Before we went to Venezuela it was hard to get any real information about the place. In part there are fewer books written about it, but also the ones available tend to be factual guide books rather than the tales of someone's wanderings through the country. Like most people, we knew that the oil wealth throughout most of this century had helped the country a lot and we had also heard that Caracas was a collection of office blocks and traffic jams. Against that, we had heard that the population densities up-country are some of the world's lowest.
Our arrival at the airport gave little indication. Airports never do. We spent some time changing our dollars into Bolivars, having been told we might have little opportunity where we were going. Then we were rounded-up by a young German who was to deliver the group safely to the hotel. For this purpose he had a large American car and large American van/bus. We piled in and set off. It was pointed out that Caracas lies at an altitude of 3400' while the airport is on the seashore. The motorway was fairly well built, a little scruffy and a steep climb.
We had only been driving for a few minutes when it began to rain. Quickly it became clear that this was not just rain; this was going to be an experience! Even the locals conceded that it was fairly heavy. It came down in torrents and it did not stop. The spray made it hard to see and the motorway became a fast-flowing river heading down the hill.
As we entered the outskirts of Caracas the rain began to ease a little, revealing a city that did indeed have many office blocks and traffic jams, but at least it had hills all around it and a rich range of down-at-heel shops and houses which stopped it looking like Europe. We had got our first glimpse of the favellas (shanty towns on the steep hillsides above the town). We were all well aware from world news broadcasts, four days before, that there had been loss of life in these favellas when a tropical storm had washed away sections of the hillside. In contrast, our hotel was quite civilised and comfortable. Soon we were tidied-up and sitting in the hotel bar drinking cold lager and talking to the German tour agent. He had been trained in Civil Engineering but found this much more to his taste. The plan was for the group to go to a local restaurant for a meal. There were twelve of us and we were told that two more would arrive by the following day.
We went off unescorted and with only a few words of Spanish between the twelve of us. We soon stumbled upon a suitable looking restaurant and entered to join some of the more prosperous locals having a Saturday night out. The menu proved easy to guess and we soon were choosing our food. We were given to understand that the meat we ordered should also be accompanied by a salad, so all we ordered one. The first courses were good; it looked as though the food was going to be a lot better than in Peru. The salads turned up quickly, on their own plates, and we waited for the meat to arrive. It was then that things began to go less well. No sign of the meat. The waiters were serving other customers and sometimes gave us a sidelong glance from the distance. A few of us began picking at the salad to stave off our hunger. This went on for some while, then we managed to collar a waiter and demanded our meat. This was met with some confusion and we only realised the true cause of the problem was when we found the waiters trying to take the salads away. We made it clear they were not to be touched and we wanted our meat. We got it, but it was quite clear what they thought of these crazy gringos who ate their meat and salad at the same time!
Like most first nights, it was hard going. Everyone was jet lagged and really more interested in feeding and getting back to bed for some sleep. However it looked as though we were a reasonable sort of group and there should not be any great problems. Eventually the evening finished and we were soon back in bed and asleep.
The next day started quietly. We were not due to fly out until afternoon and the morning was free. Joan and I went for a walk, but like any big city on a Sunday morning it was really dull. After wandering some distance and seeing little of interest we got back closer to the hotel and found an attractive pedestrian plaza called Chacaito where local life of the "see and be seen" variety was just beginning to pick up. We sat in a canopied open air cafe, ordered some tea and watched the locals going on parade in their best clothes. We were beginning to realise that the character of the country is very different from Peru, where you felt threatened if you were not actually behind locked doors or guarded by an armed guard. Despite a certain amount of poverty, these people were relaxed and friendly.
We enjoyed our lemon tea and returned to the hotel to meet Doug Pridham, who was to be our tour leader. Later, when we got to hear more, we found he is an Englishman who has settled in Venezuela and his company is contracted to Explore Worldwide to run the Venezuelan tour. This was to be his 43rd ascent of Roraimo. He would be assisted for the first part of this tour by Alfredo, who is an architect and does the tours with Doug as a holiday task.
We heard that only one of the extra people had arrived and that we would probably have to leave without the other. But first we went as a group to a nearby hotel for lunch. This choice was conditioned by the situation of the restaurant at the top of the hotel, with an excellent view of Caracas. Also the food was good.
Soon we were back in the vehicles, heading for the airport. The usual waiting around then took place before a shortish flight to Maturin, then on to Ciudad Bolivar. At CB we were back to a lower altitude and from the heat it was easy to realise that we were only 8° from the Equator. We carried our luggage out of the airport, past the preserved aeroplane of Jimmy Angel (the pilot who first discovered the world's highest falls) and to the hotel and an air-conditioned room. There we fought the air conditioning, which seemed to be trying to freeze us and steadily dribbled cold water from the ceiling vents. In the end we settled for opening some of the windows which at least kept the temperature right but increased the cascade from the vents. It was getting late and there was little to do but have dinner and go to bed again.
Breakfast was followed by some hectic packing and splitting the luggage. Joan and I managed to get things quite wrong and we came very close to taking the luggage we wanted to leave and leaving the luggage we wanted to take. Luckily this was avoided but by the narrowest of margins. There was then a little time to walk to the town centre or the banks of the Orinoco. Largely resulting from the confusion over the luggage we missed the briefing and took some time to get our bearings (our lack of Spanish did not help). This meant that we did not see the best areas before we had to return to the airport. At this stage we were beginning to wonder why we had come all this way to have such a boring time.
We waited at the airport and looked around as we sheltered from the sun. There were some odd sights to see. The aircraft were a motley collection: jets, light aircraft of various sizes, helicopters of various sizes, one amazing canard single-seater in fibreglass and a remarkable high-wing Antonov which looked as though it had just made the breakout from the biplane era. As we watched, the Antonov lumbered out to the runway and took off after a really short run, after which it cluttered up the local airspace for some time as it fought its way upwind into a light breeze. Amongst all these planes was a DC3 and that was to be our transport. This made me remember that in 1960 I flew to South Africa in a plane which even then was considered to be totally out of date: it was a DC4, and now in 1993 I was to fly in a DC3! The first DC3 flew in 1937 and the one now being prepared for us was a very modern example of the species, having been built in 1947.
