An expedition is like a jump into the unknown. You don’t control all the parameters and there are surprises, good and bad. For the past several days, we’ve been chasing time. Downstream, the Emerillon creek was more clogged than we had expected and upstream for the Approuague river. So we lost several days during which we had wanted to explore the center of the Approuague. Instead, we are having to go as fast as possible in order to meet our arrival deadline (and not run out of food…).
The race against time and the accumulated fatigue explain why incidents happened yesterday and today. A few seconds of distraction when crossing several big rapids, and the canoe bends…then it happens a second time (my fault this time…!). The equipment we are using has many qualities, versatility, easy transportation and capacity to carry heavy loads, but its structure is not made to resist currents when the canoe flips or when it is stuck against an obstruction. Despite all our precautions, and the land crossings we did as much as possible, sometimes there are nasty surprises. Pictured: the bent tubes show the strength of the current in the rapids…errors are unforgiving!
These difficulties actually give us a kinship with the big expeditions of the past. How many of them ended in a shipwreck, such as Patris’ second expedition, Lavud’s, Henri Coudreau’s second when he went chasing after gold in the upper Maroni, or more recently, Alain Gheerbrandt’s between Orénoque and Amazon, causing the loss of collected samples, scientific equipment and sometimes tragic deaths? Thankfully, nothing that bad on this end. We didn’t lose any equipment and everybody is safe and sound, but we will now need some help to finish our journey and only a few of us will row the last miles of the trip on the three remaining canoes.
Despite these obstacles, or perhaps because of them, we now understand a lot of things. The magnitude of Grillet and Béchamel’s expedition for one. Not only did these Fathers take the same course we did, but they also took it the other way in order to get to Camopi! Of course, where they were concerned, the natives should be congratulated since as river experts, they were the ones who enabled them to get to distant points.
We also understand why we can still find traces of dwellings from the creole gold miner’s period (essentially the first half of the 20th century) near the large rapids that gave us issues. These landing spots were essential for bringing the merchandise above the rapids and supplying the villages situated near the mineral deposit zones. At the Kanouri rapids, you can still find strong mango trees and the rudiments of a few structures that give evidence of their presence. At the Machicou rapids, you can find the bottom of ovens probably used to roast the cassava roots. The region rich in gold and the logistical bottlenecks explain a lot about the settlements in the Guiana of the 19th century and the 1960s.
PAST AND PRESENT ORGANIZATION
And we finally realize that the same logic applies to today’s illegal gold miners. They have to transport their provisions through the same obstacles as the oldtimers did and, they too, need landing spots. For them, the Approuague is divided into two sections, separated by the Grand Kanouri rapids. On the rapids themselves, there are wooden structures with no walls that protect the load couriers (who earn 0.5 g of gold per trip containing 50 kg (110 lbs)) and also the travelers going to the ore sites and those leaving them on their way back to Brazil. The pirogues coming from Oiapoque (and sometimes even from Surinam) manage to get to the bottom of the rapids and drop off goods and people. Those above the rapids then deliver to the Sapokaï, Kwata and the upper Approuague regions. A well-oiled machine and synchronized with radios and satellite phones, their logistics are quite in par with UPS and Fedex’s.
All of it is clandestine and illegal of course and successive crackdowns have removed them, but the gold miners' persistence mentioned in the June 26 posting is strong. We were able to see the beginnings of a restructuring of their activities after they had just undergone a Harpie crackdown. Business does not stop, the work sites upstream need fuel and supplies.
Prior to the gold rush, the rapids were settlement areas as we saw when we found the place where Lucien and Patricia’s ancestors’ village was. Fish is often abundant, the rocks and sand useful for polishing axes and…well, the view certainly plays a role. We can understand the delight there can be to living near waterfalls so beautiful (though traitorous). Tonight’s campsite is a testimony to this.
Tomorrow begins our final sprint to Regina!