Retracing 9 million steps through a tropical hell in Walking the Amazon

When George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest after two failed expeditions, he said, "Because it's there."

If you understand Mallory's logic, you'll appreciate Walking the Amazon, Ed Stafford's memoir about how he became the first person to walk the length of the Amazon River.

The book sets a staggering pace, especially considering how slow the journey of 8,000 kilometers progresses. Not only is the river surrounded by some of the densest jungles in the world, but for much of the year the rainforest is flooded, turning the land into a murky swamp that Stafford has to wade through for days on end.

In the hands of someone who spends more time writing about expeditions than experiencing them, the journey could have easily been exaggerated and overwritten, particularly in regards to the dangers.

"There is pressure when writing about the Amazon to extend the myth and write about the place as if dangers lurk under every log... The fear of the unknown is the biggest cause of such rumor and embellishment and, in truth, the times Cho and I walked through the jungle I felt we were safer than if we had been walking through London dogging traffic and pickpockets."

If anything, Stafford continually understates the Sisyphean task of walking through territory inhabited by vipers and jaguars, and trekking through waters infested with electric eels, piranhas and crocodiles. Stafford claims these physical hazards, "helped distract us from the far more destructive phenomena — monotony and boredom."

The true test of the jungle is not its charismatic predators, but rather its ability to constantly wear down Stafford and his traveling companion, Cho, like the clouds of mosquitoes that carry away their resolve, drop by drop. More than any physical accomplishment or act of heroism, Stafford's true achievement is his ability to endure 860 days of drudgery. In part, he accomplishes this by changing his attitude about the expedition. The jungle and the walk become his reality — his home. Instead of oppressing them, the rainforest protects Stafford and Cho from the real threat of the rainforest: people.

click to enlarge Ed Stafford - Keith Ducatel
Keith Ducatel
Ed Stafford
  • Keith Ducatel
  • Ed Stafford

In a region of Peru known as The Red Zone, Stafford and Cho are repeatedly detained at shotgun and arrow point by tribesmen and drug runners. During these encounters, Stafford's coolness seems stereotypically British. At one point he writes, half-jokingly, "I was somewhat vexed by the inconsiderate Indians coming to kill me. Didn't they realize we were pushed for time?"

From the beginning, Stafford admits that his main purpose of the walk is to do something amazing that he can look back on and be proud of. His overriding goal is not to make a political statement or raise consciousness of the region — though he invariably accomplishes both by presenting the jungle as he experienced it, free of an agenda. He does not describe the indigenous natives as noble savages. They are a people caught in a limbo between old and new worlds, spending all day getting drunk and all night beating their wives. He is shown kindness by drug runners, who in a strange way seem to keep that region of the rain forest wild. The loggers leveling huge tracts of land are some of the more hospitable people he encounters.

Often readers get an aerial view of the journey that feels no more detailed than the Google Earth maps Stafford uses to navigate. We cannot see deeper into the jungle than the few feet of thick brush Stafford spends days hacking through. In many ways, the jungle becomes an obstacle course Stafford must maneuver over opposed to one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet.

As a result, extensive descriptions of the setting, regional history, natives, and previous expeditions are left out. Just as there is only so much gear Stafford can carry, there is only so much information the narrative can support without slowing to a dreary pace.

More than exploring particular cultures or history, Stafford explores human nature. At every stage of the journey he encounters people who say it is impossible to walk the upcoming stretch of river. If the terrain does not get them, the hostile natives or bloodthirsty jaguars will. They are told to carry weapons as protection, though it is their lack of firearms that saves them when questioned about their motives. The farther Stafford walks, the more he realizes these reactions are merely a fear of the unknown. Like wise, once his captors know and understand his mission, many volunteer to help him on the journey.

click to enlarge Ed Stafford - Keith Ducatel
Keith Ducatel
Ed Stafford

The tale of Walking the Amazon will become a classic for hikers, backpackers, nature enthusiasts, survivalists, and amateur adventurers. But, while the book is entertaining, it is not nearly as impressive as the journey itself, or the men who spent 860 days walking 8,000 kilometers, who took nine million steps and missteps into the unknown — about 90 steps for every word in the book.


Find out more about Ed Stafford on his website EdStafford.org. Check out photos, journal entries, and video from his expedition at WalkingTheAmazon.com, and buy his book on Amazon.

Follow Alfie on Twitter, Facebook, or at shawnalff.com

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