We got in by climbing up a little ladder-thing (a bit like they give the monkeys in the zoo for exercise) and made our way up the steep slope of the fuselage to choose one of the seats that were attached to the floor at generously-spaced intervals. Not all the seats were available: those at the front were already stacked with our luggage and the provisions for our river trip. The whole setup gave the general feel of us having wandered into an archive film-clip.
They managed to start the engines and we rumbled along the runway to become airborne. The rate of climb was less than we achieve back at home with an underpowered Chipmunk towing a two-seater glider. Still that did mean we were able to count the tree leaves as we started to cross the rain forest. When we were not watching the scenery outside the window, we did wander along to see the pilots. One was picking his teeth and the other was reading a newspaper.
As we made our way up country the first tepui came into view. It was largely because of these that we came to Venezuela. A tepui is a flat-topped mountain with vertical walls on all sides. They are made of very old and very hard rock. When the rock erodes it fails along vertical planes only. The flat tops can be anything up to the size of a county and each has its own distinctive flora and a very few fauna. Each rises sheer out of the rain forest or, further south, from the grassland. The cliffs are high: about 1500' to 2000' sheer and a lot more if you count the lower slopes. At intervals there are spectacular waterfalls plunging the full height of the cliff. We were now getting close to the world-famous Angel Falls and the pilots were obligingly flying close to the cliffs. This was fairly spectacular since we were less than half way up their height.
We took a few preliminary photos and then Angel Falls appeared outside the window. It comes down one of the highest pieces of cliff and at its base an extra section has fallen away to remove all the scree and the total height of the fall is well over 3000'; that is more than 20 times the height of Niagara Falls. It is certainly a spectacular sight. We took our photos and then the plane turned and passed back again for a second view.
The rest of the trip could have felt like an anticlimax but the view of the ground below was very clear and it was interesting. The rivers curved through the dense forest and they were filled with a rich brown water that had the colour of tea in the pot. At one point we saw two big dugouts forging along, driven by a powerful motor: this was how we would be travelling for the next week. We also passed over the falls on the Rio Carrao at Canaima, which is where our river trip would eventually finish.
Our flight finished when we landed at Kamarata. After the plane bumped to a halt and the engines stopped, we clambered down the little ladder into the hot sun and looked around. In Africa, the bush airfields have a straight level landing strip bulldozed out from the surroundings. There was nothing like that here. There were no markers, the grass had not even been cut, the only concession was that they had a windsock.
One of the pilots carried out a folding deck chair and set it under the wing where he was out of the sun. The rest of us formed a human chain to get our luggage out and stacked in a pile. A tiny group of local children and a dog watched us. While we were doing this a small pickup truck lumbered into view. I was a little surprised to see it. I later learnt that it was running on what must have been the only petrol in Venezuela at European prices. Petrol normally costs less than 7P per litre in Venezuela, but here all the petrol is flown in.
Once our luggage was off, the DC3 restarted and unencumbered by its load, it got airborne easily and vanished slowly from sight. The pickup set off with the luggage and we followed on foot. The village was quite impressive. There were quite a few houses and they were set on straight "roads" consisting of a few wheel marks. Most were of block work construction and some had corrugated iron roofs. Ours had chest-high walls and a normal height roof, a design that worked wonders for ventilation. It had a number of rooms off the central area and these contained beds with mattresses!
It was still fairly early and so, after a rather rough lunch, we walked out of the village to a place where there was a shallow lake and we could go swimming. Joan and I had not brought towels and we had wondered how long it would take us to get dry in the rather humid conditions. This problem was resolved when it began to rain and kept it up until we were very nearly back to our house.
The evening was long and peaceful. Dinner consisted of a somewhat disgusting stew of high-tensile meat and undercooked vegetables. This was our first indication that Doug had absolutely no feeling for the joys of good food. As some compensation we were provided with a small cauldron of excellent coffee and we could drink it by the pint if we so pleased. The meal was slightly enlivened when a 15cm long grasshopper came sailing out of the dark, ricocheted off my left ear and landed on someone else. At last we felt the holiday was getting under way!
In the morning we got going, after a delay, at 9:00 to go on the petrol-driven and brakeless pickup to Kavac. This is a traditional village specially maintained for tourists, who fly in each day in considerable numbers. However the good news was that we were going to some interesting waterfalls in the hills above Kavac. These were real fun. As the valley narrowed we were first deprived of most of our clothes and our cameras, all of which went into tightly knotted polythene bags
We clambered into the river and then waded or swam up into the ever-narrowing cleft from which the river flowed. In the latter stages it got really narrow: not enough room for a breast-stroke. By that time one almost needed a torch to see the way. Finally it broke out into the base of a pot about the area of a small dance floor with very high walls and a waterfall streaming in from above. It was a dramatic spot but quite friendly, so we spent some while there swimming in the turbulent water. It was cool but pleasantly so. High above us on the walls were the nests of small swallows. Just as I emerged from the narrowest part a tiny baby swallow landed with a flop in the water beside me. We were not sure what best to do, but we sat it in a bush beside the water and hoped that its parents would find it.
We walked back down from the waterfalls and stopped in the village for some shade and a cool drink. By then the grass airstrip nearby contained a good number of light aircraft, that had flown in from Ciudad Bolivar with tourists to see Angel Falls. This village was apparently their souvenir-buying and photographic paradise. (Anyone want to buy a quarter-length blowpipe, heavily decorated?)
