Adventures in Peru, Chapter 7

The King of Rugs

The Tres Cruces Mine, Part 2

Lots of white and yellow flowers grow upon the sides of the mountains in this district. They are very similar to those one meets with in the Alps. The late Bishop Brown, of Bristol and Gloucester, who was a famous Alpinist, showed me some he had brought home from Switzerland, and one could hardly tell them from mine. The scenery was sublime. On every side glorious snow-capped mountains towered up to the sky, clothed in a profusion of tussock grass about two feet long, and very coarse, but the mountain cattle and sheep seem to thrive on it. This grass extends to within 2000 ft. of the snow-line. Guanacos and vicuñas were plentiful. So unused to man were they that one could get quite close to them without attracting their notice; hence securing meat for the camp presented no difficulty. I saw many foxes. They were of a greyish colour. I shot several, sufficient to make me a fine poncho or cape, which I still possess. It is very warm and comfortable. Originally a number of tails depended from it, but in 1922 I induced a Berkshire lady friend to remove them, as they inclined to make the cape look too conspicuous for English wear.

Some years after I visited Donovan, white fox and black became all the rage. Even Chilian, Peruvian, Bolivian foxes, and those of the Andes, came into favour. They were trapped or shot in thousands by the Mountain Indians, and their pelts sold at £1 apiece. I never saw a white fox in the Andes. The Andean foxes are mostly grey, with fine, long brushes. One I remember very well indeed—a very cheeky fellow. I was sitting outside my camp at night, after dinner, waiting on the off-chance of getting a puma, the spoor of which one of my Indians had discovered close by. All of a sudden a great, reddish-grey dog-fox stepped out from some bushes, and stood looking at me. He had an immense brush, the longest I think I have ever seen. I could have shot him easily, but I let him go free, as I didn’t wish to frighten any pumas that might be lurking about. Indians, like those in the Yllimani and Ylliampo ranges, live chiefly on wild guanaco meat—with an occasional buck thrown in—guinea pigs and potatoes. Although they all keep sheep, and used to sell me some at 4s., 5s., and 6s. apiece, I never saw them kill any for themselves. But they always expected the insides of mine in return for killing, skinning, and fixing up for challona.

After spending eight weeks in this exhilarating atmosphere, where the blue sky is always visible, save when overcast by an occasional hailstorm, and the sun shines all day long, I collected my samples and took them to a friend of mine, a Mr. Horne, who was employed by M. M. Penny and J. B. Minchin as an assayer. I had, as usual, placed them in separate sacks, with a ticket giving particulars of where I had found them, and at what height. It took him three days to examine and test my little lot. His report was most satisfactory, so I attached it to mine, and hied me away to my friend in Lima.

On my way back over the Andes to Sicasica, I called on Don Ramon, and put in three days with him. We had another hunt after pumas, but failed to locate any. At our parting, Ramon presented me with a magnificent rug, composed of white alpaca skins. This I gave to my father when I returned to England. He was very proud of it, and showed it to many of his friends and acquaintances—to Lord Methuen, among others. That gallant officer was charmed with it, and told my father it was the king of rugs. To buy these rugs, whether white or black, one has to approach the Mountain Indians, men who don’t give much away. Nowadays they have a much keener sense of values than when I first made their acquaintance, twenty odd years ago. The skins cost them nothing, but they have to be cured in a special manner, and properly dressed, before the various suitable portions are ready for making up. Then the putting together has to be taken into consideration. People who have never seen this process would be amazed at the skilful handiwork of the Indian women.

Adventures in Peru, Chapter 7

The Megrims

The Tres Cruces Mine, Part 1

Next day, after thanking Don Ramon for his hospitality, and for giving me so enjoyable a time, I started off for the camp at the foot of the mountains near Tres Cruces. Here a man named Donovan kept a little store, and worked a tin mine for my Lima friend. This same Donovan was one of the first to come to La Paz and congratulate me when I returned from my momentous journey to Challana. Readers of my Bolivian adventures may remember that I had passed through some ticklish experiences, and had been reported dead.

