Our Man in Brazil, the epic trek

A captivating diary report from our friend Andrew Bullock who treked across Brazil on behalf of UNICEF. Across the Bocaina National Park, from Sao Jose do Barreiro to Mambucaba – Angra dos Reis. This is a central route made in stones by the slaves at the end of the 18th Century, originally used by the Guaianazes Indians and later by troops leading donkeys filled with gold from the Minas Gerais, and coffee from the vale paraibano………….thats why its called “Trilha Do Ouro” or “The Gold Route”.

Travel Day – A one and a half hour flight from London to Oporto preceeded a 10 hour flight to Rio do Janeiro. Walking through the airline lounge at 4,30 am trying to spot other likely trekkers whose identity was given away by walking poles and hiking boots dangling from rucksacks ! The long flight ended with a one hour wait at the airport for our fellow passengers and trekkers coming in on various flights from around the world, so we could start the 40 minute coach journey to the hotel – and head out for a team dinner. This was the first real opportunity to meet our colleagues who would be spending the next 5 days trekking alongside, share stories and concerns about the days ahead.

Day 2 After a good nights sleep and a prompt start, a coach journey took us from the city limits up into the mountains and our 4 hour drive to the start of the trek. Stopping along the way for lunch, and checking into our overnight accommodation in a lovely “ranch” style Pousada (guest house) we settled in for the night, and got our briefing for the days ahead. It was here we were introduced to the man who was to be our guide for the entire trek “Sebolla”. A real “mountain man” who, it was to turn out knew simply everything about the rainforest, its conservation and amazingly navigated the entire trek without a map. He handed out 3 pine tree seeds to each of us on the trek, and asked us to plant them along the route whenever we felt like it. With 35 of us on the trail, this would provide the opportunity for over 100 new trees to grow – what a great idea.

Day 3 A hearty breakfast and obvious slight nervousness about our first days trekking was abruptly interrupted by Chris, one of the graduates on the trek, running into the breakfast area, white as a sheet and shaking…….a rather large spider had been seen crawling into his rucksack ! Naturally of the 35 of us on the trip, it would have to happen to him – the only guy who was petrified of spiders ! After the owner had despatched of the said insect (after first confirming it was indeed venomous) we climbed aboard a flat bed lorry with makeshift wooden seats (well planks of wood actually) for a 3 hour off road experience as we ascended our first mountain. Spectacular scenery all around us took our minds off our sore bums and sunburnt skin as we twisted and turned up the mountain. Three of the girls Annette, Eve and Claire got burnt shoulders that were to plague them for the rest of the trek. Finally we arrived…….the start of the trail. Hot midday sun and a rough terrain greeted our first steps as we slowly started to ascend the first of many hills. Morale was high, and everyone was enthusiastic and noisy as we enjoyed the first, long awaited steps for charity. But our enthusiasm was soon to be tamed as we hit a steep incline, the pace didn’t slow as we all pushed onwards and upwards. Chitter chatter and banter was quickly replaced by a stoney silence amongst the group, a silence that was only broken by gasps of breath as we all struggled for oxygen in our new, hot, high altitude environment. This work rate, combined with the heat and steep incline, soon claimed its first casualty as Tony ground to a halt, nearly collapsing with heat exhaustion. Stripping off his shirt, cooling down and plenty to drink soon had him back on the trail – but served as a timely reminder for us all to take on board plenty of liquids. Even at this early stage, on the first day of trekking – it was clear who had trained hard for the event and who might have done a bit more ! The group was already split, with a slower group over 1km behind the first trekkers. Despite frequent stops for the stragglers to keep up, the scenery was there for all of us to enjoy. Quite spectacular rolling hills, tree covered valley’s and the river winding its way far below us all presented frequent camera opportunities. Sebolla our guide spoke very little English, in fact most communication was through single words and lots of gesticulation. “stoppy stoppy” meant we would have a break (often accompanied with a time out sign), “peoples” simply refered to us as a group. “beautiful beautiful” meant this was good scenery, “slippy slippy” was, well yes you guessed it, to warn us of a slippery section of trail. Our breaks were often interrupted with “pica mola” which meant “lets go”, and finally “Aqua Bola” indicated safe drinking water from a natural mountain spring or stream. 15km later, of what seemed like constant uphill (but obviously had a downhill section too !) we came to the end of our first day trekking – walking to our first overnight Pousada on the trail……..and my one man tent !! I looked around at the group and thought that we had our first casualty, Martin, one of the guys over from the US, had managed to damage his knee and was limping badly. I thought there is no way he will finish the event, only to discover that he was in fact recovering from a double knee operation only a few months previously. Heroically, Martin went on to complete the entire trek !! Whilst the Pousada provided basic accommodation for the girls, and somewhere to eat for all of us, most of the boys slept outside in small tents. The food was simple but very welcome, mainly chicken and rice cooked in the deceptively spacious kitchen by the Pousada staff on an old fashioned solid fuel oven stuffed full of burning logs and wood !

