Friday, 6 April 2012
Thirty Years in the Jungle -Ch 6-8
Chapter 6 El Tigre
THE jungle of the mountain slopes was of a very different character from that of the lowlands. Here the forest was far more like the "high bush" with which I was familiar in Dominica, although far more luxuriant, more interesting and more filled with life.
There were no dense cane-brakes nor thickets of giant bamboos, no tangles of thorn bushes and saw-grass, and very little undergrowth except along the edges of the forest where the trees had been felled in making the roadway up the mountain-side, or where there were natural open glades. In many places the forest was so open and there were so few small trees or bushes that a motor-car might have been driven for miles between the immense trunks of the trees. This was in many ways a far better game country and a better collecting ground than the lowlands, and most of my time was spent here. But it must not be thought that these jungles "teemed" with game or that they were "alive" with brilliant-coloured birds. In no place that I know are Tropical American jungles "teeming" with life. Life is there to be sure, but mostly the denizens of these forests keep out of sight and make little sound.
If one wishes to see tropical birds of gay plumage, clearings and brushy fields should be sought, for the jungle and forest species are usually dull-coloured, and as the bright-coloured species dwell in the tree-tops they are practically invisible.
Life in these heavy forests is in strata, often astonishingly sharply defined. In the topmost branches of the trees dwell the macaws, parrots, toucans, cotingas and other birds. Lower down are the tanagers, euphonias, finches, warblers, parroquets and scores of other genera and species; among the lowest limbs would be guans, curassows, umbrella-birds and others; hammering their resounding tattoos upon the higher parts of the trunks were the big, flashy, ivory-billed woodpeckers; lower down the wood-hewers and creepers; upon the pendent lianas were mannikins, ant-thrushes and vireos; and upon the ground were the landrails, the sun-bitterns, the tinamous and the quail-doves.
The quadrupeds also had their favourite zones. Monkeys and squirrels in the tree-tops; sloths, opossums and climbing ant-eaters among the branches; kinkajous and the smaller wild cats among the lower limbs; peccaries, deer, agouti and paca on the earth; while equally at home on the ground or in the tree-tops were the ant-bears, the ocelots, the pumas and the jaguars.
Very frequently we came upon the trails of these big cats, but they were mainly nocturnal, they were as elusive as ghosts, and though deer, peccary and smaller game were seen daily and formed a good part of our menu, we roamed the jungles for weeks without catching a glimpse of puma of jaguar. No doubt they were near, no doubt they watched our every move, but they are timid, shy and cowardly creatures and are always anxious to avoid man as long as they are unmolested or uninjured. But when, one morning, we found the fresh tracks of a very large jaguar and her cub beside the road up the mountain, and Juan assured me the two had passed that way less than fifteen minutes before, I realized how close I had come to getting a shot at the coveted spotted "tigre," as the natives called the jaguar. But the spoor led into an impassable thicket of brush between the pathway and the forest, and it was impossible to follow the trail.
I had learned enough of jaguars' habits to know that they usually follow a well-defined route unless frightened or disturbed, and hoping we might be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the beasts, we returned to the spot early the following morning. But the jaguar had again been before us, and this time had followed the footpath for several hundred feet before entering the bush.
The next morning we started still earlier, and, telling Juan to make a wide detour and approach the spot from above, I made my way cautiously up the path. There were no new footprints, and wondering whether the creature had become suspicious and abandoned her route or if she had not yet arrived on the scene, I screened myself among the bushes to await events, and for some time sat silently. Then, hearing a slight noise from up the path, and thinking Juan was coming, I rose and stepped into the pathway, to see, not Juan but a magnificent black jaguar trolling towards me with a quarter-grown cub beside her. At the same instant the big cat saw me, and the report of my rifle and her superb leap into the brush were simultaneous. Jumping upon a fallen tree-trunk, I fired shot after shot into the waving, shaking brush that marked her headlong flight towards the forest, until my rifle's magazine was empty and Juan came dashing up.
Fresh blood beside the trail and on the leaves showed my first shot had not missed, and cautiously and with ready weapons we followed the broken twigs and drops of red through the thicket. Just within the edge of the forest the trail was lost, and though we searched about in every direction we failed to pick up any sign of the wounded jaguar. Puzzled as to what to do, we stood discussing the matter in low tones, when a bit of bark fell upon my hat, and I glanced up. Less than twenty feet above my head, a huge gnarled liana stretched like a suspension bridge between two great trees, and on the twisted mass of vines, eyes blazing, teeth gleaming, crouched the wounded jaguar, ready to spring!
There was no time to move, no chance to leap aside, scarcely the fraction of a second in which to think and act, not even time to throw rifle to shoulder. Involuntarily, with a single movement, I jerked the barrel of my rifle up and, pulling trigger, leaped to one side. I had fired from the hip, taking no aim, but the jaguar was a large mark, and at the report the big cat came crashing and snarling to the ground where I had been standing a moment before. Juan, who had also managed to jump out of the danger zone, now drew his machete, intent on finishing the dying beast, and it was with the utmost difficulty that I restrained him and put an end to the jaguar with another bullet.
My first shot had broken the creature's shoulder, and as we examined the great needle-pointed claws and the huge sharp teeth I thanked my lucky stars that the fragment of bark had warned me of the lurking death above my head, and that I had learned to shoot from the hip. There was no doubt that the wounded beast had intended to spring upon us, and, taken unawares, we should have had no chance against the ten-foot jet-black creature, a variety far more dangerous and ferocious than the ordinary spotted jaguar and regarded with deadly fear by the natives and Indians.
Speaking of Juan whipping out his machete to attack the jaguar brings to mind another experience in the same district. A native and I were on a hunt for peccaries with several dogs. We had met with no success, when suddenly the dogs became excited and dashed off through the brush, barking and yelping, with the native tearing pell-mell after them. I was at some little distance, and thinking they had scented a herd of the vicious little wild pigs, I hurried along as fast as the thick growth would permit. Evidently the dogs had brought their quarry to bay, for I could hear their excited yelping and barking several hundred feet ahead; but I could not understand why there was no sound of a gunshot from my companion. Bursting through the last of the tangle, I reached an open space, and saw the native and his dogs standing about the huge protruding buttress-like roots of a giant tree. Hurrying forward, I reached the fellow's side and, to my utter amazement, found him standing over a dead jaguar, or rather the remains of a jaguar, for the creature was literally cut into ribbons.
The dogs, it seemed, had cornered the big cat between two of the projecting roots of the tree, and the native had crept up in the rear and, reaching over one of the roots, had killed the jaguar with his machete. Not content with that, however, he had relieved his excited nerves by hacking and slashing the body until there was not a square foot of the handsome hide which was not ruined. In the hands of the natives, the long, keen-bladed machete is a most deadly weapon, and as these people are usually execrable shots, they invariably resort to the machete whenever there is an opportunity. I have no doubt that in this case the native completely forgot he had a gun, and fell upon the jaguar with the weapon with which he was most familiar, without stopping to think of consequences.
On one occasion, while in Costa Rica, I came near matching my own skill with a machete against a wounded jaguar. But that was from necessity and not from choice. I had been on a long ride across the Cordilleras, and on my return left the little village of San Mateo before dawn. A stranger was leaving at the same time and for the sake of companionship we travelled together. It was pitch-dark and all I could see of my fellow-traveller was that he was mounted on a white mule, was clad in white and was a huge man.
He was an agreeable fellow, and we chatted and joked as we rode along until in the dim, grey dawn I saw that he was a coal-black negro; but in a land where there is no "colour line" that mattered not at all, and later I learned that he was the leader of an unsuccessful revolution in his own country, a voluntary exile, and a widely travelled and well-educated man.
