From source to mouth of the Amazon – on foot

Adventurer risked death by disease and machete on epic journey

Terri Judd
Tuesday 10 August 2010 00:00

Six thousand miles, 859 days, 50,000 mosquito bites and dozens of death threats after he set off, an exhausted British former army captain stumbled on to a Brazilian beach yesterday to become the first man to walk the length of the world's largest river.

Ed Stafford, 34, has taken almost two-and-a-half years to complete one of the world's last great adventures. "It's unbelievable to be here. It proves you can do anything – even if people say you cannot," he said as he soaked his blistered feet in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean at Maruda Beach.

In a journey so epic that the renowned explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes called it "mad but marvellous", Stafford has cut his way through the "green hell" of razor-sharp grass and dense bamboo in one of the world's most inhospitable rainforests, dodging pit vipers, voracious ants, electric eels, anaconda and jaguars as he followed the Amazon from source to mouth. He has incurred the wrath of drug gangs, loggers and angry tribes, been imprisoned and accused of murder twice, chased by Ashaninka Indians with shotguns, bows and arrows and had concrete stuffed in his mouth by angry locals who thought he was prospecting for oil.

Stafford has contracted skin infections, been bitten by two scorpions, stung by hundreds of wasps, had to pick as many as 42 ticks from his body a day and had a botfly removed from his skull with superglue and a tree spine.

But yesterday the explorer and his companion, Gadiel "Cho" Sanchez Rivera, 31, doused each other in champagne to celebrate their triumph. Sanches, a Peruvian forestry worker, had joined the British explorer for a five days in August 2008 "to try to help this crazy man through a very dangerous area with drug traffickers and hostile tribes" but remained with him for two years.

"I'm more tired and more elated than I've ever been in my life." Mr Stafford said yesterday. "We've lived through some very serious situations and there have been times when we genuinely feared for our lives, but we never ever thought of giving up." Adding a modern twist to a classic tale of adventure, Mr Stafford has embraced the digital age to become a "walking video blogger", sending reports back to a website for schoolchildren and updating followers on Facebook. During quiet times in his hammock, he even lifted his spirits with episodes of The Office streamed using his satellite phone.

As he approached the final leg of his journey a few days ago he wrote on his blog: "The monotonous memories are diminishing, the annoying ones evaporating. We will miss the isolation; it's like a drug that both of us can feel entering our bloodstream as our shoulders relax and our senses heighten with distance from civilisation. We'll clearly miss the level of trust and mutual reliance between Cho and me. And we'll miss the Amazon jungle itself – the deafening insects, the explosion of green foliage, the elegant birds gliding like the nimblest of fighter pilots over the glossy river."

Originally from Leicestershire, Mr Stafford served in the British Army until 2002 when he embarked on expeditions to Borneo, Indonesia and Guatemala. Then he set his sights on the record-breaking Amazon challenge, which he referred to as a "boy's-own adventure".

Setting off from the summit of Mount Mismi in Peru on 2 April 2008, on a trip he believed would take a year, he promised to forsake all transport, bar the odd raft or canoe for river crossings, and "walk, stumble or crawl every inch of the way" to Belem in Brazil. He was told the feat was impossible. After just three months, his friend, Luke Collyer, pulled out but Stafford pressed on and was soon joined by Mr Sanchez.

"Everyone told me it was impossible and it made me want to prove them wrong," he explained. While passionate about raising awareness of deforestation, Stafford insisted he was no "eco-warrior" but simply wanted to draw attention to the complexities of the Amazon rainforest.

Carrying 40kg through humid and hostile terrain, the men have survived on a diet of rice, beans and piranha fish, two of which gave Mr Sanchez Rivera severe bites. Stafford has worn out three pairs of boots, two sets of gumboots and four lots of Crocs.

"Day to day getting up and putting on the wet clothes is tough; the endurance, both mental and physical, has been the thing that's been the most wearing," he said. "I've been quite humbled by how much I've had to rely on others and I've benefited greatly from the generosity of the people I've met". Along their way, the pair were accompanied by local people but others were less helpful. In Peru, the pair came across tribesmen who lived in fear of white people, whom they believed would steal their babies and kill them for body parts, while they also suspected Mr Stafford of being a mythical figure called Pela Cara, or the "face peeler".

In Rieno Unido, they were imprisoned after a man went missing and accused of his murder. After a day their innocence was established and the tribe guided them for the next few weeks. But Stafford says the scariest moment came when he and Rivera were chased by armed Ashaninkans, who trapped them and took them back to their village before eventually letting them go.

"At first, (the Amazon) was terrifying but it's changed in our eyes during the expedition and a place that was once mysterious and dangerous to us is now a place where we feel safe. We've never had more relaxed evenings than when we sit in the middle of the jungle alone around the campfire. We've fallen in love with it and it feels like home," said Mr Stafford, who has raised more than £20,000 for five charities including Cancer Research, after his father died of the disease, Rainforest Concern and two charities helping children in Peru and Brazil.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes expressed amazement at Stafford's feat yesterday. "When the trustees of the Transglobe Expedition Trust (TET) heard of his plan to walk the length of the Amazon, we asked some notable authorities on the region for their opinion," the explorer recalled. "The reply came back – 'impossible'. His plans were clearly mad and, if he succeeded against the advice of the pundits, it would also be marvellous.

"On an almost daily basis, he must have faced obstacles which would put most people off. His is a truly magnificent demonstration of the stubborn grit which you need to succeed in such difficult and dangerous terrain."

Just 24 hours before his triumphant arrival, Mr Stafford, who by then described himself and his companion as "the walking dead", collapsed by the side of the road but gathered the energy for a final push.

As he heads home today, Stafford said he was looking forward to "British humour, girls, rugby, drinking with mates and fish and chips". He added: "This expedition has been our lives. For two-and-half years we've done nothing but walk. To wake up the morning after and know that we've done it will be a big change. I think we'll get used to it though."

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