The River of Traps: A true survival story (Part 2 of 2)

Posted: Mar 27, 2013 07:19 am EDT

(By Maciej Tarasin) On November 9 we reach the Raudal Tiburon Canyon. It looks as if the 150 meter wide river is squeezed into a narrow 15-meter wide funnel between the rocks. We get through the first rapids easily. I have a look at the next rapids awaiting us now and what I see is a water crater of a few meter height difference. I estimate our chances of running it without capsizing at 30 percent. There is no possibility of using the ropes. Right after the rapids, though, the river flows quietly for a long distance. We decide to go for it!

At the bottom of the crater we get hit on the left side, which throws the boat flying in the air to the right and then flips it over. Luckily Tomek has good reflexes; he grabs the mooring line and starts hauling the boat to the bank while I surface some good seconds later having choked on the water badly.

"Good job!" I shout at him as I climb onto the rocks. Together we throw the water out of the boat. Then I decide to scout the coming obstacles. It is with great effort that we manage to run down the 4th class rapids. There is one moment when we sway to the side so hard that we almost get under water again. This time a proper body balancing job saves us.

Roping the raging bull on a rodeo arena

We get to the point where it is quieter but the ordeal is by no means over yet. The boat behaves like a raging bull on the rodeo arena: it rears and we almost score another flip-over when, miraculously, we reach the slower waters.

The next rapids are too much for us. I can see two major stoppers where we could get dragged underwater together with the boat. I get back to Tomek and tell him how bad it looks. We have to use all the ropes we have and tie the boat’s front and back. We rope the boat. It takes hours and completely drains our energy. We keep wondering why the canyon is not coming to an end – after all, the Yari is a lowland river.

I think it is a good idea to walk along the canyon ridge and inspect the coming up rapids. We make our way through the vegetation cutting our way with the machete. We check on two coming rapids then we turn back to the boat not having actually found the end of the canyon.

Securing the valuables

We attach two of the three paddles we have to the side of the boat with the ropes. The spare paddle, the machete, my passport and the map with the coordinates meticulously marked daily by me are taken out. So is Tomek’s most valuable stuff: his satellite phone and the camera, which has got slightly wet. The waterproof GPS is safely tucked in my waistcoat pocket. It is better to have these things safe in case the boat is irretrievably lost. This way or another, during the boat launching the teeming water wets everything inside.

"We’ll get the boat down to the boulders over there and then we will get back on it," I suggest.

Tomek does not want to go. "I am scared and I don’t want to lose my stuff," he points at his waterproof bag.

Swimming the wild water to rescue the boat

Suddenly the current becomes so strong that we are unable to hold on to the boat, which instantly gets carried away. Mesmerized, we watch as the water takes it to the river bend and flips it over.

The roar of the water in the canyon makes it impossible for me to discuss my decision with Tomek, so I quickly gesticulate that I am going to rescue the boat and I expect him to follow on foot along the canyon wall. I hurry two levels down and throw myself into the wild water twirling in the canyon. I am wearing my underwear, shorts, sandals, waistcoat with the GPS in the pocket; I also have my knife.

I swim down a sequence of two rapids and I feel spewed out into the eddy at the 30 meter high rectangular black rocks. After about 5 minutes struggle with the elements, I finally get out of it. Slowly I move along the rocky wall towards the boulders sticking out of the river. The current either pulls me under the rocks or turns me about with a powerful push. Finally, I reach the boulders and get some rest breathing hard.

Exhaustion and jaguars lurking in the shadows

"I can’t stay here overnight," a thought rushes through my head.

I am sitting on the rock but the water keeps slapping my back every now and again. Although I have been nearly drowned a moment ago, I have to plunge back into the water. I tighten the straps on my waistcoat – I have lost 15 kilograms in the past three weeks. My plan is to swim across the rapids to the other side. I do it easily. Another few thrusts and I reach solid ground. I did it but I feel so exhausted that I simply lie down on the rock panels and fall asleep holding my knife in my hand.

The rock keeps me warm. The moon provides the light. It is true magic. The most wonderful night in my life. Today I was able to swim across the canyon. Tomorrow I will find the boat and get back for Tomek.

My shorts dry out during the night. I wake up a few times with my imagination running wild making me see jaguars lurking in the shadows. I cling to my knife. I take off my waistcoat to use it as a makeshift pillow. Then I get cold so I put it on again. Strangely enough I wake up well rested. I look down where the river changes its course and carves an L-shaped passage in the rocks.

A killer crossing

First I return to the place where I talked to Tomek the last time the previous day. I whistle with all my might but nobody answers. The roaring coming from the canyon is the only thing you can hear. I know very well that we won’t get out of this place without the boat so I decide to walk along the high river bank as long as it takes to leave the canyon behind; then I intend to make my way through the vegetation to where the river gets calmer. The killer crossing takes three hours.

The top ledge is no longer the top one so I oscillate taking lower or upper levels wondering what I am going to do if I find myself over the precipice with nowhere to go. Every now and again rotten trees disintegrate in my hands as I try to hold on to them for balance. There is a moment when I am close to falling from the heights. I have no view of the river as the shrubs and trees obstruct my view.

For a while I follow a vertical rocky ledge which is a starting point for a little waterfall. Here I can wash off the mud. I am standing in the bedding up to my knees. I must pull my feet out gently not to leave my sandals in the ground. The few meager possessions I have on me have become incredibly precious to me. The liana trip my legs and the thorny bushes scratch at my arms. Tiny ticks dig into every uncovered stretch of my skin helping themselves to my blood. I part the shrubbery with a special pole I made for the occasion to check for poisonous snakes.

Finally I reach the river where it is as slow as I imagined it would be. There is still about one kilometer I have to swim to reach safety.

