Sleeping on the sea bed

Trip Start Dec 03, 2005
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Trip End Jul 19, 2007


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Flag of Venezuela  ,
Sunday, February 19, 2006

I now know what it's like to be tall. After our 90 minute trip in the pickup, we caught a local bus to Barinas which was to take a painful 4 hours. I had only around 6 inches of space between the seat in front and mine. Now, I know my legs aren't that long 'n' all that, but besides for children - who on earth could possibly sit comfortably with only that much space??? After a very long journey totalling around 31 hours (point to point) we finally arrived in Ciudad Bolivar, a plane ride from the base for our explorations into the jungle.

Following Jimmie Angel and his intrepid explorers, we headed up the the Carrao and Churun rivers. With it being the dry season, the Churun was almost non-navigable and there were stretches where we had to get out and walk while the canoe-meister somehow brought it upstream of the rapids. Other sections I took advantage of being of the female gender and left it to the men to jump in waist high to push the boat on. All in all, what normally takes about 3 hours in the wet season took us 6 hours. Alongside us was another canoe who we competed with to arrive first and it was like leap-frog at each rapid. Unfortunately they got their first, but just by the skin of their teeth!

We arrived at camp and set up our hammocks under the watchful eye of Angel and his falls. Going to see Angel Falls can be a risky business in either season. In the wet season water abounds but you may not see it as the top is usually obscured by cloud. In the dry season water can be scarce or completely non-existent but you are more likely to get a clear view to the top of the falls.

Next morning we weren't so lucky and the cloud was as thick as thieves. Nevertheless, we still headed off on the hour-long hike to the viewpoint. The cloud was playing with us and every now and again we'd get a brief glimpse of the entire fall. Our stay was short and by midday, we had to head back down to camp to get ready for our downstream canoe ride back to Canaima. Only then did the cloud completely lift about 10 minutes before leaving. Typical!

The canoe ride back was more exciting than seeing the falls themselves with the canoe-meister shooting the rapids and us almost falling out quite a few times! When we were allowed a chance to catch our breath, the view of the tepuis was fascinating. There was one which looked like a castle which should be in Lord of the Rings, massive defense walls rising from the ground with the obligatory turret on the corner. I know you probably all think I belong to the Monster Raving Looney Party but with a little imagination you can see lots of shapes and formations with these tepui! Unfortunately the pictures don't do it justice so you can continue thinking I'm mad :-( .

Having arrived back it was time to head out again and visit the local waterfalls. Now while these may not have been half as grand as Mr Angel's falls, at least you could walk behind them. After walking under the first barefooted (it would have been too slippery to wear shoes/sandals) we headed off through the forest, barefooted, to the second. I felt like a true local out hunting the local delicacy (men, of course!!! ;-) ) but just lacking in the one essential item - a spear. The first one was amazing but the pounding force of the second was surreal. What was even more unbelievable was that plants were growing where the water hit the rock. How can they survive there?

It would seem my hunting skills worked in the end, although not out in the field but more in the local diner / 'pub'. After dinner, they put on some Venezuelan music and Julie decided it was time to boogey. Not happy with being the only one up there, I was pulled up onto the dance floor and learned a few steps with one of the locals. I would say that I am the dancing queen, but I think I have a long way to go yet.

So our time in the jungle was coming to an end and we caught the plane back to Cuidad Bolivar. I almost felt like I was staring in The English Patient with the style of plane we were in. The only passengers were myself and Pat (and our 2 massive bags). The ride back was a bit bumpy and I was expecting to crash down in the forest at any time, only to wake up to some Pemon people who had never seen a white person before staring at me. But thankfully, my expected third event didn't happen just then and we touched down safely.

Not giving ourselves much time for relaxation, we headed straight for the bus station to find out about buses down to Santa Elena near the border with Brazil and where trips to Mount Roraima can be organised from. We managed to find a fare for B35,000 although I was a bit suspicious of the person selling the ticket as she sold us a ticket for bus company 'A' on a ticket which showed the name of bus company 'B' while she wore a t-shirt for bus company 'C'! I kept my eye on her the whole time we were there to make sure she didn't disappear. As the time approached and passed, it looked like my suspicions were justified. The bus never appeared. Luckily though, she hadn't disappeared. I went to speak to her and apparently our bus wasn't arriving! She put us on another bus that was leaving at that moment but tried to extract another B10,000 from us, each. I wasn't having any of that and asked for the money back or her to sort it out with the driver. In the end, she turned out to be a good cookie and got us on the bus (normal fare in this case B45,000) without having to pay the difference.

We paid for this in another way though and the number of checkpoints on the way down was unreal! I was used to one or two on an overnight journey, but four was really a bit too much. Just as you're about snooze off, they appeared again and you had to go down and empty your bag or show your passport. I'm sure they just did it because they were bored! We finally arrived in Santa Elena and found ourselves a posada for the night. But before even finding time for breakfast, one tour agency was asking if we wanted to leave for Roraima that morning! After our hectic schedule, I needed a bit of a rest. Not only that, the Visa line in the bank wasn't working. 'Come back tomorrow'. During the day, we'd decided on a group to go with but with the visa line not working we didn't know how it would work out. So we left it to next morning and tried again, 'Come back tomorrow'. This wasn't looking good. Our group had grown from 6 people to 9 so the guy decided to take our word for it that we'd pay on return and off we went on our 'Extreme' adventure up to Roraima.

