Heading downriver on his balsa raft, in what I projected, before I arrived on the Perené, as an Aguirre, Wrath of God voyage into chaos and dissolution of all that colonialist planter confidence, it started to come apart for Arthur. As it was doing now for Lucho, our guide, and for the underlying and on-going conflict between curated tourist highlights and the necessity of understanding and untangling the means and motives of the Sinclair/Ross expedition of 1891.


Arthur stumbled and slid from the ruined hutch of Juan Santos Atahualpa into the riverside camp of the Asháninka chief he called ‘King Chokery’. (More probably, according to Ross, Kinchoquiri: a name associated with settlements on the Rio Tambo.) The king was sick, feverish, attended by a personal physician or shaman.

‘Our chief priest cautiously approached, unbuckled his flask, a sort of bladder he always carried well primed with rum – the only spiritual matter he dealt in,’ Arthur wrote. ‘The tube attached to this he placed in the royal mouth, into which he injected a liberal supply of the spirit, which for the moment had the desired effect. The King, lifting his head, indicated that we might be permitted to lie down on the earthen floor at his feet, and there we lay, supperless and saturated with perspiration, till next morning.’


Kinchoquiri recovered and consented to the construction of balsa rafts. ‘Trees were at once cut down and fixed together by pins of palm wood. The balsa, or raft, consisted of seven logs, about 24 inches in circumference, rather roughly pegged together, but sufficiently buoyant to support three of our party on each. Seven of these rafts carried our company of twenty; the King accompanied us, and as he himself had never been forty miles down the river, it was an interesting voyage of discovery to all concerned.’


And to me. I had been preoccupied for most of my life in London with the myth of this river voyage, the casting off into unknown waters. There had been a few adventures over the years along the Thames, a passage from Hastings to Hackney by swan pedalo, in company with Andrew Kötting, being the most recent (and eccentric) version.

We calculated, from Farne’s researches and the study of maps by Ross, Sinclair, Padre Sala and others, that Kinchoquiri’s camp must have been close to Puerto Yurinaki. And we made a detour on our return from Mariscal Cáceras to identify the launch spot. In grainy twilight gloom, romanticised by naked bulbs hanging outside stalls offering dusty fruit, beer and coca, we rambled along the river bank until we found a line of moored boats, pulled up on a shingle beach. With advertisements for balsa excursions.


On the following morning, we made our push to get to the rapids at Ipoki, the essential climax of Arthur’s outward journey. And the heart of the matter. The rapids were where it came apart, divisions and rifts and simmering quarrels surfaced. After these dramas – vanished priests, disgruntled porters, whirlpools, a night spent with rifle on lap waiting for an imminent attack – the expedition lost focus. Arthur suffered serious altitude sickness on the return journey.

‘It was a weary zig-zag: my mule and I got sadly short of breath, but it had to be done, and what is more, we were in a tremendous hurry, my companions being possessed by the one idea – to break the record – which neither my mule nor I shared… By and by the heart’s action seemed to fail, and I suddenly collapsed, slipped off the saddle and lay down on my back, my mule gasping for breath beside me. When I gradually came to myself, I could see around me the bones of many a good mule and llama, cleanly picked, while high in the air floated the ever alert condor, said to be the largest and most powerful of all birds.’


The boatman Lucho had fixed to carry us towards the rapids had vanished like Arthur’s priests. We’d stepped out from the shared minibus and were standing in the morning heat at a small settlement where no phone connections seemed  to work and nothing our guide attempted was going to get us on the river.

But Lucho was resourceful. He flagged down a truck stacked with empty plastic fruit crates and got us a lift, wind-surfing and hanging on, dodging branches, on the road to Ipoki. We agreed to keep the driver on, if we failed to get an alternative boat at a riverside halt with café on stilts, hungry dogs and a couple of tied up motor launches.

But nothing was going to plan. Lucho called Beliza, telling her to gather up some food, take a taxi, and start work on the lunch. I placed Arthur’s photograph in a dugout canoe, and then let it float away towards the rapids.

It was determined –  ‘Let’s go, vamos, come on!’ – that we would visit yet another waterfall. There was some confusion over the term ‘cascades’. Lucho knew about jungle paths to waterfalls, but we wanted cataclysmic river features, rivers of no return. Ipoki was an initiation, a barrier between worlds. The Asháninka were reluctant to paddle any further, they would be swept into a whirlpool of dead ancestors. Arthur’s first experience of the balsa was an epiphany. After the sweat and tangle and dirt, this flight.

‘We started in single file, I electing to sit in the prow of the foremost balsa. It was a glorious morning, and as we glided onward at a rate of four miles an hour, through ever changing, but always enchanting, scenery, the effect was indescribably exhilarating. Every nerve seemed stretched to the highest pitch of enjoyment; the eyes, glancing from scene to scene, took in more impressions than the mental powers could take note of. Such a wealth of vegetation seems to mock at the idea of a few puny planters ever making much impression upon it.’

Then the Aguirre hallucinations begin. 

‘Turning a bend in the river we are struck by what seems the ivy-clad ruins of an ancient castle; but it turns out to be only an aged tree clad from top to bottom with verdant creepers, its huge horizontal arms supporting a perfect screen of living trellis-work below, while ferns, lycopods, and rare orchids, beautiful in hue as they are grotesque in form, grow upright from the damp decaying bark.’

Padre Sala shocks Arthur by fishing with sticks of dynamite:  ‘diabolical and unsportsmanlike’. The result is approved by the Asháninka who scoop up the dividend.

A woman and two children fall from a raft and are drowned. ‘It seemed the standing joke of the day, and no one enjoyed it more than the woman’s husband, who danced with fiendish glee the whole night through, encouraged by the screaming laughter of the native ladies.’

In the prow of the leading balsa, Arthur notices that they are gliding ‘rather faster than was pleasant’, and he hears a ‘ not very distant roar like muffled thunder.’ They have arrived at the Ipoki rapids.


Further and further we bounce and shudder on the river road, stopping from time to time to ask about rapids. Eventually, just beyond a bamboo hut selling fruit and stale biscuits, we see the first angry ripples, white streaks in a river that is beginning to boil. The woman who keeps the stall advises that these rapids continue, getting higher and fiercer all the way, for about five miles. There is no road but a sort of track through the jungle. She warns us against taking it: ‘a place of danger’. Beyond the rapids we are in conflicted narco territory, with private fiefdoms, guerrilla remnants from the Maoist days, traffickers, indigenous men paid to carry packages down impossible trails, bands of raiding forestry pirates. Leave well alone. As compensation, she gifts us with huge bunches of sweet bananas, which we devour as we jolt back to the riverside restaurant where Beliza is ready to serve up the lunch.

There is now a man sitting in the long launch, playing with an outboard motor. But Lucho won’t approach him, he’s hungry and there are more important matters to consider than our whim to be out on the water. ‘Yes, there is a man in the boat, but he is not the boatman.’

But there is also a boy, paddling to the far shore in the dugout canoe. He can be approached and he agrees, for two soles, to take us on the river, once more at that magical time of day. Out towards the point where a tributary enters the Perené and the water begins to seethe and make patterns.

This is much better than any motor cruise. Low to the surface, leaking a little, rocking at the slightest movement, this short voyage is as close as I come to the exhilaration Arthur experienced and expressed.


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