PANTHERA ONCA: A SHRINKING WORLD

Image: Edwin Giesbers
Image: Edwin Giesbers (www.edwingiesbers.com)

As the shadows lengthened over the Yungas and the Bolivian sky faded to darkness, we pulled up beside a wooden hut a few metres back from the road. Beyond the hut an area had been hacked from the jungle by a road gang, and not long abandoned. It was the most suitable bivouac we’d seen during the previous hour’s driving. Who knew what we might find further along the road, or not, because of the darkness and the encroaching jungle, the vertical drops and steep-sided banks. And after a long day at the wheel we were both pretty bushed.

Christine strolled to the hut as children gazed from the single window, observing her every step. Inside the hut the woman in a wheelchair told her we were most welcome to camp on her land. As usual in Bolivia, the people were only too pleased to accommodate us. By the side of the woman in the wheelchair was an older lady, her mother, it later transpired. The mother was laid on a bed, covered in blankets. She lived alone in the hut.

I drove the camper round the back, passing a couple of giant riddles and a few mounds of soil, some baulks of timber and a rusting steel track shed by a bulldozer. Moments later the children pushed their mother over the rutted ground, heading for an adobe house a couple of hundred metres distant.

‘Why do you not park closer to our house?’ the woman asked. We told her we were fine where we were.

‘Are you not afraid of el tigre?’

El tigre?’ we said.

‘Yes. There were two of them. My husband shot the female. But the male, he keeps coming back, looking for her. It’s not safe for the children.’

I looked in the direction of the river, my eyes roving the impenetrable hillside above it. Was he out there, el tigre – the jaguar (Panthera onca) – I wondered. You could almost weep to hear of such a loss…but if it wasn’t safe for the children…

Image: nationalgeographic.com
Image: nationalgeographic.com

The jaguar is the third largest cat in the world, after the lion and the tiger. It is the largest feline in the Western Hemisphere and exists in eighteen countries throughout South America, from Mexico down to Argentina. The Mayan Indians thought the spotted coat of the jaguar represented the heavens of a starry night; the people of the Amazon believed its reflective eyes connected them to the spirit world. Deforestation and hunting by livestock ranchers are seriously jeopardising the jaguars survival. Will he still be around in the future? Various organisations are working on it, introducing such initiatives as creating safe corridors through which the creatures can roam between the national parks, and appealing to the ranchers not to shoot them. But the jaguar doesn’t always respect boundaries, and when you destroy his habitat, filling the void with cattle, inevitably one or two cows might be eaten.

The next morning we took a small gift to the adobe house. The woman sat on her bed, her back propped against the wall. Clothing seeped from bags scattered about the floor. Chickens had the run of the room. She pointed towards the window.

‘There’s el tigre,’ she said.

And there she was, her pelt, at least. She was pinned to a wooden frame. I hadn’t expected this. How naive of me. I’ve since read that a jaguar pelt fetches up to $1500 in the US. In the jungles of South America the jaguar is an apex predator. The apex predator species occupy the highest trophic levels (meaning the position on a food-chain) and have a crucial role in maintaining the health of their ecosystems. If you apply that to the human race, I suppose we’re not doing too well.

image: commons.wikimedia.org
Image: commons.wikimedia.org

(For more information on jaguar conservation try: http://www.wcs.org; http://www.wildcat.org; http://www.panthera.org)

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BOLIVIA: PARTING SHOT

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I know of three people who would agree with the 2013 report by the World Economic Forum which ranked Bolivia as the least friendly country for travellers – Butch, Sundance and Che all met with a hail of bullets in Bolivia.

