Part II: Venezuelan Trench Warfare, Bush Pilots, And 3,000-Foot Waterfalls
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.
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.
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
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.