The Treasure Hunter
"We Spaniards suffer from a disease which can be cured only with gold."
- Chapter 9 - Coaque, Revisited
By mid-February I was back in London, trying to pull together plans for a major expedition to Coaque. Help came from quite an unexpected source.
Because we had broken up, Jane had tried to find some activity to occupy her time. That activity turned out to be a series of magazine articles on our Coaque venture. The magazine she selected was a national weekly publication called Woman's Own, which has one of the largest readerships in England.
Because we had been so close, and because it was difficult to make a clean break, especially since we had various joint holdings in property, I decided to help her pull the material together for her story- a woman's look at treasure hunting. As research developed and editorial meetings progressed, someone suggested I use the press as a means for assembling an expedition. It seemed like a good idea.
The Evening Standard is one of the national daily newspapers which enjoys the widest distribution throughout England. At my first meeting with the Standard's editors, we agreed that the story should be printed. It ran as a five-part series between March 5 and 10. In the last installment, the final two paragraphs read as follows:
"In retrospect, it had been a hard but most rewarding experience. We had discovered the sites of three important Inca cities, more than 15 mounds, which could be burial mounds, and an untold number of untouched tombs. There will be easily enough to occupy us for the five months starting next June. But most satisfying is the knowledge that we discovered an area which may prove to be one of the most important for archaeological study in South America."
In a box under the concluding article, the editor ran a short note to the reader. I didn’t particularly approve of the headline wording, but the editor thought it would be good for a laugh: "WANTED: GIRLS IN BOOTS." It mentioned that I would take a limited number of interested people on my next trip to Coaque.
Four hundred people were interested.
As a result of the addendum to the article, Jane became angry as hell at me for trying to get girls for my next trip to our sites. Remembering the difficulties with Jane on the previous trip, and realizing that our relationship had deteriorated even further, I told her I could not consider taking her with me on the new expedition. It was going to be difficult enough supervising the care and feeding of twenty novices without the distractions that our conflicts would cause. Perhaps I even hoped that a few weeks’ separation might serve to mend the breaches in our relationship, but this was not to be.
Finally, I sent out a form letter to all the four hundred people who had inquired about the expedition. In this letter, I explained that I was planning to select a group of twenty young women and men and stated that the price would be £550, or about $1,400. The cost factor eliminated many of the four hundred, and I rejected many of the applicants who sent in unstable replies to my form letter. (Four girls addressed me as "Dear Tarzan," and said they were prepared to go any place with me and do anything. Some of the men requested photos and addresses of the girls who would be going along.)
Out of the remaining letters, I picked eighty men and women. I sent out a second, more detailed form letter requesting a great deal of specific, individual information.
I finally interviewed fifty people. Jane had at last accepted the idea that she would not be going on the second expedition and helped conduct the interviews. She was able to answer many of the peculiar questions asked by the girls.
I was well aware of the enormity of the task I was undertaking. We were facing a rough trip into a remote and unexplored area, and for the safety of the whole group I wanted people who would follow every instruction. I deliberately picked young men and women with no prior experience in the jungle or even outdoor living. I felt they would be the most receptive to discipline.
The one exception was 56-year-old Bill Roberts, the only applicant had who experienced jungle living and a man who struck me as steady, calm, and capable. I was sure he would be a great asset to the project.
Two others I picked were not really young. Thirty-nine-year-old Don Mountford had been one of the competitors in a recent transatlantic air race. ("I read that story," he said, "and thought I’d be wasting my time applying, not being a girl in boots. But I wrote anyway.") Peter Johnson owns a small manufacturing company that specializes in electronic eavesdropping and surveillance equipment. One of his products is a powerful light-image magnifier called the "Star Bright," with which one can see up to a hundred and fifty yards away in the pitch black of night. I knew this would be a useful instrument for the military, and I had just read that the government of Ecuador had been overturned by a military junta, which would mean a new man in the Ministry of Culture. My friend Doctor Gomez, who had so cheerfully taken my $500 and who had failed to send the promised permit, could no longer help, but if I could ingratiate myself with the army, maybe I wouldn’t have to worry about the new Minister of Culture. Peter was amenable to making his equipment available and promised to help me become the Ecuadorian army’s best friend.
During the final interviews I told all applicants there must be no hanky-panky between the sexes. I knew that twenty in experienced men and women in the jungle could furnish enough problems without conflicts arising between members of the opposite sex. I hoped my warning would keep things low-key as long as possible. Every one of the men unquestioningly agreed that relationships would be platonic, and only in Peter Johnson’s eye did I detect a gleam. I made him my deputy expedition commander, hoping this mantle of responsibility would cause him to set a good example for the others.
Without question and with minimal investigation, all twenty of my co-adventurers paid over £220 to me upon committing themselves to the trip. I am authorized to place an F.R.G.S. after my name, as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. The families of a few of the applicants did call the society, and there was a bit of stickiness at first, since the society’s Board of Governors wondered whether I was using the society to promote a profitable venture for myself, but happily that confusion was quickly cleared up.
In stating the terms of our agreement, I stipulated that all members of the expedition would share equally in whatever the group found. I planned to stay on at Coaque for at least another two or three months after my twenty stalwarts returned to England, but the main task was to locate, confirm, and clear the burial ground I was seeking.
