Bolivia

Hairy binoculars

Eyeglasses are essential for observing wildlife, particularly birds. I really believe that these optical aids make the difference between a good and a bad wildlife experience and I am amazed when I see people visiting wildlife parks without them after having travelled many thousand kilometres to do so.

For a long time I used mediocre binoculars until one day my friend Roger -a reader of this blog- showed me his Leica binoculars and I realized what German optical quality meant. He also told me that once he had a problem with his binoculars and the company immediately came to the rescue and even upgraded his binoculars to compensate him for having had a problem.

So, following his example, as soon as I could, I proudly bought my own Leica Trinovid 10X32 BN 8×32, rubber-coated and waterproof down to five metres. To use them added a new dimension to my game watching and I enjoyed them from the first use as they were easy to calibrate and use. For a while until I noticed the flaw…

To my dismay, I realized that the unthinkable had happened with my marvelous piece of optics. Somewhere inside their rubber-shielded-sealed right ocular lens system there was a hair, more precisely an eyelash, presumably of German origin!

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Bushsnob in Coroico, near La Paz, Bolivia. The hairy binoculars are round his neck…

You will not be able to fathom my disappointment! At Leica in Germany they were horrified when I reported the find and they offered immediate assistance. However, at the time we were living in La Paz, Bolivia and there was no official Leica representative that I could contact to mend the problem. The alternative of sending them to Germany meant being “binocularless” for a while, something far from ideal.

As the problem was manageable, I decided to continue using my hairy binoculars for a couple of years. Having spotted the intruder, now I saw it more often but it did not really interfere with my vision so I was able to use the instrument. Some time later, when transferred to Rome, I could send them via courier for a free fix, as per their lifelong guarantee with all expenses paid. So, as soon as I could, I sent them to Germany.

About a week later, I got an e-mail confirming that the now eyelash-free binoculars were ready and that they had been sent by courier back to me to arrive the next day. It was a very pleased me that went to the courier office at the FAO building as I was anxious to get them back.

I was so excited that I was there even before the courier office opened! When I managed to get in, the binoculars had not yet arrived and I was told to come back in the afternoon as the delivery was expected by late morning. Disappointed, I went back to my office until it was time to return.

I knew, by looking at the face of the courier employee, that there was a problem before she spoke. “Sir, we have a problem. Unfortunately our van carrying all parcels for today was robbed and your parcel is one of the ones lost”. My heart sunk and, although I heard that the Police was investigating the event , bla, bla, bla… I was sure of the final outcome so I thanked her and walked away, distraught.

Back in the office I called Germany and my technical contact went mute for a long while. Then I said that the parcel should have been insured but, surprisingly, he was quite cagey about it and I had the impression that it was not![1] In desperation I told him that I had an imminent bird watching trip to Uganda and that I needed them badly.

Luckily my plead worked and he offered to send me a replacement immediately, item that I got next day. I checked it and it was -luckily- hairless this time and I have enjoyed their great clean optics ever since.

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Bushsnob with hairless binoculars. Of course the only visible difference is the ageing of the user!!!

 

[1] I still do not know if the parcel was insured or not!

The water elephant

For hundreds of years humanity has discovered and classified the organisms that inhabit our planet. However, even today we continue to find new species. These are not tiny insects but fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, some even very large!

In 2004, while we were working there, United States scientists discovered a new species of monkey in the jungle of the Madidi National Park in Bolivia. The ape, of the group of the marmosets, was placed in the genus Callicebus. Following a novel initiative, its species naming was the result of a contest in Internet won by the Golden Palace Casino. This institution paid U$S 650,000[1] for the name Callicebus aureipalatii that -in Latin- means Golden Palace![2]

So far in 2016 several new species have been found. Some of them are small animals that can be considered difficult to see. However, this is not the case of the seven-metre long Black Whale defined as a new species this year. The finding is so recent that it still does not have its scientific name![3]

In addition, there is a new shark called Ninja lantern shark (Etmopterus benchleyi), found in the sea near Costa Rica in 2015.[4] Again, United States scientists studying aboard the Spanish research vessel Spanish B/O Miguel Oliver, discovered it. The species name refers to Peter Benchley, author of the novel Jaws.[5]

So far we have dealt with the amazing animals that have been discovered. But what about those animals suspected to exist but that we have not yet found? Cryptozoology is the study of animals -“cryptids”- that are believed to exist. The example that comes immediately to mind is “Nessie” the Loch Ness “monster” in Scotland that, despite a long search, continues to be the epitome of the elusive creature.

