A number of years ago I was working Nelore cattle on a remote ranch near San Rafael, Bolivia. San Rafael is located in the south eastern part of the country, not to far from the Brazilian border and close to the Brazilian town of Caceres. When I say not to far, I mean a full day by horseback from the headquarters of the ranch to San Rafael, where the road began and another little over one half a day bouncing around in an old, beat-up, light green colored Toyota 4 x 4 pickup to the border. Caceres was about another two hours from the border and the closer we got to Caceres, the road got better.
Caceres had an unknown population at that time, but the whole village consisted of about seven or eight thatch huts and dirt and cane block houses, so there couldnít have been to many inhabitants. One of the houses had a place called Betoís where they served a hot meal and cold beer in a one liter, dark green bottle. Betoís had sort of a dank and smoky smell and was also the social center of the town. Although the place really didnít have a name, it was known as Betoís which is a nick name for Roberto, who was the owner. It was located in the yard beside his house. Apart from having the only cantina and restaurant for miles around, Beto sold general merchandise such as sewing needles & thread, rolls of bright colored cotton cloth, 22 caliber short bullets, machetes, fishing line & thin steel leaders, rubber boots, small mirrors made of polished tin, grain alcohol in Ĺ gallon cans, with a large eagle as the logo and various sizes of hemp rope.
In this desolate and inhabited country, 22 caliber shells were considered a very valuable and important element in the daily routine, so I bought 5 boxes to take back to the Indians. Everyday one of the Indian men, in turn, would get the villageís only firearm, a single shot 22 caliber rife out and would go hunting. The rife was old, rusty and the barrel was bent, but the Indian was given only one bullet and told not to come back without some type of game for supper. The hunter always returned with something while I was there. On one occasion we had what was called ďpavo de monteĒ or wild turkey, but they also brought back monkeys, snakes, sometimes large lizards and once in awhile a wild pig.
The Mato Grosso area is extremely beautiful but still savage and a home cooked meal at Betoís, even if itís cooked on a cast iron wood burning stove (cocina de lena) is very tasty, particularly if you had been eating with Indians for the last two weeks. I ordered a beftec (beef steak) served with rice, beans and fried platino. The steak was hard to chew but tasty and I really enjoyed the meal, the cool beer and the local conversation.
Getting back to the Indians, the Indians who lived at the headquarters cooked on a open campfire called a fogata. The food was never really enjoyable because the Indians didnít know how to flavor food to taste, even if they did have the spices. Itís not because they donít enjoy flavored food, it was because spices or flavors, such as pepper, salt, culantro and garlic are not that easy to obtain in the jungle. Sometimes theyíd cook a few roots and leaves with the food that smelled and tasted horrible, when they were cooked separated, but as it turned out the roots improved the taste of the food when they were mixed together.
One of my consulting responsibilities was to supervise and participate in a roundup, together with what the local ranchers called a rodeo. A rodeo was a big operation and an exciting event. All the cattle in a given pasture were gathered and held in an area normally close to a river where the cattleís salt boxes were located. The salt boxes were short, about six foot long, dough out logs, sometimes fashioned from mahogany trees, that abound in the area. Mahogany wood, with a longevity of from fifty to sixty years, in the tropics, is an extremely hard and heavy wood thatís also used for corrals and gate posts. This holding area near the river and the two day cattle working activity was referred to as a rodeo. The number of animals brought to rodeo could vary but most pastures were designed to maintain from about five to seven thousand head during a normal year. Cows with calves, heifers, steers and breeding bulls ran together in the same pasture, but because of the large size of the area, about 25,000 acres, the animals were spread out in several groups. The ranch would replace the breeding bulls every 36 to 42 months consequently very few bulls were breeding their daughters and some actual genetic improvement was being realized. Calving percentages were low, around 27% per year. The number of cows per breeding bull was out of proportion, about 75 cows per bull, which was due to the low availability of good breeding stock in the zone. None of the herd had been separated or sold for a number of years. The herd was untouched and had been purposely left alone to increase the size. I noticed some seven or eight year old steers that weighed near 2,000 lbs.
The roundup and rodeo happens about once every fourteen or fifteen months on this particular ranch. The scheduled rodeo was dependent on how long the rainy season lasted. An early ending rainy season was best. The rivers would go down and a lot of the flooded pastures would drain. We were lucky, the rain had stopped about 3 weeks earlier.