As preparations were moving along, I received a totally unexpected communication from as unlikely a source as I could imagine. An old boyhood friend, Bill Davidson, sent me a telegram from Galveston, Texas, informing me that he was on the beach, had no prospects, and if I had anything at all he could do, please to include him in.
I had no knowledge of what Bill had been up to or what sort of man he had developed into, but I sent him a telegram telling him to meet me in Miami three weeks hence if he wanted to go on a trip to Ecuador with me. I came to regret sending him that telegram.
At the Canton Towers Hotel I gave a party for all my explorers and their families. At the party they paid me the balance of the money for the trip, and I handed out the air tickets, London to Quito and return. Altogether it was a pleasant party.
The Evening Standard printed a story about our imminent departure, and Jane again began to raise objections about not being included in the trip. But my finger was still painful and misshapen where she had broken it with the camp chair, and I was adamant. I was going to have a tough enough time just keeping the group alive and well.
Two weeks before the group was due to arrive at Quito, I hopped a plane for Jamaica to meet with Robin. I had tried to convince him by phone to come along to Coaque, and I thought maybe my physical presence would persuade him. But he was getting ready to finish up his latest book, and he wanted to be in Miami for the national nominating conventions. I packed up and met with Bill Davidson. He was waiting for me at the "low-profile" motel we had picked to avoid attracting attention. (I was still on guard against the Batres brothers and their local man.)
We bought camping equipment and two guns for Bill— a .270 rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun. My guns were in storage in Quito. We hopped a flight from Miami to Quito and checked into the Hotel Intercontinental Quito. I went alone to the Ministry of Culture to confirm the approval for my expedition. I had not been mailed the promised permission, but I knew that in Latin American bureaucracies mañana is a firm way of life and I hoped that the letter had merely been pigeonholed.
I was ushered into the minister’s office to meet the man who had replaced Doctor Gomez. I was dismayed by the cold reception given to me by the new minister, Dr. José Samaniego. Before I could utter more than a few words of introduction, he said, "I have no interest in any deal you made with my predecessor, Señor Jennings." Pulling a file from the same desk drawer that had received my $500 contribution, he slid the folder toward me. It contained the articles from the London Evening Standard five months before. I felt a sinking sensation in my stomach. The Ecuadorian Embassy in London had probably sent the articles on to Quito.
Doctor Samaniego fixed me with a stern stare. "If these articles are to be taken seriously, you have illegally excavated and smuggled gold artifacts out of Ecuador." He paused, drumming long, bony fingers on his desk. "Is there any reason why I shouldn’t have you arrested, Señor Jennings?"
"Doctor Samaniego," I began, thinking desperately, "surely you must know that newspapers exaggerate." I managed a confidential smile. "Some English papers will print anything to expand their circulation. That’s what happened in this case. The whole series was very distressing to me. Except for the fact that I did discover Coaque, the rest of the story is pure fiction. Not a shred of truth. A pack of li—"
Samaniego broke in on my babbling. "Fiction or not, this kind of report will encourage any number of treasure hunters to go into the area."
This is the classic problem in the comparatively poorer countries of Central and South America: They don’t want outsiders digging, but they don’t have the money to do the digging themselves. Their biggest fear is that a mass invasion will descend on a particular spot, because they don’t have the facilities to protect the wilderness areas from plunder. Well, to hell with it; I have never gone sneaking into a site which was being given proper, professional attention by archaeologists, but I had by-God found Coaque with no help from scholars and I was by-God going to dig it. If I could just get past this arrogant bureaucrat.
With all the theatrical sincerity I could muster, I said, "The purpose of my giving the information to the paper was to encourage archaeologists to study the rich heritage of your country. Do you feel that a secret report of my discoveries should have been circulated only to archaeologists? Had it not been for my years of research and the dangerous, costly expedition I made last year, Ecuador’s Ministry of Culture wouldn’t even know of the existence of Coaque. Are only archaeologists to be given credit for discoveries?"
"Señor Jennings," he said with finality, "I am not going to argue with you. You are not permitted to return to Coaque."
Well, I thought to myself, I have only one card left to play. Now’s the time to throw it on the table.
"Doctor Samaniego," I said, "it should make interesting reading in the world press that you have refused entry into Ecuador to twenty innocent British subjects. Especially since this may be the largest group of British tourists ever to come to this country."
"I said nothing of refusing entry," he said quickly.
"You mean you will refuse them permission to travel freely within your country?" I pressed. "Is that it?"
"If you cable your group that they are not permitted to go to Coaque then they will not come," Doctor Samaniego said hopefully.
"It’s too late to stop them, and I wouldn’t do it anyway," I said, now feeling more in control of the situation.
"I see." He stared down at his desk, musing on the problem. "Come back in the morning and I will see what is to be done about you and this group."
"Fine," I said, standing up. "Hasta mañana."
I left the ministry and proceeded directly to the headquarters of the Ecuadorian army. In my briefcase, I had new brochures on the equipment Peter Johnson manufactures.
