VENEZUELA: Where Angels Dared To TreadNowadays, many seasoned travellers journey through South American countries reliving their youth, occasionally using well-travelled backpacks from a bygone era. It seems a nostalgic way to travel again, a cool way to stop at funky hotels where travellers of all-ages swap ‘don’t-venture-there’ type tales.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2011
For the first time visitor to Caracas, it is a bit daunting to have to sort out an argument in Spanish with 12 wild gesticulating taxi-drivers, over who takes the gringo to the city.
A sleazy-looking, well-oiled character with long sideburns, the successful bidder tailgated and jack-knifed through a haze of carbon monoxide, past hillside Barrio’s to downtown Caracas. Twenty minutes later and the temperate afternoon heat of Latin America blankets visitor like a warm poultice.
Nowadays, many seasoned travellers journey through South American countries reliving their youth, occasionally using well-travelled backpacks from a bygone era. It seems a nostalgic way to travel again, a cool way to stop at funky hotels where travellers of all-ages swap ‘don’t-venture-there’ type tales.
Here, in downtown Caracas you’ll find plenty of pony-tailed Venezuelan’s showing you budget hotel rooms. What I found was closet-space, illuminated by a bare 25-watt overhead bulb with a single bed covered with a well-worn corduroy bedspread – a room offering all the warmth of a penitentiary cell.
Back in 1934, things were a lot different. That year a Mexican engineer charted Jimmy Angel’s monoplane for $5,000 and flew from Panama City, to the heart of Venezuela’s uncharted Gran Sabana region on the Brazilian border. Angel crossed the Caribbean, navigated the dry, parched savanna and an uncharted canopy of verdant insect infested jungle, swooping finally between 900m sheer sandstone cliffs -- mesas that ascend like Islands in an ocean of untamed rainforest. He landed safely on top of a 975m tepui (a flat topped plateau) and waited three days for the engineer to return. The man staggered back, so the tale is told, loaded down with seventy-five pounds in gold.
A year later Angel returned with his wife and for good measure the gardener to add a chapter to one of this century’s true-life adventures. Searching for his “mountain of gold,” he again landed in cloud on top of a plateau, this time damaging the plane and making it impossible to take-off again. After 11 arduous days hiking down from the tepui through dense jungle, past a magnificent towering waterfall, the party made it to a Pemon Indian village and safety.
From Auyan-Tepuy (Devil’s Mountain), drops the world’s highest waterfall, the thunderous and at times deafening Angel Falls, named for the pilot who discovered them that fateful day.
Venezuela -- the name itself evokes images of exotic adventures, steaming jungles and tropical tales, and of course Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, the President of Venezuela as well as the odd Miss World candidate strutting her stuff on the streets of Caracas.
Before setting off into Jimmy Angel’s jungle, its best to acclimatise in Caracas, a city with a gritty, yet wonderful feel to it. The centre is full of lush green parks and city squares, where old men idly chat or play chess under the shaded canopies of sagging boughs -- Simon Bolivar Plaza is much that way. In the late afternoon sun, the white talcum-powder facade of the Presidential Palace looks spectacular, as do many other Government buildings and museums. The city is reminiscent of Barcelona, with outdoor cafes and local stores, openly noisy, with over-crowded boulevards that split the city as effortlessly as an axe splits wood. Elsewhere, restaurants, oozing the atmosphere of Spain, have chorizo and cured hams hanging from shelves above bars, where pungent smells waft across from kitchens as chefs prepare and cook spicy garlic prawns and other local delights.
Arthur Conan Doyle at the turn of the century found the region known as the Grand Sabana fascinating and wrote his book Lost World on the strength of somebody else’s exploits.
About two hours flying time from Caracas is the remote town of Canaima, located inside the National Park Canaima, considered one of the biggest national parks in the world, and gateway to the Grand Sabana. Andreas, a local guide with a large drooping moustache, drove us in an open four-wheel drive vehicle along cayenne-red dirt roads to the banks of the Rio Carrao. Here, a dug-out canoe makes the short journey upstream to Jungle Rudy’s, Ucaima Camp.
Ucaima was set up in the early 1950s by Rudolf Truffino, a Dutchman. There is a nymph-green lawn, shaded under large overhanging trees. Inside, a cool tiled floor leads to a small, rustic-looking bar, a place filled with old leather Spanish chairs arranged in a semi circle facing out toward the river and a far-off horizon of mountain tepuis.
On a whitewashed mud wall, are floor-to-ceiling black and white sepia photographs of Angel Falls from the 1950s. Elsewhere are tribal artifacts, snake skins and drums.
At 5 a.m. the next day it was still dark at the edge of the wide river, flat calm and reflecting the coming dawn. Chino, a barefoot Venezuelan seated everyone for the 80km up-river journey.
Over the next five hours the group straddled the sleek, rough-hewn, single-log canoe as it bounced, glided and negotiated roaring upstream rapids, startling to flight countless exotic birds.
During the process of the journey, towers of vertical tepuis ascend over 600m, from which cascading waterfalls bleed off the rims or stay hidden behind a halo of floating mist.
After a mid-morning break amid goats, tapirs (a relation of the horse and rhinoceros, but gentle and shy) and brightly coloured toucans and parrots, we continue upriver. The canoe skims over more rapids and skews around bends like a speed boat out of control, before the dramatic sight of Angel Falls stuns you like a cold morning shower, free-falling thousands of feet.
The hike to within 1km of the falls takes about 90 minutes and is at times strenuous, more so when burdened with the oppressive heat. The track is well marked and climbs gradually through rich fertile rain forest entwined with twisting vines and high-reaching dense foliage.
Suddenly the cool spray of the falls is a welcome relief. The final steep climb leads to an opening in the jungle canopy, to where large slip-rock boulders are worn smooth from the incessant spray -- the tremendous noise and force exerted by the falls envelops everything.
Nearly 18 times higher than the famous raging waters of Niagara Falls, and in total 980m from jagged cliff top to steaming jungle floor, the sight is worth every hot sweltering minute, every hot aching muscle captured in every spray filled photograph.
As Jimmy Angel would have agreed . . . it’s a heck of a place to lose a plane!
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