Robert and Arron’s world record paddle board attempt in Panama has become an epic tale of adventure and survival, with massive highs and lows being experienced during a journey which is coming towards an end with the record in their sights. We hope the items of Northcore kit they’ve taken with them have been of some help during their amazing trip. Heres the update from Robert:
“As if the expedition wasn’t hot enough already, I decided, while in the middle of nowhere, to pour boiling water on both feet. Thankfully this is not a walking expedition but thus began the most elaborate evacuation plan in paddleboarding history. We had planned an emergency route off of the coastline but we hadn’t a clue if it was possible with two prone paddleboards in tow. In all, 8 modes of transport were used to get from the mud hut the injury occurred in to the hospital In Panama City. Anyway more about that in a moment.
Rob and Arron
Firstly I’d like to confirm that we are indeed safely back in Panama City AND that the Atlantic leg of the trip has been a smashing success, albeit with a few minor complications! It all started with some chance meetings and fantastic morale boosting hospitality in Bocas del Toro over 30 days since our last update. We even managed a movie night with Ian Usher, the star of Ben Fogle’s, New Lives in the Wild, and a stay at Greenacres chocolate farm complete with some divine rum and chocolate liqueur.
Since then however, things have got a little wilder to say the least. Indeed, we’ve gone a little wilder, more feral, and it sounds dramatic but we’ve really had to to survive on this coastline; and there are a few events that despite being more exciting than a Bond girl, have rightly missed the updates to save unnecessary worry. We chose an extremely difficult coastline to paddle as it has enabled us to carry out some very exciting ecological exploration; chosing this route has however presented us with significant challenges and a certain element of danger.
As you should know by now, to make the journey harder for ourselves, we took on a vast project that has been to survey the entire north-eastern coastline of Panama for Antillean Manatee, one of the worlds’ rarest and most impressive mammals. There is very little known about them and that includes whether they live anywhere in Panama other than at the San San Pond Sak wetlands on border with Costa Rica and in the Panama Canal having been introduced there in the 50’s; the coastline between these two points has fantastic potential habitat but nobody has been there searching for them. I would like to point out, that despite being vast in size and weighing up to 2000lb’s, unlike many of their Floridian Manatee counterparts who have grown used to human contact, Antillean Manatee are extremely timid and nearly impossible to spot, living in the dark murky waters of large Central American rivers and able to hold their breath for up to 20 minutes at a time.
Elusive wee beasties
Not to fear we thought, why not add another challenge to the journey; besides we wouldn’t know if we had bitten off more than we could chew until we were chewing it, and at least it gave us specific rivers to aim for to keep the mileage going and break up the journey. We just had to accept that there was a distinct possibility of spending a lot of time doing this and finding none. The ridiculousness of our project was highlighted by an American Special Forces chap we met who was mightily impressed by our route and plans but wouldn’t stop chuckling to himself, ‘the doctor and the farmer team up to paddle Panama on a quest for Manatee’. He had seen active service throughout Central America, including in Panama and gave us some sobering advice before he left. The areas we were heading to now are wild, really wild. We were going prone and alone for this stretch and we had better be ready.
So we summoned up the courage to go for it and headed away from the crystal clear water and mazes of mangroves that was Bocas and headed down into the murky depths of the Laguna de Chiriqui; a huge bay surrounded by wetlands, right in the heart of the Comarca Ngobe-Bugle indigenous territory. Heading south we paddled over 70 miles in 6 days we were well on target for the 100 in 10 we’d set ourselves when we heard the first rumours of Manatee in the vicinity. Surprised and excited to hear this so soon, we broke from paddling, checked into the worst hotel in the world and began plotting Mission Manatee 1. All we had to do first was find out what an Antillean Manatee actually looked like at the local internet café and we were set (I am half joking, Arron is a biologist and had been researching Manatee before we left, I however had not and we would need as many trained eyes on the water as possible).
The first place we thought we should check was the Rio Mananti which was in the Ensenada Mananti. This sounded strangely like the word Manatee and a clue that Manatee detectives Sherlock Ford and Robert Watson were not going to miss. In fact it was in this river that we focussed all our search efforts over the next 4 days using pangas and dugout canoes and although we did at one point think we saw the nose of a Manatee, we couldn’t be sure and were prepared to leave feeling down on our luck. But then we realised this was a paddleboarding expedition! We hadn’t seen any crocs over the previous 4 days so we said sod it and made the hard paddle up the Rio Guariviara until the point at which it joins the Rio Mananti. From here we silently drifted down on our boards at less than a mile an hour. To any timid Manatee we figured we’d look like a log floating downriver and not a spear toting local in a dugout; we were hopeful a few may then reveal themselves.
