Interview: Ed Stafford
How It Works: Why did you decide to embark on a mission to walk the entire length of the Amazon?
Ed Stafford: [After leaving] the army I fell into a job of leading expeditions into jungles with film crews. So that was my career for roughly seven years prior to the Amazon [trek]. So as much as walking the entire length of the Amazon seems a bizarre thing to do, I had actually been leading expeditions for several years and I was in my early-thirties and felt I had the skills to do a really massive adventure.
In addition, I didn’t have a wife or kids so I felt I could be a little selfish and do this, as it was going to take up a large chunk of my life. The majority of my expedition experience had come from the jungle yet I had never been to the Amazon, so it was appealing. I have to be honest though, I was just searching online for other expeditions that had done something like that, trying to see what kit they used and what lessons they had learned, however the more I looked, the more it seemed that no one had walked the length of the Amazon. So when I twigged that it could be a genuine world record I was hooked on the idea and determined that I would be the first.
HIW: What major dangers did you face during the journey?
ES: I was really lucky with disease – I didn’t get any of the big tropical diseases like dengue fever, typhoid or malaria. I think humans were the biggest threat, even though I believe most would think that it would be jaguars, anacondas, venomous snakes, electric eels and all those [kind of] things. They were always there and you had to be aware, but in fact the drug traffickers and the indigenous tribes proved the biggest threat.
Drug traffickers because I was a white man and walking through their areas such as the ‘Red Zone’ in Peru, where two-thirds of the world’s cocaine is grown. I mean, the national police force of Peru just leaves that region alone – it’s literally lawless – and the traffickers put in place these [unofficial law enforcers], who police the area for petty crimes such as theft and violence but they allow all the drug trafficking to go on.
So, coming through those areas, the people in authority were those who were running the drug trafficking. They were also the people [from whom] I was asking advice and they were constantly saying that I was totally crazy – that I was going to walk out of this town and get shot. They had a reason for saying that as they wanted to discourage me from coming through, as I was carrying a video camera and was blogging all the time and that wasn’t something they wanted. Overcoming those fears and essentially reading between the lines to decide that I wasn’t actually going to get killed and that they were just saying these things to discourage me was tough. I have to admit that psychologically it was very difficult to stay positive and not get wrapped up in my own worries.
Coming through those drug-trafficking areas though led to very, very closed-off indigenous tribe settlements. These groups were heavily persecuted in the Seventies and Eighties, with many of their population killed, so unfortunately, even to this day, these tribes are living in a state of permanent alertness due to how they were treated. Most people over 20 have seen first-hand bloodshed and family killed so it was incredibly unsettling to walk [in these areas] as they were very suspicious, and rightly so. They were very defensive about their land so convincing those guys that I wasn’t a threat or an oil prospector was tricky and I was pretty paranoid during that period.
HIW: You have a book out, Walking The Amazon. Can you tell us how you approached writing it?
ES: I found it very rewarding actually. I think as you write you look back on things like this with rose-tinted spectacles and think how fantastic an adventure it was. But actually, being forced to go back into my journals was a dark and emotional experience as it brought back into focus the isolation. So writing the book was really valuable for me, to actually remember the expedition properly – [to recall] the highs and the lows. I mean it wasn’t all about killing snakes and river crossings, it really is that mental battle of holding it together and staying in control. What was great though was that, while for the first three chapters I had to send my writing off to an editor, after that they said I could write well and just left me to it. So that was nice as I got to write the book myself, and in my own words.
HIW: Finally, is there anything you can reveal to our readers about your next big project?
ES: There’s a lot going on. I think my book is just now being published in the United States, which is nice. I am also in talks with the Discovery Channel at the moment regarding an authentic survival project that I am doing. And, finally, I have just become an ambassador for the Scouts, which I am really [passionate about], as if I hadn’t been a Scout when I was a kid I don’t think I would have gone on to do the things I have done today.
Walking The Amazon by Ed Stafford is out now in the UK and US and is available online from, appropriately, www.amazon.com.