Category Archives: Expeditions

Travelling the Length of the Amazon Expedition- The Children of the River

Travelling the Length of the Amazon Expedition-
The Children of the River
by Jacki Hill-Murphy

You notice the children first: round faced, doe-eyed with healthy glowing brown skin, looking up from a simple task that they work at fervently – a task that must be completed efficiently because life in the village is a group effort and even they play their part. Their hands are in muddy river water soaping clothes, carrying a younger sibling in a cotton sling on their backs or peeling cassava in a plastic bowl, or they are sitting barefoot in the hot sun flicking at the sand flies. These are the children of the Amazon River, beautiful, lively and totally adept at living in a harsh environment.

As our slim-line canoe bobbed its way towards the wet black sand of the bank of a small village the children would always be watching us – wary and distant at first. Silently looking down at the ‘gringos’ descending upon their world, closed and secretive to outsiders. Who were we and what did we want? Their faces questioned. Often they ran away, leaving small puffs of dust from their naked feet and we would see a head pop over the parapet of a glassless window or from behind the wooden stilts their house was built on. One, two and then more, laughing and spying on us as we approached; we smiled and waved and if we were invited to sit down with their village elders to share a beer they would slowly creep closer – before laughing and running away.

amazon-riverDeep in the dark and impenetrable forest surrounding the Bobonaza and the Pastaza we would see children alone, little ones, maybe four or five years old, sitting in a broken dug-out canoe or splashing about in the river in a group. These are the ones that would stare at my fair hair or the red beard of my team mate; we would have been an extraordinary sight to them. They never waved or smiled, we could see no wisp of smoke curling up through the forest canopy to indicate a thatched hut nearby.

I shuddered at the dangers they were in with no adult close by keeping an eye on them, the river was chock full of piranha, anacondas glide through the water and pick up a meal at the water’s edge, there were cayman and syrupy mud that sucked you in, it was health and safety gone bonkers….
I cannot judge them though, these are the people of the jungle and the children look happy and healthy – so I looked for clues as to how these little ones adapted and survived to this hostile environment. I didn’t have to look far; one night we camped late at a friendly tribal village, we had been in the canoe all day and the respite was badly needed. “These are good people,” our guide reassured us, but he had seen the warning signs too late that the village had an ominous feel and was partly abandoned. Palm roofs were caving in and rustic gates swung open neglected; there were no chickens pecking at the dirt. The village had been populated by a hostile tribe, the Achuar, who had chased out the friendly Quechua whose home it was since our guide had last visited. We reluctantly set up our tents in a tin-roofed school house, the concrete floor was thick with dust and the tiny school desks and chairs were heaped drunkenly at one end. Then the rain began to fall, in Biblical proportions, hammering onto the hard roof like the fast beat of a jungle drum and making the four badly fitting doors swing and bang while the lightening flashes cast dark shadows around our tents, leaving us disconcerted and worried. I flashed my torch into the darkness and found a teacher’s cursive writing on a curling sugar-paper poster stuck to the wall; some past and forgotten lessons, a crude timetable and the alphabet. ‘Personal-Social’ read another one in Spanish – learn the dangers of the river – alligator, electric eel, boa and anaconda; do your chores; keep yourself clean; take care of each other and each point was illustrated with a little line drawing.

As we made our slow journey along the river I thought about that lesson on the wall and how the children stayed safe, teaching had an effect and they grew up with the knowledge – the knowledge that seemed so alien to us. And they liked to learn; how often had we seen them immaculately turned out in their grey and white uniforms in the larger towns.

Our boatmen steered us safely into the Maranon and from then on we had we had better opportunities to meet and interact with them when we stopped in the larger communities. Whenever we had the chance we talked to them, taught them, fished with them, played and laughed with these beautiful children, the children of the river. I hope we made an impression on them too – that the gringos came, and were friendly and we shared cultures, for a short while.

Female Explorers – An Insight – July 2015

Undertold stories of brave ladies, who travelled to unknown parts of the world, undeterred by the lack of knowledge of where they were going and the lack of equipment needed to keep them safe, warm, dry and fed have become my passion. That fusion of the lives of others who have enriched our own, the historical context and the wonderful countries they travelled to has led me to gather quite a library of the tales of these women, although many have remained unrecorded.

The names of these early women explorers do not have the same familiar ring as those of their male counterparts; Livingstone and Stanley to mention just two. There are many reasons for this, most significant is that many of their voyages occurred in the late 19th century and as the first whispers of New Woman and emancipation were being were heard, the male population were quick to nip in the bud revelations of strong and pioneering women.