Okay, so these guys were hardly travellers. But, as the report concludes, is the modern Bolivia such an unfriendly place? If the state of the roads is a reflection of its people then the lowly ranking must be well deserved. After all, Bolivia is home to the World’s Most Dangerous Road, which is not exactly an endearing feature when it comes to flogging a country’s attributes. From the altiplano all the way down to the steaming Amazonian jungle, Bolivia must be one of the toughest countries in South America for both man and machine to venture. So do the people mirror their environment? Soroche (high altitude sickness), pummelled suspension, extreme temperatures and dodgy food aside, I can only say that the people we encountered were some of the most hospitable we have met on our journey. Take the road from Trinidad to Coroico, which cuts through the Llanos de Moxos and up into the foothills of the Yungas. In the rainy season this piste is often impassable. When it’s dry the cloud of dust kicked up by the passing vehicles blots out the sun. You might imagine the people living here would be unbelievably grumpy – but not a bit of it. Come sundown and it’s difficult to find a bivouac out here without the help of the locals. And they’re always willing to help. Bolivians are proud of their country. Anyone showing an interest in it, as far as they are concerned, deserves a helping hand. On our first night along this route the caretaker of the village school guided us to a spot behind the goal posts. The second night we wandered on to a farm. We found the lady of the house peeling vegetables over a bucket. She was more than happy for us to park on her land, immediately despatching the youth by her side to hack down two coconuts for a refreshing sun-downer. On the third night we asked permission to camp on land owned by a smallholder. Half an hour after we’d settled in, a young girl brought a plate of pan-fried river fish and steamed manioc.

Is Bolivia really the least friendly country for travellers? I don’t think so. I wonder what would happen if I asked to camp on somebody’s smallholding in Europe. I doubt I’d get a piece of fried fish, and certainly not a coconut.

BOLIVIA: THE GRAN CHIQUITANIA AND THE AMAZON BASIN

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Bolivia is not all about the Altiplano, mountain sickness and freezing your nuts off in the Cordillera de Lipez. To the east of the country the Altiplano gives way to the rolling foothills, and then flat grasslands, herds of cows, thorn-scrub, palm trees, jungle and bichos, those little biting insects we love to hate. After the conquistadors  had bludgeoned and pillaged their way through the New World it was time for an exercise in ‘hearts and minds’. The Jesuits began arriving in Central and Southern America in the late sixteenth century to bring the ‘Good Book’ to the bewildered and exploited Indians. The Jesuits established reducciones, places where the Indians could exist in some security, learn new skills and become thoroughly good Christians. One of the regions they came to was the Chiquitano, in eastern Bolivia.

San Jose de Chiquitos
San Jose de Chiquitos

We head east across the Plains of the Chiquitos, to San Jose de Chiquitos and Hotel Villa Chiquitana, where we camp in the hotel’s gardens. The hotel belongs to a French couple, Jerome and Sophie, who a few years earlier had gone overlanding on their Piaggio scooters, completing a seventy-five thousand kilometre round the world journey. From San Jose we follow the Jesuit mission route, driving into what felt like a forgotten world. We arrive at Santa Ana in time for the Fiesta of Santa Ana, a forty-eight hour religious celebration, including a seriously impressive consumption of chicha, a fermented corn beer.

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For whom the bell tolls: Santa Ana
For whom the bell tolls: Santa Ana
San Ignacio mission church
San Ignacio mission church
The Jesuit mission at San Javier
The Jesuit mission at San Javier
A one horsepower sugar cane press
A one horsepower sugar cane press

The road west from Trinidad, on the Plains of the Moxos, carries something of a reputation. In the rainy season it is all but impassible, when it’s dry I imagine the dust clouds are visible from space.

A view from the windscreen
A view from the windscreen
Crossing the River Mamore
Crossing the River Mamore

Cut through by the Rio Beni, and surrounded by lush hills we finally arrive at Rurrenabaque.