Donovan greeted me warmly, and said he had been expecting me for several months, his boss having apprised him of my coming to prospect around. I was to make his house my headquarters. This abode comprised two rooms and a kitchen, all built of solid stone. The walls were two feet thick or more; and the whole was roofed with corrugated iron. Donovan, I found, had only two Indian assistants. He said the store wouldn’t run to more; his takings barely sufficed to pay their wages and provide grub for himself and them. I could quite believe this, for the nearest hut was eighteen miles off, and his only likely callers would be prospectors.

Well, I started work with his two Indians and my three. Nine-thirty every morning saw me hard at it, taking samples where I thought proper, both on my Lima friend’s property and on the virgin soil belonging to the Government of Bolivia.

All went well for the first five days. Then two Indians went sick and had to rest in camp for the best part of a week. Three days later, another Indian got the “megrims.” He, of course, had to be excused. This sort of game became the vogue. I seldom had my full complement of men. The reason for this is a simple one. The Indians in Bolivia and Peru are mostly “Colonials,” i.e. their owner or master, or whatever you like to call him, provides them with everything they want in reason; they, for their part, do all the farm work on half-shares with the owner of the estancia. Every year, after the harvest is safely gathered in, accounts are balanced up, and any surplus is divided equally between master and man. If the harvest has been a poor one, and the balance is on the wrong side so far as the workers are concerned, then the debt is wiped out, and the position is “As you were.” This system suits the “Colonials” very well; so well, in fact, that they rarely trouble to seek work outside the boundaries of the estancia to which they belong, except for a very special purpose, like mine at Sacambaja. Those pretty gentlemen wanted something storekeeper José hadn’t in stock—one a red shirt, to cut a dash in, and another a sewing-machine for his wife—so their headman told me. Donovan’s Indians were of the same kidney. Directly they had made sufficient money to satisfy their special needs, they returned to their master’s estate. I was thus frequently left with only my three Indians, one of whom was my personal attendant, whose duty it was to help me drill whatever lode I was prospecting.

Round about this district I found the temperature pretty cold. During my two months’ stay here the thermometer ranged between 4 degrees and 32 degrees in the shade, and 4 degrees to 8 degrees below zero at night. You can imagine how delightful it would have been for me to come home after a hard day’s work in the mountains, and find a nice roaring fire in my room. But not a bit of it, no such luxury was provided. There wasn’t even a fireplace! My Lima friend had never visited Donovan’s. I often wished he had. I’m sure a week in that cold atmosphere would have made his hair curl! He paid me, however, to go there for him, and paid me well, so I mustn’t grumble. With the exception of Sundays and seven days when I went guanaco hunting for the camp, i.e. the Indians, Donovan and I were content to feed off challona and martinette. I generally potted this bird on the ground. “Pots” are the order of the day in out-of-the-way places. One has no use for fancy shooting. I also got some wild duck from a small lake in the vicinity. They don’t seem to frequent any water above the 12,000 ft. mark; their billet ranges from 9000 ft. to 12,000 ft. On one occasion I shot a few wild geese. They were pure white, and afforded fairly good eating, i.e. the young ones, but the old birds were tough as hemp.

Only two of my seven trips after guanacos proved successful. On these occasions I bagged one each time. On three others I drew blank, through shooting badly; and twice I quite failed to get within range of them. I happened once upon a herd of vicuña, however, as I turned the corner of a valley through which a mountain stream ran. I raised my rifle to fire, but they looked so beautiful that I felt I could not pull trigger on them. Besides martinette, I came across a few woodcock occasionally in this valley. Once I shot a martinette as it was running, and two woodcock squatting on the ground; but missed a woodcock on the wing, and two others.

Talking of shooting, I once met a fellow who was looking for mines in the district of Incasivi. He was a crack revolver shot, and brought down bird after bird. I travelled with him three days. Never once did I see him miss his mark.