After following in the footsteps of the first of these great women: Isabela Godin, the first known woman to travel the length of the Amazon River, I found many keen listeners to her tale and my journey. I decided to follow it with another expedition, this time to follow Mary Kingsley’s climb up Mount Cameroon and hard on the heels of this one came Isabela Brooks in the Llanganates in the Andes, Isabella Bird in Ladakh and Kate Marsden in Siberia. I had already thoroughly explored the world of Julia Pardoe in Istanbul and Isabella Eberhardt in Algeria.

Many of these women’s lives have resonated with my own making my recreation of their journeys more poignant and enlightening. Mary Kingsley and I lived a few yards from each other in Cambridge, at the same age, although 120 years apart, Isabella Bird had a restless spirit which made her hanker to travel, similar to me and Kate Marsden and I suffered physically in the same way from the privations and rigour of traveling through the Siberian taiga.

My quest to recreate more brave journeys is not over, the next ones will inevitably uncover the same admirable female qualities. Those of female resilience in extreme conditions, danger and climate and a fair and firm diplomacy in their leadership of others, an innate quality I have observed.

These brilliant ladies have helped me to push myself to the limit and allowed my senses to come alive and leave foreign places with a better understanding of the planet and the people who populate it. The last lines of my book (Adventuresses, Rediscovering Daring Voyages into the Unknown) reads: ‘We are all adventuresses who need to travel to be who we are and we are better people for it.”

Let’s get talking about the early female explorers and celebrate them with our own intrepid and inspiring journeys into the unknown.

Jacki Hill-Murphy


Twenty four hours of daylight can play havoc with your body clock, particularly one that is already jet lagged from crossing numerous Siberian time zones en route from the UK. I closed my eyes and willed myself to sleep while a searchlight of sun shone into my face through a gossamer-thin curtain.

It would be a week before I saw the sun set again. A white night in June never gets dark at high latitudes and Yakutsk in Sakha Province is located about 450 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle.

Yakutsk is a city of many extremes; it is the coldest city on earth built alongside the River Lena. The permafrost ground creates an architect’s head ache and concrete piles hold up the buildings which are laced with crudely lagged waste and water pipes that can’t be dug under the ground. If it’s not enough for the Yakuts to scuttle around for eight months with temperatures as low as -60°C, they also do that in the dark, as December daylight is from 11.00 am till 3.30 pm.

As I tried to sleep in the night sunshine I wondered whether Yakuts people, deprived of sun and light for so much of the year sunbathed at midnight to compensate. I’d seen them with shopping bags on the ride from the airport at 3am and I marvelled at the human’s ability to adapt to such difficult surroundings.

I love these people and when my clock told me it was morning I sprang out of bed in that bright room, ready to head off on a 600 kilometer car journey through the forest, that’s the equivalent of driving from Brighton to Edinburgh in Great Britain, on an unmade road for my second visit to Vilyuisk. Look at a map and you are reminded that an ocean of wild, inhospitable forest surrounds Yakutsk that is as big as America and driving through it is endless. Vilyuisk is a mere pin prick. It’s an island village of 12,000 people in this ocean of trees whose lives are geared to the rhythm of nature and the seasons. They are the woodlanders and the horse breeders who now boast a successful teacher training college. They lead cultured and respectable lives in their wooden houses, driving their cars over mud tracks and there are women’s groups who sew beautiful flowery long dresses who look forward to a guest visiting their town to dress up and sing for…

Remarkably, I was the first visitor since I came two years earlier. I was in for a treat. The town had been preparing for my visit and I was about to receive the full Vilyuisk treatment …


The Museum with no Visitors
Chineke Folk
Slivers, Pebbles and Dive – the games made at the Yakutsk Disabled Unit
The Beauty of the Lena Pillars
Portraits of the People of Yakutsk
Traditional Costumes and Rituals of the Yakuts

I Wouldn’t Go There if I Were You

Personally, I couldn’t even begin to consider putting myself in Mary Kingsley’s shoes when I began to plan to follow in her footsteps of one of her epic journeys. Even now, I can’t account for how she learnt to accommodate herself to sleeping in the rain on mountainsides, spending days and nights floating in a roughly made boat on a tropical river, putting up with wearing damp, smelly and dirty clothes, intense heat and insects and other wildlife and the eyes of men incessantly staring at her as she travelled.

