(By Maciej Tarasin) Chiribiquete National Park in Colombia is one of the most inaccessible places on Earth. Its territory, the size of the state of Massachusetts, is covered by the Pre-Cambrian table-top tepui mountains surrounded by the thickness of the rainforest and criss-crossed by the rivers, whose black waters rumble over their rapids and numerous falls. The park is home to jaguar, giant otter and tapir; it also hosts an array of endemic plants.
Rock paintings and cocaine guerrillas
Chiribiquete has the largest archeological concentration of prehistorical rock paintings in northern South America. The late Thomas van der Hammen, a Dutch Colombian biologist, was so struck by these illustrations that he called it, Chiribiquete, “the Sistine Chapel of the Amazon.” However, archeological expeditions researching the paintings in the early 1990s were abandoned due to the conflict with the cocaine-business guerrillas.
At the turn of November and December 2013, I organized a pioneer expedition from the North to the South of Serrania de Chiribiquete. The aim was to run down the rivers of Tunia and San Jorge, as well as some parts of the Apaporis. It was to be the first documented paddling expedition down the San Jorge River.
The territories on the Yari, the Cunare and the San Jorge used to be inhabited by the Karijona Indians. They were known to have rowed their canoes standing and might have been the first to square off against the canyons and waterfalls of Rio San Jorge, though no information about their feats survived. It is also believed that it was the members of the Karijona tribe who painted the rock masterpieces. Apart from going down the so-far-unexplored Rio San Jorge, I really wanted to see this “Sistine Chapel of Amazonia”.
Rapids, machetes and rocky banks
After all the unusual adventures on the Yari river in 2011, I was determent to make sure this expedition went according to the original plan. I contracted an experienced Indian guide, Jaime Gomez, and amassed all the maps and equipment (SOAR Pro Pionier).
On November 8th we set off from Bogota, reaching San Jose de Caquetania on the 11th. The Tunia proved to be a fast-flowing river with rapids and waterfalls. Its rapids needed good scouting before choosing the safest route. Our first 4-day leg ran across the savannah. In a straight line we were making about 20 kilometers a day until reaching the Jaguara village. We went past the village of La Tunia with its agricultural farms; further down we saw some coca leaves plantations and a few deserted FARC camps.
On the sixth day we reached the canyon which took us two days to pass. Half way through the gorge it turned out that there was a big boulder in our way and the class IV+ rapids behind it; we had also left our machetes in the camp. Without machetes we wouldn’t be able to make our way through the rainforest from Rio Apaporis to the upper Rio San Jorge. There was no choice for us but to struggle two kilometers along the rocky bank to get them from the camp.
Then we partly carried the canoes along the dangerous rapids running the easier fragments keeping close to the rocks on the right. Three days later having gone over numerous rapids in a good time, we reached Apaporis. I wanted to avoid spending too much time on the Apaporis as there was a hazard of running into guerillas.
Finding upper Rio San Jorge and descent
After passing through two dangerous class IV drops, we set up a camp. Our intention was to change the river basin, which required walking 20 km through the forest carrying all the equipment. It took us almost a week. First we had to clear the passage with the machetes and find the upper Rio San Jorge in this place hardly visible on satellite maps. Having found it, we came back for heavy equipment such as the pontoon, the food and the paddles.
On the next day we started going down the pristine Rio San Jorge. It was more like cutting our way through the lush greenery and fallen trees. Initially Rio San Jorge was 10 meter wide; only on the second day it widened enough for us to enjoy the full view over the river. On the last day of November we reached the first waterfalls. I might have easily been the first or one of the first white men who reached this place. We lowered the pontoon on the ropes and went down the runnable fragment. The following cataracts did not pose a problem as the water was low.
Rio San Jorge was incredibly beautiful. It abounded in many drops easy to slip off without getting out of the pontoon. The river’s black water reflected lush rainforest vegetation and the sun rays, making it emerald. Every now and again we would have a chance to steal a glance at the majestic tepui, called by Indians, “houses of the gods”.
Early on the Rio Cunare we got a surprise. The low water revealed an aircraft sunk in the river. I dived a couple of times to check out the plane’s identification numbers and we carried on.
Most dangerous incident
In Raudal El Tubo we joined the Dutch expedition as had been arranged. We planed to return to Araracuara together. That’s when we had the most dangerous adventure of our expedition. Jaime wished to go over the last drop of the El Tubo river when he and one of the Dutchmen got into the backwater, which stopped the boat with so much power that Jaime was thrown in the middle of the tumbling water.
We could not see him for half a minute, then he surfaced a dozen meters down the river. It was a relief. I was told later that Jaime, who was the fruit of the romance between his Indian mother and a white man, had been dropped into the river as a baby. After he was saved by his grandmother, his tribesmen prophesied that he would not die by water. Luckily, this time the prophesy was true.
Participants: Maciej Tarasin - expedition leader rivers and Jaime Gomez - expedition leader rain forest.
The paddling expedition, which started in San Jose de Caquetania on Rio Tunia on November 22, was completed in Raudal El Tubo on Rio Cunare on December 2, after approximately 450km on the rivers and 60km passage with all our equipment through the rain forest.
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