Pip Stewart’s Lessons From the Amazon

Pip Stewart describes herself with a preference for health and well-being, but she always gets herself into adventurous situations and often into mortal danger on her incredible journeys. She recorded her findings in her book “Life Lessons from the Amazon – A Guide to Life From One Epic Jungle Adventure“, published in 2021, which was just published as an audiobook. We talked to Pip about her last expedition through the jungle, the encounter with the isolated indigenous Waiwai community, and a carnivorous parasite.

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Pip is a journalist, presenter, and adventurer. As a reporter, she traveled to Hong Kong and Malaysia in 2013 and decided to cycle back to London. On this first extraordinary trip, she covered 16,000 kilometers (almost 10,000 miles), crossed 26 countries, and got a taste for adventure. In 2016 she traveled through Brazil and Peru to document the ongoing deforestation of the rainforest. In 2018, she finally mastered the entire length of the Essequibo River in Guyana in South America together with a small team of adventurers. The river flows 1,014 km (630 miles) through remote jungle, pristine rainforest, unknown rapids, and controversial gold mine camps until it meets the Atlantic Ocean.

How did the idea of following the Essequibo River in Guyana from its source near the Brazilian border to the Atlantic Ocean come up? Or who came up with it?

Ed Stafford was the first man who walked the length of the Amazon Jungle, and he did some filming in Guyana. After his return, he said this place is just magic, especially the animal life! And no one ever followed the Essequibo River from source to sea by kayak. His wife Laura Bingham, a famous explorer as well, then had the idea to do that, and she reached out to me and asked me, would you consider being part of my team? That’s how it happened. 

pip stewart jungle river

So you started with a small team of a few people at the source of the Essequibo River? How did you move around? 

First, we hiked through the jungle to the river source in the Acarai Mountains in Southern Guyana, a highly under-explored part of the world. Then we were kayaking the whole Essequibo river, 1000 km through rapids and waterfalls, with caiman alligators and piranhas in there. We were on the water the entire way. 

Sounds very exciting! What were the most impressive moments during your journey? Or what might be the essence of your trip?

Oh, there were so many… Well, maybe it’s the privilege of being in the jungle for three months. I never felt more alive. You suddenly realize what it means to be human. You’ve stripped away most of the things you normally use in life. You’re left with just unbelievable nature surrounding you. That’s magic. To be one with the environment. Hearing the howler monkeys when you wake up and go to sleep. You just realize what a tiny part we are in the world.

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Feeling small must probably be good for everyone. But how did you hold out there for three months? It must have been so uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous too?

Yes, it was. But you kind of get used to that! I didn’t sleep for the first couple of nights. I was like: What’s that noise? What’s that crack? And yes, it can be scary, and there are dangerous animals like jaguars and caimans, scorpions and snakes that could end your life on a daily basis. But at some point, you just have to relax and think: okay, they also might not. One of the Wai Wai guys said a true thing: Everything is a friend, Pip, unless you disturb it. That was a good kind of mantra in that situation. 

But didn’t you want to give up at some point?

Oh my gosh, so many times! You know we hiked to find the source of this river, which was a very physical endeavor. You make just four kilometers on a good day, and we were literally hacking our way through the jungle. It’s hot and humid and just so exhausting. And later, on the river were so many moments I wanted to quit, for example, when I capsized because I went down rapids in the wrong way. You become so aware of the fragility of life. The moment that really encapsulated that was when I nearly sat on a deadly snake. I got my foot stuck between a log and a vine and was wiggling it around, trying to pull it free. And literally, two inches beneath my bottom was the snake. Suddenly I heard my friend Laura from behind ‘oh my gosh, there is a snake!’ And thankfully, Jackson Marawanaru from our team appeared behind me and macheted it to death. I asked: ‘Jackson, why did you kill the snake?’ And he said: ‘You know Pip, if I didn’t kill the snake, it would have killed you.’ That’s one of the moments when all I wanted to do was run home. I was like: What am I doing here? This was a terrible idea. But you can’t. And that’s one thing I write about in my book. Actually, we all have problems in life, problems we like to run away from. But we should accept them and deal with them–and that was the only choice I had. I couldn’t change that situation. I could only change my thinking about it.