Mary Kingsley in Cameroon

Hut 2

How did she find the negotiating skills to hire and fire hopeless porters and guides and handle the reliable ones?
Where, in her sequestered teens and twenties did she learn the necessary tenacity when she booked her first passage for Africa a year after that brief Canaries reconnaissance?
She showed such courage and had strong morals and stuck to them. In reading about her life, it was the sheer moral greatness and the sense of underlying purpose, that was borne in on me; and inevitably she became an inspiration to me, opening my heart to a pulse of adventure, far beyond my own upbringing and situation, as I sought to understand her.
There were few books offering useful advice to a lady setting off for a destination universally deemed too dangerous to travel to. In 1894, when she prepared her first foray, the latest offerings must have seemed entirely trivial, notably Lillias Campbell Davidson’s immortal ‘Hints to Lady Travellers‘ of 1889 with its offerings of practical advice and safety tips with headings of ‘Cabs’, ‘Cushions’, ‘Cycling Tours’ and ‘Dress-hampers’. Something that Mary Kingsley would have known – without needing to be told was that: ‘From the first moment when the traveller sets foot upon foreign soil, and sees the strange surroundings, the quaint dresses, and curious customs of the natives, enhanced by the clear air and brilliant sunshine, so different from the softened atmosphere at home, she experiences all the effect of having entered into a new life.’
For a start, she was hardly likely to be concerned that: ‘Care should be taken in selecting a deck chair not to get one which is too light, otherwise your enjoyable after-dinner nap on deck may be abruptly terminated by a sudden lurch of the vessel, and you may find yourself overturned, chair and all, and sent flying to the other side of the ship in a manner more sudden than graceful.’ The vessels she sailed on were never going to offer that level of luxury.
On the eve of her departure to Africa, kind friends thrust into her hands a new ‘French book of phrases in common use in Dahomey’. Less naive than Lillias’s advice, it oozes imperialism. The opening sentence of the book was ‘Help, I am drowning’, is followed by ‘Get up, you lazy scamps!’ The question ‘Why has not this man been buried?’ is answered by ‘It is fetish that has killed him, and he must lie here exposed with nothing on him until only the bones remain.’ It is hard to guess whether Mary Kingsley would have responded with a smile, or with outrage, to the well-intended gift.

Mary Kingsley in Cameroon

Mount Cameroon

It was on Mary’s second trip to West Africa, in 1894, that she took an interest in Mount Cameroon. She was sailing on The Royal Mail steamer ‘The Batanga’ again and, as on her first trip, she was the guest of Captain Murray. Their course took them from the Canaries by way of Sierra Leone to Gabon, and Murray was careful to draw her attention to West Africa’s highest peak. Emerging from, and disappearing back into, its tropical mist it must have looked to her like no other mountain. At once a fire of excitement was kindled in Mary Kingsley; up to that moment she had seen her destiny as somehow related to her father’s scientific work, earning the applause of those back at home, but suddenly this whole extraordinary business of being a white woman where white women didn’t go needed no justification. That mountain, tantalisingly glimpsed from the sea, gave her a strong urge to climb it. Though never a feminist, she was showing a desire to shed the late Victorian obligation that women should not be pioneers, it was a patronising attitude that her journey to Africa was more acceptable as she would carry on the scientific work that her father started. Mary’s decision to climb a mountain, that certainly offered no fish to collect, was a brave move.
Once arrived in Gabon, she travelled up the Ogowé (now the Ogooué) River, first by steamboat, then by canoe. Unusually, there is no record of missionaries having preceded her upriver, so she boldly travelled, in highly dangerous conditions, where no European, so far as we know, had been before.
She was experiencing some of the remotest parts of Gabon and the French Congo where the river was often interrupted by rapids and inhabited by all three species of the African crocodile. Beyond the reach of her canoe, the banks were cloaked with rainforest and its attendant raucous wildlife; and conscious perhaps of, her father’s anthropological notes, Mary made a point of visiting, and recording her impressions of the Fang tribe with their reputation for fierceness and cannibalism. Compared to the cooking-pot, the modern female traveller has little to fear:

Women can expect unwanted attention from men, marriage proposals and, in share-taxis, the occasional groping, as I discovered from Lonely Planet when researching visiting Gabon.

