The miles sped quickly by, we passed through pine forests????? The landscape gradually flattened out, we rolled along the enormous barrage that diverted the Caño Manamo, so wide that small farms had been founded atop it. As darkness fell we arrived in Tucupita, were deposited with our luggage in the main square and divested of our fare. The bus set off again with many a maudlin farewell, the remaining passengers hanging out of the windows to give that final piece of advice.
As my foot touched the ground a murky individual leapt forth from the gloom and thrusting a piece of paper into my hand, hissed "Remember me!" and darted off. It was a grubby photocopy of a map to a tour operator. Pursued by several youths on bicycles we made our way to the "Sans Souci" hotel, recommended as the best in Tucupita. Several eco-tour agents lurked in the lobby, proffering cards and advice. We were the target of a gringo hunt, never to be left in peace until we had been on a tour. Although the " Sans Souci" (French, No Worries) is the best in Tucupita it's still pretty basic. The management however is cheerful and always helpful. There are several quite respectable restaurants and snack bars about the town. Apart from the Caño Manamo, there's virtually nothing else to see about town.
It seemed there was something of a recession in Tucupita, many of the tour operators mentioned in the " Lonely Planet" book had disappeared, the remainder were hungry for business. Every bus is met by the agents of the tour operators, the progress of every gringo is monitored through the town and their habits and whereabouts noted.
The next day we made our rounds of the various tour operators, mindfull of the advice in the "Lonely Planet" book, ie to have a care and bargain hard.
After two days of urban warefare and haggling we eventually settled on "Aventura Turistica Delta". (Gringos travel licence required again.) To render the tour financially viable it would be necessary to round up some further gringos. Whilst we were negotiating with charming Vidalig Mantabric (female), she learned that two Gringos had got off the bus in town.
Vidalig was in constant touch with her spies. The progress of the gringos was monitored as they went round several hotels. One message galvanised her, they had booked into a hotel opposite the office of a major competitor! The situation was clearly desperate. Pausing only to grab her mobile telephone, she set off at a gallop with us in tow. This was interesting, I have often been the target of a Gringo hunt, rarely have I participated in one. On arrival at the hotel the opposition had already gathered outside in a predatory fashion, the hotel owners were not letting them in. Cunningly however Vidalig told the hotel staff that we were friends of the Gringos within, so gaining admission.
They were a Swiss couple who were duly hauled off and incorporated into our trip, so bringing the price down for us and increasing the profit for Vidalig. After a prolonged debate we decided on a three day tour to the Caño Simoina where Aventura has their own accommodation.
We had four serfs, vast quantities of liquor, cigarettes, food, electricity generator, innumerable unofficial passengers, an open fifty gallon container of petrol all in a rusty thirty foot bongo (canoe). They looked after us very well. There was the
boat driver and the main guide (English speaking) , (picture 24K) the indian guide (no English but bushcraft expert) and the cook (ex Venezuelan army).
Before we could leave town, our credentials were checked out by the river police, licence (obtained by Aventura) passport and visa. The river police have several fast boats and an office by the river. We were shepherded in to see the officer in charge. He had the pieces of a large automatic pistol spread out on his desk. Having lovingly cleaned, reassembled and reloaded it, he photographed us for the purpose of some propaganda leaflet. This was too good an opportunity to miss, I took out my camera and photographed (picture, 40K) him as he could hardly refuse. As everywhere in South America the locals all hate the police, only gringos could reasonably be expected to cooperate in such a matter.
The tour was organised as a mobile non-stop drinking party which commenced the moment we got out of sight of the river police station. This was excellent if you can tolerate the pace. However if you're a Mormon or a Jehovah's witness it would probably be better to mention this at the outset.
