National Geographic : 1946 Mar
Quinine Hunters in Ecuador BY FROELICH RAINEY * MY ANGER at the Japs was even greater than usual that morning as I rode toward a pass in the eastern Andes with the cold rain beating me in the face and running down the back of my neck. They had grabbed virtually the entire known world supply of quinine in Java (page 351) and left us with an extremely questionable source in the bark of wild cinchona trees sup posed to be growing somewhere in the Andes. To fight in the South Pacific we had to have quinine, or a successful substitute; hence the frantic search for a new source had many North Americans wandering in the high rain forests of South America. Pack animals, loaded with food and equip ment for two weeks of exploration in Ecua dor's Oriente, and our party of twelve native guides and packers were strung out along one of the frightful trails which are the only access to most of the Oriente (map, page 349). If pack animals can negotiate them, they can't be so bad, I thought. But that was before I knew Ecuadoran mules. Scrambling up a narrow gorge where mud and water, belly deep, alternated with irregular boulders and rock slides, I learned that none of my former experience with mountain trails and riding ani mals applied in the Andes. They are unique. Mules Climb Tough Trails Arthur Featherstonehaugh and I wore rub ber ponchos over woolen and were still cold. At an elevation of some 10,000 feet my hands were blue with the cold and my shivering even shook the mule. Still we continued to climb. We crossed a false divide and started down into a forested canyon. Here we were forced to dismount to lead the mules down a wash where they jumped from one rocky outcrop to another. In between were steep mud slides where we slipped and fell, marveling at the catlike sure footedness of the mules. We crossed a stream on two muddy logs laid side by side and only roughly flattened on the upper surface. The mules trotted across like goats. The scramble up the opposite side of the gorge reminded us that we were nearly two miles up in the air. Lungs ached and hearts pounded. I felt dizzy and a bit sick, as if the mountain sickness were returning. At the top "Feather" overtook me, toiling up the slope on foot as I had done. His face was gray and blotched. He was panting with such force that he could scarcely speak. After a time he was ready to go on, but he looked desperately ill and we urged him to ride again and rest. However, Feather did the last grueling climb on foot, then stretched out on the ground. After a few minutes of resting, I heard him call to me in a rather faint voice, and when I reached him he was very ill. We debated making camp or returning to a lower elevation at once, then decided to go on a short distance in the hope of finding water. This was the end of the mule trail. From this point to the forest on the far slope there was a foot track. Beyond that we should be forced to cut a trail every step of the way. We were rigging a stretcher for Feather when I heard his low, terrified voice, "Frol, come here!" Those were his last words. When I reached him he was doubled up in a spasm, again his face was gray and blotched, and a froth was forming on his lips. In less than two minutes the spasms ceased and he relaxed. Then, in what seemed no more than seconds, his body grew cold. I knew he was dead. Later an autopsy disclosed that a chronic heart condi tion, combined with the mountain sickness, caused his death. The rain continued to pound. Clouds hung so low I felt I could reach up and touch them (page 358). We were shut in a gray, wet ridge on the eastern range of the Andes, 10,000 feet above the sea. I thought it was the most dismal place I had ever been. I am sure that Feather would have pre ferred to have his body remain there-he was an ex-Marine-with his boots on, completing a mission. But custom would not allow that. We must make our dreary way back with the body slung on a stretcher. A Weird Funeral Procession Our progress down the mountain was a weird funeral procession. Feather, lashed onto a stretcher and supported on the shoulders of four natives, led the line. Behind him fol lowed his riderless mule, and strung out for a quarter of a mile were natives and pack animals, rain-soaked, tired, and dejected. Moving the body through the gorge and along the steep narrow trail was a heart-breaking task. After some hours the natives refused to go * The author, now in the State Department, was the Cinchona Representative of the Foreign Eco nomic Administration in Ecuador and Director of the Ecuadoran Cinchona Mission.