Joining an explorer-led adventure to deliver aid along the Amazon

Legendary soldier-turned-explorer John Blashford-Snell is famed for making the first descent of the Blue Nile and crossing the treacherous Darien Gap. Now Anna Nicholas joins him and a team of volunteers on a humanitarian expedition to deliver medical aid to a remote tribe in the Colombian Amazonas

Expedition leader Colonel John Blashford-Snell with the author
Expedition leader Colonel John Blashford-Snell with the author | Image: Adriaan van der Wart

In the darkness, warm rain raps incessantly on the crude tarpaulin above my head, as I huddle with seven others – virtual strangers until a few days ago – in a makeshift encampment in the heart of the Colombian rainforest. It’s 15 years since I last accompanied the irrepressible veteran British explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell on one of his humanitarian-aid expeditions – and it shows: my level of fitness isn’t quite so keen, nor is my enthusiasm when faced with hairy arachnids, mosquito scourges and wading across muddy rivers.

A Ticuna family go fishing together
A Ticuna family go fishing together | Image: Adriaan van der Wart

Still, I’m not the only masochist who’s signed up for this challenge. The purpose of our expedition to the southernmost part of Colombia is to offer medical and community aid to the remote Amerindian Ticuna people scattered along various tributaries of the Amazon. My jungle buddies, all paying volunteers, include Simon House, an agronomist; John Arathoon, technical director of a building firm; Jon Morten Risberg, a Norwegian environmental geographer and former soldier; and Varinder Singh Bassi, a dentist with the British Forces in Germany. Sharing our temporary shelter is also Yasmin Jauhari, an NHS surgeon; Adriaan van der Wart, a South African doctor-cum-filmmaker and artist; and Hugh Fagan, a plucky gap-year student. The remaining seven members of our disparate group await our return in an Amerindian village on the edge of the Loretoyacu river, a tributary of the Amazon.

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Our two-day mission in deep, at times impenetrable, jungle has involved setting up camera traps to monitor wildlife, but also – importantly – to discover how far one must journey through cultivated territory to reach virgin rainforest. And there’s the rub: for here in the Colombian Amazonas, a trek of at least 15km from any human habitat is necessary before kissing goodbye to scrubby plantations and felled trees and entering a genuine Eden.

The team trek across a river
The team trek across a river | Image: Adriaan van der Wart

As an inveterate traveller, Blashford-Snell, now 81, is under no false illusions about the current state of the South American rainforest. He has conducted expeditions worldwide, many under the auspices of The Scientific Exploration Society, the charity he co-founded. His exploits include the first descent of the Blue Nile, navigation of the Congo River and crossing the treacherous swamplands of the Darién Gap – but his enduring passion is for hot and steamy jungles. Like Colonel Percy Fawcett, the early-20th-century British explorer made prominent recently in the film The Lost City of Z, he has a special fascination for ancestral tribes, lost cities and the allure of the Amazon.

Children greet the team and receive books and stationery
Children greet the team and receive books and stationery | Image: John Blashford-Snell

The Ticuna diaspora live a mostly hunter-gatherer existence and have spread to Brazil and Peru. Their total population is estimated at 56,000, with over 7,000 living in Colombia. While conducting recces with his local representative Yolima Cipagauta Rodríguez, an economist, and supported by the Colombian government, Blashford-Snell also identified another critical need: an ambulance motorboat to ferry locals from distant dwellings to hospitals downriver. At the planning stage, by serendipity, he met Gregor Mattli, chairman of Swiss medical establishment Clinique La Prairie, who offered to finance the vessel.

Sergio León, co-owner of travel firm Ecodestinos, takes shelter from the rain
Sergio León, co-owner of travel firm Ecodestinos, takes shelter from the rain | Image: Adriaan van der Wart

Some of us attended a briefing weekend three months earlier, but others are encountering one another for the first time in Colombia. Having flown 1,000km from Bogotá to the equatorial port of Leticia, gateway to Brazil and Peru, our party of 15 – ranging in age from 18 to 81 – sails up the northern bank of the Amazon to the first port of call, Puerto Nariño. As this area can be reached only by air or river, it’s no surprise to find the town vehicle-free, verdant and meticulously well-groomed, rather as I’d imagined the hobbits’ Shire in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

John Arathoon, technical director of a building company, on an early-morning canoe trip with the author
John Arathoon, technical director of a building company, on an early-morning canoe trip with the author | Image: Adriaan van der Wart

It is May, the tail end of the rainy season, and the muddy Amazon and its tributaries are swollen, the banks flooded. Elevated timber walkways zigzag along the riverside, and it quickly becomes apparent why the town consists only of houses  on stilts. At the dock, in the sticky, oppressive heat, sadistic mosquitoes gnawing at our flesh, Blashford-Snell presents the blue-and-white-liveried ambulance boat to a delighted Rusbel Torres, president of Aticoya, the local Amerindian association.