Stopping only for a noonday lunch and rest at a tiny fonda in the heart of the mountains, we rode throughout the day, and late in the afternoon reached the town of Atenas. Here, in an apology for an inn, we were to pass the night, and as the proprietor hastened to bring drinks and food he regaled us with the latest news and gossip of the village, the most important and interesting item of which was his lurid and highly-coloured account of a giant "tigre" that had been playing havoc with the people's cattle.
According to his story, the jaguar had been paying nightly visits to the corrals, and out of pure wantonness and a lust for blood had killed and maimed scores of steers, besides carrying off full-grown cows. Various attempts, he said, had been made to kill or capture the brute, but without success, and the villagers had become firmly convinced that the beast possessed supernatural powers. Their superstitious fears once aroused, they had abandoned all efforts to protect their herds.
Although we had no doubt that a jaguar had visited the place and had killed cattle, yet the man's story was so obviously exaggerated that we paid little heed to it. In fact my companion banteringly asked the innkeeper whether the "tigre" carried off the cows in its mouth as a cat would carry a kitten, or if it slung the carcass over its shoulder. The innkeeper, however, could see no joke in the affair and swore by all the saints that the jaguar was truly gigantic—a "phenomena" as he put it—that its footprints were as large as a palm-leaf hat, and that no one dared venture out of doors after dark. Later on, several natives dropped into the inn and all told the same tale, the size and ferocity of the jaguar increasing rapidly every time he was mentioned. All begged me to remain and try to relieve them of the unwelcome visitor. Evidently their conviction that the beast bore a charmed life was not over-deep, and while I would have liked to linger for a few days on the chance of getting the brute, I had no time to spare and was too tired with my long ride over the mountains to sit up all night waiting for a jaguar which might or might not appear.
But when, at breakfast next day at dawn, our host told us excitedly that during the night "el tigre" had killed two cows and had carried off a half-grown heifer, I regretted I had not sat up for the beast.
Leaving the village, we cantered off, and before we had travelled a mile we had forgotten all about the jaguar and its depredations, and with no thought of using our guns on a well-travelled highway we had our weapons slung in their sheaths at our saddles. For some distance we rode between tilled fields or portreros, and then came to a spot where a steep clay bank crowned with jungle rose above the road on one side, while on the other was a hedge of cactus and needle-leaved yuccas enclosing a deserted and neglected banana-patch.
Suddenly my horse stopped dead, almost throwing me from my saddle, and stood trembling in every limb. Next second there was a crashing of the brush above the bank, a streak of tawny yellow shot through the air, and an enormous jaguar landed in the centre of the road not twenty yards away!
Instantly, at sight of the creature, my friend's mule turned and bolted, while my horse reared and plunged, snorting with terror, and rendering it impossible for me to shoot or even draw my rifle from its sheath. In the road, watching, stood the great spotted beast, his eyes fixed upon me, his tail twitching from side to side and his ears laid back; apparently undecided whether to attack or retreat. Then, crouching quickly, with a single magnificent bound he cleared the hedge and went springing off among the fallen banana trees. Jerking my rifle from its scabbard, I leaped from the saddle and, dashing to the hedge, fired twice in rapid succession at the retreating jaguar.
At the second shot he wheeled, bit savagely at his flank and rolled over. Evidently he was badly wounded, and, pushing through the thorny barrier, I ran towards him. As he saw me approaching, he tried to drag himself away, but after proceeding a few yards he suddenly turned, crouched, and with bared teeth and twitching tail, faced me.
Thinking him too badly wounded to be dangerous, and wishing to make sure of my shot, I incautiously approached to within a dozen paces before I halted, and, taking deliberate aim, fired. Just as I pressed the trigger the jaguar sprang—I saw the fur fly from underneath him as my bullet grazed him. Jumping to one side, I threw out the empty shell, and as the brute landed, with a sullen growl, within a foot of where I had stood, I threw the rifle to my shoulder and pulled trigger.
There was a sharp metallic click as the hammer fell, but no report, and instantly it flashed across my mind that there had only been three cartridges in the magazine!
I had no revolver; my only weapon was my machete. Drawing this, I started to back slowly away, hoping that if the wounded beast sprang again I could step to one side and disable him with a blow of the keen blade.
I dared not turn and run, for I had received ample proof that the creature could travel far more rapidly than myself, and I knew that the instant I turned my back he would be upon me.
Lower and lower he crouched, the great muscles on his flanks growing tense and rigid. I could see the slow stiffening of his legs as the bared claws spread out and dug into the earth in preparation for his spring; his tail twitched more quickly, his ears flattened back, his wicked yellow eyes glared, and I braced myself to leap aside as the lithe body hurled itself upon me. Then, close to my ears, a gun roared out. The great muscles of the jaguar relaxed, the spotted body rolled over, the claws thrashed the air, and with a last savage snarl the beast lay motionless.
"Bien, all's well that ends well!" cried my negro companion, who had arrived at the psychological moment, "a machete is all right for killing snakes, Amigo; but it's no weapon for fighting tigers. Caramba! but he is a monster!"
This was the second close shave I had had with jaguars, and they were the only two occasions on which I was ever in danger from the beasts. Moreover, both times the jaguars were wounded and practically at bay, and both times I placed myself in a dangerous position. I have never been able to verify a single story of a man being molested by a jaguar, spotted or black, unless the creature was attacked or wounded first, and I do not believe that these animals ever attack human beings as long as they are able to avoid it. On several occasions, however, stories of people being killed or injured have borne all the hallmarks of truth, and once I was almost convinced that a jaguar actually had made an unprovoked attack upon an Indian village and had killed a woman. This was in British Guiana. From an official in the interior came the report that a jaguar had invaded an Indian camp, and springing into a benab (hut) had killed one of the women. Here, it appeared, was an authoritative instance of jaguars attacking human beings without provocation.
Some time later, I was at the village where the tragedy had occurred, and anxious to get the details, I questioned the Indians about it. Yes, the woman had been killed by a jaguar, the Indians assured me, and then they went on to describe how the creature had dashed into the camp and had chased a dog into the hut. The frightened woman, who was in her hammock, had tried to leap from her resting-place to seek safety in flight; but in her excitement she had caught her foot in the meshes of the hammock, and had fallen, striking her head against a sharp stone and dying soon afterwards. Yes, undoubtedly the jaguar had killed her—but in a most indirect and roundabout way.
Another incident which might have resulted in an equally indirect fatality through a jaguar, occurred during my residence in Guiana. A friend had a barge-load of lumber going to a mining camp up-river when, as the craft was passing near the river bank, a full-grown jaguar leaped into the stream and, swimming to the barge, clambered on to a projecting plank.
As it happened, a negro was lying dozing on the opposite end of the plank, and feeling his support move, he turned lazily and glanced around.
One look was enough—he let out a piercing yell and sprang overboard. Relieved of his weight the plank swung up, dropping the thoroughly frightened and confused jaguar into the water. My friend, hearing the negro's yell, the splash, and the crash of the falling plank, and thinking one of the men had slipped and fallen into the river, sprang on to the barge from the launch lashed alongside, and scurried towards the stern with a rope ready to throw to the struggling man. Just as he reached the end of the lumber pile, the jaguar again drew itself up on to the craft, and completely forgetting his errand, the would-be rescuer turned tail and ran.
Whether the big cat was so confused that it did not know what it was doing, whether it feared the swimmer in the water more than the retreating man on deck, or whether it merely wished to escape and saw no other place than the deck, will never be known; but whatever the reason, the jaguar leapt after the fleeing man. By this time the negro boatmen in the launch had caught sight of the beast, and promptly casting off the tow-lines they opened the throttle wide and headed for the centre of the river. Around the barge my friend rushed, with the jaguar at his heels, until, reaching the end of the irregularly piled lumber, he scrambled to the top. Hardly had he gained the summit of the pile when the jaguar's head appeared, and an instant later the creature was also on the pile of planks.
