Akubras in the jungle

Ben Stubbs takes tea with a jungle tribe and beers with the descendants of Australians who came in search of utopia.

We walk along the edge of the jungle, tracing a faint track through the tropical thorns. Gelatinous red clay sticks to my boots like blood. A whiff of smoke from a fire ahead reveals the camp of the Ache tribe. As we step into the clearing I'm struck by a peculiar question of etiquette. What do you bring when you're invited to afternoon tea with a former cannibal?

Some say Paraguay is the heart of South America; others say it is closer to the armpit. I have arrived in this land-locked country to see what makes the heart beat in this "island surrounded by land".

My journey to the jungles of the Ache begins in the capital, Asuncion, a post-colonial city of pink-blossoming lapacho trees and faded mansions stained green from the tropical humidity. The plazas are filled with Latino charlatans and Indian communities living under hot black tarpaulins but there is an air of tranquillity. People sit at tables along cobbled streets sipping terere, a cold herbal tea, as the day's heat dissipates.

I'm staying in the Palace, a wedding cake of a hotel that was once a wartime hospital and now offers airconditioned rooms and cable TV for $25 a night. I get a call from my Paraguayan fixer, Rodrigo, who is helping me travel through the country. Rodrigo double-parks his white Mercedes outside the hotel and unbuttons his suit jacket as he strides towards me and grabs my hand with the familiarity of an old friend.

"G'day, mate! Welcome to Paraguay."

Roddie Wood, as he prefers to be known, is the grandson of Bill and Lillian Wood, among the 600 Australians who arrived in Paraguay by ship from 1893 to found a socialist utopia. Roddie has a broad smile and the sort of confidence that makes me want to call him uncle immediately.

More than a century after the migrants arrived, the Wood family remains proudly Australian. Roddie's uncles fought for the Allies in World War I, defending a country they'd never seen. Though Roddie has been to Australia only once, he loves the idea of being Australian. He wears an Akubra with pride and sings along to John Williamson's True Blue on his car stereo.

Before I head north to the domain of the Ache, Roddie insists I meet some fellow Australians in Paraguay. After the failed utopian experiment of the late 19th century, there are said to be more than 2000 descendants still living here. Over beers and barbecues in the suburbs of Asuncion, I'm introduced to Roddie's cousin, red-haired Florence Wood, and the Birks, Jacks and Cadogan families, who have assimilated as proud Paraguayan-Australians. Over ice-cold Baviera beers they urge me to make a pit stop on my journey in a little town named New Australia.

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Paraguay is said to be the second-poorest country in South America, richer only than Bolivia, and people don't sit around and wait for handouts. In my three-hour bus ride east, I see women dressed in fishnets and train conductors' caps wobble along the aisles selling baskets of steaming hot chipa (mandioca and cheese bread), long-haired Makka Indians play pan-flute solos for coins and children try to flog everything from women's knickers to saucepans.

I'm the only foreigner on the bus and my stop is Chinese-whispered to the front. The bus skids to a halt on a flat stretch of mud next to the Kiss Kiss love hotel. Across the road is a sign saying "Bienvenidos a Nueva Australia". Welcome to New Australia.

It is a one-street town with a corner shop, a church and a school with an Australian flag flapping out the front. This is where the original Australians settled in 1893 and it remains the home of a few of the descendants of the founding families. I wander along the red-dirt track and word quickly spreads about the visiting "Australiano". I meet the blonde Casey girls and the blue-eyed Murray kids, who show me photos of their Australian relatives, and Ernesto McCreen, who presses me for an Australian visa in between sips of rum. The "new" Australians are subsistence farmers who work land with livestock and tobacco.

One of New Australia's most notable former residents was Leon Cadogan, an Indian anthropologist who championed laws in the 1950s prohibiting the Indians from being regarded as pets and sold for $2 each at the slave markets. One group in particular that he helped was the Ache people, the nomadic hunter-gatherers who, among other things, were known for eating their dead in traditional funeral ceremonies.

There is no hotel in New Australia, so I head north to the Mbaracayu Reserve to see what has become of the Ache. Only a sixth of Paraguay's roads are sealed, which makes the Paraguay River a better bet. The only passenger boat sank the week before I arrive, so I buy a hammock and take a place on the deck of the cargo boat Guarani that chugs between Asuncion and the wild-west town of Concepcion at a stately pace of 11km/h, delivering goods to towns with no roads. It takes 28 hours.

