Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 6

The Rope-Cable Crossing

From Tipuani to Paroma, Part 1

The village of Tipuani is composed of about eight or ten ranches, and one store, which is Perez’ rubber trading quarters. Perez’ place is the first house in the village as you come in from Gritado, and consists of a store, a dwelling house, and a very large shed, where the pickers bring their rubber and rest for a few days before going back to pick. I gave Perez his father’s letter, and thanked him for offering to put me up, but told him I was going to the hut of Noboa, whom Sanches at La Paz had recommended me to see, as he was a kind of agent for the Challana people.

Perez offered me a drink, but I refused it, as I seldom take one on the march, but always wait till the stopping place. When I got to Noboa’s hut I accepted a glass of very good rum, distilled by old Noboa himself, and bought some off him at 2/- a bottle. The old man, who had an Indian wife very much younger than himself and not at all bad looking, called to her to make ready a clean hut for me and a shed for Miguel and the cooking, and we made ourselves at home. After things had been unloaded and straightened out, I paid off the Indians and Antonio, and two days later they started back for La Paz, with cargoes of rubber from Perez. While Miguel was putting the camp to rights, and preparing an Irish stew from challona, yams and eschalots, I went over to see young Perez. He had been educated at the best college in Madrid, and was going to join the cavalry, but asked his father to let him go and see the famous Tipuani River, where so much gold and rubber came from. Not being heavy, he was able to ride most of the way. Unluckily for him, he got the fever at Tipuani, and had been there now for two years and a half, and could not get out. Every time he tried to get away, as soon as he got to higher altitudes, days before he could even reach the Andine Range, the fever came back and he was forced to return. He meant to try again in a few weeks’ time. He was not the only one served in this way by the fever.

Another fellow called Bartelot, whom I met a few leagues from here, told me he had come down to wash for gold sixteen years ago, and had got stuck ever since then, owing to periodical attacks of fever. He found gold frequently, but only worked occasionally, and did not trouble much about it. He lived in a big bamboo and palm shed, partitioned off into rooms, with a young Indian wife.

The saying down there is: “If you get a real good dose of Tipuani fever, you will have to stop here.”

Old Noboa told me that he had been one of two hundred slaves brought over by Count Noboa from Brazil up the Amazon, and through the Acre and Challana districts to this famous gold river. The Count was here for four years and a half, and got a lot of gold. He was a very good master, and told all his men that those who wanted to return with him could do so and each one would receive his small holding and some stock, and those who wished to remain on the river could stay behind. Most of them went back to Brazil, but a few remained, and with his assistance fixed up their chacras and planted sugar, coffee, corn, fruit and other things. The old black man Noboa was one of them, and he christened himself after the Count, his benefactor. As far as I could learn he was the only one left; the rest had either died or gone away.

He told me that some men from Challana would probably arrive in a few days and he would send them over to me that I might arrange to return to Paroma with them.

The day after we arrived, a tall, wiry man appeared while we were at lunch, and introduced himself as “Mr. Robert A. Mackenzie, at your service”; he joined us in our lunch, which we washed down with good water and old Noboa’s rum. He told me he had been here sixteen years; six years ago his father had left him a nice property at Epsom, and ever since then he had been trying to get back to England, but the fever had prevented him. Whenever he got a little stronger he would start off on his old mule, but as soon as ever he got up into the cooler atmosphere the fever recurred and he found it impossible to continue, and had to come down again to the forest. He proposed that I should shift camp to his place, where there was plenty of room; he was in the house where the late Colonel Villamil used to live when he was working on the big placer mine below. I promised to come and bring my own food with me.

Next day Miguel and the two West Indians who were digging for gold with Mackenzie helped me to get all my provisions and gear pulled across by a long steel cable, affixed to a high platform on each side, which had been placed there by old Villamil and was kept in good repair by his heirs and by Perez for his rubber business. After all the goods had been hauled over, Miguel was pulled across and then myself. The river was quite wide just here, and the rope cable was fully fifty feet above the water. Mackenzie was on the other side, waiting to welcome me, and we walked together up a neat gravel path, with tropical flowers, creepers and palms growing in wild profusion on either side. Soon we passed a tunnel under the hill, which had been built and dug out by Villamil, and which Mackenzie was now working with his two West Indians; and a big artificial pond five feet deep and about twenty yards by fifteen, all stoned up at the sides with a canal running into it at one end; and a heavy movable shutter of iron and wood at the other; all this had also been built by Colonel Villamil and his men. Then there were sheds, houses, a kitchen, and, further on, a four-room house and a very large carpenter’s shed, a smithy and some other sheds, all put up by him. Mackenzie lived in the principal house, and his two men and an Indian cook near the kitchen. It was a beautiful spot for a camp, a green patch surrounded on all sides by the forest, which was a mass of wild flowers, begonias and anthurciums, with red, white and purple creepers, parasites and orchids growing on the trees. Big butterflies of all colours were flying about, light blue, dark blue, purple, red and white and yellow; all kinds of parrots were chattering and flying over in flocks, and now and then a gorgeous macaw would perch on the top of a high tree close by.

Villamil had grub-staked Mackenzie and his brother and two or three more, but somehow or other it was not a success. His brother had gone home six years ago, and all the rest had drifted off except Mac and an old Indian and his family. All they did was to send gold into La Paz, in return for which they received provisions; if they sent no gold they got no food. There was plenty of gold about, and whenever they washed up they always got some, but as they only worked two or three days a week they could not expect to get much; also it was really far too hot to be a white man’s country, and the natives will only work enough to satisfy their immediate wants. The two West Indians only worked on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Mac paid them at the rate of 4/- each a day, and they paid 1/- a day each for food, and did their own cooking. They did not appear to want to return to the West Indies, and were quite satisfied to put in only three days’ digging. These two men were part of a gang brought from the West Indian Islands by an American who tried to molest an Indian girl on the way down. Her people went to La Paz to complain, and when he found out that the authorities were taking up the matter he cleared out through the forest, and was last heard of in Paraguay. These two stayed on with Mac; the others had drifted away on their own.


2 thoughts on “The Rope-Cable Crossing

  1. After a short break, we’re back with part one of the longest chapter of Adventures in Bolivia, which makes up a quarter of the book. It will probably stretch to ten or twelve instalments here.

  2. Challona, which Prodgers has mentioned a couple of times before, is “dried mutton. The sheep is split open when killed and then left out to freeze. When it is stiff water is sprinkled over it and it is frozen again. It is then hung up out-of-doors and soon becomes so dry that it will keep for months. It must, however, be cut up into small bits and boiled a long time before it is tender.” [Frank G. Carpenter, South America (New York: American Book Company, 1921), p. 111.]

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