For more photos of this expedition, click here.
INTERIM REPORT - A
MISSION TO BOLIVIA
Following a reconnaissance in 2011 John Blashford-Snell (JBS) and a team of six set out for the region on and around the Rio Beni in North Eastern Bolivia in August 2012. Their task was to provide aid for poor communities, make a brief study of an archaeological site and list the wildlife seen. Approved by the Scientific Exploration Society, the project was supported by Just a Drop, the Simón I. Patiño Foundation and other kind friends.
The aid to the people, many of whom are indigenous groups who have suffered as a result of flooding, was the provision of clean drinking water, medical and dental treatment and educational items for schools. At the same time reading glasses were taken in for persons in need and some violins for talented children. Further research was also planned on the strange Double Nosed Dogs found in Eastern Bolivia in 2005.
John Blashford-Snell’s team consisted of a dentist, a medic, who was also a qualified archaeologist, an economist, with much experience of community aid work, a civil engineer, a cartographer and an administrator. All were widely travelled and with expedition experience. Senorita Yolima Cipagauta from Colombia, the Scientific Exploration Society and Just a Drop’s representative in South America, knew the area and people well. Dr Carolina Hanley, the Honorary British Consul in Santa Cruz is a leading Bolivian dentist and a dog lover. Engineer Julian Butter is a member of Just a Drop’s Project Management Team. Michael Elkin is a Medical Student in the final year of his training, also an archaeologist and a pianist. Peter Kohler, a long standing member of the Scientific Exploration Society, was to act as Cartographer. Dave Smith, a retired PT instructor, is the Quarter Master of the Scientific Exploration Society. Thus, although a small team, it possessed a wide range of skills and experience.
The group assembled in Santa Cruz on 22 August, collected stores and supplies. Carolina Hanley had arranged for Laboratorio Alberto Nostas IFA to donate a large quantity of medicines, Enersol to provide some solar lighting sets for villages without electric power and Baterrian Toyo to give batteries for use with the lighting sets.
As the owner of the Santa Cruz International School, Carolina had asked the pupils to collect school books and useable medicines for distribution to the villages in need. The quantity of stores collected was over a ton in weight so transport had to be hired to get it all to Riberalta, which was to be the rear base for the project. Flying up to Riberalta the team were met by Walter and Sonia Suarez. Walter, a local businessman and keen Rotarian, had done much to help organise the expedition and he and his wife gave valuable support throughout.
The gifts brought from Britain included two violins, kindly provided by Claire Roff, a London based violinist who had been a member of an earlier project in the area. In Riberalta one of these was presented to Senorita Heidy González, a student at the local university, who is becoming a talented musician and greatly appreciated this gift which will allow her to advance her skills.
Mike the medic, checked the medicines collected by the Santa Cruz pupils and was surprised to find a stock of Viagra. Later the children said they just wanted the indigenous people to be happy!
On 28th August we used local motor cycle taxis to cross the 400 metre wide Rio Beni by ferry and visit the site of Inca ruins at the junction of the Rio Beni and the Rio Madre de Dios. The Scientific Exploration Society’s Kota Mama III expedition in 2001 had seen the ruins of what may well have been a fortress built by Incan refugees from a 15th century civil uprising around Cusco. Descending the Rio Madre de Dios it is thought they had set up a fortified settlement and remained for a number of years before returning to what is now Peru. It is certainly surprising to find ruined defensive walls and buildings built of stone as well as an extensive moat in the Amazon jungle. Mike Elkin was especially excited by seeing a collection of fine ceramic pots from the site being displayed in a nearby village and photographs of these are now being examined by experts. Mike and Peter Kohler later made a plan of the site which will be of value in future exploration.
Within the municipality of Gonzalo Moreno, a number of villages had been visited during the 2011 recce and it was to these that the expedition directed its aid. The municipality provided some transport, including a 6 wheel truck with its 2 rear wheels missing and thus the rear end sagged! Temporary clinics were established in the Comunidad of America, Contrabaricia and at Sixth of August. At these the dentist and medic treated many patients. To reach Sixth of August, involved a journey by vehicle, lowering stores down a cliff and then travelling by boat for several miles along the river. All the buildings in this village had been destroyed by the flood and the people had been moved to a new site above inundation level. Some new buildings had been erected but many people were still living under tarpaulins. The team was greeted by singing school children, who inspite of the conditions wore clean, smart uniforms. They were rewarded by a supply of learning books, pens and exercise books the first they had received. There was no electricity so Julian Butter, Peter Kohler and Dave Smith set up the solar lighting systems, whilst Yolima gave out reading glasses. The water system was examined and the new system that is being installed was checked.
