Monday, November 28, 2016

November 28th – Piranha Fishing in Santarem

I have never fished before in my life. So, if you've got to start somewhere, you might as well start trying to catch one of these razor-toothed flesh-eating monsters. So, after heading down the backwaters that lead off the Amazon, I eagerly dangled my hook off the side of our boat, and waited for a bite.

Actually, I did get quite a few bites, but it appears that the piranhas that I was encountering were a bit on the clever side. Every time I felt the line pull, I'd yank up the line to find that the bait (a bloody piece of juicy beef) had gone from the hook, and there was no piranha in its place. All around me, people were fishing out piranhas (small, but thrashing around wildly, bearing their fearsome teeth at us), but mine much preferred to stay underwater and feast on the beefy offerings that I was giving them. It was great fun, and I think I was secretly glad that I didn't have to have a close encounter of a piranha kind.

The whole boat trip was a really good introduction to the Amazon – we sailed over to see the bizarre phenomenon of the Meeting of the Waters, where the coffee-coloured waters of the Amazon, refuse to mix with the cooler, faster waters of the independent-minded green Tapajos River. They flow side-by-side for miles, with a clear demarcation between them, before the Amazon finally asserts its authority and subsumes the Tapajos.

In the tranquil backwaters we saw tons of birdlife – soaring hawks, swooping kingfishers, squawking parakeets, amongst so many other exotic birds that I didn't recognise - plus pre-historic looking iguanas, camera-shy grey dolphins (no pink ones seen so far), and bobbing turtles. Even if the forest we were passing was so obviously impacted by man, it still sustained a wonderful bio-diversity.

In the afternoon, we headed into the city of Santarem itself. It's a friendly place of about 300,000 people, with busy shopping streets, a few pieces of colonial architecture, an attractive waterfront (of course!), and an urban sprawl that most people don't expect to find out here in the forest. The main action was out on the river, as tens (possibly hundreds) of riverboats constantly loaded and unloaded with people and cargo – the River is the superhighway of this area, and everything that goes from A to B, has to travel along the mighty Amazon.

As expected, it was incredibly hot and humid, which kept sightseeing relatively short, although seeing as pretty much every other shop was selling flip-flops (the essential Amazon accessory it seems), Tracy did a bit of browsing along the way to help out the local economy.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable first Amazonian stop of this cruise – can't wait to see some more Amazing Amazonian sights!

November 27th – Our Amazon Adventure Begins!

As we've approached the Amazon, the excitement levels around the ship have begun to rise. This enormously powerful river pushes freshwater a full 100 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, so even though we hadn't reached the river proper yesterday, the colour of the sea was slowly changing from blue to brown as we approached the entrance of the river – the Amazon was coming to see us.

Actually, the entrance of the Amazon is a full 185 miles wide, so it's not necessarily obvious when we had actually reached the river, although the tell-tale smell of smoke could be smelt overnight – presumably from the cooking fires of the locals (hopefully not from them burning any more of the much-depleted forest.

This morning we anchored off the river port of Macapa, so that we could be cleared by the authorities. We didn't get off here, but immediately we started to have some wonderful Amazon experiences. It was so hot humid, that it took 15 minutes of acclimatisation for our cameras to clear of condensation. Over the course of the day, a collection of weird and wonderful bugs and insects started to head our way – pictured is a huge moth on the deck that at the time I thought was the size of a hand, although now that my heart rate has gone back to normal, it appears that it perhaps wasn't quite as big as my imagination was telling me.

But, the best experience was just to sit out on the veranda looking out across this vast brown river, scanning the verdant river banks, as we passed through the many islands of the delta – sometimes land was far away in the distance, sometimes relatively close up. The forest was dense, but wildlife viewing wasn't really possible because of the distance to shore, although a few times villagers would paddle out to wave at us from their canoes, while a few large birds would soar over the top of the canopy.

It's then that the sheer scale of the river becomes apparent – we're going 1,000 miles upriver (as far as Manaus), but we're only scratching the surface as it's over 4,000 miles long. Hoping for a great Amazon Adventure!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

November 25th – A Cool Day on Devil’s Island

Coming to Devil's Island was considered a fate worse than death for its inmates for the hundred years of its existence as a Penal Colony (up until as late as the 1950s). While, for modern tourists the place continues to be a bit of a struggle too, as its incredibly hot and humid climate, plus the rough conditions underfoot, mean that more than a couple of hours here begins to feel like 10 years hard labour.

Actually, today was the most pleasant weather that I've ever experienced here. Normally it's like a furnace out there, but today was "only" 32 degrees C, and 90% humidity, which was like a walk in the park compared to the oven-like temperatures that I've endured before.

But, even with a breeze blowing, it was pretty sweaty out there. I've been here a couple of times recently, so I won't go into all the background now. If you want to read a couple of previous blogs on this Hell Hole, click on the below:

What struck me most about the Penal Colony this time, was just what an enormous effort had been put into creating something so brutal, such an incredibly long way from France. Even if they wanted to put a fair bit of distance between themselves and the criminals they wanted to put away, to choose somewhere as far away and as utterly inhospitable as Devil's Island seemed like overkill (quite literally, seeing as 50,000 out of its 70,000 inmates died here, never mind the inevitable casualties amongst the prison staff and their families).

But, I guess that putting criminals and enemies of the state out of sight and out of mind hasn't gone out of fashion – think Robben Island, Siberia or Guantanamo. However, no prison regime can have been as cruel or as deadly as Devil's Island. As ever, I was glad to escape.