An extract from 'Into the Amazon'
The perils of Methyl Ethyl Ketone Peroxide.
On previous expeditions when using wooden canoes, we’d carried a supply of fibreglass for repairs, which made patching easy, but did have its drawbacks. Two chemicals are needed: lots of polyester resin, and a small quantity of catalyst to harden it after the mixture is spread over glass tape. Such chemicals are not welcome on airlines because of their flammability so we’d purchased them in South America.
There was only one company in all of Manaus that used fibreglass, but they were willing to sell us some of their stock. The polyester resin was no problem, we’d brought some five litre containers and could screw it safely inside. The catalyst was more difficult because most receptacles would be corroded by the chemical, and we couldn’t find a glass vessel that was strong enough and had a decent lid. The factory owner recommended using an old powdered milk can, so we poured in half a litre and banged the lid down hard.
‘Make sure you keep it upright,’ was his only advice.
We transported this chemical cargo back to our cheap, windowless hotel room where a fan stirred the moist humid air. This might have deceived the skin that it was slightly cooler, but under the bed where the catalyst lay it remained over 100 degrees F.
I now know a bit more about this substance than I did then. It is Methyl Ethyl Ketone Peroxide, and in Britain its container is marked with lots of warnings about its oxidizing and corrosive properties. ‘Keep container in a cool, well-ventilated space. Causes burns. Risk of serious damage to eyes. Contact with combustible materials or other materials generating decomposition may cause fire.’
What a ‘material generating decomposition’ means I’ve no idea, but I had experience of its flammability. After assembling a canoe on a previous trip we were left with more catalyst than we needed, and I foolishly tossed a cupful into the embers of a bonfire. The mushrooming fireball removed my eyebrows and most of my quiff.
A few hours before we were due to catch the evening riverboat down to Santarem, we dragged the stuff out from under the bed and got ready to pack it up for the journey. The resin was fine, but the lid suddenly flew off the catalyst with a tremendous bang, denting the ceiling, and a fine spray was caught by the fan and blown into Heather’s eyes.
Fortunately we were on the ground floor and the owner was watering some flower tubs on the patio outside. I rushed out with Heather screaming and covering her face in her hands, wrenched the hose from the startled man and turned it on her, making her lie down under the jet for several minutes. We then went back to examine the catalyst. A once clear liquid had gone milky white.
It was Sunday so I looked up the factory manager’s home number and disturbed his siesta. It couldn’t be helped. The boat was going to take us downriver where there would be no more fibreglass suppliers, and in a week’s time a bush plane would drop us at an airstrip and depart. That would not be a good time to discover that the catalyst didn’t work and that we couldn’t put the canoe together, particularly as we had no radio to call the pilot back.
The manager was irritable and I could hear some female sighs, kisses and muffled giggles, and I’m not sure I really had his full attention.
‘Try testing it with a little resin,’ he said curtly. ‘If it still hardens it must be OK.’ (Oh yes, it hardens all right!’ cooed a woman’s voice, and the manager sniggered.) ‘It’s probably absorbed some of the coating from the inside of the tin.’ He hung up.
Reassured by a test, we banged the lid shut, tied a piece of string around it, wrapped it in a towel, and placed it upright in my backpack.
The riverboat was packed with several hundred hammocks pressed side by side on two decks, and we lay in ours drinking a few beers and chatting over the thump of the diesels. It was lucky we were there and not on the top deck, because the smell of the catalyst alerted us.
Heather reached down and touched my pack. ‘Jesus! It’s red hot!’ she shouted.
A yard away two Brazilians were sitting on their suitcases enjoying a cigarette. Without a word of explanation, like some rabid, crusading health fanatic, she reached out, plucked the butts from their lips and tossed them overboard. ‘No smoking,’ she told them firmly.
I yanked the backpack open. A cloud of acrid smoke seared my throat: the towel that covered the tin was charred and ragged and looked as though it might be a ‘material generating decomposition’ to my untutored eye. The lid had come off and the scorched fabric looked about to ignite. So I ran to the rail and heaved the tin and towel into the river.
Most of my clothing was ruined, the pack itself was holed, and we had been on the brink of a spectacular disaster. Seventy-five shotgun cartridges were stored in the bottom of the pack, and twenty litres of equally flammable polyester resin lay alongside in a sack. The wooden boat would have burnt with pyrotechnic accompaniment, and five hundred passengers would have been forced to leap into the dark water hundreds of yards from shore.
It was a sobering thought, but not nearly as depressing as the realization that I would have to return to Manaus while Heather continued on to Santarem with all the other gear. I spoke to the captain, inventing a story that I’d forgotten some essential documents. I didn’t think a confession that I’d almost blown up his boat would improve my case.
‘I have to get back to Manaus straight away,’ I implored. ‘When will this boat make its first stop?’
‘Tomorrow morning at six o’clock,’ he replied, turning the wheel to avoid a floating log that had been picked out in the searchlight. I looked at my watch. Nine hours’ time. On this river a boat’s downstream speed is more than double that of one labouring against the current, so by the time they dropped me off I’d have a twenty-four hour journey back.
There seemed to be flotillas of boats passing us the other way.
‘Can’t we flag down one of those so I can get on board?’ I asked desperately. ’It would be easy to hop across, it would only delay you a moment.’
He shook his head, and despite all my appeals he offered no alternative but to wait until dawn, when I was dropped on a jetty with two other unfortunates. They told me they lived there, but seemed unexcited to be home.
‘Where’s the town?’ I asked. They looked surprised.
‘It’s not a town, just a few houses over the hill there,’ one said, and shouldering their suitcases they disappeared up a track between head-high grass. Heather and 498 other passengers looked down, making me feel like a missionary being dropped off at outpost of the empire in the Dark Continent.
‘Does anyone know when a boat will pass?’ Heather called.
‘There’s supposed to be one sometime tonight or tomorrow morning,’ I replied sulkily and sat on my luggage.
A bell rang in the ship and many of the passengers disappeared from the rail.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘Breakfast I think. I’d better go.’
‘Oh don’t be late for breakfast,’ I sneered.
‘I’ll miss out if I don’t get a seat now. You never know there might be an espresso bar for you up that track. See you in Santarem!’
I waved morosely and when a wag yelled, ‘Watch out for head-hunters!’ I pretended to be amused.
Five minutes later another bell rang in the engine room and a gap opened between the ship and the jetty, but the decks and rails were deserted and there was nobody to wave to.
The village consisted of one street of shacks without a bar or a restaurant, and the store only stocked a few rusting tins of sardines and warm Coca Cola. The inhabitants were as listless, depressed and unwelcoming as you’d expect from a lifetime of boredom and malnutrition.
The graveyard was huge, far larger than the place seemed to warrant, and I sat on an elegant marble slab and read a book. This had evidently been a thriving community until the attractions of Manaus had lured all the young and healthy away. I later walked through overgrown clearings, swam in the muddy Amazon, watched the river traffic enviously, lay under trees where I read, dozed, read and dozed again.
Nightfall and mosquitoes came hand in hand, so I returned to the jetty and sprawled out on my folded hammock. If a boat was due no one else was waiting for it. I slept, and was awakened hours later by the thump of engines and a searchlight beam that swept past, paused and came back to fix on me. My watch said 3 a.m. Standing up, I waited for the ship to pull into the jetty, but to my horror it continued its slow cruise upstream. I yelled and waved vigorously, hopping up and down on the creaking boards, and at last the beat of the engines slowed and the large vessel drifted back in the current, brushed the jetty long enough for me to hop on, then moved off again.
‘Nearly missed us,’ said a crew member as I paid my fare. ‘If you’d left it a second longer the captain wouldn’t have stopped for you. You’re supposed to wave a torch to let us know you wish to travel.’
‘I’d have swum after you if you hadn’t stopped,’ I assured him.
He looked at me in amusement. ‘That would have been a bit drastic. There’s another boat coming the day after tomorrow.’