Video from Brazil: BR 230 TransAmazonica across the Amazon Jungle

August 15 – 21, 2010

6 days across the Brazilian Amazon on the famed BR-230 TransAmazonica Highway across the jungle. A remote track cutting across the largest rainforest in the world. The road is pretty straight for the most part but got hilly, here and there. It was nice to get up close and see what this famous jungle is about, but also sad to see how much of it is being burnt down for cattle ranches.

Click here for more Videos.

Brazil, Part 3: The end of the TransAmazonica

August 20 – 25, 2010

From Itaituba, the TransAmazonica is more busy and was not as enjoyable as the section west of there. It was another 1,000 kms (620 mi) to Maraba, where the dirt road ends and then I turned north for Sao Luis.

Oops, I made a boo-boo. I pulled into Itaituba and went about setting up camp at the side of a petrol station. The station manager insisted that I move in front of the office so that he could keep a proper eye on me for my safety since it was too unsafe in the shadows. But, as I parked the bike up front, I didn’t pay attention to the slope and sanDRina went crashing down on her right side. These poor Happy Trail panniers are sure taking a beating, but I’m quite impressed with their strength. I used a hydraulic jack from a nearby tire shop to straighten out the box so that it would close again.

The box was the lesser worry because I found my subframe had cracked on the opposite side. As the bike fell on its right side, the weight of the left pannier impacting the subframe through the pannier rack was too much for it and it sheared around the joint. Note: this is not the actual frame of the bike, but the part called the subframe, which supports the rider and the luggage.

A welding shop was nearby and the guys got right to work. They were quite young, but looked experienced in the jobs they were doing. Lots of cracked crankshafts, wheel rims and other heavy duty vehicle parts were being welding up by these guys.

In the process of filling in the hole. They did a good job for R$ 20 and it hasn’t shown any signs of weakness, yet.

Ready to hit the road with the bike all put back together. That’s Edson, the son of the petrol station owner who let me use some free internet and wanted to practice English with me. I slept on the sidewalk there with my tent, but it was too hot at night and I was sweating buckets. I was ready to throw in the towel, but I didn’t want to move sanDRina with all the luggage until I could fix the subframe.

On the shore of Rio Tapajos in Itaituba.

Boarding the ferry across the wide Rio Tapajos, which left once every hour for a 20 minute ride to the other side.

Having a quick snack of a pastel (pas-teu), a typical fried snack found all over Brazil. It’s a puffy pastry shell with meat or cheese inside. Goes well with hot sauce.

Looking back at the shores of Itaituba from the ferry. I didn’t get to see the Amazon River, but I can imagine how grand it must be, compared to these gargantuan tributaries.

On the final stretch of the TransAmazonica Highway. It immediately felt less interesting of a ride with trucks and buses rushing by with hordes of small motos swarming like mosquitoes.

There was lots of construction and looked like they were getting ready to make it a 6-lane highway, uggh.

My first lunch since the churrasco. A typical Brazilian meal of rice, noodles, beans, meat and some salad for R$ 5. I was happy not to get the post-meal-sleepies after such a heavy lunch, which is the biggest meal for most Brazilians.

A distance board at the intersection to the road heading north to Santarem on the Amazon River, where you can take a boat up to Manaus. I was heading to Altamira in two days.

Filling up at a Shell station, but since the roads were all dirt, so was the station grounds.

The construction sections were sandy and I just couldn’t get over how wide the road was in places.

Towards the end of the day, I felt my clutch finally losing grip on the steep hills and knew it was time to put in the last spare KLX disc that I was carrying from La Paz. I pulled up to this tire repair shop, called a borracharia (bo-ha-cha-ria) and asked the mechanic if I could borrow an oil pan to drain my oil. A few people gathered as I set about installing the last good clutch fibre plate that I had.

Excuse the blurry image, but you can see the edges of the fibre wearing, causing the clutch to slip. The fix got me to Sao Luis and then all the way down to Sao Paulo.

The mechanic said I could camp there for the night. His family were running a small rural bar and convenience store.

Sunrise the next morning.

It soon became quite hot and I took a break under a bus stop stand.

Similar lunch of rice, noodles, beans, meat and some veggies. I only found out later that if the food comes in separate dishes, it’s R$ 8, but if it comes on one plate (like yesterday), then it’s R$ 5. This is a lot more than I’ve been used to eating in the last few days.

