Ed Stafford, author of the bestselling Walking the Amazon, speaks about his unprecedented 9,600-kilometre-long journey
Britain’s Ed Stafford began exploring in 2002 after completing his army service. A former British army captain, he worked in the UN mission in Afghanistan and participated in the BBC’s environmental project “Lost Land of the Jaguar”. In April 2008, feeling strong and self-assured, Stafford undertook something no-one had ever done or even contemplated before: he set out to walk the length of the Amazon River, the grandest river of the world. Experienced people told him he was crazy, and no-one wanted to join him on the expedition, because foolhardy daredevils typically die in the jungle. They warned him of the danger of contracting diseases in places where no-one would be able to help him and said he would face the fury of indigenous Indians and drug cartels. But the 34-year-old had experience serving in the military and training in the jungles of Central America and Borneo and was a stubborn sort. It took him almost two-and-a-half years to cover 9,600 km from the origin of the Amazon River at the foot of the Andes in Peru to its mouth on the coast of the Atlantic. He produced a documentary about the trip in cooperation with Discovery Channel and later published a book, Walking the Amazon, which immediately shot to the top of the adventure reading list. It is planned to be translated into many languages, but Ukrainians will be the first nation to enjoy it after the British – the Kyiv-based Tempora Publishers recently put out a Ukrainian translation.
In an exclusive interview for The Ukrainian Week Stafford admits that he would most likely not have survived if he had remained stubborn and conceited. The big river cut him down to size and showed what is truly important to a person and what can be done without.
U.W.: Would you say that you have already reached the main thing in your life after crossing Amazonia and writing a book about it? Can you now just collect the royalties and enjoy normal life?
I was lucky to be in the right situation. I was sufficiently experienced and mature enough to undertake the expedition and at the same time young enough and free of family commitments. I was not married and did not have children. It was simply wonderful to go back home, receive positive reviews of the trip, write a book and produce a documentary together with the Discovery Channel. I found myself in a privileged situation when I was able to do everything I wanted.
But it doesn’t mean the end of the journey for me. I'm only 36 and don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about how I walked the Amazon. It would be a sign of failure. However, a number of opportunities have opened up for me. I’ve really tested the limit of what I can do. It would simply be a miserable thing to stop now. It would mean stagnation for the rest of my years. So this is not the end. But I have to admit that about eight months after the expedition, after writing the book and giving lectures on the topic in London, I had to think: What do I do now? What’s next? Do I spend the rest of my life entertaining people with my stories? Then I went away and locked myself up in a small house in France to think about what I want to do in life.
U.W.: Continue traveling around the world?
Frankly, after I returned, I decided that I wanted to have a family. It may not sound very cool, but I was under great pressure to make up my mind about the next expedition. The question was whether it would be even more difficult and more dangerous. I constantly thought about it, but I must admit that deep in my heart I lacked family and children.
U.W.: Will it be as easy to settle down and enjoy family life as you dream?
Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm not going to search for a job in a bank or something tomorrow. I am now negotiating with the Discovery Channel. We plan to work on adventure and entertainment TV programmes. It will be something real and not made specially for television – programmes with real stories and tests. I am thrilled by it. But I have to admit that I would like to balance this with family life and home. I would say that anyone who has spent two-and-a-half years alone in the jungle will realise how important family is. I can live my life trying to please the audience or amaze other travellers with even more dangerous expeditions, but this kind of life will in fact be very lonesome.
U.W.: Amazonia did take you more than two years. It wasn't easy and, as can be seen from the documentary, cost even some suffering. Was the expedition worth doing at all?
The documentary does not show even a fraction of what it was in reality. I did not produce the programme itself, even though I of course provided the footage. The film was produced by a person who was not on the expedition. I would say that the result is rather imperfect. The screen does not in the least show the mental state into which I sank. Yes, all anticipated threats are mentioned there: poisonous snakes, anacondas, jaguars and even aboriginal tribes. But that was not the biggest problem for me in my trip along the Amazon. The most difficult thing was no doubt keeping a sound mind and maintaining a positive attitude and trying to enjoy the journey.
