Light shining through the cracks was softly dissolving twilight. I could see someone's silhouette suspended from the ceiling. "Hola Eddie," Melvin exclaimed with an undisguised surprise and invited us in with a wide gesture. We've met Melvin, a year earlier, when he helped us to organize and lead the nearly 700-kilometer rafting expedition on the river Rio Beni through the Bolivian jungle.
The only piece of furniture inside the cabin other then the hammock was a small television set on the clay floor.
"What brings you here again", said Melvin.
"Alto Madidi," I said. With a definitive smile on his face, he asked, "When?" "As soon as possible" I replied. "Well, sounds great." he said, and quickly began to list: "Three weeks will be the minimum, a cook, a porter ...." I stopped him right there. "Did I mention that this time we will have a lot of equipment? " But Melvin was already in his own world. "We will need about 5 days to cross the Tutumo mountains, another two while walking along Rio Madidi to get to the place where the river becomes navigable, and the last 10 days on a raft."
"What raft? " I interjected, "I was thinking about some simple boat, carved out of tree trunk." "We will build two rafts of balsa wood." Melvin continued.
Peter stood to the side and listened to our conversation.
"Peter! You will not believe it" I almost shouted into his ear, "We will take on Alto Madidi on rafts!"
"And you wanted to drag a canoe and inflatable pontoon here" Peter joked.
Yes, at the beginning of preparations for the trip, I took into account to flow on Rio Madidi with a dinghy, and then I thought about a folding canoe, but never took into account the raft.
The growing evidence suggested the possible plan of our expedition. What was still just a dream would become real. We agreed with Melvin for an afternoon meeting in our hotel to quietly discuss the whole trip. After handing advances needed for the food supply, we left his hut.
A year has passed since the day I sat by the fire at the mouth of the Rio Beni in Madidi and listened to the sounds of the jungle. From a distance, howler monkeys can be heard. The collapsing twilight created the right atmosphere. Then I asked Melvin a question that troubled me for many months, "Are there unknown tribes of natives that live in the forests."
"Oh yes," Melvin confirmed, "A few years ago," he went on, "some gringo came to Rurry and asked him about gathered information from prospectors and trappers. Then, he finally went into the upper basin of the Rio Madidi never to hear about him again." Here Melvin stopped and inhaled cigarette smoke. "Being on one of the tributaries of the Alto Madidi on a sandy beach, I came upon an arrow, and prints of large flat feet and a spread hand, pointing with an erect thumb, which is typical of primitive nomads. We avoided them." Melvin added, "They avoided us too. They call them Toromanas or 'free people'."
The place and time intensified the belief of his words. This story gave me no peace. After returning from rafting the river Beni, I began to browse through books and surf the web. With each page, I read the information about image of the wild and not yet discovered jungle. The heart of Alto Madidi was not involved in any way, but local guides are familiar with the old path stretching along the rivers, mountain passes, and ravines. This is one of the last outposts of original nature, the hidden realm where life and time are of the old rhythm. And in the shade of the giant trees, flitted Toromanas, the last free Indians.
The time was five in the morning when we left the sleepy Rurre. The young porter, with a two-wheeled wheelbarrow, took our equipment to the river port, where ferries sailed to the other side of the town of Bonaventure.
Staring at the sun's streak of light flashing on the waves, I felt a thrill; I just started my next trip. The route would run through one of the wildest corners of the Bolivian jungle, called the Alto Madidi. Madidi National Park, founded in 1995, is located in the upper Amazon basin. It covers an area more than 20 thousand km ². The borders of the parks, Manuripi-Heath, Apolabambą, and the Manu reserve in Peru, are part of one of the largest protected areas in the world. More than three hundred miles away, was the kingdom of the jaguar and tapir.
After a modest cook made breakfast on the open hearth at a roadside restaurant, we packed everything we ordered into Melvin's minivan and hit the road to adventure. We nearly beat a 100 km route in 4 hours. Melvin's car stopped at a small bridge over the river Tekehe slung. Our group consisted of six people: my friend Peter, Tomala, the chef Jimmy, the two porters Dervin and Tommy, our guide Melvin, and the undersigned. After lunch we made a general packing, huge, heavy backpacks which terrified our porters. But the wit and words of encouragement, Melvin defused a tense atmosphere.
