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Stourbridge-born man on a slow boat to Bogota — Part Eight

By dan shaw  |  Posted: December 01, 2012

One of Eric Rolphʼs letters home, written 82 years ago

One of Eric Rolphʼs letters home, written 82 years ago

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THIS is the final instalment of the letters home written by Eric Rolph as he travelled from England to Colombia in 1930. We last left Eric on Monday, 21st April, 1930, as he made his way up the Magdalena River towards the Colombian capital Bogota.

He, and his travelling companion, Linsell, had reached the town of Beltran, having taken a train to avoid rapids in the Magdalena, where they hoped to catch another steamer on to Bogota. But the boat was not sailing, so they took places on a cargo boat, though it was not certain when that one would depart as the captain was waiting for instructions. So Eric and his friend took themselves to the local hotel to wait for news ...

“We went to the ‘hotel’ and the sight of it almost made us go down and pray the captain would get his cable. We went into the main ‘dining’ room and engaged a room provisionally, and ordered a meal.

We were led to our room which lay on the far side of the yard littered with old tins and garbage and inhabited by mosquitoes, chickens, pigs, filthy children and blasé looking vultures.

“The yard was bad, the room infinitely worse. It was built of old packing cases from which the names had not been removed, nailed onto uprights still covered with bark. The floor was of unplaned planks gaping with knot holes. There were two chairs made of pigskin stretched between two trestles.

The canvas was full of holes and someone had pushed his foot through one of the chairs. Between the top of the wall and the roof was a space of one foot of trellis work specially designed to let in a million mosquitoes for a midnight meal.

“Directly over the bed, apparently glued upside down to one of the saplings supporting the filthy, thatched, bug-ridden roof, with its pedant cobwebs, was an interesting beetle, over an inch long with antennae much longer. The whole place was crudely whitewashed and was the sort of place a selfrespecting fowl would turn his nose up at.

“We made a resolve not to sleep on the bed and amended it to not to sleep at all, if it so happened that we had to spend the night there.

We had our meal, we had taken the precaution to order boiled eggs and fruit – you can’t get your fingers in those, as the man said to the waiter who had his thumb in the soup. These we ate in a nasty hovel with a cracked mud floor, across which ran often bugs, occasionally fowl and once a wee pig.

“I’ll say this for the proprietress, she did not object to the pig. She (the proprietress, not the pig) was engaged in picking lice out of a brat’s head. During the fish and soup Linsell and I formed the centre of an admiring circle of natives who had never seen Englishmen eat before and were apparently making the most of the opportunity. You can imagine our relief when, at 3.30, a man came from the cargo boat to say the captain was going to sail. He told us though that he had no passenger accommodation and that we should have to spend the night as best we could. We did not mind and at 4 o’clock we set sail on the potty little ‘Zastre’.

“We had dinner – a vile meal. Foul food cooked under ghastly conditions by a dirty cook with hands deep in grime – we dared not look too closely as we were hungry.

“The upper Magdalena is a fast flowing stream and the scenery peculiarly Scottish – I could duplicate it in a score of places. A broad, swift, noisy river, the colour of a Scots stream in spate, low stony spits of land, a fringe of trees, a narrow plain sloping quickly up to fold upon fold of treeless heights, a sense of loneliness, a few wailing birds and over all a rich sunset. The hills fringing the upper Magdalena are limestone which explains the scanty vegetation in spite of the tropical heat and humidity. You should all visit the Scottish Highlands. They contain the cream of the world’s scenery in miniature.

“At dark we pulled into the side and made fast. A wood burning vessel came down river during the night, sparks flying thickly 30ft in the air, the biggest and prettiest Roman candle I have ever seen.

“Tuesday, April 22. Well, last night I turned in at 10, by chucking myself down on the zinc floor of the ship, nothing on top or underneath. Yet I was so tired that I was asleep in five minutes. Linsell lay on a table with a travelling rug over him. I was not so fortunate.

“I slept soundly till 12 when a tropical thunderstorm broke. Now a tropical thunderstorm is the bee’s knees.