Day 4 After a surprisingly comfortable nights sleep, interrupted only by Tony snoring in the tent next to mine, and a hearty but simple breakfast of coffee, cakes, fruit and bread we set off on our second days trek. This was known as “Waterfall day” and it was soon to become clear why ! On leaving the Pousada we initially walked through woodland which provided cool shade from the already warm sun. Our guide Sebolla stopped us all by a eucalyptus tree so we could crush the leaves and smell the scent…..quite gorgeous. We continued a gentle decline through the woods to the formal entrance of the national park. This was quite a grand affair with a large wooden gate house type structure and a sign carved in wood informing us of the park entrance. A rather less friendly welcome at the park entrance was the nest of rather angry bees buzzing their way about the day right on the gateway, which we all did well to give a wide berth ! Another 30 minutes of walking through the rainforest and we caught sight of our first waterfall – accessed down some 300 steep stone steps but it was fantastic. The sound of the water crashing down some 150m or so was almost deafening, but provided us all the opportunity to swim at its base in the cool refreshing water. Here we are in the Brazilian rainforest, in warm sunshine, surrounded by beautiful scenery with butterflies and birdsong all around us, swimming in a waterfall…….heavenly ! After a water side packed lunch (dried bread sandwich with sweetcorn paste !) it was time to ascend the 300 steps back up to a jeep trail. A brief stop here to refill our drinking bottles with some “aqua bola” (safe fresh drinking water) from a natural spring, we trekked on towards the 2nd waterfall, passing a giant snail on the way (the size of a tennis ball) as it crawled its way across our track (do they crawl or just slither …..or slime….or..?). After a short break at this second waterfall, it was time to head to our next pousada where we would spend the next 2 nights – but on the way it threw it down with rain. We all got absolutely soaked, I was wet through to my underpants and even my boots squelched with water as I walked. After a long day (about 30km) of some beautiful scenery, waterfalls and rainforest – the Pousada was a welcome sight. However with no electricity, and only candles for light, chaos soon ensued as we all struggled to find space to dry soaking wet kit, fight for one of the 2 lukewarm showers and squeeze ourselves into our bunkrooms (two bunkbeds for four people in a very small room !) Another good evening meal of chicken and rice was following by an evening of homegrown entertainment as we participated in a quiz (of course I was in the winning team), and were entertained by a couple of the local staff who treated us to a traditional Brazilian song and dance. We chatted the evening away over lukewarm beer and tales of the day before sleeping soundly in our simple but comfortable accommodation.