Army HQ was a large concrete block building, and I walked in past guards who were somewhat less sloppily attired than most soldiers of Latin American armies. After explaining the wares I wanted to demonstrate, I was shown into the office of the head procurement officer of the Army of Ecuador, a Colonel Lopez.
Colonel Lopez was intensely interested in "Star Bright" and the electronic surveillance equipment. His eyes gleamed at the thought of being able to bug the office of government officials and other army officers. I left Peter Johnson’s brochures with the colonel and said that I was having the equipment sent over to Quito from London. I would be pleased to demonstrate it to the army and then, if they liked our devices, we could discuss a sale.
I went back to the hotel, where I found Bill Davidson at the bar fast approaching inebriation. I left him there with the warning that he had better be in good shape for the reconnaissance trip we would be making to Coaque in two days.
That evening, I had dinner with Anita, my old friend at the bank. She was friendly, but my offer of a nightcap in my room was declined. That affair was over.
The following morning when I returned to the Ministry of Culture, Doctor Samaniego seemed to be just a fraction less hostile. The meeting was short and to the point. The twenty Britons of my group would be allowed to make an exploratory expedition to Coaque; however, we would be accompanied by a military escort to insure that no excavations were made and no artifacts removed. Well, this was better than nothing, I thought. Maybe we would be able to buy off the soldiers, especially if the military was pleased with Peter Johnson’s equipment.
After taking leave of Doctor Samaniego, I went directly to Army HQ, where I found Colonel Lopez waiting for me with a General Rodrigues, Army Chief of Operations. He, too, was intensely interested in both the electronic surveillance equipment and the light magnification unit. I told the two officers that my group would be arriving from London in ten days, and that they would have the equipment with them. I had one of Peter Johnson’s bugging units with me, so I gave the general and colonel a demonstration of how it worked.
On the way in to see them, I had planted the battery-powered transmitter—small enough to be concealed in the palm of my hand—under a pile of papers on a table in a reception area. Now I turned on my FM radio receiver to its highest frequency, and we were hearing the chatter of the clerks in the outer office. Slow smiles spread across their faces.
Before I left Army HQ I explained that I was taking my group to Coaque and would appreciate any assistance and co-operation that the military in Bahia de Caráquez could offer us. The general sent a teletype message to the commander of the Manabi Province, ordering that I be provided with any assistance necessary, even to the extent of loaning me any weapons I might need. The meeting had been cordial, and I headed back to the hotel with a feeling of confidence quite different from the day before. I spent the next day shopping for supplies, then poured Bill onto a flight from Quito to Bahia. His drinking was beginning to worry me.
In Bahia de Caráquez, I rented a Land Rover and searched for a bus I could charter to transport my expedition from Bahia to Coaque. The only vehicle I could find was an old chassis with seats mounted on an open wooden platform, but it would move twenty people.
With that problem solved, Bill and I got into the Land Rover and headed for Coaque. The rainy season should have ended in June, but rains were still falling in August that year, and the car sloshed through muddy trails with wheels spinning. As we splashed through precarious fordings of swollen rivers, I dreaded the thought of moving my group along that route in the rickety, open bus.
At Coaque the Indians greeted me warmly. I employed a young man called Atahualpa as boss-Indian and had him hire a crew to build a large camp. (I asked him about his name, but he was completely ignorant of its origin—or of anything about the Incas, for that matter.) Within two days they had constructed a comfortable camp with two large huts, one for the men and the other for the women. A dining facility was set up between the huts, a primitive shower was built nearby, and Camp Number One was ready for occupation. I left Bill to supervise final preparations and to guard the liquor locker, then headed back to Quito to await the group from London and to gather up the final supplies we would need. I chartered a DC-3 to fly my group to Bahia, but the difficulties of moving a large group into a wilderness were beginning to cause me concern.
I checked in with the Ministry of Culture. The minister was "not available," and I was kept standing around while an officious clerk shuffled papers. While standing there being rudely inspected over the rims of eyeglasses, I suddenly decided to try a new approach. I told the clerk my group would be gathering at the airport at nine in the morning. I had, in fact, arranged for the flight to take off at eight, and I hoped it would take the Latin bureaucrats a while to catch up with us.
Next I visited my friend, Colonel Lopez, and told him that the electronics equipment would be in that afternoon. The colonel assigned a captain to go with me to the airport in order to expedite customs clearance, which was just what I’d been hoping for. In addition to the military gear, the group was also bringing along several metal detectors, and now I’d have no problem getting them in.
As the plane taxied into the parking area, I felt great. Then I watched the passengers descend the stairs, and I began to feel uneasy. I counted eleven girls and nine men. There were supposed to be ten and ten. I recognized Peter Johnson’s secretary, but I couldn’t spot Peter.
Suspecting trouble, I ran across the ramp toward the group. After hurrying through greetings and handshakes, I cornered Peter’s secretary, Helen.
"What happened to Peter?" I asked.
"He couldn’t make it at the last minute," she replied cheerfully. "He sent me in his place. His plant manager quit and he has to run it himself until he can get another manager."
"What about the electronic equipment?"
"He wasn’t able to get it together," Helen said. "He was just too busy."
