Charles Rangeley-Wilson takes us on a fishing trip down the Rio Negro
Our plan is out the window. The rain has been hammering down for weeks and the fishing camp in the headwaters of the Rio Negro has cancelled on us. The river up there has burst its banks, flooding the land. And I’m stranded in Manaus, waiting and waiting, the city sweaty and steaming with the breath of the forest.
At the Municipal Market I at least get a glimpse of the peacock bass I’ve come such a long way to find. Ever since I heard from an Argentinian they were the strongest, craziest, most aggressive fish in the world, I’ve dreamed of catching one. But here there is only a pile of small ones – frozen. I ask among the fishermen but they all say the river is far too high for bass and these have come from a long way away. When I explain I’m here to make a film with the BBC and we hope to catch a real monster in the upper Negro, they laugh and shrug. My heart sinks.
To cheer me up Ivano, our translator, takes me to Bar do Armando – it serves the coldest beer in Manaus. We chat about the opera house opposite. He says it used to have a rubber road running up to the front door, so late carriages wouldn’t disturb the performance. But I haven’t come to watch opera; we return to the problem of my bass. Ivano says he has an idea. “You need to find Moacir. He is a guide. He has a boat and runs trips up the Rio Negro. I think, in spite of the rain, he may be able to take you upriver.”
Mo takes some tracking down. I’m finally given his address and head into the city to find him. It’s Sunday and there are impromptu parties all over the place: flat-bed trucks full of speakers, kids playing football in side streets and hundreds of people flying kites. Manaus rolls up and down as it sprawls towards the fringes of the rainforest.
I find Mo’s house and ring the bell. A little lady answers.
I say his name and she shuts the door again. A minute later it opens and she lets me through. Mo has a parrot on his shoulder and a small dog that wears knickers. I explain my predicament, that I have no chance of getting into the rainforest unless he can take me. Is he going upriver soon? Can I hitch a lift? “Sure,” he says, with surprising ease. Mo says he loves fishing. He will come with me and we’ll go to find the Caboclos, the river people.
On board he wears a captain’s hat, and a blazer over a Hawaiian shirt. I ask him about the Caboclos. They are mixed-race, native Amazonian and Portuguese, he says. They live in villages by the water and make a subsistence living from the river. “They’ll have secret places they go to find bass,” he says, “and maybe, if we ask nicely, they’ll take us.”
Steaming upriver for a full day we arrive at the first Caboclo village – Nova Canaã – in the dark. The moon is full and bright enough to bathe the river in a milky-blue light, and the clouds are torn like a moth-eaten scarf. The village is a strip of lights along the dark bluff. In one of the houses the blue glow of a TV flickers on the walls and through the window.
At dawn Mo and I go in to the village. A few kids in T-shirts and shorts buzz excitedly around us. Mo sends one of them off to get Ivandré and Raimundo, two of the young fishermen he knows. They come along a few minutes later and Mo chats to them in Portuguese. “They are happy to go out with us, Charlie. But they think the water is too high for bass.”
“What do you think Mo?” I ask.
“I think you won’t catch a fish if you don’t go fishing.”
An hour later we’re in a meandering passage through the impassive forest. I try to visualise a river and dry banks when all I can see is the upper parts of trees. We cast our lures into the undergrowth but as the day begins to boil it’s obvious we won’t find a thing here. We give up and go back to the boat.
We decide to move on to the next village, Kambeba, hoping the water will be low enough. But the young men shake their heads when we ask after bass. Then a name is mentioned: Rafa – pronounced ‘Haffa’. He is the old man of the river.
He lives way upstream – by now we are on a tributary of the Negro called the Cuerrias – he might know some good spots, they say. A scout is sent to find him and, feeling sympathy for my fishless plight, two kids take me digging for ‘jumpy jumpy’ worms to use as bait to catch piranhas. “Then at least you will have caught a fish,” they say.
We cross the bay as the sun sets over the wide expanse of the Rio Negro, dropping behind a massive cumulus and casting a stripe of mauve across the rippled roof of golden sky. A sunset so bewitching that Mo drives our canoe deep into the reeds, thumping it against the stump of a dead tree. Sudden shouts and scrambling follow. Above the prow a buzzing swirl of black wreathes the two kids who’ve come with us.
They wave at the air and jump head first into the piranha-infested river. I turn to run, but the boat moves under me like I am going the wrong way on an electric walkway. Mo yanks at the starter cord. The engine splutters. The cloud catches up with me and I jump, reasoning that if the Caboclo kids prefer piranhas to wasps, then so do I.
The guide eventually returns – he has found Rafa. We move off, continuing our long journey upriver overnight. I’ve no idea how far we’ve come. The forest has no markers, and any useful sense of scale is lost. It feels as though we are miles from anywhere. I ask Mo. “We are miles from anywhere,” he says.
I love drifting in and out of sleep as the boat moves upriver, feeling it heave sideways around the tight meanders. The sky has stayed clear, the moon bright, and every so often I lean off my bunk and crane a look through my porthole to see the silvery forest closing in as we ascend the narrowing river.
We find Rafa in the morning – he’s been expecting us. Rafa is short, wiry, with a friendly, enquiring face. Despite our faltering, translated chat it is clear he understands fish and fishing. He knows a lagoon, off the main river, that may have fish in it. He is not sure. He hasn’t been there for a while.
We motor upriver and find Rafa’s lagoon but it is indistinguishable from the spreading expanse of water – it’s been flooded. The water stretches forever, deep into the forest. I know the fish are in there, but they are way beyond reach: we’ve come to the wrong place at the wrong time, and the flood will take weeks to subside. My trip is screwed.
Suddenly, Mo is wrestling with his rod: “Yes – 20 kilos; 25 kilos!” I think he is kidding until a bass leaps through the surface, falls and bounces off it two or three times, jangling the tip of Mo’s rod. He’s kidding about its size but it’s a bass! We’ve found a bloody bass!
He catches another soon after, then two come in attached to the same lure. Mo whimpers with excitement. Then I catch one too. Within an hour we have a hatful: a basket of small bass to take back to Kambeba – I promised to bring them supper and it is a relief to not go back empty- handed.
They seem pleased with our catch when we arrive at Kambeba. We tip a dozen fish over a wooden table in the shade of the trees and the women begin to clean and descale them. I join in, although Mo doesn’t approve.
“That work is for the ladies, Charlie. Remember, this is macho country.” Instead Mo sits on a bench with his captain’s hat still on and entertains the kids with stories. It grows dark quickly, but the bass are soon ready. We eat them by the light of a fire on the beach and afterwards crank the village disco into life, stealing a quick boogie before the power goes off at ten.
My trip is over. In the morning Mo will take me back to Manaus. I came looking for a trophy fish but in the end found something else, something better. The fire-snorting rod-breaker will have to wait until amanhã – and less macho weather.