The Kota Mama Expedition Phase Two Reports

Report 8 - Interim

Two months after assembling in Bolivia the Expedition numbering some 55 men and women from Argentina, Australia, Bahamas Bolivia, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Gibraltar and Paraguay is now at Puerto Casado, a small run-down river port at the head of a narrow gauge railway that once led 200kms into the impenetrable thorn forest of the Paraguayan Chaco. This route into the "Green Hell" as it was called in the 1920's is now known as la estaction del tren perdida (the lost railway).

Before reaching this remote corner, far from any tourist trail, the Expedition has encountered a wide variety of challenging terrain and adverse weather. Following the naming ceremony in the main square of Bolivia's capital La Paz, attended by the President General Hugo Banzer Suárez, the Expedition's patron, and local dignitaries, the team moved two traditional reed boats by low loader to Santa Cruz. Built by Aymara Indians in Lake Titicaca, these traditional craft are being used to test a theory that ancient people could have navigated to the Atlantic Ocean from the centre of South America.

On arrival the explorers were perturbed to find that the 13.5 metre, 8-tonne flagship "Kota Mama II", sponsored by the British tug company JP Knight of Rochester, Kent, had been built half a metre too high and could not pass under electricity cables, low bridges or negotiate tunnels en route from La Paz to Santa Cruz. Former Royal Engineer Officer, Captain Jim Masters who commands these " Bales of Straw" solved the problem with a saw, and in spite of some hair raising moment - especially when some high tension cables shorted as the boats passed underneath them. They crossed the Andes at 15,500 feet and descended safely into the lowlands. From Santa Cruz they moved to Puerto Quijarro along the rail network of Empresa Ferroviaria, nicknamed the "Railway of Death" because drunks fall off the train as it rattles and bumps through the jungle to Bolivia's link to the ocean. Here the boats were fitted out and the crews trained for the 2,700kms voyage through Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, to their final destination of Buenos Aires.

Meanwhile archeological exploration and community aid teams were deployed throughout southern Bolivia. On the 9th of August the Brazilian support vessel, crewed by the Bolivian Navy joined the two reed boats at an impressive ceremony. As the Bolivian Naval band played "The animals went on two by two" this extraordinary fleet sailed into the Rio Paraguay. Much has been achieved already by the international team of scientists, serviceman and other experts. Archeological successes include the location of twin fortresses built by Amazonian people 1100 years ago, and the discovery of an intriguing 14th Century Inca road. The site of Inca Ossi - the last refuge of the Incas - was located with much difficulty in the Andean foothills. Sadly it had almost all been destroyed by local road builders. Elsewhere, rock art and strange petroglyphs have been found, and massive mounds of snail and mollusc shells have been examined. However they are believed to be a natural phenomenon. Sites of mega-fauna fossils, probably a mastodon have been visited and the team has investigated sacred locations still used by Indians for rituals. The anthropologists have spent time with a little known Bolivian tribe, the Chipaya, whose language was reputed to be similar to middle eastern but they could find no proof of this. However, Royal Engineer officers in the team drew up a flood prevention scheme for them.

Along the Rio Paraguay, Chamacoco, and Ayoreo Indians have been studied. Unique rain dances have been recorded for a BBC programme and filmed on the latest, state-of-the-art miniature JVC digital video camera. The Expedition still hopes to see the legendary, Totobiegosode, who have had little contact with the outside world.

Without doubt the hardest-worked team on this great venture has been the medical and dental section. Dr Noel Burrell has seen hundreds of patients and given out free spectacles, while the dentists Surg. Lt. Melissa Wingfield, Royal Navy and Captain Graham McElhinny Royal Army Dental Corps have extracted over one thousand teeth, managing two hundred in just one day. First priority has been given to children but Melissa had to take twelve teeth from one older woman. This work is greatly appreciated by the local government and the poor of the region who cannot afford such assistance, and as word spreads people gather at the riverside awaiting the arrival of the fleet. The Expedition nurses are also fully employed giving medical aid and even the Quartermaster Sgt Billy Huxter, 1st The Queens Dragoon Guards has become an honorary dental assistant. With aching arms the dentists continue their task.

