Biking the Amazon: Part II, River Therapy

Polish brothers pedal down the Amazon on home-made floating bicycles

To the Atlantic: Hubert, with roughly 4,000 miles to go. Photo David Andres.
To the Atlantic: Dawid, with roughly 4,000 miles to go. Photo Hubert Kisinski.

After crossing the Andes Mountains and tracing the source of the Amazon on bicycles, Polish brothers Dawid Andres and Hubert Kisiński are piloting their floating "Amazon Bikes" down the world's largest river toward the Atlantic Ocean. Amazon explorer Piotr Chmielinski is in touch with the expedition and provides this report as the brothers continue their journey toward the sea.

By Piotr Chmielinski

After riding their bicycles from the Pacific Ocean over the height of the Andes, floating downstream felt like a special treat to Hubert Kisiński and his brother Dawid Andres. "Something seems not to be right," Hubert said. "We are not pedaling, yet we're still moving forward. Kind of boring."

There would be plenty of excitement to come for the brothers, who are determined to travel the length of the Amazon River on small catamaran rafts powered by the same bicycles they rode over the Andes. When they reached the Ucayali River, a major Amazon tributary, the brothers bolted their bikes to the rafts and took to the water.

With Felipe Suarez Ruiz, a member of the local Ashaninka tribe who has been assisting them as a guide and bodyguard, they mounted their unlikely craft and started through the region believed to be one of the most dangerous for foreigners in Peru. First stop: Pucallpa, 420 kilometers (260 miles) downstream. Their ultimate goal is the Atlantic Ocean, some 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) ahead.

Rocket Speed

The biggest mystery was how the Amazon bikes would perform on the river. Tests on the Warta River in Poland were successful, but that river was a poor substitute for the mighty Amazon with its whirlpools, high waves, and huge volume of water.

Constructing the bikes before launching on the Amazon.
Modifying the bikes before launching on the Ucayali River. Note the ‘blueprints’ at lower right. Photo Dawid Andres.

The boys had several sleepless nights, and almost became obsessed with the crucial pedal drive mechanism. Before launching their Amazon Bikes for the first time in South American waters, they spent two days working with local craftsmen to modify the propulsion and steering systems. They moved the rudders from the front to the rear of the catamarans and added bearings to the propeller shafts. Hubert made a third modification that proved to be very effective—he welded a second propeller to his bike's drive shaft. That made his bike faster than Dawid's.

Close-up view of the Amazon Bike's drive train and steering mechanism.
Close-up view of the Amazon Bike’s drive train and steering mechanism.

Not Enough Pedaling?

This year, the wet season in Peru started a little earlier than usual. Heavy rains elevated the water levels in the Amazon well above normal. The river is moving faster as a result, flowing at 5 to 7 kmh (3 to 4.5 mph).

Thirty years ago, at exactly the same time of year, Joe Kane and I were kayaking between Atalaya and Pucallpa as a part of the Amazon Source to Sea Expedition. The water then was very low and almost didn’t move at all; it took us 15 days to cover this distance. Dawid and Hubert, with their average speed of 10-12 km/h, were done in 8 days.

The beginning of each day requires some effort to rally from the shore and reach the mainstream, which is clearly marked by heaps of bushes, broken trees, or even whole banana trees carried by the river in large quantities.

Although the current helps them to move at a good speed, Dawid worries that they don’t put enough effort into pedaling. "All the time it feels like we pedal too little. After pushing the pedals so hard for 2,000 kilometers in the mountains, now, it seems that we are completely idle," says Dawid. He jokes that his brother is perfectly adjusted to this situation—sometimes he was so relaxed he did not notice potentially hazardous river conditions. Fortunately Filipe also rides on Hubert's Amazon Bike, and chimes in with warnings whenever needed. "Amigo Huberto, hay un problema," he says, and usually it's enough to push the pedals just a few times to set the bike back on track so that he could indulge again in sweet idleness.

Amazon Bikes
Finding the most comfortable position for a nap. Photo David Andres.

Whirlpool

Ominous storm clouds lingered over the mountains as a deluge began. The brothers, together with a three-person group of French travelers whom they have met along the way, pitched tents on the sandy beach and, not sensing anything out of the ordinary, they went to sleep. In the mountains, though, it must have rained heavily because the water in the river began to rise.

The sweet dreams were sharply interrupted by Felipe. Through walls of their tents, the travelers heard the menacing roar of the powerful water and the crunch of ground breaking off from the banks. If not for Felipe's timely warning, the tents and their inhabitants would have shared the same fate as trees and bushes along the riverbank. The rushing water claimed everything in its path.

Better weather in the morning seemed, at first, to signal a calm day. The bikers left the eroded riverbank like normal, heading toward the mainstream. When they were almost in the middle of the river a huge whirlpool opened up right in front of them.

According to their quick estimate, the swirling water formed a circle with a diameter of about 30 meters (98 feet). The deep funnel in the center had a diameter of about a meter (3 feet). Whirlpools are one of the greatest water dangers on the tropical parts of the Amazon.

The vicious current began to trap Hubert in its vortex.

"On the third lap I thought, perhaps I would not come out. I pedaled like crazy with the steering wheel turned all the way. I was determined to get out! On the next lap somehow I was thrown onto calm water," Hubert recalls.

"I stop to I look back and what do I see? Dawid is recording this using his GoPro camera! I cried at the top of my lungs: Dawid run! Pedal hard, because once you are inside, you cannot get out!"