The author helps to sort donated spectacles in the village of San Francisco
The author helps to sort donated spectacles in the village of San Francisco | Image: Adriaan van der Wart

From here we course up the meandering Loretoyacu river, setting up camp in various villages along the way. The water, flanked by lush vegetation, is the colour of stewed tea and crossed by flotillas of dugout canoes and the occasional motorised vessel. Sloths kip in the leafy foliage of gigantic trees, while hyperactive capuchin and squirrel monkeys dance about among branches occupied by toucans, macaws and vultures. In San Francisco, a small outpost of palm-fronded wooden huts set in muddy terrain, we are greeted by Alix, the female curaca (community leader), Ishmael the shaman and a gaggle of curious children. Under a sizzling sun we unload our supplies – basic foods, medical equipment and two dental chairs. We repeat this exercise when making stops at other locations: San Pedro de Tipisca (our furthest destination, another two hours upriver), 12 de Octubre and San Juan de Soco.

The ambulance boat financed by Clinique La Prairie will be used to ferry people from isolated areas to hospital
The ambulance boat financed by Clinique La Prairie will be used to ferry people from isolated areas to hospital | Image: John Blashford-Snell

Our “digs”, to use Blashford-Snell vernacular, mostly consist of wood-slatted school huts, malocas (long houses) and church buildings, where we sling our hammocks in the company of sleepy tarantulas and phalanxes of inquisitive cockroaches. With little privacy and limited supplies of rainwater for washing, conditions at times prove testing, although such hurdles are dismissed with good humour by my upbeat and equable companions. And the upside of our remoteness is that it guarantees us virtually no communication with the outside world, enabling us to live together in a blissful Ticuna bubble for three whole weeks. At night, we hang suspended in our manmade cocoons, lulled to sleep by a cacophony of barking dogs, raucous toads, howler monkeys – a ghostly, angelic choir – and owls.

Lawyer-turned-comedian Cathy Lawrence becomes acquainted with the native plant life
Lawyer-turned-comedian Cathy Lawrence becomes acquainted with the native plant life | Image: John Blashford-Snell

We all settle quickly into village life. A stickler for protocol, Blashford-Snell organises us into working groups with varied daily tasks and nightly briefings. We make frequent forays into the forest with experienced guide Sergio León, co-owner of travel firm Ecodestinos; and although Professor Alastair Driver, a wildlife expert, is disappointed by the lack of mammals, he is impressed by the bird, butterfly and bug life. Simon House and John Arathoon, both charismatic wags, respectively offer advice about the planting of crops and fix broken motors and machinery. Meanwhile, wry John Mackenzie-Grieve, 79, a former tobacco executive who worked in east Africa and has been on several of Blashford-Snell’s expeditions, is in charge of bird-spotting.

Blashford-Snell has also traversed the Blue Nile, Congo River and Darién Gap
Blashford-Snell has also traversed the Blue Nile, Congo River and Darién Gap | Image: Adriaan van der Wart

Surgeon Yasmin Jauhari and the dentists, Jaclyn Ansic and Varinder Singh Bassi, set up temporary surgeries in classrooms, while I use my Spanish to translate symptoms – locals speak Spanish as well as their native tongue. Despite the unbearable humidity, the dentists work tirelessly, filling and extracting teeth, while Jauhari carefully diagnoses complaints and offers medicines to counter the parasites and rashes that are all too common. The cheery trio are offered moments of levity when patients reverentially refer to me as “doctor” – a misapprehension I milk to the full – and Cathy Lawrence, a perennially laughing Canadian lawyer-turned-stand-up comedian, performs madcap routines for the children.

One of the palm-fronded huts in San Juan de Soco
One of the palm-fronded huts in San Juan de Soco | Image: Anna Nicholas

In the village of 12 de Octubre our doctor treats Santiago, a nine-month-old baby with suspected malaria. The ambulance boat is immediately used to transfer him to the nearest hospital in Puerto Nariño, where his symptoms are confirmed. Some days later the team is heartened to learn that he is making a recovery.

