When Dawid Andres first dreamed of crossing the South American continent with his half-brother Hubert Kisiński, the idea of bolting bikes to pontoons and descending the Amazon River was the furthest thing from his mind.
The plan in the beginning was more sensible: Bike from the Pacific to the source of the Amazon, then kayak 4,000 miles to the Atlantic. But the more the Polish brothers learned about the cost and hassle of importing kayaks into Peru, the better those YouTube videos of homemade water bikes looked.
The run-ins with pirates continued.
“It wasn’t our goal to be the first Amazon bikers. It just turned out to be the cheapest way,” Dawid says of their 6-month adventure from September 2015 to March 2016.
The trip must be a record of some type, but the brothers weren’t in it to make a name for themselves. For Dawid, 44, the expedition was a grand adventure and a chance to reconnect with his brother. Dawid left Poland for America when Hubert was still a kid. Hubert, 35, had been swept up in the heroin epidemic that ravaged his generation of Poles. Now clean and married with two young sons, the trip for him was more than an adventure. It was therapy.
Hubert took the lead in building the Amazon bikes, hybrid craft with a bicycle frame mounted between a pair of 10-foot inflatable pontoons. The pedals turn a propeller by way of a mechanism that defies simple explanation, pushing the contraptions along at the stately rate of 6 kilometers per hour. The brothers tested the water bikes on a river in Poland, but the real trial would come on the broad waters of the Amazon and its powerful tributaries.
Before they could strap the pontoons on their bikes they had to ride some 1,200 miles from Peru’s Pacific coast, across the high Andes to the Amazon headwaters. They climbed a dozen passes of 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) or more and stopped at 16,870 feet for a ceremonial dip in Lake Ticlla Cocha, one of the Amazon’s highest most-distant and highest sources. Still on two wheels, they followed the path of the Apurimac River, skipping the Amazon tributary’s 500-mile gauntlet of Class V whitewater.
The Andes steep slopes and thin air presented the trip’s toughest physical challenges, but the psychological grind and sketchy encounters were only beginning. The brothers were robbed for the first time in the Red Zone, a region with a reputation for lawlessness where many people sincerely believe outsiders kill indigenous people for their organs.
As Dawid tells it, the bandits were a study in ineptitude. They roared up on motorbikes, which toppled over and lay idling in the gravel throughout the holdup. When Dawid stepped forward to help them pick up the machines, one of the boys—he was no more than 16—leveled a shotgun at him.
“I wasn’t really scared until they looked into my first aid kit and found surgical scissors and started shouting, ‘You came here to cut out the eyes of children!’” Dawid told Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. The tension eased a moment later when another bandit found Hubert’s wad of cash. As the boys pocketed the money, Dawid appealed to their better natures.
“I said, ‘Guys, we have 200 kilometers of jungle to ride. If you take money from us, we will starve.’ And of the 500 soles (about $150) they pulled out 200 and gave it back to us.” The bandits then posed for a picture, hoisted their fallen motorbikes and rode away.
The brothers got rid of their scalpel and scissors and pedaled on. Days later they arrived in Atalaya on the banks of the Ucayali River, where Hubert spent several days mounting the bikes to the inflatable pontoons and fine-tuning the propeller drives. They waited a few more days for their Ashaninka guide, Felipe Suarez Ruiz, to arrive. The brothers considered going ahead without him, but the last Poles to go that way alone had been killed and chopped to pieces.
The brothers decided to wait, heeding the advice of Piotr Chmielinski, the Polish-American explorer who was first to descent the Amazon from source to sea 30 years ago. Chmielinski became the brothers’ number-one fan, writing a dozen expedition updates for Explorersweb and offering them the benefit of his connections and good counsel.
The brothers judged the catamarans unsinkable, but worried about the power of the pedal drives. The mechanisms were fragile and next to useless against fast currents or strong winds. Still, when a whirlpool caught Hubert and spun him in circles like a giant liquid merry-go-round, Dawid was confident enough to give it a try. “I fell into this vortex, fired GoPro and started recording. Hubert shouted: ‘Dawid, get out of there!”
