BR319 Day 1: REALITY CHECK! – Amazonas, Brazil

We’re up at sunrise, we’re well fed and watered with coffee and we’re rearing to go! Sadly we didn’t get so much good sleep last night because the man and woman next door were having a groaning contest like rabbits on X-factor. But hey, we’ve come to realize that this is bound to happen whenever we’re planning an early start.


Today our Transamazonica journey begins in earnest. Today we start our ride across the infamous BR319 highway, the “Rodovia Fantasma” or Ghost Road, built here decades ago under military government in an effort to populate the Amazonas region, but later left to decay with the exact opposite aim.

The road has been left to decay here for about thirty years, maintained only by those few with an interest in getting across, as well as the Brazilian army to some extent if I correctly understand. As such, the road has been slowly reclaimed by the jungle. What lies ahead of us is a 740Km road to Manaus, around 500Km of it unmaintained track through the Amazonas jungle and about 400Km of that completely uninhabited. No towns, no houses, no services. Nothing but jungle.

The only indications that man visited here will be the remains of the road and a number of telecommunications-repeater towers, spaced at even distances along the way, at which we hope to be able to set up camp.


For us this is a chance to venture into the wilderness of the Amazonas, to experience the nature untamed. For me there is the challenge and dream of doing the journey by motorbike. For Ebru there is the challenge that she may well be the first Turkish woman recorded to have done this leg on motorcycle, a challenge she is dedicating to the memory of her hero, the late founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose remembrance day – 10 November – coincides with the start of our trip through the Brazilian Amazon basin.


About 20 kilometres down the dirt road from Humaita we’re at the start of the Ghost Road. We stop to take some photos and request permission for safe passage from the jungle spirits before we head into the unknown. The beginning of the road changes between old asphalt and pretty good dirt track.


At Km100 we reach a small settlement. This is the last place they will sell fuel before the town of Careiro, so we top up from a coke bottle and enjoy a last Red Bull in civilization. A dude on a Yamaha 650 rocks up from the Manaus direction, packed light and harnassed up with protective gear. He’s a Manaus-ian named Martini who’s just covered the route in 2 days. He looks at our set-up and struggles not to cringe. He points out I’ll struggle with my inadequate “enduro” back tyre. I know he thinks we’re mad, going at it like this, and indeed we are. “You can do it in about 3 days,” he says, then gives me his number and rides off towards Humaita. “Three days – just as I planned it,” I think to myself with a smile.



The road deteriorates. The asphalt appears only in sections between dirt track now, mostly crumbled into gravel, with frequent large mounds of rubble and red or white clay right across the road – seemingly a form of ditch-repair. From there on, houses become scarce, just the occasional wooden house on an Amazonian fazenda (farm). There are a lot of wooden bridges on the way, crossing streams and deep gashes in the road. They can be a bit tricky to cross but they’re in better repair than I thought. That bodes well.



At some point, around mid day, we have severely strange encounter. Opposite a farmstead, a woman, probably in her mid-forties, is standing on the road-side, a bashed up suitcase with an retractable handle (something you’d expect flight attendants to have) at her side, a bottle of water in hand and holding a scarf over her head to protect herself from the scorching sun. We stop to see what’s up. She speaks some English. She’s sweating profusely, babbling away and she comes across a tad delirious – the heat, I assume.

Some curious insects out here…


Her unbelievable story is that she caught a lift out here with “friends from Rio”, and she got [herself?] dropped off here in the middle of nowhere, supposedly with a view to meeting an onward transport. But her onward transport hasn’t showed up. – I mean, what the hell?! Dropped off?? Onward transport?? Out here?? This is ludicrous! She says she inquired in the farm house nearby for help, but they gave her this plastic coke bottle of water and sent her on her way, allegedly suggesting that she may find help from a caretaker at the next telecomm’s tower up the road. That tower is about 10 kilometres ahead.


So… what do you do in this situation? We’re certainly not in the position to give her a lift. If I took her back to the last farm house Ebru would be out here alone, it would take ages to do it, there’s additional risk of me falling off a bridge on the way or something, and we have to make it to our camp tower before sunset, otherwise we’re in danger. (You cannot just pitch a tent on the road side out here. Not possible!) The previous farm house we saw is several kilometres back. If she doesn’t get out of this sun soon she’s in big trouble herself, but the next semi-shade she’ll find is from a small tree on a mound 300 metres up the road, which will be a heck of a slog for her to reach, and what then? Failing a 4×4 coming by soon, she really needs to persist on getting help at this farm, even to spend the rest of the day and night under the trees in their yard or something, until a transport arrives.