Mary Kingsley, probably the first white woman to visit upper Gabon, made up her own rules as she went along, used her Victorian upbringing and attitudes to shield herself from harm and unwanted attention, was bossy and forceful when she needed to be – and prodded a few people (and hippos and crocodiles) with her umbrella. Nothing that she saw there was so bad as to make her want to go home. She obviously fell in love with the country; the feeling of foreboding with which she had left Liverpool Docks on her first trip to Africa, on the S.S. Lagos, in 1893, was quickly dispelled, allowing her to write that:
‘The charm of West Africa is a painful one: it gives you pleasure when you are out there, but when you are back here it gives you pain by calling you. It sends up before your eyes a vision of a wall of dancing white, rainbow-gemmed surf playing on a shore of yellow sand before an audience of stately coco palms; or of a great mangrove-watered bronze river; or of a vast aisle in some forest cathedral: and you hear, nearer to you than the voices of the people round, nearer than the roar of the city traffic, the sound of the surf that is breaking on the shore down there, and the sound of the wind talking on the hard palm leaves and the thump of the natives’ tom-toms; or the cry of the parrots passing over the mangrove swamps in the evening time; or the sweet, long, mellow whistle of the plantain warblers calling up the dawn; and everything that is round you grows poor and thin in the face of the vision, and you want to go back to the Coast that is calling you, saying, as the African says to the departing soul of his dying friend, “Come back, come back, this is your home.’
Returning to the coast after four months in Gabon, seemingly without ensuing anxiety after her encounters with wild life and the Fan tribe, she left on the Niger commanded by Captain Davies.
The regret of leaving the charms of the French Congo, she noted were compensated by being on such a comfortable ship. Relaxing on deck, trying no doubt to assimilate the extraordinary sights and encounters that she had experienced, once again her eyes fixed on ‘her temptation’; Mungo mah Lobeh, the Throne of Thunder as she had learnt to call the magnificent Mount Cameroon. By the time it was my turn to negotiate it, the name had side-slipped to Mongo ma Ndemi, or The Mountain of Greatness.
Both Mary’s and my expeditions were bound to be as much about the weather and the eclectic mix of characters both accompanying, and encountered by, us, as the climb itself. My aim was for a team comprising like minded people and harmony; but in my early days of expedition-planning I had come to realise that my original criteria for selection were too obvious, too simplistic, namely, 1, take anybody who wants to go because I am offering an experience to be shared, 2, locate a skill that they can use to benefit the expedition, 3, we’ll all get on because we are adults and it’s not a school trip. After that, with each step up the mountain, each hurdle crossed, each evening fireside chat a bond would be made to last all of our lives, meeting up for regular reunions to watch film footage and swap stories and photographs. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out quite as I had hoped and I am using its mishaps to cast light on the difficulties that Mary would experience.
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Crinolines in the Jungle