"Oh, for Christ’s sake," I said, looking over at the waiting captain. "Didn’t he know I was counting on the stuff?"
"I’m sorry. All I know is Peter couldn’t come, and rather than waste the money he let me have the holiday."
"Now look, Helen," I whispered urgently, "we’re in big trouble if the army thinks I’ve let them down on Star Bright and the other stuff. So I want you to tell the captain that you are Peter’s secretary and that there was a factory problem. Tell him any by-God thing, but make it good, or there’ll be no trip to Coaque. Try to convince him the devices are coming on the next plane."
"I’ll do my best."
Fortunately, Helen did a superlative job on the young captain. Yes, of course, everything was on the way. It would appear any day now. The captain looked at me dubiously. I smiled reassuringly.
"Let’s get these people and their things through customs, Captain" I suggested. "Then I’ll find out exactly when your shipment is coming through."
With the captain’s help we cleared the metal detectors through customs, then went to the hotel and checked the group in. They were so tired they went immediately to bed.
I took the captain up to my room and offered him a drink. He stiffly declined. "O.K., Captain. Until our electronic gear arrives, take this as a gift for the President." I handed him the bugging device which had so fascinated his superiors, and he took it gratefully. At least he would not be returning empty-handed. "We’ll have the devices shipped directly to Colonel Lopez," I said as he was leaving.
I called Doctor Samaniego to confirm that our flight would take off promptly at nine the next morning. The military escort would be there, he assured me. Next, I rang Helen’s room and told her to cable Peter Johnson to send the equipment immediately to the chief of army procurement in Quito. Then I collapsed.
By eight the following morning, the entire group was aboard the charter plane and the engines were warming up. The plane landed us at Bahia de Caráquez two hours later. I held my breath, but there were no angry officials waiting. Evidently confusion still reigned at Quito.
We transferred to the Land Rover and bus and started up the coast. The rains had finally stopped, so the river crossings were not as bad as I had feared. We reached the mouth of the Coaque River by late afternoon, and pitched camp in a clear area at the river’s edge.
The next morning we began the most arduous part of the trip, the exhausting trek up to Camp Number One. The tortuous trail traveled through head-high grass crawling with ticks, and 90 degree heat scorched down as we climbed up to our camp directly on the equator. There was joking, but no whining, and the group, sweaty and bug-bitten, was still cheerful as they flopped onto the benches on either side of the long dining table.
I announced we would have a briefing before dinner that evening, then gave them the afternoon off to settle in their quarters. I was fascinated by the speed and casual attitude with which the group began to establish their own social structure and living conditions. Their personalities and backgrounds were diverse, and their ages ranged from sixteen to fifty-six, but within hours, friendships formed and the huts were transformed into homes.
The first item I covered in my briefing concerned the military. I knew that the people in the Ministry of Culture would be upset by my trick, and I was sure they would try to dispatch the army to supervise our expedition. I also felt it was very unlikely that the soldiers would find us in the jungle. The Evening Standard newspaper articles were more concerned with adventure than factual details, so they would offer little in the way of guidance for any searchers. I was also playing a strong hunch: The Ecuadorian government would be reluctant to toss twenty British subjects into jail.
But, guarding against that possibility, I told the group: "If the military should descend on us, our Indians will give us an advance warning. Be sure that all artifacts are hidden and all digs are concealed. There is nothing they can do to us if they cannot prove that we have been digging up pottery or artifacts from grave sites." I paused to let that concept settle into their minds. Then I said, "Speaking of artifacts, may I remind you of the rules of the last and only other visitor to this city. Five hundred years ago, Francisco Pizarro ordered that any of his men caught taking gold or emeralds for himself would be executed. History records that none of his men ever tried to cheat the King’s treasury." There was a nervous titter from the girls, but the point was made.
I outlined camp procedure: Washing of dirty clothes would be done by two Indian women whom I had hired for that purpose; morning and midday meals would be prepared by two Indian cooks; the evening meal would be produced by the group on a rotating basis. I would select the dig sites, then the group would divide up into small cadres to work with the Indian laborers. Patience was to be the paramount guideline— I did not want a priceless artifact damaged or destroyed by impatient hands or shovels. I demonstrated how to use a small garden trowel to work into the soil once the telltale grey dirt of a grave is spotted. Then I demonstrated how a soft paint brush is used to remove dirt from pottery or metal. I capped the meeting off with a talk on how to sift through grave debris and also how to squat and kneel in a dig to avoid cramps or backaches. After dinner they were reluctant to leave the table, so we had an impromptu party around a jug of the locally made white rum. Travel fatigue finally caught up with the group and they began slipping off to their hammocks. By nine o’clock, the camp was asleep.
The next morning began a day of learning how to survive in the jungle and avoid the many hazards of insects, snakes, and poisonous plant life. The use of a machete is essential in the jungle—it not only clears your path of clinging vegetation, but it is the quickest and most accurate weapon against snakes. The weight of a machete, however, can cause serious injury to the novice who misjudges the follow-through and swings the blade into his leg or foot.
