we did that here, how many permits do you think it would take?)
Tomorrow morning we’ll return to the jungle and in five days we’ll be back in Trinidad, where we started. Lee and Jeff will fly home to their routines in the States, where, we all agree, you’re no longer allowed to have that kind of fun. Who knows where Mick, our CIA cohort, will end up next? Probably as Prague station chief.
TAKING TOO MANY PICTURES, Lee and I have fallen half a day behind the others. We are late. Bolivio’clock. But we are out of the path of the killing sun on a barge hand cut from hardwood jungle trees and held together with hemp ropes. Turned around and punted upstream into the mighty Amazon River with maneuvers of a cattle dog by way of a funky tug that could be the sister of the African Queen.
The sun is setting under a silently gliding flock of pink flamingos. My head is in a cloud of butterflies of any size and color they could be. This is the Amazon. I am in the Amazon. Like the birth of my kids–this is a moment that takes my breath away. A moment at Bolivio’clock.
JEFF AND DAVID ARE LEADING A CONGA LINE around the village square of Trinidad. Under Japanese lanterns blowing in the warm night wind, a loud band plays Latin music. Kids dance like Americans in MTV videos while sloths hanging in the trees watch –upside down. Rushing me from behind, Miss Trinidad pours beer over my head. Lee laughs until he gets his. Looking at the others, they are all wet too. Everyone is laughing. It is our victory party. We all win.
But in this upside down world, who could lose? No elapsed time records. No clocks. There are no deadlines. No real schedules. No maps. We have radios and phones and trail markers. I get lost, but someone always finds me. Hungry? Food shows up. If it is harmless fun, we do it. Stop on the trail for a small party with some other lost riders. There is a guitar. We sing. I try to be understood in bad Spanish or teach dirty words in English. Ride a country road to the store. Ride to the lake for a swim. No tickets. No lawyers. No lawyers’ lawyers. No fast FedEx or fast food but we are free to go fast or slow. Be first or last.
In the land that time forgot, they forget about time.
…just do it.
www.caravan-atv.com; e-mail: email@example.com
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Hiya, Mike. Sometimes I forget what a cowboy you are. When it comes to crocodiles, my preference for them is on belts. In the Adventure Dept., you are miles ahead of many of us and those animals close up would scare the shit out of me! Some people called Steve Erwin brave; I called him a kook! Enjoy your weekend and stay away from crocs, both the animals and the goofy shoes, too! Best, Pete B.
Thanks, Pete 🙂 MS
Living a part of my life vicariously (and safely) through you. Thanks for a great Amazonian adventure! Fred D.
Thanks, Fred. MS
Great lead – I’ll read the rest at leisure, later. Keep ’em comin’! Best, Jim
Thanks, Jim. MS
Mike, what a story! Felt like I was there. Thanks for sharing! Jeanie S.
Thanks, Jeanie. MS
Is this where you had your picture taken with a crocodile that your secretary sent to the class reunion? You were certainly brave…like I told you, it could have turned its head and chomped your leg off! Rudi L.