Thursday, February 16, 2006

Parabanon Falls

Went on a hike today, but first a little background. Luis, Chelita’s brother, is hosting a mission team at his school this week and he asked me several weeks ago to take several of his team on a hike. I checked into going to the Surutu falls, but the trail is still closed because the latter down the cliff has not been replaced. So I decided to drag the team along on a hike that I have been wanting to attempt for a couple of months now. I had heard through several sources that there was a big but fairly inaccessible waterfall near the Parabanon mountain, about 50 km to the south Angostura along the front mountain range. One height estimate was of 400 feet. I figured that was probably an over estimation because I have not seen anything approaching that height in Santa Cruz. Carlos met a family in Bermejo who are originally from the Parabanon area and who verified the existence of the falls and said their were actually located on their family’s property.

Carlos and I drove up to Bermejo yesterday to ask for permission to enter the area and to get directions. We were directed back to El Torno where we met a cousin of the family who knows the area well and agreed to take us in today. So we left this morning at 5:00 A.M. not really knowing what we were getting ourselves into. Here is the cast of characters. Myself, Carlos (my Colombian well drilling buddy), Luis (Bolivian school teacher and mission team leader), Ernando (18 year old local guide), Samuel (Bolivian school teacher working with Luis), Rob (20 something year old mission volunteer from Indiana) and Mark (61 year old mission volunteer from Indiana). We picked up Carlos and Ernando in El Torno and everyone crammed into my Nissan for the bumpy three hour off road trip to the trail head. Ernando wasn’t sure which roads were passable so we stopped at several relative’s houses for advice. The road was increasingly less traveled and more difficult to follow. The mud and sand got deeper and the forest closed in around us. We crossed two rivers—the second crossing was at a place I was not too confident we could make it through. After a bit of machete work, rock rolling and shoveling I gunned the motor and we made it through the river and up the steep sandy embankment on the other side. . I definitely need to get a winch. It is just too stressful constantly thinking I am going to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere. We parked the truck at the end of the road where we left it in the care of one of Ernando’s many aunts who live in the area. The aunt and her two tiny children were all sick with a fever. She asked if we had any medicine so I came up with something from the first aid kit. This family lives at least three hour walk from the nearest road where they could get a truck out to civilization. Their home was a loose collection of rotting boards nailed to four posts and roofed with palm leaves and their yard was a swamp full of pigs and mosquitoes.

We were finally on the trail and hiking by 9:30. It was a late start, steamy hot, and I was already feeling the pressure to hike fast so we could be back to the car before dark. Ernando had estimated it would take three to four hours to get to the falls, or longer depending on the condition of the trail. We followed the river, a gentle current knee deep and 10 meters wide, two or three kilometers upstream. Ernando, already impatient with our teams pace, disappeared into the bush with his machete looking for the entrance to an old trail that climbs a steep ridge out of the river valley. Ernando’s family has a long history of living in this area. I wasn’t sure if Ernando had ever lived here for any length of time, but he certainly knew the area well. He said he had been hiking in the area with his grandfather ever since he was a young boy. Ernando’s grandfather is a somewhat legendary figure in the area because he was captured by Che Gevarra in the mid-60s during his revolutionary campaign in Bolivia and forced to guide his army through these steep mountains and canyons. He is mentioned by name in Gevarra’s personal diary. The trail we hiked today is one of a scant few trails that traverse this uninhabited range of mountains and is probably one that Gevarra’s army used during the two years they hid in the mountains of Valle Grande. Cecilia, Ernando’s cousin who we met in Bermejo, said that as a child she lived in a cave near the waterfalls. Ernando said he could guide us to both the cave and the waterfalls but that he would not go in the cave because a giant snake lived inside. While there are huge boa constrictors and anacondas here, there are also fanticiful tales of magical creatures that live in caves, on mountain tops and in bodies of water in the Andes. Most locals avoid these areas at all costs.