I ordered the group to take malaria preventative pills each morning and drink only chlorinated or boiled water. Cuts, abrasions, or illnesses of any kind were to be reported to me immediately. A simple untreated scratch can quickly result in a major medical problem in the jungle. Except for trips to the toilet, the members of the group promised not to walk alone in the jungle.
That afternoon I conducted machete practice. Pretty soon my charges were cutting great swaths through the jungle.One girl was a former fencing enthusiast, and she soon became the women’s machete-swinging champion. I gained confidence in my people.
I was particularly worried about poisonous snakes, so I spent some time teaching the group how to apply a tourniquet to stop the poison from getting to the central nervous system. As always, I had a supply of anti-venom serum immediately at hand.
By the following morning we were ready to start the search for the boundaries and burial grounds of the ancient city. I assigned four Indians to watch for army search parties, then divided my group into four sections and sent them out to test holes along the ridge. Each of the test holes dug by the four parties was noted on a large map that Bill Roberts had made of the ridge.
After three days of digging into the ruins, I could see that the old city was much larger than I originally suspected. Evidence from the test holes, in the form of broken pottery, revealed that Coaque had been at least three-fourths of a mile long.
The work pattern was soon established. Each morning, the gold searchers doused their clothing with kerosene to help keep off the mosquitos, sand flies, horseticks, ants, and hornets. They returned each evening muddy and tired, but uncomplaining and still filled with enthusiasm. The pile of potsherds collected in the digging began to grow at one end of the communal dining-room table. In the evening, after showering and putting on clean dry clothing, we sat down to dine on venison, wild boar, or wild turkey—whatever I, as the great white hunter, could shoot that day. Afterward, there was the white rum and speculation about what would be recovered the following day.
Artifacts from Lower Coaque
It soon became clear that Bill Roberts, senior mentor of the group and Indian Army Veteran, was "the man who had everything." We called him the walking general store. If you wanted to hang something up, he had a ball of string. He had candles, pencils, rubbers, elastic bands, polyethylene bags. He had lighter fuel and flints, which even I had forgotten. He had safety pins, a compass and thermometer, torch batteries, flashcubes, nail-scissors, envelopes, cellophane tape, tissues, an inflatable ball, a chess set, needle and thread, and spare boot laces. "I had to pay a lot of excess baggage on the way out here," Bill reminded the constant succession of borrowers who came to him for their needs.
Though the women were young, attractive, and many were openly receptive to the attentions of the men, I was surprised to see that the men showed little response. It became an almost sexless group in which brother-sister type relationships developed between the sexes, though there were indications that this was not to the liking of all of the women. The open-sided huts afforded no privacy for dressing or undressing, and often the girls lingered over the undressing process, with provocative looks toward the men’s quarters. I suspected that night forays between the huts would be encouraged by the girls.
On the fourth day we found our first grave, and by using the metal detector we recovered the first gold of the expedition. It was only a small gold nose ring, but the group was as thrilled as if it had been a jewel-studded crown. The grave had been found only one hundred yards from the campsite on the side of the ridge below the leveled top. A second hole dug nearby confirmed that we had found a burial ground, for here, too were the remains of a skeleton surrounded by the objects meant to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. There were beautifully painted pots and pottery figures in the second grave, but no gold or emeralds.
Francisco Pizarro had reported that the Indians in Coaque had possessed emeralds, and that he and his men had taken many of the precious green stones from them. We had found Coaque’s burial ground and now were eager to prove Pizarro’s report. If the Indians had emeralds in 1530, then the graves of their ancestors should contain them as well.
I assigned half of the group to continue exploration for another burial ground while the other half went to work excavating the nearby site. The men of the group worked with the Indian laborers, using picks and shovels in opening the graves, while the women carefully sifted through the remains within. I was amazed at the patience of the women as they sat almost unmoving, hour after hour, carefully examining and sifting the contents. With the help of the electronic equipment, several more gold objects were now added to our trove: a sun disk, a small death mask, beads, and some little animal figures.
Then, on the sixth day, we recovered the first emerald. It had been fashioned into a round bead by an Indian hundreds of years before, but it was a beautiful stone equal in quality to any of the emeralds I had seen from the Muzo Mines in Colombia. The fact that it had been pierced prevented it from being a gem, but I felt that its interest as an antiquity might make it equally valuable. Moreover, I was elated to have verified Pizarro’s report.
One day, while excavations continued in the burial ground, I worked with the metal detectors along the old road that runs through the town. I found several copper bells, two copper axe heads, and a gold plaque, but my greatest prize was the recovery of two objects, which proved, beyond doubt, that Pizarro had visited the site 443 years before. They were two parts of an iron horse bridle, and I knew the bridle could have only come from one of the twenty-six horses Pizarro had with him during his conquest of the Inca Empire. No white man had been on the hill since that time. Later, London experts confirmed that I had, indeed, unearthed a sixteenth-century Spanish bridle.
