When Ed Stafford was a teenager, his taste for adventure was a bit unconventional. “I have always thrived on danger and adrenaline and sneaking out of my boarding house armed with a wire saw and industrial bolt cutters to cause havoc seemed to be my main outlet at the time,” Stafford recalls in Walking the Amazon.
Breaking and entering isn’t a great way to pass the time (beyond its anti-social aspects, it’s pretty much against the law), so Stafford looked for pursuits that would keep him from spending his life in an office or jail. He joined the British Army and served for four years. He then came home and asked himself: “What would be the ultimate expedition I could ever conceive of doing?”
The answer, of course, is the title of his gripping memoir, which recounts the 2-1/2 years that Stafford spent walking the entire length of South America’s longest river, securing himself a spot in the Guinness World Records.
Beyond the sentient threats within the area (jaguars, snakes, piranhas, electric eels, wary indigenous tribes), he had to negotiate harsh terrain that ranged from steep high cliffs to flooded lowlands. And the path he was following – from Peru to Colombia and on to Brazil – cut through the world’s largest narcotics-producing areas.
“No one in the world of expeditions ... could be convinced that it was in fact possible to walk the entire length of the river,” Stafford wrote. He was 31 when he began the trip with his friend Luke Collyer, then 35. After securing sponsorship money to help raise awareness of ecological threats to the Amazon region (“The selfish and non-selfish goals weren’t just compatible; they ended up being essential to each other”), Stafford set out for Peru in April 2008 with Collyer, a veteran climber and kayaker. Each of their rucksacks weighed more than 100 pounds.
Collyer abandoned the walk after three months. Stafford, who had initially figured that the entire trip would take one year, was on his own save for a series of local guides.
A little more than four months into the journey he hired a guide named Cho, who spoke little English. But Cho – a forestry worker who spoke Spanish and several of the local dialects – was a valuable traveling companion for Stafford.
Cho remained with Stafford through the last 733 days of the journey, and Stafford came to regard him as “the least selfish and most patient person I have ever met.”
The two hacked away with machetes at the relentless forest that stood in their way. Sometimes they treated themselves to hotel stays to recharge their spirits, but for the most part they slept in hammocks, endlessly assaulted by mosquitoes.
After “[n]ine million-odd steps; over 200,000 mosquito and ant bites each; over 8,000 kilometres walked over 860 days, 733 of them with Cho; about 600 wasp stings; a dozen scorpion stings; 10 HD video cameras, six pairs of boots, three GPSs and one Guinness World Record,” Stafford writes, he and Cho ended their journey with a celebratory plunge in the Atlantic Ocean (which Cho had never seen before).
Walking the length of the Amazon is a remarkable feat, and doing so gave Stafford an immense amount of pride and satisfaction. But the sacrifices he was forced to make in time and undertaking to achieve his goal make it hard for me to envy his accomplishment.
Cameron Martin is a columnist for ESPN.com.