Carolina Hanley was the first dentist who had visited the village and she had plenty of patients. However, in the afternoon two women, suffering from terrible Leishmaniasis, came for treatment. Mike and Carolina turned all their attention to injecting medicines around the three inch diameter ulcers, eating into their bodies. The women bore the pain bravely but were urged to get to the hospital in Riberalta as soon as possible.
The team left feeling that it had made a significant contribution to the people of this village, who are striving to rebuild their lives.
Meanwhile at Comunidad America, thanks to Just a Drop obtaining funds from the Institute of Travel and Tourism, the water system had been fitted with new filters in protective housing. There was great joy when the first unpolluted, clean water poured from the taps. Sumaj Huasi, the Bolivian contractor went on to train villagers in maintaining the system. This is absolutely vital.
The second phase of the expedition involved the study of the needs of the village of Palmiro de Ivon which had also suffered from flooding and a new system was designed. Just a Drop has now been asked to fund it and hopefully the work can be undertaken by Sumaj Huasi in the near future.
The team then drove 400 kms westward with the aim of reaching Ojaki village on the Rio Madidi. Here a Scientific Exploration Society expedition had worked in 2006 and installed a water system to replace defunct wells. The people were now known to be suffering stomach complaints through drinking polluted water from the river. It was not easy to reach this remote place. By radio it has been arranged that the village would have a peky-peky canoe to meet the team at Cavinas, a small port on the Rio Beni. However to approach it by road meant crossing another smaller river, the Rio Vaqueti. Not even the Bolivian Navy, who had a small detachment at Cavinas, could say if there was a bridge over this river or indeed a ferry. Driving down the long dusty road the expedition’s hired vehicles had done 130km when the wheel bearings of one car broke up. Fortunately Yolima was able to call the hirer in Riberalta by the satellite phone and he immediately came to the rescue, but this meant four hours delay. It was almost dusk when they turned off the main track and headed North over a bumpy unsurfaced track for Cavinas. Night had fallen when the leading car found itself facing a swampy stretch. JBS and Julian went ahead on foot to examine the surface but alas, on his own initiative, the impatient driver of their car decided to drive forward. “Stop” yelled JBS but it was too late. The four wheel drive broke through the crust and sank axle deep into a morass. However, Dave Smith had a tow rope handy and having dug the wheels out of the mud, the second car, plus all hands pushing, managed to extract the bogged vehicle.
To add to their problems, the team noticed a bush fire sweeping towards it and they were lucky to find a turning off the trail that avoided this and led to a rough hacienda where kindly cowboys directed it to a diversion round the swamp and the fire. It was 9pm when they reached the Rio Vaqueti and looking across the black river bed they could see no bridge nor any ferry. Yolima found a canoe and crossing the 80 feet of flowing water, went off to the nearby village. She returned to announce that if the team would set up a clinic for his people, the Chief promised that he would build a bridge for the cars in three hours next morning! Neither Julian nor JBS, as engineers, could believe this. However swallowing a cold supper and swotting swarms of mosquitoes, the weary travellers pitched tents.
As Dave cooked pancakes at dawn, they noticed a black pickup truck parked in the trees. Ominously there was a bullet hole in the windscreen and the seats appeared stained with blood. The villagers stated that ten days earlier the car and its passengers, a local family, had been set on by bandits, who had stolen motor cycles from a nearby ranch and were trying to escape. When the car driver refused to take them they had opened fire murdering his wife. Somehow the police were alerted and in a following gun fight the robbers were killed.
By now Carolina, Mike and Yolima had set up a clinic in the village school and amazingly the village men, plus wives and children, appeared at the river. Swimming into the flowing brown stream, the newcomers heaved up huge thick, pre-cut planks of hard wood, around 35 feet in length, that were resting on the river bed. Now lying in front of the team there was a prefabricated bridge, which when not in use simply lay underwater. Whilst the men struggled with the giant timbers, their children dived off the logs, women washed clothes in a scene rather like a seaside outing. However just as the Chief had said, within three hours there was a bridge over which the cars drove with care. It was held together by its weight with no bolts or fastenings. “This is the most incredible piece of civil engineering I’ve ever seen” commented Julian Butter.