This 'Extreme' adventure was significantly cheaper than all the other tours on offer as you had to carry your own gear, sleeping bag, tent and food for the group. All in all my bag weighed at least 15kg, if not more. This was made up of:

2kg boots (1kg each - bloomin' 'eck!)
1.7kg tent
1kg sleeping bag
1kg rucksack
5kg clothes
5kg food (at least!!!)
1kg the bag itself

While this may sound mad, it is something that I've wanted to do as climbing Aconcagua in Argentina is something on my list of things to do before I'm 25 ( ;-) ) and that involves carrying up to 20kg to an altitude of almost 7000m. This would be easy in comparison as the maximum altitude would be 2875m. In order to get to the first camp, you must arrive at the starting point before 2pm. Unfortunately with the problems in the bank, we'd left too late to start the trek to the first camp and so ended up camping the night at the starting point, Paratepui. This was an indigenous village and was almost like archaeology in action with all the postholes showing where houses used to be. It didn't turn out to be too bad as I got to see a stunning huge red disc sunset over the surrounding rolling hills. Afterwards as the darkness appeared, I could have sworn that the world had turned upside-down as I saw what appeared to be flashing stars all around me. Or maybe it was something in the juice they had made earlier in the day? To my relief, I found out it was some sort of firefly (luciernaga). It looked fantastic!

The sunset only served to distract me from the horrible truth that the next day would involve hiking 25km with over 15kg of weight to carry. Eventually I arrived, last, after 10 hours of hard work. And here was me thinking it wouldn't be too bad. I definitely need more practice at carrying 15kg before I even attempt 20kg! Luckily, we could leave some food along the trail for our return so the amount to carry was less. The men of the group next day turned out to be absolute gentlemen and offered to carry the food up as there were six bags and six men. This reduced my weight to 11kg which was significantly more bearable and I made it to the top in 4th place within the estimated time of 3 hours. I guess 10 hours of sleep and a huge plate of pasta does help though! To my fellow Sherman Road residents, if ever you thought I ate loads for dinner then, those plates don't measure even half of what I ate that night!

By one hour, I had made it to the sheer wall that characterizes the tepui mountain. By one and a half hours I was enveloped by cloud. By two hours I was between clouds. By two and a half hours I saw Xavier, Didac and David in front of me climbing the steepest bit. By three hours, I had finally reached the top. The path we had walked the day before seemed to go on forever and I couldn't believe we had walked it in one day. Having to watch your step every bit of the way means that you can miss quite a few things. It also means that every time you look up there is something different to see. As I took a break for a drink of water, a hummingbird appeared in front of me. He hovered there, no more than 2 feet away, for about 10 seconds and then headed for a branch, stuck his tongue out at me and then flew off. This was the beauty of climbing the ramp on my own, there was no-one in front to scare the wildlife and I could enjoy the blissful silence as I stopped for a break.

So what was it like at the top? Quite eerie really. It felt like humans shouldn't really be there, it was a completely different world. The cloud would roll in and then disappear for a few minutes each time revealing something new and different. The rocks had been shaped by the wind and rain over millions of years which led to different formations, some requiring some imagination. We saw the largest turtle ever, someone sitting down having a beer, faces of all shapes and sizes and huge rocks balanced on very thin columns. That evening, we headed to the highest point on the tepui, "Car", to watch the sun go down and marvel at the views. The guide must have been talking to the Gods as the cloud lifted literally just as we arrived to the top and we were treated to a spectacular view of the hills and rivers below us. The sunset was yet again stunning, an enormous red disc slowly sinking below the horizon. On our way down, the cloud had returned and we all felt like we should be starring in Lord of the Rings and expected Smeagol to appear any second from between the rocks.

That evening, despite having carried my 1.7kg tent all the way up there, I chose to spend the night outdoors under a rock overhang. My bed was the sea-bed. Well, millions of years ago it was as I had ripples in the rock under me. I was really looking forward to this until the guide told me, just before going to bed, that I would have enormous rats for company! If his plan was to keep me awake it certainly worked as I was convinced that every sound I heard was a rat scurrying around me! The next night he wasn't so lucky and I slept much better under the stars with nightingales flying by.

We had a full day on the top of Roraima to see almost all that it had to offer so we chose an 18km round trip and we got to see Valle de los Cristales (an area of quartz where, apparently, some greedy Japanese had landed at with their helicopter and totally destroyed), El Foso (a large sinkhole full of water that looked something like a Roman Bath with columns down the side) and the Punto Triple (the border between Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana, all of whom have a claim to part of Roraima. Venezuela has the fortune to lay claim to the only part which offers access to the top). Our guide must have been a naughty boy as all we saw next day was rain, rain and more rain. As we hopped from stone to stone through some marshy sections I expected the ground to open below me and be swallowed alive, never to be seen again. Sound crazy? Well, if you remember any of those childrens tv programs where they have to hop from stone to stone picking the right one to get from one side to the other, that was what it felt like.

