Saturday, February 11, 2012

2012, 22nd - 28th January: Barreirinhas & Lençois Maranheses, Maranhão, Brazil

2012, 22nd - 28th January: Barreirinhas & Lençois Maranheses, Maranhão, Brazil

I am sad to say that the number of photos available for this exciting part of my travels is rather limited. This is because a computer virus on a PC in an internet café corrupted some of the files on my SD card. Unfortunately, the best photos taken during my time in the centre of the national park (which were the most spectacular and beautiful) are lost.

Those photos that survived can be found by following this link to my Flickr account.

You will see a big chronological gap in the photos, which is the result of the missing files that were corrupted. Hopefully, my descriptions of the places and sights go some way to recreating the images.

The small town of Barreirinhas in the state of Maranhão lies 3-4 hours east of the city of São Luis. Barreirinhas is a convenient base for starting treks in the national park Lençois Maranheses - a vast complex of sand dunes that runs parallel to the coast from Rio Preguiças in the east to Rio Allegro in the west. The national park is known for the numerous water pools that form in the depressions between the dunes after the rainy seasons. Though during my time there all but a handful of pools were dry. While this did mean that the trek was much hotter (no pools to cool off in), it did mean that progress was not impeded by having to wade through the many pools which would be a feature of any trek made in the months after the heavy rains. I made a fourday guided trek (fifth day getting back to Barreirinhas) through the national park. With my guide Alisson we walked between remote settlements where we stayed each night. Two of these were on the edge of the dunes, but two were located in 'oases' in the middle of the vast expanse of sand. I use the term oases because the dunes are not a desert as they do receive heavy seasonal rains, however, during the dry months when virtually all the water pools are dried up it feels like a desert with the settlements the only places where water can be found (via wells).

Day 1: Lagoa Azul to Canto do Atins

We accessed the national park by joining a party of tourists who were being driven by jeep to a pool at the edge of the park called Lagoa Azul (one of te few pools that is present during the dry seasons). The jeep journeyed along sandy tracks as well as making a short river crossing on a tiny flat ferry.

I foolishly brought my hike boots with me which then ended up being an unnecessary weight in my rucksack for five days. As I found out; wearing footwear on the dunes is a little pointless as it would just fill up with sand, so I started my first bare footed trek - see discussion on footwear later in this blog entry.

The colours of the dunes were somewhat subdued on the first day as it rained for much of the time. Being close to the edge of the national park on this route, there was more vegetation present than towards the centre - though it was still sparse. So around some of the dried-up pools there were bushes bearing the odd tiny fruit to nibble on.

The walk to Copo do Atins was fairly short at 4 to 5 hours. The settlement of around eleven dwellings is located close to the shore in the north east of the national park. We stayed in a small pousada who provided a great evening meal of locally caught shrimp, rice, beans and farofa.

The Shore at Copo do Atins

Day 2: Copo do Atins to Baixo Grande

This day was the toughest as it was the longest and the hottest. The walk started by following the beach, before heading away from the coast towards Baixo Grande which is located close to the centre of the national park. Once away from the cooling effect of being close to the sea and as the time approached the hottest part of the day (midday till two), the feeling of walking in a desert-like environment was very apparent. My three litres of water was nowhere near enough for the journey.

As we headed away from the shore, the physical environment gradually changed from relatively flat expanses of sand with some scrubby grasses to progressively larger sand dunes with virtually no vegetation. As the sun moved higher in the sky, the colours of the sand became whiter in its glare. In such a vast area where winds can progress unimpeded, there was a nearly constant breeze or wind which did provide some relief from the sun and ensure that the temperature of the sand was not too hot to walk on in bare feet. In the midst of the wide expanse of hot white dunes I could imagine that a few more hours isolated in such a place would lead to an advancing lethargy and a stumbling progression to a hot stupor full of imaginings of water - 'just give me some water......'.

The Flat Area of Sand Close to the Shore

When descending the large dunes on their leeward sides I sank to halfway up my shins in the soft sand - a good example of why bare feet is best. This sand was sheltered from the cooling effect of the wind and in bare feet it felt really hot - ouch.

