Madre de Dios, Peru. 1987
In August 1987 I found myself in Cuzco. I had been travelling for a few months in North America and had flown to Bogata and worked my way down Columbia and Ecuador to Peru. Apart from a few short overnight hikes in the Rockies and Alaska I had been largely frustrated about getting into the wilderness. Once in Peru I managed a 3 day hike in the Cordillera Blanca from Olleros to Chauvin but it barely whetted the appetite. After this hike I parted ways with my travelling companion for the last 4 months and unburdened, planned some longer treks. The first was the 6 day hike from Mollepata to Machu Picchu trek over the Incachiriasca Pass on the Salkantay mountain and then continuing on the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu before the days of permits and guides. The second trek was a 8 day circuit around the relatively remote mountain of Auzangate in the Cordillera Vilcanota starting and finishing at Tinqui during which I saw no other hiker at all and was entirely self sufficient.
While I was doing these 2 solo treks I based myself at the enchanting city of Cuzco for about 6 weeks in all, and kept returning here. In my rest days I poured over the poor and inaccurate maps I found in the public buildings and gleaned what information I could from the government offices about the wild Manu National Park. After a few weeks an idea was evolving where I would take a lorry over the Cordillera Vilcanota again to Paucartambo and then on to the end of the road at the village of Shintuya. Shintuya was on the banks of the Alto Madre De Dios river. Here I would make a raft out of balsa wood trees and then float down the river for about 600 km until I got to the town of Puerto Maldonado where I would abandon the raft and return by lorry to Cuzco. I estimated the whole expedition would take me about 3-4 weeks.
From my dormitory room in the friendly Hostal Suecia in central Cuzco I had about a week to prepare. The biggest problem was getting an accurate map. All I had seen so far was a road map and it was perhaps 1;2,000,000, with very little information. At this time, for many of the world’s more far flung, it was possible to get a map based around the US Air Force Aeronautical Charts from the 1940’s which were 1:1,000,000. However this area in Peru had not been done. So the best I could get was 1:750,000 and it was from the district planning department with little information other than how they envisaged a future road program and the course of rivers. They could only copy it for me on a grainy photocopier in black and white. I got a few copies in case any got waterlogged.
The Tourist Information offices on the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco were very helpful and friendly, and had already helped me plan my treks to Salkantay and Auzangate but could not really provide any information on my jungle venture. However, they seemed enthusiastic about it and the small team working there thought there were no cataracts or waterfalls on the Alto Madre de Dios beyond the end of the road at Shintuya – but they were not sure. Very few people in Cuzco had been down to the jungle, or selva, and if any had they would go to Puerto Maldonado, which was a town. Nobody had been to Manu. However, they helped me find a lorry which went back and forth on the rough road.
I spent a week buying supplies and preparing during the day and dining, drinking and dancing in the peñas of Cuzco which were always brimming with atmosphere in the evenings. Most of the supplies came from the markets, large covered concrete plazas under corrugated iron roofs. One could buy everything in these markets from food to ironmongery, dried meats, household consumables, livestock and a vast array of vegetables. I could lose myself in them trying to find what I might need and resisting the urge to buy too much. When I needed a break there were stalls selling local foods, including roast guinea pig and many podiums with matriarchal Quechua women preparing fruit drinks in blenders. The markets were vibrant with colour, smell and sound. Occasionally I would bump into a fellow from the hostel as there were a few staying for months doing language courses or work placements.
My supplies mostly consisted of cans, especially tuna, and packets of rice and beans which I hoped would be enough to sustain me. I think I bought 40 cans of tuna, one for the morning meal and one for the evening meal each day. This was long before the days of freeze dried meals or even noodles. I got a cooking pot to boil the rice based gruel I would be cooking and plenty of plastic lighters. I bought some sweet powdered Tang drinks to make the river water more palatable, but did not bother with purification. I also got a large bag of coca leaves and a ball of ‘llipta’, a mortar of lime and the ash of burnt quinoa leaves, which broke down the alkaloids in the coca leaves as they were chewed. I had taken coca leaves on the last two treks and they staved off fatigue, altitude sickness and hunger and were a great currency in the high hamlets. They were legal above 2000 metres in Peru at the time. I also bought half a carton of cigarettes which would see me running out as I set off down the river and force me to abstain.
I already had a tent, a battered Peapod 2 tent from Ultimate Equipment, and a worn out Blacks of Greenock Icelandic sleeping bag. In those days of travel I slept on clothes rather than a sleeping mat which were big and bulky. For cooking I travelled with my Optimus paraffin stove, a fickle brass cooker but remarkably reliable if I pampered it’s foibles. I bought 5 litres of paraffin and a plastic container making an extra washer for the lid by screwing the lid on over sheets of plastic to hinder leaks. I bought a large plastic barrel to put anything fragile or perishable into and also a few nylon sacks so I could stuff the remaining gear into and secure them to the raft. Finally I bought a machete, an axe and 200 metres of hessian rope for building the raft, out of balsa wood trees which I hoped I could cut down. After a week of preparing I was finally able to have a small farewell evening with my fellow travellers in Hostal Suecia.
The next afternoon I had to carry my sacks of food and equipment to a dusty corner some 20 minutes walk from the Plaza de Armas. I had to be there for a mid afternoon departure and I got there with a good hour to spare. The lorry went every other day as the road was one way on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the other One Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday as there was often not enough room for vehicles to pass on the narrow track. However, like many local connections it took ages to load all the cargo and the 15 odd other people who would be making the journey and we did not set off until late afternoon. I felt very self conscious and my poor Spanish was largely useless with the predominantly Quechua speakers who were my fellow passengers. There were hundreds of wooden crates of Inca Cola, a yellow sugary drink, drums of oils and petrol, dirty cardboard boxes of food and many many sacks of household goods which were all stacked and secured against the front end of the cargo bed and against the sides leaving the back for the passengers to sit or stand in. I chose to stand as I could see over the sides. At last the tailgate was lifted up enclosing us in the back and with a belches of black diesel fumes the large 3 axle lorry lumbered forwards for its 24 hour journey down to Shintuya.
The journey started well as we rumbled out of Cuzco and along the tarmac road in the warm wind for nearly 2 hours. Occasionally we stopped when passengers flagged the lorry down allowing them to load their luggage and clamber aboard. But then we turned off the Cuzco to Puna highway and headed north on a rougher road, filled with potholes which the laden truck had to crawl around. The main cargo of the truck was at the front of the bed between the wheels but us passengers were at the back over the badly sprung back wheels. We were getting buffeted from side to side and occasionally launched a few inches into the air. I tried to look unperturbed like the others but the thought of another 24 hours of this was not appealing. In low ratio gear we started to grind our way up into the mountains, contouring into deep side valleys and then climbing over the ridges. The truck laboured, spewing black fumes, as it climbed from 3000 metres up to 4000 metres with the evening sun turning the steep puna grasslands and scattered mud and thatch homesteads orange. Looking over the left hand side of the truck down the steep slopes was not for the faint hearted and I had no option to put my trust in the driver.
As the sun set the temperature plummeted and I was ill prepared for it. My collection of sacks were buried under other people’s bags in the pile of cargo in the front. I hunkered down in the bed of the lorry along with everyone else and we seemed to group together. I brought out a bag of coca leaves and shared them around the 4-5 men around me. They were grateful and seemed to trade a corner of their blankets for the leaves until one of them gave me a spare blanket. It made a huge difference as I am sure the temperature was below zero once it was properly dark by 7 pm. The lorry lurched from rut to pothole and meant the flat cargo bed leapt violently as times. Eventually I joined the others in lying down on the bed of the lorry and we huddled together under a mass sharing of blankets. Had the lorry been standing still it would have been cosy but the truck jolted violently quite frequently and I remember being thrown in the air for a second before slamming back down onto the worn wooden boards. It was quite intolerable and it went on hour after hour as we crept along the dirt road crossing the Cordillera Vilcanota.
Occasionally the truck would come to a halt and someone would get off or on and then we would all settle down again to endure our own discomfort in silence. I was near the back of the truck near the tailgate, perhaps the bounciest area and the others knew this and had avoided it. At last the lorry started to descend, grumbling down the hill in low gear towards the small highland town of Paucartambo arriving at a cluttered yard in the middle of the town under a couple of street lights fed by a small generator. The tailgate went up and the driver told me we had an hour before we set off again. There was a stall selling local food in the yard and I went there for a meal, thankful to be on firm stable ground, and then snuck off into the shadows for a pee. Half the cargo was unloaded and many of the passengers left with their sacks of possessions. In the melee I managed to extract my sleeping bag from my baggage sacks. The passengers were replaced and after an hour I thought we were ready to go but we had to wait another hour until midnight for the road usage to switch direction. I was not really paying attention after the bruising and by the time I clambered aboard I realised the prime spaces had been taken and was relegated to the back corner by the tailgate again.
At midnight the truck rumbled out of town on the rough track which led down to the frontier villages being carved out of the jungle. I could not see anything in the dark night and I assumed the drivers could only see the narrow beam of light the headlights cast. I did not know it at the time but the road here was a narrow ledge cut into the steep hillside, a wheel over the edge would mean the truck would slip off and tumble down the hillside for hundreds of metres, scattering bottles of Inca Cola and humans as it went. The lorry crept forward at a snail’s pace, no doubt to avoid this fate and I was grateful for that and also because it mitigated the violent jolts at the back. I could feel the truck was climbing again up onto another ridge in the Cordillera Vilcanota and the temperature plummeted again. I was glad I could pull my sleeping bag over me as I lay down on a couple of sheets of old cardboard I had commandeered. For a couple of hours the journey became slightly less arduous but it was impossible to sleep given the violent jolts and the coca leaves I had chewed.
Deep in the night the truck stopped again under a bitterly cold, clear, Andean sky sparkling with stars. I heard some screaming from behind the truck and suddenly a large piglet was pushed over the tailgate and landed in our midst. Then another until there were 5 in all, looking scared and bewildered in the torchlight. They made a beeline for the corner, my corner, and they tried to evict me. Once their owners, a highland Quecha family with a few children and strong characterful mother, clambered over the tailgate and also settled near me the truck rumbled off and we all started to jostle and shake again. The piglets who were right beside and bigger than a large dog cowered and shuffled, occasionally stepping on me. I might have been able to endure this for the rest of the night had they not decided to defecate in their corner, my corner. I rescued my sleeping bag before it was soiled and lurched my way to the piles of cargo at the front and managed to perch awkwardly on uneven sacks. I was half in my sleeping bag, half out and with a buttock on a food box and the other over empty space. I propped myself up impatiently waiting for the first glow of dawn which I hoped would draw this nightmare to a close. It took a long time to arrive by which time the lorry had crept down a series of hairpin bends, with the growling engine acting at the brake and the temperature climbing above freezing.
