Mickey Grosman, a modern-day explorer, adventurer, and survivalist, is currently making headway in his epic 5,000 mile, Coast-to-Coast Expedition along the Amazon River and Rainforest of South America. The story of what he hopes to achieve, and why he’s doing, is one of personal transformation and dreaming big.
Maybe Mickey Grosman, 64, who has completed nearly one-third of his Amazon trek along the Equator with a small group of hand-picked Ecuadorian indigenous locals, was born in the wrong century. Just maybe, he would have been equally at home by the side of Spaniard conquistadors Francisco de Orellana and his Colonel Pizarro, who, in 1541, were making their “El Dorado” journey through this same region, seeking gold and cinnamon for the King of Spain. But the Spaniards were misled by the local Indians only to find themselves trapped in the mighty mountains and dense jungles, starving to death and injured, and only after losing 4,000 lives, did they turn back.
But Grosman, an experienced adventure-travel guide who was a former paratrooper in the Israeli Army before moving to Florida with his wife and four children two decades ago, would never dream of quitting, despite enduring numerous hardships, including hiking for several tortuous weeks in the cloud forest of the Eastern Andes and without much food. “It was land never penetrated before, the weather was unbearably windy and cool, everyone was suffering injuries,” says Mickey, who, thanks to technology, manages to keep in regular touch with the outside world via an Inmarsat satellite phone and laptop. (He maintains an up-to-date Amazon 5000 Facebook page and blog.)
Worse was yet to come for Mickey and his small group of six, when they were later kidnapped by hostile Huaorani tribesmen near the isolated border with Peru. The fierce, warlike Huaorani have almost zero contact with the civilized world. “We might have frightened them. No one ever dared to cross their land,” says Grosman. With guns and spears pointing at their heads, Grosman’s group was forced into dugout canoes and led away into the jungle. Fortunately, that satellite phone later came in handy, as Mickey was able to surreptitiously send a signal to Google Earth every 10 minutes which enabled a special Israeli-American extraction team to trace their exact location in the dense, tropical rain forest and rescue them in the middle of the night.
As of late August, Grosman’s party has walked 1,100 miles, often hacking their way forward with machetes. On good days, they covered up to 20 miles. On tough days, just two or three miles. In flooded areas, they built makeshift balsa rafts. For food, they lived off the land. “Our favorite hunt,” says Grosman, “is the peccary, a common boar that’s native to the Amazon jungle. Grosman and his group also dine on piranhas and larvae scooped out from fallen trees. “The larvae are the favorite protein source of the Amazonians,” he says. “Skewered and grilled on an open fire, they taste just like a bacon.”
Grosman’s team members all sleep in tents or bivy sacks, depending on the terrain or conditions. Nearly invisible sand flies have been the biggest nuisance, especially because they carry diseases. “My indigenous Indian support team feel that they are bug protected,” he says. “Not me. I duct tape any open inch that separates my clothing from my body.” As for clothing, Grosman and his group have been living in RailRiders. “They are tough, durable, lightweight, easy to take care of, and reliable,” he says. “I am not new to RailRiders and have used it throughout the years aboard my Eco-Planet Adventures business. Thanks to John Darbeloff’s generosity and kind sponsorship of full sets and all sizes of the Eco-Mesh Shirts and the VersaTac Pants, we’ve been geared for success!”
Now, the big question: Why? Why is Grosman risking his life by making this epic, unmatched, and incredibly difficult Pacific-to-Atlantic crossing? There’s a simple answer to his superhuman quest: To raise worldwide awareness about the destruction of the rainforests, whose plants have yielded a variety of medications, including the cancer drugs that saved his own life a few years ago. “By setting a personal example,” says Grosman, “I’m doing my part to end this war on cancer.” Mickey has found his El Dorado.
Grosman hopes to complete the journey by late Spring 2013. Untold hardships and challenges await him and his party on a daily basis. Via his satphone, Grosman shared with Planet Wild more details about the expedition.
Planet Wild: Describe the other members of your travel party. How were they selected? Their background?
Mickey Grosman: When the word about my expedition got out many expressed a wish to join me.
Keeping our ‘Amazon 5000 – for the Cure’ cause in mind we turned this interest into a fundraiser. We did a global casting call for volunteers to join me on short legs of the expedition and presented them a
fundraising goal. Hundreds of applicants sent in their casting videos but I selected the (8) individuals that exhibited a strong passion for the cause, a strong mental endurance and individuals who could take the physical challenge of an extreme trek like mine. With five of them who already completed their segments of the expedition alongside of me I can now tell that not necessarily the “macho” ones prevailed! Aside from the volunteering adventurers is a small group of local Ecuadorian indigenous who provide support to my team along the various expedition legs. One of them is a friend of mine still from the days I ran Eco-Planet Adventures and survival classes in the Amazon basin – “Jungle boy” Delfin Gualinga, who put it as his personal goal to represent his country Ecuador in this challenging expedition. With him are indigenous friends who are coming and going, chased by fear and by the legendary tales and spirits of the Amazon regions which they were raised on.
