Jim recalls some epic trips to Paraguay – and a surprise stopover on Easter Island.
Many years ago, one of my more interesting trips was fishing for dorado in Paraguay. It all started with a meeting at the Fly Fishing Tackle Dealer Show in Salt Lake City in the USA. CO Ericson was the export director at the time for ABU, the Swedish fishing tackle maker, and he was a regular visitor to Australia. We had formed a good friendship, and he and his wife had been guests at my shack in Tasmania, while I had been CO’s guest in the northern parts of Sweden, chasing trout, Arctic char and pike… but all that’s a story for another time.
CO suggested I join him with the major retailer for ABU in Paraguay. It turned out his mate Acero was a sort of Kerry Packer of that country. He owned the largest department store, the main newspaper, large tracts of land, was a friend of the President – and it seemed to me, he was a real powerbroker.
Anyway, I arrived in Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital, a day late: although CO advised that Acero would sort out a visa on my arrival, that didn’t quite work as Air Paraguay wouldn’t allow me on the plane without one! Back to Buenos Aires, where the necessary visa was stamped in my passport in ten seconds, and back out to the airport the next morning. I landed at Asuncion airport to see a fleet of RAAF Canberra bombers sitting on the tarmac – presumably sold to the Paraguayan air force.
After introductions and apologies for the visa stuff-up, we were on our way to the south of the country. There was a halfway stopover at a small town called Villa Florida and a couple of days fishing the Tebicuary River, staying at one of Acero’s villas. Acero was unable to join us straight away, as he was delayed due to business commitments. He sent us both ahead south with a driver and car. The Tebicuary proved to be my introduction to dorado. We caught a couple of four pound beauties. I hadn’t even seen a dorado before this and they looked just like a heavily-built golden trout, but with very big teeth!
Back at the villa, it was decided we would all go for a swim in the river before drinks and dinner. I asked about piranha and was told yes, they’re in the river but not to worry. A horse was attacked thirty years ago. However, I was advised to wear trunks with web liners or tight-fitting bathers, due to the presence of a small fish that will swim into your crotch. I thought they were having a lend of me, just as Australians talk about drop bears to visitors. Well, sometime later I discovered I was wrong. The fish is real, and with dorsal spikes that require painful surgery if the fish should enter the nether regions. I didn’t swim in a river in Paraguay again!
Acero eventually joined us, and we headed further south to another small town called Ayolas and to another of Acero’s villas on the Parana River, which borders Argentina. He called it a camp, but it was a bit more than that. Cabins, staff and much more, although most of the cooking was outdoor barbecues of fish and huge steaks. We were billeted into quite good huts for sleeping. Ayolas was just downstream from the newly-constructed Itapu hydro dam, a huge hydroelectric project shared between Paraguay and Argentina.
Whilst it was my aim to catch a dorado on a flyrod, much of the fishing was either casting plugs or trolling and sometimes live bait fishing with a huge prehistoric-looking tadpole called a morenita. We also caught a very large bream-like fish called pacu and the biggest flathead-like fish I’ve ever seen called a surubi. They were delicious eating as well. Whilst all our angling was in freshwater, I was warned me to be careful of stingrays. To this day, I’m not sure if they were having a lend of me. South Americans, like we Australians, do like to play a joke or two!
We had a week at Ayolas, fishing each day on the Parana and its anabranches. We fished to the sing-song sounds of monkeys in the trees nearby. South American birds and birdsong were also totally different to what we encounter in Australia.
I remember catching a piranha of four pounds and was told they were harmless; it’s shoals of the small variety that will kill and eat you in seconds. It didn’t look harmless to me though when I checked out its teeth! I did finally catch a dorado on a fly rod, but I have to admit the composition of the other fishing and species seemed to take precedence.
A year or two later I did it all again, this time with a farmer mate who joined me from the western district in Victoria. Bill, an old school friend of mine, had met CO in Australia and we had both stayed on his farm near the Grampians. Bill, after hearing the tales of our previous trip, commented if ever a chance came up, he’d love to go. Well, a few weeks later, CO called, said it’s all arranged and invited the two of us to join him in Paraguay again.
Another great week of fishing and travel ensued, again with Acero and his Paraguayan gang of anglers. Whilst there was the odd language issue, anglers seem to understand each other, and it was a week of fun, frivolity, whisky, wine and of course some outstanding fishing.
We decided to fly back to Australia via Chile, Easter Island, and Tahiti, as Bill and I were keen to visit the remarkable Easter Island statues. Little did we know we would be hijacked, and spend an additional seven unplanned days on the island.
The ‘hijack’ came about because of a dispute between the islanders and Lan Chile: the airline had doubled the cost of a flight back to the mainland of Chile overnight. The locals allowed the aircraft, a seriously old Boeing 707, to land and then, they turned out in their hundreds to take control. Teenagers were placed in sleeping bags under the wheels of the plane and also a couple of Mini Mokes. Banners were placed over the aircraft, and Bill and I, who were waiting to fly out, were told there would be a delay.
To be honest, it felt more like a carnival than a dangerous incident. The islanders seemed to enjoy taking control, I suspect with islander police support.
Alphonse, our host at the hotel where we had been staying did say at dinner the night before,” I tink a bit of trouble at airport manyana (tomorrow). I keep your rooms for you.” I jokingly replied, “Well make sure we have the Mini Moke too,” which Bill and I had hired. Little did we know how important that transport was to be.
Back at the airport and after a few hours wait, we were finally told our flight to Tahiti was cancelled and we were to be allocated accommodation. When our turn came to receive the paperwork, we were told we were billeted to another hotel. We insisted we were to stay where we had been staying, but the airline staff said no. Arguments followed and the staff said step aside. I said no, and that we weren’t going to wait any longer. I whispered to Bill, “The only time pressure doesn’t work is when not enough is applied.” After a few more minutes and much conversation in Spanish, we finally received coupons from the exasperated staff to go back to Alphonse who was waiting for us outside the airport with a huge grin on his face.
Well, during the next week we both looked at every Moai statue on the island. Alphonse, who knew we were fishos, organised a commercial boat trip to catch yellowfin tuna. However, when I discovered the boat was a flimsy-looking sampan hull with no radio contact, and with Easter Island more than a thousand miles from anywhere, we decided not to overload the boat. The risk was just too great, and my mate Bill still had a young family.
Finally, things got sorted a long week later and we left. The old Boeing burst into life in a plume of worryingly black smoke which soon dissipated, and we were on our way… only to discover on our arrival in Tahiti that the next seat available back to Australia, on Qantas, was in another seven days. Bill’s wife lost it with us being delayed further. She had the problem of fly-blown sheep and wanted Bill back home urgently. I, on the other hand, didn’t mind the prospect of a week in Tahiti on Lan Chile’s tab!
In any event, the outcome was that we discovered a flight from Tahiti heading to Hawaii the next day, and after much the help from all the airline staff, we ended up heading home on a Continental flight direct to Melbourne from Honolulu the following day, all at Lan Chile’s expense… but not without another pending disaster. Lan Chile had put us on the flight from Tahiti, Bill didn’t have a USA visa, and Hawaii had no transit lounge. All hell broke loose at customs and immigration, and we ended up being ‘guarded’ by an immigration official for ten hours. He was a good bloke and we bought him lunch in the form of a hamburger. He then departed, after asking us to promise not to leave the airport. We shook hands and made the necessary undertakings. We were then left to our own devices, which meant a few too many beers in the bar and a long sleep, before a midnight departure on a DC10 finally took us back to Melbourne and home.
The trials, tribulations and joys of travel are never-ending, but I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything.