Kayaking, Canoeing & Rafting

Law of the Jungle | Travelling Through the Amazon’s “Intangible Zone” in a Dugout Canoe

Benjamin Sadd and James Trundle built a dugout canoe with the indigenous Huaorani people

‘The Intangible Zone’ is an area of 700,000 hectares of the Amazon rainforest set aside for indigenous communities that don’t want contact with the outside world. To any adventurer this might sounds like the holy grail of modern day travel at first glance; a chance to step back into the glory days of Victorian explorers.

It isn’t until you get out there that you realise the reality is very different.

“We would wake when it got light and go to bed when it was dark. Work in the jungle became our job, our gym, our daily life”

When it comes to navigating a river that dissects and traverses the zone, how do you know where it’s safe? More importantly, how do those uncontacted tribes know? What do lines drawn on a map mean to them, tribes that for thousands of years have been living nomadic and self sufficient lifestyles deep in the jungle.

To put boundaries around that lifestyle would be such an alien concept. How was it decided? How do you decide how much space people need?

Bay and his family. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

Over the past ten years, my best friend James Trundle and I have been on several silly adventures together, doing things like pulling a sofa 100 miles across southern England, nearly killing ourselves sleeping in a snow hole in Italy, and ‘swimming’ the length of a knee-deep river in Dorset.

For our next trip we wanted to do something a little bigger, but also something that would involve actually spending time within a new community, while playing to our strengths and shared love of craftsmanship.

Dugout canoes are some of the oldest forms of transport in the world, their history stretching back over 8000 years. A canoe seemed like the ideal thing to try to make and then take on a journey.

We just had to find a place to make one.

The tree which, with the help of Bay, would become Benjamin and James’ canoe. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

We arrived in Apaika, a tiny village in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon and home to the indigenous Huaorani people, in May 2015.

Bay, the head of this small community, had been expecting us. Maybe not that day, or that month, or even that year, but he seemed unperturbed by our arrival, and he and his family quickly welcomed us.

To start with we were fed at our own table and fed slightly different food to the rest of the family. It took a few days to break down this barrier to our visit, but soon we were squatting on the floor by the fire with everyone else.

A shot from a unique jungle dinner time. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

During the week the family would head upstream by canoe to a larger settlement so the kids could go to school. There used to be a school in Apaika, and there is even a school building, but in Ecuador you need a certain number of pupils to have a government-provided teacher, so the building is empty and slowly returning to the jungle.

So, during the week we were left in Apaika with Bay, his wife Beva and one of their grandchildren. This made socialising much easier as we felt like a part of the group as opposed to being the annoying white guys.

We would take it in turns to cook for the family, make things like bread – however unsuccessfully – bean burgers and even an exotic chilli and banana crumble, which took so long to cook that the family had gone to bed hours before it was ready. I like to think that some of our meals were more successful than this. In fact I translated the phrase “this is the first time we have tasted anything like this before” as nothing but positive.

While all this was going on we were obviously working on our canoe. Every morning after an obligatory two-litre bowl of chicha we would set off up the hill to our work site.

Benjamin, left, and James, right. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

Bay was a machine, he just worked so tirelessly. Whereas my soft cameraman hands were raw and blistered and my face covered in perspiration, his callused hands could carry on throughout the day and he never seemed to break a sweat. But he was much more than a worker, he was an incredible mentor for the project, not only showing us how to do each step of the canoe-making, but also showing us how he lived in the jungle.

After a morning working on the canoe we would generally head out into the forest to help Bay collect what he needed from the jungle. Anything from vines to make baskets, palm fronds to repair the roof, specific hard woods to make spears or replace a broken axe handle, to the more exotic edible delicacies such as grubs and piranhas. His knowledge of the jungle was astounding.

Bay hard at work on the canoe. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

Our stay with Bay became more and more about the time we spent with the family and Bay than it did about the canoe. Whether it was making woven baskets from vines, going fishing with poison made from the root of a vine or making biscuits for the family.

It is only when you remove some of the time pressure from a trip and spend weeks in one location that you start to slip into a different pace of life. We had no watch, no phone – we would wake when it got light and go to bed when it was dark. Work in the jungle became our job, our gym, our daily life.