Deciding that his one chance was to follow the negro, who had now gained the bank, my friend ran to the projecting end of a plank, prepared to dive into the stream. At the same instant the big cat leaped on to the other end of the timber, the opposite end flew up, and the thoroughly terrified man was catapulted into the air. Evidently the sight of a flying human being was too much for the jaguar, and as my friend landed with a resounding thump within a few feet of him, he uttered a startled growl and, leaping into the river, swam madly for the bank. And as my friend, bruised and shaken but unhurt, sat rubbing his sore anatomy and gathering his wits together, the jaguar reached the refuge of his jungle home and went crashing off through the brush.
To this day my friend and the negro boatman insist that the jaguar swam to the barge with malice aforethought, but personally I do not believe the creature had the least idea of attacking any of the men.
Jaguars have an insatiable curiosity and possess a strange habit of following human beings at times. On one occasion while tramping over an old road through the jungle with my black camp boy, Sam, I felt a peculiar indefinable sensation of being followed; but although I looked back frequently and even halted and waited, nothing appeared. Sam confessed to the same sensation, and finally we were so firmly convinced that something or somebody was trailing us that we turned and retraced our steps.
We had gone but a few hundred feet when we came upon the tracks of a large jaguar in the road, and as the marks were superimposed over our own footprints, there was no doubt that the big cat was following close behind us. Feeling sure he would now be frightened off, we resumed our way, but a mile or so farther on I again felt we were being followed, and again turning back we found the jaguar was still trailing along behind.
There was nothing we could do, and convinced that the creature would neither show itself nor attack us, we continued on our tramp, and for nearly ten miles, or until we approached the first Indian house, the jaguar continued to dog our footsteps.
At another time, when in Panama, one of my men left camp for a stroll along the beach of a river. He had gone for some distance, when, glancing back, he saw a big jaguar a few hundred yards behind him. Filled with terror, the fellow started to run and, looking over his shoulder, was horrified to see the jaguar loping after him. Feeling sure the creature was bent on killing him, and seeing no chance of escape by running, and with the jaguar between him and camp, the man turned and scrambled up a steep bank that bordered the beach. Gaining the summit, he looked down to find the brute regarding him curiously, but making no attempt to climb the bank. With one eye on the jaguar the trembling fellow hurried as rapidly as he could towards camp, the jaguar keeping pace with him on the beach below. Not until he was within shouting distance of the camp did the creature leave, and while I at first doubted his story, an examination of the beach proved that he had, for a wonder, adhered to facts.
Such habits may be abnormal individual traits of certain jaguars, for as a rule these creatures keep well out of sight and if surprised make all possible speed to get as far from man as they can. But occasionally, for some unknown reason, they approach human beings of their own freewill.
Once, when camping in the jungle, I was aroused from sleep by a slight noise in our shelter. It seemed to come from the direction of Sam's hammock—a sort of coughing, choking breathing—and fearing Sam was ill I flashed my electric torch in his direction, revealing a half-grown jaguar nosing about directly under Sam's hammock! For a brief instant the beast was blinded by the sudden glare and then, with a bound, he reached the near-by jungle and disappeared.
Another time, while hunting alone in the Costa Rican forest, I was overtaken by a terrific shower and sought partial protection between the hip-like roots of a huge tree. Placing my gun in a dry spot in the shelter of the broad leaves of a parasitic plant, I squatted close to the roots and waited for the rain to cease. Presently I heard a rustling sound from beyond the root beside me, but supposing it was merely some bird or lizard, I gave no heed to it until, the worst of the shower over, I rose and casually glanced over the edge of the intervening root.
Imagine my astonishment when I found myself face to face with a fully-grown jaguar snuggled against the opposite side of the root! Less than three inches of wood had separated us as we both sought shelter from the downpour! For a full minute we gazed at each other and then, with a lazy yawn, the big cat stretched itself, rose slowly to its feet and trotted deliberately off, leaving me staring after it, too surprised to make a move.
But I think the most unusual experience that I have ever had with jaguars was many years after I had killed my first jaguar in Costa Rica. I was descending a big river in South America, and my boat, equipped with an outboard motor, was making fully ten knots, aided by the current. Presently one of my Indian boatmen turned, and pointing ahead, remarked tersely "maipuri" (tapir). Peering in the direction he indicated, I could see some creature swimming rapidly across the stream. Being in need of fresh meat and anxious to secure the tapir, I swung the boat towards him. With the speed we were making we were soon alongside when, to our surprise, we discovered that it was no tapir but a good-sized jaguar. At that instant the creature turned sharply around and before I could check the boat's speed or reach for my gun we swept past the jaguar. Something, some whim which to this day I cannot explain, caused me to reach out and grasp the brute's tail as we sped by. Dragged through the water by our fast moving boat, the jaguar could not turn to scratch or bite and I hung on to his tail like grim death. The creature's struggles only made matters worse for him, his frantic efforts to keep his head above water grew less and less and presently ceased. A few minutes later he was hauled aboard, dead as a drowned rat, and probably the only jaguar ever killed by man in this unusual manner.
Chapter 7 In the Land of El Dorado
Hitherto all my expeditions had been for the purpose of collecting natural history specimens—birds, quadrupeds, reptiles and even insects. But I had always been intensely interested in the American Indians, and on my various trips to the jungles I had come into contact with a number of little-known tribes. From them I had obtained not a few ethnological specimens, and from time to time I had picked up a number of archaeological specimens as well. Moreover, I had had rather unusual luck or perhaps success in "standing in" with aborigines, and in winning the confidence of tribes who were not over-given to receiving white men with open arms.
But despite this it came as something of a surprise when I was asked by Mr. George G. Heye (who later founded the Museum of the American Indian in New York) if I would make an expedition to British Guiana to study the aborigines of the interior and gather ethnological material for his collections.
Much water had run through the mill since I had first become acquainted with the jungle, and while it still fascinated me as much as ever, the tropics and their forests were as familiar to me as my native land with its northern woods.
But British Guiana was very different from any tropical land I had known, jungle life in the "Magnificent Province" was wholly distinct from the jungle life in other places I had been in, my work was new, and transportation, outfitting, travelling and every other detail was unlike anything I had previously undertaken.
Georgetown, being the front door to the wilderness, is the starting-point of the gold-diggers, the balata-bleeders and the diamond-hunters who annually set out by hundreds for the interior, and the merchants and traders in the capital know everything there is to be known regarding the outfitting of such expeditions and the requirements of the "pork knockers" as the negro gold and diamond seekers are called. But to outfit a scientific expedition is a very different proposition, and as my requirements were totally distinct from those of the ordinary adventurer who penetrates the hinterland jungles, little helpful information was available. Very wisely, the Government has certain laws and regulations regarding travel in the interior, the navigation of the rivers, and the status of the aborigines, and these are strictly enforced. The law provides for a fixed quantity and quality of provisions to be supplied each man employed; no boat is allowed to proceed up the rivers until inspected for staunchness and examined to see that it is not loaded beyond a fixed point; every boat must have a licensed bowman and captain who are competent, skilled rivermen; certain rivers and rapids are prohibited, and there are heavy penalties for any captain who takes a boat through them; and no one is permitted to employ the native Indians except with permission of the "Protector of the Indians" and after complying with the restrictions and formalities provided. In my case, however, the "prohibited" streams were the very ones I most desired to navigate, and the object of my expedition was to deal with the Indians. But I found the officials very willing to co-operate with me and to do anything to make my work successful and easy. Restrictions as to forbidden rapids and rivers were removed, and I was free to go where I liked, and I was given carte blanche as far as employing and dealing with the aborigines concerned.
