Santarem and the Battle on the Tapajos

Six days at sea while we traversed the Atlantic Ocean from one continent to another meant that we had a chance to settle into the ship’s routine of eat, entertain, eat, entertain, eat, entertain, eat, entertain, sleep. A slight adjustment had to be made on those days that we crossed one of the date lines, in this direction it thankfully meant for an extra hour in bed. Each passenger quickly develops their own timetable depending on which groups, lectures and most importantly which restaurant they favour. Sue and I have now begun to diverge in our activities, following those that personally appeal and which sometimes means that often we are in different locations, usually meeting up in the cabin prior to one of the meal times.

We generally skip afternoon tea (part of our strict diet initiative!) and as we do not finish chatting at the dining table until well after 11pm, we skip the early hours of the morning entertainment on offer to occasionally (now in warmer climes) take a turn around the deck, but more often than not, we head off towards the comfort of our pillows rather than; dance, engage in organised tom-foolery in one of the many bars or attempt to make our first million in the Casino.

Barry, as previously mentioned has considerable health issues and it was with concern that we discovered that he had deteriorated to such an extent that he and June seriously considered leaving the ship in Madeira and flying home. Though ill, he always seemed to perk up when we came together at dinner, though throughout, his diet has been restricted mostly to omelette. During the second of the life-boat drills we have so far experienced, in the absence of Barry who was too ill back in the cabin, she professed that the heat of the Amazon rainforest climate may be too much for him and  they are again considering flying home.

As we entered the waters off the mouth of the Amazon the sea changed dramatically from the rhythmically undulating transparent dark blueness, intimating great depth, to a turgid greenish, light brown with blankets of swirling particles of river mud shrouding any indication of depth. The fleeing flying fish that been our company for the past four days had disappeared, obviously preferring to see where they were going before  launching themselves into extended glides across the top of waves, some times flicking their tails on a crest to continue their desperate bid to avoid the monster Magellan.

Sue reported on one of her sorties topside that we had steamed by some other ships; tankers, containers and a small fleet of some unfortunate trawlers engaged in laying lines of lobsterpots. The Magellan maybe one of the smallest cruise liners, but rapid course changes are not within her ability, so it was inevitable when she ploughed through a field of bobbing flags and lines, no doubt destroying much of that day’s catch. I suspect the radio transmissions between cruiser and trawler were quite hot at the time.

Early on the morning of the 22nd sometime in the early hours we picked up the pilot who would guide us throughout our time in the Amazon. We woke at 6am and after rapidly downing a coffee we quickly made our way on deck to discover that many like us were eager to witness our entrance into this mighty river. However, at this point the river was so wide and dotted with tree encrusted islands it was difficult to judge whether we were in a river at all!

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Slowly, we made our way churning and mixing the  waters into a lengthening  brown ribbon, stark against the river’s natural khaki colour , making it easy to see where we had been.  At first the islands and river bank? were too far away to see detail, they appeared as green slabs set on a caramel base. under a promising dawn sky of greys and blue. It was hot already and as the lens of my camera can testify, very humid.

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Soon we arrived at a mid-stream anchorage point between two very rusty and battered river luggers that like us, were waiting for customs to clear their passage up stream. The pilot station was sited on the nearest bank, you could tell from its  stilted height above the water that the river here was tidal and it was out. Soon the pilot boat chugged its way towards the Magellan, depositing two further Brazilians on board. These were customs officers, they have a reputation for being unpredictable and officious in their work. As it turned out to be it was 3.45pm  before we discharged the officials back to desks and rubber stamps. Rattling the anchor chain safely back inside we left the the less fortunate luggers behind, no doubt they were worthy of even more attention than a cruise liner.

Throughout all this, life on board continued as if we were still ploughing our way blissfully across the Atlantic. Meal times, lectures, clubs etc. etc. didn’t pause for an instant. The early rush to ‘experience’ the river melted away quickly for most of our fellow passengers, there are only so many photos of a distant pilot station you can take and the local wildlife was not coming our to play, so they got on with the serious side of cruising, being entertained and fed.

Now that we were once again making progress up stream, cameras and binoculars were the order of the day. Following deep water, first one bank then the other would come tantalising close, frustrating those with convenient snappy cameras who had to continually change sides if they wanted to capture  glimpses of stilted shacks half hidden by trees and shrubs. Though the rainforest was now within the smallest of camera’s range, little wildlife was seen, other than birds.  We passed many small craft skimming their way up or down stream, closely hugging the forest edge, busy getting on with life but most taking time to give a distant wave to the blue behemoth that threatening to disturb their peace. One adventuresome fellow put-putted his way to within a few hundred yards, waved vigorously to show his bravado, then turned  and headed away to safety.

The rainforest is big, we know this, all you could see from our Magellan perches was muddy river water from horizon to horizon fore and aft, and a band of green trees port and starboard, it was as if we were dropped into a prehistoric scenario, riding on the back of a dinosaur menacingly meandering through the forest looking for a tasty morsel or two.

We arrived at the port of Santarem shortly after breakfast. The city is located at the confluence of the Tapajos and Amazon Rivers, it was once home to the Tapajos Indians. It is an important junction for river commerce as there is only one road leading out of the city connecting it to Belem.

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The Magellan dropped her anchor around half a mile from the shore where two tugs smartly pushed a floating pier alongside in preparation for the usual abandonment of the cruiser’s human cargo on port days. The sky was clear and as expected when you are just 3 degrees off the Equator, the heat and humidity are fierce! Anyone wishing to take a quick photo after being disgorged from the ship was in for disappointment as cameras sitting in air conditioned comfort instantly mist up when subjected to Amazonian conditions, taking several minutes before the lenses clear, no matter how often you wipe the moisture away!

