Riding motorbikes around South America may seem like a strange beginning to a story of canoeing down a remote river in the Bolivian Amazon but that’s how it all started nevertheless. In 2004 I was looking for a route around the north side of Lake Titicaca into Bolivia with my wife, Liz. We had a torn air map that some other bikers had given us a few months before but it was hard to make sense of its faded contours and creased lines. While I poured over it Liz’s eyes strayed to other points of interest further afield. “Hay, look at this” she stabbed the map with a gloved finger “there’s a place called Manchester here!” Sure enough, near the upper right edge of the map, in amongst a thousand Spanish sounding place names was what appeared to be a village called ‘Manchester’. What it was doing there was too big a mystery to pass up and an idea was born there and then. Four years later, in June of this year we were sitting on the banks of the remote and unknown Rio Manuripi with a canoe full of enough food for three months and hearts going ten to the dozen about to set off for Manchester. It had taken five flights and nine bouncing journeys in 4×4 trucks to get here but here we were at last. What little information we’d been able to glean from Internet searches and correspondence from both sides of the Atlantic had told us that this forgotten Manchester was right in the heart of the Pando region of northern Bolivia and that it’d been established during the boom years of the rubber industry. Apart from that we had no idea if the place still physically existed, if people still lived there or even exactly where it was. The maps we had were less than reliable.
We were now surrounded by excited villagers from the little settlement of San Silverstre near the border with Peru. It was the only village that the Rio Manuripi cut through anywhere near a road. The villagers inspected our folding canoe in fits of giggles and a certain scepticism about its suitability for our trip. We’d opted to use a sixteen-foot long PakCanoe 160 made by the American firm Pakboats. After months of research it was clearly the only folding canoe that was going to serve our purposes. We needed a canoe we knew was going to meet our needs and one that we could fly to Bolivia along with the rest of our expedition kit. Alv at PakBoat gave us a lot of help in choosing the right canoe for the trip and it proved to be just what we needed. However, to date our practice sessions with the canoe had consisted of an afternoon on the Montgomery Canal in Wales and a paddle down the River Dee on the Welsh/English border. Now we were wishing we’d spent a bit more time on this side of things but there was nothing that could be done about that now. Once all the ribs were in place and the skin had been tensioned we had to wait on the bank for the excited Bolivians to finish taking it for a test ride before we could load it up and set off. Compared to their swift dugout canoes it seemed to have a good pace but it could carry so much more. I think they were quietly impressed but they wouldn’t admit it.
At long last the waiting was over. We loaded the last of the food and camera equipment into our little PakCanoe and took up our positions. Liz in the front, me in the back and we were away. Not entirely joking, I whispered to Liz “Look good, we’ve only got to get round that bend and then we can capsize. Just don’t go in yet!” The maximum recommended weight limit of the canoe was supposed to be 350 kilogram’s and after a long evening in a hotel room weighing everything we knew that the combined weight including ourselves was closer to 375 kilogram’s. She was sitting low in the water but we weren’t sinking. That was good enough.
We rounded the first bend and all trace of civilisation was gone. Suddenly it was just the two of us and the sounds of the jungle. The heat was oppressive and sweat poured out of us. Despite putting serious effort into getting fit for this expedition my arms were already screaming their reluctance at being used to paddle the boat forward. A couple of days on a canal and a sedate river clearly hadn’t been enough. Worryingly, we’d only come five hundred metres. I looked on the bright side of things and knew I could only get fitter and stronger over the coming months. I lent on the paddle and dug in. By the end of the first day we’d made the best part of ten kilometres according to the GPS, but that was ten kilometres along the meandering river, not in a straight line. As the crow flies we’d made closer to a disappointing three. The coffee brown waters ran at a sluggish pace and any progress that we made was due to our own efforts rather than the effort of the river. However, it was clear that if we were going to find Manchester we were going to have to make some early starts from here on in.