Once back in Kamarata we had lunch then packed our bags. We walked about a kilometre to the river and there we saw the boats which were to be ours for the next few days. Both were dugouts made from single large trees. Both were very long. They had adapted to modern needs by acquiring raised sides and a powerful outboard motor attached to the rear end.
We settled ourselves in the boats and off we went at a rather unlikely high speed. A certain amount of water gradually seeped in. At full speed the water ran to the back. If power was eased back at any stage, then there was a forward wash of bilge water which one soon learned to avoid. The surroundings were certainly impressive, with huge rain forest trees packed almost touching for mile after mile. However I would not rank it as exciting after the first half hour.
Eventually we reached our destination. We made for a nondescript point on the bank, got out and made our way up into the trees. Rather surprisingly the trees ceased after some 100 metres and we were in a large lightly wooded patch with a big open sided thatched shelter nearby. This was to be home for the night. We settled in slightly apprehensively. The shelter had a central plank table flanked by benches, the rest was empty. Some of our Indians fetched hammocks and began to string them radially out from the main support posts to the edge supports of the roof. Each hammock then had a mosquito net arranged to cover it. Meanwhile some more Indians had lit a fire and had a number of whole chickens on spits grilling over it. While we waited for nightfall we went for walks through the more open area. Joan managed to find her way to another clearing nearby where some local Indians had a slash and burn farm in operation. I managed to find my way to a side stream which effectively blocked further walking.
On our return, dinner was ready. The chicken was absolutely delicious, having been beautifully spiced during cooking. We enjoyed our meal. By the time we had finished it was dark and beginning to rain. We had been given some lessons on how to get into hammocks and, more important, taught to lie at about 45° to the axis of the hammock and not straight along the hammock in the "gringo position". The hammocks were to prove beautifully comfortable and we enjoyed our sleep in them over the next few days. The rain built up to real torrents but the thatched roof did not let in a drop. Our luggage stayed dry by being up on the benches. The local mice had fun with our baggage all night long.
In the morning the rain had stopped and nearby a vulture was sitting on top of a tree, spreading its wings in the early sunshine to dry off and to get warm. We Europeans found it quite warm enough, although one North American member of the party had woken a few people during the night by wrapping herself in a space blanket which crackled loudly every time she moved. Luckily this novel little idea was dropped during future nights.
Our first boat journey of the day was quite short. We got out and went for a walk through the forest to a larger open area, part of which evidently served as an airstrip from time to time. The main purpose of our visit was to look at the remains of a DC3 which had suffered the loss of an undercarriage leg here many year before. "Many years" was over twenty; there were quite substantial trees growing up through the wreckage, but the aluminium structure was still intact.
Nearby we visited an Indian house which was definitely short of worldly goods. The lady of the house and her children treated us with polite indifference. It was a shame that none of us were able to communicate at all. Nearer the river there was another small clump of houses and a family with children. I blew up a few balloons that I had brought with us and the children seemed very pleased to have them.
We set off again, for a longer journey this time. Finally we stopped by a set of thatched shelters similar to that of the previous evening. We were very pleased to find that there was to be grilled chicken for dinner again. While waiting for dinner we all swam in the river. After African holidays it seemed very nice to do this. There are no crocodiles and no alligators of significant size. If there were any Piranha, then they were not hungry that day. We had plenty of time free at this camp. Joan and I found a small trail running into the forest and had an interesting walk of a kilometre or more before the conditions got too swampy for us to continue. We were intrigued by the presence of a trail, even though it was obviously little used. Possibly it had something to do with local people who might visit the gringo camp from time to time. Near the camp there was a substantial nest of leaf cutter ants and they had columns of a hundred metres or more in length going out foraging for high quality leaves. Apparently the remains of a cabbage dumped near the huts constituted some sort of treat since they were working hard on demolishing it and taking the remains back to their nest. (They take the leaves underground and use them to grow fungus, on which they feed)
In the morning we set off again and travelled to the junction with the Rio Chirun. Here we stopped and the good propeller of the outboard was changed for an older and more battered one. We were now made to wear life jackets for the rest of the trip. When we set off again the dull river journey was gone. This section was steeply uphill! The outboard motors worked wonders in the fast-flowing water, but even so it was often a case of everyone out to push. Getting back in again as the boat got going was the interesting bit! On some sections the boats were unloaded and pulled by rope. On one section we were amazed to stumble over a complete outboard motor on the river bed and we rescued it. (Later we heard that another boat had lost it a few weeks before in flood conditions)
We did see other boats on this section and by late afternoon we got glimpses of Angel Falls ahead. We arrived to find that we were sharing a larger camp with a number of other parties. The shelters were less attractive ones built on concrete bases and they had corrugated iron roofs. We passed the time by swimming in the river or looking at Angel Falls, now directly above us at the top of the slope. Night proved to have its entertainments. With a torch one could spotlight large mice running along the roof supports of the shelter. It rained heavily all night and the noise from the corrugated iron roof was impressive, although it did not seem to stop anyone from sleeping.
In the morning the river was very high and flowing fast. We were now on an island rather than the mainland, since a low-lying part had become a river. Since it was our intention to walk up to the Falls we had to use one of our boats to cross this channel. We enjoyed the walk up through the forest. Usually there seemed so little opportunity to walk in it since there are no paths. We finally emerged from the forest on to a lookout rock several hundred metres from the base of the Falls. Despite our distance from the Falls it was still wet and noisy from the wind created by the falling water. The column of water came from way high up above us and passed through a cloud layer on the way down. Anything which is so big is a little difficult to relate to. Previously I had got waterfalls classified as short, medium and high. Angel Falls just destroyed that image.
We stayed for some while just looking at it, but finally we set off on the walk down. Again we enjoyed it. The vegetation is so luxuriant and green and nearly every tree has other parasitic plants growing on it. The whole thing feels so alive.
