JOURNAL OF VENEZUELA EXPEDITION
3rd Photography Expedition to the Tepuis of Venezuela
29 April – 9 June 2007
D. Bruce Means
29 April 2007 , Domingo
7:00 p.m. EDT . I'm in the air over the Caribbean Sea on another flight to Venezuela . We passed Cuba half an hour ago. It has been another typical overseas trip. I was in a dither trying to get all my gear together in the past several days. I had to pay $100 each for two excess bags. Jim Valentine is with me and he had two excess baggage charges, also. We are on our third trip together to obtain the images for a killer table-top book about tepuis. This trip should finish all we need for a volume about, at least, Estado Bolivar tepuis. We hope to make an overflight of some of the more spectacular Estado Amazonas tepuis and get some beginning images of, hopefully, Neblina, Avispa, Aracamuni, Autana, Duida, Marahuaka, Paru, and Cuao-Sipapo. Maybe even Yutaje, Camani, and nearby others. We'll see.
Our original intent was to come here in late January-March during the dry season. Alas, the rainy season has started in Amazonas, and could hamper our efforts to get photos from the air. The reason we did not make this trip earlier is because both of us had tons of commitments to other projects during that time. I was especially involved in wrapping up a $40,000 grant for studies of temporary ponds in the Munson Sandhills south of Tallahassee . A final report had to be written and turned in on March 30 th . I got it done and then had two quick income-generating jobs in April just before this trip. One was a two-week filming shoot of me talking to camera about the Northwest Florida Water Management District's lands and wetlands holdings along the Choctawhatchee River and Econfina Creek west of Tallahassee . I got paid good for two weeks of really pleasant work, and got to see the two watersheds quite thoroughly by boat and on the ground.
Then, on Sunday through Tuesday last (April 22-24), I worked hard for three days re-enacting the eastern diamondback rattlesnake bite I suffered in November 1993. This is the second time that National Geographic Television filmed me re-living that bite. This time they filmed it in high definition TV for their National Geographic Channel viewers. It is to air on a National Geographic Channel program called Ultimate Viper. I got paid well for that little job, too. So now I'm off to another hard core adventure in some of the most remote places in South America .
Truth is, I have traveled so much in tepui-land that, while I can't say I am tired of it, the prospect of doing some more of it is not nearly so exciting as it used to be. I'm sure that when we get in the air and I start seeing tepuis, my lust will return. One of my influences is my darling Kathy. She and I had a sad parting today at the Tallahassee Airport . After 22 years together, we have grown very close. My absences are more and more difficult on her, and I must say, that it's more difficult for me to go traipsing off to exotic places in the world without her. I am REALLY looking forward to a six-week trip she and I are planning in August and September. We will drive up the Alcan Highway to Alaska and I will thoroughly enjoy the time with her. Kathy has not had a good vacation for some years and she deserves a really good one. I will be making another foreign trip to Guyana in July for three weeks between this trip to Venezuela and Alaska , but of all the three trips, I look forward to traveling with Kathy to Alaska more than any of the three.
The past four months probably have been the most productive I have ever lived through. I wrote (with Jay Savage) and sent off for publication a scientific research MS naming three Eleutherodactylus species of frogs from Guyana . I wrote 3 small notes on species of snakes I found as new species to the fauna of Guyana (and a snakebite experience) that I submitted to Herpetological Review. I finished a 78-page report on 4 years of temporary pond research and submitted it to the funding agency for $10,000 worth of pay. I did the two documentary film jobs mentioned above. And, maybe most importantly, Kathy and I arranged the purchase of George Parrish's 50 acres north of CPI 's 80 acres on the Apalachicola National Forest . And last but not least, I got a verbal agreement from Tall Timbers Research Station that they will pay me $2,000 per month to finish writing up my life's research on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, my book entitled “Diamonds in the Rough.” So, when I am through traveling to Venezuela , Guyana , and Alaska , I have a year's worth of working on a manuscript that I have lusted to get completed for at least TWO DECADES!! And there is even more: my first sole-authored book, Herpetophilia, is in press at Pineapple Press! That makes me happier than almost anything (except Kathy and my sons and grandsons).
When both herp books, Diamonds and Herpetophilia, are published, I will have dynamite opportunities to travel around the world and give lectures and sell books. This is a prospect that I relish thinking about. There are now dozens of herp venues that would pay well for such lectures. Many herp expos are a wonderful market for my two books. And my plans are to continue writing and producing books. After Diamonds, I want to finish Memories of a Naturalist. This is an autobiography dealing with my biological history from birth to either when I left Tall Timbers Research Station in January of 1984 or later in October 1994 when I completed my re-walk of John Muir's 1,000-mile Walk to the Gulf. I have a rough draft of the book already, but it will take me several months to rewrite it and make it a coherent piece of work. Another book I want to write, which, with “Memories,” would make another killer pair of books to take on a lecture tour, is “A Naturalist in the Garden of Eden.” It will be all about my many years of discovery and research on the natural history wonders of panhandle Florida . And in the meantime, of course, I will finish the book project that Jim and I are working on right now: “ Islands in the Sky: Lost Worlds of El Dorado.”
Oh, such a rich life. Gawd, I hope I can live long enough to accomplish just these goals. They should take about three years. I have more beyond what I just enumerated, but I want to hold fast onto these projects so that I get some things I value completed before initiating other projects. Unless I am offered a lot of money or some exotic documentary film project in the next few years ahead, I really want to deny most things and keep my nose to the grindstone to complete these projects FIRST.
30 April 2007 , Lunes
I was thrilled just now to discover that I could get onto a wireless network at the Residencias Torres in the city of Puerto Ordaz where I stayed in 2006. Jim and I got here at 1:00 p.m. and completed a pretty stressful two days of air travel.
I got to my American Airlines flight to Caracas just in time last night. We had an uneventful flight to Maquetia Airport , but then the stress and problems set in. Jim refused to let his film go through the customs X-ray machine, so that led to a real headache. We were pulled aside, and when I was able to translate the hot and heavy Spanish we were being deluged with, I was told we had to pay $100 US duty on the film. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that I had to pay the tarrif at a bank, and the bank would only accept bolivares and not dollars! I was told to go outside the airport and exchange money at a cambio, but I was wary of that. How in hell do I get back in to the air terminal after going out the locked doors? I dragged a cop around who swore up and down that I could get back in. Then, instead of getting bolivares for dollars at a government exchange cambio, I found a black market man and did a secret exchange, but I was smart. Two guys wanted me to step with them into an elevator, so I stood outside with my foot on the door and said if you want to make the exchange, do it like just this. That way I wouldn't get mugged inside the elevator. It worked. Alas, when I then tried to get back into the air terminal where Jim was waiting with our 8 checked bags and 4 carry-ons, you guessed it! Nobody would let me back in.
Eventually I screamed at the correct captain of the police and got entry. Then we had a mad scramble trying to get all our huge baggage into a cab with us. The cabs here are tiny and can't hold much. We had a hassle getting booked into La Prada Hotel, some distance from Maqueitia Airport , but after paying the equivalent of $80 US we got a nice, cool room.
This morning was almost as stressful. We had a liesurely breakfast at a panaderia a block from our hotel, then packed all our gear into another taxi and motored through HEAVY traffic to the national terminal. We were dumped off at one end of the long terminal, only to find out American Airlines had no flights to Puerto Ordaz today. Then we struggled down to the other end and got a flight on Aeropostal, to leave at 11:30 a.m. After some hassle and a $50 US extra baggage charge, we finally got our boarding passes and walked through the security check, passing our carry-ons through the X-ray machine. And, dammit, Jim again refused to let his film bag go through, so they had to do a hand check of every roll and box of film in his big, yellow bag. And wouldn't you know, when we walked all the way down the air terminal to the boarding gate, I'll be damned if Jim hadn't lost his boarding pass during all the hassle over film!! I was pissed. I sent him off to see if they kept it at the security check-in, but no, they hadn't (I think someone five-fingered it when he was talking to the security guard). So I had to spend a frantic time trying to get to the Aeropostal desk to see if I could fix the problem (I had the receipt for payment and his passport). The dilemma was that our bags were checked onto the flight, but without a boarding pass, Jim couldn't get boarded. What to do, let me go ahead and claim our bags at the other end, then let him come along later? (That would have been a disaster, of course). Anyway, we blustered our way passed the ticket agent during boarding by giving the agent the payment receipt while I demanded that the Aeropostal desk had approved us to board without Jim's pass.
When we got to Puerto Ordaz, we were bused from the plane to a hot grassy area some distance from the terminal under the ceiling of a wall-less tent and told to wait there for our baggage. We were nowhere near any terminal. I found an airport employee who had a cell phone and begged him to let me call Freddy. It worked. Freddy, who is several hundred kilometers away on another job, sent his brother (who speaks little English) to pick us up. We had to hire a man with a hand-truck to haul all our baggage down a hill to a local highway where we waited in the hot sun in the dust waiting for our pick-up. Eventually we were taken to Residencias Torre, where we stayed last year, and got a swell room for only $50 per night. Freddy's brother, Jesus, will drive us to Santa Elena tomorrow early.
We had quite some difficulty getting our room, however. They had only one single room available, which was OK by us, who are able to sleep in one large bed just fine. There is a law in Venezuela , however, that two men cannot rent together a room with one bed. We talked and coaxed and cajoled with the proprietor, and eventually got the room on the stipilation that only one of us would occupy the room at a time. Somehow, we never worked out just how we would sleep overnight with that arrangement, but we got the room and laid low all the rest of our time there by either one of us being in the restaurant or both sneaking into the room when nobody was looking.
Jesus picked us up about 6:00 p.m. and took us to the churrascaria that we ate at when Freddy first met us in January of 2006. We had a bar-be-cue meal that wasn't as good as the one we had when Freddy took us there. Jesus is very different from Freddy, quite quiet and speaks almost no English. We got back to our room about 9:00 p.m. and I stayed up mesmerized by a wonderful book, “A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” by Ishmael Beah. It is an autobiography about a young boy who was forced into killing and looting as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone . I can't put the book down. Not only is it a gripping story, but the book is exceedingly well written.
1 May 2007 , Martes
Jesus met us at the Residencias Torre at 6:00 a.m. , just as we had agreed. We were packed and ready. We loaded our 8 muletas and 4 carry-ons into his small Land Rover and raced out of Puerto Ordaz like a shot. Jesus drives like a bat out of hell. I sat squeezed into the front passenger seat and Jim was squashed in behind me among all our bags. He was more comfortable than I, however, because he could rest his head and body on the soft bags. I had nowhere to place my head as I got sleepy en route.
Jesus drove like a banshee until Guasipati where we stopped to have a breakfast of empanadas fried in grease. We then tore down the highway passing all cars and I read my book until I finished it about noon . Reading was a good way to ignore the scary hurtling down the highway that kept us rather stressed. I didn't say anything about it for several reasons. First was that we wanted to get to our destination, Santa Elena, at a reasonable hour. Second was that there was little traffic on the highway. We stopped for a soft drink at Los Dos Princesses, a hole-in-the-wall café, in Los Claritas, the mining town where Freddy found a roadside cookery last year that served local game and we had lapa stew.
We pulled into Hotel Amazonas at 1:30 p.m. , much the worse for the wear, but damned glad we survived the drive. We got settled, and then walked into the office of Raul Helicopters and surprised Karina. We found out that the helicopter will be out of service for two weeks, so we can't be dropped on any tepui until after that. After lots of discussion and telephone calls made on our behalf by Karina, we settled on this plan. 1) We will try to do a fixed-wing flight over several local tepuis early tomorrow, Ilu, Tramen, Yuruani and maybe the Los Testigos and Auyantepui. Then, on Thursday, we will fly with Karina via helicopter to Pto Ordaz and meet up with Freddy. Freddy will help us get to Puerto Auyacucho where we will hire Rafael Valor to fly us to tepuis in Amazonas via fixed-wing plane. We want to do Neblina, of course, and all the other tepuis in Estado Amazonas providing that the weather permits. We are told that the rainy season has commenced there already. Anyway, we will kill two week's time in Amazonas until Raul and Karina come back from the United States where they will be vacationing for most of the next two weeks.
We packed up just what we will need in Amazonas (one bag apiece) and stored all the rest of our bags in Karina's office. We won't need all our gear until we return to Santa Elena in two weeks.
After organizing our gear in our hotel room, Jesus picked up our gear in his Land Rover and drove it to Karina's office. We walked there and had an hour of consultation with Karina and I talked with Raul (who is already in the States) on the telephone for a while, verifying our itinerary for the next two weeks. We then discovered that it is a holiday (May 1) and most of the restaurants are closed, so we had a rather poor Chinese meal at the only Chinese restaurant in town and retired to our room. Today was a day of traveling and planning.
2 May 2007 , Miercoles
WOW! What a morning. I never fail to be blown away by the exquisite beauty of tepuis. We got up early, 5:30 a.m. , and were picked up by Karina at 6:00 . I had to make a trip to her office to get something that I left in my baggage stored there, which lost us about 20 minutes. We were in the air in a Cessna 206 (six-seater) by 6:30 a.m. and headed straight toward Mt. Roraima , whose SE corner was clear. We had taken off a door on one side of the plane so Jim could shoot video and his large-format cameras. Both Roraima and Kukenan were socked-in. Our intention was not Roraima, however, but Yuruani and Ilu/Tramen tepuis on the north end of the eastern line of tepuis along the Venezuela/Guyana border. Yuruani was also socked-in, so I told our pilot (Louis or “Casabe,” a young man of about 24 or 25 who looks very much like Freddy) to head for Ilu.
We flew a few passes, east to west, along the southern flank of Ilu Tepui. It has a long southern flank. Karaurin, which is lower in elevation and at the SW corner of Ilu, was under a wonderful cloud formation, which I also got photos of. We agreed that, in the future, to get to these tepuis in the best light and cloud cover conditions, we probably should be airborne at least by 5:30 a.m.
Anyway, seeing that Yuruani was in clouds and didn't show any prospects of clearing up, I told Louis to fly to Los Testigos, a group of several tepuis forming the northern line of tepuis bordering La Gran Sabana (actually also THE northern line of tepuis). I could see them in the distance and they were free of clouds. These are small, blocky tepuis, but spectacular in their own right. We first flew several passes across the eastern flank of Ptari Tepui, a blocky, flat-topped tepui that stands strikingly vertically into the air. Next we flew to the next three tepuis in a row to the NW of Ptari and circled each one. We might have missed one, but I don't remember which one it was. I think we photographed Murosipan, but I know we missed Sororopan because it sits quite a bit lower than Ptari and is forested to the summit. It has cliffs only on its southern flank, which we didn't see because we flew over it from NW to SE. I think I saw a metal-roofed building on the long, ridge-like summit, which probably was associated with a communication tower. We flew at about 8,500 feet elevation during our fly-bys of Los Testigos. This is the first time that I have seen these tepuis close from the air. They are spectacular and left a very good “taste” in my mind that I will never forget…and got some killer photographs of them.