James at work on the canoe. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

Sitting round a smouldering and smoky fire sheltering from the rain, and avoiding working on the canoe (the blisters!) Bay told us the story of how his father first met a white person.

Missionaries had arrived on a beach in the river by small plane. They built a treehouse, and broke bread with the Huaorani that met them on the beach.

“They are the devil. We should kill them. They want to eat our children”

One of these warriors was Bay’s father. The contact with white people apparently sparked a fierce debate within the community: the white men (there to tame these savages) were described as devils, and aliens. I should imagine white explorers and colonists from the time had very similar descriptions of the Huaorani.

“They are friends,” Bay’s father said.

“No! They are the devil. We should kill them. They want to eat our children.”

The ever accomodating Bay. Photo: Benjamin Sadd. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

A group of Huaorani warriors went and speared the missionaries, so defending their land, their traditions, and their beliefs from the outside world for a few more years.

Bay, possibly one of the friendliest men ever, seemed so far removed from this brutal story. It was probably the first time that I started to realise just how recent the history of contact is with the Huaorani and the outside world; they managed to protect their land against colonisation for years.

“we started to hear the recent histories of conflict with the Taromenane, stories of kidnapped children, revenge killings and murder”

The next day Bay produced a laminated photo of the missionaries and his father eating bread together, a prize in their photo collection, a reminder of their recent past and possibly a hint of what lay ahead of us in the Intangible zone.

Bay’s laminated photograph. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

Tagaeri and Taromenane sound like tribes from Game of Thrones, not real life. It wasn’t until over a month into our stay with Bay that we started hearing stories about the Tagaeri, and how close to us they were moving – a day’s walk away. It was also then that we started to hear the recent histories of conflict with the Taromenane, stories of kidnapped children, revenge killings and murder. This is what we were heading towards if we continued down the Shiripuno/ Cononaco rivers into the Intangible zone.

We changed rivers.

The change of rivers, although costly was rather straightforward. Something that you would need to have special permission for in the UK was no problem – just put the tonne of canoe on the back of a taxi and drive it to a new river.

A smartly dressed James overseas the canoe being mounted on a truck. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

We did have to have several arguments about where to drive and where was best to get dropped, but once your canoe (that takes eight people to lift) is on the roof of someone’s car, you have very little say when they ask you for more money to go to the river you actually want to go to.

Even so we didn’t really end up in exactly the right place. But we were promised that it would lead to the right river.

Out on the water. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

What the change of rivers did highlight was how close to Bay’s patch of forest oil extraction was happening, and how roads transect the jungle, opening it up to the outside world. They are the beginning of the end, the oil platforms themselves are transient and (unless there is a spill) do not have a huge impact on the area.

Roads however open up the area, first hunters come, using the road to penetrate deeper in to the jungle, then a few settlers, spreading out from the road, planting a few crops, cutting down a bit more jungle, eking out a living from the nutrient poor soil, and before you know it the jungle has gone and you have a physical barrier to wildlife travelling through the rainforest.

The wildlife of the Amazon. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

As we travelled down our new river, the Tiputini, we felt isolated in the middle of untouched jungle. Getting out of the canoe and onto the bank to make our camp for the night was a daily struggle, through an impenetrable wall of spiky leaves and biting insects.

The current was fast enough that we couldn’t paddle against it, so by the time we had spotted a possible campsite we wouldn’t be able to get back to it in time. The spell of being in untouched jungle was only broken on a couple of occasions when we would pass under a bridge. Bridges that were only put there through the quest for oil in the heart of the Yasuni National Park.

Not all fun and games out on the Amazon. Photo: Benjamin Sadd.

Making the film was by far the hardest part of the trip. Weeks of runny poo and a multitude of biting insects and giant spiders were relatively easy to cope with. They just became part of the everyday.

What you have to remember when watching the film is that there is no one there with us. Just two guys and a bunch of my camera kit. No film crew waiting around the corner to capture us at our best and worst. But for me, that is what these trips are about – journeying through a beautiful and diverse landscape and capturing that space at a specific moment in time.

Read the rest of the Mpora April Remote issue here.

Head to Reelhouse or Vimeo on Demand to watch ‘Dugout’ –  Benjamin Sadd and James Trundle’s full film from their Ecuadorian adventure.

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