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by Dan and Jan Ahart

Chapter Sixty-Nine

"Measured in terms of enchantment, is there anything can compare with a chartroom?" That beautiful question was posed by actor Sterling Hayden in his autobiography, 'Wanderer,' published in 1963. Although Sojourner does not have a chartroom per se, we do have lots and lots of charts, some 500 at last count, plus our electronic charts, which cover the world. We have two computer catalogs of charts. One called Cap'n, and one called MaxSea, both of which cover the entire world in a collection of some 10 CDs. We also have charts that can be loaded in our GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) receiver. The GPS has a slot that will accept tiny little memory chips about the size of quarter. Two chips cover the entire Caribbean with so much detail that individual docks are depicted at marinas. Sterling Hayden, an accomplished circumnavigator, would probably have thrown his sextant at us and called us everything, but navigators for using such electronic crutches. But, we figure not to use an obvious aid that is extremely accurate, is well, archaic. But, we do keep a sextant on board, just in case.

While being enchanted by charts one day, we decided to consider looking landward. We got out our Venezuelan guidebook and decided to look for the most unique place we could visit. It was a no-brainer. We selected Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world. It lies some 250 miles south of Puerto La Cruz, deep in a remote jungle or "rain forest" to those of you born after Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring" in 1962. We simply had to see this amazing site.

On August 15, 2003 we started the adventure. We boarded a bus at 0800 and departed Puerto La Cruz for Ciudad Bolivar on the Orinoco River some 125 miles south. The bus was not crowded with peasants in funny white clothes and there were no chickens tied to the roof. In fact the bus was a Mercedes and was air-conditioned. It was quite civilized. However there was a passenger selling jewelry and later a passenger who sang and played guitar for tips. Not your usual Greyhound bus.

In due course we arrived safely in Ciudad Bolivar and checked in to a hotel across the street from the airport. For dinner we had hamburgers at the hotel restaurant by the pool. Yes, we believe in luxury as long as it can be sustained at an affordable rate. The American hamburger has been a recent addition to the menu of most Venezuelan restaurants. The locals call it a hamburgueso. We have burdened ourselves with the quest of sampling as many as possible, to see which establishments get it right. The hotel did well. They did not use poppy seed buns, but the bread was excellent and the double meat, double cheese with all the accoutrements was yummy.

The jumping off point for a trek to Angel Falls is the tiny Amerindian outpost of Canaima, which is only accessible by air or jungle trails and canoes. The planes that fly into Canaima are not wide body jets. In fact they are not jets at all, but small light planes. Our plane was a Cessna 206, which is a six-seat single engine high wing workhorse, built in the good ol' USA. I must digress at this point and mention that Jan and I are both licensed pilots. In fact, we have both flown Cessna 206s. I have probably logged about 300 hours in them, so I know them fairly well. I knew them well enough to know that they will not legally carry six adults, baggage and full fuel in the U.S. Of course we were not in the U.S., so of course we carried six adults, the baggage compartment full to overflowing and the tanks full, at least according to the fuel gauges. I sat beside the pilot. I figured, this ought to be interesting. After all, this pilot makes his living doing this, so it must work. The plane struggled mightily to get off the ground and climbed out at about 100 feet per minute, which is really marginal. Thank goodness the terrain around Ciudad Bolivar was flat. Slowly but surely we managed to attain 2,500 feet. This was enough to clear the hills between Canaima and us. By way of comparison, the typical commercial jet climbs at over 3,000 feet per minute.

The pilot, Jose, was an affable sort and we soon started writing simple notes back and forth in Spanish. Conversation was not possible. If there ever had been any sound insulation it was long gone and forget an intercom. Anyway, Jose pointed out all the sights along the way and told me that he used to be a common laborer and had worked on the great dam that created the Guira reservoir. He had saved his money and decided to learn to fly. We both agreed that flying beat the hell out of physical labor. In due course, we reached the Alto Mesita area (the high table tops). If you can imagine the high mesas of the southwestern U.S. with their steep sides and flat tops rising hundreds of feet from the desert floor, you have an idea what we saw. Only imagine them thousands of feet high and in a jungle setting. Then you can picture what we saw. For a few extra dollars, Jose bypassed Canaima and flew us up El Canon de Los Diablos (Devils Canyon). We were at 2,500 feet and the alto mesitos towered over us. We saw dozens of waterfalls. The tops of the mesas were shrouded in clouds, which undoubtedly provided the water, which produced the falls. Each turn in the canyon revealed more falls and impenetrable jungle. Finally, we made a turn and before us was Angel Falls. The top of the mesa was obscured in clouds, but we were able to see the lower 2,000 feet of water falling. It was the granddaddy of falls in this area and water fell from the mesa over 3,000 feet to the valley below. It was awesome. Jose had to fly another mile or so down the valley to a wide area in order to turn around. Climbing above the falls considering the weight the plane was carrying was out of the question.

Also on the way to Angel Falls, we flew over the river that we would travel to reach the falls the next day. We could see many rapids. After turning around, Jose landed the plane in Canaima with unexpected expertise. He made, what pilots call a greaser. No squeal of the tires. Angel Falls is named for its discoverer, Jimmy Angel, who was an American bush pilot in Venezuela. He found the falls one day in 1936, when he and a gold prospector were looking for a likely spot to pan for gold. This area of Venezuela is rich in gold, diamonds, quartz and huge geodes. They landed on the top of the Angel Falls mesito, but could not take off because the plane had sunk in the soft terrain. They had to walk out without any gold. Jimmy's plane was later recovered and is on display at the Ciudad Bolivar airport. Stay tuned.

Dates: 2003-08-15,
Locations: Venezuela
Keywords: charts, navigation, Angel Falls, Jimmy Angel, prospecting, airplane

The Ahart Odyssey 1999-2004 Dan and Jan Ahart. All rights reserved.