When dawn did come it was near a viewpoint called Tres Cruces. A fellow passenger who got on at Paucartambo and spoke good Spanish told me it was a sacred place. I was thankful I had been spared the night but now just wanted to feel the warmth of the sun. As the dawn shed light I could see we had descended into shrubland and the bushes were covered in dripping moss. The lorry had reached the edge of the Altiplano and was now descending down through the Ceja de la Montaña or “eyebrow of the mountain” After crossing two mountain ridges in the night we were finally dropping down into the Amazon Basin. Mist hung atmospherically over the ridges as the lorry crept down and the temperatures rose again, until the cold was a memory, and the trees got bigger and bigger. I brought the coca leaves out again to share with those around me. It was like sharing cigarettes with other smokers, and they were less wary of me and a Spanish speaker started to ask me a few questions like what was I doing and where was I going. He was called Cesar.
Cesar had got on the lorry last night at Paucartambo and before the piglets had caused mayhem. He was travelling to Shintuya with 4 wooden crates of chicks to populate his small holding. They were cheeping in their slatted boxes and there must have been over 100 of them. I told him I wanted to make a “balsa” (a raft) and float down the river Madre de Dios from the road end to Puerto Maldonado. He told the others and this created a lot of animated discussion with glances in my direction. I understood nothing other than that it was about me, but tried to get involved by asking Cesar questions: What does a balsa wood tree look like? Does the river have rapids? After a further half hour of bouncing down the road Cesar grabbed my arm and pointed to a tree with big leaves. “That is a balsa wood tree,” he said. As the truck crawled on, a few more appeared in the now warm humid forest. Soon last night’s biting cold was forgotten and it became muggy and was soon sweating in the heat. On and on the lorry ploughed the mountain track soon flattening off in the humid jungle and potholes and boulders being replaced with muddy ruts some filled with water. The hardy alpine shrubs of the dawn were now large trees dripping in moss and vines and alive with bird noise.
After a few hours chugging along the muddy track in the jungle we stopped at a small hamlet and the piglets and their owners got off. Suddenly the truck was less crowded but their corner was filthy and covered with manure. Cesar told me it was only an hour until we reached Shintuya – and it could not come quick enough. As we approached each hamlet I hoped it was it. At last in the early afternoon we reached the small village on the side of the river and it seemed all the inhabitants came to greet us. I hopped out of the open tailgate onto the red earth and made for the shade of a tree while I figured out what to do next. Soon Cesar approached and said if I paid for the fare for him to take a canoe some 5km down the river with his chickens, then I could stay with him and he would help me build the raft. It was an offer too good to refuse as the alternative meant staying at the rustic frontier jungle outpost of Shintuya, possibly in my tent, while I cut down 4 balsa wood trees here to build my raft.
We carried the wooden boxes of chickens to a patch of earth at the water’s edge where there were about 10 canoes, or peke-peke, tied up. A few were large and covered with perhaps 15 seats under a plywood cover, but most were small with a few seats which also helped bind the wooded sides of the dugout together. At the stern of each of them was a motor with a long shaft, perhaps 2 metres long, with a propeller at the end. I saw one set off and the shaft was just tilted down into the water so the propeller was barely covered. As the canoe got into the deeper water the shaft was lowered further. In this way the canoes could negotiate the shallows of the gravel beds. Cesar negotiated with a boat owner who said he could take us in half an hour. He made a coral of boxes and bags and then emptied the boxes of chickens into it so they could run around and drink water from a small tub he was carrying. Unfortunately in the excitement a local child stepped on a chicken and it went limp. Cesar tried to blow some air into it again but it was in vain. The peke-peke driver returned quite promptly and we boxed up the chickens again and loaded the boat with Cesar’s cargo and my sacks and set off downstream from the bank at Shintuya.
It only took a half hour to zip down the river. The boatman was constantly monitoring the depth of the propeller so it did not destroy it on the stonebanks. Cesar was at the front looking for hidden snags, because if the peke-peke hit one it could turn over. The river was very braided with a central channel and the boatman knew it like the back of his hand. We passed one other canoe which was on the way back up the river and other than that it was very deserted and slightly eerie. After half an hour we got to the young hamlet of Itahuania, a cluster of homesteads in the jungle on the right hand bank of the river (looking downstream). It was only betrayed by a pall of smoke sitting on top of the tree canopy, otherwise the jungle concealed it. Cesar said about 30 people lived there, mostly settlers from the mountains, as he was. The only way to reach it was by river canoe. However Cesar lived on the opposite bank in an even smaller cluster of 3 homesteads where he had cleared the jungle to plant bananas, tobacco, maize and pumpkins over the last 2 years. The canoe approached a gravel bank and Cesar rolled his trousers up and hopped out and dragged the canoe to the bank so the propeller was not in jeopardy. We then unloaded everything and I paid the canoe driver. Within a few minutes Cesar’s young children and his wife Viktoria came down from the homestead to meet us and carry some of the luggage back. By late afternoon, a full 24 hours of the most gruelling journey had come to an end and I was settled into a grass roofed hut on stilts with all my belongings. It was a delightful place and I was so pleased to be here.
I sat at the table in the hut surveying the yard, which I could see above the planks which made up a half height wall. I was sweaty and sticky after that journey in the filthy lorry so I went down to the river with a change of shirt and washed myself and then washed and wrung out the shirt in river water. After nearly 3 months in the Andes the tepid, clear, water was a delight, and it invited me in like a Siren’s lyre would. But I was cautious about going too far into the river for fear of something lurking there. so knelt on the stones in the shallows and splashed myself. Once back in the hut feeling refreshed Cesar joined me and we smoked a couple of cigarettes. Soon Viktoria appeared with a rice and bean stew. We were joined by Pedro who had the adjoining homestead in this tiny hamlet. I think Pedro and Viktoria were related but I never found out the exact connection. After the meal we smoked some more of my cigarettes which were irreplaceable and disappearing at an alarming rate. Later in the evening after it got dark and the cicadas started their non stop shrill chorus Viktoria brought a bucket of chica.
I knew what was in it and I knew how it was made so I was reluctant to have some but it would have been offensive to refuse. The gloopy white liquid was strained through a cloth and poured into a tin cup for me. I took a small sip and the taste was not as bad as I feared. I lied and said it was delicious and then had to finish it and another 4-5 cups after it. Cicha is made from cassava, also called yuca or manioc, which is a woody fiberpous tuber full of starch. There is no sugar in it so the tuber has to be peeled and boiled for 15 minutes to soften it enough to mash it. Fermentation cannot begin with the starch so mouthfuls of the mash had to be chewed for up to half an hour until the saliva broke down the starch into sugar. These saliva rich mouthfuls are then spat back into the bucket and stirred in, while another mouthful is prepared. Eventually after a few hours there is enough saliva in the mix to start the process of reducing the starch to sugars. Once the sugars have built up fermentation starts and the brew is left for 4-5 days until it is a nutritious, mildly alcoholic drink. like beer. Before it is drunk it has to be strained to take the woody fibres out leaving the liquid behind. I did not feel the slightest bit inebriated after 5 cups so perhaps it was drunk early in the fermentation before all the sugars were converted to alcohol. I thought there was plenty of scope of an upset stomach during the night but my guts survived unscathed.
The next morning after breakfast Cesar and I set off into the jungle to cut down 2 balsa wood trees. They were easy to find and quite plentiful. They grew straight and narrow. The two we found were about 30-40 centimetres across in diameter. He started cutting with an axe and I took over occasionally to give him a rest. Soon we had cut enough of a notch that the tree started to shake with each axe hit and we knew it would fall soon. I backed off while Cesar continued until with a crack and swishing of leaves it crashed to the ground. It was very heavy as the trunks were full of water and nothing like the polystyrene type wood I was used to in model planes. We cut the trunk into two sections, each about 4 metres long. Each one weighed perhaps 250kg and were impossible to lift. However the bark peeled off in long strips very easily, leaving a white shiny wood which was very slippery as it oozed sappy water. This made them easy to drag across the forest floor to the water’s edge about 100 metres away with a rope tied round one end. After lunch we felled another tree, with me doing most of the chopping this time, purely so I would not be an onlooker as Cesar was an expert with axe, and much better than me. We dragged them to the waters edge also and tomorrow we would start tying them together.
Later in the afternoon I helped Cesar turnover a patch of jungle he had previously cleared of trees and shrubs. He had a mattock with a wide blade and it sank into the soft ground, easily slicing through the smaller roots, so I could pull the detached sod of earth towards me. It was hot hard work, but very effective and after a couple of hours he had gained another patch of cultivated land with just a few tree stumps remaining. He said he was going to plant maize and banana here also. The more I looked around the homestead the more I saw, and in other areas were pineapples, small mango trees, and a spectrum of vegetables. Everything seemed to be growing well and Cesar was pleased with his lot after taking the decision to abandon his Andean birthright and become a frontiersman in the jungle. That evening I ate again with Cesar and Pedro and smoked more of my cigarettes and drank more of Viktoria’s chicha. It was becoming apparent to me it was a very one sided arrangement so far and the expense I had laid out initially in paying for the river canoe, or peke-peke, had long been used up and I would have to pay him something for his skills and hospitality also.
It was relaxing in the jungle and I never had to worry about the bitter Andean cold during the nights. Indeed it was a perfect temperature but a bit humid and it was easy to break into a sweat even at night. It did rain frequently but I had not seen any since arriving in the jungle 2 days ago although there was the distant rumble of thunder during the nights far away in the mountains. We thought nothing of it. However, the next day when we went to the river bank I was alarmed to see the river had risen considerably, perhaps by half a metre in height, and it had swelled onto the gravel banks. 3 of our lovely balsa logs had floated away and the water was lapping at the fourth. It was a bitter disappointment and Cesar was apologetic, wrongly assuming it was his fault. We should have known better and I suppose Cesar and myself should have been more aware of the foibles of the river which could rise due to rains 150 km away in the Andean headwaters of the tributaries. We had no choice other than cut down another 2 balsa trees and fashion 3 more logs out of them. They were a bit further from the river and once we had felled the trees and cut them into logs, then peeled off strips of bark, Cesar went to get Pedro and the 3 of us heaved them to the river’s edge. We also dragged over some smaller sections to go across the raft to bind the ends together, make a luggage platform so my sacks would not be in the wash of waves in the smaller rapids and a seat for myself.
In the afternoon we went for a longer walk into the jungle with the machetes to find a different type of tree. I did not really understand what Cesar was looking for as we crept through the jungle which soon enveloped us. It was teeming with insects and noise and I am sure there were plenty of hostile beasts looking at us as we forced our way through. I realised quickly that if something went wrong with my raft there was little chance of finding a way through the jungle to make my way back to safety. Without a compass I would have totally disorientated very quickly. I am sure danger lurked everywhere just beyond the green walls of the bubble I was wandering in. I followed Cesar closely as he weaved between trees and undergrowth slashing at branches and vines to cleave a path. Eventually after some 10 minutes he stopped and pointed to a small tree. He chopped a notch right round the 10 centimetre wide trunk of the tree which was very hard and dark, but eventually it toppled and we stripped the leaves and upper branches of it and I dragged it back to the homestead while Cesar cleared the path. Back at his packed earthen yard we cut the tree into 50 centimetre logs and then split the logs lengthwise, hammering the axe down so we eventually had about 20 spikes of dark hardwood.
