Filling in voids.


13th January 2024

Isla Iguanita, Rio Darien, Panama – Rio Sucia (East), Darian River, Panama via La Palma, Islas Bellas, Rio Iglesia & Rio Sucia (West), Darian River, Panama

What drove Cook to sail to Australia? Why did Scott wander across the bleak Antarctic to the south pole? How did Zheng He persuade his fleet of mariners to venture all over the Arabia and the South China Sea? All these intrepid explorers were drawn to blank spaces on maps where they would discover untold riches and have unknown experiences. There was a blank on the map and Panama, the Darien River* system, and we were drawn to it just like explorers of old.

As the tide turned at Isla Iguana we were swept into the river system and we found ourselves literally ‘off the chart’. Every source of information we had, put Ruffian sailing through islands, motoring over rocks and anchoring on land, or simply in a void. This was an unexplored land as local fishermen inquisitively watched us, farmers stopped their tilling gazing from ashore and once we anchored pirogues full of children just wanted to stop and stare at us.

This feeling of otherworldliness only grew the further up the river system we explored. The sides of the river slowly closed in on us but the scale was beyond anything we had expected. For miles there was no sign of man and the hills stretched into the distance, squadrons of pelicans flew around us unsure why they were finding a perching tree in the middle of a river and fish were so abundant that everywhere we looked we saw splashes and telltale signs of huge schools.

Once we ran out of water deep enough for Ruffian’s keel we took to Brock to go even further off the map and look for some culture and people. Just when we thought that the river would run out we started to see signs of man with wooden boats tied up to trees and smoke emanating from the thick bush.

Pondering where to put Brock a smiling farmer beckoned us over and showed us a welcome by cutting down foliage and covering the mud with it. Once ashore we were introduced to his family pointed in the right direction and told to enjoy the village. This was better than a red carpet as we were welcomed into the village like royalty.

The village was a riot of colour as bright fabrics hung on washing lines under the hot sun and in that same sun dried coffee beans which had been meticulously sorted, graded and laid out in front of every hut. Marvelling at their industriousness we sought fresh fruit and vegetables and were greeted by quizzical looks and smiling faces but no vitamins.

Having walked every track, met every person and played with every child we made our way back to our friendly farmer where it became clear that we had been the ‘talk of the town’. We were welcomed like old friends and a bag full of papaya and plantain was thrust into our hands. Payment in dollars was refused but the currency of fish hooks and sachets of ground coffee proved to be the most valuable commodity.**

For days we used our navigation skills to nose up rivers, nudge our way around mud banks and become totally enveloped by nature. No man-made sound reached our ears and no light pollution invaded the sky, all we heard was the squawk of birds and the hunting of prey and all we saw were limitless stars and verdant green riverbanks. All this ‘off the chart’ exploring however made demands on our navigation skills and sometimes pushed us into brand new sailing experiences.

As we nosed over a bar into an uncharted river the water below Ruffian grew increasingly shallow and we we knew that one wrong move would put us aground, far from safety with only the company of local fishermen. With just inches below our keel, to the bemusement of the fisherman, we anchored Ruffian and took to Brock with our mobile depth sounder. As Brock drew a grid over the bar we watched as a chart was magically created in-front of us, a safe passage was then found and our way forward identified. We could only image what Cook, He or Scott would have been able to achieve with tech like this.

All this effort was worthwhile as we were now finding nature we’d not seen before. Scanning the riverbank we looked at what we thought were logs and were surprised how many ‘logs’ managed to stem the tide. It was only once these ‘logs’ disappeared with a splash and then reappeared with beady bright eyes that we realised we had stumbled into our first ‘swarm’ of Pacific crocodiles.

Just like Cook and He we had decided that doing all this exploration with company would be fun and give us a nice safety blanket; however it was Senang, our buddy boat, who needed this safety blanket. Whenever they put their engine in gear an unbearable ‘bang’ erupted from the gearbox and as they motored along their thrust bearing became so hot the oil boiled off and erupted with the noise of grating metal. A decision was made. We’d head back to safety and Ruffian would be available as a tow boat.

Just like Cook, He and Scott we had wiped blank voids off the map had been given untold riches by those we found ashore and like these intrepid explorers we knew that this would count for nothing if we couldn’t return to civilisation. We now need to get Senang out of the deep jungle, back onto the beaten track and back to safety.

* The same district that houses the infamous Darien Gap. Where there is a 66 mile gap between Panamanian Highway and the equivalent road in Colombia, making the district accessible only by boat.

** All thanks to Senang’s huge experienced of bartering and forward thinking.

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

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