The Long Riders' Guild

Green Hell

by George W. Ray


Enshrined in the Valhalla of The Long Riders’ Guild are the amazing equestrian exploits of George W. Ray. A Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, Ray was also a part-time missionary and full-time adventure junky. His account of his South American travels, “Through Five Republics on Horseback”, was gathered from his years spent exploring the still-untouched 19th century interior of that vast continent.

One of his most noted horse trips came about when Ray tried to discover a lost tribe of sun-worshipping natives,  rumoured to reside in the impenetrable forests of Paraguay. The resulting journey was so brutal as to defy belief. Ray’s horses fought off vampire bats and lived by sucking dew off leaves, while their Long Rider lost two toes to blood sucking insects whose bites also caused much of the flesh on his feet to rot off.

Long considered a classic of equestrian travel Through Five Republics on Horseback is amply illustrated with classic photographs, as well as drawings Ray made during the course of his remarkable adventure.  The following extract is condensed from two chapters of the book.

Junglehorse.JPG (35513 bytes)

They called it "The Green Hell" - that forested portion of Paraguay into which no Long Rider before G. W. Ray had ever dared venture.

Click on photo to enlarge


Being in England in 1900 for change and rest, I was introduced to an eccentric old gentleman of miserly tendencies, but possessed of $5,000,000. Hearings of my many wanderings in South America, he told me that he owned a tract of land thirteen miles square in Paraguay, and would like to know something of its value. The outcome of this visit was that I was commissioned by him to go to that country and explore his possession, so I proceeded once more to my previous field of labour.

Arriving after five weeks of sea-tossing, we sailed into Buenos Ayres, Argentina, only to be informed that because the ship had previously touched at the infected port of Bahia, all passengers must be fumigated and submit to three weeks quarantine on Flores Island.

Disembarking from the ocean steamer on to lighters, we gave a last look at the coveted land, “so near and yet so far” and were towed away to three small islands in the centre of the Plate River, about fifty miles distant. One island is set apart as a burial ground, one is for infected patients, and the other, at which we were landed is for suspects. On that desert island, with no other land in sight than the sister islands, we were given time to chew the cud of bitter reflection. They gave us little else to chew!

The food served up to us consisted of strings of dried beef, called charqui, which was brought from the mainland in dirty canvas bags. This was often supplemented by boiled seaweed. Prison it was, for sentries armed with Remington rifles, herded us like sheep.

The three weeks detention came to an end, as everything earthly does, and then an open barge towed by a steam launch, conveyed us to Montevideo. During our eleven hour journey we were repeatedly drenched with spray. Delicate ladies lay down in the bottom of the boat in the throes of seasickness, and were literally washed to and fro. As soon as we landed I took passage aboard the “Olympo”, a palatial steamer, bound for Asuncion, Paraguay. After sixteen days on the river, which at some stages was eighteen miles wide, we finally sighted the red tiled roofs of the capital of Paraguay.

Gentle simplicity is the chief characteristic of the people there.

A noticeable feature of the place is that all the inhabitants go barefooted. Shoes are not for common people and when one dares to cover his feet he is considered presumptuous. Hats they never wear, but they have the beautiful custom of weaving flowers into their hair. And as the climate is hot, a favourable occupation for men and women is to sit half-submerged in the river, smoking vigorously.

When I called at the post office of the capital I discovered another surprise. Upon asking for a stamp, the civil answer from the clerk was that he had none. On the lucky days they were available, the customer was also handed a brush and pot of paste and told to attach it himself. If you ask for a one cent stamp the clerk will cut a two cent stamp and give you a half.

From that quaint capital I once again took passage aboard ship, this time sailing aboard the “Urano” for Concepcion, 200 miles north of Asuncion. On the second day of our journey the people on board celebrated a church feast, and  the pilot, in his anxiety to do it well, got helplessly drunk. The result was that during the night I was thrown out of the top berth I occupied by a terrific thud. The steamer had run aground on the sandbank of an uninhabited island and there she stuck fast.

After three days detention a Brazilian packet rescued us and we once again sailed on. While I was aboard this vessel we occasionally caught sight of savages on the west bank of the river. The captain informed that he had once brought up a bag of beans to give them. The beans has been poisoned in order that the miserable creatures might be swept off the earth !

When I landed at Concepcion I set about procuring five horses, a stock of beads, knives, etc., for barter, and made ready for my land journey into the far interior. The locals strongly urged me not to attempt the trip as there were rumours of unknown savages along my route. It was said that such an adventure could only end in disaster. I was fortunate however in securing the companionship of an excellent man who bore the suggestive name of “Old Stabbed Arm”.

