Monday, 12 November 2012

Take me back to my boat on the river...

… and I won't cry out any more.
We have left Manaus and are on the way to Iquitos in Peru. Now we are really on the river and its wilderness for the next two thousand kilometres. This is going to take us at least seven days or more depending on customs delays and whether the river is in flood or not.
By the way, now would be a good time for me to say that if you are visiting this site for the first time, welcome.  However, you might prefer to read my river ramble from the beginning, in which case I urge you to first visit A really big river and then read Big wheel keep on turning. I'm sure my meanderings are confusing enough without reading them in the wrong order! 
This sense of connection with the river from here on is palpable. More than any other time since we first ventured on to the river more than two weeks ago, we are aware of the need to be constantly on watch for debris coming down the river or shallow sandbanks which could leave us stranded for days. There are two times during the year when this is particularly relevant, when the river is in flood and when it is not!
During the river flood, as snow from the Andes melts and finds its way into the Amazon basin, the river is fouled by large branches and tree trunks picked up by the floodwaters. During these times there will often be three or more extra pairs of eyes on the bridge looking out for logs or any other fugitive items of floating or semi-submerged debris, which if large enough can be quite destructive. Because they are often so hard to spot in the dun-coloured waters of the river, we are frequently hit and it can be a disconcerting experience below decks when one of these fellows comes into contact with us.  The amplified clang that is heard and felt in the engine room space is like being inside an empty oil drum while someone outside is hitting it with a sledge hammer - only not quite so melodic. On one occasion we were hit by several logs in succession, and one or more of them finished up striking the propeller - this by the way is the main reason we try to avoid them. The resulting damage was serious enough to require a detour to the nearest dry-dock for major repairs, and since the nearest one was at Curacao, in the Netherlands Antilles, we spent a long time travelling at reduced speed that trip - a career-limiting exercise for a ship's master.

At the other end of the scale, when the river is at its lowest, our challenge is to navigate a safe channel without running aground.  Even with our shallow draught there were many occasions which required the presence of an able seamen (known as an AB) standing on the foc'sle swinging a lead line over the front calling out the depth as we nosed our way forward (no fancy depth sounder on board in 1966 I'm afraid).
There were horror stories of sister ships being aground on the river for weeks, another career-limiting event for a ship's master particularly if he has to start jettisoning cargo in order to get the ship floating again.  We were fortunate. Although we scraped bottom a few times, and sometimes took detours through parts of the river which didn't appear on the chart, I don't think we ever spent any time actually sitting on the river bottom.
There are three national borders which converge on the river (Tres Fronteras).  We cross into Peru, just west of the Brazilian border post of Benjamin Constant, but at the same time we must briefly travel through Colombia (at least on the North bank) where a tiny pan-handle sliver of that country branches down to the river at Leticia.
The border crossing is always an exciting experience since it involves a day of travelling around the border posts in the ship's small speedboat, while Viajero sits patiently at anchor for the day.  This involves the purser, an engineer (usually me), the First Mate and one of the ABs.  The engineer goes along for the ride in case something goes wrong with the outboard motor. I'm pleased to say it never did, since I was then (and still am) much more capable of repairing engines that you can climb inside, than I am of tinkering with a four horsepower Evinrude.
We left at dawn with our first stop being Benjamin Constant, the Brazilian customs post about a half hours' run up a small side stream of the river.  This is quite a sizeable settlement, named after one of the founders of the Brazilian Republic. The most remarkable thing about BC was its boardwalks connecting buildings and streets. I was sure that if the river rose high enough this part of the town would tear itself loose and just float down the river.  

It was a beautiful day and while John the purser and the mate headed off to the prefeitura to do whatever it was that they had to do, about two dozen children clustered around the shoreline while Hutchy, our St Vincentian AB and myself cooked breakfast – a couple of pans full of sausages over a blow-lamp.  
From BC, we headed back up the river to the military post at Tabatinga, where more formalities were dealt with and then across to Leticia to pay our respects to the Colombians. Leticia is a fascinating town in its own right.  We once visited the port to discharge cargo, and while there had the pleasure of spending an evening with a few of the local townsfolk at one of the annual religious festivals. On that occasion, a house a few streets from the cantina we were celebrating at caught fire, and we all became part of the local bucket brigade involved in putting out the fire, which if it had got out of hand may have caused quite some damage.  Leticia was also regarded as a well-known drug centre at the time, and I've since been told that the local ganja was openly sold across the counter, although it is not something any of us were aware of at the time.
Our final call of the day was to Ramon Castilla another hour up river, and at last we were in Peru.  Altogether we were away about eight hours, a most enjoyable diversion from the daily routine of watch keeping.
A day or two later and we were in Iquitos, where we would stay for at least a week. During my time on Viajero, I made four trips to Iquitos, and each time I think I enjoyed it more. It was (and I'm sure still is) a remarkable place.  A city of nearly half a million people (a few less in 1966 of course), it is only accessible by boat or by aeroplane and yet, here in the rainforest was a city which was remarkable for its Italian, Portuguese and Spanish colonial architecture and a diversity of culture, food and music that even as I write these words, I feel as though I am being transported back there and I can smell and taste the tacacho con cecina and hear the distinctive Amazonian Spanish, that I struggled to learn until one morning I woke up having spent the night dreaming in pure castellano.
Iquitos has always had an Honorary British Consul, and no visit to Iquitos was complete without a function on board ship with local folk and the consul joining us. Our skipper, John Needham would spare no expense with our albeit limited resources and it was always a great night with our Caribbean steel band under the leadership of Francis one of our Bajan stewards, big Geoff the third engineer on claves and third mate John Longford-Lewis, Sparkie and myself hard at work improving our previously mentioned Perú españoles.  This would invariably be followed a few nights later by dinner at the home of the consul. Sadly, I can't remember his name, but I have not yet met a more sociable and hospitable diplomat. He was a wonderful raconteur, and his dinners would provide a great stage for him to tell us some (in hindsight) quite incredible stories about Peruvian Amazonian social history.
A most memorable event which took place on my first trip on the river was Christmas Day.  This would be a good moment to tell you about the role of Chief Steward/Purser on a small ship like Viajero.  As well as feeding and catering for the officers and crew (and I can tell you that a more complaining bunch of individuals would be hard to find than merchant navy ships' officers), the purser also has the task of  dealing with customs and immigration, acting as the de facto ship's doctor and as I mentioned in an earlier posting - handing down cans of beetroot and the like to eager canoe children as we travel along the river.  However on Christmas Day 1966, John Cullimore excelled himself. Admittedly, at times he was inclined to describe a tin of mixed vegetables as légumes macédoniens but on this day we were treated to feast fit for royalty, complete with party hats, Christmas presents (most of which were handed over the side to the canoe kids) and late night choruses of all our favourite carols, accompanied of course by Francis and his Bajans
As I said at the introduction to this blog, "Take me back to my boat on the River!"

Time stands still as I gaze in her waters
She eases me down, touching me gently
With the waters that flow past my boat on the river
So I won't cry out anymore.


  1. Am waiting eagerly for the next instalment!!!am enthralled!

  2. Also eager to scan the next episode, Mike.