We both struggled not to laugh at the absurdity of our situation, as I took his place behind Bruno. I tried to keep close to our guide, because I was acutely aware that he was the only one amongst us who knew the forest well enough to get back to the camp, and even he was cutting a trail of notches in the tree trunks we passed as an aide memoire. It was a simple fact that if we lost contact with Bruno, we were both dead. I couldn't help but recall a true story I had heard while watching a television programme by the survival expert Ray Mears. He was giving advice on how to survive in the rainforest, and was on location in the dense jungle of Costa Rica. He recounted how a young German couple had set off from a lodge nearby, and had been walking for an hour when they wandered off the trail briefly to look at something. Once they had gone a little way off the path, the girl had fallen awkwardly and twisted her ankle. As they had only been gone an hour, the man set off back to the lodge. However, he had made the terrible mistake of not marking his wife's location in any way. An immediate search was launched, but even with local guides who knew the area well, it took three weeks to find her, by which time she was dead.A few minutes after we had turned off the main track, Bruno started to imitate the call of the Bush Fowl with a fairly high pitched noise that sounded like 'o-wooh, o-wooh, o-wooh'. He did this for about a minute, and then switched to the sound of a tapir: a throaty 'grr, grr, grr, grr'. He then alternated at roughly one minute intervals between these two calls, for the rest of the hunt.We tried to move as carefully as we could, avoiding standing on branches or twigs that might snap. However, it was impossible to make no sound at all - not even Bruno could do that. We came upon a small stream, where tapir tracks could be seen in the mud on the far bank. We carefully followed the trail to another river, but Bruno felt that we had gone the wrong way. Doubling back, we took the opposite trail from the stream, but there was still no result, so we made our way back to the jaguar tails. It was now getting very dark, and it was hard to see with our torches off. Bruno took a shortcut through the forest and we found ourselves back in the camp.Our shelter was now almost complete and a brew of much needed tea was on the boil. Without warning a very heavy thunderstorm struck, and we took shelter under the dripping tarpaulin. The ground around the camp soon became saturated, and then the water began running down the slope towards the fire. The fire had already been covered by a hastily built thatch roof, but was now in danger of being extinguished by the surface water. We tried to make ourselves as comfortable as we could, but the only place to sit was on a thin damp log, huddled under the tarpaulin. It was probably at this moment of the trip that my spirits were at their lowest ebb. The jungle was a menacing place at the best of times, and as I sat damp and uncomfortable, looking at the green wall of vegetation all around, it was hard to be cheerful. As we stared at the falling rain, we saw a large brown leaf butterfly fluttering from place to place, obviously as keen as we were to get out of the wet.Dinner that night was spaghetti, pork pieces with vegetables and a cup of lime juice. I gulped down the food but still felt hungry. As was often the case, the place to find refuge was my hammock, and once I had changed into my dry things and climbed inside I began to feel better.
Day 6 - Wednesday 6th September.Richard's alarm clock woke me at 5 a.m., and again at 5.30! Bruno came over to our hammocks while it was still dark and invited us to go hunting. There was another scramble to get ready - just like yesterday, only this time we were putting on our wet and stinking clothing, while struggling in the mud and confined space between the hammocks.It was the same route that we had covered on the hunt yesterday, only this time we were gone for much longer. Despite trying to be as quiet as possible, I took a bad fall climbing over a tree trunk and went crashing through the undergrowth. Once again we failed to catch anything, but saw fresh tapir tracks. Bruno later told us that if we had reached that spot five minutes earlier we would have caught the tapir - it had only just eluded us.Arriving back at camp well after first light, we found that breakfast was about to be served. I tucked into egg, bread and barbecue sauce, as well as some cassava porridge. When I had finished eating, I set about getting my gear ready for the days trek, only to find that my Ray Ban sunglasses (which were in their case) had disappeared. I scoured the inside of the shelter, but with no luck. Eventually I reached the conclusion that they must have been buried when the old rotten shelter collapsed, and so I started sifting through the leaf mulch. Bruno, David, Alejandro and Juan joined in and it was Bruno who actually found them. I was extremely grateful that he had managed to dig them out for me, because they were very useful for keeping the vegetation out of my eyes while trekking and proved invaluable when we were on the river later in the trip, when the sun was reflected intensely from the surface of the water.Getting underway, we found ourselves climbing steeply once again through thick, wet undergrowth. As we went, I found that I could identify the stinging bamboo, hormiga 24 nests, and the ant-node plant quite readily, thanks to Bruno's tuition.At the top of the climb was a wide, warm area of savannah, and as we stepped out of the forest into the strong sunshine I immediately felt my spirits lift. In the middle of the savannah area (known as Teuneypatay) was a churuata, and it was there that we stopped for lunch. I took off my boots, got my wet clothes out of my rucksack and spread them out to dry in the sun. This attracted beautiful brown butterflies, which landed in clusters to feed on the salty clothes. On their wings were a string of incredible eye markings.While we were eating lunch under the shade of the churuata, we saw the only other person that we encountered on the entire trek. A lone Pemon Indian, with a large wicker rucksack like Bruno's and a rifle slung over his shoulder, emerged from the forest and walked at a furious pace across the plain in front of us. He waved briefly, and then disappeared from sight. He was walking solo to Kamarata - a feat that I am sure only the locals would be capable of achieving.Our foray across the savannah was short lived, and we were soon back inside the cloak of the forest; continually climbing over fallen trees and crossing small rivers on logs. We saw a grey mina bird in a tree top, heard a group of noisy parrots and at one stage we even came across jaguar tracks crossing the muddy path. A while later Bruno suddenly stopped, and after a long silent pause, told us that he could hear a jaguar on the next hill! Just in case we thought that this story was for our benefit, Ricardo told us that Bruno really wasn't joking, he had actually heard one of the big rare cats. A short distance further on up the path, and we saw a group of leaf-cutter ants crossing the trail with their wobbling cargo. Somewhere on this section of the walk Ricardo must have brushed his arm against a thicket of stinging bamboo, because the skin on the inner side of his elbow had erupted in violent red welts that were bleeding.It wasn't long before Bruno stopped again - this time to show us the plant from which the Indians craft their blowpipes. It was a tall shrub with sparse leaves, and had a very long and straight central stem, from which the blow pipe is fashioned. By coincidence, growing a few feet away was a thorny plant that they poke down through the stem to hollow it out into a pipe. The next plant that was shown to us was medicinal; the heart of its fleshy green stem is boiled and chewed, and is good for the kidneys. However, these days the Pemon don't just rely on plants for their