Almanac (Travel) Life: Bombing the Amazon

Watching our little 14 inch colour television (won by mum in a raffle in 1976), perched as it was on top of a side board at the far end of the loungeroom, far enough away that it was an effort to turn it on, turn it up, change the channel, or mess with the antenna, was like a gym session. Mum liked it that way. She saw TV as a distraction from family conversation. Watching TV was a bit like an audience with the bishop; there had to be a reason.


She had a compulsion for turning it down every time she walked past it. We used to run quasi behavioural science experiments where we’d have the TV barely audible and see if Mum turned it down still further. She did. Not even the local dogs could have picked up the dialogue.


“Its so loud” she’d say, as we desperately lip-read Sir Eric Pearce presenting the nightly news, or Half Side On as Dad called him, because Sir Eric never sat squarely in front of the TV camera.


There were TV shows that were permitted where a reasonably audible volume was tolerated. We could hear so long as no one scratched their head or had a loud thought. Shows like The Two Ronnies, Dave Allen, The Minder, Fawlty Towers and even great sagas like Roots, and movies like In The Heat Of The Night or Cool Hand Luke. Documentaries and nature shows were also viewable. I loved In The Wild with Harry Butler and David Attenborough’s Life On Earth and later The Living Planet were compulsory viewing.


They say that if one sense is denied, (in our case hearing), others compensate. It must be why the visually spectacular nature shows really captured me. It’s probably on these shows that I first saw the Amazon. In colour. Attenborough’s low and raspy voice was challenging to hear given the sound of a moth beating its wings was louder than the TV, but I still got immense pleasure from watching his travel adventures. I was glued.


The Amazon images stuck. Imprinted on an impressionable twelve year old’s mind. Carved into my psyche. This was a place to see. The lungs of the earth and perhaps nature’s greatest feat. Describing the Amazon as mighty under sells it. Mighty doesn’t describe it, it describes mighty. It is, quite simply, colossal.


So finally, at the age of 59, I got to the Peruvian Amazon with its magnificent web of tributaries that must look like a hundred intertwined hands from space. In parts it is 50 plus kilometres wide, especially after the heavens open. A big rain can change the landscape in a flash as the water wipes out small islands and drowns the forest floor. It is brutal and fragile. On the one hand, through sheer force, it has carved out its own ecosystem and yet, on the other, deforestation disempowers it and makes it angry and unpredictable.


Everything on the Amazon wants to sting you, bite you or eat you. The mosquitos are large enough to have confirmation names. The forest frogs come out at night and sit waiting patiently for a feed. The locals call them the Smoker Frog because they sound like a packet-a-day Marlboro gasper when they call to their mates. They’re as big as a footy. As we approach one, he glances at us with complete disdain. Utterly unperturbed. We must look pathetic in our raincoats, gumboots, long sleeve shirts, mosquito nets, hats and torches. Clumsy intruders armed with equipment to digitize our lives. The frog leans on his arms like a bloke staring out a pub window.


“What does he eat?” I ask the guide who is leading us through the creepy Amazon night jungle.


“Insects” he says vaguely.


“Crikey” I say, “No wonder he’s as big as a hippo.” My observational estimate is that there are a billion insects per square metre in these parts.



We go in search of the giant tarantula. Thankfully we fail in that quest.


The next evening, we take to the boats in search of the Amazon’s aquatic nightlife. There is an abundance. As we putt up a tributary channel our guide’s torch light bounces off dozens of sets of eyes lurking in the weedy shallows. Caimen. Bucket loads of them. Waiting. They’re after fish and small animals. They’re game enough to take on the piranha too. I make a mental note: don’t fall out of the boat. The superbly named Moses, our chief guide, stands at the front of the boat scanning the water and the canopy searching out the wildlife. His vision is extraordinary. He can pick out a bent twig on a Camu Camu tree from a hundred yards.



He signals to the boat’s driver to slow. The boat glides through the inky water toward a bed of river weeds which cover the surface like a plush carpet. Silence he signals to us. A bit to the right. Glide some more. He leans over the boat’s edge. I can’t imagine what he’s seen. The water is as black as a dog’s guts. There is a commotion that startles us. Splashing. A bit of a squealing noise. Moses is elbow deep in the river grappling with something. Then he stands upright grasping a thrashing and agitated baby caiman. Easy as you like. He gives us a short lecture on the creature then releases it back into the darkness. A whip of its tail and its gone.


Day three is the highlight. We jet through various small channels, tributaries and lakes that make up this vast delta, heading out onto the mighty Amazon herself. The guides know these waters like a taxi driver knows the CBD. After about twenty minutes we emerge onto what looks like a giant brown ocean. So vast are the waters that the opposite bank is a dark smudge on the horizon. I’m seeing what David Attenborough showed me on that tiny TV set in the 70s. She flows proudly, graciously, confidently. Her power is palpable. There is a sense of unfettered magnificence. Of mouth-open awe.


