Cheating Death Along the Amazon River: Pete Casey's 6,000-Mile Trek
When Pete Casey set out to walk the 6,000-mile course of the Amazon River from sea to source across South America, he knew there would be dangers. He just never thought he would almost die quite so many times.
There was the pit viper that bit his pant leg. River pirates and guerrilla rebels. Jaguars in the rain forest, piranha in the water and armed drug smugglers on the trail. And a horror show of potential injuries and illnesses—machete wounds, trench foot, dengue fever, malaria, Zika and, of course, Covid, which he contracted in Peru.
Indeed, the dream almost ended at its beginning. Making things harder than they necessarily had to be (a recurring and defining characteristic of the journey), Casey and a local guide started walking on Dec. 4, 2015, from a remote white-sand beach on Marajó, a Brazilian island in the Amazon that juts out into the Atlantic. They followed the coast, timing their progress with the tides. But crossing a swiftly flowing estuary, they misjudged how quickly the water was rising and found themselves submerged up to their necks. As the current insistently tugged, threatening to sweep them out to open sea, they found where the bottom began to rise to the other side.
It was excellent training for what lay ahead. The thing about walking along the Amazon is that one often has to get very wet. (In fact, the world’s longest river is crossed by no bridges.) In June 2016, seven months into the trip, Casey crossed it for the first of many times near Almeirim, Brazil. With a small boat trailing behind to ferry his guide, he carefully waded in to avoid getting stung by stingrays lurking in the mud, breast-stroked to keep from swallowing too much contaminated water and swam as hard as he could manage. When he was spooked by a pair of large pink river dolphins that started closely following, he briefly clambered into the boat before resuming his swim at the same spot. Why? Because he’d pledged to move forward only under his own power for the entire journey. The four-mile crossing took hours.
Since then he’s completed hundreds of swims, crossing rivers and lakes full of caimans, and in several spots, stroking miles down tributaries to find walkable terrain.
“I’m lucky to be alive and to get to this stage,” Casey says from Cuzco, Peru, where he’s recuperating from Covid and dental surgery, and prepping for the final 400 miles of his quest. “If I’d really known what I was getting into, I probably wouldn’t have started.”
“Pete’s expedition stands out due to the time, isolation and perseverance it has required,” says Piotr Chmielinski, who, along with American Joe Kane, became the first to paddle the length of the Amazon in 1986. In the decades since, Chmielinski has advised almost every expedition focused on the river and has counseled Casey during his journey. “It’s definitely one of the most important undertakings anyone has done, on the Amazon or anywhere.”
Frankly, Casey is an unlikely person to have taken on such an extreme challenge. With his skinny physique, pasty English complexion, scruffy beard and tattered khaki wardrobe, he looks more disheveled bird-watcher than intrepid adventurer.
Even as a kid he nurtured a fascination with the Amazon, even if it seemed a galaxy removed from his working-class upbringing in Sussex, in the south of England. Out of high school, he dreamed of travel, but the idea of far-flung adventure was alien to his social network. Instead, he toiled as a mason and bricklayer, scraping together enough money to purchase his own home.
Then fellow Brit Ed Stafford walked across the Amazon. Since Chmielinski’s first descent, several groups had paddled the length of the river from various tributaries. (There is disagreement about the true “source” of the Amazon, depending on its definition.) Stafford was the first to walk the downstream length of the river, starting at the source in 2009 and using pack rafts to float through unwalkable sections.
Someone Casey knew from Sussex joined Stafford for part of the trek. Inspired, Casey volunteered to do the same, flying down with a resupply of gear and accompanying Stafford for two weeks in Brazil. The experience got the wheels turning. After years working in the construction industry, Casey was primed for a change. The suicide of a friend was the final push. “I realized life is short,” he says. “I had to do something to stimulate my senses, learn and evolve. And I knew if I was going to do something, it was probably going to be my only chance. It had to be big—and I knew I’d have to sacrifice everything.”
He sold his house. Scrimped every pound. Ignored his friends and family who thought he was chucking his life away. And started training and planning for what he calculated would be a two-year trip.
Everyone else who had travelled the Amazon had gone downstream. Hoping to attract sponsors, Casey decided to walk the other way, and stuck with that commitment even when none materialized. Furthermore, to prevent potential quibbling about his achievement, he pledged to gain every foot under his own power. Unlike Stafford, Casey would swim all the water crossings.