health. The Venezuelan government has set aside money and certain services to assist indigenous populations. This policy had certainly saved Bruno's life a few years before, when he had accidentally slashed his leg very badly with a machete. A government helicopter had flown him to the hospital at Santa Elena de Uairen where the wound had been treated. Without this help Bruno would probably have bled to death.It was a very long, hard walk before we finally arrived at our camp (which was called Tavainen). We were delighted to find that we would be sleeping in a large churuata in the middle of a cultivated clearing - no leaky tarpaulin for us that night! On the other side of the clearing a steep bank descended to a lovely river that was deep enough for a swim. Janet, Richard, Johan and I were soon cooling off in the water, although I cut my swim short after being painfully bitten by something as I waded in the shallows. It was while he was in the water and stripped to the waist that Richard found that he had picked up the first tick of the trip. These blood sucking parasites are related to spiders, and wait on the top of grass and plant stems for warm blooded animals to pass. They latch on and use powerful mouth parts to bite through the skin and drink the blood of the host.During the evening the three of us chatted, sitting comfortably on benches inside the churuata. Dinner was spaghetti, cauliflower and boiled chunks of cassava, with chicken and pork pieces. As darkness fell, David found a big jungle centipede curled up near to where we were sitting - a really horrible insect. The thought of finding one of those in your sleeping bag was enough to make anyone shudder.It had been another extremely hard day, and with slightly more room in the churuata than in our tarpaulin shelter, I had a relaxing night's sleep in my hammock.
Day 7 - Thursday 7th September.After breakfast of coffee and muesli, we soon found ourselves trekking across the flooded forest floor. We crossed a couple of wide deep rivers on slippery logs, and both were treacherous enough to merit the use of our yellow safety rope. Just when we thought that we had passed the majority of the obstacles, we came to a wide but slow moving river that required a dugout canoe to cross. Juan swam across to look for the canoe, which if present, would have been left in a well-known position by whoever had passed along the trail before us. If there had been no canoe, we would have had to wade and swim across. So it wasn't surprising that we all breathed a sigh of relief when we saw Juan re-appear, but this time paddling the small craft towards us. It took three crossings to get all of us and our equipment to the other side, and I was in the first group to go. We had to climb in very carefully, to avoid capsizing, and as we drifted across to the other bank, the water was only a couple of inches from the top of the sides of the canoe. Once we were all safely across, we walked a few yards further on into a large clearing, where we had lunch.The section of the trek following lunch was the most punishing of all. We had come into the main part of the forest that had been affected by the big storm in 1995 and many trees had been blown over. The result was an uphill climb, continually having to scramble over massive tree trunks; or worse still, having to crawl under them. Most of the trees were at right angles across the path, but some had fallen lengthways along the trail, and we had to balance carefully on top of the trunks as we walked along. It was most difficult to negotiate a tree that had started to rot and break down, because I couldn't be sure of my footing. Often my boot would break the surface, into a hollow space underneath, with the result that I was scratched or bruised. It would have been all too easy to sprain an ankle on the tangle of roots and branches, or by slipping off the wet logs. One of the frustrating things about trekking in the rainforest was that the terrain was mentally draining. By this I mean that it seemed like the forest and ground was always actively trying to trip you up. As I cleared a trunk for example, I would suddenly fall over because a creeper had tangled itself round my foot. A hollow in the muddy slope that initially took my weight, might suddenly give way. These little mishaps played on your mind, until you actually became quite irate with whatever had made you fall over! I found it best to try hard to avoid this frame of mind because it quickly sapped your strength and morale. Unfortunately, there was no letup in our battle with the slope and the fallen trees. I soon ran out of water, and was sweating heavily from the intense exercise and high humidity. Soon my mouth was dry and I could feel my head pounding - a sure sign of dehydration.Just before we came out of the body of the forest into scrubby savannah, we heard a gunshot up ahead, which could only have been fired by Bruno's family. They had been keeping just ahead of us ever since we left Salto Hueso. It started to rain very heavily, but it was best not to put on a waterproof jacket because the humidity made it unbearably hot to walk in. Pushing on through the shrubs, bushes and Spanish moss we emerged into a rocky clearing where we had another hazy view of Auyantepui - still an unremarkable streak on the horizon. Bruno's family were here as well, huddled together on the ground, sheltering from the rain. We found out that the hunter in their group had missed his target with the shot that we had heard. The large bush fowl that he was after had escaped because the young dog they had with them had barked and scared it away.The site where we were to camp was further on in very dense forest, and was called Tukuiparu. When we arrived we were all soaked and it was nearly dark. There was no existing shelter, so Bruno and the others set about building the shelter from scratch. Bruno's family were camping close by, just out of sight behind a thicket, and next to a small river. Soon the forest was noisy with the sound of machetes in action, and of trees crashing to the ground. As usual Janet, Richard and I sat quietly out of the way, and this evening it was a particularly miserable wait. We were wet and chilled down rapidly now that we had stopped moving. The ground was saturated and crawling with biting ants. The mosquitoes were also relentless, and their bites (which now covered our arms and legs) unbearably itchy. I tried to warm and cheer myself by shinning up a very strong vine which hung from a nearby tree. It was easy to climb, and when I looked down I realised I had gone much further up than intended and was a dangerously long way above the ground! Next, Richard and I set ourselves the survival challenge of building a small fire. This proved extremely difficult because everything around us was so wet. Eventually we used up a box of matches, two cartons of waterproof survival matches and a wax candle, but managed to coax a tiny fire into life. Bored of playing with fire, the only other entertainment on offer was searching yourself for parasites. When Richard removed his boots and socks he found a small tick on his foot. We tried to scorch it off with a cigarette lighter (as advised by all the health textbooks) but the tick was too small, and Richard was in danger of burning himself. In the end I pulled the tick off his foot with the small tweezers from my Swiss army knife. When I took my boots and socks off, I found that I too had a small tick on my ankle - my first one on the trip. I removed mine in the same way.Exhausted, Richard takes a break by the side of the trail.Crossing the river in the canoe.At last our shelter was finished, and once again it seemed that Bruno and the others had performed a miracle of survival in turning a tiny clearing into a shelter strong enough to support the weight of ten people. Supper was a very salty meal of fish and rice, and once I had finished eating, I was so tired that I just collapsed in my hammock.
