By Chris Korbulic
I knew I had forgotten something when coming to Brazil. I realized what it was—to learn Portuguese—when I tried to ask how long the drive would be. Thanks to my book, Beginning Portuguese, which I’d glanced at on the plane, I could at least ask our driver where the laundromat was and count to 999 as his Land Rover bounced up the long, insanely bumpy driveway to his farm, Fazenda Bonito.
This was our put-in for the Rio Mambucaba. Ben Stookesberry, Pedro Oliva and I knew little of the river—its first attempted descent* resulted mostly in high-water horror stories of days climbing through the jungle followed by a week on the beach, presumably mending the mental and physical anguish from the river. Something else we may have forgotten—they had put in halfway through our proposed trip. We were ready though, confident, with a general ignorance of the river. Success was assured.
Fazenda Bonita is high in the Serra da Bocaina between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in what little is left of Brazil’s endangered Mata Atlantica. Jungle that used to cover 75 percent of the state of São Paulo now covers only 7 percent, and the Rio Mambucaba flows right down the middle. The river starts high in the mountains at over 6,000 feet, and more importantly, some 35 miles later, ends in the Atlantic Ocean at a popular beach. After the first few kilometers of low volume jungle-bashing and rock-dodging, I was pretty sure I would be ready to spend a week at the beach, too.
Soon after my visions of basking in the sun on the beach, the river's character changed, with enough water in its steep corridor to be enjoyable to the point of elation. For five days, Sept. 16-20, we portaged little, paddled much whitewater—far better than we had imagined—and were surprised daily by dusk coming on quickly and forcing us off the river. Some sections were reminiscent of California whitewater, some Himalayan and others purely Brazil, and this was the problem.
Few sections of river compare to the steepest on the Mambucaba. Seven Falls on a branch of the Feather River in California comes closest, with its massive cascades stepping down 1,500 feet in less than a mile. To portage these falls in California is comparatively easy with open pine and fir forest, but here along the Mambucaba, one of the most flora-diverse regions of the planet, it is a different story. Ostensibly tying together the beautiful trees and flowers—and keeping them from sliding off the mountain—is a web of vines. Also, a slick fungal coating, mistakable for ice, covered the rocks. Both were a curse, a nuisance, working together to maul, torment, and slow our movement. Occasionally a blessing, vines can catch you after a slip, and so while not all devilish, the tear-shaped puncture in my cheek is testament to their generally unsavory nature.
As we moved downstream and out of the major gradient, we were able to run ~95 percent of the whitewater, likely being the first to run about 90 percent of that. Speculation aside, Pedro Oliva, who was also on the first high-water attempt, called this the “real first descent” of the Mambucaba. We expected little of the river, but that turned to our great surprise when we were able to run so much great whitewater. The beach, as we always knew, was a great ending, and one that I especially miss now that I'm back in the raining and cold Pacific Northwest. Time now to put the splash top away and don the drysuit.
*Props to John Grace, Ryan McPherson, Jason Hale, Pat Keller, and others for scoping this one out and making the first descent.