That same day, my joy of discovery was dampened by the responsibility of command: dysentery appeared. I needed about five minutes to realize that my old friend, Bill Davidson, had failed me miserably. He had been drinking too much and working too little during the entire venture, and now it was evident that he had even neglected the one important chore I had entrusted to him—he had forgotten to chlorinate the water. So within twenty-four hours, I was saddled with fourteen very sick people in the middle of a jungle. Then, without warning, the rains returned. They were not the heavy, torrential rains of winter, but the camp site turned to mud, hammocks became wet, blankets were sopping, and equipment was damaged. The rain persisted, and soon the trail up from the local village became so slippery that our pack burros could hardly make it uphill with the water for the shower tanks. But despite these trials, the group held together, and after a few days of medication and rest, most were back at work in the cold drizzle.
An interesting but annoying distraction now entered camp life—the mica monkeys. The tiny animals became braver and braver each night, leaping onto the hut roofs, disrupting games of chess, even entering the women’s hut and rummaging around. They were amusing and impish little creatures, but I had to remind everyone that they could give a painful and possibly dangerous bite.
The horse-riding novices learned the hard way on scrawny local nags with harnesses held together by bits of old string. One of the girls was flattered to be offered a prize horse belonging to the señora, the local landowner, on the condition that the horse not be used for baggage; but the horse turned out to be terrified of snakes and would shy at any bit of twig in the grass, frequently throwing its rider to the ground.
Despite all the problems, everyone enjoyed the evenings. "You can forget everything," one of the young men used to say, "just sitting quietly and listening to the sounds of birds and crickets and monkeys." Some would wander off and tape sounds, others would watch the hummingbirds hovering, and a few would sit around the hurricane lamp, scribbling in diaries and notebooks or listening to Bill Davidson’s guitar.
The swirling mist of the ever-present clouds enveloping the hill created an unhealthy climate, and consequently, more of the group took to their hammocks. Some of the group members were covered with insect bites and were obviously allergic to the bite of the many ticks in the jungle; others had high fevers with chest pains and bad coughs. They responded to treatment with antihistamines and antibiotics and were digging again in a few days, but they were soon replaced in the hammocks by others who had fallen ill. I spent most of my time on horseback, hunting in the early morning, then visiting the exploration parties and the excavating group, and then ministering to the ill in camp. It was maddening to look through the mist down to the white sand beach eight hundred feet below, where the sun shone every day.
At the end of two weeks, we had opened twenty-one graves and had recovered eighteen emeralds and eleven gold objects. We weren’t much richer, but we had accomplished my primary objective of locating a massive burial ground. The one we were excavating probably contained several thousand graves.
The thought of leaving such a lucrative area was discouraging but I had to consider the health and the safety of the group, many of whom were now ill with a variety of complaints. There was also the matter of Bill Davidson: His negligence in not chlorinating the water was still the reason for some of the sickness, and his drinking was becoming a constant irritant.
Actually, moving down to the sunny beach for the last two weeks wouldn’t interfere with my overall plan. We would all have a pleasant rest, and after I had seen the group safely off from Quito to England I would return to Coaque. Then I would do a real job on the burial ground. I figured that with the metal detectors and Indian diggers, I could pick up several pieces of gold every day, and if I stayed in Coaque another six weeks, I could take more gold than I could smuggle out of Ecuador. In fact, my best course would be to acquire another Land Rover and drive out of Ecuador as I had a few years before.
My head Indian worker, Atahualpa, had brought me several highly polished potsherds which he said had washed out of the north bank of the Coaque River where it entered the sea. It turned out that there were human bones washing out with the pottery, so I felt there must be another burial ground near the river. The Indians also said that they found green stones in the river at certain times of the year, and I remembered I Herrera’s history, which I had read in the Archivo General de Indies at Seville, and his description of a gigantic emerald. It would make sense to explore the area around the river’s mouth.
But first there was the matter of moving to attend to. I gave my Indians orders to build another camp for us two hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean: behind the magnificent white sand beach where the river empties into the sea.
Before we all moved to the lower camp, I had a quiet chat with Bill Davidson. We were still friends, but both of us realized that it would be the best thing for everyone if he absented himself on moving day. So, as we packed up and started down to the beach, Bill cheerfully said goodbye to the group, telling them he was going to do some deep-sea fishing down south. At the bottom of the hill, he made for the Indian village, where the vehicle which delivered supplies to us from BahIa de Caráquez would return him to civilization.
The difference in weather down at the beach was incredible, considering that we had moved no more than three miles. Here the sun was shining brightly and the cooling breeze blowing across the ocean created a near-perfect climate.
Again, I had specified two buildings, assuming that the group was content with that arrangement. But before we’d moved in, two of the girls approached me with the suggestion that we drop the sex segregation. "Most of the girls would like to sleep in the same hut as the men," one of them said. "Do you have any objection if a vote is taken?"
I had no objection, but I did insist that it be unanimous. "If any member of the group objects to this arrangement, then consider it vetoed," I said.
An hour later, when everyone was assembled, I put the question to them, and much to my surprise there was not one objection to the plan. Within minutes the men and women were dispersed throughout the two huts. Since there were more women than men, many of the men slept with a woman in hammocks on either side. My own hammock, covered over with a plastic sheet, was strung up thirty yards from the camp, since I prefer sleeping in the open.
