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.