The scenery was pleasing as I got closer to Altamira.

An old bridge deteriorating as the new bridge is being built.

The pavement beginning outside Altamira with cattle being herded down it.

But it ended soon for construction.

I decided on no more tenting it in cities, since it’s too hot at night with no breeze blowing through. I got a R$ 25 room (negotiated down from R$ 35) at Hotel Paulista in Altamira and most hotels in Brazil come with breakfast included.

Setting out the next day for the last 500 kms (310 mi) to Maraba. The dark clouds only threatened a few times with drizzles, but I was glad to traverse the whole TransAmazonica without encountering any rain.

As I stopped to reduce the air pressure in the tires for the off-road, these three Brazilian bikers from Belo Horizonte showed up.

Homemade panniers. They were making a big loop around Brazil and did BR-319 up to Manaus and were coming from Santarem.

The first bit of washboard that I experienced on the TransAmazonica, giving an indication to the traffic and the speed they fly at in this more crowded section of the route.

I met up with the guys again at the ferry across Rio Xingu. This river has made international news as the government wants to build the Belo Monte Dam on it to create the world’s third largest hydroelectric power station. The proposal has so far been stalled since the 1990s due to strong opposition from numerous groups in Brazil and abroad. The main reason being that the social costs of the dam outweigh its benefits. The dam would flood 400 sq km (154 sq mi) of low-lying forest and this flooding will lead to an increase of methane emissions, which are far more deadly than CO2. Also, two huge canals, bigger than the Panama Canal would need to be carved up to divert water for the dam. With Brazil’s new discoveries of massive offshore oil fields, it’s been suggested that the environmental and social impact of producing electricity from burning oil would be less than that from this dam. Let’s see the direction the new president takes this project.

Enjoying the road again as it resembled areas west of Itaituba, winding up and over hills.

Riding too much washboard and this is what happens. The bracket holding this tool tube onto the pannier frame finally gave way and swung on to the tire, chewing a hole through it.

Getting a cheap bed at Hotel Betel for R$ 15. They had a newer section to the right with beds for R$ 40.

The last day on the TransAmazonica. While I was ready for the dust clouds to be done with, I sure did enjoy the remote riding.

You can tell civilization is close when you see plantations of eucalyptus trees, instead of indigenous forests.

Getting some lunch close to the end of the TransAmazonica.

Having a huge piece of fried river fish that the lady said she caught that morning from the nearby river.

Coming to the end of the off-road section of the TransAmazonica. Wow, it was a long journey but totally worth it and glad to provide proof that this fabled road does exist indeed.

The pavement beginning outside Maraba. BR-230 carries on for another 1,880 kms (1,167 mi) to the coast, terminating at Joao Pessoa, but I was turning north for Sao Luis from here.

Meeting up with Guilherme, through CouchSurfing in Maraba. He’s an architect from the state of Minas Gerais and moved out here to this ‘frontier’ town as business is booming. He wondered how I was actually going to ride from Porto Velho to Maraba and didn’t believe the TransAmazonica actually existed, but I’m living proof. From Maraba, it’s a different kind of Brazil, the more developed part.

Having more tasty river fish with some veggies.

We had dinner by the riverside of Rio Tocantins, the central fluvial artery of the country. It flows directly into the Atlantic at Belem, not meeting the Amazon River. Guilherme said in the rainy season, the rising river level brings up that floating restaurant up to road level, even flooding some of the surrounding streets.

Riding the smooth highways up to Sao Luis, where I was looking forward to resting my sore body and giving sanDRina a break, as well. I also really wanted to wash everything. My helmet and gloves were feeling nasty to put on towards the end.

A distance board. Heading right. Almost there, but…

I picked up this nail just 135 kms (84 mi) from Sao Luis. I was so close.

The reason I like using a heavy duty tube is that when it does goes flat, it doesn’t deflate all the way and still has some structure to it, which helps in not ruining the tire. But I thought running a heavy duty tube would make punctures more rare. Who knows, maybe lots of punctures were averted by running this tube, but I’ll never know, since I only pay attention when it does get a puncture.

When the tool tube broke loose and rubbed against the tire, that friction wore a hole through my spare rear tube. My heavy duty tube is made from a different rubber compound and the patches I have don’t stick to it.