The first kilometers up the river Tekehe were across an edge. When the steep clay escarpment further blocked the way we looked at Melvin who shouted, "Move", and entered the water. Boots were purchased at the instigation of Melvin as a requirement of wandering through the jungle. Standing on the shore, he watched as successive members of the expedition probably plunged into the water to their waists in the middle of the stream. I started wading close to shore looking for some easy transition, and Peter also followed up on all of them. The water was warm, for a while it was even nice, but you're just wet. On the other side, everyone was eagerly waiting for me to continue the march. I could not even pour water from the cup of tea when I noticed again how Melvin guided in the middle of the stream. The first hour of the march gave us an idea of what awaits us next.
In the jungle, we used the natural route, the river bed. Danger of an accidental fall on the notorious havens became real. Raja is a flat lead fish life. When it knows of the threat of weapons, it ends up hitting the tail of a sharp spike. The venom stored in the spike is very strong. It can cause splitting pain that can lead to paralysis or a crippled body.
We followed the old trail, which led to the slope of the mountain Tutumo, named by the locals. It marked the incisions on the trunks and branches of the infraction or cut, which later fused with a visible distortion. "The older they were," said Melvin, "the more secure the trail."
Around noon it started to rain, which in short breaks accompanied us into the evening. It was the beginning of the rainy season. A sudden downpour in the upper reaches of the river Tekehe could raise the water level by several meters. To prevent flooding, we pitched our first camp on a high bank.
The next day wandering the area became wilder. The surrounding hills were covered by dense rainforest. The valleys had heavy milky clouds, promising more rain. We moved up the river nonstop.
Around noon, on the river bank, we found abandoned equipment used by amateurs or garimpeiros. The wooden trough, and at the heap of sand had and copper and gold from the river. After a short practice lesson presented to us by Melvin I tried it happily. I put it in the river basin and gathered the sand. Circular motions made water pour from a bowl along with the silt and gravel up to the moment when the bottom of the bowl was left with only fine sand. Then I added water again and repeated the process. Gold, as a solid, is heavier and sinks to the bottom, while sand mixed with water pours out of bowls. After several attempts, at the bottom of the bowl, I noticed the tiny grains of gleaming gold. We continued to slowly climb the slopes covered with a carpet of moss-covered leaves and rotting tree trunks. Twilight reigning under a canopy of huge old trees made it difficult to find the trail. For the misty haze and leathery leaves of the trees did not let in light. Very little shrubbery was here, only epiphytes and hanging lichens and mosses.
Melvin stopped our caravan, several times, to look for the correct direction. Many fresh cuts on the trees mingled with the elders. Prospectors marked the new trails in the jungle, leading to only a familiar place. The older the incision on the bark, the more of a likelihood that we are moving in the right direction. We left only to trust the guide that he had chosen the right direction.
At one point, we were surrounded by an unpleasant odor. In the dense thickets growing on the slope, we could hear the grunts and sounds made. Our porters quietly whispered,
"chanchio." Chanchio, wild pigs, are also known as tropero. They inhabit the mountainous jungle. Their numbers sometimes exceed two hundred individuals. Not knowing how to behave, we paused. Melvin, with a machete in his hand, crept up to the pack of pigs. At the sight of him, the frightened animals moved. At the same time hundreds of feet trampled the ground. A dozen wild pigs with bristles were a few meters from me. After a while, Melvin came back who had a brought back a wonderful roast for tonight.
Right behind Melvin, I noticed a huge rotten trunk that would fit perfectly into the film of the rainforest. I stood and began preparing to make a proper shot, when suddenly I felt a burning sting that ran from the elbow up to the core of the brain. I grabbed at the painful place and looked where the attack came from. On a green stem covered with morning dew stuck two small caterpillars. Their bodies were surrounded on all sides with hairs tipped with a drop of liquid. This was the perpetrator of pain.
Melvin constantly walked in front, clearing the way with a machete. It was past noon, and we are almost without respite on the way down and up. We wanted to reach the forest stream, where we intended to pitch our next camp. The river guaranteed clean water and a good place for camping. Soon darkness fell. At dusk, after 10 hours of continuous marching, we reached the forest stream. This was to be our last camp on this side of the mountains.
The next day we crossed the watershed and entered the green heart of Alto Madidi. Tired, we noticed a sudden change of weather. I felt a chill in the tent, but fatigue took up and I quickly fell asleep. I woke up in the middle of the night, my teeth chattering. We caught up with Surazo, cold air that flows from the mountainous Andean glaciers. Peter wrapped himself in a sleeping bag and went to sleep. Outside there was silence. Even the cicadas went somewhere to bury and stopped making noise.
