Diamonds or Gold?

[Versão em português aqui]

The search for our start point at Monte Caburaí

Burritos and bourbon in Los Angeles…it all seemed so far away now. We were deep in the jungle, alone and exhausted, searching for Brazil’s most northerly point and the source of the river upon which we would begin our 9000km voyage across Brazil.

My eyes scanned the forest floor for snakes and a trail. I was dripping with sweat and dehydrated with my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth. Aaron had disappeared into the tangled blur ahead, I called for him to wait but the jungle screamed louder and drowned me out. I remembered what my brother had said on my departure; “You’re going to experience some of the highest moments of your life, and the lowest too.”

Into the Lost World

Our destination was hidden in the Pacaraima Mountains to the east of Monte Roraima, where Brazil’s extreme north meets Venezuela and Guyana. The region was the setting for ‘The Lost World’ by Arthur Conan-Doyle, the inspiration behind Jurassic Park. A mysterious monument marking Brazil’s most northerly point lay buried in the remote jungle at the foot of a jagged, inaccessible mountain called Monte Caburaí. It was erected by a Brazilian military expedition in 1998 and apart from another military operation in 2005, apparently nobody had been back there since.

The marker is known as BG 11A and we had some rough GPS coordinates and expected it to be near to the source of a small river called the Uailan. Apart from that nobody seemed to know anything about Caburaí, the marker or the mountainous jungle region beyond the last of the villages on the riverside trail. We drew blanks with everybody; old gold propsectors, local indians, the Brazilan Geographic Institute (IGBE). We found a tour operator with an advert online but they were bogus and had never managed to get there even using a helicopter drop to cut down the distance.

Our ideal route up the Uailan river had been blocked by a chain of Macuxi indigenous communities who refused us permission to cross their reserve. Land grabbing farmers and rogue miners had shaped their attitude to outsiders. There had been violent clashes a few years ago whilst the Macuxi campaigned for the demarcation of their land and expulsion of all non-indigenous ranchers from within the Raposa Serra do Sol region (learn more here). As a result we were forced to approach Caburaí via another river — the Maú. The Rio Maú, or Ireng to the Guyanese, carves out the Brazil/Guyana borderline and the river is an international no-man’s-land with the land on either side under local indigenous authority. Luckily, after a series of meetings in smoky huts, we had received permission from the tuchaua chief  of Kanapang - the first Macuxi indian village on the Maú, next to the small town of Uiramutá. They tried to help us by radioing the other communities upriver but we became a Chinese whisper.

With no decent map available, we depended on our GPS  device (a Magellan Explorist 610) -  and a basic topographical map Magellan had worked hard to compile for us. We needed to find our way to the headwaters of the Mau then bushwhack our way over or around a very steep ridge and a 1600m peak into the next valley where the marker stone should be. It looked like just 5km between these two points but we could see it wouldn’t be easy.

North along the Guyana border

We had set off on foot from Kanapang 10 days ago, following the Maú river north across the scorched savannah on a long, dusty trail linking a handful of little indian maloca villages. With full supplies our pack weight was 28kg (61lbs?)- our Arc’Teryx Naos 85l backpacks did an amazing job at making this weight manageable but it was slow going in the heat as we pushed towards the high jungle at the foot of Monte Caburaí.

We camped as far from the Indian villages as possible. The trail passed for the most part on the Guyana side and the main tribe here was the Patamona. Passing through their villages became a frustrating ordeal that got worse as their isolation from the outside world grew. We’d been excited to begin our film project with an indigenous connection but for the most part we spent our time stood to attention explaining ourselves to village chiefs. It was a bit of a heartbreaker as we could not get them to open up or trust us. They based their attitudes on their past experiences and after hearing the story of our expedition the standard response still would come; ‘You looking for diamonds or gold’?

I began to miss Brazil, although it was just 20 metres away on the other side of riverbank. Travelling through the Patamona territory, the legacy of British colonial rule in Guyana lingered. We had to call everybody ‘sir’ and were ushered into dilapidated thatched huts with ‘Village Counsel’ scribbled on the door, obliged to state ‘name, purpose and authority under which you are acting’ in old Ministry of Education notebooks. It was a tense moment when I drenched one of these log books with a torrent of sweat. You could barely read the previous entry — a pastor in 2007.

