Sunday, January 9, 2011

"Up" to the Angel (4-8 January 2011)

South America is bigger than Ben Hur! Here is another example. My journey from Rio Mutum Lodge in the Pantanal of Brazil (last blog) to Parakaupa Lodge in Canaima Venezuela (this blog and base camp for Angel Falls) took a total of 2 days and 1 hour, involving 9.5hrs flying over 4 flights, 3hrs by car and 2 nights in Cuiaba Brazil and Caracas Venezuela. See NOTES TO SELF below for more details.

Cuiaba is a disorganised, grubby, hot-muggy-as-hell industrial town, 3hrs drive from Rio Mutum with nothing to see - it is the worst city/town I have seen to now but it had cheap wine!

My first impressions of Venezuela were as I expected - run down, bureucratic, not quite used to tourists and probably like Cuba! Domestic Caracas airport is grossly outdated and now I know where all the world's old airplanes go! Dirt covered DC9s & 727s everywhere. One of those was the "Aeropostal DC9" that I flew to Puertos Ordaz on my way to Canaima! Big queues at Caracas airport for everything, super slow customs, 50 taxes to pay and 70 stamps to get...etc. Outside is poverty with a capital "P"!
On my first night (4JAN), I stayed 20min west of the airport on the coast (Carribean Sea), some 40km from Caracas at Playa Escondida - OK beach but surroundings look like war-torn Beirut. My hotel was like Stalag 13 on Hogans Heroes - barbed wire fence with security gate - who the hell were they trying to keep out? I went for a run and all I saw was chaos! No one obeys the traffic rules, no one uses blinkers and most do not turn on their head lights at night. Still, it was a better run than Bangkok.

The capital and largest city, Caracas (Pop 6m) is rated the second most dangerous city in the world after Mexico City (crime rate per head of population). It has more murders and kidnappings than Columbia - most of this is linked to the high poverty rate. The city itself is 900m above sea level giving it some relief from its tropical latitude. The city centre does not have street addresses but "corners", eg: William / Park means building is located between the two. How odd is that? Most of the city and indeed the country is dedicated to one man - Simon Bolivar who liberated Venezuela from the Spanish. Everything is named after him - airport, plazas, cities and even the currency (Bolivars).

Canaima (Pop 1,500), 2 hrs flight from Caracas via Puerto Ordaz, is 50km from Angel Falls and its base. There is no road or rail in/out of Canaima making it trully remote. The only way to get to Angel Falls from Canaima is by Cessna, Boat or foot (5-10 days). Canaima has a fantastic lagoon with 7 waterfalls and the water is tea coloured due to all the tannins from the dead jungle vegetable matter soaking in the waters upstream It was weird swimming in it since underneath it is pitch black!

Canaima and the Angel Falls is located within the 30,000sq km UNESCO protected "Parque Nacional Canaima" (size of Switzerland) and pours off a huge 1,050m enscarpment or saddle which the Pemon call "Auyan Tepui". Tepui is Pemon for "flat mountain". I walked to each of the Canaima 7 waterfalls, swam under 2 and walked beneath another 2.

At 6deg north of Equator, Canaima National Park is tropical, a bitch to run in and home to species of 145 mammals, 495 birds, 70 reptiles and 60 amphibians. Canaima is a village of 2,000, inhabited and run entirely by the local indigenous Pemon people. They run all the tourist lodges, shops and airport. The town is supplied with electricity from a mini-hydro-electric turbine off the 7 water falls!

The first time I laid eyes on Angel Falls was at 1:15pm Wed 5JAN out of a six seat Cessna Skymaster at 4,000 feet (level with the top of Angel). It was like a skyscraper of water surrounded by King Kong style jungle from the Dinosaur days! There was almost a spiritual reverance about it. I got goosebumps! Thinking about its sheer majesty and how hard it was to get here, reminded me of the children's animated film "Up", that I watched just before my trip with my nieces Antonia and Orlanda, that followed the incredible journey of an old man to "Paradise Falls" (Angel Falls) using his house tied to balloons, to fulfill his late wife's life-long desire to realise the ultimate adventure. This Angel stirs the emotions. It is a jungle god in a land that time forgot!
If you were a droplet of water in the Angel Falls you would travel 979m before hitting the bottom! That's the equivalent of 4 Sydney Centrepoint Towers or 16 Niagara Falls. No wonder Angel Falls is the highest in the world - by a country kilometer!!! This is so high that there are many days in the dry season when the water does not reach the bottom but is blown away as a fine mist! The Cessna ride was exciting but too short, lasting only 30min. The pilot, myself and a family of four from Poland circled once and we mainly saw the Angel through our camera lenses. Even though I enjoyed a fabulous view of the whole valley of Tepuis, I was determined to see the Angel up close and personal by boat and then foot!
I was lucky enough to book a boat trip including an overnight stay in a hummock at the Angel! Myself and 10 others from Venezuela, Belgium, Italy and Brazil set out the next day (6JAN) at 8am on our 4hr boat ride and 1hr trek to the base of Angel itself. What a trip. Rapids, getting wet, rocks, thick jungle, magnificent views of the sourrounding flat top Tepuis. I became Indiana Golfin! Finally we arrived at our riverside camp and set out on foot through thick jungle covered in tree roots and filled with the noises of a million creatures!
Suddenly, after an hour, you emerge from the darkness of the jungle into a massive open cliffside face to peer directly at the feet of the Angel with the falling water towering above you like Irwin Allen's Towering Inferno. The experience was like seeing the 3 towers of Torres De Paine. Simply sereal. Simply pre-historic. After a thousand photos we then walked back into the forest to walk a bit further emerging at the cascade not immediately under the main fall but a km downstream where the water aggregates and forms a secondary spill. We all stood underneath it. Such power. Such reverence.