Dawn was breaking when I crawled out of the tent. Branches of trees restrained white smoke from the fire. With the smoke, came the smell of fried pies. By the campfire, Jimmy greeted me with a cup of hot coffee. This day, we climbed onto the back of a steep hill. Moisture-flavored autumn leaves were accompanied by fog. The climate of the day completed the dead silence in a soft bed of wet leaves. It was not until about noon that we reached the pass, from which we had sweeping views of the valley of the Rio Madidi. The GPS showed almost 900 m above sea-level. All around us was the jungle covered mountains, the ribbon of water that tore through the tropical forest. It was our goal, the river Rio Madidi.
After a short rest, Melvin led us to a small source of springs formed from the clay slopes. The emerging stream here was one of the tributaries of the Rio Madidi. Crystal drops were falling down, sinking in the twilight slew. We are waiting for a steep descent. At this point, we not only crossed the watershed, but also the border separating the two worlds. Behind this was a familiar place, a pristine area in front of us called a wild Eden.
At noon we stood on the banks of the Rio Madidi. The entire Alto Madidi was opening before us. The low water level caused unease for Melvin. In this place the river was about 15 meters wide. The crystal-clear river was shallow, too shallow to be able to drain it. Vividly presented to us is the still Rurra, water that should be a depth to freely run down with the raft.
By the giant sandbar close to the line of dense shrubs, we pitched our first camp on the Rio Madidi. "Beware Sepe," Melvin warned us, "there are many here". Sepe is a type of ant that chews leaves and leaves them in the nests. The leaves are necessary to form a compost which allows them to grow certain mushrooms. They can cut not only leaves, but also linen and polyester. After a good night, we recast the tent, so only the frame is left. Just after dinner by the fire, we decided that the next two days should be spent to continue the march down the river current. Melvin assured us that the river flows into the Rio Madidi supplying a large flow to the mainstream.
The next day had the sun in a cloudless sky. Laboriously we proceeded to the front, traversing the open beaches, thickly covered with stones polished by the water. Many hours, we marched. Although past noon, after shooting into the sky, towering palm trees cast shadows. In the clumps of bushes, the cicadas did not cease squawking. Pulse accelerated heartbeat pounded in my temples and eyes, as salty sweat was released. I was dreaming of camping on more beaches. The jungle, which surrounded us, was a living. Every sound was different; something mysterious was hidden behind each wall of green plants. And although I was very tired, I appreciated it. This is a jungle that reminds me of a great adventure. It was mysterious, exotic, and unknown to the promise of excitement and adrenaline.
We pitched camp. At dinner, Melvin told us that despite the low water level, the next day we will build a raft, for transportation of heavy baggage. Early in the morning we all followed him in search of balsa trees and slowly went into the depths of coastal green mass of dry bamboo palms. Melvin paved the way with a machete. The compact neighborhood vegetation caused reflex claustrophobia. Swarms of insects were harassing. We stubbornly continued to a tangle of weeds, inhaling the resulting yellowish dust from broken branches. With your head tilted back looking up the appropriate tree. I walked right behind him trying to hide his own shirt. With every flick of a bush, came dozens of uninvited guests, with hairy legs and jaws, onto me.
After fifteen minutes we stood with our balsa, stock shot vertically into the sky, cross-section was also normal. Melvin, happy despite the raging mosquitoes, pulled out some coca leaves. He then crushed them together and made a piece of sweet rhizomes, white powder, and plunged it into his mouth. When filled with the mixture to the cheek, while chewing, he approached the tree, swung and struck it a machete at the trunk. The method and duration of chewing coca is called coqueada. To facilitate the absorption of coca into the blood, natives added alkaline substances. These are most commonly limestone or ash from a fruit.
A few efficient strokes with the machete and a dozen meter high tree collapsed crushing the crash site. Cut branches and stripped bark accounted for Devinowi. Work proceeded smoothly. With the first balsa torn from the jungle, I escaped to the shore.
