Driving the BR-319 (with free pants and a soup tin)

The BR-319 is one of Brazil’s most notorious routes, a mud-road cutting diagonally across the centre of the Amazon rainforest. After our dolphin swim and tourist-time in the city of Manaus, it’s time for a bit of ‘proper’ overlanding. On one of the most remote tracks in South America, we get some free pants and find a novel use for a Campbell’s soup tin!
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Is the BR-319 that bad?

From our detailed analysis and scientific research into the BR-319 experience (well, chatting to other travellers mostly) the conclusion seems to be that ‘it depends’. On what? Well, mostly on the season: rainy or dry. In the ‘rainy’ season of April to June, it’s a long, rough road with some deep, muddy swampy sections in which many vehicles get stuck. In the ‘dry’ season of September to February, it’s a long, rough road with large holes and deep ruts in the hard-baked mud to jar your bones.

We’re attempting it in June – the end of the rainy season. We’re told it’s been a ‘wetter-than-your- average-wet’ rainy season this year. The 319 is still heavily saturated with deep mud in parts.

In addition to speaking to other overlanding travellers who have done the route over recent years (some of whom made it through and some of whom have got very stuck) we also have a chat with Mr Google. A comment on Facebook from a few days ago describes “… holes almost breast deep, the water in them up to the thigh and the mud part up to your knees”.

Some local lads in Manaus who did the route recently on motor-bikes, looked at Cuthbert and sucked their teeth. The route is apparently still very wet, but they reckoned Cuthbert would probably making it through. Okay. We’ll give it a go. It’s expected to take around four days to do the full 880km from Manaus to Porto Velho, but of course… it all depends!

The first rescue

Our Day 1 starts with the short ferry crossing out of Manaus to the south side of the Amazon river. This takes just an hour, far quicker than the 38 hours it took crossing the Amazon delta when we headed north-bound a few months ago!

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Scene of Rescue No.1

Next there is surfaced road for a couple of hours, then the going becomes slower and rougher. The constant weaving into, out of, and between the potholes makes it a tiring drive. Oh yes… there is also the heat. I should mention that Cuthbert choses the least possible convenient time to shut-down his air-con. Not the most ‘mission critical’ of systems, but the outside temperature is over 40C midday, the equatorial sun is beating down, and we can’t drive fast enough to get much air-flow through the windows . Moan, moan, moan. I know, I know… many people travel the whole of South America with no fancy-pants air-con in their truck, but I’m a super-softy and have grown accustomed to this little luxury!

BR-319So… end of Day 1, it’s almost dusk and we’re looking for a spot at the side of the track to park-up for the night. Visions of a nice shower, a cold beer and relaxing to sounds of the rainforest, float in front of my eyes. Suddenly, we round a corner to see people and smoke in the middle of the track. We fear that it’s a bad accident and rush forward to help, but instead we find a Chevvy pick-up truck stuck in the deep mud and three people gathered around a fire they’ve lit (not sure exactly why they lit a fire… boredom maybe?). Oh well… I guess at least the end to our tiring day isn’t quite as bad as the end to these poor souls’ tiring day.

The Chevvy is not only stuck in the mud, but it’s blocking the track so we can’t get ahead to tow them through. We first use the winch to pull them back. Then we drive Cuthbert through the mud to the dry ground on the other side. Cuthbert makes it through on his own, but probably wouldn’t make it all the way through towing the Chevvy. Our rope isn’t long enough to reach all the way across, so the Chevvy tries once again.

Will following Cuthbert’s new tyre tracks in the mud make it easier? Nope. But at least it is now within range of Cuthbert’s winch cable on the other side. The driver rolls around on his back in the mud to attach the strop and Cuthbert winches him out. The trio are duly thankful for our assistance and continue on their way, while we finally park-up for our well-earned cold beer from the fridge.

The Second Rescue

BR-319Next morning, we’re off early in the cool. 10 km down the road we pass a road-side shack and soon after that, another vehicle stuck in the mud. No, wait… it’s not another vehicle, it’s the same vehicle. They had spent the night in the shack and got stuck again at their first mud-patch of the day. Following last night’s rehearsal: first winch them out to clear the route, then drag them through. As we’re doing this, two more vehicles turn up. One is a Toyota Hi-lux that gets itself through with a lot of revving and sliding. But with it is a Mercedes truck. It tries hard, but gets deep-stuck in the mud.

Hmmm… he’s big. The Merc driver says he normally has no problem with mud and off-road conditions, but this mud is taking him by surprise. Luckily, he’s not loaded to the full 20T capacity and they reckon it’s current weight is about 10T. Another lucky factor is that these two vehicles carry between them a team of five motor-cross riders…. Muscle power! The guys get themselves a bit mucky digging some mud away from their wheels and soon Cuthbert can tow him through.

