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Mountain Travelling In South America

( Originally Published 1851 )



Travellers in Europe, even those who may have, passed over the Pyrenees or Alps, can have but a faint idea of the labor and danger of crossing the Andes, that immense mountain-chain by which the continent of South America is intersected, from its southern to its most northern extremity, dividing Peru and Chile, on the western Coasts, from Colombia and Brazil, on the eastern. Many of the Passes are upwards of 18,000 feet, or nearly four miles, in perpendicular height, above the level of the sea. In some parts men, who have made it their sole occupation, carry the passenger up the most steep and dangerous paths, in a kind of chair fastened to their backs; but in general, the journey is made by travellers mounted on that patient and sure-footed animal, the mule.

The above engraving is from a print in the Travels of Colonel Hamilton, who, in 1823, visited South America, as chief commissioner from the king of Great Britain to the republic of Colombia. It represents a perilous situation common to the traveller in these terrific regions, when his safety depends wholly on the sure-footedness of his mule. In the Pass along which the traveller is proceeding, the road is separated by a chasm, several feet in width, which forms the mouth of a yawning gulf, some hundreds of feet in depth. The sagacity snown by the mules in leaping these dangerous openings, which are of common occurrence, is a subject of admiration among all travellers who have visited these regions. In some places, also, it is necessary to make the descent of immense heights; an undertaking of great danger, from their excessive steepness, and the slippery state of the mule-track. On these occasions, the mules,"says Colonel Hamilton, " take every precaution, and seem to know the danger they incur; for they inspect the road narrowly before them, and then place their fore-legs close together, and slide down on their hams in a manner which scarcely any one but an eye-witness would credit."

Major Head, in his Rough Notes of a Journey across the Pampas, gives the following animated picture of the preparation of a train of baggage-mules for a journey over these dangerous Passes; and of some of the casualties common to these perilous journeys. " Anxious to be off" says he, " I ordered the mules to be saddled; as soon as this was done, the baggage-mules were ordered to be got ready. Every article of bagage was brought into the yard, and divided into six parcels (the number of the baggage-mules), quite different from each other in weight and bulk, but adapted to the strength of the different mules.

" The operation of loading then began. The peon (the driver) first caught a great brown mule with his lasso, and then put a poncho (a large shawl in which the natives dress) over his eyes, and tied it under his throat, leaving the animal's nose and mouth uncovered. The mule stood still, while the captain and peon first put on the large straw pack-saddle, which they girthed to him, in such a manner that nothing could move it. The articles were then placed, one by one, on each side, and bound together, with a force and ingenuity against which it was hopeless for the mule to contend.

" I could not help pitying the poor animal, on seeing him thus prepared for carrying a heavy load, such a wearisome distance, and over such lofty mountains as the Andes; yet, it is truly amusing to watch the nose and mouth of a mule when his eyes are blinded, and his ears pressed down upon his neck in the poncho. Every movement which is made about him, either to arrange his saddle or his load, is resented by a curl of his nose and upper-lip, which, in ten thousand wrinkles, is expressive beyond description, of every thing that is vicious and spiteful: he appears to be planning all sorts of petty schemes of revenge, and as soon as the poncho is taken off, generally begins to put some of them into execution, either by running, with his load, against some other mule, or by kicking him. However, as soon as he finds that his burden is not to be got rid of, he dismisses, or perhaps conceals his resentment, and instantly assumes a look of patience and resignation."

" As I was looking up at the region of snow, and as my mule was scrambling along the steep side of the rock, the captain overtook me, and asked me if I chose to come on, as he was going to look at a very dangerous part of the road, which we were approaching, to see if it was passable, before the mules came to it. In half an hour we arrived at the spot. It is the worst Pass in the whole road over the Cordillera Mountains. The mountain above appears almost perpendicular, and in one continued slope down to a rapid torrent that is raging underneath. The surface is covered with loose earth and stones, which have been brought down by the waters. The path goes across this slope, and is very bad for about seventy yards, being only a few inches broad; but the point of danger is a spot, where the water, which comes down from the top of the mountain, either washes the path away, or covers it over with loose stones. In some places, the rock almost touches one's shoulder, while the precipice is immediately under the opposite foot, and high above head, are a number of loose stones, which appear as if the slightest touch would send them rolling into the torrent beneath, which is foaming and running with great violence As soon as we had crossed the Pass, which is only seventy yards long, the captain told me it was a very bad place for baggage-mules; that four hundred had been lost there; and that we should probably also lose one. He said, that he could get down to the water at a place about a hundred yards off, and wait there with his lasso, to catch any mule that might fall into the torrent; and he re-quested me to lead on his mule. However, I resolved to see the tumble, if there was to be one, so the captain took away my mule and his own, and while I stood on a projecting rock, at the end of the Pass, he scrambled down on foot, till he got to the level of the water.

" The drove of mules now came in sight, one following another: a few were carrying no burdens, but the rest were either mounted or heavily laden. As soon as the leading mule came to the commencement of the Pass, he stopped, evidently unwilling to proceed, and of course all the rest stopped also.

" He was the finest mule we had, and, on that account, had twice as much to carry as any of the others. With his nose to the ground, literally smelling his way, he walked gently on, often changing the position of his feet, if he found the ground would not bear, until he came to the bad part of the Pass, when he stopped; but the peons threw stones at him, and he continued his path in safety, and several others followed.

" At length, a young mule, carrying a portmanteau, with two large sacks of provisions, and many other things, in passing the bad point, struck his load against the rock, which knocked his two hind-legs over the precipice, and the loose stones immediately began to roll away from under them: how-ever, his fore-legs were still upon the narrow path: he had no room to put his head there, but he placed his nose on the path to his left, and appeared to hold on by his mouth: his perilous fate was soon decided by a loose mule, who, in walking along after him, knocked his comrade's nose off the path, destroyed his balance, and head over heels the poor creature instantly commenced a fall, which was really quite terrific. With all his baggage firmly lashed to him, he rolled down the steep slope, until he came to the part which was perpendicular, and then he seemed to bound off, and turning round in the air, fell into the deep torrent, on his back, and upon his baggage, and instantly disappeared." To any other animal but a mule, this fall must have been fatal; he was carried down by the stream in spite of all his efforts, and, turning the corner of a rock, was given up for lost. At length," the author continues, " I saw at a distance a solitary mule walking towards us! We instantly perceived that he was the Phaėton whose fall we had just witnessed, and in a few moments he came up to us to join his comrades He was, of course, dripping wet, his eye looked dull, and his whole countenance was dejected, but none of his bones were broken: he was very little cut, and the bulletin of his health was altogether incredible."

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