Day 5 The usual breakfast started the day (with the additional watermelon !) left me feeling a bit queasy this morning, I think it was the malaria tablets I was taking, but for 20 minutes I didn’t think I would be participating in the day. However after a rest on my bunk, and some aqua bola, I was fit and ready for the day ahead. Immediately on leaving the damp Pousada (it had rained constantly all night) we were confronted by a steep ascent for 1 hour straight up. Despite my earlier feelings of nausea I found myself at the front of the group which was spread over the side of the mountain for about 300m ! But at the top we reached the Pico do Gariao 1600m above sea level, with stunning views across the rainforest all the way out to the Atlantic ocean 15km away ! But what a climb it had been, even the donkeys looked tired. We had a well earned snack break here for about 40 minutes (to allow the group at the back to catch up) before we climbed all the way back down for our lunch break at “Posh Pousada” ! You wont be surprised to learn that “Posh Pousada” was not the official Brazilian name, nor was it, disappointingly, where we were to stay for the night. No, this was just a nickname we gave for this rather luxurious, secluded retreat in the middle of the rainforest which was the location for romantic honeymoons and getaways for the rich and famous of Rio. The contrast with our previous nights Pousada couldn’t have been greater. Immaculately manicured green lawns led up to the traditionally styled, but modernly built building filled with luxury and opulence. And here we were in our dirty sweaty trekking gear, walking boots and rucksacks. Peering through the windows we could see restaurant tables complete with tablecloths and formal place settings, wine glasses and candles, and bedrooms with thick mattresses, comfortable fluffy towels and plasma screen TVs…………..which all seemed a million miles away from what we were doing………and in fact were completely out of place with their natural surroundings of the beautiful rainforest. Nonetheless the owners made us very welcome as we lunched on their lawn (yes, dried bread with sweetcorn paste again) and partook in their aqua bola. After lunch a short 40minute trek with several crossings over streams and small rivers took us to another waterfall. “Nas”, the only guy I knew before the trek started, started to hobble with blisters and he wasn’t the only one starting to suffer with puss filled skin. I didn’t swim here (I had been spoilt by the first swim opportunity) but some did take the opportunity to do so. If I had known what was coming in the afternoon I may have changed my mind. After lunch it was uphill all the way, followed by some more uphill, and finally some uphill. What an ascent. Although we were back on the jeep track it was a tough climb, particularly as it was 2pm in the hot sun without any shade. My heart pounded hard in my chest as I found myself leading the group once again, everyone gasping for breath as they regretted that last mouthful of sandwich half an hour previously. Sweat literally poured off my face as I concentrated on nothing but putting one foot in front of the other, ignoring the aches and pains to reach the summit. My T shirt was soaked, like I had literally worn it in the shower and had stuck to my back against my rucksack………very attractive ! Somewhere along the way, and not see initially by me – a huge spider, the sort you see in the zoo behind a glass tank, and the size of your hand with more hair than I have on my head (which isn’t hard) was seen to join the group behind me for a while, much to the amusement of the girls………..not ! But the good news was our overnight Pousada (the same as last night) was only a 30minute decline away. Once settled into our routine, the trek doctor was the busiest she had been that evening, tending to various blisters, strains and aches. There was literally a queue to see her, but luckily so far – I had managed to avoid any serious problems. Another of the graduate lads “laif” was diagnosed with a spider bite on his leg, Nas’s blisters were getting larger, and Mumta hobbled her way to the doctor with a blister that had been so big, the skin on the whole of the bottom of her foot had ripped off…..OUCH ! One of the girls on the trek, Sylvia (from BT Canada) managed to blow the electricity in the main room (the ONLY light in the Pousada) by plugging in her hairdryer…….i will leave to your imagination the comments and ribbing that she endured for the rest of the trek ! It had been the toughest and longest day (evidenced I think by the doctor’s workload) and Sebolla commented on how good the group had been and how tough and brave he thought we all were. I couldn’t help thinking “I bet he says that to everyone” !

