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TEAM UK DO BOLIVIA

by Andy McMahon (first published in Canoe Focus magazine).

Andy Mc does population control by machete.

December 2004, sometime or other

Mark Rainsley sent around an email with some links, along the lines of Check out these links, anyone fancy Bolivia????
Three days later a team of eight, myself included, had flights booked. Now at this stage I must admit things had happened so fast that I hadnt really had time to tell my girlfriend Lisa. I had also not really had time to check out the links, but since everyone else was up for it, I felt it must be a good idea. Upon investigation a feeling of dread settled over me, comments like: eight hour jungle walk in, they dont like gringos there, portage fest, standard two hour walk in for rivers, kept appearing. However, the tickets were paid for and Im from Scotland, and were apparently made from girders. So thered be no crying from me.

Day 1, Thursday 24th March

Six of the team were leaving from Heathrow: Andy Levick, Chris Wheeler, Marcus Holburn, Kevin Francis, Mark Rainsley and myself. Some stirling work from Marcus and Chris saw our boats safely onto the plane with no charge. Two other members of our team, Simon and Ferdinand were meeting us in La Paz. Simon currently lives in the US and Ferdinand is a top dude from Costa Rica whom we met last year. We left Heathrow en route to Bolivia

Day 2, Friday 25th March, lunchtime

Twenty hours later we landed at the Bolivian capital of La Paz. Now, this is an experience in itself. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world at more than 3000 metres, and the airport is higher than the city. Walking from the terminal to the bus is an effort, never mind trying to load up boats. We had pre-organised two 4x4s and two Bolivian drivers, Renaldo and Gary, who also doubled as guides, negotiators, translators and puncture repairers. When you only have two weeks in a place like Bolivia, logistics can seriously eat up time; so, wheels and local knowledge are priceless.

At the airport we also met up with Simon, who had arrived from the States a few hours earlier. We were glad of this as hed gone on a sightseeing bus around La Paz, thus exempting the rest of the team from needing to do any tourism later in the trip. We were all feeling the effects of the altitude and decided to head off to our first destination, Coroico.

Now, whats one of the last things you want to do after a twenty hour journey, feeling light-headed, sick and breathless from the altitude? Drive down the Road of Death perhaps? This is the road from La Paz to Coroico and is reportedly the most dangerous road in the world. An average of two or three cars a week fall off the edge. Its a dirt track clinging to a cliff face for 50 km between La Paz and Coroico, with a long fall over the edge (1000 metres+) at any given point. Along the road there are regular passing places just wide enough for two vehicles. So, off we merrily headed down the Road of Death.

Now Id like to think its because Im macho that this experience wasnt unnerving me, but the simple truth is that the thick FOG and pitch black of night obscured the view over the edge. Unfortunately they also reduced the view of the road ahead to about 20ft. Which is probably why we did career off the road, thankfully on the uphill side however. It was going to be one of those trips.

Sometime that night we ended up at La Senda Verde, a lodge on one of the few pieces of flat ground in the whole country, for our first night in Bolivia.

Given the exciting day wed had, we were lucky that only one true disaster had struck the team. Chris had left the FHM lifesize poster of Abi Titmuss on the planethings were looking bad.

Day 3 Rio Huaranilla, 2hr Gr 3 to 4- warm up section.

Day 4 Rio Choro, Grade 4 to 5

Wed done a warm-up day on the Rio Huaranilla, and now decided to tackle our first river with a real Bolivian-style walk in. We had some notes from a previous group that said that the path to the put in was a steep walk for the first 500m, carry on to the orange tree then make your way down to the river, easy!

Steep! They were right, 500m uphill in 30 degree heat carrying a boat and your kit is a nightmare. Then: which orange tree? When we finally decided we could go no further, we set off down a gully to rope our boats down to the river.

This was a big mistake. Two hours, a thousand ant bites, a few dropped boats, sixteen pints of sweat and one cut hand later (four stitches), we fell out of the jungle at the riverside. Andy Levick was the unfortunate bearer of the cut hand, he had slipped and sliced open the palm of his hand on a rock. We steri-stripped and gaffa-taped his hand and settled down for a much needed lunch break (also known as much needed rest). 20 minutes later we jumped on the river.

