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Toyota Land Cruiser Venezuela Adventure - Trek To Angel Falls

Posted in Events on June 1, 2008
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Last month, we joined Venezuelan ARB distributors Felipe and Enso Campisi for a 500-mile, e-ticket ride from the capitol city of Caracas, to pavement's end at La Paragua. We'd spent several days pushing through flooded lakes, swamps, and trenchy jungle two-tracks. Our quest was to reach Auyan Tepui and the loftiest waterfall on the planet, Angel Falls.

The predawn light rolled over the eastern horizon like a wave of magenta and ochre, and roosters alerted camp of morning's arrival. Excited to get moving again and expecting another long day, we were up early for a morning swim in a nearby creek. It never really gets cool in these parts. The nights are too hot for sleeping bags, so our bedding consisted of a hammock and mozzie-net stretched between two poles or trees. The sun didn't take long to heat things up, beating down with intensity, and the day would soon be as sweltering as the previous.

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The track was slightly wider as it wound east from El Tigre, and our tires seemed to be holding their own through the early part of the morning. But as the jungle encroached, ruts deepened and the track narrowed again, we lost another tire, and then another. This time it was a TSL on the Land Cruiser, and it came off in a long gravelly trench with the jungle pushing right up to the doors. By the time we moved the vehicle to a place we could access the tire, the bead had been damaged by roots and rocks grinding against the rim. Ultimately, it would not hold air and we were down to one spare. Although our progress was suffering, spirits were high and the adventure would soon take a turn.

Plagued with tire issues and returning to La Paragua, we stopped at the creek near El Tigre to remove rocks and debris from our tire beads.

Having already lost a day to vehicle repairs in Caracas, an additional day to flooding and delays in ferry crossings, and still another to persistent tire failures and dismal progress, an executive decision needed to be made. Should we push forward another 40 kilometers with no spare and inevitable tire issues? Leave our rigs, grab our backpacks, and start hiking? Or trek two days back to La Paragua and go to Plan B? Our primary goal was to get to the Salto Angel, the grandest waterfall on the planet, and we were going to get there, period. Leaving our rigs in the jungle was not an option; they would be stolen or stripped clean. Continuing on without spare tires might also result in stranding our rigs. But there was a chance that if we returned to La Paragua, we could hire a pilot to fly us to the remote village of Las Bonitas, where we might get a curiara to take us up the river.

A little disappointed, we jockeyed the vehicles around and started the two-day trek back to La Paragua. At the creek, we dismounted a few of the problem tires, thoroughly cleaned them of mud and debris, and reset the beads: again, with 65 to 70 psi to keep them on. By this time, our 15-year-old ARB compressor had seen almost continuous duty for three days and was getting tired. To our amazement, it held out and kept pumping until the last tire was filled, and would see us back to the pavement.

Smoke Signals, Muddy Airstrips, And Jungle Hikes

Looking like Indiana Jones, fellow Four Wheeler freelancer Ned Bacon rounded out our team of five.

On the run back to Lago de Guri, the track, which had been slightly widened by our first passing, gave us limited problems. Only a few newly fallen trees needed to be cut and winched off the path. Pushing hard to reach the lake before dark, we were again without direct communication with Hildera, the barge operator. Without a direct line-of-sight to the island (the old mirror signal would not work), we reverted back to another old-school method, a smoke signal. Locating a 55-gallon drum, we burned everything we could find: oil, plastic, wet branches, even a fiberglass cover from an outboard engine. But it was almost dark and there was little chance we would be seen by anyone. An hour later, Enso, who had been fumbling with his cell phone, got service. He called a friend in Caracas, who called a friend in La Paragua, who radioed Hildera that we were waiting (It is good to have friends and technology.) A few hours after sundown, the drone of an outboard motor could be heard in the distance, and a curiara appeared in the moonlight. It was too dangerous for the barge to navigate at night, so we made our way back to the island under a full moon and would head back for our rigs in the morning.

By the next afternoon, we were at the local airport negotiating a one-way flight to Las Bonitas. A few hundred dollars exchanged hands, and we were crawling into the Cessna 206 and taxiing down the tarmac. Surviving the scuttled landing on a muddy dirt strip, the rain began to fall as we off-loaded our gear under the wing. The Cessna took off and disappeared, we slogged off through tall Gran Sabana grasses towards Rio Caroni.