It is too late. Dawid was almost sucked in by circling water at breakneck speeds. On a bike with much smaller propeller it seemed he had no chance to exit. And then, a miracle happened. Suddenly the whirlpool stopped; the water from the funnel sprang up, throwing Dawid and his bike toward calm water."

From Dawid's perspective, the vortext initially looked amusing. "It looked funny. He ran around in circles, pedaling at the same time with such speed, like a character in a cartoon movie for children. Pretty soon, I wasn’t so amused when I found myself in a similar situation," Dawid joked.

Remembering Celina and Jarek in Tahurapa

One day I received text message from Dawid saying, "We are now in the home village of Felipe and I’m looking for a place where they killed the Polish couple. Felipe was the person who spoke to the media [after the killing]."

In May 2011, Celina Mroz and Jaroslaw Frackiewicz, a married couple, well-known Polish kayakers and globetrotters, were murdered while paddling near the village of Tahurapa. Felipe was very reluctant to talk about this subject, because of the way the murder reflected on his people, the Ashkaninka.

Two drunken residents of a neighboring village committed the crime. According to Felipe, the wanted men are currently hiding from Peruvian authorities somewhere in the jungle. The residents of Felipe's home village, Tahurapa, placed a cross at the crime scene to remember the tragedy.

The villagers and, in particular, Felipe’s family, gave a warm welcome to the two Poles traveling on their water bikes. They hoped their warm hospitality would help atone for the sin of their neighbors, and show that the Ashkaninka are friendly to anyone who visits their region.

Amazon Bikes, source to sea
Enjoying the hospitality in Felipe’s village. Photo Dawid Andres.

For Dawid and Hubert staying in the village was a great opportunity to experience the life that natives lead in the Peruvian jungle.

According to the brothers, "They grow yucca, enjoy themselves, and just live in another dimension of time. They have neither television nor radio. Interestingly, they accepted such a technological advancement as energy-saving bulbs and sonar. They don’t have telephone either, because there is no reception"

"Piotr, this is the world and the same people, except, maybe a little differently dressed, as you saw them 30 years ago while kayaking the Amazon," adds Dawid. "They live their own lives and do not need anything more."

The Changing Amazon

The GPS map of the brothers' route is deceptive. The GPS makes it appear that they are traveling over land instead of by water. This is another secret of the Amazon River. Of course of the river on the map doesn't match the biker’s course recorded by SPOT because the bed of Amazon moves every year. Unfortunately satellite images and maps cannot keep up with the changes taking place in the river channels.

GPS waypoints show the brothers' progress through the Amazon's shifting channels.
The brother’s GPS track overlayed on a 1-year-old map of the Ucayali River shows how rapidly the river’s course changes.

These variations make attempts to determine the precise length of the river clearly impossible, because this characteristic is not constant and depends on changes of river course year after year. Thus, Amazon is longer one year and shorter the next. Nobody is able to say what is the precise length of the largest river in the world. It is a frustrating and, at the same time, one of the exciting mysteries of the Amazon.

Amazon Therapy

Everyone must find his or her own “Amazon”. Even if it is a modest trip on an easily accessible little river close to home, time on the river builds confidence, strength, and endurance while teaching determination and consistency. Listening to the enthusiastic stories of Dawid and Hubert, I have an impression that the brothers definitely found their “Amazon” undertaking this biking expedition.

"When I found myself on the water, I was amazed," Dawid wrote me. "The river is just so beautiful. This is what I dreamed of. Hubert and I were ecstatic with the wonder and beauty of nature, water, tree shrouded in fog, pink and black dolphins while plying near us. Our solitude, silence."

The boys ate well this night. Photo Dawid Andres.
The boys ate well this night. Photo Dawid Andres.

While on the water, Dawid says he thinks about his family. His wife was initially opposed the idea of the expedition and eventually turned into its most enthusiastic supporter. His in-laws moved in with their daughter to keep her company and to help take care of Dawid's children, aged 9 and 11. He is grateful for all these great things.

"When I lay on the tube of my Amazon bike quietly moving with the current of the Amazon, I look at the sky and think to myself: God, I will miss this moment, I love this moment, I love being here and now," David reflects. And in a moment he adds, "Sometimes I have dreams that I am not on the expedition… I wake up on the water and … I’m happy!"

This expedition was a dream of a great adventure for both brothers and they are undertaking it on their own without sponsors. It is also a test of their capabilities, skills and life lessons of wisdom.

This trip is also a kind of therapy.

Dawid brought Hubert to the Amazon to heal. His life has been a turmoil since losing his home and business in a fire. Hubert sought relief in drugs. Now he's struggling to overcome addiction and rebuild his life. His days are full of fear, anxiety and hope. This expedition is helping him to gain confidence back, to prove to himself that he has the strength to face adversity. Hubert believes already that a new chapter is opening in his life and the life of his family.

"It is important to start life anew. I have to go back home and sort things out," Hubert says. "Taking part in this expedition, I want my wife and my two sons, aged 5 and 4, to be proud of me. I want to start to build something new."

Dawid invited Hubert on this wild adventure, knowing that bonding on the river could help his younger brother through this difficult time.

"If Dawid didn’t step in, I do not know how it all would have ended; surely I’d be at the bottom," Hubert says with undisguised emotion. In this moment I see a completely different side of this always laughing, jovial, easy going fellow.

At Peace: The river has been good therapy for both brothers.
At Peace: The river has been good therapy for both brothers.

—READ

Biking the Amazon Part 2 on CanoeKayak.com

True Source: Discovery and Rivalry on the Amazon River

—Learn more on the expedition’s website: bikingtheamazonriver.com