Not used to outsiders! These beautiful horses were almost threatening in their dislike of our presence…


I have thoughts of going to inquire at the farm house myself, but this is all far too weird and risky. What is her story really, and how could I expect to be received, knocking on the farm house door? With a shotgun perhaps? We have to go. We tell her the distances to the next tower and farmstead, that her most realistic option is to persist in getting help right here, and that whatever she does, she needs to get out of the sun asap. It’s a very uncomfortable experience, leaving someone behind to their own fate like that, but out here you don’t have many options, and whichever you pick, your own survival and safety needs to feature at the top of the list somewhere.


After Km219 no more houses appear. Yet the road is dry and we’re making good distance. We’re averaging 40Km/h which is well above the 30 I envisioned. I’m feeling super-confident. At this rate we’ll be in Manaus tomorrow night!


One vehicle passes us in the opposite direction. It’s a white VW minibus. The driver stops and we have a little talk. He transporting supplies and people across the BR319 between Manaus and Labrea. It’s nice to meet someone out here. I’m surprised he made it through on this thing.


About two in the afternoon, whilst crossing one of the wooden bridges I receive the first dent to my confidence: I run the front tyre off the slightly elevated boards which make up the tyre-ways for vehicles and I drop the bike. Hairy stuff! It wasn’t a real crash and there are no injuries, but Ebru’s a bit shaken as can be expected. Anyway we can be thankful that it didn’t go the other way as it’s a 3 metre drop into a water ditch.


Not being able to lift the bike, we have to unload and re-load after getting the bike off the bridge – shit! I tell Ebru to sit down and rest while I take care of it. It takes only a moment with the helmets off to realize the sun is burning down like a blowtorch. This is not just hot, it’s dangerously hot! And for all the jungle around, there’s not a bit of shade to be found to creep under. Ebru’s face is red as a berry and she’s not looking well – this is serious! I stop my work and try to find something to hang up the rain poncho on to create some shade for her, but in the shrub there’s no stick to be found… I eventually manage to prop it up a bit with a bungy cord over some sticks near the bridge and manage to get her slightly protected, and get her drinking water.


It takes about half an hour to get the unloading done. I can feel how the sun is cooking my brain as well. I have to work quick and take shelter. We’ve been hit surprisingly hard with this heat and we have to drink a lot of water. By the time we move on, Ebru’s looking ok again. We realize what great protection our helmets and biking gear are providing against the sunshine, despite the sauna-effect.


That episode gave us both a scare – a real taste of the harshness of this place. No mercy, no assistance. That fall cost us about an hour in un- and re-loading, a lot of energy and also a good deal of water, which has taken us well above our planned rationing – which presents another problem…

The rest of the ride goes without issues. For lunch we stop under the shade of a lone little tree and have a snack: a few mouthfuls of panela and a few more gulps of water.


We reach the next Embratel tower an hour or so before sunset. To our surprise the gate is open, so we enter and we set up camp. Immediately we become the focus of attention of hundreds of tiny little bees! They are attracted to us and our clothing like flies to shit (in this case not as bees to honey, obviously.) They’re interested in our sweat – slurping it off us with gusto. How strange.


We strip down to underwear, exhausted and boiling from the hard ride in the sunlight. The bees don’t seem to sting so we just let them get on with their feast – it’s the next best thing to a shower I suppose. We pitch our tent and cook up a meal of instant noodles – it’s surprisingly good! As soon as the sunlight fades the bees buzz off. The moon is out and we’re accompanied by the most intense shower of jungle noise. Insects, birds, I don’t want to know what else – it’s all alive and vocal through the night. Awesome!

The final tally for the day: We’ve covered 216 kilometres, 49 bridges and our water reserves are nearly at half. This is bad news! Food levels are as expected, but we will have to be sure not to drop the bike any more and make good distance tomorrow so that we make it out of here before the water runs out.


At night, baking in the heat of our tent as we try to sleep, we hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Instead of sleeping I find myself listening intently as storm moves closer. Despite all the wishing away, in the middle of the night I’m awoken by the sound of rain drops smacking the tent canvas. Shit! There’s an area with cover from the roof of the Embratel tower, so we quickly get out and move all our stuff under there, including the tent – we don’t know whether we’d be flooded from underneath in our sleep.


It’s a distressing prospect, but might as well use it to our advantage. I take my rain poncho and lay it carefully between an angle of bricks in hope of collecting rain water. The tent can’t be pitched right on the concrete floor of the shelter, but we find a much better solution we’ll be using more in the future: we suspend our mosquito net from a bungy cord and sleep directly under it on our sleeping mats – cool breeze at last – heavenly!