Ed Stafford talks about becoming the first person to walk the world's longest river
In 2010 Ed Stafford became the first person to walk the entire length of the Amazon. Starting at its source in southern Peru and arriving at the Atlantic ocean two and a half years later, he walked over 6,000 miles.
Were you surprised that such an iconic journey that hadn’t been done before?
Yeah, I was. Most of my initial research was on Google. I knew if it had been done before there’d be a reference to it online. I couldn’t believe it kept coming up blank. I tried Googling different combinations, different words, just to come up with something. Even after I’d done all that I still went to the Royal Geographic Society just to verify it.
What was surprising was not just that nobody had done it, no one had even conceived the idea of doing it. I was really lucky to have stumbled upon it.
Do you think it’s because it’s only now that the technology has evolved to a point to make such a trip possible?
There were two advancements, I think, that made the trip possible. One was the little inflatable pack raft I took. Without a craft you could carry in your rucksack, walking the Amazon would be nigh on impossible.
The other one was the data we got from NASA – satellite imagery that literally looked through the rainforest canopy. For the first time you were able to see the extent of the floodwaters in the flood season. Therefore we were able to annotate our maps. We knew where there was hard ground and where there was flooded forest.
The flooding was the reason most people were telling me it was impossible to do it. They were saying ‘Look, the whole thing’s flooded on the side of the river, you won’t be able to walk through it ‘ and I was like ‘Well actually I know where those floods are.’
Even though the data was from 1995, the topography hadn’t changed. The high flood lines are pretty accurate really. So with those two advances – the pack raft and the data from NASA suddenly it became possible.
You travelled with two companions. It didn’t work out with Luke but it did with Cho. What was it about Luke that caused problems?
It was two things. One was commitment and the other one was character. With Luke, I think I convinced him to do something he didn’t really want to do. He’d wanted to kayak it instead. I sort of snowballed him with enthusiasm about how walking it would be so much better because no one had ever done that before. So it never really was ‘his dream’ – I’d cajoled him into doing it. So when it came to commitment he was far more committed to his fiancé that he’d just got engaged to than he was to the expedition.
Cho, for a start, was single. More importantly, he is one of those people who if he says he’s going to do something then he’ll do it. He’s like me in that respect. We were both bloody stubborn. There were loads of times when we weren’t happy and we snapped at each other. But we just accepted that there’d be times where we ‘d be unhappy but it was temporary. Deep down we knew we were going to continue until we got to the end.
Neither one of us questioned that, really. I have a huge amount of respect for Cho because he didn’t do the first five months of the expedition so he wouldn’t even be able to turn around at the end and say that he’d walked the entire length of the Amazon. Yet he still had that level of commitment.
On top of that, Cho wasn’t trying to take over. He was a very supportive character the whole way through and I think that generosity suited my character. He wasn’t the alpha male but having said that he was incredibly capable as well. In fact, initially, my biggest problem with Cho was that I felt a little bit threatened by him. He was too good!
Do you think having a military background helped?
Definitely. I knew that I’d been through worse. I knew that physically I’d been pushed harder and I knew that I could continue whereas Luke said on a number of occasions that it was the hardest thing that he’d ever done. In typically military fashion, I was pushed hard in training so that when it came time to do something in reality, it was easy than what I’d experienced before – I didn’t get fazed by it.
The military also teaches you to think on your feet really when things go wrong, to adapt, to improvise. If I hadn’t done it I doubt I’d be in this position now. I wouldn’t have fallen into doing expeditions if I hadn’t gone into the military first.
What would you say was your darkest moment on the journey?
It wasn’t a moment, it was a period of about three months!
It was when I was going through the latter half of the Red Zone and my Spanish still wasn’t good enough for me to understand what was going on around me. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to. I was scared to the point of paranoia, thinking I was going to get myself killed.
I read back through my diaries when I was starting to write the book. I’d only been back a couple of months but I was already beginning to think it was a big jolly that I’d been on. Then I started reading the diaries, they were fucking miserable! I was crying in my hammock and thinking the locals were planning to kill me – having all sorts of mad thoughts.
I think all the stresses and dangers were being overplayed in my head because I didn’t have anyone to share those stresses with. I’d done jungle expeditions before. I knew how to operate in the jungle but I hadn’t done anything in that isolation before. Any expedition I’d done before there were volunteers or doctors or film crews or soldiers involved and this was the first time that for all intents and purposes I was alone. That period, for me, it was just an existence really, I didn’t enjoy it at all. It was a very dark time.
Was there anywhere you experienced outright hostility?
Peru. I think it’s because Peruvians have suffered massively over the last three decades - either at the hands of the Shining Path (the infamous communist terrorists), the drug traffickers or the government. The Amerindians have been given the raw end of the stick.
It wasn’t a pleasant place to go through. The people are living in this constant state of alertness and defensiveness. They consider themselves autonomous. They didn’t answer to the law of the land, they just said ‘I’m the chief, you’ve got to respect me!’ It’s understandable. They’ve experienced bloodshed firsthand. He knows he’s got to fight to save his land. He’s probably seen the women in his community raped. I think it’s important to point out that these guys weren’t bad people, they’ve just had bad things happen to them. It’s produced a country that’s still mentally affected by the whole thing.
You spoke of your paranoia earlier. Was there any point that you thought your life was in danger and looking back on it, it really was?
Once when we were trying to sneak around an Amerindian community. We were stuck on this shingle island, and they were coming towards us in their dugout canoes. I honestly thought we were going to die that day. And I still think that if we had been aggressors, we would have been done for. They came out of their community to fight. There's no doubt about it – the look on their faces, their manner, the fact they were all armed. The women had machetes and the men had shotguns or bows and arrows, They were ready to fight. They were ready to protect their land.
When you hit the wall, when you were running out of money, what was it that kept you going and made you see it through to the end?
It was commitment. My dad had always drummed in into me – ‘You said you’d do it, now you’ve got to do it’.
If I’d come home having given up because it was too hard or I got a little too scared I wouldn’t be able to walk into the local pub. My mates would have patted me on the back and said ‘We don’t think any less of you’, but it would have been bollocks. Of course they would think less of me. It was that that kept me going – not necessarily the embarrassment but honouring that commitment.
You’re a motivational speaker now. What’s the one message that you’ve taken from your journey that you share with people?
Don’t listen to negative people. If you genuinely believe that you are capable of doing something, chances are you are.
I lost count of the number of people who told me I was going to die, I was going to get malnourished. There was always a reason why I was going to fail and they were the first things that came into people’s minds. It was so frustrating. After a while I just didn’t want to ask people their advice any more.