Under the Southern Cross
By Rick Cleveringa
Caraça – Pronounced /KA-RAH-SA/
There was packing and much paper work in obtaining my visa to head to South America. Months of prep work and attempts to learn a language that I could only order bread and coffee in. After a10 hour flight we arrive in Brazil. This would be my first trip south of the equator. “E’s” family met us at the airport and welcomed me to their home as if I was a long lost brother and son. It was wonderful to share in the daily life in the city of Belo Horizonte. Walking to the tiny shops and feeding the chickens in the yard. After a few days in the busy city “E” has planned a trip to the mountains in her state. I was sitting in the bus station under strict orders “To keep my mouth shut” and watch my backpack closely. The dust and pollution of the city has taken its toll on me and I am ready for the four-hour bus travel to fresh air and Caraça.
After a very dusty bus ride and a cab that takes us high into the mountains, we make it to the office to check in. Our arrival was early and the young woman at the desk gave us vouchers for lunch and told us to walk around, have lunch, and our room will be ready at 1:00. “E” and I are very excited and joyfully explore Caraça. It’s a Portuguese style Mission, built in 1774. The hand dressed stone walls have been standing now for the last 240 years. The jungle and surrounding mountains seem timeless. We walk past some of the buildings, find a path, sit near a pond, and relax. The sun reaches noon and is smiling on us. We make our way to the dining hall. Lunch was serve-yourself with large pots on a wood-burning stove. It’s beautiful, pots of rice, beans, vegetables and large hunks of meat. We filled our plates and our bellies in the great echoing hall.
Room 147 was now ready; we get our key and walk the stone path to our room. It’s clean, sparse, a large bathroom and comfy bed, but its cold and damp. It feels like a cave. The door and window go open and fresh air comes in. I lay down to nap and “E” goes to explore the grounds. Our room is on the main walkway and shortly voices wake me. I go out to find “E”, sitting on a bench in the front garden I spy her. She says, “how did you find me?”, “I am a hunter” I say. From the front garden with its fountain, hedges, and Jaku birds, we look down deep into a valley towards a river that could be heard but not seen through the thick jungle. “Its beautiful”, “E” whispers. Indeed…. We sit for some time in peace.
Dinner and a Show
The old bell in the church steeple banged six times, by then we had our showers and clean clothes on. We walked in the dusk cold mountain evening to the dinning hall, which now was lamp lit and gave the room a warm glow. The hall and all its long dark wood wooden tables, chairs, floor, cream-colored walls and amber light were inviting. The visitors now were all overnight guests and an older crowd for the most part. We get our plates and line up to the wood stove. More rice, beans, meat, veggie, and something called Shoo Shoo. It was a
tasteless green vegetable, boiled lifeless and served. Dinner was nice, dessert disappointing. Desserts are served in a large bowl. Typically it could be a caramel sauce or some fruit puree’ + sugar. I could kill for a piece of cake, a big yellow cake with chocolate frosting. It’s all nice and “E” has spoken in a whisper since our arrival.
Lobo-Guara (Chrysocyon brachyurous)
A priest in a red hoodie calls out into the pitch-dark night. His deep voice and strange words go deep into the jungle. He calls again. The flashlight in his hand signals safe passage. The beam of light cast a tiny spirit against the endless dark of the forest. Before too long a wolf appears. It timidly approaches and climbs the stairs up to the balcony where we wait. With long elegant black legs and red coat she looks much like a giant fox. The priests here have been feeding them for generations. There is a large tray of bones and meat sitting on the stone porch in front of the church. She comes to feed nightly. The priest speaks and “E” translates. There has been trouble in the jungle and wild dogs have attacked this wolf and now she is more cautious than ever. These wolves are specific to Brazil. Never before have I seen a more elegant, graceful animal. She is lean, tall, beautiful and pranced over to the tray; she retrieved some bone and meat. With powerful jaws and without effort she crushed the bones, the sound was magnificent. I loved it. It reminded me of my dog eating her treats but this is no ordinary canine. “E” and I are in heaven. The wolf would eat, tip toe off, and then come back later. One could stay for hours watching this and I did. At 8:00pm “E” went to the church and attended the mass. I pulled my hat down over my ears in the mountain cold and stayed to watch.
After mass “E” joined me outside to watch wolves. A most remarkable sight that was special beyond words. At 9:00pm, popcorn and tea were served in the hallway. It was a simple but welcome treat in the cold night in the jungle. We walked back to our little room, under Jupiter and Venus, the Southern Cross, and stars unfamiliar to me. Stars Shackelton would have known. We climbed into our cool bed and warmed each other, and slept like children.