Down at the camp we were scheduled to stay for another night, so we had a quiet afternoon. The surroundings were good, but not quite as good as we knew existed elsewhere: there are too many people visiting the Falls and it gets just a little shabby by the standards of the region. Also we were back on the low grade food again and did not have the evening meal to look forward to.
In the morning we were glad to set off down the river again. With the current behind us, the descent of the fast-flowing section was over all too soon. We stopped to change the gashed and battered propeller for the newer one and then set off along the Rio Carrao again, heading for Canaima. Our journey was broken at one point by some excitement. We saw an Indian paddling a small dugout in the middle of the river, chasing a small deer. This was the only larger animal we saw for the whole trip. It had decided to swim across the river and, unluckily for it, the Indians had spotted it. We went close to see it and were surprised to see that it was blind in one eye. We felt very sorry to see it in its plight and we knew that it was to be the main course for someone's dinner that night.
On the walk to Canaima we were discussing the standards set for our camping. As well as the low quality of the food, we had become aware of the awful standards of hygiene. The crockery we are using is plastic with the surface etched in a mesh of scratches. Washing-up tends to be a little more than a swill in the river when we are camping or at a lunch stop. Very different from the dips in disinfectant and shaking dry rather than using cloths, which is what we get on most trips. It says much for the robust health of our group that there have only been minor illnesses so far.
After more river travel and one longish section on foot, we arrived at Canaima. This constitutes the major tourist centre of the region. It belongs almost exclusively to one company: the airline Avensa. They have a large tourist hotel with the rest of the village centred on it. We did not stay at the hotel, but at an Indian-owned shelter in the town where we put up our hammocks. It was relatively civilised: there were even showers, if you did not mind the water coming straight out of the pipe at you without the benefit of sprinkler heads.
In the afternoon we went for a walk down to the "shops". There were three tourist souvenir shops and perhaps two or three other local shops. We did not buy any souvenirs ourselves, but we did get a few postcards. These were for posting when we got home again, since we had been warned that Venezuelan civilisation does not extend to the postal system. While we were walking we were treated to the sight of two huge red macaws flying together down the main street, which certainly looked different from anything one might see at home.
Later we saw the same two macaws standing on the roof of a building. So I quickly assembled the telephoto lens on the SLR camera and stalked as close as I could get to them for a photograph. I took two pictures and then the next thing I knew, one of them was down on the ground attacking my ankles! I struggled to cope with this great new photographic opportunity that had suddenly presented itself and got a few more frames, when I realised I was being watched by some workmen in the garage across the road. They were killing themselves with laughter at my antics. Some other people turned up and started throwing food to the macaws and gradually it sank in that the macaws were well used to civilised living and understood the possibilities a lot better than I did.
That night we ate as non-residents at the big hotel. The food was fair although I think I would have been furious at the standard if I had been an hotel guest paying the sort of rates we heard were charged for accommodation.
The next morning was available for sightseeing before we returned by air to CB. It was suggested that we took a trip with a guy, Thomas, who had a tourist attraction with paths behind a waterfall. We had actually seen this on a BBC television programme some months before we came to Venezuela. It did not look all that good, but it seemed like we ought to see it first hand now we had come so far. In the event it proved great fun and the jolly nature of Thomas, his wife and daughter made it an excellent outing.
First we travelled by boat past the main falls (Salto Hacha and Salto Golondrina) to a landing point near Salto Ara. Here Thomas had quite a big house and a number of paying guests. There we stripped down to bathing costumes only and set off for the Ara Falls.
There we did indeed walk on a path behind them. At one point the curtain of falling water was most solid and impressive. Obviously the BBC cameras had chickened out of filming that part. However the part that really made it for us was wandering around amongst the minor parts of the falls and sitting in the foaming water and crawling through minor falls into the air pocket behind them.
I suppose it was all a bit childish but we were all thoroughly enjoying it and the Thomas family were encouraging the spirit of the thing. We were sorry when it finally came to an end and we had to go back to the airport.
Unlike any other occasion when I have flown as passenger, there was no waiting or check-in procedure. There was a really smart turbo prop executive plane standing waiting for us to troop aboard. Then the door was shut and we were off down the runway and on our way to CB.
At CB it was suggested that we find ourselves some lunch and then meet up for onward travel later in the day. Joan and I went off to an Italian restaurant near the airport. This turned out to be a delightful experience. Despite us being unable to speak either Spanish or Italian we managed to get an excellent pasta lunch and coffee with truly excellent and friendly service. I suppose it highlighted one of the weak points of our group trips. When you go as a large group the restaurant is disorganised, ordering and paying become a complex undertaking and there is no personal contact with the staff. Anyway, we certainly enjoyed this little escape from group eating.
At this point we parted with Alfredo, who had to return to work. We had enjoyed his cheerful and friendly nature while he had been with us. By early afternoon we had met up with Tony, our jovial second guide for the rest of the trip. We also encountered our two Land cruisers, one of which had a trailer attached. We got ourselves installed in these and we were on our way. The first part was in a downpour, but this gradually abated to more modest rain. During the journey we had a complete blowout of one trailer tyre and had to replace it with the spare from a Land Cruiser. We arrived at Upata in the late afternoon and checked into our hotel. This had a certain novelty: it was a little time since we had been in a hotel and we were reunited with the rest of our luggage, that we had last seen a week earlier in CB. Having a good shower and clean clothes was a real delight. By early evening we were feeling somewhat transformed.
Dinner was a little unusual. We did not have it at the hotel, but set off across town on foot, along a road lit by streetlights where the locals were sitting or strolling. Our destination was a small slightly scruffy restaurant where you sat out of doors close to the pavement. It was a good meal and the beer in this place was fairly pleasant (over 95% of the beer in Venezuela is a canned lager called Arctic, which tastes mainly of carbon dioxide. A few of our number tried a local drink based on a mixture of fruit juice and beetroot juice. They reported that it was every bit as bad as one might expect from such a bizarre combination! Pat was pressing on with his determination to sample local wines and was pushing his Spanish to the limits to achieve this. For him tonight's payoff was a white wine of not inconsiderable cost which turned out to be made from apples or pears and could well have been mistaken for someone's first essays in wine making. Everyone enjoyed the evening.