It was late in the afternoon when we finished collecting everything we needed for the raft and this time we left it at the edge of the jungle and well above the river. It had almost been a day wasted recutting the logs we lost last night. I was still bright eyed and bushy tailed about being in the jungle. I recognized many of its characteristics from my childhood in Sri Lanka, which had since been overlaid with a good decade in the temperate north. I felt guilty I had distracted Cesar from his work on the homestead, so for the last 2 hours of the day I helped him cultivate the patch of land he was clearing. Cesar cleared the debris from the trees and shrubs he had previously felled, while I attacked the solid beneath them with the mattock again. It was hot work hacking into the small roots and then pulling a sod clear and leaving it upturned for the weeds to rot. Pedro came over and chatted with Cesar. He chopped up the smaller branches for firewood and piled the leafy twigs into piles for burning. I could see them looking at me, perhaps discussing a price for their raft building skills or my technique with the mattock, which was all power and no skill. Again that evening we ate the staple of rice and beans together in the small hut where I stayed and then drank some more chicha, which tasted wholesome as long as one could blot out the mouthfuls of saliva in it.
There was a heavy thunderstorm in the night and the rain was bouncing off the pools on the packed earth of the yard when I shone my torch on it. I could hear drips coming through the palm frond roof. So it was with nervousness that I went down to the water’s edge at first light to see if the balsa wood logs were still there. They were and I was surprised to see the level of the river had actually gone down again, so the rain must have been very local. Cesar and myself finished the last of my cigarettes after breakfast and I whined to him about it. He disappeared into his house and returned with a bag of dried tobacco and banana leaves. He laid a strip of the dried tobacco in the still flexible banana leaf and rolled a large cigar. I took a puff and choked on it but soon got the hang of smoking it. Cesar gave me the bag and wad of banana leaves so rather than being forced to stop smoking I now had an unlimited supply of raw cigars for my trip. Later that day Viktoria harvested a large basket of tobacco leaves from the plot and laid them out on the earth of the yard to dry and cure to replenish their stock.
Both Cesar and Pedro came down to the river to help me build the raft that morning. They chatted amongst themselves and worked out a plan. They had done it before and knew what they were doing so I let them carry on while I helped to heave the logs about. They cut a few saplings down, stripped them and cut them into lengths of about a metre and a half. Then we cut 3 notches in the top of the balsa wood logs at the front, middle and back. The saplings were laid into the notches, and perpendicular across the 4 logs, and we started binding the sapling trunks to the balsa wood logs. The hairy rope went round each log about 3-4 times and we frequently stopped to insert a lever between the rope coils and then twisted the lever so the rope also twisted and pulled the logs and saplings ever closer, with the rope jerking and squeaking as it tightened. It took a couple of hours to bind the 4 logs and 3 saplings together and by the time we were finished I had used about 75 metres. The raft however was very tight and stiff and completely inflexible. Cesar then tried to hammer the 50cm spikes through the balsa wood logs intending to pin one to another, but we had a lot of trouble getting them in and were afraid it would split the logs. So after a couple of attempts we gave up. I was not concerned as the raft was so solid anyway. In the afternoon we fashioned a seat from a balsa log and lashed this across the stern and then built a platform with two smaller logs across the width of the raft, which we covered with lengths of bamboo. This platform was only raised above the raft by about 25 centimetres so water would still splash onto it, but all my gear and food was in waterproof sacks and barrels.
We then slid and heaved the raft to the water’s edge and launched it. Although it was made of balsa wood this wood was full of sap and it weighed a ton. Literally 1000kg. With the three of us heaving we slowly dragged it down the cobble sized stones to the water’s edge and then into the water. I floated well but when I got on it it tilted a lot to one side but it was never going to capsize with my weight even solely on the outermost log. Cesar and Pedro said that once it had dried out it would float well, but that would be in months and not days. Still I was very pleased with it and was eager to set off that afternoon but I would not have got far before I had to stop and camp. It had been my intention just to drift down the river and I thought I would be able to punt the raft with a long bamboo pole if needed to. However, Cesar thought this was not good enough and sacrificed a precious plank he had. From the plank he cut a paddle with a wide awkward shaft, too long and flat to get my fingers and thumb round. I took it and it proved to be a godsend as the bamboo pole was hopeless. We all went for a small paddle on the edge of the river and the raft floated well, but it was very cumbersome, heavy and not streamlined at all. It would take a supreme effort to paddle the raft at even a slow walking speed. I still had a good 100 metres of rope left so we heaved it back up the cobbles of the river bank and tied the raft to a tree, conscious it might float off if unsecured.
In the evening I paid Cesar and Pedro for their invaluable help. Indeed without them the raft building project would have been very hit and miss. Viktoria made more rice and beans for us and I added a couple of tins of tuna to the meal. By the time the evening came and the cicadas started their chorus we were smoking homemade cigars in the banana leaves and drinking chicha, which I think had a very low alcohol content. That evening as I lay in the smaller hut they used for dining I was nervous about leaving. Cesar, Pedro and Viktoria had filled my head with dangers. They were sure there were no waterfalls or large rapids but said there were plenty of smaller ones. But these were small enough for the peke-peke canoes to go up and down. The dangers were from animals especially anacondas and caiman in the water and jaguar on land. They advised me to camp on large gravel beaches where there were a lot of trees which had been washed down in the rainy season and left on these banks. They said I should make a huge fire every night. The worst they said was the tigre, or jaguar, I would not see it and I would not hear it and the first I would know about it was when it smashed me to the ground with tremendous force and locked it canines, embedded in jaws of steel, round the back of my neck. Another ambush predator which Cesar warned me about was the Black Caiman which could grow up to 4 metres or nearly as long as my raft. However he said he had not seen any and they were rare but there were plenty of smaller caiman. He also told me to stay away from lakes and slow moving backwaters where anaconda might be lurking hoping for prey to come into their ambush zone. He said they were bigger than one of the logs of the raft. They were very quick in the water and would strike me latching on with their teeth and then wrap their body round me to crush me. This was on top of all the other dangers in the forest which would not hunt me but would kill me if I encountered them like poisonous snakes including the lancehead viper, electric eels, various piranha fish species, and even the infamous travellers tale of the fish which swims up your urethra if you pee in the water. I lay there in the dark of the small wooden hut becoming worried that I was perhaps being a bit foolhardy. However my hosts knew the jungle and its dangers well and they did not try to talk me out of it and even encouraged me.
When the morning came the tense doubts of the night had vanished in the warm sun and I was eager to load the raft and set off. I packed everything vulnerable into the plastic barrels and my sleeping bag and tent into splash proof bags and then crammed everything into my 2 sacks which I lashed to the platform. I buried the head of the axe into a log on one side and the machete on the other side so I would have at least a weapon to hand. Cesar, Pedro and Viktoria and the children had come down to the river’s edge to see me off. I was quite emotional leaving the family who I had stayed with for 4 days now and had been indispensable for getting my raft ready, and had shown me great hospitality. I gave them a hug and then we all heaved the raft down the short slope of gravel and stones and into the water. The sun had been up for a few hours when I put my large brimmed sun hat on and leaving my boots and trousers on pushed the raft out a bit and stepped onto it leaving the cosy, safe, homestead behind and heading down into the exciting, but very insecure unknown. I positioned the raft in the main current of the river and it took me to the left heading down stream. I was perhaps going at walking speed as Alto Madre de Dios river carried me away from my waving hosts and round the corner where the jungle soon obscured any sign of them. I started using the pole to help keep me in the current. It was also a good tool to see how the water depth varied and generally the river was about a metre deep. However the raft was a heavy cumbersome beast and it was difficult to manoeuvre it in the flowing water.
I was on my own now. I thought my safety depended on my awareness of the dangers I might encounter, and how, by anticipating them I could avoid the peril by being one step ahead. It was like a game of chess and if I could foresee the risk I could manage it before it spiralled out of control. It was a confident, but naive, illusion and in retrospect I can see there were dangers I could never even imagine and could certainly never overcome them if they were suddenly sprung on me. So oblivious to many of the dangers I tried to keep the raft in the middle of the flow, peering eagerly round each bend. The river varied from 20 metres wide in places, where it rushed between gravel banks, to 100 metres wide where it sluggishly flowed over the gravel and cobbles. I frequently thrust the bamboo pole onto the bottom to keep me out of the stagnant eddies and away from the shallows. Frequently I was too slow punting the raft way from the shallows and it grounded with a grinding of gravel. I had to jump off into the shin deep, reasonably clear, water and drag the raft back into the main channel. After a couple of hours I guessed I had gone at least 5 km but there was no way of telling. I tried to reconcile my progress with the map but it was hopeless. I know I had gone round about 10 large bends in the river but on the map this was represented by 5mm of a straight line. I realised that I could know my position on the map when there was significant tributary joining or where the river split into two braids around a large island, of which there were many marked.
Along the side of the river beyond the gravel banks were piles of driftwood which had got swept down the river in the rainy season until they grounded on the gravel or got entangled on the root plate or branches of a huge tree which had toppled into the river. It would have been a different challenge to come down here in the rainy season of December, January, February and March when the river was a fury, swollen with rain from the Andean headwaters to the south and west. Beyond these tangles of dried trees, bough branches, bleached white by the sun was the green wall of the jungle, rising up 30 metres on each side and hemming the river and my world in the gap. It was teeming with noise and I could see birds everywhere. Macaws frequently flew in small groups crossing the river on a mission to go somewhere, while solitary toucans hopped along the canopies of the large trees. I could not see into the jungle as it was impenetrable and guarded by vines and thorny shrubs which grew on the floor. The jungle was no escape route if I had a mishap, and the river was the only possible means of travel.
The river alternated between faster sections and slower lazy meanders. The faster sections were heralded by a small roar as the water rushed down chutes between the gravel. I peered down stream trying to make out the best route as I approached it at walking speed. Then ripples appeared at the side and I was thrust down a smooth tongue of water as the line of ripples closed in on each side to meet in the middle where a series of small standing waves stood one after another down the rest of the chute. Usually the waves were not big, perhaps half a metre high at the most and the one ton raft ploughed them at jogging speed. I stood on the logs at the back at the mercy of where the current would take me, bending my legs to keep my balance until the chute spilled into gentler waters after a hundred meters or so and the river became sluggish again. As it flowed into deeper waters and the banks of red earth grew on each side, and the jungle with its tangled vines and high trees loomed above these banks. Often in these areas there were black sodden logs which lined the banks. As I approached them the river turtles which were sunning themselves plopped into the water disturbing swarms of butterflies. They were very nervous and bobbed their craned necks as I appeared and then virtually every one had disappeared by the time I got within 20 metres. In the course of the day I must have caused more than 1000 to topple from their sunny logs into the water. I had my eye out for tapir and capybara which I thought might come down to the waters edge but I did not see any.
