Wednesday October 30th to Monday November 18th, 2002
The Orinoco Delta
In a word, stunning (we seem to be using that word a lot lately). A little down river from Tucupita, in a long thin boat, we, and a couple from France, motor along the "caños" (water channels) of the Orinoco Delta. Surrounded by mangroves and thick jungle for 3 days we see lots of birds - kingfishers, macaws, toucans, etc. - and howler monkeys perched at the very tops of the trees. We don't know how they don't fall out. The water is black (it's the tannin in it, not pollution). The still black water is almost like a mirror that reflects the surroundings so perfectly that it is difficult to see where the river meets the trees. We also pass the homes of some of the Warao people, the indigenous Indians of the delta. They live along the caņos in their palafitos - houses on stilts with just a log floor and a palm roof - no walls, running water or electricity. They live mostly off of fishing and a bit of hunting. The name "Warao" means "canoe people" in their local language.
Our camp is also a palafito and we sleep in hammocks under mosquito nets. On our first night we feed, what appears to be, every family on the caño. We counted 20 niños (children) with their 6 mothers and a few men. This meal is the price that the tour company pays for being allowed to locate their camp on Warao territory. The children don't go to school and are fascinated when Jackie starts to write her journal and it gathers quite a crowd. They are also impressed with the pictures in our Lonely Planet guide book, especially the colour photos. One little boy is so enthralled that he insists on turning each page himself so to be sure not to miss a single picture. They don't often get to see a book or pictures and we feel that their young minds are thirsting for knowledge (that they won't get). We also show them our inflatable globe and try to indicate where we come from but the globe has little meaning to them as they have no concept of the world beyond their small delta. That night we go out in a dugout canoe (in the pitch black) looking for wildlife. We see bats, a big spider, a sleeping kingfisher and a yellow snake in a tree. Jackie is a bit worried about what we don't see. We sleep well until about 3:00am when the howler monkeys start screeching - the noise is incredible, even ear plugs don't help.
The next day we head out for a jungle walk wearing high boots as it is very swampy. It's great fun as our wellies get stuck in the mud and we nearly fall over. Our Indian guide shows us some of the plants and trees and what the Warao use them for - house building, canoes, medicine and food. We eat and drink some of them - they're pretty tasty. Jackie doesn't fall over (only just) but somehow manages to get mud all over her trousers. We then set off in the boat on the caņos - again there's lots of birds but we also see many electric blue butterflies and jumping fish. We meet some more Warao people - they let us look around their homes. Some bartering goes on, our guides trade coca cola (one of the standard currencies out here) for some giant lemons and some ice. Later they trade rum for fish and tapir meat (which is actually illegal for non-Warao people to have) and then beer for chicken. Our guides are quite the businessmen. We reach the second night's camp and it's just us - no 20 children. We pour some cuba libres (rum & coke) and have cocktails in the jungle - very civilized. After dark we head out cayman (crocodile) hunting. Out here the cayman very small compared to those in Los Llanos. We use the flashlight and can spot their eyes shining in the darkness. There are two Warao with us and they capture a cayman for us - to look at and touch. There's no howler monkeys here, so we have a fairly quiet night.
We set off along the caņos again and head for the Atlantic Ocean. A flock of scarlet ibis suddenly take flight and the sky flashes red, what a sight! The Warao have built their stilt houses out in the ocean on a sandbank in about a meter of water. Here, unlike on the caņos, they cover some of the sides with palm leaves to offer some protection against the wind. We go into their houses - there's lots of children (as usual) and they even have pet dogs out here. There's an old man salting fish (mainly dorado) that they have caught. We head out a bit further into the ocean and can see the island of Trinidad then turn back and head for home (well, Tucupita). On the way we get slowed down as the river is completely clogged by floating plants. We also see river dolphin, like those we saw in Los Llanos, with pink bellies. We had a great trip.
OK everyone, you all need to get on a plane and fly to Venezuela to see this. We fly from Cuidad Bolivar in a little Cessna (there's 5 of us including the pilot) for about an hour to the village of Canaima in the Canaima National Park. There are no roads to Canaima so flying is the only way to get there. The plane flies low so we get a fantastic view of the countryside. Then we spot the tepuis (table mountains) rising up from the plains. They are an unbelievable sight with their sheer walls and flat tops. Coming in to land at Canaima we can see the lagoon and the four waterfalls that pour into it. Others joins us and we are now a group of 10 (Belgians, Germans, Dutch, Spaniards and us). We take a large motorized dugout canoe up the Rio Carrao through rapids (what a hoot!) and a rain storm. It is now that we can get a feel for the massive size of the tepuis. The rain causes dozens of waterfalls to pour off the tops, falling hundreds of meters to the jungle. At the camp, dinner and our hammocks are waiting for us. There are no howler monkies here to wake us but there is a very loud cockerel who doesn't know what time it is.
The next day we head further up river and turn onto the Rio Churin and stop at a small island. From here we walk across the river, and through the jungle for about an hour, the last half hour uphill. Then, suddenly, there it is - the highest waterfall in the world. From 979 meters above, Angel Falls cascades down into Devil's Canyon. By the time the water reaches the bottom of the first drop it has turned into nothing more than a plume of mist. It spills from the top of Auyantepui which means "Mountain of the God of Evil" in the Pemon Indian language. This is one of the largest tepuis with a top area of over 700 sq.km. and reaches over 2000m above sea level. Seeing this has been one of Jackie's dreams for a long time and she is not disapointed. We sit for a while just staring up and getting wet from the spray. The clouds move in and the falls disappear then they clear and it's there again. We then, reluctantly, head back to the canoe and down river (more rapids , yea!) to our camp.