For the moment though, coffee was calling and we steered the canoe into the bank for the evening. Liz hopped out and immediately sunk up to her knees in hissing mud. It was to set the tone for the next two and a half months. As the river waters flowed out of the high Andes mountains they picked up silt along their way, dumping some of it on the banks that we now tried to scramble up. Almost every time that we tried to get out of the canoe it was the same and in these early days it formed a bone of contention that between us. Liz would stand in the front of the canoe prodding the mud with her paddle, looking for a firm bit to stand on. There never was a firm bit and I’d sit there, keeping the front of the canoe turned into the bank quietly seething until I’d shout a profanity at Liz. She’d shout one back and the jump out in defiance. As the weeks went by this early dislike of the mud passed and I’d marvel at the way she sprung from the canoe and was away into the jungle with hardly a trace. I never admitted it at the time but I hated the mud just as much. It was stinking, clinging heavy stuff that covered everything. Every few days we’d have to turf everything out of the canoe and scrape out the mud for fear of sinking as we sat lower and lower in the water each time we climbed back.
That first night we set up camp and despite our exhausted state we talked late into the evening over the campfire and deafening song of the nocturnal insects. We’d set aside some of the precious room in the canoe for a couple of bottles of rum and several dozen limes. It fuelled our conversation and the banter went back and forth along with additions of how much we both ached. The one thing we did agree on was that neither of us would want to be anywhere else right now. The heartache of all the planning and living like nuns for years was worth every second of the hardships. The rum also did a good job a numbing the itching mosquito bites too.
Dawn came early the next morning and the heat swiftly came along with it. It forced our tired bodies from our sleeping bags and into the canoe by 7:00a.m. The canoe felt unstable as we tentatively put the paddles to the water but it was just a combination of fatigue and lack of practice. There was nothing wrong with the canoe; it was all due to a lack of preparation on our part. It still felt good to be feeling the dark waters coursing under the boat though. We concentrated on just getting to the next bend in the river, and then the next after that and the next. On it went. The Rio Manuripi is such a winding river that as I looked at the GPS I could see that we were spending as much time going north or south as we did going in the easterly direction we were supposed to be going in. I kept quiet and lied to Liz that we were making good progress. Even though the river was slow and lazy it was a challenge to get round each and every bend it seemed. Great eddies circulated on the outside line with shifting edges that would grab the canoe and pull us in. Instead of the sharp eddy lines of a fast flowing river these eddies had wide, moving lines that appeared and disappeared without any predictability to them. We’d enter a bend on a seemingly good line only to find ourselves facing upstream and wondering what had happened. Similarly, boils would appear before us and again we’d wonder what had happened all too late or a log would lurk just under the surface and send us off into the bank. The times that we hit the bank were few and far between but they did prove to be a good excuse to face the mud and have another coffee.
It wasn’t all hard work and challenge. Each day would see us hastily grabbing for the camera as a family of giant otters would check us out from a distance, barking warnings. Scarlet macaws flew overhead and howler monkeys swung from the trees. The jungle was teaming with wildlife all around and didn’t seem to mind our presence too much either. To the contrary, our choice of blue canoe attracted hundreds of butterflies and we paddled along in a fiesta of dancing fun. The only creatures that really seemed to object to our presence were the caiman. They’d lazily bask in the sun on the muddy banks until we appeared around a bend, at which point they’d erupt in an explosion of power and dive for the water. Some would be sleeping in the river itself with just closed eyes and nostrils showing. Our untrained eyes would be oblivious to them in our path and the silent canoe would ram into the unlucky ones. As long as our canoe, they’d scare the life out of us as the explosion of a panicking reptile hit the boat. They never had us in the water but we never quite got used to them.
