A summary of the Colombian Amazonas Expedition 2017
Colonel John Blashford-Snell CBE FRSGS
In my dream I was back in the Congo Jungle with the thunder of tribal drums reverberating through the heavy night air. However, coming slowly awake, I realised the drumming was real, indeed the floor of the hut on which I lay was shaking. The electronic beat and the excited cries of the dancers made sleep impossible so pushing aside the mosquito net, I flicked the three inch cockroach off my leg and staggered out to protest. Driven on by a flashing keyboard and bellies full of homebrewed chicha, the Ticucna Amerindians were gyrating in a wild frenzy around their football pitch.
“What on earth are you doing?” I yelled at the Curaca (headman) “Celebrating Mother’s Day”, he roared back. “Where are the mothers?” I questioned. “Gone home to bed”, he retorted gulping down more chicha. The frenzied dancing with its ear splitting accompaniment continued until dawn broke at five o’clock. No-one slept that night and here, 1000 kilometres south of Bogota there are no roads, airstrips nor indeed any way to escape this audio torture. Around us the dense Amazon rain forest crowding in on the river banks seemed to reflect the sound onto us.
“If you want doctors and dentists to help you, books for your schools and reading glasses for your older folk,” I explained to my semi-inebriated hosts, “we have to sleep”.
Our team of seventeen volunteers had come together to aid the Ticuna and carry out a range of scientific studies along the winding Loreto Yaku river that branches off the great Amazon, where southern Colombia joins Brazil and Peru. This was in response to a request by Rusbel Torres, the President of Aticoya (The Association of Indian Communities) whom I had met in 2016.
Most of the Amerindians in the Colombian Amazonas region are Ticuna and some 8000 live here, although many more are found in Brazil and Peru. The province was created in 1934, when the League of Nations interceded in a long running border dispute between Colombia and Peru. Surrounded by almost impenetrable jungle, its capital Leticia has a population of 40,000 and is linked to the outside world by an airport and the Amazon.
As we were to discover, the Ticuna villages enjoy some government support, but lack many basic essentials, such as clean drinking water and medical aid. To advise and assist these people living along the remote river, our expedition included doctors, dentists, an economist, a builder, a professor of environmental management, an agriculturist and others with special experience and skills.
We were especially grateful to Zenith Watches and kind friends who helped us to fund the community aid for the Ticuna.
Flying into Leticia one gets a good perspective of the scale of the Amazon, the endless rain forest and the many tributaries running into the world’s longest river. Indeed, this vast forest, pumping oxygen into the atmosphere, is of fundamental importance to life on our planet.
Colombian economist, Yolima Cipagauta or Yoli as we call her, the Scientific Exploration Society’s Latin American representative and naturalist, Sergio Leon of the Eco-Destinos Company had spent a year working with Rusbel Torres to organise the expedition. They were greatly assisted by Medical Mission International (MMI), a Canadian based medical charity that provides spiritual and compassionate health care world wide.
Waiting for us at Leticia on 14th May was an 8 metre ambulance boat, especially built by Distrimotors of Leticia with funds generously provided by Clinique La Prairie, the famous clinic at Montreux, Switzerland. Fitted with a 40 HP outboard, this blue and white, aluminium craft was to accompany us throughout the project and prove of real value to the Ticuna.
We had also chartered a 30 metre river boat with a 70HP outboard to carry the team and equipment. This was to be our flagship and proved invaluable to the venture. Rusbel also helped out by providing a 10 metre craft as a stores boat for our boxes of medical equipment and a couple of collapsible dental chairs loaned by MMI.
After a comfortable night in the Hotel Zuruma and a good steak with a very passable bottle of Sauvignon we embarked from the bustling port. At the chaotic dockside we carried our cargo over swaying planks onto a wobbling pontoon and lowered it into our boats. By noon all was aboard and we set sail for Puerto Narin҃o, the second town of Amazonas. Sailors on the grey Colombian Navy gunboat guarding the port, gave us a friendly wave as we headed up river on the two hour voyage in the blistering sun. Canoes and peke peke boats carrying ladies sheltered by colourful umbrellas passed by on their way to market.
