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Rule #1 of the Amazon: Don't Mess With the Ants
(Part 2 of 3)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The Amazon basin occupies 40% of Brazil’s total geographic area. There are about 300 different species of trees per hectare in the Amazon, which is the greatest river system in the world. It is one of the largest tracks of intact wilderness in the entire Americas, a watershed that extends throughout nine countries of the Amazon and dumps 20% of the world’s fresh water into the ocean.

We were the first group to descend the upper Roosevelt River after the former President and his grandson 80 years ago. Our expedition lasted 25 days and covered about 650 kilometers with Class II-IV+ whitewater. Our team consisted of four NOLS Instructors, including Fabio Oliveira, Jim Chisholm, Jon Kempsey and myself, and two other Brazilians, Flavio Kunreuther and Andre Duprat, a doctor from Sao Paulo.

For the expedition, we had three used collapsible canoes from NOLS, and jungle hammocks complete with bug netting and stow pouches. We had purchased multiple cans of RAID, Permethrin, DEET, various Citronella products, and snake anti-venom for the “jararaca” bushmaster snake. We were armed to the teeth with bug repellent and chemicals to face the mosquito hordes and other crawling adversaries our fears had conjured.

We had obtained permission to enter the Cinta Larga Indigenous Reserve, where the river runs for the first 100 kilometers. After various meetings with local officials and indigenous contacts, we were assured that we had safe passage into the native reserve, closed at that point to non-natives. But we set our hammocks up at the river put-in only to wake up to the scrutinizing looks of one of the “caciques” of the Cinta Larga tribe, who apparently knew absolutely nothing of our arrival. It appeared that the assurances of our Indian contact had not been relayed to the locals — one renegade had already sent “warriors” to meet us downstream. After a bit of negotiating, we finally secured permission to get on the river.

The biggest challenge in the beginning was learning the rules of the jungle. I was the only expedition member who opted to take anti-malaria medication, but truly the mosquitoes never lived up to the reputation we all carry in our heads about what an Amazon trip must be like. The ants, however, did.

After descending a few kilometers the first day, we came upon an ideal surf wave and a good beach on river right, so we decided to camp and play a bit in the rapid. As night fell and we enjoyed our first bug-free night in the jungle, we occasionally heard a strange slapping sound. A half hour later, we realized that the slapping was Jon Kempsey (“Mr. Epic Animal Encounter”) rescuing his newly purchased bug tent from a column of soldier ants that had run into his isolated tent site and proceeded to, well, eat his tent.  Luckily, they only gnawed a few significant holes in the tent before Jon arrived and unleashed his newly purchased fly swatter on them.

Although Jon suffered some significant ant bites due to the assault, he did rescue and eventually repair his tent. No one slept well that night. The only other run-in we had with ants happened the night before when Andre, the doctor, mistakenly left a leaf hanging onto his hammock from a nearby tree. During the night, leafcutter ants descended onto his hammock ropes, where they encountered his pants and shirt innocently swaying in the evening breeze. The following day he awoke to a shirt devoured to a third of its original size by his nighttime visitors, and a pair of pants that had been specially tailored with a few new ventilation holes. Luckily, he had another pair of pants. Those were the only real “incidents” we had, but they had taught us something we heard reiterated by the locals along the way: “Don’t mess with the ants.”

The second rule of the Amazon, “Let the bees lick you, and don’t flinch,” we learned the following day.  We had decided to camp on a midstream island and line the canoes the following day. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, the amount of bees converging on us was impressive; there were about 10-30 on each of us licking up our sweat. Any inadvertent brush could have caused a sting, so we all practiced our best Zen beekeeping until the cool dusk air inspired our buzzing friends to retreat. Luckily, this ritual was repeated only a few times during the trip. Electric blue and yellow green butterflies, praying mantis, and the occasional spider were other companions throughout the descent. 

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Atila Rego-Monteiro, a NOLS Instructor since 1992, has more than 1,000 river miles logged, including a trip into the Brazilian Pantanal, expeditions down the Grand Canyon, and a crossing of the Gulf of California.

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