Our plane bucked and yawed as rising thermals worked their ragged edges against the wing in an attempt to thwart our approach. Bush pilot Jos lowered the wing flaps, and our airborne aluminum coffin reared back in retort, the airspeed indicator dipping toward the no-fly zone. The Venezuelan jungle, which stretched as far as the eye could see, instantly consumed an increasing slice of the view from my rear window. We were six adult men with heaps of gear in an overburdened Cessna 206. The afternoon was hazy, humid, and hot, and we had capped the 1,380-pound cargo limit well before the last bag was tossed in. These were not exactly ideal flying conditions. My mind raced back to my days as a newbie pilot, and terms like "density altitude." Perspiration engorged every pore in an emotional concoction of excitement and fear. My focus returned to Jos, who quickly forced down on the stick and rolled on the throttle. The Cessna leveled out, clearing the verdal canopy below and gliding towards a muddy, postage-stamp-sized airstrip. There was nothing delicate about the landing: the tires and gear skipped and rattled down the rutted dirt strip like a rickety wooden cart on a boardwalk roller coaster. As the wheels came to a stop, we piled out and collected our gear under the wing.
Looking up, we could see a cluster of neatly painted white abodes on the edge of the clearing. We had landed at Las Bonitas, a small Pemon Indian village on the northwestern reaches of the Gran Sabana. This was Venezuela, and we were mid-stream on a morphing quest to reach Salto Angel (Angel Falls), the tallest waterfall on the planet. Things had not gone as planned in the previous days. We had lost time departing the capital city of Caracas, were delayed by high water and flooding, and had mechanical issues. But the falls were now within reach. We could smell it, and the torrid subtropical humidity pushed us on.
Caracas, The Gran Sabana & E-Ticket Road TripsIsolated geographically by near-impenetrable jungle and a web of rivers and tributaries, Angel Falls lacks direct access. There are two traditional ways to see the falls: by air or boat. Both depart from the inland island village of Canaima, which we were also told was only accessible by air or boat. But that was before we met brothers Felipe and Enso Campisi, our new amigos and central ARB distributors for Venezuela. Rather than booking a pre-arranged tourist package, we were taking the old route through the Gran Sabana: A trek that would take us over the muddy 4x4 two-tracks of Indian miners, up ancient rivers in Indian curiaras (dugout canoes) and on foot through torrid and dense jungle.
A city of six million souls and rampant poverty, Caracas' "suburbs" of makeshift brick ten
We landed in Caracas just a week after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez trashed George W.
Pulling into the marina at La Paragua, we shared the flooded streets with boats and police
With Italian family roots, Venezuelan natives Felipe and Enso had grown up amidst governmental turmoil, revolutions, coups, and an omnipresent military. Frequenters of the falls and passionate in their beliefs to preserve the region, Salto Angel had always been their Mecca. Our destination was Canaima, a small Pemon Indian settlement and the jumping off point for the falls.
Five days earlier, we were navigating our way through a confusing maze of streets in the capital of Caracas. In the midst of a verbal slugfest between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and George W., we had flown into the heart of the clamor, and the political welcome mat for Americans was far from the door. Near downtown, zona centro, where machine-gun-wielding military personnel patrolled every corner, we passed a hand-painted billboard the size of a city block: a skull-faced Uncle Sam holding a bloody dagger emblazoned with the letters C.I.A. and "No Imperialismo." Not exactly a welcoming sign.
Clearing the barrio of ramshackle homes, adobe, plywood, and cardboard abodes stacked precariously on every hillside, roadside vendors dotted the single-lane highway selling everything from bananas and coconuts to live monkeys. Kicking caution to the curb, Venezuelans drive with an air of frantic insanity. Passing on blind corners and letting oncoming traffic squeeze by, three abreast, we learned the painted lines on the road are more of a suggestion than a directive.
The midday sun poured through the open window of the Jeep like a blast furnace. Bouncing off pavement's end in the pueblo of La Paragua, we hunted down a man to arrange to ferry our vehicles across the river. Typical of half-developed third-world settlements, an eclectic blend of modern amenities mixed it up with timeworn tradition: Weathered old men sipping cool Polar cerveza under a shade tree, chickens pecking the dirt yards of brightly painted homes, an iPod-clad kid shuffling by, a pale blue stucco shop with boom boxes for sale in the window. Overhead, a spaghetti-plate of exposed wire dangling in all directions from a power pole supplied electricity to those who could afford it.