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However, other instances exist of other beasts that had been seen but never confirmed. One of them is supposed to dwell in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and the information comes from a professional hunter called R.J. Cunninghame. This experienced hunter became world famous when he shot dead a hippo that attacked the then US President Theodore Roosevelt while on safari in East Africa in 1909.

A Frenchman named Le Petit told Cunninghame about Water Elephants that he saw in 1907 during his five-year stay in the Congo. Le Petit saw them for the first time while traveling through the river in the wetlands between Lake Leopold II (now Lake Mai-Ndombe) and Lake Tumba.

The first time he saw just a head and a neck that appeared on the water surface. His companions, natives of the place, told him that what he had just seen was a Water Elephant. Later he saw the animals again. This time they were five and he allegedly watched them for about a minute. He described them as between 180-240cm tall with relatively short legs and curved backs, elephant-like.

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The water elephant by artist and writer Philippe Coudray. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Their heads were ovoid and elongated with a short trunk of about 60cm in length (tapir-like), but no tusks were seen. Their skin reminded him of hippo skin but it was darker. They walked with an “elephantine” gait that left footprints in the sand with four separate toes. This was the last time they were seen as they quickly disappeared into deep water. His fellow local companions reaffirmed Le Petit that the animals were common in that area and that they spent much time in the water, like hippos.

Interestingly, in the same general area another animal is reputed to exist, known as the Mokele-Mbembe, a creature believed by cryptozoologists to have a prehistoric look similar to “Nessie”. Although several expeditions have searched this area of the Congo, none have found it or the Water Elephant.

However, the Water Elephant existence came to the fore again when in 2005 a pilot flying over Lake Tumba apparently spotted them again. The animals seen would fit the description of Le Petit!

Not many scientists believe that a beast of this size can still be unknown to science. However, the Congo region -like Bolivia and others- has surprised us earlier with the discovery of other interesting creatures. You may also think that what Le Petit saw were African Forest Elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), considered as pygmy elephants for quite some time but now as small specimens of L. cyclotis. This is unlikely for an experienced observer.

Le Petit’s description would fit that of the Moeritherium if the latter had been taller than its estimated one metre height.[6] Philippe Coudray, who I thank for his permission to use his picture of the Water Elephant, theorizes that elephants regarded as extinct -such as the Water Elephant- could still exist. He bases its reasoning on the finding of a tusk with a reverse curvature to normal elephants in 1904 in Ethiopia. The fact that the tusk was not fossilized would indicate that the animal did not live so long ago. The cryptid species postulated would be smaller than a prehistoric elephant known as the Deinotherium.

During our safaris we have seen elephants with weird-looking tusks.

THis year, while visiting the Kruger National Park, we spotted an elephant with one of its tusks pointing downwards so these tusks are still on live elephants! It reminded me of the Deinotherium-like cryptid!

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Did the Water Elephant ever exist or what Le Petit saw were the smaller forest elephants? The area of Congo where they could be is still difficult to access so a final solution to the mystery may yet take a long time. In the meantime we can only wait.

 

[1] Donated to the Madidi National Park.

[2] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/7493711/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/internet-casino-buys-monkey-naming-rights/#.V7brlZN97-Y

[3] http://www.livescience.com/55623-new-species-black-whale-in-pacific.html

[4] http://www.oceansciencefoundation.org/josf/josf17d.pdf

[5] https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etmopterus_benchleyi

[6] http://carnivoraforum.com/topic/9742488/2/

Note: This post is a translation and adaptation of an article published in the Spanish on-line Muy Interesante magazine. If interested see: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/el-elefante-de-agua-y-otros-animales-que-no-sabemos-si-existen-721474540407

Nota: Este artículo es una traducción y adaptación de uno publicado en la revista Muy Interesante. Si tiene interés vea: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/el-elefante-de-agua-y-otros-animales-que-no-sabemos-si-existen-721474540407

Harvesting from the effort[1]

The following is a concise account of my working life. More details can be found in the “Pages” section of this blog. The intention of this short account is to set the seen for the next historical posts that will deal only with episodes that took place during these years and that I consider to offer some interesting aspect worth mentioning.

