Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 6

Rubbery Figures

From Tipuani to Paroma, Part 8

After breakfast the men came over with a big five-pole balsa, and took me across. They told me that the river at this crossing was seventeen feet deep in parts. There were several settlements on the bank, inhabited by Indians; Thomas Cortez’s place consisted of five sheds made of poles and roofed with palm branches and wild banana leaves. He gave me a good big one with a bamboo bed almost three feet high and three feet broad and seven feet long. There were some fowls, turkeys and pigs and two cows tied up close by. I told Cortez that I was not tired, and could easily continue the journey, but he replied that we could not proceed for ten days, as those were his orders. He had been told to look well after me, and every day his wife brought me good food, eggs, milk and coffee in the morning, stewed fowl and rice and fruit and bread at 1 p.m., and a good meal again at night. She also washed my clothes. They had guns and rifles there, and shot a good deal of game, especially poujil (pronounced pooheel), which are birds about the size of a big fowl, and very good to eat; they shoot them as they are roosting on the trees. They never fire unless they are quite close to the bird, as powder and shot are too scarce in this out-of-the-way place to be wasted on fancy shots. All the natives here sleep either on the floor or on a bamboo bed, and very few of them have hammocks, unlike the natives of Guiana and Venezuela, where every one carried his bed, a light net made from fibre or strong cotton, which is hung up between poles on branches of trees. While I was here, I shot a big swamp deer on the run, as he was crossing one of the narrow Indian trails; to the great satisfaction of Cortez, who said that the meat would be good roasted. Every night Cortez slept in my hut, at the further end, and there was always a man on sentry duty all night. When I went for my bath each morning at 6 a.m., two armed men always stood a little distance off, though the stream I bathed in was only a few yards from my hut, as I used to go down in my nightshirt and dress by the river. After breakfast I generally took a net and went down to the banks of the Challana to catch butterflies. I was always escorted by two armed men with rifles, who followed a short distance behind. They took every precaution never to let me out of their sight; later on Villarde told me the reason why. Cortez told me that they had a great quantity of rubber for sale both here and at Paroma, and that the price was regulated by the Cacique at Paroma, nobody being allowed to sell for more than one hundred bolivians a quintal; this worked out at 1/10 per lb., and the market price in La Paz was then 4/6. Out of every 100 bols, ten bols was paid to the Cacique, and all rubber collected by the Indians in this district and Paroma paid ten bols per 100lbs. to Villarde as well. On the Tongo side where Villavicencia, Villarde’s brother-in-law, was in charge, the same payment was made. Villarde was a rich man, for out of his share he kept half, the balance going to his various lieutenants in the different districts. Each district paid separately, so that some were better off than others. By this system the pickers got 80 bols clear per 100lbs. (£7 6s. 8d.).

No trader was allowed to pay more than 100 bols per quintal, nor to charge more for his goods than they would fetch at the biggest and most important stores in La Paz. The year before last a trader from La Paz had come down to the river with twenty little mules loaded up with goods to exchange for rubber, and paid the Indians in goods and money at the rate of 105 bols instead of 100. He thought himself very smart, but it soon got to the ears of Villarde, who told the Cacique. It was decided when this man, Hernandez, returned, to confiscate the whole of his stock and all his mules, and to order him never to return to the Republic of Challana again. Last year Hernandez turned up with thirty-five mules and goods; the Cacique’s orders were carried out, and all his mules and goods were taken to Paroma. Cortez said the reason this order was made was that if the natives were given permission by the Chief to make their own prices they would get out of hand. There were watchmen always guarding the river at every available ford, and it was quite impossible to cross except in balsas, which were never left on the Tipuani side. Cortez told me that you could travel by balsa down the river without any difficulty to Port San Antonio, that this river joined another big river, probably the Gy Parana, which in turn joined the Madero and then the Amazon; the River Beni flows into the Mamore, then into the Amazon. My opinion is that the Tipuani and Challana have their source from the stream just above Tiquiripaga, but of course I am not sure, as I have never myself tried to trace the source of any of these large tropical rivers.

The scenery about here was very grand. The river ran between two high cliffs of red sandstone and red clayish soil. Large trees came right down to the water’s edge in some places, and in other places the banks were perpendicular precipices of deep red coloured soil and rock without any trees. All round was dense forest land, except at the Anhuaqui Settlement, where there was a wide stretch of prairie reaching to the foot of a very steep and densely wooded high hill with a red path leading up to the top. This hill was some nine miles from here, and Cortez pointed out this particular path to me as our way to Paroma. It did not look at all pleasant to have to walk up there, but it had got to be done the next week.

Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 6

Bathing with Piranhas

From Tipuani to Paroma, Part 7

That evening Miguel had another attack of malaria, and so we had to remain here the next two days, and I had to cut firewood, cook, look after the mule, and do everything. The first day the man referred to by the Indian rubber-picker passed the camp with his two mules. I got another bush turkey at close range with the six-shooter in the evening at sundown. On the third morning at 7 a.m. we left: the first eight or nine miles took us up and down hill through the beautiful park-like scenery, then came dense forest again, downhill all the way for seven miles, to the big River Challana. The road was pretty good, and I had no cutlass work to do. At the bottom of the hill, a couple of hundred yards along the bank, there was a clearing and a fair-sized shed, open at the two ends; it was closed up on the forest side with palm leaves and bamboo and open on the river side.

As soon as we got to the river, I fired off two cartridges in the air, as a signal to the inhabitants on the other side. A few minutes afterwards three men came over in a balsa; by poling for three hundred yards close to the bank on their side, and then crossing over with the long poles as fast as they could, they brought up the balsa to within a few yards of the hut. One of the men, who was a half-caste, a middle-aged man, and spoke Spanish, had a rifle, and took a letter from his buckskin bag, and handed it to me. It was from Villarde, and read: “I am glad to welcome you in our country and have ordered my lieutenant, Thomas Cortez, to prepare a house for you at his place, where you had better stop for ten days and rest after your long rough journey; in the meantime, I shall call a meeting of the chiefs and principal Indians, to receive you at the Court House in Paroma in fourteen days from the day you get this letter. You must cross over and come by yourself, and not bring any followers with you. Cortez has orders to provide you with a servant. With salutations, I remain, your attentive servant, Lorenzo Villarde.”

In any case Miguel, with his continual breakdowns of fever, was not of much use as far as serving me was concerned; and I decided it would be best for him, on the whole, to go slowly back to Tipuani by the regular path, which the rubber-pickers would direct him to, at the place where we had met them.

The man with the note, whose name was Jose, said he would now return to tell Cortez, who would despatch a messenger to Paroma. I asked them to return again next day for me, and he said he would bring over a big balsa of five stout poles for me, and a platform with seat attached next morning after breakfast. All that night the mule was very restive and kept on coming into the shelter, which made me think that some jaguar was about, so we put plenty of wood on the fire, and made a big blaze and kept the lamp burning in the shed; I always carry a horn lantern for a candle. I sat up near the fire with my rifle till close on eleven. No animal appeared, but I distinctly heard movements in the forest, and the mule fed very close to the shed. In the morning I had a good bathe, being careful to keep my eyes on the bottom most of the time, as in most of these tropical rivers there are man-eating fish, called pirauhas, only eighteen inches long, but very ferocious, with teeth like a saw, which attack you and bite lumps out of you on the slightest provocation. In some rivers in these parts, when a balsa has been capsized and its occupants have been thrown out and got cut about on the sunken rocks, these little monsters seem to come from all around, attracted by the sight of blood. They will often snap a finger or a toe off, and have been known to strip a dead body of every particle of flesh, leaving the bones bare. Another of the dangers to beware of in bathing in tropical rivers or streams of South or Central America is a kind of slimy leech, three or four inches long, called Kandiros, which get up the rectum. They are as thick as a worm, and have a small dorsal fin that acts as a barb. The only way to get rid of them is to have them cut out.

The Rivers Tipuani, Challana and Beni contain a good many fish, most of them good to eat, and some very large, but, like most of the fish in tropical rivers, too full of bones.

After my bath, while Miguel was preparing breakfast, I found tracks of a big jaguar, evidently the disturber of the mule the night before. The marks showed that the beast had made for the pampas we had passed the day before.

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.

Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 6

The Silly Trick of Throwing Dynamite

From Tipuani to Paroma, Part 5

A curious incident occurred one day about this time. Some Indians returning to the Beni district had met some women belonging to the Tipuani district and wanted to marry two of them and take them to the Beni district, but the women were unwilling and this led to a quarrel among the men. The relations of the women attacked the ten men from the Beni; they chopped one another about a bit with cutlasses and fought with hard wood sticks, while the two women and their friends tried to pacify them. Finally it was suggested that they should all go over to see the two Englishmen across the river. Mac and I were in the carpenter’s shop making sleepers when they arrived in a body. There were twenty-seven of them in all, several of the men with their heads bandaged. They told us the cause of the row, and we told them that if the women were of age they should be allowed to please themselves. If they wished to marry the two men from the Beni then they should be allowed to do so, and leave with them; if not, the Beni men had no right to make trouble over it and should cease to molest them, and continue their return journey in peace. After some talking this was agreed to, and the women were asked their wishes. They both said they did not wish to leave their own district and cared nothing at all for the two men that wanted them. Mac and I then told the men from the Beni that they were to blame for the quarrel, and we also told the others they were wrong in coming in as they did and attacking the Beni men, whose wounds were chiefly on the back of their heads which showed they had been attacked from behind. Eventually they came to an understanding, and after we had mixed up a big bottle of water with a little lysol and a little lint and dressed their heads they left with many thanks to us, and much shaking of hands among themselves. The Beni men crossed the river in the canoes belonging to the Tipuani men and took the path back to the Beni, while the others and the two women over whom the dispute had arisen returned to their homes.

A few days after this Bert Morton, an American miner, passed through the Tipuani village. I met him walking behind his three large mules on the way back to La Paz, he had been prospecting for rubber for a house in Lima, and about a month before he had blown off the half of two fingers of his right hand in doing what I call the silly trick of throwing dynamite in the river pools to get a supply of fish. One cartridge had exploded and caused the injury. Fish got this way are never much good; they don’t have the same flavour.

On the next Monday Noboa came over and told me that no natives had come yet from Challana; and that nobody from the neighbourhood cared to go in with him, as they said the Indians and half-castes in Challana were hostile, that they had guards with rifles all along the river Challana wherever you could cross by balsa, and that the river was deep and the current strong, and there was no balsa ever kept on this side. He strongly advised me not to continue the journey; and thought they would not let me cross, and if they did they might not allow me to return. Mac was of the same opinion, and said he had been here sixteen years and had never ventured into their country, but if I still insisted on going he would lend me his old mule, which I accepted with thanks. I told them that if my way was barred when I got to the river I would turn back.

The following day I got together provisions and gear for a fortnight—bread, half a challona, some plantain, eschalot, coffee, tea, salt, six tins of corned beef, three bottles of Noboa’s rum, a water-flask, my rifle and fifty cartridges, my six-shooter, cutlass and bedding—a good load for Mac’s mule.

Next day I started, with Miguel leading the mule. We crossed the river by the cable, Miguel going first with the help of the two Barbadians living opposite, then all the provisions and myself; the mule swam across behind the balsa which was paddled and propelled by the Indian. Noboa met me on the other side, and took me along to a small trail, which led to a stream; by following it he said I would come out in full view of the big River Challana. There was a nearer way, by a better trail, which I thought it better not to take, as I wanted to get to the banks of the river without meeting anyone. I felt sure that when I got there I should find an order from Villarde to let me cross over.

The path was a narrow one, overgrown below with bushes and creepers, and overhead with branches of trees which often had to be cut off to make room for the mule to pass. I was using the machete most of the time, while Miguel was resting; he had only just got over his first attack of fever. Often we took off our trousers and walked for a long way in the stream itself; it saved cutlassing, and was easier going. The forest was alive with birds of all sorts and butterflies of all colours. I got a big martinette with a pistol shot on the ground at a few yards’ range, and we saw the spoor of deer and the tracks of wild pigs. The first day we did ten miles, which was pretty good, but the first four were easy going. That night we made camp on the banks of the stream near a beautiful cool pool over five feet deep in the middle. Growing low down on some trees close to the pool were two lovely orchids of a brilliant scarlet colour, with yellow centre. One had three blossoms and the other four; they were growing together as one plant, and had five more blossoms ready to burst in a day or so. I should say this was a scarlet cattleya; in any case, it must have been a very rare specimen of orchid, because, although I saw many varieties on my journey, and often the same specimens repeated, I never came across this particular specimen again.

The next day we made six miles and camped near the stream on a stony beach, where there was plenty of grass in patches for the mule; the previous night the grass had been rather scanty. While I was bathing in a pool near, a fine swamp deer came out of the forest to the waterside; he did not seem at all scared, but stood and looked at me for quite a few minutes, which showed that human beings were scarce in these parts. I have frequently noticed vicuñas doing the same thing in some of the fastnesses of the Andes near the snow line, when I have been prospecting.