Day 6 We all packed up our kit which was to be transported by Mules for the rest of the journey, and left the Pousada where we had been for the last 2 nights. In contrast to the previous days immediate ascent, we started a slow but long descent into the rainforest below us. Its funny how the thought of going downhill raised everyone’s spirits, even though after an hour or so we were all sweating and panting just as much as if we had been going uphill. In fact downhill over rocky, slippy terrain is hard work. We walked through the forest for about an hour and a half, basically following a river as it meandered its way along. This was quite beautiful and will be one of my lasting memories of the whole trip. It was all very tranquil, the sound of the river descending gently over rocks, birds and insects singing, and butterflies everywhere (some very large and colourful) as the sunlight streamed gently through the rainforest canopy above us. The smell from the wild flowers was intoxicating. Banana trees, vines and other luxurious looking trees and shrubs surrounded us, and the whole group of 35 people were speechless as we enjoyed the ambience of our surroundings. Speechless that is until Tony (yes the same guy) firstly was stung three times by bees, and then, at one of our rest breaks started throwing up and eventually feinted with heat exhaustion again. It really wasn’t his day ! We arrived at a small, inhabited wooden shack type house in the middle of the rainforest for lunch. Interestingly this abode included an outdoor toilet, which was simply a wooden hut with a whole in the floor which dropped the wasted into the river….nice ! Storm clouds gathered as we sat in the garden here eating our lunch (yes…..you already know what it was) and thunder could be heard close by prompting a heated discussion between Sebolla and one of the local guides. It was decided we would sit out the impending initial storm, and in hindsight was a decision that was ! First it was the rain, and down it came. Drenching everything and everyone in seconds – followed very quickly by the thunder and lightening. Deafening crash followed quickly by angry rumbles and sheets of lightening. The guides had correctly predicted this storm and did not want 35 of us on the side of a mountain just asking to be struck by lightening which crashed all around us. Watching the storm from inside a wooden shed with banana leave roof was quite exciting, but also a bit intimidating. How safe we really were inside this wooden shack on the side of a hill was debateable, but no one wanted to think about it too much really ! Once the thunder and lightening past, we quickly started our trek up the mountain. The rain continued to pour down, and our patch up the mountain had now become the stream down the mountain. Walking up hill with your feet constantly in a stream of pouring water coming downhill isn’t much fun. Our boots quickly filled with water, as the various gore-tex and leather marketing claims of “100% waterproof boots” apparently don’t count when the water just pours in the top over your ankles……..fair point really ! Wet through to my underpants again (yeah thanks Berghaus, great waterproof jacket……not) the going was pretty tough. Whilst the rain was refreshing in one aspect, it slowed us all down as the trek became slippery and dangerous. Finally we reached what was to be our last Pousada. However in order to reach it we had to cross a river in a steel cage, sliding “death slide” style on a steel rope. The river would have been deep and wide under normal circumstances, but given the storm that we had just endured it was now quite torrential. Even all our bags (which had been taken by mules) had to be loaded into the cage, so this was quite a lengthy process to get the group and all our kit to the otherside. Unfortunately Ralph (one of the German guys) watched as his bag ended up falling out of the cage and into the river, lucky it was grabbed before it was swept away. This was the most basic of all our Pousadas. No electricity at all, only one shower between the 35 of us, and up to 6 people cramped into very small rooms that looked like converted stables. Andrew Edwards (who walked must of the trek alongside me) and I found a “hidden room” and grabbed it quick. When I use the term “room”, I mean a piece of balcony screened off by a plastic sheet and some tarpaulin ! Everyone was very tired and wet through but spirits remained high because this was to be our last night on the trail. A good job really as I no longer had any clean or dry clothes !! The evening meal of yes, chicken and rice, was followed by the lighting of a campfire which was good fun – a few beers and tales of the day. EVERYONE was in bed by 9pm, and not a sound could be heard as, being exhausted, everyone enjoyed a great nights sleep