The next day started with breakfast back at the restaurant of night before, which meant a pleasant stroll through the town again. Many of us had the fresh fruit breakfast which was excellent. We then clambered back into our Land Cruisers and set off. The road continued to impress: it was well made and mostly well surfaced although there were occasional potholes that were not being repaired at all. By the end of our Venezuelan trip most of us would have had one or two painful experiences and Steve would have had one head-against-roof impact that had us all worried. Lunch was at a roadside cafe, that was scruffy but enjoyable.
By early afternoon we had reached El Dorado, where we stopped for a while. It was interesting in its negative impact. In contrast to its name it was small and horribly scruffy. We wandered the streets peering at the decrepit and dissolute-looking shops, bars and cafes; we also stared across the river to the locally well-known prison at the other side. There was one nice building: a small church with a well-kept whitewashed interior. It had a number of louvred glass windows fitted with an amber coloured glass which went nicely with the few stained glass windows and seemed a very practical idea for a hot country. The other thing we liked was a little man with a mobile barrow containing a small mill for grinding blocks of ice to dust, which he then mixed with flavoured syrups and sold to the local kids.
Another stop that afternoon was at a place called Kilometre 77. This was a smaller and scruffier place than El Dorado, but one which was honestly poor and yet glowed with a life and vigour that was so much missing at El Dorado. For such an extremely poor place it did have a most unusual feature: nearly half the shops were gold-dealers! We were now in the gold-mining area and this was where the miners came to sell their nuggets of gold. There was also a fair bit of gold jewellery on sale and some of our party did buy things. A strange feature was that when you asked the price of any item there was a slow and drawn-out reaction. The merchant set up a little balance, weighed the jewellery then pulled out a little battery-operated calculator, did a calculation and finally quoted today's price. The buyers seemed well pleased with their purchases and the rest of us went away well contented that the world has not yet degenerated to the point where one can no longer find a bit of local colour.
The day of travel finally came to a conclusion when we arrived at a camp site at Aponguao which was really a military monument in the middle of a large and rather bare upland plain. It did however boast a pair of toilets built in the "macho" style of concrete construction. We pitched our tents nearby and ate a supper which demonstrated the horror of Doug's cooking before relapsing gratefully into sleep.
In the morning we travelled onwards. We did stop for a while at some pleasant falls. In any other context they would have been spectacular, but in Venezuela you do not bother too much with waterfalls unless they at least rate higher than the best that most other countries can manage. They did seem to be something of a local holiday spot and there were a few chalets where visitors were staying. Later in the day, when we were hot and stiff from travel we did stop at another spot where there were a number of pools with a river flowing through them, including one pool bordered with palm trees. We all got into our bathing costumes and spent some time swimming or just loafing around in the warm water. At some stage we got our last fill of fuel for the vehicles, but I forget the circumstances. I can remember the cost of fuel: it was about 6P per litre. [In 1993 the UK price is about 50P per litre]
Finally we reached the turnoff to Peraitepui and abandoned the tarmac-surfaced road. For some reason the Venezuelan government had spent a large sum of money on the first part of the side-road and despite the unsurfaced finish the road itself was broad and well graded. There were two odd things about it though. Firstly it stopped well short of Peraitepui and the continuation road needed all that a 4x4 could offer. Secondly it had faults that were not being corrected and at one place it will soon be totally destroyed. Where the road climbed a substantial hillside a simple drainage ditch beside it had eroded with flowing water. Nothing had been done and the channel had intercepted other runoff waters until finally it captured the lot. As it was when we saw it, the worst parts had formed an erosion gully that must have been anything up to 10m deep and was shortly going to swallow-up what remained of the road. This way of "big project, no maintenance" seem characteristic of Venezuelan planning.
The scenery had certainly changed at this stage. As we came here from CB we had first passed through mixed grass and trees with ranching, then through a large mass of forest and now we were in uplands grassland. I say grassland, but the grass was poor and sparse with soil showing through and some very odd plants embedded among it. One that we took some photos of, was a strange thing with a short stalk of Brussels Sprout texture and proportions lying flat on the ground and covered with black hair. Queer plants apart, the place is very big and open and one is well aware of the sky dominating.
When the new road finished we found ourselves on the sort of track that uplands farmers use to get about their property in the UK. Progress was now slow with some skill and planning needed to cross the rivers. They were small enough; the problem was that they all lay in steep-sided gullies and the road went down one bank, through the water and up the other bank. Still it made travel interesting. From time to time we passed isolated houses and Doug liked to stop and talk at each. At one place we were told that there were 26 children in the family "but there is not a lot to do here in the evenings".
Finally we reached Peraitepui, which proved to be a small village of wattle and daub huts roofed in quite good corrugated iron, which was bought with the proceeds from carrying camp equipment for people like ourselves. The village is set on a lofty ridge and to one side of it the ridge rises very steeply. To our surprise, we took the vehicles up this ridge and on to a small flat area, where we camped. It was clearly a place where the military could land a helicopter and it had a windsock nearby. It was a spectacular place to camp and even permitted an evening stroll to a yet higher point further along the ridge. We had our stroll, came back and waited for Doug to come back. He had gone off with a 4x4 and trailer to help the locals fetch some sand and apparently had got rather bogged-down on one of the river crossings. Tony was cooking dinner but it could best be described as very basic, half-cooked, full of sand and made from cheap ingredients. Still, at least we could sit and watch swarms of fireflies as we ate it.
