Deep, dark and mys­te­ri­ous

An ex­pe­di­tion into the Ama­zon to in­ves­ti­gate the leg­end of a boil­ing river

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - AN­DRES RUZO

The trees are so tall, and jun­gle so thick, that it is dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish the to­pog­ra­phy above the ridge. In places, thatched-roof home­steads sit on lush lawns dot­ted with large trees and graz­ing cat­tle. These patches of do­mes­ti­cated jun­gle ex­pose rolling hills and ravines.

“Isn’t it in­cred­i­ble?” Guida says, beam­ing. “I love the jun­gle.”

“It’s beau­ti­ful.” I nod. “But I just can’t wait to see this ther­mal river. Hon­estly, I’m hav­ing trou­ble fo­cus­ing on much else.”

Guida laughs. “Try to en­joy the present a lit­tle more,” she says. “The river will come soon enough.”

We hear a shout from the front of the pekepeke (long boat), where our sec­ond guide, Brunswick, is stand­ing. He is in his early 30s and is [our chief guide] Mae­stro’s ap­pren­tice. “Look over there!” he says, point­ing some 10m ahead. “There is the mouth of the Boil­ing River where the hot and cold wa­ters meet.”

Fi­nally, the river! My eyes scan the scene. A trib­u­tary to our right, wider than a two-lane road, is in­ject­ing a sig­nif­i­cant quan­tity of flow into the Pa­chitea River (a trib­u­tary of the Ama­zon in Peru). Where the two wa­ters col­lide, a dusky olive-green plume of wa­ter curves into the Pa­chitea’s cho­co­late brown. But I don’t see even the slight­est wisp of steam. The prow en­ters the plume and Brunswick dips his hand into the green wa­ter, sig­nalling to me to do the same. I dip my hand into the cold brown wa­ter of the Pa­chitea. The mo­ment we pass into the green plume, the wa­ter be­comes warm. It gets warmer and warmer as we near the trib­u­tary, un­til fi­nally we glide into its mouth. Here the wa­ter is sig­nif­i­cantly warmer, like hot bath­wa­ter, but nowhere near boil­ing.

I shouldn’t feel dis­ap­pointed, but my ex­cite­ment has got­ten the bet­ter of me. This “Warm River of the Ama­zon” is not the stuff of my dreams. The “Boil­ing River” has not lived up to its name. I let out a deep sigh. (Is this it, how­ever? The ex­pe­di­tion presses on.)

Ex­pertly nav­i­gat­ing the pekepeke, Fran­cisco steers the boat to shore, where steps carved into the cliff’s red­dish mud beckon us to­ward the next leg of our jour­ney. I turn on the path tracker on my GPS and slip it into my back­pack. Dis­em­bark­ing, we climb to the top of the bank, where we see a thin, muddy trail en­ter­ing the for­est. Brunswick leads us into the jun­gle. The trail is well trod­den but un­even. Mas­sive trees with im­pos­ing but­tress roots shade us from the hot sun. Twist­ing vines with bizarre forms and tex­tures snake through the fo­liage. Elec­tric-coloured flow­ers hang above us, so del­i­cate and ex­otic that I find it hard to be­lieve they are nat­u­ral. As we hike up and down the un­du­lat­ing to­pog­ra­phy, hid­den an­i­mals ser­e­nade us. Squadrons of mos­qui­toes stalk us.

At the end of a large clear­ing, near the crest of a tall ridge, I no­tice a heav­ily eroded dirt road. I ask Brunswick about it. “Log­gers came through here many years ago in trac­tors and took away the big trees,” he an­swers solemnly. “They were chased out, but the clear­ing re­mains.”

Guida speaks in a pained tone. “Many years ago, I was do­ing so­cial work with an in­dige­nous group in the jun­gles far south of here. I was stay­ing in a vil­lage on a large river, and though the area was sup­pos­edly pro­tected, the lo­cals were still hav­ing prob­lems with il­le­gal log­gers. One night I couldn’t sleep, so I took a walk to the river. When I got down to the bank, I heard strange noises. The full moon let me see clearly, though a part of me wishes I hadn’t looked. From end to end, as far as I could see up­stream and down­stream, the river was full of mas­sive lupuna trees. Men with long poles walked back and forth across the gi­ant float­ing logs, guid­ing them down­stream. It was clear why they were trans­port­ing the trunks at night. Each of those trees was eas­ily hun­dreds of years old.”

A wave of anger washes over me. “That’s ter­ri­ble,” I mut­ter. “But the worst part came later,” Guida con­tin­ues. “We dis­cov­ered that most of those an­cient trees were be­ing used to make ply­wood. The lupuna is known as the Lady of the Jun­gle. Their trunks can be more than three yards (2.7m) wide. They are thought to con­tain pow­er­ful spir­its. And they are be­ing used for ply­wood.”