That night, like the conquering Spanish, we feasted on Venezuelan-style BBQ chicken cooked on sticks leaning into a roaring fire. All the local Pemon took care of us. They ran the boats, cooked and served the meals and made a great enterprise of the whole thing. In the meantime 8 loud-mouth Italians, 2 Dutch, 3 Brazilian and 1 Australian carried on into the night.
We finally retired to hammocks under a huge, open-air, corregated fibro covered shed in the jungle and on the river overlooking the Angel. I slept only half the night in the bloody hammock since you cannot sleep on your stomach but the consolation was the steady pitter-patter of rain on the corrogated roof to lull us to sleep. What a dream - to walk "Up" to the base and then sleep under Angel Falls!
VENEZUELA FACTS: 1) Covers 912,050 sq km above equator, twice the size of California, with 2,813km of coastline. 2) Population is 26.8m with 95% Catholic, 50% under 25yrs old, 90% living in cities, 70% originally from Europe/Africa/Indigenous and 30% living in poverty. 3) Originally settled 10,000yrs ago via 3 indigenous groups. 3) Christopher Columbus founded in 1498 and first saw indegenous living in huts over water so called it "Little Venice" (Venezuela). 4) First Spanish colony established 1500. 5) Simon Bolivar achieved independence in 1821 with mostly coups / military rule afterwards until the first democratic election in 1947. 6) Oil discovered in 1910 led to Venezuela becoming the no 1 exporter globally in 1920. 7) Since then governement corruption has sent the country downhill and by 1998, two-thirds of the 23m pop were living in poverty. 8) No 1 sport is baseball, no 2 is basketball and no 3 is soccer! 9) Has won the most beauty paegents in the world (5 Miss Worlds and 5 Miss Universes). 10) For its size, it is a wildlife Noah's Ark, species: 341 reptile, 284 amphibians, 1,791 fishes, 351 mammal & 1,417 bird (20% of world's total!).

NEXT BLOG: On Quito and Galapagos Islands (belonging to Equador) due 13JAN11.

ACKOWLEDGEMENTS: My thanks to Lilly Verhagen from Holland doing her medical PhD in Venezuela, who took the time and patience to take the "drink photo" signature shot of me at Angel Falls in this blog. She also is in the running for "best signature" shot.

HINTS & TIPS: 1) There is no such thing as an "on-time" flight in South America. It is not a question of "if" late but "how long". Book the maximum connection time possible even if you have to overnight. Connections of 3hrs or less - good luck! I almost missed two connections to date, one was 5.5hrs and the other 3hrs! 2) I recommend the overnight boat trip as the best way to see Angel Falls. It gets you the closest to the falls, maximum time there just in case it is in clouds and you get to swim and sleep at the falls. If you hate hammocks then take the boat day trip. Book and pay for boat when you are in Canaima at any of the lodges - Waku is the best at or my lodge at If you hate getting wet on the boat or do not have time then take the plane as a last resort but be warned that it is expensive, quick and the photos may come out spotted since most Cessna windows are scratched. At least the plane will give you a guaranteed view since the pilots call your lodge when conditions are best to go.
NOTES TO SELF: 1) Remind me never to put red wine in my main pack again. After unpacking at my Caracas hotel I discovered 1 of 2 bottles smashed. Lucky for me my towel, undies and runners (instead of pants and shirts) absorbed the spill - I spent most of the night of 4JAN washing! 2) Unlike Spain in Europe, no one claps when the plane lands safely! 3) Venezuela prices: fuel is only 30 cents a litre! 330ml water is $1, 330ml beer is $2. 4) Pantanal to Angel: 3hrs drive to Cuiaba for overnight, then 2hrs 737-700 to Sao Paulo, then 5.5hr 737-800 to Caracas for overnight, then 1hr DC-9 to Porto Ordaz and finally 1hr Jetstream-18 Prop to Canaima!