SEARCHING FOR THE SOURCE: Discovering the origin of Colonel Fawcett’s Heath River

 

Bruce Barron's book Searching for the Source: Discovering the origin of Colonel Fawcett’s Heath River is planned to be released in 2018. The book is a non fiction documentary of his 1996 Barron Pickard Heath River Expedition which discovered the source of the Heath River in the Peruvian/Bolivian Amazon Cloudforest and first descent of the river into the Amazon Basin. 

 

May 25, 1996

Location S  13° 45’ 12” W 68° 58’ 35”

            Only two of us left now.….We have negotiated numerous small waterfalls but today came to an impasse. This one poured into a deep pool 60 feet across. Sheer walls rose from the water to 200 feet on both sides like a massive barricade, slick and vertical surrounding us. There was no way around. We dove in the pool, but the current was strong and repeatedly pushed us down river. After a few attempts, we discovered by kicking hard and grasping tiny fissures in the wall, we were able to drag ourselves through the current into an eddy beside the falls. The smooth walls were impossible to climb. To avoid them we would have to backtrack half a mile, cut vertically through the jungle, and then return cutting through the bush above the falls. It would take at least another day, maybe two, out of the question. We are half starved and have no food to get us back to our base camp. Miraculously, we found hidden holds behind the falling water and with great effort holding our breath we were able to climb up the face of the waterfall, plunging hands and feet through the cascade, until we found a ledge which permitted us to advance. Many times we have come to apparently impassable obstructions, where we assumed the exploration was over, only to find some hidden key which enabled us to continue.”                                                               (from Barron’s Heath River Exploration journal)

 

Barron organized and led the 1996 Barron Pickard Heath River Expedition. His exploration team discovered the source of the Heath River which defines the border of Peru and Bolivia for 350 kilometers in the remote Amazon Basin. The expedition's objective was to follow South American Explorer Colonel P. H. Fawcett's 1910 expedition route. Fawcett traveled up the Heath from it's mouth to the headwaters, but was unable to discover the source. Barron's party roughly followed Fawcett's route and then went on to discover the unknown source of the Heath and make the first river descent. Barron worked with the Royal Geographical Society in London and in Peru with biologist, as well as anthropologists, the Ese’eja Native tribe, the Peruvian government and many other sources.

 

Several expeditions tried to explore the Heath from 1893 to 1910 but resulted in failure and loss of life from hostile Native attacks. In 1910 Royal Geographic Society explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett at the request of the Bolivian government led the 1910 Heath Survey Expedition to ascertain the boundary between Bolivia and Peru. Fawcett was also attacked by natives, but was able to continue his expedition. Fawcett ascended the Heath in two canoes, polling and paddling from the mouth up into it’s headwaters, mapping the river, but was forced to withdraw before discovering the source. He retreated by crossing through the jungle until he reached the larger Tambopata River where he built rafts and then descended back to civilization. Fawcett was a famous South American explorer in the early part of the twentieth century. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and some of his explorations were followed by the world public in newspapers and periodicals. His expeditions were inspiration for countless books, movies and theatrical plays, including: The Lost World by his friend and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and books by friend Sir H. Rider Haggard, author of classics King Solomon’s Mines and She. Many believe he was a model for the Indiana Jones character. He disappeared searching for a lost civilization he believed existed in the deep Amazon in 1925 and was never heard from again.

 

A major concern to Barron's team was the possibility of meeting unfriendly tribes still living on the upper Heath as there were in the past. Prior to the expedition Barron contacted hunters, anthropologists, botanists, zoologists, missionaries, oil and gold explorers about native inhabitants, but no one had any first hand knowledge of the Heath's upper reaches. Everyone contacted, however, believed that if we did encounter native people, they would be hostile, dangerous and would attack us. We did find signs of people on the upper river.

 

By viewing satellite photos we discovered that although the Heath and Tambopata Rivers were for the most part quite distant from one another, near the headwaters they verged closely parallel for a short time, separated by what appeared to be a range of mountains and where we judged Fawcett had crossed. We hoped to save time by following part of Fawcett’s route in reverse. By descending the Tambopata flowing from the Andes with whitewater rafts, and then cutting through the jungle over the mountains to the Heath, we would then ascend the Heath, explore the headwaters, discover it’s source and descend it via inflatable kayaks we had carried from the Tambopata.

 

Beside hostile tribes, there were many rumors about the Heath’s upper region and source area: lost Inca goldmines, Spanish conquistador’s treasure, hidden pyramids, giant anacondas and new species of animals and plantlife. We started with fifteen members on rafts and divided into the exploration team of nine when we crossed to the Heath. Then due to food shortage and injury, four members were forced to retreat and our group was split to five. In the end only two of us made it to the source.

 

We faced many unforeseen hardships on the expedition: starvation, injury, flooding, disintegration of our team, and mental breakdown. We had encounters with Jaguars, anacondas, vampire bats, giant crocodilians, venomous insects and burrowing worms. Our team camped at Sonene Village, the last remaining Ese' Ejja community, at the bottom of the Heath River at the end of the expedition. Eddi Little Bird arranged a meeting with the other elders and asked for permission for us to enter the village. We learned that the name "Sonene" is also the Ese’ Ejja name for the Heath River. Fawcett names three tribal groups he encountered on his expedition. The village elders told us all people on the Heath were Ese’ Ejja. We had viewed evidence of people living near the Heath headwaters. These generous people brought us fruits and drink and allowed us to sleep in their largest communal hut.

 

Barron had a meeting with the oldest man, also the shaman and ex chief of the village. His name was Shai (caiman or alligator). Barron, "I asked if he knew or heard from his father if anyone had seen an Englishman many years ago named Fawcett. He said he did not remember, but his father told him he had seen Whiteman travelling up river before his father was chief." "I the chief if he thought there were any Ese’ Ejja living near the headwaters of the Heath. The chief spat and said "Yes, but they are naked and savage and there are no large groups anymore!" He then said "When I was a boy there was always fighting between the upper and lower river people. One day my father, chief before me, gathered all the men from the lower Heath and made a raid on the upper river Ese' Ejja." He said, "We killed all the men and scalped them. Then we put the scalps under our armpits and danced all night around the fire. That is how we gained their power and that is why there are no villages on the upper Sonene!"

 

The Ese' Ejja indigenous people of Bolivia and Peru live in the Amazon Basin region. Their name for the Heath is the Sonene River. An Ese' Ejja Village, called Sonene Village, lies at the mouth of the Heath as it enters into the Madre Di Dios River. Ese’ Ejja live in Bolivia along the Beni and the Madre de Dios Rivers. In Peru, they live along the Heath and Tambopata Rivers. Ese’ Ejja people are hunter-gathers, farmers, rangers and fishermen. Their name derives from their autonym, Ece’je, which means “true people.” They are also known as the Chama, Tatinawa, Huarayo, Guarayo, Chuncho, Huanayo, Kinaki, and Mohino.

 

Our expedition was successful in discovering the source of the Heath, exploring its headwaters, and making the first descent. Our botanist and zoologist discovered new plant species, possible new bat species and we discovered a major macaw lick on the lower Heath.