What to do? Try and fix either tube with lots of patches and hope it holds till Sao Luis?

Like an angel appearing in a time of need, Bianca stopped by and after explaining my situation, she offered to take my tube to the nearest borracharia to get it hot vulcanized. After a few hours delay, I rolled into Sao Luis and rejoiced in the accomplishment of having crossed the great TransAmazonica Highway.

Next: Brazil, Part 4: Taking a break in Sao Luis

Previous: Brazil, Part 2: Riding the depths of the TransAmazonica

Brazil, Part 2: Riding the depths of the TransAmazonica

August 16 – 19, 2010

From Apui, it was 700 kms (435 mi) to the next big town of Itaituba. This was the remotest section of the route and most memorable.

Sunrise in the Amazon on the fazenda that I stayed at near Apui.

A long wooden bridge. I tried to see all the way across before choosing which side to cross on. Some of the planks would rattle as I rolled over them.

Dry, flat riding.

sanDRina enjoying a refreshing Coke. The gasoline in Brazil has 25% ethanol from sugarcane mixed in and that gives the fuel its red color. I had enough fuel to make it to the next town of Jacareacanga but, better to be safe than sorry. This is in Sucunduri and it cost R$ 3.40/lt.

Calling out to the boatsmen on the other side of Rio Sucunduri.

After a few minutes, they made the relaxed journey over to collect me. The ferry was powered by this little outboard motor.

A massive ferry for just one bike and this ride was free. I paid between R$ 4 and R$ 10 for all the ferries.

Glimpse of water.

The clearings and burning of the forest took place close to the road, with the intact forest back there, a few hundred meters away. That says something about the link between deforestation and road building.

Ah, the reason for all this burning.

Not much shade to take a break under.

Local riders in Porto Velho told me the road is constantly being maintained and improved by the government. But, I don’t think it’s going to get paved anytime soon due to the lack of traffic.

The route getting narrower in places, with foliage right by the road.

However, this was the more usual sight; huge clearings.

A few trees left standing and the purple flowering tree.

I was taking my time and chugging along, because the road surface would change repeatedly from hard pack to sand.

Intact jungle on the right side and recently burnt, shaved hillside on the left.

I didn’t see any fazendas around, but maybe they were preparing land for their move in.

When there wasn’t sights of burnt jungle, it was a nice ride.

Uggh, didn’t have to go far to be turned down by man.

A fire in progress of virgin Amazonian jungle.

A truly sad sight. I stopped and reflected on the damage man can do to his own home. This is my planet as it is everyone else’s and it’s only our short-sightedness that perpetuates these actions. There’s signs of hope though with the World Bank stating at the UN Convention of BioDiversity that all nations will be economically held accountable for the damage done to their natural ecosystems since the Amazon doesn’t belong just to Brazil, but to every human.

This tree was about 60 m (196 ft) tall and you can see its tip has been charred by the high-reaching flames.

I was told that sometimes these wildfires were started on fazendas to clear a small patch of land, but then they get out of control and start burning protected areas. This has also been an exceptionally dry season for the Amazon and Brazil in general, with reports of huge wildfires across the region.

Where are the helicopters with those mega buckets to pick up this water and douse the flames with?

A well-maintained bridge towards the end of the day.

Getting close to the next big town of Jacareacanga.

Riding through some thick jungles softened the rage from seeing all the burning today.

Before the turn off into Jacareacanga, I came across this fazenda and asked if I could stay for the night. I was glad to have some covering for the tent and the bike, since the morning dew is quite heavy.

The young couple taking care of this fazenda, while their owners were visiting Itaituba.

After gassing up in Jaca, I turned north towards Itaituba, 400 kms (248 mi) away, going parallel to Rio Tapajos. The locals drive like they’re in a hare race and said on my big bike it’ll only take 6 hours to cover the distance. Ha, I took two days.

This section ahead had the steepest hills of the route, with the expected bridge at the trough. Elevation was around 100-200 m (328-656 ft).

The road got narrower and it felt nice to be riding through a proper jungle.

There were also very few straight sections on this part of the route, with enjoyable twists and turns.

The grandness of the trees in the Amazon. They must be over 80 m (260 ft) tall.