As one would expect, the windward side of the dunes have a gradual slope while the leeward faces fall away steeply. It is on the windward sides and tops of the dunes where the wind carves its magic. As well as all the wave-like ripples that are always present, there are also patches of grains of different densities and colours (browns and charcoals contrasting with the bulk whites and creams). These are distributed into long arcs that form patterns and lines of darker sand 'drawn' onto the vast expanses of pale sand. Sometimes the effects of previous rain showers form the sand into harder patches where the light and dark grains form beautiful sculptured lines, full of peaks and arcs woven into patterns that have recurring features but which are never wholly repeated.

A Large Dried-Up Water Pool in a Depression Between Dunes

Some of the depressions between the dunes had damp earth at the base (a remnant of the dried-up water pools) - enough to support a scattering of rough grasses. I think that the constant shifting of the sands by the winds means that places where pools once resided long enough to nourish a substantial shrub are now a dry pit. As a result, I sometimes came across the blackened stumps of long-dead trees, which provided a striking juxtaposition of colours against the pale dunes.

The Desert-Like Environment On Top of a Vast Dune

We reached the 'oasis' of Baixe Grande at around 2pm. It was a relief because the full heat of the day was scorching and my water had run out. Baixe Grande is a large expanse of shrubs with some palm trees. A handful of families live there which must make for a pretty tough life as it is unsupported by roads or tracks (such features would quickly be buried by sand). After arriving and downing a lot of water, I was asked by the host whether I would like chicken for my evening meal later. I said yes, so shortly after the yard was minus one chicken. The Rio Negro does pass close by the settlement, but it was completely dry when I was there, so all the water was drawn from a well and the shower was just a bucket held above one's head.

After resting away from the afternoon heat, in the evening Alisson and me climbed back onto the dunes near the settlement to see the effects of the low sun, which after having it's light scattered by some sporadic clouds, cast beautiful blue and grey hues over the expanses of sand.

Day 3: Baixe Grande to Geimada dos Britos

A short day of only about three hours walking - the duration was dictated by the distance between the two 'oases' of Baixe Grande and Geimada dos Britos, with the latter being the next place we stayed. At one point I came across some natural sand sculptures, where the wind had carved the sand into shapes that one might expect to see on a potter´s wheel - cylinders with wave-like circumferences.

It was nice to finish the days walking before the heat of the day really kicked-in, and the afternoon was spent in the shade of the roofs of our host's homestead just snoozing and reading. In the late afternoon Alisson and me climbed the dunes near to the 'oasis' and I marvelled at the natural beauty of the place. In the low sunlight, the dunes took on a yellow hue which softened the appearance of their various surfaces. The low light added shade and form to the dunes, casting them into relief and sharpening their edges in pleasing offset straight and diagonal lines. All this was against a backdrop of a rich blue sky. Some black dead tree stumps in one depression helped one to fix a point in space in the midst of such a transient landscape.

Day 4: Geimada dos Britos to Betania

The day's trekking started with the traverse of more dunes, followed by a period walking through scrub land at the edge of the national park. To avoid the peak intensity of the sun we took a long lunch break in the home of a family with father, mother and six children living in a small simple building. They provided coconut water (drunk straight from the coconut) and a lunch of fish, rice and beans. After lunch I passed some time reading a novel on my 'Kindle' (electronic book). For a time I was absorbed in the story unaware of that a group of onlookers had formed behind me. The father and children were fascinated by the e-book.

During our onward walk through the scrub land we were accompanied by the two eldest sons on their bicycles. One of them kindly kept me supplied with various small fruits picked from the bushes along the way. The last part of the day's walk was in the pleasant late afternoon light and was once again across dunes - many of them impressively high, making for fun descents. Some local men happened to be making the same route - but on bicycles. Seeing the guys pedalling across such an unreal landscape tickled my humour and resulted in some entertaining photos.

The finale of the day saw us reach Rio Allegro which was at a low enough level for us to wade across. In the village of Betania we slept in a local bar - an alfresco affair with just a roof covering. A nearby offshoot of the river afforded a refreshing swim. Betania was the first place in four days that was connected to the electrical grid.

