Sunday Independent, 1 September 2012
Rob Dowling lived out a bizarre dream when he sailed down the Amazon in a bathtub. Now, after a series of personal tragedies, he’s going back to South America to raise money for a children’s charity. But there’s more bad news, says DAVE KENNY: his tub has been kidnapped by Colombian terrorists
It’s May 2006, and Dubliner Robert Dowling has a splitting headache and a furious itch. He has just woken up in the gutter of a Peruvian town beside a mangy dog. He is wearing a life jacket and a cowboy hat (Robert, that is, not the dog). He is hungover to the point of insanity, and flea-ridden.
It’s hardly the most auspicious way to start an epic adventure, but Rob grabs his hat and hits the jetty to begin his solo sail down the world’s most hostile river, the Amazon. In a bath tub. ‘Rob the Dub in a Tub’ will set one of the bizarrest world records ever, but today he just needs to find some paracetemol.
Rob’s dream of sailing down the Amazon in a bath dates back to a pub conversation when he was in his 20s.
“Myself and my mates were discussing things we’d like to do before we die,” he says. “I joked that I’d like to travel down the Amazon in a tub. Twenty years later, I did just that.”
A series of life-tributaries led him to the world’s joint-longest river. The catalyst was a deep depression left by the break-up of his 22-year marriage.
“I was alone and miserable. The family home had been sold off and I was in my mid-40s on the edge of despair. My life as I knew it was over. No-one else was involved. It just ended,” he says.
“I had two choices: stay depressed or patch myself up. I felt emasculated by the divorce. I wanted to do something that would give me back my masculinity. Something really challenging.
“I sail as a hobby – even though I can’t swim – so I decided to test my nerve and boating skills by making the bath journey. I had a good job with Tayto and had some money left over from the house sale, so I started planning my adventure.”
That adventure would see him fleeing murderous guerillas, cut-throats, crocodiles and witch doctors. He would also meet some extraordinary people, including a small, paralysed Indian girl who turned his life around.
It’s a journey Rob’s about to undertake again, hopefully, next month. He had planned to go last January, but a personal tragedy of devastating proportions stopped him. He chokes as he begins to describe it and it’s left until later in the interview to discuss. Despite this, he now feels he is emotionally ready to return to the Amazon.
Two weeks ago, Rob received a ransom message from Columbian narco-terrorists, FARC. The most feared group in South America have kidnapped something very precious to him – his bath tub. He needs to go back to the Amazon to rescue it.
“No, I’m not nuts. I’ve been through a lot with that bath. It’s very special,” laughs Rob.
“I bought it in Peru. Then I got a team together. We housed it in a steel frame, with fuel and water barrels on either side, and a 15hp outboard engine.
“Everyone thought I was mad and would drown. An English missionary told me not to worry about organising for my remains to be flown home if I was killed. ‘The piranhas will take care of that’, he said.
“I planned to travel 5,471km solo with a GPS and a satellite phone. I set off from Iquitos in May 2006. The support boat was to stay with me for five miles, but got into trouble after two. I had to tow it into a town behind my bath. It was some sight.
“I’m not a huge drinker, but that night we were treated as celebrities and drank our way through the town. This was drug country: there were guys with mirror shades and scars everywhere. I was wearing my Stetson, life jacket and shorts – it was asking for trouble, so I decided to call it a night.
“The support team had taken over the boat and the bath. I spotted a mangy dog in a gutter and lay down beside it. I knew if anyone tried to mug me it would bark and wake me.”
A few hours later, Rob started his journey. He made it three miles before he ran into a storm.
“I thought I was going to die. My lifejacket was useless [airport security had confiscated the gas cannister], I was hungover with swirling waves battering my little bath. I was terrified I’d be bashed off the rocks.
“I weathered it in the end and continued chugging along, being eaten by mosquitos and avoiding bandits. That first night, I pitched my tent near a village. The children were the first to visit me. Once I had given them some of my sweets (they had never seen sweets before), the parents started to appear.
“A family took me in and looked after me. It was typical of the hospitality I was to experience along the way.”
Rob also experienced some of the grinding poverty the river children have to endure.
“I have two sons, Colin and Mark. I love kids and the lack of basic facilities for them there is horrific.”
One evening as he pitched up on the bank, he got a satellite call to tell him that the Brazilian navy didn’t want him to travel any further. He was in FARC country.
“I sensed I was in danger. One of the local boys kept making the cut-throat sign with his hand and saying ‘gringo’ to his friends.
“The villagers begged me not to continue. One local offered to guide me past the FARC camp but I knew he was setting me up to be robbed. My $4,000 engine was worth 10 years wages to these people.