There would be walking too, of course, endless miles on dusty backroads through indigenous communities and on faint trails through incredibly dense jungle. In a land where boat travel is the rule, the locals thought he was nuts.
Casey knew his sudden appearance out of the jungle into a remote village could cause problems, so he almost always hired a local to accompany him. Having someone who could speak the language soothed tensions and opened doors—but wasn’t always enough.
In the fall of 2018, in a Ticuna indigenous community near the Brazil-Peru border, Casey and his guide asked for permission to pass through. Instead, the police accused them of various nefarious intentions. They were searched, interrogated and locked up. Then things got bad. During the night, a mob descended on the jail, banging on the walls and shattering the windows. The guards managed to hold back the crowd. “I’m sure they would have killed us,” Casey says. He didn’t sleep. Near dawn, someone quietly unlocked the door and Casey and the guide made a run for it.
It took him weeks to plot a detour around the contentious area. Delays were adding up. Bureaucracy and permits, of course. Finding guides was harder than he expected. The annual rainy season held him back for months at a time, waiting for water levels to recede enough to resume walking. Three years after he started, he finally crossed into Peru. He was a little more than halfway to the Pacific.
The slow pace drained his finances. By early 2019, he was out of money. Luckily, his website had gained a modest following and donations started trickling in, just enough to buy food and replace gear. He survives on less than $7 a day.
Then Covid hit and Peru locked down. It was the only time he considered quitting. Friends and family urged him to return to England. He could replenish his funds and start again in a year. It was sorely tempting. Instead, he hunkered down and worked on a small farro farm for seven months. He also improved his Spanish and learned more about local culture.
His six-year immersion has given Casey insight into the region possessed by few outsiders. He walked through virgin rain forest and around a palm-oil plantation so vast it’s visible from space. He witnessed truck convoys loaded with massive logs, and choked on smoke from slash-and-burn fires. Once while treading a freshly cut road in Peru, he encountered a group of Ashaninka people, who told him they used to hunt right from their village, but now have to walk for two days. Casey feels a responsibility to tell the world about what he’s seen.
“The villagers don’t appear to benefit from any of the extraction and development,” he says. “Some give up and move to towns where they lose their connection to the rain forest.”
Of all the high-risk complications, Casey thinks the closest he came to death was the day he was hypothermic, drowning and starving—all at the same time. Well into his journey, during the rainy season, he was sick of hanging around and plotted a route across 60 miles of uninhabited Brazilian jungle. He enlisted a traveling companion and stepped into the wilderness with 15 days of food.
What they’d hoped would be high ground was mostly flooded forest. At times they traveled less than a half a mile an hour, wading through murky, chest-deep water, slashing through vines with machetes. By day 18, rations were depleted and Casey resorted to nibbling rehydration tablets for their meager sugar.
“I made a major miscalculation,” he says. “The rain was constant, the forest was horrendous. I was so hungry, cold and exhausted. It was terrifying.”
At one point, they found themselves dog paddling in a downpour, the water rising and no dry land in sight. His evangelically inclined companion simply said, “It’s a beautiful place to die.”
Then, just before darkness fell, they spotted a tiny island where they could rest. A couple of days later—after five days with no food—the duo stumbled out of the forest and collapsed. Casey had shed nearly 35 pounds. It took him weeks to recover.
In December 2021, he finally climbed out of the Amazon basin, trading endless muck and mosquito bites for the high-and-dry altitude of the mighty Andes. By the time you’re reading this story, he should reach what is believed to be the furthest source of the Amazon, on an 18,000-foot Andes summit. From there he’ll track west and downhill. And by summer, if everything goes according to plan (Peter knows by experience that it probably won’t), he’ll dip his abused feet in the Pacific, becoming the first person to walk the length of the Amazon entirely under his own power, the first to travel the river’s length against the flow, and the first to walk across the South American continent from east to west.
One thing is for sure: The Peter Casey who finishes this journey won’t be the Peter Casey who began it. He sometimes considers all he’s sacrificed. Friends and colleagues have given up on him. He missed his mother’s funeral. He doubts he’ll own a home again.
But he doesn’t dwell. Nor does he give much thought to the future. Maybe a book and a documentary about the expedition and the plight of the Amazon. Hell, maybe he’ll trace yet another source of the river to cover his bases.
He prefers to focus on what has gotten him this far—the next footfall. “This expedition has taken a big chunk of my life,” he says. “Now the only thing that can stop me is deportation or death.”