The trail was over grown so our route up the ridge was agonizingly slow. Ernando and Carlos were up front opening up the trail with machetes. It doesn’t look like this route has been used in at least a year. Five minutes into the climb Mark and Rob were suffering from the heat and humidity. Certainly a shock after having just arrived from the middle of an Indiana winter. The overgrown trail switch backed up the ridge. I could see that the trail had at one time been well traveled. It generally no more than a couple of feet wide, but on the steeper sections it had been carved out of the rock with picks and shovels. Three or four places had recently washed away in mud slides and we had to carefully pick our way across steep exposed slabs of rock, hanging onto roots and grass to maintain our balance. I never felt these traverses were particularly life threatening or even dangerous, but several on our team hesitated a good while before committing to the crossing, and then joyously celebrated once safely to the other side. Mark, a landscaper in Indiana is in great shape for being 61 years old, but I think the heat hit him hard and after about 15 minutes of climbing he had to sit down and get off of his wobbly legs before he completely fainted. After frequent rests and slow steps he eventually recovered some strength and was able to continue hiking well. After three hours of hiking we finally broke out on top of the ridge above tree line and had a magnificent view of the steep mountains around us and the Amazon plain stretching out like an infinite green sea before us. My GPS told me it was about a 1200 ft climb from the river to top of the ridge—not a tremendous gain in elevation but still a valid effort given the trail condition and heat. We settled into a shaded grove of trees to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that the volunteer team had packed along. We filled our water bottles from the silty pool of a small spring seeping from the mountain. Ernando and the other Bolivian’s drank straight from the stream. I decided to be a cautious wimp and filter the water with my handy dandy filter bottle before ingesting it. After lunch Mark, Rob, and Samuel decided their legs had taken all they could and opted to stay behind while the rest of us, in search of the falls, descended back into the canyon on the other side of the ridge. Ernando side the trail was even steeper and more difficult going back into the canyon. Now that it was only Carlos, Luis, Ernando and myself, we were practically running down the trial trying to get down into the canyon, back out again and then down to the truck before night fall. I was beginning to think we were trying to do a two day trip in only one day.

We quickly dropped into a steep canyon made our way down 500 feet or so into the river course were Ernando showed us a waterfall that was maybe 40 or 50 feet high. It was beautiful and the flow of water was impressive; nevertheless I was disappointed as I was expecting some a bit higher. We worked our way around through the forest and to the top of the falls. Ernando said he had heard there was another larger fall a little further down the river but he had never gone down there because his grandfather had never wanted to risk the scramble down over the rocks. Then I found out the real reason the didn’t go near the pool at the bottom of the falls. Ernando said that when one of his aunts was a child she was bathing alone in the pool below the falls and a hichi came up out of the water and scared her. A hichi is another of the mystical creatures that inhabit the wilds of Bolivia. She claimed it was serpent like in form and had a huge dragon head with horns. We scrambled around through the woods and found a passage between the cliffs were we scrambled down to the pool below the falls. Ernando bravely followed us despite the hichis all around. We snapped a few pictures and then turned our interest downriver. I could here the roar of a larger falls and began to make my way over the boulders made smooth from centuries of flowing water. The river bed dropped way before me and when I finally gained a view of the falling water and the valley below I was shocked at the height we were perched above the canyon. While it is certainly hard to estimate heights when looking down, I would guess the falls were minimally 500 feet high. My GPS said we were at 988 meters elevation, and earlier I had recorded the river at 740 meters where we had crossed. That is a height difference of 248 meters (813 ft). I sure the river drops some between the falls and where we crossed but the falls themselves could easily be 600 to 700 feet high. From the top there was no direct way to get down to the bottom of the falls. It was box canyon with sheer cliffs on all three sides.

It was already pushing 4:00 P.M so we didn’t even have time for a dip in the stream. We headed back up the trail to find the rest of our group. It was a steep climb out. I was struggling to keep up with Carlos and Ernando. My knees were hurting and I was definitely at my physical limit. I couldn’t wait to pick up the rest of the group so our pace would slow back down and I could rest. Ernando seemed to have the eternal energy of youth and was still bounding up the rocks and ledges and then waiting for us to catch up. I was truly impressed with his strength and endurance and quite appalled at my own lack of either. We found the rest of the group lounging in the shade of lone tree on a ridge above the river. Andean condors were playing in the updrafts above their heads. Condors are impressive because of their size, up to a 12 foot wingspan, and they do possess a certain mystique because of the folklore surrounding them, but they really are just big ugly vultures. I screwed in my long telephoto lens and got a couple of descent shots of one sitting on a fence post. We descended quickly down the ridge trail back to the river and there soaked our aching feet in the cool water. The remaining kilometers back to the car seemed to drag on forever. I saw the car through the forest just as the last light was fading from the sky. After another three hours back down the dirt road we made it out to the highway by 10:00 and I was back home by 11:00—an 18 hour day. I think for the next hike to the falls we will follow the river all the way to the base of the falls. I’m sure the hiking will be difficult over the boulders and but there should be less climbing and I think the view will be just as or more rewarding.

1 comment:

Bill Scott, Sr. said...

Those pictures are pretty incredible. I am thankful that you are serving the Lord. Keep up the good work.