A Walk in the Jungle
Some of the most inviting features of Caraça are the many hiking trails. Each has a point of interest or some natural feature of beauty that draws the mind to jungle adventure. They all sound wonderful and “E” picks out a trail to ‘Cascade’, or a waterfall. I woke early the next morning and walked to the breakfast mess hall. The great wood stove was roaring away. There was actual coffee here. With a cup of coffee, and my book, I waited for “E”s arrival. The local practice for breakfast here is to cook a hunk of cheese and toast a bun on the stove. There were also some brown eggs and a bowl of white batter. By now I’ve had enough bread for breakfast, so I dip a large spoon into the batter and pour a 4” circle directly on the stove face. It certainly was not Aunt Jemima pancake mix. The batter made a thin ‘cake’ of a far less tasty corn based goop with the cooked consistence of a wrapped single piece of American cheese. Maple syrup was well over 6000 miles away so I drizzled some honey, and ate it.
“E” has come, eats her bread and cheese, we look at the map and get ready. We cross a large gravel parking lot for buses, tour groups, and school groups who come regularly to the mission that is situated in a national park. We find the trailhead and make the 3-4k hike to the falls. Its flat, easy, a kind hike, an enjoyable 1st trail and exciting first look at real jungle. The trail is earth and sand and winds past jungle vines & trees. Then it would open up to grassy savannahs. This is Atlantic forest, a transition to the deep jungle of the Amazon to the west. “E” explains this to me as my fascinated heart sucks in the adventure.
The path twists about and I see black sand and quarts all over, signs of gold. This country was once rich with gold. Even the road heading here is called “the road of gold”. We reach the falls, its wonderful. The falls are perhaps 20-30 feet tall, a small stream with water brown as tea runs over the black rocks. We take our shoes and socks off and join others wading, climbing and enjoying this place. As “E” finds a place to sit I begin searching for gold. Sifting sand and pebbles in my hand, looking for a nugget. It was a pretty place; we sat close by one another, talked, felt the joy of being close. Walking around we see there were some bees drinking. Stepping on a South American been seemed like a poor idea. We put our shoes and socks on and left the bees to their work. The hike back was fine; we spent some time in the room. The old church bell rang 12 and we were off to lunch.
Once again we poured over the map and picked a trail. This one was about 6k up the mountain, gaining about 1000’ of elevation. About half way there, is a smaller mission and at the top there is “Gruta de Lourde”, a cave! Yes! Lets go see the cave! Now I’m ready. A big lunch and more jungle. Back at the room “E” gets her hat and tells me to bring my hoodie, it might be cold up there. “It won’t be cold, lets go my love.”, and we set off.
Danger on “Onça” Trail
The day was bright and sunny as we cut behind the mission, up a small hill, past a tiny cemetery with its white wall, and iron gate that protect those who need no protection. A gardener with a machete in hand, points the direction to the trail, we go happily. One difference on this trail is we start climbing up right away. We crossed a tiny rustic wood bridge that your step had to be most cautious on. You have seen this bridge in every jungle movie. It’s the one where the planks give way and you find yourself dangling uncomfortably, legs kicking away high above a ravine. “E” crossed first and I would not get on it until she was safely across.
She spied it on the ground and grabbed it up, it was a 3’ crooked walking stick. This was a fine idea as the climb was noticeable. She was most happy with her “sticker” as she called it. Then she prompted me into finding one. Yes! And I looked but found nothing suitable. “E” pointed out every rotted, way too long, way too heavy, log, stick, branch, vine and root she saw. Now I’ve gone calling her “Heidi – There’s s good walking stick Brian!”. I tell “E” the story of our hike on a hot summer day in the Shawnee National Forest.
Our ascension was laborious as we worked our way up stairs of roots, rocks and fallen logs. The trail took us up to a great stone face of black rock six feet tall, and we have to skirt it to the right. On a narrow path that look down into a green valley, up we go through the trees, vines, ferns and past anthills, that are five feet tall and fat as rain barrels. We reach a great plateau, an odd feature in the mountain. Its flat as a table and large as a football field. What
happened geologically to make this place? What happened IN this place? It appears to be a natural feature; we cross the plain and start to climb again. Through more jungle, the path is red dirt & rock. We are walking under the canopy on slight grade and come to a most strange sight. It’s a gate in the middle of nowhere leading to…? A Spanish style arch, iron gate with two locks. The gate guards a bridge made of stacked stones over a deep gorge. Where the hell does this go, maybe to hell? Fascinating! The gate reminded me of the ‘Pappa Red’ tales Brian is writing. I tugged at the locks on the gate, but “E” wanted nothing to do with it. So we walked on.
Now the day was warm and brilliant and “E” had a scarf about her long neck that I’ve tied around her hat. With her10” brim hat, she in a clingy brown dress with small deer skin handbag and walking staff, it harkens my thoughts to 1800’s explorers. I see her in the path ahead of me; I call her “Lady Penelope” in my head as if we were Victorians out on a safari.
