Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 6

The Tucandera Ant

From Tipuani to Paroma, Part 2

While I was here Mac showed me an old cutting from a La Paz paper, giving an account of the late Colonel Villamil’s Tipuani concession. He had as many as five hundred Indians working for two years; then he went to Paris for three years, and came back for another two years, taking out altogether in that time 356,586ozs. of gold. When he died he left his family a million of money and this rich concession. His eldest son, the present Colonel Villamil, is now the head of the business; he has never been down here, but lives partly in France, partly in La Paz. He still keeps up the payment of the yearly licence to Bolivia, and wants to turn over the concession to a rich Company who will work it properly. Besides other improvements, the old Colonel made a narrow open drain two feet deep and three feet wide, which wound down in long curves for three miles from a stream at the top of the hill, tapping two or three small streams on the way, and so diverting the water into the big artificial pond near his camp, whence it could flow down whenever required to the washings below. The whole thing formed a ready-made placer working for any big company. It may be taken up now for all I know, but it was still unworked in 1904. Mac told me that the richest part of the working lay between the village of Tipuani and a point beyond Gritado. Old Colonel Villamil was Commander-in-Chief in Melgarejo’s time, and I was given to understand by several people that he and Melgarejo were partners in the gold business, and used to make the prisoners work in it, feeding them all well, and putting by a part of the profits for them, according to the gold each gang found.

Next day, after breakfast, while Mac and I were in the carpenter’s shed, helping to make some sleepers out of hard wood for the mine trolly, the cook brought us a native with a finger tip of his left hand chopped off. Mac was a vet by profession, and after fixing the finger up and giving him some lint and bandages, to take with him and cut up as he needed them, we asked him how the accident happened. He told us that while he was in the forest picking guavas, he was bitten on his finger by a large “tucandera” ant. He said these ants were deadly poisonous, and that it was usual for the natives, if bitten on the finger, to cut it off at once; so he had chopped his finger tip off. If they were bitten on the head it was probably fatal. The male ant is black and the female brown, and they are about one and a half inches long. Luckily for the natives living on the Tipuani there are very few of these pests about. Mackenzie had never seen one, although he had often heard of them, and he told me this was the fifth Indian that had come to him to be treated for chopped fingers in seventeen years.

In the afternoon Mac and I took our guns and walked up the path alongside the stone canal the late Colonel Villamil had made for a distance of a league and more to shoot some bush chickens for the larder. There are plenty of these birds about and it is easy enough to get them; all you have to do is to wait about near the big trees where they go to roost every evening an hour or so before sunset, and simply take a pot shot at them. After we had got seven in three shots we hurried off down the path again, as the sun had just set, and it is soon dark in these parts. Mac told me he had once been benighted on this path and did not want to experience it again. On the way back a flight of about fifty pigeons passed us in three lots; they were all one colour, a chocolate brown, and the size of the ordinary wood-pigeon. We neither of us fired at them; Mac said he had seen them often before, always about the same hour, and always flying in the same direction. We called them “the lost tribe.”

The next day old Noboa sent us word that he had finished distilling his rum, that it was very good, and that he was selling what he did not want to keep at 2/- a quart. So I went over with the West Indians, Charlie and Rayo, to bring back half a dozen bottles, or a dozen if I could get them. We got the dozen, Mac taking one half and I the other. Charlie and Rayo bought themselves two bottles each. Rayo was a very steady, sober chap, and never by any chance took more than one or two small tots a day. Charlie, on the other hand, never did any work at all until his rum was finished, which did not take long; consequently he never had any money, as he seldom worked more than three days a week. Gold digging is usually paid according to the amount found, but Mackenzie paid his two or three men differently, giving them 4/- a day of 10 hours, and deducting 2/- a day for their grub, which was given out in weekly rations every Saturday for the next week, and then deducted from their pay the following Saturday. Noboa’s place was on the other side of the big river, and we always crossed over by the steel cable originally fixed by the late Colonel Villamil and now kept in order by his heirs. We crossed over all right, but on the return journey, when I was about three parts of the way over, the rope snapped, leaving me sitting on the swinging board about forty feet above the river. Mac had a small sack brought, and in it a stone. Round the stone he tied a good stout rope and then tried to chuck it gently into my lap. It took some time, as he always missed me, and of course I could not render any assistance by trying to catch it for fear of overbalancing and toppling over into the river below. At last it dropped into my lap and I made it fast and was pulled across. A few days after this an Indian who was crossing overbalanced and fell into the river near the bank, hurting his back rather badly. I suggested we had better rub in a sweating blister and then let him remain quiet until the effects were over. So we had him carried on a stretcher to his hut, let his wife rub the blister in, and left him. Next day he and his wife came over and brought presents of eggs, fowl, bananas, pines and oranges. When I returned from Challana and Paroma Mac told me the cure had fixed him up well.

Next day I went over again to see Noboa, who told me no Challana men had come yet; it was the rainy season and the big Challana river was probably up and they could not cross. I bought a bottle of rum from him for 2/-, and a big bunch of plantains for 1/-, and gathered a lot of fine, pipless oranges, which his son, a boy of twelve, carried to the cable for me. I looked in to see Perez on the way back, and found he had another attack of fever coming on. I was hauled over by Miguel, and then went into the tunnel which had been started by Villamil and his men, and was now being worked and continued underneath the hill by Mac and his West Indians, Charlie and Rayo. It was very damp, and had to be well boarded up all the way, with good heavy iron wood logs, and roofed up all over with the same hard wood. They were working as far down as the false bed rock in a layer of black gravel; Charlie and Rayo by themselves, and Mackenzie mostly up at the house and carpenter’s shed. There was no doubt this was a rich place.

Next day I made a lot of bread and caught a good many very beautiful butterflies for my collection. The best way to carry them is to squeeze them behind the head and then put them in a piece of paper and fold it up in a V shape. To make their wings open out again when you wish to set them up, place them on some hot sand, and the wings will expand.


One thought on “The Tucandera Ant

Comments are closed.