The next day we head back to Canaima but, on the way, we stop off at El Sapo Falls. These falls pour over and overhang so we can walk behind and underneath the falls. The power of the water thundering over us is incredible and we are immediately soaked by the spray. The wind generated almost blows you off your feet. At the other end there's a pool that we swim in right next to the falls. There are rainbows all around. We have to go back behind the falls and walk to a beach with pink sand to get the boat back the the camp. Whilst waiting on the beach we see a tarantula spider. Jackie hopes it's the only one we're going to see on our travels (not likely).
We spend another day chilling in hammocks and swimming in the lagoon before flying back to Ciudad Bolivar. Then we catch a bus for an 11 hour ride to Santa Elena de Uairen at the southern end of Canaima National Park near the Brazilian border.
Roraima is a tepui on the tripartite border of Venezuela, Brazil & Guyana. It's one of the largest and highest as it rises straight up from the savannah to a height of 2810m above sea level. We're about to spend 6 days climbing and exploring this tepui. We've got a guide and a porter (who carries the food). We have to carry all of our own gear. This means Peter's got about 20kg and Jackie 12kg, a heavier load that we carried up the Picos. Travelling with us is a young Spanish couple. We travel by 4 wheel drive Land Cruiser on an extremely bumpy "road" to the starting point - a small Pemon Indian village called Paraitepui. The first couple of days walking is across the savannah - it's more rolling hills, so the actual walking is not so bad but the hot sun makes it harder. The scenery at first reminds Jackie of Scotland and instead of midges they have "la plaga" - their bites itch like mad. On the first night we camp at Rio Tek and have a very welcome dip in the cold river. From the camp we have Roraima straight ahead of us and another tepui called Kukenan to the left. We can see a couple of waterfalls tumbling from their tops. We watch the clouds float on top, around and below them. It's tough to comprehend the scale of these mountains, they loom huge but are still 10km away. That night as we head to bed our guide tells us that should we need the loo in the night, to look out for rattlesnakes and to check for scorpions in our boots.
On the second day we have to cross the Rio Kukenan, which is fast flowing and can be pretty deep, depending on the rainfall on the tepuis. Sometimes people have to wait several hours or a day until the river level drops before crossing. We're quite lucky in that it's not too deep so we don't need to wait or use ropes but Jackie still has great "fun" jumping from rock to rock with the porter's help. Some Germans before us fell in, soaking not only themselves but their cameras (we really shouldn't laugh). Once we're on the other side we go for a swim - today is extremely hot so the freezing cold water is wonderful. The walking is more uphill today and in this heat we wish we had a cold river to swim in every half hour. Our second night is at the base camp - right at the foot of Roraima. It's a sheer cliff face - how on earth are we going to get up there? Our guide points out "The Ramp" to us, this is a steep path through the jungle and along the wall of the tepui.
The next day we find out how steep The Ramp really is. However, by being in the jungle we're out of the sun although it's still hot and sticky. The trees are covered in thick moss and there's a lot of unusual plants, flowers and ferns, making it look almost prehistoric. Apparently a description of Roriama is what inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write "The Lost World" (although he never did actually come here). It's a tough but stunning climb. We cross streams and pass under waterfalls. After four or so hours we're at the top. To quote our guide book:
"The scenery that surrounds you is a moonscape, evocative of a science fiction movie: blackened rock of every imaginable shape, gorges, creeks, pink beaches and gardens of unique flowering plats. Frequent and constantly changing mist and fog add to the mysterious air".
This is exactly what we saw. The top of the tepui is by no means flat and we have to climb up and down, over and under rocks to get to a small area (El Hotel) where we can pitch out tents. It's sort of up in a cave with a huge overhanging rock. The view we have is incredible - the Gran Sabana stretching out below us. As night falls we watch lightning amongst the clouds over Paraitepui away in the distance.
We spend the entire fourth day exploring the top of the tepui. Because the rock is black lots of little creatures are also black. We see black dragonfly larvae swimming in pools and tiny little black frogs. Most of the plants here are endemic to the tepui, as the top has been isolated from the savannah and othet tepuis for millions of years. We see many different orchids and flycatchers. Lots of the plants are tiny but they are all colourful. We come across waterfalls and small pools (Peter even goes swimming - it's too cold for Jackie). We also see lots of quartz crystal in pools and on the sand and there's actually small valleys of it. We're not allowed to take anything that belongs to the mountain - no plants, rocks, crystals etc. Apparently searches are often carried out on returning travellers and crystals are subject to heavy on the spot fines - Peter sneaks out a tiny crystal - tut tut. We also climb to the highest point on the tepui (2810m). Away in the distance is Brazil and the other way is Guyana.
The next day we reluctantly head down. For Peter this is just as hard as climbing up. His knees hurt and having the heavy backpack on adds to the impact. We climb down and past the base camp all the way to the first night's camp - it takes around 7 or so hours. Again we have to cross Rio Kukenan - no problem. Then we sit and watch the group of Germans in the hope that one will go splash!! It's a long hot day and when we get to the camp we dump our packs and dash to the cold river - bliss. Tonight there's quite a few people camping here (around 25) so some enterprising locals have brought beer and coca cola to sell. Needless to say we indulge ourselves. This day also marks the fourth anniversary of our meeting. There's no Chilean red wine to celebrate with but the beers do fine.
On the last day we head to Paraitepui - 3 hours of hot, sweaty walking. However, we make very good time despite our sore knees, shins and aching thigh muscles. We think that if we stop there's a good chance that our legs will seize up. When we arrive there's lunch and celebratory beers waiting for us - what a welcome.
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