By Scott Wallace
I dug the toe of my boot into the moist clay and hoisted myself upward, reaching for a sapling that I hoped would support my weight. My glasses were fogged from sweat and the unrelenting moisture, but I couldn’t afford to relinquish my hold to wipe them off. Decay and fungal rot assailed my nostrils. From high overhead, the cry of a screaming piha bird resounded through the woods. Off to my left but out of sight, someone’s machete flailed at the underbrush.
It had been only 20 minutes since I’d begun clawing my way up this hillside in the far western corner of Brazil, but it felt like an eternity. I cursed the day when I’d agreed to join this expedition into the deepest recesses of the Amazon rainforest. Our mission was to track—but not contact—a reputedly violent, isolated indigenous group, known only as the "People of the Arrow." Nearly everything else about the tribe was cloaked in mystery. Not even our leader, the brooding, charismatic wilderness explorer Sydney Possuelo, knew what the people actually called themselves. Nor did he know their ethnicity, nor where they had come from. Were these woods their native homeland, or if they had fled here from elsewhere, deliberating hiding from outsiders in one of the most God-awful and inaccessible places on Earth?
We gained the ridgeline and entered a land fit for a storybook. Bizarre-looking palm trees perched atop stilt roots flecked with fluorescent-blue lichen that seemed to pulse in the jungle twilight. Enormous kapoks and cedars soared like Roman columns straight into the canopy 200 feet above us. Light seeped down in muted shades of yellow and green, and as our 34-member team shuffled single-file through the leaf litter on the forest floor, it felt as though we were walking on the bottom of the ocean.
It had been ten days since we’d left the boats behind and started into this rugged region of steep ravines and twisting hollows. More than three weeks since the very start of the journey. And now, at the base of a huge kapok tree, nestled between its high buttress roots, we came upon the first evidence that we had entered the land of the Arrow People. Several palm leaves lay on the ground before us, some parallel and others perpendicular to each other, bespeaking the intentionality of human hands. They were indented lengthwise in the way a body leaves its mark in a cheap mattress. Nearby we found what looked like a birdcage fashioned from twigs lashed together with vine. "These Indians are very close to the way Amerigo Vespucci would have found them," Possuelo marveled, picking up a fire-blackened ceramic pot the Arrow People had left behind.
Finding the vestiges of isolated tribes was the lifeblood of Possuelo’s work, and it was hard not to share his enthusiasm. If there was any such thing as time travel, this was about as close to it as you could get. Here we were at the dawn of the third millennium, the entire world seemingly bound together in an ever-shrinking global village. Yet, here in these forests, nomads were afoot.
This single moment captured what this journey was all about, what we had come here to do. We had come here to gather vital data about a mysterious, little-known people—in order to protect them. We had uncovered clear evidence that the Arrow People did indeed occupy this forest. Who were these people? How had they managed to survive into the 21st century free from our modern comforts? It seemed as though we found ourselves treading on the very edge of the known world, teetering on the boundary of another dimension.
Here was the payoff, the fulfillment of a dream that had been stirring within since my early childhood, when my mother would take me and my brothers on long road trips through the Deep South. I’d always wanted to lead a life of exploration and discovery. Now more than ever, I felt that my dream had been fulfilled. Whatever the hardships and dangers we’d endured to get here, I would not have traded this moment for anything. And there would be far more to come—both challenges and rewards—in the days and weeks ahead.
Scott Wallace is a journalist whose assignments have taken him from the Himalayas and the streets of Baghdad to the Alaskan Arctic and the Amazon. A former correspondent for the Guardian and Newsweek, he has written for National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and Harperâ€™s. His photography has appeared in Smithsonian, Outside, and Sports Afield. His television credits include CBS, CNN, and National Geographic Channel. His book The Unconquered was released this summer by Crown Publishing Group at Random House.