In 2005 I had the pleasure to stay 3 months in Venezuela. The adventure of a lifetime. This article is a report about a trip to the national park of Canaima and the journey to the famous Salto Ángel aka Angel Falls.
Venezuela, a country situated in the north of the south american continent, lately has occupied a certain but bitter space in the daily news. One of the oil-richest territories of the world is suffering from a severe economic and humanitarian crisis. Hunger and violence are escalating. The country is divided.
I try to stay current as well as possible but it hurts. Because thanks to the country and the people, Venezuela has been the most impressive and liberating journey of my life so far.
When I travelled to Isla Margarita in October 2005, the village El Yaque was still a Mecca for wind- & kitesurfers. It had gotten into my head to learn how to go upwind and finally prove that autonomous kiteboarding was possible with a spinal cord injury. Instead of learning how to go upwind I improved my ability to fail.
As I became aware about my poor prospects of success pretty quickly, I urgently needed a plan modification. I was being in Venezuela after all. Why abandon myself to the exasperation of failure if I could explore this beautiful country?
Backpacking instead of kiteboarding
This is why the kitesurfing trip ended up being a backpacking vacation. The first trip onto mainland, the ‚tierra firme‘, led into the 30.000km² sized national park of Canaima in the south east of Venezuela. Our destination was the infamous Salto Ángel, the worlds highest waterfall.
We were a total of 4 ‚brave adventurers‘ who set out from the „Posada La Iguana“ in EL Yaque and crossed onto the mainland in a rusty old barge. Subsequently a six hours bus ride brought us to Ciudad Bolivar from where a small 6 seater aircraft took us into the only by airway approachable national park. This one hour lasting flight already gave us a taste of what to expect on this excursion – we flew over savannas, thick rain forests and a beautiful waterfall, the Salto Sapo. A breathtaking view. Literally breathtaking was also the landing as the aircraft touched down on a gravel runway with a spiral landing. A plane wreckage right next to the runway made clear that safe landing was not self-evident on this airfield.
Wet T-Shirt in a log boat
From the base camp, where we temporarily stored the bigger part of our luggage, we started our log boat journey upstream. In this five hours lasting trip, 3 indigenous skippers would bring the boat as well as us safely to our destination. The natural scenery was imposing. What started as a wide and calm river, smoothly winding through the savanna, soon became a narrow torrent, peppered with rapids, that led deeper and deeper into the rainforest and the canyons between the Tepuis, the flat-topped mounts.
Still in the savanna the skipper navigated the boat onto the shore and instructed the gross of the passengers to disembark. It was time to bypass some serious rapids overland. I myself had no choice but to stay in the boat. It now remained to be seen in which category the upcoming experience was to be classified: Wheelchair-bonus or wheelchair-pain-in-the-ass. It sarted to tingle in me.
We cast off. Now while I nearly shat myself, eagerly trying to cover up my fear in a tremendous act of coolness, the two remaining skippers navigated our nutshell effortlessly through the rapids. After these couple of hundred meters I not only became aware of why at this point the footpath was preferable but also why the field kits had precautionarily been packed into waterproof garbage bags. While I was clenching the wooden boat as well as possible not to go overboard, one wave after the other swashed into the log boat and bestowed a second baptism upon me. Shortly after, when the other passengers embarked again with dry feet, I was soaking wet … my dry luggage in the base camp.
Hammocks in the rainforest
In the early afternoon we arrived at the destination of our river ride, the camp at the Angel Falls. Not further than a kilometre away the worlds highest waterfall was rushing about 1000 meters from the peak to the ground. The friendly skippers quickly carried me over the bank slope into the camp before they made for the cascade with the rest of the group. Even though it disappointed me a bit that I was denied the ultimate icing on the cake, I could at least enjoy the view of the Salto Ángel from the distance. So I made use of the time hanging my wet clothes over a washing line stretched between two branches and making myself comfortable in the camp.
The camp itself was a ribbed roof sitting on wooden posts – open to the surrounding nature. Only the pit latrines – wooden benches with holes and a bucket underneath – offered the luxury of surrounding walls. Like this even tinkling becomes an event.
As there was no electricity, we were served barbecued chicken for dinner. Afterwards the group sat together and chatted or played cards until it was time to withdraw into the hammocks for a night’s rest.
Whilst listening to the sounds of the woods I slowly started to nod off, only to be woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of water. It was sheeting down and the water rippled over the edge of the roof. My instant yet late conclusion: It hadn’t been the best idea to leave my clothes outside over night to dry. The term ‚rainforest‘ should have been a good hint.
Waterfalls and hairy acquaintances
As my clothes were still, or better, yet again wet in the morning, I had to make the return trip in a borrowed t-shirt and bathing trunks. Although this was no fashion miracle, I at least did not have to worry about the wet sections of the river ride any more.
Back in the base camp we used the opportunity to get a closer look on the waterfall ‚Salto Sapo‘. Sitting in a boat, we came so close to the waterfall that one could feel the spray of the cascading water masses on the skin. Even though this probably didn’t even come close to the Angel Falls, for me it still felt like catching up on that icing on the cake, I had missed out on before, and I returned back to the base camp happy yet soggy once again.
The last night before our return flight we were accommodated in a shared room in the base camp. This time with 4 solid walls and an unexpected snag. Shortly before bedtime, each one of us already with one foot in on of the bunk beds, someone suddently saw a dark shadow flitting over the wall. As it turned out we did not only share the room with each other but also with a palm sized tarantula. The thought of feeling something big and hairy crawling over your body during the night, was not all too helpful to fall asleep. Clearly I still slept like a baby – has to be true as it is written right here.
Bumpy flight and an unpleasant surprise
After a night with only little recreational value we punctually arrived at the airfield at 10:30 in morning to be flown out. That 10:30 finally became 1 pm and the air plane unexpectedly had changed, didn’t bother us too much – after having shared a room with 8 unshaven legs, you don’t take the world or yourself very seriously.
This chilled attitude however changed faster than anticipated – precisely right after the take off. The turbulences turned out to be so intense that we consistently lost contact to the seats and literally hung in our seat belts. I also recall to press with both hands against the ceiling to at least keep a little stability. Summarized: The flight was a real nightmare. After the landing in Ciudad Bolivar the stresses and strains were written all over every single face. With white greenish discoloured faces we thanked the lord for having solid ground underneath our feet and tires again.
This although we hadn’t received the horrific news yet. Because what we now should learn about, floored every single one of us. We actually should have made both flights in the same plane but the aircraft that was supposed to also pick us up had gotten lost, vanished from the face of the earth. Even though said aircraft had taken off before, it never landed anywhere, we were told by our pilot who had not yet received any sign of life from his colleague. Even if this didn’t directly concern us any more, it did feel pretty final-destination-ish, like the inescapable end of the line in a cinematographical sense. Fortunately the following section was covered in a bus again – all without the Reaper.
Time to say good bye
Anyhow, during the bus ride we had enough time to recover from the shock of the disappeared aircraft. We eventually added another two days in the national park of Mochima where we snorkelled together before our little group would disband in every direction. As one companion had to go to the airport in Caracas, I took the opportunity and accompanied her to the bus terminal of Venezuela’s capital. Afterwards I took lodging in the urban district of Bellas Artes and stayed a couple more days in Caracas, a city that inspired and frightened me at the same time. But more about that another time … maybe.