In the morning the sun was hot and quite fierce. In the middle of the river I could not escape it. The swarms of insects which appeared when the river slowed down meant I had to stay fully dressed; boots on, trousers tucked into my sodden socks, and shirt sleeves rolled down. This also helped protect me against the sun. Fortunately I also had the good fortune to bring a large sun hat which protected my head from the intense rays. However by late afternoon clouds quickly started to form and the sky darkened rapidly. Suddenly there was a flash and then a few seconds later a sudden bellow of thunder. Then five minutes later another. I sat down on the log seat at the end of the raft and swapped the punting pole for the awkward paddle, wondering how vulnerable I was to a lightning strike on the water. I hoped the tall trees along the bank would be more attractive. Then the first of the very large, warm raindrops started to fall. Within a minute everything was wet and I was refreshed, but soon the heavens opened and the rain drops started to batter me. It was a violent shower and I was totally soaked instantly. I tilted my wide hat forwards and there was so much rain falling within its circumference that a small spout poured off the rim like a gargoyle’s mouth. The river’s surface vanished beneath the opaque spray caused by the millions of splashes as the drops splattered into it. I had never seen rain like it, not even in the worst of my childhood Sri Lankan monsoon’s. There were about another 10 bright flashes and thunderclaps, some alarmingly close with only a second between the two, when thankfully the whole onslaught suddenly ceased and I could come out from under my hat. Within minutes the sun had appeared and my dripping clothes were now merely damp. Along the bank steam wafted into the shadows where the rain evaporated off the warm earth. As the days passed this happened nearly every afternoon and I started to welcome it as a refreshing and cleansing shower.
As the sun headed down to the treetops it lost its ferocity and a calm descended on the usually raucous jungle. I realised I would soon have to find somewhere to camp. I was looking for a gravel bank which was quite high above the river’s water level and with copious amounts of driftwood. I imagined I would be safer on an island in the middle of the river but I am sure the predators I was wary off would be able to cross a braided channel quite easily. Almost on cue the river split into two channels again, with one flowing quietly on and the other rushing down a chute of water with small waves and descending perhaps a metre in all. I chose the sedate channel and soon saw a sand and gravel mound with a tangled pile of driftwood along it. I beached the raft and hopped into the water with the long painter of hessian rope which was firmly attached to the front of the raft. After the fiasco with the logs getting washed away by a rising river I could take no chances and heaved the raft as far as I could on the gravel. It was so heavy I could only get half of it out of the water. I then tied the painter to a large trunk of driftwood which was embedded in the sand. I took a few wraps round the branch and then returned it to the raft to double secure it. If I lost my raft in the night I would be in serious trouble, marooned on this remote river in the desolate jungle. I cleared the cobble size stones from a sandy patch, leaving just the sand and put my tent up on it. The insects which had been plaguing me all day started to vanish as the sun dropped below the trees and a purple hue enveloped the forest. I then dragged as much driftwood out of the twisted pile and lit a fire with it. I heaved large branches onto it and soon the flames were 2 metres high. There was an unlimited pile of driftwood and I wanted the fire to smoulder and deter through the night. I just had to be wary that the sparks did not rain down onto the tent. At sunset the sky went an unnatural shade of purple before darkness rapidly descended. I sat on a log beside the fire eating my rice and bean stew with a tin of tuna stirred through it and reflected on the first day. It had gone well and apart from the insects I had coped with everything. I checked the raft before I went into the tent and lay down on the soft sand, still warm from the day’s sun. In the tent I was under the illusion I was safe behind a thin veneer of nylon. However, it was crackling fire and the smoke which was my guardian for the night.
I slept well and when dawn came I was eager to get up. I rose with the jungle, which slowly shook off the night mist and burst into a chorus of awakening fauna. I checked around the tent for tracks and prints of anything which might have been sniffing around but could see nothing. The fire was still smouldering with some wisps of smoke coming from some of the charred ends of the logs where they had burnt in half. Breakfast was the other half of the rice and bean stew with another tin of tuna stirred through it. This was all washed down with a vertigo inducing homemade cigar using Cesar’s dried tobacco leaves rolled up in a banana leaf. By the time I had packed the tent up and stuffed everything back into the plastic buckets and nylon sacks and then lashed it to the platform on the raft, the sun was strong and bright and the insects were swarming around me again. I untied the raft and walked it into deeper water, stepped aboard and then with the pole pushed it into the gentle flow.
Soon the raucous jungle was gliding past with groups of macaws flying across the canopy. There were many islands marked on the map I had, but they bore little resemblance to what I encountered. Some of the islands were perhaps 100 metres long with a defiant copse of trees rising from the gravel bank while others were a good kilometre. Inevitably when one started the river split with one channel rushing down a slope while the other carried on level. It was just a matter of luck whether I took the longer or shorter and I had no way of knowing. When the the two channels merged again it usually involved the higher level channel rushing down a chute to meet the sedate channel which had already been down its chute of small rapids. I had no rule of thumb as to which channel I should take but generally tried to remain in the larger one. The island I had camped on was relatively small and within 5 minutes I was at the end of it peering down the chute of water I was about to be carried down. I did not go down the smooth tongue in the middle of the chute but kept to the side in the smaller waves. As the chute charged into the more placid waters of the lower channel it caused swirls and boils and when the raft went over them it lurched from side to side, accelerating and braking quickly for a few frightening seconds. Then I was spewed from this turbulent water into the wide sluggish river again which lazily meandered round the first of many bends today. The river was becoming too deep to use the punting pole and I tended to use the cumbersome paddle more and more. The main reason for me to paddle was just to manoeuvre the heavy cumbersome raft across to the left or right of the river so as to remain in the main flow. For this I would sit on the seat at the back and occasionally paddle furiously to avoid obstacles or gently to remain in the flow. Occasionally I would roll a cigar and lie on the logs, my head propped on the seat like a pillow. There was no urgency until I could hear the roar of water again.
About midday a muddy tributary entered from the left. I could not see it marked on the map at all so It did not help locate me But I estimated I had gone about 20 km now altogether. The tributary did not flow at all but gently oozed its muddy waters into the Alto Rio Madre de Dios, staining it downstream. The plethora of fresh water turtles continued to plop off the branches into the river as I appeared round each corner. Suddenly there was a loud splash and I stood up to see what it was. Some 10 caiman, some 2 metres in length, were slithering down the muddy bank and into the river. I assumed they were coming for me and leapt up grabbing my axe in one hand and machete in the other, poised to embed it into the skull of the first thing that appeared. I peered into the waters to see if I was being encircled in the eerie silence as I gently drifted downstream. After 5 minutes the river speeded up a bit to walking pace and the waters became shallower. With great relief I realised the caiman were more scared of me, that I was of them and they had rushed into the water to avoid me. I swung the axe and machete back into the logs and planted their hard blades in the soft wood, with their handles sticking up should I need them again in a hurry. I could hear the roar of rushing water approaching and knew I had to concentrate on threading a path down the next gauntlet of small rapids.
One of the biggest dangers I faced on the river was the palisades. In the rainy season the river rose significantly and flooded into the jungle on either side. It also surged down the current course undercutting the banks and toppling huge trees into the water. Many of these would be carried downstream, some getting smashed into pieces of driftwood which piled up beside the river and on sandbanks while others remained intact. These whole trees would drift down until they grounded on the shallows, usually with their root plate stopping first and then the trunk and branches swinging downstream anchored by the root. They would remain there, marooned, as the rainy season ended and the waters fell, sometimes high and dry and other times in a metre or two of water. Those that were entrenched in the river would slowly accumulate logs and branches in their tendrils until they formed a barrier which the river now only flowed around but also through the debris of wood. These palisades were generally found where the river was a bit shallower and faster. Sometimes there were 2 or 3 of them across a rapid and the roar of the water passing through the accumulated wood and marooned trees was louder than the rapids themselves. Whenever I hear a roar I leapt up and scouted the hazards ahead searching for the openings. Sometimes they were on the other side and I had to paddle hard to cross the flow while being carried downstream. I figured if I went into a palisade I would just add to its mass. The raft would probably turn sideways and be driven into the log jam or even under it by the force of the water. Tons of determined water would pin it there and no mortal would be able to pull it out. I would be shipwrecked in the middle of the current with all my belongings stuck on the raft pinned underwater in a dangerous current. While I might have been able to clamber onto the log jam and then make my way to one end of it and then the bank, the raft and everything I owned would be lost forever.
After the torrential onslaught of the late afternoon lightning, thunder and very heavy rain the skies cleared again and still settled over the forest as its creatures started to think about settling down. I too had to find a place to pull the raft up and camp. The river was very braided here and it was difficult to keep in the main channel which was frequently splitting into smaller channels and then reforming again. On one of them I made the wrong choice and started heading down a side arm. Luckily the river immediately spread out across a gravel bar which was only a few inches deep. The raft grounded on the cobbles and came to a halt. Quickly assessing the route down stream I could see it would get worse and there was no way through. I hopped off into the ankle deep water, grabbed the hessian painter and started to heave the raft back upstream with the rope over my shoulder. I strained against the current as the water rushed against the flat bow but slowly I inched upstream like a one man tug of war team until the water got a bit deeper and the current slowed, and I could overcome it and reach the junction with the other channel. Not far down it I saw a great campsite and landed here for my second night. Again I made a large fire and stacked piles of thick branches beside it to feed it in the night. I cleared rocks from a sandy area upwind of the fire, put the tent up and wriggled on the groundsheet to form a little trench in the warm sand for me to lie in. I got water from the river to boil for my rice and bean stew and again stirred a can of tuna through it. I ate it from the blacked pan, sitting on a log, with the sun dipping below the trees before the black, black night enveloped everything quite suddenly. Before going to bed I stacked the fire so it was roaring and casting shadows across my campsite, checked the raft by torchlight, and then retreated into my tent pleased with another day.
After another comfortable night on the sandy gravel bank I woke just before dawn as the forest chorus was warming up. I think there were some howler monkeys in the canopy across the channel with their distinctive below like roars which reverberated across the jungle like a giant alarm. They stirred everyone else into action and soon the macaws and toucans were joining in hopping from tree to tree. The noise became a cacophony and it comforted me to know I was not completely alone. As I ate my bean stew breakfast a movement on the forest edge caught my eye. Soon a small group of capybara emerged from the jungle and started walking down the bank across the channel. There were about 12 of them with a large adult at the head of the procession and a collection of smaller ones and some young. They all looked around nervously with the leader stopping to sniff the air with their long swollen snouts. They are nervous for a good reason as they are the preferred prey of jaguars, black caiman and anacondas and they are also hunted by humans. I sat still and watched them for 5 minutes as they shuffled along the bottom of the steep bank looking for a route back into the jungle. If the capybara were about here it was likely that predators would be about also although the caiman and anaconda would more likely ambush them from still murky water, like that of oxbow lakes and stagnant weed filled channels in the river. They came within 40 metres of me but never noticed before they found a route up the bank and back into the tangled green wall of the forest. I was enthralled by them and it lifted my soul to see them.
Once I had the raft launched again I hopped on board and started to drift downstream again heading for the faster current. Even on the water the plague of insects was intolerable and they swarmed around me. However the roar of oncoming rapids always focused my mind and stood me up surveying any excitement which might unfold. That morning I passed about 4-5 small rapids, some were predictable chutes of water with just a few standing waves at the bottom of a smooth V shaped tongue of water, while others were a chicane of palisades which I had to weave my way down to avoid them. I was becoming confident of reading the river now and it seemed like the main thrust of the water wove down between the palisades anyway and would have carried me through them.