I had already secured the services of a negro camp boy, Sam, who proved an invaluable acquisition and remained in my service throughout my stay of more than three years in Guiana, and friends in Georgetown had given me the name of a captain whom they could guarantee was one of the best in the colony. Then, just as I was preparing to start, a fellow-countryman arrived in Georgetown, a young mining engineer who had come to Guiana in the interests of an aluminium company, and who was searching for Bauxite deposits. Learning of my proposed trip, he suggested we join forces and travel together, a proposition that I welcomed, and plans were accordingly made.
Our jumping-off place was to be Bartica, where we would secure boat, provisions and men, and with our dunnage stored aboard the little river steamer, we left Georgetown and headed for the mouth of the mighty Essequibo River. The little town perches upon the river's bank where the Mazaruni and Cuyuni rivers pour their coffee-coloured waters into the turbid flood of the Essequibo, and marks the limit of steamboat navigation on the river.
A tiny village of perhaps fifty buildings separated by grassy lanes, Bartica owes its existence to its position, for the pork-knockers bound for the Upper Mazaruni and Cuyuni districts start on their boat trips from here, there is a "Lands and Mines" official in the village, and on the return journey the gold and diamonds are inspected at this point.
Hence the village is a busy and not unimportant spot with a polyglot population of whites, blacks, coloured folk, East Indian coolies, Portuguese traders, English officials and aboriginal Indians.
We found our captain, Boters, without difficulty, and we had even less trouble in securing a boat. The craft was a heavy, strongly built affair twenty-eight feet in length, double-ended and spoon-bottomed, the universal type peculiar to Guiana and admirably adapted to navigating the falls and rock-filled rapids of the rivers. A boat with a keel, or even with a flat bottom, might become firmly stuck upon a rock or might be capsized; but with the spoon-shaped bottom the boat may be shoved from a rock in any direction and will slide sideways from an obstruction before it will capsize.
To get a crew, however, was by no means an easy task. No one but the captain and his bowman appeared anxious to take the proposed trip, although we offered high wages; and one after another the men we engaged backed out. They would have jumped at the chance to go on an ordinary trip, for business was slack, but they all feared the route we had selected, up the Essequibo through the rapids to Rockstone. It was a prohibited stretch and, as far as we could learn, no one but Mr. Anderson of the Lands and Mines Department had ever gone over it. But, as we found later, the perils were vastly exaggerated and the trip was by no means as thrilling, as difficult or as dangerous as many others I made during my stay in Guiana.
But there are always some adventurous souls in a spot like Bartica, and at last, after innumerable delays, we secured enough men to handle our boat. They were certainly a motley crew. The captain, Abraham Boters, and his bowman, Glasgow, were " Bovianders," men of mixed negro, Indian and Dutch blood noted as rivermen, and whose peculiar racial name is a corruption of "Above Yonders" applied to them in the old days when any person living beyond the limits of civilization was referred to as an "Above Yonder." The stern-paddler, Chung, was half-negro and half-Chinese; Coreira was a Cape Verde Portuguese; two others were coal-black negroes; another was a pure-blooded Akawoia Indian, while the sixth member of the crew declared he was "half-missionary and half-Indian."
By the time our outfits and those of the men, together with the legal quantity of provisions, were on board and stowed beneath the huge tarpaulin which was to serve as our shelter at night, the boat was deeply laden. We were still short-handed, for we required eight paddlers instead six, but we planned to pick up two more Indians on the way. With a goodly portion of Bartica's population gathered at the waterside to see us off, the boat was pushed from shore, the six paddles dug into the water in unison, and our trip through the wilderness began.
The methods of paddling universal among these river boatmen is peculiar. It consists of about a dozen shortarm strokes, all the paddles being slid along the gunwales on recovery. Then, at a shout of "Yep yai!" and the signal of a raised paddle, given by the bow paddler, the stroke suddenly changes. At the signal the paddles are dug deeply into the water with the full power of brawny arms and backs, the water is thrown upward in a miniature cataract at the end of each stroke, and the heavy boat is fairly lifted from the water, until, at another signal, the short, lazy arm-stroke is resumed. All is done in perfect time and unison, the bronzed backs bending, and the paddles flashing like one, while on the prow the bowman perches with his enormous paddle ready to swing the craft to right or left at the sight of submerged rock or sunken snag; and at the stern stands the captain, the big steering-paddle slung to the gunwale by a bight of rope, and its handle gripped firmly in his hands. Of all the crew he is the most important. He must he skilled in handling the boat, he must know every eddy, current, rock, rapid, snag and island in the river at every stage of high or low water, and he must know the spots at which to camp along the shores. He is wholly responsible for the safety of the boat and its occupants, for he is licensed by the Government after a long and searching examination, and his word is law once he is afloat upon the river.
For several miles after leaving Bartica we swung along close to the shore, past the well-tilled rubber-groves and lime-orchards of Agatash, and between the mangrove-fringed shores and wooded hills of the river beyond. In a few hours all signs of civilization had been left astern, and the mile-broad tranquil river, the interminable mangroves, and the vast jungle stretched before us.
A little after noon we headed inshore toward a darker patch upon the greenery of the bush, and presently entered the mouth of Kureai Creek, where Boters hoped to find two Indians to augment our crew.
There is something wonderfully fascinating about paddling up these little sluggish creeks in the wilderness, where deepest silence reigns, only broken by the harsh screams of parrots or the curious, yelping, puppy-like notes of toucans; where vine-draped trees, graceful palms, and great forest giants rise in a wall of green on either side. Arches of tangled lianas and spreading branches meet above the water; mangroves sprawl their strange, aerial roots in the muddy shallows; giant, lily-like Arums form miniature islands; strange orchids and air plants bedeck vines and trees; and huge brilliant, shimmering Morpho butterflies flit back and forth, their cerulean flashing wings reflected in wondrous manner upon the dark surface of the creek. Here passing breezes never ruffle the water, which is stained a deep brown by the vegetation, and has a thick, oily appearance that reflects the surroundings to marvellous perfection. It is as if one were floating upon a gigantic mirror, and every leaf, twig and detail is duplicated so perfectly that the eye can scarcely distinguish the real from the unreal, nor can say which is water and which is land. Here and there great fallen trees or tacubas bar the way and force the occupants of intruding boats to crouch low as they pass beneath the tangled mass, while submerged logs and snags grind against the bottom of the craft with imminent danger of overturning it. But by twisting and turning, swinging to right or left, and following leads only visible to the trained eyes of the rivermen, mile after mile is traversed in safety through this jungle wonderland.
Along the creek's banks, as we proceeded, little coves or lagoons stretched into the forest, and here we occasionally caught sight of frail dug-out canoes or "wood-skins "—canoes made from the bark of a forest tree—moored to the banks, with primitive ladders, made by cutting deep notches in a log, leading upward from the water to the land. These marked the landing-places of the Indians, whose gardens and houses were hidden in the bush beyond, and who in this district were nominally civilized and—so Boters assured me—possessed nothing in the line of primitive weapons or other articles but "Live all same laik we Boviander, takin' in consid'ation dey been 'bout de same specie as we," as he put it.
But as boatmen these semi-civilized aborigines are unexcelled, and it was in search of an Indian called Hermanas that Boters had entered the creek, for he felt sure that the old chief could supply us with the two men we needed. Moreover, someone in Bartica had told Lewis the engineer that Hermanas knew where there was a Bauxite deposit, so we expected to kill two birds with one stone.