I string up my hammock and swing in the breeze as we pass the edges of the thorny Chaco desert, known as the "Green Hell". The captain, Sergio, shoots carpinchos, giant rodents, for food as we drift past uninhabited stretches of jungle. I confess I'm not keen on carpincho, but Sergio laughs and tells me to eat up. "You never know what you'll be served with the Ache."

Late the next evening we dock in the sepia-toned city of Concepcion, which seems to have more horses than cars on the main street. Travelling east from here, I take a bus along the spine of the country. The farmland here is sparsely populated with terracotta-coloured anthills, palm trees, white-humped zebu cattle and only the occasional farmer. This isolation has lured many foreigners to Paraguay in search of their paradise.

The southern swamps are inhabited by colonies of Japanese farmers, who still wave the flag of the rising sun and eat tofu for tea; the northern desert is populated with Lego-like towns of Canadian and Ukrainian Mennonites who speak an ancient Plattdeutsch dialect and wear bonnets and dungarees; and in the bogs of central Paraguay is New Germany, the failed brainchild of Friedrich Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth, who came to establish an Aryan race in South America.

Eight hours on a crowded bus gets me to the eastern frontier with Brazil, full of Brazilian gangsters and Paraguayan "importers". A bottle of Johnny Walker Black costs $10 and shotguns not much more. I don't stay long - I'm heading to the last stand of Atlantic forest in the country, at Mbaracayu Reserve.

This is a rich tropical forest containing 410 bird species and 89 mammal species within the 64,000-hectare biosphere.

A ranger named Serafin and I follow puma and armadillo tracks and he takes me to the lip of the Karapi waterfall that descends into mist. Mosquitoes drift like smoke through the trees. We balance on the slippery rungs of a 40-metre stepladder and descend beside the gushing torrent. There are 33 orchid varieties that hang from tree branches here. At the bottom, there's a canoe waiting and we paddle through the fast-flowing Jejui River, as cayman slip into the shallows behind us.

Mbaracayu is home to jaguars, anacondas and wolves and although hunting here is illegal, there is one group still allowed to hunt freely on its ancestral land. On the edge of the reserve is Arroyo Bandera, the largest settlement of the Ache people in Paraguay.

They survive by growing corn and mandioca, though they still hunt with bows and arrows and live on the edges of the great forests, looking for wild honey and tapirs, large pig-like mammals with long snouts. In 1960, the same year that the Soviet Union sent dogs into space, these hunter-gatherers ventured out of the impenetrable jungles for the first time looking for food.

Even now the Ache welcome few visitors and I am regarded with as much curiosity as I afford them. In a strange genetic twist, the Ache have strong Mongolian features and compact frames. We meet Ruben, an elder in this community of 35 families. He came out of the forest in the '60s. He shows me the inch-deep scars across his skull, from a long-ago war with a rival tribe.

Children are all around the clearing, hiding in bushes and pressed against trees, watching. I wink and they burst out laughing, emerging from the forest to see this strange yellow-haired visitor. Ruben shows me his weapons: a five-foot bow and long, serrated arrows to fell monkeys.

We share a gourd of terere among the corn stalks and the men show me a traditional jope, a 1.8-metre fighting stick made of quebracho wood that they use to defend themselves from poachers. The Ache women show me woven bags and arrow pouches.

In the twilight the birds begin to sing in the canopy overhead and I begin my farewells. I'm told the Ache discontinued the practice of dining on their dead long ago but I leave before dinner, just in case.

Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Aerolineas Argentinas.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Aerolineas Argentinas has a fare to Asuncion for about $1980, from Sydney to Buenos Aires via Auckland (18hr including transit time), then Asuncion (1hr). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. Australian citizens are charged $US100 on arrival in Argentina and require a visa to enter Paraguay.

Touring there

Inter Express is the travel agency of Ronald Birks, an Australian descendant living in Asuncion. The company can arrange accommodation, transfers and activities throughout Paraguay; see www.interexpress.com.py.

In the Mbaracayu Reserve, the Moises Bertoni Foundation can arrange transport, accommodation and meals; see www.mbertoni.org.py. For more information, see www.senatur.gov.py.

Staying there

The Palace Hotel in the centre of Asuncion has refurbished rooms from $25 with breakfast and Wi-Fi. At 415 Calle Colon and Estrella; phone +595 21 492 15, see asuncionhotelpalace.com.

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