As the weeks passed we became more and more a part of the river, or it became a part of us; I’m not sure which. We lived on the water by day, camped beside it by night. We washed in it, we drank from it and it fed us. There are over 2600 different species of fish in the rivers of the Amazon Basin and it astounds me to this day that we only ever caught one of them. There was no shortage of piranha in the Rio Manuripi. Six to ten inches long, with jutting jaws, raiser sharp teeth and big orange bellies they were surprisingly tasty. Their firm flesh made a particularly good fish curry but after a couple of months of eating little else but piranha as our main food we were extremely pleased we’d had the idea to bring along a dozen treacle sponge puddings to supplement our diet. Either way, the piranha fuelled our bodies and sent us on our way to finding Manchester.
It was three weeks before we saw another person on the river. As we drifted round yet another bend we began to make out a long dugout with a woman and two children washing clothes in the river. A little way off from the water was a two-house settlement in the middle of nowhere that could never be called a village. The woman looked up from her work and the children hid behind her, fighting between fear and curiosity. We drifted over and said hello in a very English kind of way. She eyed us and then eyed the canoe. Finally she broke out in a big grin and invited us over to the other side of the river for some grapefruit juice. Together we climbed out of the boats and walked up the small hill to the houses where Don Willi, her father greeted us. As the grapefruit juice was poured we explained in our poor Spanish who we were and what we were doing. “We’re from Manchester in Inglaterra and we’re looking for the Manchester here! Is this it?” I asked.
“No. This is San Antonio.” He said simply. “I didn’t hear you coming. Is your engine broken?” he asked.
“No, we don’t have an engine. We’re paddling the canoe ourselves down the river to Manchester.”
“But Manchester is a long way, where have you come from?”
San Silvestre, on the border with Peru.” It seemed like an innocent enough answer to us but the house fell into fits of laughter.
Roughly translated, Don Willi’s response as best I could make out through the giggles was “You’ve got to be kidding pal! You crazy, crazy Gringos!” From there word went round the family at lightening speed a moments later we were back at the waters edge showing off the blue canoe. We stayed with Don Willi for a few days, drinking grapefruit juice by the gallon and resting. Our water purifier had become clogged with silt on the third day of the trip and ever since then we’d been drinking water straight from the river filtered through a silk sleeping bag liner. Grapefruit juice wasn’t as good as the bear we’d have liked but it was as close to heaven as we were going to get. On the third day we loaded up the canoe again and set off as a flotilla down the river. Everybody wanted to see how our flimsy looking canoe performed on the river, let alone just managed to float with everything we’d thrown in it. The flotilla turned in to an impromptu canoe race. There had been a certain amount of lighthearted banter at the expense of our beautiful blue canoe and our plastic paddles. They were adamant that their hardy dugouts and wooden paddles were the only way to go.
This was to be a friendly grudge match, if there can be such a thing. Given the importance of coming out on top in this impromptu event we distracted our hosts with a vague pointing motion to something on the far bank and sprinted off down the river. We hadn’t even given them chance to finish bailing the rainwater out of their boats. We’d gained the initiative and were pulling out a good lead as the San Antonio teams struggled to sort themselves out. The two children, Hugo and Fernando were in one canoe with Don Willi in fits of giggles. Manina, the woman we’d first met on the river and her husband Roberto were in another canoe and neck and neck with Don Willi. I looked back over my shoulder. This was going to be easy I thought. Don Willi, aged sixty and still recovering from a minor stroke some months ago was crewing a team of small kids while the stronger boat and greater threat of Roberto was handicapped due to the fact that Manina had brought more washing with her.