Sure enough not far into the river we heard a snort. However turning we saw nothing and as we continued to drift further downriver towards its end, hope was beginning to fade. Then ‘ppppppphhhhhhhhhh’ there is was again, the distinctive heavy breathing of a surfacing Manatee and a nose poking just above the water line. Spellbound we frantically tried to take photos, legs now dangling in the croc infested mirth below. Unfortunately, having believed we’d captured evidence, we celebrated prematurely, scared off the Manatee and later discovered the shot had missed him or her entirely. Not to fear, this was a prospecting mission and we were jubilated to have found Manatee at a new location, bizarrely lost, given the name of the river and area, to the knowledge of all conservation groups in Panama, perhaps presumed to have been hunted to extinction many years ago.
So happy paddlers, we pushed on, heading away from the brown slop and crocs of Chiriqui and up the glorious Valiente Peninsula; a rugged peninsula of jagged rock faces and verdant jungle overhanging the ocean. Rounding the peninsula we thought we had lucked out and stopped at a beautiful natural harbour on an island near the indigenous settlement of Tobobe. The place was perfect, a true tropical island fantasy, golden beach, water clearer than glass, small enough to feel our own for the evening but large enough to explore with cliffs, coconut trees and even a hissing rock that shot a plume of salty spray into the air with each wave that surged beneath it. In fact it was such a clear and pleasant evening we decided not to sleep in the tent but to climb the rocks and sleep on top of a flat promontory above the breaking waves stargazing. This may have saved our lives.
A haven for smugglers
Fortunately on that evening I’d had an Eboost before bed and so was wide awake watching the stars from the rocks when someone began signalling from the mainland, flash, flash, flash, it was being made repeatedly and straight towards us. Soon after a boat approached fast and pulled in at the beach, right in front of where our empty tent had been erected, paddleboards tucked in behind. It didn’t take long to put two and two together. These guys were not emergency bakers carrying flour and sugar to deliver through the night, nobody on this coastline baked, we knew as we had repeatedly tried to find cakes; by now running for so long on such a calorie deficit we had developed an acute and insatiable lust for fatty treats. Great, we couldn’t believe our luck. Two guys hopped off the boat and immediately started searching the beach with flashlights, a third, a comic book villain of a man, peculiarly relaxed, vest hugging a bulging stomach and adopting a grim smirk, remained on-board sat ominously on the load, seemingly waiting to see what or who his minions might drag back.
We bolted from the rocks before being spotted and scrambled the small cliff in complete darkness, gaining a view from the top of the hill. We couldn’t see minion number 2 and we didn’t know if they had left the beach to come looking for us, it was quite clear we weren’t in the tent and that we were disturbing their bake off. Lying still in the darkness we couldn’t decide if it was better to run (a long sharky swim to the nearest land in rough seas and total darkness), hide (there really was nowhere to hide on such a small island) or play dumb and return to our sleeping spot to pretend to be asleep. We temporarily chose option 3 while we weighed up the other two, best that they at least didn’t find us spying on them.
We soon changed our minds and opted to hide, huddled on rocks in the darkness, being soaked by surf and rain, clutching our drawn diving knives and SPOT emergency beacon and deciding whether we had it in us to ambush them if they had a gun; for whatever reason they didn’t come searching for us but we had no way to tell if they had robbed us, they may even have taken the paddleboards or have cast them out to sea as a warning. Later we heard a 2nd boat approach and leave, presumably to make the exchange and after 3 hours of occupying the island they left. Still 5 hours from daylight and safety and with lights still flashing like the clappers from the mainland we knew we were a long time from safe. At 3am a third boat came by, forcing us to dive for cover. They cruised around the island slowly, searching for something with torches, but carried on. Fortunately in the morning our tent and boards were still there and as we had run out of water we celebrated surviving with an hour of seawater desalination.
We had heard the coastline was bad for drug smuggling, cocaine making its way from Columbia northwards, it’s value rising with each passing country. But we had a meeting with the local naval anti-drugs task force only a few days previously and been formed that all smuggling in this region was offshore and we would have nothing to worry about on our paddleboardson the coast . Unfortunately for us, this advice didn’t turn out to be entirely true. We had happened to stop on what must be one the most active drug exchange stations in the region but had survived and despite not having slept, were elated to have made it through unscathed. This was not something either of us ever wanted to repeat and we were extremely careful about where we chose to sleep from here in.