After three hours, seven balsa logs were peeled and flowed in the direction of our tents. In the river near the camp we readied the logs. The groove is placed in a pole of hard wood. To connect the individual trunks, purified bark was used to cut balsa into small strips. At the end, Melvin built a raft in the middle of the small platform where they would rest with our luggage. Tomorrow would be the first day of rafting. Cast in my direction, our guide, with an impish smile, plunged into the emerald water.
The day promised to be hot, and although it was morning, the temperature reached 30 degrees Celsius. Hiding in the shade of palm leaves, we were sipping our morning coffee. Milk fumes rose above the river. The rays of the sun, which found a crack in the greenery, exposed bites on my neck. Quickly we packed our bags full of belongings and enlisted on the shore.
We started the seventh day of the expedition, and the first on a raft. As according to the Melvin's plan, I was with Peter and we had to move by land, while Melvin was with the cook and the porters, along with all the baggage of the expedition, had run down with the raft. After filling our buckets with filtered water from the river, we set out along the stream. Although giant in the rainy season, Rio Madidi was now reduced to a few meters wide stream. You can easily overcome more miles of beaches. We moved at the speed of flowing balsa. In places where the water was low, our porters had to clear the riverbed of stones to be able to drag the raft into deeper water. We stopped at another camp after the defeat of 15 kilometers.
The next day I got up early. Early morning is the best time to remove a sweaty shirt. I liked the moment, gave a feeling of freedom. It is a time when all the bloodthirsty flies sleep or relax after a hard night. It's safe to stand on the shores washed by the cool breeze and listen to the heartbeat of the jungle. But as soon as the sun poured through the trees, we were attacked by mosquitoes, followed by tiny flies, marahuisas, and behind them came sweet bees and black flies. And so the circle continued until the next morning. Repellent is not much use here and it seems the only protection against stinging is long sleeve shirts and wide hats.
That day we left our Bolivian friends with all the baggage and the raft, pretending to go in the way along the beaches. The beaches were enormous. The water flowed only in the deepest places, creating a sharp bend and extending a scenic river. Overgrown grass and shrubs with thorny stems were as high as our shoulders. In some places, they formed a green barrier to cross. The easiest way was to travel on the water and land borders.
In the evening we came to the place where the second largest river in this area was connected with the Rio Madidi. It was the Rio Flora. The stream flowed almost in a straight line, surrounded by a dense jungle ravine to the horizon, disappearing somewhere far in the clouds. I set the rack and camera on it. Minutes passed, and before my eyes were new pictures painted with light, clouds, and mist. I was hypnotized, but I felt constant bites while filming. Wind chased the clouds away showing the white peaks of which existence I had not known of. The white tops of the peaks and possessive green jungle were separated by a white band of clouds. It was a mesmerizing and unforgettable event.
"It was here, a few meters away from the beach, that I found the arrow and traces of bare feet," said Melvin. At the mouth of the Rio Flora, we pitched our camp. With the large influx of water, the river level rose significantly. We decided to stay here the next day for the construction of the other rafts: for me, Peter and Melvin.
It was slowly getting dark and a cool breeze was blowing from the river, so we went to rest. Peter threw a rod and I lay down on the sand gazing at the blue sky dreaming of beverages with ice. Suddenly, from behind the coastal line of palm trees, a silhouette came out of a big black bird. Large patches of black wings, a long neck, a protruding tuft on his head, and a massive beak, that gave it the appearance of the a dinosaur. I grabbed the camera automatically armed with a 300 millimeter lens. It was a hoacyn. A hoacyn or Kośnik silhouette resembles a pheasant. It lives in the trees on the banks of rivers. The primitive appearance and poor ability of a hoacyn resembles a Archaeopteryx. This in itself is an example of evolution, because the young have vestigial claws on the wing, which will help in climbing trees. While growing up they lose their claws, but the habit of remains.
The next morning we all became a victim of bloodthirsty black-and-honey-flies. At the end of the day I counted two hundred itchy punctures on just the left hand. My hand swelled up and took on a boxing glove size. But the attack did not prevent us to build the second raft. After three hours of getting new balsa, we anchored at our camp. The next day, as soon as the sun appeared over the tops of trees, our raft came out first. Peter stood at the bow and at the stern, sat Melvin. Sam and I sat on a small wooden platform, on which rests our luggage, in preparation for the photos. Then I noticed the brush of black hair sticking out above the waterline. Something slowly swam under the river current. Animals soaked in the water. A small trumpet, every now and then, protruded above the water sucking air. We were getting closer and the fear of cause its reaction to hit the water. The tapir, now, stuck his head in the water and quickly dived. After a moment, it appeared and ran into the jungle.