A good reason not to be riding at night. This bridge reminded of Simon Thomas and his fall from a bridge on his RTW trip.

Just my luck that I should encounter the little traffic that exists on this route during the sandiest portions of it. Oh well, everything was already grimey, so go ahead and dust me.

Construction laying down some new wet mud to harden up and provide a smooth surface.

After a few hours, I saw my first jungle clearings and…

…as expected, more burning.

Taking a break as the thicket closed in on the road.

About halfway to Itaituba, I came across this lone house in a clearing with a man drinking some yerba maté. I asked Sebastian if I could stay for the night and he welcomed the visitor. He’s from the south of Brazil, explaining the maté gourd stuck to his hand. It’s a tea that’s sipped through a metal straw in the countries of Uruguay and Paraguay and also southern Brazil. He moved out here with government incentives to cultivate the land. We had some good talks and he found it interesting that an engineer would give it all up to travel, considering us to be the more sane members of society :p

Inside his little house that he keeps stocked with food from Itaituba. He invited me to sleep on the hammock, but I was more comfortable on my mattress on the ground. I hoped no crawlies would want to keep me company as I slept, but the raised floor helped in that respect. He asked me if I wanted a bath and took me about 15 minutes into the jungle to a small clearing where a stream of cool, clear water was collected. It felt refreshing to take a bath in the thick of the jungle listening to all the birds.

The next morning, the fog was very thick. There were trees just a few meters behind his house that were engulfed in the thick forest fog.

Felt quite eerie. The Amazon, in the midst of man.

The front porch of Sebastian’s jungle house. He also has another house in Itaituba, but stays out here for long periods tending to this land.

An efficient design of a wood-fire stove.

Sebastian’s cat with my Oxtar TCX boots.

Just north of Sebastian’s place, I entered the official Parque Nacional da Amazonia, the one protected place in this whole massive jungle and that too, it appears it’s just a park on paper with no real enforcement.

Getting a feel for the thick jungle in this panorama stitch of 12 photos spanning about 180 degrees left to right and about 30 degrees up and down.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The only difference about riding through the actual park was that I didn’t see any burning of the jungle. It felt good to ride with the trees leaning over the road.

Oops, the trailer slipped into the ditch. There was no one in the truck, so I presume they already went to get help.

View of some waterfalls from the road. I wanted to jump in for a dip.

The rivers are so huge here they easily resemble a lake, but that’s Rio Tapajos, emptying into the Amazon near Santarem. For the last 160 kms (100 mi) of this river, it is between 6-14 kms (4-9 mi) wide.

Arriving in Itaituba, the end of the fun part of the TransAmazonica. From here, there’s another 1,000 kms (620 mi) of dirt to Maraba.

Next: Brazil, Part 3: The end of the TransAmazonica

Previous: Brazil, Part 1: The start of the TransAmazonica

Brazil, Part 1: The start of the TransAmazonica

August 13 – 16, 2010After the preparatory journey across the Bolivian pampas, I was excited to be entering the allure that is Brazil, the largest country in the region and one of the pillars of the new Global South power regime. Apart from being the only Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America (and thus Brazilians not being considered Hispanics), the Brazilian culture feels different from the rest of the region. Perhaps it’s due to its strong economy and the development that it has brought to its people or perhaps it’s the immense fertile land and long, luxurious coast line that helps define the people of this area. Being identified primarily with the Amazon as opposed to the Andes that touches most of the other Latin America countries also aids in creating the distinction.

The difference I noticed right away was the warmth of the people, a kind that I haven’t noticed from the general populous in other countries, so far. Not that I haven’t met amazingly warm and beautiful people in all the countries that I’ve traveled through, but a good vibration seems to be emanating from all Brazilians.

The biggest attraction in Brazil for me was the Amazon. After reading about these lungs of our planet and the damage being done to them, I had an urge to see for my own eyes. I also had a good friend staying for a year in Brazil and I figured it would be a good place to take a few weeks break from the trip. Spending these three months in Brazil was also a good way to wait for summer to arrive in Patagonia, where I’m headed next.

I crossed at Guajara-mirim to begin on the west end of the fabled TransAmazonica highway cutting across the Amazon jungle to civilization on its eastern end. After a few weeks off in Sao Luis, I headed down the coast to Sao Paulo to take care of some things and then relaxed on the beaches on the way to Rio. From there, I turned south for Argentina.

