Tuesday, December 19, 2000. 5:45 a.m. At the Tuina camp, on the Isla Orquieda, between Canaima and Angel Falls.
I forgot to mention in yesterday's journal that I ran into another person from Penn State. He's from Ecuador, and he begins studying for his masters degree in January. We were introduced by a man originally from New York who was in Canaima returning from an earlier trip. It was a quick introduction; I had to run to join the rest of my tour. But there it is: my university follows me into the Venezuelan jungle.
Here in camp this morning, we're awaiting a quick breakfast and an early start on what could be a difficult day ahead. A rooster woke us. The 3/4 moon is bright overhead, and a few low clouds hang below the mesetas around us. Dawn is breaking. Sleeping in the hammocks was challenging. Noises came from all around -- talking, barking dogs, and snoring. The couple next to me, from Italy, seems to be having a bad time. First, the airline lost their luggage. And yesterday, the tour company misplaced their small bags during transit on the boats. I think their bags were later found, but I offered to lend them any supplies in the meantime. But all night, the two of them complained about the hammocks, grunting, swearing, saying "shh!" loudly whenever anyone around them talked loudly. This morning, Elmar asked how we slept. "I slept on occasion," replied Andrew.
Tuesday, December 19, 2000. 6:15 p.m. At the Tuina camp, on the Isla Orquieda, between Canaima and Angel Falls.
Our excursion today included the following people:
* Ana, our guide.
* Andrew and Susan.
* The Italian couple, who complained often but seemed to be in good humor at times.
* An older couple from Caracas, who had trouble keeping up but were most polite and congenial the entire time.
* Two boatmen, one at the bow and one at the stern. They're indigenous people from Canaima employed by the tour company. This is their life, every day, leading boats. They're quite good at it, but at one point we English-speakers had a conversation about whether they're adequately paid by the tour companies, whether they're free, and what standards should apply to them.
River navigation in these large canoes appears to require great skill. Navigation went well, but perhaps 20 times, we ran aground in shallow parts of the river. (Other estimates put that number at perhaps 40 times. Go figure.) Each time, the guides ordered the men out of the boat to help push, which we did, like good sports. Susan and Ana also helped sometimes. Often, getting our weight out of the boat was enough to give it buoyancy to float over the rocks with the help of the motor. Other times, the canoe was firmly wedged in place and we had to push with all our might to make it. Making fun of a poorly translated travel brochure that advertised this trip, I nicknamed us the Elite Mobile Fluvial Transportation Corps. The humor was lost on everyone. Pushing the boats upstream through rapids, not to mention the constant lunging in and out over the side of the boat, has left me bruised. Just as bad, my only pair of boots are soaked. Why didn't I bring sandals?
We went upstream for 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Along the way, the landscape shifted from hilly to dramatic. High, green plateaus rise on either side of the Rio Churún, which meets the Rio Carrao just beyond Isla Orquidea. This forms a canyon, labeled Cañón del Diablo (Devil's Canyon) on my map. At the inside of the canyon is Angel Falls, named not for the Devil's antithesis, but for Jimmie Angel, an American pilot who crashed his plane on the plateau above the falls in 1937. We road in the boats to a tour company pavilion next to the river. We hiked an hour uphill from there. At the end of the trail, we were standing on a rock outcropping near the base of the falls, a view looking up. The falls seems higher than any manmade object I can recall. Even as we entered the dry season, the falls begins its descent as a gushing stream. It dissipates into rain before it hits the rocks below. The rain collects below the rocks into a respectable stream, which flows down to the river. We weren't close enough to feel the rain; that would have involved some crossing some thick woods and steep rocks. We took lots of pictures.
One remark about the boat ride -- it would probably be illegal for a tour company to do such a thing in the United States. It involved rides through swift, strong rapids, underneath low branches, against large rocks, and so on. We received no safety instructions, and what little direction we got was in an alphabet soup of three different languages. Outward Bound it is not. But for a group of reasonable fit, adventure-seeking people, it was great fun. The fact that there weren't enough life jackets for all of us was of little worry at the time. It's the kind of trip that would seem stupid elsewhere, but felt like part of the norm in the Venezuelan wilderness. These rivers are busy with tour boats, but no one else is present. No signs, no railings, no gates or guards, not for miles and miles. It is probably the most wild place I have ever been. Thus, the crazy, unexpected strain of pushing the boats was worth it to get there. Because that's the only way to get there. And that makes it fun. And it brings me to a final observation: People will agree to do practically anything when you give them no choice.