National Geographic : 1952 Sep
Jungle Jaunt on Amazon Headwaters Foaming Rivers Led a Lone White Woman to Remote Clearings Where Primitive Indians Peered at Her in Wonder BY BERNICE M. GOETZ With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author AROSS a map of eastern Colombia and northwestern Brazil, the Vaupes River winds like a satin-smooth blue ribbon. Actually, it is more like a ribbon that has been pulled taut, then abruptly re leased to fall into tortuous twists and turns. Far from smooth, the river leaps and roars through a jungle world peopled by appealing but primitive forest Indians to whom even such a simple and familiar mechanism as the wheel is a novelty. Working in Bogota for an oil firm and plan ning once again a wilderness vacation, I studied maps of the isolated reaches in south eastern Colombia. The Vaupes (Uaupes) was my choice for exploration because it flows into Brazil through vast jungles I had never penetrated. On each of eight previous jaunts into moun tains and jungles of Central and South Amer ica, I had managed to see and experience some thing new and different. I had discovered an Inca fortress. Another time I lived among Jivaro headhunters in Ecuador. Once, de serted by my Indian companions, I had to sit for a week, alone in the jungle, awaiting rescue. "Alone," but in Good Company Except for a crew of Indians, I go alone; primitive peoples are a hobby of mine. This time I would select my Indian guide in Mitfi, capital of the extensive Commissary of the Vaupes (map, page 372). One who is wise in jungle ways realizes long before reaching white water that an Indian is particular about the trade goods he accepts as reimbursement for his help. The time is past when the traveler could provide simply par ing knives, combs, pocket mirrors, perfume, and salt. What these Indians really crave is small white, blue, or gold beads. These were not to be had when I was pre paring for my journey. Luckily I was aware that fishhooks were scarce along the Vaupes, and I took as many as possible. A rubber collector posted me on the quality of cotton skirt material to buy for Indian women. A three-yard length is considered sufficient payment to a woman bearer for one day's hard toil on the trail. I also purchased yards of dish toweling with blue stripes. Somewhere along the Vaupes today, an Indian woman is unwittingly walk ing around in a dish towel. As an afterthought, I bought five toy air planes with wheels and propellers that turned. They have never failed to intrigue Indians in every jungle I have visited where the theory of the wheel is unknown. Because of a scarcity of flashlight batteries, I selected an alternative which contained frightening magic for Indians-a miner's car bide head lamp with a spare supply of fuel. Light Reading for Jungle Nights Twenty-five-pound sacks of rice, red beans, and salt went with me as air cargo. My two duffel bags and borrowed field box contained only essentials-a Boy Scout mess kit, pots and pans, a snake-bite kit, and matches. I took two small blankets, a miniature pil low, and a mosquito-netting bar tucked into a native hammock. As a pastime for peace ful nights, I packed 15 mystery novels. Before leaving, I visited amiable Gen. Al fredo de Le6n, then in charge of Colombia's territories. He gave me permission to enter the region and provided an official introduc tion to the Governor of the Commissary. The flight to Mitu was spectacular. While Bogota rests on a plateau at 8,660 feet, the mountains around it loom 5,000 feet higher. Where they dropped abruptly to the east, the grasslands of the llanos (plains) extended out in the smoky haze of the dry season. The llaneros (plainsmen) were burning the old grass in preparation for the rains. Wilderness Unfurls Below Beyond Villavicencio, the cattle town which is the jumping-off place to thousands of square miles of grass,* I was the sole passenger. On each seat were bales of emergency rations for the Governor in Miti. At least eight Govern ment employees were dependent upon the potatoes, onions, rice, beans, cheese, and fresh meat being carried to them. Ten pounds of butter oozed out of a package. From the copilot's seat I viewed the tre mendous spread of country in central Colom bia. Where the grass stopped the jungle took over in a choking green mat. * See "Keeping House for a Biologist in Colombia," by Nancy Bell Fairchild Bates, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1948.