A Boran young bull at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

A Boran young bull at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

Boran young bulls at Mutara ranch, Kenya.

The work at Muguga and Intona described earlier (give link) yielded fruit and I was able to publish the results in good scientific journals, together with my co-workers, Matt, Alan and Robin included. My research added some knowledge to a large regional programme on ticks and tickborne diseases that FAO had initiated at the time of my arrival in Kenya and that covered several countries in East, Central and Southern Africa.

Mutara tick selection work.

Mutara tick selection work.

Once my fellowship ended, although I had a lot to learn yet, I had somehow found a niche for my work at ICIPE and, with Matt’s blessing, I joined the Tick Programme as a scientist. My work on tick impact had ended and now my work would have to fall within the Tick Programme’s goals and funding. The main target was to control ticks using the cattle resistance to them. I had come across this fact while doing my research as some animals showed resistance while others not.

At that time I also decided to start my PhD studies as an external student with my former Department of Applied Zoology at the University of Wales. Four years of hard work were in front of me, as I needed to work and study, not an easy feat! I was lucky to be surrounded by knowledgeable colleagues and to find a great supervisor, the late Ian Herbert from the Department.

While working on my PhD I got involved with the work on ticks and tickborne diseases on-going at Muguga and I also continued with field work at Intona. Later on we started more work at Mutara Ranch, then the Boran cattle stud for Kenya, where we started work on selection of cattle for tick resistance that sadly needed to be abandoned for lack of resources. The initial study got published and this added to my growing reputation in the tick world. I completed the PhD in 1986 while still in Kenya.

The laboratory at Bedele, Ethiopia.

The laboratory at Bedele, Ethiopia.

In 1988 FAO offered me a position as a Leader of the Ethiopian component of their regional tick and tickborne disease programme I mentioned above. I accepted the offer as it had very favourable conditions but left ICIPE and Kenya with a heavy heart after so many years of enjoying life and work there.

Villagers at Gambela, West Ethiopia.

Villagers at Gambela, West Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was a big change as we arrived in a country at war with Eritrea and under a comunist regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a ruthless leader. My duty station was Bedele in West Ethiopia, still green and wooded with a rainfall of about two thousand mm per year! It was a remote place where FAO has assisted the Government in building a Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. Bedele’s main claim to worldwide fame is ob being the place where coffee originated from.

The work was more routine than challenging and it required the collection of ticks from cattle at different locations both to get to know the species and to understand their population dynamics. My assignment there lasted under two years as I was replacing another tick officer that needed to be evacuated with a severe heart condition. Despite the political and economical difficulties the country was going through, the work was completed and, as the possibilities of continuing the work were not there, it was tie to move on.

The project site at Lutale, Central Province of Zambia.

The project site at Lutale, Central Province of Zambia.

I was transferred to Zambia where I was to continue a long-term trial on the effects of ticks on traditional cattle productivity both of milk and beef under different tick control regimes: no control, intensive control and “strategic” control. The latter meant to treat only to prevent tick numbers from building up. The trial run for three years and it was completed successfully. It was during this time that our children were born and our lives changed!

Cattle work in Southern Province, Zambia.

Cattle work in Southern Province, Zambia.

After three busy and productive years in Zambia the regional programme was going through important changes. Its coordinator based at FAO HQs in Rome was about to retire and more funding was coming in to continue the work for another phase of four years. Somehow I landed the coordinator’s job and moved to Rome in a move that removed me from scientific work and converted me into an international bureaucrat!

FAO in the 90s. Please note the Axum stele that was returned in 2005.

FAO in the 90s. Please note the Axum stele that was returned in 2005.

After a few months in Rome, once the “glamour” of the job waned, I realized that I needed to get back to the field as the work I was doing did not appeal to me.

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Moving again! This time to Zimbabwe.

The opportunity to move to the field -again to Africa- presented itself in 1997 and I did not hesitate! We moved to Harare, Zimbabwe where I took up the role of sub-regional animal production and health officer, an even broader professional role as it also involved animal production. As compensation, however, the job was restricted to Southern and Eastern Africa. Although it was not “hands on” scientific work, it was closer to the action than what I was doing from Rome!