The first part of the trip was along busy and polluted waterways with a large riverside populaton, However as we left the Tucupita area all these vanished. Soon, the only traffic was the occasional indians (picture, 56K) paddling dugout canoes or fishing. Dense forest closed in. Thick mats of water hyacinth floated on the water. There was little dry land, the edges of the river being a tangle of tree roots and black mud. We passed small indian communities (picture, 37K) with waterside shops, stopping off to pick up supplies and deposite passengers. Most of the indians still lived in their traditional houses (picture, 65K) on timber piling. In the narrower waterways the trees met overhead. The heat and humidity were stifling when we stopped, although not so bad as Amazonas.
We slept in our Indian guide's (picture, 32K) village, hammocks, on the first night. The generator was rigged up with party lights. Our cook (picture, 26K) got cracking, our worldly goods were offloaded. The hammocks (picture, 33K) were rigged. The whole village turned out to help us eat the food, smoke the fags and get drunk in case we couldn't manage it all ourselves. Naked children (picture, 14K) were on hand to scavenge any left overs. The night was quite cool. The mosquitos were the biggest I have ever seen, however this at least meant they couldn't get through the mosquito net, (unlike the "pica pica") flies of Amazonas.
We also went on a night dugout canoe trip, spotting various nocturnal birds and crocodiles etc. (A real spooky one that.) There was also the howtomakefirebytwirlingastick demo, free pyromaniacs souvenir kit provided afterwards for all. In spite of it all we slept well.
In the morning we went for a squelch through the swamp, our Indian guide wielding a huge machete and demolishing half a rain forest, gave us a demo/lecture on the properties/uses of the various jungle plants and trees. Every plant and tree had a use ranging from weapon manufacture, various drugs at present unknown in the first world (medicinal, social and hallucinogenic), boat building, food, writing, a seemingly endless list all within a few hundred yards of the house.
The waters of the Orinoco delta are the colour of tea. However in the sunlight they appear inky black. The currents are slow and reverse with the tide. The remote waterways were choked with water hyacinth, necessitating frequent stops to unblock water intakes on the motor. Soon we saw our first macaws, blue and golds as expected, skulking in the trees, bickering and sheltering from the sun.
The next day and night were spent in the Simoina (Northwest) area of the delta. Aventura Turistica has rustic accommodation(picture, 61K) there (very rustic). The toilet facilities are of an interesting minimalistic design. It's a bewitchingly beautiful area, with the inky black water and the verdant vegetation. We saw lots of macaws. There was also a fishing trip, not very successful as it doesn't interest me. There was the obligatory night search for tarantulas and the trick with the stick down the hole.
We went on dugout canoe trips down very
narrow waterways We frequently saw macaws, blue and golds (Ara araunis). In the mornings and evenings family groups of macaws winged through the heavy air with raucous cries, alighting in their food trees. It was possible to get quite close in the paddled dugout canoe. The inky black waters of the delta contrasted these brilliant jewels, set in a tapestry of the most verdant green against a glorious blue sky. The black water (picture, 40K) so smooth that the canoe seemed to be suspended in space. The interface at water's edge was indefinable, so perfect was the reflection. Sound was deadened in the thick vegetation.
Over the next two days we saw many more Blue and Golds, sometimes flying over in synchronised pairs in the cool morning air, sometimes in small groups. We saw several flocks of Hahn's Macaw Ara Noblis in the evenings. Once a flock of over a hundred flew overhead with an incredible racket. Almost certainly we saw a pair of Red Bellied Macaws Ara Manilata, although they could have been Ara Severa.
On the return journey we called in at several Indian villages. Many traditional skills (picture, 41K) are still practiced. There was craftwork for sale in several places, mostly made from reeds some of it very cheap. Many of the
indian households (picture, 46K) had parrots, whether pets or for the pet trade we could not tell. Apart from general interest, it's useful to see what domesticated parrots there are. This gives a good indication of what parrots are around, also the chance to take some close up photographs. A couple of interest were the "carasucia" Sp dirty face (picture, 35K) the black headed caique (pionites melanocephalia) and also the easily identifiable blue fronted Amazon (Amazona Aestiva). This latter was something of a mystery as according to Forshaw's it does not occur within a thousand miles of here.
