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Solo Expedition Part III: The Balsa Wood Raft.

Earthwalker Paul Coleman on the Balsa Wood Raft Expediton
In the Peruvian Amazon

At the point where we began our descent from the Andes into the rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon, a westerner boarded the truck.

"Hola Amigo! I'm Vagarro Vikingson." He said. "I come from Iceland."

What an amazing coincidence, I’d just been to Iceland. He was a wild-looking character, middle-aged, strong, deeply tanned, with thick grey hair and a beard. He had the look of a life well-worn.

I spoke of my intention to build a raft made of Balsa Wood, and he asked to come along. He spoke excellent Spanish, and I welcomed the company.

By the side of the Madre de Dios, a major tributary of the Amazon, we found a woodsman and I explained what we wanted. For USD$30 he would build us a Balsa raft three meters long and two meters wide.

A week later, we returned to find that the woodsman had built the raft to our exact specifications, but it looked insignificant compared to the power of the river. We had to trust in the woodsman’s ability that two layers of small logs, held together by tree bark, would be strong enough for the rapids we may have to face. The woodsman must have noticed my concern, for he jumped up and down on the raft to show how strong it was, but my faith was sorely tested when his wife, who came to say goodbye, burst into tears when I cut the strip of bark that held the raft to the shore. I got the distinct impression that she thought we were going to get killed.

Balsa Wood Raft on Madre de Dios River in the Peruvian Amazon
The Woodsman Finishes the raft as Vagarro looks on

The raft raced down the river through the first set of rapids. We grabbed our poles to guide the raft, but as soon as I put mine into the water I realised it was virtually useless.

The river raged so powerful that when the pole hit the riverbed, I was almost catapulted off the raft into the river.

All we could do was hang on. What a roller coaster.

When the banks of the river were high, the river sped up and we’d shoot out from a bend so fast that the raft leaped over the waves. It was death-defying, for the raft was so flimsy and small. But by gosh, it was exciting!

When rapids were passed we could relax and enjoy the rainforest as it drifted lazily by. We’d talk about building bigger rafts, stronger rafts, rafts with accommodation, rafts that could carry us for hundreds of kilometers. But never far from my mind were a few serious concerns. Shintuya, a tiny riverside community with a catholic mission was our destination. It was located on the other side of the river and I worried that because we did not have much control over the raft we might pass it by, trapped by the flow to the wrong side of the river. If this happened we would be in big trouble, for we had supplies only for that day, and once we passed Shintuya, there was no human habitation for a hundred kilometers.

Waterfalls were another concern. We could handle rapids, but not a waterfall. However, according to the information I gathered, no waterfalls were in this region. Yet, I began to hear a distinct and increasingly thunderous roar. The sun was shining, so it was not thunder we were hearing. I strained my ears to find where the noise was coming from. The pace of the raft picked up, and the water grew choppy. I looked at Vagarro. He looked at me. “Waterfall!" He shouted, looking as scared as I was. Not knowing what to do, we grabbed our paddles, trying to get as close to the river bank as possible, but it was a useless enterprise that had me resigned to whatever was coming my way. Then, all of a sudden, I realised that it wasn't the thunder of a waterfall we were hearing. It was the force of the river dragging boulders along the riverbed beneath our raft! Phew! What a relief! How awesome it was to acknowledge that this vast, powerful tributary was just beginning its thousand-mile journey to meet the Amazon River before continuing on to the sea a couple of thousand miles further.


Not much further on we passed an indigenous village that was on no map. It was very simple, just a few thatched huts on a patch of cleared land. A group of children playing by the riverbank were the first to notice us, and it was delightfully obvious that they couldn’t believe their eyes: Two white men floating by on a piece of wood not much bigger than a door, with one of them, Vagarro, looking like a bizarre Santa Claus, howling ‘Baruuaaa!’ as they went along. It was wonderful. The kids loved it, and they ran along the river bank laughing hilariously, calling everyone to come and look at this strangest of things. Soon the whole village was waving, shouting, laughing. What a beautiful and heartwarming experience it was.

Now I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the idea of a rafting expedition was sound. I wanted to bring people from afar into the forest to show them its beauty and connect them to the people living there. I hoped they would be inspired, by the beautiful and simple way of life of the people living there, to take positive actions on behalf of the rainforest and its inhabitants. Sharing such joy as we experienced floating past the village could accomplish this.

35 yrs ago there were no detailed maps to view. If there were I would have been even more concerned about the journey I was to undertake,

A few kilometers further on we came to the village of Shintuya. It was several hundred meters away, but on the other side of the river which was flowing too fast to even think about paddling across. Desperately, we searched the opposite river bank for signs of life. Our chances of survival were slim to none if we missed the village. Fortunately, we saw some villagers gathered around a dugout canoe powered by an outboard motor.

"Ayuda!" Help, we shouted. “Ayuda por favor!”

People stopped and stared, but nobody helped. The village was getting further and further away. Finally, I yelled at the top of my voice, “Dinero! Dinero!” (Money Money).

That got their attention! Within moments a dugout was to the rescue.

We said goodbye to the raft as it drifted to its uncertain future and settled into the Catholic mission for a much-needed rest. Within a few weeks, I was back in Toronto preparing for the 700-kilometer Amazon Awareness Balsa Raft Expedition.

But that's another story.



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