We leave Alta Floresta and drive to Porto Velho, a trip of extremes, from crossing untouched rainforest to traversing newly ‘colonized’ lands – as they call it here. Parts of this region through the southern Amazon are untouched. There is nothing but a narrow path hemmed in by thick jungle, which becomes muddy and slippery as soon as the first drop falls from heaven and hits the red dust. Other areas have been cleared of trees, and bare fields are dotted with charred tree trunks.
It is confusing to the mind: It’s horrible to see these newly colonized lands, devoid of life, but isn’t it too easy to point your finger and exclaim, “Don’t cut the rainforest”? These people have to live as well, don’t they?
After years of destroying forests to dig for gold or to plant rubber plantations, the Amazon has been turned into a food factory for an ever-expanding world – over the last few years Brazil has become the world’s biggest beef and soya producer (the soya being primarily cultivated as fodder for the cows).
Questioning the Destruction of the Amazon Forest
But then I wonder, isn’t there a way to balance all this? Is it so difficult to develop a long-term vision where parts of the forest are cut down for cattle raising or agriculture, other parts are cut down for wood but replanted, but also parts remain untouched?
We see a lot of wood processing plants and in Alta Floresta we asked around if this was legal or illegal wood. The answer was dispiriting. “You never know. These companies may have the most impressive-looking documents full of important-looking stamps, stating that the wood comes from an area designated for cutting, but you never know if that particular tree has indeed been cut there”.
This is quite incredible considering the fact that there actually are police stations along the road to check the trucks. Corruption is the largest problem of whatever well-intentioned project in this country. Of the protected areas in the Amazon, 15% is designated by the state for ‘sustainable use’, meaning cutting is allowed selectively – but whether it is also done selectively is another thing.
Tarantulas or Midgets?
This is tropical country and the entire day we feel damp as if we have just got out of the sauna. Drying oneself after a shower is a useless exercise. Clothes hardly dry unless they are hung in the blazing sun for a couple of hours. The rainy season brings regular showers and tarantulas are a daily sight.
These huge, hairy spiders apparently don’t like rain and in the Floresta Amazônica Hotel in Alta Floresta, where we stayed for a couple of nights, they seek refuge in the large dry lobby. Each night an employee takes a large white bucket to catch yet another one and put it back into the garden.
The Juruena River needs to be crossed by ferry but since we’re an hour early we have lunch at the local restaurant where I can write my journal. Well, that is the intention. We are besieged by piõens, minuscule black kind of midgets – mosquitoes are huge by comparison.
You don’t feel them on your skin, nor do you feel them bite. Yes, bite. Not sting. These nasty, midget-kind of critters actually bite a piece out of your skin, leaving a little hole that sometimes even draws blood. The itching can’t be compared either. Give me ten mosquitoes instead anytime! Insect repellent doesn’t help adequately to keep them away and it is impossible to stay put to properly eat our meals, let alone write my journal. Trying to photograph the large numbers of fluttering butterflies is given up within minutes.
The locals are not bothered by them at all, “Fresh blood,” they say. I can remember a similar situation in Paraguay where at the time we were not bothered at all by mosquitoes while a couple that had just arrived from Europe was going crazy because of them. How it works I don’t know, but it seems some insects indeed have a nose for fresh blood.
Off-roading in the Amazon Rainforest
After a night at a gas station we continue early in the morning to traverse the ‘Arc of Deforestation’, as it is called in Brazil. This is the southern edge of the Amazon and most subject to deforestation.
Dark grey clouds move closer and gather in a thick, violent mass. They turn ominously black and the heavens open – a torrential rain pounds down for ten minutes and turns the path into a mire. In less than a minute the path is so slippery that the rear of the Land Cruiser starts to skid and we fear we’ll end up in the ditch. But we’re lucky and the car stays on the path. We quickly engage the differential locks and select low gear; we continue at a snail’s pace until we hit dry soil again.
Another river crossing, the Rio Roosevelt – named after the ex-president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1913-1914 he explored the region between Paraguay and the Amazon together with the in Brazil well-known expedition leader Marechal Rondon. Intriguing character, this Mr. Rondon, whose adult life was ruled by two projects: connecting Rio de Janeiro with Brazil’s Wild West through a telegraph road while at the same time fighting hard for the rights of indigenous people.
West of the Rio Roosevelt the road quickly turns even worse. No more laterite but large stretches of soft, white sand that easily erodes and makes some stretches impassable. For kilometers on end we take desvios – new paths cut through the forest. In some parts there is no discernible path, the only reason to drive here is that it’s a stretch where no vegetation grows. For sixty kilometers we sweat but, as usual, our team spirit is at its best during these kinds of challenges, which we both enjoy.
We explore what the Land Cruiser is able of coping with, as much as we ourselves. Bridges are especially treacherous, in places they consist of nothing but some tree-trunks where I have to get out of the car to coach Coen to the other side. A miscommunication results in a trunk skidding away. One wheel slips down and gets caught between two trunks. Coen guns the engine and thank God the Land Cruiser comes free.
From Mato Grosso we move to Rondônia, the state where in the 1980s each minute an area the size of a football field was deforested– 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for a period of 10 years!
Recuperating from Dengue at the Pakaas Jungle Lodge
Our border crossing into Bolivia is delayed. Coen falls seriously ill. For a day he is kept in the hospital of Porto Velho where they pump him full of we don’t know what through IV, while we await the results of blood tests. The results show that he doesn’t have malaria nor typhoid, but they can’t ascertain what it is. We suspect dengue, but it will take six days to get those results.
There is no treatment for it, so waiting for this result is useless. In the border town of Guajará Mirím we take a hotel and for a week Coen only sleeps and hardly eats. After his recovery we relax for another few days at the beautiful Pakaas Jungle Lodge (read about it here) and then finally cross the border.