Seasonal rains had left long stretches of our road flooded across the upper reaches of Lag
Recent rains had rendered local rivers and lakes swollen to the banks. Pulling into the flooded streets near the marina, a small boat loaded with crates of supplies trolled by and between our vehicles, its operator pulling the motor up in the shallows. The water was halfway over our tires as we nosed up the ramp of a small barge that would ferry us across the river. With seasonal high water obscuring most vehicle routes to the south, the marina, which also housed the two local bars, was a swarm of activity. Small boats and curiaras burdened with supplies for local farms and miners were busy with the day's commerce. We were told that we were the first white men, or non-miners, into the jungle this season, and our flashy Jeep YJ and Land Cruiser pegged us as outsiders.
A crowd of patrons watched in curiosity as we boarded. Two curiaras, long dugout canoes with Yamaha outboard motors, were used to power the vessel. Sharing the four-vehicle platform with a supply truck for a local ranch, we paid the Capitan our tariff and pulled away from the ramp. Thirty minutes later, the ramp was lowered onto the muddy banks of the east side, we locked in the hubs, and rolled off.
The Gran Sabana extends over a 200-kilometer plateau of grasslands, rivers, and low-lying jungle. In the distance, the skyline was broken only by the elevated heights of the great tapuis, hundreds of ancient and isolated spires rising thousands of meters from the jungle floor and disappearing into billowing folds of cumulus clouds. We navigated in and through a partially submerged two-track for a dozen kilometers, following the supply truck, passing range cattle and wild horses. The supply truck pulled off at a ranch and our two-track eventually deposited us on the edge of a great lake, Lago Embalse del Guri. Normally a river crossing, the high water left us several kilometers from the next ferryboat and without any means of communication. Digressing back to an old-school method, we used a small mirror and the midday sun to signal the boat operator from an island midway across the lake. We set up for lunch and waited.
Spending the night out on a small island in the middle of the flooded Gran Sabana, our hos
Burdened under the weight of our rigs, navigating our way through the shallow channel of s
Dropping the ramp into the unknown depths of the swamp, we eased our front tires into the
A few hours later, another small barge appeared on the horizon and slowly made its way to our location. As the ramp was lowered, Hildera, whose family lived on the river for many years, stepped off. He had befriended Felipe and Enso on previous visits and welcomed us to his corner of the Gran Sabana. Operating the only transportation to the jungle to the southeast, he was an excellent source of information. The sun was setting, and he offered us his island to camp. Working our way through a ghostly maze of dead and half-submerged trees, we made landfall at Campo Chiguao near last light.
Hildera and his family live a fairly simple life. The only electricity on the island is from batteries, charged by a car alternator and run by a small Briggs & Stratton motor. A few structures made of local wood and covered with mud shared the island with a half dozen thatch-covered huts. With the day's work done and the night settling in, only a light breeze broke the dead silence of our isolated location. We had two orders of business before joining the family for the nightly fiesta: hang our hammocks, and replace a hub on the Jeep that we had broken during a deep-water crossing. The drinks flowed with generosity, and the day's catch of fish was pan-fried in oil over a 55-gallon drum that had been converted to a stove. About midnight, Hildera walked into our camp with a 12-gauge shotgun. It was time to go caiman hunting.
We met only one vehicle on the trail. This miner and his son wanted to sell us the dead bi
As the moon rose over the Lago Chiguao, the macabre and twisted silhouettes of dead trees appeared off the bow of our curiara. Hidalgo, with one hand full-on the throttle of a Yamaha outboard, threaded the curiara through the dark maze of stumps and reeds. Scanning the banks with a flashlight, we spotted a pair of blazing red eyes on the shoreline. While cats' eyes are green, crocodiles, and caimans, are unmistakably blood-red. Hidalgo raised the barrel. The percussion of the shot whizzing by my head vibrated my eardrums down to my lower spine. An explosion of water filled the end of the spotlight beam ... missed. Our second encounter was about 3 feet long and too small to take. Nosing up to the shore, they let me jump ashore and try my hand at it. Armed with my headlamp and camera, I scrambled over the bow and down the mucky shoreline. My reptilian counterpart was less than half my height in length and an eighth my weight, but I was scared more that it was. Psyching myself up, I thought, "What would Steve Irwin do?" My hand darted for the tail ... missed. Fortunately for me, he thrashed a 180 and darted into the blackness.