Brazil borders all the countries in South America except Chile and Ecuador and most of them have their borders in the Amazon. I crossed from Guayaramerin, here in Bolivia across Rio Guapore to Guajara-mirim in Brazil. Being my second canoe trip with the bike, I was now more familiar with how to load the bike and keep it balanced. The boatsman removed his outboard motor with the long propeller shaft and using a ramp, sanDRina was pushed in.

I made a deal with this Brazilian boatsman to take me across for 40 Bolivianos (10 Brazilian Reals, $6). He accepted my initial offer since it was towards the end of the day and he would be returning home empty otherwise. There’s a brisk trade going on between the border towns with Bolivians importing nicer commodities from wealthier Brazil, and sending over less pricey clothes and other items since things are more expensive across the river.

At the docks sat these grand vehicle ferries that were chained up, but being cleaned. I was told they run about once a week or even less, since there’s very little demand for vehicle traffic across this border (besides all the illegally smuggled Brazilian cars into Bolivia).

But human ferries were in abundance with Brazilians rushing over to buy some cheap items in Bolivia, have a cheap lunch and then rush back.

The passenger terminal on the Bolivian side.

Racking up some more water miles with sanDRina. I sat on her to keep her balanced.

Going around this rocky out crop with the sun fading.

A GPS map of the crossing.

Ahoy, Brasil! The river level rises during the rainy season, so maybe these old boats are waiting for the good water.

On the canoe with my steady boatsman, nice guy. All passengers are required to wear a life vest, but I guess the skippers are exempt.

A boat house near the Brazilian coast. Would be nice to tour the Amazon on a boat like this.

Riding the sandy bank up into Brazil after struggling with a tip over while backing the bike out of the canoe. I also think I damaged my already weakened clutch some more on this steep, sandy climb.

I got delayed on the Bolivian side since the customs office was closed from noon to 3 pm, so the sun was setting as I arrived in this new country. Not ideal, since time is needed to do all the appropriate paperwork, but I got it all done in time. Not being a regular land border, the offices needed are not all located nearby. I walked to the Federal Police station to process my immigration into Brazil, then over to the nice guys at customs to process the bike in. The head official was quite impressed that I was entering by motorcycle and treated me quite well with coffee and some snacks. I was already feeling very welcome and comfortable about being in Brazil.

My route map across northern Brazil, entering near Porto Velho and taking BR-230, the TransAmazonica Highway across the jungle to Sao Luis on the coast, a 3,500 km (2,170 mi) journey with about 60% of that being dirt roads. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

The Brazilian currency is the Real (pronounced ‘hey-ai’). USD $1 = R$ 1.70. R$ 100 = $58. It’s a beautifully designed currency and the first one that I’ve seen with a portrait print on the backside of the notes. The portraits are of the various animals found in this biologically rich land. This currency was introduced in 1994 to end decades of hyperinflation in Brazil, which was also timed nicely with Brazil’s rise in economic power.

Since I was going to be camping in the wild a lot more now, I figured I needed some sort of protection at night in case I was approached by would be bandits or jaguars. It’s the snakes I was really afraid of, so I bought this machete in La Paz for $3. In Portuguese, a knife is called a ‘faca’ and a big knife is called a ‘facão’, pronounced ‘fackauwn’ – sounds deadly just saying it. When tenting it, I slept with the facão by my side with my hand ready on it. I covered it in a sweatshirt until it would be called upon. Just hope the police don’t find it during a regular search; would be hard to explain but I’m going to try saying I need it as a meat cleaver, being a cook and all. Throw me a chicken and it’ll be diced up in 5 minutes.

I got released from customs around 6 pm and since it was dark already, I stopped at the first hotel. But they were all booked out for a festival and not having the energy to go scouring the town for another hotel, I asked them if I could just camp out back in the garden. Sure, no problem and they even said I didn’t have to pay but could still take a shower and use the facilities. I was starting to accept that all Brazilians were really nice and warm. There was also ice-cold water for the taking and I gulped down as much as I could before setting out the next morning (resulting in frequent pee stops). I tried tapping into the satellite dish to get the results of the latest Formula 1 race, but no dice.