The trail had quickly faded after the last of these villages, Kaibarapai, where we were introduced to a young Patamona man called Fidel — We had finally found a guide after constant enquiries along the way. He didn’t know about BG 11A but could get us pretty close and then would help us cut a path based on our Magellan GPS bearings. We agreed a price to have him with us for the estimated week it would take to get up there, included in the deal was for him to bring along enough food from his village (farinha and cassava bread) to bulk up our already low supplies. He fetched his bow and arrows and a pack and we were off.

Soon outside the village we realised how doomed we would be without him. he led us along an old hunting trail that was completely invisible to our eyes. He moved fast and easily through the bushes and vines whilst we pushed hard to keep the pace carrying our huge packs. We spoke little but at camp that night beside a huge waterfall he chuckled with us over our peculiar camping equipment and we began to get on well. We shared one of our remaining ready made camp meals, a sacred Natural High ‘Honey Lime Chicken’. Toads boomed into the night. Fidel was tempted to catch one, but we were not that hungry… yet.

The Brazil 9000 ExpeditionOver the next days the distance and terrain beat us around with relentless virgin jungle and steep mountains to cross. It began to slowly take its toll not only on us, but worryingly on Fidel too who was jungle born and raised. He had narrowly survived a snake bite two years ago and worn Wellington boots ever since. Over the long distances his feet were now torn up, but he prefered that to a snake bite. It left me worried about my unprotected shins and I cut up some sheets from our Natural High camp meal packets and tried to improvise. We waded in and out of swampy creeks, crawled under fallen trees and fought our way through the undergrowth and over one ridge after another. The forest closed in and locked out the daylight.


Late next afternoon we emerged from the dim jungle tunnels and into a hill top clearing. I looked up at the clouds and watched them move and felt like I was back on a familiar planet. In the clearing there were two old stone monuments and although we knew we were still around 10kms from Caburaí, it was an uplifting find — the old BG 13 marker from 1933 told us we were close.

Somebody had been camping here but not for a long time and a few old termite infested poles lashed together with vines and a little chili plant poking up from the dirt were all that remained. Gold prospectors and the occasional Patamona, Fidel said.

Fidel had lied when he said he’d brought those food supplies along. Hunger crept in fast. Peaceful old Aaron had the look of a violent madman in his eyes as we shared with Fidel our last honey oat bar made by his Aunt Carol in Chicago. Then, that evening he announced from his hammock that he was turning back. He was done and absolutely nothing would change his mind. He said it casually, with no consideration for the situation we had been left in. “Não aguento mais” he said — he could not take it anymore. His feet were a mess and he was probably pretty hungry, but behind this he feared going any further into the unknown. Should we turn back too?

By this point we had become reliant on Fidel’s trailblazing and snake spotting skills and even though we had logged the route on our GPS, getting back to the village trail without him could be an ordeal and continuing our search much riskier. We spent the next day resting, charging our camera equipment off our Brunton solar rig and figuring out our next move. Unsure of how to raise our spirits, I remembered a strange reminder of our previous lives — my iphone. I pulled it out and played ‘New Coat of Paint’ by Tom Waits. We had not heard music for ages. It helped a lot. Eventually, we decided to continue, at least for the couple of days that our food supplies would allow. A trail lead out of the clearing and our hopes were high the next day as it cut straight north-west in the way you would expect a military party to proceed. The Indian trails darted around way more and often followed the animal trails.

But our luck was out. It began to lead us due north into Guyana. We kept going until we hit an unmarked river. It was now flowing north… we had crossed out of the Amazon basin and over to the other side of the Guyana shield. We could float down this river to the Caribbean, but just 10kms away was a river that wound into the Amazon and the Atlantic. Still, we kept hiking, hoping to find a way to cut over to the south side of Caburaí. By now we were well inside Guyana. Caburaí now stuck out from the canopy to the west and we had gone too far. There was no way around for us.  We found our way back down towards our boundary marker camp, having crossed back over into the Amazon basin once again. See the map page for our position log.

Reaching the source of the Rio Maú

The little energy we had left was needed  to find the source of the Maú river, marginally to the south of the elusive BG-11A marker. Just 5kms lay between them as the crow flies, and in a journey of 9000kms we were happy to settle for that. When the Maú was no more than a rust coloured spring, we knew it was the place for us to officially begin and turn south. This trickle would take us for a couple of thousand kilometers to the Atlantic. It was quite a thing to imagine. We looked down through the hanging mesh of vines and fallen trees that choked the little stream. Finally, we could begin our voyage south.


Story by Gareth Jones. Photos by Aaron Chervenak & Gareth Jones

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