Several expeditions tried to explore the Heath from 1893 to 1910 but resulted in failure and loss of life from hostile Native attacks. In 1910 Royal Geographic Society explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett at the request of the Bolivian government led the 1910 Heath Survey Expedition to ascertain the boundary between Bolivia and Peru. Fawcett was also attacked by natives, but was able to continue his expedition.
Fawcett ascended the Heath in two canoes, polling and paddling from the mouth up into it’s headwaters, mapping the river, but was forced to withdraw before discovering the source. He retreated by crossing through the jungle until he reached the larger Tambopata River where he built rafts and then descended back to civilization. (Described by Fawcett in the book taken from his journals: Exploration Fawcett, Chapter 12 Good Savage)
Fawcett was a famous South American explorer in the early part of the twentieth century. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and some of his explorations were followed by the world public in newspapers and periodicals. His expeditions were inspiration for countless books, movies and theatrical plays, including: The Lost World by his friend and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and books by friend Sir H. Rider Haggard, author of classics King Solomon’s Mines and She. Many believe he was a model for the Indiana Jones character. He disappeared searching for a lost civilization he believed existed in the deep Amazon in 1925 and was never heard from again.
A major concern to our team was the possibility of meeting unfriendly tribes still living on the upper Heath as there were in the past. Prior to the expedition Barron contacted hunters, anthropologists, botanists, zoologists, missionaries, oil and gold explorers about native inhabitants, but no one had any first hand knowledge of the Heath's upper reaches. Everyone contacted, however, believed that if we did encounter native people, they would be hostile, dangerous and would attack us. We did find signs of people on the upper river.
By viewing satellite photos we discovered that although the Heath and Tambopata Rivers were for the most part quite distant from one another, near the headwaters they verged closely parallel for a short time, separated by what appeared to be a range of mountains and where we judged Fawcett had crossed. We hoped to save time by following part of Fawcett’s route in reverse. By descending the Tambopata flowing from the Andes with whitewater rafts, and then cutting through the jungle over the mountains to the Heath, we would then ascend the Heath, explore the headwaters, discover it’s source and descend it via inflatable kayaks we had carried from the Tambopata.
Beside hostile tribes, there were many rumors about the Heath’s upper region and source area: lost Inca goldmines, Spanish conquistador’s treasure, hidden pyramids, giant anacondas and new species of animals and plantlife.
We started with fifteen members on rafts and divided into the exploration team of nine when we crossed to the Heath. Then due to food shortage and injury, four members were forced to retreat and our group was split to five. In the end only two of us made it to the source.
We faced many unforeseen hardships on the expedition: starvation, injury, flooding, disintegration of our team, and mental breakdown. We had encounters with Jaguars, anacondas, vampire bats, giant crocodilians, venomous insects and burrowing worms.
Our team camped at Sonene Village, the last remaining Ese' Ejja community, at the bottom of the Heath River at the end of the expedition. Eddi Little Bird arranged a meeting with the other elders and asked for permission for us to enter the village. We learned that the name "Sonene" is also the Ese’ Ejja name for the Heath River. Fawcett names three tribal groups he encountered on his expedition. The village elders told us all people on the Heath were Ese’ Ejja. We had viewed evidence of people living near the Heath headwaters. These generous people brought us fruits and drink and allowed us to sleep in their largest communal hut.
Barron had a meeting with the oldest man, also the shaman and ex chief of the village. His name was Shai (caiman or alligator). Barron, "I asked if he knew or heard from his father if anyone had seen an Englishman many years ago named Fawcett. He said he did not remember, but his father told him he had seen Whiteman travelling up river before his father was chief." "I the chief if he thought there were any Ese’ Ejja living near the headwaters of the Heath. The chief spat and said "Yes, but they are naked and savage and there are no large groups anymore!" He then said "When I was a boy there was always fighting between the upper and lower river people. One day my father, chief before me, gathered all the men from the lower Heath and made a raid on the upper river Ese' Ejja." He said, "We killed all the men and scalped them. Then we put the scalps under our armpits and danced all night around the fire. That is how we gained their power and that is why there are no villages on the upper Sonene!"
The Ese' Ejja indigenous people of Bolivia and Peru live in the Amazon Basin region. Their name for the Heath is the Sonene River. An Ese' Ejja Village, called Sonene Village, lies at the mouth of the Heath as it enters into the Madre Di Dios River. Ese’ Ejja live in Bolivia along the Beni and the Madre de Dios Rivers. In Peru, they live along the Heath and Tambopata Rivers. Ese’ Ejja people are hunter-gathers, farmers, rangers and fishermen. Their name derives from their autonym, Ece’je, which means “true people.” They are also known as the Chama, Tatinawa, Huarayo, Guarayo, Chuncho, Huanayo, Kinaki, and Mohino.
Our expedition was successful in discovering the source of the Heath, exploring its headwaters, and making the first descent. Our botanist and zoologist discovered new plant species, possible new bat species and we discovered a major macaw lick on the lower Heath.
Bruce Barron's book about the expedition is planned to be released in 2016:
SEARCHING FOR THE SOURCE: Discovering the Origin of Colonel Fawcett’s Heath River
A 2012 documentary film about the expedition is available on Amazon.com and Hulu.com
AMAZONIA: A Perilous Journey Video sample https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ay6-nnyBnwk
Barron Pickard Heath River Expedition Map
click to enlarge
(see other maps on maps page)
Exploration and Discovery of the Heath River Source
Political and geographical border between Peru and Bolivia Amazon
The purpose of the Barron Pickard Heath River Expedition was to discover the source of the Heath, to document flora and fauna, mark changes from Fawcetts expedition, explore the headwaters and make the first descent. It was the first expedition since Colonel Percy H. Fawcett’s 1910 Heath Survey Expedition, 86 years before.
May 25, 1996
Location S 13° 45’ 12” W 68° 58’ 35”
“We have been on half rations for more than two weeks. The last few days our meals have consisted of one small cup of mixed freeze-dried food and fish broth in the morning and one cup in the evening. We are weak from hunger, and by each afternoon, light headed and dizzy. Today we supplemented our diet with rehydration salts and throat lozenges from the medical kit. Fortunately our mammoth 100-pound packs have been reduced to 45 for the last week. Now, on the final day, we have cut down our loads to bare essentials for our last attempt to discover the source of the Heath.”
(from Barron’s Heath River Exploration journal)