24 January 2012

CYCLING BRAZIL (6) - Manaus to Venezuela

9 January - Manaus – roadside restaurant - 64 km

It was time to head for the border. I said goodbye to Amanda (who was catching her flight the following day) and Ernest and I headed out of Manaus. We had a rather slow start as, 4 km out of town, Ernest’s chain broke. Not much later heavy storm clouds came over, and I must admit I did not like the lightning hitting the overhead wires. Way too close for comfort! Soon it started to bucket down, so we took shelter for about 10 minutes till it was all over.

We continued north through a forest on a rather hilly road - at least it was scenic, albeit a bit hot! When the rain set in again we found a roadside restaurant with an old chicken shed next to it, and thought it a good place to camp. The owners didn’t mind and even showed us to the shower and toilets. Ernest quickly swept out the chicken shed and we were set for the night. Seeing that we were next to a restaurant, we also ate there as they had a buffet for a reasonable price.

10 January - Roadside restaurant - Presidente Fiqueiredo - 67 km
After some coffee, we left our chicken shed and what a stunning road it was! We were in the company of macaws, parrots, love birds and bright blue butterflies as we climbed hill after hill. We cycled past dense forests and across countless rivers. The rivers and ponds along the way seemed as if they had been undisturbed for centuries. We were lucky to have cloud cover and a slight drizzle all day long. Around Presidente Fiqueiredo, there were quite a few waterfalls with lovely picnic areas, a little too organised for wild camping. In Presidente Figueiredo we found a room for the night.

11 January - Presidente Figueiredo – Da Tia Restaurant (128 km) - 23 km
We cycled the short but hilly section to Da Tia Restaurant, where Ernest had camped on his way to Manaus. The owner (Antonio) was very friendly and had no problem with us camping next to the restaurant under the gazebo again. We got there quite early so Ernest had time to service his bike and fix all the odd bits that needed fixing. It was a fantastic spot and a short walk through his garden revealed loads to eat, including mangoes, avocado pears and bananas.

We had a few beers and ate at the restaurant before retiring. The following morning we woke to the sound of birds and were offered free breakfast by Antonio.

12 January - Roadside restaurant – petrol station - 76 km
It was another hilly section of road but again we had some cloud cover, which made it more bearable. The road was incredibly scenic and I was happy that I had made the decision to cycle to the border instead of taking the bus. I’ll deal with the visa problem at a later stage...

We continued on until we reached a petrol station that Ernest had spotted on his way to Manuas. It was another good camping place as they had a gazebo, showers and toilets. Ernest cooked a mean pasta, in anticipation of our long ride the following day.

13 January - Petrol station – Vila Jundia - 133 km
After about 6 km we entered a reserve for the Waimiri indigenous people. The reserved stretches for 120 km and it is prohibited to even stop or take photos in the reserve, let alone camp. It was a stunning road through virgin forest. It was also a rather long day on the road with no villages or roadside restaurants where we could fill up with water.

So I was happy to reach the end of the reserve and see a road sign indicating 10 km to Vila Jundia. It had been a long, hilly and hot day on the road and we made it out the park just as the sun started setting. In our process of looking for a camping spot we spotted a pousada with tiny colourful bungalows. Man, was I happy! It was not only cheap, but came with hot water and an air con.

Ernest went off to the supermarket and I could not wait to drag my body into the shower! Ernest once again conjured up a pasta dish to die for, and by 22h00 I was in bed.

14 January - Vila Jundia – Nova Colina - 98 km
For breakfast we ate our leftover pasta on nice fresh rolls from the bakery. Both the road and the forest flattened out a bit, but we found ourselves cycling into a head wind. The road also deteriorated and became rather muddy and potholely. They were busy building a new road so at least we had sections of nice smooth paved road.

Shortly after we left, we crossed the equator and had to stop for some photos; it wasn’t the first time we had crossed this line and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

On reaching Nova Colina, we found a bigger village than expected. We found a “hotel”, two supermercados and two bakeries! Ernest nevertheless wanted to camp behind the church where there is a shelter, but I headed straight for the “hotel”!

15 January - Nova Colina – Rorainopolis - 45 km
It was a short ride on a rather poor road to Rorainopolis. It was very dusty, hilly and into the wind so I was happy to reach the end of the ride. We found a room, did some laundry and I tried to do some internet, but the connection was so poor that it was too frustrating so I gave up.

16 January - Rorainopolis – Nova Paraiso - 36 km
From Rorainopolis we cycled 36 km to the tiny settlement of Nova Paraiso. There is really nothing there but neither Ernest nor I were feeling very well, so we made it a short day. We probably would not have stayed there if we hadn’t seen a small pousada hidden behind the petrol station. It was hardly a “new paradise” but we chilled out for the rest of the day.

17 January - Nova Paraiso – Caracarai - 127 km
It was a long day of cycling to Caracarai; fortunately it was a fairly easy road. There was hardly anything along the road, just some road works and a few roadside stalls where we could fill up with water. We pushed on to Caracarai where we found a room for the night. Ernest (as usual) went to the supermarket and got ingredients for a potato salad.

