In my grandmother’s footsteps – up the Tambopata and into the Amazon rainforest

My nose was running, the heavy cold I had picked up in Cuzco compounded by the humidity of the Amazon rainforest. It was only a couple of hundred metres since we had disembarked from the longtail boat to take the path up to the lodge, but the family in front of me was already complaining about the heat and humidity and the group behind me was complaining about the mud. One of our friends, Geoff, had taken an aversion to the complaining family and was muttering unkind things about me for bringing him along on a tour described as a “soft adventure”.

None of this really mattered. Once we had accepted our friend’s invitation to do the Inca Trail I decided I should also visit the area where my grandmother had once lived and, if I was going, I was dragging my friends, a couple of nephews and Rob with me. I had grown up listening to my grandmother’s tales of her life as a child in the early 1920s travelling to Peru and living in the Amazonian rainforest. I adored my grandmother, but, like most grandchildren only listened to tales told by grandparents which did not involve me, my friends or sport with only mild interest. Now, having travelled to Peru and visited come of the places that my grandmother spoke of, I understand how extraordinary her life at this time was and why it was something that stuck with her for the rest of her life.

My first thought as I picked my way through the mud was “what the hell had my great grandfather been thinking”. In 1920 Albert Oakes, my great grandfather, answered an ad placed by the Peruvian government and entered into a contract to farm land in the jungle on the banks of the Tambopata River. The contract provided that the Peruvian Government would provide him with 5 hectares of land, a house (which looking at the housing in the region now probably meant a bamboo or wooden hut), some tools, a cow, 2 pigs, 2 hens, mosquito netting and 4 months worth of food and, if he worked the land for 5 years, it and the tools would become his. He knew nothing about Peru, jungles or agriculture and could not speak Spanish. The British Overseas Office was also advising intending emigrants at the time that “under no circumstances should Britishers emigrate to South America where the language, laws and standards of living, wages and labor conditions were entirely different from those of the United Kingdom.” Despite this he dragged my great grandmother, Margaret, and five of their children – Margaret (25), Rosina (15), Harold (13), my grandmother Hilda (12) and Ruby (5) to Peru to live in the jungle and take up farming. And he wasn’t the only one – hundreds of others took up the offer and emigrated to Peru.

As I am fairly conservative and risk averse the decision he made seemed inexplicable – at least until I did a bit of research into the standard of living in the UK after the First World War. If you weren’t well off at that time life was pretty grim. It was estimated that before the First World War 2 million families in the UK were living on about a pound per week, which effectively meant that they did not have enough money for food, housing, clothing and heating. Families were crowded into 1 to 3 poorly ventilated, bug infested rooms. Their diet comprised mainly of bread, potatoes and a bit of meat (most of which went to support the health of the income earning father). Infant mortality rates for poor families who had more than 10 children exceeded 40 per cent. My grandmother had 20 brothers and sisters, half of whom did not live beyond their first year. Things did not improve after the First World War – by 1920 there were 1.5 million unemployed. It is little wonder then that the promise of land enticed so many to Peru.

The journey from London to their farm site in the jungle was itself a major undertaking. They left Avonmouth on the 11th of December 1920 on the passenger ship Huallaga, but did not arrive at the farm site outside of the town of Puerto Maldonado until the 7th of March 1921. In between they travelled by ship to Callao and then on to Mollendo, by train to Arequipa, Juliaca and Tirapata (a small station on the Puno to Cusco line which we did not notice when we travelled on the same line). After leaving the train it was eight days by mule over the Andes on the Santo Domingo trail climbing to the Aricoma pass at an altitude of more than 5,000 ) and then plunging down to the Amazon rainforest to a small village on the banks of the Tambopata, Astillero, followed by 3 days by river craft to Puerto Maldanado. The journey over the Andes by mule was something that my grandmother spoke of often – as she pointed out, there weren’t many people in Australia who could say they had crossed the Andes by mule. There were many precipitous drops and my great grandmother and her children were tied to the mules day after day to prevent them from falling. It’s not clear to me whether the trail still exists – I couldn’t find any records of people travelling along it today and in all likelihood it has probably fallen into disuse due to the availability of the more convenient options of travel by airplane or by vehicle along the Pan Oceanic Highway from Cusco. There are, however, a few of records of journeys along this route in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It was described this way by Solon Bailey an American astronomer and the director of the Harvard Observatory in Arequipa from 1892 to 1919:

