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Rob Penn: An Amazon adventure part 1


For a month last autumn, Freddie Flintoff and I pedalled along what is perhaps the most controversial road in the world. The Trans-Amazonian Highway was built by the Brazilian military dictatorship in the early 1970s, to open up the southern Amazon basin for colonization and economic exploitation. In a grandiose economic experiment, the proposal was to re-settle 100,000 families from agriculturally poorer parts of Brazil in the region: ‘land without men for men without land’ was the dream.

Rob Penn and Freddie Flintoff on their bikes © WWF-UKRob Penn and Freddie Flintoff on their bikes © WWF-UK

However, it never happened. Promises the government made were broken from the start. No more than 10,000 people were re-located and they were quickly left to fend for themselves. In fact, the road was never even finished. It was never paved and it simply stops in the middle of the jungle, at a small town called Labrea beside the Purus River.

Freddie and I were an unlikely duo, thrown together for an epic journey by the strange demands of TV. Freddie – a self-confessed environmental sceptic when we started – doesn’t really like cycling but he’s got a big heart and he can do a mean Elvis impersonation. I’m an old-fashioned tree-hugger and having ridden a bicycle round the world, the commissioners knew at least one of us could fix a puncture.

The Highway starts in the east of Brazil and runs due west, across the federal states of Maranhao and Para to near Santarem, before veering south. We started cycling in the town of Itaituba, on the banks of the beautiful, clear-watered Tapajoz River. The plan was to cycle 1,200km, to the end of the road. Along the way, we’d meet gold miners, cattle ranchers, legal and illegal loggers, sawmill owners, rodeo bull riders, tourism operators, shopkeepers and school kids, in an attempt to understand what impact the road has had on the rainforest.

We rode rigid, steel 29er, expedition bikes manufactured by the British company, Genesis. They were tough, no-nonsense steeds with internal hub gears and disc brakes. We took spare tubes, tyres and spokes plus a handful of tools. Freddie questioned the wisdom of taking bikes without any suspension but when you’re thousands of miles from a bike shop, you want a steed that has as few working parts as possible.

In a month, we had no major breakdowns. There were punctures, a shredded tyre, broken water bottles and a few minor adjustments to cables but considering the condition of the road, and the daily hammering the bikes took, they stood up remarkably well.

The cycling was hard from the start. Five hundred metres out of Itaituba, the tarmac turns to dirt and every time we passed a vehicle, we were consumed in a cloud of dust and had to ride blind for several, unnerving seconds. In places, the road was maintained and well graded but for long stretches, it was no more than a medieval cart track, cut to pieces by the wheels of the logging lorries and cattle trucks.

There are few communities along the Trans-Amazonian Highway: most nights we either hung our hammocks up in the jungle or camped at one of the dilapidated old roadhouses. We washed in the creeks and rivers – at least we did until someone told us that anacondas inhabit the creeks at dusk. Then we stayed dirty.

One morning, as we were packing up camp in the village of Sucunduri, Freddie disturbed a tarantula in the top of a rucksack. After that, we zipped all our bags up at night.

Red dirt road leading to Puerto-Maldonato, Peru copyright: Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWFRed dirt road leading to Puerto-Maldonato, Peru copyright: Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF

Every four or five days, an electric storm burst over us, bringing welcome respite from the blanket of heat and the humidity. We could see, hear and smell these storms coming hours before they arrived. The wind quickened, the temperature dropped and with a detonation of thunder, the clouds burst open. The rain tamped down the dust on the highway, but it also turned the dirt to a gummy mud that clung to our tyres, which made pedaling even more arduous.

Approaching the town of Apui – our halfway point – the hills flattened and the jungle edged further and further away from the road. Clouds of smoke blackened the sky in all directions, where de-forested scrub was being burnt off to sow grass seed on marginal land.

Legally, landowners in the Brazilian Amazon are required to retain forest on 80% of their property. Few do though. Agriculture requires wholesale forest clearance and ranching is currently the greatest single cause of deforestation in the Amazon. The Sky Rainforest Rescue project – run by WWF and Sky in the western state of Acre – promotes agricultural initiatives to help keep the trees standing. Such initiatives are vital now.

‘What would you rather have, beef or trees?’ Freddie asked me as we approached Fazenda Macil, a vast cattle ranch near Apui managed by Jose Lucio. For me the answer is trees, but we stayed with Jose Lucio for two nights and it was hard not to admire his independent, pioneering spirit. It did feel a bit like sleeping with the enemy though.

You can watch Rob and Freddie in the first episode of the two-part documentary on Sky 1 HD at 9pm this evening or tune in here next Monday 14 April for part 2 of Rob’s Amazon blog.

What are your views about the Amazon Rainforest? Leave us a comment.

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