The Extreme 33 Expedition: 450 Miles from Brazil to Uruguay

Pedreira Beach. I had never been there before, but, it was as if I knew every inch of it. To be honest, I had been there, it had just been through photos, videos and aerial images during my research about where I would start. This familiarity and the beauty of the place gave me a certain sense of peace and tranquility, of serenity. Not that I wasn’t anxious about the expedition that would start the next day, but I did feel a kind of certainty that everything would be ok.

January 7, a Saturday. I wake up early, still in the dark. I wait for my ride to the beach where I left my kayak, already organized for the trip. I was staying at the accommodations of the Itapuã State Park, at Rio Grande do Sul State / Brazil, where I was kindly received by Deyse, the manager. In a happy coincidence, after being closed for ten months, January 7 was the day the park would reopen to visitors. I was the first visitor to enter the park that day and would be the first to leave, though not by the same way.

Since I had organized everything the day before, I knew that all I had to do was eat, get dressed and get in the water. 390mi separated me from my destination, the city of Chuy, in Uruguay. I remember that the lake was calm, “mar de azeite,” as we would say in Portuguese (“an ocean of olive oil”). A little wind, but, in the right direction, towards where I wanted to go.

I get into the kayak, put on the sea skirt and say goodbye to the few people that watched me leave: Deyse, Roger (a visitors guide) and a park ranger, whose name I unfortunately don’t remember. I row the first few strokes on the good old Patos Lake. Happy, anxious, confident and sure of what I was doing. Paddle in the water and off we go.

My initial plan was to row 22 miles per day and arrive at my destination in 18 days. On the first day, however, either because of the swell of emotions or because of the help from the currents and wind, I rowed 21.2 mi before stopping for lunch. Frankly, I was a little confused, I didn’t think that would be possible. I checked again and thought, “I need to be careful, or I’ll risk pushing too hard and hurting myself.” With this in mind, I rowed only another 5mi after lunch that day.

I camped in an open area, knowing it was too nice of a day for rain. I set up my tent behind a bush to protect myself from strong wind. I organized my things for the next day, stretched, wrote, ate, washed everything…and waited….and waited….and waited. I realized that, since I was further south than Rio, where I live, the days were longer and maybe I should revisit my original plan. It was 8:30pm and the sun was still strong. It would only set at 9pm. This meant that I would have 14 hours of daylight to row.

I reworked my plans. I decided I would row 2 hours and would rest 15 minutes. I would do this four times a day. As with my original pan, I would eat every hour starting two hours after eating breakfast. My snack options were: dried banana, peanuts, granola and cashew nut candy (paçoca). This one was always savored last. Over the next few days, I ended up changing my schedule again, rowing four hours straight and stopping to rest only for lunch. This new plan worked well and I started following the same idea in the afternoon when I would row for three to four hours.

Lunch was lighter than dinner, since I would still have to row after and didn’t want to have a heavy stomach. As soon as I stopped, around 11:30 or noon, I would drink a powdered protein and carbohydrate mix. My sustenance came from some good old ramen. This was accompanied by two naps, one before and one after eating.

Many thoughts passed through my head while I rowed. From revising my plans to badly sung or invented corny love songs. There was no lack of time for composing, rethinking and … rowing. Even though I did think a lot, there were moments where I just didn’t think about anything. It was as if I was time-jumping, as if my body was on auto-pilot and my mind would take advantage to rest. By the time I returned, I had rowed for some kilometers.

But, sometimes it wasn’t possible to think of anything but rowing. I was almost always followed by clouds heavy with rain, rowing against the wind and waves. It isn’t for nothing that Patos Lake is also called “the inland sea.” Many times, I rowed watching the rain fall on the horizon and trying to understand which direction it would go. Sometimes it passed before I arrived, at others, I sped up and it passed behind me. Of course, there were those moments when the rain and I moved forward together, but, rarely was it strong or lasting.

The places I slept were chosen according to some simple criteria: protection (from wind and rain), exposure to lightning (avoiding open areas), beauty, number of flies/mosquitoes and distance to the water (not too far, so I wouldn’t lose time going between the water and my camp or too close so I wouldn’t have to move camp in the middle of the night if the water rose). But, being tired after one of my longest days, I ignored my own criteria and camped in an open area. And this ended up being a very bad decision.

When I arrived, I realized that most of the mosquitoes in the south of Brazil were living right in that spot. I figured a campfire would solve the problem. But, for the first and only time, I couldn’t find any wood that would burn, all I found were wet or rotten pieces. From afar, I saw a storm coming, dark clouds and lightning. Due to the direction of the wind, I thought that it would pass without hitting me. As soon as I laid down in my tent, escaping from the mosquitoes, I started to sweat - this wasn’t normal heat, it was so, so hot and there was so much humidity. This meant only one thing – the storm was coming for me. My sleeping pad was drenched in sweat and there was no chance of sleeping. I took two muscle relaxers and was able to sleep at around 11pm. At around midnight, I was awoken by a bright light, strong wind and thunder. And here we go….