When we went to sleep everything was ready and waiting for tomorrow. Just after the tents had been pitched we had begun sorting out what would go in our rucksacks and stay on our backs for the next few days. Near us we could hear Ray advising Adrian, who lacked any background in trekking. Some of it conjured up fine images: I particularly liked "You need to dump some of this stuff. What is this anyway ... a body-bag?". As well as getting prepared we had looked around a little. In the forests the previous week I had played at talking to the fireflies: if you flashed your torch at them twice quickly then they would flash back with the same rhythm. Up here things were different: you needed to flash once, slightly longer to get a guaranteed reply. I had never before realised what you need to say to a firefly to get its attention.
In the morning after getting our tents down and our spare luggage packed into the vehicles we got going at 9:20. It was a slow start with just a walk down to the village where we each had to take our turn in filling-in our personal details for a register kept of hikers. It seemed pretty crazy to be bogged down in straw-roofed bureaucracy in a remote place like this, although I suppose some of our experiences in Africa should have prepared us for it. With all our paperwork completed then it was down to the volleyball court, past the left side of the net, out though the gate in the barbed wire fence and then away from the twentieth century for the next few days.
The walking was pleasant. The air was clear, admittedly the sun was hot, but the air was cool and there was a slight breeze. We had one heavy haul up to the top of a big ridge then it was steady plodding for the rest of the day. As we passed through the middle of the day it was quite interesting to look at people's shadows: they were walking on them. Our position was 5°N and this was August.
Doug had given us instructions, but we were on our own with these verbal instructions and no map whatsoever. Doug and Tony were to catch up later. However if you take a wrong path and you have up to 5 hours to get well off the route, there is a lot of potential for really irritating errors that could even turn to real danger in the time it takes to correct them. I was not the only one to be cross.
Anyway we did stay on the correct route and Doug and Tony finally caught up with us as we sat by the side of a little stream and washed the dust and sweat from ourselves in the delightful cool fresh water. We pressed on towards our lunch stop, by a bigger river that would need fording. It turned out to be a charming spot for a weary trekker since it had a little tumbling waterfall, a few inches high, with a fine bathing pool below it. We all swam and sat in the waterfall "jacuzzi" until we felt ready to get out and have our lunch (ugh!) and carry on walking.
The ground was getting hillier now as we approached the lower slopes of Roraima. After gaining a fair amount of height we ended the day with a short sharp descent to another river that had to be forded. On the other bank was an area of trees, bushes and sandy patches where the porters were already unloading our tents and starting a fire to make the coffee. Again the river was clear and good for a bathe, but the area was full of biting insects, so I settled for spraying myself with DEET and lying on a stone to watch the sun go down as the clouds boiled off from Roraima and scurried overhead as lightning flashed and thunder rolled in the distance.
We had quite a good evening here sitting round a wood fire, but it disbanded early as too many insects were munching away at us. The tents were to prove their quality in that one could get inside, do up all the zips, indulge in a bit of all-out warfare on a limited number of creatures smaller than yourself, then go off to sleep peacefully.
In the morning we got up and had our breakfast. This was now down to some very coarse porridge served with nothing else, but washed down by some good coffee. That was to be our breakfast for the next few days. Thank heaven for the coffee. Before we set off, someone discovered that this camp boasted of a loo. At least someone had constructed a very neatly shaped cylindrical hole in the ground in a clearing full of flowers in the middle of a clump of bushes. Don't laugh, it was very nice!
This was predicted as a hard-work day but it seemed very pleasant again. Just a steady plod up through grassy terrain with an odd marsh or two, with some good weather provided. The only problem was that Jeremy was feeling ill and over the last part of the ascent Diana carried both his rucksack and her own. We finished by mid-afternoon just below the scree slopes of Roraima. The porters had made good time and had already put up the tents, which was just as well since it was raining as we arrived and became quite heavy. We spent some time in the drier bits getting drainage channels made around the tents. Jeremy was not very well and was stopping in his tent. I was not feeling too good either: I had stomach cramps, was feeling very cold and was shaking like a leaf. It was hard to eat anything and I mostly stayed in the tent. During the night it was rainy and my frequent visits to the surrounding countryside would have been bad enough even if it had not been pitch dark and the terrain was covered with closely-spaced soaking-wet plants growing to waist height or more.
In the morning I felt quite awful. I realised I was fairly seriously ill. However, all the tents were coming down and everyone was set to go. I managed to swallow a certain amount of the porridge and then set off in low ratio. I felt awful but I kept moving slowly. Soon Joan and I were well behind the rest. Early on we were in touch with Ray and Adrian. Ray carried my sack for a little while. Later Joan and I exchanged sacks. This was very welcome and did help me, but eventually we realised it was beginning to get Joan slowed to my own pace, so we changed back.
It seemed a great shame that we were not getting any enjoyment from the interesting forests on the spectacular tree-covered ramp which is the only way up Roraima. I was managing to keep going by finding small toeholds so I could turn every upward step up into three smaller ones, but it was pretty grim work and just to make things really nice it started to pour with rain. At one point we had a famous little incident which amused me even at the time. Joan was climbing ahead and shouted back that the rain seemed to have stopped. I joined her and we sat down on the rocks together. It was quite true: the rain had stopped. However we could see it falling in torrents just a metre or two away from us. We then realised what had happened; in the heavy rain we had just walked straight through a waterfall coming from the high cliff above us and now we were in the dry area behind it. We stayed a little while, appreciating this unusual shelter, then we plodded on again.
I did not think I was going to make it. We always carry Space Blankets and some spare clothes. I did think we would end up bivouacking for the night. I also reflected that in a properly organised party the strongest members would still be at hand to give help, food and shelter as needed.
As it was we finally completed the ramp, very much down on time. We slowly plodded out on to the top of the tepui not knowing what we would find.
It was certainly odd. It was nothing like as flat as it looked from the distance or from the air. The whole thing was definitely made of monolithic rock, but there was plenty of relief including some sizable cliffs. Mostly it was in large flat sections which were covered in shallow rock pools with a small amount of pink sand in them. If you were not standing in a pool, then the rock under your feet would be covered in a layer of slime. This was so very slippery that it was difficult to stand unless you were stationary and standing on totally horizontal rock. At all other times you were likely to find yourself flat on the ground.