Having extracted dozens of teeth, including thirteen from one poor woman, Carolina packed up her instruments. Yolima gave out a supply of school books and spectacles and the drive to Cavinas continued only a day behind schedule. Here, to their relief the team found the peky-peky canoe awaiting them and as dawn broke the expedition headed up the Rio Madidi and on to their next task at Ojaki.
Apart from minor difficulty in navigating up one rapid, the canoe made good progress. A stop was made at a village to distribute more school books and arrange a clinic before reaching Ojaki where old friends rushed to welcome the group. The temperature was now 40°C and all were glad to be out of the sun’s glare.
Local ladies cooked up supper and Yolima opened a bottle of Chilean wine which went down rather well! Next morning the village children put on a display of Indian dancing, dressed in traditional costumes and sang to the team. As before, they were rewarded with a supply of school books.
The task at Ojaki was first to check the water supply system. The generator that drove the pump had broken and will need replacement, but the tower and tank installed in 2006 was intact and most of the pipework in place. However Julian redesigned the system and hopefully this can be put back into action by Sumaj Huasi.
Later glasses were given to older people and a medical/dental clinic was opened. A man from a nearby village was brought in with a serious machete wound on his arm, caused when he slipped whilst trying to kill a rattle snake in his log pile. There were many people with stomach disorders, caused by drinking polluted water and Mike was asked to give a talk on birth control and later to tell a recently married couple how to make a baby!
As Dave stirred the breakfast porridge on 7th September, loud screams rang out when up to 80 white lipped peccary, one of the most aggressive animals in the Jungle , appeared at the edge of the village. The men seized guns, spears and bows and rushed to drive the vicious beasts out. The fight lasted a few minutes but ended with seven of these dangerous pigs being killed. Fortunately no people were injured. Otherwise the team saw few wild animals.
It had been planned to visit the Nichols family, a lone family of an American and his German wife who lived upstream with their 13 children. They had proved very useful in maintaining communication with the people of the area since the 2006 expedition had met them. However log jams on the river prevented navigation by the peky-peky. Nevertheless Matteo Nichols, three of his sons and a teacher managed to reach Ojaki using a small canoe so the expedition could get more information on the state of affairs in this remote region that few outsiders visit.
On the final night the expedition held its traditional Burns Supper with Stahlys Quality Haggis brought specially from Scotland. Attired in highland costume, Dave Smith gave the address to the “wee beastie” and although the villagers clearly thought it all rather strange, a jolly evening was had by all.
So the expedition headed back to Riberalta. There was one last clinic and some more books to distribute at Cavinas School before crossing the prefabricated bridge at Vaqueti. It has been a challenging time and something of a miracle that so much help could be given to communities in need along the great Amazon tributary. The mission had been accomplished.
SITREP 4: 10 SEPT 2012 - BOLIVIA
Riberalta on 3 September drove on long dusty road across pampa for 140 kms
until ominous noise announced broken wheel bearing and we called by sat phone
for replacement vehicle.
Sheltering from intense heat in small village school we waited 3 hours for a new vehicle and gave some books to the school in thanks. Then continued to village named Australia, indeed red dust and terrain here is not unlike that country.
headed north for Cavinas but as darkness fell, our leading car broke through
crust of swampy area and we were lucky to extract it. Guided by local cattlemen
we found detour around swamp and crossed soft patches on plank ways. Eventually
reached Vaqueti village at 21.00 hours .
Rumours of a bridge proved unfounded- there was none nor any ferry. River approx. 70 feet across and 4 feet deep. An interesting challenge!
At crossing point a black pick up was parked in the trees with a bullet hole in the windscreen and blood stained seat. Later learned local woman had being shot dead by bandits on 25 August. Apparently her murderers later killed in shoot out with the police.
Made camp for night and Yolima crossed river in canoe to find village chief who promised to build us a bridge in 3 hours the next morning. We had our doubts. However at dawn Mike and Carolina set up clinic in the school. Carolina pulled out 59 rotten teeth, 13 from one woman.
