Getting to Tucupita
After waiting in a rickety, damp, pitch black bus stop in a thunderstorm for a good hour, we were most pleased when the overnight bus due to take us to our next destination eventually arrived, and we soggily squelched on board to take our seats and settle in for the night.
However, we had not travelled more than an hour, when Dunc was woken up by a vigorous stamping noise next to him. He glanced over to see a member of our party shaking her trousers and scraping her feet on the floor, declaring that "There is something up my trousers, i don't mean to be funny but can you get it for me?". Slightly purturbed by this, Dunc glanced at where she was stamping, to see a swarm of very substantial ants all over the floor of the bus, each one roughly the size of a small yorkshire terrier. Almost immediately after this realisation, Vickie began jumping up and down, complaining that she'd just been bitten. We were infested.
Vickie dashed to the bus toilet with a spare pair of trousers in hand, and managed to shake no fewer than half a dozen crawling nasties from her trousers, having to even forcibly remove one that had embedded its jaws into her leg. Growling with dissatisfaction, she returned to her seat, and we initiated all out war on these little nocturnal swine. A combination of three of us dancing up and down the isle, squashing what we could, and spraying repellant all over the crack we had deduced they were getting to us through seemed to be helping matters. That is until we noticed that, towards the back of the bus, a group of locals were dancing the same dance as us, suggesting the problem was not confined to our area of the vehicle.
30 minutes of large scale insecticide activity later, we concluded that we had managed to stave of the worst of the invasion, and it was time to attempt to get some shut eye. Our attempts were to prove to be unsuccessfull as pretty much every hour, the lights came on and we were greeted by yet more armed officers demanding Id, strutting up and down the bus and generally waking everyone up.
So it was, with tired limbs and sagging spirits, we disembarked our bus at 4:30am in order to catch a taxi for the remaining 2 hours of our journey to Tucupita. We initially thought we'd had quite a result when we found a taxi just about large enough for all 6 of us to squeeze tightly in. Not only that, but it also sported a driver who bore more than a passing resemblence to dynamic and sage big screen actor Morgan Freeman. "Perfect", we all thought, and merrily climbed aboard.
Within half an hour though, our spirits were to take another beating as, not only did this chap look just like said film star, but he also took on one of his on screen personas, as he pottered along the road driving comfortably slow enough to "Drive Miss Daisy". To make matters more uncomfortable, the sedate nature of our transport didn't create enough of a breeze through the taxi to cool us, so we all slowly began to cook as we sat sardine style with the morning sun rapidly heating things up.
The mood was dark in the party when we eventually hit Tucupita, which was to be our jump off point for our excursion into the Orinocco Delta. Tucupita, just to be clear here, is also possibly the hottest, sweatiest, stickiest place this side of Venus and not a particularly welcoming town for a group of sleep deprived, overheating Europeans desperately in need of a cold shower and a cup of tea.
We were immediately greeted by the owner of the tour company, a man who was nothing short of the spitting image of Man U football star Rio Ferdinand. So much so that Dunc considered asking him why he was stalling on his latest contract talks and what he thought of our chances in the 2006 world cup. Clearly sensing the curious way that Dunc was staring at him, our host quickly decided to distract us by taking us all for breakfast. At that time, he introduced us to our tour guide, a local boy with the distinctly un-local name of "Ben Adams". Apparently, the giving of this name had quite a tale behind it, but our zombie-like state coupled with his very stuttering English, meant that all we could catch was that his Dad quite liked it, apparently.
With that, it was off into the Delta for two nights in stilt houses on the river banks. We loaded our boat up with crates of beer, rum and food for the camp ahead and, suitably provisioned, headed off into the watery wilderness.
The Orinocco Delta
Although our transport for this river journey was more spacious that we'd had in Canaima, our guide party - with an average age of about 15 - lacked the assured, quiet professionalism of the Canaima boatmen, and seemed to be treating the outing as more of a teenage lads jolly that just happened to have a bunch of tourists in tow. They were especially pleased that the majority of the party were female, and spent most of the journey clumsily flirting with anyone who gave them eye contact.
3 hours later, pulling up at our camp, we realised just how basic everything was going to be. We were indeed going to be living like the locals, which involved such charming pursuits as washing in the river, eating by candlelight and "going" in a hole in the ground at the back of the camp. The only plus side to that final activity was that occasionally we got an interesting view of some of the local wildlife having a great time busily snacking on our "leavings". Other than that, toilet plus points were thin on the ground, and Vickie in particular was less than happy with the arrangement, returning from the loo with a shrivelled face and concerned look each time, whilst simultaniously bemoaning the lack of flushing and "ambi-pur" air freshners.
