08-July-2010: Manaus (Brazil)
Journey through the Amazon! Our journey
through the heart of the Amazon would begin from Porto Velho, Brazil,
downstream along the Rio Madeira for about 1000 kilometres until we
reached the confluence with the Rio Amazonas, where we would then
journey upstream some 200 kilometres to reach the inland city of
Manaus, Brazil, 3 degrees south of the Equator, with a population of
over 1.6 million people.
What an exciting day for us as we arrived early at the Agencia Moreira
at the Cai n’ Agua cargo loading area on Rua 13 de Mayo, Porto Velho.
When we first arrived in Porto Velho and enquired about taking a barge
to Manaus, the agent led us to the riverbank and pointed out to us the
cargo barge that we would be on. We saw a flatbed cargo barge (70
metres long, 15 metres wide and 2 metres deep) with a simple tarpaulin
roof. It already had many sacks of sugar loaded and secured in the hull
and main deck of the barge .That was two nights ago. Today, they were
busy loading bananas, eggs, soybeans, carrots, cauliflower and a very
full container of fish.
From past experience, we have learned not to expect Troopy to be loaded
onto the barge until much later than we have been advised. So we were
content to just spend the day watching all the action on the riverbank.
The scene before us was reminiscent of our ferry crossing across Lake
Victoria in Tanzania, Africa, where Troopy waited all day till all the
cargo was loaded, before being lifted by crane onto the ferry. Here in
Brazil, the barge was moored just by the riverbank with wooden planks
placed at very precarious angles, forming a narrow and unsteady walkway
for the labourers carrying not just one but two or three crates of
produce on their shoulders, heads and backs down the steep embankment.
It was incredibly hard manual labour in hot humid conditions with no
modern sophisticated cranes to lift cargo. Many of these fit young and
middle-aged men were of slender build with a very muscular torso and
broad shoulders. They wore only shorts and thongs (flip flops).
One by one, they lined up behind the produce trucks waiting to have the
crates placed on their shoulder or back using a piece of cardboard or a
towel to protect their skin from being splintered by the rough wooden
crates. With pursed lips and silent determination on their faces and
perspiration beading from under their skin in very humid conditions;
they balanced themselves skilfully on the roughly cut path leading down
the river bank to the narrow wooden planks across to the barge where
they would be relieved of their load. Then up a different set of planks
to bring more cargo down, all done with very little fuss. The men were
paid by the truckload so the faster they could empty each truck, the
more money they could potentially go home with that day.
It was late in the afternoon when we were asked to drive Troopy to an
area where the banks of the river are not as steep for vehicles to
drive straight onto the barge. It was another hour of heat and humidity
before we spotted a very heavily laden barge bulging with cargo up to
about 2.5 metres tall and sitting only 30 centimetres above the water
line. It was pushed from behind by a little tugboat with a massive 6
cylinder Scandia diesel engine. We wondered how we were going to
stay afloat on the Amazon River for the next 5 days. Will the
crocodiles climb on board and join in the picnic or will the piranhas
jump out of the water to take a bite out of us?
It turned out that Troopy was not the only vehicle. We thought we were
going to have room to set up our camping table and chairs but it was
not to be. There were another 6 vehicles to be loaded on and some farm
equipment as well. Suddenly, there did not seem to be room enough! It
took some manoeuvring to get all the vehicles onto the barge. We were
very pleased that Troopy was parked to one side edge of the barge which
allowed us the luxury of opening the passenger door over the water and
access to Troopy’s back door. We were also able to set up our roof top
tent for sleeping at night and be safe from the blood-thirsty
mosquitoes. All the other cars were parked so close to each other that
it was impossible to even squeeze through the tiny gap left for the
inward folding side mirrors. When all the vehicles and farm equipment
were loaded, the barge pushed off from the riverbank and we were
quietly on our way escorted by two pink dolphins. The breeze picked up
and there was immediate relief from the uncomfortable heat and
humidity. We were parked right next to the bananas and one of the crew
picked out a bunch for us for our journey.
During the five day trip the barge travelled at an average speed of 10
km/ hour. Whilst travelling downstream the average speed was around
14km/hour. We had a very smooth journey except for a few hours where
the waters were rough at the confluence of the Rio Madeira and Rio
Amazonas. The barge often travelled close to the riverbank so we
saw a lot of impenetrable jungle vegetation. The Rio Madeira is a huge
river with murky brown water and can be as wide as 3 kilometres at its
widest point, but mostly just over 1km wide. We had very good weather.