The next morning, the family running the pousada (small hotel) was getting ready for a feast and this river turtle’s throat was slit and laid to die so that it’s meat could be cooked and enjoyed. They kept the turtle fresh in a small bucket of water until it was to meet its destiny. When I was young in Zambia, I wanted to go see a goat being killed for a party that we were throwing, but my father warned me that it would affect my taste for meat. It still has the same effect and perhaps everyone should be obliged to see how their food is killed before it appears on the dinner plate.

Heading out of Guajara-mirim on 530 kms (330 mi) of asphalt through Porto Velho and onto Humaita, the start of the fabled roads through the Amazon.

Crossing a wooden bridge; a taste for things to come.

Distance board on highway BR-364 heading to Porto Velho, an example of the well-signed roads here.

The road was being paved in areas, but overall, the riding was smooth allowing me to cover lots of ground.

Smoky haze, a sad but true reality of development in the Amazon.

Knowing I would be frugal with my food expenses from here on and celebrating my first day here, I treated myself to a R$ 10 Brazilian Churrasco (barbeque) for lunch. These type of restaurants are available all across Brazil and are considered the typical road food.

I had two plates of meat cuts (sausage, ribs, roast beef, chicken) along with plates from the buffet line that had a good selection of salads and veggies. Brazilian food in general isn’t spicy like all other South American countries, but all tables come with a local hot sauce; here it was chillies preserved in oil, which went well with the meats. Primarily drinking water (from my filter), I also treated myself to a R$ 2 Coke, which was great for washing down all the grease. This meal was blowing my food budget, but I learned from Holger and Anja (RTW riders from Germany) that even though you need to keep a tight budget to do a trip like this, you should treat yourself once in a while if you’re in this for the long haul.

Catching the first of many ferries across the numerous rivers of the expansive Amazon River basin just outside Porto Velho. This is Rio Madeira, the biggest tributary of the Amazon River, which is further north.

Locals working in Porto Velho, the biggest city in the area, returning to homes on the other side of the river. An elderly rider was very impressed with the sight of my bike and invited me to stay on his farm (fazenda) a few kilometers on the other side, but I had more ground to cover.

Riding BR-319 towards Humaita, where the pavement stops. This is one of the two major roads crossing the Amazon and heads north to Manaus on the Amazon River from Humaita. The road is notorious in the rainy season and a call to riders in the dry season, which is now, from July to September. From Humaita, I would be taking BR-230, the TransAmazonica Highway, which parallels the Amazon River a few hundred kilometers inland.

At the state border between Rondonia and the great Amazonas state.

More biomass burning for agriculture.

The well-maintained section of BR-319 heading north to Humaita.

The sun setting on my first day of riding in Brazil and I covered a huge amount in comparison to my daily average, doing 530 kms (330 mi). Due to the smoke haze in the air, the sunsets here were similar to those induced by the dust haze in the Bolivian pampas, allowing for the whole sun to be seen for a long time before it finally set.

At the gas station in Humaita, I met up with these three Argentinian riders from Cordoba on big BMW R1200GS’s. They passed me in the Bolivian pampas as I was setting up camp one night and I got ahead of them today. They were making a loop through Bolivia, up BR-319 to Manaus, over into Venezuela and down the Andes back home over two months. They invited me to visit when I got to Argentina.

Preparing for the grand expedition that lay ahead, the crossing of the Rodovia Transamazônica, I was rightly in expedition mode, camping and providing my own food. The nice thing in Brazil is that you can camp at the petrol stations for free and they provide showers and ice-cold drinking water (meant for the truckers). Along with gasoline, that’s all I need. Plus, since most stations are open 24 hours, it adds a sense of security if the attendants can keep an eye on my camp. My strategy while camping is to put the bike and tent as close as possible, put my jacket under my legs in the tent since my air mattress is only for the torso, put my riding pants, boots and helmet on the bike seat and cover it all with the bike cover. I then run a simple cable lock between those items, the bike cover and a tent peg, so that if someone tried to touch the bike during the night, it would rattle the tent and I would be ready with my facão.

Just to give a sense of location; I was camping to the side of this gas station in Humaita. The attendants told me to camp in a place where they could see me for my safety, but I also didn’t want to camp right in the open, inviting a possible incident.