Luckily we were able, by casting about, to find a slight track where enough people had been walking to thin the slime. We could see a few people camped in the distance and set off towards them. It later transpired that they had nothing to do with our own party, but before we reached them we were met by Tony who had come back to search for us. I experienced a great feeling of relief as I saw him; it was largely the realisation that I would after all be able to spend the night in dry clothes in a sleeping bag inside a tent. I followed slowly behind him. Joan made a few semi-tactful remarks and Tony offered to take my rucksack. It made a huge difference and I managed the rest at near normal speed. We finally reached the others where they were camping under an overhanging cliff. The tents were packed tight together and on uneven ground, but it was great to get inside and change into dry clothes before getting into a sleeping bag. I could not eat or drink much, but I felt fairly confident that I could now shake off the illness over the next 24 hours.
Perhaps I was being a little premature in feeling a sense of success; there was still one nasty little problem. If you have to get up frequently and struggle off to a good distance from the camp as was my need, then it is certainly not aided by terrain that is rainy, uneven and covered with a mixture of slippery rocks and soft slimy bogs. If Hitchcock was still making horror movies I would write to him and offer it as a plot.
In the morning the weather was good and the terrain looked interesting. Only one of the party (Diana) opted to do the walk to the "triple-point" where the boundaries of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil meet. The others all stayed closer to camp and spent the day looking at the unique plants and scenery of a tepui plateau. Sadly I saw nothing of it apart from the odd brief excursion to nearby bushes and a quick return to the depths of my sleeping bag. Joan had a most enjoyable day and was clearly in good form. For myself, by late evening I still felt ill and the descent in the morning could well be difficult. Last thing at night I drank the can of Coke I had carried up, after putting some brandy in it. It should have been a big treat, but I did not enjoy it and I drank it to help me sleep during the night.
At daybreak I was feeling weak but quite fresh and well. Before breakfast I went roaming around nearby with the camera. It was to be the only time I ever got to look at the unique flora and fauna that we had come so far to visit. It was a great experience. You would not say that the plants were truly weird, but they are plentiful and amongst this plenty was not a single plant you could recognise. When that sinks in, it is quite an experience! I took as many photos as I could and bitterly cursed my illness for stopping me from exploring the place the previous day. At least Joan had seen it.
After we had swallowed our porridge and drunk our coffee, we set off. At the lip of the plateau there was a short stop and, very kindly, a detour was arranged for Joan and myself to a lookout point that we had missed on the ascent. It was very spectacular and one could see the flat plains stretching into the distance, but also have an adjacent tepui in the same field of view.
The descent was reasonable and I had no great trouble: a bit weak and slow perhaps. By lunch time we were at our pre-ascent camp site. The intention was to move on down to the next campsite during the afternoon. This seemed reasonable if a little strenuous. We carried on down in the hot sun and about half way I very suddenly relapsed into illness again. It was hard work struggling in the wake of the group and when I arrived at the camp site I was just in time to see part of the main group setting off even further downhill to a site with less insects. Typically the decision had been made without considering how all members of the party were doing that day and our "leaders" had pushed off with the first wave! In Venezuela I presume one cannot sue for negligence in the Courts on this basis; you certainly could do so in a developed country.
Ethics of tour operation apart, the more responsible members of the party were waiting to see why Joan and I were late. They were very kind. Largely organised by Pat they helped me across the river, gave me some glucose tablets and Jeremy took my rucksack as well as his own. The latter two things made a huge difference and it was not hard to reach the next camp. It was just the far side of our earlier "bathing place" river and as we reached it Tony came back to help me across the river, which was kind if not essential.
The campsite was on a very bare patch of earth. This was OK since the sun was past its hottest so shade was less important and at least the insects would lack cover from which to attack you. I heard that the first arrivals had seen a Giant Anteater, about the size of a sheep. I felt rather envious of them, particularly since we had apparently only just missed seeing it. My other regret was that, shortly after I took ill I passed some of our porters who had found and smoked-out a wild bees nest. I was feeling too ill either to take any photographs or to try a piece of honeycomb when it was offered.
Whilst the campsite was not pretty there was a very strong moon and the whole countryside could be viewed in a beautiful bluish light all night long. Sadly I was again reduced to staying inert in the tent and hoping to be fit for the next day. That day arrived and I felt OK if a little weak. Over breakfast we heard that late at night Adrian had been the last one to retire and he thought he had seen a snake cross the open ground and go into our piled luggage. He fetched Doug & Tony and they did indeed find a snake under the luggage and killed it. It turned out to be a Fer-de-lance: a truly dangerous species.
We continued the walk down. This time Jeremy was off-colour and not going well. As usual the "leaders" were nowhere to be seen. We followed on well behind the rest of the party. Diana ended up carrying the bulk of Jeremy's pack while I took a small amount myself. Three of us had an agreeable walk, but Jeremy found it hard. We finally reached Peraitepui to find the rest of our party sitting down to lunch in the shade of an open-sided shelter in the middle of the village. We were all feeling rather pleased with ourselves and we felt very relaxed as we sat and ate some lunch with plenty of fluids to get rehydrated. By early afternoon we were in the vehicles and on our way.
We stopped for a meal at a very shabby little cafe in a small poverty-stricken village. The half chicken was not of the best, being very scrawny and not well cooked, but it seemed luxurious compared with what we had eaten for the last few days. Characteristically, for Venezuela, one could get a small paper cup of coffee from a vacuum flask at the counter. It was superb coffee and the price was near zero (possibly 2P per cup?).