Meanwhile 30 villagers arrived and to our amazement heaved huge pre–cut lengths of hardwood from riverbed. In three hours they assembled a bridge capable of carrying our pick up cars across the 70 feet gap.
It seems this extraordinary bridge is pre-fabricated and left on the riverbed to be assembled when required. “This is an incredible piece of civil engineering” commented Engineer Julian Butter, “ I have never seen any thing like it”.
Crossing the bridge we made Cavinas by dusk and camped on the banks of the Rio Beni before giving out books for local school. Insects ate us alive. Here a 16 m pekepeke boat from Ojaki awaited us and next day we loaded on medical supplies and school books before sailing for 8 hours up the jungle fringed Madidi River. Shade temperature 40ºC. One set of rapids was tricky but we reached our objective at 16:30 to be greeted by the people we had helped 5 years ago. The village was little changed but a new clinic was under construction and we camped there.
On 6 September the school children welcomed us with dancing with Indian traditional dress and songs. New books were distributed to every child and our dentist and medic were soon at work.
Julian and Bolivian engineer Ermin Castro examined the water system funded by Just a Drop in 2007 on the SES expedition. The impressive 30 foot , reinforced concrete water tower and tank plus most of the pipe work were in fair order, but the pumping system was not. The generator that drove the submersible pump had blown its big end. This was most disappointing and therefore we designed a new system which will be recommended to Just a Drop.
Mike, as well as being our medic and archaeologist is also a musician and he tried to restore the pedal organ we brought in 5 years ago. However this will require skilled work and may be done by Tom Nichols, son of Mateo who came down river from his farm to see us. However a replacement violin was presented to the school´s music master and his leading pupil. We were pleased to see the accordion we brought previously still in use at the village chapel. Our engineers also examined the water system of the neighbouring village of Santa Maria to see if it could be improved. Using a small generator and old TV set we managed to show the villagers the film of 2007 expedition.
Early on morning of 7 September there were cries of alarm as a herd of 80 much feared white lipped peccary, an aggressive wild boar, appeared at the village water hole. The men grabbed their weapons and soon the sound of gunfire echoed through the forest. The peccary, their sharp tusks gleaming, ran in every direction squealing in rage. 7 were killed before the herd retired. Luckily no villagers were hurt. The chief admitted he had never known these dangerous animals to come right up to the village.
Meanwhile Carolina and Mike continued giving medical and dental aid whilst Yolinda distributed much appreciated reading glasses. A man with a deep cut was brought in from another village, whilst to trying to kill an snake in his log pile, his machete has bounced off a piece of hard wood and sliced into his arm.
Logjams up river prevented us visiting the Nichols farmstead but Mateo, three sons and Charlotte the teacher, came in small canoe to see us. We welcomed them with the traditional Burns Supper which we hold at the end of every expedition. Dining on Stanly’s Scotch Haggis we recited the legendary poems in the moonlight.
On 8 September we bid farewell to Ojaki and sailed back to Cavinas. The rapids down river looked risky so we walked around whilst the crew shoot them in the 16 m boat.
At Cavinas Chachi. the former Mayor greeted us and the two pick-ups were ready and waiting, whilst Carolina and Mike ran another clinic we ate a tasty meal of chicken and rice in the corner of the hut.
We drove out of Cavinas at sunrise on 9th September and Julian did a study of drinking water problems at Vaqueti whilst our vehicles negotiated the extraordinary bridge.
Mateo Nichols, his son Sham and Charlotte has come with us to sell a sack of cocoa beans and some dried meat to finance a visit to La Paz, capital of Bolivia. Leaving us in Australia they would beg a lift to the western mountains and the capital.
From here it was a straight run on the main highway with only a pause for snack at the road side café named Sheraton.
Now back in Riberalta we have completed a challenging but successful venture that delivered dental and medical aid to 7 villages. Carolina had extracted 160 teeth and Mike had tackled a wide variety of ailments. Books have been donated in all the schools and reading glasses distributed. In addition Peter Kolher and Mike had made a new chart of the Inca fortress at Las Piedras.
A water filtration system is being installed at America Village and studies made for possible future tasks at another 4 villages that Just a Drop will now consider. Two solar lighting units were also installed at one village.