Found it! After searching every twig along the route I pull up a 7’ long tree about 2” in diameter, with the root ball on the end. Its heavy, dense, jungle hardwood and I snap off about 18” between the forks of two trees. I leave the roots on and dub it Gandalf. Climbing
ever up, Gandalf, myself and Lady Penelope make our way to the mission up the mountain. We had seen it some time back but it was so distant and on another ridge of the mountain that it seemed unreachable. Yet here we are we made it. On the trail leading to this place I noticed tracks in the sand, feline by the pads, some dog tracks (wild dogs), two hikers from the day before who had gone up and back. Lady Penelope asks if we should go back after seeing the cat tracks. “Of course not!” I say, no it’s gone, they were small, no worries I say. She says, “what if a cat comes at us?”, “It won’t, lets go.”. She was a bit reluctant but now that we’ve made the mission she’s excited. It’s a large rectangular white building, doors locked and beside it a large section in ruins. Why would they build here? So close to the 1774 Caraça mission? It’s all odd and wonderful.
“Did you hear that?
After we explored the grounds, Lady “P” and I pressed forward up the mountain on a path that shows little use. You can tell people make the mission, don’t see the next trail head to the cave, or simply turn back. The jungle crowds this path and we start climbing up, then down into a deep ravine. A small run of water is at the bottom and I look for tracks in the mud and see none. We cross the small stream; Lady “P” has her dress tucked up to keep it away from the mud and to keep her cool in the warm jungle air. We start the climb once more. Its steep and our walking staffs push us upward through the jungle. The path winds about and out of the forest cover to a ridge the path follows. From this rocky outcrop we can see down into the valley on to the other mountain peaks opposite of Caraça mission. No longer are there any signs of man. Its raw and beautiful, the view is breathtaking and so is the climb. We pause to enjoy and breathe the thick jungle air and take in the wonder. Soon we are leaning into out staffs and climbing, Lady “P” is in the lead. For me I am alive, noticing every stone, plant, flower, breath, and wishing I had my longbow and a quiver of arrows. Lady “P” stops and says “I wish you had your bow and arrow”, yes me too!
With the trail so steep the path ahead of me was at eye level, my face a few feet away and in a small pocket in the trail, I see deposited in it was a crystal. Perhaps 2” long, 1.5” wide. Broken away from a larger globe the inner has an opaque purple hew, the shell of quartz is dark and striated. It catches my attention and I slip it into my cargo pocket.
We are nearing the summit and the cave cannot be far. We break out from under the canopy into some tall grass and 20 yards away is the top. We can see blue sky, almost there when we heard, “Rrrooooaaaaaarrrrrr………” a very low sound. My first thought was to look up at the sky, thunder? No it’s clear. “E” looked back at me, her face white as a ghost, her expression confused and frightened. Her lips and mouth drawn up like an “O” sound, she says “Did you hear that?!”. “Yes, it was a warning.” I say. “E” then, with her back to the tall grass and predator, she crouched down to make herself small. She was just a big hat and dress. I said “Esther! Stand up SLOWLY, walk, do NOT RUN toward me! Come here!” She did as instructed and once she bumped passed on the narrow path, she proceeded down the mountain at a high rate of speed. I stayed facing the grass, the sound, and the puma. Backing up slowly with Gandalf in hand. I made my way down, glad not to see the catamount follow.
Retreat to the Retreat
At a safe distance I turn and try to catch up with “E”. She is moving swiftly down the trail. I use Gandalf to pole vault me down from rock to rock. On one vault my arm received a large gash, 3 long scrapes from a broken branch in the path. She is ahead of me but I’m gaining on her. As in every jungle movie you have ever seen, a thing so cliché’, you don’t believe it could ever happen but it did. The heroine, upon fleeing danger or death, trips on a root or rock and twists her ankle. From where I’m at, I see “E” step on a steep bolder and her boot slides down the face of the stone and her foot gets wedged between two rocks at the base. In my mind I think “shit she just broke her leg”, but I know she is so terrified she will run 4k more down hill on a busted limb. This is when I catch up.
She is pulling on her leg desperately and frees her leather boot from its trap and I say, “Use your stick”. She moved on without injury cursing me all the way down the mountain. At the deep ravine near the mud and stream we cross up on to the other side, there is a log and I beg her to sit and rest. She says “NO WAY! I don’t trust YOU any more!” Me, I think? “Dis is not a MOVIE!” she professes and off she went, down the rocky path to the mission.
All I can see is her backside, her large brim hat with scarf tied around it. She is murmuring on and I can’t make out what’s she is saying. At the small mission on the hill she says to me “what if the puma followed us?”. “It didn’t” I respond. “How do you know?” she demanded. Oh we would know by now, so on we went. The hours of climbing up the mountain seemed to be 20 minutes run back. At the base of the trail we meet a family heading up. E tells them of the puma, the two children looked scared and they turn back.
Back at Caraça Mission we found a park ranger and he confirmed a puma has been in the area. There were guide books on tracks and the cat tracks I saw in the sand belonged to a Jaguar. Later that night at dinner it was a true celebration. We had experienced real danger and survived. The thought of “E” getting injured chilled my guts. But hey we were safe in a lovely hall, with big plates of food in front of us. We just laughed through dinner, now we had a real story to tell and we did. “E” had to tell it in Portuguese and I made the cat sound. My throat was hurting later from so often making the pumas growl.
That night we sat in the dark and waited for the wild wolves to be just feet away. Their food was in a large tray and not on a jungle trail.