“With the railway most of the comforts of civilization are left behind. In four or five days of mule-back travel we mount the eastern Andes, winding our way through the Aricoma Pass at an altitude of about 16,500 feet. Here the scenery, if the weather is fine, repays the hardships of the trip. Snowy mountains and enormous glaciers are mirrored in the waters of lakes, which change their colors with every whim of cloud and sky. More often, however, the traveler is wrapt in blinding snowstorms, which shut out every glimpse beyond the narrow limits of a few feet. Hour after hour he clings half frozen to his mule, his discomfort heightened by the mountain sickness, which is one of the terrors of these lofty regions. To lose his way under these conditions may mean death.
On reaching the eastern crest of these mountains, if the view is clear, one seems to be standing on the edge of the world. The eye, indeed, can reach but little of the vast panorama, but just at one’s feet the earth drops away into apparently endless and almost bottomless valleys. We may call them valleys, but this does not express the idea; they are gorges, deep ravines in whose gloomy depths rage the torrents which fall from the snowy summits of the Andes down toward the plain. We might hunt the world over for a better example of the power of running water. The whole country is on edge. Here all the moisture from the wet air, borne by the trade winds across Brazil from the distant Atlantic, is wrung by the mountain barrier and falls in almost continual rain.
Near the summit of the pass only the lowest and scantiest forms of vegetable life are seen. In a single day, however, even by the slow march of weary mules, in many places literally stepping “downstairs” from stone to stone, we drop 7,000 feet. Here the forest begins, first in stunted growths, and then, a little lower down, in all the wild luxuriance of the tropics, where moisture never fails. The lower eastern foothills of the Andes are more heavily watered and more densely overgrown than the great plain farther down. Here is a land drenched in rain and reeking with mists, where the bright sun is a surprise and a joy in spite of his heat. In these dense forests, with their twisting vines and hanging lianas, a man without a path can force his way with difficulty a mile a day.”

Even once the site for the farm was reached it is unlikely that my grandmother or her family felt much of a sense of relief. The rainforest is thick here and arriving in March at the height of the rainy season the ground would have been a quagmire of mud and clay. We arrive in December at the start of the rainy season and we still have to push our way through the mud in wellington boots supplied by the resort. The insects are another thing altogether. The path and trees are alive with them – wasps, beatles, leaf cutter ants, fire ants (which I only avoid putting my hand on with a timely shouted warning from our guide) and, of course the ever present cloud of mosquitoes, which thanks to DEET hovers above, but not on, my skin. One of my grandmother’s favourite tales was of the day that there was an earthquake which caused bird eating tarantulas to come out of the ground and march through their farm. This gave her a bit of spider phobia which she managed to pass on to my mother and then to me (who said it was all in the genes). As a consequence, when our guide managed to coax one of these tarantulas out of its burrow by gently poking stick down the burrow, a part of me was glad to see the spider that my grandmother had spoken of most of her life, but the rest of me just had the heebie jeebies at seeing a spider the size of my hand rear up at me. It is difficult to imagine living here without the benefit of DEET and modern insecticides.

It is no surprise that my family’s farm and that of most other British emigrants failed. As early as June 1921 there was discussion in the House of Lords about compensation to the British emigrants who returned from Peru in distressed circumstances, owing to the failure of the Peruvian Government to carry out its obligations in the terms of its advertisements in 1920. Unlike many others who returned to the UK in 1921, my family were not able to make it back until 1924. After the farm failed my great grandfather became a miner and high grader, that is a a miner who hid ore from the mine and sold it for personal profit. He did it carefully by putting small amounts of ore in a slit in his belt. After some time at this practice he had enough for the fares to return his family to the UK. However, he did not learn his lesson – within a few months he had signed up for the Group Settlement Scheme and by December 1924 my grandmother was once again on ship, this time heading for Western Australia . Whilst that too was a failure, his decision at least meant that my family grew up in a land filled with opportunity and that I would eventually be in the fortunate position that I could return 90 years after my grandmother had left Peru and experience that country with the benefit of all of the stories that I had heard as child.


3 thoughts on “In my grandmother’s footsteps – up the Tambopata and into the Amazon rainforest

  1. Thanks sis, that was beautiful. Sat here very emotional at the telling of nans story. I miss herevery day. She was the most amazing woman i have had the pleasure to know. Her strength born through her upbringing and raising her family guides me every day. Hopefully one day sarah and i will be able to treck the same path you and rob did

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