Day 8 - Friday 8th September.Breakfast this morning was muesli and coffee once again. Unfortunately though, this time my bowl of muesli contained a large pebble which I nearly broke a tooth on!After the uncomfortable routine of struggling into our wet things, we set off once again on our seemingly unending trek through the forest. We hadn't been walking long when Bruno stopped and put his ear to the side of a tree, listened carefully and then muttered something in Spanish. Ricardo translated, and told us that the inside of the trunk was hollow and full of small bees. We took it in turns to listen for the buzzing sound of the insects at work in their nest. It was very faint, but I could just about hear it. Bruno's next stop was to show us a plant with which he had cured his wife of snake bite.We came to another wide river, and once again we were fortunate to have the use of a small dugout to get across. I was in the first crossing party, and left my camera behind with Ricardo, who had kindly agreed to take our photo as we drifted across. We pulled in at a gap in the vegetation, where the steep bank lead up to a clearing and small thatched shelter. Once the others caught up, we sat down and had lunch. The sun was very strong as we ate, and the humidity was stifling. A huge blue morpho glided overhead and then flew away down the river. I made my way back to the water’s edge to fill my water bottle, and while I was immersing it in the water, a spider sensed the vibration and jumped out onto my hand and then back to the bank! Back at the lunch site, I found another tick, this time on my arm. I pulled it away with my fingers and flicked it into the undergrowth.Soon after we set off again, there was a very heavy downpour and we all received another soaking. We were making good progress, even over the fallen logs and had ascended and descended a few times before we came to an unexpected halt. The trail in this area was not often used, and we had taken a wrong turn. Bruno announced that he would need to reconnoiter the area to try and figure out where we had gone wrong. He also sent Juan, David and Alejandro off in the opposite direction to do the same. We sat down in what little space we could find amongst the vegetation at the side of the trail, and waited for news. Janet boosted morale by producing a bag of the 85% cocoa chocolate drops which she handed round. We were seated for about half an hour, during which time I could feel myself chilling down, and my legs started to cramp up. Eventually Bruno re-appeared and said that he believed that he knew where we had gone wrong and that we would have to retrace our steps. It was remarkable just how well Bruno could navigate from his experience of the area, without a map or compass. I knew the bearing from our current position to Kamarata from my GPS receiver, and Richard dialled it into his compass. Without knowing anything about our calculations, Bruno casually pointed exactly in the same direction we had obtained when asked for the direction to Kamarata. It really was incredible, and made us realise that Bruno always knew which direction we needed to go in, it was just a case of finding the right pre-cleared trail. Once we were on our way again he apologised to the whole group for having lead us in the wrong direction, and seemed genuinely distressed. We were all quick to make it clear that none of us blamed him and that it didn't matter. David and Alejandro had returned from their search for the path, but unfortunately Juan was still missing. Bruno shouted for him, and banged his machete on a tree trunk but there was no answer. So Bruno lead us onwards and just left machete marks at regular intervals so that Juan could follow on behind. If the path forked, Bruno cut a sapling down and laid it across the path we hadn't taken, so that it was obvious which way we had gone.Our long halt had meant that we didn't reach our intended campsite and we eventually settled for a small area by a pretty stream. The Pemon called this site Napoi Paru. When we first arrived, it appeared that it would be difficult to camp there because it was on a slope and covered in quite a bit of vegetation. However, within minutes trees were coming down around us as Bruno, David and Alejandro tirelessly set to work. It wasn't long before Juan re-appeared and joined in.We didn't have much time before night fell, and it was dark when Ricardo served dinner of salty fish and rice. As I climbed into my hammock for the night, I heard an ominous rumbling noise as one of the main supports gave way, nearly collapsing the entire shelter. Luckily, Bruno and the others grabbed the frame just in time and held it up. The near disaster had been caused by the ground giving way at the base of one of the supports. Bruno carried out a swift repair and I was able to get into my hammock and eat my dinner.Before I fell asleep, my thoughts turned to the next day’s trek, which would be our last of the trip and take us to the large Pemon settlement at Kamarata. All of us couldn't wait to get out of the rainforest by this point. Everything was soaked and pervaded by the smell of rot. I knew that the walk tomorrow would be hard work because all of my trekking socks were wet, and my boots were saturated. The only dry clothes I had left were the ones I had deliberately kept carefully in my rucksack for sleeping in. What really concerned me about what lay ahead was how much distance we would need to cover. So far, our progress through the exceptionally difficult jungle terrain had been painfully slow. Although we were walking a long way each day, and expending a lot of energy climbing up and down steep hillsides, our actual progress in the direction of Kamarata averaged just 1 kilometre per hour. I could run that distance on an athletics track in about five minutes. Unfortunately, my GPS receiver showed that the straight line distance that remained to Kamarata was 14.2 km, which at face value meant that if we continued at our current rate we could look forward to a 14 hour trek! Fortunately though, we weren't due to walk all the way to Kamarata. Somewhere on the trail the next day, we would reach the Akanan River and there would be a motorised dugout waiting to ferry us up river to a jetty near to Kamarata. We would then be taken the short distance by road to the village. So everything hinged on how far we had to walk to the Akanan River. If we could make it that far by late afternoon, all would be well.
