he conquistador Francisco de Orellana made the first recorded source-to-sea navigation of the Amazon, starting in 1541 from the Rio Napo in modern-day Ecuador. As if to
underscore the river’s ruinous effect on expedition cohesion, Orellana’s journey began with a mutiny—his men demanded he continue to the sea and claim the riches along the way. Orellana reached the mouth of the Amazon 16 months later and promptly sailed home to secure his claim. Though he died before he could collect, his lobbying caused the Rio Napo to be recognized as the source of the Amazon for nearly 200 years. Various other rivers have had that distinction, including the Urubamba, Huallaga, Marañón, and of course the Apurimac, where in recent decades a succession of high-profile expeditions have placed the source with ever-greater precision. The latest survey was conducted in 2011 using a $200 million Korean satellite. Until Contos, it seems that no one had ever posited the Rio Mantaro as the longest source of the Amazon. It’s as if geographers deployed a multimillion-dollar X-ray machine to find a needle, and pointed it at the wrong haystack.
How did they get it so wrong? Perhaps it is because the Mantaro appears deceptively short on maps of the Peruvian highlands. The river cuts a serpentine path through the mountains, at one point looping 120 miles around a high granite ridge to pass within 12 miles of itself. Here engineers built the Tablachaca diversion dam in 1982, boring a hole through the mountain and shunting water to a powerhouse 2,450 vertical feet below. The tunnel diverts 3,400 cfs—roughly equivalent to West Virginia’s Gauley River on a release weekend. At the height of the Andean rainy season it accounts for about 10 percent of the Mantaro’s flow; during the dry season it consumes the entire river, turning the 57-mile-long Cañon Tablachaca below the dam into a jumbled chain of boulders and stagnant pools. (To ensure that he would have water, Contos ran this section of the river first, in the beginning of May. Hansen traversed it in late August during the dry season.)
This unusual dam produces a quarter of Peru’s electricity, and provides some traction for those invested in the Apurimac retaining its status as the source of the Amazon. If the Rio Mantaro is diverted through a mountain for seven months of the year, then perhaps it’s not longer than the Apurimac after all. This is the argument that Chmielinski has made to Contos, Hansen and editors at National Geographic. By that reading, contends the first man to descend the Amazon from the Apurimac headwaters to the sea, the Mantaro cannot be considered the sole source of the Amazon. Instead, it should share the title with the Apurimac.
The question will be settled in due time, and it seems certain that the lesson of Francisco de Orellana will come to bear. Geography can be as much a political subject as a scientific one.
César Calvo de Araujo
seven months of the year, then perhaps it’s not longer than the Apurimac
daughter. Chmielinski also was there. They paddled across the lake and took a group photograph at a place Contos had identified in May as a likely source, and returned to camp. The next morning, as the kayakers began knuckle-dragging their boats down the nearly dry Rio Gashan, a blizzard engulfed them. Hours later, the men staggered back after covering just 1.8 miles. Jeff Wueste, 53, one of two Safari paddlers who was supposed to take part in the Mantaro descent by kayak and raft, was hypothermic and stricken with altitude sickness.
The following day Hansen and the Tigers—de Ugarte, Ortiz and Specht—started in the kayaks. The storm continued, and Hansen became separated from the other paddlers. The support crew found him at sunset, using SPOT coordinates that Hansen’s sister relayed by satellite phone from Texas, and located the Tigers four hours later. That night Hansen conferred with Kelly and announced a new plan: They would divide the Mantaro into seven distinct segments, and run the more difficult whitewater before Ortiz and Specht returned home in less than two weeks. Hansen would return alone to paddle and portage the headwaters and dewatered Cañon Tablachaca.
Team Amazon Express drove six hours downstream, where they put on above Cañon de Izcuchaca with a new configuration—Hansen and the Tigers in the kayaks, and Wueste, John Maika, and photographer Erich Schlegel in the raft with guide Simon Yerovi. Within five miles, the raft ran broadside into a boulder and flipped. Hanson capsized, missed his roll and felt a sharp twinge in his left shoulder. He’d had this injury twice before and recognized the symptoms. He’d torn a tendon.
The next day, after traveling about 200 yards, the raft flipped again. Says Kelly: “It was clear that if we didn’t pull those guys out of the raft, the expedition would not succeed. Someone would die.”
Hansen told no one but Kelly of his injury, and despite four consecutive days of setbacks, he never considered quitting. “My shoulder was torn up, the team had been readjusted fairly radically and the timeline was way off base,” he says. But it never entered my mind that this wasn’t going forward. It was just how—how are we going to make this happen?”