He pedaled furiously as the whirlpool pulled him toward the hole in its center, a funnel six feet deep and full of fallen branches and other debris. Then, just as suddenly, the vortex disappeared. Chastened, the brothers pedaled on to their next adventure.
Weeks later rows of symmetrical waves rose seemingly out of nowhere, nearly upsetting their craft before subsiding as quickly as they had come. The mystery was explained that evening, when an aftershock shook the village where they were staying. Chmielinski later discovered the strange waves had been caused by an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale.
“It wasn’t our goal to be the first Amazon bikers. It just turned out to be the cheapest way,”
Most days were less eventful. The brothers spent the daylight hours on the river, pedaling in 15 minute shifts with five minutes of rest between. Or rather Hubert did. Dawid was slower, and often pedaled through his rest period to catch up to his brother. The men cooked and napped on plywood platforms lashed between the pontoons of their strange craft, coming ashore to camp and resupply in towns along the way. Their brothers’ openness and cheerful smiles won them friends along the river, and they were often moved by the kindness of the people they met.
In Tabatinga, on the border of Peru, Colombia and Brazil around Christmas and a local family took them in for the holidays. Decorating the tree they were delighted to see hecho en Polonia—made in Poland—inscribed on the lights.
The run-ins with pirates continued. In the isolated stretch of river above Manaus, a boat full of men circled them four times, and then left. On another occasion, a pair of strung out bandits accosted them and decided they had nothing worth stealing.
The brother’s strategy in these encounters was the same as it was with everyone they met: Big smiles and friendly banter, either in rudimentary Spanish or barely comprehensible Portuguese. “Our weapon in such situations has always been good talk,” Dawid told Gazeta. So when five men roared up in a motorboat bristling with guns, he started a conversation.
“I’m standing on this boat with my arms over my head. I’m rocking, afraid I’m going to fall, and this guy is aiming at me with a gun big enough to kill an elephant with,” he says. “I told them we are Poles, good people, we like Brazilians very much and want to experience an adventure here.” Finally, as one of the men examined the pontoons looking for drugs to steal, Dawid asked if they had any beer. The pirates burst out laughing, and left without taking anything.
For months, the brothers simply pedaled downstream. It’s hard to get lost on a river, but when they reached the Amazon’s vast delta navigation suddenly became a problem. The delta is 200 miles wide, with scores of channels and an island the size of Switzerland in the middle. Aided by Chmielinski, who followed their progress online, they disassembled their catamarans and continued on two wheels. The roads on Chmielinski’s maps and satellite photos turned out to be mere tracks, and at times the brothers had to hack their way through the jungle.
The hardship brought out the best in Hubert. “He has an incredibly strong psyche,” Dawid told Gazeta. “At the end of the trip he was unbreakable. I was falling out from fatigue, saying I can’t go any further. Hubert always replied with laughter and said, ‘Dude, let’s go on! GPS shows that in a moment we are leaving the jungle.’”
Eventually they followed a line of telephone poles to Belem, a city of 2 million on the Rio Pará, well upstream of the Atlantic. Dawid and Hubert traveled the last 120 miles by bike, on dirt roads cut through the jungle. They reached the Atlantic on March 6, 2016, six months and roughly 5,000 miles after setting out from Peru’s Pacific coast.
Reflecting on the journey, Dawid says they never would have started if they knew the dangers and hardships ahead. Nor could either brother have finished the trip without the other. Hubert’s mechanical aptitude and steady demeanor saved the expedition many times, and the Amazon therapy, as Hubert calls it, was a success as well.
“What was more difficult to overcome, the Amazon or drugs?” Hubert told Chmielinski. “Definitely, the latter. On the Amazon you can call for help when things go wrong, but with an addiction you have to cope alone or you drown.”
With Dawid at his side, Hubert found a way through the metaphorical jungle. “When things went wrong in the dark of the jungle I could see the sun,” he told Chmielinski. “And then with my machete I was able to cut my way through to the light.”
—All photos courtesy Dawid Andres and Hubert Kisiński