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What was your first encounter with the indigenous people from the Wai Wai community like? How do these people live? 

Well, actually quite similar. People are people, it’s just different circumstances they find themselves in. Their knowledge about the jungle is, of course, incredible. We would never have managed the journey without their support. But we have to be careful how we talk about people. The question of what we have in common and what the differences are is not necessarily the most helpful question in this context. We should behave respectfully and meet at eye level.

What else do you advise people who like to follow in your footsteps and want to experience something similar?

When we set off on this journey, we were complete beginners. No matter how adventurous you will go, be unafraid to make a fool of yourself – you’ve got to laugh at yourself, you’ve got to be willing to practice and learn, that’s the only way we grow! Just don’t take things too seriously.

I also heard you saying traveling slow is key. Whether you go by kayak or by bike, traveling by human power makes a difference in any case. What exactly is better when you’re not in a hurry during your journey?

Oh, I love slow travel, also because I’m not very fast, I’m not an athlete. But I really think slow travel makes you immerse more in the culture and experience more hospitality. I also found out that I have my best ideas when walking. And I really like traveling slowly through a landscape, looking up and around, and taking time about things –  much to the frustration of anyone who is ever going on an expedition with me because I am always so slow. (laughs out loud)

the outdoors pip stewart rainbow

That sounds like you’ve experienced a lot and have a lot to tell about it?

Yes, I hope so, and I wrote down all I have learned in my book Life Lessons from the Amazon, which was published in September and is now also available as an audiobook. It’s not just about my adventure, you know, people can experience the same grand adventure, but it’s very different how it relates to you or me. So I really want to share my findings, whether it’s about resilience, self-criticism, happiness, or problem-solving. Many aspects of this journey help me live my life a little better, and I want to share that with people through storytelling. 

So has this adventure changed you a lot? 

Well, I came back from this trip, and I thought, ‘Hallelujah, I’ve survived!‘ Rapids and waterfalls and everything that can get you in the jungle. But then I had this bite on my neck that wasn’t really going away and was instead getting bigger and deeper, which was really bizarre. And then the hospital told me that I had a flesh-eating parasite that – without therapy – would have literally eaten my nose and my whole face. That gives a whole new perspective on the problems in your life. One of the unintended consequences of that is that I realize how lucky I was to have access to healthcare treatments. My friends in Guyana are using burning cow fat or crushed turtle shells – maybe the local treatments might be effective too, but there hasn’t been enough research about that. And they have problems with both access and financing healthcare treatments. Even if leishmania is the second greatest parasitic killer after Malaria and impacts millions of poor people, the disease is so neglected, and I think about what I can do about that. So this trip definitely humbled me. 

So would you make this extraordinary but also very dangerous trip again?

Definitely! But I would do it differently in many ways. You give up the best moments of your life if you never experienced the worst. There were unbelievable highs and incredible lows. It was probably the most extreme journey I did, and I am glad I did it. But of course, there is much I now would do differently. 

What, for example? Or what especially?

One thing is probably this selfie culture. Along the journey, I started to feel foul of selfies and social media. I took selfie after selfie after selfie, and I didn’t give enough credit to our guides, the people that were with us, the Wai Wai community. And I realized that, however unintended, presenting a country through my own images is kind of racist. So I came back with an awareness of how we can avoid racism when traveling. 

An excellent thought for every traveler! Thanks so much for this lovely interview and your honest words.

Life Lessons From the Amazon – A Guide to Life From One Epic Jungle Adventure by Pip Stewart has been published by Summersdale Publishers. The audiobook is now available, for example, via audible.