Throughout the project Dave Smith, our Quarter Master has kept us fed with excellent meals and rigorously guarded our stores.
we fly back to Santa Cruz and the team disperses. JBS and Yolo then
go on to Ecuador for a new expedition to provide aid for the Waorani people.
SITREP 3 - 3 SEP
JULIAN BUTTER, DAVE SMITH AND PETER KOHLER INSTALLED TWO SOLAR POWER LIGHTING SYSTEMS IN NEW VILLAGE, WHICH IS BEING BUILT AFTER THE PREVIOUS ONE WAS DESTROYED BY FLOODS LAST YEAR. WORKING NONE STOP DR. CAROLINA HANLEY EXTRACTED 40 TEETH AND MIKE ELKIN GAVE MUCH MEDICAL AID. YOLIMA CIPAGAUTA, THE LATIN AMERICAN REPRESENTATIVE FOR THE SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION SOCIETY AND JUST A DROP MIRACUSLOSLY MANAGED TO ORGANISE TRANSPORT IN AN AREA OF GREAT POVERTY WHERE EVERYTHING IS IN SHORT SUPPLY.
OUR WORK WAS MUCH APPRECIATED BY VILLAGERS. JOHN BLASHFORD-SNELL COVERED WITH KISSES BY SENIOR (NOW TOOTHLESS) LADIES!
JULIAN BUTTER HAS COMPLETED RECCE OF A WATER PROJECT IN PALMIRA.
ON 3 SEPTEMBER EXPEDITION MOVING 400 KMS WEST TO OJAKI WHERE WE DELIVERED A PEDAL ORGAN AND INSTALLED A WELL IN 2007.
BOTH REQUIRE REPAIR. A BROKEN BRIDGE WILL MAKE IT A DIFFICULT JOURNEY. MOSQUITOS AND TARANTULAS PLENTIFUL. ENDS
SITREP 2 - 28 Aug
Awaiting arrival of community aid stores in Riberalta, but expect to move to Gonzalo Moreno 30 Aug. Weather warm and dry.
Just a -Drop task in progress at America Village. Recce team visits PALMIRA DE IVO to assess water project on 30 Aug.
Explored Las Piedras Inca Fortress today. Most interesting. Plan survey of site on 1 Sept.
Handed a violin to local student musician on 27 Aug. Much appreciated.
Move to Cavinas and Ojaki planned for 3 /4 Sept. River levels very low making navigation difficult.
SITREP 1 - 25 Aug
Team now in Santa Cruz. All well. Weather cool. Fly to Riberalta 26 Aug. One tonne of donated medical and educational stores assembled by Santa Cruz International School pupils, sent by truck to Riberalta for community aid. John Blashford-Snell has given two lectures to pupils on 2012 Bardia Expeditions.
KOTA MAMA VIII EXPEDITION - BOLIVIA
25 August – 12 September 2012
The aim is community aid the people in need along the Rio Beni. The area was severely flooded in 2011. The plan is to fly into Santa Cruz from UK. Then next day we fly to Riberalta on a local airline. Here we meet local Rotarians who are helping and buy stores and rations before moving to four villages on the North bank of the Rio Beni.
The water charity 'Just a Drop' have agreed to fund six wells and a filtration system at these villages. Our task will be to monitor the work of the contractors and help install the pipework, distribute school books, reading glasses and do dental/medical work. During this phase we shall move by 4WD vehicles and boats.
The next phase is to drive from Riberalta to the small river port of Cavinas . This takes a day. At Cavinas we shall take canoes for 8 hours up the Rio Madidi to the remote Ojaki village where the water system we installed in 2007 has ceased to function properly because the source has dried up. Our task will be to plan a new system and distribute school books and glasses and give medical/dental aid. We also aim to study the double nosed hunting dogs found in this area and aid a remarkable family of husband, wife and 12 children living deep in the bush. Throughout the journey we shall be listing the birds and wildlife for a general survey.
We then return to Riberalta, fly back to Santa Cruz and disperse.
The team will stay in hotels in towns and each individual most bring a small tent for camping in the field. It will be hot and humid. There may be some rain but it is officially the dry season.
We are especially interested in having a doctor or nurse and practical people, in the team.
To register your interest, please click here.