Amazing Amazon; Mark Ellis goes on a cruise adventure up one of the world's most famous rivers.
Atrip on a cruise ship might seem an unlikely way to start an adventure holiday. But this is no ordinary cruise - in fact, we are nearly 1,000 miles from the sea.
We are exploring the amazing Amazon, and the scale of this river is as breathtaking as the scenery.
Our destination is Manaus in Brazil, a quarter of the way along the river's 4,000 miles where it is still an astonishing 10 miles wide.
The city is the gateway to the heart of the Amazonian jungle where, at any moment, you expect to see Sir David Attenborough emerge from the undergrowth.
After all, it is home to 2,000 different types of birds, many rarely seen as they hide in the 200ft-high tree-top canopies. There are also at least 3,000 species of fish below us.
Aboard our Fred Olsen ship, the 929-passenger Braemar, expectations had been high as we set off for the capital of the Amazonas State and the starting point for many of our trips by land or river.
Nearly half the passengers had gathered on deck with bags packed ready to go ashore to explore after an early breakfast, but hopes of our expected early arrival began to fade.
The unpredictable Amazon had taken a hand and strong currents, plus having to navigate carefully through giant logs and floating vegetation, meant we would be at least a few hours late.
But our captain Jens Gulowsen came to the rescue with a quick call to the Fred Olsen HQ in Ipswich securing an extra night's stay in the city and re-arranging excursions so we wouldn't miss a second of our planned Amazon explorations. Captain Gulowsen told me: "As you see, it is not just a cruise, it is an adventure. This is the exciting thing about the river, it is constantly changing and presents real challenges."
On arrival, some passengers faced another challenge - a night in the rainforest in wooden lodges, with lessons in jungle survival techniques and a guided tour to see wildlife including capuchin and woolly monkeys. The forest comes alive after dark with the calls and cries of its countless birds and animals, and the lodges, like the local fishermen's homes, are on stilts as this giant river can be hit by floods that cover an area of land the size of England.
Our party set off instead for a spot of caiman hunting in a motorised canoe on a lake fed by countless tributaries of the Amazon. As the outboard motor was switched off, our guide began searching the overgrown margins with a flashlight to catch the eyes of these beasts, one of the largest of the alligator species. To our astonishment he captured one, hypnotised by the light, and brought it aboard for pictures before returning it unharmed to carry on searching for prey in the shallows.
These waters are also home to wild pink dolphins, who get their hue from the number of blood vessels running beneath the surface of their skin. On one of the many Amazon trips available, you get to feed them.
And then there are the delights of piranha fishing, dangling chunks of raw meat into the water on fishing lines. I didn't get a bite, but kept my fingers and toes out of the water just in case they were there.
Back on board ship, there was always plenty to see on deck - such as the Masked Booby, a huge gannet-like bird with a 6ft wingspan which enthralled us with spectacular nose-dives into the water from 100ft to catch fish.
At night, moths and giant flying insects were attracted by the light and an early inspection of the deck around the pools found several uninvited passengers.
Our first port of call in the Amazon - after leaving Barbados on our 14-night cruise - had been Santarem, around 400 miles up the river. Once an isolated jungle outpost, but now a busy trading centre.
Another 150 miles upstream is Parintins, famed for its Boi Bimba festival, the biggest in Brazil after the Rio Carnival. A taster of this colourful folklore tale in dazzling costumes is put on for visitors.
Braemar is not a large ship, but small does not mean less. It has comfortable cabins, excellent food and service, DAZZLE Festival dancers entertainment for all ages and nightly shows better than anything you will see on Saturday night TV.
The ship attracts a devoted following of loyal passengers who keep coming back.
Some had even been on the cruise before this one and were staying on for the next one in the Caribbean, a testimony that speaks for itself.
As we left the chocolate brown river, it was astonishing to think we were being swept back down into its 200-mile wide mouth by fresh water that enters the grey North Atlantic at a rate of 45 million gallons every second.
The first men who sailed into the Amazon centuries ago must have thought they were entering an unknown world.
I know how they felt.
Get on board
Fred Olsen Cruise Lines offers a 14-night Amazon River Adventure round trip fly-cruise on Braemar, departing from Bridgetown on February 1, 2018. Calls are Santarem, Parintins, Manaus overnight and Tobago. Prices start at PS1,799pp including flights from Gatwick or Manchester and transfers.fredolsencruises.com
Tourist info: embratur.gov.br visittobago.gov.tt
Guide saw a caiman and brought it aboard
COSY Braemar perfect size for Amazon cruise
LUSH Vegetation on the Amazon
START OF JOURNEY Barbados
CHALLENGE Captain and Mark
DAZZLE Festival dancers
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Oct 7, 2017|
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