Hansen’s expedition blueprint contains a fourth cardinal rule: The leader must seek the counsel of team members he can trust. The Texan huddled with Kelly and de Ugarte, then, as Schlegel recalls, “Juanito took charge. He said ‘I’m taking West with me in the raft.'” Wueste and Maika were off the river, ending their personal source-to-sea bids after only five paddling days. Hansen’s solo bid also was finished.
“You have to be a little full of yourself to attempt something like paddling the entire Amazon,” Schlegel observes. But it was ultimately Hansen’s humility and stoic grit that won the team’s respect. “We’d look over at him and you could tell he was suffering, but he never complained once,” Specht says. “West was a hoss.”
Thank you for your interest in connecting up with the Amazon Express team as it continues downriver. Given the tenor and content of the feelings expressed by you about West and the Amazon Express, to National Geographic and others involved with the expedition, we feel it best to continue without your participation on the team.
The same day, a 24-year-old South African adventurer named Davey DuPlessis was shot four times on the Rio Ucayali, about a month ahead of Hansen on the source-to-sea route. DuPlessis stumbled for more than a mile through the jungle to a ferry landing, and villagers eventually brought him to the hospital in Pucallpa. Wueste read about the attack online, and was able to contact DuPlessis’ mother in South Africa via the team’s satellite phone. Schlegel, who is bilingual, translated a doctor’s report for DuPlessis’ mother: shotgun pellets in his back, face, chest and neck.
Even before the DuPlessis shooting, Hansen and his team were viscerally aware of the threat of violence, particularly in the Ene-Ucayali-Tambo corridor of eastern Peru, where the government holds little sway and the Ashaninka people have a reputation for vigilantism. A year earlier, a Polish couple traveling on the Ucayali in a double kayak had been murdered, and their dismembered bodies sunk in the river.
Contos had one thing in common with both DuPlessis and the Poles: If he chose to race Hansen, he would be traveling these lawless rivers alone.
Contos concedes this point only after I press him on the subject. Of course he’d considered racing Hansen to the sea, he says. But ultimately, paddling four Amazon headwaters’ rivers from top to bottom was more appealing than slogging through 3,600 miles of flatwater. The primary reason to continue to the sea was to complete his GPS data log of the entire river system, and he could do that on commercial passenger ferries. “If I had jumped into a sea kayak by myself I probably would have beaten West to the sea,” Contos says in that distant, scientific voice. “Or, I could have been killed.”
Even after he’d conceded the race to Hansen, Contos experienced a harrowing confrontation on the Rio Ene, not far below the confluence of the Apurimac and Mantaro. A man held a shotgun to his head demanding, “where are the lost children?” in agitated Spanish. Two children from the village had recently gone missing, a fact which—in combination with a widespread Ashaninka belief that wealthy whites kidnap children to harvest their organs—placed Contos in grave danger. In calm, professorial Spanish, Contos attempted to explain that the gringo body-snatchers are nothing but a myth—a hard argument to make with a shotgun leveled inches from his head.
Hansen and his teammates also experienced armed standoffs. Sitting outside Julio’s, his favorite Tex-Mex spot in Austin, Hansen reminisces for my benefit with Wueste and Ian Rolls, 34, who accompanied him for some 3,591 miles of flatwater. He’s telling the one about the gunslinger with the banker’s glasses. This was the second of the team’s five “gun-pointings,” as Hansen calls them. Though the story begins with a shot fired in their direction, Hansen says the confrontations had been more of an irritation than a threat. “We said ‘Okay, we’re the clowns. We’ll dance for you and then let’s get out of here,'” says Hansen. “We’d stopped in Porto Prado and the alcalde there gave us a glossy tourist map and the paperwork not to be shot.” Eventually the Peruvian navy took an interest in the expedition and sent a small gunboat to escort the paddlers. Only once, in Brazil when the gunmen were young, scared and looking for drugs, did Hansen actually think he might be shot.
Later, in the dining room of his modest central Austin home, Hansen takes a more serious tone. He acknowledges that he owes Contos a debt of gratitude for sharing the source information with him. “The information Rocky gave me, and then subsequently giving me the permission when he himself could have done it, was a huge boon to my expedition,” he admits. But when Contos withdrew that consent in early August, he says, it was too late to change his plans.
As I’m packing up to leave, Hansen looks me dead in the eyes and asks for a favor. “You’ve got all the emails,” he says. “If I’ve done Rocky wrong, let me know. If there’s something, anything that gives any credibility to his claims, I want to know about it.”
