South America: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

A Voyage on the Amazon

If we had not wanted to break our journey at Para, we could have gone on direct to Mangos, 850 miles farther up the Amazon, by the steamer on which we came out from Liverpool. Now, some weeks later, we are leaving Para for Mangos on a sister ship, which also hails from England.

It is always exciting to feel any craft, large or small, changing from an inanimate object into a living creature as she begins to ride the water in the first moments of freedom from moorings. But to feel an ocean liner coming to life on a river, whilst knowing that instead of heading for the deep seas she is setting forth to ride that river upstream for a distance of nearly a thousand miles, is one of those rare and wonderful experiences which make for never-to-be-forgotten memories.

Our steamer travels a short distance down the Para River, then begins to head for her journey up the Amazon by steering a circuitous course through channels between numerous islands in the delta of the main river. The waterways between the islands are so wide that the forests on either shore present a blurred picture of seemingly dwarf vegetation, or assume the form of a grey-blue misty border to the deep blue sky. Sometimes to our right, sometimes to our left, the top of a sail appears on the horizon behind the forest-clad banks, reminding us that there are channels beyond the shores between which we are steaming, and leading us to conjure up a picture wherein there are no islands to interrupt the vast gathering of Amazon waters. Fishing-boats, with bright blue, red, or orange sails, are a feature of the sights and scenes of the Amazon delta.

Even a slight acquaintance with the interior of the forests adds considerably to our enjoyment in making a steamer trip up the Amazon.

Glimpses of the shore scenery, combined with the drowsy influence of the sun, set us dreaming of our visit to a seringal. As we lie back in cosy deck-chairs, gradually the air seems to become charged with sweet scents of the forest. Once more we are in a wondrous maze of trees, undergrowth and overgrowth. Slowly, very slowly, colours, lines, and forms stand out as fascinating details amidst the luxuriant mass of vegetation. Here, giant trees are in possession of a great tract of land; yonder, other giants are making near-neighbouring big trees look very small. Some of the trees have great limbs, richly clothed with leaves, branching forth from top to toe of their gigantic bodies; others have a slim, or sturdy, bare trunk that is surmounted by a crown of foliage. How marvelously varied are the size, shape, texture, and grouping of the leaves! the most delicate foliage intertwines with lusty leaves that are at least ten yards in length; big, medium-sized, or little leaves, each a gem of creation, cluster to form feathers and fans. And what a colour display! Is it not amazing to find how many shades of green there are in Nature's paint-box? Amidst this beautiful setting of multi-hued greens rise silvery, golden, purple, and red tree-trunks; a rainbow-hued profusion of flowers and fruit, together with masses of white blooms and splashes of black berries, bedeck the tangle of forest foliage; birds of gay plumage are roosting in leafy bowers; butterflies and dragon-flies dart hither and thither, fluttering wings that must surely have been steeped in a fairy essence of bright green, scarlet, saffron, azure, sapphire, rose, or eau-de-Nil.

Forty winks in the sun can conjure up a bewitching entertainment for those of us who have travelled in the South American forests. For memories crowd themselves into dreams, enabling us to relive within a few minutes experiences that have actually covered many hours, days, or even months. In reality, it takes a long time for anyone to discover even a small fraction of the wonders of these forests. Nature does not play the showman by arranging that as many sights as possible shall be on view in a particular place and at a particular time in the wilds.

At 10 p.m. on this our first day of the voyage from Para to Mangos, our ship drops anchor outside the Narrows. By three o'clock the next morning the vessel is under weigh again; very soon afterwards we are on deck, being anxious to enjoy to the full the exciting passage of an ocean liner through a winding waterway which, in many places, is barely wide enough to accommodate her breadth. There are about eighty miles of the Narrows. Throughout the course we could easily throw things from the deck of the steamer on to either shore. Sometimes the ship actually grazes one bank in avoiding the other, and the way she takes the sharp turnings makes us hold our breath until she has swung clear, then burst forth into praise of the pilot's skill. The shores of the Narrows are not those of the main river, but of some of the numerous islands with which the Amazon is studded. By the large number of rubber-gatherers' shacks which stand on clearings by the water's edge, you can easily guess what is the principal industry of this district.

Early on the third day we pass the mouth of the great tributary known as the Tapajoz. By noon we are at Obidos, famous as a centre for the exportation of Brazil nuts.