Soon after entering the creek we sighted a little opening, with two boats moored among the trees, while perched upon the bank, amid banana and palm trees, was a thatched hut from which a man stepped forth at our bowman's hail. He was no Indian, but a white man, and, strangely enough proved to be a Boer from the Transvaal, an ex-prisoner of war, who had chosen to remain in Guiana rather than return to his native veldt when hostilities were ended. He informed us that Hermanas's place was "Not too far topside creek"—for he spoke in the queer, talky-talky jargon of the aborigines—and with this vague information we resumed our journey.
Several miles beyond the home of this voluntary Boer exile, we spied several canoes hidden among the trees, and near them a larger boat in which a man was preparing to embark. He was a half-breed, just returning from the Indians' camp, and offered to guide us to Hermanas's home. At the summit of the bank stood two well-built logis or Indian houses, and here we decided to make camp for the night, as it would be impossible to visit the Indians, return to the boat and reach another good camp-site before dark.
These logis are scattered through the bush and along the streams and serve as temporary rest-houses for the aborigines when travelling about. They are merely great open sheds timbered with poles and roofed with palm-leaves beautifully thatched, and supported on strong posts five or six feet in height. In form and construction they are identical with the true houses or benabs used as permanent homes by the Indians. Light poles resting on the rafters form an overhead platform upon which household utensils and belongings are stored; hammocks swung from side to side between the upright posts serve as chairs and beds; and with a fire or two built at the ends of the building to keep the interior dry and provide means for cooking, the Indian's home is complete.
Here for the first time I had a demonstration of the inborn honesty of the Guiana Indians and their sublime confidence in the integrity of others. Their own honesty and their belief that all men possess the same trait was most vividly illustrated when, happening to look upon the platform under the roof of the logi, I found innumerable belongings of the Indians. Even their most cherished possessions were there, such as trunks and canisters of clothing, ammunition, cooking utensils, machetes, and even a new breech-loading shot-gun still in its original box as sent from the factory in the States. Here they were left unguarded and within reach of any passer-by, the simple aborigines trusting solely to the honesty of strangers for the safety of their goods. Any chance traveller was welcome to come and go and make use of the logis for as long as he saw fit, provided the contents were left undisturbed. To the credit of the blacks and whites, the half-breeds, and the innumerable other natives who put the logis to their own use, the red-men's faith in human nature is seldom shattered, although the fact that this is not wholly due to moral principles was proven by the naïve remark of one of our men who, in reply to my question, answered: "No, sir, we never takes the bucks' (Indians) things; we bound to be shot up if we does."
During my residence in Guiana I had many demonstrations of the universal honesty of the Indians. On one occasion I met an Indian who, with only one companion, was travelling to Georgetown from the far distant Rupinuni district. A year previously a man had given the Indian five dollars with which to get him a cotton hammock of a certain sort, and the Indian, having been unable to secure the hammock, had started on a three-hundred-mile journey merely to return the money that had been entrusted to him!
Soon after we reached the logis an Indian canoe arrived with a young buck, accompanied by his squaw, or buckeen, and a youngster about two years of age. The man and hi wife were clad, as are all the Indians near the settlements, in civilized clothes, but their boy was innocent of all adornment and was as bright and interesting a little savage as one could wish. His sixteen-year-old mother carried a huge load in a basket secured by a strip of soft bark around her forehead, and seemed little inconvenienced by her burden, even when climbing up the steep and slippery path from the creek. The Guiana redmen are by no means lazy nor indolent, and do not, as some might think, leave all the heavy work to their women.
Both men and women have their certain tasks and duties, and the men do fully as much as their women. They fell the trees, clear the land, make the canoes, hunt, fish, paddle, make weapons, utensils and rope, and even care for the children, while the women weave the hammocks, do the cooking, look after the houses, till the fields, gather the crops and make the drinks. Both sexes carry their share of loads when travelling, and they work together harmoniously and in perfect accord. Once an Indian can be induced to work he is a hard, tireless worker, and their disinclination to labour for hire is due more to inborn independence than laziness, and while always friendly still they have a certain distrust and contempt for persons of another race. But once their respect and confidence are won they will do anything in their power for you, and will remember a kindness or an injury for years and return it in kind—and often with interest—when opportunity offers.
I had been assured in Georgetown, and by Boters as well, that I would find no interesting Indians on this trip; that all the aborigines of the section were civilized and Christianized; and that to find bucks in their natural state, clad only in loin-cloths or laps and armed with bows and arrows, and to secure specimens of genuine savage handiwork, I must travel far into the interior, to the country on the Brazilian and Venezuelan borders. So conclusive did these statements appear, that I had been tempted to start off without carrying anything to trade; but some hunch or intuition told me to go prepared and as it turned out I was glad I did carry a limited amount of trade goods such as small mirrors, files, knives, beads and similar articles. But I had never expected to find any but civilized redmen so near the settlements. Imagine my surprise when, after walking barely one hundred yards into the forest on the way to Hermanas's camp, we came face to face with a naked savage—bow and arrows in hand, a beaded girdle about his waist, and his only garment a scarlet lap. He was a splendid figure, a statue of glowing bronze, but we scarcely caught a glimpse of him before he slipped into the jungle and melted into the shadows of the trees like a spirit of the forest.
After travelling several miles through the forest, we emerged at a strip of partly-cleared land, entered a little garden of cassava and plantains, and came upon a cluster of thatched Indian huts or benabs. In one an old woman was busy cleaning manioc roots, while the young squaw we had already seen sat nursing her two-year-old son. In the larger house a number of Indians swung lazily in luxurious hammocks, and, without deigning to turn their heads, grunted guttural "How-dies" as we entered. At our guide's call of "Hermanas" an old buck raised himself from the depths of his hammock and inquired: "What you want um?"
He was a shrewd-faced, small man, with head swathed in a rag, and showed every evidence of being ill. To his query we replied we had come to get men for our trip, and also to ask him to show us the Bauxite deposit.
"Give me two hund'ed dollar, me show um," replied the wily old chief.
"Eh, eh, man!" exclaimed Boters. "You no got um nothing for sell. How we know you fin' um? Gent'man must fo' see um firs' t'ing. Mebbe good, mebbe no good. S'pose um no good, gent'man pay fo' you show um. S'pose um good, you get um plenty work, plenty money."
"Me no dam' fool," the Indian assured us. "Me catch urn plenty rockstone all same like um want. No pay two hun'ded dollar, no show um."
Further conversation disclosed the fact that an enterprising employee of the Lands and Mines Department at Bartica had heard of Hermanas's find, and had assured the Indian that he could obtain two hundred dollars for guiding Lewis to the deposit, for which valuable advice he was to receive a goodly share of the amount.
Lewis explained how ridiculous such a proposition was, and how it was impossible to determine the quality, value or extent of the deposit until he had seen and examined it. To all this Hermanas listened silently, and, even when Lewis offered him a large sum for his services, with a promise of more if the deposit proved valuable, the Indian still maintained his stoical attitude.
At this juncture my experiences with other Indians and my knowledge of Indian character came to the rescue. I offered to cure his headache, which I assumed—rightly— was neuralgic and was his only trouble, provided he would help us. After a moment's hesitation he stretched out his hand for the banknote Lewis temptingly displayed, and then, rising, picked up his gun, slipped bark sandals on his feet, and without a word led the way into the forest.
Through jungles so thick we were forced to hew a way with machetes, through deep, muddy creeks, across treacherous bogs on slender trunks of trees, up hill and down the trail led. For over an hour we hurried on, with the old Indian in the lead, until at last we toiled up a steep hillside. Reaching the summit, Hermanas suddenly halted, squatted down, and with a grin exclaimed: "Now gimme two hun'ded dollar." He was sitting upon the outcrop of Bauxite!
The return was by a shorter though harder route, and we reached Hermanas's camp as darkness fell upon the forest.
