EDS
Pico da Neblina, 2002

A história da ONG Expedicionários da Saúde teve início em 2002, um ano antes de sua fundação.

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Diário do Dr. Gordon Howie

A história da ONG Expedicionários da Saúde teve início em 2002, um ano antes de sua fundação, quando um grupo de amigos (maioria médicos) decidiu subir o Pico da Neblina, ponto mais alto do Brasil com 2.994 metros de altitude, localizado na fronteira com a Venezuela.

Foi no caminho onde o primeiro contato indígena aconteceu: em uma passagem pela aldeia de Maturacá, de etnia Yanomami, o grupo identificou uma demanda cirúrgica acima da média e um povo sem acesso à saúde, devido ao isolamento geográfico.

Quer saber mais sobre essa história? Confira abaixo o diário emocionante e divertido narrado pelo médico neozelandês Dr. Gordon Howie.

Up the Rio Negro to the top of Brazil (Pico da Neblina)

Dr. Gordon Howie

Well folks usually at this time of the year, well to be truthful it’s usually even closer to Christmas, I sit down to tell you of the Howie family exploits and offer advice on cooking, music and books. But not this year.

Three months ago I was walking through Newmarket when my friend Ricardo from Brazil, whom I first met in Delaware, USA in 1986, rang to invite me to climb the highest mountain in Brazil. Intrigued at the prospect of doing something completely different and well out of my usual comfort zone (and after wifely acquiescence and encouragement) I accepted with some concerns regarding tropical diseases, fitness and lead poisoning (Sir Peter Blake’s shooting at the mouth of the Amazon).

On Labor Day flew to Santiago and on to Sao Paulo for three weeks of tropical adventure, equipped  with  a large pack of stuff to meet all exigencies, from pox to piranhas.

A long flight found me the next day lying in a deck chair overlooking a large garden and orchard near Campinas, North West of Sao Paulo, relishing the warmth and wondering still what was going to be. That evening with a magnificent barbecue prepared by Ricardo’s parents I met the rest of the team:

Ricardo, 45, an Orthopedic Surgeon, Martin, 47, his cousin, an anesthetist (always useful to have with two surgeons), another cousin Heke (Henrique) 33, Patrick, ?45, a farmer and what we would call a “Crocodile Dundee”, Jorge, 36, a photographer and amateur body builder, and Eurico, 47, a physiotherapist (equivalent). Which meant I was the oldest at 52, the smallest and possibly the unfittest. What did encourage me was their friendliness, familiarity, and ability to speak English as my Portuguese studies had not begun as intended.

We were all invited to display our proposed equipment and food &c to minimize the weight and enable our four porters and guide to carry the extras. Much would have to be discarded. The next day we purchased lighter stuff and bought a few missing pieces – camel back water pouch, hat with mosquito net, gaiters.

After a 0545 start we flew from Campinas, to Rio de Janeiro (cloudy), to Brasilia, and onto Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas, a town of 1.8 million people. We visit the famous Opera House, built by the rubber barons in 1896, in a variety of styles, but splendid in its juxtaposition with the modern city. Manaus is on the junction of the Rio Negro with its black water and Rio Solimoes with its muddy water. We drive to see the river and get drowned with our first tropical rainfall. Dinner is on a floating restaurant approached down a very muddy bank after a hairy drive in the dark and rain. There are some familiar items, Skol beer, rice and beans, pasta, fish soup, and some unfamiliar but soon to be familiar…

Another early start from Manaus airport. We seem to have a lot of stuff. Ricardo has it packed in World Wildlife Fund bags. Who could charge such a man with excess baggage? Sitting on the plane fog spills out from the air conditioning vents. We soon climb over the Negro and follow it for two hours to Sao Gabriel de Cachoeira (pronounced Cash-weir-a) and meaning waterfall but looking like a weir. This where the ferries stop because of the rapids but there are other boats upstream.

Our “air conditioned” transport is the Brazilian version of a Toyota land cruiser truck of the sixties. There are nine of us on and in it (later this will increase to twelve). We drive past a heavy military presence, this being near the borders with Venezuela and Colombia, to the river and our not so salubrious hotel. The river is huge, tumbling over rapids, and very refreshing. Yes, you can swim in it without fear of piranhas.

