By Simon Chapman.
The Paddler ezine: http://joom.ag/h48X/p36
The Rio Coypisa: Bolivia.
The buttress roots of rainforest giants reach right down into the scarcely-moving greenish water and a ‘vee’ ripple spreads away from the front of the canoe as we paddle gently forwards, taking care not to make any noise that would scare away the maroon and orange ball of fur that is sitting on an overhanging branch. It’s a ‘Golden Palace’ monkey, only just discovered and named after the Las Vegas casino, which put in the highest bid to name the new species. Minutes before, an otter – the giant type: six feet long with blue goggle eyes and a blotched white throat – swam under the canoe. It’s late afternoon on a perfect jungle river and the insects don’t seem so bad. For a while!
Yet this river unexplored at its headwaters and barely even marked on our map, was never the intended destination of our expedition. This first descent of the Coypisa was a ‘cop out’, a quick way back when our attempt to get to another river, the Enatahua, failed.
With hindsight it is clear that we totally underestimated the task we had set ourselves; trek over a mountainous watershed carrying a disassembled portable canoe, build the boat up, then explore the river beyond. It was a plan that had worked well on previous trips, most notably in 1997 when Julian Singleton and I had made the first descent of the Alto-Madidi. This trip would start where that trip had left off. We would trek to the Alto-Madidi and paddle up it for two or three days to get to a point just 10kms over a small range of mountains from the Enatahua. How hard could it be?
The Pak Canoe is brilliant for exploring jungle rivers. I have used them in Brazil, Siberia and several times in Bolivia. The boat consists of a five and half metre neoprene skin into which you slot poles and cross pieces to make up a Canadian canoe which is light enough (about 24Kg) to pull upriver or carry over obstacles but will also take some fairly hefty rapids. Building the canoe takes about 30 minutes. Packing it up takes half the time. That means you can trek to the headwaters of a river, build up the boat and paddle it downstream; and you always have the option of breaking it down, packing and carrying it if ever the river becomes too rough, choked with snags or swampy to continue. Our canoe was for three people. We knew we were pushing it by squeezing in four plus gear in but we reckoned that Julian, myself and our two Bolivian guides/ porters (Miguel and Mauro) were all fairly small and, in fact, we had no problems with the canoe at all; it was the terrain that was to provide all of the trouble.
A jeep ride and a tough trek in and we were paddling up the Alto-Madidi, Mauro and Miguel perfecting a regime of standing in the boat and poling it up the minor rapids using bamboo cut from riverside thickets. On the fourth day, we reached the mouth of an un-named river; and that’s when the weather turned. July and August in southern Amazonia is dry season. The meanders are edged by beaches of mud, sand or large, rounded stones. With the rain, these disappeared and dragging the canoe up the rapids became treacherous. Things came to a head when I tried to cross a narrow section of what looked like a shingle waterslide.
The river was now running red with mud and rising visibly. I set off across, got to waist height (which was quite high enough given that I was carrying a full pack), then I hit sinking mud. The classic rule is not to struggle but it’s hard not to when waves of frothing water are rushing towards you. Seconds later, I was chest-deep.
The others appeared in the canoe just as I started screaming for help, but I was stuck fast and, trying to pull myself up onto the boat, I nearly capsized it and then sliced my finger on Mauro’s upturned machete. By then my feet were free and I was floating in the current holding onto the back end of the canoe as I was towed to shore; at which point the others pushed off to get to the high bank on the other side, saying they would prepare a camp then come back for me. That was a long 20 minutes wait.
By the next day the river had gone down enough for us to push on upstream. However, the water was still running fast and soon we were spending more time outside the boat than in, hauling up increasingly large rapids as the valley narrowed into a gorge with black, rock cliffs dripping with ferns. On one raised patch of mud I found a single, bare human footprint. I showed Julian but we opted not to tell our guides as by then we were jittery about entering the territory of the uncontacted Toromonas Indians. Soon after, we opted to breakdown the canoe and continue on foot. Ten kilometres to the Enatahua over two hard days, we assured ourselves. We cooked up all of the heavy food that night. Tomorrow we would find a ridge that headed west and follow it over the watershed.
The ascent, up a rain-worn gulley, was nearly vertical and the canoe poles sticking out the top of my rucksack caught on every vine and horizontal branch. An hour’s struggle had us on the top of the first ridge being shouted at by a lone black spider monkey whose space we had invaded, and four hours more had us sitting roughly over (but a 1,000 metres higher up than) our camp of the night before.