The next day was a failure, for after it had taken us about three hours to go the same number of miles, I doing all the cutlass work, we came to an enormous tree across the path with such thick, heavy-looking undergrowth on one side, and so little clear space on the other, that I decided to go back to the scarlet orchids of the night before, which we did. The next morning, while bathing, I had another look at them. Three more beautiful petals had burst, and there were now ten opened out.

After breakfast I started to open up another dim trail that could be seen nearer the river, a much narrower one than the path of the day before. It was rough hot work, hewing and chopping down bush and small trees to make way for the mule; all these paths made by the forest Indians are low and narrow. Amongst other things I saw that day were forty or fifty big coffee-coloured monkeys, which were very tame, and seemed to follow us along the trees from branch to branch. I have seen some monkeys in different parts of the world in my time, but I never came across such climbers as these. They simply walked up and down big high trees and jumped from one to the other with the most perfect ease, chattering and talking all the time till late in the afternoon, when they would disappear.

Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 6

Miguel’s Fever

From Tipuani to Paroma, Part 4

A little after 11 p.m. began a regular tropical downpour of rain which never ceased till about 6 a.m., when the sun came out in all its warmth. The air was delightfully fresh, the birds began to fly, and everything looked bright again, but we were both soaking wet, and the stream had turned into a torrent. The water had risen about five feet, nearly to the top of the bank on the side we had camped, and the green patch on the other side where the tiger and tapir had appeared was entirely submerged. It had been an uncomfortable night, and for a few minutes we had been in a real funk. I stripped naked and put all my things out to dry in the sun, and after drying some wood we soon got a fire going. Although the matches were carried in a tin, and that again in another tin, they still had to be sundried first. We had filled our kettle, pot and water-flasks with water after dinner the night before, and it came in very useful now. It is always advisable to procure water overnight for the next morning, especially in the rainy season; I always did this and got my firewood as well. We soon had a wholesome challona stew and some hot coffee ready, which made a welcome breakfast.

Miguel had now a severe dose of fever coming on; in fact, this was the start of his Tipuani terciana, and from this time on he had it constantly for the rest of the journey. It was partly owing to his own perverseness, as instead of keeping pace with Manuel, myself and the llamas, he would often walk off quickly up the hills, and sit down on the top grinning and waiting for me; and he did not take his wet clothes off and hang them out to dry, as I did. My clothes soon dried in the sun, and Miguel thought better of it, and began to dry his. The river began to go down again, and at three in the afternoon the Indian came walking up the stream, with the water up to his middle nearly, probing the bottom with a long, thick stick. He sympathized with us very much over our bad luck the night before. I told him I would not like to go back without another try for the man-eater, and he said there was a rubber-picker living not far from his place who had a rifle, though not as big a one as mine, and he would send his boy with a note from me for the loan of it. As I had not yet discovered what was wrong with my rifle, I was glad to accept his offer, and so we walked, or rather waded, along the edge of the stream to his place, I carrying my pants and boots, and wearing alpagatas to shield my feet from stones.

When we got to the bend, we found that the river was full of a good volume of water running down at nine or ten knots. I could see by the banks that it had risen fifteen feet as a result of the storm, and the Indian said more than that. It had been my intention to go over to Charest’s place, but no balsa could have lived in that turbulent stream. So I put up at the Indian’s place. His wife had just killed and plucked a fine fat fowl, which she gave me with some maize tortillas, and a pineapple, refusing all payment. Her husband told her I had walked twenty miles to his place to try and rid them of the man-eater.

The rubber-picker soon came over with his rifle and mauser and five cartridges. He looked pretty sick with fever, and was out of quinine and coca leaves. I told him I would be very glad to give him a little of each, as I had a good supply, and a bottle of Noboa’s rum as well, if he would send some one with me to bring them back; he was very thankful for the offer, and I was also grateful for the use of his boy, who could carry back my rifle and gear for me. Miguel was sick and, although the two days’ rest would probably freshen him up a bit, he would have quite enough to do to walk back the twenty miles with nothing to carry.

Next morning, after an early breakfast, I started off again along the stream to the dead mule, with the Indian, his son, and three other Indians, and six mongrel dogs. I went first, about an hour ahead of them, to the spot opposite the green patch, and waited there while they walked through the bush on the other side, beating the trees with sticks, and making a good noise.