18 January - Caracarai – Mucajai - 87 km
The thick forest slowly made way for cattle ranches and there were plenty of cattle along the way. Fortunately we had cloud cover again, which made life a lot more bearable. Mucajai is a small village but we found a nice room and I even picked up a cellphone connection. I spent most of the evening uploading photos and playing on the internet.

19-21 January - Mucajai – Boa Vista - 63 km
I was looking forward to getting to Boa Vista and enjoying a day of leisure. It was going to be a short day so we were slow in packing up. Since the forest had disappeared, it became more windy and we cycled into the wind all day. Once we reached Boa Vista we cycled around looking for a cheap room, which we found around the bus station. It is a bit of a strange town as the centre was quite dead and the action seemed to be happening more around the bus station and outlying areas.

I thought I would be able to sort out my expired visa in Boa Vista, but after taking a taxi all over town we were still unable to find the right office. I gave up and did some laundry instead.

22 January - Boa Vista – Rosa de Saron - 106 km
It was not a bad day on the road at all. It was cloudy with a slight drizzle and the wind was coming at us diagonally from behind. We stopped a few times to fill up with water or have a cold drink.

Late afternoon we spotted a good campsite, next to a restaurant and under cover. The spot was in a half-completed building, which made a perfect campsite for the night. It was a busy little spot with busses and taxis stopping for a snack break, before continuing on their journey.

23 January - Rosa de Saron – Indiu Village - 92 km
It was a difficult day on the road. It was not only boiling hot but the road also became quite mountainous. We climbed hill after hill in stifling heat; at one stage I thought I was going to pass out as I was starting to see black and yellow spots! The road was very exposed and there was nowhere to hide, so we just continued on until we saw a small indigenous village next to the road. It had a good enough covered area where we could set up camp.

09 January 2012

BELEM TO MANAUS (5) (by boat)

28 December - Belem to Manaus - By boat

We loaded our bikes and headed to the port where we found a rather large boat waiting. I was somewhat nervous as I did not know how Amanda would do on the boat. She did however appear quite at ease on the larger boat, which felt more stable. We (like rich people) booked a cabin instead of a hammock, as Amanda claimed that she could not get in and out of a hammock, let alone sleep in one for five nights. I did not mind at all, as sleeping in a hammock sounds very romantic, but five nights may just be a bit too much.

We settled into our cabins and headed for the canteen, where we could sit and enjoy a beer. We watched our first sunset as we sailed away, leaving Belem in the distance. Ha ha! So much for a “cabin” - it was actually very noisy in the cabin, and far quieter out on the deck!

29 December

We woke to find ourselves in a narrow channel with thick and lush vegetation on both sides of the river. It was truly a jungle out there. Villagers rowed out to the boat en masse to catch whatever people threw overboard. Fellow passengers seemed to have brought large bags of clothing for this very purpose. Each item got tightly wrapped up in a plastic bag and then thrown overboard for the villagers to collect. I’m not entirely sure that I agree with the custom but who am I to judge?

We sailed very close to the side of the river all day long. Villagers continued to row out to the boat; some latched their canoes onto the boat, got on, sold their wares (mostly cooked shrimps) and then departed again. Just about everyone on the boat supported them and the shrimps were shared around all day long. At one stage the boat slowed down, a canoe latched on and offloaded a large amount of homemade juice onto the boat. The Brazilians are such an accommodating bunch.

It was not long before thick clouds gathered and soon it poured down, then, just as quickly, it stopped and the sun came out to give us a spectacular sunset over the Amazon jungle. At 20h00 our boat arrived at Gurupa, where more passengers were waiting to board. The quayside resembled the boarding of the Ark and we could not believe that, in the middle of the jungle, people could possibly have so much stuff.

It is quite impossible to capture the density of the forest and the vastness of the Amazon on camera. I tried, but to no avail; well done to those who have managed it! It is an incredible area, almost impossible to describe!

30 December

This day was slightly different as we left the narrow channels and headed out to the open waters. The riverbanks were still densely-wooded but from time to time they opened up onto flat grassy land. We stopped every now and then at small villages to offload goods, mostly rice and beans, for these small settlements. The quaysides were always a hive of activity - these drop-offs were most likely the highlight of the week. Vendors climbed onboard selling snacks and fruit, and just about everyone bought something and shared it around.

It’s a big watery world and (like in Borneo) kids seem to be able to row a boat before they can walk. On our boat, kids ran around and it appeared that everyone on the boat kept an eye on them. The people were extremely friendly, sharing whatever snacks they had; the boat was like a big family. The bar-fridge in our cabin was soon overflowing with juice, milk, water and whatever else people wanted us to keep cool for them. I was amazed to notice that not once did anyone throw anything overboard, but always carefully placed their rubbish in the bins provided. That evening, the sun set like thunder over the Amazon, birds flew home and people settled into their hammocks for the night.

The Amazon is a vast area, the numbers are quite mind-boggling. The river is huge and the forest thick and dense. Although small Caboclo (mixed indigenous and European) communities populate the riverbanks, there was no sign of the indigenous tribes.

