Report 8 - 14th September 1999
Come hell or high water... the Expedition goes on
So what news of the last great British Expedition before the Millennium? Now in Asunción we've spent the morning with Paraguay's First Lady Susana Galli de González Macchi - a former Miss Paraguay. Our reception was filled with pomp and ceremony accompanied by music from the Navy brass band. But more of that later. First, our journey to Asunción which pitched the expedition against strong winds, forest fires and torrential downpours.
Leaving Concepción Kota Mama II and Viracocha had a six-day journey to Asunción. The fleet encountered gale force winds that broke the front head pole of the Kota Mama. In layman's terms that's the pole that holds the top of the sail to the mast. We have not managed to find a suitable replacement yet but hope to get one soon.
To add to the drama Kota Mama ran aground and beached a couple of times. Sailing free from the support vessel Quijarro, our navigator, Pat Troy, was unable to receive the chart updates from the daily meetings with Quijarro's crew. These charts, over 25-years old, are the most up-to-date available. The annual floods that come with the wet season shift the banks of sand that have built up over centuries. As the sediments shift, the navigation channel changes and the maps quickly become outdated. Ships navigating the river make notes on the changes. Kota Mama got stuck on a sandbank that quite simply should not have been there.
The journey downstream from Concepción took the fleet under the first bridge across the river in Paraguay. The bridge is over 2700 metres long and connects eastern Paraguay to the vast expanses of the Chaco. Crossings over the vast river are few and far between.
In search of Vikings
As the fleet headed downstream, a team of 11 took jeeps deep into eastern Paraguay.
Our first stop was to the 12,000 hectare Cerro Corá National Park in mid-eastern Paraguay. As the day drew to a close, the sun became a deep-red disc hanging in the sky clouded by the ashes of forest fires. The park protects several endemic plant species as well as most of the big cats.
In the park we found an avenue of figureheads to the officers who died in the final battle of the War of the Triple Alliance in 1870 ending the regime of President Francisco Solano Lopez. Travelling to Paris and London in 1853 the young Lopez visited Napoleon the Third and sought an audience with Queen Victoria. Much impressed by the uniforms of the Third Empire, he designed Paraguayan military uniforms on what he had seen in France. Inheriting a large army - six times the size of the Argentine forces - he decided to take on the Brazilian, Uruguayan and Argentine forces, an ambitious move that failed and led to his ultimate defeat and death in Cerro Corá.
We visited the park to explore some of the petroglyph sites in the area, but our attention was diverted by a dramatic forest fire moving rapidly towards the Park headquarters. A road firebreak was the last line of defense against a fire that had raged across 3000 hectares of the National Park. The fire brigade was called from the nearby town of Pedro Juan Caballero as the crackle and smoke filled the air and the fire lit up the night sky. Never really at risk with the fire brigade so close at hand, it was comforting to think that we had taken up the offer to stay at the Park Headquarters instead of camping in the park.
The region of Cerro Corá is particularly interesting because some theories suggest the petroglyphs found in the area are Viking in origin. Our first trip took us to an area called the Fort which the theory proposes was constructed for defensive purposes. However exciting the theory, the reality is that this smooth sandstone outcrop is a natural feature that simply appears to be dressed stones.
Nearby the rock outcrop of Tuja-og was littered with lines, grids, Yonis - female genital organs - and phalluses scrawled on the walls of an impressive overhang. Visiting another site, strange grid-like shapes represented armadillos, a small mammal commonly found in the area. According to archaeologist Andrew Millar the petroglyphs are definitely not runic script of the Vikings but are certainly several hundred years old.
That night high dramas threatened the land party as electric storms filled the night sky with flashes and thunder. But come the morning came the rain, and we woke to a torrential downpour. A tropical storm is an impressive display of nature's power. Loading the luggage on the jeeps for our departure it was pointless trying to keep dry. The preferred option is to strip off, get wet, load up, towel dry and get dressed.
But the elements of nature failed to stop the expedition. The satellite link for our first Schools' Broadcast to children in the UK stayed true as Richard Snailham chaired a conference call with questions posed by students from Clayesmore School in Dorset.
A brief trip to the community of Nueva Germania proved interesting. Founded in 1886 by the Elizabeth Nietzsche, the sister of the German individualist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and her husband Bernhard Förster. Wanting to set up an Aryan paradise, a small community of 14 families arrived in Paraguay to find a life of hardship, fragile soil to till and a location 140kms north of Asunción so far removed from any other communities that life soon proved difficult. The colony became disillusioned, the ordered pattern of life broke down and Elizabeth returned to Germany to falsify her brother's philosophies to please Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany.
Today Nueva Germania is a community of Paraguayans. People with fair-hair stick out against the dark-haired South Americans. In the school we visited, 25 students out of 310 had German surnames. The links with the past are still present, but the community has moved on from the delusions of an Aryan paradise that motivated its founders.
Carving out a name for ourselves
One more stop before Asunción took us to Yvyturuzu where there were several sandstone outcrops close to our campsite. Two sites had extensive petroglyphs covered with carvings. Both reflected similar themes to those seen before and neither were even slightly Scandinavian in origin. Post expedition research will hopefully help to discover the origins of these rock carvings.
Returning to Asunción that evening we prepared for our official reception.
Coming into port, the Quijarro was greeted by a brass band. As the Kota Mama turned to catch the wind and travel in under full sail in front of the Government Palace, she snagged the nets of a fisherman, dragging the vessel for several hundred metres. The First Lady met the expedition members before taking part in the Sight & Sound schools' broadcast. Using the BT Mobiq Satphones and the laptops, students asked who is best football team in Paraguay, Olimpia, whether it snows here, no, and a few other questions. It may not snow here but as I type a tropical storm of rain and hail is cleaning out the streets of Asunción.
Our reception in Asunción has been fantastic. The Paraguayan people are incredibly friendly and happy to take time to talk about the small events that fill daily life. We have done plenty of good work in Paraguay over the last few weeks and our hope is that some of the information will be used by groups to develop projects. Maybe it will inspire others to plan expeditions to look at specific areas of our travels in more detail.
Tomorrow we will spend time talking with the Archaeological Museum, the Ministry of Health and several other organisations discussing our experiences and passing over the myriad reports created.
But for now, we enjoy this last stop. Travels south from here are with haste and speed. We have 1630kms to travel before Buenos Aires and the end of Phase 2 of the Kota Mama expedition, just three weeks to go before we arrive in Argentina's capital.
Next report will be down river, probably from Argentina.
As we move towards the border, a little update. A well-travelled pig, Rocket, does not possess a passport, so after heated debate his fate has been decided. Now a friendly piglet who answers to his name, Rocket grunts and scruffles his way around the Quijarro when he breaks free from his leash. He loves a damn good tummy rub and that responsibility will now be given to a children's home here in Asunción.