At Puerto Narino dolphins swam out to greet the flotilla and Rusbel welcomed us at a simple reception in his Aticoya hall. A dance troop in traditional costume gave a lively performance and the President made a speech of welcome.
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 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 cooperate 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 hung over 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 lap top, 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 walky 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 world wide! 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 wild life, 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 power point 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.
At dawn on 19th May a fisherman brought in a weighty catch including a large paku which Ester speedily butchered for supper.
To Alastair’s joy the camera traps recorded a video of a rarely seen Tayra, rather like a giant stoat, with her pups and one evening a hunter named Oscar came to tell us all he knew about the legendary water tiger, which we had been led to believe was a black jaguar. From his description it seemed this creature is a large giant otter.
Our work at San Pedro continued with clinics, distributing school books and spectacles and the study of the Ticuna culture. All was happy until John Arathoon’s hammock and sleeping bag were stolen. Joel rang the school bell to call a meeting and an investigation was held at once. By consulting the Shaman the Curaca said he had identified the thief and humble apologies were made to John but alas, his property was not returned.
We heard tales of a magical tree and a party went to find it. A mysterious half human creature known as La Kurupira, said to live in it and the tree, was believed to have strange powers. However, it transpired that the particular tree had been cut down and although our team saw another with a 12 foot diameter trunk in a flooded area, there was no evidence of the mythical creature said to live there.
Morten Risberg, a Norwegian Army officer, was in charge of navigation and used his Iphone GPS and the excellent Splash maps, printed on fabric, that provided valuable physical details of the area.
Moving on to 12th October village we saw a government project to construct twenty concrete houses underway, but the people still needed a clinic. It was here we encountered the Mother’s Day celebrations and despatched Simon House with a camera trap party deep into the jungle. Sleeping out in their hammocks, they were glad to be away from the noisy village!
In camp Dr Hilary Napier had two serious cases to deal with. The first was 9 month old Santiago Alonso, brought in by his distraught mother with a raging temperature whom we despatched in the ambulance boat to Puerto Narin҃o with Yoli. Later the baby was sent on to the clinic in Leticia with suspected malaria but happily, survived. Hilary also stitched up a young girl who had fallen from a tree and sustained a deep gash in her arm.
Threats of more celebrations for Mother’s Day drove us on but Yoli found that in San Juan del Socco the Coraca was prepared to postpone the party until after our visit, so that became our next base. It was a fortunate choice for here we found the battered remains of an eco-hotel that the people hoped could attract visitors. These Ticuna were keen to improve their standard of living and wanted our advice, guidance, clinics, school books and glasses and indeed, anything we could do to help them.
The young Coraca, Gilberson, offered us a large Maloka (meeting house) with a thatched roof that could accommodate 40 hammocks and the old eco-hotel’s huts still had ceramic loos and showers that worked, most of the time!
Ester set up her kitchen and was joined by another smiling lady named Lidia. Alvaro, the local Pasteur of the Evangelist Church turned out to be the leading hunter and offered to guide teams in the forest to set up the camera traps, whose images will be used to make a booklet about the wildlife for the schools.
Our dentists, Varinder Bassi and Jackie Ansic were soon busy extracting teeth and advising on dental hygiene whilst our doctor and surgeon, Yasmin Jauhari coped with a great many patients, many of whom suffered from worm infestations. The younger patients were comforted with a gift of an animal puppet or a teddy bear to encourage them to protect wildlife.
The children paraded to receive the school books, pencils, rubbers and rulers, whilst our engineers studied the water problems. Amazingly a contractor had built a 10 metre tower with a water tank and put in pipes to all the houses, but had not installed a pump to bring the water up from the river.
