Chapada Diamantina National Park

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Mon 18 May 2015 12:00
The adventure started at Salvador bus station. We handed over our I.D. cards (laminated colour photocopies of the front and identity pages of our passports, reduced to credit card size) and were issued with our tickets and new identities; Senhor British and Senhora May. Stapled to our tickets was a life insurance policy worth 5 millions Brazilian Reais.

The coach was the most comfortable I have ever been in. Air conditioning, fully reclining seats and quiet. The journey took seven hours and we didn't die.

The Chapada Diamantina National Park is 400km from Salvador. The area was opened up by diamond prospectors after diamonds were found in 1844. From the middle of the 20th century the prospecting intensified and heavy machinery was used up until 1992 when the Federal Police shut down the operations. Our guess is that the mercury used in the mining process was poisoning the rivers and affecting millions of people downstream, including the major city of Salvador. Shortly afterwards the whole area was declared a national park.

Chapada Diamantina

Chapada Diamantina is a high plateau and boasts the highest mountain in the north-east of Brazil at 2,033m. The flora is particularly diverse in this transition zone between the coastal forests and the dry interior. At altitude the slopes are covered in maquis-like shrubs but in the valley bottoms many of the trees are huge, such as the Jack fruit tree. The geology is mostly limestone. Clean rivers, spectacular waterfalls and the natural environment are the main attractions, particularly for middle class Paulistas (people from São Paulo), keen to get away from the largest city in Brazil.

These are the headwaters of the Rio Paraguaçu. We followed this river up in Caramor from All Saints Bay as far as São Francisco but decided to go no further as the pilot says 'it is only possible in shallow draft boats'. We left our friends Marianne and Jean-Loup to risk it alone in Yao. They have since reported that they hit a sand bank and spent most of a tide (around ten hours) with the boat lying on its side. They made the most of a bad situation and cleaned Yao's bottom.

We stayed in Lençóis, a pretty town developed during the mining boom. Many of the old houses have been preserved and maintained. The atmosphere is bohemian, small streets with nicely presented restaurants producing great local food, usually with a twist. Every evening homegrown dreadlocked hippies set up their stalls selling fabric and leather bracelets and wind chimes. The lucky ones may sell one bracelet all night. We did wonder what they live on, in the UK they would most likely be claiming the dole but nothing of the sort exists in Brazil. The tourists are mostly from São Paulo, they are paler than we are and their lifestyles and expectations are on a par with ours.


Our favourite coffee shop (unfortunately closed)

Laundry at the River Lençóis

We met Ja-Ja, a local guide and middle man / fixer. We told him what we wanted to do and he sorted it out, always on time and with a big grin. We stayed at the Poussada (B&B) São José to which he is somehow connected. He convinced us to go on a guided tour of the main attractions around Lençóis. He knew we were keen to speak Portuguese so he fixed us up with a couple of women from São Paulo and their guide Eneas. Three unsuspecting Brazilians stuck all day in a small Fiat with us! Yum yum what a feast! They did ever so well.

By the Poço do Diablo I saw an iridescent green humming bird. I called Franco over but he was busy discussing vintage whisky and cachaça (Brazilian rum) with Eneas. At a stall by the side of the road we saw three jars of honey for sale. The jars were re-used jam jars with faded lids. The first had perfect cut-comb, the second was granulating while the third included several dead bees; clearly an attempt to cater for all tastes. At lunchtime we were plagued by bees behaving badly. At first I thought they were wasps because they were attracted to sweet food and drink. Like wasps in late summer in Europe, they wouldn't take no for an answer and were intent on drowning in sweet fizzy drinks. Our friends told us bees always behave like this. I asked if the honey we had seen was coca-cola honey. 

Poço do Diabo on the river Mucugezinho

The Devil’s Throat

In the afternoon we visited a 6 million year old cave, the temperature inside was 26 degrees and the air felt very dry. Instead of the walkways and fixed lights you find in many Europeans caves, the set-up was very informal, we were each given a powerful torch and were led in small groups by a very knowledgeable guide who tailored his presentation to his audience.

The cave at Iraquara

Pratinha natural swimming pool

Señor British inspecting the coffee crop

The day was rounded off with a scramble up the Morro de Pai Inácio.

View from the top of Morro de Pai Inácio

Left to right: Flavia, Christiana, Franco, Kath, and Eneas

That night we went to a small restaurant in the main street for a caipirinha. The staff were very attentive and proud of their caipirinhas. "Is it good?" they asked anxiously. "Muito boa" we replied. The cachaça from a nearby valley is reputed one of the best and the caipirinha was smoother than the stuff we have drunk in Salvador. It was only when we tried to get up that we realised how 'good' it was! We gave in and ordered dinner rather than try and stagger to a different restaurant. 

Main Street Lençóis

Two men sat down at a nearby table. They were speaking English and discussing the UK elections. We eavesdropped. Then a lady walked past with a very strange hairdo. It looked as if she had just had five large curlers taken out and hadn't bothered brushing her hair. "Look at that! I'd love to get my hair done like that" said one of the Englishmen. "You should, you'd look lovely" I encouraged. They invited us to join them. They had also fallen into the caipirinha trap. Phil worked for the London Olympics committee and is now running the PR campaign for the Rio Olympics in 2016. He has been in Brazil two years and speaks fluent Brazilian. Ben, his older brother is visiting. He is an architectural engineer and is working on, among other things, the new national theatre in Rabat, commissioned by the King of Morocco. Ben has worked all over the world. A very pleasant evening!