An open field doesn’t combine well with lightning. Even more so inside a tent with metal poles. I decided to take the rain cover and sit outside, hugging my legs, close to a bush. I thought that sitting like this, my chances of being hit by lightning would be lower. The rain came, the wind had never been so strong and the lighting struck at smaller and smaller intervals, getting closer and closer. With each lightning strike, I could see everything as if it were the middle of the day. I was glued to the bush until 2:30am. I even fell asleep for a bit. But, aside from potential lightning strikes, I was also worried that my tent could be torn from the ground and dragged away by the wind. I tried to stay alert and keep an eye on the tent just to be sure. As I always stake it to the ground as much as possible, the tent resisted, only letting one stake be ripped up. After the rain, I returned to the tent, now completely flooded. Wet and with the wind blowing, I slept well.

And this is how the hours of rowing turned into days, the days turned into a week and on the seventh day, I finished rowing Patos Lake. I had completed it two days faster than planned, had doubled my resolve and excitement. The last day on the lake was a summary of everything I had experienced on it. The day started with calm waters, as on the first day. I rowed the whole morning like this. After I ate lunch at an open area without any shade. In the afternoon, the wind changed direction, the lake was agitated and there were so many waves. It was hard rowing until passing Pelotas and entering the São Gonçalo Canal. I think the lake was telling me something, letting me know that it shouldn’t be underestimated. I thanked the lake for the opportunity to row it, for not encountering any problems and entered the canal with a huge smile on my face and the feeling of doing better than I had hoped.

I spent two days rowing the canal, most of the time against the current and wind. To top things off, it rained almost one whole day. But, the challenges only made my entrance into the Mirim Lake that much more exciting. I said goodbye to the west shore, which I had followed since I left Viamão and said hello to the east shore, which would be my companion until I arrived in Uruguay.

The beginning of Mirim Lake seems like a scene from a film about the impending apocalypse. The shore suffers from the wind with a mix of flooded vegetation and large dry trees, ripped out from their roots and fallen on the beach. I had rowed for about 6 hours and knew that I would have to row another 3.1mi, about 2.5 hours, before arriving at the first beach I could stop at.

Exhausted, I arrived at the beach, and, automatically followed the routine. Get out, tie up the kayak, set up the tent, get water and treat it with chlorine, send the “Ok” satellite message, drink a protein/carbohydrate mix, organize my tent (sleeping pad, sleeping bag, etc), get wood, organize the kayak for the next day, stretch, bathe, light a fire, make food and write.

All of this was accompanied by the distant sound of techno music. I thought it was coming from the other side of the river, which was distant, but, still seen on the horizon. As it was getting darker, I saw lights on the beach and the music started getting louder. Little did I know that when I set up camp in a spot that I thought was isolated and quiet, I had actually been about 2.5mi from an electronic music festival. What luck. The music stopped only at 7am when a heavy rain cloud dropped its cargo on the crowd.

Thinking that this would be one of the strangest stories of the trip, I kept rowing through a beautiful, flat area with many trees and birds (geese, cormorants, etc.). About 6.2mi later, I see three trailers in a circle on the sand with a group barbecuing. It seemed like something from Old West movies in the US, pretty surreal. While I was trying to understand what was going on, I started to see other tents and shade structures. Then cars, motorcycles, motorhomes, vans, buses and even trucks. All on the side of the lake. It was almost a city. The music reached me and changed as I went along – pagode, funk, more electronic, local folk music – good thing I have an eclectic taste. Something didn’t change, though, something that tortured me for the 1.2mi that I rowed past this “city.” The smell of roasting meat met me like a delicious perfume. I thought of stopping and asking for information a few times, even just to ask the time, sure that someone would invite me over for some ribs and a cold beer.

But, I continued with my plan and kept rowing. The sky got dark, waves and wind started to push me away from the coast. I pushed back, rowing for more than 4 hours without stopping. I thought that I would be able to stop a bit after this crowd and eat something. But, I was wrong. Big mistake. After all of the people (in front of the town Taim), the coast follows a sharp curve and is suddenly occupied by a transmission line. Yep, huge towers stuck in the sand. I looked at the horizon and saw that the line followed the coast for many kilometers. And now the problem. With the threat of rain (and maybe lightning), how would I stop and where would I sleep? The first thing I thought was “I’m f#$%d!” I see the clouds coming closer. Hunger is getting stronger. I decide to keep rowing and speed up.

In order to concentrate, I decide not to look at the clouds anymore and started to count how many times I rowed between each tower. It was about 300 to 320. In the first stage, before the next curve of the coast, I passed by 12 towers and nothing changed. I counted 18 before a place that looked like there were trees and where the towers seemed to be further from the beach. But, who says that you only see mirages in the desert? Nothing changed. I rowed another 40 minutes and finally found a place that looked ok to stop. I had already been rowing for 6.5 hours. Today “ok” was good enough. I tied up the kayak and quickly set up the tent so I would be ready if the rain came. When I finished, a breeze started up, which turned to wind and blew the rain clouds away. The sky opened and the sun came out. I thought about going back to the water, but, decided that I had already rowed enough that day and ended up camping where I was. As my ex-boss says: “’Great can be good’s worst enemy.”