"S'pose you catch um sick all same me, you no take turn walk 'tall," was the old Indian's only comment as he pocketed the balance of his money. The truth of his statement we could not deny. But Lewis had accomplished his mission, and we had secured the services of two young Indians as boat-hands. Moreover, I had found a number of very interesting ethnological specimens in Hermanas's benab, so we were all well satisfied with the day's work. Telling Hermanas to join us at supper, when I would give him the promised medicine, we returned to our logi by the creek-side.
Presently Hermanas and the two young bucks appeared in the light of our fire, seeming to spring by magic from the shadows. A hearty meal was furnished them, and the chief was given a five-grain compound phenacetin tablet. He seemed highly amused at the idea of the tiny pellet curing his pain, but he swallowed it, nevertheless, and a few moments later disappeared as silently and mysteriously as he had arrived. But he presently returned, together with all the members of his camp, each and all of whom claimed to be suffering from some imaginary ill, and begging me to administer medicine. Knowing there was really nothing the matter with them, but that they merely felt envious of Hermanas's distinction of having received medicine, I distributed dough pellets which satisfied them perfectly. I have always found that the great difficulty in doctoring primitive Indians is that if one is given medicine or even operated upon, the others feel slighted if they do not receive the same treatment, and they will often go to extreme measures in order to get it. Once, when one of my men cut his leg and I treated it with adrenalin to stop the bleeding, two other Indians deliberately slashed their legs so I would be forced to use the peai (magic) on them. And I have had an Indian beg me to extract a perfectly sound tooth, because a fellow tribesman had been suffering from toothache and I had extracted the decayed molar.
By the time Hermanas and his clan had departed for the night we were very ready to turn in. To me there was nothing novel in sleeping in the bush, but Lewis had never spent a night in the jungle and was rather nervous. All about were the mysterious noises of a tropical forest. An owl hooted from a thicket; innumerable frogs boomed, trilled and croaked, and with a terrific rending crash some forest giant toppled and fell to earth within the neighbouring woods. Lewis, too, had heard wild tales of vampire bats which the men said abounded in the district, and each time a large moth or some night-bird flitted past, he felt certain a vampire was about to attack him.
I had dozed off to sleep a dozen times, only to be awakened by Lewis each time, and I was getting thoroughly out of patience with him when he roused me with a hoarse whisper saying that someone was coming in a boat. I was on the point of telling him to shut up and go to sleep when I distinctly heard the sound of a paddle rattling against a boat's gunwale, followed by a splash. Evidently some one had arrived, and wondering who it was, I raised my head and peered towards the creek. It was bright moonlight and the summit of the bank, the trail leading up it, and the shimmering surface of the creek were plainly visible. The boat-landing, however, was in deep shadow and quite invisible. As I gazed, I could hear the footsteps of some one climbing up the steep bank—half a dozen steps, then a pause and a deep indrawn sigh as if the person were tired and stopped every few yards to catch his breath. I was puzzled. From where I lay I could look straight down the pathway to the creek, and any person coming up the bank would have been sharply silhouetted against the silvery water beyond. And yet not a living soul was in sight. Lewis, who was also watching, was more than nervous. His nerves had been keyed up by the strange unwonted sounds of the jungle, and now—incredible as it seemed—an invisible being had landed in a boat and was coming up the path towards us. "Wha-what is it?" he whispered in a shaking voice. "D'do you see him?"
I was getting nervous myself. I am not superstitious; I do not believe in ghosts, spirits or anything supernatural; but here was something that was mightily uncanny. By now the thing had reached the summit of the bank and we could hear it breathing heavily, although no trace of any living being showed against the brilliant background of the stream. Then deliberately, slowly, the footsteps began to approach our logi. Lewis could stand it no longer and ducked back into the folds of his hammock. I couldn't blame him. I was feeling chilly and shivery myself and there was a peculiar tingling at the back of my neck. I could not take my eyes off the moonlit space before the logi where that invisible something was walking steadily towards us. Then a cloud drifted past the moon, for an instant all was impenetrable shadow, and to my horror I heard the ghostly footsteps actually pass into the logi and beneath my hammock. Then with a contented sigh of relief the thing seated itself within three feet of where I lay—as nearly frightened as I have ever been in my life.
I could hear Lewis's teeth chattering. "Wh-where is it?" he stammered. "Ge-get my pistol an—and shoot it."
That was nerve. His pistol, I knew, was in his bag on the other side of his hammock. Catch me getting out of my hammock with that beastly invisible being there and rummaging in the dark for his gun.
"Get it yourself," I told him. "Do you take me for a damn fool?"
But the ghost or whatever it was showed no inclination to molest us. In fact it seemed to have dozed off to sleep, and its regular breaths sounded suspiciously like snores. Come to think of it, I had never heard of a ghost harming anyone, and, my first nervous tension over, my common-sense returned. It was inexplicable, uncanny, to be sure, but my reason told me there must be some explanation for the incredible happening. If I lay there much longer, I'd begin to believe it was a ghost, and, I decided, if it were a ghost here was a mighty good chance to see what a ghost looked like. In my own kit, a few feet distant, I had an electric torch, and summoning all my courage—and believe me it was needed—I slipped from my hammock, found the torch and with a supreme effort turned its beam on the spot whence issued the ghostly snores.
I don't know what I had expected to see, or whether I had expected to see anything. But what I did see brought an almost hysterical peal of laughter from my lips. Squatting comfortably upon the floor of the logi was an enormous toad! Instantly everything was explained. The toad, clambering into the boat, had dislodged a paddle, this had frightened him and he had leaped into the shoal water, then he had come hopping up the bank and across the ground to the logi to find a nice dry and warm resting-place. And of course we had not seen him. We had been peering into the night looking for a man or something large, and the toad, hopping along the ground and hidden by the short grass and weeds, had been indistinguishable. Lewis laughed as loudly as myself at our scare, but had I not solved the mystery by means of my torch we would both have believed to our dying days that the whole episode was supernatural, and I might have been converted to a belief in ghosts.
Oddly enough, after that we both slept soundly until we were awakened by the howling-monkeys fining the air of dawn with their fiendish cries.
Chapter 8 My First Boat Trip Through the Wildernes
BEFORE sun-up Hermanas and his family arrived on their way to Bartica to spend his newly acquired wealth, and, much to my satisfaction, he informed me: "Head no make um hot; make um all right this time."
Apparently I had won quite a reputation as a peaiman or witch-doctor, and to show his gratitude Hermanas presented me with a beautifully woven bead-apron or queyu in its half-finished state, which I had seen hanging in his home the day before, and which at that time he had refused to sell at any price.
With a full crew of eight men, we left the logis, paddled down the creek, and, entering the Essequibo, headed up stream towards the distant rapids. It was flood-tide, for, strange as it may seem, the tide rises and falls for a distance of nearly one hundred miles inland on these great sluggish rivers, and we travelled easily and rapidly, following the shore that stretched in an endless green wall of jungle as far as eye could see. Dim and hazy, a similar line of greenery marked the opposite bank of the river, but so numerous and large were the wooded islands that it was seldom possible to distinguish the farther shore with certainty or to tell the islands from the mainland. By mid-afternoon the character of the islands had changed, and instead of being densely wooded, bold, rocky shores and exposed granite ledges jutted from the water, while the strong current of the river made paddling hard and slow. More and more rocky grew the islands, lines of reefs rose menacingly between them, shelving beaches of creamy sand gleamed here and there, and far ahead could be seen the flashing glimmer of the first rapids.
