This time we would reach fortress hill. A high point in the area, where we could explore the surrounding hills, capture timelapses, and shots of the sacred hills of the Pai Tavytera indians.
The topography had changed since our last visit. The old road had washed away, as well as the planks that served as a makeshift bridge over a creek. We had a couple failed attempts before to reach Cerro Muralha as the locals call it, where we had gone ready to spend our day filming, but could not find a way to cross the river with the red murky waters safely. An old park ranger gave us a set of directions with landmarks that we could use for us arrive with our equipment safely.
Before dawn, We drove as far as we could inside Cerro Cora National Park, named after the “corral” like hills that were considered a natural fortress. This is where Mariscal Lopez, leader of Paraguay during the great war of the triple alliance war, was lead by an Indian guide that explained that the area could be used as natural fortification. He was killed here in 1870, ending the bloody war that also killed 95% of the male population of the time.
We walked on the sand.. it was a soft sand that made your shoes sing, getting inside our socks and between our fingers.. It was a bit slow walking due to our heavy equipment.. we continued and got to the forest, and started to see signs of wildlife…
We saw tracks of deer, snakes, and small rodents of some type.. maybe just a small armadillo…. the sandy part that made you walk like a turtle was now over, the land seemed to clear up a bit, still dirt and sand but walkable now.. we leave our footprint next to the other animals.. some prints you could even see that the animals were running due to the way the sand was left...
We go on.. David suggested to do a hyper lapse all the way to the base of the natural fortress from this point on.. I told him go for it, I would give him a walkie, and we will meet up there.. It began to get hot, and we were being attacked by insects of every type.
We walked and walked…We eventually spotted fortress hill, one single imposing column of rock on the horizon. At its base we saw the place where back in the 1970s well connected members of the Military Dictatorship that ruled the country for 30+ years used dynamite to look for the hidden gold, hoping to raid the rumored treasures left by Madame lynch, wife of Mariscal Lopez..It feels like a castle was here long ago and all that is left is the wall to the city.. we start to climb.. and climb.. we finally get to the top of the Hill and yes what a view.. the sky was clear, one can see for miles.. it was hot and the bugs where all elsewhere.. but here where I now was they didn't bother due to the nice breeze we had on us… and I bragged about it over the walkie talkie.
We drank terere and set our timelapse shots. With binoculars we spotted David. Doing a hyperlapse is painstaking slow, David was going to be eaten alive by the bugs and be hot and sweaty, while we enjoyed a cool breeze and terere in the shade enjoying the magnificent view atop fortress hill.
When David finally got close we went down the rocks and helped him up with his gear. he got up on top and said "Aaww, how nice is this place!" We agreed and Rita said something like you know how to make it nicer? He knew the answer already as she extended her arm toward him with a nice cold cup of terere. We took a little break, as its very typical for Paraguayans to take breaks to enjoy their terere.
As we passed the terere horn around we talked and were really excited about our images, and kicked around the idea of extending our stay and capturing images from sunset to sunrise.. we had first planned to stay there till sunset only and had not calculated food and water till sunrise..But we were so enthused with our work we quickly decided to stay, in which case we would need need to go the the closest village to refill our canteens and get a meal for the night..David volunteered to stay with the cameras so we could have a timelapse as Rita and I go to get more food and water…
Rita and I headed back to the car so we could drive to the outpost of Chiriguelo, we needed to hurry to get back before dark. On our way back we again studied the tracks in the sand and see tracks of a large animal.. maybe a Jaguar I think.. the feared “Jaguarete,” and it seemed to be on a hunt too.. I knew those prints where not there on our way back… but I tried to pretend that I did not see it to not freak out Rita. But it was of no use, she had seen them too… She pointed them out … these were tiger prints I knew, and they were huge! about the size of my fist. I tried to calm her and said something like that was there a long time ago.. and its probably a dog… “A Dog?” she said skeptically, ” no way a dog would be around here in the middle of nowhere”
I tried to reason, “if it was recent it would be on top of our footprints.”
.. and as I said it… she pointed and said “like that one?!”
