Rowan Castle - Travel & Photography
© Rowan Castle 2019
The Lake Palace at Udaipur, India

Venezuela 2000 - Diary (Page 3)

Previous Page Previous Page Return to Contents Page Return to Contents Page
as light as possible to navigate it safely. We had to walk across the open savannah for about half an hour and rejoin the boat further downstream. It was a surreal way to end the expedition, with Janet, Ricardo, Richard and I walking quietly across the wide and silent savannah. Once back in the boat, we found that the river was shrouded with mist as we travelled the final section to Canaima. We disembarked at a small quayside, and then began our walk to the small airport. Our backpacks went on ahead of us in a truck, which made for a relaxing stroll down to Canaima lagoon. From the sandy shore, we were able to look across the water to the mighty Hacha Falls, which discharge the Carrao River into the calm expanse of the lake. It was lucky that our boat man had concentrated in the mist and stopped at the quay, travelling much further on would have meant dropping over the huge waterfall to a certain death! After passing briefly through the neat chalets and gardens of the tourist resort on the shore, we arrived at the tiny airstrip. We had made it with about half an hour to spare. The check in desk was a small hut, where our passports were briefly examined and our rucksacks weighed. Making our way over to the shaded area of seating that constituted the departure lounge we were surprised to see many troops of the Venezuelan National Guard milling around. The National Guard are a branch of the Venezuelan Army tasked with protecting the national parks, including Canaima National Park which we were currently in. As the minutes rolled past and we sat waiting for our flight, the military activity grew ever more frenzied. An army helicopter in full jungle camouflage flew in, and dropped off another group of troops, all armed with large machine guns. It was reminiscent of a scene from a Vietnam War movie. While all of this was going on, Ricardo explained that the military were conducting an operation against illegal gold miners and discreetly pointed to three men sitting opposite who were each wearing a pair of denim jeans and identical white T-shirts. They were Venezuelan human rights observers who had come along to witness the army action. Just as Ricardo finished talking an Army transport plane landed, and out poured a small party of journalists, TV reporters and cameramen; it seemed that the operation would make the evening news. With the drama drawing to a close, our own aircraft landed and taxied to the flight line in front of us. It was a single engine turbo prop plane that could seat approximately 20 people. The front row of passenger seats were directly behind the pilot and co-pilot, overlooking the cockpit. Ricardo knew that I was hoping to study for a Private Pilot’s Licence, and managed to get me one of the seats at the front by telling the pilot that I was a fellow aviator! Thanks to Ricardo I had a fascinating flight and could see all of the instruments on the flight deck as well as having a pilots-eye view during take-off and landing. It was remarkable to see the terrain that we had just travelled through from the air, with the meandering rivers and mysterious tops of several tepuis clearly visible. We flew slightly east of North, and I watched the display of nautical miles remaining count down on the aircraft's GPS console in front of me. Soon the wide Orinoco River was ahead of us, and I could see the tall smoking stacks of the Puerto Ordaz steelworks. Suddenly the runway was visible off to our right, and a few minutes later we were on the ground and taxiing past the DC-3s and floatplanes that I had seen at the start of the expedition. After collecting our luggage at the terminal, we jumped into a taxi and headed for our hotel, the Dos Rios (Two Rivers). On the way we stopped at the bank so that Richard could draw out some more Bolivars, and Ricardo helped me buy an international telephone card from one of his old friends who happened to be in the street nearby. After I had bought my card Ricardo explained that years ago the man had worked with him in the tourist industry, but recently he had fallen on hard times due to a fierce addiction to crack cocaine. He went on to explain that many Venezuelans were falling victim to this drug, because it came straight across the border from Columbia and was therefore cheap and plentiful. Once we had checked into the hotel, I followed directions that Ricardo had given me and headed into town to a commercial district nearby. I had to find a telephone that would accept my card, so that I could make an international call to Angela. She had offered to collect me from Heathrow on my return, but a last minute change to the itinerary (which I had only noticed once I was in Venezuela) meant that I would be arriving a day earlier than she expected. Luckily, I got through and managed to pass on the news. It would be unfair to ask her to pick me up on the new arrival date (Friday) because she would have had to take a day off work, so I had decided to make my own way back from London. However, Angela said that it would have been impossible for her to pick me up anyway, because the UK was in the middle of a national crisis. While I had been away, hauliers and farmers who were angry at the level of petrol duty had blockaded all of the oil refineries. Garages had rapidly run out of petrol and people had begun to panic buy as supermarkets sold out of basic foods. Angela's car was almost out of petrol and she didn't have enough left to make it to the airport. I listened to all of this with amazement, and wondered how it would affect my journey home. If the trains and buses had stopped running, it might be very difficult to get back to Swindon. Back at the hotel, I had a shower and found my last tick of the trip. It had lodged under the strap of my watch! It was determined not to let go of my skin, and proved quite painful to remove. I joined the others in the restaurant for lunch. The food was delicious and it was our first big meal for many days. Although I was hungry, it was remarkable just how little weight I had actually lost. After my last big trek in Pakistan, I had come home a stone lighter and looking gaunt, but at this stage of the journey I was still feeling fit and healthy. This was completely due to Ricardo's expertise at packing and cooking food for the trek, which had made all the difference to our ability to endure the difficult terrain we had faced. In the evening we celebrated the end of the expedition with a slap up meal in a nearby restaurant, called 'My Grandfather's Moustache'. Ricardo recommended the mixed grill (although not for Janet, who is a vegetarian!) and we were presented with two massive charcoal burners heaped with steak, sausage, black pudding and intestines. We washed it down with ice cold Polar lager, and to finish, had a round of flaming Sambucas. After the meal, Janet went back to the hotel with Johan, while Ricardo, Richard and I went on to a nightclub.
Day 14 - Thursday 14th September. After breakfast, I said goodbye to Janet and Richard. Richard was catching a later plane back to Caracas and on to Manchester, and so he had an extra day in Puerto Ordaz. Janet would be taking a long bus journey back to her log cabin on the Paria Peninsula. I was sad that the expedition was finally over and I was saying farewell to such good travelling companions. Ricardo met me in the lobby and called a taxi to take me to the airport. I thanked him once again for all of his help during the trek. Throughout the expedition he continually put himself out to make our journey that little bit better all the time. He had said that after sixteen years as a guide in Venezuela's tourism industry, he knew everyone in the business. By the end of the trek we all realised that this was not an idle boast, and were convinced that we had been fortunate to have been led by the best guide in Venezuela. The taxi arrived, I waved goodbye to Janet, Richard and Ricardo and was soon heading back to Puerto Ordaz airport. From there I flew back to Caracas, and after a wait of a couple of hours, caught the ten hour Alitalia flight back to the UK, arriving on Friday 15th September.                       ___________________________________________ The Expedition To Angel Falls had certainly lived up to its 'very strenuous' billing, but had been a marvelous experience. I had been privileged to see the World's highest waterfall, blue morpho butterflies and had come face to face with a hummingbird in the wild. However, these experiences had been hard won; the jungle had been a difficult environment to live in, even for just six days. It could be a menacing place, and at times slightly disturbing. It had been six years since my first big trek in Pakistan, and once again this expedition had enabled me to live in the wilds, forget the hassles of life back home and concentrate only on putting one foot in front of the other. To me this meant that all of the hardships, sweat, mud and damp had been worthwhile. The trip had also been an unforgettable introduction to South America, with its incredible diversity of plants, insects, animals and landscapes and I hope that I will be lucky enough to return. A few months after the trek, I wrote an article about the Expedition To Angel Falls, and this was published in the July / August 2001 issue of Adventure Travel Magazine.