A middle-aged man with the physique of a bear slipped into the warm water of the Amazon River yesterday to begin the longest and probably most dangerous swim ever attempted.
Martin Strel, 52, from Slovenia, known variously as the Big Man of the River and the “fish man”, is attempting to swim the full length of the world’s biggest river – all 5400 kilometres of it – or in his own words, “die trying”.
The bearded marathon swimmer is no stranger to staggering feats of endurance. After accomplishing the modest crossing of the English Channel early in his career he has gone on to successfully swim the length of the Danube, the Mississippi and the Yangtze rivers. None of them, however, compare to the terrors waiting for him in the Amazon: five-metre anacondas, crocodiles, poisonous fresh water stingrays and even the occasional bull shark that works its way upstream and likes to attack swimmers.
But Mr Strel remains philosophical: “I’m concerned, of course, but if I think of that stuff I would never jump into the water,” he said.
He even had a ready reply when asked about every man’s greatest fear in the equatorial waters – the toothpick fish that can enter the body by swimming up the penis, and can only be removed by surgery. “I never urinate straight into the water, I always urinate straight into my wetsuit,” he said.
Yesterday’s starting point was Atalaya in Peru, from where Mr Strel will attempt to make it to where the river spills out of the Amazon Basin into the Atlantic, at Belem. His first challenge will be ferocious local whirlpools that have sunk passenger ships in recent weeks, killing 170 people.
The world record distance swimmer intends to get there in 70 days, which means swimming from dusk to dawn to clock up the necessary 77km a day.
Mr Strel will be accompanied by 45 people across three boats including a doctor and trainers. The main vessel in the $2.9 million mission is a boat that belonged to the French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
The team will be carrying buckets of animal blood to distract predators as a first line of defence. If that doesn’t work there will be armed personnel in the support flotilla. And if the attackers still make it through, the medical team have a couple of pints of Mr Strel’s own blood in reserve for emergencies.
With the promise of dramatic encounters and human triumph, there is of course a US documentary team recording the feat for a film.
While admitting that his effort appears to defy logic, the veteran peace campaigner insists that his goal is to show that nothing is impossible.