Great Zimbabwe ruins, Zimbabwe, 1998.

Great Zimbabwe ruins, Zimbabwe, 1998.

After four years in Harare I realized with regret that I needed to move to get a career improvement. At the end of 2000 I put my name for a FAO Representative job and succeeded getting designated FAOR in Bolivia so in mid 2001 we left for La Paz, Bolivia. This would be my first assignment in a Spanish-speaking country and it also meant becoming the head of an office with a large multi-sectorial programme and several employees both in the office and in the field. In addition, as the representative of the organization in the country I also carried a political role having to develop strong links with the host government.

Sewing in Bolivia.

Sewing in Bolivia.

Market street of La Paz, Bolivia.

Market street of La Paz, Bolivia.

I worked in Bolivia for five incredible years and, in 2005 I returned to Rome, again as a technical expert to continue working on animal diseases, in particular I returned to ticks and TBD. Again I did not find this assignment enjoyable and, after four years I had had enough of desk work and it was either another field post or retirement!

The Appia Antica road, Rome.

The Appia Antica road, Rome.

Rome, 2009!

Rome, 2009!

Fortunately I was selected for the position of FAO Representative in Mozambique where I worked until my retirement, from mid 2010 to the end of June 2013 when I reached 62 years, the mandatory retirement age of the United Nations.

Time to move to Mozambique.

Time to move to Mozambique.

Speaking on World Food Day in Mozambique.

Speaking on World Food Day in Mozambique.

Interviewed by the press.

Being interviewed by the press.

Maputo's beach in Mozambique.

Maputo’s beach.

Needless to say that I write in first person but my life has been shared with my wife and later my children. She has been a main support throughout and the kids added their part!

I hope you enjoy reading what I have to say.

 

[1] This post follows “Life and work in Kenya: Intona”.

At the foothills of the Andes

A view of the Andes with a  Vicuña in attendance.

A view of the Andes with a Vicuña in attendance.

In 2001 I got transferred from Harare to La Paz in Bolivia, a rather dramatic move but the organization needed my experience and fluency in Spanish. At the time, the departure meant -sadly then- a high possibility of not returning to Africa, something that was not in our plans. It was a difficult move, made slightly more bearable at the time by the obvious bonus of our children learning Spanish. As it turned out, our time there was far better than what we expected.

Sowing in an Andean valley near Potosí, Bolivia.

Sowing in an Andean valley near Potosí, Bolivia.

While in Bolivia[1] we spent our holidays travelling around the country when we could but we also took the opportunity to visit parts of Brazil, Chile, Peru and Argentina. Most of this travel was done by road. Apart from Chile -closer from La Paz- Argentina was the most visited, particularly the Parana River where we mainly fished for Dorado (Salminus maxillosus) and Surubi Manchado (Pseudoplatystoma coruscans[2]), two great game fish. While we would stay in the Corrientes city surrounds, we also visited other well-known fishing spots such as Paso de la Patria, Ita Ibate and Itatí. I will cover this experience in another post.

A Llama looks on.

A Llama looks on.

The trip from La Paz to Corrientes took us through several interesting places. The first stop was the city of Oruro, well-known years back as the stronghold of Simón Iturri Patiño, who aside from Evo Morales today, was perhaps the most famous Bolivian. For years, Patiño dominated the world tin production and became known as the “Tin King”. Part of his large fortune is now in the Patiño Foundation that is very active in Bolivia with development work. Oruro is also regionally and internationally known for its indigenous Carnival celebrations[3], not to be confused with the more famous Brazilian one.

A member of the "Diablada" (Devils) dancers.

A member of the “Diablada” (Devils) dancers.

Another group of dancers.

Another group of dancers known as “Morenos”.

One of the several bands that accompany the various groups.

One of the many bands that accompany the various groups.

