The nine-and-a-half hour flight to Miami went fine. It’s traditional to have all types represented on board as we all know – Caucasians, Hispanics, blacks, Chinese, Indians, two nuns, a Hari Krisdna dressed in orange, and a Hassidic jew with a large hat and funny sideburns. Once the pilot was content we had the full compliment, we were underway. The sun was setting as my connecting flight to Caracas rose out of Miami, and I was rewarded by a swirl of orange and purple over the receding Florida Keys and the edge of the Bahamas.So it was total darkness landing in Caracas and I went straight to my hotel for an extremely generous three hours sleep before returning to the airport to heads to the jungle. I was just dozing off when the phone rang for no apparent reason. There was no-one on the other end of the line. When I had finally nodded off, a couple walked into my room, which proves that you can put the same room number on two sets of those electronic credit card room keys. Up at 4.30 to fly 200 miles southward inland to Puerto Ordaz in a smaller jet.
I quite like arriving in a new place in the dark and waking up to find out what it’s like. Caracas is split by a range of mountains with the airport hemmed in by the sea, and the rest on the other side of the range inland. We raced off with Caribbean on our left and hugged the coast for ten miles before heading south. Watching the landscape change from a window seat has always been a fascination of mine, and the urban set up soon gave way to scorched red earth interspersed with chunks of green undergrowth. This was the bland hors d’oeuvres before the gourmet course, for what was to follow was about to rocket into the top three of the best flights I have ever taken. (The others were in an 8-seater over the Barrier Reef taking me to Lizard Island, and crossing the top end of the Andes watching snow-capped volcanoes poking out the desert in Bolivia). We touched down at Puerto Ordaz, which is in Ciudad Guayana, on the confluence of the mighty Orinoco and Caroni rivers. These are absolutely colossal in relation to anything in Europe, as we will discover. There was no-one at the check-in desk for my connecting flight to Canaima, another 100 miles or so further south into the rainforest. I had a rather enigmatic voucher which read “Captain Alfonso, Condor Verde”, which didn’t really reveal much. Eventually a cheerful Amerindian in an orange shirt bowled up, and whisked me down a series of corridors and out onto the tarmac, and there it was – a single-engined prop-driven airplane with seating for four. Fair enough. In for a penny, in for a Bolivar. I squeezed into the craft, which was about the size of a Mini Cooper, and reached for the seatbelt. There wasn’t one. Instead there was one pilot, one construction worker and a young mother clutching a baby. He gunned the engine into life and we taxied this Heath Robinson contraption onto the runway, did a rather cumbersome u-turn and then pedalled for dear life. It only took about a hundred yards to leave the ground, rattling and thumping as it went. I was transported back to my childhood when my father took me up in a tiny Cessna over the forests and fjords of Norway. It would have been about 1966 and I was five or six. He let me take the controls for a while – fantastic.
We turn sharply and land at Canaima, where I am staying at the Waku Camp on the edge of a lagoon graced by two large waterfalls. I persuade a guide to take me on a boat to the other end of it. A closer look at these thundering Hacha Falls would be great, and I certainly get that, but what I am really after is a bit more adventurous. We moor the boat and take a 20-minute walk through thick jungle to Salto El Sapo (toad falls!), a big waterfall with a great beach at the bottom. So here I am, swimming in this magnificent lagoon all on my own, a mere day after leaving chilly London. A buzzard swirls lazily overhead as I towel off and we climb through the jungle again for my next thrilling experience – walking underneath, or should I say behind, the waterfall I have been admiring. You need to strip down to your swimmers, keep your grippy shoes on, and wrap everything else in a plastic bag. It’s very slippery and makes your average power shower seem like a bit of condensation from a moist towellette. Whoosh! All over cleansing in less than one second. We step across to its sister fall, El Sapito, and then walk back over the top of both. My guide is busy collecting moss from underneath them, which he says is “for nativity” (I never did work out why), and a beautiful purple orchid which are abundant here. He transports it root ball and all, and claims it will replant easily. We take the boat back to the lodge. The water is a clear brown, like beef consomme or the peaty lochs of Scotland. Here apparently it is caused by the high levels of tannin found in the local Bonnetia trees. Back on shore I amuse myself by lobbing bread at a range of exotic birds that frequent the grounds – a chestnut-mandibled toucan, green parakeets, and massive scarlet and blue macaws with their bright yellows, reds and blues. After my first non-aviation meal for two days, it is a pleasure to drift off to sleep to the roar of the waterfalls and the shriek of unknown jungle wildlife.
