The plan was to get to- and cross- Lake Rogo-Aguardo, the legendary centre of the Moxos civilisation of Bolivia’s lowlands who had kept first Inca then Spanish invaders at bay. Rogo-Aguardo has always been a hard place to get to. For us (myself, fellow Brit Julian Singleton, Irgen- the guide, Eber- his teenage nephew) this would involve river descents to and away from the lake as well as lengthy portages on the sections in between. The only description we could find of the lake was written by a German former World War One soldier, Leo Parcus; he described waves that nearly capsized his canoe and enormous crocodiles that ate his guide.
Our expedition was to be in three sections; getting to the lake, getting across, and travelling onwards to the Rio Mamore, from where we could get out of the Llanos.
First Stage: The Rio Yata
Our first challenge was 18 bone-jarring hours by bus down the east side of the Andes from La Paz, dropping 4,000 metres to the jungle town of Rurrenabaque, followed by another six on a jeep bouncing along the highway towards the Brazilian border. By the second nightfall we were hanging our mosquito nets in a house next to the tiny Rio Yata, watching the crimson full moon rise above the savannah. We felt ready for anything: we had bought machetes in the market in La Paz, and all the bits of our canoe had arrived safely on the plane with us. I had used the boat before in Bolivia, Brazil and in Eastern Siberia, a 17ft Pakboat consisting of a dark green neoprene skin that in about half an hour could be built up with a framework of snap-together aluminium poles and cross pieces. Intended for three people and expedition gear, we would be pushing the canoe with four passengers, but with no rapids expected on the flat plains, experience from the previous trips suggested there would be no problems. The fact that this boat could be packed up and carried was the major consideration for bringing it. We knew we would have to trek across from the Yata to the lake and later from the lake to another river, the Irayañez along which we would make our ‘get-out’.
We didn’t in fact expect to use the canoe at all for the first section as we had arranged a motor launch to carry all our gear in, but it turned out that the boat’s owner was economising. When he led us to his 40ft dugout that first morning on the river, we were disappointed to discover that all that he had to power it was a 2 horsepower motor, the type the locals call ‘peke-peke’ on account of the noise it makes. The ‘launch’ was incredibly slow. I clock it at 6mph with the speed function of my GPS and within two days, Julian and I opted to build up the Pakboat and paddle ahead of our ‘baggage train’; at least that way we got to see the range of Amazon wildlife that the river had to offer.
The rivers in the pampa are bordered by what is termed ‘gallery forest’ rather than true jungle. As we descended the Yata we found ourselves enclosed between high mud banks topped with a mixture of scrub, vine thickets and occasional stands of taller trees where we would see capuchin or black howler monkeys and, a few times, iguanas that plunged into the water as we passed below. With no recent rain, the water level was low and it was rather like we were meandering down a water-filled trench. Kingfishers and herons constantly flew ahead of us, and red-eyed hoatzins that looked like something out of the Jurassic era would hiss and cough as we passed. Capybaras ducked under the surface or galumphed up the banks away from us and, more disturbingly, crocodiles lurched into the water as we approach. Once we pulled alongside a dead one two and a half metres long. Irgen, our guide, said its jaws could crush a cow’s skull- and this black caiman was only half-grown.
Second Stage: Lago Rogo-Aguardo
After a week on the Yata, we packed up and moved the boat across to Lake Rogo-Aguardo fairly easily with the help of some cowboys we met. After the confined Yata ditch, the lake- a tall rectangle roughly twenty kilometers by ten- felt like the sea. A stiff breeze at first helped us, pushing us towards the south end, keeping us close to the shore and away from the from the breaking waves further out. Leo Parcus, our only source of reference about conditions on the lake had written how huge waves had sprung up from nowhere, swamping his dugout canoe and nearly capsizing it. His story had scared us enough to make us take the long route and circumnavigate Rogo-Aguardo rather than simply cross, and when we reached the Movima Indian village of Coquinal on the other side three days later, the people (who hired us their horses) said we had been lucky. Had the wind blown from the other direction as it usually did, they said we would have certainly foundered.
Third Stage: The Rio Irayañez
After three days horse-riding across the grasslands, we were glad to unroll the canoe skin, snap together its accompanying aluminium poles and get back onto water. We reckoned four days of hard paddling would get us to the larger Rio Mamore, from where we could carry on to the Brazilian border. We paddled eight-hours per day, going at it like the Moxos Indian paddlers who used to travel these waterways before the invention of aluminium launches and outboard motors. Not only were the days physically exhausting, but as the river was bordered by low scrub, not impressive rainforest, it was unshaded and very hot. As on the Yata, we were enclosed between high mud banks and we craved the buzz of every wildlife encounter. Capybaras, caimans, and best of all a jaguar that swam across the river in front of us raised our morale and kept us rowing.
The dolphins in particular were super-plentiful. Pods of up to ten would follow us for hours. Maybe our paddling disturbed the piranhas and other small fish that they fed on. The dolphins seemed to herd the fish. Often we could see three or four of our followers executing some sort of pincer movement with a couple of blockers out in front. When the followers swept past us to close the trap, the water would swirl with unseen submarine chases. Sometimes a pink back would break the surface or a silver fish would leap out and skitter across the surface. Once, one of these jumped right into the canoe. Small, but vicious-looking, it had a jutting lower jaw full of spiky teeth. Irgen called it ‘Cachorro’ (Brazilian for dog). I sketched it in my diary then threw it back to the dolphins.
Mostly we welcomed the sight of dolphins. They were our entertainment on the otherwise flat river. But, when they were ‘frisky’, rocking our boat with the waves they sent up, they became scary.
One time, a boto blew off about a metre from my position at the front of the canoe; that is its pinkish grey humped back surfaced and its head-mounted nostrils snorted up a spout of vapour. It was heading right for us and it nearly clipped the boat with its tail as it slid underneath. It was big; the tail flukes must have been more than three feet across. They rose vertically in front of my face and slid straight down. Then the bow wave hit us, and for a second we were jumping towards the disappearing tail, shifting our weight to counteract the capsize that seemed imminent. The fin was gone. Water sloshed in. We stayed upright. On the other side of the canoe, the river now frothed as small fish leapt into the air and a long narrow mouth with peg teeth snapped up to catch them. Behind we could see the dolphin’s melon forehead and its tiny black, virtually sightless eyes- a rare sighting; the back with its stubby fin is all we usually got to see.
Soon afterwards, just before we reached the Rio Mamore where we would make out ‘get-out’, we stopped to bail out the water we had taken on, brew coffee, and to have a wash. The dolphins were still close as we wallowed in the soupy water. We had no worries. There were none of the stickleback sardiñas biting our insect bites and definitely no piranhas in the water with us. Most reassuring of all, we had no concerns about joining the food chain- below black caiman, anaconda and jaguar. The big boto may have nearly sunk our boat but he was our friend. And, when you’re in a jungle river in the middle of nowhere it helps to have every friend you can get.