About 400 km further on we found Potosí. The first time we drove there the road was very rough and, to make matters even worse, the asphalt was being laid down. Potosí is where most of the silver of the Spanish conquistadores was mined and where their gold and silver coins were minted. The “Cerro Rico” (Rich Hill) is still producing silver, although considerably less than in the times of the conquest, now led by individuals. The hill is reputed to have shrunk over time due to the intensive mining that took place. Sadly, it has -and is still- swallowing many lives and it is a true “mass grave”. Mining is normally a tough activity anywhere. If to this we add that the activity is performed at an altitude of 4,000 m, with minimal or no security measures and rather rudimentary tools, we begin to get the picture and the thought takes your breath away, if you still have any to spare when entering a mine![4]

Potosí from the road to Tupiza and Argentina.

Potosí from the road to Tupiza and Argentina.

The sun is everything in the highlands and the large difference in temperature between sunny and shaded areas needs to be taken into account. You soon get used to walking on the sunny side of the road to avoid the cold and the large differences in rent between adjacent houses -that tempt the unsuspecting- are very often attributed to the differences in sun exposure!

Spending the night at Potosí’s altitude is in itself a challenge, with subzero temperatures at very high altitude and a rather weak sun. As if this wasn’t enough, hotels tend to keep their central heating at full throttle and the warm and stuffy air hits you the moment you walk in.

Interestingly, our family was divided regarding “altitude tolerance”. While my wife and son were almost indifferent, my daughter and I felt like fish out of water! This meant that we had two rooms: the tough guys and the sissies… I cannot account for the fate of the tough guys in the room next door but as far as my daughter and I were concerned, we did suffer the lack of air. You are probably thinking, the obvious thing would be to open the windows to let fresh air in, and I completely agree! This was attempted and soon we had frost on the beds, so rudimentary survival required that we close them and look at each other in resignation while the green tinge of our skin increased! Eventually the night would be over.

On occasions, in search of oxygen, we deviated to Sucre for the night. This is the administrative capital of Bolivia, a beautiful colonial city of white buildings with tile roofs, hosting a number of museums and churches worth a visit. In addition, some of the best hats are made in Sucre. Although that meant an extra 200 km, it was worth the drive as the sissies felt much more comfortable here.

A church at dusk in Sucre.

A church at dusk in Sucre.

Beyond Potosi and Sucre we travelled via Tupiza, to Villazón where we would cross to La Quiaca in Argentina. On the way we passed close to places where Ernesto “Che” Guevara started his ill-fated attempt at a revolution and eventually terminal revolutionary attempt in Bolivia. We also visited the area where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their nemesis at the hands of the Bolivian Army that seemed to have been rather active during those days.

The trip through Bolivia was rather epic as the roads were rough and dusty and most of the trip was at high altitude and very tiring. I recall four punctures on one of these journeys and an almost complete absence of road signs that meant getting lost on the dusty roads! Matters were not improved by our 10 year old son’s “Is there still a lot to go?” question after 10 minutes of our departure from La Paz, rephrased slightly and repeated as time went on… I vividly recall one arrival at the Villazón border post while Mass was being celebrated at the border crossing point and all traffic in both directions needed to wait for about an hour until all believers were satisfied and we were allowed to proceed!

A welcome pause on the way to Tupiza, Bolivia.

Dust was not in short supply on the way to Tupiza, Bolivia.

Clearance of road blocks demanded patience.

Clearance of road blocks demanded patience.

The road we were...

The road we just covered…

Leaving the border town of La Quiaca and entering Argentina was a big and welcome change. The roads were perfect and, on the first bend in the road there were more road signs than we had seen so far in Bolivia! The added bonus of petrol stations with shops was irresistible for our children. I am grateful for the child locks that prevented them from jumping out in order to enjoy their favourite drinks and snacks!

Continuing our journey after La Quiaca we would enter Jujuy Province, pass by its homonymous capital city and finally get to Salta, the capital of the Province of the same name. This was the first place where the blood oxygen levels of the sissies were finally restored and a really good night’s sleep could be had without dreams of frenziedly swimming through water towards the surface only to drown in the process, waking up with a serious tachycardia and covered in cold sweat (consequence of the anoxia!)

At this stage 800km of driving still remained to reach Corrientes. This took us through the Chaco region on an almost totally straight road across places with exotic and even threatening names such as, Pampa del Infierno, Canal de Dios, Monte Quemado, Quitilipi and Pampa de los Guanacos. On one of the journeys I needed to make a pit stop as something I had eaten did not sit well with me. When I came back to the car I made a joke to the kids of having knocked out a lot of guanacos as a consequence of my act! This has endured all these years and is still the topic of conversation and laughter in the family!