I should tell you a bit about Frank. He is the quintessentially good looking homosexual Venezuelan who runs the camp – and camp he certainly is. Always immaculately turned out, and often sporting his pet howler monkey on his shoulder, he provides fantastic customer service and always remembers everyone’s name. When you sign a form he’s the sort of guy who says, ”Nice hands!” All of which led to me explaining that I am a guitarist and, among other things, self-employed, which enables me to take a month off every year and come to places like this. “I hate you”, says Frank, which seems a bit rich coming from someone sitting in a perfect climate with an idyllic setting surrounded by a lagoon fed b y waterfalls. But his reaction was the same blend of mock envy and sneaking admiration that also comes from the chief executives of successful companies in London. They may have the money but not the environment, or the freedom. Frank has the environment, but probably not the money, or a great deal of the freedom. So there you have it: people all over the world can be dissatisfied, even when others think their life looks perfect. On the positive side, people are usually at their happiest when they have these three elements in the right proportion: money, environment, freedom. Enough, but not too much of each, and the ability to change the mix from time to time.
My flight in the tiny plane was such a thrill that I decide to do it all over again – several times over. Today’s destination is Kavac (sometimes spelt Kavak), home of the Camon and Cueva de Kavac, and Salto Angel, the highest waterfall in the world. Five of us pile into the plane and leg it up the runway as usual to head south. This takes us over the Rio Carrao, a tributary of the Caroni, and on towards the biggest tepui of them all, Auyantepui. We fly round to the east at 4,500 feet, dodging in and out of low cloud as it splatters the windscreen with ater. This is dense rainforest, carved up by the occasional river. The vegetation comes right down to the river banks, and if you went down in that lot you’d be unlikely to make it home. Still, our pilot seems a decent enough chap – this time I am in the co-pilot’s seat surveying the various knackered instruments at his disposal. Most of the knobs have fallen off and some are nailed together with tape. After thirty miles or so we pull round the far side of Auyuntepui where waterfalls tumble from a huge height from the top, cutting notches through the forest. Kavak hoves into view in the plain below on the south side. Actually it appears gently because it only consists of twenty or so beige adobe huts and a makeshift airstrip. We bank heavily and make an amazingly smooth landing on grass. “Like Ferrari!”, declares the pilot triumphantly.
The population of Kavak appears to be about six teenagers, and one of them guides us up river towards the tepui. My companions are two couples from Barcelona and one of them is very much Mr. Brand, bedecked in Gant shirt, Quicksilver shorts, Nike socks and Salomon trainers. The river is thin, rocky and steep. After twenty minutes or so, it is time to take the shoes off and wade. Twenty minutes later, you have to swim upstream otherwise you are going nowhere. The knack is to come with as little as possible, pack it into one light bag wrapped in polythene, and swim holding the bag over your head. This is not an exercise for the faint-hearted, but we are rewarded with a great swim in a fantastic grotto plunge pool. Other parts of the terrain require walking around on terra firma, dodging the one-and-a-half-inch bull ants and a scorpion which our guide happily spotted before we did. Then it was a case of leaving the gear altogether and swimming the rest. At one particular small waterfall we were encouraged to dive in under it, apparently to see a cave behind. I took a deep breath and pushed against the torrent. Then I thought, “What the fuck are you doing? You have no idea how far the other side is and you are being battered by a waterfall!” I came back out. Chicken? Perhaps. Alive to write this? Certainly.