The second time Contos and Hansen met was in Santa Rosa, a Peruvian river outpost on the border with Brazil and Colombia. Contos had arrived on a motor ferry, and spent a few hours with Hansen and the Amazon Express team. Hansen remembers their interaction as civil, with an undercurrent of tension that Contos seemed not to recognize. A Peruvian Coast Guard officer had offered to carry Hansen, Wueste and Rolls across the river, introduce them to counterparts in the Brazilian navy and assist them with customs. Contos followed the others onto a Coast Guard barge, hoping to save the price of a ferry ticket.
“Rocky came walking down the gangplank, and the captain asks me, ‘Is that guy with you?'” Hansen says. “I said, ‘No, he’s not with me,’ and the captain said, ‘Get him off of my boat.’ That’s the last time I saw Rocky.”
ansen had traversed the whitewater, the lawless rivers of Peru, and the border. The Texans were now on familiar terrain, a seemingly endless sheet of smooth-
flowing water snaking through thick, wet air and oppressive heat. The remaining 2,000 miles were like so many Water Safaris laid end-to-end. Though the torn tendon robbed Hansen of the smooth stroke he’d honed over millions of repetitions, it could not erase the most deeply engrained lesson from 20 years of ultramarathon racing: how to keep going.
The men rose at dawn and paddled until dark, averaging 57 miles per day. They sang, played trivia games, and talked. Only one subject was off limits. “Ian and I couldn’t talk about our daughters. That was just too much,” says Hansen. His daughter’s birthday and his 22nd wedding anniversary came and went. The river scrolled on, growing broader, and slower, by the day.
The 50-hour Safari-style push for the finish began before 5 a.m. on Dec. 3. At sunset, with an eight-mile crossing ahead and a storm on the horizon, the captain of the support boat came alongside to say goodbye. He’d been contracted to go to Belém, and no farther.
“We just kept paddling into the dark, toward lights on the other side of the river,” Hansen says. The trio reached the town of Mosquiro at midnight, slept for two hours, and began paddling again on the falling tide.
The river here was some 40 miles wide, brackish and heaving with ocean swell. Before Hansen left Texas, Chmielinski had given him the coordinates were he and Kane had finished their source-to-sea journey 27 years before, on an imaginary line drawn between the farthest banks on each side of the river. Hansen had entered it into his GPS and called the waypoint “Stop Forrest!”
Just before sunset on the second day, they reached a vast sandbar across from the Ponte Taipu lighthouse, the first viable landing spot they’d seen in 16 hours of paddling. They slept two hours, and woke to water lapping at their tent doors. By Hansen’s reckoning the tide had risen 12 feet in two hours.
Stop Forrest was 12.4 miles away. They began paddling at 9:45 p.m., pointing their bows at the rising moon. The men paddled through phosphorescent sea life so bright that the glow from their bow waves and paddle trails illuminated their faces. After 50 hours of hard paddling and only six hours of sleep, the bioluminescence had an almost dreamlike quality. The ocean swell was building, the tide still coming in. The racers needed six hours and 10 minutes to cover a little more than 12 miles. Their arrival was anticlimactic.
“When we got to Stop Forrest I yelled over to Ian and Jeff, ‘We’re done, head right,’ and they turned, just like that,” Hansen says. The trio paddled another five miles to a broad sandbar.
fter years of planning, tens of thousands of dollars and 115 days, Hansen had become the first man to paddle the Amazon from its newly discovered source
Hansen was bound by his agreement with National Geographic to remain silent about the new source, and National Geographic would not publish on the issue until a peer-reviewed scientific journal had verified the claim. Contos’s paper was still progressing at a stately pace through the review process. Hansen was muzzled. (The paper will be published in the March, 2014 edition of Area, the journal of the Royal Geographical Society. An online version was posted Feb. 12.)
Contos too had agreed not to disclose information related to his source discovery, but he was free to talk about the rest of his self-funded Headwaters of the Amazon Expedition, including his first descent of the Mantaro and his exploration of the dam-threatened Marañón, which he believes is “probably the finest in the world to raft or kayak,” and deserves protection. He shopped that story to Grayson Schaffer of Outside magazine, who published a piece in the January 2013 issue describing a “good old-fashioned explorer’s race” starting from a “potential new source” of the Amazon.
After Outside scooped the source story, National Geographic washed its hands of it. The venerable magazine would publish nothing about West Hansen. Contos had inadvertently taken from Hansen the thing he craved most: recognition as an explorer.
C&K Online Editor Charli Kerns adapted the story to the digital multimedia format.