In June 2017, 43-year-old Emma Kelty from London, England set out on an adventure of a lifetime. An experienced traveler she had recently completed a solo skiing trip to the South Pole, becoming the sixth woman to ever do so. She was not afraid of taking risks and she enjoyed the challenges of travelling through some of the harshest, and most dangerous, terrains in the world.
From her starting point in Quinto, Ecuador she was six weeks into her trip to kayak solo down the notorious South American Amazon River, which opens in southern Peru, snakes through Brazil and finishes in the Atlantic Ocean. A perilous 4,000-mile trek that according to the Encyclopedia Britannica is the equivalent distance from New York City to Rome. Keeping in contact with friends and family through her blog, social media and a GPS tracker which let people know where she was, all fell horribly silent on 13 September 2017, before late in the evening an SOS distress signal was received from her GPS device.
The dangers along the Amazon River do not just come from the tough terrain, isolated landscapes, and fearsome wildlife. They come from the people in the area; pirates, drug barons, and gangs looking to steal and intimidate. There are plenty of horror stories from those who have taken this route, telling of being held at gunpoint, robbed and attacked.
The story Emma Kelty would have been able to tell on her return from this epic adventure would have been exciting and terrifying, but her achievements in reaching her goals would have been something she could have treasured. Instead, her trip was violently cut short and her story has ended in the most sinister and devastating of ways.
Three days before her death, Emma Kelty posted on social media, “So in or near Coari (100 km away) I will have my boat stolen and I will be killed too,” referring to warnings she had been given by concerned locals aware she was travelling in a dangerous area on her own. On 12 September Emma Kelty updated her Twitter status telling of an encounter with “…a group of 50 guys in motor boats with arrows.” The following day she pitched her tent on the banks of the Solimoes River, near the city of Coari in Brazil. It was here authorities were drawn to at the alert of her distress signal, finding an empty tent still holding her belongings. Emma Kelty had clearly not moved on from the area but she was nowhere to be seen.
A week later Brazilian police arrested three males, one just 17-years-old, and revealed they were hunting four further men suspected to have been involved in what they now believed to be murder. Local villagers had informed police of the confessions of one man, who told them he had been part of a group of men who had approached Emma’s tent when it was spotted in an area known for Colombian drug traffickers. The villagers were told that the men believed the tent was Colombians who had set up camp and their intention was to rob them of their drugs and cash.
Emma Kelty was in her tent oblivious to the danger approaching when she was shot at twice with a sawed-off shotgun from around 50 meters away. The Telegraph reported in September that the men, once realizing they had shot a lone woman in her tent, still believed she was carrying drugs. Emma Kelty was attacked, robbed and sexually assaulted before she was thrown into the river. To date, her body has not been found.
“She had no chance to react to what happened to her. We believed the injured woman was still alive when her attackers took her and threw her body in the river.”
In 2016 the New York Times reported on the rising hijackings and ambushes of riverboats and their passengers on the Amazon River by pirates who circle the area looking for targets to rob of their valuables. These are ruthless men most often armed with guns who have no hesitation pointing the barrel straight at innocent people’s heads in order to get what they want. “…organized crime has spread, feeding a sense of lawlessness in the vast river basin,” they wrote.
“Catching pirates is like waging war against guerrilla fighters. They are elusive foes who make the most of their knowledge of river currents, geography and topography.”
Dangers in the waters are only part of the problem. Canoe and Kayak report on the experiences previous explorers have faced within the same region that Emma Kelty was in at the time of her murder. Experiences that were discussed with Emma in preparation meetings before her trip. In an article aptly named “The Deadly Call of the Amazon”, writer Jeff Moag quotes West Hansen who had traveled this region alone and experienced the danger being held with a gun pointed at him on five separate occasions during his trip in 2012. “Killings are a daily occurrence because bodies are easy to dispose and disappearances are common for innocent reasons, so they are written up as simply that: disappearances,” he said.
According to Jeff Moag, the history of those who passed through the region Emma Kelty was in is not a good one with “almost every Amazon paddler who has passed through this stretch of river…has been assaulted or held at gunpoint, most more than once.”
It was later discovered that at the time Emma’s SOS alert from her GPS device was activated she was most likely already dead. Her attackers, in their eagerness to steal her belongings and sell them on for profit, it is believed pressed the SOS button by mistake while trying to work the device, having no idea they had drawn the police right to their location. “The criminals thought they could kill her in impunity, but then they stupidly pressed the only button which could have turned them in to the police,” said Coari Police Chief Jose Afonso Barradas Junior.
Seven men in total have been accused of the murder of Emma Kelty. One man, 24-year-old Evanilson Gomes da Costa who was said to have been the ringleader of the group, was shot and killed by a rival gang on 20 September 2017, just one week after Emma was murdered.
Before embarking on her trip, Emma Kelty knew the risks she was taking and she knew the potential dangers she faced. Some feel because of this, her awful death was in some way almost predictable and she walked head-on into danger. Others respect her decisions to tackle this route solo and applaud her courage and determination to push herself and achieve her goals. To Emma and many other adventurers who take on treks and travels most of us could never dream of, sometimes the risk is part of the thrill. Looking danger in the eye, taking on the risks of the unknown is part of the excitement and the drive.
The brutal and savage murder of Emma Kelty is a horrible end to one woman’s determined choice to trek and kayak solo down one of the most dangerous and lengthy rivers in the world. In a place which should be known for its natural beauty and peacefulness, the area of Brazil where she lost her life is overrun with gangs of people who rule through fear and violence. Emma Kelty will be remembered for her strength of character and love of life. “Emma was an active and determined sister who challenged herself, latterly through her adventures on the Pacific Coast Trail, as well as in the South Pole and Amazon River,” her family said after her death. “Her strength,” they said “would be sorely missed”.