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by Dan and Jan Ahart
Before continuing with my narrative about our visit to Angel Falls, I would like to add a little additional information about Ciudad Bolivar. CB sits on the south bank of the huge Rio Orinoco, which is almost as big as the great Amazon. Ocean going vessels can navigate the river from its delta on the Atlantic coast to the city, nearly 300 miles inland. Smaller vessels can go upriver another 700 miles. The average width of the Orinoco is four miles. Canaima, by contrast is a tiny outpost 150 miles south of CB. It lies beside four large waterfalls that look for all the world like a smaller version of Niagara Falls. A beautiful large lagoon is formed by the falls and the outflow, the Rio Caroni, continues on to contribute its water to the giant Guira reservoir, 50 miles downstream, which is the major hydroelectric generation facility for all of Venezuela and a large part of Brazil. There are no roads to Canaima. The only access is by boat, foot-trail or air. This would be our departure point for a visit to Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world.
Canaima is very picturesque and would be worth the journey just to see the local falls and lagoon, but its proximity to Angel Falls is its real reason for being. But even with income from tourists, it is still a poor village. The village roads are, for the most part, washed out and there is only one small general store. Everything, including tourists, must be flown in. Consequently, most items are expensive, by Venezuelan standards. A large resort hotel was built some years ago and is still in good condition, but it is only open for lunch and very few of its cottages are in use. The poor condition of the village is probably due more to the economic and political situation in Venezuela than lack of interest in the falls.
A guide, who had been notified of our arrival, met us at the airstrip. He also met eight other people, who had come in on different planes. There are several organized guide groups in Canaima and they all provide basically the same services. The ten of us, led by our guide, Antonio, walked about a mile to an open sided camp building. Here we had lunch, which was typical Venezuelan. Baked chicken, rice, beans, salad and bread. After lunch, we rested for a couple of hours and then got into our bathing suits and, led by Antonio, walked down to the lagoon and climbed into a 30-foot dugout canoe with a 48 hp Yanmar outboard on it. We motored across the lagoon and waded ashore. Antonio led the way to Salto Sapo. Salto actually means jumping, leaping or diving, but is used by the locals as 'falls.' Sapo means toad. This was one of the four falls that empty into the lagoon. We were in for a real treat. It is possible to walk behind this particular falls, which is about 100 yards wide with the water falling about 100 feet. It was an incredible experience. We were instantly soaking wet, hanging onto safety lines and yelling at each other over the roar of the falls. With literally tons of water cascading over our heads every second, the tempest created was like nothing we had ever experienced before. The swirling wind, water and noise created a maelstrom that was out of this world. The first time through was an adrenalin rush, but after reaching the other side, most of us went back to stand under the loudest and wettest area just to feel the incredible power and tumult of the water. It was exhilarating. None of us wanted to leave. But eventually we had to head back to camp.
When we got back it was time to shower and clean up for dinner, which was a small steak with potatoes, avocado, and Jell-O for desert. After dinner we selected our 'beds,' which were hammocks with a mosquito net hung above each one. We had used hammocks many times before, but had never spent the night in one. Thankfully, these were very wide hammocks so it was actually possible to sleep sideways and therefore relatively flat. I had had visions of waking up in the shape of a banana, but I actually got a good night's sleep. Well, sort of. All was well until about midnight when two flashlights came on and someone started walking around pointing a flashlight everywhere. I woke up and heard some excited, but whispering voices. An Australian tourist named Ben, who was sleeping in the hammock next to me got up and had a short conversation with the German tourists. Ben then came back to his hammock and seeing that I was awake, told me that the German wife said one of the local Indians had tried to kiss her and now her husband was out looking for the culprit. I almost burst out laughing. Why would an Indian want to do such a thing and possibly ruin the only income available? Besides, how would he even know who was who? Here we were, ten people sleeping close to one another in hammocks with mosquito nets over us. We looked like ten giant moths in our cocoons. I think she had a dream. Anyway, she finally crawled in with her husband in his hammock, which with the added weight dragged on the floor. No complaints were made the next day.
After breakfast of scrambled eggs with salsa, bread and mangoes on the
side, we gathered up all our bags and marched off to a rendezvous point above
the falls where we would take a dugout canoe to Angel Falls. The dugout we
used was very large, just over 40 feet in length and could easily seat 16
people. I thought the idea of using dugouts was kind of gimmicky for the tourists.
But, I later learned that they are ideal boats for the performance required.
We were barely a half-mile above the falls, which we could hear quite
clearly. I didn't want to think about engine failure. In due course,
with all of our gear stowed in the stern, the engine operator, our guide, a man
on the bow and the ten of us, we set out. Being narrow and being pushed
by a 48 hp Yanmar outboard, the dugout was surprisingly fast. I estimate we
did 15 knots or better. It wasn't terribly stable though. Now and then
we would ship water over the sides, which excited the ten of us, but not our
guide or the other two men. After about an hour, we landed below a rather
large rapids and the ten of us plus our guide portaged around the rapids
for about two miles. The other men took the dugout through the rapids. It
was the only portage we used. We stayed in the dugout for all the other
rapids, which I would estimate averaged about a foot or 18 inches in height. The
technique for crossing these rapids was for the engine operator to carefully
pick a spot and then roar up to the rapids, lifting the engine at the last
possible second, while the momentum of the boat carried us over the
rapids. Then the engine was dropped back in the water and we roared off up river.
It was all very exciting and we all got soaked. Only a narrow dugout made
of extremely hard wood could have negotiated the narrow spaces between
rocks and bounced off other rocks with impunity. Using a dugout was definitely
not a gimmick for tourists. Stay tuned.