A hot walk through the town reminds me of other places tropical and less developed like Fiji, or Indonesia, or Thailand. Cold beer is a constant temptation. A very slow but ultimately excellent meal was to be our last decent meal for two weeks – the Amazonas is not the best place for a foodie.

Next day we are all loaded onto the truck with the whole team including Arlindho our guide, an ex gold prospector and our four porters. Someone named us the dirty dozen. Two hours on a red clay dirt road takes us over the equator, stopping by the sign for a photograph. I wonder how many other roads in Africa and South America crossing the equator have such signs accepting that there aren’t that many roads in the Amazons? I am feeling sorry for the chaps on the back baking in the sun.

We reach our destination, a large shed, and settle in for dinner when a villager tells us a man has been stabbed in the chest. He has blood soaked clothes, there’s blood congealing on the floor and he’s clutching his right groin and left shoulder. Three doctors give him the once over and to their relief the only serious wound is a divided vein which we tie off. This considerably lightens our first aid pack of supplies.

I am pleased that my small medical pack which I had left behind in favor of Ricardo’s would have been sufficient. What is important in these situations is a decent light and lots of clean water.

Our trip upstream to the six lakes mountain, a volcano, is via a stream littered with fallen trees and vegetation, which we have to pass over or under; it’s definitely starting to feel jungly. We make camp in what is to become the usual pattern, hoisting plastic sheets for tarpaulins over our tents so we can enjoy the insect proofedness of the tents but not have to suffer the heat of a fly sheet over the top. The guides and one or two of us sleep in hammocks but the bugs are a disincentive. The evening meal too becomes a pattern, rice and pasta, or is it pasta and rice, always spaghetti, sometimes with peas and carrots, sometimes with sardines, or salted meat…..It reminds me of school in quality and quantity and the perpetual hunger.

We soon settle in a ritual of washing, eating and sleeping. It’s dark by seven and we are often asleep early.

Climbing up a very steep slope I soon realize that this is no easy amble through the forest. Although it is quite open there are lots of insects, including biting ants, bees, wasps, tics and flies, as well as the humid heat. My clothes are quickly soaked but if you take them off you get bitten. The Australian “Bushman’s friend” insect repellant is completely useless. Later, I count the insect bites – sixty between foot and knee on one leg.  After several hours of grind we reach a beautiful lake, with, unusually for these parts, a breeze. Never, ever will I complain of the wind in NZ. A refreshing swim restores us, we walk up and down for several more hours before diving back into the river at our camp. Is it all going to be this hard and hot? I had drunk 3 litres of water and still felt dry as a chip and with a good dose of cramp.

A whole day spent in the boats (with out board motors) going upstream to the Yanomani village at Maturaca is an excellent way to view the jungle. We see many butterflies, bats, birds (toucano and parrots) pass indians in canoes, and an everchanging parade of tall trees, vines and palms. The only non-green vegetation is a tall tree with purple flowers which reminds me of a rata tree in spring flower. The river is black but clean, and wonderfully refreshing when we stop for lunch and play with a snake. Lunch is bully beef, dried crackers and manioc, a yellow flour served with every meal.

After just an hour or two to many we arrive at the Yanomani village, meet the nurse assistant in charge, check out some difficult medical problems – a young epileptic with chorea, a case of severe glaucoma and a woman with severe rheumatoid knees. In the hospital is a young man with snake bite and the usual cases of malaria. A young child looks like he might have Kwashiorkor. I think I’ll just get back in the boat….

At last we begin to see mountains (and clouds and rain). We stop at a small abandoned collection of huts to shelter from the downpour. The rain comes at unpredictable times and one must always be ready for it with covers over the packs and at least one set of dry clothes. Unless one can expose wet clothes to sun or wind, they don’t dry out. A pair of woolen socks takes a week to dry and smells like a dog.