Our mission today is to find the resident pink dolphins. The dolphins live largely in these wider sections of the river, though not exclusively. They can grow up to three metres in length and have long, narrows snouts. We know they are curious but shy so Moses will have his work cut out to find them.


We glide past a large sand bank where they’re often found and jet upstream in search of the tell-tale dorsal fins. And there they are. About four or five of them. But as we close in, they dart off. It’s a cat and mouse game. Finally, Moses suggests we get in the water as this might attract the curious animals over. Leaving aside the caiman, anacondas, piranhas, and sundry other deadly river dwellers we should be right to have a quick plunge.


Standing on the bow of the boat and contemplating the murky water I make a decision; one I sort of regret: I’m doing a bomb. It was a poor decision. Disrespectful of Amazon. Sort of like farting in midnight mass. But the excitement of the moment overcame me. How many people have done a bomb into the Amazon?



It was a banana. Or what others might know as the coffin. And it worked a treat. I felt the thud and sensed the resulting splash. If you’re bombing into the Amazon make it a good one. The kids on the boat provided giggling applause.




I hope she forgives me, this ageless, gargantuan beauty. She could have picked me up in one of her prodigious currents and swept me away. Or had me taken by a giant of the deep. Or simply held me down, forever, at her breast. But she didn’t. My bomb was vandalism, albeit minor. She must have gracefully forgiven, ignored, and rolled on.


We paddled in her expansive waters for about 15 minutes. An extraordinary experience. The dolphins circled at a distance, not brave enough to come and play with us. The twelve year old kid watching (but not hearing) David Attenborough on the little colour TV all those years ago was there when I hit the water. He was there when I surfaced and paddled around and wondered what lay beneath. His eyes were open wide in wonder. With exhilaration. He marvelled at it all. This stupendous place. Nature’s titanic cathedral. The boy in me was there alright but could hardly believe he was.


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About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. roger lowrey says

    Outstanding stuff Dips. I am insanely envious.

    Mind you, when I saw your bombing photos I became quite worried for your well being. I was reminded of the old NT maxim that you never swim in anything up the Top End that doesn’t have tiles around it. By the sound of the first sentence of your eighth paragraph, it seemed to me the Amazon would demand the same compliance standards. Your breezily indifferent attitude to such caution is admirable even though it does seem to be pushing the envelope a little.

    Loved your dad’s “half side on” reference to Eric Pearce. Yes, I am certainly old enough to remember him and your dad’s call was spot on. Sir Eric was mum’s favourite because his sign-off line was “goodnight and God bless”. My parents were both great ABC News watchers as dad’s favourite was Sydney’s James Dibble. “ah, the bloke who always drops his voice!”

    Do continue to have much fun my friend. Don’t hurry home for the finals. I fear our Cats will not feature prominently although I won’t give up hope until the bitter end.


    PS “…mosquitos large enough to have Confirmation names…” earns you a plenary indulgence BTW!

  2. Sadly, Roger, I have returned. These are memories inspired by us going through our photos. We got home on the 1st August. I was, however, away when the Cats were beaten by Freo at the Cattery. I awoke one morning in Santiago, Chile. Frances was looking at her phone. I got greeted with:

    “The Cats lost to Freo”.

    My head nearly fell off.

    I think we might be shot for 2023.

    PS – jumping into the Amazon has risks I suppose but the guides were pretty careful to pick an open spot for the swim. Less likely to be carnivore infested. At least that’s what they said.

  3. A magnificent yarn, old mucker.

    Well played!!

  4. It was a hell of a thing Smoke! In a good way.

  5. Colin Ritchie says

    There’s nothing like experience of travel to broaden one’s mind. Your trip is certainly one out of the norm and I have enjoyed your accounts of your travels in South America. Great shot of a bomb! Reminded me very much of my bombing days off the Portarlington pier in the early 60s.

  6. Magic. Your childhood seems much like mine. Similar memories and family tastes in TV shows. But jeez your “adulthood” is a different league to me. 7 iron over a pond to a heavily bunkered green. Drinking “plavac mali” and other Croatian wine varieties I’ve never heard of. That about encompasses my level of risk taking these days. (Too many beaten favourites has knocked the risk taking out of me for good).
    Thanks to you and Sir David I can experience these things vicariously. Grateful.

  7. Cheers gents.
    Col – yes travel gets in the blood. What’s over the next hill? Not sure what the next trip will be but, all going well, there will be one.

    PB – did your mum turn the TV down too? My travels haven’t been full of risk. We are careful. But we also like getting off the beaten track a bit. I might need to write up the tale of our swim out into the Zambezi River to a rock pool at the edge of Victoria Falls called Devil’s Pool. That was amazing!!!

  8. DBalassone says

    Ripper stuff Dips. Adventure of a lifetime.

  9. Cheers Damian.

    Sometimes you have to pinch yourself as to where you are!!

  10. Brilliant Dips no thanks personally re the bomb

  11. It’s like getting on a bike RB. You never forget the bomb technique. Execution becomes the problem!!!

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