Riding the Amazon river - on a bike

Hervé Neukomm is traveling down the Amazon River. Why is that interesting? He's using pedals.
The biciboat in all its glory. © Hervé Neukomm
By Tarquin Cooper

Hervé Neukomm isn't a bicyclist, and he isn't a boater – he's a little bit of both. (One might also point out that he's done a lot of both.) The former Swiss bank employee left his homeland over 3000 days ago (that's back in 2004) and has been wandering ever since. At the moment, he's pedaling a biciboat (yep, that's short for "bicycle boat") down the Amazon River. We couldn't exactly "catch up" with him – but we could ask a few questions.

Hervé Neukomm grinding through the gears © Hervé Neukomm

First off – how do you feel?

I'm feeling strong and, somehow, completely connected with the jungle – although that comes with a lot of respect and humility! Some days are hard and I'm really exhausted but after a good night of sleep, I feel great. There is so much time. Life has become a routine for me.

Big question: what do you eat?!

You would think there is fruit everywhere but the reality is different. Fruit trees are few and most of the time, it's impossible to reach them. Fishing is sometimes easy but sometimes there are just no fish or they are in the flooded forest, which is not always accessible for me. Really, the whole thing is just a journey for food!

So, pedal, eat, sleep, repeat...

Did I make it sound like that? What you can expect in the jungle is the unexpectable. When you think that everything is fine, there will be a big storm or any kind of trouble you didn't imagine. Some days are crazy and I wonder what I'm doing alone on a bicycle boat in the middle of the jungle but some days I'm the happiest man in the world. I had wonderful encounters with wildlife and native people. There are memories I will never forget!

Wildlife is a real and present danger. © Hervé Neukomm

The biggest challenge?

A fight to survive in a storm that lasted more than three hours. I was leaving a small city called Juruti when I got hit by a strong south wind. It came by surprise and pushed me into the middle of the river, which was about 8km wide at this spot. I couldn't see much with the rain and barely avoided a big cargo boat that passed 20m to my side.

The waves got higher than 4m, more than twice the size of my boat. I had hardly any control, but had to continue cycling to keep the boat facing the waves (I would have sunk if they would have hit me on the side). Three hours later I reached the other side of the river and the storm stopped. My legs were shaking and there was 20cm of water inside the boat but I was alive (and so was the boat). It was such a relief!

Any scary incidents?

I got stuck in some trees in a rapid and had to fight for an hour in the water while cutting the trees with my machete, this was a scary and direct introduction for the jungle life. Wildlife can be dangerous here and you never know what lies around the corner.

But surprisingly, it was not the piranhas or anacondas that are the most dangerous, it's the people itself. I got attacked three times by the so-called "river pirates“. They are drug traffickers and often people used to believe that I was smuggling cocaine. On one occasion, four men in two boats escorted me to their camp to check the boat. It was a small village of about a dozen of men, some with their wives and children. They had guns and tried to intimidate me in different ways, to find out where I was hiding the cocaine. What saved me is that it was the national Brazilian party day. They were all drinking like crazy and went to sleep late at night completely drunk. I drank with them. I felt like Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean in a more modern Brazilian version but it was a really scary situation. The next day, they were all sleeping with hangovers. That's when I quickly left.

Parked for the night. © Hervé Neukomm

Talk about the boat.

I kept the bicycle intact. It has two side-propellers. I built it with the help of a carpenter in Ecuador. It's all cedar wood. A local workshop in Tena made the mechanic part, which is strong but very basic (so I can fix it in the middle of the jungle). I cycled from Switzerland to Ecuador and I got this idea when I was in the Namibian desert, in Africa. I dreamed about cycling with a roof on me and water everywhere. Three years later, this crazy dream came true and the biciboat Pura Vida came to life!

 

Sunset or sunrise? Beautiful either way. © Hervé Neukomm
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