The Third Rescue

BR-319Off we go again, now in a mini-convoy of four vehicles, cruising along for 15 minutes to the next mud-bath. This one is much longer than the previous sections and looks far worse. Cuthbert goes first as the Guinea Pig – with low-range gear and all three diff-locks engaged, he powers into the mud. He skids from side to side, his back-end bounces heavily over the deep ruts under the slidy surface mud, he revs and grunts a lot, but reaches the other side. Yeehy! Cuthbert, you little star! The Hi-lux follows through in our tracks and again, we tow the Chevvy through. Now we just have the small matter of the big Mercedes. How to get him through?

BR-319They have a go, revving-up and ramming into the mud-bath but, no great shock, they don’t get far.

Plan A: Winch. Cuthbert’s winch cable won’t reach him from the dry ground on the other side, so Marcus takes Cuthbert back into the mud to get close enough to attach the strop. Problem is… from that position Cuthbert can’t get any traction. When the winch power goes on, he just pulls himself towards the Mercedes. Not really the desired result.

Okay… Plan B: the kinetic tow-rope. The truck guys attach the strop and Cuthbert gives it a go. He pulls hard again, but the momentum isn’t enough to pull the truck out of the mud.

BR-319Plan C: more digging. A lot more digging. Mucho digging. Five fit young motor-cross riders spend over five hours under their truck, digging the mud away from their wheels and axles. I run around delivering water and juice to keep them hydrated. In the process, I have my own mini-mud-disaster moment. I don my wellies and try to choose my stepping points carefully, but I get caught out stepping onto a big soft bit and end up almost up to my thighs in a deep mud-pool! Unfortunately for you (and thankfully for me) no-one has a camera handy at that precise moment . I manage to extract myself from my wellies. They’re buried deep in the mud and gallantly recovered by one of the motor-cross riders, whilst I stand nearby in the merely ankle-deep mud in my socks. It’s so glamourous this overlanding malarkey you know!

Anyway… skipping forward a few hours… the guys have shifted a lot of mud. Every now and then Cuthbert tries again to pull them out, but is only able to move him a few feet then they’re stuck again. Cuthbert even snaps one of his own recovery points in the process.

BR-319Then Marcus has a brain-wave… he deploys our ground-anchor to secure Cuthbert so that when the winch pulls, he doesn’t slide towards the Merc. Slowly, bit by bit, pulling/digging/ pulling/digging, we get them clear. Hurrah!! Much cheering and back-slapping, then on the road again. How far to the next mud-bath? This is going to be painfully slow route if we have to keep stopping to do this.

Actually, after this, there are no more patches bad enough to stop the truck. There are some muddy bits, but the truck is reasonably capable in ordinary mud-conditions and manages them all with a bit of grunt-power! Two more days and 600 km later, we roll into the small village of Vila Realidade.

The Pants and the Soup Tin

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Cuthbert’s muddy boots

So where do the advertised ‘free pants’ come into the story? Well, in Vila Realidade we meet-up with some of the grateful people that we saved. The lady from the Chevvy presents us proudly with her token of thanks for our towing services: two pairs of boxer shorts! Packaged-up, shiny new white-nylon boxer shorts. I look around briefly for the candid camera, but I think the scenario was even too surreal for such a trick. Well as they say… it’s the thought that counts Sadly my model wasn’t prepared to pose for a picture in said ‘free pants’!

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My muddy boots!

And the soup tin? Ah!  On the last few kilometres of the BR-319, we get a hissing noise from Cuthbert’s engine. Marcus discovers that the turbo-pipe has blown. He tries a quick-fix, but it blows again quite quickly. He needs something strong to link-up the pipe which just happens to be almost the same diameter as the tin of Campbells soup that we had for supper last night! Ingenious. With the soup can installed under the bonnet, we do the final kilometres of the BR-319 into Porto Velho and the luxury of a Brazilian road-side truck-stop .

So looking back…. hind-sight, 20-20 vision and all that… after the bad mud sections at the northern end, the route is just painfully dull. It took us four days. It’s rough, only moderately muddy and very slow-going. In the heat (and with no air-con remember!) the BR-319 served-up one of the most tedious routes of all our travels so far. The alternative schlepp from Manaus to Porto Velho is seven days on a very slow cargo barge, so you takes your pick! The Amazon is a fascinating place to visit, but it’s BIG. There’s no quick or easy way to cross it.

Next blog… far western Brazil and over to the Peruvian border.

Link to next blog:  Amazon-ing Overlanding         Link to full South America Blog

BR-319 Mud Gallery