CHAPTER VI. ARRIVAL AT THE LAKE.

  "It sleeps among a hundred hills 
   Where no man ever trod, 
  And only Nature's music fills 
   The silences of God."

After going about two thousand three hundred miles up this serpentine river, we discovered the entrance to the lake. Many had been the conjectures and counsels of would-be advisers when we started. Some said that there was no entrance to the lake from the river; others, that there was not sufficient depth of water for the steamer to pass through. On our port bow rose frowning rocks of forbidding aspect. Drawing nearer, we noticed, with mingled feelings of curiosity and wonder, that the face of these rocks was rudely carved by unmistakably Indian art. There were portrayed a rising sun, tigers' feet, birds' feet, etc. Why were they thus carved? Are those rocks the everlasting recorders of some old history - some deed of Indian daring in days of old? What these hieroglyphics signify we may never know; the workman is gone, and his stone hammer is buried with him. To twentieth century civilization his carving tells nothing. No Indians inhabit the shores of the lake now, perhaps because of this "writing on the wall."

With the leadsman in his place we slowly and cautiously entered the unexplored lake, and thus for the first time in the world's history its waters were ploughed by a steamer's keel.

Soon after our arrival the different guards were told off for the silent watches. Night shut in upon the lake, and all nature slept. The only lights on shore were those of the fire-flies as they danced through the myrtle boughs. The stars in the heavens twinkled above us. Now and again an alligator thrust his huge, ugly nose out of the water and yawned, thus disturbing for the moment its placid surface, which the pale moon illuminated with an ethereal light; otherwise stillness reigned, or, rather, a calm mysterious peace which was deep and profound. Somehow, the feeling crept upon us that we had become detached from the world, though yet we lived. Afterwards, when the tigers [Footnote: Jaguars are invariably called tigers in South America.] on shore had scented our presence, sleep was often broken by angry roars coming from the beach, near which we lay at anchor; but before dawn our noisy visitors always departed, leaving only their footprints. Early next morning, while the green moon was still shining (the color of this heavenly orb perplexed us, it was a pure bottle green), each one arose to his work. This was no pleasure excursion, and duties, many and arduous, lay before the explorers. The hunter sallied forth with his gun, and returned laden with pheasant and mountain hen, and over his shoulder a fine duck, which, unfortunately, however, had already begun to smell - the heat was so intense. In his wanderings he had come upon a huge tapir, half eaten by a tiger, and saw footprints of that lord of the forest in all directions.

Let me here say, that to our hunter we were indebted for many a good dish, and when not after game he lured from the depths of the lake many a fine perch or turbot. Fishing is an art in which I am not very skilled, but one evening I borrowed his line. After a few moments' waiting I had a "bite," and commenced to haul in my catch, which struggled, kicked, and pulled until I shouted for help. My fish was one of our Paraguayan sailors, who for sport had slipped down into the water on the other side of the steamer, and, diving to my cord, had grasped it with both hands. Not every fisher catches a man!

Lake Gaiba is a stretch of water ten miles long, with a narrow mouth opening into the River Paraguay. The lake is surrounded by mountains, clad in luxuriant verdure on the Bolivian side, and standing out in bare, rugged lines on the Brazilian side. The boundary of the two countries cuts the water into two unequal halves. The most prominent of the mountains are now marked upon the exhaustive chart drawn out. Their christening has been a tardy one, for who can tell what ages have passed since they first came into being? Looking at Mount Ray, the highest of these peaks, at sunset, the eye is startled by the strange hues and rich tints there reflected. Frequently we asked ourselves: "Is that the sun's radiance, or are those rocks the fabled 'Cliffs of Opal' men have searched for in vain?" We often sat in a wonder of delight gazing at the scene, until the sun sank out of sight, taking the "opal cliffs" with it, and leaving us only with the dream.

On the shores of the lake the beach is covered with golden sand and studded with innumerable little stones, clear as crystal, which scintillate with all the colors of the rainbow. Among these pebbles I found several arrowheads of jasper. In other parts the primeval forest creeps down to the very margin, and the tree-roots bathe in the warm waters. Looking across the quivering heat-haze, the eye rests upon palms of many varieties, and giant trees covered with orchids and parasites, the sight of which would completely intoxicate the horticulturist. Butterflies, gorgeous in all the colors of the rainbow, flit from flower to flower; and monkeys, with curiously human faces, stare at the stranger from the tree-tops. White cotton trees, tamarinds, and strangely shaped fruits grow everywhere, and round about all are entwined festoons of trailing creepers, or the loveliest of scarlet mistletoe, in which humming-birds build their nests. Blue macaws, parrots, and a thousand other birds fly to and fro, and the black fire-bird darts across the sky, making lightning with every flutter of his wings, which, underneath, are painted a bright, vivid red. Serpents of all colors and sizes creep silently in the undergrowth, or hang from the branches of the trees, their emerald eyes ever on the alert; and the broad-winged eagle soars above all, conscious of his majesty.