Finally, we are ready to set out for Pico da Neblina (the mountain of the mist). It’s 3014 metres high, the highest mountain in Brazil and the highest outside of the Andes in South America. I am beginning to realize that I am part of a strange Brazilian macho male ritual to climb this lump of quartz less than one degree north of the equator. Allegedly only 350 people have done this. The question is, why so many?

There is a further discarding of equipment and supplies in the midst of another rainfall before we set out. Two days of walking steadily uphill, twenty degrees, thirty degrees, forty degrees it gets steeper and wetter until we are eventually walking up a waterfall and through a swamp to base camp. The sun breaks our hypothermia and we are now at 2000 meters. We meet another New Zealander, Dominick Stephens, an economist from Christchurch, who has been fishing here for a few months and who had heard about our expedition in the newspaper. He is 26 and keen to be the first New Zealander to the peak. I think he will.

We have revised our plans and decide to ascend and descend in the same day so as not to have to carry all our gear up. The mountain is covered with cloud much of the time and so rather cool. After days of heat and humidity it is time to put on long johns and hats to sleep. I break out my down sleeping bag for the first time. It is deliciously warm and has the zip on the right side, in front of me and not up the back like my last one. So cozy.

The next day we put on our wet clothes, eat all we can for breakfast and walk through the swamp for two hours before ascending a steep cliff with some helpful ropes. The weather breaks, it rains, gets cold, lightning is followed immediately by thunder reminding us of our vulnerability. Up, up and then suddenly we are on top to disbelief. We have done it. The cloud clears momentarily. Over the edge we can see the jungle far below. For a minute I am indisputably the highest man standing in Brazil. We warm up, celebrate, photograph and descend. It does not seem a safe place to camp.

The trudge back through the swamp is boring and tiring. I vow never to return. Just before camp Ricardo and I stumble through an area of bleak terrain where gold prospectors have cleared most of the vegetation leaving wide gouges of white and pink quartz. We are slightly lost but then see the smoke of our camp in the failing light. We have been walking for nine and a half hours and are cold, muddy and exhausted. Somewhere up in the mountains are Dominick, Wilhem and their guide. I subsequently hear that Dominick was hit by lightning on the peak, and survived.

For our homeward leg the weather is fine and it barely rains. Our first camp is sunny; we dry out all our stuff, swim and relax. The moon is out and the frogs croak us to sleep.

Eurico, Martin and I are leading off when Eurico leaps up. A bee sting? No, a two meter long python slithers around the base of his tree (he can have it). It is shiny silvery gold with large black circles along his thick muscular body. My camera is not with me. The other unusual sight was a crab, perfectly happy at 1500 meters in the rain forest.

We pass some beautiful golden globular fungi, some very tall trees, huge vines, broad leaves of epiphytes, many bromeliads, ferns and palms. At times it seems like a garden centre there are so many familiar exotic plants.

It is exhausting walking down hill for the leaves are slippery and one frequently falls backwards. Shortly before the end I hyperextend my tired knee on a branch; must keep walking while I can. It’s only another hour I thought. On, on, and then the river. Bliss, a swim and no more walking for a while. The knee is still not quite right and I can’t run on it.

Another day with the Yanomanis, then the long boat trip back to the road. Our truck is late but arrives shortly before  dusk. The road is now seriously rutted and wet. Red clay puddles are very deep. The truck lurches and stops. We get off, the truck moves on, we reload, the rain starts, the lightning flashes distantly for now. Finally, we are back in the civilization of Sao Gabriel. Clean clothes and telephones, beer and beds, sleep without water or things squirming underneath. On our last night we climb the town water tower for a spectacular 360 degree panoramic view of the Amazon. There are three different evening storms in the distance, with lightning and rain. Yes, this is why it is called the rain forest.

A day of rest and recreation invigorates us prior to our ferry ride to Manaus, a two and a half day trip down one thousand kilometers of the Rio Negro, navigated by our captain who uses no charts, no radar and no depth gauge. The first two hundred kilometers is the trickiest, the river falling about 40 meters.