After this point, the towers continued in a different direction and so everything was back to normal. Overall, Mirim Lake was easier to row, with smaller waves and calmer winds. But, it was really hard to camp and find drinkable water in the last part. It was common to find cattle along the edge of the water, as well as sewage (and pesticide) channels flowing into the lake from the rice plantations along it. Some beaches were completely overtaken by cow dung and, of course, there were no trees. Just pasture. Luckily, there was no more forecasts of rain and so I felt more comfortable camping in open areas.

Another fact that impressed me was that every space has an owner. Even on the peninsulas, which were generally well-preserved and beautiful, there were fences, a clear sign that someone owned that land. To have an idea, there were many fences that entered dozens of meters into the lake.
The trash was also impressive. Yes, trash. Especially in the northern part of Patos Lake, closer to Porto Alegre. Deserted beaches, but, covered in trash. After these observations, I came to value conservation areas even more, these spaces, parks, forests, etc, not only protect natural resources from human pressure, they are also owned by you, me and…all of us. They are sanctuaries for many species, especially ours, where we can still come and go without feeling like we are invading private space.

At the end of Mirim Lake, I would find the São Miguel Arroyo, a small river that would take me to Chuy. On day 13, I got to almost the end of the lake and was close to the border with Uruguay. It was 4pm and I had already rowed for about 7 hours. I got close to shore where I thought would be a good place to camp. As I was feeling good and the day was nice and sunny, I changed my mind and decided to row until the entrance of the arroyo, just to confirm that it was there and see what it looked like.
The entrance to the arroyo is interesting, since it isn’t formed by the two shores coming together. There are two stretches of vegetation that form a corridor that go into the lake. Since the water runs in the direction I was going, I decided to follow it a bit. It seemed as if all of the birds that I had seen along the way had come here to say their goodbyes or to escort the intruder out. From herons to kingfishers, cormorants, and jacanas. An incredible diversity and number of animals and a landscape that really reminded me of the Pantanal.
I kept rowing and getting more excited, curious to see what was after the next curve. I passed by some more cattle farms and fields with a lot of wind power generators. Although degraded, it was an interesting landscape. And, this arroyo was the border itself. Meaning, on one side was Uruguay and on the other, Brazil. I entered and exited these countries while traveling along the many curves of the arroyo.
I decided to row until 6pm, but, deep down, I believed it would be possible to reach Uruguay. And I was right! At around 5:50pm, I start to hear cars in the distance. I get excited because my arrival point was beside a road. A few more curves and there they are, cars - I become more emotional and start to celebrate. I see a bridge, next to which is the sign marking the border between the two countries. I slow down, take a deep breath and let the current carry me for a bit. I put my hands in the water, to better feel this place and to say goodbye to that water. I pass by some Uruguayan fisherman camped by the side of the arroyo who greet me with a sense of respect, maybe realizing what it took for me to get there. I pass by the border sign and officially arrive in Uruguay.

I get out at a place that, just like where I got in to start this trip, feels familiar. I know where I am, I’ve been here before, just not physically. I step onto the ground that I already know, sit on the grass that I’ve seen so many times. I am grateful for this moment and for being able to carry this project through. I am in Uruguay, I have completed my mission. My GPS point indicates that I am at Latitude 33, the Extreme 33 that I had prepared for so diligently.
For a few moments, I feel a mixed sense of happiness and emptiness, maybe like losing a purpose in life. I realize that I need to celebrate what I have done, assimilate what I have learned and share the experience. At this moment, everything made sense and the smile came.

I believe that the world, as the human mind, is vast, complex and beautiful, meaning that exploring the world is exploring your own mind. It doesn’t matter if the journey is short or long, easy or hard. What matters is always moving in the direction of the unknown, a physical place or one within yourself. Maybe the destination isn’t ever the real goal of the journey. Maybe the journey is really within our own selves, and the experiences just a way of connecting to and getting to know ourselves.

This quest for self-knowledge, however it may come about, is important. As I once read: “Self-awareness gives us the strength and confidence to be ourselves” and it is only by being ourselves that we can have the structure to point our lives in the direction of what we want.

This redirection, for me, means leaving my comfort zone, where time goes by too slowly and life tends to be a bit boring. I believe that rarely there will be the perfect time to live our dreams, there are always the buts and what ifs, concerns about money, work, loneliness. That’s why it is important to deconstruct these ideas that we create subconsciously and face our fears. In doing so, life is that much more possible, life makes much more sense…and the smile comes.

“Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands.” Sir Richard Francis Burton

Acknowledgements:
Everything is more complicated alone. In this process, I had some essential help and would like to thank some people in particular: Dayse Rocha, Juju, João Pedro Demore, Laura, Yuri Parkinson, Joana Allis and Lia Selig.

Pedro Botafogo / Instagram: @pbotafogo / pedrobotafogo@gmail.com






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