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Part 4 – Territory of Misiones

The Territory of Misiones forms the north eastern corner of the Argentine. It is wedged in between Paraguay and Brazil and separates from those two countries by the rivers Alto Paraná and Uruguay respectively, the one navigable for shallow draft steamers, the other only locally so, owing to intermittent rapids. Consequently the eastern side is the much more developed.

The three countries meet at Aguirre in the northern extremity of the Territory, where the river Iguazú flows into the Alto Paraná. With the exception of some [xx] sq kms where it abuts on the Province of Corrientes, it is almost wholly covered in forest, impenetrable for a mounted man except along the old indian tracks, “picadas” and those of the settlements situated along, or in the immediate vicinity of a range of sierras, known locally as “cordillera”, whence flow numerous affluents to the rivers Alto Paraná and Uruguay. It possesses no railway communication except at its south western extremity, where the railway from Buenos Aires to Asunción intersects that corner for [xx] kms and connects its capital, Posadas, with the outside world.

Posadas is also situated on the ancient trunk trail of the Spanish conquest and in its neighbourhood are the sites of several Jesuit mission places and the massive ruins at Apóstoles and at San Ignacio demonstrate that they were edifices of no mean character.

In 1919 General G.H.Harrison, who had then been appointed General Manager of the combined North East Argentine and Entre Ríos railways, invited the author to report on the Territory for the prospective development and which was the forerunner of two subsequent reconnaissances of the Territory.

The first thing to be done was to obtain permission from the General Manager of the Southern Railway, Mr. M. Eddy, which was only a nominal procedure as it had already been arranged. Then, having selected two henchmen from my own permanent outfit in the South and together with the necessary equipment, we took a train to Concordia, the General’s headquarters. There, as his guest, I spent a few most enjoyable days which coincided with the official declaration of Peace of the Great War, as distinct from the Armistice.

Exploration work may appear strenuous to the routine town dweller, but to me that experience was much more so. Three separate dances had been arranged to celebrate the occasion: (1) by the General Manager of the Railway; (2) by the banking people; and (3) by the local social club and the General by virtue of his position, perforce had to put in an appearance at each of them. For me it was a unique experience to attend three such festivities, from 9 to midnight at the first, from 12 to 3 at the second and from 3 to 6am at the third and even then at that late, or rather, early hour, the “end” had not arrived as, presumably to test endurance, tennis matches were arranged at daylight, which were followed by a welcome swim in the river to wash away the cobwebs.

Whilst fully appreciating that hospitality, I was not sorry to start out on my job. A special coach was added to the “Paraguayan Express” with a covered wagon containing a month’s supplies, both of which were to be left at our prospective base in Parada Leis.

Our railway journey northwards from Concordia occupied about 30 hours and allowed one to make up for a lot of sleep and on waking up the following morning we found that our coach and wagon had been shunted into a siding where it would remain indefinitely. There mules and horses awaited us and the party was increased by a young English assistant from the local railway management and two “caballerizos” (horse attendants).

For the first two or three days we visited the local “estancieros” of the neighbourhood, the local police and other authorities in order to glean as much information as possible before starting out and which included the town of Posadas, the village of Apóstoles and the establishment of Santa María which belonged to an Englishman called Hubbard, whom we found in residence. Mr Hubbard had a nephew in charge, named Parish, a descendant of that famous family which did so much for the Argentine and British relations in the early part of the 18th Century. The Parish whom we met that night was barbarously murdered a couple of years later.

After obtaining the available local opinion of the hinterland, we set out from Posadas on a bearing along the longitudinal axis of the Territory, i.e. north eastwards. The open undulating grazing country ended after a march of three leagues whence we entered the “selva”, or forest.

The next morning, after having camped on the banks of the Arroyo Garupá, when taking an early morning bathe a mounted indian (Guaraní) hailed us from the opposite bank, but what he intended to convey we did not understand. Obviously he intended to ford the stream, a rapid flowing one about 5 ft in depth but only some 30 mts in width. He had just reached mid-stream when he and his horse turned and were carried away by the current. It is strange that these nomad men of the forests whose daily journeys entail the fording of rivers can rarely swim. On this occasion the horse promptly reached the bank, but the man was carried down the winding course amidst the thick trees and was out of sight in a few seconds. He, however, gave tongue alright and was soon located, clutching to branches overhanging the stream, whence we succeeded in getting him on the bank, none the worse for his sousing. Overwhelmed with gratitude he wished to present us with anything that he possessed which was declined, but before proceeding on his journey he insisted on donating his “rebenque”, one of the best examples of plaiting that one could imagine and which I still treasure.

