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Cardona, the last Catalan explorer

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Cardona, the last Catalan explorer

[Translation of “Cardona, el último explorador catalán” (source can only be accessed by subscription) by Eugeni Casanova, published in La Vanguardia (Revista) on 11-Jun-2006.]

The son of the great pioneer of the Venezuelan forest has died. He accompanied his father for 30 years.

Felix (Félix) Cardona Johnson, the last Catalan explorer died unexpectedly on 28th February 2006 from cancer. Cardona was born in Malgrat de Mar. In 1951 he participated in an expedition that reached the source of the Orinoco for the first time. He found the skeleton of a mammal that lived 25 million years ago and contributed to the discovery of dozens of species of birds and plants. He worked in the gold and diamond mines in Venezuelan Guayana and for more than 30 years he explored the rivers of the enormous forest region making cartographic measurements.

His expeditions were so numerous that Felix would always pull out a map to describe them graphically. Over the years, each time he returned to Caracas, he traced the outlines of the rivers, often the only means of access to the area, and the tracks that he had covered. He kept this map, already torn at the creases, in his house in Malgrat where he lived when he retired in 1999 and he would unfold it when he was recounting his travels.

His history as an explorer is linked with that of his father, Felix (Fèlix) Cardona Puig (born Malgrat in 1903, died Caracas 1982). The father, on finishing his studies in the merchant marine, went around the world in a steam sailing ship between 1922 and 1925 in order to gain his qualification as a captain. On this journey, someone told him that the rivers in Venezuela were full of gold and diamonds and the young sailor with adventure in his blood, wasted no time in getting off the boat when it stopped there. He was then 23 years old.

At that time, Venezuela's only viable roads were near the coast and the centre and the south of the country were vast areas of forest represented as blank on the maps. Cardona, who was quickly labelled The Captain by everyone, knew a Catalan, Joan Mundo (Mundó) who had been living for some years in the country. Both of them travelled up the river Caroni in the fragile indigenous canoes, locally called curiaras. At the first rapids, they lost all contact with European civilization and entered a world anchored in the paleolithic era and inhabited only by indigenous people. Mundo's son drowned in one of these rapids. The first maps that exist of the river Caroni, a tributary of the Orinoco, was made by Cardona with a sextant and a compass, calculating distances using the sea and the stars.

They never found any diamonds, but Cardona fell in love with the forest and now never wanted to leave it. He married a German woman, Carlota Johnson, and when she was pregnant with the first child, he took her by boat back to Malgrat so that she could be attended by the same midwife that helped his mother give birth to himself; he was not confident about the medical facilities in Venezuela. On the 11th August 1933, Felix (Félix) was born, the first of six children. [For those unfamiliar with Spanish names, women on marriage do not take the name of their husbands but keep their own surname. The children are given a first name and take the the father and the mother's fist surnames. So Felix (the son) took Cardona from his father and Johnson from his mother.] The father's only thoughts were directed towards the extensive forest regions of the South American country. He imagined great exploration projects in which he tried to involve the Generalitat (Catalan government) and he assured them that he would give the source of the Orinoco the name of Francesc Macia (the President). In July 1936, the family returned to the Americas. The military rebellion in Spain of the 18th July caught them in the middle of the Atlantic and the Captain ordered the ship to return. The passengers, however, forced the crew to complete the crossing.

The Forest Oracle. The Spanish civil war aborted all the projects that had been planned with the Generalitat. Felix (the father) started working for the department of National Cartography in the Ministry of Public Works of Spain and became the official oracle of the Venezuelan forests. His legendary story reached Caracas where they talked of a white leader who controlled the Indians.

While still a young man, Felix (the son) joined his father on expeditions. The author of this report conducted five long interviews with him in March 2004. For 30 years, the son worked for his father as a wireless operator, driver, cook, astronomer and companion in all their adventures so that all the discoveries and maps attributed to the father were really their joint work.

In 1951, Felix (the father) guided the expedition that reached the source of the Orinoco, the second largest river in South America. The son, who was 18 at the time, explained years later that the expedition was a disaster from the beginning because it was led by the military who had never travelled beyond Caracas and made one mistake after another. The father was so angry that he left them in the middle of the jungle and returned to Spain to resolve some legal affairs. When he returned, he found the expedition in the same place. Felix (the son) said, “They didn't want to listen to reason because they were men of military rank and discipline. We only reached the source of the river when they left the decisions to my father.”

That same year, Felix, a Catalanist and profoundly anti-Franco, dared to send the family back to Malgrat, and later they rented a flat in Barcelona in the Sant Gervasi district. Felix lived from the salary he received from the ministries of Public Works and Agriculture and found it cheaper to be based in Spain, where he had many children. (Sending the family back from Venezuela for every birth would be expensive.) He continued to follow the cycle of the forest. Father and son would spend six months in the area of the Amazon and Guayana, and when the rains began between May and November they returned to Catalonia. However, the son never heard his father say he wanted to return to the place where he had been born. He only said that he would not establish a permanent residence in Catalonia while Franco was alive.

From the Gran Sabana to the Pico Cardona. The Cardona father and son named most of the places in the south of Venezuela, among them the Gran Sabana plateau which dominates the vast region between Guayana and Brazil and where Angel Falls is located. “The rationals ('the whites' in the local slang) often made up new names, but my father always noted the names used by the local people, and these have often stuck”, remembers the son. The highest mountain in the area, some 2992 metres tall on the border with Brazil, is called Pico Cardona.

On their journeys, they carried stocks of necklaces and cloth to pay the natives. They could pay for a whole expedition with a roll of fabric. They also brought machetes and axes, which were extremely valuable for the indians; if an indian obtained one of these, his status would immediately be enhanced. Felix (the father) documented all the indigenous groups to the south of the Orinoco, revealed the existence of four previously unknown languages and even learned some of them. He always talked of the Zapes tribe as being different from all the others (now there are none left).

White chest hairs. Felix (the son) remembered that in all the years of travelling in the forest they never had any negative experiences with the natives, except once. On that occasion, one of his father's first journeys, the Guajaribos killed four of his porters and robbed them of their belongings. But this was only due to tribal rivalries, and they returned what they had stolen a year later. The Shirishane women were very curious, and when the expedition arrived, they took the clothes off the men to see if their bodies were like those of their local men. What worried them most was the hair on their chests.

For 15 years, the Cardonas collected plants and caught birds. They captured the birds for a patron who financed scientific expeditions, the industrialist William Phelps. Phelps put together the most important collection in the world, which still exists, and many specimens went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Another collaborator was the Catalan, Josep Maria Cruxent, the director of the Museum of Natural Sciences in Caracas. There are 22 plants and two birds that are labelled with the scientific name, Cardonae. “I used to catch between 20 and 50 birds a day, and my father would stuff them. It was an unusual day if we did not discover something because every tepuy (mountain in the local language) has its own families of flora and fauna,” remembered Felix.

On one occasion, Felix (the son) found a shell of a glytodon (mammal covered with a bony structure that lived at the end of the tertiary era and at the beginning of the quaternary. He continued exploring and discovered a bone that turned out to be a femur of one metre in length and 25 centimetres in diameter. He took it home, cleaned it and covered it with transparent varnish. He called Josep Maria Cruxent who identified it as being from a megatherium, a mammal from the Pleistocene, and 25 million years old. Paleontologists went on to find an almost complete skeleton of the animal at that spot.


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