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Napo River, headwaters of the Amazon

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The Napo River heads on the crest of the Cordillera Occidental. It winds through the jungle-choked lowlands of eastern Ecuador and northern Peru, and finally empties into the headwaters of the Amazon. Near the small village of Ahuano, where we are working our way slowly upstream against the current, the Napo is already a formidable river.

Our boat, carved from a single log, is about 10 metres long and just wide enough for two people to sit beside one another. Betty and I plus our three travelling companions and a couple native women are squeezed into midships amongst a pile of freshly cut green bananas. In the bow an elderly Spanish gentleman, with a flock of grey hair and matching moustache, sits facing the stern. He is impeccably dressed in a grey suit, tie, and shiny black oxfords.

We are on the return leg of our visit to Cabanas Anaconda, a jungle-style lodge where we spent the first few days of our Napo River adventure. The young indian boatman, barely visible over a stack of red jerry cans, guides the boat skilfully upstream – gunning the 40-horse kicker through stretches of fast water and throttling back as he weaves from bank to bank avoiding the shallow bars and riffles.

Then the engine quits!

As we drift backwards the driver frantically shakes one empty jerry can after another, finally gives up and strains to tilt up the outboard. It won't budge. The power leg hits bottom, tilting the boat precariously and launching our slender craft into a series of uncontrolled slow-motion pirouettes. The current finally sweeps us up against a steep bank overhung by dense jungle foliage. Everyone grabs a vine and hangs on for dear life – everyone, that is, except the grey mystery-man in the bow. Throughout the entire ordeal the expression on his dark, handsome face never changes – inscrutable, detached – he could have been sitting at a board-room table, waiting for the end of a boring speech.

Half an hour later we hailed a passing skiff and borrowed some gas from a native family who viewed our predicament with considerable amusement.

Three days earlier our trip downstream from the village of Misahualli to Anaconda Island was much less exciting. In fact the cruise down river provided welcome relief after the white-knuckle bus ride from Banos, a village perched high on the flanks of Vulcan Tungurahua. From there the road descends almost 1,000 metres of precipice-bounded switchbacks before levelling out at Puyo in the upper Amazon Basin.

Our bus driver, obviously in a hurry, makes no concessions to blind outside corners that seem to be suspended in space. In places the route is notched into slopes so steep that waterfalls spill directly onto the road. But the views of the upper Amazon Basin are spectacular, and thoughts of failed brakes and blown tires are forgotten as we anticipate visiting a corner of that vast jungle-covered region below us.

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