Loading the pack horses with twenty pounds of jerked beef, looking glasses, beads, and knives, Old Stabbed Arm and I mounted our horses and headed into the unknown, leaving behind the tender-hearted villagers with many affectionate farewells. We immediately discovered that the so-called “road” was nothing more than a simple path through deep red sand into which the horses sank up to their knees. The path was so uneven that one side was frequently two feet higher than the other, so we could travel only very slowly. Sections of the road were partly destroyed by landslides and heavy rains. We encountered such gaping holes that I frequently dismounted and led my horse around to safety.

The tropical scenery however was superb. Thousands of orange trees growing by the roadside  kept us cool and offered us fruit to eat as rode by. Tree ferns twenty feet high waved their feathery fronds in the gentle breeze and wild pineapples loaded the air with their fragrance.

Our journey led us further and further away from any traces of civilization. The villages we passed were tiny and the people very primitive. Of the great inside to which we were journeying they knew nothing. Vague rumours had reached them of impenetrable forests. There dwarf cannibals with inhuman customs shot blowguns at any invader who entered their haunts. Everyone tried to dissuade me from riding any further.

Next day we came to a solitary house. At this place we each got a large bullock’s horn in which to carry water. After that we left the road and began to travel over grassy  plains. We made good progress and by evening were thirty miles further on our journey.

Now we came to the end of Christianity , as Old Stabbed Arm said, and all trace of civilization was left behind. After ten days journey we struggled through a swamp and the carapatas feasted on our blood. What are carapatas, you ask? They are leeches, bugs, mosquitoes, and gad-flies, all compounded into one venomous insect! These voracious green ticks are indeed a terrible scourge. They fasten on the body in scores, and when pulled away, either the piece of flesh comes with them or the head of the carapata is torn away. It was easy to pick a hundred of these bugs off the body at night. The poor horses, brushing through the branches on which these ticks wait for their prey, were sometimes half covered with them.

Game thereafter became scarce and we were forced to subsist on Indian corn. Then water became harder to find and for the next week we were unable to wash. It was during this time, while we were sleeping on the ground, that the jiggers got into our feet and thereafter caused us great pain. These jiggers have been described as a cross between Satan and a wood tick. The little insects lay their eggs between the skin and flesh. When the young hatch out, they begin feasting on the victims blood, and quickly grow half an inch long and cause an intense itching. If not soon cut out, the flesh begins to rot. My feet were soon so swollen that I could not get on my riding boot. Consequently my lower limbs were more exposed than ever.

After several weeks of such varied experiences we arrived at the land I was seeking. There, on the banks of a river, we struck camp, and from here I made short excursions in all directions to ascertain the approximate value of the old gentleman’s estate. On the old Englishman’s land we came upon an encampment of poor, naked Caingwa Indians. We were kindly received by them, and discovered that notwithstanding their abject poverty, they had bananas and mandioca in abundance. I was able to purchase quite a stock of such foodstuffs in return for a few knives and beads. Because their own dishes, plates and bottles were formed from gourds, they imagined that all such things we used were also grown. It  was amusing to hear them ask for seeds of the glass medicine bottles I carried with me.

It was from these people that I learned that the royal tribe to which they originally belonged lived far away in the depths of a dense forest located to the east of our camp. I became curious when I discovered that this tribe worshipped the sun and was ruled by a king. Could they be lost descendants of the Incas? I determined to push on thither and discover for myself the secret of this lost tribe. I offered to hire the local Caingwa Indian chief as my guide. In return for a shirt, a knife, and a number of white beads, a bargain was struck and we set off the next day with my horses.

By the end of our third day scarcity of water began to be felt. We had been slowly ascending the rugged steeps of a mountain and  as the day wore on the thirst became painful. That night both we and the horses had to be content with the dew-drops we sucked from the grass, and our dumb companions showed signs of great exhaustion. The Indian assured me that if we could push on we would come to a beautiful lake, so ere the sun rose we were in the saddle on our journey to the coveted water.

All that day we plodded along painfully, silently. Our lips dried together and our tongues swollen. Thirst hurts ! The horses hung their heads and we were compelled to dismount and go afoot. The sun again set, darkness fell, and the lake was, for all I could see, a dream of our guide. At night, after repeating the sucking of the dew, in thirsty desperation we drank the blood of one of the horses, and then tried to sleep.

The next day we rode on until up ahead I heard the shouts of our Indian friend. “Come, come,” he was yelling. With new-born strength I ran through the brush, jumped into the lake, and found – nothing but hard earth ! The lake was dried up. I dug my heel into the ground to see if there might be soft mud, but failing to find even that, I dropped to the ground and passed out. More than that I cannot relate.