On this particular roundup, which took us almost a full day just to locate the cattle, 7,200 head of cattle and about 50 head of horses were brought in to rodeo with just 24 mounted cowboys. During the roundup the cowboys spilt up in pairs and at a fast trot they spread out over the entire (sabana) rolling hills, almost flat pasture land. They would find separated, small groups of cattle, which they put together and drive as one large herd to the rodeo area. When the men work inside the rodeo they divide themselves into five teams of four men each with the remaining ten or twelve men holding the herd. The rodeo lasts for about twenty-four hours while the cattle are counted & inventoried by an accountant from the central office and at the same time the cattle were inspected, doctored and branded. The male calves are castrated and the rest of the herd was given whatever attention thought necessary. The herd was released the following morning with the whole procedure lasting about two days. I personally prefer to release the cattle early the following morning after the work, so that the cows with new calves could graze and walk slowly and still have time to arrive at their safe territory the same day, before dark.
Just before lunch time, on the first day of the rodeo, while the majority of the cowboys were holding the herd, I joined two cowboys who were told to catch some piranha fish for lunch, so we went fishing.
We rode horseback through the sabana (the rolling pasture) for about 10 minutes until we reached a small river. One of the cowboys found a dead bird whose intestine was used for bait. A piece of nylon line was attached to a thin piece of steel leader. The very thin steal wire was wrapped around the intestine and the bait was thrown into the river. In less than one or two minutes the first fish was caught and after about ten minutes we had caught about twenty-five fish. This particular specie of piranha were about 10 inches long with 3 rows of teeth. The fish attack the bait and hold on and we popped them out of the water on to the bank. Piranha fish are very aggressive whether theyíre in or out of the water. The fish would bite a knife blade if you held it near his mouth. As it turned out we caught those fish and had them back to camp faster than service from most fast food operations in the USA. When we returned to the rodeo most of the fish were still alive.
As soon as we arrived at camp, the cowboys nonchalantly dropped the fish on the hot coals of the fire used to heat the branding irons, without even cleaning them. About fifteen to twenty minutes later the fish were raked out of the coals and ready for eating. The cowboys had picked some wild lemons on the trail and together with some course salt from the salt box we eat the fish. The part of the fish that I ate was delicious, but I found it interesting that the first thing the Indian cowboy would do was to open the stomach cavity and eat the visceraís (intestines, heart, etc.) of the fish. The viscera has the highest level of nutritional value so obviously the Indians knew what they were doing. I passed on their offer to join them with the insides but I really enjoyed the meat from the head to the tail which is shinny white, although it had a lot of bones.
After the herd was released we headed back to headquarters because it was a six hour ride and we planned to work cattle in the main corrals the next day. Of course I didnít know it at the time, but I was going to have a terrible affair with a big Nelore cow the following day.
It was about 5:30 a.m. and we had just finished selecting our mounts for the day. I choose to work inside corrals mounted on a big powerful horse rather than a quicker but smaller animal. I always prefer to look down on the cattle, rather than to look at them straight in the eye. When I ride a smaller animal, I feel like Iím not protected. A few years before I was pushed down to the ground, on my all fours, in a tight pen of young Brahman bull calves and it was hell getting out. It scares me to think what might happen to me if I was down in a tight pen of big cattle. When I say a tight pen, I mean there was so many cattle in the pen that they were crowded.
Getting back to the Nelore cow affair, the word Nelore refers to a Cebu breed of cattle, that has proven to be very successful and popular in the sabanas of Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela . Just like the American Brahman, the Nelore has a hump, short hair and they are a glossy white or light gray in color. The Nelore is usually taller but not as wide or muscular as a Brahman. The smaller horns of the Nelore grow more pointed up and the ear is smaller and points up and out. Although the Brahman and the Nelore breeds are related, they are very distinctive breeds. One very distinctive difference is that the Brahman breed is normally much more domesticated, where as the Nelore is extremely aggressive.