The Rio Choro is excellent. Short technical rapids/ drops follow one after the other all the way back to the road bridge, where it is possible to take out. We paddled an extra kilometre down the river and took out at the local village, where amongst other things you can have a meat sandwich. The Choro saw off two of our valiant team; Kevin flipped on the first drop of a double drop; without time to roll he ran the second shallow drop upside down before strategically exiting his boat. Luckily no major damage was sustained. Andy Levick anti-boofed on a boof or die style drop and paid the price with a short hole beating before his deck popped and he also exited.

We headed back to La Senda Verde, to prepare for our next day on the Rio Unduavi. We had briefly scouted this on the drive down from the airport and knew it was going to be pretty full on.

Day 5 Rio Unduavi Upper, Grade 4 to 5+

The get in to this river was great, a short hop downhill from the roadside and at the end of the day we knew where to get out.

The plan - a quick blast down a relatively short section, a quick scramble up the gentle scree slope at the take out to the waiting bus, then off to warm showers and cold beer in the local hotel.

Actual we had a bit of a faff that day and as a result of the two hour drive to the river we started paddling about 1pm. This put us at the take out around 4pm. At 7pm (yes, 3hrs later) we were still clawing around the inescapable scree slope (ex-landslide), unable to climb the last 150 feet. We would have been there all night as well; if a passing Bolivian grandmother and twelve year old girl hadnt hopped down and shown us how to climb out. So: macho paddlers NIL, wrinkly-granny-with-schoolgirl-combo ONE. And the river? Beautiful. Technical, hard Grade 5, clean lines, amazing box canyons, no portages and a lot of fun.

Day 6 Rio Unduavi Lower, Grade 3 to 5+

We got on a kilometre below yesterdays nightmare climb-out, careful to avoid anything that looked like a gentle scree slope. The river was now a mixture of Grade 3 bimble, interspersed with scary hard Grade 5 stuff. I anti-punched a reactionary on a punch or die style drop and as a consequence spent a punishing eight minutes in an air-pocket behind the fall. When I finally got dragged out I realised that the team had not been able to see me for the duration of my incident, and had almost given up and gone home they had only continued to throw lines, because they couldnt think of anything else to do. We were all a bit shaken up and I was quite happy to see the take out.

While we were on the river, Gary and Renaldo had been investigating a sleeping spot for the team. Up a random dirt track they had discovered a secluded weekend retreat style luxury hotel which had just opened for the season. Excellent, day 6 and we still hadnt had to use the bivvy bags.

Day 7 Rio Susisa, G4 to 4+ with monster walk in.

Day 8- Travel to Camata region

When we got to the Camata region, preceded by a lovely scenic drive along Lake Titicaca (aka Lake Titmuss), it was about 10pm. We turned up at a random village where the head village elder allowed us the use of their local school house to sleep in. This saw the start of the bivvy bag action.

Day 9 Upper Camata, Grade 4 to 5

The river looked quite high, it could certainly be paddled lower. 20 metres down from the put in the river disappeared around a large boulder and was uninspectable further on from the road. This was going to be interesting! The twelve kilometre section we paddled was full of monster hundred metre long Grade 5 boulder rapids. There were two big portages each taking two hours to scramble around.

Looking down at one rapid, I saw Marcus getting worked in a hole at the top, and Mark swimming out of a hole at the bottom. I started to look for portage options but realised that Marcus and Mark had already shown us where not to go: at this point I should thank Marcus and Mark for their probing duties on that one. We took out a mile or so from our agreed take out as another monster Grade 6 rapid disappeared into a gorge. That night we stayed in another random village in another kindly donated school house.

Day 10 Lower Camata, G53

Day 11 Middle Calaya, G5

This was a river we had scouted on the way into Camata and it was absolutely mental. We think it was a 1st descent and it was a full-on steep continuous boulder dash. The first drop hits you literally a boat-length from the put in at the bridge, and then its one-man eddies and full-on technical lines for the next 3 hrs. This section stays with the road the whole way. There was just one portage which was a10-footer onto crunchy rocks.

That night we went back to la Paz to find Andy L (long story, but Andy couldnt paddle after his split hand incident and we had left him in La Paz to do the tourist thing, we hoped he was alright!). On the way back Gary helpfully reminded us that we hadnt filled up with petrol for 4 days (no petrol stations), and it took us 2 hours to procure petrol before we could head back over the pass to La Paz.