The succeeding days through dense forest, broken only by “campiñas” (small open spaces) are ominously silent, broken only by the whistling now and again of a rattlesnake. Snakes like warmth, as on one occasion when pulling up my ground sheet, one of about three feet in length wriggled off. Had I known of my bedfellow, probably my night’s rest would not have been quite so successful.

Unlike the daytime in the forest, the night was aloud with noises like human voices crying and at the first experience I got up thinking that someone was in distress, but one of the men laconically remarked “aquel ruido es de las arañas”. It seemed incredible that spiders could produce such a human wail and it made me wonder if it bore any connection with the “voice crying in the wilderness”.

The time of the year was winter, a degree or so of frost at night, but glorious days, at least one would imagine outside of the dimensions of the forest. Sometimes for whole days we never saw the sun for the thick canopy of trees, with great creepers, as thick as a man’s body, that ascended and descended from the trees.

During this period an epidemic of chu-cho (malaria) was raging along the settlements of the river Alto Paraná and notwithstanding that, our course was parallel to and distant 80 kms away, the intervening zone being dense forest, my English companion went down with the disease. A sick man much hampers progress if it is not of vital urgency and in order to obtain the air and sunshine, we rested for two days in a “campiña”. Two experiences fell to my lot during this stay. I was out with a shotgun endeavouring to obtain a kind of partridge which is not uncommon in the small open spaces, and was preoccupied when an object appeared to me to be an erected post. At first I did not give it a second thought, but when within four yards there could be no posts, I suddenly realised it was a python coiled up with the upper three feet of him erect. Granted that I had the wind up, one acts automatically under such circumstances, so I did what anyone else would have done, promptly fired at its head which was blown to atoms. The reptile’s body writhed with contortions and actually leapt in the air, making me retire to a safe distance. Everybody seems afraid of snakes and I am no exception.

The habit of these creatures is to entwine itself around its prey trusting to achieve its object by a crushing process which I had no particular wish to experience. But I have heard of dexterous natives freeing themselves by ripping up a python or boa with a knife which they always carry. I understand that they do not kill by poisonous sting. This particular python measured 15 feet.

Later, when on the same errand, I came face to face with a jaguar who was polite enough, after showing surprise, to leap gracefully into the undergrowth and disappear.

The day’s work became monotonous: we had to construct our profile of the country from judgement of distance combined with readings from three aneroids whose error would eventually be corrected from the barograph which was correcting atmospheric pressures at our base at Parada Leis. The reason for using these aneroids is to allow one of them getting out of order, as obviously if only two were carried and one played tricks, it would be impossible to know which one was behaving correctly.

When having penetrating the required distance of 100 kms (60 miles), we struck an indian encampment and of course greeted the Cacique (Chief). These people, although they raid cattle and steal where they can, are otherwise harmless. We camped a few hundred yards from them to avoid any depredation and had concluded our evening meal when one of them presented himself and whom we had difficulty understanding as he spoke Guaraní. Apparently someone was ill and they believe every Englishman is a doctor. Certainly we carried a “botiquín” (medicine chest). He escorted us to the sick individual, a young girl of about 20 years of age who had burnt herself in the armpit. The lady spoke a little Spanish and while cleansing the wound with boric wash prior to bandaging it, she embarrassed us by saying how lucky it was that the burn was not high up on her leg.

For our return journey we struck a parallel course more or less 10 kms nearer the Alto Paraná and found the country infinitely more congested than on the “cordillera”, but on that route settlers who had penetrated from settlements on the river board.

It was interesting to hear that these settlers produce nearly everything to sustain life, yerbamate, which takes the place of tea, a few vegetables of which mandioca (a kind of cross between potato and [ ]) being the principal one and quite appetising. Their clothes were homemade from skins and wool. The saleable products are then yerbamate, timber and tobacco leaf, their market being on the river whence they return with purchases of ammunition and kerosene.

The soil of Misiones is exceedingly fertile as may be expected from the century deposits of leaves combined with humid climate.

[Here quote extract from official report, page 5 “The colonists from… etc.”]

Of the many kinds of timber, four at least are hardwoods, i.e. timber of a specific gravity that exceeds 1.00 and they are curupay, lapacho, timbo and uruanday.

The only event of interest on our return was an encounter with a jabalí (wild pig). These animals are exceedingly courageous and give any man that they happen to meet on foot, a very thin time. On that account the wise hunter carries a short bayonet which can be affixed to the rifle to enable him to deal efficiently with these animals if unhorsed and few in number. If the hunter should be unable to cope with them and thus seek refuge in a tree, they will I am told wait days for their prey. The small herd of six that greeted us in a campiña certainly showed no fear, but we were able to deal with so small a number.

In due course we reached our base on the railway after 26 days in the forest, June 21 to July 16.

Perhaps a few readers may be interested in the elementary meteorological records as recorded by us and which correspond to mid-winter.