How long I lay there I never knew. The Indian, I learned later, exploring a deep gully at the other side, found a putrid pool of slime full of poisonous frogs and alive with insects. Some of this liquid he brought to me in his hands, and, after putting it in my mouth, had the satisfaction of seeing me revive. I crawled to the waterhole and drank. That stagnant pool was our salvation. The horses were brought up, and we all drank together.

After this rest we continued our journey and next day came to the edge of a virgin forest. Through that obstacle the Indian guide said we must now cut our way, for the royal tribe never came out, and were never visited. We camped at the edge of the forest that night. The next morning I discovered the horses were covered in clots of blood. Vampire bats, those loathsome creatures – half beast, half bird – had been at the poor creatures during the night.

We now penetrated the forest. The men cut with a will and I drove the horses after them. Black, howling monkeys with long beards leapt among the trees. Red and blue macaws screeched overhead, and many a large serpent received its death blow from our machetes. At times I stopped to admire a giant tree, eight or ten feet in diameter, or orchids of the most delicate hue. But the passage was hard and the stagnant air was most difficult to breathe.

After some days’ journey we heard shouts and knew that, like entombed miners, we were being dug out on the other side! The wild Caingwas Indians soon met us, and I looked into their faces and gravely saluted. They stared at me in speechless astonishment, just as I in turn curiously regarded them. Each man had his lower lip pierced, and hanging down over the breast was a thin stick about ten inches long. Their faces were also painted in strange patterns.

I assured them that my mission was peaceable, and that I had presents for them. Thereupon the High Priest gave me permission to enter into the glade, where I was told Nandeyara (Our Owner) had placed them at the beginning of the world. I was conducted down a steep path to the valley below. Here we came in view of several large houses built of bamboo. Near these dwellings were perhaps a hundred men, women and children, remnants of a vanishing nation. Some had a mat around their loins, but many were naked.

Hearing domestic hens cackling around the houses, I bade our Indian guide tell our hosts that we were exceedingly hungry. The High Priest of the tribe told us that we would not be fed unless we first offered a present. I told them that the pack saddles were tied and our hunger immediate. Yet they threw away our words; not a bite would be given until I produced a knife as a gift now, with the promise of other gifts to follow at a later date. I was faint from hunger, but from the load on the packhorse I procured the knife. On receipt of this treasure the Priest gave orders to catch two chickens. They were quickly caught, and thrown into clay pots full of water, that were then placed over a small fire. The birds were tossed in whole, without cutting off either heads or legs, or pulling out the birds feathers. Yet only a few minutes had passed before I pulled one of the birds out and ate as my forefathers did ages ago. After this feast I lay down on the ground, with my head resting on my most valued possessions.

The next day I was presented to the king. Here I was kindly received, being invited to take up quarters with him and his royal family. The king was a tall man but save for a loin cloth, he was naked like the rest. There was not a seat of any description in his hut, and a broom was not to be found in his entire kingdom. So I squatted on the earthen floor.

My stay with the sun worshippers over the next few weeks, though interesting, was painful. Excepting when we cooked our own food, I almost starved. After this period of rest, my horses were refreshed and appeared able to complete the return journey so I made preparations to start back towards civilization.

So prolific is the vegetation that during our few weeks stay with the Indians the creeping thorns and briars had almost covered up the path we had so laboriously cut through the forest. This time I was not interested in exploring the steaming semi-darkness of the trees. Our clothes were by now almost torn to shreds. I sought to mend mine with horse hair thread, with poor results, and we emerged at last into daylight on the other side of the forest, ragged, torn and dirty.

Our journey back was however neither easy nor rapid. At one point a storm struck us with great intensity. The downpour was so strong that we were forced to construct a crude shelter of green branches. For three days we slept on the soaking ground, while the rain poured on our heads, and poisonous spiders crept over us.

When the storm passed at last, we rode towards the Ipane river, which was now considerably swollen. Several times on the trip we had been forced to construct crude bridges. But this stream was too broad, so we elected to swim the horses through the current. As I rode the strongest and largest horse, it was my place to venture first into the rushing stream. My animal bravely made it across, all the while I held the photographic plates in my teeth, and my gun high above the water in my left hand. On the farther side of the river we discovered a deserted house. There we lit a fire and dried out the remnants of our clothes.

At last the village of Pegwaomi was reached. Here we released our Indian guide and rode on the next day towards Concepcion. Surely a stranger sight was never seen as the day we rode into that tiny town.

We had been given up for lost months before, for word had come in that I had been killed by Indians. Here I was however, safe and well, saving that the ends of two of my toes had rotted off and fever burned in my veins. As I reclined in a hammock, a local woman doctored my feet with tobacco ashes, while I silently thanked a Higher Power for my safe return.

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