The Royal Engineers are closely involved with the community programme. Bridges, clinics and fish tanks have been designed. They are also assisting the construction of schools and houses as well as mapping old fortifications and villages. Artist, Mrs Peter Minter, wife of the British Ambassador to Bolivia and Andrew Stevenson-Hamilton are capturing the images of the area as well as helping with the map making.

Using boats and horses biologist Jennifer Sambrook's team is cataloguing the abundant wildlife. Sightings include an anaconda, rattlesnakes, Jaguar, Jaguarundi, Puma, caiman, the aggressive White-lipped Peccary and it's more docile cousin the Giant Peccary, the largest known rodent, the Capybara, agouti, brocket deer, vampire bats, numerous monkeys and a great many varieties of birds. The rivers teem with fish including flesh-eating piranha and massive catfish.

Malaria has not been a problem and the team is remarkably fit, however the extremes of temperature varying from -20°C in the 14,000ft Bolivian altiplano to 38°C in the humid swamps of the Chaco tax the strongest. The sudden swings of wind from the warm northern breeze to the biting cold of the southern pampero that sweeps from Patagonia call for tropical shorts and T-shirts one day to thermal underwear the next. Expedition leader Colonel John Blashford Snell commented, "In forty years of expeditions I have never encountered such rapid changes of weather."

Children are fascinated by the reed boats and crowds gather at every stop. Historian Richard Snailham has been lecturing in village schools and on 9th September, when British Schools have returned from holidays, a twice weekly link is being established by BTMobiq satphone to Clayesmore School, Dorset, and then to other British Schools. This will allow pupils to talk directly to the explorers and also to speak to children in South America. The website is regularly updated by journalist Peter Hutchison using the Sight & Sound Computer and BTMobiq satphone (website is at

Communications within the expedition are maintained by Motorola UHF radios and VHF sets kindly loaned by London Communications Ltd. The reed boats have now completed 640kms and have 2000kms to go, however the current is increasing all the time and now runs at 3.5kph. With full sail Kota Mama II has run at 14kmh. The smaller reedboat Viracocha, Spirit of the Bahamas, is the fastest craft and is often used to recce ahead for the giant Kota Mama II. The Aymara Indian builder Erik Catari from Huatajata on Lake Titicaca is pleased with his craft. In one month Kota Mama II's draught has only increased 4cms due to water absorption by the totora reed. Local insects do not seem to be attacking this material but snakes try to climb aboard from the vast islands of water hyacinth that constantly float downriver. The greatest hazard to date has been local cows who regard the reed as a tasty meal. Damage to these sturdy craft has been minimal although the main sail was torn out by a Force 6 pampero and the rudder transom was shattered when Kota Mama II was flung against the side of the support ship by the wake of a passing vessel.

Contaminated petrol has caused some problems with the outboard motors, although the Expedition`s robust Avon inflatable, driven by a 25hp Suzuki engine, has proved most reliable. As a safety measure, the reed flagship is fitted with a 15hp Mariner outboard which has proved vital when huge barges appear in the narrow channels.

On 1st September the Engineers surveying the "lost railway" narrowly avoided being enveloped by a bush fire racing through the tinder dry thorn forest and managed to beat a hasty retreat to the river. Other Sapper officers, working with Argentine cavers, have been exploring little known caves in the limestone scenery of northeast Paraguay.

The Expedition is now entering an especially interesting area with strange petroglyphs and 'runic' cave writing which are rumoured to be linked to Scandinavian text. Microlights are to be used to give the wildlife team mobility in northern Argentina when they will survey threatened marsh deer population.

The Expedition aims to reach Ascuncion on 13th September and Buenos Aires on 7th October. Expedition members will be flying to Britain with American Airlines in mid October. Thereafter, Kota Mama II will be shipped to England for exhibition, thanks to the kind help of Freight Agencies Ltd. A permanent home for this unique craft will be provided by ISCA Maritime Museum.

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