First of all I look for the boat but it seems to be lost without a trace. I build a camp and try to figure out how to get in touch with Tomek. Unfortunately I had my left big toe badly injured in action the previous day. That prevents me from climbing. "Tomek might get down to me," is my last thought and then I fall asleep.

Storm washes away camp and makeshift raft

The next day I start constructing a raft. I cut my underwear into straps. I look for wooden logs and the liana to tie the wood together. The raft is half finished when the night comes. It brings a massive tropical storm which washes away my camp. I am waiting for the dawn to become cold, soaked through and shivering. When it finally comes, I can see that my raft is gone. It must have been carried away by the waters of the Yari.

"Great," I think. "Now I have neither my raft nor my knickers."

"I must save myself"

I am going down with the riverflow, looking for the raft when suddenly... I can’t believe my eyes: I can see something blue in the water. It is my boat! The torrential rain must have washed it out of the canyon. I swim like crazy to it and ... I miss it as it gets turned around by the current.

The second attempt is successful. I get rid of all the water and check for the food: there are two tins of luncheon meat left – the rest is off after three days in the water. I grab the paddle. I must save myself. I have no idea that two days before, on Thursday, Tomek called for help. I do not know that Dominik Bac and his wife, Klaudia, in Gliwice, and Anita Czerner-Lebedew in Berlin, are surfing Facebook and calling people and places all over the world to arrange a rescue for us.

Four days ago I was sick of paddling, now the paddle is my nearest and dearest friend. I paddle all Saturday checking my position on the GPS every now and again. I see progress, however, in a straight line I am not actually getting any closer as I am going in a north-eastern direction. Only when the river turns south-east will I be getting closer to Araracuara.

I fall asleep in the boat on the rocky beach where I find some traces of the human presence. It lifts my spirits. I have 60 kilometers left in a straight line to the Rio Caqueta; on the river that will add up to about a hundred kilometers as the fragment below the Gamitana Canyon is straight. I might make it or I might not.

A steel angel of the Colombian Air Force

November 13th is the fourth day of parting from Tomek. I have been paddling since 5 am. I can’t waste my time. At noon I moor the boat and try to have a nap, but the flies won’t let me so I have no choice but to carry on. The last luncheon tin is sitting in Tomek’s seat. I persuade myself that it is not as good as it thinks it is.

I can hear a motorboat engine roar. It seems to me like I have heard this sound for 5 days on end. Nothing but the haunting sound of the motorboat... this time, however, it is not an illusion. I can hear choppers approaching and a moment later there is a black hawk above my head, then another one and one more reconnaissance plane to watch out for the guerrillas. Then they are gone.

I let the river take me wherever it will. Suddenly paddling is no longer a necessity. "Please birdies, come back," I implore. They are back. A soldier is leaning out and making a sign of a cross before going down. I paddle closer to the middle of the river so that they can pick me up.

A steel angel of the Colombian Air Force is hovering about 20 meters above me. When it gets lower, my boat, as if it got suddenly kicked hard, flies first upwards and then to the side. I somersault into the water but keep swimming towards the soldier. Locked tightly together we are pulled up. One moment we are in an aerated watery cocoon over the river, the other we are high fiving each other in euphoria.
This is also good news for the Fuerza Aerea Colombiana courageous soldiers; they were going to save one man but they saved two.

The Rio Yari deserves to be called treacherous; it has been lulling us for 500 kilometers with its slow flow to unleash its terrible power on us at the end.

Maciej Tarasin and Tomasz Jedrys' canoe journey through Tranquilandia, Colombia, started at Ciudad Yari and put in at Cano Guyabo on October 23, 2011. Their planned end point was Araracuara, but they never reached Araracuara; the expedition ended for Tomasz in Raudal Tiburon, and for Maciej 15 km further down the river on November 13, 2011.

Maciej Tarasin, 38 years old lives in Upper Silesia, Poland. Paddler, adventurer and explorer of the Amazon. He has been following the rivers since 1992. In June 2008 he run Nahanni River in Canada together with Grzegorz Szalajski. Ethiopian Omo river expedition in December 2008 from Gibe Bridge to Mui Junction, was one of the last descents before the construction of Gibe III dam is completed. Piotr Opacian was a leader of that descent and thanks to him all ended up well. Hippo alleys and Mursi assault were the highlights of Omo paddling. A year later he tackled Bolivian Rio Tuichi on a self made raft. In 2011 the first descent of Bolivian Rio Altamachi was accomplished with an immense help of Natasza Szalajska & Waldo Urdininea - his paddling partners. October 2011 – an attempt of Colombian Rio Yari first descent. The Yari did not let go. An accident in canyon El Tiburon stopped the expedition. After search & rescue action of Fuerza Aerea Colombiana the participants were evacuated in Black hawk helicopters.

Tomek (Tomasz) Jedrys, 36 years old, lives in Upper Silesia, Poland. Privately an owner of car rental company. Photographer and traveler. He is interested in indigenous tribes of the Amazon. He has been visiting various parts of the Amazon for the last seven years documenting lives of the people dwelling the “green hell”. In 2010 he organized “Around Rio Napo” expedition following the course of Rio Napo in Ecuador. In 2011 he participated in first attempt of Colombian Rio Yari descent - an expedition organized by Maciej Tarasin.

PREVIOUS - The River of Traps: A survival story (Part 1 of 2)


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Maciej: "The Rio Yari deserves to be called treacherous; it has been lulling us for 500 kilometers with its slow flow to unleash its terrible power on us at the end." Image: position where the accident took place.
Image by Francisco Castro courtesy Maciej Tarasin
"I can see that my raft is gone. It must have been carried away by the waters of the Yari. Great, I think. now I have neither my raft nor my knickers."

Image by Francisco Castro courtesy Maciej Tarasin