The Making of a Hero

Article | Issue: Sep 2022

In The Man Who Loved Pink Dolphins acclaimed travel and nature writer ANTHONY HAM tells the story of Chris Clark, a man who spent a lifetime trying to save a pristine corner of the Amazon, the lungs of the world. Clark survived tragedy, numerous death threats, a dysfunctional family, and the full-throated opposition of powerful interests in Brazil in his race against time to save the Amazon before it disappeared.

In this extract we meet Chris Clark as he embarks on a life-changing trip into the Amazon. Clark was looking for one last adventure in the Amazon before returning to Europe, and the opportunity soon presented itself.

The Man Who Loved Pink Dolphins by Athony HamThe Argentinian boat owner, Miguel, whom everyone called ‘the Baron’, knew someone who worked at the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) and who wanted to sell some land. As Clark remembered it, the land in question was ‘in the forest about 300 kilometres east of Manaus, down past Itacoatiara, up to Itapiranga on the Uatumã River.’ Clark was interested, and Baixote Encarnação decided to go with them.

To finance the trip, they needed paying passengers, so they approached a party of six Italians in a tourist restaurant in Manaus. Clark promised to show them the real Amazon. They didn’t need much convincing. Within an hour they were making plans, and they set out a couple of days later. The party of nine travelled on the Baron’s boat down the Amazon, then up the Uatumã. At the last, lonely outpost as they headed north, they convinced an old, one-eyed, one-eared caboclo named Ze to be their guide.

The adventure didn’t begin well. Ze took the Italians out for a spot of night-fishing, but the overloaded canoe sank. Ze thought it was hilarious. The sodden but otherwise unharmed Italians were not amused.

The next morning, they set out to explore the forest on foot. It was an unwieldy party for forest trails, so they split up. Ze took three Italians, while Clark, Baixote and the Baron took the remainder. Clark and his companions hadn’t planned or prepared to walk for long. ‘We were just into the forest, going for a walk,’ he remembered. They set off with confidence. They weren’t going far, after all. They had a little water, and they knew that the river was behind them.

The day turned overcast. Then it started to rain. Baixote started having sharp pains in his stomach. The day quickly unravelled.

In the forest, moods shift without warning. Green tendrils reach for the sun, liana curtains rain down from above, and a wild profusion of greenery surrounds the unwary. It can be suddenly disorienting and claustrophobic. Humidity presses close, smothering and oppressive. Everything seems hostile: the strangler figs; the cries and calls of unseen creatures; the silence, brooding and dark. Impenetrable walls of rank green swallow the trail, where there is one. What the leaf litter conceals doesn’t bear thinking about.

Clark and his friends grew uneasy. They had paid attention to their surroundings, and thought that they recognised this tree, that flowering plant, this tangle of vines. Until they didn’t. Conscious of all the terrifying creatures that lived there, aware of the perils of getting lost, they tried to anchor their progress by identifying a tree up ahead. Then they arrived where they imagined the tree to be, and all the trees looked the same. They tried to retrace their steps, but nothing was familiar. They tried to get a fix on the direction in which they had been walking, but they couldn’t find the sun. And even when they imagined they could glimpse the sun as a navigational point through the canopy high above, in such dense jungle who could say where the sun had been when they set out? If they moved further into the forest, they would be further from the river. If they tried to return the way they’d come, how could they know if they had miscalculated? At first it was annoying, and no one believed that they were really lost. For the first few hours, they half expected the river to appear through the trees at any moment. But the forest had closed behind them, sealing them off from the world.

Some in the party still refused to believe that they might be lost but, deep down, they all knew it. Finally, Baixote admitted that he had no idea where they were. They cursed their stupidity. No one had eaten since breakfast. It was getting dark. And the rain just kept on falling. Even so, they were sure that tomorrow would be different, and it was, after all, an adventure. They built a makeshift shelter in which they spent an uncomfortable night.

The next morning was wet and grey. Baixote was now in great pain. As a veteran of Amazon life, the Baron offered to take over as guide. They set off, confident that the weather would clear, and that they would soon find the others. It rained all day. Tempers frayed. Baixote nearly walked into a vine snake hanging from a tree – one step further and he would have died. The only thing they agreed on was that remaining where they were would solve nothing. No one knew where they were. No one would ever find them. They had to move, to take chances. But which way?

They began by taking calculated guesses, hoping against hope for a familiar sign to regain their bearings, listening for the sound of a flowing river. But rivers in the Amazon are mostly silent, and each time their efforts became more fraught. Soon enough, they began to wander aimlessly. There was no denying that they were lost, and the realisation settled as cold fear in the pits of their stomachs. The adventure had become a nightmare.

