Report 6 - 27th August 1999
Piranhas unable to stop progress of Kota Mama II
Nearly two weeks into the journey down the River Paraguay and we're beginning to get used to a life on the river. Early fears of piranha infested waters have now dissipated. The first in was Owain Davies, on communications, who dived in to save part of the water container. Since then, many have taken dips at the end of a long day's sailing. OK, a couple have reported being nipped by something underwater, but as yet there are no actual injuries.
Our departure from Bolivia was a gentle affair, sailing out from the Bolivian port of Puerto Quijarro we drifted across the border to Corumbá in Brazil. This was truly the last place to stock up on supplies. From here on in we would have to buy what we could find en route.
From Corumbá the journey was a gentle one. The southern gateway to the vast wetlands bridging Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay called the pantanal and host to spectacular numbers of birds and animals. Setting sail at 07:00 hours, we managed to travel 90kms, some of it powered by the 25hp outboard provided by Suzuki. It was important to see how far we could travel as a gauge for future days. Over the next few days the sailing capacity of the boats averaged 60kms a day.
Travelling south to our first port of call Bahia Negra we found several of the animal and bird species that have now become a regular sight including caiman, capybara - the world's largest rodent - toucan and howler monkeys. Less friendly fire came from a swarm of hornets that invaded each boat in procession. We also had our first brief sighting of a jaguar.
One night, with the boats moored, we shared the riverbank with a 4-foot caiman. By morning, its company was still appreciated and later that day a baby caiman was brought to the boat before being released. Already the bird list for the trip is numbering 153 species. Among them the togo toucan, the majestic bird with a brilliant orange curved bill that is a symbol of South American bird life and a pair of red collared Jabirú stork.
Approaching Bahia Negra we entered northern Paraguay and were met by a gale gusting to Force Seven. The strong winds are known locally in Paraguay as the pamperos. With the cold plains of Patagonia deep to the south, the temperature plummets as much as 20°C in just a few hours. So much for this sub tropical expedition in comfortable temperatures!
Paraguay is 407,000 km2 making it slightly larger than Germany in size and almost exactly the same size as the state of California in the United States. Historically Paraguay has isolated itself from developments in mainstream South America. More recently the country has begun to open up and taken a more active role towards developments in the continent and has begun to welcome foreign visitors. .
In Bahia Negra the naval base welcomed our arrival with a reception for the whole crew. Not only did they provide us with good food and a little wine to moisten the palate but also they made us feel comfortable with their hospitality and friendship. It seemed as if the whole town of several hundred had turned out to welcome the J.P. Knight sponsored Kota Mama II and her sister vessel the "Spirit of the Bahamas" Viracocha.
Bahia Negra is a wind swept town close to the triple frontier of Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia. Most houses are simple constructions using palm logs harvested from the nearby Chaco. The hospital, school and the naval base are concrete structures - remnants from the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner, who took power in 1954. His 35-year rule realized the strategic importance of this frontier town and ploughed large amounts of money into this distant outpost. Now, however, the school is in a state of decay, the hospital is under utilised and only the naval base continues to fulfil its original function.
Setting out for tasks
Bahia Negra was the first stepping off point for several groups to carry out tasks. .
One group headed out to the centre of the Chaco to commemorate the opening, in the presence of Paraguay's first lady Susana Galli de Gonzalez Macchi, of a conservation centre in the Chaco National Park. The Chaco region of western Paraguay covers almost half of the country's land yet is home to just 4% of the country's population. The vegetation across the northern part of this vast plateau landscape is thorn scrub forest. Trees armed with four-inch long thorns prevent quick movement through the area. Other trees include the metal-hard quebracho, palo santo (sandalwood) and the bulbous palo borracho. .
The Chaco National Park covers 780,000 hectares and has been created by the Chaco Foundation. It protects one of the world's last great wilderness areas and shelters the jaguar, puma, ocelot and Geoffrey's cat. Many of these big cats are able to move around the area with only limited risk of hunting from man, but increasing pressure on land is encroaching on the area and the park is an important development in the conservation of the region. Jaguar Cars donated assistance to the Scientific Exploration Society to assist with the creation of the centre - a project that we hope we will be able to support for several years into the future. .
A second group visited the small hamlet of Puerto 14 de Mayo. Known locally by the Chamakoko Indians as Karcha Balhut the name means "site of ancient shells". This is one of the few remaining areas where the Ybytoso tribe of the Chamakok Indians still live. Originally nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Ybytoso now live on the shores of the River Paraguay and receive very little assistance or help from anyone. .