Day 7 Our last day trekking today, and we were up and on our way by 7.30 am (after the usual breakfast). Although our last day, it turned out to be very hard work. Despite being mainly all downhill, it was on cobblestones and rocks that were very slippery from all the rain. Walking poles/sticks were needed to get everyone down safely, with lots of slips and falls within the group. I ended up on my bum twice and so did Andrew Edwards! Sylvia (hairdyer incident) came a cropper and cut her elbow as she crashed to the floor – it was like walking on ice, one minute you were walking along tentatively, the next you were on your backside thinking “how did that happen” ! We also had to contend with ticks……..sneaky little blighters that latch onto your legs as you brush past the undergrowth, then they seek our some nice “warm body part” before settling down for a feast !! They can only be removed by a cigarette burn (not advised as you will end up with a burn on your skin that gets infected) or by smothering them in any form of cream so that they suffocate and drop off. By the end of that day Sebolla, Martin and Will had all found ticks on themselves. Sebolla had to stop the entire group whilst he worked tirelessly with his machete to hack through the trunk of a small tree which had been blown down across the trail in the storm and was blocking our way. His technique for this was faultless and he made surprising quick work of his task. I think it gave him a flavour for hacking things as, before long he stepped off the trail and hacked down a banana tree full of the ripe fruit which he shared amongst the group…..it truly was delicious, and tasted so much better than the supermarket version. Don’t be alarmed, you have to chop down part of the banana tree to prompt the growth of the remaining tree and its fruit……its part of the natural process ! Leaving the unripe bananas on the ground for the rainforest monkey’s to consume, we continued our journey. Then I had the fright of my life. I was busy picking my way between the cobble stones, making sure I didn’t step on the flat surface as that is too slippery. As usual I was right at the front of the group, so the only person ahead of me was our guide Sebolla and his mule. So there I am, head down concentrating on my footing when out from the undergrowth slithered a snake ! I nearly trod on the thing, long and brown with cream zig zag markings, it stopped right in front of me right in the middle of the track, I think it had been disturbed by the mule ahead of me and slithered out onto the path to seek some revenge ! “SNAKE” I shouted as loud as I could to alert the group behind me to stop. Sebolla quickly tied the mule and came back to me to investigate. I could tell from the look on his face that he wasn’t happy, and neither was I frozen to the spot not wanting to move ! Sebolla gave the snake a few gentle prods with his walking stick to “encourage” it onto its way, before informing me that the snake was “mucho venimoso” which, despite my lack of Portugese language skills even I could work out was not good ! Heart still pounding we marched on to lunch at another waterfall. Jenny took her turn to feint from the heat as everyone inspected themselves for various lumps bumps and bruises. Across a rope bridge over the river and then another 45minute walk was the finish line. We crossed through a huge UNICEF banner to enjoy much back slapping and self congratulations and having endured such a challenge over 125km, taking pictures and celebrating………..only to be told that the road ahead along which our coach was supposed to travel, had suffered a collapse from the rain and the bus couldn’t reach us ! This meant we had to put our rucksacks back on and trek for another 45 minutes to reach the coaches. Eventually we reached our transport and headed back into Rio on the three and a half hour coach journey. Lots of sleepy people frantically called love ones and checking emails on blackberry devices now that we were enjoying our first mobile phone signal for days. A lovely hot shower welcomed us back to our hotel, and a wonderful sense of achievement…………we had raised over £40,000 for UNICEFs Inspiring Young Minds programme. Inspiring young minds provides support to sports projects in disadvantaged communities in three Brazilian cities tat use sport as the means to engage with young people and encourage them to attend school. On our final day we were privileged to be able to visit a project funded by this programme in the centre of a slum district or “favela” where drugs are a serious problem. The children we met came from one parent families or lived on the streets and all had horrendous personal stories. One boy was about ten years old and was in the community school for his first day when we visited. He had injection marks right up his arms where drug dealers had tried to force him into addition to work as a drug runner or dealer. He was one of the lucky ones to be included in the school but his brothers had not been so fortunate. One of the children told us that he knew he would be killed if he crossed the road from one drug baron-controlled area to another. It was really inspirational to visit the centre and see where the money we had raised would be used, and to see how much of a difference we could make. It certainly made the sweat, blood, bumps, lumps, blisters and feinting all worthwhile, and in fact, pale into insignificance when you see what the children had been through. A big thank you to my friends at “Freestone Creative” for their generous sponsorship to give my fundraising a kick start, and for the Berghaus T shirts which worked really well in the heat.