31 December

We woke at 5h00 to find a big commotion on the boat; people were getting ready to disembark at Santarem. Our early rise also resulted in our first sighting of a sunrise over the Amazon. We pulled into the rather large town (for the Amazon) of Santarem and only left again at 12h00. We did not venture into town as Amanda, once again, did not feel well. Santarem is located at the confluence of the brown Amazon River and the dark Rio Tapajos. The most amazing thing is that the two rivers flow side by side without mixing.

The remainder of the day slipped away as we putt-putted up river past varying scenery. Sometimes flat grassy islands, sometimes thick jungle and sometimes small wooden houses would pop out of the forest, just to remind us that there are actually people living in this remote part of the world. The river is massive and hides its treasures well. One has to look closely and carefully to spot them.

Seeing that it was the last day of 2011, we had a few beers with friendly fellow passengers but retired before midnight. Just a few hours later, we woke again as our boat pulled into another little harbour to offload cargo. After all the excitement of anchoring and casting off again, it was back to bed again.

1 January 2012

The first day of 2012 dawned with thick, dark clouds in the distance. It was still pretty dark at 7h00 and I was unsure if it was due to the cloud cover or due to the fact that we had moved pretty far west. We did, however, find breakfast ready (5 Real each), consisting of fruit, coffee, juice, bread, ham and cheese – a typical Brazilian breakfast.

I felt a little disappointed, not because I hadn’t yet seen any spear-toting tribes or man-eating piranhas, but because I had failed to get any decent photos. They all came out a bit hazy or blurry. I tried almost everything, but to no avail, they stayed blurry and hazy. My second disappointment was our very expensive bottle of ‘champagne’ - specially bought to be drunk on New Year’s day, it turned out to be nothing more than a slightly fizzy apple-like juice!

The weather got more humid as we headed deeper into the Amazon. It was mostly overcast and windless as we sailed slowly and smoothly up river. Tiny birds settled on the railing of the deck without as much as a feather moving in the breeze.

I was looking forward to sunset as not once did the Amazon produce the same display. Every night it was completely different. This evening the sun did not set with a bang like the other evenings, but came with a very soft and subtle display of pinkish colours.

2 January

Again we woke to overcast conditions, and I went for breakfast which Amanda skipped, as she did not feel like (by this time) stale bread and soggy watermelon.

We had settled nicely in to the rhythm of doing nothing. Our days mostly consisted of eating, drinking, sleeping and sitting staring at the river and forest as we sailed past. Five days is a long time to do nothing and I, for one, was ready to get off that boat. We knew that this would be our final day but when exactly we would arrive in Manaus, no one could tell us. The staff’s best estimate was something like between 3pm and 7pm!

As we were getting closer to Manaus, more settlements started to appear along the river bank, making it a little more interesting.

And so came to an end our life on the Rondondin, and I had thought I would have had nothing to say other than that we were on a boat for five days! We arrived in Manaus around 5pm and in bucketing rain. We pushed our bikes along until we found a cheap hotel and settled in for the next few days, to get Amanda’s bike boxed and ready to fly home.

3 January - Manaus

During the night I became violently ill - no need to go into any details! The food available on the boats is notorious for giving you the runs, and I guess I tried my luck just one too many times. I managed to take a walk to the laundry to hand in our clothes (a risky business in my condition) and returned without any incident.

The world is obviously not as big a place as I thought! A certain Mr Markwood arrived at our hotel looking a bit worse for wear. Life without money is obviously not highly recommended.

4-8 January - Manaus

I felt slightly better in the morning and tried a bit of breakfast. Ernest had no problem with breakfast; he just about ate the entire spread they put out for the whole hotel!

Manaus is strange in the way that it is a big city in the middle of the jungle, and there was quite a bit to see.

I did not however expect to find an opera theatre in the middle of the jungle, but there it is! Manaus’ famous Teatro Amazonas: completed in 1896 and constructed by engineers from Lisbon, it symbolises the opulence of the rubber era. Constructed in the neoclassical style, most of the materials were imported from Europe i.e. Italian marble and glass, and Scottish cast iron. To top it all off, they rubberised the road outside to reduce the noise from late-arriving carriages!

At Manaus the black water of the Rio Negro and the white water of the Rio Solimoes meet but don’t mix and flow side by side for quite a few kilometres. The reason (from what I understand) is due to a difference in temperature, velocity and the fact that the Solimoes carries nearly eight times as much sediment, per litre, than the Negro.

5-8 January - Manaus

Amanda was also sick and the two of us hardly had the energy to do anything but sleep. I didn’t expect the stomach bug to last quite so long. In the meantime, Ernest raided Amanda’s bike of all working parts to fix his own ageing bike. He also boxed her bike for her, ready for her flight back to South Africa.

In the meantime, Amanda and I conjured up some energy to go to a nearby park, not that there was much to see, but it was a relaxing walk through the trees.

It was time to get ready to move on; my visa had expired on 6 January and it was still 1000 km to the border. I’ll just have to take my chances with the Brazilian authorities and hope they treat me kindly.