U.W.: Does your book reflect these realities better?
Yes. I would say it does so with precision. I was lucky to have been able to write it myself. I was given a choice: “Either do it alone or you’ll be given someone to help you.” It could have been even a professional author to cooperate with me. As I worked on the first three chapters, I e-mailed drafts to an editor and got them back with comments. And then I was told: “It’s no longer necessary. You can write.” So it is my book. I have poured out my heart in it. It’s my story about the trip. I must say that I am proud of this volume. It has the depth the documentary has not been able to reach.
U.W.: People who have never been to Amazonia may have conflicting images of it. On the one hand, we know that this is a huge jungle with aborigines who are out of contact with the rest of the civilisation. On the other hand, we know about deforestation and highways being built across the rainforest. So is Amazonia still a wild area, or is it going to be colonised soon?
In my opinion, it is so big that everything you have said is true. There remain huge areas of wild virgin forests. We sometimes walked for three weeks without seeing any signs of human activity. Where else in the world is it possible, except polar regions? These are extremely remote areas. But there are people there. Manaus, the city in the middle of Amazonia, has a population of the million. There are several slightly smaller cities. Unfortunately, high-ranking officials, especially in Brazil, continue to earn big money on the Amazon River basin. Land owners have clout and continue to exploit the rainforest. In more than two years of the expedition I did not see any signs of anyone keeping in practice the declared bans on cutting down the rainforest. We saw a number of cases when they were illegally destroyed. There are laws, but there is no one on the ground there to curb deforestation. Unfortunately, it is happening even now, so we need to continue to tell the world about this problem. People need to be aware of what they buy and not support those who cause the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest. We cannot simply believe the Brazilian government. Their laws are not enforced, and virgin forests are being destroyed.
I definitely and unconditionally want Amazonia to be preserved. How can someone not want to preserve such a miracle as the world’s biggest rainforest? Yes, I suffered there. But I myself arranged this weird expedition and set its parameters. It is not easy to traverse this territory. Most people who travel there use the network of waterways. In fact, if you ride a boat or a powerboat, it is a wondrous place. Even walking on foot, we often enjoyed beautiful views. But it was hard to move ahead. The forest was often so dense that we had to cut through it. It very rarely took the form of high trees under which we could freely pass. We had to cut the jungle in front of us with machetes always in our hands. Insects were, of course, a nuisance: ants, mosquitoes, flies and other creatures. There were lots of them. I have to admit that I myself chose a somewhat foolish way of traveling across Amazonia. But whenever we could, we would find a small river in the evening, set up tents, hoped to catch some fish and washed ourselves. We would make fire, eat and try to find something else in addition to the rations we carried. It was impossible not to love what we saw. There were no people around and hence no stress. The moments we spent by the fireside were idyllic. It was also good to have one simple goal. We just walked. We simply had to reach the mouth of the Amazon River. It kept our thoughts very pure. We simply had to make ourselves walk every day.
I love those places and would like to return there some day!
U.W.: Is your book intended, among other things, to inspire the reader to repeat this expedition?
No, don’t do exactly the same thing – don’t walk the Amazon. If it inspires you to do anything you have always dreamt about, then yes! Many ill people and hospital patients have written to me saying that they simply use my book as an inspiration story. In fact, everyone told me at some point that it was impossible. Most warned me that I would die. But reaching the goal turned out to be real, and I survived. I believe it is a very simple example of a person who set a certain goal, one that others believed to be unreal.
U.W.: What if, even after hearing all the warnings, someone dares to repeat your journey? What will be your main practical advice?
First of all, I hope that these people will have the necessary experience for the expedition of this level. But as a simple and general recommendation I would say: be modest and do not overestimate your abilities! Watch the locals. Look at how they work and what skills they use. Try to be as flexible as possible. You need to learn from people around you, especially the aborigines. I began as a fairly self-confident former serviceman with my own idea of doing things. If I had stuck to these ideas, I wouldn’t have lasted for very long. I wouldn’t have been able to walk to the end!