A de­pressed si­lence en­velops our small group as we con­tinue. My thoughts shift back to the Boil­ing River. If ac­counts of the river are true and not merely an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, there are three pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions: it’s a vol­canic/mag­matic sys­tem, it’s a non-vol­canic hy­dro­ther­mal sys­tem where geo­ther­mal wa­ters are quickly be­ing brought to the sur­face from deep within the earth, or it’s man-made.

This last pos­si­bil­ity is dis­con­cert­ing. What if the Boil­ing River is just the re­sult of an oil­field ac­ci­dent — an im­prop­erly aban­doned oil well, a frack job gone wrong, or oil field wa­ters im­prop­erly re-in­jected into the earth? I know of many cases, in Peru and abroad, where oil­field ac­ci­dents have caused geo­ther­mal fea­tures — the most in­fa­mous be­ing the Lusi mud vol­cano in East Java, which has dis­placed more than 30,000 peo­ple. Ac­ci­dents of this scale quickly take on sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal im­por­tance, and as a re­sult, Lusi’s “true cause” re­mains a con­tentious is­sue.

In (Peru’s) Talara desert, I re­cently vis­ited two tourist at­trac­tions with sur­pris­ing back­grounds. The plan had been for two old oil wells — wells that were only pro­duc­ing warm, salty wa­ter — to be prop­erly sealed and closed up by the oil com­pa­nies. As the story goes, the lo­cals saw po­ten­tial in the pools of warm wa­ter and pres­sured the com­pa­nies to keep the wells open. The oil com­pa­nies gave in, and the wells were con­verted into bathing pools. Now un­sus­pect­ing tourists pay to re­lax in the “nat­u­ral heal­ing ther­mal wa­ters” while rub­bing the “re­ju­ve­nat­ing” ther­mal muds on their faces.

I let out a long ex­hale as I re­alise that this hor­ri­ble pos­si­bil­ity might be the most likely ex­pla­na­tion. We are near the old­est oil­field in the Peru­vian Ama­zon — it’s a well-stud­ied area, and a large ther­mal river isn’t ex­actly easy to miss. Fur­ther­more, the river doesn’t ap­pear on the Peru­vian gov­ern­ment’s geo­ther­mal fea­ture map — though that 1965 re­port men­tions a “small, warm spring” some­where in this gen­eral area.

Maybe the river was a small, warm spring that ac­ci­den­tally be­came a boil­ing river. Maybe the leg­ends came later. Maybe I’m walk­ing into an oil field cover-up. Frus­trated, I shake my head to try to clear my mind. I’m so sick of all these un­cer­tain­ties, I think. Un­til I see real data I know noth­ing. I need a solid GPS lo­ca­tion to de­ter­mine ex­actly how close the river is to the near­est oil­field. I need pre­cise tem­per­a­ture data to fig­ure out how ex­ag­ger­ated these ac­counts are. Most im­por­tant, I need to find a 1933 study, the only one done be­fore this area was de­vel­oped, and the only one left that could men­tion the river.

Just then Brunswick stops and points out a thick metal pipe, par­tially buried, run­ning across the trail. “This oil pipeline once went from the oil­field to Pu­callpa,” he says. “They stopped us­ing it years ago and most of it has been stolen now. It marks our prop­erty bound­ary — from here to the river, we are in Mayan­tuy­acu.”

A large painted wooden sign reads: Mayan­tuy­acu — Zona Pro­hibida. “Pro­hib­ited zone?” I turn to Brunswick. “Pro­hib­ited to whom?” “Log­gers, hunters, squat­ters. We are try­ing to do good work in Mayan­tuy­acu — heal­ing peo­ple and giv­ing them tra­di­tional nat­u­ral medicines. We get our knowl­edge from the plants and the grand­par­ents.”

He pauses, look­ing up at a large, thick tree. Brunswick gen­tly places his hand on the tree trunk. “The spir­its leave when the land is cleared.” Point­ing to the sign, he adds: “Mayantu for the spirit of the jun­gle, and Yacu for the spirit of the wa­ter. Here we heal by work­ing to­gether with both spir­its.”

His words, spo­ken with pro­found re­spect, strike a chord in me. I re­solve to keep my hy­pothe­ses to my­self — even healthy sci­en­tific scep­ti­cism about the river could be mis­in­ter­preted as dis­re­spect.

We reach the top of a sec­ond great ridge crowned by mas­sive trees, guards of the sur­round­ing jun­gle, and rest a mo­ment, Guida and I tak­ing deep ragged breaths. Our two-hour hike in the heat has taken the en­ergy out of us. “Al­most there,” Brunswick as­sures us. As our gasps sub­side, I hear some­thing in the dis­tance.

“What’s that sound?” I say. “It’s like a low surge.” Brunswick raises his eyes to me and smiles. “The river.”

This is an edited ex­tract from geo­sci­en­tist An­dres Ruzo’s The Boil­ing River: Ad­ven­ture and Dis­cov­ery in the Ama­zon (TED Books; Si­mon & Schus­ter, $19.99).

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