Eventually we would arrive to Resistencia, the capital of the Chaco Province and after the final 20 km, that included crossing the mighty Paraná River, arrive to the city of Corrientes, Capital of the Corrientes Province, and our fishing destination. Fishing in the Paraná was excellent and will be addressed in future posts. Unfortunately Corrientes can be extremely hot so we never considered it as a place we would be happy to live in.

During the first journey, we spent one night in Salta before continuing our journey. During the next trip we luckily found a very nice hotel, the Selva Montana in a suburb of Salta called San Lorenzo, the summer destination of the patrician families from Salta. Gradually Salta moved from a one-night stop into a destination where we could enjoy several activities, together with great food and wine! As it happens, the place grew on us to the point of making it a “home” as we were not sure would be able to return to Africa.

The farm from the opposite hill.

Our farm as seen from the opposite hill.

As the weather was very pleasant and the place very beautiful[5] the thought of settling there grew and we decided to explore the area with the aim of acquiring a plot of land where we could eventually build a house. We looked at several options until finally we settled for what we have today: a small farm at a place called “El Gallinato” located about 20km north of the capital city of Salta. The farm is located in a region known as “the Yungas” which is in fact a transition area towards the Andes Mountains, at an altitude of about 1200m and an important area for the biodiversity of the region.

Its cloud forest is host to some remarkable tree species, some of which have been sadly cut as they have fine wood. However, there are still beautiful trees and some regrowth is taking place. Indigenous Walnut trees (Juglans australis), Tipas (Tipuana tipu) and Ceibo (Erythrina crista-galli) are among the species found in the area. There are almost two hundred bird species including special ones such as Hummingbirds, Toucans, Guans, Jays and Seriemas to name but a few. Condors are sometimes seen flying overhead.

A cactus flower.

A cactus flower.

There are also several interesting mammals including Wild cats, Foxes, Ocelots, etc. However, the climax in terms of mammal sightings for us was the lucky spotting of a Puma (Felix concolor) or Mountain Lion that crossed the road in front of our car and stopped to watch the occupants! Finally, insect life is prolific and butterflies and moths are simply amazing!

Through this short account you are now aware of some of the motives that convinced us to secure this rather out-of-the-way piece of land in the foothills of the Andes that will be the subject of future posts.

NOTES:

[1] We spent five good years there that will be dealt with in separate posts.

[2] The Surubí Atigrado (Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum) also occurs but is less frequent in the area.

[3] I had the privilege of being invited to watch it while working there and it is a totally unique event.

[4] A well known tourist attraction is a visit to a mine.

[5] It is known as “Salta la Linda”, Salta the Beautiful.

Out of Africa: Plank phobia

“The fear to step on a plank or a precarious tree trunk(s) contraption in order to board a floating device -a boat- and/or to cross a small river” (Bushsnob, 2014).

Rurrenabaque harbour and market on a Saturday. These were the fish we were after!

Rurrenabaque harbour and market on a Saturday. These were the fish we were after!

I did not know I suffered from this condition until I was in my fifties. It appeared without warning hence I could not resort to preventive psychiatry. Maybe it was the altitude in La Paz that did it. I do not know!

The first encounter with it took place in Bolivia so I ask your permission to digress yet again and to depart from the African bush to the Amazonian one where, in pursuit of these very large fish, we booked an “expedition” up the Amazon tributaries. Eventually I will give you the complete details but now I will only focus on my phobia.

Early in the morning, the boat came to collect us and we needed to climb on board, over the water. The plank in question was about two metres above the water and rather precariously bridging land and boat. The river was calm and I do not suffer from vertigo but, the moment I set my foot on the plank, I knew I was in trouble so, pretending to be a gentleman, I allowed the family to go first, the luggage to be loaded and all to be ready and then, in a final and desperate attempt not to “plank” I informed all present that I would go and pay the hotel bill. “Dad, what are you saying, we paid it already!” my daughter said. “Oh, yes, I forgot” I lied and then added; “I will check the room to see if we left anything”. “Dad, we all already did”, it was my son’s turn to talk. So, aware that there is a limit to lame excuses and for my love of fishing, I faced the music and “walked the plank”, eyes closed, having memorized the route beforehand as you do when you are a child walking through a dark room!

