In his monthly Flash Pack column, adventurer Ed Stafford throws it back to the moment he first travelled alone on a record-breaking expedition – and the tough, yet critical, journey of discovery that followed. Plus, Ed’s top five destinations in South America for first-time solo travel
The straw that broke the camel’s back was an argument over an iPod. Three months into walking the Amazon, a world-first expedition that I had conceived and planned with my good friend Luke, tensions were running high. If you’ve ever spent an extended period of time with just one person, day and night, you may understand when I say that everything that the other person was doing was beginning to grate.
Luke and I had always been a bit of an odd couple, contrasting personalities that against all odds seemed to work. Luke was a joker, a humble comedian who often made quips at his own expense to break the ice and win people over. I was, at the time, a fairly intense ex-Army captain who was driven by success at the expense of trivialities.
Two becomes one
I was meant to be Luke’s best man at his wedding but, after three months of crossing the Andes mountain range on foot via the furthest source of the Amazon, the way Luke sipped his coffee in the morning made my shoulders tense up and shivers run up my spine. Luke was justifiably angry at me, too. I’d started subtly attacking him in areas that I knew were his weak points. It’s sad to admit but the relationship was in tatters.
One morning I blew up at him for only ordering just one iPod in our re-supply request. His fiancée was flying into Cuzco to meet him the following week and it was an opportunity to swap out knackered kit. Both of our cheap MP3 players had broken and I knew that he knew I wanted one too. The details are hazy a decade on but I’m 90% sure that he’d only ordered one because he had made his mind up. He was going home.
I’m not proud of that relationship souring and of how my own stresses got channeled into underhanded jibes at Luke. I know that the version of me that writes this article ten years on wishes that I’d had the awareness to step back from petty frustrations and help Luke in the areas that he’d found hard. But I’d begun to see Luke as a handicap and I think that hurt him so much that he just couldn’t continue. He returned to the UK in July 2008 and, despite attempts to meet and set things right, I’ve never seen or spoken to him since.
Alone in the Amazon
So I was now on my own for the first time. As I entered the indigenous Asheninka region on the River Ene, things started to get a lot more dangerous. The area was lawless, run by the drugs lords and the Peruvian police could not enter without a gunfight breaking out. I was told that if I stumbled across a drugs processing plant, I would never be seen again.
During that time I was held up at gunpoint several times but luckily allowed to continue. I had arrows pointed at my chest by angry tribesmen who were suspicious of me and angry that I was on their turf. In a world of fear and death threats I began to get very lonely, and very depressed.
Pages of my journal, written in my hammock late at night, were smeared with tears as it was the only safe place to cry. One night I swear I overheard my own indigenous guides planning to kill me. In hindsight, I think I was tired and paranoid.
An expedition in crisis
How did I deal with travelling alone under such circumstances?
For weeks and months I just existed. I told myself that as long as I’d made geographical progress towards the mouth of the Amazon each day then it had been a good day. Nothing else mattered. I took pleasure in food: cheap sweet biscuits that I’d wolf down – and washing in the river each evening. Being clean was my reset, it meant the day was over and I could escape to my hammock once more.
But goal-oriented motivation meant that I was far from happy. I felt like an animal that only existed to carry a heavy pack and walk through horrendous conditions. One local I’d hired to walk with me asked me about my background and I told him I was in the Army. He was intrigued as he was a veteran too. When I told him I’d been a captain his face said it all. He was amazed – and it gave me an insight into the fact that I was now a shadow of my former self.
Growing and healing
As time went by this broken version of myself began to evolve. Tiny things like being able to walk across a log bridge without falling lit a minute spark of confidence that began to grow. Sharpening my own machete nourished that small flame of trust in myself. I began forming relationships with locals, and I started to laugh again for the first time in months at daft things like mosquitos biting my testicles through my soggy trousers.
From being a former officer whose confidence had been built on the opinions of others I began to re-grow into a version of myself that was based on actual knowledge of my own capabilities. It felt more solid, it required no confirmation from others, and it gave me a real sense of trust in myself that I’d rarely previously found.
It allowed me to chill out more and, by relaxing, I was then able to forge real relationships that allowed me to start to enjoy things. Cho, my Peruvian walking partner who joined me in month five, saw me through this phase and witnessed me grow from a fingernail-biting hermit to a person who had some degree of presence.
Moment of truth
When it comes to solo travel, there is nowhere to hide and it’s terrifying at times, but you are forced to understand yourself in a way that you may never do if you stay at home or travel with close friends. I believe wholeheartedly that the Amazon was my catalyst towards being a 40-something man who can honestly say he is a good father and a good husband. Had I not really found myself, laid myself bare and had to rebuild myself, I think I’d never have built the foundations that had to be laid down to become reliable and dependable.
To anyone who feels like they are “just existing” and that “there must be so much more to life” I say this: there is indeed more to life than work and beers on a Friday night. And, if circumstances allow, I’d say that solo travel is a great way to work through that block. Below are my top five South American solo adventure destinations for first-timers:
Solo travel in South America
Caye Caulker, Belize: Does a foreign language intimidate you too much? Then try this English-speaking former British colony in Central America. Visit the jaguar sanctuary in the Cockscomb Basin and experience the charming breakfast cafes of San Ignacio, high up on the Guatemalan border. Top it off by learning to scuba dive off the cayes (tropical islands) and soaking up the laid-back Creole atmosphere.
San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina: Like Argentinian Malbec and the best steaks in the world? Then this romantic corner of northern Patagonia could be just for you. A party town for Argentine students, this Swiss-styled municipality built out of uncut timber is home to some of the kindest and funniest people in the world. The women are gorgeous and the blokes love rugby and take the piss out of themselves constantly. A very similar sense of humour, surprisingly, as the Brits.
Cuzco, Peru: Tourist trail? Undeniably. But for a reason. Machu Picchu is breath-taking at dawn and even more satisfying if you’ve trekked there carrying your own kit. It’s 100% safe, too, as you have to use local guiding companies. The popularity means that you can get by with basic Spanish but it can also mean London prices for food and beers.
Tabatinga, Brazil: Part of the “triple frontier” between Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, Tabatinga lies on the Brazilian side. Sit on the balcony of La Frontera Hotel and watch the motorcyclists whip off their helmets as they enter more liberal Brazil. Access to three countries in one place makes this an utterly unique and diverse place to hang out and you can get a fast boat upriver to Iquitos in about four hours, or a slow boat to Belem down river taking a couple of weeks. If you do the latter take your own food and hire a private cabin to avoid the self-strung hammock chaos and suspect hygiene food options.
Iquitos, Peru: The largest city in the world that you still can’t drive to, this sprawling urban hub sits bang in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Arriving by plane or boat, Iquitos is a great launch-point for jungle treks, fishing for piranha, and indigenous village visits. Moto-taxis (like tuk-tuks) race around the streets at a deadly speed that represents the frenetic yet enticing energy of the home of the plant medicine, Ayahuasca.
Photos: Keith Ducatel, Ed Stafford, Shutterstock, Michiel Ton on Unsplash