Explorer Ed Stafford recounts the time he was taken hostage by Asheninka Indian on his expedition through the Amazon. Read the full feature on this amazing adventure: ‘Walking in the Amazon’ here.
From Atalaya, the Ucayali meanders north towards Pucallpa. We had been told that we didnt need to get a permit from OIRA, the organisation that oversees the affairs of the indigenous communities on the Ucayali because the area is open and understanding.
In a community called Santa Luz we were indeed treated incredibly well. We arrived early in the day and the people suggested that it would be much wiser to wait there until the 3pm (the allotted HF radio hour) and they would speak to the next community, Pensilvania, to see if we could pass.
When 3pm came round we went with the chief to call Pensilvania via radio. The response came back crystal clear. If a gringo walks into their community they will kill him. I heard this response myself over the radio.We fretted a little, and then came up with another plan to use our pack-rafts to cross to a large island where we could walk and avoid passing through Pensilvania.
The following day, as Cho and I had walked the length of the shingle island in the middle of the river and were re-inflating our pack-rafts to cross back to the West bank, Cho said calmly, Look behind you.
As I looked over my shoulder there were no less than 5 dugout canoes heading in our direction all full of Asheninka Indians. As the boats beached, the men and women ran towards us, all of them with the angriest faces they could muster. There were a couple of women amongst the men armed with machetes but all the men had shot guns or bow and arrows.
At first I was not too scared. Here we go again. was actually the sentiment in my head. But as the second and third boat landed, the angry excitement of the locals started to worry me. As I was showing our permit (that we had decided to get despite the blas advice) one of the men with a shotgun ran towards me and snatched the document out of my hand.
As he told us that our document was not valid I began to realise we were in a bit of a situation. We had been told about communities that just dont understand and therefore are dangerous, but up until now we had not encountered them.
I asked the name of the community. Nuevo Pozo thankfully was the reply. I had been worried that it was Pensilvania.
We were ordered to go with them to their community, never without an arrow or a shotgun pointed at us. As we paddled across to their community I started to realise that our pack-rafts with their flat bottoms were being dragged downstream far quicker than the dugouts. If we werent careful we would be escaping without even wanting to because we couldnt hold our position on the river. Cho and I paddled like mad to ensure we reached the landing rather than drifting further downstream. We succeeded and arrived exhausted with our armed escort as stern as ever.
The village chief ordered us to empty our packs and people started picking up items of our kit. I was sure wed lose a lot but in the end only our machete was taken. The chief said that as we hadnt got a permit from the police we would be detained in the village. He would also call OIRA over the radio at 3pm to confirm our permit from them was valid.
Incredibly, at 3pm OIRA denied all knowledge of us over the radio. We had been in their office only 4 days previously and they said there were no tourists on the river! This directly put our lives at risk and I have to say I am very angry with the organisation.
Cho and I had been calm with the community the whole time and as time went by they started to calm down. We acted very normally and asked if they had a shop where we could buy food the chief said there was, and let us go and buy some chocolate biscuits. By this time I think we had worked out that we were not going to come to any harm the atmosphere of panic had subsided.
Whilst we were away, the village clearly realised that they had to get rid of us somehow and so when we returned they told us that they would write us a temporary permit and that would suffice until we reached the next town downstream. But we had to go by raft and we could not step foot on the land.
I felt stupid explaining that we couldnt go by raft and that we had to go by foot as that was the whole point of the expedition. Amazingly, however, it provoked a very positive response. We could continue walking if we agreed to use them, the Asheninkas, as guides and if we returned to Atalaya with them to obtain a permit from the police.
By walking with these Asheninkas, the very people who we were rather worried were about to kill us, having two permits, and calling ahead on the HF radio, we should be able to enter the really closed communities without any trouble.
First up Pensilvania.