The Kota Mama Expedition Phase Two Reports

Report 7 - 4th September 1999

Search and rescue success allows Kota Mama II to continue without problems

The realities are that most expeditions go well and just the odd drama interrupts plans creating a little excitement but with hopefully a positive outcome. But you never know. So when Captain Stuart Seymour failed to return to the Puerto Quijarro from a resupply trip to the reed boats downstream plans were put in place to organise a search and rescue of the river.

By midnight Stuart, travelling with newly encountered 15-year-old genius mechanic Mark Barth, was over four hours late from the trip. We were unable to launch a viable search of the 600-metre-wide river in the dark, so we planned for a search of the river at first light. Using Mark's parents' boat, the Robin Hood, and the Puerto Quijarro to cover both banks of the main river channel, the Quijarro's small tin boat would check out small tributaries and divisions in the river.

At 5am, using the BT Mobiq satphones, we confirmed that Stuart and Mark had left Kota Mama II safely. Using the Motorola UHF radios we coordinated the search between the three vessels. After three hours of good teamwork, sharing out the looking and the cooking, we came across the missing party heading upstream. Having broken down twice on their return journey, Mark had managed to repair the engine's cooling system which had overheated after becoming entangled in submerged vegetation using just one spanner and a screwdriver. Of the experience Capt Seymour said, "The worst part was being attacked by mosquitoes as we were out on the riverbank all night." He would rather not mention being chased by a large Paraguayan woman ranch owner with a stick who firmly rejected his request to use the ranch's radio to call in and assure the expedition they were safe.

Prior to this little diversion, the Expedition had been running smoothly if not slowly following a couple of mechanical breakdowns on the Quijarro support vessel.

The work continues

Our last report was filed as we arrived in Fuerte Olimpo. The Expedition had split up to create several teams. Archaeologist Andrew Millar set out with John Blashford Snell and others to explore reports of mastodont bones located on a ranch some 70kms inland. When the group arrived the mastodont remains were confirmed but were found submerged in a small reservoir under one metre of water. Work on the mastodont - a prehistoric, elephant-like creature found in South America and throughout the world will have to be completed by an expedition with more time.

An interesting sideline on the return trip was encountering a 340-head herd of cattle being driven by cowboys who looked as if they had come straight off a John Ford western movie set.

At Fuerte Olimpo we researched the history of the town. Originally called Fuerte Borbón, the town dates from Spanish colonial days when a fort was built to protect the area from the advancing Portuguese. With Paraguayan Independence in 1811 the town was renamed Fuerte Olimpo. The town was lost to the Portuguese several times and also suffered regular attacks by Chamacoco Indians wanting to drive colonists out of the area. Between 1824-8 a 3kms long wall was built encircling the settlement and a nearby ranch to prevent the townspeople being starved out.

The fort was last used as an observation post in the Chaco War with Bolivia between 1932-5. The Cathedral Church of Santa Maria Auxiliadora, atop a hill near the centre of the town next to the fort, was built in 1927. The church dominates the skyline with its Italianate style and fortress turrets on the western side. Of the wall, the group managed to locate a 100-metre section of stones superbly dressed on both sides to a height of two metres.

Other activities included more dental and medical work - much appreciated by the town - and an engineering project to advise on designing a new health project and analysis of the failing church roof structure of the nearby Chamacoco village of Santa Teresita.

We left Fuerte Olimpo to a huge crowd of waving, toothless children who had enjoyed tours of the strange reed craft Kota Mama II given by Aymara boatbuilder Erik Catari. as much as we had enjoyed visiting and learning about this northern Paraguayan town.

Rocket problems

Shortly after departure we realised our expedition mascot, Rocket, was limping and letting out the occasional wimpish squeal. Rocket, a hairy, russet brown piglet we had bought from a market riverboat shortly after Bahia Negra, has become an important part of the daily routine and the team. Along with Leaders, QM (Quarter Masters) and several other positions of responsibility, the rotating assignment of ICP (In Charge of Pig) details the position holder to feed, water and occasionally scratch young Rocket. His food is collected in a slop bucket labelled "Rocket Fuel".