Our map, obtained by bribery at army base in La Paz, had been wrong. We had followed the wrong ridge. Our decision; canoe back down (the rapids were great) and find a flatter way to get across. This time, the terrain which on our map appeared to only rise one 80-metre contour turned out to be a maze-like network of interlocking knife-edge ridges and narrow gullies. We tried following the high ground for a while but all the ridges ended in sheer drops or were tangled with vine thickets that blunted our machetes. The best we could do was to follow a westward bearing up and down, up and down. Julian was miserable that night.
“I can hardly walk” he said, peeling his socks off to reveal exposed bare flesh along the sides and heels of both feet. Wet sand in his boots had acted like a grinding paste and worn the skin away. Mauro and Miguel took much of his load, we bound his feet tightly and we carried on. Luckily, we found the jungle paradise river: The Coypisa.
By now we were back in high rainforest and the wildlife (monkeys of various types and a couple of anteaters) were everywhere. We opted to rest for a couple of days and use the canoe to explore the river’s headwaters. On our first night there, a tapir came into our camp. I didn’t see it. When I heard its footsteps, I slipped out of my hammock ready to ambush it with my head torch on full beam, and just then Julian started snoring, a sound which my guides later told me sounded remarkably like a jaguar growling!
Unsurprisingly, the tapir took fright and clattered away into the riverside thickets. The next night, we tried a ‘stake-out’. We canoed down to a river beach where we had noticed a fruiting fig tree, sat on the shingle, ignoring the biting insects and waited until it went dark. The plan worked. Two tapirs (or maybe the same one twice) turned up. About the size of a donkey with a trunk-like nose that snorkelled out to sniff the air ahead, our tapir came remarkably close and was unfazed by our shining torches at it or even flash photography. Seeing wildlife like this is a sure sign of an untouched river. This animal had clearly never seen people before.
Unfortunately, with abundant mammals come the biting insects that prey on them. The dawn and dusk canoe trips were a joy but, once the mosquitoes, sand-flies and bees discovered our camp, the rest of the time became an ordeal. Trying to dry our feet out to avoid trench foot became pointless. The raw areas just attracted flies and got bitten whenever we uncovered them. We made the decision to give up our crossing to the Enatahua. We couldn’t face two more days across the knife-edges and besides, we had found an unexplored river right where we were.
It was a good decision; and good to be back on the water again, even if the deep water meanders of the headwaters became increasing interspersed with pebbly shallows and minor rapids as the Coypisa descended through a rocky stratum. Stingrays were abundant in the shallows and each time we got out to drag the canoe, we probed ahead with our paddles (frequently a ray would splash out of the water when one made contact!). Just as worrying was the electric eel that surfaced next to us just as we were about to get out and start pulling.
The character of the river changed. Seemingly breaking the rule that rivers should get bigger as streams join them, the Coypisa shrunk until it was three metres wide and encased in a deep red mud trench. The problem now was log jams. There were frequent tree falls across the water and piles of driftwood that (we presume) had been deposited when the water level fell at the end of the wet season three or four months earlier. Getting past these was another of those occasions when the Pak Canoe came into its own. I have descended Amazonian rivers on dugout canoes and on rafts made of balsa wood logs. With both types of craft, riding rapids is fine. Pulling across water-slide shallows also works, but at snags you are stuck.
Not so with a light canoe, which you can just lift across the fallen trees, sometimes with kit still inside and other times without even getting into the water (you just perch on the fallen trunk and pull the boat across thus avoiding the stingrays, electric eels and pirañas). The frequent short portages were a pain but the wildlife made up for it. The deep water pools between the fallen trunks were home to giant otters that would pop their heads out to snort at us and the smaller ‘Lobos del Rio’ (Southern River Otters) sometimes would swim just ahead of our bough wave.
But, the best encounter of all was when a herd of White-lipped Peccaries crossed the river just behind us. Peccaries, South America’s equivalent to wild boars, not Jaguars, are the most dangerous animals in the Amazon. Their herds can number hundreds of individuals and they charge when they feel threatened (on a previous trip, Julian and I had to climb a tree when around 40 went for us). This time, luckily, we were downwind. Around 50 peccaries swam across then tried en-masse to climb the mud bank on the other side of the river. This was too steep and for 20 minutes and, at only about ten metres distance, we watches as pigs climbed, fell on top of each other, tumbled into the water, grunted, squealed and fought until some enterprising individual found a way up and the whole herd followed. The stench (imagine stale sweat mixed with liver pate) was overpowering.
It was like one of those wildlife documentary moments and I was in the middle of it, quietly tugging a flimsy red plastic canoe free of the sticky mud that it had grounded on just in case the herd turned and we had to make a quick getaway. The intensity of the situation was amazing, one that made the torture of getting the canoe over the mountains, the trench foot and the thought of the forthcoming return up the River Alto-Madidi worthwhile.