The first thing that came out and crossed the long narrow gully at the back of the green patch in front of me was a small bush buck, then soon afterwards a good-sized tapir, and finally a young swamp deer, but no jaguar; I could have got each of these easily, but wanted to keep my shot for the man-eater. When the Indians came out and had had a rest, I sent them up the stream on my side, and told them to walk on for an hour or two, and then beat down the other side. I promised them to get a deer for fresh meat if another was driven out. After another two hours, a second tapir crossed the narrow gully further up, about two hundred yards from the green patch; I did not see him until he was just entering the bush on the other side, so did not fire. Half an hour later came another small bush deer, and at the same time I heard a rustling in the bushes on the other side, close to the stream, and out came a fine swamp deer, which I secured for our lunch.

The yelping of the dogs now announced the approach of the beaters. They said they had seen the tracks of the jaguar, evidently made quite freshly that morning or the night before, and had gone on over the hill on the way to Challana. If we had beaten this side first, instead of the other, we might possibly have caught him, though he might have gone on quite early in the morning. Anyway, he had not touched the mule, which was now beginning to smell, and to attract a dozen or more vultures, which were hovering round about waiting to finish it off, as soon as the coast was clear.

In the morning we went back to Tipuani village. Miguel was better, and the rubber-picker lent me his rifle to take on to Challana with me in case I could not repair mine. I eventually found out what was wrong, as has already been explained. On the way back we saw the same pretty green, purple and scarlet birds as we saw coming; they were in exactly the same place, and were flying to and fro near the same cotton tree.

On the way back I looked in at Noboa’s, and he told me no Challana men had come yet, so I asked him to try and get me five or six men from the neighbourhood to go on with me. He said he would, and promised to come over and let me know the result in a couple of days’ time. Perez was still down with fever, and during my absence three men had come in with rubber; one of them, a half-caste, was pretty sick with fever. I noticed that many of the rubber balls were sliced down the middle, and was told this was done now and then to see that there was not a good round heavy water stone put in the middle to make weight, as some Indian pickers are very crafty.

When I got back I found Mackenzie was going to wash up next day, so I asked him to lend me a pan, and let me help him. I was anxious to see how much gold came out of the heap of dirt and gravel, dug out of the mine tunnel by the two men in three days. Mac and I panned it out next day, and it gave 3ozs. 6dr. 1scr. of beautiful straw-coloured Tipuani gold. There were no nuggets of any size, and no rough gold, which showed that it had travelled far, and, in my opinion, that there was no reef near at hand. They said on the Saturday that they were not going to work again until Tuesday, and as a matter of fact they did not start till Wednesday.

Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 6

The Man-Eating Tiger

From Tipuani to Paroma, Part 3

That evening, while Mac and I were smoking after dinner, an old Indian came to tell us that near his sugar-cane field, some six leagues down the river, a big man-eating tiger, as he called it, had tried to attack his sixteen-year-old boy, and had also killed a small mule belonging to a rubber picker. As a matter of fact, these animals are of the jaguar species, only much larger. It seemed his boy was cutting sugar cane, and before going home went into the bush near the banks of the river, to get guavas, when he suddenly came across the animal eating a mule he had just killed; the beast, on seeing the boy, growled, and the boy jumped into the river just as the animal made his spring. Fortunately, he did not follow him into the water, although it is well known that these beasts swim well, and Indians have told me they have seen them in the water crossing over.

Mackenzie could not join in the hunt, as he had only just got over a bout of fever, and Perez, too, was down with fever; so it was decided that the Indian should take me next day to the dead mule, where I would sit up for the night on the chance of the jaguar or tiger returning to his prey.

The Indian, Miguel and I started off next morning after breakfast at 7 a.m., and crossed the river by the wire cable. We took a cooking pot, a kettle and provisions for three days, including a bottle of rum. The first part of the journey was by a path through the forest, close to the river. Some six miles from the village we saw some beautiful birds sitting on a big wild cotton tree, of a kind I had never seen before. They were about the size of doves, light green in body, with purple wings, scarlet breasts, yellow heads and black beaks, but they were not of the parrot species. This was the only spot in the forest where I noticed these pretty birds, and I saw them at the same place coming back. The path here took a turn to the right for about a league, amongst beautiful flowers and creepers, and some very large trees, of which several were rubber trees. It was fairly easy going, but we had to use the cutlass every now and then, and it was up and down hill all the time, though not nearly so steep as what we had been used to. Soon the path turned to the left again, and led down to the River Tipuani, just opposite the Texas Gold Mining Company; there was a small settlement here, where two Indian families lived; one of the men was away picking rubber for Perez, the other was working with the women and children in their sugar and maize plantation.