We dry off and walk on. The flies are biting and the Barcelonan ladies are flapping about and applying their spray. Our guide opens his bag and for some reason has bought the scorpion with him. God knows what for. We burst through the jungle once more and the light streams through from high up. We are surrounded by sheer 100 foot walls, with an ideal tranquil plunge pool at the base. We wallow around a while, then claw our way up the slippery smooth eroded rock to twist around a corner. Here it is still high, rising now to several hundred feet, but the gap is only about four feet wide. We swim through Cueva Kavak to be rewarded with a massive waterfall thundering down on us at the other end. I’ve seen bigger but only from a distance. Being inundated by a 70-foor cascade is quite a proposition when you’re in the pool directly beneath it. I try swimming towards it, but eventually its power just pushes me away. Ten yards back you can swim with all your might towards it and still be stationary. A brilliant sensation.
I had brought my camera up the river but it proved to be a pointless exercise – the battery gave up the moment we arrived so it was later that day that I had to buy the shots to provide the memories. We headed back for some lunch and were joined by our jovial pilot. He then took the peculiar step of riding a bicycle to his plane – it was all of 500 yards, but he obviously just wanted to ride it. We roared off again, this time to Salto Angel, the tallest waterfall in the world. This monster is one kilometre high, thundering off the Auyuntepyui at a huge rate of knots. We were lucky to get great visibility. It is frequently totally obscured by cloud and you don’t get your money back if it is. Our intrepid pilot did a bit of aerobatics to make several passes and we headed for home. The disclaimer on the booking form had me in stitches. ADVISE TO ALL PASSENGERS THAT GO TO FLUVIAL EXCURSIONS. “Due to the conditions of fluvials activities, we recommend. To all the passengers, to wear clothes and accesorios adapted to this kind of excursions, however.” There was further guff about “the trayjectory” of the excursion. It all adds up to the fact that if you dropped your gear (or yourself) in the river it was your problem. At certain times of year it is possible to reach the falls by boat, but early December is the end of the rainy season and we could see from the air that there was no way a boat could navigate it. Too many rapids.
Back at the airstrip a dozen buzzards circled high above as the Barcelonans packed their gear into another plane and headed off. I wandered to the local shop to pick up the photos of the falls I had been unable to take. Suddenly without warning it pissed down and I took brief shelter under a canopy where a man was repairing a jeep. To my amazement, the ubiquitous Frank appeared and asked if I wanted an umbrella. Customer service indeed. I declined on the grounds that it would pass soon, and it did. Back to camp in the late afternoon to fan dry my shoes and write up my notes to the cacophony y of two parrots fighting. Like a pair of goons they were hanging upside down in a tree and pecking the shit out of each other. The toucan bounced around on the lawn and the monkey swung from porch to porch stealing the clothes guests had left out to dry. And all the while the relentless waterfalls rumbled on. Noisy but charming, and certainly preferable to standing on the Euston Road or sitting under the Heathrow flight path. I retired to my hammock, thoughtfully suspended on the verandah outside my room. There’s a certain knack to getting in and out of one of these things. You wouldn’t want to try it when drunk. And sudden movements are inadvisable. Even stretching for a drink or a book. An inch too far and – wham – you are spun 180 degrees and hit the floor face down. Aware of all these dangers, I decided to play my travellers guitar in it, and brought a new meaning to the sobriquet rock and roll.
In the morning it’s time to go, and Frank wishes me Merry Christmas at the airstrip, blissfully unaware that I left the UK to avoid precisely that. Again I am co-pilot, and the pilot is a hoot. After take-off he hands me a small piece of paper with a map on it, that he has carefully drawn out in English. The Coroni and Paragua rivers correctly flow into the big reservoir, which he calls Cori Lake. There’s a dam, and the towns of Puerto Ordaz and Bolivar City are in the right place. This is most encouraging. There’s a chance he might know where he’s going. I am becoming addicted to this small plane flying. There’s no check-in. You walk to the tarmac, give the man a bit of paper with your name on it, and you’re in. He pulls out an old Yale key, pushes a couple of knackered buttons, the engine starts, he bellows something unintelligible to the empty control tower, and you’re off. After twenty minutes or so the pilot taps me on the shoulder. He sets the plane steady, pulls out a biro, and writes something on the back of the map. Irt reads: “Caroni R and Paragua R have gold and diamonds.” Useful information at 5,000 feet. I give him the thumbs up and smile. Disembarking at Puerto Ordaz is hilarious. I hoick my bags out of the plane and walk in.
That’s it. There’s no-one to meet me so I chat up the girl at information and tell her I am looking for Carlos. There is mach to-ing and fro-ing. She gives me a boiled sweet. Unbelievably, there is a band of sorts playing in the airport. A bloke playing sax with a keyboard accompaniment and a nasty drum machine. It’s like Aker Bilk through a laundry basket in a lift. A guy rushes up with a bit of paper saying, “Duncan Kevin Journey Latin America”. He stares at me incredulously. “Todo solo?” Yes, it’s just me. He takes me to the jeep. He keeps staring at the bit of paper, and then looking up at me. He clearly thinks that each word is a separate person and that he should have a party of five. I put him out of his misery and show him a piece of JLA headed paper and point to my chest. “Kevin Duncan,” I say, underlining each word on the sheet. He seems satisfied and we head off. The town of Ciudad Guyana is fairly nasty and soon we are queuing for the ferry, dodging the hawkers to cross from San Felix to the northern bank. Then it’s a two-and-a-half hour drive to Boca de Uracoa where I am met by Dino the German, who is stuffing his face with Cheese Puffs. “I advise you wear sun cream,” he states functionally, pointing to a boat with no shade. He has a point. We are about to travel for an hour up the Orinoco in the middle of the day.
We begin in a tributary, but it’s five time the width of the Thames. Then we burst into one of the five main channels of the Orinoco, Cano Manamo. This is massive. An hour or so later, we take the Guamal channel, and we are at the home of the Orinoco Delta Camp. The setting is fantastic. The narrower channels are choked with water hyacinth just as they are in Kerala, South West India. The mangroves dip down into the water. Howler monkeys lounge languidly from branches in the shade. Freshwater dolphins surface intermittently beside the boat. And every couple of miles there is a small dwelling occupied by the local Waroa people. Kids with big eyes wave as we motor by. The lodge is thoughtfully laid out. A central bar and dining area is open to the elements and the main jetty, leading out on wooden catwalks to twelve rooms. Mine has a wooden floor and roof, and there are no glass windows, just mosquito mesh. There’s a toilet and cold water shower behind a low dividing wall - a tall guy could probably take a dump and still hold a conversation with someone face to face – and a comfortable bed. The net effect is that you lie safe in bed but you are effectively in the jungle. Cool breeze wafts in, the animals howl, and the water laps under your room if a boat goes past.
The place is a menagerie. The central area is home to a blue and yellow macaw who has his own hammock, Charlie the orphaned baby howler monkey, a toucan, and various cats and dogs. There’s also some extraordinary fauna in the garden round the back. I stroke the tapir, which is a curious mixture of horse and anteater design only found in South America (although in fact his closest technical relative is the rhino) – a sort of donkey with a snout. He’s called Pancho apparently. There are cayman – small alligators about and arm span long. And hiding away in a cool den, the first time I have ever seen a puma at close range in the right context. But the piece de resistance was the jaguar. Back home I had recently decided to fund some research into the conservation of these beautiful creatures in the Pantenal of Brazil, and here I was staring at one for the first time. After chatting to the locals I discovered that there is a humane reason for keeping the big cats here: if released, the local Waroa people would kill them. So although they are not sure what to do with them, at least they are alive and well.
That evening we were just finishing up a decent catfish meal on the deck by the river when an almighty commotion broke out nearby. Half a dozen of the Venezuelan staff were rushing about under a palm tree and shouting. Then one rushed off and came back with a spotlight attached to a car battery. One guy legged it up the tree while another shone the light. There, hanging on a branch, was what could only be described as a three-foot rat. A two-foot body, foot-long tail and about nine inches high, it was enormous and looked vicious. After shaking the tree vigorously it fell out and the guy on the ground tried to smash it over the head with a cricket bat. He missed and it scuttled under the boardwalk. Further mayhem ensued when they spotted it underneath, and one of the guys decided he would go and get it out. He stripped down to his skivvies, held a torch in his mouth, swam under, whipped it out by its tail, whereupon his accomplice beat it to death. The offending creature was then lobbed unceremoniously in the river for the cayman to finish off. It transpired that their approach to the animal was inspired by its killing capacity and aggressive nature. Apparently it is eminently capable of eating the macaw, the toucan, the baby monkey, the cat, and would probably even give some of the dogs a run for their money. Fair enough.
We returned to the main area to talk and drink Cuba Libres. I chatted to a French couple while Charlie the monkey huddled in the lady’s lap. I also tuned the chef’s guitar at the request of his colleagues who said they couldn’t stand the racket any longer and would I please put them all out of their misery. The evening ended at the bar trading vague stories with the staff in Spanish. The carpenter, a cheerful sort of fellow, explained how he had managed to cut off his index and third fingers. “More painful for others to watch than for me to feel!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “Also have most important one left”, he beamed as he offered the universal second finger up yours signal. It was time for bed, but it’s not exactly peaceful in the jungle. Owls pierce the night, howler monkeys chatter, occasionally the dogs go berserk, and at six o’clock sharp the sun comes streaming in sideways over the river, lighting up my curtainless room. I rolled around a bit and then got up.
The jaguar and the tapir were already sunbathing, and the puma was still in his den. The tide is either rushing in or out, and the constantly moving beds of water hyacinth make it look as though the ground is moving. It’s a bit like being on a moving walkway and trying to work out whether it’s you that’s moving or everyone else. Some people probably spend a lot of their hard-earned money on drugs that create exactly the same effect. An all-day boat trip beckons – just me, Dino and the driver exploring 100 miles of Orinoco channels. It’s a beautiful day and there is great wildlife to see: massive black-collared hawks which they call gavilan. That translates as sparrowhawk but these were much bigger – about three feet high. Otters, turtles and kingfishers. And many a cheery wave from the river folk in their houses and canoes. We moored in an idyllic lagoon for lunch and a spot of fishing. Lush green reeds bordered it, and it was totally peaceful apart from the breathing of the dolphins when they came up for air. We baited our hooks and I caught my first piranha. Everyone should do it once.
We had a bit of lunch left over so on the way back we stopped off and gave it to a family who lived by the river. It wasn’t so much a house as a wooden platform with a roof and no sides. The old woman was kneading dough and a boy was weaving baskets from moriche palm to put small birds in which his father obviously caught for a living. E had half a dozen of them there, and proudly announced that he could sell them for a fiver apiece. We headed off and then the heavens opened. There was no cover on the boat so we motored on under a large sheet of plastic. It rained vertically and powerfully for three hours straight. But wildlife doesn’t really stop in the rain. We still had the opportunity to see bats and a two-meter tiger snake climbing a tree in the hope of a bird dinner. We also came across several colonies of hohoizan birds. They look a bit like ornate turkeys and there are lots of them because their horrible smell prevents them from being hunted. Why? Because they are the only bird that eats leaves, and they need two stomachs to help digest them. They do however have a more important characteristic: they have small claws halfway up their wings and thus provide the link that Darwin was looking for between birds and reptiles. The rain eased off and the vultures spread their wings to dry.
The usual suspects were at the dinner table: Charlie the monkey and his mate the macaw trying to steal your food, and the toucan nibbling your toes under the table. BY now I was receiving a string of requests to write down chords to songs – it seemed like half the staff had a desire to play guitar. After an enforced rendition of Hotel California I retired to bed. There was just enough time in the morning to go kayaking before breakfast (the world’s only palindromic sport). Now that is hard work, and more than once we had to plough through drifts of water hyacinth. We also slotted a bit more piranha fishing. I had got the hang of it by now and bagged a couple more. The driver of the boat hooked a big one – about 8 inches with red flashes – but it wriggled free in mid air before we could get it into the boat. An hour later I joined up with my lift back to Puerto Ordaz. The car overheated so I filled the radiator with my water supply and we made it onto the ferry where we fed the engine from the river.
My time in Venezuela (literally “Little Venice”) was coming to an end. Waterfalls and the huge tepuis were a dramatic highlight. I never did get to see their opposites: sink holes 300 feet deep called simas. They just disappear into the ground with little explanation. I had since read that the rocks that make the tepuis are so old (over 2 billion years) that they existed before any animal life on the planet, so they are completely fossil free, unlike pretty much all other mountains. The Orinoco was stunning, and the people were charming, so Venezuela has now shot into my list of top countries alongside Chile. But it is time to move on. I fly back to Caracas, stay the night, and rise early again for a two-leg trip: first to Panama, then to pick up a connection to Cuba. The whoile operation takes most of the day and I am losing track of the days of the week, which is very much the point of extended travel. In fact the only thing that reminds me is the daily pattern of my malaria tablets. The trip isn’t too bad. It’s a bit of a long way round, but the scenery is a pleasure. We hug the coast from Caracas across the top of South America until we cross over Central America and approach Panama from the Pacific side. The airport inside is not dissimilar to Dixons – ram packed with hi-fi dealers and hordes of Japanese enquiring about digital functions.
Then it’s off to Havana, possibly derived from the English word haven, but no-one really knows. Panama is so thin it only takes five minutes to fly across. But it was enough distance to keep the Pacific and Atlantic away from each other for a billion years or so, so who’s to knock it? Every time Panama is mentioned, I think of two things. The first is the song by Van Halen. The second is a story from a guy I used to know who lived there, mainly involving a bird-eating spider, a shower curtain and a stiletto. Richard is living in Panama and goes out one night for a few beers. He rolls back in and is just about to clean his teeth when he spots a bird-eating spider on the shower curtain. For those 0of you not in the know, they are usually the size of a large dinner plate. They average 10-12 inches across, and they are the fat, hairy tarantula design. In the jungle, they construct webs between trees of 10—20 feet in size, and eat the sparrow-sized birds that fly into them. When the rainy season comes, they tend to seek a bit of refuge if they can, and it’s your bad luck if happens to be in your bathroom.
So Richard is presented with a dilemma: sleep and hope it doesn’t move (there is no secure door between the bathroom and the sleeping area), or attend to the problem? He opts for the latter, convinced in his semi-addled state that, if he doesn’t, he will be crawled over in the night as though he is in a Bond movie. Judging it to be a fairly slow-moving beast, he decides to smack it on the head with a shoe, let it plummet to the floor, and chuck it out of the window, stunned or dead. This is not entirely what happens. He hits it with a shoe and the fucking thing takes off like the wind, cartwheeling around hid bathroom at lightning speed. He retreats to regroup and change his strategy. Fast reflexes when you have had a few beers is never a forte. He opts for precision and selects his girlfriend’s stiletto heel from the shoe cupboard. After an extensive search and destroy mission, and several circuits of the house, he finally nails it to the floor of his bedroom, the hairy legs still twitching as he retires, exhausted, to bed. The coup de grace finally arrives in the morning when the maid walks in and jumps a mile, assuming the poor creature is still alive. So there you have it: always check the curtain before you have a shower in Panama.