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BIKING THE AMAZON RIVER

A message about two brothers from Poland traveling the Amazon River carried quickly among the villages along the river. What intrigued the locals the most was not a nationality of explorers, but their vehicles – neither bicycles nor rafts? And they were emanating such joy and enthusiasm, that there was no way to ignore them. Even for gangsters, they turned out to be worthy of a photo together.

Amazonian bicycle

What inspired two brothers from Gorzów Wielkopolski: Dawid Andres (who has lived in the USA for many years) and Hubert Kisiński to face the greatest river in the world were books. The stories about Amazon, that Dawid loved to read, set the direction for his dreams to “experience something amazing”. The only question was how to run the queen of rivers. Brothers considered kayaks: mountain ones for Andres, and sea kayaks for lowlands. “The plan was quickly scrapped due to the lack of experience with white water kayaking” – says Dawid. They considered then, to travel the mountain part by bicycles along the river, and use kayaks to travel the Amazon. Even that plan fell when they calculated costs of sea kayaks purchase. So all that was left were bicycles. But what kind of bicycle can travel on the Amazon River?

And that’s how the Amazonian Bicycle was created; the vehicle that can be used on land and on the water. After detaching the wheels the bicycle frame is being mounted onto two inflatable runners. Three-meter long runners made of the material used to build rafts have resistance of 480 kg.  That way, normal bicycle transforms into something that reminds catamaran and allows traveling on water. The drive is connected to crank chain. The whole thing is equipped with rear saddlebags with three chambers each for storage of the luggage.

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So far, no one has ever pedaled the Amazon River. When the 40 years old Dawid Andres wrote to me for the first time to present his concept, I thought that it was rather a crazy project. Later, I learned that the decision about the selection of means of transportation was more prosaic than beating the record itself. “I did not plan this, it was just the cheapest this way” – responded Dawid, when asked about the goal of his expedition – “I simply want to experience a great adventure”.

In pursuit of a dream

And so, in September 2015, with his 8 years younger brother Hubert, Dawid reached Peru, to set off to meet his great dream. The expedition becomes a test of ones capabilities and a lesson of life. And in the case of Hubert, it’s also kind of a therapy and the effort to break up with the past – full of pain after the loss of his home, treated with drugs and full of fear for the future. By taking part in this expedition, he wants to prove to himself and the others that he has strength to withstand anything.

Due to my knowledge about the Amazon terrain, and also charmed by Dawid’s spontaneous reaction to a question about the course of expedition (“How else! In the footsteps of Chmieliński, but on the bicycle”), I readily got involved in this project. Exactly thirty years after my last expedition, I am running with brothers the Amazon River again, this time virtually. It is an interesting confrontation between the past and the present. On one hand, it is something new, something changed, and on the other hand – these are the same places that Joe Kane and I had seen many years ago while kayaking, place where time seems to have stopped.

The bath in the queen of rivers

The bicycle journey started in Camaná beautifully placed on the Pacific coast. From there – through Arequipa and Chivay – the brothers went to a place named Tuti, and further in the direction of Mount Mismi, to get to the Ticlla Cocha Lake where the permanent source of the greatest river is localized. And it is the place where the brothers took a first bath in Amazon water. It would not be worth mentioning if it wasn’t for the fact that this lake is located 5142 meters above sea level (m.a.s.l). Altitude sickness and bitter cold make that hardly anyone even think of diving into such freezing water. That bath became sort of a baptism of Dawid and Hubert, symbolic beginning of their journey through Amazon River. The counter has started ticking. There are still almost 7 thousand kilometers left to pedal ahead of them before they reach their destination, the Atlantic Ocean.

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On the route between Ayucucho and Huancayo. Photo by Piotr Dąbrowski

If we tried to picture cyclists land route through Andes as a chart, it would look like a sinusoid – from 0 meters above sea level riding or pushing their bicycles up to 4500 m, a quick descend to 1000-1500 m, and then again a ride or pushing up to 4000 m. And just like that for the rest of the journey through mountains.  In addition, the “thin” air and a different environment caused headaches, not to mention stomach problems.