Day 9 - Saturday 9th September.We struck camp at the usual time, and began trekking in a determined mood. Initially we faced a hard slog uphill but then the terrain was unusually level and we set a fast pace. Bruno was moving extremely quickly through the forest by now, because his load had gradually been lightened as we had consumed food during the trek. Richard was close behind him, and I was following a little way further back. We were both trying to get to Kamarata as fast as possible because of the promise of cold lager! Janet and Ricardo were in the middle of the party and I occasionally lost sight of them as Janet chose to take a slightly slower pace. Right at the end of the group and almost out of earshot were David, Juan, Alejandro and Johan.We managed to maintain the fast pace throughout the morning, and were feeling justifiably pleased with our progress when we stopped for lunch by a picturesque river. We decided to eat on the opposite bank, and as I jumped along the line of boulders which stretched across the water I got a nasty surprise. Just as I landed on the next rock, I heard a thud and looked down to find that my camera bag had landed next to me! The band of material that kept the case on my rucksack hip belt had frayed and sheared off. Luckily my camera had landed just on the edge of the rock, but hadn't been damaged. Another few inches further back and it would have sunk three feet to the bottom of the river.Reaching the other side, Bruno and Ricardo built a large fire and started work on lunch. Meanwhile, I had a fantastic swim in the river while blue morphos fluttered overhead. Janet placed a salty bag on a rock in the middle of the river and it attracted a white swallowtail butterfly, which stayed in position long enough for both of us to take some photographs. I continued my swim until lunch was ready. I climbed up onto the bank and found that Ricardo had played a trick on us. The night before he had told us that we were running low on food and that lunch today would be whatever scraps we had left over. In fact, all along he had been planning a special final lunch of pasta and pieces of bacon, which was absolutely delicious. While we ate we had more time to admire the blue morphos and large orange butterflies which seemed to use this river as a jungle corridor.Moving on, we began the long descent towards Kamarata. At first the slope was not too steep, but I noticed how much height we were losing by checking the altimeter on my watch. This area of the path was often carpeted by tiny red foxglove plants. There were more sinister things in the forest as well, Richard saw a large spindly red spider in a hole at the base of a tree trunk. Later on he pointed out another one a bit further off the path. It too had built a nest in a hole at the foot of a tree, and this time the web was highlighted by a ray of sunlight. I could see the spider leaping up and down many times a second, as its body and the vibrating web sparkled in the sun. However, the biggest spider of the trip came last. As we walked along the trail we saw a large web ahead, overhanging the path. In the middle of the nest was a very large grey spider with big eyes and long legs. It was an evil gun-metal grey in colour and its legs had knuckle-like plates on them. We all edged our way nervously round it, but it didn't stir.The descent became much steeper, until eventually we were having to check our pace and I used my walking pole to stop myself sliding forwards. By this stage we had been walking at a furious pace all day over very tough ground and now I could see that Janet was beginning to find the going difficult. She looked extremely tired, but had great determination and kept on going, despite falling badly several times.Johan was still at the rear of the group, and was having a laugh with the Pemon guides, although we couldn't see him, we could hear him shouting loudly and making other strange imitation jungle noises. However, Bruno asked him to stop shouting, because it might upset the people in Kamarata in the valley below who believe that shouting loudly on the mountains makes it rain heavily.After a great deal of tripping, sliding, hacking at creepers and swearing to ourselves, the descent ended and the trail widened and levelled out. I could almost taste the lager waiting for us in Kamarata. We stopped briefly to fill our water bottles at a small river, where I saw an amazing black and yellow butterfly. Soon we were in a plantation area, where the Pemon of Kamarata were growing cassava and plantains. We passed a large hut, and then walked through a series of cleared areas connected by beautiful natural tunnels of Heliconias. At the end of these was a set of steps cut into the earth which lead down to the Akanan River, and there, right on schedule, was the motorised dugout waiting to ferry us up river to Kamarata. We had completed an arduous six day trek through extremely demanding jungle; the walking section of the expedition was over.We travelled up the Akanan River at great speed, the dugout leaning dramatically from side to side as we weaved round obstructions and the occasional island. Just like on the Karuai River, there were many Amazon kingfishers which flew off noisily as we approached. The feeling of moving forward without having to walk, or stumble over roots and branches, was marvellous and we were all in very high spirits.We pulled up at another set of steps up the river bank, and were met by a Toyota pick-up. After group photos, our kit was loaded into the back of the truck and we climbed aboard for the short journey across open savannah to Kamarata. A welcome breeze blew on our faces during the journey, but the puri-puri were still biting viciously. Kamarata is located near to the eastern wall of Auyantepui, and during the drive in we caught glimpses of its fantastic pink crags looming out of the cloud and haze. We stopped on the outskirts of the settlement, at a tiny general store. We all piled out, and bought cans of Venezuelan 'Polar' lager for the whole group. We were all so glad to have completed the trek that we were already in party mood and everyone drank two cans of lager right there. I was so exhausted and dehydrated that the alcohol gave me an immense head rush, I felt dizzy, and nearly passed out - but it felt fantastic. Everyone congratulated each other on our teamwork and we thanked Bruno and Ricardo for the excellent job they had done. To crown this memorable moment of the trip, a hummingbird started to feed on a flowering shrub just a few feet away.Our group at the Jetty at Kamarata.Once the mini celebrations were over, we drove into the centre of Kamarata, to our accommodation at a small whitewashed hostel. Two rooms had been allocated for us; Janet was in one, while Ricardo, Richard, Johan and I shared the other. The rooms were bare concrete and very basic, but it was a relief to discover that we had proper beds and not hammocks! Before long our room was strewn with all of our battered equipment, and we hung our damp things on the bars of the window to dry. The smell was terrible!After organising ourselves, we were invited over to a small restaurant next to our hostel to meet the organisers of the river section of our expedition, and to have dinner. We were served a delicious meal of steak and rice with more ice cold Polar lager. Although it seemed to us that we had arrived back in the heart of civilisation, having come from the remote jungle, the reality was that Kamarata is very much out on a limb. Although there is technically a way into the village by road (from La Paragua) it is rarely used. Virtually all the visitors to this remote community either come by river, walk, or fly in on one of many light aircraft that ferry people and supplies between the gold mines. This is why all of the lager and other provisions that we bought in Kamarata were so expensive - everything is flown in. There are no telephones in Kamarata either, radios are used to communicate with other settlements in the Gran Sabana and we could often hear a crackling radio set somewhere in our hostel.Fortunately, it was party time in Kamarata, because there was a festival on. The highlight of this would be a football match between Kamarata and the Kavanayen team (who had flown in especially for the event) which was to take place the next day. It had been decided that we would delay our departure so that we could watch the match. This evening, there was to be dancing and drinking to celebrate the arrival of the players - and we were invited. So after dinner, Ricardo, Richard and I moved over to a large dance floor next to the restaurant. All of the revellers were seated round the edge of the bare concrete dance floor, which was sheltered from the elements by a high corrugated iron roof. As soon as we sat down, a cold can of lager was given to each of us and we rekindled the party mood that we had been in when we arrived. For the whole evening, we were never without a drink, and at one stage we got to try a shot of extremely strong rum. We were also asked to dance Merengue with the Indian girls, so the three of us took to the dance floor. After the dancing, we were invited to play dominoes back at the restaurant with a few of the local Indians and gold miners. The game was played in the traditional way - by slamming the pieces down on the table with as much force as possible! The lager was still flowing freely, and it wasn't long before we were all very drunk. The last thing I remember was calling it a night, saying goodnight to Ricardo and Richard and walking the short distance back to the hostel. I collapsed on my bed, drunk and happy to be out of the jungle.
