Trinidad, Bolivia, in the tropical lowlands of the Beni below the Amazon, was not even our destination. We were only driving to Trinidad to leave it again, by way of the road to Santa Cruz de la Sierra – a real road, not paved of course because tropical Bolivia does not run to paved roads, but literally a highway, raised over the swamps with upcast from the drainage ditches on either side to stay dry enough for travel even during the rainy season. That was the glorious prospect before us, if we ever made it to Trinidad, except that we were not normal human beings going from A to B but venturing travellers, who had come specifically to see the animal wonders of the flooded plain. So for us the Trinidad-Santa Cruz highway should have been no promise at all, for it would mean the end of our adventure. But that was before we ran into trouble. And so it was that having flown from Washington to Miami and from Miami to La Paz, to drive down from the Andes along the precipices of the Yungas road – voted the world’s ‘most terrifying’ by the Lonely Planet editors – we finally reached the plain only to discover that we were very eager to leave it again.
We had come to see animals, and see them we did: alligators and snakes, giant lizards and giant rodents, birds of every hue and size, Amazonian bush dogs, were all around us in great profusion, just as Pedro Sarmiento had said in La Paz. But Pedro, back in the capital after five years in the Beni, had also said that we would never make it to Trinidad. ‘An inferno!’ was how they cursed the endless track through the lowlands, though it was not hell that came to mind. There was no burning heat, and with cascades of rain every few hours, and black clouds gathering beforehand that obscured the sun, it was not even warm. Instead it was wet, wet from above and wet below. Here and there the red-earth roadway had withstood the rains, but for the rest it was only a ribbon of watery mud that marked our route, and that, too, was frequently interrupted by streams of muddy overspill flowing in from the rain-swollen swamps on either side.
Some really were streams, visibly shallow and easily crossed by the high-built Japanese jeep we had rented in La Paz. Others were more like torrents, much wider, much faster and certainly deeper – but how deep? We could not tell by looking at the muddy water, nor could we risk sinking our jeep by simply driving in. So my son Joseph, or his college room-mate Benjamin who had incautiously joined him for an odd winter vacation, or I had to wade in to test the depth with a stick. I have a photograph of Joseph standing knee-deep in the water, which seems attractively blue. That is most peculiar because we both remember it as brown. But what mattered would not have photographed anyway: the water was alive with darting fish of all sizes, and we knew that there were snakes in it, and alligators, and much larger caymans. It was only the fish that worried us – piranhas are abundant in the Beni – until we saw a very poisonous green mamba nicely curled on the jeep’s front winch.
After successfully crossing dozens of streams, several torrents and one full-blown river, it happened: six-foot Joseph reached the far side with the water still well below his waist, but when we drove in after him, the jeep slid sideways and deeper, and stopped. The rushing torrent must have dug out a hollow that had eluded Joseph. After we had failed to climb out by sheer engine power in ultra-low gear, it was the turn of the winch. The first trick was to run the engine fast, so as to keep charging the battery that the powerful electrical winch would drain in minutes. The second was to find a sturdy tree on the far side around which to loop the fifty-foot cable. We had been crossing a vast grassland, with few large trees, but there was a candidate – a good yard into the swamp. Somebody would have to wade in; clearly a job for Dad, who much preferred to be bitten himself (the mamba had just made its appearance) than return to Washington with Joseph or Ben on his conscience. It was then that Oscar arrived.