“I headed off before dawn, as fast as I could, for the Brazilian side of the river. Later that night, I slipped past the guerilla stronghold unnoticed. I was scared out of my wits. I could smell and see their cooking fires as I passed by.”
Rob’s journey ended after 500 eventful kilometres. He had letters of safe conduct from Peru and the blessing of Amazon charity, Caritas. The Brazilian navy, however, didn’t want him on the river. His adventure was over. Deflated, he donated all his equipment to help the children of a nearby village.
“I then spent a month boozing in Rio. I was really hurting over not being able to continue.”
Once back in Ireland, Rob won a Best of Irish Award for his achievements.
“Everyone wanted to see the bath, but I’d left it behind. So, the following year, I headed back to get it. It had grown legs. I travelled into Colombia and was told it had been sold for a cigarette by a woman who thought it was possessed. It was hidden in the jungle somewhere.
“I returned to Peru really disappointed and accepted an invitation to go on a field trip with Caritas into the rain forest. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The experience completely changed my life.
“We visited a remote village and there, in a small mud hut, I met a child called Jazmin. She was 12, malnourished and paralysed from the waist down. She had open sores on her body. I was furious that a child should have to suffer like that without proper care.
“Caritas advised me to get medical help for her rather than give cash to her family. It really pissed off the witch doctor who was ‘treating’ her.
“We sent her to Iquitos for tests and I did what I could before heading home. I tried to get on with my life but I kept seeing her face. I phoned a friend in Peru who said she was dying. With the help of friends, I raised €4,000 for her.
“It wasn’t enough, so I hired a nurse for her. Then I bought plane tickets for her to travel to a children’s hospital in Lima with her mother. She spent months there getting well.
“Jazmin brought out something in me. The desire to help kids like her became all-consuming. My mission now is to set up a medical centre on the river to bring these kids a better life.
“To do this, I have to raise funds. I had a successful holistic healing business which I neglected while concentrating on Jazmin. I’m broke. I’ve been to Peru seven times and spent $40,000 on my bath to-date. Each journey costs around €5,000.
“I want to return to Colombia and rescue my bath. When I was last there, I was told that FARC would give it back for $200. I met them and it went up to $600, which I didn’t have. I was told last week that they’re willing to talk again.”
Rob needs a sponsor to help him get there. “Someone who believes in savouring life” like he does.
“When I get the bath back I’m going to finish the Amazon journey. Then I’ll take it up Kilimanjaro, through Death Valley and paraglide it from a volcano in Peru. I’ve worked out the logistics. Those trips will raise the funds I need to set up my centre.”
On paper, those plans look mad, but Rob speaks about them with disarming determination and honesty. The latter is a quality he has in abundance. He opens up and reveals that 2011 was a nightmare year for him.
In the Spring, he lost his father to cancer. In the Winter his best friend committed suicide. In the Autumn, his son Colin (24) emigrated to Australia for two years. His other son Mark (26) made plans to follow him. Losing your sons for two years must be very tough.
“It gets worse,” says Rob, his voice suddenly cracking. He pauses.
“Mark died.” He crumples in on himself, overcome with grief. Wave after wave of it hit him as he tries to talk about the death of his son, just seven months ago. The man who has weathered the Amazon is rudderless in his own private tempest.
“He had gone to a New Year’s Eve party with friends. He didn’t make it home. I can’t say much about it as there is going to be an inquiry. Everybody loved Mark. He was bubbly and kind. He was never in trouble. It was just that his time was up.
“When I heard the news, I went down to the estuary in Donabate and screamed like a banshee, ‘Why?’ He was a beautiful soul with his life before him.
“I met Mark for dinner at the end of December. I had intended to head out to Peru just after Christmas. I thank God that I didn’t have the finances to go. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had that dinner with him. It was the last time I saw him alive.” He pauses again.
“Well that’s that,” he says with an air of finality that is as unconvincing as it is moving. He is trying to master his grief. Each time he speaks it’s as if someone is punching him in the stomach.
“When you lose a child you join a very exclusive and painful club.” He winces again.
Life seldom has tidy endings. Rob once conquered the mightiest of rivers in the frailest of crafts. He saved a dying Peruvian girl. It’s an uplifting story, but it doesn’t end there.
Now, he is navigating through the unfamothable pain of losing his own child. Despite that pain, he wants to return to the Amazon to rescue more children. And to visit Jazmin.
Life is never tidy.
The day after Rob was interviewed for this article, he received news from Peru. It was about the frail little “daughter he never had”.
Jazmin had died.