When we decide to give Madidi Tours another chance, we set some conditions - we insist on camping rather than staying in the lodges, which is what all the other tourists do, that Madidi doesn’t screw us again and we have the same crew.
Julian is so offended by us axing the first trip that he announces he will not be coming so we will have no translator. We don’t care. And by this stage in our travels, I feel quietly confident that I can translate enough Spanish to get a main message across.
So once again Sandy, Rodolfo, Meg, Hunter, Geezer and I set off in a jeep with less supplies for a four day tour of the pampas - this time with Carlos, our boat driver. After another amazing lunch (Gracias, Sandy!), we board our long, motorised canoe and Carlos is quickly renamed ‘Rambo’ when he dons a headband, khaki clothes, a bare chest and a wicked grin.
We are on our way! And feel pleased with ourselves when packed boat loads of tourists steam past us with boom boxes, dreadful music and disinterested looking guides. Our crew, on the other hand, are lively, excited about being on the river and seem to enjoy our company.
Rambo is quite a character (more on him later!). Sandy kicks back enjoying the sun with a smile, quietly planning our next culinary delight. Rodolfo, a quieter, older guide, immediately starts wildlife spotting. We instantly see pink dolphins and stunningly beautiful birds. I’m not a bird person but the birds are seriously impressive.
But it is the crocs and peeping eyes of caiman that have us gobsmacked. There are hundreds of them lining the banks. As soon as the boat approaches they bob underneath the water or slide on their bellies down from the banks and disappear under the boat.
We motor down river for several hours, passing the horrific looking lodges, until nearly dark. We pull in to a bank, unload the boat and set up camp on the side of the river, slightly anxious about the number of crocs we have seen on these very banks. Hunter has a fire roaring within minutes, Meg and Geezer hoist the tent while Sandy cooks up an unforgettable stew and we all throw back a couple of red wines – except for Rambo who sits quietly to one side of the camp fire not eating or drinking.
After dinner Rambo asks me about us – where we are from, our relationships, where we met. I assume that he is trying to get to know us but then he starts clearing a small space in front of him. He sprinkles the area with coca leaves and lights two cigarettes which he sticks in the ground upside down to burn. He then pours 96% pure alcohol on the pile in front of him and begins a quiet prayer to Pachamama (Mother Earth).
I cannot understand every word he is saying but he uses the information that I have given him to introduce Pachamama to us and to ask her to keep us safe. He asks her to make sure we have a great time together, to keep us well fed, to please bring out some wildlife and to protect his ‘new family’ – us. He says that in all his years as a guide nothing has ever happened to his group thanks to his prayer to Pachamama. He talks quickly and I can’t translate fast enough or translate effectively the beauty of his prayer. But I understand enough to know that our guide and boat driver, Rambo, is a deeply spiritual, tough yet gentle soul. And we all sigh at how lovely it is.
He then asks us to take a swig of the alcohol, which puts hairs on our chests, and to each pour some of the alcohol on the pile of coca leaves and say our own words to Pachamama. He shoves wads of coca leaves into his cheek. The boys follow with the coca leaves – and then dare each other to keep swigging on the 96% alcohol. Rambo chuckles quietly and says the word ‘burracho’, which means pisshead in Spanish! From then on, Geezer is known as Burracho.
We later discover that Rambo never eats on the first night of a tour as an offering to Pachamama.
Later that night we walk down to the edge of the river with torches and are stunned to see hundreds of caiman eyes peering out of the water – some not so far away from where we are standing.
Feeling tired, full and happy, the four of us squeeze into the tiniest tent imaginable and sleep like logs.
Day 2 – We are up early for a breakfast of deep fried goodness (Gracias, Sandy!), load up the boat and steam ahead upriver still amazed at the number of crocs.
By late morning we pass the point where most of the tourists stop and the water is so untouched that it is covered in moss. We eventually come to a narrower part of the river and a giant tree has fallen blocking our way. We agree that this must have been the part of the river Madidi told us was unpassable. Unperturbed, Rambo and Rodolfo get their machetes out and start hacking a path through the mass of branches. The boys help and together they figure out a way through – which ends with Rambo backing up the canoe and rams it through the trees at full speed taking everybody by surprise.
We make it through and arrive at a small beach where there are pink dolphins lolling about and loads of piranhas.
This is my first time fishing and I’m horrified at the thought of catching anything. Geezer puts his line out first and immediately catches a piranha which he reels in – but the hooks are blunt and it doesn’t quite take. Rodolfo bolts over and tries to catch it with his hands but he falls in the water and the piranha makes a lucky escape.
Meg then reels in one while Hunter admires her fishing skills from the bank before bringing in a couple himself.
I stand there half-heartedly trying to catch something when my line tugs. I give it a quick pull and see a piranha on the end. I scream for New Zealand and the poor fish jumps back in to the water in fright. I am later more successful and catch a small cat fish. After much coercing, I hold it long enough to have my photo taken and throw it back in the water.
Giggling to herself at our fishing efforts, Sandy catches them left, right and centre for lunch. But when she stands up on the boat, she falls straight into the croc infested waters. She comes up laughing and we all decide that if she can fall in the water and not get eaten by a croc then it’s safe for a swim. Rambo and Rodolfo agree that while the dolphins are there, the caiman stay away. So we all go for a nervous dip, sun ourselves on the beach with wine and treats.
The beach is beautiful but we have to set up camp further down the river and enjoy another early night on a full stomach.
Day 3 – More river cruising and the scenery is absolutely surreal. The water is so still. It is so quiet that the only noises you can hear are monkeys in the trees, the plops of crocs sliding into the water and the gliding of our canoe in the water – and us rambling on.
Rodolfo takes us on an afternoon hike through the pampas and it is here that we appreciate his skills as a medicine man. He stops every few minutes to cut a piece of bark off a tree for us to smell, touch or taste. One smells strongly like garlic. Another is used to make hair dye. He explains that every plant in the jungle and pampas has a medicinal or useful purpose.
We get back on the boat and arrive at the most stunning of places – a perfect camping spot for our third night – but we are told that there isn’t enough fuel and we need to head back part of the way in the night with the motor off. So begrudgingly we start heading back, taking our torches on the way for some night cruising on the river. The whole way we spot caiman eyes watching us go past and hear the odd splash of a croc in the water. We make one stop for dinner and then keep going – eventually finding a suitable place to camp.
Instead of pitching the tent, we put mosquito nets over our sleeping bags and sleep under the stars not at all worried about the wildlife lurking nearby.
Day 4 – Our last bit of deep fried goodness for breakfast (Gracias, Sandy!) before we board our boat and motor back the way we came. We arrive back in Rurre late afternoon after a hellish jeep ride back from the river. We agree to meet Rambo, Rodolfo and Sandy the next day to tip them and formally thank them.
The four days have seemed like a whirlwind. The best times in our travels have been made by the people we have shared them with. Our crew who shared so much knowledge, protected us, fed us like kings and showed so much enthusiasm and passion for their jobs that we were constantly mesmerised.
And our new friends – Meg and Hunter – well what can I say? There have been few people that we have bonded with so quickly. Our wickedly funny and warm-hearted American friends, Kara and Dave, and now Meg and Hunter. We end up having a better experience because of them. We could have gone on any old pampas tour but by chance we met people that turned just a tour into a trip we will never forget. And it is because of the amazing time we have and the bond between friends that we decide instead of going our separate ways, we sign up for another tour – this time in the jungle.