Venezuela – a pioneer trip with an ‘adventure travel company’. We’re a motley crew and it’s described as a trip ‘which emphatically goes off the beaten track’. That’s a bit of an understatement, especially as pioneer means that this is the first time the company have run this trip. So anything can happen.
Caracas, (officially Santiago de León de Caracas, abbreviated as CCS), is the capital and largest city of Venezuela, and is suffering one of its ongoing political upheavals. We are advised not to walk out alone. (Caracas has the highest per capita murder rate in the world outside a war zone). We venture out with trepidation and don’t encounter anything to worry us. But there isn’t much to excite us either. The next day, however, suggests that Caracas is spectacular in its own way, as we travel up a cable car for panoramic views and see that it is dramatically engineered across forested valleys. It is close to the Caribbean Sea, separated from the coast by a steep mountain range, Cerro El Ávila.
As we can confirm from the cable car, Caracas has some of the tallest skyscrapers in Latin America. We also visit the historical centre of the city, where nearly every building shop and gallery seems to feature Simon Bolivar. This Venezuelan military and political leader led what are currently the countries of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama to independence from the Spanish Empire. He is clearly idolised and the formal name of the country is Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
We are very quickly taken off the beaten track. First a flight to Puerto Ordaz, in the heart of Los Llanos. This is a region of vast savanna, increasingly punctuated with ancient sandstone plateaux, Then we take ‘light’ aircraft to Canaima Park. There are no passable access roads across the savanna in this part of the Llanos, so we have no option but to fly.
I’m not wildly looking forward to this section of the trip. I have read that the pilots are very laid back and even read newspapers whilst flying. In the event, the pilot is very professional, though we have to suffer the ignominy of being publicly weighed, luggage restricted to a measly 10 kilograms. (I don’t understand this logic when people’s weights vary so much.) And two of us are then crammed into a four seater plane with bags of flour and a stack of other perishables.
And the journey is magical, smoothly wafting in and out of puffy clouds with the most incredible vistas opening up below, the bluest of pink edged lagoons and the greenest of forests, grasslands and swamps. This is the Gran Sabana, setting for Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which I’m reading as I go along. Dozens of ancient sheer-sided, pancake topped sandstone mountains called tepuis, rise dramatically from the mist of the plain. It’s only too easy to imagine dinosaurs and other exotica roaming in a lost wilderness, cut off from the rest of the globe for millions of years. This flight is unique, totally stunning and utterly memorable.
Canaima National Park is one of the largest parks in the world. Our goal is the Angel Falls - the world’s highest. But first we fly in over Canaima Lagoon Falls, that are worth the visit on their own. The surrounding scenery is brooding and stunning. We are offered a boat trip on the adjacent lake, to be followed by a ‘short stroll’ round the falls themselves. So I opt for my flip flops. The weather has been kind so far, but the clouds are thickening ominously, and there is a downpour as we set off. What with spray from the falls (the boat dips behind the screen of water) and the storm, we are very quickly drowned. I’m very proud that I’ve been organised enough to bring a plastic poncho.
Near the falls, we disembark and set off on a rocky path that leads behind the cascade. It’s treacherous and not easy going in flip flops. It’s also very windy and as I pass behind the sheet of water a gust lifts the skirt of my poncho and I slide over on the rock. Fortunately, I don’t go right over the edge, but I wrench my ankle and am left battered and bleeding. Scrambling painfully through the rest of the falls I look for the tour leader and assistance, but he’s busy. Another of our group has already fallen and seems to have dislocated or broken his shoulder. I keep quiet.
And it seems that our boat has disappeared. We continue our ‘stroll’; the mud path has become a river. I squelch along in my flip flops, but the sludge is so slippery -and I’m ankle deep in water- that it seems best at times to walk bare foot. My ankle is throbbing. Five miles later we arrive back at our 'rustic settlement'. The streets are knee deep in brown torrents. Well at least we’ve anticipated travelling afloat tomorrow.
The following morning we take to the motorised canoes and journey upstream on the Carrao River (which eventually feeds into the Orinoco) to the Cherun Meru Canyon. It's another magical journey – and the sun peeps out at times. The canoes zip along - 80 kilometres in four hours. Our guides are Pemon Indians. These are the indigenous people, who believe that the tepuis are inhabited by spirits. It's not hard to see why.
The walls of the rainforest and the cloud-scudded tepuis close in and we arrive at a camp - with hammocks. They are slung in rows across the trees and it’s not the most comfortable night I’ve ever spent. Alcohol and magic displays are provided before we climb in, but attempts to sleep are not aided by a middle of the night loud cry, ‘Get off.’ One of our number shrieks that he has been attacked, someone kicked him. We can only assume it is one of the donkeys that roam the site when not being used for portering.
Next day, there is a very fatigued uphill scramble to the viewpoint Laime’s Lookout.at the foot of the Angel Falls. The falls were named after a U.S. explorer Jimmie Angel, who, in the 1930s, crashed his plane onto the table-top mountain, Auyán-tepui, where the 980 metre drop begins. (That makes them about 15 times taller than the Niagara Falls.) Since my trip, President Hugo Chavez has rechristened the Falls with the indigenous name, Kerepakupai Meru (Waterfall of the Deepest Place) as they were not 'discovered' by Angel. Chavez initially said the waterfall was to be called Cherun-Meru, (Dragon Falls). He changed his mind when his daughter pointed out that was the name of a smaller waterfall in the Canyon in the same region.
My ankle hurts and the falls are elusive. There is only one really good vantage point at Laime’s Lookout,so there is much pushing and shoving, to claim the spot for the few moments, when there is a break in the clouds. We also take to the canoes for a clearer view from the river. The falls though tall, are narrow and, though the views are amazing, it’s still impossible to get a shot that does them justice. After that, we take the canoes back up to Canaima and fly onto Santa Elena, from here a three hour bus ride over the border into Brazil and Guyana.
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