Aventura Turistica Delta.
Calle Centurion No 62,
Estado Delta Amacuro,
Email "Aventura Turistica Delta"
Cost for four persons, three days and two nights, Bolivars370,000 (about US$600). Everything included.
We had several more adventures in Venezuela and saw lots of other wildlife. Venezuela is certainly worth visiting, a major advantage being that it's very cheap to fly there. Also cheap are hotels, restaurants, food, alcohol, tour operators and transport. Everything else is relatively expensive. English was spoken by all the local tour operators however elsewhere it was rare.
PUERTO LA CRUZ
At the Yutajé Lodge I had been informed by one of the guests that there was a gliding club at the town of Alta Gracia de Orituco (another of my hobbies). We therefore decided to make our way there via the coastal resort of Puerto la Cruz. The route took us across the vast Eastern oilfields of Venezuela now encroaching into the swamps of the Orinoco Delta. Enormous oil pipelines followed the road. Scores of derricks dotted the flat landscape. Gas was being flared off at many of them.
According to the guide book Puerto la Cruz sounded quite a pleasant place, a sort of Venezuelan Blackpool/Orlando. We had quite a hunt to find a hotel, when we did it was quite a pleasant place. We also found an excellent restaurant, "Pirata" on the Plaza Bolivar, however the town itself was something of a disappointment.
The beach looked like a cross between a demolition site and a council waste tip. Large signs forbade batheing due to pollution. The roads were black with oil, the air polluted.
Several shops had been burnt down in recent political unrest, half the population were engaged in looting them when we were there. We were informed that they belonged to some local politician who had upset the populace. There's something to be said about this way of dealing with politicians, we should adopt it in the UK I think. (Not a sign of the police.) We stood and rubbernecked for a while but all the excitement was over.
As gringos we were pretty prominent ourselves in Venezuela due to our pale complexions. However, completely outshining us came drifting down the street apparitions from another planet, The man was dressed in a white suit, black bow tie, white stetson hat and brandishing a large cigar. His attractive wife was clad like and escapee from "Vogue " magazine in a diaphanous green evening dress through which tantalising glimpses of expensive lingerie could be glimpsed. She wore a wide brimmed sun hat that oused taste and sophistication. (Some thing that eludes me altogether but I know it when I see it!) I just had to investigate, not that there was any doubt as to their origin.
They apparently considered themselves to be travelling incognito and were startled that had seen through their disguise. They had taken us for locals! I indicated that as international traveller and master of disguise myself, I had perceived a few slight pointers as to their nationality.
Apparently they had a yacht in the harbour and were startled as to the advance of decay in the town since their last visit. They were amazed that we had arrived by bus and had spent the last five weeks on buses travelling about Venezuela.
There were lots of junk food shops and gimcrack ornaments etc. Away from the seafront everywhere is really run down. It's a down market family holiday resort for the locals, but there's not much to do.
Venezuelan families wandered about disconsolately, I felt sorry for them, further up the coast are tropical paradise beaches which they presumably couldn't afford.
THE LAST GLIDING CLUB IN VENEZUELA.
We had been travelling about in Venezuela for four weeks. Just about every day looked like the best day you ever saw. I had previously looked on the internet for signs of gliding in Venezuela but come up with nothing. However at the Yutajé Jungle lodge a "fumigador" (Sp:- crop dusting pilot) told me of a gliding club at Altagracia de Orituco a small town about 100Km to the Southeast of Caracas close to the Serannia del Interior, the Northern mountain extension of the Andes. It's on Highway 11, towards Puerto la Cruz..
I decided that this warranted some serious research. No airport was marked on my maps. We caught the bus to Altagracia from Puerto la Cruz, a journey of about five hours, quite a scenic ride. I next day I questioned local taxi drivers and eventually found my way to the place, PLANEADORES ALTAGRACIA CA.