Both boats looked like they’d been fashioned in the time of the rubber boom itself and they gained momentum at a snails pace. Our canoe was shorter in length and the modern materials were winning the day as we sprinted for mid channel. Glancing behind me again I could see Hugo bailing for all he was worth while Fernando, still too young to have developed muscles was struggling to wheeled his heavy wooden paddle as the slightly frail form of Don Willi was putting in a good effort. Roberto was a whirling Dervish of rippling muscle behind the smiling face of Manina sitting sedately with her washing on her lap. Roberto and Don Willi clearly meant business. Even though they both had handicaps of one kind or another I urged Liz to dig deep. If we were going to win we should win well. One hundred metres out we hit a boil formed by an unseen obstacle. Our momentum faltered for a moment but we continued true and straight. We held a lead of twenty metres but Roberto was gaining fast. Don Will was tiring and beginning to fall back. However, Hugo was now reaching for a paddle. A bend in the river was approaching and I knew this would be our danger area. Our stubby canoe could easily spin on the eddy line if my helmsmanship wasn’t spot on. The long straight hulls of the dugouts would sail over such obstacles without notice but were harder to turn in the bends.
As we approached we had the centre line and were in front by a good ten metres. The initiative was still ours and I cut wide entering the bend, forcing Roberto to put in a hard paddle stroke on the other side to avoid us, nearly sending Manina’s washing into the river. It was a dirty trick but Liz had spotted a couple of macaws flying overhead and was now pointing instead of paddling. The manoeuvre worked and Roberto and Manina were sent off line into the eddy, and were now falling well back.
Stumbling over our mid-race victory we hadn’t seen the tight line that Don Willi and his team had taken close in to the inside bank. We were still mid-stream and our longer line was giving him the upper hand. He knew this river like the back of his hand and now his sixty years of experience was paying off. Our paddles cut into the water and pulled us forward. We were working well and I felt a sense of pride as our paddles entered and exited the water in unison. But we were now in the wake of Don Willi, Hugo and Fernando. I looked ahead as the river straightened out again and I knew it was all over. Their long, slender dugout was now effortlessly pulling away with all three of them paddling together. Don Willi waved a victory salute while Hugo and Fernando blew raspberries at us. We’d lost but we were still proud.
Regrouping as we drifted downstream, Roberto and Manina agreed that Don Willi should be disqualified for having fielded a team of three. However, Manina said that we should also be disqualified for our dirty trick of cutting them up and coming close to making her loose the washing in the river. No one would argue with Manina so that was that.
We left San Antonio at the next bend and we were on our on again. And we remained on our own for another month, living life at the pace of the river. Canoeing each day for as long we wanted to, exploring oxbow lakes and swamps as we went. Every so often we’d make camp in a particularly beautiful spot amongst the trees and vines and we’d stay there for a few days taking it all in. But our purpose was to find Manchester and it kept on calling. By now the river had matured to a width of thirty metres or so and she carried us along ever closer to our goal. It had been nearly two months before we got into the ballpark of where we believed Manchester to be. Don Willi had told us it was on an offshoot of the main river on the banks of a lagoon and now we floated at the edge of still waters that disappeared into the jungle. This was it. It had to be. Just in the same way as our hearts thumped in our chests on the first day we joined the river at San Silvestre they were thumping now. Liz looked back at me, gave a wink and we set off into the blind jungle waters. Half an hour of paddling saw us immerge into the lagoon just as Don Willi had described. It was narrow and so long we couldn’t see the end of it. A vicious wind blow along its length and it felt as though Manchester wasn’t going to give its secrets up without a fight but we edged forward. Slowly, the forest began to clear and rise up on a low hill. Perched atop we could just make out a loan hut. Then, in a hidden bay a group of boats emerged, obscuring more huts leading off up the hill. With a new found energy we glided to the other boats and our little PakCanoe grazed her bottom on the beach. There before us was a sign, leaning beside one of the huts, ‘Bienvenidos Barraca Manchester’, Welcome to Manchester and we climbed the hill feeling like conquering heroes.
Manchester was established by an Englishman named Anthony Webster-James in the days of the 18th Century rubber boom. It was a small market town that served the needs of the workers for as long as the boom lasted and it was forgotten again almost as quickly as it was founded. Webster-James married a Bolivian girl and lived out his days in the country until his death, never returning to England. Today, Manchester is just a small village of twenty or so huts, inhabited by some of the most wonderful people in the world.
Chris Smith & Liz Peel