The Nelore are noted to be a very hostile breed of cattle due to having been born and raised in the jungle. The cows are meaner than the bulls, the cows are very good mothers and really know how to protect their calves. At this moment we had separated the cows from their calves. Unfortunately a small calf slipped under the fence and was looking for his mother. The young Nelore mother scented her calf and was searching like crazy. I was riding ole Brownie, a big, stout, criollo horse, inside the corral and I was just trying to help the lost calf and prevent him from getting kicked and stepped on by the larger animals. I was using a strong local made eight ply, rawhide lariat rope (a soga), which was firmly tied to the horn of my saddle and of all things, on this beautiful April morning I was unlucky enough to have that wild, young Nelore calf caught in my loop! I was using the stretched raw hide lariat because one of my most prized possessions, a good waxed nylon, that a friend had brought from the states, was in my house in Santa Cruz.
For the last 23 years, while I was traveling and working in Latin America as a cattle consultant, Iíd always take my old M.L. Leddy roping saddle on new assignments. I just like to feel comfortable when Iím horseback and the ranch where Iíd been assigned might not have a good heavy western saddle in inventory. Almost always my saddle is to wide for the local horses so I double up on the number of saddle blankets. On this day the horse I had chosen fit the saddle perfect, no extra blankets needed. He was a wide, medium age, dark brown gelding about fourteen and a half hands tall and was strong.
My loop caught the calf around the neck and one front leg and of course he was bawling like crazy while I was half dragging him to the gate. Iíd stopped to catch my breath when suddenly from my left side a white flash stuck a sharp horn in the under side of my horseís neck, about 18 inches above the horseís chest. Poor old brownie shook for a few seconds, died standing up and then gently collapsed to the ground with me on his back. The cow was young, about a 5 years old and weighed close to 900 lbs. and damn her, if she didnít continued to charge and run sideways in front of me. I stood up, but my feet were still in the stirrups. I was straddling poor ole Brownie, trying to control the calf that was still on the end of my lariat and at the same time I was trying to watch the cow out of my other eye. Iíd never seen a cow go so crazy. Sheíd almost throw herself down in the dirt as if she was having a frenzy. She was furious and she was determined to protect her calf.
When the cow hit Brownie on her first attach we were inside the corral, but close to the corral fence. This time, after making a wide sweep and building up her speed, she came by, dropped her head to hit me, but only managed to scrape me with her left horn. However the tip of her horn had ripped a small hole in my stomach, about six inches below my ribs. Almost immediately after the cow passed I began to feel some burning where she had hit me, but I was afraid to look. I was still standing so I jumped to the fence, climbed up and thought to myself, I donít care what happens to the calf, my saddle or much less that old lariat. The only thing I thought of at that moment was I wanted out of there, because I was afraid of that cow.
When I reached the top of the fence I opened my shirt and I saw a dirty open wound about an inch long and it was bleeding. The sight of my own blood didnít bother me, because Iíd seen it several times before, but I knew the cut had to be cleaned and closed and the sooner the better. I knew I wasnít going to bleed to death, but I guess I was afraid of getting bad infection there in the middle of the jungle. With the nearest doctor about two days away I decided to sew myself up.
The foreman's wife gave me a straight sewing needle and some black thread, that I doubled. The only thing we had that was even close to being a disinfectant was a half liter of ďYe MonksĒ, 76 proof Scotch whiskey. I washed the wound with soap and some boiled water, than I poured the whiskey into and around the opening. The whiskey burned so I was satisfied that I was disinfected, whether I was or not. The thread was soaking in the same whisky and I burned the tip of the needle to disinfect it. I was ready. Surprising the needle didn't go through the skin very easy, it had to be pushed and it hurt, but the pain was not unbearable. I finished the job, to my satisfaction in about 15 minutes and then cut a butterfly out of adhesive tap and placed it over the wound. I didnít ride horseback for the next two days and after four days the wound was almost healed. On the fifth day I removed the four stitches. Taking out the stitches seemed to hurt me more than it hurt when I put them in. A few days later the wound had completely healed and I was back to normal.
Nelore cattle are not normally wild animals, but itís only natural that they react when they only see a human about ever fourteen months. When you separate wild cows from their calves and start crowding them, they do become hostile. Just remember, like I didnít, when you crowd Nelore cattle in a jungle corral, you've got to be careful, things can get out of hand fast.
Incidentally on my last trip to San Carlos, Venezuela, in July of 1993, I left that same Leddy saddle with a friend because I was planning on returning for another assignment, but the project was canceled and I havenít had the opportunity to go back and pick it up. Boy do I miss my old roping saddle.