In the early afternoon the river split again and I took the upper left hand channel while the right channel went over a lip and then formed a large chute which spilled into a placid sluggish river after 30-40 metres. The upper channel was gentle with just a few lazy boils as the water oozed past the jungle and trees on the island. After half an hour I heard the roar of the river again, knew rapids were approaching and lept to my feet. The roar got louder heralding their approach. It seemed I was in the main channel and the one which went off to the right half an hour previously was just a quarter or fifth of the river. My channel now charged down a chute into some very large standing waves, their crests dancing like white gauntlets and claws. It was still a good 100 yards away but I did not like the look of them and in a frightened panic sat down and paddled furiously to the right hand side. The flow of the river carried me down to the edge of the top of the V shaped tongue of water and I was soon in the large ripples. With relief I could see I would miss the biggest waves of the roller coaster washboard, and before I knew it they were flying by a few metres away, their breaking crests of curling surf much higher than me. It was still wet and turbulent but the raft ploughed through bucking wildly. However at the bottom the main thrust of the rapid spilled into the calm waters of the lower channel and dissipated in boils and upwellings but at the sides was a violent eddy and I was heading straight for it with no hope of avoiding it. The log raft piled into it with the front submerging and stopping suddenly before it bobbed to the surface again. Now the back where I was sitting became submerged and the front rose up. Suddenly I was pointing upstream looking at the raised front of the raft. I heard a gurgling behind me and saw it was in a hole, a whirlpool. A dread washed over me as I paddled blind panic but there was no way I could paddle this raft up a slope of water. I must have gone round about 5 times spinning in the whirlpool with my back pressed against the seat. Slowly the depth of the hole I was in, and the chilling gurgling noise of the vortex, disappeared as the whirlpool was carried into the calm waters beyond and a new one formed where I had been 20 seconds earlier. A minute later the terror had receeded and I was in the middle of the calm river again, but my heart was pounding and a wave of fear swept over me. My mouth dried up as a pulse of adrenaline pulsed through my veins.
Shaken and stirred after wrestling with the whirlpool I was on tenterhooks as I drifted down stream, fearful of the roar of any more oncoming rapids. The confidence of the morning had been washed away and I was worried the river was becoming unmanageable as it swelled in size each day. Luckily all the remaining rapids of the day were quite small and gentle. It must just have been the topography of that particular rapid which allowed the whirlpool to form and my ill fortune that by attempting to avoid the worst of the standing waves I set myself up to be swallowed by them. I tried to guess where I was on the map and guessed I had gone about 75 km based on drifting down at walking speed for 8 hours a day for nearly 3 days now. I knew there was an indigineous village down here somewhere called Diamante and Cesar had told me about it and I started to peer round each corner in the hope it might unfold from the jungle. However as the sun started its final descent into the trees there was still no sign of it so I searched for a campsite. I needed a wide open gravel bank with piles of driftwood on it, and this needed to be on an island. As I drifted down I was spoilt for choice as the river was braided with silvery channels of water encircling islets. At last I saw a perfect spot and paddled over, and then hopped into the water to heave the raft up onto the cobbles at the water’s edge. I was now well practised in building a huge fire and then pitching the tent upwind of it on some sandy hollow I had cleared. As I was getting the camp ready the sky was darkening heralding the onslaught of the late afternoon thunderstorm. I was just quick enough to get the tent up when the first lightning bolt flashed. Five minutes later the roar of large rain drops pelting the taught sheet of nylon was deafening. The rain was so heavy it was pooling even on the porous sand and it completely extinguished my burgeoning fire. Once the rain was over I squandered some paraffin to relight it and by the time darkness fell it had a heart of glowing embers. It had been an intense day and it showed me just how vulnerable I was. I was eager to reach Diamante, just to see a friendly human face in this hostile jungle. Hopefully tomorrow I will.
As always I slept well on the warm sand in the quiet of the night and was woken by the rising crescendo from the jungle which started in the dark just before dawn. I tossed a few more logs on the smouldering embers and checked the sand soil around the tent for footprints and tracks of any animal which may have visited in the night but there was still nothing. After the routine bean and rice stew, boiled in river water, and with the can of tuna stirred through it I was ready to pack up. I pushed the raft out and stepped aboard it a couple of hours after the sun had cleared the treetops and the insects became intolerable. I had hoped to see more animals on my journey than I had, especially the giant river otter, but I think the elusive creatures inhabit quieter, more placid waters and the Alto Madre de Dios which is too fast and open. Although there was plenty of their prey here with copious amounts of river turtles and small caiman which fled into the river as I rounded nearly every corner. I was sure there were plenty of fish in the calmer areas but I did not see any. The sun was directly overhead when smelt smoke. A few bends of the river later I rounded a corner and saw some thatched shacks above the river bank which I assumed must be Diamante. Cesar said I would be able to meet people here and I had been looking forward to it. I paddled across the wide placid river to the bank below the houses where there were a few dugout canoes, hopped onto the sandy river bank and tied up to a pole embedded in the mud.
I could see a few people gathered above looking down at me and was surprised they had not come down so I unpacked my wallet, a small bag of coca leaves, my plastic bag of tobacco and my very poor quality film camera, and went up to greet them. There were just 2 women and 5-6 children there when I reached the top. They were all barefoot with ragged shorts and tired dirty T shirts on. I went up to them and greeted them but got no response at all. Nothing whatsoever, not even a glimmer of a smile, not even from the children who rather sheltered behind the women. I said a few friendly things in Spanish but they continued to glare at me impassionately. After a couple of minutes I felt awkward and imposing so I withdrew along the edge of the bank and sat down. I did not know what to do next so I rolled a cigar and lit it while mostly gazing out across the river with the occasional glance in the direction of the women and children who were still staring at me but also chatting a bit amongst themselves. I tried to look unthreatening and casual,but was a bit confused.
After about 20 minutes some 3 men arrived. They were bold and came straight up to me talking loudly. I am not sure if they were asking me questions or chatting amongst themselves. There was a frostiness in their demeanour and I tried to introduce myself in Spanish but it seemed to fall on deaf ears. I very quickly concluded that they were not pioneers who had come down from the Andes to settle in the forest but indiginious forest dwellers who understood little or no Spanish. I offered them the bag of coca leaves which they opened and inspected and then kept. It seemed to reduce the tension a bit. However soon after another 4 men arrived. They were all carrying bows and arrows and each had a piece of string on which 10-20 dead macaws were threaded onto. I thought they had just come back from a hunting trip and this was their bounty for the morning. Like the women and children they were dressed in old shorts and scruffy T shirts, almost cast offs. I felt very out of place and quite uncomfortable until the one who I had given the coca leaves to showed it to the newly arrived hunters. They inspected the leaves and then looked to the raft moored up beside their dug out canoes below. I got the impression they did not know what the leaves were, which in the indiginious communities of Peru was quite extraordinary. One of the hunters dumped his string of dead macaws on the ground and unthreaded one and came forward offering it to me. I had no idea how to react and was slightly repulsed by the offer and did not make any attempt to accept it, smiling sheepishly instead and this prompted more chat amongst themselves. By now I was feeling very uncomfortable and I could not see any way of rescuing my predicament. I just wanted to get on my raft and let the river carry me away from this awkwardness. I pointed to the raft and then turned my back and started to make my way down the short path to the river’s edge. I looked round occasionally to smile and wave my hand but everybody just continued to look at me without waving back. I consoled myself that they did not seem to be angry or were preparing to raise their arrows and shoot me. I quickly untied the raft, pushed it out a bit and then stepped aboard and back paddled until I was away from the bank. The group of about 12 people were still looking at me. I gave a final wave but did not receive one in return before the current of the river picked up the raft and carried it away downstream. I was a bit shaken by the whole episode and wondered if I had done anything wrong or offensive.
I later found out Diamante was a Yine community. One of the many indigenous groups in this part of the Madre de Dios region. These groups were quite varied with some settling down to farm cassava and hunt and fish, like the Yine, while other groups remained isolated in the jungle and hostile to outsiders, like the Piro. Throughout the decades there had been bad blood between colonists and the indiginous communities of the Amazon basin, not least in the Manu region where Fitzcaraldo exploited the Piro, enslaving and slaughtering them until they fled. More recently oil exploration, logging and gold extraction have made further incursions into these native communities often riding roughshod over them. So it was quite reasonable that the villagers of Diamante viewed me with suspicion. None the less I was a little perturbed I had been made so unwelcome.
After a few more hours on the river I finally met the main tributary, the River Manu, I had been looking out for on my map for the last 2 days. It was as unmistakable as it was brown and muddy and it oozed slowly into the lively and relatively clear Alto Madre de Dios. My raft drifted near where the two rivers merged yet the two waters kept separate for a couple of kilometres before muddy River Manu started to stain the Madre de Dios river, as the combined rivers were now called. I wondered if I had passed the village of Boca Manu as my map showed it was before the confluence of the two rivers, but Cesar had told me it was just afterwards on the left hand side. I veered over onto the muddy side of the river when an island appeared and went to the left of it. I was swept round a bend and then I got a glimpse of more thatched roofs on a bank above the bend. There were quite a few dugouts and a couple of larger covered peke-peke canoes with outboard engines moored along the river bank. I landed as I had done at Diamante and tied up to a post embedded in the muddy bank. I then took my tobacco, another bag of coca leaves and my camera and went up the bank. I was ready for a frosty reception and disappointment. I was greeted by a small stout girl in shorts and a ripped T shirt with her plump breasts bursting out of it. I felt this had all the potential to become awkward again when her brother arrived and said “hello” in Spanish and smiled at me. Pretty soon a small crowd of about 10 had gathered and they were quite lively and buoyant with some of the older children pushing the younger ones towards me and then giggling at the younger ones’ embarrassment. I could feel a wave of relief sweep over me. Their conversation was in a local language but the brother and one other spoke some Spanish, but it was as bad, if not worse, than mine.
After 15 minutes a man in a brown uniform arrived. He spoke fluent Spanish as if it was his mother tongue. He said he was a park warden based here at Boca Manu, which was the gateway to Manu National Park. He was very curious about my arrival on the raft which I pointed out to him on the bank below. He said tourists come here by peke-peke canoe up the Madre de Dios river from Puerto Maldonado 2 days away. I said I was going to Puerto Maldonaldo. He reckoned it would take me 2 weeks, which is what I thought. I asked if it were possible to stay here and he said the National Park had an information building and I could stay there. We walked over to it as it was just some 50 metres away. It was just a thatched shack on stilts really with a few painted sheets of plywood nailed to the wall. One sheet had a rough hand drawn map of Manu National Park, and a couple more had some badly painted animals which might be found in the park. I studied the painted map and was astounded at the size and the remoteness of the park. There was a “visitor centre” marked up the Manu River but if this visitor centre was anything to go by it would be a pretty rustic affair. The river seemed to meander a lot in the park and there were many oxbow lakes on the maps. I am sure this park was a tropical Eden and liked to think it was pristine. If Bocu Manu was the gateway to it it must be pristine, because Bocu Manu was itself a very modest backwater hidden in the jungle. As we chatted the skies darkened and afternoon showers looked like they were building. I would gladly have a roof over my head for the anticipated onslaught of rain drops. I returned to my raft and carried up all my belongings and secured the raft onto a large tree branch embedded in the river bank.
