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Travel Stories






A morning wasted on a Bolivian river

The river clattered against the hull of the kayak as I pulled across the current and steadied myself against the side of the gorge. The water sparkled in a muddy, organic way, throwing ripples of sunlight up the cliffs. Speckled lizards were engaged in a slow vertical game of cat and mouse with the flies and beetles that landed on the rock face. Resting the paddle across my lap, I lay back and gazed into a blue Amazonian sky.

In Bolivia, one of the world's most lush environments sits side by side with one of its harshest. Only a hundred miles from this placid river rose the cruel heights of the Andes, a very different world. A world of serrated cordilleras and the bleak expanse of the altiplano, a grey and yellow wasteland where high altitude and low latitude combine to create a uniquely vicious environment, blasted by icy winds whilst simultaneously scorched by a tropical sun.

I should have been back in La Paz that morning. I should have been bustling along concrete streets, breathing rarefied mountain air, perhaps zipping up my fleece and scuttling into a café as icy showers passed across the city. Watching it snow in the tropics is an abiding memory of Bolivia's altitudinous capital.

Instead I was here in the lowlands, where the air was thick and warm. I was with guilty pleasure that I had learned that rioting in La Paz had closed the airport, and that my flight back into the mountains would have to be postponed. Wandering the back streets of the local town in search of a way to pass the time, I had come across the home of an ageing hippie with a kayak, a pet coati, and a passion for home baking. I rented the kayak, tried not to get bitten by the coati, and bought a cinnamon roll for the journey. Half an hour later, the wooden jetties of the town had disappeared behind a bend in the gorge.

I pushed away from the cliff face and continued up river, the front of the kayak sliding bluntly through the water. The hippie had built the kayak himself, from sheet metal hammered onto a crude wooden frame. It was abominably heavy, and difficult to manhandle down to the riverside, but it floated well enough. Paddling upriver in the antiquated craft, I could imagine myself as one of the explorers of a century ago who had first penetrated the green depths of the South American continent. Occasionally I would be shaken back into the twenty-first century by growl and wave of a motorboat, ferrying visitors and supplies into the jungle, but most of the time I had the river to myself.

Eventually the gorge fell behind and I emerged into a region of forest totally ringed by mountains. This was the kind of place one might find a lost world. Small brown tributaries - the capillaries of Amazonia - broke away and disappeared between the trees. From dappled interstices of the riverbank came the squawk and cries of beasts and birds competing to be heard above the ripple of the water and the static hiss of insect life. The jungle was drawing me in. I wanted to journey onwards – to enter into this ancient paradise, to lose myself in the forest. But I had a plane to catch. Reluctantly, I turned the kayak around and allowed the river to carry me back to civilisation.

By Andrew Gray

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