Day 12 Travel to Rio Zongo/ Camp

We werent sure how long this river would take, we knew it was 60 km long and at least 20 km at the end would be G2-3. It was a long drive from La Paz and we made it to where we were going to put in quite late in the day. We decided we would find a spot to put in, camp overnight at the put in, and start the river the next day. A helpful local informed us in broken English that he knew a spot only 20 mins walk away, that was close to the river where we could put in. 20 mins later upon questioning the get in was .20 mins away, 20 mins later again upon questioning the get in was.you guessed it, 20 mins away. At this point we had to physically hold back Marcus and Simon. We politely asked the local to leave so that we could stop sitting on Marcus, and Simon scouted down a side stream to see if we could get down to the river. Simon returned saying that it was good to go and we made our way down to the river.

We roped, slid and kicked our boats down the gully and emerged from a crack in the gorge wall with 2ft of pebbles to seal launch from. 50m downstream was what looked and sounded like a pretty hefty Grade 5 something disappearing down the gorge, and it was getting dark! 100 m upstream on the opposite bank was what looked like quite a nice camping spot. Doh!

A quick team discussion and a foolproof plan emerged. We would ferry glide across the river, tie off the boats to some trees and then rope, climb and swim our way upstream with our camping kit to the beach!!!!!! We made it to the beach and set up camp. Marks petrol stove saved the day as we all tucked in to yet more ration packs.

Day 13 Zongo G5 to 2/3

We woke the next morning, got our kit together, waded back down to the boats and set off downstream. We portaged part of the first rapid and continued downstream. 200 metres down from the portage the gorge opened out. For the next two hours we negotiated big volume Grade 4-5 clean rapids, and then 5 hours of Gd 3, beautiful waterfalls and awesome scenery. We finished the river that day (yup, all 60 km!) and spent the night in a hot jungle town called Caranavi.

Day 14 Group split! Some did the Choro G4-5, some did the Suapi and Coiroco G3 and 4

Day 15, 06 April Scout dodgy no chance river

Back in La Paz, we had found a high altitude river on the map. We were sceptical but figured we would take a look. We were right to be sceptical; it was dry as a bone. We cut our losses and went back to La Paz. This was our last day, we had tourist faff presents to buy and a night out on the tiles with Gary and his very beautiful business partner (from the Bolivian Tourist Ministry) to prepare for.

The Scores

Overall we racked up: 11 days on the water (out of 13 in the country): 9 rivers: 4 swims: 2 first descents: 7 punctures: 8 dodgy stomachs. Did we enjoy it? It was great. I would like to thank the team (for saving me again!!) and our guides Gary, Renaldo, and the lovely Senora Babe of the Tourist Ministry for a great trip. Thanks also to the BCU Expeditions Committee for supporting the trip.

Is there anything else to do in Bolivia except paddle?

There are plenty of other things to see and do in Bolivia besides paddling. Andy Levick ended up on the standard tourist trail after injuring his hand early on in the trip. Heres what he managed to fit in:

Mountain bike descent of the road of death. This is arguably the most popular tourist trip in the La Paz region, although its a rather morbid to make an attraction out of the worlds most dangerous road! The trip involves a descent of 3500m down a perilous gravel track with spectacular views of the High Andes (thats if you dare take your eyes off the road). It is not without risks: an average of two cyclists cycle off the edge each year. There are many companies in La Paz that run this trip.

Visited the famous Tiahuanaco archaeological site. This is some of the remains from the ancient capital of the pre-Inca Aymara civilization. It is the Bolivian answer to Machu Picchu, but without throngs of tourists.

Enjoyed the fascinating high-altitude city of La Paz. Its famous for its colourful street markets, colonial architecture and the indigenous Indian population. Watch your pockets though; pale-faced Brits really stand out.

Visited Lake Titicaca. This is reputed to be the worlds highest navigable lake at an altitude of 3800 m and is surrounded by the spectacular snowcapped Andes.

Mountain village of Sorata in the High Andes. This is the trekking mecca of Bolivia. It rained all the time while I was there. I am sure it is beautiful in good weather.

Ferdinand attempted to climb Huayna Potos near to La Paz. You can hire guides in La Paz for this climb. One of the more technically straightforward peaks over 6000 m, though a still real test of endurance due its extreme altitude.

But none of this is as good as paddling.

Written by Andy McMahon, also Marcus Holburn and Andy Levick

Mark's Bolivia photos.