Rediscovering a Lost World
Noel Kempff National Park, Bolivia
If you ask anyone returning from Bolivia to give his or her impression of the country, you will meet with either a look of awe or one of bemusement. Few places on earth can boast such a staggering array of unspoiled natural landscapes as this landlocked South American country. Conversely, Bolivia’s reputation for having a poorly improvised and idiosyncratic tourist infrastructure is still widely deserved.
However, the directors of Noel Kempff-Mercado National Park have found a winning formula. This remote Amazonian hideaway inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to pen his legendary sci-fi novel The Lost World, and has been off limits to all but the hardiest adventurers. Recent improvements in accessibility and in park amenities have ensured that it is now open to all. Not that you could tell. During my visit to the Flor de Oro ecolodge in the extreme northeast of Bolivia, the sum of guides and tourists could be counted on two hands. With a meagre 200-300 visitors staying at the lodge every year, the pristine beauty of the park is still, evidently, a well-kept secret.
Our small group assembled at the Santa Cruz office of F.A.N (Fundación de Amigos de la Naturaleza), the company that manages the park. From there, a six-seater Cessna plane took us on a three-hour flight north. After one hour, the endeavours of Man had long disappeared; the view below revealed only the inky-green expanse of the rainforest, splintered by ruddy brown tributaries of the Amazon twisting into the horizon. It was not the last time that Mother Nature would leave us feeling humbled and insignificant during the five-day trip.
The Guaporé River as sunset approaches
The Flor de Oro ecolodge, our base for the week, is basic but comfortable. In a clearing by a bend on the Guaporé River, F.A.N. has constructed a number of charming cabins from local timber. Giant mosquito nets fortify each cabin, from where one can safely marvel at the weird and wonderful flying bugs of the Amazonian night. By day the complex provides ravishingly good meals and a chance to sample the peculiar local fruits, as well as ideal relaxation by the riverbank after an arduous trek. Gazing upon the still, black river is a hypnotic experience, watching it mirror vividly the explosive jungle sunsets of indigo and molten gold. After pleasantly exhausting days, sleep comes quickly and you tend to live by the sun.
Our two guides, who are both, confusingly, called Fernando, enthusiastically wake us for coffee as soon as the vibrant morning chorus begins. The Fernandos differ strikingly in appearance and character; one is an excitable blond Brazilian while the other is a gentle Bolivian of Amerindian stock. Both have infectious enthusiasm and an intimate awareness of the surrounding forests.
Our dawn patrol boat sweeps along the narrow channels of the Pauserna River, revealing an assembly of wildlife curiously peering at us from the safety of the spring blooms. We are frequently asked to duck under tunnels of canopy as Brazilian Fernando deftly swings the tiny launch around floating islands of giant lily pads. His method for approaching the larger creatures, such as tapir and caiman on the banks, is either to hang the river-bends at full throttle to catch them by surprise, or to cut the engine and glide along with utmost stealth. It makes for great excitement; with playful kingfishers gracefully swooping alongside the boat. Rowdy screeches of parakeets up above, and a sky mottled by a rainbow of butterflies, make it a dazzling spectacle that the imagination would struggle to conjure up.
We disembark at another of FAN’s lodgings; the base for a long jungle hike to the Arco Iris waterfall, the signature attraction of the park. We soon fall in step with the rhythm of the falls pounding in the distance. Animal activity is scarce under the midday sun, yet Bolivian Fernando spots a gang of squirrel monkeys and a lone racoon apparently before they have noticed us. Moments later we creep up within reach of a giant anaconda, sleeping in the shade on a river beach, and leave him unaware that he had been the subject of the ultimate holiday photograph. It is rare and exhilarating to see wild animals living in such a fearless way, blissfully unaware of the threat brought by mankind. Fernando explains that the park’s seclusion has allowed a variety of intricate ecosystems to thrive, supporting some 130 different mammals, 620 types of birds, and 70 reptiles. To maintain this extraordinary status quo is the biggest challenge that faces FAN in years to come, as illegal loggers and poachers could pose a grave threat to the existing harmony.