PW: Describe a typical day.
MG: Running the Amazon 5000 Expedition along the equator line defines the length of daylight time we can trek which begins with sunset at exactly 06:00 each day and ends at sundown at 18:00 –12 hours daylight. An early rise at 05:00 to the sound of the jungle birds, howler monkeys and other wildlife risers define the beginning of our morning routine. With an expedition body of no more than 7 to 10 participants at once, I assign morning shifts to prepare for the gear and cook a light breakfast, which is basically a Ramen soup.
I get up before my crew to prepare the logistics for the day. Some days we will trek between 15-20 miles in 10 hours, where terrain allows such daily distance, but when trapped in swamps or when we have to clear a path through the dense jungle vegetation with only a machete, the maximum we can progress is sometimes 2 to 3 miles a day top. At about 16:00 each day we cease our daily trek and begin looking for a place to camp before it gets dark. Around this time the darkness begins crawling under the canopies. We build fire, almost always in a wet environment and boil water as first routine! Next we each build overnight shelters to cover up our sealed tents and or hanging hammocks, and only then do we prepare for food. Carrying with us limited conventional food supply such as rice, noodles, salt and sugar (and yes, hot sauce) which we portion carefully in case we cannot provide for ourselves with the food mother earth has to offer. With optimal camping along a river, we bathe before sundown, or prepare to collect rainwater (from day and night tropical showers) in our wet-bags or in tarps in the event our camping site is away from a river.
The day ends with a conversation around the fire pit where I wrap up conclusions of the day and discuss with my team the logistics for the next day. By 18:00 all are slipping into their shelters including myself. While all are asleep, I will turn on my rugged computer laptop and the satellite electronic devices I carry and write blogs capturing the events that chase each other every day. Using the Delorme inReach device I post my updates on Facebook and text message my Amazon 5000 team in Orlando, using my Inmarsat Satphone and transmit via Bgan satellite, pictures from the day. As the expedition leader there is a big responsibility laying on my shoulders. It is a big commitment I made to those at home and from around the world to set a personal example of courage and determination in the fight against cancer.
PW:Why did that tribe capture you and your party? Did they actually threaten to kill you?
MG: There are different theories of why we were captured by the Huaorani tribesmen, none of such has been clearly spelled out to us by them as they captured us at gunpoint and forced us into their dugout canoes, taking us away from our expedition path. To my opinion and after the fact, it was a battle of power. Keep in mind, we did not drive on a highway, nor rode a boat in the river when they encountered us. We even did not feel their presence in our proximity.
We had disembarked the deep swamps to the North side of the Yasuni river one evening, a direction no one ever come from, a land no one dares to cross –not even them, all covered with mud, well-equipped with gear. They are an isolated primitive community that lives away from civilization and uses the rivers as their waterway that connects between their spread out small communities. Who were we? We might have frightened them. No one ever dared to cross their land, not westerners, nor other Indian tribesman of the region (like my support team) who fear them traditionally!
Yes, they threatened to kill us! In their own language which they share with my indigenous team they managed to scare the hell out of them, telling them that by dusk we will all be dead. After a sleepless night of an unclear situation, guarded by gunmen, they brought us to their chief which is the man of the final word there. He basically said we are to stay there unless we paid him $20,000 ransom. Knowing the players at the Amazon region I could see he was fishing, but still we were stranded there, deep in the jungle, without the ability to leave or to continue the expedition trek. My plans to escape through the darkness of night ended empty as I didn’t have a team to follow me. They were paralyzed by the repeated threats and refused to take any action, fearful for their lives.
PW: Just how remote is this region? And how much contact do these Indians have with the outside world?
MG: This region where I was captured is extremely remote, located South of the Napo river and adjacent to the isolated border with Peru – it is a 9800 sq km of National Rainforest assigned by the Ecuadorian government to preserve the life of the indigenous Yasuni indian communities. There are three tribal communities populating this region. They are the: Huaorani, Tagaeri and the Taromenane clans. They maintaining a nomadic lifestyle in the rain forest. They are also hostile to each other and live by the jungle law.
MG: The rifle is for my team and protection and mainly as deterrent. We are traveling through very dangerous territories where we could encounter violent tribes, drug trafficking and even pirates on the rivers. The jungle is not a safe place to be, nor the Amazon rivers. We hunt for food the traditional way, as the indigenous do, with handmade tools, our bare hands, and fishing lines.
PW: Have you ever done a trek like this before?
MG: Yes, I have lived several months among the indigenous in the jungles of Ecuador, as well as guided groups for 2-week treks and ran survival courses “boots on the ground” style with my business of passion – the “Eco-Planet Adventures”. I’m also a veteran of the Israeli Army’s Special Forces and have a heavy military background that helped prepare me for this extreme journey.
(Mickey Grossman managed to complete his Amazon Crossing in 2013)