On our first evening in the lower camp, one of the men spoke these words into his portable tape recorder as he sat on a log alone, looking out over the vast Pacific Ocean:
"Today we have moved camp from the jungle to the Pacific Coast, where the River Coaque spills out into the sea. Well, we’ve got the most perfect camping site you could imagine—great rollers coming from the Pacific. The sun is just going into dusk. We’ve had some pretty miserable weather up in the jungle, raining, sticky, rather English weather really. Here it’s different. The temperature is up to ninety degrees, but the cool stream of the Humboldt Current helps to cool it down, so it’s cool enough to sleep under blankets at night. There’s a lot of driftwood on the shore…there are half a dozen cows strolling here, though God knows what they eat."
In the healthy, sunny environment, the insect bites healed quickly and the fevers disappeared. Soon everyone was back to work with enthusiasm. Examination of the riverbank confirmed that here indeed was another burial site. Little digging was required before we began to encounter whole pots and pottery figures. I was somewhat disappointed in the quality of the artifacts, since they did not seem to represent a culture as sophisticated as that of the inhabitants of Coaque. I couldn’t help looking up to the cloud-covered hill we had left and planning my return for more of the riches I knew were there.
Now that we were down at sea level and close to the Indian village, the group had the opportunity to get to know the natives and study their living style.
"These are marvelous people," one member said into his tape recorder. "They live on next to nothing, but they’re very happy, smiling, their children well looked after, and always dressed in their best to come to camp. They seemed thrilled to have us there. We took lots of photographs of them, toothily smiling five-foot-nothing men in straw hats and checked shirts, delighted to be in the picture: Pacifico, Segundo, Doloroso, Banjo, super names."
The natives spoke no English, but one girl in our party was a graduate in Spanish of Trinity, Dublin and she was constantly called upon to translate. She reported that a very classy Spanish is spoken there. "I do try to talk to the women," she told me, "but really, there is very little we can say to each other. None of them has ever had any job or contact outside her home."
Among the natives were two redheaded children with pale, freckled faces, quite possibly further proof of Pizarro’s stay at Coaque. There had been parties of explorers since the conquistadors, but no Caucasians had lived among the Indians since Pizarro. The genes producing the redheads could have been influenced by the Spanish adventurers four centuries ago.
I was still convinced that somewhere in the vicinity was located a fabulous emerald source. I never ceased asking about the green stones. The Indians had so little interest in them that it was hard for them to remember specific instances of seeing the stones, but I did learn that they appeared immediately after the torrential rains of the wet season. These were not the emerald beads washed out of the graves; they were stones direct from the source. By elaborate questioning, I ascertained that some of the emeralds were still attached to their shale matrix. And all descriptions indicated that some were the size of the eggs laid by the hens.
What a fabulous discovery was waiting to be made! I prayed that the special equipment from Peter Johnson had arrived while we were out here in Coaque. I expected difficulties with the Minister of Culture, and I knew I would need the support of the military junta to find and claim the source of these emeralds, which could be cut into five-, six-, perhaps even ten-carat gems. All the gold in all the graves in Latin America paled in significance beside the vast wealth that lay in the ground somewhere up river, perhaps within ten to fifteen miles of our camp.
Meanwhile, the digging continued. Fifty test holes were sunk to try to locate burial grounds in the fifteen or twenty acres along the bank of the river. Several skeletons were found and some rather sophisticated artifacts recovered, but we located neither gold nor emeralds.
With only a week to go before we would have to pack up and return to Bahia de Caráquez, I sent some of the sharpest searchers up river to make one major effort at locating the source of the emeralds. If I could only get some idea of where to look, perhaps when I returned I could actually discover the emerald lode and stake out a claim. I patrolled up and down the river as the group probed and dug, but we didn’t find a single emerald in the riverbed.
But I was not — and am not — discouraged. Those emeralds are there! If I could just return, with some geologists and a crew of Indians, for a more extensive search between August and December, when the river is at its lowest... I have yet to meet an Indian along the Coaque River who has not seen the emeralds, but since they attach no importance to the green stones, they merely let them wash out into the ocean. Someday.
Gold and Emeralds
The two weeks by the ocean produced a substantial pile of pottery, utensils, and figures, but only a few gold trinkets. Every member of the group expressed a desire to remain, but it was time to pack them out and send them back to England. I announced we would strike camp.
While the group was packing, I removed the spare tire from the Land Rover and carefully taped our gold objects and emeralds inside the casing. I was anticipating some trouble from the Ministry of Culture.
I called a meeting of the group and supervised the distribution of pottery artifacts among the members. I explained that we might be met by the authorities, but that everyone would be quite safe if no one admitted to digging. We agreed to claim that all of the pottery had been purchased from the Indians living along the Coaque River. Export of the pieces could hardly be denied.
The trip down from Coaque was exhausting. There had been little rain by the coastline, and dust covered us as we drove along the bone-shaking route. I was not surprised when we were met by four policemen and six soldiers at the outskirts of Bahia de Caraquez. We were arrested immediately and taken to the police station in the center of town. Predictably, Doctor Samaniego from the Ministry of Culture was there to greet us. He was in a foul mood. He had made two attempts to find us in the jungle, but his men couldn’t even find the Coaque River.
"Well, Señor Jennings, what do you have to say?" he asked.
"I hope you have sufficient grounds for arresting my group," I said angrily.
