Grand tours: Somewhere under this bush is El Dorado

Writers and their adventures in literature: John Blashford-Snell and Richard Snailham explore the Bolivian Amazon

Born in 1936, John Blashford-Snell, one of the world's most respected explorers, studied at Victoria College, Jersey, before entering The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Richard Snailham, formerly foreign secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, joined him on a 2001 expedition in the Bolivian Amazon, in search of Paititi, the mythical land the Spanish conquistadors called El Dorado. This is an extract from their book 'East to Amazon'.

* * *

As the day grew hotter, tiny monkeys feeding on the blossoms above us chattered in alarm as we passed, and the great electric-blue butterflies flitted ahead of our column. Some of the porters swigged alcohol, and they all chewed coca incessantly to give them strength - or to perhaps numb the pain of their loads.

As we reached the ridge the trail flattened out. The walls of the "fort" were now exposed, and appeared to be much better constructed than those at Tulani. Faced stone had been used, in the Inca tradition. "Inca," said Juan Domingo confidently, showing me some pottery. "I think it's an inn, not a fort - probably used by traders travelling up from the river." Ertl had talked of another ruin 200 yards away, but, though we searched all day, the dense jungle and bamboo obscured everything. Hidden from view, 2,000 feet below, on the Rio Chinijo, Craig Halford's bridge was progressing slowly. Sam Allen, who had earlier joined us from advanced base, now provided medical cover for the main party. I was still worried about having a serious injury in this treacherous terrain. Sam was an asset in many ways. He is an excellent cook, and his culinary efforts did much to raise spirits. Paul Overton had joined us again, looking rather old behind his shaggy grey beard. However, it gave him a measure of protection from the wretched bees that had returned to the attack. We all got stung and, remembering a near-fatality from a hornet sting on the Darién expedition in 1972, I hoped we had no one with an allergy to them.

Then the rains struck. The descent to the Chinijo became more than normally hazardous. We slid downhill, ducking under low trees and clambering over massive trunks which blocked the way. Vines snapped and sent us slithering uncontrollably. "If we get everyone down this cliff without a broken leg," I said to Yoli, "it will be a miracle." But we did. Near the bottom the track was supported by ancient walls of faced stone, and there were terrace walls and broad platforms. Everywhere one looked there were signs of an earlier civilisation - but the two Bolivian archaeologists were too far sunk in misery to notice.

Craig Halford's engineers had worked hard on the bridge. A 60-foot length had been cut from a tree felled nearby. It didn't quite reach the far bank, so they had built a pier of stones for it to rest on. On top of it they had nailed short slats of wood to make a safer walkway, and had rigged a cord handrail. But crossing it would still be perilous: the Chinijo surged underneath, and good balance was required.

In pouring rain I said, "I name this bridge Halford's Bridge", and with my machete I sliced through a coloured ribbon tied across by Dr Jo Brown. Juan Domingo then donned a life-jacket and nervously made his way over. To have fallen off with a heavy pack would have been to invite drowning. "Don't look down at the water" I cautioned Jo as I set off. That, of course, was an invitation to do so, but I nevertheless made it across. The ensuing wet season would probably see the giant log borne away on the flood, but at least I could get our expedition over it.

'East to Amazon', by John Blashford-Snell and Richard Snailham (£8.99, John Murray). Readers of the 'Independent on Sunday' can order a copy for the discounted price of £7.99 (including p&p within the UK). Call 0870 121 0009 and quote BSH051.

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick