Monday, October 22, 2007

Angel Falls, Venezuela October 2007
Back to RAFT after a 3+ week family visit to Canada. With so many people we wanted to see, and others who wanted to see us, we were very busy. It was very enjoyable but we were happy to return to our quieter life on board. Our taxi driver, Miguel, was waiting for us at the Caracas airport at 0600 am and drove us to the Rodovias Terminal, to catch the next bus to Cumina. Being a weekday, there was much more traffic on both the run from the airport to the bus station, and along the road to Cumina. As a result we did not get back to the marina until 9 pm.
However, Mary and George from Avalon V were in the marina. They had opened RAFT’s hatches to air for us, and left cold beer in a cooler bag for our return. Boater friends are so fantastic!! RAFT had faired well in the marina while we were away. One dead cockroach, but no other obvious problems or creatures. Not sure if it was the ant bait, the boric acid or the Baygon spray, but one of these worked. Since we were planning to take off on land travels now, we "camped" out on board, not starting the fridge, or taking on food.
We visited the dentist, and both had our teeth cleaned and checked. This time the dentist had water. We had made appointments to see her before our trip home, but she was unable to do the cleaning due to "no agua", a common problem in Cumina. Ross has one cavity and will get it attended to when we come back from our land travel. Cost of check up and cleaning 95,000 B each (about $25).
Also in the marina were Pat and Miriam on Rhiannon 3. We were pleased to find out that they were in the process of booking a trip to Angel Falls, and we could go along with them. They had made the arrangements with Walter (speaks great English) from Sapito Tours (representatives of Bernal Tours). This company had been recommended to us from other boaters. Angel Falls is the highest waterfall in the world and we wouldn’t want to be this close and miss it.
We left Cumina on the 0700 Caribe Express bus for Cuidad Bolivar. (35,000B each) The trip went via PLC and then south through the oil fields around Le Tigre, and across the large suspension bridge over the Oronoco River. Being Sunday, the trip was fast, no traffic or construction, and we arrived in Cuidad Bolivar by 1 pm. Walter picked us up, helped us with a couple of errands and then took us to the airport where his office is. We had hoped to stay in Posada Don Carlos, but apparently it was full, so we stayed in Hotel Valentina, a nice clean hotel, quite close to the airport but a little expensive for cheap travelers like us. (115,000B)
After settling in at the hotel, we went for a tour of the town, walking down to the waterfront, seeing the bridge from the land side, and walked up to the church. Not much was open, no restaurants or stores. In fact things were very quiet. This was no surprise, we had been warned that if we arrived on a Sunday, nothing would be open. We took a taxi back to the hotel, getting the driver to stop at a local bar to get some cold beer, to go with our snacks we had brought with us.

Pictures: Suspension Bridge over Rio Oronoco, Inside the church in Cuidad Bolivar, Our Cessna at the airport, Bev, Miriam and Ross in Cessna, Views from plane, Five waterfalls across from Bernal Base Camp

Next morning, bright and early the taxi picked us up to take us to the airport (0700) to catch our flight to Canaima. Angel Falls is only accessible by air, there are no roads to the area. Our pilot ushered us onto the 5 passenger Cessna plane. Miriam and Bev were seated in the back, Ross in the middle, and Pat took the copilot seat. This was a first for all but Ross, who had flown in a small plane before. The views were magnificent, flying just under the clouds at 5000 ft, looking down on the rivers, trails, and one mining operation.
Once we arrived in Canaima, we were met by Jose, for the trip across the lagoon to the Brenel camp. Passing by five waterfalls on the way to the base camp in the motorized dugout canoe type boat, was our first taste of what was to come. At the Base Camp, we chose our hammock for the night and had lunch, before going on our afternoon hike to Saputo Falls. The most thrilling part of the trip was the passage under the falls. At times it was like a hurricane, incredible water shower, and noisy!! No trip like this would ever be allowed in Canada or the US.
Pictures: All of us in the motorized dugout canoe, Bev choosing her hammock, Bev on hike to waterfalls, Behind/under the falls, Bev getting shower on top of falls -- Pat watching, Rainbow over Saputo Falls

We hiked to the top of the falls, had a swim and then got to do the under the falls passage a second time…just as thrilling.
We ate well, and as darkness fell, we moved into our hammocks for the night. The hammocks were large and comfortable, each equipped with mosquito netting. It was cool that evening, and we were happy to have our sleeping bags with us. The camp does have blankets, but you have to ask for them.
Tuesday morning, and we are waiting for another group to arrive by plane, before we could start our river trip. The fortunate part of this, was that we got a truck ride to Ucaima, instead having to walk. Before we left the base camp, we had pared down our luggage, only bringing what we needed for the night, and packing it all in "dry bags". Although the boat operators, do cover the luggage with tarps, we had been forewarned that this keeps the bags dry from above only. The boat's bilge gets full of water, and things still get wet.
The boat ride up the river was fantastic. For 4.5 hours our driver, Joel, who is only sixteen, had to weave his way up the river, dodging rocks, racing up rapids, lifting the 48 hp motor to clear rocks. The bowsman had a paddle to help steer, and at times had to shove the boat off the shore or large rocks. The trip takes its toll on propellers, and if they damage 3, the tour loses money. When you looked back at Joel, you could see the concentration and determination on his face. He knew his job and he did it very well. Lunch was delivered on the boat ride, airplane style, ham and cheese sandwiches and cookies on a Styrofoam tray, Pepsi poured from a large bottle and passed forward.
When we reached the Angel Falls tributary, the boat discharged us on the shore at the edge of the jungle. Looking up we could see Angel Falls. We walked uphill through the jungle for about an hour, stopping first at the viewpoint, and then on to the base of the falls and the swimming pool. The rocks here were very slippery and the water quite cool, but Bev still went in for a dip into the pool. After all we are at Angel Falls!! We didn’t stay too long, as we were concerned about getting out of the jungle before dark. The sun was setting as we got to our pickup point, and it was getting dark by the time the canoe came to get us to take us to the camp across the river on Raton Island. Just a note about the jungle hike: trail is not really groomed, worn paths with lots of roots and rocks to watch out for and not to steep. We understand in the rainy season, the pool is overflowing so swimming is not allowed, also in the dry season, the falls are just a trickle and there is virtually no pool to swim in and the boats have difficulty maneuvering the river. We seemed to have timed our trip perfectly.
A great roast chicken dinner was prepared for us, and then it was off to bed in our hammocks, as the generator was running out of gas….lights out by 8pm or when the generator runs out of gas whichever comes first. We were sharing the camp with a group that was on a 16-day tour of Venezuela, about 16 in total. Add our 10 and it was a full camp, the hammocks were slung quite close so occasionally you did swing into your neighbour. This had a knock on effect similar to the little chrome ball desk ornaments that swing back and forth – thank you Sir Issac Newton. Blankets were provided, but we still used our sleeping bags, the night was cool.
As we awoke, the view of the falls was obscured by clouds/mist, but these burned off so we could have another beautiful view of Angel Falls before we left. We had an early departure, and once again Joel did a magnificent job of jostling the canoe down the rapids this time, weaving side to side across the river, much faster this time as the current was pushing us as well as the motor. It was as thrilling as a water park ride, water splashing all around and over us. "You will get wet on this ride!!" We stopped at Happy Pool, for a great shower, better water pressure than most homes have. Great back massage and it is FRESH WATER.
Back in the boat, shove off, and the motor won’t start. Fortunately we are in a quiet section of the river, so we drifted gently for about 40 minutes, as Joel, Jose and the bowsman, all took turns pulling on the recoil rope, adjusting idle/fuel mixture, changing spark plugs to no avail. Another canoe came to our rescue, and his driver tried his muscle and mechanical skill. Still would not start. Fortunately for us, the second canoe had a backup engine, which as all good boaters would do, he was willing to lend to us, minus its propeller. Joel quickly changed props and got our boat going with the back up motor and we were off and running.
Now we were running late for our flight. To save time, we were let off above the Sapo Hacha (hatchet falls) directly opposite the camp, and hurried down. As soon as we arrived, we were informed that the pilot was waiting. We quickly changed, and the camp prepared us a "to go" hot meal and we were rushed to the airport via dugout canoe. Well not really rushed, the guide did stop at the general store to buy cold drinks for us. We did miss the flight. But arrangements were made for the four of us (Pat and Miriam) to go back on two planes, one couple on each.
This time Ross and Bev sat in the second row, Bev directly behind the copilot’s seat and could watch the pilot at work, and land the plane….pretty exciting.