The author with Isabela's portrait

The author with Isabela’s portrait

Once again I tried to put myself in Isabela’s embroidered slippers, and imagine her mixture of abject discomfort and apprehensiveness at every unfamiliar sound or movement of the alien forest, from the sudden fall of a tree to the cry of the bellbird and the bark of the howler monkey. Pinch yourself Jacki, in the sealed safety of your dry cab; at least you have the assurance of arrival at the end of the ride! I noticed my team mates had gone a bit quiet and guessed that Mary in particular was pondering the recklessness of the expedition leader in transferring us all to the Bobonaza, in a dugout canoe of all things, in weather like this.
My own excitement though, increased, as we reached Canelos. The rain had reduced to a drizzle and a thick white mist hung over the forested hillsides. Women and children stared out at the quartet of pale-skinned women from their unglazed windows of bright pink-painted shacks with silver corrugated roofs; we were an unusual sight, this was not a tourist route by any means and more children, chickens, dogs and old men came out and stood at the side of the track under pole barn roofs and verandahs and watched our yellow taxis drive by.
I was aware of the Bobonaza running close by and glimpses through the trees had shown a wild, brown river getting wider and faster and then we crossed a short stretch of metal bridge, turned and at the bottom of an incline the road simply disappeared into the river’s chocolate eddies, and there, ahead of us, moored parallel to the bank, was our 40’ dug out canoe – I shivered with excitement.
Jean Godin himself takes up their story in an eloquent letter to Monsieur De la Condamine, Member of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and leader of the expedition that had taken him to South America, describing Don Pedro’s progress and Isabela’s party’s arrival:
‘….. she reached Canelos, the spot at which they were to embark, situated on the little river Bobonaza, which empties itself into the Pastaza, and then into the Amazon. M. de Grandmaison, had gone on ahead by a month, found the small town of Canelos, and immediately set off on his journey, preparing everything necessary for his daughter’s journey up the river at each stage of her way. As he knew that she was going to be accompanied by her brothers, her black servant and three female maids, he proceeded on to the Portuguese missions. In the interval, however, between his journey and the arrival of my wife, the small pox, a European disease, more fatal to the Americans in this part than the plague, had caused the village of Canelos to be utterly abandoned. They had seen those first attacked by this illness die, and so ran away and scattered in the woods, to remote huts.
When she set off, my wife was escorted by thirty-one American natives to carry herself and baggage. You know, Sir, that this road, the same taken by Monsieur de Maldonado, is hard going even for mules; those who are capable, go on foot, but others are carried.’
The Americans who escorted Madame Godin, were paid in advance according to the unfortunate custom in this country, a tradition based on mistrust. They had scarcely reached Canelos before they turned and fled, either from dread of the air being infected, or in case they had to man the canoes, a matter obnoxious in extreme to individuals who had perhaps never seen a canoe in their lives except at a distance.
‘These excuses are not superfluous, for you well know how often we are abandoned by them on our mountains, on no pretense whatever. What under such a terrible turn of events was to be done ? Even if my wife had been able to return she didn’t want to, she really wanted to reach the waiting ship, because she wanted to join me, her husband from whom she had been parted for twenty years. This was the powerful incentive to make her, in the peculiar circumstances in which she was placed, brave even greater obstacles.’
It was almost with guilt that I stood there staring at my beautiful dug-out canoe, complete with the best guarantee of progress – its outboard motor. The knowledge that Mary and Julia and I were the first females since 1769 to follow in Isabella’s pioneering tracks makes me bold to record our own 21st century reactions. Everything was in place; the rain had stopped, the sun had come out and it suddenly seemed that we had it so easy. Within minutes, boxes of fruit and vegetables securely stowed in waterproof bags and large sealed plastic containers of bread, biscuits and juice were being handed along a human chain to two smiling Indians who stood, bare legged, in the swirling shallows of the Bobonaza, neatly fitting the mountain of baggage into the small hold of the canoe. Next went our kit, the sleeping mats, tents, camera bags and bottles and bottles of water and cans of fuel. More heads joined the gaggle of onlookers and an Indian woman with a crying baby sat in the grass observing all this going on intently, disregarding the child’s ever increasing demands and louder screams. These two, it transpired, were to be our extra passengers. We really had – I thought – hired the jungle bus, the crucial means of communication between the remote villages on the river.
While I marvelled at the competence of the preparations, my two companions further up the bank were aware only of the bullet speed of the river: a fallen branch passed in a split second.
“It’s pretty, pretty wild, isn’t it – and this canoe doesn’t look big enough for seven or eight people.” exclaimed Julia.
“They are cutting us some balsa wood from that tree up there for us to hold for buoyancy…” I replied, concealing my anxiety that they might be wanting to back out.
Mary cut in: “I am apprehensive about going on that river, it looks really fast flowing, I’m a bit worried to be honest, the water level is right up.”