Jon Morten Risberg, a Norwegian environmental geographer, plans the route with Blashford-Snell
Jon Morten Risberg, a Norwegian environmental geographer, plans the route with Blashford-Snell | Image: Adriaan van der Wart

Peter Manns, a Spanish speaker and recently retired managing director of a multinational textile company, sportingly logs the healing practices and plant curatives of local shamans, while writer Maya Boyd skilfully plays quartermaster, overseeing our field cook Ester and food supplies. (Although our fare is supplemented by tinned foods, like the locals we mostly subsist on plantains, yuca, arepa corn cakes, eggs and freshly caught fish such as piranha.) Eighteen-year-old Hugh Fagan enthusiastically doles out donated spectacles and books to the schools, but also relishes jungle adventures with his prized machete. Athletic Jon Morten Risberg, hero-worshipped by the children, assists Blashford-Snell with mapping, while Adriaan van der Wart assiduously films local life and records the Ticuna language for posterity.

The team camps out in a church in San Pedro de Tipisca
The team camps out in a church in San Pedro de Tipisca | Image: Adriaan van der Wart

Luckily, it isn’t all work, and blissfully balmy afternoons are spent on the river or the jungly Tarapoto Lake, observing water snakes, bird life and the magnificent pink dolphins known as boto; and at night, red-eyed caimans on the banks. Magical early-morning fishing trips into flooded, eerie forests and treks into humid jungles of towering ceiba trees and tangled liana vines are straight from the pages of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. There are comical mishaps too: on a trek, Jauhari plunges from a slimy log bridge into a creek; another time, in slapstick fashion, House falls in the Loretoyacu river while carrying food supplies and, to great mirth, emerges unscathed with a can of sardines raised in one fist. (Less amusing is the theft of a hammock belonging to Arathoon, which he likens to “losing a limb”. The culprit remains undiscovered, but a replacement is found and the team rallies to lift his spirits.) Our leisure time is spent with the local curacas and villagers, or playing football and swimming with the ever-smiling children. Mothers’ Month is being celebrated in every river community we visit, so traditional dances, accompanied by lethally strong home-brewed manioc beer and loud music, are de rigueur on moonlit evenings.

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But there are problems in paradise too. Villages are devoid of clinics and clean water supplies, and children sleep on bare floorboards (though even the remotest communities operate generators and many Ticuna own televisions). The local dialect is being superseded by Spanish, and government subsidies have created a worrying state of dependency and apathy: disaffected Ticuna youths struggle to reconcile their ancestral past with the lure of the modern world, and alcoholism, intrafamilial violence, suicide and mental health issues are on the rise.

Increasingly, the giant pirarucu is being overfished, and mammals such as tapirs, peccaries, armadillos and monkeys overhunted, causing them to retreat further into the forest. While sloths, coatis, monkeys and even anacondas are often kept as pets, other species in captivity – mata mata turtles, tortoises, the black-feathered curassow – are sadly destined for the cooking pot. Sergio León acknowledges the problems. “There’s a different life here, which as outsiders we need to respect. On a positive note, children are increasingly being educated about environmental issues.”

On a visit to San Martín de Amacayacu, it’s a relief to find a settlement upholding Ticuna values and culture. Children are taught in their own language and elders are rolling out an educational programme in traditional herbal medicines. Here I meet José Gregorio Vásquez and his Dutch wife Heike van Gils, both tireless trailblazers for the Ticuna cause through their initiative, The Small World Foundation. They believe that the old ways can be maintained within a modern context. This view is echoed by Dr Gerard Verschoor, an assistant professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and a regular visitor to the village over the past decade. “It’s difficult to foresee whether San Martín will be able to buck the trend, but there are some favourable stars on the horizon. Ticuna is still the language used, and minga cooperatives are still the main form of labour.”

A few weeks after we’ve returned home, Jauhari and I correspond. “I have been oddly reflective about life and work since I got back,” she tells me. “I think the time away was more cathartic than I had appreciated.” Her words resonate with others of our team; indeed, it is testimony to the excellent working dynamics of our group that we have all kept in touch and formed strong friendships. Days later, Blashford-Snell circulates a note from Rusbel Torres thanking us for our work in the field and for the ambulance boat that he affirms saved the life of baby Santiago. Then he breezily mentions learning of a mysterious ancient civilisation with undiscovered sites in the southwest Andes of Colombia that might well warrant further investigation. Perhaps another adventure beckons.

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