Playing dominoes at Kamarata.
Day 10 - Sunday 10th October.Force of habit woke me at about 5.30 a.m., and I had a terrible hangover. Drinking a lot of alcohol in a tropical climate is really a bad idea, and my head was throbbing. I felt even worse when I looked down at my feet and discovered a large brown tick lodged between my toes. It must have been feeding on me all night. I grabbed it by its disgusting leathery body, ripped it out of my skin and then flicked it through the bars of the window.I decided to go for a walk to clear my head, and thought that if I went back to the general store I might see another hummingbird and be able to get some photographs. I set off along the wide main track that ran through the village. Most of the houses in Kamarata seemed to be of a different construction than the ones in Kavanayen, instead of stone blocks they were made of wood and dried mud lattice walls with thatched roofs. I did make it as far as the little general store, where half of a dead snake was lying in the road, but I was forced to retreat back to the hostel by the unbelievable ferocity of the puri-puris. They were biting constantly, and dribbles of blood were running down my leg from the deep bites.When I got back to our room I was met with the alarming site of a bat circling above our beds, and then darting back to its roosting space between the corrugated roof and one of the timber rafters. It wasn't long before we were called over to the restaurant for a much needed breakfast of scrambled eggs, ham and pancakes with tea. Then it was time to wander over to the football pitch to watch the game. It was an incredible setting, with the massive flank of Auyantepui looming at one end of the pitch, and at the other the road led up a short incline to the large Catholic mission building. We stood under the shade of a tree with a crowd of young spectators as the teams came out. It soon became apparent that there were two matches to be played. The first was between Sabanita and the home side, Kamarata, and the second was the eagerly awaited clash with the visitors from Kavanayen. On the sideline there was an enthusiastic commentator with a microphone and loudspeaker who was entertaining the crowd. We stayed until half time of the Sabanita / Kamarata match and then headed back to the restaurant for lunch.While we were waiting for our food to arrive, I noticed that I had a pronounced insect bite on my left hand, which was very itchy and had begun throbbing. Ricardo had a look at it, and said that he thought I had a chigger in my hand. Chiggers are a type of flea that live on the ground in the rainforest. When someone passes by barefoot or puts their hand on the earth, the female flea jumps on and burrows into the flesh. Once it has reached the right depth under the skin it lays a batch of eggs, and four or five days later lots of small worm-like larvae erupt out of the affected hand or foot. Ricardo said that he would remove the Chigger for me by digging it out with a sewing needle that had been sterilised in a flame. Fortunately however, when he showed my hand to Bruno and a local guide at the restaurant, they were both of the opinion that it wasn't a Chigger after all. If it had been, it would have been important to get it out, because if left they can affect the bone underneath and if they actually hatch the wound may become gangrenous.Over lunch, Ricardo was talking to the local guide and translating for us. He often lead groups on a trek up to the summit of Auyantepui and said that it takes 3 days to reach the top. Angel Falls was named after the American bush pilot Jimmy Angel, who discovered the falls when he landed a light aircraft on the summit of Auyan Tepui in 1937. He was looking for gold, but his expedition took a dramatic turn for the worse when he discovered that his plane was lodged in the soggy ground. He and his wife, along with two other travelling companions, had to trek their way out, which included descending a kilometre of almost vertical cliff to get down from the summit. This was how word of the spectacular Angel Falls first reached the outside world. Auyantepui is approximately heart shaped, and Kamarata is on the eastern flank. Our journey down the Akanan River would first take us north along the right hand edge of the 'heart', meeting the Carrao River, then we would round the top of the 'heart' before turning south up the Churun River and into Devils Canyon. Angel Falls spills down off the tepui into this canyon and is effectively a third of the way inside the heart shape, roughly between the two halves.With lunch over, it was time to say goodbye to Bruno, Juan, Alejandro and David. We were sorry that this was the end of their expedition with us; a boat crew would be taking us to Angel Falls. With Ricardo translating, each of us thanked Bruno and the others for their kindness and help on what had been a very difficult trail. There were many times where if it had not been for Bruno's incredible sense of balance and helping hand, I would have fallen off one of the big logs into deep water. There was no doubt that Richard and I were particularly indebted to him for taking us hunting, an experience that I am sure neither of us will forget. Thanks to him we had also learnt a lot about the plants and animals of the rainforest and seen things which we would easily have missed on our own. We each gave Bruno a tip in addition to the sum that he would have received as part of our tour price, and Richard gave him a shirt that he used to wear clubbing. Bruno was genuinely moved, and decided he would wear it to church on Sundays. He said that not even the priest would have a shirt as nice as that. After the mini ceremony, we walked to a nearby house to take some photos of Bruno with his family and then said our goodbyes.We gathered our equipment and set off to walk back to the jetty on the Akanan River where we had been met with the Toyota. We were about to begin our river journey to Angel Falls. On the way to the boat, we crossed Kamarata's small airstrip where a couple of planes were parked. One of the bush pilots was selling bottles of Cacique rum, and, remembering how miserable the jungle had become when we had run out of rum before, I bought a bottle to take with us.At 3pm we set off down the river in the motorised dugout. Most of the long boat was loaded with our rucksacks under a tarpaulin sheet, and a terrifying amount of petrol in