September 13th 1999. Three men, each of them newcomers to South America, begin a trek inland from the coast of southern Peru. They are Colin Angus, 27, of Canada, Scott Borthwick, 23, of South Africa, and Ben Kozel, 26, of Australia. And though never having attempted anything remotely like it before, they share the aim of crossing South America from the Pacific to the Atlantic under their own power. Since the 6,600-km length of the Amazon almost spans the South American continent, they decided to hike the four hundred-km from the Pacific Coast to the South American Continental Divide and the source of the Amazon. From here they would follow the river all the way to the Atlantic.
Armed with a 4 metre rubber raft, a collection of well worn camping equipment, a couple thousand bucks each, and plenty of blind optimism, they embark on a journey that has been completed by only three others.
Still suffering the lingering effects of dehydration, the trekkers push deeper into the barren valleys of the notoriously dry South American coastal desert. Survival depends on tracking down slime-ridden oases. And only narrowly do they escape failing in this.\
Two weeks after starting, the continental divide was reached and the first trickles were located on the slopes of Mt. Quehuishua. At eighteen thousand feet, it was a world of rock, ice, snow and jagged mountain peaks. It seemed like a fitting setting for the birthplace of the world’s largest and most mystical river. From here, there was only 6,600 km to go.
For a week and a half they track the Amazon’s uppermost tributaries. From Pilpinto, a village on the Upper Apurimac some 200 kilometres downstream of the source, the water is consistently deep enough to allow the inflatable raft to be launched. And so, despite boasting a pitifully small compliment of experience in rafting big rapids, the trio proceed to tackle one of the most treacherous stretches of white water on earth.
Progress is slow. An average of less than 10 km per day are covered. Yet somehow, they hold it together. Paddling skills sharpen, teamwork gets better, and cunning displays of improvisation become the order of the day. Eventually, the walls of the gorge lean back, the mountains soften, and the rapids diminish.
Celebrations are short lived, however as they have to deal with Anti-government guerrillas, members of an extreme leftist movement known as the ‘Shining Path’, anacondas and tropical disease.
To cover the remaining 5800 km to the Atlantic Ocean a rowing frame is fashioned from balsa logs and securely fastened to the pontoons. And lengths of bamboo transform the paddles into oars.
A week before Christmas, the Brazillian border is crossed. Life onboard the raft assumes a routine dominated by rowing, satisfying their enormous appetites, rowing, mid river visits by curious locals, more rowing, and battening down the hatches in the face of wild tropical squalls. The occasional jungle city, while uniquely Amazonian, contrasts profoundly with the long stretches of wilderness.
Negotiating a route through the vast Amazon delta is especially difficult and exhausting. It takes three weeks to travel the last 400 kilometres. Strong tides, howling equatorial winds, sea like swells, and the threat of pirates conspire to make conditions miserable. Lacking adequately detailed maps, it is struggle enough to avoid becoming lost within a confusing maze of channels.
On February 9th 2000, nearly five months after bidding farewell to the Pacific Ocean, they reach Point Taipu – the southern lip of the Amazon mouth.
The entire adventure has been documented in both Ben Kozel’s book Three Men in a Raft: an Improbable Journey down the Amazon
and Colin Angus’ book Amazon Extreme: Three Ordinary Guys, One Rubber Raft and the Most Dangerous River on Earth