From Source to Sea

Three Austinites kayak South America

It was the first day of their 3,600-mile kayaking journey and Jeff Wueste, Ian Rolls, and West Hansen were already on the edge of trouble.

There, on the shores of the Peruvian river Tambo, they sat looking on as a bulky man wearing a Polo shirt and khaki pants adjusted the bandolier of shotgun shells across his chest so he could comfortably read their travel documents.

With four years of planning and a National Geographic sponsorship, they didn't have to worry about paperwork being out of order. They did, however, need to pay heed to the rules of their surroundings; they were in "The Red Zone," an expansive area of Peru ran by drug lords, and it was part of their route across South America.

"These guys run things and you need to behave. So we did," Hansen stated.

Good behavior and proper documentation had its rewards. In one of many moments of surrealism during their four-month adventure, the drug runners, now confident the travelers weren't CIA agents, helped carry their boats to shore before handing them glossy printed tourist maps. Wueste laughed as he impersonated the unlikely gun-clad liaisons, "'Oh, by the way! Here's the waterfalls in the area and there's nice primitive camping here on this side of the river!'"

How did these three Austinites find themselves in that situation? The answer begins with West Hansen. In 2000 he fell in love with the Amazon after completing a raft race in Peru. When he returned, he discovered that years before there had been a successful paddling expedition from the Amazon's source to the Atlantic. After researching and finding a mentor in the man who had made it happen (Piotr Chmielinski), he knew it was something he could do.

"It sounds like an exciting gig, doesn't it?" he smiled. "It's one of those cool things to do, and we have the ability." Wueste jokingly interjected, "It was a middle-age-crisis thing. Since he was turning 50, he wanted to go out with a bang!"

In its entirety, the trip totaled 4,103.2 miles, the first 512 of which were heaving, whitewater rapids. From 15,000 feet in the tip of the Andes, Hansen and a team of world-class whitewater "bad-asses" took to rafts and braved class four and five rapids, descending from an arid, desertlike terrain down into the heart of the South American continent. At one point, they clung to the inside of a cave for hours, waiting for boulders the size of refrigerators to stop blasting down from construction above. Wueste and Rolls, having little to no whitewater experience, rode along the river in a support van during this stretch. They would need their rest, because after the rapids, came the jungle.

Do not let the connotation of that word fool you; their reality was much different from the dark, tangled stereotype most of us would imagine. Even these three were surprised by what they found.

"I was assuming I would be covered with mosquitoes, I would for sure die of malaria, and there would be snakes every step," Wueste conceded.

But that was far from the truth. The weather was milder than in Texas, they barely touched their bug spray, and only saw one snake. Though, at one point, they were cautioned about an anaconda who had eaten a villager a few months before. Fortunately, he never showed, and in his place were pleasanter travel companions - Amazonian pink dolphins - who paddled alongside them almost every day.

Though lacking microwave-sized mosquitoes, the jungle still delivered mystique. While in Brazil, their mornings began with a peculiar noise. It would be faint, sectionalized, and then slowly roll into the sound of a strong wind, yet they never saw the trees move. Later, they discovered why; the sound was the call of howler monkeys.

"Wait,” Ian added to the subject, “if we're talking about sounds, then we have to go over 'the disco.' So, we would go to sleep at 8 o'clock at night, in the middle of where you think is nowhere, and in the middle of the night this old, cheesy disco music would come jamming out of the jungle!"

“First off, where’d they get the electricity?” Wueste wondered.

Their camping mostly took place on beautiful, white-sand beaches that would, according to West, "rival those of the Caribbean." Here and there they would stay in villages, but the endeavor could, at times, become overwhelming because of how welcoming the locals were.

"The people are so friendly and hospitable that they'd want to cook you breakfast, show you around town, maybe do some activities. And you didn't want to be rude," Wueste said. This prompted them to pick a key sentence from their translated-phrase book: "We will leave at sunrise tomorrow."

This sense of hospitality didn't manifest until further down the Amazon, though. In the higher areas, on the foot of the Andes, the locals remained close to their native beliefs. "The people in the first several hundred miles were very different," Rolls recounted. "They were very superstitious." In one instance, the three kayakers came upon a village where local children were swimming in the river. When the parents spotted them, they came running down from their homes, screeching at the children to get out of the water and away from the men.

"I think they assumed we were just going to harvest organs if we got close enough," said Wueste with a twinge of disbelief in his voice.

This characteristic of the earlier-on natives they encountered makes one of Hansen’s experiences seem impossible. During the beginning, whitewater portion of the trip, he was paddling alone when he saw an Incan woman on the bank ahead. She was carrying a bundle of sticks on her back, sauntering along in her traditional bowler hat and colorful shawl, and as soon as Hansen came close enough, she pulled out a cell phone and filmed him pass by.

"That was probably the most surreal moment for me," he claimed.

The type of people they encountered during their journey spanned a broad range. There were drug lords and Peruvian military men; drunken village chiefs wielding guns; teen bandits; a couple living on an açai berry oasis. They met a Texan sailing up the Amazon and ran into a man they knew who was walking the continent as they paddled it. They were even the guests of honor at a beauty pageant, where they met Ms. Peru and conga danced through the night.

The people seemed to have left a profound impact on them, and possibly none more so than the travelers themselves. Sitting amongst them, drinking coffee and eating fresh baked cookies at Hansen's kitchen table, I could tell the men were deeply bonded. They'd break off in small tangents to crack or explain an inside joke; their comfort with each other made it OK to make fun of one another, or even point out flaws.

"I certainly gained appreciation for both these guys, though Jeff and I had several heart to hearts with West about what is considered normal, appropriate behavior and what's crossing the line," Rolls told me, smiling.

When asked what one of the most impressive aspects of the trip was, Hansen replied, "I was surprised at times, both good and bad, at the character of the people on the team and how that came about when we were out in the middle of nowhere." The other two men nodded in agreement, more to themselves than to me.

Saturday, Jan. 5, at 5pm they will be sharing stories of their journey at New World Deli in Hyde Park (4101 Guadalupe). All three will be in attendance. A slideshow of National Geographic photography will be shown and questions will be welcomed.

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Jeff Wueste, Ian Rolls, West Hansen

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