I just made it back before the first crack of lightning and then the heavens opened. There was a bench and rustic table and I set up around it and laid some sacks on the floor to lie on. The water poured off the roof and some of it came through the fronds and dripped on the table. It was no hardship after the deluges I had endured on the river. I swapped a small bag of coca leaves for a huge bunch of bananas with perhaps 25 fruits. I ate about 10 at once, and they were a welcome taste after the week of bean, rice and tuna stew. People came and went to look at me, their torn clothes dripping into the rough hewn planks of the raised floor. I noticed that most had bad bites on their legs and thighs and I assumed these were insect bites which had become infected. One thing I had read about the thatched jungle houses was how they were a breeding ground for Chagas disease. I understand it is spread by a beetle about 2 cm long which lives in the thatch of shacks similar to the one I was in. During the night they drop from the thatch and make a beeline for humans where they pierce the skin and suck blood. As they suck they defecate and the human then scratches the itchy bite and smears the beetle faeces into the bite infecting it with a parasite which enters the body and starts to multiply causing Chagas disease. I resolved to put the tent up come nightfall and zip myself in rather than risk this terrible disease.
After the shower was over people left the shack leaving me alone until the ranger reappeared. I had heard much about Manu National Park but none of it was first hand. It seemed it had just been created but it was impossible to visit as a solo tourist. I would have to go as part of an approved group and then I would only be allowed to go in a very small portion of the enormous park. The rest of the park it seems is off limits to virtually everyone and is a truly wild and hostile place. The list of animals he mentioned for the parks were astonishing and I had no doubt that if I wandered there alone I would probably get eaten or poisoned within a short time. The ranger also mentioned uncontacted indigioious groups who live along the upper Manu River and that these groups were hostile and dangerous. I told him about my experience at Diamante and he laughed and said the villagers at Diamante were settled and civilised and nothing like the Indians of the deep forest. The more he told me about Manu National Park the more it seemed like an esoteric forbidden paradise, The Original Eden, where life on earth was as it was supposed to be, before the murmurings of settled agriculture, let alone the Industrial Revolution. He said it had the highest concentration of different species on earth. I was disappointed I could not experience it and yet pleased that it would be protected from oil exploration, logging, gold prospecting, and even tourism and its infrastructure. As we spoke I boiled my beans on the rickety plank table on the paraffin stove and ate them later that evening. I put my tent up as it got dark, jamming the pegs into gaps in the floorboards.
The next morning I had the leftover bean and rice stew for breakfast. I swapped another small bag of coca leaves for a large bunch of bananas with the ranger. He warned me the river was much slower now, but there were no rapids. He also told me to keep to the main river and avoid the backwaters and sluggish meanders as there were anaconda and some larger black caiman in them. He also warned me there were various piranha species in the river and also electric eels and I should keep out of the water, which I had every intention to do anyway. I had enjoyed the human contact at Boca Manu, but in a way it distracted from the wild nature of the trip. It left me with the feeling the second half part of my journey might be a bit of an anticlimax as it was not as unknown as the first half. I stepped on the raft and pushed off mid morning and paddled out to the middle of the river, where the two channels on each side of the island merged.
The character of the river had changed after its confluence with the Manu River. It was much bigger and was now double in width, growing from 50 metres to 100 metre wide. It also seemed deeper and more sluggish. The surface was smooth and glassy with just some upwellings here and there, while on the Alto Madre de Dios it was nearly always lively with small ripples. The water now was also murky and I could only see half a metre into it, while previously I could see the stones drifting along the bottom, a metre or even two below me. The clear sun-bleached gravel banks with piles of crisp driftwood were now all covered in a patina of reddish mud, and beyond them the jungle was an impenetrable green wall of tall trees draped in vines. The fauna in the forest was as noisy as it was before with toucan and macaws moving across the treetops. On the muddy river banks flocks of cormorants perched on branches embedded in the mud, while turtles basked on the logs. As I approached the nervous turtles and small caiman all disappeared into the water, but the cormorants held their ground for much longer. The bends in the river also seemed much bigger and more curved. While on the Alto (upper) Madre de Dios river before Boca Manu I careered round the corners, sometimes like a foolhardy motorcyclist, on the Madre de Dios I was more like an elderly Sunday Driver. I spent so much of the morning sitting down I had to pad my bare seat with some cushioning. If I did stand up it was to scan the river for the section with the fastest water.
It was difficult to ascertain the direction I was going in were it not for the sun. The map showed the river was snaking down through the jungle in huge meanders but I realised that the river was far more convoluted than the map. Indeed I am sure some of the huge horse shoe shaped meanders had almost eroded the banks so much they had almost broken through the jungle covered neck creating a shortcut where the river would flow abandoning the horseshoe to become a oxbow lake. I guessed I was now going a lot slower than walking speed, and with the meanders I was probably no more than 5 kilometres as the crow flies from Boca Manu by the time I started to look around for somewhere to camp in the late afternoon, which for once did not threaten rain. I rounded a bend and came to a split in the river where it lazily flowed to each side of what I thought was an island. As the river split, logs and branches carried down in the rainy season had lodged themselves against the edge of the jungle and there was a great supply for me to pilfer for the night’s fire. I hauled the raft up as far as I could, made a fire, cooked my beans and rice in the river water and then put the tent up.
However when I woke in the morning I was curious to see that the river level had dropped considerably during the night, perhaps by half a metre. The implications of this did not hit me until I looked over to the raft. It was high and dry and about 30 metres from the edge of the river. I thought I would be able to drag it across the muddy bank but It was not going anywhere. I estimated the raft weighed a little under a ton and it was now glued to the soft mud. I had to move it as I simply could not wait for the river to rise as it might be weeks before the foibles of distant local rains in one of the tributaries headwaters made any difference. I went to get a branch. It was about 3 metres long and 5-10 centimetres in diameter. I shoved it under the side of the raft as far as possible and then lifted the free end hoping to lever the raft towards the river for half a metre. However the end of the branch simply dug into the soft mud as I raised the other end and it ploughed a furrow not moving the raft one iota. I tried it with two branches under the raft lifting them simultaneously, but now there were two furrows and the raft never flinched. In the end I had to jab a branch under one side of the raft and then put a branch down near the raft to use as a fulcrum to lift that side of the raft by 10 centimetres. It lifted from the mud with a slurping noise but when I stepped off the lever branch it fell back again. I had to get a heavy log to lay on the end of the lever branch to replicate my weight while I stepped off it and approached the raft to shove logs under it. This went on for a couple of hours and I broke a few branches in the process, until at last I had the whole raft sitting on logs proud of the mud. By this stage I was covered in mud myself, sweating in the hot humid air and being plagued by insects.
The next part was to lay a series of logs leading down to the water’s edge and this took a good hour also. Finally I wetted all the logs and went to the back of the raft where I used a branch and a block of wood to shimmy the raft down the series of logs. It was slow work and I could only move the raft about 10 centimetres with each lift of the lever branch and then had to spend a few minutes preparing for the next 10 centimetre slide and adjusting the rollers. By the time I reached the water the river had withdrawn another couple of metres which I also had to overcome. It was early afternoon before I finally had the raft afloat again. It was a hot, hard, muddy lesson and I vowed now to moor the raft onto a huge palisade or tree embedded in the river bed, so it remained afloat during the night. Before I stepped aboard I bathed myself, fully clothed, in the river to wash all the mud off.
I was tired from all the heaving so spent most of the afternoon sitting down drifting slowly and just paddling occasionally to keep myself in the main flow and out of the gentle eddies where I might languish in the calm water. Once when I was quietly drifting in a daydream I saw some movements in the water just to the side of the raft. I sprung up alert and grabbed the machete in one hand and my knife in the other fearing it was a predator coming to attack me. The movements were quite slow and whatever was causing them was rounded and shiny. I feared it was an anaconda which was lurking below the surface. However it was too wide to be an anaconda, or caiman for that matter. I could feel the fear cursing through me and in the depth of my chest as I tried to work out what was happening. Then I saw some fins on a shiny dark back, perhaps half a metre wide, and I realised with some relief it was a giant catfish. In fact there were two of them almost basking on the surface. I could see their wide mouths and some tendrils around it. I looked at the two fish for about 15 seconds until I think they spotted me hovering above them on the raft and they slipped into the murky waters and out of view. I think each fish was as least as long as I was and perhaps half as long as the raft. No more than 2.5 metres but no less than 2 metres either. I had toyed with the idea of bringing a hand held fishing line with me from Cuzco and I was glad I did not as one of these monsters would have sliced my hand open with a jerk of their heads had I hooked one. I wondered what these catfish ate and why they were not eaten by the piranha, which I had been told were abundant in the river and tributaries.
I had to find places to camp now which were not only on an island, but also had a sandy or gravel beach, piles of firewood and a large tree anchored on the river bed to tie the raft to for the night. Luckily they were quite abundant, especially the piles of firewood and it only took a bend or two until I saw somewhere suitable for a campsite to arrive. I unloaded and then waded out to tie the raft to the tree trunk stuck in the river. My boots and trousers were always wet from morning to evening as I was always in and out of the water and could not take them off as they were protection against the sun, insects, sharp objects in the river and also anything larger which might bite or sting me. It was a fair price to pay for waterlogged feet and wrinkled, white toes. I was lucky I did not get some form of infection like trench foot. Once the raft was anchored I went through the usual routine of lighting the fire, putting my beans on to cook and then putting up the tent. The evenings always had a rose hue before the night came quickly and the noise from the jungle subsided into an eerie quiet as blackness fell with just the flickering fire and my torch casting any light.
On Day 7 the wide sluggish river continued to drift down through wide lazy meanders hemmed in on each side by the tangle of the jungle. I was curious what eyes would be watching me from the bank and I am sure a jaguar or 3 must have seen me go past. Thankfully there were no large caiman to be seen on this stretch of the river, although there were plenty of smaller ones, which fled into the water with the turtles as I appeared. I wondered if there would be any human eyes watching me as I went past. The jungle was certainly inviting me to go in and have a look but I am sure it was full of danger so avoided it. Later that morning I heard a whine from the river which got louder and louder and then a large peke-peke canoe appeared coming up stream, its outboard sending a roosters tail plume of foam into air behind the boat. It was wide enough to have two rows of seats beneath a plywood cover. I could see there were about 10 people on the canoe. It veered off its course and came over to me and slowed down. As it approached I could see there was some cargo also with 5 oil drums lying on the floor in the back. One of the passengers was an American naturalist who was doing research in Manu National Park while the other were all villagers returning to Boca Manu. We moored up as I and the American chatted and he translated for the boatman. Both he and the boatman seemed incredulous that I had come down the Alto Madre de Dios and then Madre de Dios from Shintuya two weeks ago. I could have talked to the American all day. He was a font of knowledge about the area and had an enthusiastic and witty manner. The peke-peke had come up the river from Puerto Maldonado where I was heading down to. It had taken them a day to come up to Boca Colorado where they spent last night in a hotel and then it would take them the rest of today to reach the end of their journey at Boca Manu. After about 10 minutes we parted company with them assuring me there were no rapids.