Do you know how Brazil nuts grow? The tree is one of the Amazon forest giants; it flourishes both by the river banks and in the far interior. The flowering season is in September. The nuts, which take fifteen months to ripen, are enclosed in pods that are about the size of a large cocoa-nut; the shell of the pod, however, is more inclined to be round, and is very much thicker and harder than a cocoa-nut shell. The pods fall to the ground when the nuts are ripe and native collectors break them open with an axe. The nuts are so wonderfully packed in the pods that any of you who tried to repack them in their natural case would give up the game in despair, and, I am sure, agree with me that the most difficult Chinese puzzle is simple in comparison.

Throughout the journey from Para to Mangos, Obidos is the only locality in which we have the main banks of the Amazon on either side; elsewhere, one or other of the shores is that of some island.

Onwards from Obidos we skirt a fine stretch of pasture-lands. Towards sunset, we get some beautiful peeps at the hills which form the boundary between the States of Para and Amazonas; also, there happens to pass overhead a particularly large party of parrots. How they are all chattering! Notice their habit of flying in pairs.

Soon after breakfast on the fourth day we reach Itacoatiara; it is quite a big settlement, has some very pretty buildings, and is a busy centre for the export of cocoa, rubber, and Brazil nuts. The river here is thickly dotted with small boats; their crews, being armed with bow and arrows, look a little fearsome at first sight, but, believe me, they are simple fisher-folk, and their weapons are merely the native form of fishing-tackle. The fishermen throw bait into the river, watch, and let fly an arrow when a fish comes to the surface for a bite. The arrow usually finds its mark, for the fishermen are very expert; it plays the part of a float to the speared fish, and a few paddle-strokes bring the marksman within reach of both weapon and prize.

Itacoatiara used to be the "jumping-off ground" for the Madeira-Mamore railway; engineers and workmen—English, Americans, and Brazilians—who were going to or coming from the scene of one of the greatest enterprises in the way of railway-building, had to change boats here; and here, too, were stored vast quantities of material for the construction camp at Porto Velho, nearly 500 miles up the Madeira River. The Madeira-Mamore railway, 210 miles long, links up the rivers after which it is named by a marvellous track of civilization threading dense tropical forests. It was built with the object of providing a safe and speedy medium for transporting rubber through a district where hitherto the only means of communication had been waterways that are blockaded by a series of very dangerous rapids and falls.

About midday we pass the mouth of the Rio Madeira. Now, hourly, we become more and more excited, for it is a toss-up whether we shall reach the junction of the Rio Negro in time to be able to see the strange meeting of different-coloured waters.

Fortune favours us; the sun has not yet set when our good friend, the Captain, warns us to be sure not to leave the deck for the next few minutes if we do not want to miss what we have been watching for all the afternoon.

Is it not extraordinary to be passing straight out of yellow water into black water? Have you ever seen anything in Nature more curious, more fascinating, than the unswerving line in which the muddy waters of the Amazon barricade the clear waters of the Negro?

After we have proceeded a short distance up the Rio Negro the lights of Mangos come into view; on this evening of the fourth day from leaving Para we are about to arrive at our destination in time to go ashore. Have we not had a delightful voyage? Do you remember how people at home prophesied that if we went up the Amazon we should be half-scorched to death, and the other half eaten alive by insects? Have any of you seen, heard, or felt a mosquito on board? I have not. Have you not slept soundly in your roomy, well-ventilated cabins? I know that every one of us has done justice to all the excellent meals that have been set before us in the beautifully cool saloon. Good luck and atmospheric conditions have, probably, been largely responsible for keeping insect pests out of our track; but certain it is that we owe our best thanks for the comforts of the voyage to the Booth Shipping Company, that has had the enterprise to put such well-equipped steamers on this route, and to the jovial Captain of our ship, who has taken such a kindly interest in our welfare.

Mangos is one of the most remarkable cities in the world. People who have not been up the Amazon imagine that those who have are romancing, or drawing the long bow, when they say that, situated nearly a thousand miles from the coast and within the heart of the forest, there is an up-to-date centre of civilization, with wide streets, palatial houses, large warehouses, docks capable of berthing ocean liners, fine public buildings, Parisian shops and cafes, a vast theatre, electric light and tramway services, and nearly 100,000 inhabitants, including a large number of white folk of many nationalities. The main business of the city is concerned with the exportation of rubber. The people are very hospitable, and each nationality seems to vie with the other in courteous and generous efforts to give the stranger in their midst a right royal time.