We hope you have managed to read part 1 of Col Blashford-Snell’s brilliant report on his latest Amazonian expedition. If not, you can find it here. Part 2 is below.
(A summary of the Colombian Amazonas Expedition 2017)
Colonel John Blashford-Snell OBE FRSGS
After a night in a local hostel and a filling breakfast, we re-embarked and set off for our first base at the village of San Francisco. Here a smart lady Coraca showed us buildings in which we could sling hammocks, and also the local clinic. As often happens, the person with the padlock key was away, so a hammer was produced to knock off the lock and our medical and dental teams set themselves up in the overheated rooms. The temperature outside was 29⁰C and very humid, but patients began to gather for treatment, miracle cures or just out of curiosity. Cathy Lawrence, a professional comedian from Toronto, entertained them with a giant set of teeth and a huge toothbrush, whilst somewhat perplexed mothers breast-fed their babies.
Eager to test the camera traps, Professor Alastair Driver of Exeter University led a team to position them in the forest. Down on the river, Canadian Dr Adriaan Van Der Wart flew his tiny drone to look for dolphins. The Indians gazed in amazement, but a nest of black vultures took absolutely no notice as it hovered nearby. The Ticuna children soon began to co-operate and Alastair was presented with a couple of water snakes. “Mildly venomous” he muttered as they were measured and photographed. In camp Ester Vela Miranda, a jolly smiling cook we had recruited in Puerto Narino was already producing tasty meals. However, it was not long before most were in their hammocks.
Scrubbing my teeth at dawn next day, I noticed in horror that the ambulance boat had disappeared. However, a little later it turned up, driven by its hungover helmsman. He had just taken it back to Puerto Narino “for safe keeping” he mumbled – and was fired on the spot. Hector, our young mate on the flagship, then proudly took her over.
Clouds rolled in and a drizzle of rain cooled the air as we got on with our aid tasks. Thanks to the Newport Uskmouth Rotary Club and friends of expedition members, a huge number of books had been purchased by Yoli for the village schools. Soon there were lines of pupils queuing for these. Meanwhile, novelist Anna Nicholas and our youngest member, Hugh Fagan, who had been Captain of Fishing at Winchester, gave out reading glasses. Peter Manns soon found the resident shaman and interviewed him for his cultural studies. Later the Medical team visited nearby villages, with both grey and pink dolphins often rising up beside the ambulance boat.
After a few days in the jungle the camera traps produced video images of paca, rather like a large guinea pig, and a strange bird named a conamo. Alastair played these back for us on his laptop in the evening as we beat off the mosquitoes and sand flies.
On 17th May we moved west to San Pedro de Tipisca, near the Peruvian border, where Joel, a handsome young Curaca, greeted us enthusiastically and found spaces in various buildings for our hammocks and beds. Ester quickly installed her kitchen and that night produced a feast of local food, including roast paca, fried banana, yucca and fruit salad.
Although we had Motorola walkie-talkies and a sat phone for emergency communication, we noticed many Ticuna had cell phones and, by placing them against a particular pole in the village, could call worldwide! I guess the post must have marked a spot where the distant masts just provided coverage . . . . or perhaps it was magic!
How different to those days on the Congo when we used the talking drums, I thought. But as night fell, dark clouds swept over the village bringing torrential rain, thunder and vivid lightening. Yoli’s tent, that had survived a dozen expeditions, flooded and we all got a little damp. However, there were clear skies in the morning and we redeployed our camera traps.
In fact if one wanted to see wildlife, it was only necessary to look around the village where many of the children had pets. In one hut a turtle and a tortoise crawled around amongst the chickens, a little girl clutched her protesting squirrel monkey, and a boy fed his sloth on fresh banana. Out on the river a blue macaw landed on the ambulance boat roof and strutted along to peer in at the occupants. Ever trusting, Hugh put out his hand to the bird and got promptly pecked!
John Arathoon, our builder and engineer, tried to help the Ticuna with their machinery. In no time, he was presented with a dozen peke pekes’ engines that needed attention. It was clear the owners knew little about maintenance. However, John and Peter Manns managed to get three working.
In all the villages we saw cell phones, TV sets and even PowerPoint projectors in the schools, but the people lacked clean drinking water, well-equipped clinics and simple school books. It was said that, before elections, politicians were generous with such luxury goods but the people still needed the basics.
The Ticuna struggle to make a living, though hunting, fishing and the growing of some fruit and yucca in the forests helps. Joel talked to us about the need for eco-tourism and markets for their handicrafts, but we wondered what would attract visitors to these remote settlements.
To ensure all was well, Rusbel called to see us and explained the role of the ambulance boat to the elders who seemed very appreciative.
At night we conducted surveys for caimen along the waterways, but with the river levels so high, most were hiding in the flooded forest. However, in the darkened jungle, Adriaan was able to photograph plants as part of his study of bio-semiotics, a new interdisciplinary field that explores meaningful relationships and communication throughout the world. Back in the village, we found beautifully scented plants that only bloomed at night.
Join us again on Thursday for part 3 of John’s report!