Jerry cans. I had taken the foam backplate out of my rucksack to use as a seat, because the hard wooden benches were very uncomfortable to sit on. Even this wasn't enough cushioning, and so when the river was calm I also sat on my orange life jacket. Shortly after getting under way, one of the boatmen spotted a large turtle resting on a branch that was sticking up out of the water. They cut the engine and manoeuvred us alongside so that we could take some photographs.Travelling on the river afforded us stunning views of Auyantepui, its crags jutting earily out of the mist and cloud that shrouded the summit. The tops of the tepuis are extremely inaccessible and only Roraima on the border of Brazil, Venezuela and Guayana is regularly climbed by westerners (including groups from Geodyssey, often lead by Ricardo). When Roraima was first documented by the Victorians, they believed that it was impossible to climb and postulated that there might be extinct species of plants and animals living on the summit - perhaps even dinosaurs. It was this account that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write his book The Lost World. With the advent of the helicopter scientific expeditions have gradually begun to catalogue some of the flora and fauna of the tepui summits. Although there are no dinosaurs, there are many plants and even some animals (such as a small black toad on Roraima) that are unique to particular tepuis, and found nowhere else in the world. One of the great things about our expedition was that the scenery we were enjoying is truly exceptional and only occurs in south east Venezuela.We reached the first of several rapids and the boat pulled in so that we could walk round the danger area and get back in further downstream. Richard asked if he could stay on board to shoot the rapids with the boatmen, and his wish was granted. Janet and I got some good shots of him looking slightly nervous as the boat sped down through the whitewater.Our dugout was very fast and at top speed was managing between eighteen and twenty miles an hour according to my GPS receiver. It was very satisfying to watch the dense jungle speed past on either side, after so many days of painstaking progress. However, the velocity of our boat was reduced to some extent because the river meandered extensively from side to side and rarely went in one direction for any time.The second rapids we came to (called Iguanameru) were too dangerous to take the dugout down directly; the crew had to manhandle the boat keeping it into the bank. Meanwhile we walked a short distance along the shore, and came to our campsite for the night, at the end of the section of whitewater. I had wondered what our campsites would be like on the river journey, and had been expecting a makeshift shelter. However, this river is used much more often by tourists than anywhere we had been so far, and we were amazed to find that two massive churuatas had been built on the bank. The first contained a long table in the centre, with wooden benches running all the way round the circular edge of the hut. The second was for sleeping in, and for the first time on the journey our hammocks were spread out to give each of us a comfortable space. There was a separate small thatched hut for cooking in, and further inshore a toilet block had been built! After our nights spent cramped together under a damp tarpaulin, it seemed palatial.Richard on the rapids at Iguanameru.As I wandered around the first churuata, I saw a huge jet black wasp flying close to the ground. On closer inspection I noticed that it was actually carrying a dead grasshopper! I told Ricardo about it, and he said that this type of wasp had a very powerful sting, and like the hormiga 24, could induce a high fever for 24 hours. It definitely took the honours for the biggest wasp I have ever seen.After we had set up camp, Richard decided that he would try his luck at fishing. Throughout the trek he had been carrying a short plastic fishing rod strapped to the outside of his rucksack. It had been bent, crushed, flexed and battered by just about every branch on the trail from Karuai to Kamarata but amazingly was not broken. He soon had threaded line through the eyes of the rod, and rigged up a float and a small hook with a piece of raw chicken for bait. We made our way down to the water and started looking for the best spot. The shore at Iguanameru was ideal. Immediately adjacent to the camp there was a gently sloping sandy beach, while a few yards further downstream was a jumble of medium sized boulders. Richard opted to cast from the boulder area, because he rightly guessed that the fish would shelter there, feeding among the stems and roots of some short plants that were growing just off shore. At first nothing happened, but suddenly the float started to twitch in the water, as little fish mouthed the bait. As Richard and I watched the float and stared out across the wide river, we could see a big storm heading in towards us. In the distance on the other side of the river was a classic tepui, like a square green tooth protruding from the jungle. As the storm approached it, forks of lightning shot across the sky, occasionally striking the flat summit of the mountain. The strange light from the cloud laden sky gave unusual and beautiful tints to the water cascading over the rapids. As we were watching this incredible scene, Janet and Ricardo appeared with perfect timing and handed us both a Cuba Libra. The rum and coke was very refreshing, and we all chatted for a while and watched the black clouds roll towards us. Unfortunately, Richard didn't catch anything and it seemed that the hooks he had were slightly too big for the small fish to take in.Storm clouds gather at Iguanameru.Back at the camp, we had a delicious meal of chicken (which had been cooked on sticks over the fire) and salad. After that, I was about to retire to my hammock to write my diary when I heard a shout from the other churuata. One of the boatmen had discovered an incredible moth on one of the supporting pillars. It was big, brown in colour and with strange white translucent patches on its wings. Its hind wings had two long streamers protruding from them. It stayed there all of the time that we were looking at it, and Janet got a picture of it with her camera.Once inside my hammock and swaying gently with the breeze, I watched the stars twinkling overhead until I drifted off to sleep.