In Ayacucho, brothers were joined by Dominic Dąbrowski, who came to Peru with a mission – bringing the floating parts for Amazonian Bicycles all the way from Poland. He took two-week leave from work, bought locally bicycle “cheaper than the brake pad” and together with two brothers arrived at Huancayo. “Dominic rode with us all the way from Ayacucho. He could barely breathe, but he said he would ride on his own. He surprised us how well he coped at 3900 m.a.s.l.” – says Dawid with admiration.

The danger zone

After separating with Dominic, two brothers went in the direction of Atalaya, through the territory inhabited by Ashaninka tribe that was known as one of the most dangerous regions for travelers in Peru. Traveling from Huancayo to Atalaya, David and Hubert learned that all warnings about dangers that foreigners can encounter, are not made up. A few kilometers before their destination, they were ambushed, though it looked more like a scene from a comedy than a gangster movie. Bandits first tipped over on their motorcycles, bumping into their armed leader right after he stopped not so rapidly, then took electronics and money from brothers only to give them back after a moment. In the end they decided to take 300 soles (the equivalent of 100 USD). Finally they took a photo with their victims.

Dawid admits, that it was rather a funny encounter, but the brothers were very lucky nevertheless which they realized a few days later after arriving at the village where in 2011 two famous Polish travelers: Celina Mróz and Jarosław Frąckiewicz were murdered.

Bucolic tale, vortex and an earthquake

“We are not pedaling and we are still moving forward. Boredom, no action, however, after riding or pushing bicycles uphill, especially at 4000 m.a.s.l. – it’s a real a paradise!” –  summarized Hubert the first phase of their bicycle ride after launching their vehicles in Atalaya.

First kilometers of the journey turned out to be really idyllic. Even without pedaling the current carried them and allowed to take naps or a few swims per day.

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Hubert’s meeting with a local fisherman accompanied by soundly asleep person in his canoe. Photo by Dawid Andres

After leaving Pucallpa it was not as easy any more. The brothers had to work hard pedaling  on the tortuous Ucayali.  After one of the river bends they have fallen into strong vortex: Hubert first and Dawid right after him. They still do not know what made them survived. They even had a chance to “taste” some of big waves caused by an earthquake at strength of 7.5 on Richter’s scale. A more calm was flow down the Puinahua Canal, a tributary of the river, where they could relax and enjoy their isolation from the rest of the world. When they entered again into the main current of Ucayali, they arrived at another tributary of Amazon River – Marañón. In a place named Nauta they dismantled their Amazonian Bicycles and then by land, on normal bicycles they arrived at Iquitos. There, they launched their vehicles yet again and after few days of pedaling they arrived to Brazil border.

To be here and now

Traveling on the Amazon River, the brothers are discovering a new world there, especially the people. Not once they surprised Peruvians with their friendliness and frankness. Many of them will remember for a long time a match with gringos in the village of San Carlos Mariage, or taste of Hubert’s fries made from yucca in San Alberto. Even the hermit Tito, who lives secluded in primitive conditions in a little hut, abandoned his solitude, offering them to stay for a night.

They even received a warm welcome from a rather distrustful, especially when it comes to white people, community of Los Israelitas that lived in a biblical village of El Alto Monte de Israel.

Dawid and Hubert came up with a theory that they had some kind of internal scanners that shows who is friendly on their path. The coolest people they met, was a Colombian family living in a Brazilian Tabatinga: Marta and Jorge with Nicole – Marta’s daughter – and Jesus Fabian, her boyfriend. The brothers spent with them their first Christmas away from their own families. After the holidays, they happily returned to the Amazon River to continue their Great Adventure. “While lying on my bike, moving with the river flow and I look at the sky, I cannot help but think that I will miss this moment. I love this moment, being here and now. Sometimes, I dream that I am not on a journey. I wake up and… I am happy!” – summarized David.

By Piotr Chmieliński
Photo: David Andres