English Steamer 600 feet Above Sea Level
It seem impossible that a large ship nowadays could make a voyage which no other vessel had made before, but the ss England, which recently entered the Surrey Commercial Dock, has achieved that distinction. Her officers are all experienced men, who have visited most of the ports “between Iquique and Callao round by the south and east”; but their last trip was the event of their lives.
“ It was the kind of extraordinary trip” said the second engineer yesterday, “that a man never makes twice in his life. I don’t expect to see so many novelties again till I make the voyage ‘downstairs.’ You see when we were at our destination we were actually 600ft above sea level.”
The ss England, which is a splendid specimen of an up to date British tramp steamer owned by Messrs, Fred. Drughorn, Limited, of London, drawing 20ft, has steamed into the very centre of the South American Continent, and to within five miles of San Antonio Falls, near the Bolivian frontier. In fact she got within 700 miles of the Andes going west from Para.
Voyage up the Amazon
After a short stay in Para the England continued her voyage up the Amazon to Serpa. Near there she entered the tributary, which at the juncture is so vast an expanse of water that it looks like the sea. Capt Bennett found as much as 60 fathoms in the main stream. With the native pilot they commenced the experiment of taking a big vessel up the Madeira. Though usually deep and wide, that river narrowed at times till the jungle brushed the England’s and sides, and they only had 3ft of water below the keel in places where the surface of the water was broken by snags of rocks. The propeller in the shallow places disturbed the rotting vegetation on the riverbed, and then the combined heat and stench was unbearable.
“The pilots were perfection. I think they would have undertaken to navigate the ship over a field if the dew was heavy enough. They watched the eccentricities of the great logs floating down which we were always fearing would smash our propeller blades, for facts about the stream, and every dimple in the current had something to say to them.”
Navigation was ruled by the inspection of the next few feet ahead, so the vessel moved at only 4 knots, and anchored every night. In about nine days they reached Porto Velho.
Brushing the Jungle
In navigating the Madeira River, a tributary of the Amazon, the England some times had the jungle growth brushing her rigging on either side, bringing down leaves and twigs upon her decks. Yesterday she was off again for further adventures, but a “Leader” representative had the good fortune to learn something of her last astonishing voyage before she went down river.
It is generally supposed the romance of ships, so far as modern commerce is concerned, is a fake of authors, and that Captain Kettle never lived in any sense, though he makes jolly interesting reading. Well I interviewed Capt Kettle yesterday (writes a “Leader” representative) and can guarantee his absolute life-likeness, more astonishing still, and better than anything of Kettle’s, the story of Capt. W. R. Bennett of the England, reminded me of the tropical passages in that most magical of modern English narrative, Conrod’s “ Man Who Knew”.
One can understand the easy supremacy of the British merchant service while owners can count on shipmasters like the England’s skipper. The sublime confidence and complete knowledge which got a big steamer through uncharted difficulties and brought all the crew through a malarial voyage without the loss of a hand, is not easily matched.
Fight with Nature
Last year the England loaded railway material for Porto Velho. This cannot be verified by looking for that port on the map. It isn’t there. Strenuous American enterprise is only trying to get it there. When it is there it will be a town on the Upper Madeira, 1,600 miles from the Atlantic, and tapping, by railway to La Paz and thence by rail across the Andes to Antofagasta, much of the trade which now goes via Cape Horn. It is the Madeira Mamore Railway which is being built. The engineers have already laid about 30 miles of it in a jungle where they rarely see the sun. Once British enterprise attempted it, but the pioneers were conquered by floods, fevers, heat, insects, alligators, and jaguars, and other dulcet consequences of places near the line. They cut a clearing into the forest about 800 miles from Serpa at the junction of the Madeira with the Amazon. But the fever and the forest won. The invaders were driven away, what was left of them, and gross primeval luxuriance poured back in a swift green flood over the bones, the work and the stores. The wilderness grew quiet again.
But direct communications from the Atlantic to the Pacific was badly wanted, and Americans have now commenced the work again. They never let their supply of quinine fall below 1,000 lb, and have established a private cemetery for the use of the staff, to show they mean to stop any way; and they pour petroleum on the water courses to kill the mosquitoes. But as to the latter, as was said pathetically on the ship yesterday, “you might as well squirt weed killer into the forest to kill the trees. A little vessel which followed us up lost 11 of her crew through malignant malaria.”
Porto Velho is still not much more than a cutting which lets the light into the forest. Its most important building is its hospital. Every day about five of the native labourers were buried, for human life is there as yet hardly supportable, malaria and black water fever being the usual ailments. All necessities there are at famine prices, and the deck hands and firemen of the England realising their opportunities, held a regular market on board. “They went to an extreme in selling their clothes”, said an officer. “I know they made a lot of money by the prolonged ‘drunks’ they had when they got back to civilisation. But I’ve never had to work such a scandalously dressed crowd before”.
In such a vivid description of Porto Velho, Mr Crew the chief engineer, said it was the last place you would expect to see a big ship. “It is the centre of a continent and the absolute tropics. I’ve been practically everywhere, but it was a novelty to me to be kept awake in a steamer’s cabin by the roaring of jaguars in the forest out side. They were a perfect nuisance at times. No less than five orchid hunters have been lost in that neighbourhood of late, and the Indians say it is the jaguars.”
The Crew’s Amusements
' Most of the staff were seasoned men, but in spite of the heat they were like a lot of boys again with the novelties about them. Something bizarre happened, every day to keep us interested. One day an anaconda swimming along side was noosed and we got the big serpent on the deck. I’ve never been anywhere that so swarmed and crawled with all sorts of life. The heat and the moisture spawned it everywhere.
The swarms of giant and brilliant butterflies in that Porto Velho clearing were astonishing. One of our men got a box full of them and a few whacking hairy spiders and sold them for £5 at Rotterdam.
One night I thought a bird was in the cabin. It banged about and kept up a constant whistling. Then I found it was a beetle half as big as a shoe brush.
The forest our skipper forbade us to go into, as a matter of safety. It was dark as the gloom in a cathedral beneath the trees. So we tried fishing from the deck. We caught nothing till one of the shore staff showed us the the right method. He fired a dynamite cartridge and such a collection of prehistoric monsters as came up I never saw. One big brute was new even to the Indians. It was cased in armour and from each armour plate projected a big spike. It was the wonder of the camp till it went bad, and even then it was wonderful.
The England stayed there a month and then returned to Europe. She leaves again today, and shortly is proceeding again to the South American forest.
The article below on navigation of the Amazon and the construction of the Madeira-Mamore railway also mentions the England -