Day 11 - Monday 11th September.I woke up feeling refreshed after the best night’s sleep in many days, although as usual it had been very cold in the early morning.During breakfast a stranger wandered into camp. He was a local man afflicted with a terrible tropical disease. He had gaping ulcerated wounds on his arm, leg and throat and was asking Ricardo for help. The wounds looked like they had been caused by some kind of biting insect and Ricardo confirmed that that was the case. The locals call the illness 'Yaga', although Janet and I were pretty sure that it was some kind of Leishmaniasis, which is caused by the bite of a particular kind of sand-fly. Ricardo sprayed the man's skin with Savlon, and gave him a foil pack of paracetamol tablets from the group first aid kit. Ricardo thought that if the wounds went untreated for much longer, the man would probably die and advised him to get to a settlement that had a radio and contact the government. There was a chance that they might helicopter him to a clinic, as they had done to save Bruno's life. He thanked Ricardo, and walked off along the bank. Ricardo said that this disease was usually only caught by indigenous Indians like the man we had seen, who spent a long time living deep in the forest, but even so he advised us to watch out for large flies and not to let them settle on us.While Ricardo had the group first aid kit out of his rucksack, he sterilised a sewing needle in a flame and removed two chiggers that had buried themselves in Janet's skin - one under a toe nail and the other under a fingernail. What came out on the end of the needle was a small, stubby white maggot.We set off in the dugout once more, and had only been going for a short while when Ricardo asked us if we wanted to see a DC-3 that had crashed on the savannah thirty years ago. The boatmen were offering to pull in and take us on a half hour walk to the crash site. Richard and I were both keen to see it, after all, planes that have crashed in the jungle are a kind of stereotypical image of adventure in South America. So while Janet stayed with the dugout, we found ourselves plodding slowly across a wide open area of savannah in the strong sunshine. In the end it probably took just fifteen to twenty minutes to reach the stranded airliner. We knew that no one had died in the original crash, and from the wreck it looked like the aircraft had made a bumpy but safe forced landing on the plain. The crew and passengers had then faced an arduous trek back to the nearest settlement, because in those days there were few boats on the river. Weathered after all those years exposed to the elements, the DC-3 was just an aluminium shell. The wings, nose, fuselage and tailplane were all intact but only one engine block remained. At the rear of the plane was a large open cargo door, and we all climbed inside and made our way through where the seats would have been, to the cockpit. The pilot and co-pilot seats were now just metal frames, with gaping holes in the floor of the cockpit below. Above us was a square hole in the roof where a hatch must have once been. Ricardo climbed out onto the top of the plane and the rest of us followed him up. The boatman took a group photo of us with Richard's camera, and I took one of Ricardo balanced on the end of the wing. I also took a photograph of the plane with the backdrop of the mighty flank of Auyantepui.The wrecked DC-3 with Auyan Tepui in the background.Leaving the DC-3 we walked a short way over to a white house over near a bend in the river. There was a small Indian shop here that sold handmade items like bracelets and blowpipes with quivers full of darts. I bought a necklace of lovely silver patterned seeds (called San Pedro Tears) for Angela, my girlfriend, and then we walked down to the river bank where we found Janet waiting in the dugout.We set off once more down the river, relaxing and enjoying fine views of several spectacular tepuis. Our lunch stop was at another riverside churuata, where we ate sardine salad and drank purified river water while watching a blue morpho flying up and down.Wei Tepui from the Carrao River, Venezuela.After another backside-numbing 2 or 3 hours in the boat, we passed the mouth of the Churun River (which leads to Angel Falls via Devil's Canyon) and reached our accommodation for the evening, Campamento El Tiuni Tours near the mouth of the Ahonda River. A lovely wide garden lead up from the river bank, to a truly monstrous corrugated iron roofed building. Inside at one end was a dining area, at the other a rather grotty toilet block and in the middle (occupying by far the majority of the space) were row upon row of hammocks. This was the intermediate point for Angel Falls trips for tourists making the boat journey up from Canaima. It could have been the site of a beautiful guest house, but instead the owner had obviously decided to milk this cash cow for all it was worth, and had built what was essentially a massive doss house for backpackers. It wasn't long before everyone in our expedition group was referring to it as either 'the abattoir' (after the rows of traveller's hung up in hammocks like pieces of meat) or 'the dungeon' (because in the toilet blocks the only light came from burning wicks made from oily rags). We met the manager on arrival, a sour faced man who took one look at our party and announced "we have rules here"! We were shown to our hammocks, which fortunately were right at the edge of the dungeon facing the garden and the river, with the flank of a tepui clearly visible on the other side. All around us were piles of equipment next to the other hammocks, which had been left by people who were viewing Angel Falls that day.I went back down to the river and had a wash and a gloriously refreshing swim. The river was wide, but there was a large island in the middle with a gently sloping sandy beach and then dense wood. It was perfectly safe and very easy to swim across to the island and back, looking up at the cliff face of the tepui nearby.Back at the dungeon, the Falls party returned and we all sat in the dining area for a delicious pasta dinner. Then we polished off the remainder of the rum I had bought from the bush pilot and Ricardo managed to get another bottle for us from the manager, who was running a rum racket to supplement his income. He charged us an outrageous 15,000 Bolivars (about £15) which was well above the going rate, but we took the view that in a place as remote as this you either paid the asking price or went without! We all paid for Ricardo's share because it didn't seem fair that he should have to spend his money while he was supposed to be earning it. There was no coke or Pepsi here (yes, it really was remote!), so we drank the rum with cold tea, which tasted really nice. We slowly got drunk and had several games of dominoes with a British and an American couple. The dungeon actually came to life at night and we all had a great time. Now that the trek was over, and we were close to our objective, everyone was in a holiday mood. Tomorrow, we would see Angel Falls.