Before one of the boards was lost to a storm
From here we headed out to Escudo de Veraguas, the island home of 5 endemic species and one of the islands Seacology, the charity we are supporting, are acting to protect. We had hoped to take the first wild photos of the endemic Salamander, Oedipina Maritima but learnt they are near impossible to find at this time of the year and live deep in the swamp. We gave it our best shot but had no luck. We did however have more luck finding pygmy sloths while circumnavigating the islands on our paddleboards. One of the rarest mammals in the world, with only 188 living exclusively on the island (see attached photos), it was incredible to meet up close in the mangrove.
Topping off a fantasy stay on Escudo with a spear caught crayfish supper we headed back to the mainland and resumed Mission Manatee; first traversing the longest beach in Panama over two and a half days and witnessing the largest turtle in the world, beach, lay and swim off into the night. Such has been the nature of the trip, something amazing or terrible happens without fail every single day. This particular day we had been forced to emergency beach owing to a large bull shark interrupting our 10 mile biscuit break, but were treated that evening to one of the greatest natural spectacles on earth. This section of the trip has been hard on the nerves but kind on the soul.
At the wetlands identified as our best chance of finding Manatee we were slightly gutted to have been beaten to it by a conservation team from the University of Panama by only a few days; although it became apparent Manatee had been known about here for some time and that it merely hadn’t been publicised yet. Despite this, their team had not heard of Manatee anywhere elsewhere on the coastline and so we were happy in our (for now) secret discovery and continued southwards. In total we surveyed 11 major rivers, each one wilder and rawer than the previous and the indigenous inhabitants all the more intrigued to have us visit.
In reality as we were white, arriving stealthily with boards people had never seen before and laden with cargo, it was suspicion that overtook intrigue the further south we went and we were treated with the worst hospitality either of us has encountered anywhere in the world. People in this region have an engrained fear of white visitors, presumably due to previous encounters or rumours of encounters with narco-traffickers. Some villages, particularly those alongside remote rivers, had never had white visitors before. It also didn’t help that none of the locals can grow a beard, so instantly we look like wolfman and billy goatee dropped in from space. We were at times treated like animals in a zoo at feeding time, crowds of locals studying our every mouthful of porridge.
Things became a little grating after a while of this treatment, no friendliness, no smiles, no normal human interaction, it was all rather bizarre to us and it sapped our energy each day trying to win the locals over. All they wanted to know was how much everything cost. All we wanted was to see a smile. After a 2nd night of dysentery and little sleep while surrounded by locals poking about our belongings and watching us eat every sodding mouthful of porridge I flipped and by way of a few universal expletives got them to give me some space while I ate, important as I was forcing food down while intermittently running for the bushes. I took on some bad karma and was to pay later that evening. That day things thus far hadn’t gone exactly to plan, a large shark less than 2 metres from my board had forced an emergency landing, the 2nd emergency shark evasion of the trip, and while cooking our favourite BeWell beef curry to celebrate surviving, our botched stove which had threatened for so long finally claimed a victim, toppling boiling water all over my uncovered feet. Of all the dangers we’d faced in the last 30 days, who’d have thought it would be a culinary disaster to befall us; only my mother could have predicted that one. We were a long way from help so I welped instructions to Arron Nightingale as he wrapped up my badly scolded feet and lay awake in the dirt that night for the third night straight. Loose bowels and burnt feet are not an ideal combination I can assure you.
I knew that the blisters formed from the burn would be sterile but that once they burst it would be nearly impossible to prevent infection; it was time to leave. So, to the evacuation. There is only one land route off the entire northeastern coastline and fortunately we were only two days paddle from it. Unfortunately this turned out to be the most hellish 2 day paddle of the trip: more sharks, huge rivermouths, the largest reefs of the trip and a storm thrown in for good measure. Things started so well as by a strange change of fortunes from the day previous, by end of the first days paddle, having made it to within 7 miles of Calovebora and our ticket out of there, we chanced upon our 2nd Manatee sighting. After travelling over 105 miles since the Rio Manante, searching 11 rivers and spending countless hours in dugout canoes, we spotted Manatee in the ocean using the same reef for shelter that we had just used to land. So that was how we discovered our second lost population; a tremendous distraction from the fair degree of discomfort I was in. By the end of day two, the situation would turn out to be somewhat less rosy.