The Tanaka Neto V carries many boxes of hatchery fish, miscellaneous furniture and about one hundred    passengers, a dozen of whom are army sergeants returning after two years on the border. They entertain us with the exuberance, stories and music. The evenings are spent on the top deck listening to Brazilian music, drinking beer until the boat runs dry, watching the vast river slide by. We motor for hours without seeing another boat or village on what is, in essence, the M1 of the Amazon. The river is life in the Amazon. You live next to it or on it, wash in it, travel in it, fish in it and swim in it.

In Manaus it was Sunday night, and several restaurants closed. We finally have a smorgasbord dinner in the fanciest hotel in town filled with loud Americans and feel distinctly out of place. The food, however, a very welcome change with many varieties of meat and fish available fresh from the grill. This sustains us until our plane leaves at 2am for Sao Paulo where I farewell my Brazilian friends and wait for the 5pm flight to Santiago. I am pleasantly surprised to find I’ve been upgraded for the overnight flight from Santiago to Auckland.

It’s strange being back home, sleeping in a bed, eating food other than rice and spaghetti, and unsettling. Having been with people who survive on very little and in harmony with nature it is hard to take seriously patients who complain of back pain or people who are otherwise unhappy with their lives.

I realize that I can survive in the jungle, sleep on the ground, eat monotonous food and not grizzle. Despite being the oldest, or perhaps because of it, I was fit enough for this ordeal. I am glad for my boarding school experiences and my short stint in the army, which helped prepare me.

Tips for the jungle.

When in Brazil Ricardo lent me a very useful book called “Beyond backpacking” by Ray Jardine. I strongly recommend it. It’s about radically lightening your load, carrying less, and thereby walking more.

In the rain forest it rains a lot, so you need clothes which dry quickly. You need long sleeved tops and longs not shorts to reduce insect bites and scratches. You must have a dry change of clothes including four pairs of sox (polyproylene and not wool). A light totally waterproof bag (the Mountain shop in High Street – the San Juan is a lot lighter than the Baja) of 30 litre capacity will take a sleeping bag and the clothes. A rain jacket should be light. A camel back is useful but needs a proper pack and a turn valve in addition to the sipper. A sipper bottle with built in filter is very handy, e.g., PentaPure from the Travellers Medical Ctr, 72 Remuera Rd – expensive but worth it for convenience. If you buy aluminum water bottles check that the stoppers have a groove in them (the Swiss Sigg bottles do but not the Katmandu copies). When you put in iodine tablets you wait ten minutes then tip some water out around the threads of the bottle. Dissolve the tablets before putting them in camel backs as they adsorb onto the plastic. The water tabs should be removed from their bottle to save weight and put in film containers or snap lock bags. A needle and thread is very useful, the needle at least for prickles, along with something to cut nails. Travel soap in a tube is handy but not very good for washing clothes. Get a cover for your toothbrush.  Boots will get wet so take ones that dry out quickly. Gaiters are handy – the longer the better. Jandals are useful after showering and lighter than most sandals. A travel pack of wet wipes is useful for a last cleanup at night. For cooking / eating a metal pot with lid that will hold a cooker or cup. A big plastic mug is handy for soups. I am glad I took pepper and salt and would also take Tabasco or Soy – something to add flavour. I took my Opinel knife – it folds up and has a much bigger blade than a Swiss Army knife. Obviously these can’t be carried on the plane. Get a good plastic spoon and fork. A jungle hat stops things getting in your hair and you should carry a whistle, compass and matches. A plastic poncho is useful and handy to sit on. Make sure your pack cover is waterproof and can be firmly fastened to the pack – this means more than elastic, but cord or velcro.

Fungal infections are a real problem so take antifungal powder and some cream for chaffing plus some ant itch for insect bites.

If in doubt, leave it out, lighter is better.

Unless you are an ornithologist don’t take binoculars. Take the lightest camera in a plastic bag (+ spare bags and silica), or else get a Pelican case. Take twice as much film as you think you’ll need especially if using APS film (not readily available). If you are taking a walking stick (recommended) use the round ski pole type fitting rather than just the point alone (less sink in and less risk of breakage). If you are a photographer get one with a camera fitting. Leki have one (Katmandu in Newmarket).

Dignidade e Saúde para a Comunidade Indígena