La Gran Sabana was covered with a low, broken cloud cover at about 5,000 feet elevation from start to finish. Above 5,000 feet the sky was essentially clear except for updrafts along the tepuis which created foggy/cloudy conditions, often covering their summits, some up to 8,000 feet elevation.
I did a really stupid thing this morning. I shipped one of my bags off to Puerto Ordaz with Jesus Vargas. In it are my two extra camera batteries. What is stupid is that the battery in my camera was showing half full when we departed. I didn't check it last night to be sure it was fully charged. I was afraid that halfway through the flight I would run out of the ability to take photographs, which is why we chartered the flight anyway. Happily, I ran out of images I could shoot on my 2GB flashcard before the battery gave out. I took 145 images of these beautiful tepuis and hope that at least one photo of each tepui is publishable, let alone fantastically perfect and an amazing shot.
Our flight lasted about 3 hours and we were charged $1000 for it. This is a bit more than I expected to pay. We will negotiate a better price when we get back in two weeks. Jim was unable to film with the video camera because of the way he had to lean out the door they took off for him. We will have to correct that in the future. I shot out the open co-pilot's window, with air streaming by us at 100+ miles per hour. It was cold, but bearable. I had on only a nylon, long-sleeved shirt. When we go flying in Amazonas, I will wear my new raincoat for warmth. Jim's hands were numb when we landed.
Karina picked us up at the airport and brought us three empanadas and one arepa for our breakfast. She returned us to our hotel room and we took a nap and then took stock of what we need for future flights. I didn't bring a converter to go between the male plug-ins at the end of my electrical cords and the funky outlets in Venezuelan buildings. I also needed to find the flashcard holder so I could transfer digital photographs to my computer.
We walked up to Raul's office where Karina let us use her computer to email home. I emailed my beloved Kathy to wire $10,000 to Raul's bank account so we will have cash to pay for our flights while in Venezuela . I got the items I needed from my stored baggage and then we all three had lunch at the Venezuela Premier Restaurant where Karina and Raul have taken us before. I had lau lau filet cooked in garlic. Lau lau is a huge catfish caught in the Orinoco River and man-o-man, is it delicious.
3 May 2007 , Jueves
What a day. We got up at 6:30 , showered, and then walked to a small roadside food stand and had empanadas and jugos naturales for breakfast. We got back to the Hotel Amazonas and I checked out and paid for the drinks we used, and then Karina picked us up and drove us to Raul's helicopter helipad on the northern outskirts of Santa Elena. The helicopter pilot, Rafael Leon, fired up the chopper before we even got out of Karina's car. In this way, he was telling us to hurry up so as not to be late for Karina's connection via commercial plane from Pto. Ordaz to Caracas . We took off at 8:30 a. m. and had a marvelous flight only about 200 feet above the ground all the way to the northern escarpment bounding La Gran Sabana. The route was direct between Sta. Elena and Pto. Ordaz, which shot between Chimanta and the eastern line of tepuis, and then passed to the west of Ptari Tepui of the Los Testigos. Fortunately for us, the skies were partly cloudy and I was able to take about 100 photos of La Gran Sabana until we reached Lost Testigos, whose heads were in the clouds. After that, clouds were dense over the escarpment and rainforest beyond. I was quite impressed at how much rainforest lies between La Gran Sabana and the more arid lowlands on the approach to the Orinoco River .
I got some photographs of the rolling hills and anthropogenic herbaceous savannas along the route, plus some good shots of river dynamic processes, including some spectacular loops, bends, and oxbows of low-gradient rivers. I can use these photographs in my wetlands classes. I also got some more shots of anthropogenic effects of fires on rainforest and at least one good shot of a slash-and-burn agricultural plot in a remnant patch of rainforest with no agriculture in the surrounding savannah. This is great to show the necessity for burning the trees to create some nutrients in which to grow a couple years of crops. Without the trees to burn, there is not enough nutrient in the savannah to support any food crop. I REALLY need to get a research paper published about this phenomenon. It occurs all over Venezuela , Guyana , and adjacent Brazil . Also, I photographed rainforest destruction by hydraulics for gold and diamonds on the upper Rio Cuyuni, deep in rainforested shills.
Freddy Vergara met us at the helipad and took us in tow. He drove 5 hours from Cumuna to take care of us, cutting two days off of a job he was engaged in to help us. And help us he did. The first thing we did was to visit a huge mall, said to be the longest in Venezuela . There Freddy purchased a cell phone for our use, which we will give back to him when we leave the country. The purpose is to have easy means of communication with Freddy and others while in Venezuela . Also, I am able to call my beloved Kathy, which I promptly did. I found no less than three table-top picture books of tepuis in a bookstore there and spent about $125 on them. They will add to my library of Venezuelan (=tepui) books. We treated Freddy to an Arabian lunch and then spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out with Freddy and his sister, Sarah, and brother, Jesus, in Freddy's home. Freddy showed me a wireless connection he has for his computer which allows him to get internet service anywhere that he has cell phone service. I need to get this technology.
At 7:00 p.m. we treated Freddy and Sarah to a light supper at a Chinese restaurant, and then they hurried us to the Puerto Ordaz bus station where we boarded a bus for Puerto Ayacucho. The bus left promptly at 8:15 and we began a long, tiresome ride down an increasingly rough highway. The bus was air-conditioned, which was great at first, but froze us during the long night. And so, there we sat squashed together for an hour and a half until we reached Cuidad Bolivar, where so many passengers got off that I was able to occupy the entire back seat by myself.
4 May 2007 , Viernes
10:00 a.m. The bus ride was grueling. The highway was so rough that the driver kept accelerating and decelerating among potholes. When decelerating, my body was lurched forward off of the seat, and almost as bad, when the bus took a curve, it also sent me flying off my seat. So, even if I dozed off, I kept being awakened by the need to stabilize myself on the seat. For the first couple of hours, the bus driver had a bunch of very loud Latin-beat music blaring out of a loudspeaker over my head. I couldn't hear myself think, and when Kathy and I tried to talk on the telephone, there was so much noise I couldn't hear her. Fortunately, after 1:00 a.m. , he turned it off.
Amazingly, we got to Puerto Ayacucho at 7:10 a.m. , about 50 minutes early. I used the cell phone and called Rafael Volar, our pilot, who came and picked us up. Rafael is quite a likeable guy, and was very helpful. He treated us to a good breakfast in the airport restaurant. We could clearly see Cuao-Sipapo from the ground. Rafael said that it has been raining cats and dogs, but this morning it was clear enough to fly and see tepuis. Alas, all his planes are encumbered today, so we won't be able to take advantage of the clear skies today. Rafael showed us around the town, which has grown considerably since I last was here about 10 (+) years ago. I remembered all the sights, and can get us around on foot with ease. One thing new that I'd like to do, is cross over the Orinoco into Columbia next to Puerto Ayacucho for a day visit. That should be fun. We checked in to the Hotel Amazonas, the best hotel in town, but paid only 120,000 Bs (~$36) for the room with two beds. Quite nice.
We took delicious showers, napped, and then walked around town. I found the Cherazad Restaurant, now on the third floor of a large, new office building on the same property as the original--the corner across from the indigenous museum. The food was good Lebanese dishes as usual, but for some strange reason, they couldn't accept my credit cards. We then walked up the hill giving a view of the city and the Raudales Ature. The walkway up the hill was full of high school-age students, some boys drinking booze. The two of us gringos, with cameras dangling from our necks, no doubt looked like ripe pickings. I was glad to get out of there before we were mugged! We made our way back to the hotel and turned in for a good night's sleep.
5 May 2007, Sabado
Rafael picked us up early at Hotel Amazonas early and took us to the airport, where we had another good breakfast on him again. Then, in Rafael's office, we stored as much of our gear as we felt we wouldn't need and boarded a Cessna 207 piloted by Mario Miliani. We took off at 7:45 a.m. and headed for San Carlos de Rio Negro. The plane trip took 2 hours and the weather was poor. We flew through rain and clouds most of the way, dropping down through a hole in the clouds to find the airstrip. San Carlos de Rio Negro is VERY different from the way I remembered it way back in 1987. Then, the town was so small that I don't remember whether it had any paved (concrete) streets, but today is has many, wide, concrete-paved streets, running from the Rio Negro waterfront to the airstrip, about one-half km away. And now there are lots of people jammed into this place, with stores all along the street leading from the river. We ate a meal at a restaurant near the water, and I'm told there is another place we can also get food cooked for us. When I was here before, there was a shortage of food and I couldn't purchase anything to eat, not even a can of beans or sardines. Locals told me that the boom was due to hundreds of Brazilian immigrants. Living is slightly better in Venezuela than Brazil .
The rain let up about noon . Although there were clouds above, Mario felt it was worth flying to see if Neblina was clear. We flew for 20 minutes, but the clouds were thick and rains fell all over the area. We landed on a wet and muddy airstrip and then got settled in a hostel, but the town has no lights nor any running water, except the water that runs off roofs into storage vats. The electricity plant here is inactive right now because of the lack of fuel. It is very far for fuel to be shipped from Puerto Auyacucho all the way up the Orinoco and down the Casiquiare to San Carlos de Rio Negro. Often, therefore, the town is without services. This must also hold true for, of all things, cell phone service. Mario was able to communicate with people in Puerto Ayacucho from San Carlos de Rio Negro when we first got here, but soon the service was out. Apparently this is tied to the lack of fuel to run a generator to activate the cell phone tower.
We had lunch at a little tienda near the riverfront and then laid in our beds for a couple of hours. We got airborne again when the rains stopped. We took off at 3:28 p.m. and flew into very bad weather looking for Neblina. We got a quick look at Avispa, but never Neblina. Neblina is about an hour's flying time from San Carlos de Rio Negro. We flew for two hours and then returned to San Carlos , landing at 5:22 p.m. I took a bath to cool off and remove the grime and sweat of the day. Here's how it is done in San Carlos de Rio Negro. I stood naked in the shower stall and dipped plastic bowls full of water onto my head and body from a 15-gallon plastic garbage can filled with rainwater. Flushing the toilet requires dipping a plastic bucket into the garbage can and pouring the water into the taza (toilet bowl). Of course, this is a nice step up from using an outdoor Johnny. To bed early with hopes of clear weather tomorrow. (Fat chance, considering that this is the rainy season!) All night I heard a large gaggle of roof rats overhead running around and sometimes squealing and fighting. The ceiling was quite thin, and the rats made a nuisance of themselves. I was half expecting to have rat turds fall on me during the night, so I tried to sleep on my side so my mouth wouldn't be open and facing up.
6 May 2007
Wheew! What a morning. I began waking about 4:00 a.m. , anticipating our hopeful day flying to Cerro Neblina. By 5:30 it was light enough that I got dressed, and got all my photographic equipment together and then went to Mario's and Jim's doors and knocked. I wanted to get them up and get airborne quickly so the tepui will be visible. Tepuis are often visible in the first light of the day, then convective clouds develop and enshroud them about 10:00 a.m. or earlier.
The sky was clear of clouds to about 20,000 feet where a high layer of thin clouds cast a gray pallor on the landscape. This is not the best lighting conditions for photography. Not two minutes airborne, my eyes popped out of my head. On the southern skyline, a long black silhouette of jagged mountaintops spread across the horizon that could only be NEBLINA. The proof was a dog-ear monolith that stood up quite a lot higher than the surrounding landscape. That dog-ear is the combined two peaks, Neblina and Phelps. On my International Travel Map they are listed as Pico da Neblina at 3014 m (SW most peak) and Pico 31 de Marco at 2992 m. From the air it appeared to us that the NE peak was slightly taller than the SW peak, but the maps say differently. Their silhouette makes the entire, huge Neblina massif distinct from any other tepui or massif in the Guayana Highlands. Gad! What a sight, and the entire tepui was free from clouds.
We flew straight there, passing over where the Rio Baria joins the Yatua to become the Pacimoni. We arrived at Neblina directly SE of San Carlos de Rio Negro, right across the massif from the twin peaks. Neblina is aligned SW to NE. We flew across the high, flat-topped western ridge and then turned NE, flying up the interior valley, and then back north across the western rim and followed NE along the western flank to Neblina's NE end. We flew around the northeastern promontory and then SW along the tepui's south-facing flank. When we approached the twin peaks, we flew over the high, flat summit just northeast of the peaks and then along the southern side of the two peaks, photographing happily all the way. What a beautiful tepui. It was even more wonderful—and larger—than I had imagined it to be.
Alas, I spotted miner's camps and diggings in the creek valleys on the tepui massif below the high, twin-peaks, and saw footpaths in the herbaceous vegetation. I took photos of the activity. We then encircled the two high peaks, gaining altitude to just over 10,000 feet. I spotted a footpath leading to the summit up the western side of Pico da Neblina and got a shot of it. Then we saw a Brazilian flag on the summit of Neblina, which I did not get a shot of. We finished our one-hour circumnavigation of Neblina by flying to the mouth of the huge interior valley and then up it to where we first flew in to Neblina and then exited the massif by flying over the flat-topped western ridge about where we first approached the tepui. I missed an opportunity to photograph a waterfall dropping off the eastern side of the interior valley, but was thrilled to see a larger-volume waterfall flowing NE off the flat summit just NE of the twin peaks. I got a couple of photos of this amazing waterfall, but there were some small clouds partly obscuring it. En route back to San Carlos de Rio Negro we all were spellbound at our experience, even Mario the pilot who had never made this flight. I got a shot of him looking out of his window at the twin peaks with his altimeter clearly showing 10,000 feet altitude. He says he will be ecstatic to have a copy.
While in the air we had a bit of a problem to solve. Our original objective was to fly from Neblina to the Yekwana village of Culebra at the northern base of Duida tepui. Mario showed me the remaining fuel in the two gas tanks, and estimated that there was about 1 hour and 35 minutes of flying time left. In order to get gas, Mario said our best bet was to fly to San Fernando de Atabapo on the Rio Orinoco. Culebra was about the same distance, but a village with no accommodations (that Mario liked, I suspect). Mario then used his Garmin GPS and it calculated that our flight time to San Fernando was 1 hour and 37 minutes! He then told me that the fuel in our plane would only allow us to fly back to San Carlos de Rio Negro where we would have to wait for fuel to be flown to us. So we headed back to San Carlos , photographing the lowlands all the way. I wonder if this wasn't somehow a ruse to get us to pay a much larger bill. We will have to see what happens.
