Country number: 104
Territory number: 112
When? October 2010, first leg of Guianas trip, going onto Guyana via Boa Vista In Brazil
How? Local bus, light plane, canoes, boats, local planes, walking (!)
Who? Group Tour- pioneer
‘There has never been a country that should have been so rich but ended up this poor’
Matt O’Brien, The Washington Post
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 is undergoing one of its ongoing political upheavals and we are advised not to walk out alone. 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. We also visit the historical centre of the city, though nearly every building shop and gallery seems to feature Simon Bolivar, the revolutionary leader, who is clearly idolised.
We are very quickly taken off the beaten track. First a flight to Puerto Ordaz, in the heart of the llanos. This is a region of vast savannah increasingly punctuated with ancient sandstone plateaux, Then we take ‘light’ aircraft to Canaima Park. There are no passable access roads across the savannah in this part of the llanos, so we have no option but to fly and 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 flight is magical, smoothly wafting in and out of puffy clouds with the most incredible vistas opening up below, the bluest of lakes and the greenest of forests and swamps. This is the home of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which I’m reading as I go along. Dozens of sheer-sided, pancake topped 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, utterly stunning and utterly memorable.
Our goal is the Angel Falls- the world’s highest, but first we fly in over some falls that are worth a visit on their own. 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. It’s treacherous and not easy going in flip flops. It’s also very wind,y and as I pass behind the cascade 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 the 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’ had anticipated travelling afloat tomorrow.
The following morning we take to the motorised canoes and journey upstream 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. 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 shriek, ‘Get off.’ One of our number says 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 fatigued uphill scramble to the viewpoint at the foot of the Angel Falls. My ankle hurts and the falls are elusive. There is only one really good vantage point, on a crag, 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, but 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.