Here and there the coast is broken by silent streams flowing into the lake from the unexplored regions beyond. These riachos are covered with lotus leaves and flowers, and also the Victoria Regia in all its gorgeous beauty. Papyrusa, reeds and aquatic plants of all descriptions grow on the banks of the streams, making a home for the white stork or whiter garza. Looking into the clear warm waters you see little golden and red fishes, and on the bed of the stream shells of pearl.

On the south side of the Gaiba, at the foot of the mountains, the beach slopes gently down, and is covered with golden sand, in which crystals sparkle as though set in fine gold by some cunning workman. A Workman, yes - but not of earth, for nature is here untouched, unspoilt as yet by man, and the traveller can look right away from it to its Creator.

During our stay in these regions the courses of several of the larger streams were traced for some distance. On the Brazilian side there was a river up which we steamed. Not being acquainted with the channel, we had the misfortune to stick for two days on a tosca reef, which extended a distance of sixty-five feet. [Footnote: The finding of tosca at this point confirms the extent inland of the ancient Pampean sea. - Colonel Church, in "Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society," January, 1902.] During this time, a curious phenomenon presented itself to our notice. In one day we clearly saw the river flow for six hours to the north-west, and for another six hours to the south-east. This, of course, proved to us that the river's course depends on the wind.

On the bank, right in front of where we lay, was a gnarled old tree, which seemed to be the home, or parliament house, of all the paroquets in the neighborhood. Scores of them kept up an incessant chatter the whole time. In the tree were two or three hanging nests, looking like large sacks suspended from the boughs. Ten or twenty birds lay in the same nest, and you might find in them, at the one time, eggs just laid, birds recently hatched, and others ready to fly. Sitting and rearing go on concurrently. I procured a tame pair of this lovely breed of paroquets from the Guatos. Their prevailing color was emerald green, while the wings and tail were made up of tints of orange, scarlet, and blue, and around the back of the bird was a golden sheen rarely found even in equatorial specimens. Whether the bird is known to ornithologists or not I cannot tell. One night our camp was pitched near an anthill, inhabited by innumerable millions of those insects. None of us slept well, for, although our hammocks were slung, as we thought, away from them, they troubled us much. What was my horror next morning when the sun, instead of lighting up the rainbow tints of my birds, showed only a black moving mass of ants! My parrots had literally been eaten alive by them!

But I am wandering on and the ship is still aground on the reef! After much hauling and pulling and breaking of cables, she at last was got off into deep water. We had not proceeded far, however, when another shock made the vessel quiver. Were we aground again? No, the steamer had simply pushed a lazy alligator out of its way, and he resented the insult by a diabolical scowl at us.

Continuing on our way, we entered another body of hitherto unexplored water, a fairy spot, covered with floating islands of lotus, anchored with aquatic cables and surrounded by palm groves. On the shallow, pebbly shore might be seen, here and there, scarlet flamingoes. These beautiful birds stood on one leg, knee deep, dreaming of their enchanted home. Truly it is a perfect paradise, but it is almost as inaccessible as the Paradise which we all seek. What long-lost civilizations have ruled these now deserted solitudes? Penetrate into the dark, dank forest, as I have done, and ask the question. The only answer is the howling of the monkeys and the screaming of the cockatoos. You may start when you distinctly hear a bell tolling, but it is no call to worship in some stately old Inca temple with its golden sun and silver moon as deities. It is the wonderful bell-bird, which can make itself heard three miles away, but it is found only where man is not. Ruins of the old Incan and older pre-Incan civilizations are come across, covered now with dense jungle, but their builders have disappeared. To have left behind them until this day ruins which rank with the pyramids for extent, and Karnak for grandeur, proves their intelligence.

The peculiar rasping noise you now hear in the undergrowth has nothing to do with busy civilization - 'tis only the rattlesnake drawing his slimy length among the dead leaves or tangled reeds. No, all that is past, and this is an old new world indeed, and romance must not rob you of self possession, for the rattle means that in the encounter either he dies - or you.