We stayed in the hostel again, basically waiting all day for our fuel to arrive. Eventually, late in the afternoon, a young pilot named Alex arrived with the combustible , as they call fuel in Spanish. There is nothing much to do in San Carlos . We sat around on the square in front of the Catholic Mission for a while, then napped in the hostel room and waited, passing the time. Come dinner time, it was Sunday and everything was closed. Mario talked someone down at the river into barbecuing us a couple of chickens, so about 8:30 p.m., we mosied down to the waterfront at a concrete block building that served as a bar with one pool table. We had our supper sitting out of doors and slapping mosquitoes (some no doubt malarial) at what we fondly call the dog-fuck café. This town is over-run with free-ranging dogs. Apparently everybody in town owns a dog because the dogs are all well fed, but they are allowed to run free. All day long about 8 males were trying to hump a black and white female who was in heat. She got so tired that she sat or lay flat on the ground to discourage intercourse, but the males all sat around looking hopeful. This went on while we were eating, but because the dogs were interested in getting our bones and food scraps, the female got up looking for a handout, getting a few dog pokes with much growling and barking in the process. The chicken turned out to be partly uncooked, so Mario threw a breast down on the concrete stoop where we ate, and then the proprietor picked it up and put it back on the little charcoal cooker out in front of the dog-fuck bar. When it was sufficiently cooked, Mario ate it.
I was desperate to get my computer and camera batteries charged, so Mario found a man who operates a general store and who has a small generator. He allowed me to plug in my computer, my battery charger, and Mario's cell phone for an hour and a half. When I went to get the charged equipment, I discovered that this computer had dropped to the floor and hit right on the charge cable at its input to the computer. This bent the male plug and also did damage to the female receptacle so that it is difficult to get this baby to recharge now. Grrrrrrr! I retired at about 9:00 p.m.
7 May 2007
I don't know if we had a close call with death today or not. The pilot came in for a landing on a long, gravel airstrip at the main Yekwana village of Cacuri (where I spent my 19,000 th birthday with my beloved son, Ryan). We made a first pass down the strip going away from the Ventuari River and then Mario poured on the gas, lifted the nose, and made a 180-degree turn going up in the air and coming back down very fast. As we made the turn, we were falling so fast that I thought we were going into the ground sideways. Then Mario poured the gas to the engine and just did power us out of the stall as we hit the ground hard. The G-forces in the turn were tremendous and I didn't realize how fast we have been traveling in the Cessna 207 until I saw the ground coming up fast and felt the plane hit the runway a little askew and very hard. The pilot acted like it was nothing, but he really had no good reason not to have made a normal, slow, and safe landing. We found out after we deplaned to refuel that he landed with a gusty tail-wind. I think he was cowboying and wanted to give us something to talk about. Jim was ashen and nearly unable to let himself get airborne again. I suppressed my anxiety, hoping that Mario really had the plane under control. He's had 25+ years of flying hereabouts, so I give him the benefit of the doubt. Never-the-less, the whole Indian village came running down the runway and the first man to reach us told us that they all thought we had crashed. They were expecting a planeload full of food and were alarmed that their food-delivery plane had hit the ground with all their foodstuffs!
I got up at 5:30 a.m. at first light, and made ready for an important day. Alex, the gas plane pilot, was up and took off for the airstrip about 6:00 a.m. Mario was snoring in his room. I woke Jim and by 6:30 the two of us were sitting in the main living area talking loudly so as to wake Mario. This was not working, so about 7:05 a.m. I knocked on Mario's door and woke him up. We got to the airstrip about 7:25 and Mario was disgruntled about how the gasoline that Alex brought was distributed in our plane. We rearranged it (3 five-gallon plastic containers and one large,15-gallon, white carboy) and took off at 7:50 a.m. There was a high overcast (~20,000 ft) and a layer of little clouds at about the 1,000-feet level. When we got into the clear air between the two cloud layers, there was Neblina clear again. Wow, what a sight. I took some photos, but Neblina will only appear as a tiny strip of dark mountains in the middle of the shot. Pico Neblina and Phelps stood out like dog ears, jutting up higher than the rest of the massif. Amazingly, we could also see Duida ahead of us, our destination, so for a while I watched Duida grow in size as Neblina shrank. In between, I could make out Avispa and Aracamuni, neither of which we got the chance to photograph. Then, on our right-hand side, I began to make out Aratitiyope, which jutted higher than anything on the horizon. At first, it was a wide monolith, but as we passed it, the narrow side began to show as a tall, granitic spire.
Duida was amazing. It was under a part of the sky that wasn't very cloudy, thank goodness. We approached its western flank, which was skirted by clouds, but the summit poked up above the clouds. I asked Mario to fly right up over the top of the flank, about ¼ of the way north of Duida's south ramparts. When we did, I saw a wonderful, high-altitude meadow running from the south ramparts all along the top of the western highlands. I thought to myself that Will Ryan and I might have fared better in our 1993 attempt to cross Duida on foot had we chosen the high-altitude, rim, route. Then, suddenly, I saw why that route would have been disastrous. We flew over a huge chasm, the head of a large river that fell into the amphitheater down a lovely waterfall. That waterfall, over the eons, had gouged a deep bowl of a valley-head that was still migrating headward. The valley is a huge one that separates a long ridge of Duida's west flank from its interior flank. The valley is gorgeous downstream, with high, rocky sidewalls and zigzagging left and right for a couple of miles before straightening out and becoming a deep valley on Duida's western flank. We had Mario circle around to give us two chances to photograph this lovely valley head and superb waterfall, then we flew east again straight across the tepui, flying across the north end of what I call the “tepui inside a tepui.” There is a high, flat, summit in the middle of Duida that the Caño Negro watershed flows around in a 180-degree turn. We got some great photos of the top of the “tepui in a tepui,” and then flew back west along the south ramparts of Duida, photographing as we flew by. Unfortunately, Marahuaka was in clouds so we didn't get any photographs of this high tepui (>2800 m) to the east of Duida. Drat!!
I was especially keen to photograph the ridge that Will Ryan and I ascended (and descended) in 1991. We saw it and I got some good photos of it. I still can't believe that Will and I climbed that ridge in river sandals!!
We flew along the western ramparts of Duida, but it was in strong shadow and not very worthy of photographing. The clouds had already begun to develop over Duida's summit, so we were exceedingly lucky on our first pass to have had a clear view of the vastness of Duida's interior. I got some good photographs of the NE corner of Duida, where the huge valley exits, and shortly afterward, of Pico de Culebra and the village of that same name. We did not land there, but kept on towards Paru, a tepui I had never seen close up and which has not been very well explored. Between Huachamakare and Paru is a vast, bumpy, lowlands through which the Cunucunuma flows, the lowlands that my beloved son, Ryan, and I walked through in 1993.
Paru was partly in clouds, but Mario found ways to fly over most of its high parts, especially through a valley between two long ridges that form most of this rather misshapen tepui. I saw some beautiful shrubby landscapes, but not much of the typical tepui herbaceous vegetation. Probably on the very highest parts can be found the herbaceous landscapes, but we did not see any. The tepui is gorgeous, of course, having its own distinctiveness. Each tepui is a special wonderland all of its own. As we flew east of the highest parts of Paru, I noticed that it was flanked by quite a large tableland with a distinct escarpment facing east. I photographed to my heart's content. Then, on the west side of the Ventuari River, spread a large savanna that I believe is anthropogenic in origin, resulting from many decades of fires set by the villagers at Cacuri. This savanna has the same look as La Gran Sabana, with evidence of recent fires even in spite of this being the rainy season and everything is lush and green.
We were running low in fuel by this time, so Mario decided to land in Cacuri to refuel. That's where we had the scare of our trip so far that I described at the opening of today's journal entry. Refueling the Cessna was easier than when we were in
San Carlos de Rio Negro. We had only to hand up to Mario the 3 five-gallon gas containers, but I did have to suck out gas from the 15-gallon carboy and fill a five-gallon container three times so we didn't have so much weight to have to heft up onto the wing. I got several mouthfuls of gasoline in the process of trying to get a hydraulic head operating in the hose.
We flew out of Cacuri at 11:40 a.m. and I got some shots of the village center and the great churuata that forms the center of life in Cacuri. That is where Ryan and I spent about three nights awaiting arrangements to ride a boat down the Ventuari back to Samariapo on the Orinoco . After leaving Cacuri today, we flew over malarial Tencua, and then followed the Ventuari for a while, with the mysterious and totally unexplored (to my knowledge) Magualida Mountains on our right hand side. Our destination was the northwesternmost tepuis around the town of San Juan de Manapiare, but unfortunately, I could see ahead that those tepuis were becoming enshrouded in clouds. We tried to fly to Yavi, but its upper half was totally in clouds. Then we made a pass at Yutaje Falls , but, alas, most of it was enshrouded, and I only got a peek at the very bottom of this spectacular waterfall hidden in a box canyon. Mario suggested that we stay overnight at San Juan de Manapiare and try again in the morning, but I told Mario, “Let's fly back to Puerto Ayacucho.” The reason was that I needed to know the charges that had accumulated for what we have already done. Another night in San Juan de Manapiare and a couple hours more flying might break our bank, much as I wanted to see and photograph these important tepuis.
We flew back to Puerto Ayacucho in a straight line, passing over some of the gorgeous granitic lowlands of this part of Estado Amazonas. I photographed a spectacular granite spire and a wonderful granite escarpment with two amazing waterfalls. Mario says this area has “many wonderful things,” and I know he is right. Something of strong interest to me is what he told me one night in San Carlos de Rio Negro. He said that between Autana tepui and to the west into Columbia are 7 or 8 round depressions in the landscape that he thinks are meteorite impact craters. He said he can't locate them on Google Earth, but they are very obvious when flying over them. They are especially obvious because they have raised perimeters and no outlets for water to flow. One is at least 1 km in diameter! I wonder if these are known in the geological world. If not, it would be a great diversion to fly over them and get photographs and try to verify that they are of meteorite origin.
We arrived in Puerto Ayacucho at 1:28 p.m. and were driven all over trying to find a hotel room. The Hotel Amazonas, in which we stayed our first night here, is booked until Friday. Eventually we got deposited in an annex of Hotel City Center , but we are isolated about a mile from the heart of things. We took grateful showers and I washed out my dirty clothes and hung them in the room to dry. Mario had told us that he would pick us up for supper about 7:00 p.m. , so we had most of the afternoon to wait. I spent the time recharging my camera batteries and the computer, but about 3:30 p.m. I was hungry as hell, having eaten NOTHING all day. I left the hotel and walked around the labyrinth of streets until I finally found a fruiteria, just what I wanted. I purchased a hand of cambur (those small, plump, sweet bananas), 8 mandarin oranges, a guanabana, two large passion fruits, and a large mango. I ate three of the delicious cambur bananas on the way back to the hotel, then shared the fruit with Jim.
We weren't picked up until about 8:30 p.m. , but Rafael Valor and Mario were together in the car that came to get us. We were taken to the restaurant at the downtown version of the Hotel City Center , operated by Rafael's brother (who else?). I was pretty pissed when the restaurant could neither get my Amex or Visa to go through, however. The bill was about 265,000 Bs, or about $80 US.
The most important thing we discussed at supper was our bill for flight services. I had carefully kept note of our flying time, and came up with about 12 hours. At $280/hour, that would have been $3360 US, what I thought would have been the minimum we owed. Rafael was good about that, coming up with 11.3 hours, which he cut back to 11 hours. However, we were charged for two things I didn't calculate, but which in my heart I knew might up the ante a lot…and I was right. He did charge for two hours each coming and going for Alex's refueling plane. So four more hours were added to the total charge. That was not all, however. It is standard operation that flight services charge 1 hour per plane for overnighting anywhere. We had to pay for 2 nights, once for our plane and one night for Alex's plane. That added three more hours to the bill. The total bill was for 18 hours at $280/hour or $5040, which Rafael said could be only $5000! OUCH! I agreed to pay it, but asked him if a check from Raul would be OK. He called Rafael Leon, Raul's brother, who verified that we had deposited $10,000 with Raul and that they could send Rafael a check for $5000. So ended an expensive detour from our original plan of spending most of our time and money in Estado Bolivar photographing the eastern tepuis.
I was supposed to pay for supper, and I was quite willing, but the restaurant was unable to get either my Visa or Amex cards to be accepted, so Rafael paid the bill. I reached into my wallet with the intention of giving him a $100 bill, but gave Rafael $5 by mistake. I didn't realize this until the next morning, when I realized my $100 bill was still in the wallet with ones, fives, and twenties. I had a good laugh about this, but need to tell Rafael about it so he won't be angry at the insult.
8 May 2007
We slept in, awaiting Rafael to call at 9:30 , which he didn't do until I called him at 10:30 . We ate the rest of our fruit for breakfast. Our room at the City Center annex was 60,000 Bs. Rafael moved us to Hotel City Center “downtown,” but not really downtown. It is about ½ mile or more away from the real city center. The room only cost us 50,000 Bs, however. At 3300 Bs per dollar, that is only about $15 US. A great price for a change. I charged my computer and then we went to Hotel Amazonas for lunch at 1:00 p.m. Taxicab fares here are really reasonable, 2000 Bs (about 60 US cents) per ride in the city. I left Jim at an internet shop on the second-floor in the building housing the Cherazad Restaurant. I took a cab back to the hotel room and worked on my photographs for several hours. In the evening, we took a cab to Restaurant Padrino. This is a Mom-and-Pop-run Italian restaurant that I remember fondly from my years before, and I was thrilled that it is still in operation. Unfortunately, the homey atmosphere was not the same as I recalled it to be because of some sterile renovations. We took a cab back to room for the night where I worked with my computer adjusting some of our wonderful photographs of the previous three days.
9 May 2007
Got up at 6:45 , showered, and went out to find the Mercado Central. I had a nice but quick cell phone conversation with my beloved son, Harley, telling him what a great job my beloved Kathy told me Harley did delivering a lecture about the trip Harley, Ryan and I made together to Australia in the summer of 2005. Jim and I then toured the market spread out along the highway to the airport. I got about 25 photographs of the market produce, including some of the wonderful fishes on sale, caught in the Orinoco River nearby. One long, skinny catfish with a very depressed head is said to be “dorado,” the fish we had for lunch yesterday. I got some good pictures of it. We then had a cab drive us to the Mision Fruiteria and I purchased four great mangos for our breakfast. They were fantastic!