Waiting for the ferry the next morning to cross back over the Rio Madeira. This river runs for about 3,250 km (2,020 mi) before emptying into the Amazon River just past Manaus. It’s considered the biggest tributary in the world and rises a staggering 15 m (50 ft) in the rainy season allowing ocean-going vessels to sail up to Porto Velho, 1,070 km (663 mi) from its mouth.

There’s reasonable truck traffic on this route. This double trailer (standard issue in Brazil) had to be off loaded one trailer at a time due to the steep angle and sandy approach at the bank.

The ferries themselves are unpowered. Their locomotion comes from a tug boat attached to the side, which is handy for maneuvering the ferry and changing directions.

Trying to get a shot of a Boto, the Amazon Pink River Dolphin, which is revered by the local tribes and has been put into legends of coition between humans and dolphins.

I passed this trucking couple yesterday and we stayed at the same gas station last night. They’re from the southern state of Santa Catarina and are heading along the TransAmazonica up to Apui to pick up a load of timber. It was impressive to see his wife maneuvering the rig onto the ferry as he directed her.

My clutch was not excited at the thought of all these sandy banks that lay ahead. I tightened the clutch cable to get better engagement and I hoped it would last till Sao Luis. I had one more spare KLX disc if things got worse.

Woo hoo! The off-road start of BR-230, the TransAmazonica Highway. Ahead lies 2,070 kms (1,285 mi) of dirt roads to Maraba and I did about 200 kms (125 mi) a day.

It was built in the 1970s when Brazil was ruled by military dictatorships who completed a series of grand construction projects. This highway was intended to link the remote northern parts with the rest of the country. It’s initial design was to run all the way to Peru and Ecuador but that didn’t happen. It was also originally designed to be paved all the way, but that too, thankfully, hasn’t materialized along its entire length. The pavement starts again once it reaches civilization in Maraba.

The TransAmazonica is famous for its numerous wooden bridges and I was happy to see a well-maintained one for my first crossing.

It’s advisable to traverse the TransAmazonica only during the driest months (July to September) as when it rains, the road turns to a sloppy mud halting almost all traffic in their tracks. But, being here during the dry season means lots and lots of dust. I was already accustomed to the dust by now having crossed the dry Bolivian pampas and told myself, no complaining, just take a deep breath as a dust cloud approaches and get on with it. I was happy to see my trucking friends again, but not so thrilled for their dust wake. The road is generally well-maintained but there’re a lot of dips and bumps and I was moving on average as fast or slow as the big rigs. You can imagine what overtaking one of these guys must be like – try and get a glimpse of the road ahead and then ride blind trough the dust cloud, hoping there’s no oncoming traffic.

It was hot and there wasn’t much shade around. Taking a break in the shadows, munching on some nuts and prunes and keeping hydrated. I only saw a handful of vehicles all day.

The sad reality of the TransAmazonica is that deforestation of the Amazon jungle is prevalent all along the route and the government encouraged this behavior, giving incentives for farmers and cattle ranchers to turn highly valuable intact forests into single-purpose pasture land to feed Brazil’s domestic and export beef addiction. Farms (fazendas) line the TransAmazonica almost all along its entire length.

The flora in the western end is mainly shrubs with a few tall trees.

I didn’t have to go far to see that the legendary bridges are still out there. Cross planks or not, I guess it’s strong enough to support a semi-truck.

The road got sandy in places, but was generally a pleasant ride. There’s also a lot of hills through this region.

The first town since Humaita is the aptly named settlement of KM 180, being that many kilometers from Humaita. There were hotels, restaurants and petrol stations and most of the travelers stopped here for the night. I camped at this petrol station and the truckers directed me to setup camp between their trucks, which was good since it hid my site from the road.

Once again, there were free showers, cold drinking water, laundry facilities (washing sink with soap and clothesline) and a stove for use. I washed my base layers and socks every night and it was amazing to see how much dust was collected in them and hence on my body, as well. I love my Motoport suit since it’s all mesh (sturdy kevlar fibers) and keeps me ventilated and protected in hot weather, but the downside is that fine dust particles also get through. I’ll take that if it means those dust particles come along with some cooling air for my epidermis.

I made some lentils with a cucumber that I was carrying since Rurrenabaque in Bolivia. Oooh, I smuggled a vegetable across an international border (it’s a big no-no to transport possible disease-carrying produce across borders). The cucumber was refreshing and hydrating. A simple meal of lean proteins with fibrous carbohydrates. What more does the body need? (A range of vitamins and minerals, for sure.) The truckers got a kick out of seeing what this strange biker was having for dinner.