The deputy Curaca, Dago was keen to tell us of his people’s history and he set to work to create a wall painting showing the origins of the Ticuna. Adriaan and Maya Boyd, our quartermaster, were fascinated by this remarkably talented man and spent time filming him at work. The wall painting depicted the relationship of the people with the anaconda, lord of the underworld and strangely, snakes began appearing all around us.
Simon House, a keen angler went off on dolphin quests, hoping these highly intelligent creatures would guide him to some good fishing spots. Morten Risberg, a lieutenant in the Norwegian Army had completely taken to the jungle and led another camera trap party out on an overnight trip. Colombia has the highest bird diversity on the planet with over 1900 avian species so John Mackenzie-Grieve, our birdman, was in demi-paradise.
At supper one evening Gilberson brought along a 14 year old girl who was a trained Shaman to talk to us. She had attended a shaman’s school and for one so young, addressed us with great confidence. I noticed she wore a crucifix and questioned her. “There are bad shaman and good shaman”, she replied. “I am a good one and cast good spells”.
Juan Alan Mun̕oz of MMI and his wife, Leonor came to visit us and see their old Ticuna friends. Through their knowledge of the area we learned much of the culture and lives of these friendly people.
Sergio Leon, our guide and naturalist was keen to show us the use of herbal medicine and took a party to the village of San Martin where a course is run to teach the Ticuna about traditional medicine. Indeed, everywhere one went in this area, there was much to learn.
Our usual Burns Supper was held on 27th May. Above us the stars twinkled in the cloudless sky, free from light pollution. Haggis, provided by Stahlys Quality Foods of Scotland was served, together with an unexpected local dish. Alvaro, the Pasteur had been invited and asked if he could bring something for the local people to eat at dinner. Thus the reverend gentleman turned up with a six foot alligator he had caught that morning. The Indians tucked into this and also loved the haggis!
A dram or two and some Chilean Merlot helped to wash it all down. However, the hot humid night did not encourage much reeling so we watched dancing by a Ticuna group in traditional dress and listened to songs by the children.
I guess we all felt a little sad to say farewell to our new friends at San Juan as they helped us load the flagship. The moment was lightened by Simon, who fell into the river whilst carrying a box of rations onto the boat. However, to make up for his unsuccessful fishing he emerged from the depths clutching a tine of sardines!
Many of the Ticuna brought us simple handicraft gifts and some of the team were adorned with jet black tattoos. In return we handed over food, tools and medical supplies. Alvaro said a prayer and blessed us, but Gilberson and Dago could not bear to leave us and insisted on coming all the way to Leticia.
As Victor, our faithful skipper nosed the flagship into the gentle waters of the Loreto Yaku a couple of strawberry pink dolphin swam by and a brilliant blue macaw screamed from a tall palm. It was a sight few will forget.
A night stop at Puerto Narino enabled us to formally present the ambulance boat to Aticoya. Clinique La Prairie T shirts were given out and Rusbel made a speech of appreciation in the Ticuna language, thanking us for our work and the valued gift.
With a couple of hours to spare Simon, Alastair and a few stalwarts hired a boat to take them over the river to a Peruvian island to see an anaconda that had been captured. Simon, a keen conservationist, bought the six foot constrictor and placing it on a giant Victorian Lily, released it to the wild.
Back at Leticia we enjoyed a tasty dinner and thanked Juan Alan Mun̕oz and Leonor for all the help they and MMI had given us, after which a few walked over the nearby border in Brazil to say they had been there!
By a miracle Yoli managed to get the team and its mountain of baggage onto the Avianca flight to Bogota. After the humid heat of the Amazon, the Capital Hotel was quite a contrast. The staff there deserve high praise for their friendly efficiency and the delicious cuisine.
Thus ended a challenging but very worthwhile expedition in the spirit of the Scientific Exploration Society that had achieved its aim and been of real help to the Ticuna of the Loreto Yaku.