Faltering I just managed to get on board, tumbling over fishing gear, people and bags which were clutched desperately as my arrival literally rocked the boat! Once on board I felt perfectly normal -as usual- and did not dwell on the moment any longer. Thus we were heading for the Madidi National Park, an area immortalized by “Exploration Fawcett”, a great read.

The plan was to camp on the shores of the river Tuichi, after a few hours of arduous travel up the river towards the Andes. The navigation would not be a direct one as we all agreed to our guide’s suggestion of stopping to watch the macaws. “No trip to the Madidi is complete without seeing this natural wonder” he had said. These were the Red-and-green Macaw, Ara chloropterus, the largest of the macaws belonging to the Ara genus and only smaller than the Hyacinth Macaw, the largest macaw. We could not wait!

On arrival I was relieved that disembarking was “plank-free” and it involved a quick jump ashore. “Easy” I thought. We walked in the forest towards the red cliffs where the nests were. All was going well until a small river appeared. In these areas the infrastructure is not well developed so there was no bridge to cross but two tree trunks tied together that spanned the three metre breach. I crossed it with my eyes wide open this time. I was very relieved that I made it to the other end quite easily.

After walking another kilometre we arrived to the site of the nests, wich took the shape of holes in the cliffs where the macaws were seen perching either singly or in pairs, together with other smaller parrots. It was beautiful to observe and hear these large birds interacting, going in and out of their nests and flying back and forth continuously. These are predominantly bright red birds with iridescent green-blue wings and long tails in the same colours.  There were about 40-50 birds at the time and they were as entertaining as they were loud! After watching them for a while and taking a few pictures, it was time to return.

We walked back basking in the glow brought on by our experience when we came face to face with the trunk “bridge” again! The guide crossed first with the ease of one well used to the action. Then it was my turn and, again, I went for it without stopping to think as this had worked in the other direction. Regrettably, it did not this time…

The moment I set foot on the trunks I felt an almost imperceptible rotation of perhaps two or three centimetres, enough to throw me -the athletic bushsnob- off balance. By the time I completed the first step, my body angle was already unsustainably tilted and, although I tried to compensate with the following step, my balance was already gone. Now, while I am suspended in mid air, I will stop for a moment to describe the situation around me. The guide had already crossed, but my family was behind me so everybody was watching my act. They may have shouted in alarm or relief at my imminent demise, I will never know. I did not hear anything.

What I remember next is landing on my back about two and a half metres below on the reeds growing in the water. The dense vegetation clearly spared me from serious physical damage as it cushioned my fall before I hit the water with a mighty splash (I was about 90kg at the time). As usual in these cases, wounded pride was stronger than overall damage so I shook myself off and promptly climbed the steep bank at an appropriate place a few metres away (where I could have crossed the river with only wet feet!). I was totally soaked in muddy water, shaken, winded, and upset at my clumsiness but otherwise fine!

Maybe my family asked me how I was, I do not remember. What I do recall was the guide saying: “You fell really well. How did you manage to turn around in the air as you did?” I looked at him and he seemed serious! I do not recall what I replied or if I did but my self-esteem felt a bit restored. His remark was certainly better than the fit of giggling that took over my family and that continued for the rest of the trip whenever the incident was remembered!

After a few steps I recovered control over my senses and I remembered the camera in my shirt pocket. Muddy water dripped out of it and it became evident that no macaw pictures would illustrate any future publications (sorry!) and also that the rest of the expedition would only be remembered! So the picture of the boat I show here is from another trip in the Tuichi, later on, prior to my second camera’s desintegration under similar circumstances…

So it was that, wet and with my pride badly dented, I climbed back on the boat and we proceeded to have a great trip, despite my newly discovered syndrome. Thankfully it did not affect my fishing skills.

En route to the river Tuichi. My daughter at the prow is making heroic moves to steer the boat while the bushsnob, on the right, gives instructions...

En route to the river Tuichi. My daughter at the prow is making heroic moves to steer the boat while the bushsnob, on the right, gives instructions…