We had been told that there was no room available for today, so we thought we had to vacate the room this morning at 10:00 a.m. Just before checkout time, the desk girl came by our room and told us that we could stay another night, so that problem is resolved.
At 11:00 a.m. we took a taxi to the airport (6,000 Bs) where we thought we were going to find Pepe Jaimes's nephew, Henry, at an office called Eco Destinos. We did find an office, but it might be the office of a union of eco-tour operators. They told us that we could find Henry Jaimes back in town on Calle Piar. I then called Rafael Valor, who was in another town via one of his airplanes, and asked him how to exchange $200 into Bolivares. He called the gerente (chief) of Banco Guyana and got this man to agree to exchange dollars for us at the rate of 3300 Bs per dollar. The posted rate is about 2500.
We took a cab to the bank and got our money. Afterward, we walked to the central intersection of town where we learned that Calle Piar was only a few blocks away…in fact, one block from the entrance to the climb up the hill that overlooks the city center and Orinoco River. We located the office of Henry Jaimes and found him in. His business card says Eco Destinos on it. I'll have to find out what this means. Henry is not the nephew of Pepe Jaimes that I thought he was, but another nephew that I hadn't met. Maybe the guy I was thinking about was Pepe's son. We had a nice conversation about what he could do for us in the way of travel in the local area for photography. Basically, his tours run 180,000 Bs per day ($55 US). The tour we are interested in is a river passage to Cerro Autana for three days and two nights, everything included. Freddy has not yet contacted us by cell phone in spite of my numerous attempts to call him, so we don't know if he has made arrangements for us to go to Hato Cedral, the wonderful place in the llanos where lots of wildlife is easy to view. We still have 8 days left to kill before Raul and Karina return from their vacation cruise around the Caribbean , so three days on an Autana boat cruise and four days at Hato Cedral, then one day traveling back to Puerto Ordaz is just about right.
We had another good lunch of Arabian food at Restaurant Cherazad and this time they accepted my Visa credit card. On May 4 th , the first time we ate there, they seemed unable to take it for some reason. Maybe the credit card machine was not working or the credit card phone line was out of order?? We took a cab (2000 Bs) back to Hotel City Center and crashed in our room.
At about 3:00 p.m. I took a cab back downtown and tried to use the internet to send Kathy a message. The internet place that Jim used yesterday was absolutely full of school kids on every terminal playing video games. It is so cheap to use the net that kids hang out there after school and usurp the terminals. I couldn't get to a station for anything. I then walked to a Movistar shop to find out how many minutes I have left on the cell phone. The language barrier prevented it. Then I wandered slowly around town to kill time and eventually went to the Cherazad and had a jugo natural (guanabana also known as sour sop) while I waited on Henry Jaimes to return to his ecotourism office.
Henry returned at 5:30 p.m. and we negotiated a 3-day boat trip to the base of Cerro Autana. The deal was that normally he needs a minimum of three people to make it marginally worthwhile, so we would either have to find another tourist or pay for three people. At 180,000 Bs per day per person for three persons the cost to us would be 1,620,000 Bs or about $522 US dollars @ 3100 Bs per dollar (his quote). I told him that we just got 3300 Bs/dollar at the Banco Guyana and that if there were other paying passengers, we would only have to pay 180,000 X2 X3 divided by 3300 Bs per dollar = $327 US dollars. Then I asked him what was the best price he could offer just the two of us for the whole trip and he thought a while and said, $500. I took it. We then drove to the hotel and got Jim's passport, I paid Henry the $500, and then Henry took me back downtown where we photocopied Jim's and my passports (so Henry can get permits in the morning), got me 50,000 Bs worth of telephone time on my cellular phone (which was out of time). I wanted to email my beloved girl, Kathy, a poem I have written for her, but sending emails from Puerto Ayacucho is very difficult, says Henry. Only one internet office has good connections, but that one was chock full of people when we entered it, so I'll have to delay sending the poem to Kathy until tomorrow morning, not long after 7:00 a.m., the office lady told me. Henry drove me back to the hotel and now, at 7:40 p.m. , I am sitting and waiting on Jim to use the cell phone.
10 May 2007
We got up at 7:00 a.m. , showered, check out of the hotel, and took a cab downtown to the office of Henry Jaimes, arriving there about 8:00 a.m. We then tried to send Kathy an email, but the server was so damned slow that after 30 minutes we still couldn't get Jim's email account to fire up, so we left. We then had breakfast in a small place called Café Ole on Avenida Orinoco, which served some great arepas. Back at the ecotourism office of Henry Jaimes, we were introduced to Oscar Toro, to be our guide for the next three days, and our boatman named Joachin, a pure-blooded Piroa Indian.
We departed Puerto Ayacucho at 10:00 a.m. in a Toyota Land Rover pulling a small trailer with our travel goods. En route we stopped at Piedra Pintado where Jim got some photographs of the ancient Amerindian rock carvings. We got to Samariapo where the boat was moored, unloaded, and I had de javu because of my many previous landings at this riverfront. At 12:30 a.m. , we got underway in a canopied bongo, about 30 feet long, built out of metal sheeting welded together. The boat was pushed by a 40 hp outboard motor. Oscar fixed us a lunch of sandwiches on the river at 1:30 , and then, at 2:10 p.m. , we entered the mouth of the Rio Sipapo (across from Isla Raton) and began motoring up that river. I had made this trip before when I attempted to climb Cerro Cuao.
At 3:15 p.m. we passed the mouth of the Rio Cuao, which had greenish water. The Orinoco is a classic whitewater (light brown muddy) river. The Sipapo is a classic blackwater river, and the Cuao is probably a clear river, but runs greenish from diatoms that bloom in its sluggish, downstream reaches. We continued up the Rio Sipapo, beginning new territory for me. I had previously gone up the Rio Cuao. The weather was punk all morning, threatening rain and occasionally doing so, but by 4:30 p.m. it stopped and we had only high cloud cover afterward. We beached the bongo at a granitic rock outcrop, took some photos of the inselberg, and had a nice swim. At 6:00 p.m. , about an hour before good dark, we ended our day's boating on the true rightbank at a small Piaroa village located at the confluence of the Rio Autana with the Rio Sipapo. Oscar cooked up a good meal of fried corvina, an Orinocoan fish. Three boatloads of enthusiastic Chavistas (Amerindians promoting Chavez) pulled in and about 10 of these young people off-loaded to stay under one of the churuatas for the night. We occupied one, ourselves, sleeping in hammocks with mosquito netting.
From 8:00-10:00 p.m. I walked downstream into an igapo forest that was beginning to be flooded. I waded out from the dry bank in water up to my crotch, trying to capture a treefrog that was calling from the numerous small-diameter trees growing there. After an hour and a half, I never did even see one of the little devils, although I hunted at least 6 individuals. They were like many frogs whose vocalizations are very difficult to localize, and also they shut up when I approached with my light. They also seemed to be calling from the trees at least 4 or more feet off of the water, but I could not find one on any tree trunk, leaf, or branch. I did find a large Bufo guttatus sitting about 24 inches off of the water on a dead tree. I got lots of photos of this handsome frog. Then I saw a giant cf. wolf spider with a quite large abdomen. It crawled up a small tree only about 3 inches in diameter and I presume it was some kind of diving spider. It was really huge and I got some photos of it. Finally, I encountered one of the largest female Bufo marinus I have ever seen and got some photos of it. Interestingly, more than half of its parotoid glands were scarred and black, looking depressed and unfilled. I thought she had some dead leaves stuck to her head, but on close inspection discovered that the glands were empty (flush with her skull) and dark brown to black in color.
I also photographed a small, terrestrial cf. Leptodactylus species that I found jumping around on terra firme (dry land). I was tired and glad to climb into my hammock, but for some time I was forced to listen to a loud boom-box playing from the churuata next to us. It is not exactly the kind of overnight ambience called for in the middle of the wilderness.
11 May 2007
I woke at 6:45a.m. as the Chavistas stirred and individually wandered down to the river for their morning swim and bath. At 7:30 a.m. , Oscar fixed us cachapas for breakfast, an interesting Venezuelan food that is a slightly sweet cornmeal pancake. We got underway shortly thereafter and began motoring up the Autana River , passing through some cuts through the igapo forest. These were beautiful, dark-water passages with the trees almost touching the bongo on either side. When the water rises in these low-gradient streams, it braids through its floodplain, offering secret, shortcut passages through the swamp forests.
The weather was ambiguous. We had broken, low clouds, and a ceiling of high, thin clouds. We made our final camp at Raudal Cegera on the Autana River , a place on the true leftbank also supporting a Piroa village of the same name, Cegera. From the ecotourism churuatas set up on the bank overlooking the raudal and a broad beach of smooth, white granite rock, we could see north to Cerros Diablo and Autana. Diablo is a three-peaked hill next to the river that looks like the devil with little horns, facing up, but Autana was further beyond. Diablo was free of clouds, being lower in elevation than Autana, whose summit was hidden in clouds. We occupied the churuata and loitered about awaiting Autana's summit to clear so we could get photographs. A voladora (speed-boat) was moored there with a family of three Venezuelans also enjoying an ecotour of Autana.
We waited and waited, and then, suddenly, the clouds began to lift. We got some spectacular photographs of the SW side of Autana, and then at 3:00 p.m. we hurried upstream for about 20 minutes to a mirador, which turned out to be a high, granitic dome on the true leftbank (going downstream) of Autana River. We climbed to the top of the relatively unvegetated dome and had a spectacular panorama of, left to right, Cerro Diablo, a small, grassy hill, and Cerro Autana. This vantage point is, I believe, directly south of Autana. Before the clouds and lighting foiled us, I got some wonderful photographs of the scene. Also, from the summit, I could see to the SE some of the higher parts of the Cuao-Sipapo massif that ends in Cerro Ovana, which I believe I was able to photograph. The entire vistas off the dome were part of a stunning landscape. When we finished photographing, the sun had just begun to shine directly of the face of Autana that can be seen from Cegera, so we hurried back downriver and set up the tripod and got that view, also. We shouldn't need any more photographs of Autana from the ground after this. I saw several dark-colored Ameivas on the dome rocks, but was unable to approach close enough even to get a decent photograph.
Oscar prepared a nice chicken stew on rice for our supper, which I mixed with farina, the dry, yellow crumbly cassava made from the yellow variety. I was pretty tired after sunset and supper, but got myself up and went out to see what herps I could find. All up and down the river many marine toads, Bufo marinus , were making sonorous and basso trils. I spotted at least 20 males calling within 100 yards of our churuata. They made a very loud racket. I did hear a Hyla boans calling also, but was unable to locate it. The same treefrog I heard at last night's camp was calling from the igapo swamp near our camp, but much more difficult even to approach so, again, I didn't find it.
12 May 2007, Sabado
I slept in a Venezuelan hammock under a mosquito net again. The net kept pulling loose and falling down on me. It was also hot and muggy, so I didn't need any warmth and, as the humidity was high, I slept for the first half of the night in the raw. We awoke to rain in the morning. I played with two young Piroa girls (Tanya 10, Panya 7) and a little boy (5) while awaiting breakfast of scrambled eggs and arepas. I got some photographs of them, normally shy, by letting them shoot off the camera.
We packed up our gear and were on the water at 9:48 a.m. , still in rain and low clouds. Autana wasn't in any mood to lift her skirts for us this morning. The ride downriver was faster, of course, but rainy all the way. When we got to the mouth of Rio Cuao, I had the boat run upriver a half a mile to see the water, which was, indeed, slightly green in comparison with the blackwater of Rios Sipapo and Autana. We entered the Rio Orinoco at 3:49 p.m. and saw the sharply demarcated zone of blackwater against the muddy waters of the Orinoco . I was unable to get any photos of it because of the rain and miserable light conditions.
We got to Samariapo at 4:25 p.m. , unloaded the gear into a horribly old Chevy pick-up truck, and then motored the long way (70 km) back to Puerto Ayacucho. I was pretty miserable because I was sitting at the passenger door, which did not have any glass window. The rain came in on my right arm and dribbled down onto my right leg and buttocks. I was cold and wet when we arrived at the office on Calle Piar.
I gave Oscar a $60 US tip and Joachin a $20 US plus 20,000 Bs tip, the equivalent of $26 US. I was going to give Oscar $50, but had only 20s on me. Oscar Toro's phone number is 0416 736-6321. Henry hadn't made a reservation for us at Hotel Amazonas like I asked, so it was booked. We got a room at the Hotel City Center , like before, however. The room had a defective lock on the door, so instead of eating at Padrino's, like we wanted to, we dined at the restaurant next door so we wouldn't be far from the room and our goods. Some kind of celebration is going on tonight and/or tomorrow, so lots of people are in town to celebrate. We went to bed with the thump, thump, thump sound of basso drums coming from somewhere close.
rocky canyon walls on both sides. I passed on down the Rio Churun walking on pink sandy beaches and bare sandstone along the river's edge. About 6:00 p.m. I sat down on smooth, bare rock and just luxuriated in the wilderness, watching the sunlight wane as the sun disappeared below the crest of the Second Wall. I sat in solitude thinking about this marvelous globe we live on and how wonderful it is that I am present on it. I wondered if global climate changes brought on by we humans would much affect these amazing tepui summits, and how. I'm sure they have undergone lots of cataclysms in their geomorphological history, and the one coming that humans are causing will be just another blip in their long lifetimes. Jim and I are probably the only humans up here on this ~125 square-mile tepui top, in spite of 6 billion other people on the planet. It goes to show that there are many refugia from humans scattered all over the globe, even in warm tropical latitudes. And they will outlast us, no doubt.
I sat musing about the world until 7:00 p.m. and then walked slowly back upstream with my new, powerful Petzl 14 LED headlight searching for frogs. I hear a small treefrog calling from rocks in the river. I'm sure it is Hypsiboas lemai or a close relative. Then, along the small stream, I whistled up two Hypsiboas cf. sibleszi , the green treefrogs with yellow toes and blue color underneath. These look somewhat different from those I have collected on my Roraima and Wokomung transects. They have pungent smells and taste very bitter. One got away, but I kept the other to photograph in my tent tomorrow. [Actually, as an afterthought, these just may also be H. lemai .]
I got back to kitchen rock after 8:00 p.m. . Jim was in his tent, but had fixed me a supper which was stone cold. He could't get the stove to work. Soot all over pot.