dug out canoes

The author’s dug-out canoe

The fingers of both my hands were tightly crossed inside my trouser pockets. I said nothing; but the adventurer in me was screaming “Let’s just go!” I was so desperate to get on that river. Somehow, the message got through: like good sports they clambered into the canoe, perched themselves on the primitive thwarts and followed me in hoinking off their wellies, just in case we capsized.
As we pushed off, I made a head-count: there were at least a dozen adults aboard. Even so, the canoe rode the fast flowing river water well, and with the outboard’s help we were assured that we would be at our first stop, Sarayaku, within hours. Even the baby seemed pacified by the motion of the boat and lay fast asleep on her mother’s shoulder.
Our smooth departure was in sharp contrast to that of Isabela’s party. Jean Godin, in his letter to La Condamine explained how the smallpox reached Canelos first. The moment that her mountain Indian bearers realised that contagion had struck, they melted away the way they had come. The party searched the burnt ruins of the abandoned village, finding just two forest Indians who had escaped infection: as for the boats, they were gone, whether used for escape or set on fire with the rest of the village to drive out the evil spirits. Questioned, the men they found said they had the skills to make and man a largish canoe; it would take two weeks, and the journey down river to Andoas roughly twelve days. The men were paid in advance, rousing the three French strangers to furious objection. They urged Isabela to turn back, but she overruled them; however the reduction of three boats to one, and a sizable crew to just two, meant that any excessive weight, and all her family treasures, had to be abandoned at Canelos – the price of allowing these feckless Frenchmen to travel with them. Not only had the trio proved thoroughly disruptive, but it became increasingly apparent that they shared not a scrap of medical knowledge between them.
Counting adults and children, thirteen embarked that first day. The Indians made good progress at the paddles, and that night they found a dry sand bank to pull up on, and made a good fire for their passengers. This was probably the one survival skill in which the Indians surpassed Isabela’s party, and it proved to be the only one: not one of the thirteen knew how to swim. The best they could do when danger threatened was to pray to God, or gods, to save them, and they were going to need all their praying-muscles from day three onwards.
Our own first day on the fast-flowing and swollen Bobonaza went smoothly, too; we arrived at Sarayaku late in the afternoon and we were made immediately welcome. The inhabitants of Sarayaku’s ancient ancestral territory lying in Ecuador’s remote Amazon tropical rainforest are Kichwan and number around 1,200. But this is no ordinary indigenous region: Sarayaku is where the people rose up accusing the Argentine oil company CGC of ethnocide after the industry ruined their means of subsistence, caused widespread ecological and spiritual damage and undermined the social balance of the community.
In the early 2000s the oil company occupied part of the Sarayaku lands with the encouragement of the Ecuadorian state government in order to prospect for oil using seismic surveying methods; there had been no prior consultation with the Sarayaku people. Realising its mistake, the government sent federal soldiers to Sarayaku, in order to stop indigenous resistance and closed the Bobonaza River as a traffic artery.
The Sarayaku people responded with well-orchestrated protests at a national and international level and forced CGC to withdraw from the project; but in the face of the state authorities’ failure to apologise, provide compensation or pastoral redress, or make commitments about preventing similar abuses, the people of Sarayaku proclaimed their region a self-governed territory called ‘Tayjasaruta’ or ‘Autonomous Territory of the Original Kichwa Nation of Sarayaku’.
The state economy of Ecuador is dependent on constant income from crude oil export to pay off the national debt, and so, after exhausting all domestic legal avenues for redress and a guarantee of non-repetition, Sarayaku decided to take their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In July 2012 the judges ruled in favour of the Sarayaku people. In 2012, the film titled ‘Children of the Jaguar’, co-produced by Amnesty International and the Kichwa de Sarayaku Indigenous community,and documenting the legal struggle, was released at film festivals. ‘Children of the Jaguar’ was awarded “Best Documentary” by the All Roads Film Project of the National Geographic Society. The story was of absorbing interest to me: years before, when my son was still a baby and I could only dream of visiting the Amazon and accepting the hospitality of an indigenous community, alarms were raised about the exploitation of the Kayapo territory of Amazonian Brazil for logging. Incensed, I faxed off my design for a tee shirt to the Rainforest Foundation, and the fact that that shirt seemed to be everywhere for one whole hot summer in the nineties helped in a small way to throw a protective cordon round some 27,000 square kilometres of Kayapo rainforest and set up an alarm system to warn indigenous groups of the approach of illegal loggers. My curiosity continued to grow; and now here I was, helping to unload a canoe in the advancing darkness, against a backdrop of alien sounds and indigenous Kichwa faces.
In the morning, with my feet still in the sleeping bag, I pulled back the flap of the tent, and peeped out into a living enactment of all the documentaries I’d ever watched on the Amazon basin since childhood.