"Let us call it a slight detention, Señor Jennings." Then, after a deliberate pause to gaze at the group, "Until we have made a thorough search of you and your people."
He moved away from me and addressed the group: "I want you nice English people to understand that it is Señor Jennings who has put you in this trouble," he told them. "We do not wish to disturb your holiday here, but if we find any valuables which you have dug up, Señor Jennings will not be returning to London with you."
Their painstaking search lasted for seven hours. Doctor Samaniego and an assistant made a list describing in detail each artifact as it was produced from the baggage. The same question was asked as each member brought his baggage forward for inspection. "Did you do any digging in the jungle?" The reply was always the same: "No, I bought my pottery from the Indians."
At the end of the search, Doctor Samaniego was obviously disconcerted. He also began to appear somewhat embarrassed. He had been responsible for mounting an operation that had netted nothing more interesting than pottery artifacts, and he could not even prove that we had not purchased those. The Land Rover, with the spare tire mounted prominently on the hood, stood outside. It was not searched.
When the last member had been searched and released with an apology, I said to Doctor Samaniego, "I’m sorry to have caused you all this trouble; however, we have been inconvenienced as well. I’d like to ask a favor."
"What is it?"
"So that we don’t have this same problem at the airport in Quito when we leave for England, I’d like a permit from you to export the artifacts you have examined."
"All right," he said irritably. "I’ll have it for you in the morning before your plane leaves."
The primitive plumbing in the small local hotel made no provision for baths or showers, but by now the group was too tired to care. We were all asleep within minutes, caked with dirt. I was up before sunup next morning to remove the gold and emeralds from the tire on the Land Rover and pack them into my luggage. Now I was ready to head for Quito.
Our prearranged, chartered plane arrived on time in the morning. Doctor Samaniego handed me the export permit as I was boarding.
"Goodbye," I said to him. "I hope you’ll have a different perspective on this affair someday and realize that what I found at Coaque is more important than how I found it."
"Maybe you are right." There was an air of defeat about him. "Adios, Señor Jennings."
I am sure that the immaculate Hotel Intercontinental Quito had never seen the arrival of such a tattered, dirty group as ours. In obvious confusion, the desk clerk called the manager, whom I had known so well from other trips.
"Welcome back," the manager said as he came out of his office. "You look as if you’ve been in the center of a disaster." I laughed and nodded. "I’m sure you would prefer to register after you have changed," he suggested diplomatically.
I dispatched the group to their assigned rooms, then turned back. "I don’t suppose anyone has been asking for me?" I asked the manager.
He smiled, remembering that incident from an earlier trip, when the Batres brothers had sent me a visitor. "I think you must have convinced someone that vengeance doesn’t pay."
As we all gathered for drinks before dinner that night, I doubt if anyone could have recognized us as the group that had arrived earlier in the afternoon. My group of adventurers had returned to civilization. The girls had visited the hotel beauty salon, and most of them had on nail polish for the first time in a month. Some of the men had grown beards in the jungle, but they were now shaved and neatly dressed in suits, ready for a night in the hotel casino.
Peter Johnson’s secretary and I spent several hours checking with various air-freight operations at the airport. There was no indication that Peter had shipped the electronics samples for the army.
"Your boss really screwed me this time," I said wearily. I had hoped to go back to Coaque and dig up a huge load of gold—now, any such plan was out of the question. The army would not offer any assistance; I had failed them. My only hope was to stick close to the group and to exit with them. They were now my only protection. I was convinced that if I allowed those Englishmen on that plane without me, Doctor Samaniego would have me in the pokey on some charge or another within minutes.
The next morning I shepherded my charges out to the airport and checked them in for the flight to London. I collected together all of the gold and presented it to the customs inspector, along with the export permit from Doctor Samaniego. There was a bit of confusion because the permit identified no gold artifacts, but the Minister of Culture was an important man and his name carried weight. We made it out of Ecuador with everything.
By mutual consent, we entrusted the valuables to one of the girls in the group, and at the time of this writing the pieces are at Parke-Bernet’s in New York awaiting auction. We are all eager to learn what sort of prices the ancient emerald beads will bring, since none such as these have ever appeared at auction before. I’m sure there will be no major hesitation on the part of the museums to bid on the stones which were "plundered" from graves and "smuggled" out of the country of origin. As usual, they’ll just look the other way as they raise their hands to bid.
We all arrived in London safely and rather sadly took our leave of each other. We did get back together for a post expedition party some time later, though, and they presented me with a lovely silver cigarette case. I guess they had forgotten the tick bites and the dysentery and the cold rain. But I haven’t forgotten, and I never will. I still think about those untouched burial mounds in ancient Coaque, and I often daydream about that mysterious source of emeralds up the Coaque River. But I am also a practical man, and I realize that other people will have to attack those treasures, at least until there is another revolution in Ecuador and I can possibly figure out how to buy off a new Minister of Culture. I sure as hell can’t go back there as long as Doctor Samaniego is in office.
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 5 - Gold of the Andes
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 6 - Paulaya, River of Gold
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 8 - Coaque, The Golden City
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 9 - Coaque, Revisited