26 May 2007, Sabado
Egad!! I was awakened at 10:30 p.m. by a very hard rain. I hoped it wouldn't keep up all night, otherwise the river might come up and flood my tent in the cold, dark, and stormy night. I soon dozed off into a troubled sleep. About 1:00 a.m. , I vaguely became aware that I felt something strange under my right arm, which was lying on the tent floor. It wasn't the wet feeling of water, but the floor of the tent was jelly-like. Suddenly I became fully aware that there was a lot of water, maybe three inches worth, flowing under my right arm, but between the tent floor and the ground. I checked the other side, same thing, and my feet—everywhere! The whole tent was floating, but not a single drop had leaked onto the top of the tent floor. The reason is that the rubberized bottom of the tent runs up all four sides for about 4 to 6 inches and keeps water out for a little while. I knew at once that I had to get all my gear, especially my camera, film, computer, and other sensitive materials, to safety and dry.
Luckily, the rains had ceased falling. I zipped open the tent door and looked at the river—it had risen at least 24 inches, was still rising, and in an hour or two could possibly do the very thing I dreaded when I fell asleep. So where did the water under my tent come from? I stepped out into the cold and wet night and saw sheets of water about three inches deep flowing out from under the bedrock walls that my tent had been pitched next to. The sandstone walls have bedding planes that the river has eroded open so that the rocks have many spaces underneath through which water flows. No question about it, I had to remove all my belongings and put them somewhere safe and dry. I found a large ledge under a large rock overhang close to the tent, so I hauled all my bags and placed them in safety from rain and rising water. Then I moved the tent to the only dry place I could find on top of several tufts of grass and wetland plants, then crawled in, lay down on my air mattress, pulled my sleeping bag over me, and fell into a deep sleep, hoping again that I wouldn't have to jump up later and run to higher ground.
I got up at 6:00 a.m. and woke Jim. We ate re-constituted scrambled eggs for brekky and then Jim went out to photograph the environs. I left at 9:00 o'clock and walked upstream among house-sized boulders, wading sometimes, scrambling over huge rocks or the bare, rocky bed of the stream. Not far above camp the river emerges from under a 200-feet wide sandstone bedrock for 300 yards. I got up on the bedrock and was impressed that such a large river was flowing completely under its own bed. At the upper end of the bedrock natural bridge, the river flowed normally on top of bedrock, cascading as it went. I came to where the water was captured by the cavities under the streambed, a sort of elongated swallet. Downstream water flows out like it's artesian.
I could cross the Rio Churun here, but opted to go upstream along true rightbank. Egad, the going was tough. I could find no trail. I forced my body through all kinds of hellish situations until 11:00 a.m. when I came to a wide place in the river and contemplated swimming across. I decided not to swim the cold river, which by now had become a long, deep, blackwater lagoon. At a small sandy bank, I stopped for a rest and reviewed my options. Then I saw what appeared to be a trail across the river. I made a hard decision to backtrack, which took me quite a while. When I reached the place where the river runs under its own bedrock, I walked across the rocks and found a marvelous trail running along the true leftbank, no doubt made by Amerindians for the purpose of taking ecotourists on Auyantepui hikes. It was really a wonderful trail with what appeared to have been lots of foot traffic over the years. It's too bad I lost 3 hours fighting my way upriver on the other side.
I walked upriver along this trail until 2:20 p.m. , then turned back because no end of the big black lagoon was in sight. I passed through a lovely forest dominated by trees of the genus Clusia . These have thick, fleshy leaves somewhat like Magnolia grandiflora , but thicker. The ground was littered with these large leaves and there was no understory or midstory. The ground was like a parkland under the canopy. Along the trial I photographed many wonderful things, flowers, a spectacularly shaped and colored weevil, a bright red mushroom, and a strange fern. As I walked I became very discouraged because we seem to have little chance of getting to high latitude tepui vegetation. The trail is too long following the lagoon to try to reach higher altitudes in one day. I could perceive no sign (audible or visual) of reaching the upper end of the long, boring, black lagoon.
When I got back to where I crossed the river, shortly below this I walked into a wonderful Indian camp at 3:50 p.m. It was constructed for ecotourism since my last visit in 1992. It was a large space under the canopy of the trees with places for hammocks and tarps to sling over them. There were a couple of lean-to walls woven out of palm fronds. I came across Jim photographing the swallet and told him how despondent I was about having had the helicopter put us out so far downstream. We may have to abort this site early. I then studied the Second Wall carefully and thought I might be able to climb it at one spot I see. I walked further downstream on true leftbank and discovered that the trail turned and went uphill. I then walked far enough uphill to be convinced that it goes right up the Second Wall the way that I had scoped out. I became elated. Also, at a few hundred feet altitude above the Rio Churun, I could see up the other valley wall, which was a gentle slope without rocky cliffs in the way to block one's passage. It appeared to offer relatively open walking on bedrock with lichens on it. Furthermore, it seemed there was a wonderful possibility for walking up the small stream that confluences with the Rio Churun a small way down from our camp. I could see that at about half a mile up the smaller stream, it spread out in a fantastic shallow valley with bare bedrock on both sides. I definitely want to visit this place. Maybe it can get me to tepui summit vegetation, too. When I reached Jim again I had a smile on my face. My attitude had taken an 180 degree turn from the pessimism of a short while earlier. It may turn out that we might not have chosen a better vantage point for our set-down on Auyantepui, if the trail does go to the top of the Second Wall.
We walked back to camp on another trail cut by the Amerindians above the river on the true rightbank. We got back at 5:30 p.m. , which meant that I had walked all day for 8.5 hours. Wheew! I fooled around with the camp stove and guessed that the problem might have been the kerosene (jet fuel)! When I dumped out the kerosene and used gasoline, the stove worked like a charm. I warmed water and we both had beef strogonoff. I turned in a very tired boy.
27 May 2007, Domingo
Hooboy! Whatta day! I got up late, 8:00 a.m. , because of a light sprinkle and dense clouds. Jim was up photographing the Rio Churun. I dressed in clean, dry clothes but put on two pair of socks in the new boots that Jim bought for me. These boots cling to the sandstone rocks better than any footwear I have ever had. They have stainless steel pegs sticking out of their felt soles. I had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and then walked upstream to the swallet and shot some video explaining Cladonia lichens to Jim on camera. We also filmed the blue-green weevil against some bracken fern that I found it on. We then filmed the swallet and I explained on camera how bedding planes and vertical cracks work. Then Jim screwed around shooting B-rolls and left me waiting and waiting. I walked into a Clusia forest with the frog I found last night and photographed the forest and a nice tank bromeliad Jim had propped against a tree. He wanted to film in the forest, but he was taking so damned long that I got tired of waiting, so I took off up the trail at 1:00 p.m.
I started up the trail that I believe ascends the Second Wall and found myself at the top of the escarpment at 2:00 p.m. , but it began to rain. About halfway up I encountered a beautiful blue mushroom and spent about 15 minutes photographing it. Fortunately, I found a nice overhang, so I scooted back and got some shelter until 2:20 . From 2:20 to 3:00 p.m. I walked through rock towers and dense shrub forest to a flat summit. From 3:00 to 3:20 p.m. I searched the summit looking for Oreophrynella , but found none. While there it began to rain in earnest and because I was at least 1,000 feet above the Rio Churun valley floor, it was much colder. The rain was so bad I couldn't get any photos of the summit vegetation, so I packed the camera up in the little dry bag I brought for the purpose, and then I began walking back toward the escarpment. I did find a Tropidurus lizard under a rock, but did not photograph it. The ridge was only about 200 meters wide but may drop down into Angel Canyon through a deep forest.
3:20 – 4:00 p.m. I walked back through the rocky towers and reached the top edge of the escarpment and started down. I labored down the vertical slopes in the rain, reaching the Rio Churun at 4:52 p.m. I saw a nice patch of Heliamphora (sun pitcher) on the rocky tower part of the trail.
5:30 p.m. When I reached camp, I was soaking wet. I ate a bag of freeze-dried chicken-a-la-king, had a bag of nuts, and turned in for the night at 6:30 . The tent got a little water in it, but I sponged it off with my towel. The camera and lens were wet, so I put them in the sleeping bag with me to dry them. To sleep at 7:00 p.m. , muy cansado.
28 May 2007 , Lunes
Another interesting but physically challenging day. I got up at 7:00 and discovered a note in the cocina from Jim saying that he had gone to make a trip up the small stream downstream on the Rio Churun from our camp. I made brekky and then attended to two sets of my clothes, which I had gotten wet and dirty the two days before. I set them out on branches in the sun to dry and waited until 8:10 before following Jim. When I started up the stream, there was no sign of him, so I continued upstream. It is an enchanting stream, full of small cascades with its deeply tea-stained waters flowing over flat bedrock, sometimes with interesting color effects because of the depth of the water and the color of the underlying sandstone.
I waded the stream mostly, but had to climb the rocky banks a couple of times as the cascades were too high to mount. Ferns, mosses, and a plethora of wetland plants grow all over the rocky sidewalls, especially where the sidewalls overhang the streambed or huge blocks of sandstone are ajumble and offer room-sized openings in the shade. I knew from looking across the Rio Churun valley from atop the Second Wall yesterday that this stream flowed over a wide, shallow valley with bare bedrock, so I was working my way upstream to find this feature. Eventually I came to where the stream was sheet-flowing over bare bedrock, and I knew I was approaching the place. I rounded a bend and was enchanted by a lovely sight. The stream made about seven cascades down from the shallow valley, and the photograph of this scene is amazing. I found a way to climb the series of cascades—about 100 feet high—and then found myself out on a large area of sloping and bare sandstone bedrock with the stream flowing along one side. This area of bare rock was about 100 acres in size and had some amazing tepui vegetation in patches on it. I was particularly struck by large patches of Brocchinia reducta , the narrow-fluted insectivorous bromeliad.
I couldn't find any Oreophrynella nor did I hear any. One of the reasons might have been that loose rocks on the bare bedrock were rare. I photographed a wonderful shallow stretch of water flowing out of a deep, black lagoon. I spotted a lovely yellow Bonnetia across a 20-feet deep chasm and just had to have a close-up photograph of it. I was able to cross the chasm in the air by gingerly climbing in the stems of the shrubs that hung over the chasm. While doing my photography, I dropped lens cap into the chasm. It was so far down and the chasm was very narrow, too narrow to climb out again if I lowered myself into it. Then I noticed that the chasm widened to my left, so I went for it and dropped down into the cool and beautiful bowels of the earth. I saw some lovely ferns clinging to the moist sidewalls of the chasm. I climbed out and resumed my exploration of this tepui wonderland.
I found large shrubs of Bonnetia species, up to fifteen feet tall, one white, one yellow. Flowers on them were rare because the plants were in fruit. Blooming season apparently is dry season, a few months ago. I lay on rocks enjoying the solitude and ambience of the wonderful place.
After a wonderful afternoon exploring the wide valley and its tepui plant treasures, I began my descent of the beautiful cascading stream. I found Jim back down the stream valley doing 4X5 photography. He had had a difficult time getting upstream. We went back to camp, arriving a little after 1:30 p.m. I retired to my tent to rest up for tonight. It began to rain about 3:30 p.m. and didn't let up all the rest of the day. I cooked water for supper about 6:00 and was out into the rainy night at 7:00 . I worked my way to the mouth of the smaller stream and heard there what I think is a leptodactylid frog calling. It had a call so strange that I can't describe it, sounding like someone rubbing a hard stick over taught wires! I worked the stream in the light rain, but saw absolutely no frogs. I was hoping to see one or two species of Stefania , but I saw no frogs at all. I heard two or three species, but they were calling only sporadically, and not especially for breeding. One that made a loud peep, I tracked into the adjacent, thick shrub forest. It was the most ventriloquial frog sound I ever heard. It seemed at once to be near me, then farther away, then right in front of me, then behind me. I stimulated it to call by whistling the same note, but the frog was at least 10 feet high in the trees and dense arboreal vegetation and I never got a sight of it. At one moment, however, while standing on the slope in dense groundcover under the thick shrub canopy, I spotted an opossum walking within five feet of me. I tried to catch glimpses of it while I whistled. The next time I saw it, only 8 feet away, it was looking up into the very tree that the frog I was trying to catch seemed sometimes to be calling from. I got the distinct impression that the opossum was keying in on the frog's call and might have gone after it, but it never happened. I heard several others of this frog and they were all calling from high up and not near the stream. A couple other frog calls were so sporadic that I couldn't get any good fix on their location. At about 8:15 I was so discouraged I turned back empty-handed—and soaked through and through from the rain.
When I reached the confluence of the smaller creek with the much larger Rio Churun, egad! The larger river had risen about three feet in the hour or so that I had passed by. The water had risen so high that it was backing up into the bed of the smaller stream. I found myself on the downstream side of the smaller stream, which I needed to cross to go up the Rio Churun to my tent. I had to wade mid-thigh to cross the mouth of the stream, in rocks and invisible channels. Then, as I tried to walk back up the Rio Churun, I found the water so high that the pathway I had taken down earlier was flooded and I was having some difficulty crashing through the adjacent brush to reach safety. I was a little worried that I might be stranded for the full night. Anyway, I eventually made it back and took off all my soaked clothes before I entered the tent. I dried myself and snuggled in for a long night of rain on my tent fly and a huge roar of the Rio Churun out the left side of the tent. This time I have the tent about 20 feet above the floodplain high up on the adjacent bedrock, so no matter how heavy this flood, it will never reach me. To bed about 9:30 p.m.
29 May 2007 , Martes
I got up at 6:00 a.m. when I saw that the skies were partly clear. Jim came up also with the news that it looks as though we can go up the smaller stream today and shoot video. I agreed. The Rio Churun came up about another foot last night, slightly higher than the first night here when it chased me out of my tent. We can tell how high it rose by the foam that the high water leaves stranded at high water mark. We took off at 8:00 a.m. and made our way up the smaller stream that I ascended yesterday filming and photographing. The day was long and tiring. Jim brought along his 4X5 camera and its tripod and I carried the video camera and its tripod. The two outfits are each quite heavy. In addition we both brought along our 35 mm cameras and had to keep everything under wraps from the rain, which fell off and on all day.