While in Fuerte Olimpo Rocket's foot had become entangled in the cord that stops him wandering too far. A few strands of string had worked their way into his trotter and Rocket was clearly in pain. A small operation was carried out to release the little chap's leg and after much squealing and struggling he was released to continue life as a healthy, four-legged beast.

Further down the river Rocket's sexuality was brought into question so he is also a she and is also being called Rocketa. So now we are curious as to how you establish the gender of a piglet.

Rocket's future is uncertain but for now at least he is certain to continue life being pampered up near the bow of the boat.

In the land of the Ayoreo

Entering Ayoreo land we headed downstream for the full day on 25th and stopped just short of the town of Colonia Peralta on the 26th. Colonia Peralta was an unplanned but welcome stop. We camped on the banks of the River Paraguay and enjoyed the relative quiet of the night sky with a near full moon.

In Colonia Peralta we had some interesting work planned. The Royal Engineers looked at a water pump that served the village. The pump had broken down so they provided a list of parts needed and estimates of cost. Dental and medical teams assisted the local health clinic providing essential services.

The wildlife team took horses into the hinterland and spending quiet time at the side of an algae-filled, murky swamp saw a 12ft anaconda, several large caiman, an otter and a number of birds to add to the list.

The anthropological team walked four kilometres inland to the Indian community of Isla Alta. Called Abueha by the villagers, this is the first group of Ayoreo (ai-o-reo) Indians we have met. The Ayoreo people used to live as nomadic hunter-gatherers deep in the Chaco. Now the community has relocated and live a basic lifestyle fishing and hunting in the nearby Chaco supplementing food with produce from vegetable gardens and income from work, usually in Brazil across the River Paraguay. We gained some information about the clan system amongst Ayoreo tribes, some interesting details about basic belief systems and a degree of understanding of relations between this formerly nomadic community that were now located near to the town of Colonia Peralta.

A dental team also visited the community to provide badly needed dental assistant. While there Surgeon Lieutenant Melissa Wingfield, of the Royal Navy, created a new, but somewhat unenviable record, extracting 12 teeth from one woman's mouth.

The following day the anthropologists visited the town of Maria Auxilliadora further down the west bank of the River Paraguay. With just over half a day we wanted to use the time quickly in this town called Cuucani by the community. Previously playing music had yielded encouraging results giving direct inroads into the spiritual beliefs and rituals of Indian communities. We played some songs from the Chamacoco Indian communities upstream and one of the village elders sang some Ayoreo songs. Ayoreo music is very different in style, still using a gourd for percussion but as accompaniment to the stronger voice section. Click here to hear an example. (1.65Mb)

With the icebreaker of song proving so productive we were able to learn more about the Ayoreo people.

The 5,000 strong Ayoreo community live throughout Paraguay divided in to several tribes. Formerly nomadic hunter-gatherers, they lived independently but shared a common clan system. Each community is divided into seven clans and choosing a partner is only allowed outside of your own clan system.

We also learnt more about the relationship between the Indians of Abueha and the people of Colonia Peralta. In 1998 a cow wandered onto the vegetable patch of an Ayoreo Indian. The cow was killed. After a couple of months a group from Colonia Peralta visited the cacique (head) of the Abueha community and attacked him with machetes. Four days later he died. While several organisations should be interested in the murder, including the police, the people of Cuucani allege that nothing has been done to catch the killers.

A gruesome tale told not for pity or anger but to exemplify the feelings of the Ayorea Indians who believe that whilst they have moved out of the Chaco to settle and integrate with Paraguayan life, many people in Paraguay continue to treat them as second class citizens.

Building relations in Valle-Mí

From Colonia Peralta we headed downstream for our first excursion to the eastern bank of the River Paraguay in the town of Valle-Mí. We quickly established good relations with the Industria Nacional del Cemento cement plant director Engineer Alfredo Escobar, who promised to help the expedition.

Groups once again divided to conquer… in the exploratory sense at least. A small party explored a cave system near the town and disturbed a barn owl that had been roosting just inside the mouth of the cave. But this was not exploration, we need to find new caves to explore. A group of cavers led by Luke Cox, a Lieutenant with the Royal Engineers, set off to the west for the town of San Carlos where a network of caves have been reported 60kms southwest of the town. Travelling with explorers from the Argentine chapter of The Explorer's Club a labyrinth of caves partially submerged in a mosquito-ridden swamp was located and explored. The first of several caves that must exist within the 1100km2 area of limestone that can be found in this mid-eastern region of Paraguay.