Rain occurred on six days, once torrentially and accompanied by terrific thunder; thunder also occurred on two other days. The total rainfall was estimated at 100 mm (4 inches). Three days were misty, eight were perfectly clear and the remainder were classified as cloudy.

The minimum temperature was -1o C and the maximum was 30o C (86 o F) on three days.

The following year I received an invitation to accompany General Harrison and Mr A. Schwelias to investigate the country of the northern part of Misiones, which constituted a joyride compared with the customary exploration work.

A motor launch was chartered at Posadas to ascend the Alto Paraná as far as Pisay (pronounced Pisayee), a distance upstream of about 300 kms. Guns and fishing tackle formed a not-unimportant part of our equipment.

As already mentioned, the stretch of river right up to Aguirre, the northerly point of the territory, is a fluvial highway and small settlements are dotted along its banks on both the Argentine and the Paraguayan sides. The products of these settlers are principally yerbamate, tobacco and huge logs of trees of the forest which extends down to the water’s edge.

Sidelights on the commerce of yerbamate is amusing.

Encamped one night off one of the settlements we were aware of boats and “dug outs” crossing and re-crossing the river during the hours of darkness and, on enquiry next morning for the reason of the large volume of nocturnal traffic, we were informed that the Paraguayans smuggle yerbamate across to the Argentine side in order to avoid payment of duty for the market of Buenos Aires, notwithstanding the greater distribution cost and therefore higher prices of the Paraguayan product. On the other hand, settlers on the Argentine side transport their yerbamate to the opposite side of the river in order to sell it as a Paraguayan product. As settlers on both sides appeared to find this transaction profitable, one is left bewildered as to what makes the greater profit, as the respective consignments are collected by the same steamer on its journey downstream to the railway station at Posadas.

The logs of timber, both soft and hardwoods, being lashed together in “jangadas” (rafts) up to 50 m2 and floated down to the same destination for loading onto the railway, or else by the same fluvial transport through to Buenos Aires, as distance from Posadas of [xx] kms. The mixing of the two classes of logs being necessary for the buoyancy of the soft wood may support the hardwoods, which of course, otherwise would not float. The river is generally about 500 to 1000 yards in width and therefore allows ample passageway.

To fishermen the Alto Paraná offers a paradise. That very sporting fish, the dorado, abounds and its weight up to 20 kgs (44 lbs) is common. With a “spoon” remarkable sport is obtained and, as an example, the General hooked one in the early evening which he successfully landed in the early hours of the morning. Other kids of fish are legion. We set an espinel one evening before dinner and by 10 pm when it was taken in, the haul amounted to 10 cwt. An “espinel” is a rope stretched across a river, with lines about 6 ft in length suspended from it at intervals of a similar distance.

Our catch that night was not without incident. Whilst dragging in the espinel a hook penetrated through a finger of one of my companions, the barbs attaching to the bone. Something had to be done and there was only ourselves to do that something, which was the removal of the hook. The bone was the obstacle, otherwise the eye (of the hook) might have been filed off and the hook forced or pulled on through the fleshy part. So the General, as OV Troops, decided that it must be cut out.

A safety razorblade offered us a surgical instrument so, whilst I held the patient’s hand flat on the cabin table, the General satisfactorily performed the operation. Rinsing with antiseptic washes and subsequent dressings prevented the wound from turning septic, a state so easily and quickly enveloped in that climate.

At the settlement of Piray we anchored for our trip through the hinterland to Pueblo Barracon on the Brazilian boundary, situated at the head of the river Pepirá Guazú, a tributary of the river Uruguay. It is distant from Piray some 30 leagues, wholly through forest, except for the settlement of San Pedro, which is situated within a clearing, or “campiña” and distant from Piray some 17 leagues. After two days of hanging around while forest pones were being obtain and which we spent fishing, the three of us started off at sunrise. Along the “picada” (rough trail) through unbroken forest to San Pedro, the first two or three leagues had occasional clearings by squatters, but after those examples of extending civilization, the ride was one of unbroken monotony, except for a few snakes, boas and rattlers, tapirs and one jaguar.

We reached San Pedro at nightfall, not at all a bad show without changes of horses. San Pedro is a small collection of houses, better described as huts, and inhabited by Brazilians, Argentines and Paraguayans, in whom the indian predominated. It boasted a “fonda” of sorts, where we were accommodated amid the usual herald of development in South America: grease, garlic and a lack of natural cleanliness. For my part a bivouac within the forest, or out of it, is distinctly preferable. However, it is amazing how such a large majority of people prefer evil smelling civilization with a bed in which God knows who has slept the previous night, to one’s own blanket under the stars.