Rurrenabaque at dusk
Rurrenabaque at dusk
Looking east over the Amazon jungle
Looking east over the Amazon jungle
The main road from La Paz to Trinidad
The main road from La Paz to Trinidad

THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS ROAD

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I guess most people will have never heard of Yolosa, a tiny settlement where people arrive to lick their wounds, or offer a brief prayer. Yolosa is the start (or finish, depending on your direction of travel) of supposedly the world’s most dangerous road. I’d half expected that we might encounter a warning sign, a disclaimer, a flag with the skull and cross bones rippling in the limp wind – but no, only a Swiss man wearing a maniacal grin, sitting astride a push bike loaded with his worldly goods. ‘Are you going up here?’ we asked him. He broke off from taking a photo of Yolosa. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘all the way to La Paz.’ He looked at his watch and like a good Swiss stationmaster declared, ‘It will take me two and a half days.’  To put that statement into context, we were gazing at a muddy, cobbled track, at an altitude of 1200 metres. In a distance of some 60 kilometres we ascended to the La Cumbre Pass, at an altitude of 4600 metres. ‘Best of luck!’ we offered the cyclist. What else can one say?

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The Yungas Road was built by Paraguayan soldiers in the 1930s, is barely 3 metres wide and in rather a lot of places has a sheer drop of…well, best not to look really. According to a BBC report, between 200 and 300 people lost their lives on this road each year. In one year alone 25 vehicles sailed into the abyss. It is not a road to tackle if, 1) you’re about to nod off at the wheel, 2) had a tin of beer too many, 3) your tyres are displaying patches of canvas – but of course they do. In 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank declared it the world’s most dangerous road, though in 2007 a new road was completed that has now removed the heavy traffic, making it a considerably less risky proposition. However, there is a new scourge – adrenalin-fuelled mountain bikers who, between the hours of ten and twelve in the morning, hurtle from the Alti-plano to the steaming Yungas jungle, 3400 metres lower. Cycling the world’s most dangerous road has become one of Bolivia’s most popular tourist attractions and as many as 18 dare-devil cyclists have apparently come to grief.

After a couple of hours we arrived unscathed and out of breath at the La Cumbre pass. So, is it the world’s most dangerous road? I have to admit we tackled it early on a Sunday morning, in reasonable weather and passed barely half a dozen cars. It made for a pleasant drive. Imagine, though, that you are a passenger on a bus, attempting to cross paths with a truck, in the fog, and whilst the rains wash away the ground beneath your wheels the driver stuffs another fistful of coca leaves into his distended cheek and thumps the horn. For many this was the only means of getting from A to B. Now that’s scary!

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GIANT PARROT RECRUITED BY BOLIVIAN BORDER POLICE

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Rumours abound that a giant parrot recently recruited by the Bolivian border police is currently undergoing training at a hitherto secret location. Its first posting is thought to be the Yunguyo border control in northern Bolivia. Following an advanced course in speech training given by a specialised police unit, witnesses have described the bird’s first words as being, “Give me five Bolvianos…Give me five Bolivianos…Give me five Bolivianos…

ROAD GRADERS: THE ULTIMATE OVERLAND VEHICLE

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Are you sick and tired of bouncing along those washboard roads? Have you ever felt your teeth about to rattle out of your gums on those long African pistes? Would you rather look at the mountain scenery than watch out for the next pot hole? If the answer is yes, I reckon a road grader could satisfy your overland needs.

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Okay, so they’re not pretty. They’re monstrous and intimidating…but who cares? You’re never going to see the driver of a road grader bouncing in his seat. And when you’ve come to the end of a gruelling eight hour drive through the Amazon, you just drive into the forest and make that perfectly level bivouac.

Who could ask for more?

“CHE’S” LAST STAND

The legend of Che
The legend of Che

They might not win many wars but the Bolivian military is pretty good at terminating bandits and revolutionaries. In 1908 it was Butch and Sundance who were sent to that ‘Great Bank Robbery’ in the sky. Sixty years later it was the turn of Che Guevara. Love him or hate him, the iconic Che came to a sticky end near to La Higuera, a remote village in the foothills of the Andes. So we decided to follow in his footsteps.

From Villa Serrano all signs (the few that exist) point to Oro. I don’t know why we imagined this might be a thriving gold prospecting town along the route. Oro has definitely seen better days:

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Beside the Rio Grande
Beside the Rio Grande

During the next three hours we managed to cover only 90 kilometres (the track is not great). We crossed paths with one other vehicle.