We made it all the way to the bare rock valley above the seven-tier cascade. Up there I found four specimens of Leptodactylus rugosus . I'm wondering if this somewhat large frog might be responsible for the absence of Oreophrynella up here. The L. rugosus were under the very rocks that Oreos usually hide under. Not only could there be competition for hiding places and food, but the Leptos might be eating the Oreos! Carrying the equipment was tiring and somewhat challenging while walking and climbing up the huge boulders and slippery bed of the stream. Often it was easiest to wade in the fast water, but not always safe. We began our descent from the top of the cascade at 3:50 p.m. with the promise of more rain, and sure enough, it was raining pretty hard on us by the time we got back to camp at 5:15 . As usual, I was soaking wet. I heated water for our freeze-dried supper meal and then took mine to my tent to eat. Following custom, I peeled off my wet clothes and left them outside the inner tent while I crawled in to my inner sanctum, dried off my wet body, zipped up the fly, and settled in for a long night. As I write this at 7:25 p.m. , a hard rain is falling and I expect that if it keeps up, the river will rise again pretty soon. If we get a lot of rain tonight and it is clear in the morning, Jim and I will call Raul to come get us because Jim wants to film Angel Falls with a lot of water flowing off of it.
30 May 2007 , Miercoles
It's 12:15 p.m. and I'm sitting in my tent with the fly open to catch some cool breezes. The little Honda generator is humming away next to the tent while I recharge this laptop and some batteries. I declared today an R & R day for several reasons. First, we have photographed and videotaped most of what's here of tepui interest, or that my knowledge covers. This is a relatively low-elevation site with some influence of high montane forest, I think, although on the rocky sites much of what grows is a shrubby mix of Bonnetia species (Theaceae) and species in other plant families. We need to film some barren tepui landscapes to finish the video project. We have lots of footage of Maringma and Chimanta, whose habitats were very vegetated. Now we need barren landscapes that we have not yet videotaped. We were going to do that on Ilu, but Jim had equipment failure and hypothermia problems and we had to leave.
We are waiting on the weather. Jim wants a rainy night so that Angel Falls will have some decent water when he tries to get it on videotape. This morning it was clearer than it has been all month, and we have had no rain all day—quite a departure from the past few days. If we had decided to abort the Angel Falls video filming, we could have left today. It is perfect, but at noon when we realized this, it was too late to call in Raul. I tried to call him to find out if some other clients were hiring him to fly them to Ghost Cave today. If so, I was going to ask him to fly us to a summit location here on Auyantepui, but I got some very garbled calls in to him and seemed to find out that the Ghost Cave flight had not materialized.
I got up at 8:00 a.m. , wrote for a while, then put on my only dry clothes and took my wet ones to the river for a wash and a dry. After washing them, I laid them out on the bare, warm rocks in the morning sun and sat with them for an hour and a half until they were dry. I watched the water in the river and enjoyed moments of solitude and freedom from internal pressures to go, go, go. It's better to have a day of waiting on top of such a beautiful place than in Santa Elena eating up hotel, restaurant, and taxi charges.
8:00 p.m. I hung around my tent all day doing chores. One was fixing up my Nikon D70 for Freddy Vergara, who wants to purchase it. I estimated that I paid $2,150 for the camera, a very good zoom lens, battery charger, and flash cards. I will offer it to Freddy for $1,500. It's a great camera that I now use for my back-up system should my D200 go out (get dropped in water, etc.!). I will use the funds to repurchase the lens and the rest of the money to purchase another backup, maybe another D200.
I operated the Honda generator and charged up all the batteries that needed charging. The generator lasted three hours on one tank of fuel. I also typed out a schedule of field days should the grant come in for the July Guyana expedition to the Wokomung Massif. That took me about 1.5 hours. It later occurred to me that my needs for chemistry data from my noxious frogs could just as well be served by an expedition to Mt. Ayanganna , instead. I also busied myself photographing the leptodactylid frogs I collected yesterday. By suppertime tonight, the river has dropped another foot! These tepui rivers sure do purge fast—and dangerously, of course.
I had a keen idea for a book project. My letters from my college buddy, Ian Waxler who went AWOL in the Peace Corps, and those from Vagaro, whom I met in Ecuador , might be part of something interesting! A book about bizarre lifestyles, or something. Maybe I'll have Theora Frisbee transcribe them into computer files for me—if they are not too racey for her! I need her to do more of Dad's WWII letters to his family at home first.
About 7:00 p.m. I called Raul on the satellite phone and asked if he could come fetch us tomorrow morning. He said he had paying customers for a trip to Roraima in the morning but could come in the afternoon. I told him, forget it, we want him to come early in the morning so we can do the fly around of Auyantepui and Chimanta, and Ghost Cave . The satellite phone worked good, but I was calling his cell phone and the damned cell service here in Santa Elena is lousy. It took three calls and 20 minutes to get the message across. I then called Karina and had the same problems, but now it stands that we will be leaving as scheduled, on Friday morning. So…we will be staying another day here on Auyantepui. I will get the chance to climb the Second Wall again, tomorrow, and do some photography on the ridge top. I did a quick satellite phone call to Valerie Clark and left a message that I wanted to know if she got the $9,000 of the NIH funds that professor Meinwold was supposed to guarantee her. I asked that she email me the answer and I will get it from Kathy when I get back to Santa Elena. If she does not come up with those funds, I might have to make a solo trip to Guyana . If I do that, I might be able to work in checking out that monster earthworm that Eustace Alexander has been asking me to investigate during some July. That would be wonderful. And I might just do a few days on Wokomung, alone, to get the material we need for an investigation of the alkaloids or other chemicals in the skin of my three new species of Eleutherodactylus .
Today was unusual in that it did not rain a drop all day. Usually, we get three, four, or more showers, and at night some downpours for a few minutes, but today it was partly cloudy and mostly sunny the day through. A huge moon was visible at sunset, but one day from full. It was beautiful. We are in a deep north-south trending valley, so we can't see a good sunset. Good night dear world. I love my life and especially my dearly beloved wife, Kathy, and sons, Harley and Ryan, and grandsons, Cameron and Chandler . I'm really looking forward to coming home, sooner than planned, I hope.
31 May 2007 , Jueves
I had a really great day on Auyantepui. I got up about 7:00 a.m. , fixed a hot brekky of oatmeal, packed a few things in my green dry bag, and set out for a long day of exploration and photography. I left camp about 8:45 a.m. , heading upriver. I left the bed of Rio Churun on the trail up the Second Wall at 9:10 a.m. and made my way up and up, photographing the beauty on the climb. I carried my tripod in hand so I could get shots in very low light conditions, which prevail in the catacombs of the tepui rocks and deep forests on the slopes. About halfway up, I spotted that wonderful BLUE mushroom again, still fresh, and spent about 20 minutes getting some really good photos of it. It is so unusual a color for any plant or fungus that I just had to make sure I got at least one really good photo of it. The trail is quite an adventure, being a mix of up and down clambering over huge, house-sized boulders, up cliffs at very steep and dangerous angles with little but a few half-shoe-sized footholds and very few handholds.
When I got to the waterfall that you can see from the riverbed below, I used my walkie talkie to call Jim. We had difficult times seeing each other because of the distance between us, but I finally spotted him when I scanned the river bed using Smiley Shield's Brunton monocular. I was so small that Jim couldn't see me, so I told him to look in the direction he thought I was in and I shot off a flash of my camera. It worked! He spotted me and couldn't believe we looked like tiny little ants to each other. I made it to the top of the escarpment of the Second Wall and began the long trek uphill through deep declivities (100 to 200 feet high) between monoliths of Roraima Sandstone. The summits of tepuis are riddled with vertical cracks and fissures which rainwater over the eons has deepened and widened. At the edges of the flat-topped landscapes, these fissures are veritable canyons with vertical walls that could only be scaled using technical climbing gear and techniques. If the canyon bottom is wide enough to walk up, you find yourself in a shaded wonderland of mosses, ferns, and brush where the sun rarely shines its life-giving rays. I spent about an hour photographing all the beauty, so I arrived on the top of the escarpment at 11:50 a.m. , after 2 hours and 40 minutes of climbing and photographing. I made this climb a few days ago in one hour and 40 minutes, but then I was exploring the trail and not preoccupied with photographing what I was passing by as I was today.
The top of the escarpment fans out onto a broad, flat terrain, sometimes a large, bare-rocky flat and other times very squishy and boggy. Where the trail finally reaches this landscape, I did a wonderful thing. I took off all my clothes, lied down on the bare, black rocks, and luxuriated for about 30 minutes in the tropical sun at about 7,000 feet in altitude. It was delicious.
Later, I had a bag of Buffalo jerky and a Cliff energy bar and then took off down the trail over the gently rolling landscape. The going was difficult through the large, boggy areas. I sank down several inches in the exposed peat of the squishy trail. Shrubs of the family Theaceae (especially the genus Bonnetia ) dominate the landscape, but there are also open, herbaceous areas in the boggy sites. These latter have small pitcher plants in them and a plethora of wetland herbs. At one point as I was slogging through the mire, a small treefrog jumped into the trail and I caught it. It looked identical to the cf. Ololygon species I caught and photographed on Chimanta Tepui last year. I placed it in a
Brocchinia reducta bromeliad and began photographing it when it jumped again and I lost it in the herbs into which it sought refuge like Br'er Rabbit in the briar patch.
I was more interested in the rocky barrens because I was keen to find the Oreophrynella species that is known from Auyantepui. The trail eventually took me to a place where I could leave the trail and walk over a large rocky barren. The first order of business, however, was to find some water. These barrens have runnels of water leaking out of the patches of peat and plants that dot the landscape, and pools of water in roundish basins that running water has sculpted over the eons. I found one pool with water deep enough to drink from without sucking up bottom debris, and I quaffed my fill. I searched and searched, lifting every rock I could find, but did not see any Oreophrynella in about two hour's time. Neither did I hear any Oreophrynella calling. They give out plaintive peeps all day long where they are common, but the species appears not to be here. I did photograph, however, lots of lovely tepui plants including a tiny heath that I think is the genus Tepuia . Not as much is in flower in this, the rainy season, as I have seen in the dry season, December through March. No Orectanthe sceptrum are in flower and this plant dominates the visual landscape when it is in flower.
I spent four lovely hours wandering all over the terrain, taking photos, enjoying the scenery—and the ambience. I love being all alone in the wilderness where nobody at all lurks. It is soul-warming to know that all the world is at your beck and call and nobody but you is in charge of anything you do. Having been on Auyantepui twice before (but not here or where we are camped—this is all new), I know that to walk off Auyantepui from where I wandered today is a 5-day hike, 8 hours a day. I wouldn't mind doing this, but our time is running out for this expedition and we have more helicoptering to do. By the way, since we have been here for the past five days and I have walked each day but one for four to eight hours, I am now feeling in pretty good physical condition. My legs are doing just fine and every other part of my body is also not complaining—except my heart.
I am having arrhythmias often when I am resting. They are especially common when I first go to bed. My doctor has finally discovered that these are atrial fibrillations, which can be dangerous for stroke by producing clots. I have been taking aspirin to thin my blood since I left Tallahassee . I will have this condition checked out more thoroughly when I return. But I am experiencing something else that might be just as bad. I find I am gasping for air a lot. Not when I am exercising, but when I bend over, take a drink, or at other times when I am not respiring normally. I wonder if the arteries feeding my heart are getting clogged!! Egad, it sucks to be 66 and experiencing these maladies. I want to live to at least 80. I've got way too much to do before I check out.
At 3:50 p.m. I packed all my gear, including my tripod, into my green dry bag (which I can heft onto my back like a backpack with arm straps) and began the descent from the fairyland tableland. The descent was quick. I made it to the edge of the escarpment in 35 minutes and then climbed down to the waterfall where I sat for ten minutes enjoying the scenery below me and drinking lots of water. I tried to contact Jim using the walkie talkies, but could get no answer from him. When I reached the bed of the Rio Churun at 5:25 p.m. , I had climbed down the Second Wall in 50 minutes (not counting the ten I spent at the waterfall).
At the waterfall I thought of my beloved parents who made all of my adventures possible and a big surge of grief came over me again about the passing of my beloved Mom. It would sure do my heart good if I knew they were with me in my doings, watching over me and enjoying my thrilling life with me. I am a very lucky person to have had such wonderful and loving parents. My childhood was idyllic, but my later times with Mom and Dad were not frequent because we lived so far apart across the country or in different parts of Florida . I did enjoy the 8 blessed years that I was able to live close to Mom in the last years of her life. It was during those years that I came to be so close to her. I just wish it could have lasted longer, or that I could have done more for her. That makes me all the more cognizant about how very important it is to be close to my beloved sons and grandsons—and Kathy. I must be sure that I give them all the good time that I can so that when I'm gone they won't have any regrets that we didn't spend more time together. It is not easy to do, however, when each person has his or her own lives and responsibilities. I guess it's easier said than done.
When I reached the bed of Rio Churun, Jim was there waiting on me. He had heard my walkie talkie calls, but I was unable to hear his answers. When we checked the walkies, we found out that somehow my frequency had gotten bumped up from 7.0 to 7.23 and that was the problem. A light rain fell as we had our supper of freeze-dried food reconstituted with hot water. I called Karina at 7:00 p.m. to confirm that we are going to be picked up by helicopter in the morning—weather permitting. The satellite phone battery needed charging, so I fired up the generator and charged it, plus this laptop, which had run down also. Now, at 8:35 p.m. , I'm lying in my cocoon of a tent with the laptop on my bare belly writing this and feeling that everything in my world is just fine. I'll soon pull the sleeping bag over me and doze off for a good night's sleep on the ground in the wilderness. Ah, wilderness!
1 June 2007 , Viernes
I woke at first light ( 5:30 a.m. ) and began packing. I had all my gear in my bags and the tent disassembled by 6:00 and then discovered that Jim was not ready nor making preparations. I got pretty disgusted with him, and tried to urge him to get ready because Raul might show up at any minute. I tried to call by satellite phone Raul, Karina, and Freddy to tell them all that the weather was just right overhead for Raul to come pick us up. I was worried that if we waited very long we might get socked-in for the day. Jim's response to my urging was that he didn't want to leave too early because the light was not strong enough, but I said that it was more important to get off Auyantepui than to worry about the light. If we get off, we can sit down somewhere and wait for the light and then go flying and photographing when it is just right. Anyway, just about the time Jim had all his gear packed and stacked with mine on the sandbar, here comes Raul! We left our Rio Churun campsite at about 7:00 a.m. and Raul flew us down the canyon and then made a left turn and we got to see one helluva beautiful waterfall I was unaware existed. I was fumbling with my camera and got some underexposed shots of it that hopefully I can rescue in Adobe Photoshop.