The clouds often built up in the afternoon to provide a wonderful
sunset, but only a few scattered light showers. At night the
temperature dropped providing a welcome relief from the humidity of the
day. The barge travelled throughout the night, navigating by spotlight
until the moon came out. It was quite a highway with many other
passenger boats and bulk cargo barges plying the waterway.
It was quite a balancing act to get from the front of the barge to the
back and climb into the tug boat for all our meals, toilet and showers.
As the whole barge was filled with cargo, the only room left to walk
from the bow to the stern to access the tugboat was along the narrow
edge between the cargo and the water. One had to be very careful not to
slip and fall into the river but to hang on tight to the ropes securing
the cargo. During the day, Kienny often sat on a picnic chair beside
Troopy but Geoff had to tie the chair down to Troopy to prevent Kienny
from being catapulted into the river in case we hit a bow wave from
another boat, since the chair just fitted between Troopy and the edge
of the barge.
We had a crew of ten people including the Captain and the cook. There
were four tiny cabins for the captain, cook, assistant captain and
diesel mechanic. The rest of the crew slept in hammocks wherever they
pleased. We felt very sorry for these guys sleeping out in the open at
the mercy of mosquitoes during the hours of dawn and dusk. There was
only one small shower and toilet cubicle utilising river water. The
crew often washed themselves and their clothes at the very back of the
barge with water from the river. They would even brush their teeth with
river water! Everything seemed to get thrown into the river from food
scraps to plastic bags and drink bottles.
The meals we had were very simple but hearty meals of rice, beans and a
meat dish. The cook used her pressure cooker for all her cooking.
Everyone was very friendly and helpful and they were a cheerful bunch.
One might think it boring to be cruising so slowly along the river but
we found it very relaxing after a hectic two weeks’ of driving through
Argentina, Bolivia and into Brazil. Geoff was able to do a couple of
small jobs inside Troopy in the mornings when it was cool. The
afternoons were spent reading in the roof top tent or sitting with the
crew at the Captain’s bridge. We had a bird’s eye view of where we were
going which was also great for spotting photo opportunities. Late in
the afternoons or early in the mornings, we could hear hundreds of
screeching birds in the trees just adjacent to the riverbank.
Sometimes, we passed a small village or a lone house in a small
clearing in the forest.
The rest of the time was spent observing the comings and goings of the
crew. They seemed to just eat and sleep a lot during the day, since
they had to keep watch while the barge travelled all through the night
by spotlight or moonlight. There was no sophisticated depth finder or
GPS equipment, just a two-way radio, spotlight and a cassette player.
The captain had over 30 years on the Amazon and knew every bend and
shallow water of this waterway. He would use a spotlight to illuminate
the way ahead and to spot the continual stream of water craft.
We also discovered some fishy business happening on our barge. One day
the crew would come to the barge and carry a box of eggs back to the
tugboat. On another day, we discovered the barge had big storage holds
about 2 metres deep containing cracked wheat and soybeans. One crew
member was down there scooping a bagful of soybeans! Yet another day,
Kienny discovered the men were tampering with the seal to the fish
container. They managed to somehow undo the seal, obtained 3 bagfuls of
fish and replaced the seal. Needless to say, fish was on the
dinner menu that night! We were amazed and felt rather guilty that the
crew kept breaking into the produce to feed us. However, we discovered
that this was common practice amongst the workers in the cargo docks.
Even the captain and barge owner helped themselves to the fish, bananas
and tomatoes as they were being unloaded. In our minds, we imagined we
were travelling on a pirate’s barge...Yo Ho Ho!
We stopped at a few towns to deliver some cargo. At Humaita, we picked
up another vehicle, making eight vehicles in total including our
Troopy. Then we stopped at Manicore to deliver a whole consignment of
household furniture and electrical goods and picked up many cases of
empty Coca Cola and beer bottles. Late one night, we called into Novo
San Jorge to deliver eggs. We chugged along covering about 250
kilometres per day. As we neared the confluence between Rio Madeira and
Rio Amazonas, the going got quite choppy. Since the vehicles had not
been lashed down, the vehicles and farm machinery moved forward
gradually until they touched, scratched and dented the cars in front.