With each twist in our odyssey, we became more removed from the modern world. When we off-loaded our gear and the curiara drifted away, we were very much on our own.

An hour later, we arrived at the river and were glad to find one of the local Indians on the riverbanks with a curiara. Hildilada was his name, a young man of 18 years and grandson of Anselmo, whose family had tended this river since the days that local legends were fashioned. Hildilada took us 20 kilometers upstream to a small sandbar on the east side. Passing small Indian camps of families fishing, cooking, and tending crops, we must have seemed like an odd spectacle in their remote and tranquil world. We hit the sandbar and parted ways with Hildilada as the rain continued to fall and the night was coming. With a steep mountain range and 15 kilometers of jungle to traverse, we found ourselves hiking most of it by the light of our headlamps.

The rain had subsided and it was quite late by the time we reached the village of Canaima. It had been a long day, and we were glad to find an open restaurant and a room for the night. Aside from being the primary launching point for Angel Salto, Canaima is an isolated and special place: The only way to get there is by boat or plane (or to trek your way in like we did), and there are only single-level thatched-roof hotels and three vehicles in the entire town. This put it high on our list of cool places to visit.

The morning found us on another curiara, another river and the last 45 kilometers before reaching the falls. Rio Carreo was initially smooth and calm like Rio Caroni. But upriver, several rapids required portage, and areas of strong currents and house-sized boulders required careful navigation by our guide.

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El Dorado, Jimmy Angel, And The House Of The Devil
Flat-topped tapuis, sandstone formations of the pre-Cambrian period, towered thousands of feet above the horizon in all quadrants. Resisting the erosional forces of a thousand millennia, they stood alone as monuments to the ages, individual massifs rather than part of a mountain range. Due to the geographical isolation of their peaks, botanists suggest that the tapuis are home to thousands of endemic species, known only to their windblown and rainswept heights. Rising precipitously from the steamy jungle below, most tapuis are rarely ascended. For centuries, the Pemon peoples believed that the tapuis were home of mawari, or spirits, and ascending their heights was a bad omen. And the Pemon name given to Angel Falls, Auyan Tapui, is said to translate to "house of the Devil." We were told its other name is Kerepakupai-meru, or "waterfall of the deepest place" in Pemon.

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Drawn by tales of mythical cities of gold, the El Dorado, Spanish conquistadors touched this region in the late 1500s. Unsuccessful but undeterred for almost 300 years, prospectors and adventurers were drawn to the Gran Sabana, discovering its indigenous people, the Pemon, and geologically unique landforms. So intriguing were the tales of these isolated pockets of non-evolution, they eventually became the impetus for Sir Arthur Canon Doyle's 1912 novel, The Lost World: The tale of a land that time forgot, where dinosaurs and humanlike ape-men still roamed.

Auyantepui, standing 1,500 meters over the jungle floor, is home to Salto Angel (Angel Falls), the highest waterfall on the planet. With a single drop of 807 meters and total height of 979 meters, recent rains presented a truly spectacular cascade. Its cool waters and a large pool at the bottom made for welcome escape from the mid-day heat.

Twentieth-century aviator and prospector Jimmy Angel was the first modern-day explorer to set foot on Auyan Tepui, also in search of hidden riches of the Gran Sabana. Angel, who had landed and collected gold on an unknown tapui in 1924 with an Alaskan prospector named McCracken, set his single-engine Flamingo monoplane down on Auyan Tepui's mesa top in 1937. Becoming mired in the soft mud, he, his wife and two friends spent 11 days hiking out to civilization. His plane stayed there until 1970, and his surname has since replaced Auyan Tepui for eternity.

Reaching the river camp, a steep hike through twisting vines and mystified jungle put us face-to-face with one of the grandest sites we had seen. Heavy rains of the previous day had left the river and creeks swollen and running heavy. From the base of the falls, a seemingly endless sheet of fresh water cascaded from its heights. The rains had subsided and the late afternoon skies were clearing as we soaked in a large pool at the base of the 979-meter Angle Falls.

It had been seven days since we left Caracas. We had seen monkeys for sale in roadside stands and drank fresh coconut milk from the source, hunted caimans from a dugout canoe, and dined with the Pemon Indians of El Tigre. And, we had wheeled through some of the densest jungle we have seen. While all things had not gone as planned, we did learn some valuable lessons, befriended some wonderful people, experienced some awesome four-wheeling, and ultimately reached our destination: The tallest waterfall known to man.

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