Raul flew us along the east face of Auyantepui to Angel Falls , which was flowing only about half volume, but still beautiful, and somewhat wrapped in clouds. We made three or four circular passes around the falls, Jim and I shooting off as many exposures as we could. Jim did panorama shots and video of Angel and I did my 35 mm digital. I got some good shots, but they are duplicative of some wonderful photos we got from ground level in 1992.
From Angel, I asked Raul to fly to a high, rocky place on the north end of Auyan over Kavac so I could try to find some Oreophrynella . We flew over the high tableland between Angel Falls and the Rio Churun valley, noticing that it was heavily forested. How in hell anybody can try to walk through all that vegetation to get to Angel Falls across the summit from Second Wall is beyond me. It must be quite a physical challenge. Raul set down the chopper at about 7500 feet elevation on such a rocky barren as I asked for and I turned over about 50 stones on top of the bare bedrock and did not find a single Oreophrynella nor heard any calling. I did find a large male example of Leptodactylus rugosus that I caught on the bare rocks up the small stream valley confluencing with Rio Churun just below our camp. Maybe this large leptodactylid eats Oreos?!!
We spent about 30 minutes at that site while the chopper was running. Raul doesn't like to turn off the motor on top of tepuis because of the danger of battery or some other mechanical failure starting the engine again in such dangerous places. We flew off Auyantepui over Kavac and landed there for a nice arepa breakfast at the tourist center churuata. Kavac is strictly a tourist stop, nicely built with original stick and mud churuatas. The attraction there is the narrow Kavac Canyon that one can wade upstream in a beautiful place with a waterfall at the end for swimming and bathing. After brekky, we lounged in hammocks while Raul refueled the helicopter. He had flown to Kavac late yesterday afternoon and had overnighted there so he would be right at the tepui to judge the actual weather conditions so he could come get us. As it happened, as we were flying off Auyantepui, the summit was getting socked-in and shortly after we arrived in Kavac, the entire tepui went under dense clouds. We did just get off in the nick of time.
We lay in hammocks waiting on the perfect light for filming at a wonderful, exotic, and dangerous place called Ghost Cave . At l1:00 a.m., we unloaded all our gear and stacked it on the Kavac runway so that Raul would have the best ability to control the flight of the ship. We flew in graying skies, with showers beginning to fall over all the high places. I got to see the base of Aprada Tepui, but was unable to photograph it. It is one of the tepuis I still want shots of, but missed any opportunity this morning.
We flew over some wonderful landscapes en route to Ghost Cave to the west of Auyantepui's northern tip. The land rises to the base of some other tepuis, which were in clouds. Raul flew us around some wonderful waterfalls that we photographed, and then we saw the deep canyon called Ghost Cave , at the end of which is a deep, wide declivity into which drops straight down a beautiful waterfall with a huge, rocky plunge area. Raul slowly flew into the declivity, which is pinched off at the back. It is not really a cave, but a vertical crack that the waterfall has widened and deepened into the side of a mountain. We hovered a few feet off the ground, with the water billowing up under us from the huge amount of water that was hitting the bottom of the drop. All the rocks were rounded from eons of tumbling. Raul slowly turned the chopper around looking for a suitable site to let us out of the chopper with our cameras. Our plan was to stay there photographing for an hour or so while he flew away and sat down waiting on us. There was so much water coming down the falls, however, that Raul decided it was too dangerous to land there. The rotor blades were almost touching the water, it seemed. I looked at him and realized he was unhappy with our safety, so I said “It's OK with us if we abort a landing.” Raul said he wasn't going to try it because of the danger. For one thing, if we stayed in there, the chopper might suck too much water into the engine and we could have a flame-out.
Raul then tried to land the chopper just out of the mouth of the cave, but even that was dangerous because we could see that it was raining higher up and that would put even more water into the waterfall. In that case, had Raul let us off, he probably couldn't have come back for us anyway because the water would have been really overpowering. We would then have been soaked from the billowing water and stranded there overnight, or worse. It was with quite a bit of relief for all of us that we used our heads and aborted the “getting out of the chopper” part of the mission. We did get some wonderful shots of Ghost Cave from the chopper outside the “cave.”
And then Jim and I didn't have any idea that we were in for an even more dangerous thrill. Raul flew us to another deep crack, about 500 feet deep, with vertical sidewalls, the canyon narrower than Ghost Cave . There were two waterfalls coming down from the left sidewall. I started photographing the amazing sight when it became obvious that Raul was flying into the crack! I was unable to photograph our progress out the side door through the vent window, as I had been doing, so I just took shots of our progress through the tight canyon right out of the front bubble of the chopper. I always sit in the co-pilot seat because Jim sits on my side behind me and photographs out the door of the side of the aircraft. We had removed the door for his convenience. The through-flight was tight and, to be candid, scary. We ascended as we flew in because the canyon pinched off at the back end. Soon we were out and I noticed that we had flown through the canyon at 60 knots/hour, quite a slow pace for this chopper, which usually clips along at 110 kph. Later, when we landed at Kavac to put the door back on and pick up our gear, Raul boasted that he had wanted to fly into that canyon for years and this was the first time he tried it!! Thank goodness it worked, I thought!! Viewing my photos later, it really was a tight squeeze.
We flew back to Santa Elena in cloudy and rainy weather, drat it. All the tepuis were socked-in. We also flew into and through some heavy rain squalls. There were a few other spectacular waterfalls that Raul flew so we could photograph. I was transfixed sitting in the copilot's seat and watching the scenery go by. Raul likes to fly close to the ground, which I do, too, so it feels like I am really flying. We did get some photographs of Aparaman Tepui, which was in and out of the clouds. Raul flew around it for us and I am happy with the images.
We arrived back in Santa Elena de Uairen at about 1:30 p.m. and checked-in to the La Gran Sabana Hotel again. Raul offered to take us back into Brazil for the Brazilian churrasco, so we got cleaned up quickly and rode into La Linea for a meat feast. We stuffed ourselves on about 5 different kinds of barbecued meats and I quaffed at least a liter and a half of ice cold beer. Beer and other alcoholic beverages are not good for my carciac arrhythmias, but I was in a celebratory mood, having survived many hours of helicoptering and summit-camping, and seeing our expedition coming to a close. Raul is a very likeable guy and quite a talker, so we sat entertained by his stories and tales of his life and women, of course. Then, at the end of the meal we were brought a bottle of 40% clear rum and intensely concentrated and sweetened coffee. You fill a shot glass half full of rum and half coffee as an aperitif. We sat for at least two hours getting shit-faced on the rum and coffee. It is as much alcohol as I have drunk for many years. I did not get stupid, but quite high, I'm embarrassed to say. But we did have fun. We got back to Raul's office and Karina did not seem happy with our male camaraderie, but we got her to work up the charges for all our helicoptering, which came to $9,400!
Now we are in a quandary. We do not have any rocky-top tepui footage. Most of the highest Estado Bolivar tepuis are barren rock terrains. We need some footage of this to make the documentary film complete. Unfortunately, we are out of funds. The easiest thing would be to fly to Kukenan or Roraima for this footage, but if we stay overnight, that means two trips each way for the helicopter, one to place us on top and the other to fetch us the next day or two. Raul pulled me aside and said there might be a solution. A friend of his named Freddy (not Freddy Vergara) has just delivered Raul's Toyota Land Cruiser with a new paint job. Raul wants to trade a flight to Kukenan for the paint job, and it would benefit all of us if this young man and a girl who is with him were to accompany us. That way we might only have to pay half the price of the flight. And we really don't have to stay the night because all Jim and I need is some footage of the rocky barren landscape. So, that trip is supposed to take place on Sunday, the 3 rd . Hmmm. We'll see. Even if we have to foot the bill ourselves, just flying to Kukenan for a day trip would enable us to get what we need and at a reasonable price, even if we have to owe Raul for it.
I went to bed last night after downloading all my images off my flashcards. Wow, it took a long time. It was after 11:00 p.m. when I was finally able to roll on my side and doze off. Another amazing day in tepui-land that I will never forget.
2 June 2007 , Sabado
Up at 6:15 and started charging all my batteries. Brekky in the café/bar at 7:30 . There I met with Freddy and Maritza again and confirmed that they want to fly to the summit of Kukenan with Jim and me. Raul seems not to want to fly today, Maritza says, so it will be tomorrow, Sunday, when we go.
This was one of those horrible days spent in the hotel room wasting time. We laid around passing time and watching TV. We are not scheduled to fly to Kukanan until tomorrow, so wait we must. The only thing we did was at 12:30 p.m. took a cab into al centro and had lunch at Restaurant Premier. We had chicken and beef cordon bleu. When we were through and I asked for the bill and when I got it, the owner of the Hotel La Gran Sabana came up and grabbed it and paid it in the amount of 58,000 bolivares (~16.00 US )! He said something about us being his clients, which we are, of course, since we have been staying in his expensive hotel for many days in the past month. Then he drove us back to the La Gran Sabana and we slept and hung out there all the rest of the boring day!! I had a hamburger in the café/bar about 8:00 p.m. and went to the room soon thereafter where we watched another movie on TV until about 11:30 p.m. Ugh! Not my kind of day. All this for a couple of hours on the summit of Kukenan.
3 June 2007 , Domingo
About 6:00 a.m. I woke to the sound of heavy rain outside and went back to sleep. At 7:30 , when breakfast is first served in the outdoor café/bar, it was still raining, so the prospects of flying to Kukenan in the morning were not very good. At 10:15 a.m. I found Raul, Freddy (another Freddy, not Freddy Vergara), and Maritza in the café/bar having breakfast, but it was still raining pretty hard. Raul said we might be able to fly Kukenan in a couple of hours. I told him the number of the room we are in and went back to the boring room where now, at 11:00 I am catching up with my journal entries. It's possible that we might be stranded here all day!
7:00 p.m. Yup! We got stranded! It rained all day and when it let up it stayed cloudy and Raul was loathe to fire up the helicopter. So, tomorrow is our last chance to fly to Kukenan for video-filming the top of a rock-barren tepui. I called Freddy Vergara and arranged for him to drive to Santa Elena tomorrow, so that when, and if, we are through with Kukenan in the afternoon, he will be here. We will then depart with Freddy the next day and do some photography in La Gran Sabana (of waterfalls) en route to Puerto Ordaz.
Today was a boring repeat of yesterday. We stayed in the room and watched movies on Venezuelan television with poor, satellite reception. From 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. we sat in the Italian Restaurant next door to Restaurant Premier and I had lau lau (catfish). It was not very good and the service was horrible. We walked around al centro for 30 minutes and then took a taxi back to La Gran Sabana Hotel. The cabby had a strong smell of alcohol on his breath.
In the afternoon I called my beloved who seemed to be having a great time with the girls down at Tara Craft's beach house on St. George Island . I am glad she is doing this. It does my heart good to hear that Kathy is enjoying herself. I love her.
4 June 2007
Ohmigod! We spent yet another day in La Gran Sabana waiting on the weather!
5 June 2007
We got up early and were ready to fly as soon as Raul gave us the word, and then the weather cleared by 9:00 a.m. We were airborne at 9:40 a.m. We were a group of five, me and Raul in the front seats, and Jim, Freddy, and Maritza in the two seats in the rear compartment, plus lots of tripods and Jim's camera equipment. I threw in two tents in case we get stranded. We flew a familiar route from Santa Elena de Uraien towards Kukenan and Roraima. Parts of Kukenan appeared to be clear so we flew straight there. I got some more photos of Kukenan and the northern tepuis from air as we arrived at Kukenan. I was particularly keen to land and photograph a part of Kukenan that we didn't see in 1993. I had heard of an aonda on the northern part of Kukenan, so I had Raul fly there. The aonda was more spectacular than I envisioned beforehand. It is a deep canyon formed by a large waterfall on the western edge of Kukenan, not in the middle. The word aonda means sinkhole, but almost none of these on tepuis are true sinkholes because they seem not to be collapse features, but created by surface erosion. The fact that they appear to be enclosed is because water works its way into vertical cracks and cuts downward into a very narrow declivity before exiting the larger canyon upstream that it has gouged out of the tepui over the eons. We circled the aonda two times and I got some quick shots down into it. It was essentially a huge rectangular hole in the tepui into which a wonderful waterfall plunges.
I asked Raul to find us a bare rocky place on which to land, so we flew around and around until he was satisfied with the location. We set down on a flattish, bare rocky place with towering monoliths overhead encircling the site which was maybe half a football field in area. Raul did something he does not like to do, turn off the engine. I had requested him to do so because we wanted to film the site and not have helicopter engine overpowering the audio. Right away I found Oreophrynella nigra , the species of pebble toad on Kukenan, but only three specimens. This species is unique by having a solidly black belly. Otherwise it looks, dorsally, just like O. quelchii over on sister tepui, Roraima. Jim began videotaping them while I explored the interior to the east of our location. As is usual, landscapes from the air appear smaller and easier to walk around in. Once on the ground, however, the scale changes and the human body gets dwarfed by local features. That was particularly so at this site. We couldn't see the aonda, although we couldn't have been more than a quarter of a mile from it. And walking out of our flat spot was a challenge. We had to navigate betweens 30- to 50-feet high monoliths, erosional pediments left from eons of water falling and flowing along the natural cracks in the sandstone. Many of these rocky pillars are phantasmagorical statues, with legs, holes through them, and even one was split at the top with what appeared to be rabbit ears! I wanted to get to the interior, so I slogged my way through a labyrinth of passageways between the pillars. Water flows between all the passageways, and sometimes can be up to several feet deep. The spaces between the pillars was formed by flowing water, so it is no surprise that it flows even now and is still doing its erosional sculpturing.
I broke out of the pillars onto a higher plain of rockland, with groups of pillars here and there, big stretches of bare, flat rock, and low places with squishy bogs. When water sheet flows across bedrock or in low, flat areas, it is colonized readily by tepui herbs, which often occlude the downstream outlet of the flat place, creating a pool of water. In time, this pool can become deeper as the vegetation builds up around the pool by the accumulation of peat and recolonization of plants, whose roots hold the upward-building peat in place. Eventually, the vegetation and the peat move inward, slowly closing the pond. Stepping onto one of these places can be quite a surprise, as you quckly sink up to your crotch or even deeper.
I was keen to search for Oreophrynella niger , and I discovered that they were common under loose rocks on the bare, rocky flat areas, especially near freshets of flowing water. I found about ten of them. After about one hour of exploring this wonderland, I began working my way back to chopper. I crossed an Amerindian trail went through the labyrinths en route to the aonda, but I didn't follow it there. Walking in tepui pillar terrain can be quite dicey, especially when it is overcast (as today) and one cannot find the sun for compass orientation. Luckily, someone at the chopper whistled, which helped me make a beeline there through the labyrinth of columns and meandering passageways, out of which I could not see a thing but cloudy sky.
