Road Testing the “Trail-Blazer”: Part One-
Our Real Latin America Expert
As the dawn was breaking, we took off from London for the Lost World.
I was going to be following the route of a unique new tour, designed to capture the style of Journey Latin America's trips back when my dad, the company co-founder, was leading them in the early 80s. And of course, he would be joining me for the ride.
Once I boarded the plane I pushed that good old silver button on my chair, blocked out the world with a pair of ear plugs and drifted off. Awoke. I'll have the chicken please. Slept.
We arrived in Caracas mid afternoon. Stepping outside, that hot sweet smell of the tropics was a familiar welcome.
On the very outskirts of the city, the shanty towns litter these hills: basic, colourful lego-brick buildings stacked on top of one another, with scaffolding poles and supporting rods sticking out of the ground around them like broken cigarette butts in an ashtray. As we made our way into the city, the freeways and flyovers started to pile up. Imagine throwing Birmingham into Kew Gardens and then leaving it in the sun for twenty years. Tropical trees grow from the cracks in the highway supports, traffic jams merge, sweltering, in the middle of this concrete and jungle love child.
We dodged the tribes of Chávez supporters in socialist blood-red sports tops to explore Caracas at night. It was a city of bridges, huge, pollution-stained concrete towers and massive corporate branding rising up from every skyscraper. Someone must have made a lot of money in the 70s selling the blueprints of urban America to Caracas city developers.
In the morning we were joined in the elevator by four very young soldiers in full combats carrying Kalashnikovs, and we shared breakfast with the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra. Then, after scaling the dizzy heights of mount Ávila by cable car, to see the huge flag that dominates the skyline, we left for Canaima on a tiny Cessna plane.
As we dove through the clouds to land, in the far distance the silhouettes of the huge tepui (table mountains) loomed on the horizon. This was the Lost World that literature and films had whispered about and we were about to land right in it. After clambering out of the plane and sorting out our bags we met our guide, Carlos, of the native Pemón tribe. He showed us to the back of a truck and we headed straight to the river.
I’m still feeling for the words to describe Canaima National park. Spectacular, stunning, unbelievable: all of these seem too obvious and clichéd. Even if I had written this just as I stepped into our motorized wooden canoe, I would still have stolen someone else's words:
"So...we disappear into the unknown. This account I am transmitting down the river by canoe, and it may be our last word to those who are interested in our fate..."
Arthur Conan Doyle
Our little tribe set off down the river to the sound of clicking cameras, gobsmacked by the scenery and pointing as per tourist etiquette. Soon the adrenaline started to course through my veins as we veered away from the main river and delved deeper and deeper upstream into the jungle. The huge tepui soared into the clouds around us. It looked as though the entire plateau was hanging from the sky by these huge rock anchors, and we were floating, meandering along in the green gaps in between. It was mouth-open, breathtaking natural beauty. For four hours we twisted and swayed up through the river, carving our way through the verdant landscape. And then, all of a sudden the boat turned the last bend and there in the distance, trickling down from the shoulders of one of larger tepui, was Angel Falls.
We moored our canoe and plunged into the rainforest. The trail wound through the jungle, under the canopy, in the thick, humid evening air. To imagine the feeling, think of being Indiana Jones, in a sauna, running on a treadmill under a showerhead. But then there was the unimaginable thrill of trekking through the jungle, alone with my father. (I realised in that moment that I had almost reached every boy’s dream of becoming a young Henry Jones Jr – helped by the fact my dad does bear a slight resemblance to Sir Sean).
We slowly climbed for an hour, the tangled roots and rocks underfoot, avoiding red anthills and tarantula nests. By now absolutely knackered and sweating like marathon runners, we finally reached the foot of the falls. Luck was on our side, and after a few minutes the clouds cleared from the summit and we could see the torrents turn to mist as the falls plummeted earthwards.
As we made our way back down to the river, darkness descended with us, and we were soon walking in the twilight. We reached the shore again and crossed to our camp for the night. After a dip in the river, Carlos passed on some Pemón tips about sleeping in a hammock, some conventional, some not so conventional. As everyone else fell asleep I kept my eyes open for as long as I could, gently swinging, just listening to the dark jungle. All I could hear was my own breathing.
The next morning we awoke early and after a small breakfast, disembarked back down the river, towards civilization. The mist had spread over the plateau and the tepui appeared then disappeared into white. We floated on downstream as it slowly started to rain. The rapids were so much more aggressive and thrilling in this direction, and with the fat rain drops and the spray from the river I was soon absolutely drenched. It was only a short ride back to the Pemón village of Canaima, but it was enough for the sun to re-emerge. We disentangled ourselves from the boat and were shown to our rooms, giving us a chance to dry off and wash the tannin from the river out of our hair. Angel Falls was behind us, but four more countries' worth of adventure still lay ahead.