In the space of 5 minutes, night didn't so much fall as come crashing down, and we were soon shrouded in eerie candlelight for dinner. It was around this time that some of the more vocal locals decided to make their precence known, as a nearby posse of howler monkeys began their early evening chorus. The noise was more than a touch unsettling, until we had it pointed out to us that the average howler monkey was the size of a house cat. Speaking of cats, we were also informed at this time that there was known to be a jaguar in the area, and she often padded around the camps to see what was what. Suddenly, the flimsy mosquito nets we would sleep under seemed rather insubstantial for the night ahead.
Before we had chance to question this proliferation of wildlife around us, we were invaded when the neighbours decided to pop round for dinner. The neighbours being a couple of local Warao families - The Warao are the indegiounus group of this area of Venezuela - each family consisting of a mother, father and several dozen children of varying ages. Vickie immediately went into teacher mode and within 10 minutes had the majority of children sat in an orderly fashion posing for photos and generally behaving themselves instead of getting underneath the adults feet. Nice one.
An early night and dawn start later, we headed off for our first Jungle walk. As we were in the middle of the wet season, the water level was very high, turning most of the path into slushy, muddy swamps, which proved more than a little difficult to negotiate. Several stuck wellies later, and Dunc's mind began to wander back to when he was a small child, and got himself stuck in a muddy field at his Grandparents house, neccessitating a teary toddlers rescue from his mildly amused parents. Matters were not being helped by the fact that he weighed a good 5 stone more than most other members in the party, making the small crossing logs we were using to get across the deep bits especially ineffective. Vickie briefly became a very caring, motherly figure by coaxing her sweaty, irritated stumbling mess of a boyfriend around the swamplands as she daintily hopped between relatively dry areas of ground.
During this jungle walk, our guide showed us a variety of different trees which are of varying uses to the local Warao people, fulfilling everything from medicines to aphrodisiacs (which would go a long way to explain the huge amount of small children in each family). On our return, it all got too much for Dunc, and he launched himself off the side of the "house" into the river fully clothed, in an attempt to clean himself and his muddy clothes up. He realised with no small measure of surprise, that his togs actually came up quite clean, which sparked Vickie to wonder if we could wash our - by now rather fragrant - socks in the river. We had truly adapted to the local way of life.
Re-embarking the boat, we headed off into an even more remote part of the jungle towards our next camp, pausing at a couple of Warao villages for a nose around on the way. It was here that we first got a taste of the varying qualities of Warao life. More on that a bit later. On the way, we noticed a range of wildlife in the trees that border the delta, adding howler monkeys, parrots, toucans, butterflies the size of the millenium falcon, and a three toed tree sloth to our "cool stuff we've seen in the last week" list.
If we'd thought that our first camp was basic, then incredibly enough, the second one made it look more like a comfortable 3 star hotel. Some of the floor was missing, and the boards that were there were less than stable. The walk to the toilet in particular was a tight rope act of olympic proportions, made all the more unsettling by the experience awating you at the other end. At this time, our guide helpfully informed us that it was due to be torn down soon, as it was too remote for most tour parties to get to. Clearly seeing the murderous looks on our faces, he promptly distracted us with copious volumes of "Jungle Juice". "Jungle Juice" is a rather feisty fruit cocktail consisting of several tropical fruits slowly marinating in ample quantities of dark rum. A potent combination indeed.
Our evenings entertainment consisted of heading out in the boat to try to spot and ultimately catch some small Caimen (the local crocodilian apex predator). Our chances were always going to be slim, although we did spot some from a distance. The evening was rather more memorable for the glorious night sky, which was by far the most spectacular either of us had seen anywhere in our lives, with palm trees immacutalely shilloueted and the reflection of a million stars dancing on the water in a hypnotic display. Everyone was awed into silence, until our tour leader took it upon himself to take his flirting with our Irish party member to the next level by attempting to quietly chant themselves into meditation.
The quizzical and rather uncomfortable looks being exchanged by the confused remainder of the party led to much biting of lips and staring into space in an attempt to maintain the relative calm. First to crack was our Mackem, who broke the tension by loudly declaring "Right, i need the loo!", leading to an explosion of hilarity on the boat that lasted until long after we had docked again and retired for the night.
Waking up the following morning, Dunc had amassed an impressive 15 insect bites, although Vickie always managed to stay slightly ahead by a bite or two. It was getting silly now, and we had resorted to smearing ourselves with Garlic sauce and Vinegar in an attempt to ease the irritation and make ourselves more unpalatable for the LABs. We were starting to smell like a low brow french restaurant, and were probably being more effective at repelling each other than the insects. Still, any action was good at that stage, so we maintained our dual condiment use for the remainder of our time there.
It was time to return to civilisation, but not before stopping at another Warao village based nearer to the local towns. Wandering around the dirty, litter strewn environment, we stumbled across a number of distressing sights, such as small puppies being left to die, wailing to no-one in particular in their plight. Small children were wandering around in all sorts of filth, and most of them seemed to be riddled with parasites. Meanwhile, the adults seemed to be occupying themselves with nothing more pressing than making trinkets to try and sell to the few tourists that passed their way.
