With every machete whack and every soggy step, Ed Stafford gets a little closer to joining the ranks of the explorer elite; hearty souls throughout history who sailed over uncharted horizons or walked into wilderness to fill in maps for king, God and glory.
Sure, the great ones relied on the stars while Ed has Google Earth. But even in 2010, the Amazon is a steaming, stinging, slithering test of will, and his will to press on is inspiring school kids around the globe.
Man Vs. Wild: Deadly Beauty
The Amazon starts with a trickle high in the Andes, getting fatter with every rainfall until 4,000 miles later, it roars into the sea at 58 million gallons a second. The first Europeans sailed it in the 16th century, but in all the years since no one has ever been brave and/or crazy enough to walk it. Because the world's biggest jungle contains a long and creative list of ways it can kill you.
Anaconda and piranha, jaguars and electric eels, assassin bugs and vampire fish and sharp-toothed caiman. The mosquitoes carry diseases; the drug smugglers, guns; and savage tribes carry both poison arrows and deep suspicion.
It is, hands down, THE worst place to take a long walk. But for Stafford, those were perfect reasons to come.
"It was in fact, a lot of people telling me that it was impossible to walk the entire length of the Amazon that spurred me on even more," Stafford told me. "As soon as they said 'that's impossible,' it made me want to prove them wrong."
He set aside an entire year to hike and hack his way down the Amazon. But when I found him in eastern Brazil, he'd been walking for more than 2 years, and he was still months away from the finish line.
As we hiked, he told his story. The son of London lawyers, Stafford was raised in posh boarding schools, until wanderlust led him into the military, and then to a job leading jungle expeditions. Rainforest conservation became his passion.
He has seen huge parcels of rainforest that have been ruined by deforestation. "Every Brazilian you meet will quote the "lungs of the planet" comment at you, so people here do understand how precious the rainforest is," Stafford said. "But there's no doubt it's still going on, and it's going on at a rate that still isn't sustainable. If this expedition it wasn't adventurous, if it wasn't slightly gung-ho and if there wasn't an element of danger people wouldn't be interested in coming to the blog and then finding out more about the Amazon, so I think so the event seems like the reckless side of it, it's actually crucial to draw people into the Amazon and in order to make the whole thing exciting."
Journey is Hard, But Stafford Never Thinks of Quitting
Thanks to portable satellite Internet, Ed is also the Amazon's first walking video blogger. Science classrooms around the world log in to revel in his wonder -- and hardship--and small donations from students help keep the journey alive.
He repays them by documenting every sting and bite, every brush with pit viper, monkey hunter and cocaine farmer.
And he's learned a lot about people this far from civilization.
He started the journey with a best friend, but after a falling out, his buddy quit three months in, so Stafford hiked alone for weeks, until a friendly Peruvian named Gadiel "Cho" Sanchez offered to join him for a few days -- and stayed for two years.
One native tribe invited him to watch an elaborate ritual, and another nearly ended his life.
"Five dugout canoes filled with Amerindians. Half with bows drawn. Some with shotguns. The women with machetes. And they were absolutely livid, they were furious," he recalled. "It is just a lack of understanding. They believe white people come to harvest their organs, and refer to them as 'face peelers.'"
He survived by hiring the chief as a guide. There are no hostile natives on our short two days together, but even so I get a hardy dose of his daily grind
Cho makes a mean steak and rice. But the nights are so sweltering, the jungle is so loud, that even sleeping saps your strength.
And yet, for 780 days running, Stafford gets up, puts on clothes that never dry and ignores a thousand good reasons to quit.
"As much as I've wanted at times to be at home, I've never wanted to quit," he said. "I think I've been quite humbled on how much I've had to rely on other people, and how I've had to rely on the generosity and good nature of the locals who I've met on the way through. The help and interest in the expedition has just been overwhelming, really."
Ed is so confident he's going to complete this journey that he's already booked his plane ticket home at the end of August. You can imagine what kind of party awaits him.