Now the rocks assumed strange, fantastic forms, and one in particular attracted our attention from its marvellous resemblance to a titanic frog, perfect even to the mouth, eyes and limbs. Just beyond this striking example of natural sculpture the boat was run upon the sandy beach of a wooded islet, and the men bustled about preparing camp. It was a charming spot, densely wooded, ringed by a crescent of golden-yellow sand, and surrounded by jutting rocks and swirling water. Here, close to the shore, the huge tarpaulin was stretched between the trees, in its shelter the hammocks were swung, and, lolling in them we listened to the quaint expressions and odd jargon of the men as they prepared the evening meal. As the velvet-black tropic night descended upon the river and jungle, a wonderful picture was presented, a scene beyond the power of brush to paint or pen to describe. Presently, rain pattered on the leaves and tarpaulin, a torrential shower burst upon us, the last embers of the dying fires spluttered out, and silence fell like a curtain over all.
With everything carefully stowed and covered with the tightly lashed tarpaulin, we started early the next morning for the most difficult and supposedly dangerous portion of the trip—the ascent of the rapids. Within a half-mile of camp we met the first falls, in reality a rapid, with the brown water churned to yellow foam where it swirled and eddied over hidden rocks between jutting fangs of granite. At the base of the falls the boat was paddled alongside a mass of rocks, and the passengers stepped ashore, while the boatmen uncoiled long bow and stern lines and prepared to haul their craft through the boiling waters. A minute later the heavy boat emerged from the maelstrom and floated quietly on a smooth backwater above the falls.
On every side were thousands of rocks and ledges, surrounded by water rushing and roaring like a mill-race, and every rock was completely covered with a curious, sedgelike plant which gave the granite a most remarkable, unshaven appearance, as if it was covered with a stubbly beard. How these plants found roothold was a source of wonder, for the rocks were absolutely bare of soil, and the surface was worn smooth by the water, which in the rainy season rises fourteen or fifteen feet above the dry season level.
Yet throughout the hundreds of miles of rapids and falls that fill these streams, every rock, stone and boulder, every reef and ledge that projects above the river's surface, is thickly overgrown with this curious pinkish-brown vegetation.
Later I found that this weed is not the only plant which covers the nakedness of the rapid-washed rocks, for at certain seasons a still more remarkable plant supersedes it —a great coarse, fleshy growth which resembles leafless rhubarb stalks. So luxuriantly does this plant grow upon the rocks that it forms a pad or cushion which protects the boats when running rapids, and allows them to be slid readily over the ledges. But its value in this respect is more than offset by the fact that under water it becomes a tough, slimy mass which often entangles the feet of the boatmen as they strive to secure a foothold on the rocks. It is the favourite food of tapir, of many birds and of river fish, and as it forms the main diet of the pacu fish it is known to the natives as pacu-grass.
Within five minutes after entering the boat above the first rapids, we were forced to disembark again, as another series of falls were reached. Throughout the day we did little else than climb in and out of the boat as one rapid succeeded another. Soon after passing the second falls we had our first taste of danger, when, in paddling furiously to stem a series of small rapids, our boat was caught in an unseen whirlpool and, despite the frantic efforts of the men, was dashed full upon a submerged rock. With a blow that almost threw us from our seats, the heavy craft crashed on to the reef, rode half its length over it, swung as if on a pivot, and tipped perilously. Before it could fill or capsize, the men leaped overboard, some breast-deep, others up to their mouths in the torrent, others swimming, and by sheer strength they lifted the boat and pushed it into deep water.
Then, with the agility of monkeys, they clambered over the gunwales, grasped their paddles, and drove the craft through the rapids to safety. It was a splendid exhibition of skill, pluck, and concerted instantaneous action. Had they hesitated, had one failed at the critical moment, nothing could have prevented a capsize and loss of life.
Of all the manifold dangers met in traversing these rivers, the whirlpools are the greatest and most feared. Rapids and falls may be hauled through or run, but the whirlpools are treacherous, deceptive and are usually met just at the points where the men are weary and exhausted from hauling through a cataract.
On one occasion, after ascending a very bad rapid, we came to an enormous whirlpool which we were forced to cross. Every paddle was carefully examined for possible cracks or strains, for if a paddle snapped while crossing the maelstrom no power on earth could save us. Then, with a shout, the men dug their paddles into the water and shot the boat into the great, whirling, black pool. As it neared the centre it shook and trembled from stem to stern; despite the most frantic efforts of the Indian paddlers, aided by the bowman, the captain, my camp-boy and myself, the craft remained motionless. Before us the pool sloped downward to the vortex like an inverted cone; the boat seemed to stand on end; water boiled over the rails; the paddles bent to the strain, but still we remained as stationary as though fixed immovably to the rocks beneath. Then, inch by inch, the craft moved forward; it swayed, shook, shivered like a living thing. With a sickening tilt it reached the vortex; it lurched, swept to one side; its bow rose in air, and with a last mad effort of the men it shot across the pool to safety in a calm stretch beyond. And just as we reached the tranquil water a paddle snapped in two! Had it happened ten seconds sooner no man in the boat would have lived to tell the tale.
But it is seldom indeed that a fatal or serious accident occurs in navigating the rapids and falls, and this speaks volumes for the skill of the captains and crews and their intimate knowledge of the streams. Despite this, however, accidents do occur at times, and hundreds of lives have been lost in the rapids. One perilous fall was pointed out by our captain as we swept by—a rock-filled cataract in which, not long before, a boat and thirty-five men had been lost. Once in the grip of its impetuous current, nothing could save a craft or its occupants.
How many falls we passed I dare not say, for, long before we had reached half-way through the rapids, we had lost all count of their numbers. But for fully ten miles the river was one continuous series of rapids, threatening eddies, great whirlpools, and racing currents dotted with rocks and reefs, filled with ledges, and bending, twisting and turning around and about innumerable lovely wooded islands.
In places the raging waters tore between rock barriers scarcely wide enough to let the boat through; in other spots the waters above the falls ran black and deep and the men were forced to swim ahead with the tow-rope grasped in their teeth in order to reach a foothold from which to pull the craft up-stream. Now and again the water roared over shallow, dam-like barriers where the boat could not float, and in such stretches, by Herculean efforts, the sweating, toiling men actually lifted their craft and dragged her into deeper water by main strength.
Never did they hesitate or grumble, never once did they shirk. Their lives as well as ours were at stake, and though the waters were infested with the dreaded perai or cannibal fish, though the cry of "Cayman!" often caused the men to glance apprehensively about, and though ever and again some man would lose his foothold and be swept from the line, they took it all in the light of a frolic and laughed lustily over one another's mishaps.
It was not all broken water, however. Between the falls the river often stretched for several miles in broad, unbroken, tranquil reaches, placid as inland lakes, bordered and walled by the primeval bush, and with the forests reflected on the oil-like water as on a highly polished mirror. No signs of man or his handiwork were visible. We could scarcely believe that fellow human beings had ever passed that way, and we felt we were in the very heart of the wilderness, in a land untamed, untouched, and almost unknown.
Here and there amid the rich grass of the glades gleamed vivid masses of scarlet flowers; orchids filled the air with fragrance; clambering vines drooped yard-long racemes of waxen-white blooms above dark and shadowy shores, and everywhere were the flowering trees in billowy masses of rose, lavender and purple, from which fell gorgeous showers of blossoms that, floating on the still surface of the river, formed vast rafts of marvellous hues. Overhead, toucans, parrots, and macaws winged their noisy way; a Harpy eagle soared majestically above our boat; gull-billed terns and pied skimmers preened their sleek plumage on golden sand-bars; goat-suckers flitted on noiseless wings from rock to rock as we approached; stately white egrets flapped reluctantly from the shallows; thousands of steel-blue, dainty swallows rose in great clouds from resting-places on the stubble-covered ledges, and queer day-flying bats fluttered up from fallen tree-trunks and overhanging limbs only to wing an uncertain course for a few yards before again flattening themselves against the bark of other trees. From tranquil reaches, fresh-water flying-fish sprang from the surface and skittered off like skipping-stones before our boat; and once a giant otter rose and, followed by a trailing wake of silver, swam slowly towards the shore.
