The Kota Mama Expedition Phase Two Reports

Report 9 - October 4th 1999

From Paraguay to Paraná

It's been a while since we've been able to put together an update - the team that put together the Internet reports, photographs and recordings has been somewhat dispersed since we left Asuncion. The main fleet is in the city of Paraná on the river of the same name, waiting for us to rejoin it. Waiting for a bus, it's a perfect opportunity to start the web report; the Sight and Sound laptops really help out at moments like these.

Peter Hutchison working hard on the Kota Mama internet report

It's been an interesting couple of weeks. Our time in Asuncion, which seems a long way off now, was a time for meetings and greetings, a chance to pass on the information and reports we had gathered while travelling through northern Paraguay. Details of all the projects, the successes and the disappointments, have been passed on to different Ministries, government officials and museum curators who, we hope, will add the reports to their databases and incorporate some of the suggestions and outcomes in future plans. We will be including many of these reports on the internet site at a later date to ensure the information is distributed as widely as possible.

While Colonel John Blashford Snell spent a couple of days in meetings, most expedition members took time out to rest. One group visited the vast steam locomotive workshop at Sapucai, 60kms southeast of Asuncion. Staffed by the British who built and ran the Paraguayan rail network from the 1860s until the 1960s when the network was nationalised, the workshop still has nine British-built engines two of which are still in working order.

That evening we had a slot on prime time TV on Canal 4. Humberto Rubin, with his son Leon, interviewed Dick Snailham and Peter Hutchison, while Marigold Verity played her harp. The appearance was great publicity for the expedition, an excellent opportunity to promote Anglo-Paraguayan relations and Rocket's last public appearance with the group before going off to stay in his new home.

Our second day, a gift from the First Lady to thank expedition members for their work, was a trip to visit two Wonders of the World in one day. Itaipu Dam is the largest hydroelectric plant in the world, producing 12,600MW from turbines driven by the waters of the Paraná. The immense dam wall contains 62,000,000m3 of concrete - 15 times the amount used in the Eurotunnel.

Travelling south we visited Iguazu Falls, a series of 275 waterfalls covering 2.5kms making them the longest falls in the world. Many members of the expedition have travelled extensively. Those lucky enough to have seen Victoria and Niagara Falls had not expected to see a set of waterfalls that could match those magnificent landmarks. All came back in awe of the glorious falls that were used in the opening scenes the film The Mission.

Iguazu Falls, a true natural wonder of the world

We left several people behind in Asuncion. Insolence and rebellion cannot be tolerated on an expedition like this, but we left Andrew Millar, Marie Peralta, Shaun Linsley and Charles Sturge behind for completely different reasons.

Andrew, Marie and Shaun formed a land party to carry out archaeological work in the south of Paraguay. Charles stayed in Asuncion to await the arrival of a new JVC digital video camera. Charles is the official expedition photographer and cameraman. He and this fascinating little box of tricks slightly larger than a Walkman can always be found close to the action to get the story on tape and film. An accident close to Cerro Corá had damaged the original camera and Charles was hoping to get a replacement sent out by JVC as soon as possible. Without the camera and Charles we would almost certainly miss many of the images used on the website.

The long sail south

As we left Asuncion the long sail south began. While Quijarro completed an engine service, Kota Mama II and Viracocha set off to get a good start for the 428kms journey to Corrientes in northern Argentina.

Soon after Asuncion, at the confluence of the Paraná and Pilcomayo rivers, the west bank of the Paraná becomes Argentine. Our first Argentine journalists came on board Kota Mama to interview crew members for a television broadcast.

Kota Mama spent a night away from the Quijarro. Camping out on the riverbank is a peaceful time for chewing the fat of the day, enjoying the quiet of the evening and an excellent opportunity to perfect the fine art of mosquito swatting. For this website writer the evening proved to be the bliss and tranquility he hoped for.

Travelling downstream it was easy to see the difference between the two countries on either side of the river. As we stopped in the dusty, ramshackle streets of Puerto Alberdi, Paraguay, for refuelling, the glass skyscrapers of Formosa on the western bank pushed into the clear blue sky over Argentina.

The town of Pilar was an interesting spot to stop as the small town had a cabildo, a meeting hall, used as the headquarters of Marshal Francisco Solano Lopez in the Triple Alliance war. We were also told of a British built paddle steamer, the Tacurai, which had sailed from Britain in the 1850s and had been scuttled in the Triple Alliance campaign close to the small town of Humaita. The following day we visited the town where the remains of a shell-damaged church stood as evidence of the Triple Alliance campaign, but were unable to obtain a firm location for the wreck. 150 years of sediment has almost certainly buried it under tonnes of mud washed down by the River Paraguay.

Our last night in Paraguay was spent on the banks of the river, several kilometres upstream from the Argentine frontier.

No tears for Argentina

An early start made was made worse by the hours sleep lost moving into Argentina. Our schools' broadcast had to be carried out on the move, but by now we have the hang of shifting the satellite to compensate for the movement of the Quijarro.

As we travelled with the River Paraguay to join the River Paraná the current increased from 3.5kmh to around 6kmh; as the two massive rivers merged to become one we joined the mighty waters that would take us all the way south to our destination, Buenos Aires. Since joining the river our average speed has risen from 10kmh to 14kmh.