Plaza del Che
Plaza del Che

Fresh from an unsuccessful revolution in the Congo, Che brought his brand of mischief to the foothills of Bolivia. Frankly, I think he came for the views – they are stunning! Why couldn’t he have just kicked back and enjoyed the hiking? Anyway, he didn’t, though I’m not quite sure what he hoped to achieve in a region so sparsely populated. The locals were suspicious of his motives, so when this half-bearded waif and his small band of ragged followers were reported, the army flooded the hills with troops, whilst the US CIA looked on approvingly.  Che was pretty shot-up when they brought him to La Higuera. They locked him in the school house, now a museum and shrine. Within twenty-four hours orders were received by radio that a gun (firing multiple rounds) should accidently discharge in the direction of Che, and that his corpse should be mislaid in a hole, which nobody should remember digging. All very straightforward as far as the CIA were concerned. And so, on the 8th October 1967, it was goodbye Che and an image to rival Coca Cola, Colgate toothpaste and MacDonald’s was born.

"YOUR EXAMPLE HERALDS A NEW BEGINNING"
“YOUR EXAMPLE HERALDS A NEW BEGINNING
A TRUE SOCIALIST REVOLUTION: Even the pigs are welcome at the Alojamiento Comunal. Che would have been proud!!
A TRUE SOCIALIST REVOLUTION: Even the pigs are welcome at the Alojamiento Comunal. Che would have been proud!!

THE SALAR DE UYUNI AND THE ART OF UNBLOCKING PIPES

The Salar de Uyuni
The Salar de Uyuni

Like all deserts, the Salar de Uyuni is disorientating for the first few kilometres of driving. You ponder if it is wise to deviate from the wheel tracks ahead, and then you just think – ‘Aah, what the hell’ – heave the wheel to the left and head out into that great white expanse. At 12,000 square kilometres the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. The salar lies at 3,650 metres and contains around 50% of the world’s reserves of lithium.

Tunupa Volcano
Tunupa Volcano

 

We enter the salar from the north, in the shadow of Tunupa volcano, and punch the coordinates for Pescado Island, some 40 kilometres distant. Whilst at this time of the year the salt crust is solid, it’s important to watch out for soft patches, particularly round the rim of the salar. To get stuck out here would most likely necessitate a long walk to find assistance. Driving at a speed of 70 kph we soon reach Pescado Island, where we drive ‘ashore’ and make camp. Pescado Island is deserted, only the tyre tracks and old fires of previous campers.

Pescado Island
Pescado Island

 

When driving on the salar there is an alarming tendency for your car to shrink the minute you step away from it. As you can see in the next photo, our three tonne truck now sits comfortably in the palm of my hand. Pretty freaky!

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Sunset over the salar
Sunset over the salar

When the sun drops the temperature plummets. Night time is the real killer out here. By six o’clock you’re wearing all the clothes you possess. By eight o’clock you’re wearing them in bed. The next morning, having partially thawed out in what little heat the sun gives, we head west to Cactus Island, a popular destination with the tourist groups.

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After three days of sub-zero temperatures it takes a while for our water pipes to finally shed the ice they’ve accumulated. However, the ice has now dislodged the calc in the system, which blocks the tap to our non-potable water supply. We manage to cure it with a combination of juju and improbable practices. So, should you ever suffer a similar fate with your tap, here’s how you unblock it:

Step 1: Turn the tap on and off whilst getting increasingly annoyed with the lack of flow, at the same time mentally constructing a poisonous letter to the manufacturers of said tap concerning the uselessness of their product. Wait 60 seconds to calm down.

Step 2: Fitter number one (Christine) removes the neck of the tap, mutters the odd profanity, grabs a kebab skewer and waggles it in the orifice. A light stabbing action is an advantage. Wait 30 seconds.

Step 3: Fitter number two (James) replaces the neck of the tap and places his lips around it, forming a tight seal. Blow until red dots swim before your eyes and your ears pop. Wait 30 seconds (whilst holding on to the basin to steady yourself).

Step 4: Turn on the tap and grin inanely at the renewed flow of water. Listen out for the pump, which should now be singing like a canary.