Setting off the next morning, it should have been a short simple hop around the reef to Calovebora. Unfortunately the Atlantic didn’t want to let us go without a good hiding and soon after setting off the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse. The swell which had been an average size when we left, steadily built in size and on top of this we were soon in the middle of one hell of a squall, near gale force winds, blinding horizontal rain and visibility that made spotting outer reefs with large waves nearly impossible. To top it off we thought we spotted another shark which could now be tracking us. Bugger hey! As if things couldn’t be worse, the cross-shore wind switched to bolt onshore so now with the tops of the swell breaking, being side-swept from our boards was a real danger.
We had been forced over a mile out to sea to round the reef when just this happened to Arron, a rogue 8 footer washing him clean from the board. A terrifying 30m open water swim was to follow, head down, front crawl, praying the shark we’d seen had found a fish and buggered off already. He made it but this was a seriously dangerous situation, far worse than anything we had encountered in the previous 300 miles and entirely unpredictable. The storm could dissipate as quickly as it had formed or equally it could get worse. Typical that 1 mile from finishing on the Atlantic coastline and we were in the eye of the most ferocious storm we’d witnessed in 45 days. Making it around the reef we were faced with a beach funnelling thousands of gallons of water from two enormous rivers in full flow with the heavy rains. You had to laugh, the beachbreak looked horrible, a cross between La Graviere and the Amazon river, huge lumpy, hollow closeouts, chocolate brown, with no discernible sets in the storm making it impossible to time our way in between waves as we usually did.
With the storm showing no signs of relenting and sharks about, the situation wasn’t going to get better by hanging around. We wished each other luck and charged into the chaos towards the beach! Unfortunately there was no good timing and we soon had a formidable set looming up behind us. I managed to back paddle over the first but got clobbered by the second, managing two full flips clinging to the 14 foot board but just managing to just keep a hold of it. Turning around I saw Arron who had managed to back paddle over the first two waves, held fast in the lip of a third particularly nasty looking Caribbean monster about to send him over the edge. I could see this wasn’t going to end well for board or paddler, stuck 7 feet high about to drop very heavily into shark infested water. I didn’t see the detonation but it must have been fantastic as I saw Arron emerge in a tangle of wood, rope and luggage. The 16 foot San O board had been snapped in two and was now being further disintegrated by each surge of whitewater. Fighting to free himself from the mess and shaken from a serious holdown the situation was serious but fortunately he struggled free and somehow managed to make the swim in despite the current and sharks with all the kit in tow. To give you an idea of quite how nasty the sea was, the locals had run down to help but wouldn’t come more than waist deep to help. In reality the situation had been unpleasant but not something we were unprepared to deal with if we had to, we are both used to waves of this size surfing, it was just another matter trying to get two fully laden paddleboards in safely and the shark factor, however remote definitely added some fear.
Most of the board was washed out to sea but we managed to salvage a memento from the remaining nose section. The board which had kindly been donated by Larry Froley of Gray Whale Paddle had thus far survived remarkably well, barely a scratch on her and strong as an ox. Unfortunately no board could have survived such a fall, particularly when fully loaded with gear on deck; it was the death of our beloved Big Bird, never to be straddled or ridden again. But at least we were safe, had one board intact and had saved 2 months of precious footage in the cargo.
By this point the blisters on my burns had torn and my raw feet inevitably would get infected. So to reach safety and somewhere clean to treat the wounds, this crash landing was followed by a long sombre walk down the dark dank beach, two dugout canoe rides across two very swollen rivers, one terrifying motorboat ride UP rapids, 6hrs horse trekking into the mountains with Arron Schwartzernegger carrying Betty Blue the entire way at times knee deep in mud, two minibuses, one coach and a taxi. I spent Saturday night on a drip and some precautionary IV antibiotics for my by now rather swollen, probably infected feet, checking into the best hotel in town: free food, regular foot baths, opiates like smarties and nurses everywhere, Hospital Santo Tomas; I’m glad to report all is now well and on the mend.
In total for this leg of the trip we have travelled 311 miles over 46 days in the Atlantic Ocean, discovered 2 lost Manatee populations, survived a night of escape and evasion from drug smugglers and three emergency beachings (2 sharks and 1 storm); we’ve seen the largest turtle, the smallest sloth and circumnavigated one of the world’s most beautiful islands, Escudo de Veraguas. It has been a fantastic adventure so far and thank you to everyone who has supported us.
We’re definitely more weathered, beardier men than when we set off and with just 36 miles to a new world record, we’ve unfinished business to attend to. We’re currently planning the easiest and safest possible final foray in the Pearl Islands. Massive thanks to Mike Young of the Paddle Panama Center for lending us a paddleboard to allow us to continue. Time to finish this beast!