Local people in Cajabamba

Our covered camp stood among between a collection of skilfully thatched buildings comprising a primary school and the compound of Jose Gualinga, the village chief. His sons Heraldo and Alberto and the striking Ingaro were among our boatmen and guides, Ingaro; an incredibly handsome man, was already sitting at a picnic bench waiting for us as we emerged on that first morning to help us prepare our western breakfast, as he would on subsequent days.
As the early mist was burnt off to reveal the blue sky of another scorching day, we talked with him and his brothers, and Luis, and the other men and women who wandered over. The scene repeated itself in the evening when he played his guitar and sang soulful, Kichwa songs by candlelight. Ennchanting children with jet black hair cut into little bobs played around us and sat on our knees, chickens scratched around under our table and instant translations flew about in our three languages (Eva had two of them) while we absorbed the spirited banter about Sarayaku’s new ecotourist economy and the community’s ongoing troubles with the Quito government.
The village spreads out over opposing banks of the river; joined by a high rope and wood suspension bridge which we were coaxed over by Ingaro on the first afternoon to attend a La Minga, the community farming event. It swayed precariously under us, as we picked our way over the missing planks. There were dogs flopped everywhere; when I asked Ingaro why there should be so many dogs lolling exhausted in the heat, he replied that they were to ward off evil spirits and create good energy. Beyond open-walled classrooms where adults were being taught Spanish, we crossed plank bridges to a slope where the land was being cleared for manioc planting; the young women taking part had suspended their babies from branches in large squares of calico, their faces carefully protected from the insects, just as if newly delivered to the village by storks.
Such cooperative work among family and friends is rewarded by a feast; we were invited, and I watched as the landholder’s wife dished out a steady stream of chicha beer, which, I was intrigued to learn, is made from manioc, masticated by the women and spat out to aid fermentation; the night’s fare was boiled manioc and river fish which she had stayed up all night to smoke over a wood fire.
I took my seat on a low bench next to a tiny girl with a baby monkey clutched to her tee shirt, and surveyed the living arrangements of this rainforest house: the two floors were open to the breezes; there was no evidence of mosquito nets, or privacy. I looked across at Julia, and she thought and replied – for all three of us – “If you live here you live at the pace of nature, at home I run around all day, in and out of my car and clutching my phone, but here life is so calm.”
Ingaro would take over from his father as village shaman one day; his knowledge of the fruits of the forest and their properties and nutritional values was immense. With Isabela’s starvation in the forest in mind, I made notes of all he said and did. He cut us some bitter fruits for us to taste, then chopped out the heart of a palm which he said she would have been able to find easily. It was sweet and satisfying even in a Western mouth and indeed I remember having eaten some in a salad in Quito.
The next morning we shook insects of alien dimensions from our wet clothes drying on the line while Ingaro coaxed a tarantula from the bowl of the little white-washed privy that stood proud in the midst of some homely huts – a matter of moments before Julia felt the call to use it. In the late afternoon it was time for Julia, Mary, Eva and I to cool down in the washing pond; we headed off armed with shampoo, soap and towels – hoping that Ingaro wouldn’t follow us and that there wouldn’t be a repeat of yesterday’s discovery of a baby cayman in its clear water. This had been eaten by the locals.
We splashed about under the trees, laughing as our precious soap slipped to freedom out of our hands and alarming one another with the tales of vampire bats from the forest, stalking on their hind legs up a person’s thighs to choose a tasty bite. It got more girly as we turned to the secret of Ingaro’s thick, glossy-black pony tail, and the particular grass he had shown us that morning in the forest, from which he made a special infusion to anoint it with, he had called it Gillette grass because it was razor sharp. We all admitted – his hair was in great condition.
It was too hot to get out of the cool, refreshing water; only when long shadows began falling across it did we finally grab our towels and step out onto the grass. As we did so, two figures walked towards us, Ingaro and his brother Alberto. We dried off while the two Indians slipped into the pond. I’d like to say it was their amiable and unselfconscious physiques with strong arms and legs that reflected the genes of hunter gatherer that my eyes were drawn to, but something else had caught my gaze, the bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo Ingaro was trying to hide behind his back!

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Join The Amazon Expedition – Summer 2015

Join my next expedition – Summer 2015

Please contact me if you are interested in travelling the whole distance of Isabella Godin’s 1769 journey from Cajabamba to Pevas on the border of Brazil.

This will involve:

Cajabamba to Canelos via Riobamba, Banos and Puyo, travelling alongside some of the most spectacular active volcanoes in the world and dramatic waterfalls that feed the Amazon river.

Travelling the length of the narrow Bobonaza in a dug-out pirogue, staying in indigenous villages and camping on sandbars where Isabella Godin’s tragedy unfolded.

Transferring to the wider Pastaza and walking into the primary rainforest and visiting the largest lake in the Amazon – Lake Rimachi

(up to now you will be far from any tourist route)

Travelling on board the public boat along the Maranon and sleeping in hammocks on the boat.

Visiting Pevas and Iquitos where the expedition ends. Estimated length – 3-4 weeks

The Lonely Grave

A Lonely London Grave gets some Siberian Love

by Jacki Hill-Murphy

On the 82nd Anniversary of the Victorian nurse and explorer Kate Marsdenʼs death, her unmarked and overgrown grave has been found and an interesting ceremony has taken place to mark her life…

Tucked away on the far edge of Hillingdon cemetery near Uxbridge, an unmarked grave has laid, unvisited, for over 80 years – until 2014. It lies beneath a canopy of straggly May blossom and beside the plastic detritus of a hedge bordering a housing estate and sinking Victorian graves that look like they have been washed up in a storm.

This is the final resting place of Kate Marsden (1859 – 1931) to some a hero, tough experienced nurse, fund raiser, who had made a remarkable journey across Siberia in 1891 and established the first leper colony in Russia. To others though she was a fraudster, a deceiver and totally immoral and she was hounded unmercifully until she died, penniless and alone, in a Wandsworth mental institution at 72.

