My son Joseph, his college room-mate Benjamin and I had come to the lowlands of the Beni in Bolivia to see the animal life. But the rains had caused plenty of problems for our 4x4 on the journey from the edge of the Andes towards Trinidad, the capital of the Beni. We had been marooned in flood water and beeen forced to negotiate a tow from a pair of surly cocaine-handlers at a remote estancia, but we had also acquired a local travelling companion and saviour, Oscar, who was with us now, as we took to the road again in our jeep.
We had heard that there was a hotel in Trinidad – a real hotel. I was looking forward to paved floors, painted walls free of visible insects, a shower with running hot water, perhaps even air-conditioning. But we were not yet in Trini, as Oscar called it; we had not even reached San Ignacio de los Moxos, the only inhabited place before Trini. The total distance was supposed to be less than eighty miles, and I was convinced that we had driven more than that since leaving the cocaine estancia, yet in the darkness there was still no sign of San Ignacio or of any other human habitation.
We were crossing a vast plain of grassland and swamp but for us it was only a perfect obscurity. Moon and stars were completely covered by the rainy season’s thick clouds, and if anyone lived within sight of the road they had neither electricity nor oil lamps, rare luxuries for the Indians of the lowlands. We were breaking the first rule of Beni travel by driving at night. So we tried to be cautious, accelerating only when the surface was firm, dry mud, slowing drastically to a first-gear creep when the track dipped down, allowing streams of swamp water to flow across its width. I had decided to stop and wait for dawn if the water rose any higher than a foot or so as we advanced into it inch by inch. We could no longer walk ahead probing with a stick as we had done by day. There were too many refracting alligator eyes right next to the track, too great a probability of stepping on a snake in the darkness. The guavas that fall from the trees lining the road attract rodents that attract snakes – easily avoided and hardly a peril in daylight; not so at night.
As we kept driving, hour after hour, packs of Amazonian zorillas, stout bulldog bodies covered in straggly fur, kept coming out of the grassland to trot just ahead of our jeep. Listed as rare (worse than ‘endangered’) in the Simon and Schuster Guide to Mammals, they were in imminent danger of becoming rarer: bewitched by the headlights, they would not get out of the way, and often we had to brake to avoid hitting them.
When we finally reached the tranca, the barrier that each Bolivian town operates to collect a bit of cash from passing vehicles, it was after 11. There was nobody in the shelter, and the boom was raised. San Ignacio is a real town, not another village of wooden shacks. By the time we had driven the length of the main street to reach the square, with a central garden and Spanish-colonial church, we had passed a loud wiskería, several shops still open, and long rows of tin-roofed small houses built of concrete blocks, definitely upscale for the Beni where grass roofs, raw trunk frames and walls of hand-sawn wood planks are more usual. Only the gas station of the Yacimientos Fiscales Bolivianos state monopoly was a disappointment. The light was on, a man sat in the booth but there was no gas. The tanker truck from Trini was several days late, the ferry-rafts could not risk the rushing waters of the Mamoré in flood. It was bad news on two counts – we were low on gas and to reach Trini we, too, would have to cross the Mamoré.