Dunc quietly mused to himself on what appeared to be three states of Warao, and indeed many indiginous societies around the globe, if you'll forgive the rather sweeping generalisation. State number one, the members of society who openly shun anything to do with the developed world and live completely traditionally in isolation seem to be doing very well and have maintained the dignified, noble and sustainable way of life. State number two, the members who have completely integrated into developed society also seem to be prospering by holding a number of important positions, particularly in the tourism and local government areas. The problem seems to be in the majority of their society who are trapped in something of a halfway house, having accepted some elements of the developed world such as coca cola, tinned food and general litter causing products, without having the means by which to deal with it. The result appears to be a society living in abject poverty, slowly losing their ancesteral skills without ever managing to take more than a very periphery hold on developed society.
With these sobering thoughts forefront in our minds, we were glad to board the boat from that particular village and be on our way once more back to Tucupita, to prepare ourselves for the next stop on our journey, the quiet mountain town of Caripe and the famous Guacharo cave.
The now familiar coach and taxi combination took us away from the steamy jungle and into the much more pleasent and manageable mountains of northern Venezuela. The scenery began to take on a feel reminicient of North Wales on steroids. Vickie in particular began to feel quite at home.
The very pleasant little town of Caripe was our destination or, to be more correct, a small farm just outside of the main town. The farm was owned by a very jolly little fat chap who used to be a hippy. His personality quirks were reflected in his primary mode of transport, a car that had the roof, floor and sides stripped away and replaced by a rickey wooden structure, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the car used by Fred Flinstone. This hilarious carridge was to take us to the reason we had journied into the mountains, the Guacharo cave.
At over 10km deep, the Guacharo cave is the longest in the world, and home to several unique species of wildlife endemic to the cave, most famous of which is the highly vocal Guacharo bird. This odd little avian is typified by the nightly pilgrimage it makes to go and get food. We were greatly looking forward to this spectacle, expecting a scene that would make Hitchcock proud, with birds erupting from the cave mouth in an avalanche of feathers and squaking. What we got, however, was a slightly dissapointingly orderly exit from the cave, with thousands of birds filing out neatly before flying off into the ether in their search for scoff. Still, at least the town was nice.
Final stop on our tour was the northern carribean coast and, it has to be said, we were more than looking forward to the twin luxuries of lazing on the beach and being able to flush the toilet.
Our journey was not destined to be a smooth one however. We were held up for a substantial amount of time by an unknown blockage in the only road in and out of Santa Fe, our town for the next couple of days. It was only when we wandered up the road to see what was happening that we realised the blockage was caused by a group of protesters ranting about needing a new water pipe into their village. We watched in amusement as the situation slowly heated up, with irritated drivers attempting to remove the blockage before being ushered away in a mesh of flailing gesticulation and loud speakers. Before too long, we began to take bets on how long it would be before the disinterested looking riot police would actually begin firing the large pump action shotguns they were cradling. As it turned out though, it all ended rather peacibly when the protesters car broke down and had to be pushed to the side of the road, allowing traffic to pass.
Our Santa Fe residence, a pleasent little hotel called Cafe Del Mar, was situated right on the beach, commanding a fantastic view of the bay area we were in. We made the most of this relaxed new environment by lounging on the beach, dipping in the warm carribean see and watching the pelicans soar from fishing boat to fishing boat in the hope of a free meal.
Beer was the princely sum of 25p a bottle, which helped the evening pass very pleasently. The following morning, we had a boat trip out to what was supposed to be a number of coves so we could try some snorkelling. Despite Vickie's initial apprehension at never having snorkelled before, she soon took to it like the proverbial duck, and we spent many happy moments in the crystal clear waters, pointing and mumbling through our snorkels at the amazing variety of colourful tropical fish.
Unfortunately, our day was cut slightly short when a storm front came in that first required us to seek shelter in a nearby cove, cut off from the mainland, before running the soggy gauntlet back to shore. All the while our small boat was pitching and rolling in the angry sea, and inital pirate-esque enthusiasm was soon replaced by soggy, shivery silence as we limped back home with horizontal rain soaking us to the core. Leaving the briny insanity behind us, we dried off and had a relaxing beach dinner at a nearby cafe, and even had an impromptu dinner guest in the shape of a fiddler crab who was laying her eggs in the sea before scuttling underneath our table to return whence she came.
Before too long, it was back to Caracas to get our thoughts together and say ta ta to the rest of our party. Our time in Venezuela had been an exciting, enthralling and sometimes deeply enlightening experience, and we were sorry to see the back of it. However, it was time to return to travelling on our own and under our own steam, as we made our way to our next desitination, the Sunshine state of California, and the famous city of San Francisco.