Written and photographed by Chris Korbulic
I knew I had forgotten something when coming to Brazil. When I tried to ask how long the drive would be I realized what it was: to learn Portuguese. Thanks to my “Beginning Portuguese” book I glanced at on the plane, I could at least ask our driver where the Laundromat was and count to 999 while his Land Rover bounced up the long and insanely bumpy driveway to his farm, Fazenda Bonito.
This was our put-in for the Rio Mambukaba. We knew little of the river, as its first attempted descent* resulted mostly in high-water horror stories of days climbing through the jungle followed by a week on the beach, presumably mending the mental and physical anguish from the river. Something else we may have forgotten—they had put in halfway through our proposed trip. We were ready, though, and confident, with a general ignorance of the river. Success was sure.
Fazenda Bonito is high in the Serra da Bocaina between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janiero in the little that is left of Brazil’s endangered Mata Atlantica. Jungle that used to cover 75 percent of the state of Sao Paulo now covers only 7 percent, and the Mambukaba flows right down the middle. The river starts high in the mountains at over 6,000 feet, and more importantly, ends in the ocean at a popular beach about 35 miles later. After the first few kilometers of low-volume jungle-bashing and rock-dodging, I was pretty sure I would be ready to spend the next week at the beach too.
Soon after my visions of basking in the sun, the river’s character changed, and it soon gained enough water in its steep corridor to be enjoyable to the point of elation. For five days, we portaged little, paddled much whitewater far better than we had imagined and were surprised daily by dusk coming on quickly and forcing us off the river. Sections were reminiscent of California whitewater, others of Himalayan, others purely Brazil; and this was the problem.
Few sections of river compare to the steepest on the Mambukaba. Seven Falls on a branch of the Feather River in California comes closest with its massive cascades stepping down 1,500 feet in less than a mile. To portage these falls in California is comparatively easy with open pine and fir forest, but here along the Mambukaba, one of the most flora-diverse regions of the planet, it is a different story. Ostensibly tying together the beautiful trees and flowers and keeping them from sliding off the mountain, is a web of vines. A slick fungal coating, mistakable for ice, covers the rocks. Both were a curse, a nuisance, working together to maul, torment and slow movement. Occasionally a blessing, vines might catch you after a slip, so while not all devilish, the tear-shaped puncture in my cheek attests to their generally unsavory nature.
As we moved downstream and out of the major gradient, we were able to run 95 percent of the whitewater, likely being the first to run about 90 percent of that. Speculation aside, Pedro Oliva, who was also on the first high-water attempt, called this the “real first descent” of the Mambukaba. We expected little of the river, but that turned to great surprise when we were able to run so much great whitewater. The beach, as we always knew, was a great ending, and one that I especially miss now that I’m back in the raining and cold Pacific Northwest. Time to put the splash top away and don the drysuit!
*Props to John Grace, Ryan Mcpherson, Jason Hale, Pat Keller, and others for scoping this one out and making the 1st descent
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