No sooner had we got to the top when we were on our way down again. The view was definitely more spectacular coming down which made up for the fact that the trek was almost over. And just as a way of saying goodbye, we saw in the skies above a rainbow. Not one of your ordinary ones, oh no! We must have been directly below the raincloud as this was an arc that went around the sun. If there were no clouds, I'm sure it would have been a complete circle. Typically, I had used up all the space in my card and couldn't take any photos of it :-( .

The group we had was just fantastic and as it turned out, 5 of the 9 were heading down to Manaus in Brazil next day so we joined together and headed south for the equator. This should prove interesting as I don't speak a word of Portuguese and I plan to spend 2 months there. I am hoping my Spanish will be enough to get me by and look forward to being completely fluent by the time I leave. Will let you know....

Things I learnt

Salto Angel

Angel Falls (Salto Ángel) is the world's highest free-falling waterfall at 979 metres with an uninterrupted drop of 996 metres. It is located on the Auyan Tepui ("Devil's House"), Auyan means devil and tepui means house in the Pemon language. This canyon and tepui was avoided by the Pemon people as it was believed to bring bad luck and ill health to anyone who saw it.

Angel Falls is named after James Crawford Angel Marshall (1899 - 1956), an American aviator who`s mission to discover gold led to it's discovery in 1933. In 1937 he returned with his team and landed his plane, El Rio Caroni, on top of the tepui along a stretch of marsh. The landing initially seemed to go well, but the wheels broke through the sod and sank into the mud bringing the airplane to an abrupt halt with a broken fuel line and the airplane's nose buried in the mud. Despite their best efforts, they could not lift the plane out. Having no other choice, they abandoned the plane and hiked to the nearest village of Kamarata at the bottom of the tepui in the valley below leaving a signal on the wings to say they were ok and in which direction they had headed, should any other planes come looking for them. This took them 11 days.

Jimmie Angel's airplane remained on Auyan-tepui for 33 years. In 1964 the government of Venezuela declared it a national monument and, in 1970, it was removed in sections to the Aviation Museum in Maracay for restoration. It is now on display in front of the airport passenger terminal in Ciudad Bolivar.

Roraima

Roraima is a sandstone plateau rising to a height of 2875m above the surrounding savannahs and forest, and the "Triple Point" marks the dividing spot of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil where the three national boundaries meet.

Roraima is widely know to have been the inspiration for Arthur Conán Doyle's book, "The Lost World". It is based on the accounts of Sir Everard im Thurn and Harry Perkins who were the first Europeans to climb the tepui in 1884.

It is part Canaima National Park. The table mountains of the park are considered to be some of the oldest geological formations on Earth, dating back to the Precambrian Era, over two billion years ago. The plateaus are made up of quartzite and sandstone and tower hundreds to thousands of feet above the valley floor. Not only is the geology fascinating, the park contains unique vegetation. One third of the plants in the park are not found anywhere else in the world.

The vegetation on the top of Roraima itself has evolved over many millions of years in isolation from the ground below it. You can find many types of orchids, carnivorous plants and even plants that have no hold on the ground through the traditional root system. You will also find many prehistoric tree ferns. In the many rock pools, you have to look carefully but you are likely to see the black toads that are unique to here. Like the tree ferns, they have had no need to change and so still walk rather than hop (the frogs that is, not the tree ferns!). There is also a cave where you can find hundreds of nightingales.

Venezuela

Venezuelan people are a proud and happy set of people where family still comes in at top place over money. They have a rich heritage with the population originating from indigenous Amerindians, the Spanish who arrived with Columbus and Africans who were brought over as slaves.

They also think that the current President (Hugo Chavez) is doing more good for the country than any of those previously. He comes from a mixed race background with education extending to 17 years in the military where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. The majority of people are satisfied with what he is doing for the country and it shows in his return to power only 2 days after he was deposed in a coup in April of 2002. His reforms and prevention of privatisation have hit the middle/upper class most.

Tourism yet has to take hold in the country. There are currently less visitors here than to Colombia. The main source of income is oil and natural resources which include gold, iron ore and diamonds. The price of petrol is quite astounding as it is cheaper than water. It currently retails for about B70 per litre (approximately GBP0.02 pence per litre) and has no tax added to it.

Would I recommend it? Without a doubt I had a fantastic time here and recommend it to anyone who has ever wanted to visit. I had heard lots of rumours about violence and it coming a close second to Colombia in terms of safety but the usual rules apply - be sensible, know what you're doing and where you're going, be polite and friendly and even if you don't speak the language a little goes a long way. The only thing I didn't like were the iceboxes they had for buses. It didn't matter how much you asked the driver (even the Venezuelans) he would just not turn off the air-conditioning. One bus was even colder than when I slept outdoors at 2700m on top of Roraima. So make sure you bring your sleeping bag on with you. Oh, and banks do not exchange currency so bring lots of USD as the exchange rate on the black market is better than the bank rate. Banks currently offer B2100 while paying in USD or exchanging on the street you will get B2500, almost 20% more!
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