On our second day Ja-Ja turned up with two good quality mountain bikes. The route we would do was in two parts; to the 'natural slide' waterfall in the morning and then up the mountain which overlooks the town to a small river in the afternoon. Maps of the area are impossible to obtain so we were reliant on Ja-Ja to describe the route. He paid a man to take Franco by motorbike to the start of the morning route. As we were walking through town with Ja-Ja to 'recce' the afternoon section, a mate of his drove by on his motorbike. The next thing he knew he had lent his motorbike to Ja-Ja and was left to walk the mountain bikes with me. I wouldn't have lent my motorbike to Ja-Ja, not for love nor money, and judging from his face as he later described the pillion ride at breakneck speed down a rutted track, nor would Franco.

The single track to the 'slide' waterfall was, to use a much abused mountain biking term, 'world-class'! Narrow winding dirt tracks followed by eroded stone steps and drops. It is over two years since we last mountain-biked and our nerves of steel turned to jelly.

The large group we had met the day before at Pratinha had got up early and walked there. They were thoroughly enjoying the waterfall, many of them taking 'selfies' of their terror as they slid down on their bottoms.

On a rock in the middle of the stream stood a man and his son barbecuing meat skewers and selling cold drinks.

I went first, I chose a different line to everyone else. Scraped arse? not for me, I was going for the line with the most water. There was a reason why nobody else was choosing that section of the waterfall, but it seemed like a small price to pay ... Franco was not amused.

Kath’s ‘perfect’ line (not). Red dots mark large holes where Kath disappeared.

Franco 'I like to be in control' Ferrero looked like he hated every minute of it but he assures me he enjoyed it "in an out of control sort of way". The best photo was when he discovered the very large hole in the back of his swimming trunks.

Swimming trunk inspection

I later had another go and went for 'the classic' which did not involve disappearing into a big hole.

On the way back we stopped at an adobe (mud brick) bar for a green coconut. They sold postcards (the first we have seen in Brazil) and were clearly delighted when I bought seven - the first they had sold in the last fifteen years, I'm guessing. Smugbook and Whatsup are clearly to blame for the demise of the postcard.

It’s a hard life ...

From Lençóis we cycled up, and up and up. A few motorbike-taxis passed us and we could see that they were full of respect (or they just thought we were stark raving mad). We stopped for a breather and a vulture circled above us. Eventually the track started to go down again, and we arrived at our destination, a river. By now we had become accustomed to every river having a cold drinks seller - not this one, we were alone.
The cycle back took ten minutes!

‘Wattle and daub’ dwelling

On our third and last day, Ja-Ja showed up at 8:30 to take us to the Casa do Cavalos, the House of the Horses. "Have you ridden before?" asked Jordelo, our trekking guide. "A bit, but not for a long time." (Franco hadn't ridden for twenty years). Dreading the plod-plod pony so often found in UK trekking stables, I had specified that I wanted a mount that wasn't half asleep. Ja-Ja introduced me to Jontem, a large (by Brazilian standards) five year old grey. "Look Katchee, this is how you do  it, you pull this way to go left, that way to go right and here to stop" said Ja-Ja pulling on the reins as if they were the handlebars of a motorbike. "Get off you crazy man, I'm going to have to ride the poor horse" I shouted at him in English. The bit is hard and the reins need to be handled gently as the slightest pressure is enough. Franco was given a steady ten year old. We set off at a walk, within minutes we were trotting and then cantering! We held on. The saddles were small and light, the leg position extended, a very different way of riding. Trotting, we thought we would be shaken to pieces. Meanwhile Jordelo talked on his mobile phone barely moving in his saddle. "Jordelo" I asked "we are being shaken to death and you are barely bobbing, what are we doing wrong?" "You need to move at the rhythm of the animal" came the wise reply of a man who has lived in the saddle since he was ten years old. Easier said than done.

We had been offered a 9km trek to the Capivara river or 18km to the Roncador river, and return. After much discussion we had opted for the longer 36km route. Only in Brazil, not all nine kilometres are the same distance, some are short, some are long. At Capivara we congratulated ourselves on choosing the longer route, by the time we reached the Roncador we weren't so sure. Franco had a bad rub on his knee caused by his trouser seam and my rucksack was chafing my neck when we trotted. The route had been fairly level on a sand and stone track, through rivers and floods, on narrow paths through the forest. We walked and trotted mostly but galloped on the straight sections. Franco's horse would often fall behind as it was slower. Once out of sight, it would utter a panicked neigh and gallop for all it was worth to catch up.

Rio Roncador ‘The Roarer"

After a fairly long lunch break during which we swam in the river, we expected more of the same on the way back. Franco's horse had a sore on its belly where the belt had rubbed. Jordelo saddled him differently to ease the pressure and gave his horse 'Duriana' to Franco. She was a lively mare and Franco could steer using gentle knee pressure only. Jordelo was delighted when Franco described her as 'the Ferrari of the horse world'. The change of pecking order sparked some fierce competition and the ride back was fast. I found out the painful way why a tall horse is not always a good idea, Jontem's gait was much longer than the other two, so while they were galloping, we were still trotting. Jontem didn't like walking through paddles, he would always walk round them. We galloped up to this three metre wide pool of water ... and instead of stopping as I expected, he jumped it! I must have done air time and was lucky to land on his back though my feet were no longer in the stirrups. I clung on until I finally got him to stop. 

Slow-coach and Jontem

The faster we went, the better we got - a case of 'learn or die'. Franco looked the part, reins in one hand and the other, relaxed by his side, no longer gripped to the saddle. Through rivers and forests we went until we got back to town. We felt and walked like John Wayne as we left our Winchesters outside the ice-cream parlour.