Meanwhile the work on shore progressed. Paths were cut in different directions and the wonders of nature laid bare. The ring of the axe and the sound of falling trees marked the commencement of civilization in those far-off regions. Ever and anon a loud report rang out from the woods, for it might almost be said that the men worked with the axe in one hand and a rifle in the other. Once they started a giant tapir taking his afternoon snooze. The beast lazily got up and made off, but not before he had turned his piercing eyes on the intruders, as though wondering what new animals they were. Surely this was his first sight of the "lords of creation," and probably his last, for a bullet quickly whizzed after him. Another day the men shot a puma searching for its prey, and numerous were the birds, beasts and reptiles that fell before our arms. The very venomous jaracucu, a snake eight to twelve feet long, having a double row of teeth in each jaw, is quite common here.

The forests are full of birds and beasts in infinite variety, as also of those creatures which seem neither bird nor beast. There are large black howling monkeys, and little black-faced ones with prehensile tails, by means of which they swing in mid-air or jump from tree to tree in sheer lightness of heart. There is also the sloth, which, as its name implies, is painfully deliberate in its motions. Were I a Scotchman I should say that "I dinna think that in a' nature there is a mair curiouser cratur." Sidney Smith's summary of this strange animal is that it moves suspended, rests suspended, sleeps suspended, and passes its whole life in suspense. This latter state may also aptly describe the condition of the traveller in those regions; for man, brave though he may be, does not relish a vis-a-vis with the enormous anaconda, also to be seen there at most inconvenient times. I was able to procure the skins of two of these giant serpents.

The leader of the "forest gang," a Paraguayan, wore round his neck a cotton scapular bought from the priest before he started on the expedition. This was supposed to save him from all dangers, seen and unseen. Poor man, he was a good Roman Catholic, and often counted his beads, but he was an inveterate liar and thief.

Taking into consideration the wild country, and the adventurous mission which had brought us together, our men were not at all a bad class. One of them, however, a black Brazilian, used to boast at times thathe had killed his father while he slept. In the quiet of the evening hour he would relate the story with unnatural gusto.

We generally slept on the deck of the steamer, each under a thin netting, while the millions of mosquitos buzzed outside - and inside when they could steal a march. Mosquitos? Why "mosquitos a la Paris"was one of the items on our menu one day. The course was not altogether an imaginary one either. Having the good fortune to possess candles, I used sometimes to read under my gauzy canopy. This would soon become so black with insects of all descriptions as to shut out from my sight the outside world.

After carefully surveying the Bolivian shore, we fixed upon a site for the future port and town. [Footnote: The latitude of Port Quijarro is 17 47' 35", and the longitude, west of Greenwich, 57 44' 38". Height above the sea, 558 feet.] Planting a hugh palm in the ground, with a long bamboo nailed to the crown, we then solemnly unfurled the Bolivian flag. This had been made expressly for the expedition by the hands of Senora Quijarro, wife of the Bolivian minister residing in Buenos Ayres. As the sun for the first time shone upon the brilliant colors of the flag, nature's stillness was broken by a good old English hurrah, while the hunter and several others discharged their arms in the air, until the parrots and monkeys in the neighborhood must have wondered (or is wondering only reserved for civilized man?) what new thing had come to pass. There we, a small company of men in nature's solitudes, each signed his name to the Act of Foundation of a town, which in all probability will mean a new era for Bolivia. We fully demonstrated the fact that Puerto Quijarro will be an ideal port, through which the whole commerce of south-eastern Bolivia can to advantage pass.

Next day the Secretary drew out four copies of this Act. One was for His Excellency General Pando, President of the Bolivian Republic; another for the Mayor of Holy Cross, the nearest Bolivian town, 350 miles distant; a third for Senor Quijarro; while the fourth was enclosed in a stone bottle and buried at the foot of the flagstaff, there to await the erection of the first building. Thus a commencement has been made; the lake and shores are now explored. The work has been thoroughly done, and the sweat of the brow was not stinted, for the birds of the air hovered around the theodolite, even on the top of the highest adjacent mountain. [Footnote: The opening of the country must, from its geographical situation, be productive of political consequences of the first magnitude to South America. - Report of the Royal Geographical Society, January, 1902.]

At last, this work over and an exhaustive chart of the lake drawn up, tools and tents collected, specimens of soil, stones, iron, etc., packed and labelled, we prepared for departure.

The weather had been exceptionally warm and we had all suffered much from the sun's vertical rays, but towards the end of our stay the heat was sweltering - killing! The sun was not confined to one spot in the heavens, as in more temperate climes; here he filled all the sky, and he scorched us pitilessly! Only at early morning, when the eastern sky blushed with warm gold and rose tints, or at even, when the great liquid ball of fire dropped behind the distant violet- colored hills, could you locate him. Does the Indian worship this awful majesty out of fear, as the Chinaman worships the devil?

Next morning dawned still and portentous. Not a zephyr breeze stirred the leaves of the trees. The sweltering heat turned to a suffocating one. As the morning dragged on we found it more and more difficult to breathe; there seemed to be nothing to inflate our lungs. By afternoon we stared helplessly at each other and gasped as we lay simmering on the deck. Were we to be asphyxiated there after all? I had known as many as two hundred a day to die in one South American city from this cause. Surely mortal men never went through such awful, airless heat as this and lived. We had been permitted to discover the lake, and if the world heard of our death, would that flippant remark be used again, as with previous explorers, "To make omelettes eggs must be broken"?

However, we were not to melt. Towards evening the barometer, which had been falling all day, went lower and lower. All creation was still. Not a sound broke the awful quiet; only in our ears there seemed to be an unnatural singing which was painful, and we closed our eyes in weariness, for the sun seemed to have blistered the very eyeballs. When we mustered up sufficient energy to turn our aching eyes to the heavens, we saw black storm-clouds piling themselves one above another, and hope, which "springs eternal in the human breast," saw in them our hope, our salvation.

The fall of the barometer, and the howling of the monkeys on shore also, warned us of the approaching tempest, so we prepared for emergencies by securing the vessel fore and aft under the lee of a ruggedsierra before the storm broke - and break it did in all its might.

Suddenly the wind swept down upon us with irresistible fury, and we breathed - we lived again. So terrific was the sweep that giant trees, which had braved a century's storms, fell to the earth with a crash. The hurricane was truly fearful. Soon the waters of the lake were lashed into foam. Great drops of rain fell in blinding torrents, and every fresh roll of thunder seemed to make the mountains tremble, while the lightning cleft asunder giant trees at one mighty stroke.

In the old legends of the Inca, read on the "Quipus," we find that Pachacamac and Viracocha, the highest gods, placed in the heavens "Nusta," a royal princess, armed with a pitcher of water, which she was to pour over the earth whenever it was needed. When the rain was accompanied by thunder, lightning, and wind, the Indians believed that the maiden's royal brother was teasing her, and trying to wrest the pitcher from her hand. Nusta must indeed have been fearfully teased that night, for the lightning of her eyes shot athwart the heavens and the sky was rent in flame.

Often in those latitudes no rain falls for long months, but when once the clouds open the earth is deluged! Weeks pass, and the zephyr breezes scarcely move the leaves of the trees, but in those days of calm the wind stores up his forces for a mighty storm. On this dark, fearful night he blew his fiercest blasts. The wild beast was affrighted from his lair and rushed down with a moan, or the mountain eagle screamed out a wail, indistinctly heard through the moaning sounds. During the whole night, which was black as wickedness, the wind howled in mournful cadence, or went sobbing along the sand. As the hours wore on we seemed to hear, in every shriek of the blast, the strange tongue of some long-departed Indian brave, wailing for his happy hunting-grounds, now invaded by the paleface. Coats and rugs, that had not for many months been unpacked, were brought out, only in some cases to be blown from us, for the wind seemed to try his hardest to impede our departure. The rain soaked us through and through. Mists rose from the earth, and mists came down from above. Next morning the whole face of nature was changed.

After the violence of the tempest abated we cast off the ropes and turned the prow of our little vessel civilizationward. When we entered the lake the great golden sun gave us a warm welcome, now, at our farewell, he refused to shine. The rainy season had commenced, but, fortunately for us, after the work of exploration was done. This weather continued - day after day clouds and rain. Down the rugged, time-worn face of the mountains foaming streams rushed and poured, and this was our last view - a good-bye of copious tears! Thus we saw the lake in sunshine and storm, in light and darkness. It had been our aim and ambition to reach it, and we rejoiced in its discovery. Remembering that "we were the first who ever burst into that silent sea," we seemed to form part of it, and its varying moods only endeared it to us the more. In mining parlance, we had staked out our claims there, for -

  "O'er no sweeter lake shall morning break, 
   Or noon cloud sail; 
  No fairer face than this shall take 
   The sunset's golden veil."