Day 1 - Friday 16th July
The commissioning ceremony took place at 16:00 as planned but with the smaller Viracocha standing in for the flagship. Thoughtful words from Colonel John Blashford-Snell were followed by an impassioned speech from the Bolivian Chief Commander Almirante Jorge Zabala Ossio encouraging us to promote Bolivia's right to access to the sea. Finally a short baptism preceded the final seal of approval from His Excellency President Hugo Banzer Súarez.
While the formalities are important moving out drives the heart.
The Expedition members assembled in La Paz split into two task groups in the evening of the 16th. Some moved out to Santa Cruz on the night of the 16th by bus. Colonel John Blashford-Snell and a small HQ took one of the world's longest taxi journeys - 871 kms along bumpy roads. The boat team, led by Captain Jim Masters, spent another night in La Paz before setting out for El Alto in the morning to take the boat along the same route.
A second team also spent the night in La Paz before heading out to Oruro, to work with the Chipaya community. This team rejoins the main party in early August so a fuller report of activities will be forthcoming, but early contact from the party says the medical and dental work is going well. Our engineers are also working with the local community on flood prevention projects that will hopefully reduce the seasonal flooding that affects this small community.
With so many people heading off in different directions the mobile phone communication system provided by the telephone company Entel proved essential for keeping in touch in the early stages of this first deployment.
Moving out - Day 2 - Saturday 17th July
The problems experienced in El Alto forced us to reduce the height of Kota Mama II by roughly 50cms. With the top sections of the boat cut off the route out of town proved much easier. Moving through the main street of El Alto with a police motorcycle escort the bustling streets came to a standstill as jaws dropped at the sight of the world's largest hay bale drifting past on the back of a low loader. On Bolivia's altiplano people had seen tortora reed boats before but not this big.
With the frontiers of South America still being stretched and changed, travel around Bolivia is broken up with checkpoints. Dimension restrictions are meant to slow you down but not quite stop you, but if the boat had been just one inch wider it would have meant another amputation on the outskirts of El Alto. Mark's excellent driving under the tutelage of René proved ample to get us through yet another obstacle and the several tunnels and bridges along the route.
Heading in a southerly direction the road to Santa Cruz turns east to towards Cochabamba. The featureless landscape of the barren altiplano gives way to the dramatic hills and escarpments of the Serrania de Sicasica. From the 13,200 feet altitude (4000 mts) of the altiplano the road twists and turns en route to Cochabamba. Passing through several passes pushing 15840ft (4800mts) Kota Mama II and Viracocha were dusted with a sprinkling of snow as they ploughed on through the misted clouds of the mountains.
With nowhere to stay the convoy finally stopped in the town of Parotani 10 miles (15kms) outside Cochabamba. Having traveled just 210 miles (340kms) in 10 hours the crew spent the night sleeping on the boat at the roadside.
Day 3 - Sunday 18th July
Leaving early we quickly made it to Cochabamba where the pedestrian bridges stretching across the roads threatened to restrict further travel of the convoy.
Down in Santa Cruz Colonel Blashford-Snell and his team were making final preparations for the boat's transfer by rail to Puerto Quijarro, along with setting up meetings to finalize the activities of groups in Santa Cruz.
Back on the boat the convoy moved through Cochabamba to the continued amazement and awe of onlookers. Climbing out of the valley of Cochabamba low clouds cloaked the convoy as it moved into the southern boundary of the Amazon basin. Four hours of descent took the boats through cloud forest down to just a few hundred meters above sea level. In Villa Tunari school children gazed at the materials used for the boat's construction stroking the hull with bemused curiosity. In the lowlands boats are made from wood - this reed boat looked like it came from another world… in reality it had.
The boats continued east until Invirgarzama - another 170 miles (272kms) in 11 hours - where basic lodging provided a night's rest.
Day 4 - Monday 19th July
Today the boats were meant to be moving to Puerto Quijarro on the afternoon train from Santa Cruz. Captain Masters was concerned the deadline might be missed. The cellular phone communication link had disappeared and there was no way of letting HQ know the convoy's position. Leaving in the early hours of the morning the convoy's tough target received an immediate knock-back with the smaller vehicle getting a puncture.
Any chance of making the train now looked impossible. When Captain Masters eventually made contact with HQ the train had been rearranged for the next day.
At the newly formed base in the naval camp In Santa Cruz a small party set out on a recce of the pre-Inca site of Samaipata. A rocky outcrop intricately carved by a pre-Inca culture, the site still holds many secrets for archaeologists with the time and resources to travel to this poorly accessed site. Although there is still a great deal of work the importance of the fortress of Samaipata has been officially recognized this week as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Back on the road the boat convoy made its way to Santa Cruz where it was met by an advance party to guide it through the streets and below the cables of Bolivia's second largest city to the cargo transit yard of the rail company Empresa Ferroviaria Oriental.
Day 5 - Tuesday 20th July
The big project of the day was to move the boats from the trailers to the flat bed rail cars. The assistance of the Rail Company's excellent staff and the direction of Captain Masters, a former Royal Engineers Officer, saw a complex task simply, quickly and successfully completed.
Two cranes lifted the 13-meter long vessel off the low loader, which had been positioned on the rail lines. As the world's largest hay bale swung gently in the brisk air of the Santa Cruz morning the shout to hand push the flatbed railcar underneath went out. With everything lined up the two cranes gently lowered Kota Mama II onto the railcar and the operation was complete.
A boat party of five traveled on the passenger train that afternoon while a smaller group of three accompanied the boats travelling shot gun through the night to arrive in Puerto Quijarro the next morning.
With the work complete there was a brief moment to enjoy the success of the day... but not for long.
The recce party returned from Samaipata with tales of landslides blocking their route and panic stricken traffic convoys threatening to make a difficult situation dangerous. Fortunately all returned to base in Santa Cruz healthy and well.
Tomorrow (21st July) two groups deploy to start the archaeological and anthropological work to the south of Santa Cruz, while the boat party continue with the final preparations for the boats before they are launched.