Gold firm headquarters on the Tipuani. Illustration from Adventures in Bolivia.

We rested here for a little, and made some tea, while one of the boys went across in his father’s balsa to Charest, the Manager of the Texas Gold Company, with a message from me, asking him to come along and join the jaguar hunt, but he sent back word that he could not come as he had a touch of fever just then.

From here we followed down the banks of the Tipuani for a mile to a spot where the river took a bend to the left, and another small stream came down from the hills on the right and joined it. This spot was, to my mind, one of the prettiest I had come across. On the left was the powerful and swiftly flowing Tipuani, on the right the stream, and all around was the forest, and the high hills crowned with patches of green grass with valleys between them. There were high palms everywhere, and big green heart trees in flower, which stood out prominently against the dark green of the forest. Beautiful flowers and creepers were growing on the banks of the rivers, and gorgeous blue butterflies, seven or eight inches from tip to tip, and green and yellow, and green and blue parrots were continually flying from one side of the river to the other. Overhead the sky was a clear blue; here and there were a few big vultures, flying high up, and waiting to swoop down on some dead animal which they would pick clean to the bones. I thought to myself how strange it was that this beautiful spot should be a haunt of malaria, where only the forest Indians could live without constant attacks of deadly fever. I took some views here with the kodak I carried.

Up the stream to the right was the place where the man-eating tiger had killed the mule. On the way we stopped for a few minutes at the home of my Indian guide, and saw the sugar plantation where his son was engaged cutting cane. This man owned a few head of cattle, which he had driven originally from the forest; there are a good many wild cattle to be found in the forest, though not nearly so many down here as in other parts. About two miles from his place we came to the dead mule, and found that the loins and part of one flank had been eaten away, and the throat torn open. I asked the man whether the animal had been poisoned, and he told me “not yet.” Jaguars and pumas always seem to find out if a beast is poisoned and, if so, often leave it and kill a fresh beast; I have seen this happen more than once. Nevertheless, these beasts have very often been poisoned, and I think what happens is this. If a horse, mule or a bullock has been killed, and the jaguar or puma, when returning to his prey, sees other animals near, he will kill a fresh one for the sake of the warm blood, which he will suck from the gullet of the newly-killed beast, but if the others have been driven away then he will go for the original kill. The dead mule had been dragged just inside the bush from a small green spot where it had been killed. The water in the stream here was about four feet deep, and the stream about fifteen yards wide. Miguel and I crossed over to the other bank six feet above the stream at the foot of the forest, where I decided to wait for the jaguar. It was then 5.30 p.m., and the Indian returned to his home, promising to bring back fresh milk and eggs for us in the morning. After a good dinner of challona stew, we sat down to await developments; I had my big Winchester rifle and the magazine was full. The night was fine, the moon almost at full, and fireflies everywhere. Nothing happened until 9 p.m., when a big tapir walked slowly across the green into the forest on the other side. A little later there was a distant peal of thunder, a sign that a storm was coming, and a cloud passed over the moon for a few minutes, but it was soon clear again. I looked at my watch, and it was a few minutes before ten. A minute or two after, we heard a movement in the bush opposite, and a long animal the size of a small donkey walked out on to the green patch in front. He noticed us at once, stood still broadside on, and turned his head and looked at us. It was the man-eater and mule-killer, and a splendid chance to get him. The moon was clear of clouds, and he could be seen quite distinctly. I took steady aim, with the muzzle pointing dead behind the shoulder, and pulled the trigger, only to find that the cartridge missed fire. I quickly slipped it out again, and pushed in another, but the same thing happened. In went a third, to no purpose, and then without turning round I said to Miguel, who was a few feet behind me, “Something has gone wrong with my rifle; if he comes across to us, you take the cutlass, and I will take the axe, and we will club him if we can while he climbs up the bank.” Fortunately, he never came, but after looking at us for a minute or two he turned round quietly and went back into the forest, and we saw no more of him that night.

The misfiring of the rifle was most unfortunate, but entirely my own fault, as I discovered a few days later. I had kept it well cleaned and oiled, both inside and out, but had forgotten to fire a trial shot before leaving Mackenzie’s place, and on taking the trigger off I found a small bit of gravel grit jamming it, with the result that, although the trigger worked well enough, it failed to touch the cap. As soon as I put it on again, it fired as usual, and here was I abusing the cartridges, when it was my fault all the time for not trying a shot first. It just shows that you can’t be too careful.

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.

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.