The huge lazy meanders continued all day with just the occasional section going faster than walking speed. The heat of the day melted me lower and lower into the raft until I spent much of the afternoon actually lying down with my head propped up on the seat and my legs stretched out across my baggage. The macaws and toucans kept me entertained as the afternoon unfolded and occasionally I would smoke a homemade cigar to pass the time. It was only in the mid afternoon when the skies darkened and the first crack of lightning flashed across the sky did I sit up and pay attention again. A couple of close flashes sent some adrenaline coursing through my veins again but I hoped a tall tree in the jungle canopy would be a more attractive route for the lightning to travel than me hunkered down on my raft in a deluge. As usual the rain stopped as quickly as it started and steam and mist began to lift again from the jungle. As the evening wore on I was running out of daylight to find an island so in the end I had to cut my losses and camp on the “mainland” as it seemed. I found a good place with plenty of firewood and somewhere to moor the raft but I was uncomfortable at being on the main bank. However in reality I am sure a worthy predator could easily have found their way over to the islands if they were not already there.
On the eighth day the river seemed to have speeded up a bit and there was less sluggishness to the flow. I was carried down with a spring in my step. The river was wide and I was far from the plague of insects so I took my trousers off to let my skin feel the sun and dry a bit and invariably rolled another cigar to pass the morning. There was less mud in this section almost as if the extra speed swept away the finer silt particles leaving just the sand, gravel and cobbles. The river seemed to meander less also. I did not notice a deeper channel forming on the south side of the river until gravel banks started to appear. It was not unusual and I continued down the north side with water spilling over a shallow natural weir made from the gravel bank into the lower channel. The river was splitting into two again as it had done perhaps 100 times on my voyage so far. The slightly raised north channel continued for a few hundred metres and then veered right round a bend. As I completed the bend I heard a distant rumbling hiss. It usually meant rapids or palisades were approaching but because of my chat with the American yesterday I was assured there was nothing serious. I stood up and surveyed the impending obstacles which I was drifting down towards at a good walking pace. As the noise grew louder I could see it was water flowing through a log jam of palisades, so I paddled to the side to avoid being carried into it. But then I became slightly worried when I saw another one just after it and yet another one. It seemed there were log jams all the way across the channel with the current flowing between them.
I tried to back paddle furiously to help buy me some time to work out what to do next but I could not overcome the current so carried on heading down towards them with little way of escaping. I had been worried about such a predicament for the entire trip and thought I was past the worst of it but now I was being carried into one. I missed one vast tree with a few other smaller trees tangled into it, but the current was taking me straight towards the root plate of another huge tree. And beyond it there seemed to be more downed trees embedded on the river. There was no way out as I could not paddle fast enough to go back upstream. The raft hit the root plate and stopped dead in its tracks with a thud. I jammed the paddle under the rope on the baggage and ran to the front to wrestle with the roots as the water started to swamp the seat at the back. I kept telling myself not to let the raft go sideways to the current as I pushed with my hands on the roots and feet on the raft. I had to twist my body with all my strength to keep the raft perpendicular to the root and slowly moved it a metre to the side. Then once I thought I was close enough to the edge of the roots I had an enormous thrust and twisted the upstream end into the current which swung it to the side and spun it round the edge of the root plate. I was free from the roots but now had the branches to contend with and the raft ran broadside into one with a loud thunk. Water started to flow over the upstream side as I stood on the downstream side to balance it. But my weight was no match for the power of the current and the upstream side quickly disappeared into the water and then the whole raft turned over and was swept under the branch. I deftly stepped off the raft onto the branch and watched the whole raft disappear under the loose log jam. I did not have any time to think previously but it now dawned on me what an awful predicament I was in and for some 10 seconds a dread overcame me.
As I peered after the raft in the murky water wondering what on earth I was to do I realised I would have to clamber my way over the logjam to the nearest bank and then make my way to the main channel of the river in the hope I could shout down the peke-peke if it returned. However, I had nothing except the clothes I was clinging to the branch with, not even matches. Then suddenly the raft reappeared on the other side of the tree. It must have been swept down under the rest of the tree and had now popped up on the other side. The chances of that happening without it getting snagged were very small. The trouble was it was now floating away from me. I had no time to think I clambered over the branches and logs, half in and half out of the water until I got to the top of the fallen tree, at its downstream end, and then slid into the water. The raft was perhaps 40 metres away already so there was no time to dither. I swam after it and after a good minute I was heaving myself onto it again. Unfortunately it was upside down and I could not turn it over. I went back into the river and fumbled around under the raft and with relief felt the paddle was still attached to the baggage. I extricated it from the ropes, climbed aboard again and paddled to the gravel bank on the north side where the baggage grounded 10 metres from the shore. I had to untie it in knee deep water and then carry everything to the shore, where I could sit down exhausted with the aftermath of fear and survey the scene. The only thing I lost was my tobacco bag, which was a small price to pay as it could have been my life, and the punting pole, which I never used anyway.
Having already shifted the raft across mud a couple of days ago I had the technology and skill to find enough sticks and logs to slowly jack one side of the raft up, jamming wood and stones under it until after an hour it was on its side. I then made a triumphant heave and it toppled over, right side up into the shallows making a huge splash. Some 3 hours after hitting the palisade I was back on the water, my clothes drying on my back and my nerves jangling for the hit of nicotine which would never come. I could not help thinking what good fortune I had been blessed with that the raft had gone under the whole tree without snagging on something or that the baggage had not got ripped off. The river channels merged again and the wide river slowed down to calmly ooze between the forest. I had no idea where I was on the map. It indicated there were two large tributaries joining on the south bank but I had not seen them. These tributaries unless they were very large would be easily missed as I could have mistaken them for a channel which had previously separated and was now rejoining the main flow again. The ranger at Boca Manu and the American on the peke-peke canoe both said there was no village before the small town of Boca Colorado, which was not even marked on my map. I had hoped I was approaching Boca Colorado and that it would be round the next bend but there was no sign of it. As late afternoon came I saw a great place to camp on an island and paddled the raft over there to set up camp. Water had seeped into the sack with my sleeping bag and it was damp but after a few hours in front of the fire it was dry enough to sleep in this warm climate.
The river was very tranquil and quiet the next day. There were no obstacles or rapids at all and it flowed lazily between the thick jungle walls. The brown muddy deposits appeared on the bank again as slit was deposited. The heat of the morning made me lethargic and I was sitting down much of the morning as I slowly drifted down. I had to paddle occasionally to keep in the main current which was perhaps less than walking speed. Once I had rounded a bend in the river another one appeared and it took me a good half hour to reach it, only for the next one to appear. I kept hoping Boca Colorado would appear but there was no sign of it at all. In fact the jungle was getting thicker and thicker and more and more raucous. It was a wild world just beyond the edge of the river.
By the afternoon I was listless with inactivity and the heat of the day. Instead of sitting on the raft, sporadically paddling it to stay in the main current, I slouched on the logs. I put my head on the seat and lay down with my feet on the baggage. The sun bore down and made me ever more drowsy until in the end I fell asleep. I think I must have slept for half an hour as I did not recognize any of the landmark trees on the previous bend. After a brief paddle I was back slouching again and soon had another sleep. However this time when I woke up I was in pretty much the same place except I had drifted towards the bank and was stuck in a very slow eddy. In fact when I looked at the bank I noticed I was actually going upstream very slowly. It was not enough to let the raft drift under its own steam and I had to paddle it back out to the slow but determined current of the river and keep it there otherwise I could fester. I think at the end of the ninth day I had done less than 10 km and I felt sure that Boca Colorado was just round the corner but it disappointingly did just not appear by the time I thought to camp again.
The sluggish river continued all the next morning. Bend after bend with no sign of humanity. I was still really enjoying the adventure of it and was fascinated by the jungle, its noises, the birds and the endless visits of various insects which would visit me. The most curious of the insects were the large thin spiders which had long legs. They would run across the water and spread their weight so much that they would not break the meniscus and stayed afloat. Some of them were nearly 10 cm in diameter. However I was also starting to get a bit bored with the monotony of the river, the hardship of being permanently uncomfortable and a craving for human contact. Apart from my stay at Boca Manu, and the American, I had not seen or spoken to anyone for nearly two weeks. I was therefore looking forward to the fleshpots of Boca Colorado and fantasising about food. Anything but boiled beans and rice or tuna. However, I went another whole day slumbering on the raft drifting slowly down bend after bend with no sign or sound I might be approaching anything. It was very easy for me to look at my near useless map and over estimate my progress, and I had almost certainly done that.
By late afternoon I was starting to get fidgety as I had a surplus of energy and the lack of nicotine certainly helped this, but there was still no sign of Boca Colorado. I paddled for an hour until my wrists got tired because I had to hold the paddle in such an awkward way. Then I heard the faintest sign of an engine and thought it was another peke-peke coming up the river. I was expecting it to come round the corner but nothing appeared. It got a little louder as I slowly drifted down the river but still no canoe appeared. Then from behind some trees on the river bank I saw some thatched shacks. It must be the outskirts of Boca Colorado I thought optimistically. However, there was nothing else to be seen, and it was just a couple of shacks with the hum of an engine coming from them. I paddled over to the south side of the river so I would drift towards the shacks and could see movement from the river bank. I pulled up on the gravel strewn bank near the engine and moored the raft. The engine switched off and a few people came down towards me. They were young and spoke Spanish well. They were as pleased and excited to see me as I was them, and we immediately started chatting. They were 3 brothers from the Andes near where I had started and finished my trek around Auzangate a month earlier. The eldest brother was 20 and the others in their late teens. Their father had sent them down here a few months ago to search for gold. After their arrival at BocaColorado they had chartered a peke-peke and brought their engine, fuel and equipment up the river from the town and set up camp here. They had built a few pole and thatch shacks, one of which housed 2 large pigs and another had a pen for chickens, and then started to extract gold. They insisted I stayed the night and I was delighted to do so. This would be a fascinating stay.
They explained to me that I would take a day to get to Boca Colorado as it was still 10 km away and that there were many more miners further down the river towards the town. I explained they were the first I had seen and that surprised them. I carried all my equipment up to their shacks and they showed me where I could sleep on a woven mat and then even had a net for me to sleep under. They said after Boca Colorado the Madre de Dios river was large, slow muddy and quite busy with boat traffic, and settlers and miners along the banks. I had been suspecting this for the last fortnight and was mulling over the idea of stopping my raft trip at Boca Colorado as the allure and magic of the pristine jungle journey might vanish. They said I would easily be able to get a peke-peke boat down the river to Puerto Maldonado and it would take a day. I still had about a week’s worth of food left, so I brought it out to share with them. I was sick of the bland taste of unsalted beans and rice and would gladly swap it all for some eggs. I also had 2 small bags of coca leaves left and as they made me wretch when I crammed them in my mouth to chew I no longer used them. I gave these to the boys and they were very grateful for them. It was an hour before sunset when I was settled and the boys had stopped work anyway for the day. The eldest started to bring bags of food down from pegs while the others got the cooking fire going. Their evening meal was delicious. It was composed of their fried vegetables and my tuna whisked into an omelette, made with about 15 eggs. The vegetables were fried and they sucked up the oil and they sprinkled handfuls of salt as they cooked. It was one of the most flavoursome meals I can remember and a welcome end to the puritan diet of bland boiled beans and rice.