Fortunately for us, Troopy did not sustain any damage. The bonnet of
the car behind Troopy already had a small gash from making contact with
the ladder of our roof top tent when the owner was driving it on board
the barge. We tried to jam the mooring ropes under the front tyres of
the vehicle behind us to prevent it from running into Troopy and
causing further damage to the other car’s bonnet. We were a little
concerned that the ladder of our roof top tent could get bent. We
shuddered at the thought of the reaction of the owners of the damaged
cars when they came to claim them. We would have been very upset!
Once the barge turned upstream along the Rio Amazonas the going once
again became as smooth as glass. It was the morning of the last day and
there was a lot more to see as the barge was travelling very close to
the riverbanks. We wondered if it was less choppy closer to shore than
being out on the vast open waterway, which looked more like a sea than
a river. The river traffic here was much heavier as the Rio Amazonas is
the main waterway linking the Amazon to the Atlantic Ocean. There were
more villages, floating houseboats, cattle and horses grazing on
marshland. A few areas looked to be like wetland areas with thick grass
and trees growing in water. There were lots of palm trees growing
beneath the canopies of the taller Jacarandas and other rainforest
From up high on the captain’s bridge, we could see the reddish brown
waters of the Rio Negro and the light brown waters of the Rio Solimoes
which merged into the Rio Amazonas. The waters of these two
rivers do not merge for over 20 km. It is just like having two rivers
in one, each having a different colour and water temperature. In the
distance, we could see big cargo ships, gas and oil tankers plying the
waterway of the Amazonas which drains into the Atlantic Ocean.
We pulled into Manaus just after lunch. As all the mooring points were
full, we had to dock beside another barge that had just been unloaded.
Almost immediately, the labourers gathered alongside our barge. One
team began to unload the bananas. Another team began unloading
the boxes of eggs. We got our picnic chairs out and sat ourselves down
on the empty barge to watch the hive of activity on the docks. We knew
we could not move Troopy until some of the produce was first unloaded.
It was a couple of hours later that our barge moved to a different
jetty. Again, more labourers and truckies descended upon our barge and
started to unload the tomatoes, potatoes and the rest of the bananas.
Another group went to the fish container to unload the fish into the
refrigerated hold of another small boat. It was early evening and the
sun was setting and it looked like we would be spending the night on
the barge docked at the Manaus Port. The barge crew swept the rubbish
and broken wooden pallets from the barge straight into the river. A
water truck sprayed water on the main jetty and everyone left. We were
given another fish dinner and we went to bed in the roof top tent again
watched by the inquisitive boat captains and crew. We felt very safe
sleeping the night there despite the stories we heard about the areas
around the ports being a bit rough and seedy. The Port was very well
lit and each barge had a security man on duty to guard all the unloaded
The next morning saw us being woken at 5.30 am in the morning by a few
labourers sitting on the egg boxes in front of Troopy. They began to
unload the rest of the tomatoes and eggs and it was looking more
hopeful for us to be able to drive Troopy off the barge. Finally, one
of the crew came walking in our direction holding a plastic bag full of
keys to all the other vehicles. The crew very skilfully manoeuvred each
vehicle and drove them off the barge. Then it was Troopy’s turn as it
needed a bit more room in which to manoeuvre. Finally at 9 o’clock in
the morning Geoff drove Troopy off the barge.
At first we were disappointed that we were unable to drive the
officially closed BR-319 road from Porto Velho to Manaus, since this
road runs through the heart of the Amazon. The Rio Madeira parallels
the BR-319 road. Having now done the barge trip, we are thrilled that
we had the opportunity to travel on a cargo barge as it gave us a good
insight into life in and on the Amazonas.
We plan to stay in Manaus for two nights to post our newsletters and
photos onto our website and also see if we can get tickets to attend a
show at the majestic Manaus Opera House.
We hope you will enjoy the photos. It was very difficult to decide
which ones to publish on our website. We have tried to show a little of
what we saw on our journey by barge through the heart of the Amazonas.
The pictures for this
section of our trip can be found by clicking here and here or by selecting
the Next arrow button at the bottom of this page.
A map of our trip can be seen by
going to http://dreamers1.com/americas/GoogleMaps/SouthAmerica.html or by selecting the Map button at the
bottom of this page.
The WEB site
our travels in Africa, Russia and South America is http://overland.dreamers1.com or by selecting the Contents button at
the bottom of this page.
and Kienny Kingsmill