The multi-disciplined team explored possibilities for community buildings, flood control programmes and agriculture. Naval dentist Melissa Wingfield pulled 38 teeth out of 13 mouths in just over one day. We had also hoped to excavate shell mounds found in the area in the hope that it was actually a vast waste deposit from earlier settlers. Sadly the mounds proved to be a natural deposit of large mollusc shells laid down hundreds of years ago - a fascinating site but not an archaeological phenomenon. .
A third group stayed in Bahia Negra. Naval dentist, Captain Graham McElhinney, took over 200 teeth out over a five day period while others built up an understanding of the history and culture of the Ybytoso Indians. .
The community has 500 people living in family groups each with a family house in a compound area. The village chief or cacique was Anibal Roy. While around 100 of the older community members still hold traditional beliefs, the remainder are Catholics and different Christian denominations. Traditional beliefs worship a goddess. By means of prayer, chants and traditional dance, their goddess heals the sick and provides rain and food in times of hardship. Life since the arrival of missionaries 40 years ago has improved medical assistance to the community but contact with outsiders and the influence of religion has led village elders to be concerned about the future of their culture which will die with this generation. This inspired them to submit a proposal to the Kota Mama Expedition to present a plan to the Paraguayan government and the British Embassy to obtain funds for and construct a very modest cultural centre. .
Travelling south once more, we arrived at the small town of Maria Elena to be quickly told that the area was now called Pitiantuta. With just 115 people of the Tamarahö tribe there is little more to the town than a few houses. The people of this village originally lived deep in the Chaco in a community of approximately 1000 people. Their village, the original town of Pitiantuta, was close to a lagoon - an important asset in the dry climate of the Chaco. With the onset of the Chaco war in 1932, the Paraguayan government relocated the tribe to a small town 60kms from the river. With the introduction of new legislation a few years ago, indigenous people were entitled to their tribal land. Law 904 designated the current site of Pitiantuta to the villagers. Moving to the area just three years ago, the town is still very young. While the village rhea - an ostrich-sized bird - wanders round the village pecking at insects and seeds found on the ground, the villagers contemplate the best way to use the land available to them.
By Charles Sturge
A team of engineers spent the day finishing off the school building. Our doctor and dentists held surgeries and pulled teeth and the anthropologists spent a day talking to one of the villagers trying to gain an understanding of the culture of the people and their traditions. As for agriculture the opportunities are many including pastoral and arable farming once an irrigation scheme has been set up to use the plentiful supplies of water from the River Paraguay.
A complex set of beliefs and an interesting history underlie the community structure. While the village practices a simplistic form of Catholicism, traditional beliefs continue to be the motivation for festivals and rituals. One interesting point seems to be that while the concept of good luck and good spirits is maintained there is no concept of bad or evil. "We are a very happy people," said Emilio Palacio, one of the village elders.
Our work over, we headed downstream to explore the town of Boqueron and the community of Caib'a. An impressive display by the local courendero healer dressed in ornate feathers and chanting songs and orations to their gods left most of the group in a state of amazement. These people are also from the Tamarahö tribe so the information was an important addition to the previous day's work.
Click here to listen to the Tamaraho Dance.mp3
(If you do not have a player for this type of object, visit www.winamp.com to download one)
While at the village, Gerry Masters made a bow-drill from hardwood in the area and taught the Indians how to use wooden pins hardened by fire to construct houses.
Now in Fuerte Olimpo we have begun to explore the historical fortress town that is the capital of Alto Paraguay province. While the teams work hard at helping the local people with surveying, engineering and dental tasks, an archaeological group set out to explore the remains of mega fauna fossils. Bones removed from a site 112kms to the west of the town are believed to be those of a mastodon - a huge elephant like animal dating from prehistoric times. Sadly, the site is now covered by a reservoir that obstructed the team. The disappointment was tempered by seeing a 340-strong herd of cattle being driven by gun toting cowboys that could have walked straight off a Hollywood film set.
We are continuing to assess the diversity of the nature in the area. The expedition so far is working out well. Of progress so far Colonel John Blashford Snell said, "Everything is going to plan. The people clearly appreciate our work and the number of animals we have seen is unbelievable." Total of teeth extracted to date is over 700.
Having arrived in the small town of Fuerte Olimpo more tasks await the group. Total distance traveled so far is 431kms. In three weeks Kota Mama II's draught has increased by just 3cms.