Lodgey and Life on the Road. Stories from South America.

13 July 2010

Fate or fortune?

I’m not a strong believer in fate... more that shit just happens. But our latest adventure may have swayed me slightly towards the former.

The few days we spend in La Paz kill us – the high altitude, the constant feeling of being ripped off and the general craziness of the city. So after a few days we leg it to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia’s jump off point to the Amazon jungle and pampas, hanging for warmer weather and wildlife.

We board a tiny plane for a 35 minute flight to Rurre, desperately wanting to avoid the 20 hour bus ride along ‘Death Road’. We are close enough to the cockpit to see that the pilots don’t have their hands on the wheel until we land on a grass strip in Rurre – slightly unnerving when they’ve announced turbulence but there is none.

Geezer suggests we ride on the back of motorbikes from the airport. I hesitate for a split second before flinging my backpack on to the front of a bike and next thing we roar away from the airport, wind whipping my face, yelling.... Hellooooo Rurrenabaqueeeeeee!!

Having been recommended Madidi Tours for pampas and jungle tours we head there after checking out a few other companies that seem to only cater to the masses. We tell the young Bolivian behind the desk (whose gob is so stuffed of coca leaves that he can barely talk) that we want something different, off the beaten track but most of all away from the throngs of tourists.

We are in luck. Madidi had been approached by the owner of a piece of land and they want to investigate whether it will make a good destination for tourists. It would be a seven day adventure – two days up the river, three days in the jungle and two days back – plenty of wildlife and camping with indigenous villages along the way. No tourist has been there. It sounds perfect.

But we add up the cost and realise that it is too expensive for us to do alone. We would have to find another couple that afternoon in order to set off in two days time. We tell Madidi that we’ll be back later to see whether they’ve had any other punters.

We are marginally hopeful - even Geezer offers to stand outside Madidi with a plaque. But we return later that day to discover that an Australian couple has just been in wanting the same thing. Julian, Madidi’s coca-leaf gob stuffed front man, tells us that we can probably find them in the bank as they’d just left. We walk out and immediately spot them – Meg and Hunter – two people pointing frantically at us with the biggest, warmest smiles and equally large hearts. The bond between the four of us is instant. We go for a beer and leave several hours later enormously excited about our adventure in unchartered territory with our new amigos.

The next day we arrive at Madidi to sort logistics and pay up when they tell us that the price has gone up and that they will have difficulty getting fuel because of a 20 litre limit per person. We need 400 litres. The owner of Madidi has to seek permission from the head of the navy to get more fuel. We even offer to round up 20 people (or for all of us to go in disguise five times) with jerry cans to get the 400 litres. They don’t appreciate our humour and sadly, the trip isn’t to be. It will take much more planning.

But there is another area we can go away from tourists, requiring less fuel and we can leave tomorrow. It will be a seven day adventure by boat on the river in the pampas grasslands.

So we wake with the sparrows, meet Meg and Hunter for breakfast and then jump in to a jeep crammed with a week’s supplies of food, water, camping gear, a cook, a guide and Julian, who will be our translator. It isn’t till we arrive in a small, not so remote, indigenous village that we realise there are no fuel tanks for the boat. Having been sat to one side away from the rest of the crew and villagers, we also realise that there is a tense village meeting underway with the chief.

After several hours of waiting and watching the negotiations, we are told that there is no boat, there never was a boat (but they had forgotten to tell us) and even if there was a boat, there is a giant tree blocking the river and we will never get through. We are also told that we can borrow horses from the village but once we reach the river we will be on our own, carrying all our supplies up the river bank – which actually turns out to be thick jungle filled with crocodiles, caimans and god knows what else.

Furious, we hold our own team meeting. Geezer is nominated chief spokesperson and tells Julian that we want to go back to Rurre because this is not what we signed up for and has cost us a lot of money. Easing the tension, Rodolfo, our guide, whips us off on a little tour of the village where he introduces us to some of the villagers who – along with Meg - crush sugar cane to make delicious fresh juice through a giant wooden press. And Sandy, our cook, slips us a kick arse lunch before we head back to Rurre.

We arrive back in Rurre and are told that our money has been spent on the food and supplies, and we won’t get much back unless we agree to another tour with Madidi. After another team meeting we decide that even though the day has been a disaster and Madidi hasn’t been completely honest, we know that Sandy is a wicked cook, Rodolfo is a fantastic guide and the four of us are already great mates so we agree to go with them on a less risky, more traditional tour of the pampas.

So we trudge through pouring rain to a moody hostel optimistic about giving the pampas another shot.

And in the coming days and weeks, Meg, Hunter, Geezer and I will regularly reminisce about the odds of having met each other and the adventures we would share. Fate or fortune? We all think both.

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