Gulp! I could not avoid the truth anymore. She knew it was recent and that it was made by a large cat…
We get back to David, and tell him that we are not alone.. we have a large furry friend in the woods.. and we should be careful… David is on top of a tree with binoculars, looking at something, and then we finally see what he was looking at. The sounds of the forest are interrupted by helicopters, and we see a chopper land in the middle of the woods. We wondered who it belonged to, but by the smoke that came shortly after we knew who they were. It was the Anti drug special operations force. This is one way the government combats the illegal Marijuana plantations. Heavily armed agents of the Narcotics squad swoop in with U.S. gov’t financed helicopters to destroy the Marijuana plantations. Columns of smoke started coming up in the vicinity of where the helicopter landed. This was scarier than a Jaguarete, as just recently an Indigenous Park Ranger in one of Paraguay’s largest natural reserves was killed in an ambush by drug dealers while doing a patrol on the land he was charged with preserving. A second chopper came and landed in the same area. They both left a couple hours later, leaving various columns of smoke that formed a large dark cloud over that part of the sky.
Soon it was pitch dark… we had no moon and the sky was perfect.. the other hills where a bit far to capture them.. so I put my smallest lens and the widest and aimed straight up.. to a tree and the sky.. the angle could not be better..
had an amazing image..
We had our meal as we took the pictures.. it started to get colder and colder maybe because of the altitude and constant wind we were having. We hadn't originally planned to spend the night so didn't come prepared, and when we changed plans it was in the heat of the day, we hadn't planned for cold weather! Now it was dark and we needed to improvise something as the temperature dropped precipitously in this mid winter night. We needed to get at least a wind breaker to keep us a bit protected from the weather. After looking we had found a spot where the rocks would favor us in their position. It was a bit tight for 3 of us, but it had no choice. We used our 4 tripods and laid a cloth on top as our roof to keep the dew off, then placed some branches on top of the cloth, and made a makeshift shelter. If it rained we would be goners, but luckily it was a beautiful night.
Apparently word got out in the insect world that some juicy humans were here.. and it was not fun for us humans. We had this device that made a sound to repel mosquitoes, but I felt that it attracted even more of them. We used a good brand of insect repellent and nothing… even lighting some incense insect repellent only made us choke on the smoke.
Besides the mosquitoes, there was a few rodents making a loud sound trying to fight for our trash.. even though we had it up on a branch.. they keep us up as well…
David had it best, he used an empty plastic 2L bottle as a pillow. However, it would often roll out noisily, and David's head would bang the rock....."My pillow!!" he yelled as he groped the darkness looking for it.
After a few more hours of this suffering I asked ” Are you guys asleep??” and they both answered no. I made a suggestion. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. We are so close to civilization to be out here suffering I said. How about we get our stuff and sleep in our own beds? It will be a 2 hour trip back, but our sleeping arrangements was not working out at the moment.
David was up for it.. Rita was scared of venturing out in the dark but didn't want to stay there either, so she agreed to leave.
David wanted to go first and said we must get out as fast as possible.. we should run all the way there.. I told them we should go nice and slow, we are better off going together so we don’t trip on any branches on a mad dash out of fortress hill. David had a different approach.. “we should go as fast as possible so we can be safe..” and disappears running into the pitch black night, Rita follows with a flashlight that dimly lit the trail.
I hear twigs and branches moving closer to where I was, so I start to jog and finally am able to catch up with them.
We then arrived in a section where the grass is a lot higher, reminded me of the safari shows where the big cats like to stalk their prey, David then goes running again.
They finally slowed down in the sandy area where it was impossible to go fast, and I catch up up with them. We then heard something that was slowly following us.. a few feet from us in the dense jungle.. it seemed to walk with us and stop when we wanted to hear it. The sound was not of footsteps, but slow deliberate steps on branches. Our fears became a reality when we realized that it was a big animal following us, we were being stalked by the Jaguar.
We all ran as fast as we could all the way to the car in complete darkness, with our tripods , cameras and other equipment.
We get to the car.. we made it..
We drove on the dark highway V back to safety, on the passenger side David looked at the viewfinder at the pictures and time lapses.
The next day my hand was red like I was wearing a glove because of the mosquito bites, and Rita still was shaken by our close encounters with the Jaguar, but looking at the images I had to say the ordeal of our night on fortress hill was worth it.