Oasis Overland’s Operations Director, Mark, has just got back from South America where he has been working on our trucks, and this is a short account of his time out there…
I arrived in to Cusco early morning, and my mechanic friend, Efrain, was waiting at the airport. This is a part of ‘Overlanding’ that you don’t see. By travelling in this style, not only do you get a trip of a lifetime and a real off the beaten track experience, but you support local people. 10 years ago Efrain worked as a fitter in a rough garage – mainly thanks to the steady income of working on Overland trucks, he now owns his own garage with concrete standing and covered areas. It has literally changed his and his family’s lives.
It was also handy that Efrain was a dab hand with a 10 speed splitter gearbox, and within a couple of days we were ready for the journey ahead, with the gearbox having never changed so well. We really like to keep roadside problems to a minimum, and that can only be achieved by regular maintenance such as this.
Our purpose was to get Frida (the name of our truck) from Cusco to Rio de Janeiro in about 9 days, and definitely in time for arriving passengers, ready to party at the Carnival celebrations. Cusco sits at 3300mtrs high in the Andes, and our first day’s drive literally took us off the side of the mountains. Until 3 years ago, the journey to the Peruvian jungle in Puerto Maldonado took almost 10 days, throwing mud, river crossings and thick jungle at the driver. Now this has all changed with the Trans Oceanic highway – the sign above the road told us Sao Paulo was a mere 4750kms away!
The route takes you over 4700mtrs altitude with astonishing views of the surrounding white capped peaks. The route has literally joined high Andean Alpaca farmers with banana growers and made them just a few hours apart. This amazing mix of indigenous people is apparent as we stopped for a quick bite of Trucha Frita (fried trout) with a local family in a stone building high in the mountains. 3 hours later, after plummeting down a great many switchbacks, and we were sweating in shorts and T shirt eating a wide variety of jungle fruits, with faces looking more Brazilian with every mile.
We did indeed make it to Puerto Maldonado to our jungle lodge, which still sits on the outskirts of town in an area of untouched jungle. It’s a comfortable place, complete with swimming pool, and with one of the owners being Thai, you are sure of a tasty feast, after a hard day’s drive. From here our travellers venture down the Tambopata river in search of anaconda and the glimpse of a jaguar. Sadly we were here to drive, so it was onward to the Brazilian border. This turned out to be a mere formality and although the Peruvian official made a meal of selecting a variety of stamps to use in our passports (he obviously doesn’t get to use them too often!) it was all with a friendly smile and we were on our way to Rio Branco.
Rio Branco is famous for its rodeo, and we passed a variety of arenas with gauchos riding their steeds in preparation. Roads are full of potholes and the going is slow at times, but the traffic is light and the scenery stunning, so our day runs quickly. Brazil is now the largest producer of beef cattle, even over Australia, and on both sides of the road large swathes of rainforest have been cleared for pasture land for the hardy white horned cows.
This deforestation unfortunately continues as we travel east toward Porto Vehlo, and it brings me to think that this is something everyone should see and make up their own mind about. Who am I to say it’s wrong and stop a family from making a living and putting food on the table. But this is on a grand scale and not just a local family taking down a few trees. In the distance to our left and right, beyond the rich pastures, you can clearly see primary rainforest forging its way skyward. But with this in mind, you have to say that these areas have not been ripped out without forethought – pasture land is next to the road, with easy access to transport (everything moves by truck in Brazil) and great trees have been left untouched, probably only used as scratching posts by the herds, but nevertheless still standing. Unfortunately however you look at it, our rainforests are disappearing, and it is clearly visible here.
Porto Velho is the gateway to the Amazon and the River Madeira makes its way north east before joining with the mighty river itself. The soya bean is largely grown in this area and makes its way via boat to Manaus where it is exported to the rest of the world. The town itself isn’t really a traveller haunt, but that in itself almost makes it a draw to me. It’s a place where you can meet local people off the beaten track, and I’ve found jungle dwellers some of the most friendly in the world, and the most interesting – what is it actually like to live in the middle of the Amazon basin for example?!
Our journey now takes us south and on to a major trucking route. This improves the road conditions – generally truck routes are better maintained – and we get our first taste of a major thunder storm – we are in the rainforest after all! You can see how quickly flash floods happen and how whole road sections disappear. We have already travelled some 2800kms, but looking at the map, have hardly scratched the surface of Brazil. Travelling overland really is the only way to see a country of this size properly. We stay in truck parks and garages, where there are clean showers and toilets and a decent meal of steak, rice and beans or the local feijoada (a sort of bean and meat stew). Travellers on our trips often have this experience in Brazil and it is a way of meeting people that you would never come across in towns and cities and I can tell you, they are just as interested in you as you will be in them! It’s not every day a giant orange truck full of ‘gringos’ pulls on to the forecourt and sets up camp!
Next on the agenda is Cuiaba and the main point of interest here is Chapada Dos Guimares – a fault ridge along a tectonic plate, which has produced a stunning valley of rocky outcrops and 80mtr plus waterfalls. The town itself is quirky and small, and its inhabitants give it a kind of mystic feel, as it sits equidistant between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. As the sun dropped to the horizon I noticed a shape wandering on the road at the edge of my headlights and I immediately slowed, expecting a donkey in our path. However, tonight was to be my lucky night as a large Tapir wandered lazily in front of the truck and into the scrub to our left – what an amazing spot!
View points in the area show the dramatic step to the flatlands that become the wetland area of the Pantanal – a vast plain crammed full of wildlife such as Capybara, Anaconda, Jaguar, Tapir and a variety of birdlife.
Our route now unfortunately was to take us further south, and then east and on in to the chaos of Sao Paulo, where I would need to jump off and catch a flight home – all good things come to an end. However for our travellers this would be just the beginning of a variety of Brazil’s must see attractions, including the bizarre and futuristic buildings of Brasilia, the current capital; Lencois, a small town with cobbled streets and a friendly air, with amazing trekking opportunities; Salvador, a city with an African vibe and amazing nightlife; the coast of Brazil, visiting beaches that only locals generally visit; the colonial gold mining town of Ouro Preto and finally the famous Rio de Janeiro.
If you’d like to follow in Mark and Paul’s footsteps, why not take a look at the full expedition:
Trans Amazon Explorer – Rio to Lima – 55 Days
There are several options to shorten or lengthen your trip – please don’t hesitate to contact us for details, or take a look at our website: www.oasisoverland.co.uk