Looking Down to Rio Allegro

Day 5: Britania to Santos Amaro

 This day was mainly concerned with getting back to the town of Barreirinhas. A short three hour walk was all that was required to get from Betania to Santos Amaro where we would take transport back to Barreirinhas. The infrastructure of Santos Amaro struck me as a little strange because while there were some paved roads in the centre of the small town, there are no paved roads connecting it to the 'outside world'. In fact, to get from Santos Amaro to the main road where we could then take further transport back to Barreirinhas, we had to spend two hours travelling 'offroad' by jeep along sandy tracks. The difficulty of readily transporting goods along such a prohibitively slow route likely explains why when I ordered a pizza for lunch in a bar in the town I was told that they could not make me one because 'there is no cheese in Santos Amaro' - i.e. the whole town had run out.

The Dwellings

The buildings in the dunes such as those in Baixe Grande and Geimada dos Britos are simple constructions - just concrete screed as a floor, then trunks of small trees for vertical supports and roof members, with the roof covered with palm leaves - though I did spot some polythene sheeting in the roof so palm leaves are not that good! Sometimes the walls are left open to the breeze, otherwise they are made of thin branches. If you want a fence around the building to keep the chickens and pigs out, then some thin wooden steaks suffice.

I considered that in such a climate where it is never cold, with the worst it throws at you being some heavy seasonal rains, one can easily survive in a very simply constructed dwelling - a far cry from the homes of us British mortgage slaves. If you really want some electricity, you can start-up the generator (if you have one), otherwise you sleep when it gets dark and get up when it is light. Seeing such 'cheaply built' homes, I reflected that the cost of living associated with your home is like the cost of building and operating an aeroplane. The faster you want to fly, the bigger engines you need, but the bigger the engines needs more fuel and you must have wider wings to lift this extra fuel. But then you need a bigger engines still to provide enough thrust to power the bigger plane, for which you need more fuel and so on and so on. In the modern city, the grander your house and the more possessions within it, the more money is required to fuel it all. At the outset you want to go faster, but then you end up running all the time just to keep up enough speed to stop it all falling out of the sky. Seeing people live quite happily on very little (in the analogy, flying a much smaller, slower plane) made me stop to reflect on what one really needs to survive. That said; after such right-on ramblings, such an existence would not work for me back home for two distinct reasons: Most importantly, one could not survive with any degree of good health in such a simple dwelling in the sometimes very cold and wet UK. Furthermore, the lack of stimulation living in such a place would eventually get me down a bit. So I have no desire to sell-up and live in the dunes just yet. Nevertheless, during my travels in northern Brazil I have seen vast numbers of people surviving of what seems to be next to nothing and I am developing a respect for people who can live such lives with grace and a smile.


After seven weeks in Brazil, I can safely say that I have 'gone native' on footwear - which means that I wear flip-flops all the time. Prior to spending an extended period in a hot and often humid country, I considered flip-flops to be rather ineffectual items - good only for a brief excursion from the beach to an ice-cream stall and back. However, while here in Brazil, one does have to consider that there might be something in this whole flip-flop malarky. Well, if you are prepared to get through the early days with red skin between your big toes and the next ones, then you're away on an alfresco foot life. With all the flipping and flopping that goes on, your feet are well ventilated and you (and those nearby) can enjoy a whiff free time. So now I live in the things, spending full days walking around cities, taking planes, going on nights out, with a cheerful flip and a content flop.

So now for the real-man's footwear challenge - the four day bare foot dune trek. As one might expect, the sand dunes contain quite a lot of the stuff, with most of it near your feet. So a dune trek in northern Brazil in lace-up footwear would involve the sensation of walking with your feet in sand bags, plus with the heat and humidity and all, there would be curds and whey swilling around your boots by the end of the day - making a nice cheddar 'n' sand combo in your socks. Your next option is the good old flip-flops, but the trouble is the loose sand is flipped and flopped up into the air and your footwear acts like a pair of sand shovels. So that leaves the hard-core 'going native' option of bare foot trekking. All good until one's poor little, normally protected, heels and pads of toes start to blister. Then the sentence 'oh my ****ing feet' does sound in one's head with some regularity.

Well, apart from taking some brief rest-bites in my flip-flops when my skin really stung, I did complete the trek in bare feet, though I was left with some mighty blisters (see photos) - next stop hot coals? I am left with one question though, in Brazil, is a suit-flip-flop combo considered appropriate attire for business meetings - maybe as long as the flip-flops are black?

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