We travelled on and the night was spent at Aponguao. This time we were not at the memorial, but nearby at a campsite on the bank of a river. It was comfortable enough and soon the next morning arrived and we were back in the vehicles again. We had another stop at Kilometre 77 and a second look around the stalls and gold dealers.
A little further along the road we had an interesting stop and visit. We went to see a gold mine. It was not one of the big ones operated by a Canadian company; they have barriers up around the sites to keep out the curious. The site we visited was operated by a small group of individuals. They were working in a flooded pit in the middle of an area where they had cleared the rain forest trees. They had a diesel pump that produced strong water jets which washed away the earth. Another pump sent the silt-laden water up a small rickety tower from which it ran down a channel filled with collector plates. This process left the whole area looking as though there had been a nuclear explosion. It was horrible, but the area represents a very tiny fraction of the total forest area of Venezuela. The harm compared with cattle farming clearances is, I think, less.
The rest of the day was occupied by a long drive to CB. The night was spent in the hotel where we had stayed previously. The joys of an en suite bathroom were appreciated even more than before and we did not have quite the same struggle with the air conditioning this time.
In the evening we went to the Italian restaurant that Joan and I had liked so much before. It was not quite so enjoyable this time since we were going as a large party. We also had some extras who were mates of Doug. One was Alfredo, who we were pleased to see again, but others we did not know from Adam. At the end of the meal we had a repetition of a type of incident we were getting to recognise. We each put in money for what we had eaten, plus something for a tip. When the money was assembled it was announced that we were short and we needed each to put more money in. In this case it was 200Bs or about £1-35 per head. This always happens when Doug is organising the collection. There was some resentment building up in the group.
The next day was based on a long boring drive with a stop near our destination at the coast to have a fish lunch. We then pressed on to finish the day on a long peninsula with one side formed by the Caribbean Coast. We were camped right on the beach which was sand, backed by coconut palms. If you looked along the beach to right and left, the chances of seeing another human being were about nil. We were actually camped in an area that functioned as a sort of holiday camp and we had access to a cafe, toilets and the like. The water in the sea was warm and you could stay in for hours if you felt so inclined. We had our evening meal in a strange sort of "motorway cafe" which lurked in the middle of the camp in an unlikely sort of way. One or two of our group had opted to rent a hut for the night and to sleep in a bed. However by morning we found them in tents pitched alongside us. They had pitched them in the small hours of morning after they had been driven out of the huts by cockroaches.
We woke late and swam. The water was now cooler but pleasant. Joan and I walked inland to a marshy area and walked along it, photographing birds. We finally turned back out to the beach where we swam in the sea for a bit before returning along the beach and photographing the fast-running crabs that could be met there. Much later we heard that bathing without clothes is a serious offence in Venezuela!
We left mid-afternoon and drove back to Caracas where we returned to the same hotel as before and got ourselves cleaned up ready for an outing in the evening. Some of the party had a guide book which recommended certain restaurants and we chose one that sounded good (Casa Junjao, I think it was called). We loaded into several taxis and set off. The taxis delivered us to a night club of a totally different name. It took some while to figure out what was going on, since we had very little Spanish, but it transpired that Doug had instructed the taxi drivers to take us to this place of his own choice. We totally rebelled at this and decided to hold the taxis and go on to our own choice of restaurant. We waited for the rest of the party to arrive, but they did not. Finally we moved on after Tony, who was with us, offered to stay for some time to redirect latecomers. He is a good guy and well liked by all of the party. I am sure he knows a lot, but he needs to keep his job and no doubt has to keep his head down.
The restaurant we had chosen turned out to be very pleasant indeed. We opted to eat in an open courtyard. This was through and behind the main restaurant. Fountains played in a central pool and around it were tables covered by canopies. Ordering was long delayed since we were short of a good number of our party. By ringing the hotel we eventually located them there and they rejoined us by taxi. It transpired that they had actually come direct to the restaurant since they had instructed the taxi driver themselves. They had waited some long time and, when no one else appeared, they had made their way back to the hotel by Metro. About this time Doug and one of his friends appeared and made some half-baked excuses about the redirection of the taxis. It was nonsense.
Luckily the food, service and surroundings were superb and our angry feelings were soon soothed. Also the whole party were determined to enjoy our last night and not let it be tarnished by what was happening. I ordered suckling pig, which is a speciality of the restaurant. This could certainly be recommended as a one-off experience. Joan had an absolutely delicious omelette with mushrooms. All the other courses were equally good, although the local custom of starting the meal with a huge slab of soft cheese certainly blunts the appetite (the amount provided is more than I would usually eat for a light meal). The surroundings were very elegant and we enjoyed the contrast with our usual standards. Pat was up to his usual tricks. Ann discreetly left the table at one point, and was gracefully flowing up an elegant flight of steps as she headed into the main building. Pat chose to bellow after her "Ann, you've forgotten the shovel!". It stopped her in her tracks with a blush before she realised that most of the customers did not speak English and the rest probably neither heard nor understood it.
We thoroughly enjoyed our evening. We had been separated from good food and luxurious surroundings for a few weeks now and at last we were getting them in good measure. After the meal we did go into the main building and sit for a while listening to the band. We sat and listened while we swapped addresses and all said goodbye to Tony. Finally we left our pleasant restaurant and went back to our hotel.
The morning dawned on our last day. Joan and I spent it travelling to the town centre on the superb French-built Metro for a wander around and a little souvenir shopping. We then had lunch in a pleasant open air restaurant in the Chacaito Plaza before setting off to the airport and the long journey home.
This trip was a queer mixture. The places we went and the things we did were excellent. The appalling lack of hygiene, the terrible food and the disregard for safe operation were astounding. Maybe when you have got something well set up you should not repeat it 43 times?
The form I returned to Explore said in no uncertain terms that they ought to change their tour operator.
From a more personal point of view, we survived the trip and we have many happy memories of it. Pity I didn't see much of the top of Roraima.
Index of all diaries | Murray Home Page | Tour Agent