In 1976, at the age of 28, Kapax swam the length of the Magdalena River, a distance of over 1,000 miles. It took him about five weeks to do this. The Magdalena is a tributary of the Amazon River and Kapax, whose real name is Alberto Lesmes Rojas, was ahead of his time.
We are now accustomed to athletes doing extraordinary things to “raise awareness” for different causes. But Kapax isn’t from an area or a time where this type of thing was commonplace. In a tiny town in the Colombian Amazon in the mid ‘70s it was unheard of.
Kapax had a European father and an indigenous mother. His father left when he was young and he was not able to attend school from that point on. He spent a lot of time watching black-and-white Tarzan movies at the small theater in Puerto Leguizamo, a small town along the banks of the river.
He began going out into the jungle and practicing the moves he saw Tarzan do. As he grew, so did his notoriety. He felt a connection to the jungle and to the Amazonian river, which grew stronger with time. Eventually, he became known as the “Tarzan of the Amazon.” He became more and more concerned with the deforestation of the trees and the polluting of the river. This became an obsession which eventually drove him to do the swim which made him famous throughout the Amazon and surrounding countries.
Years ago, I traveled through part of the Amazon for a few days in a dugout with a couple of indigenous guys. Other than some rice they brought along, we caught and ate our food. I saw a way of life that was connected to water that I’d not even imagined. I’ve hoped to share a part of that with my daughter and wife for years — although maybe without the cloud of mosquitoes and the anaconda dinner cooked over a fire.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday my family and I visited the town of Leticia, in the Colombian Amazon. Leticia is across the river from Peru and sits half in Colombia and half in Brazil. It’s a wild, bustling frontier town.
Entering the small airport there’s a huge mural of Kapax in the forest. On the way to town there’s a huge statue of Kapax holding a giant snake. There are posters of him, magazines with his picture all over the place in all three countries, and everyone tells stories that seem to be half real and half shrouded in the mists of myth. I was hoping to at least catch a glimpse of this famous waterman.
And then, on the third day we saw him. The Tarzan of the Amazon was in our hotel chatting up a couple of ladies. Eventually, he broke away and came to talk. He said a lot, including that my daughter should eat more so she’d have strength to dance. But then he said two things that showed why he’s such a legend: “The most dangerous animal is man” and “He who loves the river, protects it.”