I got back just as Raul was signaling that we should leave. Mists were forming and we could be stranded here if we didn't quickly depart. Raul once had to spend three days on a tepui in his chopper because of inclement weather. We five got all strapped in and Raul turned on the ignition…damn! The engine whined and whined, but wouldn't start. Egad! We had a flame-out on the ground. A flame-out is when the jet--the sole force for turning the engine and propeller--quits. If this happens in the air, one can autorotate to the ground, but the pilot only has a limited choice about where to land. Below the tepui summit the land is heavily grown with dense rainforest up to 120 feet tall. It wouldn't make for a safe place to land, crashing into the high treetops. Moreover, and worse, the rugged terrain of Kukenan tepui's summit is very dangerous, full of high rocky columns and broken ground. The worst thing I can think of, however, is to lose power over the cliff edge where one might hit the edge and plummet thousands of feet to the forested talus slopes below. We were very fortunate that the flame-out occurred as we were sitting on the ground. This is exactly why Raul doesn't like to turn off the chopper engine on tepui summits. If the battery had run down, the same result.
We sat there in the chopper aghast, thinking about what our prospects for the immediate future were. As we sat, the tepui quickly socked in and began to rain, so even if we could get the engine to turn over, we would have a dicey time flying off the tepui. And rescue? Forget it! Raul's helicopter is the only one in the Santa Elena area, so getting another helicopter up here would take some doing. We's have to be rescued by a helicopter from Puerto Ordaz, some 3 hours flying time away. And to make matters much worse, I had not thought to bring our satellite phone! For gosh sakes, that was about the only way we would be able to contact anybody about our situation so we could get rescued. We would have to wait until night when Karina and Raul's brother would realize that something was amiss. And then we would have to spend a cold and wet night without food, and then the next day, and then….
And then Lady Luck smiled on us. Raul kept trying to reach someone via his helicopter radio system and suddenly, voila! He made contact with another pilot named Ben Williams who happened to be within radio-contact distance. Ben services the high-tension powerlines if IDELCA, the hydroelectric agency of this part of Venezuela . He hovers alongside the towers and lines while a worker works on them! I was told we had an hour and a half to wait, so I took the opportunity to do some more exploring. I wandered off toward the south end of Kukenan, working through some labyrinths first, then up onto some large-area flats fringed with rock pediments. I got some great photos of some really strange rock formations. And I found more Oreophrynella niger under rocks out on a large, flat, sandy pan, and took some close-up photos of them. I discovered a wonderful, tepui-edge valley paralleling the west edge of Kukenan and photographed it. I also crossed more of the trail leading to the big aonda.
I got back to the chopper 15 minutes before the rescue chopper arrived. Ben flew to our rescue in spite of the rain and fog! Very dangerous. Raul talked him in. Ben flew around for some ten minutes trying to locate us as Raul would say, “Come to your right,” then “ Now to the left,” and “You passed 300 yards to our left, come back along a line 300 yards to your right,” and so forth. We finally spotted him and guided him to land close by. He kept HIS engine running. Fortunately, he brought his mechanic with him. The trouble was, indeed, water moisture in the engine on electrical stuff which kept the spark from getting to the fuel. The mechanic twice disassembled the sparking device to dry it out. The device looked like a big bolt. Ben took it over to the exhaust from his jet chopper and held it in the heat for a few minutes to dry it out. Finally, it worked and we took off at 2:20 p.m. We were on Kukenan Tepui 4 hours, two more hours than we had bargained for. That was just fine with Jim and me because we got all the photos we wanted. We landed on Raul's helipad about 2:50 p.m. Raul, bless his heart, only charged us for one-half of an hour flying time.
We packed up all our belongings and I paid the hotel bill. I had a bit of difficulty getting the attendent to charge for only 4 instead of 5 nights until I brought in my calendar that I religiously keep and proved to her that we were there only four nights. Then I negotiated with Karina about the bill we owed Raul. Raul, as always, was VERY FAIR. We settled on the money and I called Kathy and asked her to send $9,000 to Raul's bank. We said our goodbyes, and then drove off in Freddy Vergara's tour vehicle, a 5-passenger Land Cruiser. We left Santa Elena de Uraien about 5:00 p.m. and drove to San Francisco de Yuruani where we had a pollo a la plancha meal. Then we drove to the dirt road leading off of the paved highway to Kavanayen and proceeded over the potholed road until 8:30 when we came to Chivaton, a posada maintained for ecotourism way in hell out in the boonies. It is a very nice place in the high La Gran Sabana. Tons of scarab beetles were present flying around their lights. This means that a stand of forest trees are dead nearby. The kitchen people showed me some giant termites that are edible. I ate the abdomen and thorax of a couple of live ones. The abdomen tasted creamy and tasteless, but the crunchy thorax had a little tang. Then I ate some roasted termites. These were crunchy with a slightly roasted taste. Not bad, but not something I'll crave the rest of my life. On the side of the posada (which is near a tumbling, rocky creek) I found a green treefrog with strong odor and foul skin secretions and got some photos of it. This frog must be part of that Hypsiboas lemae complex. I was very careful not to rub the noxious secretions in eyes. I went to bed in a very nice rock-walled room and slept very well under blankets because the temperature was pretty cool.
6 June 2007
Up at 7:00 a.m. Jim and I photographed some great plants in the yard of the posada (a melastome, Clusias, an orchid). We had a sumptious breakfast at 8:00 a.m. and then we drove back towards the paved highway to a village called Apongwao. There we rented a 30-foot long curiata (dugout with sides built up with planks) and were motored downstream on the swollen Apongwao River to a take-out above the thundering falls of the same name. We walked about 1 km to falls. Great tons of water were flowing over due to recent heavy rains. Apongwao Falls is said to be a spectacular105 m high. I got some photographs from the top, and then I walked alone down the escarpment and took a couple of shots in the spray. Then I waded downstream and got photos from two more vantage points. The spray from the thundering water, falling a football field down, was intense. I took over 100 photos of the falls. Jim, Freddy, and Marcelo came straggling up as I was leaving, so I accompanied them back to the vantage points I had occupied and we shot some video of me telling about the falls.
We walked back to the top of the escarpment by another, less steeply inclined path. At the summit we took more photos as a rainbow was now visible in the afternoon sun. We had a nice motorized curiata ride back to the village of Apongwao at 3:00 p.m. We spent 5 hours photographing the beautiful falls, a fitting last item on our six-week expedition. In the village I ate a whole plate of roasted termites. They have their nuptual flight only once a year in May and early June. I saw hundreds dead on the paths we walked. These are huge termites, dark in color. They look more like wasps than termites, but they are the latter. We ate beef a la plancha for a late afternoon meal. We left Apongwao about 5:00 p.m. and drove the long, potholed road back to the Troncal 10, the main road to Santa Elena. Because it was so late, we decided to backtrack a few km to Kamoiran where there is a posada and gasoline station run by the Pemon Amerindians. We had a rather awful macaroni and cheese dish for supper. We then spent a couple of hours in our shared room organizing our gear into as few bags as possible for our flights tomorrow and Friday. Freddy sat with us and we had long talks about tepuis, ecotourism, equipment, and other topics. To sleep about 11:30 p.m.
7 June 2007
I don't think I have ever slept in such a pitch black night. Thick clouds obscured the sky and the generator was off, so I couldn't see the hand in front of my face. Getting to the bathroom without turning on a blinding light was a challenge. I had to feel my way to the toilet 3 times. Worst of all, two damned dogs barked all night. I got up at 6:00 a.m., washed my face, brushed my teeth, sponge bathed in ice cold water, packed my stuff in the car and we were on the road at 6:45 a.m. We had empanadas for brekky at Los Dos Princesses Café in Kilometer 88 about 9:00 a.m. and were on the road again soon. We drove all morning at high speed (Venezuelans know no other way, including dangerous passing), reaching Puerto Ordaz/Cuidad Guayana at 12:30 . We had lunch at the churrascuria again, and I paid 182,000 bs for the three of us. Then Freddy gave us the grim news.
We owed him for his time at 4 days (X$150/day) + $200 for Jesus's drive to Sta. Elena a month earlier + $200 for expenses on the road to Apongwao + $200 for the tickets that Jesus purchased on Aeorpostal for us from Pto. Ordaz to Maquietia today for a total of $1250. He owed me $200 from last year – my tent ($150) – my D70 Nikon camera ($700) = <-1050>. The balance of $200 we paid him with Jim's new tent, purchased by us for $150. I guess the balance of $50 we owed got lost in the cracks somehow.
Anyway, after I paid the $9,000 we owed Raul, we had no more money in our travel grant funds, so the camera and $200 owed me from last year amount to $900 out of my personal pocket (the tents were paid for by the grant, so they count as barter funds from that grant). Then, at the airport, I had to pay about $50 of my personal funds for excess baggage of Jim's. Now, at 3:18 p.m. , we are sitting in the boarding area of Puerto Ordaz airport awaiting our flight to Maquietia. We will have to overnight there in a hotel, and then fly to Miami on a 9:30 a.m. American Airlines flight. More later.
9:30 p.m. Egad! Another South American fiasco. We got through the dreaded airport security at the Puerto Ordaz airport after about 10 minutes of hassle. Jim has to have his film hand-checked—and doing this with language barriers is not easy. Once through, we walked upstairs to Puerto B, a large waiting room. We sat there until boarding time at 4:30 p.m. and then learned that the plane that was to carry us to Caracas had not left Caracas yet. About 5:00 p.m. we were told the plane was on its way and would take about an hour to arrive, 1 ½ hours late. We waited and waited and the plane finally arrived as the boarding area filled up with people. I knew that Jim and I needed to board the plane early so that our two large carry-ons could be properly stowed under our seats and up in the overhead bins. Well, wouldn't you know it, even though we got in the middle of the line, the other passengers did what they usually do in Venezuela —and South America in general: fail to queue up properly. There is a crush of people at the gate to get on no matter if there is a line. So, of course, we were among the very last to board. And of course, there was no overhead storage available. Jim stowed his two carry-ons under our seats, but there was no room for my two. Jim placed my backpack between his legs and I put the other one under my feet. Then he also sat with my computer bag on top of his legs to camouflage the fact that he had no leg room because we had gear stowed to the top of the seat between his legs. Apparently properly stowing one's carry-ons on internal Venezuela flights is not a big deal. That our legs were resting on top of our carry-ons didn't seem to bother the stewards!!
However, just as everybody was seated, the captain came on and said that we all might have to deplane because the lights on the runway were not operating and the rules of Venezuelan aviation required that commercial planes not take off without the runway lights!! Several people got mad and argued that if the plane had been on time, we would have taken off in daylight. After a 30-minute EXTRA delay, things finally got worked out and we did take off. We had an uneventful flight to Caracas , landing there at 8:30 p.m. Then it took about 30 minutes to get our baggage, which is just too much for both of us to carry. We have five check-on bags and four large carry-ons, but that is three less check-ons than we came with! Anyway, we were then faced with another dilemma: what to do for the night? We are out of money and hotels cost upwards of $100 for a double. Then, too, we would have to take a taxi to some hotel that we do not have reservations for and might wind up driving all over hell and gone to find one. That would put us at the mercy of a taxi driver, which we should avoid. So, when we got our gear, a good thing happened. As we exited the terminal and were deluged with men trying to offer us a taxi, one of them asked me where I wanted to go. I said, “The International Terminal.” He whistled for a nice man with a large push-cart who whisked us over to the international terminal and got us well set up for an overnight stay. We are on the second floor among all the food concessions and have been assured that we can stay here until check-in time in the morning. We hope so! If not, we'll have one helluva time trying to spend the night somewhere. But if this works out, we won't have to pay any more hotel bills. I gave our porter a large tip ($40,000 Bs) and he seemed quite happy.
8 June 2007
We spent a typically uncomfortable night on hard benches under bright overhead lights, but we are used to this and don't mind it, especially when we are saving money. We got our bags checked-in at the American Airlines desk after I had to pay $100 for an excess bag of Jim's. Then I had to pay $150 each for change of flight fees. OUCH! We had an uneventful flight to Miami , and a somewhat smooth passage through customs, although they stopped Jim for an inspection of his huge load of baggage. Then we ran into some trouble. We were able to roll our bags on a buggy from customs all the way to the Delta desk at the other end of the Miami terminal (normally you can't take their buggies away from customs, but we saw others doing it and maybe there is a change of policy). At the Delta desk we ran into great difficulty. I had to go back to American to get permission from American for Delta to change the date of our flight back to Tallahassee, plus pay Delta another change fee AND an excess baggage fee.
When we got through security (Jim always has trouble because of needing a hand-check of his film), we thought our troubles were over when we sat down at the boarding gate. After some time we learned that the plane had a mechanical problem and could not be fixed. Moreover, they didn't have a spare plane to replace it, so the flight was cancelled and all of the passengers told to rush to the ticket counter and make other arrangements. We were far enough back in line to miss making any flights tonight, so we were put up in a Ramada Inn by the airlines and had to stay overnight in Miami. While there, we met Jena Brooks and Samantha Browne, two ladies who had taken my Uplands Ecology class last year. They were in the same fix as we.
9 June 2007
We got to Tallahassee about 1:00 p.m. by means of a flight to Atlanta , and then another back to Tallahassee . Thus ended a 42-day odyssey in South America . The bad news is that we experienced many travel woes and had some close calls on our lives (which is par for the course in South America!) but the good news is that we got back alive and have a huge inventory of wonderful photographs for our book, “Islands in the Sky, Lost Worlds of El Dorado.” I, alone, took almost 5,000 digital images and Jim took a large number as well. We also hope we have enough video footage for a 30-minute feature on tepuis, or at least sufficient footage to stimulate funding for a longer, possibly hour-long, documentary. This trip, in spite of all its trials and tribulations—and waiting on the weather to clear—was a roaring success. That is why we originally scheduled seven weeks for this “shoot.” We finished up in six weeks, however, but that was because we ran out of funds. There is more we'd like to have done, but what we now have from three photography expeditions over 14 years is sufficient to cover one-half of the tepuis of South America , those in Estado Bolivar , Venezuela , and Guyana . That will allow us to finish Volume I of two volumes. Volume II will be the wilder and more remote tepuis of Estado Amazonas , Venezuela .
Now the hard work begins. We need to select the images for our book, I need to revise and finalize the subject matter and write the text, and then we need to find a publisher. This could take one or more years. C'est la vie!