Arriving in Argentina, we tied up under the skyscrapers of Corrientes for a four-hour wait in the blistering midday heat of 35°C to clear customs. A cool day by Corrienten standards where summer temperatures regularly exceed 40°C. Our arrival was made more enjoyable by the sight of a slight figure standing on the port side with a shiny box held up to his squinting eye; Charles Sturge had made it to Corrientes with a new JVC camera.

Marsh deer survey

Our main task in Argentina was to carry out a survey of marsh deer in the Esteros de Ibera - the land of shining water - east of Corrientes. This vast marshland covers an area of 120,000km2 and is home to the endangered South American marsh deer. Until recently the animal populations were in decline but recent attempts to protect the species have led to a recovery in numbers.

First spending time at the beautiful Estancia San Juan Poriahú, hosted by Marcos Garcia Rams, we explored the area for wildlife, in particular the marsh deer. We sighted four close to the camp in the two days we spent at the ranch. Using horses and small boats we were able to explore the marshes and lakes of the area and although we saw no more deer, we found large numbers of animals and birdlife.

Moving further west to Gov Virasoro, our stay was sponsored by Charles Pettit and his family, whom we met through the Anglo-Argentine Society in London. Charles has a large estancia producing tea, lumber and yerba mate - an extremely popular drink consumed throughout Paraguay and northern Argentina. Drunk hot, as mate, or cold, as terere, the acquired taste of yerba mate is almost an national institution in Argentina with the average person consuming 7kgs over the course of a year.

Charles and his family gave us the comforts and welcome that come from exceptional people. Charles also gave us the logistical support to continue the marsh deer survey of the area. Using a microlight and an ultralight, we were able to scan the marshlands from the skies, counting 57 marsh deer in total. On some days stormy skies and strong winds prevented us flying, so we set out in boats - again provided by the Pettit family's extensive network of contacts. The ultralight was fitted with floats for landing on water allowing us to try to get close to the normally shy marsh deer.

Using the Microlight was the best way to scan the area

Sadly neither boat group found any marsh deer, making us even more grateful for the low-level flying capacity of the light aircraft.

Visits to the nearby yerba mate plantation and factory, along with a trip to the nearby Jesuit Missions of southern Paraguay and northern Argentina, demonstrated the diversity of natural and cultural potential in the area for ecotourism.

Back to the boats

Saying goodbye to the comforts of the Pettit house and home, the land party rejoined the flotilla to find a crew that had been equally happy enjoying the comforts of travelling in a smaller group. The inspiration behind the expedition - the notion that civilisations living in the altiplano region of South America could have travelled the route several thousand years ago - was proved more likely as Kota Mama II and Viracocha sailed downstream without support from the rest of the team.

The totora reed boats had travelled almost 600kms in just over five days, moving faster on the swollen currents of the River Paraná. Winds continued to come from an unfavourable direction, but we are hoping for a change in the weather so we can enjoy some good sailing before reaching Buenos Aires next week.

All together again

The smaller overland party, returning from their exploration of southern Paraguay, reported success after visiting Lake Ypoa. Shaun Linsley carried out a survey of the lake and the immediate area to assess its potential as a National Park. The diversity of birdlife and the vastness of the lake - 5kms by 15kms - with several islands made the region worth protecting and certainly worth a visit for people interested in nature.

Archaeologist Andrew Millar carried out a few trial pits on 250-year-old Guaraní sites on the lakeshore. Three different species of molluscs used as food by settlers in the region were found along with fish and capybara bones. Decorated pottery, similar to burial urns seen in the Ethnographic Museum in Asuncion and at sites further north, was also found.

Sailing on south

Leaving Paraná, in the state of Entre Rios, the entire group prepare for the last week of the expedition. We are travelling with Fabio Stricci of the Prefectura Naval - the Argentine Coast Guard who police this massive internal waterway - who is smoothing the way for our journey as we head downriver. Fabio has quickly become an essential and popular member of the team and his work has not only assisted with the river journey, but has assured us high level publicity. As we travel downstream, the Prefectura vessels bring TV crews, radio and newspaper reporters from the local and national press to report on our progress.

Over 1000 visitors queued to see Kota Mama II and Viracocha in Paraná

Without the support of so many sponsors this expedition in all its complicated facets, would not be possible. All involved with the expedition are immensely grateful for the support.

The final stretch

With just one week to go we have to avoid complacency. Less vigilance increases the likelihood of accidents, something we have managed to avoid so far. The more experienced expeditioners on the trip have reminded the whole crew of this several times.

So this last week is not a time to relax, but it is an opportunity to reflect on the expedition so far. We're using up the last of supplies. The boxes of Beanfeast provided by Bachelors, the Sweet'n'Sour Chicken from McDougall's alongwith other vital foodstuffs that have become an integral part of our diet have been supplemented by a large donation of chicken soup from Alimentos Genser of Argentina. Carlos Vittone, the Director of Genser, was only too pleased to support an expedition that celebrates the cultural richness of South America.

Now we are battling against strong winds that are creating the most testing conditions the boats have had to endure. The conditions are akin to those in open seas, and we must now decide whether we are to press ahead or look for shelter at the next possible opportunity.

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