Day 12 - Tuesday 12th September.I was up at 5 am and washed in the river in preference to using the grim wash-block. Then it was time to put on my mud encrusted boots for the first time since the end of the jungle trek.We each grabbed an orange life jacket, and set off in the motorised dugout at 7.15. It was a big boat that could accommodate 25 people at a time. We went back up the Carrao River, retracing our path of yesterday, and then turned up the Churun River into Devil's Canyon. The need to navigate this river by boat had dictated that our expedition ran in the rainy season. We needed the water level to be high otherwise there was a chance that we would have to get out and haul the boat over the shallowest of the rapids. However, there had been a lot of rain, the Churun was full and we didn't have to stop. There were still many sections of rapids and whitewater which we had to fight our way up. The boatman took great delight in weaving round the enormous boulders, and taking us close in to the bank under the branches. As we went further and further into the canyon, the flanks of Auyantepui on either side became ever closer and more impressive.The dugout was moored at a wide rocky area on the right hand bank, and as we climbed out we had our first view of Angel Falls. It was almost completely covered with cloud, apart from a thin sliver of the base where the spray of water collided with the rocks at the bottom. Ricardo advised us to take a photograph then and there, because it was always a possibility (due to low cloud) that it might be the best view we got. We were then led a short way into the forest, to a clearing where three large churuatas had been built. The path up to the falls is narrow and leads to a small lookout point, called Mirador Laime. It cannot accommodate many people at once, so we faced a wait at the churuatas of about half an hour before we could begin our walk up into the forest.Our guide for the trip to the falls was a Japanese girl called Yoko. She was employed by Tiuni tours at Canaima, and had been staying with us at the Ahonda camp. When the coast was clear and everyone was ready, she led us into the forest and up the well-worn trail to Mirador Laime. It was a tough, steep climb that took about an hour. On the way Yoko paused to point out the species of tree that is used to make dugout canoes and an hormiga 24 nest. As we climbed we also saw a noisy flock of golden-tufted grackles, a crow-like black bird with a golden stripe on each wing.After struggling up the incline and over a jumble of exposed roots and awkward rocks, we came to a break in the forest where a stone ledge looked out on Angel Falls - this was Mirador Laime. We moved out carefully onto the smooth rock and found that we had a stunning view; the cloud was lifting slowly and leaving the face of the falls bathed in sunlight. Eventually, the top of Auyan tepui was visible and I could see that there were perhaps three or four main jets of water that cascaded off the top of the cliff, which were all soon nebulised by the awesome drop into one great spray. Near the bottom, the face curved and opened out into a bowl shape, and the water-mist hit a vast slope covered in boulders. Reconverging into a river, it flowed down through the forest until it plummeted over a much smaller drop, forming another waterfall that would have been considered large in any other circumstances. I took many photographs of Angel Falls from Mirador Laime, because the clouds, sunlight and pink-brown colours of the rock face were constantly changing. Just then the view became even more incredible, when a hummingbird began to feed on a flowering tree overhanging the drop off nearby.Angel Falls from Mirador Laime.After taking some group photos at the lookout, it was then time to move on and make room for those following us. Yoko led us further along the trail, until we emerged at the base of the waterfall we had seen from the lookout. The rock face was a lovely copper pink colour, and the tannin stained water gushed down over it and into a wide pool surrounded by boulders. Everyone in the group went for a swim at this stunning spot. Richard, Ricardo and I swam out into the middle and by looking up, were rewarded with the mind blowing sight of the whole face of Angel Falls towering above us. It was so tall (twice the height of the empire state building) that I had to force my neck all the way back to be able to see the very top, even though we weren't right underneath the falls. All of the hard trekking that we had done had been worth it to see something that magnificent, and we had been lucky to see the falls unobscured by cloud. Ricardo had only ever seen the falls from the air before, and so he enjoyed the spectacle as much as Richard and I did.Exhilarated, we made our way carefully back down to the churuatas, where we were served with a delicious lunch of huge chicken drumsticks and potato with onion. After lunch, there was still time before departure to explore the shoreline, where there were many big green lizards and more stunning views of Angel Falls (that had been obscured when we first arrived).The journey back down the Churun River was something of a rollercoaster ride because of the swift rapids and the need to avoid the large partially submerged rocks. Now that we were on our way back from Angel Falls, we could just relax and savour the unique scenery of the area we were passing through.Back at the Ahonda camp, Ricardo, Richard and I went for a swim in the river to unwind. Unfortunately, this time we were plagued by big flies which swarmed around our heads in a dizzying spiral. After we had tried to bat them away with Richard's rolled up camping mat, we decided to give up and head back to the dungeon.I asked Ricardo to find out how much our less than genial host would charge me for a bottle of rum if I paid in US dollars. By now I was running low on Bolivars and thought that he might give me a discount with the more stable currency. It was a bit cheaper than before, but still rather expensive. However, tonight was our final night of the journey proper, and we would be celebrating with more drinking and dominoes, so I decided to buy the rum so that our group would not be left out. Sure enough, we had another very relaxing evening drinking rum and cold tea and expending whatever energy we had left by slamming the dominoes on the table. Yoko turned out to be an extremely skilled harp player, who had moved to Venezuela in order to study the harp and Venezuelan music. She teamed up with some of the locals to play some great tunes which made the whole camp really come to life. After that she sung a beautifully haunting Japanese ballad, accompanying herself on the guitar. With the evening in full swing, it was unfortunate that our group received some rather bad news. One of Ricardo’s friends in Kamarata had called the camp on the radio to report that he had learnt that our flight from Canaima back to Puerto Ordaz the next day had been cancelled because of poor uptake. If we were to make our connecting flight from Puerto Ordaz to Caracas and then our flight back home, we would have to travel to Canaima and get on an earlier flight at 9 a.m. This meant that we would have to leave the Ahonda camp in the dugout by six and get down the river to Canaima as early as possible, but even then it would be a close call.
Day 13 - Wednesday 13th September.The whole group were awake for five as planned. By torchlight we collected the packed breakfast that the camp staff had kindly agreed to make for us, and took our equipment down to the waiting boat. We were away on schedule at six, and it was bitterly cold as we accelerated down river before the dawn.I had programmed the co-ordinates for Canaima into my GPS receiver before leaving the UK, and I now set the device to show our speed, distance to go and estimated time to arrival. I could see that we were maintaining a very good speed (about 20 miles per hour) and it looked as if we would get there well ahead of schedule. However, things were not going to be that easy. About two thirds of the way to Canaima, the boatmen suddenly took the dugout into the bank. There was a dangerous section of rapids ahead and the boat needed to be