After the meal I was curious about their gold mining. The eldest went out into the night to a shack and came back with a cloth, which he unwrapped. Inside was a small glass jar, and it was full of gold. I guessed there was 100 grams of gold in it. He explained it took about 2 weeks to fill the jar. I calculated, and they knew exactly, they would earn about US$500 a week for their mining operation. It was a small fortune and perhaps 10 times anything they could hope to get anywhere else. They said it was only possible because their father was helping them to get started, but they hoped to pay him back soon with their profits.
Then they show me how they got the gold and they did this every evening under the paraffin light and with torches. They poured a dollop of silvery liquid mercury into a pail with black sandy water and stirred it up. Then then poured the contents of the pail into a gold panning dish and swirled it around. The blobs of mercury in the bottom went round and round while the black sand spilled over the edge of the pan. This was repeated until all the mercury had collected into blobs at the bottom of the dish, and most of the the less weighty black sand had been washed over the side of the pan. The blobs of mercury were then pushed with a finger to the edge of the pan and plopped into a glass jar. When all the blobs of mercury were collected in the glass jar the black sand in the pan was discarded. Then the mercury in the jar was strained through a cloth and squeezed out by twisting it so the mercury seeped out of the cloth and into the jar again. Once it was all done there was a small ball of shiny metal left in the cloth about the size of a bean. They heated this bean in a little iron pot with a gas flame until the bean melted and smoked, with the mercury in the metal vapourizing leaving a pea sized ball of solid gold which cooled and solidified. Apparently it was worth US$50 and it was the result of a day’s work. It was many times more than what they could get in the Andes.
I was fascinated by the whole process of their artisanal mining operation and they showed me the physical side of it in the morning. They had a petrol engine pump above the river with a hose sucking the water out of it and pumping it up to the top of a large trestle which they had made out of poles and planks. The water discharged out of the end of the hose at the top of the trestle where there was a large scoop made of wood and metal which had a metal mesh, or sieve, forming the floor of it. The scoop was filled with wheelbarrows of stones, gravel and silt from the river bank. It looked like hard work filling the barrow and running it up a ramp to tip into the scoop. One of the brothers stood beside the scoop scraping the riverbank debris around the scoop, what did not go through the sieve was scraped over the side of the scoop. What went through the sieve in the bottom of the scoop fell onto the planks below and was carried down in the flow of water along a chute which was about 2 metres long before falling off the end of the chute in a growing pile of washed gravel. The magic happened on the chute with some hessian sacking. As the gravel and sand flowed and rolled down the chute it passed over a sheet of hessian sacking. The gravel and stones did not stop and fell off the end, while the heavier particles flowed down but eventually fell into the pores in the sack where they became lodged and remained as the flow of water continued to take the gravel and lighter sand down. I think the angle of the chute here was crucial. Too shallow and even the lightweight mineral sands would remain on the chute and too steep everything would flow off, including the heaviest minerals. The boys adjust the chute by feel each time they set it up in a new place. After some 10 wheelbarrows of river bank debris had been emptied into the scoop and then travelled down the chute they would lift the hessian and scrape up the sand which was mostly very dark. This was the sand which they would later pan with mercury as I had seen last night to consolidate the gold specks in it. They would move 100 wheelbarrows of stone and gravel a day down the chute to collect a bucket of black sand and heavy minerals from which they would get the pea sized lump of gold.
I admired the brothers’ entrepreneurial tenacity and good nature. From their hard toil under the sun they were extracting enough gold to hopefully return to the Andes as wealthy men. Whether it would take a few years or a decade I am sure they would eventually succeed. I looked forward to meeting the others down the river as I drifted along. Now I understood the mining process I could feel an affinity with the young risk takers I would meet later today. I shook the brothers hands and thanked them for the hospitality and they thanked me for the food before I stepped aboard the raft again. The river continued its sluggish meander below the brothers mining operation for a good few hours round long slow bends. The sun knocked me down onto the deck again and I was soon reclining on the raft with my feet on the baggage as I drifted past the vibrant jungle. It took a few hours before I reached the next group of miners. This time they were on the north bank and had dug up a much larger area of the river bank and some of the surrounding forest. I waved and they waved back. It was a good hour of drift before I came across another group and then they rapidly became more and more frequent. There was occasionally a small dugout canoe moored on the river bank, but soon I was passing motorised canoes every 10 minutes, some empty and some laden. During the middle of the afternoon I came to a confluence with another large river which joined from the south. It was not as large as the Madre de Dios, but was more muddy. It could only have been the Colorado River, its brown waters did not mix with the Madre de Dios. The brothers had told me the town was soon after the merging of these rivers on the south bank so I paddled into its murky discharge and followed it down in case I missed the town. There was no chance of that as the river was busy with traffic and there were aout 10 large peke-peke tied up along its banks. I found a spot to moor up alongside them and stepped off the raft.
There were people milling around and I went to speak to them. Spanish was the lingua franca here and I managed to find a peke-peke boat captain. He was returning down the river to Puerto Maldonaldo, as were a few other boats. We negotiated a price for him to take me as a passenger for the 10 hour journey. It was more than I had bargained for but then I threw in the axe and the rope and he came down a bit. He told me the name of a hotel in the town where he was staying and said he would pick me up there tomorrow. I could smell the frying food and smoke from fires from the town above, but could not see it from the river bank. I returned to the raft and started untying the ropes which Cesar and Pedro had put together so well, nearly 2 weeks. It took a good hour to undo it and coil the rope. I then heaved the 4 logs which had looked after me so well into the river for them to start their long journey to the Atlantic. I looked on in sorrow as they drifted beyond the moored boats and out of sight. I gave the peke-peke captain 3-4 coils of rope and the axe and then went up the bank to find the hotel.
The town of Boca Colorado was an appalling place. I guess there were about 2-300 buildings there and I had to walk past most of them to get to the hotel. All the buildings were made of corrugated iron and many were blackened where smoke oozed from beneath the eaves or holes in the gables. The hotel was not much better and it was filthy but it was one of the few buildings which had a second floor and its walls were made of adobe earth bricks. It was only late afternoon but the town was full of drunks, many barely able to walk. Prostitutes strutted amongst them hoping for some easy pickings. Nobody was friendly and an air of menace permeated the entire place. I thought there might be 5,000 people here all together and I am sure there were daily knife fights and frequent murders. It must have been a bit like this in the California Gold Rush over 100 years ago despite the glamour the movies might depict. I think most of the drunks were miners who had come down the rivers and out of the bush to sell their extracted gold. Waiting for them the the unscrupulous gold traders, the inn owners who would ply them with cheap, strong spirit, the mercenry prostitutes, the merchants to sell them overpriced equipment, the stalls to churn out food which had been sitting in the sun for days and was fried to kill any pathogen and the thieves who must have been able to take easy advantage of the hapless miners asleep on the dusty lanes. My halcyon image of the noble miner pulling himself up by his bootstraps which the 3 brothers conjured up collapsed in this rat-eat-rat squalor. I carried everything up to my room in the hotel, locked the door and went down to the bar with my hunting knife tucked into my socks. I was not going out into the night in this dangerous town and would just put up with whatever the hotel served me. Ironically it was beans and rice again as I wanted to avoid any meat. I had a couple of beers as I wanted to keep my wits about me. There were more dangers in the town of Boca Colorado than camped in the wild remote Amazon jungle miles from anywhere. There were no fights in the bar, but a few of the conversations started to get very rowdy by the time I went upstairs for an early bed.
Early the next morning, well before the sun was up the boat captain roused me by banging on the door. We made our way down to the river through the quiet town, with just sorry dogs wandering the streets looking for a scrap of rubbish, as dawn broke. There were 8 of us going down the river to Puerto Maldonado that day and we sat on the wooden seats under the plywood canopy towards the front of the boat. My baggage, still in the barrels and sacks, went at the back with the other baggage and some hardware. The outboard spluttered into life and then roared as the captain tested it before we set off with the sun quickly climbing about the distant forest. The boat navigated to the middle of the river and then sped down the vast, wide, tranquil waterway. It was a joy to come round a bend and see the next far in the distance and yet within 5 minutes we were already round it and off to the next. Under the plywood roof I got some protection from the sun and the warm air of the river rushed past cooling me. I had my eye out for one of the logs from my raft which I would have greeted like an old friend but saw none. They would have been the proverbial needle in a haystack in this huge river. The edges of the river were peppered with small-scale mining operations but there were also long stretches of barren grasses and scrub where the forest had been logged in the previous decades. After 4 hours the boat pulled into the town of Laberinto for a rest. The passengers and I went up the bank to a stall for a snack while petrol was pumped on board from an oil drum. After an hour we continued on the vast and somewhat descrecrated river to Puerto Maldonado, passing bigger and bigger mining operations some of which looked almost industrial and a far cry from the 3 Brothers sustainable, artisanal operation. The peke-peke arrived at the bustling dock in Puerto Maldonado in the mid afternoon. I bade the boatman goodbye and thanked him for the relaxing journey, shouldered my sacks and wandered up the bank and into the town.
Puerto Maldonado was bigger and busier than I expected, It was a large bustling town. From the port to the centre of town was about 4 km so I took a collective mini bus, squashing inside with my baggage strapped to the battered roof rack. Half an hour later I was at the Plaza de Armas, a word that conjures up the image of grandeur. In Puerto Maldonado though it was a dusty square surrounded modern by single story buildings. However, nearby was a quiet, cheap hotel with a leafy yard so I could shelter from the sun tomorrow. It was easily clean enough for me and it had a dormitory room where I might meet other travellers as it was in the guide books. However, there were no other tourists here. In fact I saw no other tourists in Puerto Maldonado at all. After my first shower and soap for well over 2 weeks I went out to explore the town. There was very little going on and after a meal I returned to the hotel.
The next day I went to a travel agent to find out about a lorry or flight back to Cuzco. There were lorries plying the route quite regularly but it took three days. I should imagine it was three very gruelling days in the back of a lorry. Three times the discomfort and hardship I had already had on the Cuzco to Shintuya journey. I just could not face that, especially when there was nothing to learn or anything of interest, so opted for the expensive flight which took half an hour. There was a flight going tomorrow so I used the rest of my cash paying for it, hopefully leaving me just enough traveller’s cheques to get home to the UK.
The flight the next day to Cuzco was beautifully easy. I just turned up at the airport and an hour later I was in the large propellor engine plane waiting to take off. I was the only “gringo” aboard the plane which was at least half full with 100 passengers. It was a stunning flight and I spent the whole trip peering out of the window onto the jungle wondering what might be there beneath the endless canopy. Then the plane climbed to pass over the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Vilcanota and I could clearly see the white pyramid of Auzangate which at over 6,000 metres is the highest in the range. I could just work out the valleys I walked along when I went round the mountain a month earlier. Two hours later I was hugging my friends who still remained at Hostal Suecia in Cuzco. There were still 5-6 of them there doing a Spanish language course or doing Medical electives. I was delighted to be back in their company and bored them with my tales. I had not really spoken to anyone for 3 weeks other than perfunctory questions in broken Spanish, so now I could chat enthusiastically without having to plan my sentences. I probably spouted enough to talk a glass eye to sleep. After a few days in Cuzco I had to return to university. I was already 3 weeks late. I flew from Cuzco to Lima and then after a few days flew from Lima to London via Moscow on an entertaining Aeroflot flight.