Wednesday, 27 August 2008

2002: On a pedal boat down the Velho Chico

"It hurts to see the sadness in the eyes of the former riverside dweller, when he remembers his life by the Velho Chico (the river São Francisco)" (Zé do Pedal)

The regrettable results of the project "1987 Nordeste", forced Pedal Joe to postpone any new ideas. It took him 15 years to come up with a new and audacious project: to travel from New York City, USA, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on a pedalo boat. But, before the long voyage, he settled for a shorter one, from Três Marias, Minas Gerais, to Piaçabuçu, Alagoas. To promote the project, Pedal Joe left on 22 March 2002 (Water World Day) on a pedalo boat (given by the company Playbalsa) from Três Marias, pedaling the 3000 km until the estuary of the river São Francisco at Piaçabuçu on the Atlantic coast. "I chose the São Francisco because it is a mystical river that speaks a great deal of the Brazilian dream, and is a great beauty, every day renewed in its mystery", says José.

"It was exciting to live those moments on the Velho Chico, trying to show to my fellow Brazilians a different river, a river that struggles to maintain alive the traditions and the dreams of those who entrusted it with hope for a better tomorrow."

The São Francisco river has its source at an altitude of 1285 metres, in the Canastra Mountains, municipality of São Roque de Minas. Wriggling, it courses through Minas, Bahia, Pernambuco, Alagoas and Sergipe before reaching the Atlantic, crossing the semi-arid north-east region and becoming a fundamental adjuvant of the region's economy, allowing for an intensiv agricultural activity on its margins as well as irrigation for areas further afield.


Regrettably, it's not all flowers on the Velho Chico's way. "One of the biggest problems is the garbage and the sewers that end up in the river without any treatment, which has compromised the quality of the water", states Joe. 

Ten percent of Brazil's population depends directly on the waters of the Velho Chico and its affluents. It's a deplorable situation, since nearly all the cities and towns washed by its waters do not have a sewer treatment station. More than an absurdity, it is a harsh aggression towards the environment and a disrespect and affront to human beings.

Thousands of plastic bags, cans, plastic bottles, used tyres, televisions and washing clothes tanks float down the river every day. Its main affluent, the Rio das Velhas, is also its main polluter. The constant aggression, the intense deforestation and the collapse of the banks, the fecal coliform and heavy metals pollution (cadmium, mercury, zinc, lead, etc.), is the cause of the river's on-going degradation. Another big problem is silting. "Sometimes I would run aground on a sandbank 200 meters from the banks", says Joe.

One hundred days later, Pedal Joe was received by the local Secretary of Tourism, Orlando Emiel Steylaerts, in the city of Piaçabuçu, a mere 13 km from the river's estuary. It was the last city, at the end of its course, to say goodbye to the Country and throw oneself at the mercy of the sea, in one of the most beautiful spectacles to be seen anywhere.

Joe recollects that during his trip he received a great deal of encouragement from the river bank dwellers, which went a long way to contribute to the success of the trip. "Normally at night I would sleep on one of the islands or in one of the river-folk's house, and would take advantage of that to learn more about life on and about the Velho Chico. He remembers the tears the river-folk would shed during their talks about the river. "It hurts to see the sadness in the eyes of the riverside dweller, when remembering his life by the Velho Chico of old. Remembering the good old days, the vast quantity of fish, the abundance of the of the plantations." Maybe the outstanding moment of the voyage was when Joe arrived in Pinapora and met "seu Coló", who said: "Look here , my boy, I saw when the Guimarães (a steam ship) went up the river for the last time, but I am sure I won't see it come back down river again, The river is dry."

Pedal Joe, adventurer, has many reasons for smiling when relating the last leg of his trip: "It's a beautiful region, with one of the world's most beautiful canyons, situated at the boundary between the states of Bahia and Pernambuco, and Alagoas and Sergipe. We must add the historical richness of the places I visited, like the Furna do Morcego, a cave on the flanks of the canyon. It's near the city of Paulo Afonso, Bahia, and there used to hide the famous bandit Lampião and his band. Another famous cave, the Gruta de Angicos, is where, in 1938, Lampião and ten of his companions wer killed and their heads cut and exhibited in several of the towns."

In this cultural itinerary we find also Penedo, Alagoas, one of the first towns built on the banks of the Velho Chico. The river, discovered on the 4th of October 1501 by the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, has on its banks a great deal of living history, that needs urgently to be rescued from oblivion by the public entities, before a great part of it is lost forever. Regrettably, important monuments are completely abandoned, and some are even crumbling away. It's five hundred years of abandoned history.


The pedal boat used on the trip was 2,40 metres long, 1,20 metres wide, and weighing 117 Kg. It was kindly offered by the company Playbalsa ( Pedal Joe had the support of the following companies and persons for this trip: Vurk Desing, Playbalsa, Transportes Eureka, Number One Instituto de Idiomas, José Américo Garcia, Caminho das Pedras, Vereadora Carmem Mendes, Buynet e Sebastião Diniz.

Pedal Joe baptized the pedal boat "Sir Blake", a posthumous tribute to the New Zealand navigator, Sir Blake, who had left from Aukland, in November of 2000, on board of the sailboat "Seamaster".

His objective was to educate the populations of the four corners of the world on the importance of the protection of the environment, the waters of the planet and other ecosystems.

His travels were part of a project of exploration and organizing expeditions to strategic areas of the Planet, like the Antarctic, the Arctic and the great rivers, such as the Nile and the Amazon. Peter Blake was fond of saying: "If the water is good, life is good. If there is little water, there is little life. Without water, there is no life."

He was not able to continue his dream of seeing a better world for all. He died, cowardly murdered, when his boat (one of the most sophisticated sailboats in the world) was anchored at the beach of Fazendinha, 17 km from Macapá. It was assaulted by robbers who wanted to steal an inflatable boat, clocks and an outboard motor. The crew resisted the robbery, but Peter died, with two shots in the back. He was only 53 years old. Peter had just finished an important part of his project: the Amazon region. The following morning of that fateful 5th of December 2001, he would have set off, bound for Venezuela.

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