We steered the rafts with long poles. You can repel them from the bottom of the river or from the shore, and thus correct the direction when needed. The ability to control the raft lies in the fact that it always found itself in the mainstream of the river. This required some special effort; just enough to closely follow the stream and to follow him.
After consecutive days, the expedition continued. Every morning as soon as the sun shone on the tops of the trees, we saw the clamoring of macaws flying for prey. These magnificent birds of azure, red, and orange color became a symbol of the dawn and dusk of the Alto Madidi. Seven trunks came down to collect balsa. Peter guided the raft through the river. Where the vegetation reached the shore were wild bananas. At your fingertips were all the bunches of gold hanging fruit you wanted. We had to just stop, cut, and later just open to reveal their sweetness. In the crystal clear water, we passed schools of fish every now and then. The river meandered through the forested mountains of Tutumo. In many places it cut off the slope, creating a string of steep clay slopes. The bends have seen many of the world's largest rodents, capybara, usually with many children. The green hills of the Madidi added color and atmosphere of a real adventure.
We crossed about 30 kilometers every day. Finding a place to camp wasn't a problem. Every now and then we passed a fine place, dry sand with easy access to water and logs for the fire. Always after dinner, Peter was on the shore pretending to look for caiman. When the water rose at dusk, it was light enough to just slip catch the eyes of reptiles staring at us. One day after a large half left for the Cayman Islands, I remained with the fish on a raft, but was stuck in the middle of the camp eating fish stick delicacies over the fire. The next morning, we were astonished that our sausages disappeared and the fish remains lay on the raft. The robber left a clear trail with his paws and tail on the sandy shore. It was not the slightest shadow of a doubt who visited our camp at night. Cayman walked three meters next to our tent.
On the sixth day of rafting the river narrowed and squeezed through the vertical walls of the cliffs. This rapidly increased the depth leaving rod to find no support in the ground. The river itself has become a dark color. We were going very slowly because the current was almost negligible. Then something big, a shadow flitted alongside our raft. My associates immediately fell on the alligator, but Melvin said that it was a bacu. Bacu is the largest fish inhabiting these waters. Some of them exceed 50 kilograms.
A huge hook baited with blood whistled over my head and landed a few meters from balsa. After a while it was taking so strong that it led us to the middle of the river. I did not believe my eyes, but the raft was pulled by an unknown fish. I grabbed the camera. The giant swam brushing against the underside of the raft. Melvin skillfully let go and as after a while the fish gave up and surrendered to his will. Above the surface of the water, a giant emerged with a noble head adorned with a long mustache. He swam to the shore where we waited for the porters who helped pull the prey to the shore. Other participants also wanted to have the trophy to their credit. It soared above the water with bait hooks, landing almost in the middle of the river. Within 20 minutes, all four anglers pulled. Almost each one weighs 40 kilograms. When we got a commemorative photograph, we let them back into the river.
On the ninth day of rafting, Rio Madidi overflowed and released gear. The day before, we had noticed that the current had released and the river decreased. We left the mountains of Tutumo, and with them the Alto Madidi areas affecting the flat pampa. The river has deep and densely overgrown banks. The landscape was two-dimensional, lacking mountains cutting the horizon. Increasingly, the poles were not the resistance in the ground; we had to swim very close to shore to take advantage of the resistance of the bottom. Melvin, several times, descended from the raft and saw us using the fishing pole. Around noon, the river changed course abruptly, plunging into the jungle. We were now between the huge trunks of fallen trees. To the right of us, the river cut through the jungle like a gravel highway. The last rainy season has made Rio Madidi ben here by several kilometers.
The raft was in between the wet trunks. Whole bunches of giant lianas under submerged tree branches were scared. Several times we had to use a machete to cut our way to pass. After an hour, we sailed again in the old riverbed. That day we intended to reach the borders of the reserve. Late in the afternoon, we sailed on a huge lagoon, at the end of which the river was hammering a steep peninsula. Peter's GPS displays 295 km rally. Thi had to end our great river adventure, the adventure on the Alto Madidi. This finished the 3 week trip through one of the last wild places on our planet, hidden in the inaccessible valleys of the mountains of Tutumo, somewhere on the outskirts of our civilization.
Text and Photos,