‘We both got up and started banging on the tree trunks with the palms of our hands and screaming’

They had been trudging through the jungle for the best part of two exhausting days. They were more frightened than hungry, which is just as well because they had nothing to eat. They tried to eat leaves, but they knew nothing of the jungle and its plants. What if some were poisonous? At three o’clock on the second day, they reached the riverbank. They were finally able to drink and to wash. But solving one problem had created another. Baixote thought that the boat was moored upstream. Clark disagreed and thought they should head downriver. The Italians were just miserable. Often the master of understatement, Clark remembered it as ‘a really strong experience. You don’t know if you’re going to get out.’ Looking back, he laughed, but at the time it was no joke. They slept by the riverbank.

After another night sleeping out in the open, things were starting to look desperate. They argued. Baixote went upstream. Clark and the Baron decided to go downstream. They all hugged each other before parting company, leaving the Italians by the riverbank and promising to return. If one group were to escape the jungle, they could alert the authorities – wherever they might be – and send out a search party. No one said so, but each of them wondered if they would ever see their friends again. Each was thinking the same thing: Will any of us get out alive?

Clark and the Baron tried to follow the riverbank, but the jungle was a tangle of vegetation right to the water’s edge. As Clark later told TV presenter Ben Fogle, ‘We didn’t have anything to eat. It was really hilly terrain, and all swampy in the middle. You had to swim across bits. Millions of mosquitoes. We had to spend the night in the forest.’

They were exhausted. The cigarette lighter died. Unable to make a fire, they remained soaked to the skin. They hadn’t eaten in three days. The Baron was violently ill, stepping off the trail at regular intervals to dry-retch into the forest. With darkness approaching, they cut some ferns and lay down. ‘We huddled together, cold, wet and exceedingly miserable,’ Clark later wrote in his journal. ‘The mosquitoes that night were a horde from hell. We actually embraced like lovers in our bed of ferns and at some point, exhaustion overtook me and I fell asleep.’

It got worse.

‘I came to, being shoved by the Baron with him hissing at me, “Wake up! Wake up! Listen!”’ Clark wrote later. ‘It was pitch black and I was groggy from sleep and at first, I couldn’t hear a thing. Then I caught a whiff of a pungent aroma that reminded me of my childhood in Glasgow. Glasgow tenements had entrances known as closes, which were often used as public lavatories by passing drunks. These closes led to little communal back yards that were more often than not strewn with junk and home to brigades of street cats who scavenged around in the middens, or bins. It was this that I smelt, and then a soft footfall.’

They were being stalked by a jaguar.

‘We both got up and started banging on the tree trunks with the palms of our hands and screaming,’ Clark told me, decades later. ‘From close by came a throaty, deep growl, and this jaguar just went rrrrr! – off into the forest because we screamed at it.’ They didn’t sleep again that night, their third in the jungle.

‘God, if you get me out of here, I’ll marry Anna.’

They returned along the riverbank, and found a depressing scene. Baixote had been and gone. The Italians were panicking, and one of the men literally tore out his own hair in anguish. When Baixote finally showed up again, he had developed a nasty lump below his ribcage. Unable to bear cutting trails through the forest any longer, they built a makeshift raft, but at some point the machete, their only tool, slipped from the hand of one of the Italians and sank to the bottom of the river. It was a desperate scene when, in the late afternoon, Clark and the Baron pushed away from shore and began half-drifting, half-swimming down the river.

They had no idea if they were going in the right direction. They were desperately hungry. And not long after setting out, the Baron collapsed and it took all of Clark’s strength to keep him from sliding off the raft and drowning. ‘I remember the last day,’ Clark told me later, ‘swimming down the river and thinking I just couldn’t face another night in the forest. I just said, “God, if you get me out of here, I’ll marry Anna.”’

Finally, just before sunset, with the Baron barely conscious and with Clark contemplating another night on the riverbank, Ze, their one-eyed, one-eared guide, found them. He had been searching for them for four days. He was on a final sweep before giving them up for dead. He claimed that God had told him where to look. It took three hours to reach the boat, a couple more to find Baixote and the missing Italians. Miraculously, all of them made it out alive.

The Italians fled. They barely said goodbye. Baixote was rushed to hospital and went straight into surgery for a hernia. Suffering from hypothermia and with fluid on his lungs, the Baron remained in hospital for two months.

That would have been enough Amazon immersion – the discomfort, the hunger, the fear, the insects, the wild animals – for most people. Many, perhaps most, would have followed the Italians in rushing to leave the Amazon, never to return.

But Clark has always been wired differently. As he remembered it years later, out there in the forest, ‘I came closer to dying than ever in my life, before or since … Almost everybody who lives here, at some point in their lives, goes through something like this.’ For Clark, this experience was anything but a deterrent. ‘In certain times of crisis, you learn a lot about yourself and the people you’re with. I fell in love with the Amazon during those four days.’

Clark would later keep the promise he made in extremis: he and Anna Bonari married upon Clark’s return to Italy. Their marriage would last 23 years. Clark’s love affair with the Amazon would last even longer.

Author: Anthony Ham

Category: Biography & true stories, Earth sciences, geography, environment, planning

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781761065514

RRP: $34.99

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