Saturday, 1 March 2014

Hunting for Treasure

I hadn't traveled this fast in almost two months. Whizzing down the familiar stretch of river that we have swum many times, I relished the cool breeze and waved at people on the shore washing their clothes, from my perch on the side of Mervin's leaky boat, propelled by a whining 15 horsepower engine. The sun was starting to lower in the sky, leaving us in the shadows of the towering trees that line the steep, muddy banks. As we swerved around the skeletons of old branches, fallen into the river, sweet little birds would skim across in front of us. They would glide effortlessly and catch the same little insects that the fish were jumping for from below, sending little ripples across the glassy surface of the water.

Past Creek Mouth we went, watching the mountain above the village disappear around the corner, along the straight stretch to Karisparau Landing- the limit of our knowledge of Chenapou. From there on we were in unknown territory. For every previous set of Project Trust volunteers, I thought, this would have been their passageway into Chenapou- coming the opposite direction from Kaiteur- but for us this was a journey into uncharted waters.

The river always brings surprises; after long stretches of seemingly undisturbed wilderness, you will come across a little landing or a dugout canoe hidden away in the shallows, a narrow pathway cut up the bank, even a clearing and a glimpse of a house. Chenapou gets bigger and bigger the harder you look. The real surprises for us this time, though, were the mining camps (tarpaulins stretched out among the trees, surrounded by curious looking machinery and big empty oil drums) and the miners themselves, out working the river on the bizarre looking water dredges.

We came around a bend about ten minutes after Karisparau Landing, to discover a small fleet of these dredges, like a flotilla of drifting little houses in the middle of the river. They were churning out water behind them as if they were being propelled by little paddle steamers. Off the side of the wooden platforms, kept afloat on top of old oil drums, sat topless men, surrounded by tools, engines, buckets, containers of fuel, hammocks, ropes and pieces of wood.

As we drew closer, the steady hum of the boat's outboard was gradually drowned out by the jerking rhythm of old, rickety engines. Metal on metal, metal on wood, coughing and spluttering, shuddering and shaking, the dredges were churning out music like that of the orc mines in a Lord of the Rings movie. On top this the gush of water, being sucked from the depths of the river, through a pipe and over a series of sloping mats, filled what little room was left in the ears. The din was painful to me as we climbed aboard the dredge, but I know the workers, who sit there all day long with no ear protection, could no longer have enough hearing for it to bother them.

Eventually, the platform ceased to vibrate with the force of a small earthquake and a blissful silence filled the air as the engines wound down to a halt. I noticed a man who had not been there before. I also noticed it was raining. The sound of the rain on the tarpaulin, usually deafening in itself, had been completely overpowered. The extracted himself from half of his neoprene suit, took off his diving goggles. His job for the fast few hours had been 20 feet down in the murky depths, clearing away the sand to get at the precious gravel beneath, with the hungry, sucking end of the pipe. A tough, dangerous job. His only link to the world above- a little hose blowing air for him to breathe. The sand above him could have closed in and burieds him at any time.

Watch this video on repeat to discover what it is like on a water dredge (put the sound up as high as possible for a more realistic experience).

The belt connecting the motor to the air pump was not running smoothly. Out came the hammer, to take out the nails holding down the pump, they inched it into place, but a hook was in the way. Out came the cutlass to hack off a piece of wood. They started nailing back the pump, but it was at an angle. Out came the cutlass again to quickly fashion a wedge. Then a piece of rope was tied to help secure it from shaking, with a branch cleverly being used to twist the rope and make it taut. I admired the instinctive way the workers improvised with the materials they had, creating a makeshift factory out of pieces of tree and nails.

The rain came down heavily and started making puddles along the edge of the tarpaulin. Emptying the puddles splashed water all over the deck, but it was mostly wet already from the splashing of water from the dredge.

Darkness was beginning to close in, but on the dredges worked as we sped back up towards the village. They continued to chug away hopefully, in their endless search for the precious treasure buried away in the murky depths of the Potaro.

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