During a normal year, we would be driving from this point on. But as the morning sun crested the aqueous horizon, we loaded our rigs back on the barge and navigated our way through several kilometers of shallow water. Thick swamp grass became a major problem, fouling our propellers with regularity until it became evident that we would be unable to reach dry ground. Dropping the ramp into the unknown depths of the swamp, we eased the Jeep's front tires off the edge. The water came up to the headlights, Felipe stood on the throttle, and there was no turning back. Fortunately, it leveled out just above the bumper and we slogged our way to terra firma.
The barge pulled away as we turned our tires south towards the edge of the jungle. The canopy rose high above us, obscuring the sun from our path and leaving the thick and tangled undergrowth to compete for all available light. Heavy rains had left the ground swollen and swamplike, and long pools of standing water lay in our path and to either side of the track. The encroaching jungle narrowed the trail to two muddy slots, with barely enough room to open the doors. With the window down for fresh air, the side mirror made for a perfect bug deflector, continually knocking scary-looking beetles and spiders into our laps. (Author's note: the black-and-red ones have a really nasty bite.)
Peeling tires off the rims would be our nemesis. Clearing the rim of mud and resetting the
Within 30 minutes, we had peeled a tire off one of the rims on the Jeep and realized that we might have a major issue ahead. Three days earlier, before leaving Caracas, one of our two original 80-Series Land Cruisers, both of which sported 37-inch TSL Super Swampers on standard rims, lost a pinion seal, crush-sleeve, and bearing. Without replacement parts available, we opted to run a Jeep YJ with 33-inch Mickey Thompsons and 10-inch offset rims. The problem was that the local miners all drive Toyota FJ-45 pickups and run 10-ply military tires, thus leaving a very narrow track. The Super Swampers wouldn't fit under the Jeep, and its existing setup-almost 20 centimeters wider than that of the miners-resulted in constant pressure against the sidewall, ultimately dislodging the bead from the rim. This situation would be our nemesis.
Clearing the rim of caked-on mud and resetting the bead was an hour-long task. The only compressor we had, an original-style ARB unit, created just enough volume to carefully set the bead. It would receive quite a workout in the days to come. The process involved trenching around the tire to access the lug nuts, digging caked mud out of the wheel, raising and securing the vehicle with a Hi-Lift Jack, removing the tire, cleaning the slimy bead and wheel with less-muddy water from the trail, and gently massaging the bead back on the rim. We would end up repeating this process six times on the Jeep before reaching camp that night. The only way to delay imminent failure was to inflate the tires to 65 to 70 pounds, well beyond the safety limits (we don't suggest ever doing this yourself).
With limited resources, locals make due with whatever materials are available. Makeshift b
When the sun went down, the flooded trenches seemed to get deeper, and everything outside
This little boy from El Tigre carried the DNA of a thousand generations of his people, the
Twelve hours later, 43 kilometers short of our expected destination and well past twilight, we entered a small clearing and had arrived in El Tigre, home to a small family of Pemon Indians. The stars emerged like brilliant Christmas lights, and a single dim light was visible from a small hut on the other side of the clearing. The place was empty, save one person. But after introductions, a few battery-powered lights were lit, a wooden table and chairs brought out, and the entire family emerged from a small mud and thatch abode. In the midst of living history, we contemplated the fact that this family's ancestors had hunted this jungle and tended corn in these fields for a hundred generations before our arrival. As we settled into our hammocks for the night, the jungle came alive. Monkeys howled in the distance, a dozen species of birds cried out from nearby trees, and crickets and frogs sang in an uneven cadence. We were guests in a special place.
Next month: We'll head even deeper into the Venezuelan Jungle, navigating ancient rivers on dugout canoes to the tallest waterfall on the planet.