Think of the worst storm you have ever known, multiply by ten, and you have a mild touch of a tropical storm. The rain does not ‘fall’ as we know it, large lakes descend vertically.

The landscape is illuminated free of charge by lightning, two minute rounds, one second intervals. There is also a sprinkling of thunder. I was getting wet from the spray and some kind hearted soul conceived the idea of putting me in the chief engineer’s bunk which was apparently unoccupied.

“This scheme was the goods, it would have worked well, but for the fact that 5 minutes after I was comfortably ensconced the chief engineer turned up from a spell of duty and was surprised to find me where his thoughts were. He knew no English, I knew no Spanish (I was so flummoxed that it all went) and so I departed with smiling and gesticulating apologies. The floor was wet. I tried to sleep in a chair and did so from 1-2, then I awoke with my limbs still asleep. I restored circulation until 3 then slept in the chair till 4. I awoke then, we moved off at 5. I washed my face and combed my hair and called it a night.

“It rained until 12, when it cleared up. We passed through wonderful scenery.

At first the hills were thickly wooded then the limestone cropped out again and the vegetation grew sparser. The river twisted and turned like the Windrush below Naunton and in many places flowed through with 100 feet sheer limestone walls then the precipitous hills rising to 1,000ft almost vertically, with fantastically shaped peaks. The current was strong, in places we only made ¼ mile an hour and our average speed for the journey was less than 3mph.

The old tub quivered and shook and I thought she would blow up any moment.

“I saw some alligators, a freshwater turtle and many beautiful birds and the scenery was some recompense for the uncomfortable journey.

“Eventually, two miles away, the hills fell away and we sighted Girardot, behind it a background of mountains and cloud all jumbled together – the Andes. It took us 2 hours to make that 2 miles and we had taken in all 27 hours to do what usually took 10.

“We for some unaccountable reason did not make fast to the harbour, but pulled up alongside a filthy riverbank, when we were calmly informed that our heavy luggage could not be put ashore till morning as the path was too dangerous. We had to risk it and got our suitcases put ashore. We followed along a sort of goat track, wet and slimy, 10 feet above a 15 foot deep river, in pitch darkness Ugh! “Anyway we got to our hotel. This was a good one and we had our first really good meal since leaving the Crynassen. Pineapple, good soup, roast beef (tender), baked spuds and green peas, peche Melba and coffee.

Great! We turned in early as we were tired.

“Wednesday, April 23. Rose at 7, had a classy breakfast (enlivened by a wee humming bird coming down and helping himself to the sugar at an adjoining table in the open ‘patio’) and saw about getting our luggage ashore. It was raining heavily – we shall arrive at Bogota in the middle of the rainy season.

“We boarded the train and left Girardot at 9.30. The train went along the level for about 20 miles, then it changed engines and began to climb rather rapidly. We had on small locos, which can be driven from each end and the line climbed in zig-zag. As we rose the vegetation changed and as soon as we arrived on the plateau 9,000ft up it was almost like Scotland. The thin, cold, pure air cut ones nostrils like a knife and I found that one needed more lung energy to speak.

“We arrived at Bogota at 6pm and I like the place, the people, the ‘Pension’, everything but I will write more fully later. It was exactly 33 days since I left Brum and I think that Bogota must be the most inaccessible capital in the civilised world.” There Eric’s account ends but we do not know what happened to him after that.

The four letters he wrote home during his journey to Colombia are now in the hands of Nona Bloomer, Eric’s cousin by marriage (her aunt married his uncle).

Nona would dearly like to know what happened to Eric.

We know that he was born around 1908, probably in Lye, and his birth was registered in the Stourbridge district. He had relatives in Dudley and Netherton but at the time of his journey his family lived in Yardley, Birmingham. He was contracted to work at a bank in Bogota for five years but we do not know if he stayed the full term or what happened to him afterwards.

Did he remain in Colombia or did he return to England? Did he ever marry or does he have any descendants alive today? Nona does not even have a photograph of Eric.

Any information on the later life of Eric Rolph would be greatly appreciated.

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