As our companion Schwelias was out to purchase a large tract of the country, he was busy making enquiries of all description and such was his satisfaction that the proposed trip to Barracon was cancelled and with reason

Schwelias’s proposal to develop a colony must perforce have as fundamentals: communication with a market and as Barracon is on a non-navigable river, development at that place would mean an arduous journey and therefore cost of road or light railway transport to the Alto Paraná. Similar reasoning, but to a lesser degree, applied to the district of San Pedro. Certainly the prospective exploitation of the enormous trees in the district was an inviting inducement. Nevertheless, the timber would still have to be hauled to the Alto Paraná and to my mind the alternative of a colony at Piray, whence timber camps radiate, was preferable to one many leagues removed within the forest; indeed, a wharf and contingent buildings would still be necessary on the Alto Paraná river.

Having arrive d at that conclusion, we commenced our homeward journey which was an interesting experience. About one half of the distance had been accomplished when the atmosphere became suffocating and the clouds ominous. Eventually the resulting storm burst, which was on a par with my worst experience, although within the forest it appears, and is, formidable to an extreme. Being drenched with a cloud burst is only an inconvenience, but the continuous lightening with its accompanying roar of thunder and hurricane of wind is disconcerting. But what put the fear of God into me was the crashing of the enormous trees through the lesser trees and jungle.

The whirlwind would uproot these monster trees as though they were matchwood. As long as one only heard them crashing, the feeling was not too bad, but now and again a giant “lapacho” would stagger like a drunken man, then with a terrific bellow crash across the “picada”, to leave a feeling of a void in one’s stomach. I have been under shellfire and both would seem equally terrifying.

Such tropical storms are not of long duration and soon we were once more composed, jogging along gaily, forgetful of our soaked saddles and clothing with the prospect of a pleasant night’s rest at Piray.

The investigation of upper Misiones resulted in the acquisition of a large tract of land around Piray by Schwelias and its development of the Victoria colony, which has been so assiduously advertised in the British press to encourage young Britons with small capital to emigrate and make their fortunes.

As the author of this narrative has on several occasions carried out exploration work in Misiones, he is not unqualified to furnish his opinion on the much criticised propaganda of that region and its climate as suitable for the home Briton.

A young Englishman with a capital of between £800 and £1000 (the amount indicated as necessary to establish himself as a colonist in Misiones, whether it be at Victoria or any other district) is attracted from a well-cradled youth. His aptitude for pioneer colonization is generally nil, his confidence to “rough it” is often generated within the luxury of an English country home and its attendant conveniences. Down the generations many men of that type have made good under hard circumstances abroad and the successful ones who eventually return are those who one hears about; those who fall by the wayside do not return in affluence if they return at all. The latter percentage may eke out an existence in humble employment or become beachcombers, unless there are heritages or inheritances to establish them.

Character is therefore the complement to capital; indeed capital without grit will mean failure and that axiom is applicable to all ventures

The author has already outlined the country and its climate and now for the guidance of other prospective colonists he will endeavour to emphasise the details for the pioneer in Misiones.

Firstly the climate has to be considered. The maximum and minimum temperatures during a month in mid-winter have been previously recorded; they form a fair average and indicate a congenial existence. The summer is another side of the climate. When in the forest in January we registered a maximum midday shade temperature for over a week of 45°C (113°F). That may be exceptional but it was our experience.

When reaching a stream we dismounted and rolled in the water. What a relief! But we were bone dry again within half an hour, inside and out, and the myriads of insects of all descriptions were little hell. The night temperatures during that spell did not fall below 90°F nor did the insects decrease their activities. On turning in I poured water on the outside of the sleeping bag, making the bed thoroughly moist and wisely, or unwisely, thus slept cooled by evaporation. However, what one person does is not necessarily counsel for others.

The lack and also the want of a cool drink is impressed upon my memory. We daubed our faces with citronella which, for a few hours, prevented the mosquitoes from blood sucking but their infernal “music” was always a few inches off and before morning, either the citronella had become inert or else the mosquitoes had succeeded in braving its odours – they invariable got their feast. Jiggers were another pest and generally chose toes as their rendezvous; in my own case they elected elbows and knuckles.

However, in a permanent colony many such inconveniences may be obviated by fine mesh blinds and mosquito nets. Understandably the cinema and wireless and other social diversions are now “sine qua non” at all pioneer settlements.

Notwithstanding modern installations, the climate must remain unchanged and during the summer months Misiones is no place for non-acclimatized English women. But of course, during that period they can go to Buenos Aires or to one of the seaside resorts, trips which many colonists cannot always afford. The distance to Buenos Aires from the Victoria colony is [xx] miles.

Furthermore, the climate must be disastrous for babies or children of tender age. I am unaware of the existence of statistics of the mortality of infants of English mothers and that question should cause young married couples to reflect seriously, or in any case to seek reliable information on that subject.

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updated: 29 January 2014