After a good night’s sleep of over 10 hours and guzzling lots of cold water, I headed out towards Apui. Transporting logs down a river.

More smoke from the ongoing burning of the Amazon. The gateway to the fazenda might point to who could be responsible for this. But truth be told, all of us who consume beef share some responsibility for the destruction of the Amazon and other forests. Our actions on the dinner plate are not isolated but interconnected on a vast scale. You know I love a rare steak, but is it a justified craving when people around the world aspire to consume more beef as they progress up the development ladder?

Every now and then the route passed an opening in the foliage to reveal a pond, providing a refreshing view of agua – a respite from the dusty road.

The road surface varied from hard-packed mud like this to loose gravel and sand, but mostly it was well-maintained.

Constructing a new bridge, with the old one not having any guard rails, so don’t fall over.

I rolled up to this ferry just as it was about to leave. As you can see, the only other traffic on this road was supply trucks of fuel and other products. Fuel was available about every 200 kms (125 mi), except one section further ahead where a 400 km (248 mi) range is needed.

Crossing Rio Aripuana, a tributary flowing into the Rio Madeira and onto Rio Amazonas.

An inviting beach on the shores of Rio Aripuana.

Looking across a wide valley with the original forest kept intact at the top of the relief. This same method of conservation was used in many places, where it appears the government has allowed the forest to be cleared up to a certain point on hills and preserved a small area on the top for the fauna and flora. While the intention to conserve like this might be a good compromise, habitat isolation and islandization perpetuate the reduction of biodiversity. However, it’s encouraging that governments around the world are now recognizing the need to connect all these isolated preserves to create a corridor and networks for the animals to move through and keep a healthy ecosystem intact upon which we all depend on.

The TransAmazonica following the contours of the land.

It was starting to get more hilly and predictably, at the trough would be a bridge with sandy sections on either side. I slowed to a stop for every bridge because there was usually a pot hole or depression leading to the wooden planks, probably from the truck tires.

Reaching Apui, the biggest town between Humaita and Itaituba. I had covered 400 kms (248 mi) from Humaita and was told by locals that the next 700 kms (435 mi) to Itaituba was the toughest section of the route and most isolated, with trucks going no further. Feeling good about the riding so far, I was looking forward to it.

The weld job in Bolivia of my pannier frame wasn’t holding up, so I got it retouched at this Honda shop for R$ 5.

After stocking up on some groceries (oatmeal, pasta and tomato sauce) and posting some updates to the outside world, I hit the road.

While the asphalt might’ve been a relief for a while, I was looking forward to the dirt since I was running less air pressure in my tires for the off-road conditions, which would be heating up the rubber and wearing faster on the pavement.

After an hour’s ride, I came across this fazenda and asked the rancher sitting out front if I could camp here for the night. I practiced the phrase a couple times from my Lonely Planet phrasebook and was pleased to be communicating in Portuguese soon after entering Brazil. The rancher’s house is on the left and I camped next to the work shed.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

After a refreshing cold shower, I enjoyed the sunset while walking around the fazenda.

It’s primarily a cattle ranch.

Plus he’s also breeding mules.

The work shed where the mules got their shoes put on. Those bikes are 250 cc Honda Tornadoes, made in Brazil and popular all over South America.

Rancher Jose and his wife inviting me to share dinner with them and his farmhands. There was rice, beans, veggies, some beef and a salad. He was intrigued with India and had lots of questions about the culture and the politics and it was interesting to hear his story. The government gave him an incentive to move out here 10 years ago to create pastureland for cattle and he had a successful operation going. But now the government, feeling pressures from the international community to preserve more of the Amazon, is starting to hamper his business. Elections for the new Brazilian president were coming up in six weeks and campaigning was in full force throughout the country. I tried to get a feel for the issues but only managed to grasp the gist of his talk. He thanked me for stopping by his house since he never met an Indian before and wanted to know more since our two countries are forming a strong bond in the international arena.

Next: Brazil, Part 2: Riding the depths of the TransAmazonica

Previous: Bolivia, Part 4: Hot and dusty across the Pampas