A wildlife group headed off in the same direction in search of flora and fauna. A few new species of birds were added to the list along with a sighting of coatamundi.

While the Puerto Quijarro stayed moored in Valle-Mí, the remainder of the group visited the town of Puerto Casado 15kms downstream on the eastern bank of the River Paraguay. The author and naturalist Gerald Durrell visited the area in the 1950s to collect animals, recording the events in The Drunken Forest (Penguin). We have our own raconteur and historian Richard Snailham who was tasked with putting meat on the historical bones of this former boomtown. Dick will also be heading the school's broadcasts that are an integral part of building relations between the countries of South America we are visiting and schools throughout the UK and Europe. The broadcasts start on 9th September. When we arrive in Asunción children from the UK will be putting questions to Paraguay's First Lady, Susana Galli de Gonzalez Macchi.

A tired port town

The town of Puerto Casado was founded in 1893 to supply quebracho wood for use in the tannin industry to cure cow hides. The name quebracho means "axe breaker" - the wood is very hard and does not float in water. A tannin factory was built at Puerto Casado and the town grew to employ almost 1500 in the factory. The town reached its hey-day in the 1930s as the railway line built to bring quebracho wood from the Chaco interior, now stretching for 161kms inland, was used to transport troops in the Chaco War. Since the 1940s the town began to fall into decline and is now a run-down town that is clearly past its prime. Wide boulevards and the odd romantic hotel formerly used by honeymooners are the only reminders of a town that once held an important and valuable position in the Paraguayan economy.

One of our tasks was to explore the possibility of reopening the rail line for ecotourism. Captain Nathan Arnison, of the Royal Engineers, led a group to follow the line as far as possible. The highest temperatures to date, well over 100°F, had dried out waterholes and an encroaching forest fire stopped the group travelling any further than the 35kms mark. The rail line encountered was considered reparable but the resources, labour and money required to refurbish the line would be considerable. Extensive hunting in the area has meant that most large mammals have been shot and any still remaining would follow the fate soon. Nathan concluded, "as an ecotourism study, refurbishment is not viable because any self-respecting animal in the area would have left long ago."

A notion echoed by Shaun Linsley who led a wildlife group along the same rail line. Despite seeing almost 20 new species of birds to add to the bird list - now pushing 175 species - and encountering a family of anteaters, Shaun added pessimism to the viability of sustainable ecotoursim along the rail line. Puerto Casado, it seems, is destined to wallow in the hot, dusty shadows of its recent successes for some time to come.

Immediately after leaving Valle-Mí the Quijarro support ship again broke down and we spent a day and a half moored within one mile of the town. Our new arrivals Les Winterburn and Roger Godfrey were thrown straight into work replacing the head gasket of the ship's main engine. They, with the input of the genius mechanic Mark Barth, managed to repair the engine and we were ready to move on but delayed departure until morning. Marigold Verity Dicks, another new arrival, joined the expedition with her harp in tow. On the first night, almost without notice, Marigold gave a beautiful harp recital in the bow of Quijarro.

The expedition regrouped after the successful search and rescue mission.

The 4th of September was an important day as we made good progress to Concepción down river and many listened to the Radio Five Live broadcast of the England 6-0 victory over Luxembourg on the BBC World Service. There is something special about drifting down a mirror-flat, kilometre-wide river in the midday heat of the tropics avoiding hundreds of floating islands of hyacinths listening to a football match.

So all in all it has been an interesting few days. Missing persons, boat break downs and we've just heard over the radio that Kota Mama II has torn a sail for the second time. But as John says, "all are fit and healthy, for that we can be grateful." Now we are in Concepción for a day before the group divides to form a land party and boat crews to reach Ascunción, the capital of Paraguay, on 12th September. As with other towns, the Paraguayan Navy put on a reception, a band and several dignitaries came aboard to see the reed boats and the team. The next days will take us across the Tropic of Capricorn but we are unaware of any ceremonies that should be carried out.

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