Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 6

The Tiger Trap

From Tipuani to Paroma, Part 6

We made camp by the stream that night, and I hung up the remains of the challona on a tree a few yards away from the camp, together with about six or eight plantains that were still green. In the morning when Miguel went to look for them, after he had put the kettle and stewpot on, he found them gone. I examined the ground, and came to the conclusion that one of the big dark brown bears that inhabit the hills must have come down the valley and taken them off. We had to put up with corned beef for breakfast, but there were always plenty of guavas as well; the guava trees were all round, and the mule seemed to enjoy eating them: he was always munching them off the trees.

Once we had started, the trail was fairly easy going, in comparison, that is, to what it had been, for about five miles. Then we came across a hardwood tree; it was not a very big one, but it took me an hour and a half’s sweating work to chop it through.

A little way further on, the mule absolutely refused to move. I went on a few yards to see what the ground was like, and found a lot of bush cut down and lying across the path. I probed it with my long stick, and found it quite hollow underneath, and could not touch the bottom. It turned out to be one of the “tiger” traps made by the Indians. They dig a hole with perpendicular sides, about twelve feet deep, four or five feet wide, and eight or ten feet long, and then cover it over lightly with branches and bush. The tiger falling into one of these cannot get out, and is easily despatched; sometimes two or three stakes are driven in at the bottom. My mule had evidently smelt the earth that had been thrown up, which we had not noticed. I opened out another path on the right, and about half a mile further on we came to a clearing and a well-kept bamboo and palm shelter, with a good stream of water running down in the hollow below, and some big blue and mauve cattleyas growing on some branches near. Near the shelter was a large cairn of stones with a flat piece of iron sticking up. I was told that this spot marks the commencement of Challana, according to the Indian claim. The River Challana is fifteen miles from here.

The next day when I was half-way up a hill, I heard the tap tap of a rubber-picker, and shouted to him. A few minutes afterwards, an Indian came out of the forest by a narrow path on the left; he proved to be from Challana, and lived on the other side of the river. He was picking rubber with another man, and said there were not so many rubber trees on this side, but on the other side there were a good many, and further on many more. He told me I was expected and that Villarde had notified his lieutenant, Cortez, to put me across at a place called Anhuaqui, about eight leagues from here. He said I could not cross before reaching there, as the river was wide and deep and the current swift. Evidently, no Indians lived on this side at all, they just came over the river to pick rubber. The Indian said that Thomas Cortez was the head man at Anhuaqui, and nobody could cross the river without his permission. He took his orders from Villarde, and Villarde did nothing before getting the consent of the old Cacique of Challana, who lived at Paroma on the hills, twenty leagues from Anhuaqui.

He told me I would not be able to reach Anhuaqui that day, as the next hill was a very hard one, but when I got to the top I would see the big river way down on the left, and was to take a path to the right, at a fork where there were two big shelters of poles and palm-leaf roofs. I asked him about the “tiger” trap we passed the day before, and he said there was another one not far from that one down a little path to the left. When a jaguar or tiger, as they call them, is known to be about, they tie up a mule or calf overnight close to the pit, and come back in the morning to see what has happened. The Government pay 25 bols (about £2 10s.) for the skull and jaws of every jaguar of the larger size, and of course the hide can be sold as well. This man talked Spanish, as he was not a pure Indian. His father, he said, came from Sorata, and was now living at Anhuaqui, and his mother was a pure Indian woman. He asked me for a little coca, which I gave him: he said they were short of coca just then, as they had only brought a supply for two or three days, and expected a companion next day from Anhuaqui with two mules and provisions for a fortnight.

Just after crossing the stream, I heard the movement of an animal in the forest, took my rifle, and had a lucky shot. It was a small swamp deer, for which I was thankful, and we looked forward to our venison stew that night. We got to the top of the hill mentioned by the rubber-picker at three in the afternoon, and made camp in the two shelters. The view was like a park — long grass and clumps of trees for miles around, and high forest as far as the eye could see. On the left the stream we had just crossed continued its course to the river below, and near it stood the ruined walls of a stone building. Nobody was in sight, and no dwellings could be seen. Parrots large and small screeched overhead, and macaws could be heard on the trees close by. I went to look at one, of a beautiful heliotrope colour, which was sitting on a high palm at the edge of the forest; I stood below the tree for ten or fifteen minutes admiring it, and it never moved.