Undaunted by the criticism made against her I set off last summer to recreate 4,000 miles of her grueling journey, which she undertook in 1891 by sledge, cart, cargo ship and on horseback, across Siberia, most of it in sub-zero conditions. Kate had become obsessed with the idea that she could mastermind some sort of cure or relief for the lepers she had been encountering whilst nursing the wounded men of the war between Russia and Turkey in 1878 and was told there was a herb in Eastern Siberia that may do that; it seemed to have been the purpose she was looking for in her life. She left after seeking out imperial assistance from Englandʼs Queen Victoria and Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia.

The journey for her was horrendous and documented in her book ʻOn Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepersʼ, although frustratingly for me, trying to revisit it, there are huge chunks of the journey that she doesnʼt comment on, for example, over 2,000 miles on a crude, insect infested cargo boat on the great River Lena which only receives a paragraphʼs mention. These omissions, plus a title more synonymous with a Gothic horror novel, became a portal in which skepticism would be fostered in an era where women were not applauded for any fantastically dangerous and courageous adventure.

While in Russia her focus shifted when she heard about the horrific conditions under which Russian lepers were forced to live and she set off from Yakutsk, on horseback, on a two thousand mile journey to visit lepers in the forests around Vilyuisk to gather information and see for herself the terrible conditions in which they were forced to live. By doing this she inadvertently completed one of the most difficult equestrian journeys of the late 19th century. The money she raised afterwards built a leper colony for these wretched people.

I can vouch that she made that journey.

The final leg of my overland journey to follow in her footsteps in August 2013 was a 20 hour, 400 mile, minibus journey on unmade roads through the Siberian forest from Yakutsk to Vilyuisk. After meeting the Mayor I was taken to Sosnovka, eight miles away, where the leper colony was built, which opened in December 1892 and carried on its great work

through the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war before closing in the 1960s. There is now a hospital for dementia patients on the site adjacent to the remains of the collapsing wooden leprasorium.

The raptuous welcome from the villagers of Sosnovka completely took me by surprise, they had come out to greet me in costumes representing the history and tradition of the region, including many in nurseʼs uniforms dating back to the 1890s; there was even a Kate Marsden herself in her little grey suit and hat. The Director of the hospital, Kleopatra, proudly showed me and my travelling companion Rebecca, who was incidentally the first Australian to ever visit Vilyuisk and Sosnovka, the little museum dedicated to Kate Marsden and this costumed community followed us in a throng on a guided tour of the site.

It is not possible to feel more love for a deceased person than those people showed for Kate Marsden, after a succession of Siberian tea parties and mareʼs-milk sipping ceremonies, where I had a horse-hair switch swished around me and speeches were made I was led to an empty plinth on a patch of grass. Kleopatra told me that this was waiting for Kateʼs statue; perhaps soon they would have the funds to erect one.

Kate Marsden never returned to see her hospital built with the funds that she raised; she never returned to Siberia. She became one of the first women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and founded the St. Francis Leprosy Guild in London but scandal continued to dog her for the rest of her life and there were campaigns to discredit her in England, Russia and New Zealand. Charges against her included embezzlement of the funds that sheʼd raised to build the hospital, deception by orchestrating falling out of a linen cupboard in a hospital in Wellington in New Zealand, where she was a matron, shortly after buying two life insurance policies. However, most unforgivable were the allegations of lesbianism, this at a time when Oscar Wilde was on trial. They may have been unproved but they were enough to destroy her reputation.

On that Saturday in March a motley crew of singing and harp-playing Siberians and British devotees gathered around the sad sight of Miss Marsdenʼs grave, barely visible beneath its blanket of brambles and weeds in a West London Cemetery. It had been found by the present day Kate Marsden, an indomitable figure to the Victorian Kate Marsdenʼs cause.

Elena Kychkina, the sister of my translator in Vilyuisk happened to be in London and she also happened to have Kuprian Mikhailov an actor of the Sakha National Drama Theatre with her who just happened to have had a dream to bring his shamanʼs outfit with him and they hung their rag streamers, read out a eulogy, gave Russian pancake offerings, the shaman beat his drum and shook his long hair and we laid our offerings on the newly cleared grave. They told me afterwards, ʻthere was some mystic in the air as though the ceremony was being guided by bright powersʼ.

Kate Marsden would have loved it.

Jacki Hill-Murphy MA, FRGS
I am recreating the journeys of the early female explorers and have so far accomplished those of: Isabella Godin, the first women down the Amazon in 1769
Mary Kingsley who climbed Mount Cameroon in 1894
Isabela Brookes who died in the Llanganates in Ecuador in 1912
Isabella Bird who crossed the Digar-La Pass in Ladakh on a yak in 1889
Kate Marsden across Siberia in 1891
My book ʻShe Canʼt Do Thatʼ will be published early 2015.