Once, when about to pull the boat through a rapid, Bagot, one of the Indians, seized bow and arrows, and, with a gesture for silence, dashed ahead, stringing his bow as he ran. Then, standing upon a rock, he drew his weapon as if to shoot, for his keen eyes had detected a flash of silver in the eddies which told him of the presence of a huge river fish. But the creature darted beyond bowshot, and the Indian, with one hand grasping his weapons, sprang into the rushing torrent and swam through the seething rapids to a distant ledge. Again and again the fish eluded him, and again and again the Indian breasted the rapids, until finally, abandoning the pursuit, he regained the boat and fell lustily to work on the tow-line with his comrades, as if swimming rapids with one hand was the most simple and every-day matter, as it was to him.
Although nearly all the Guiana Indians use guns for hunting large game, they still adhere to bows and arrows for killing fish—as well as some kinds of game—and many employ the blow-gun with wurali poisoned darts for securing birds and small animals. The bows are usually of letter-wood or wamari, about five or six feet in length, and very powerful. The arrows vary in design according to the purpose for which they are intended, but all are very long, from five to six feet, with shafts of arrow-cane and a shank of hardwood fitted at one end. This piece is tipped by a head of sharpened wood, of bone, or of steel. For birds, heads of wood, usually broad or rounded at the end, are used, or a steel-headed arrow may have a little wooden guard fixed near the tip to prevent it entering the bird's body too far. If the arrow is intended for game the barbed steel head is immovably fixed, but if to be used for killing fish the head is socketed and attached to a long strong cotton line fastened to the shaft. When a fish is struck the shaft floats free from the head and serves as a buoy to mark the fish, and as a means of hauling it in. In fact, the fish arrows are merely miniature harpoons shot from a bow. Fish arrows are never feathered and many of the game and bird arrows are without feathers, while others have two feathers which seem far too small to be of any real use. With these simple weapons the Indians creep along the rocky edges of the streams and with incredible dexterity shoot fish far beneath the surface.
Naked but for a loin-cloth, the hunter stands motionless as a statue, with drawn bow and poised arrow, and if no fish are visible within range, he "calls" them by a peculiar beckoning motion of his fingers and hand and a peculiar low whistle. Whether or not the fish respond to the motion of the fingers or to the whistle, I cannot say. But that they do often rise to near the surface when thus "called" is an indisputable fact. In all probability they mistake the motions of the fingers for a fluttering insect and rise with the expectation of gobbling it up when it falls into the water. When these methods fail the Indians resort to attracting fish within range by throwing the pods and leaves of the mazetta tree into the water.
Still another method of securing fish which is employed by these Indians is to poison or stupefy them by throwing the bruised leaves of a certain shrub into a portion of a stream which has been partly dammed with stones or sticks.
Within a few minutes scores—hundreds—of fish float belly-up on the surface. The Indians help themselves to what they need and leave the others, and in a few minutes these recover and go swimming off as well as ever.
While most of our travelling was by water, we nevertheless made many long trips into the forest or "bush," which was quite different from any jungle I had before seen. Many of the trees were simply stupendous, especially the greenheart, wallaba and mora trees, but their majestic proportions were largely obscured by the dense growth of underbrush and small trees. So thick was this lower growth in most places that it was necessary to hew a way, even when travelling a short distance. As the country was perfectly flat, except for an occasional hill fifty or sixty feet high, the bush was almost uniform in character from the edges of the river to the depths of the interior, and was, in a way, exceedingly monotonous. Bird and animal life was not abundant in these forests, for while the aggregate number of individuals is tremendous, and the number of species is amazing, the flat country presents no impediments to the forest creatures which range far and wide and are not confined to narrow valleys or isolated localities as in many tropical jungles. During our entire trip of over one hundred miles we saw scarcely one hundred species of birds, not over a dozen mammals, and not a single snake, alligator or a large quadruped. Even insects were by no means abundant. The great blue morpho butterflies were, to be sure, everywhere; ants were legion as usual; and an occasional scorpion or centipede would appear in camp; but beetles, moths, bees, flies, etc., were conspicuously lacking, and mosquito-nets were never required.
Our Indians assured me that, were they obliged to depend upon hunting and fishing for a livelihood, they would soon starve to death. For this reason the Guiana Indians all cultivate small gardens in the forest, where they raise yams, pigeon-peas, manioc and sweet potatoes, moving to a new locality as soon as the virgin soil is exhausted.
For days the solitude of the river and wilderness was unbroken, and we saw no trace of human beings other than ourselves. Then one morning our Indians pointed to a thin column of blue smoke rising above, the forest, and we turned our boat's prow in that direction. Entering a small creek, we came to a landing-place where two dugout canoes were moored, and following a barely visible trail through the jungle reached a tiny clearing with a single newly-made benab. It was occupied by four Indians, two men and two women, of the Patamona tribe who had recently arrived from up-stream and were engaged in catching and drying fish. They were semi-civilized and had few possessions with them, but I managed to secure some rather interesting specimens of baskets, arrows, implements, etc., as well as two bead-aprons.
Two days later, Bagot's keen eyes caught the flash of distant paddles against the shores of an island far ahead, and a few minutes later the approaching craft resolved itself into a large canoe or coorial, deeply laden and with an arched hut-like shelter of palm leaves amidships. As we drew alongside, we found the canoe contained twelve Indians, five men and seven women, several of whom hastily donned conventional garments as we came near. They were of a very distinct type from any aborigines I had seen, and Bagot informed me they were Waupisianas from the high savanna district on the Brazilian border.
As none of our Indians could speak the Waupisiana dialect, and as none of the strangers spoke English or any language our men could understand, there seemed little chance of carrying on a conversation or purchasing various articles I desired, and which I saw in the canoe. Lewis spoke Portuguese, however, and just on chance addressed the Waupisianas in that tongue. Much to our satisfaction, one of the number replied in the same language and a medium of intercourse was thus established.
At first the Waupisianas insisted they had nothing to sell or trade, but after some insistence one of the men produced a splendid letter-wood bow and a sheaf of arrows. When the girls and women saw the trinkets he received in exchange, their cupidity overcame their scruples and, much to our amusement, they deftly removed the bead-aprons from beneath their outer garments and handed them over. A splendid cotton hammock of gigantic size was next produced, to be followed by cotton-spindles, a carved paddle, baskets, necklaces of claws and teeth, a magnificent ceremonial war-club, and finally two beautiful feather-crowns—altogether a very good haul from such an unexpected source.
A short time after leaving the Waupisianas we entered the last or upper falls, and, a few hours later, having pulled, paddled, lifted and dragged the boat through the rapids, we came safely into the smooth water beyond. Swiftly our willing crew drove the craft forward on the last stretch of the journey, and presently, rounding a bend, we saw the broad, cleared lands and the scattered buildings of Rockstone ahead. Half an hour later our boat glided alongside the tiny dock before the railway station, and, watched by a curious crowd, who had never before seen white men arrive by this route, we stepped once more into civilization.
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- Jungle Chums -Chs 1-3
- Jungle Chums -Introduction
- On the Return of the Medicine Stick
- Thirty Years in the Jungle -Chs 15-18
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- Thirty Years in the Jungle -Ch 9-11
- The Science Behind Paiwari Making
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- The Story of the First Carib
- The Lost Mine -Part1
- Thirty Years in the Jungle -Ch 3-5
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.