We had booked ourselves on a tour called “Lake Maica and Piranha Fishing”, it promised much and this time it delivered.

We boarded our craft from the floating pier with around 14 other passengers. Our dinky little white boat was similar to many that we could see plying their trade across the vast expanse of water surrounding us, many more could be seen tied up at jetties all along the city’s water frontage. We rushed onto its lower deck to escape the sun and sat in little plastic stacking chairs similar to those found in many British gardens. Comfortable, but prone to sliding on a moving ship’s deck! The upper deck was later explored for its elevated views of the passing scenery, but the furnace prevented any extended stay, even for some one as foolhardy as myself. For once on this occasion, ‘he who dares’, didn’t for very long.

First, we tarried awhile at the ‘Meeting of the Waters’, this is a well known phenomenon and is  the point where the clear Tapajos meets the muddy Amazon, here the waters do not mix due to their different temperatures. Observers see a sharp demarcation where they both continue to flow alongside each other, their contrasting colours remaining separate. It was here that we caught glimpses of grey river dolphins hunting for food.

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As we entered the Tapajos on route to Lake Maica, the river narrowed considerably and this gave us the opportunity to see the wildlife and riverside shacks and their occupants at close quarters. White egrets, red and green parrots, vultures, water buffalo, goats, horses all slowly slid by, either in the tree canopy, river bank or immersed in  the watery margin of reed and drowned shrubs and trees. Human habitation was interspersed between stretches of wild jungle greenery and consisted mostly of poorly constructed shacks, many with families engaged in chores, lazing around or just having fun. Most gave a cheery wave and a few shouted indecipherable words as we passed by. It may be a tough environment to survive in but these seemed happy enough. I lost count of the number of little sliver like canoes, with their whining propellers thrashing the water into a lather, speeding past in one direction or other. Often, tucked into the lush greenery or down narrow side tributaries. We come across one still and silent, its lone occupant engaged with hook and line oblivious to our presence, tonight’s meal was of more importance.

We arrived at one of these intersections between main and side-stream and gliding to halt, the crew efficiently tied the bow rope to a flimsy branch of a partly submerged bush. Little rectangular pieces of wood, with nylon line, weight and hook, pre-baited with a small piece of meat were handed out. This is what I came for, the contest between man and a dangerous species! Let battle commence.

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Spending too long on considering my plan of attack, annoyingly all the prime locations along the deck were taken up by others and I had to settle for a very poor spot near to the front of the boat and in full, scorching sun! Sue had planted herself in a what I considered a very favourable perch and in shade. We had half an hour to rid the Amazon of one of its hazards.

First strike went to a gentleman on the right of me and in a similar unfortunate position. After the initial excitement during the hauling in of his trophy, it turned out to be disappointing non-biting species. Second strike went to the lady on my left and this time it was gold! A red piranha and of decent size.

As congratulations and  photographs were heaped onto the conqueror, I felt a little nibble on my own line and with lightning reflexes honed over years of avoiding cricket balls and flicked roast potatoes at rugby club dinners, I buried my hook deep into the monster! It was a piranha, a white one, with teeth that could have ripped your arm off with one bite. Hauling my catch onto the boat I stood for a while, victor and vanquished. I could see it in his eyes,  he knew I had won fair and square, it had been a contest of skill and he had lost. As magnanimous as ever, I gave the thumbs up and threw him back into the water. Long may they tell the tale in fishy circles of the humility and kindness of the warrior from Britain that saw it within himself to show mercy.

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On our return to the ship we passed the same shabby settlements, its inhabitants still involved in whatever task they had been occupied with prior, again they took time to wave and smile and a couple of boisterous children showed off their diving skills for us to admire. Don’t they know there are piranha in this river and I believe caimans too?

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We came across three sloths in a tree. It was in the hottest part of the day and high above a vulture was circling, clearly eyeing the one sloth that had climbed to the very topmost and leafless branch. His position made for an easy camera shot, I think he was enjoying  being the centre of attention from those below. I wonder if he would have been so confident if he had looked up and discovered that he was being watched by another set of eyes with a more sinister intent.

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Again we passed the dolphins, they were still on the hunt, apparently their  noses, longer that their ocean dwelling cousins being used to ferret into holes in the submerged banks where the fish hide. Later on in the wider Amazon we came across a pod of black dolphins that were clearly enjoying themselves leaping and twisting out of the water. Great entertainment for both dolphin and spectator.


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Our return route took us closer to the city and its numerous waterside businesses and river ferries. One such craft, clearly old and quite rusty, had been involved in the greatest loss of life on the Amazon. It had tragically sunk sometime in the 80’s with the the loss of over 300 lives. She had come to rest in one of the deepest parts of the river at 300m and remarkably the American company that owned her had her re-floated and she has been operating ever since. Something that would never have been contemplated in Europe.

Arriving back at the Magellan we checked out the lunch buffet before catching one of the ship’s tenders to the city pier. Our task was to purchase two dried Piranha trophies in celebration of the Battle of the Tapajos River and a Piranha T-shirt to wear. Caught the fish, bought the trophy, worn the T-shirt!

With our task accomplished we tendered back. The heat had built up to such an extent that even the river breeze couldn’t prevent us all from frying. It was a ship load of sweating passengers that gratefully flopped into bowels of the airconditioned tin can we call home.

We left port at 6pm in search of a different adventure.

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