The waterfall Arco Iris
Drenched in sweat, we eventually arrive at a small cliff-top clearing to find Arco Iris below. As far as the eye can see, limestone cliffs are smothered by a dense matting of lush vegetation, through which the iridescent torrents of the Pauserna River burst and hurtle over the precipice. It feels like the ultimate pilgrimage of nature, a journey to the heart of isolation. I am moved by a strange sensation of timelessness as I stare into the green canyon ruthlessly sculpted by the cascading river. Everyone is silent, lost in wonder at the raw power and beauty.
Ambling back to camp, we pause to bathe under a smaller waterfall, leaving our clothes upon the surrounding boulders. Feeling happy and refreshed, Brendan, a young Irishman, returns minutes later to find that his hiking shorts have been eaten by a colony of leaf-cutter ants. He is understandably dumbfounded, and holds the tatters aloft to peals of unsympathetic laughter. Bolivian Fernando is still wiping away tears as he collects one of the vandals to show us its extraordinary hatchet-like limbs. Living in an environment full of the surprises of nature, one’s tolerance of minor grievances rapidly increases. By mid-afternoon we arrive back at camp exhausted from all the wonderful stimuli and physical exertion.
A more relaxing day follows, as we trawl along the wider Guaporé River. We encounter a group of freshwater Amazon dolphins. Unlike their marine cousins, they are slightly stockier and they also exude a pinkish sheen. Bolivian Fernando explains how the native Indians hold these water bufeos in great esteem, with some tribes even blaming them for unwanted pregnancies.
When darkness falls, Bolivian Fernando navigates with a powerful flashlight, scouring the reeds to transfix the dull yellow eyes of lurking caiman. He cuts the engine, and suddenly we are engulfed by the furious nocturnal clamour of insects and birds. It is dauntingly impressive, from the low guttural bark of the toad to the bizarre old lady-like groan of an owl, with the rhythm section supplied by the relentless chatter of crickets. There is a feeling of power regained; the night belongs exclusively to these creatures, and we retreat to our cabins.
In the morning we fly to the park’s most notorious landmark, the Huanchaca plateau, with its bare crimson cliff-face towering ominously above the endless plain of swamp and jungle. The audacious Colonel Fawcett, a legendary English explorer, was one of the first to be seduced by the mystique of Huanchaca back in 1908. The rest has been dramatised in The Lost World, in which Fawcett’s giant fruit bats evolved into Conan Doyle’s ferocious pterodactyls. It is a gentle shock to find that the main aerial threat in this dimension comes from ubiquitous swarms of pinhead black bees, seeking the salt of our sweat rather than our blood.
The modern history of Huanchaca is only slightly less extraordinary than Conan Doyle’s fantasy. Alongside the scorched landing strip lies the burnt-out fuselage of an old aircraft not dissimilar to ours. Bolivian Fernando explained that it belonged to his Godfather, who flew to the plateau on an exploratory mission in 1986 with the naturalist Noel Kempff-Mercado. Unwittingly they had landed right in the middle of a cocaine processing plant, and were summarily executed and their plane set on fire. The flames were still burning as the hundred-strong workforce made an instant getaway.
The Guaporé River at dawn
Fernando takes us to see the remnants of the ad-hoc drug factory, an extraordinary, if unconventional archaeological site, already shrouded by the encroaching jungle. Huge generators and casks of chemicals used in the cocaine process lie abandoned on the rotting leaf bed of the forest. We also find whiskey bottles and cigar decks from the monthly parties when Brazilian prostitutes were flown in to entertain the workers. It is a fascinatingly spooky place; the only sound is the eerie drone of the bees.
Flying back to Flor de Oro for our connecting flight, we realise that our adventure is almost over as the two Fernandos bid us farewell. They are the last humans I see from the plane window and I am struck with an unfamiliar physical sensation, perhaps a little envy, that this is their home and not mine. Noel Kempff National Park is so wonderfully pure and inspiring that it is inevitable that part of you will remain there. But on the trip back, I am quickly reminded of my fortune in being able to visit such a magical place. Dipping into Colonel Fawcett’s memoir, I read that in 1907 he was vigorously warned about the dangers of exploring here. The Consul in Santa Cruz had waved him away with the words, “possibly in a hundred years time flying machines will do it. Who knows?”