I was given a warm welcome by the members, several of which spoke English. They were astonished but pleased to have a visitor from the outside world. By a great stroke of luck I had arrived on an operational day, they only operate on alternate Saturdays. The club first started near the town of Maracay (home base of the Venezuelan Air Force) in 1953 and moved to its present site in 1986. By 1958 there were five gliding sites in Venezuela, now due to the recession there's now only the one. They have twenty members of which twelve are active. They stand entirely alone, being unable to afford the necessary bribe for affiliation with any external organisation. They have a Schweitzer 2-33A and a recently purchased K21 which is in need of major refurbishment. There are a couple of privately owned gliders including a Caproni Calif A21S. They also have a Tost winch which no-one except the CFI has ever seen in use, launches are achieved by means of a Cessna 182. They operate from a 900m tarmac government owned airstrip where they have built a hangar and toilet facilities.
The Chief Flying instructor, of 47 years standing, ie throughout the entire history of gliding in Venezuela, is one Jeromir Frolik of Czech descent. He is 75 years old and glider pilot for sixty years!
The life story of Jerome Frolik is a remarkable one. He arrived in London as an Olympic swimmer, absconded to the West, was repatriated (twice), escaped by swimming across lake Constance, was given a ticket to Venezuela and $10 by the Venezuelan embassy, met his wife to be on the boat to Venezuela, became a waiter in Caracas, met a Venezuelan Air Marshal and joined the Venezuelan airforce.
The club's president, treasurer, secretary and other instructor is Alberto Mangione. All the members live in Caracas.
Operations are carried out in a manner broadly similar to the UK. I flew with Jeromir, he's still on the ball! Although of the same vintage as K13s, the Schweitzer is vastly inferior in every respect except it's extremely tough and hard to break. Still it was good to be in the air again. The towplane could only manage 200ft/min. The poor old Schweitzer is dragged through the air at least 15 knots faster than it's happy at. Consequently the controls are heavy on tow, with the slow climb and the turbulent conditions the pilot needs muscle!
Thermals are easy to spot, the local Zamuro (vultures) mark them well and will not move over when you join them, indeed often closing in to get a better look. Several times we orbited with a dozen or more. As they could outperform the poor old Schweitzer in every respect there was no escape! Maintenance is a big problem, they have an Italian airframe technician who visits once a year. However if there was major damage to the Schweitzer, the club would be finished, there is no such thing as insurance for gliders in Venezuela and no-one who could carry out a major repair.
On a good day 15-20 knot thermals are not unknown with regular 10 knots. In spite of the proximity of the Andes, wave is unknown, the air is far too unstable and the prevailing wind is from the East. Enormous Cb can brew up very quickly, the main danger in these parts.
It's not the only danger in Venezuela, cross country flying has it's own peculiar dangers. The tropical days are short compared with our Summer days. There are no fields as we know them in Venezuela, landouts can only be safely made on highways and even then are hazardous. The surrounding country is pretty rugged. Away from roads the only access is likely to be on foot or on horse back, making retrieves difficult. There is also a chance of kidnap (for ransom), robbery or even murder. Few people attempt cross country flights for these reasons and if they do, sometimes carry weapons. The long drive back to Caracas has to be undertaken in the daylight. No-one dares to travel at night in these parts.
Venezuela is a popular eco-tourist destination these days, for Europeans it's very cheap and so are gliding costs. Travel to Altagracia is easy, it's a pleasant town with several comfortable hotels. The members of PLANEADORES ALTAGRACIA CA. could not have been more welcoming and courteous. They really were nice people with everything in Venezuela working against them. If you visit Venezuela there's no need to do without your "fix", visit them and give them your support!
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Having a couple of days spare we thought to re-acclimatise to European weather at this mountain resort close to Caracas. It's cool and really chilly by night. We made our way here by por puesto and taxi. The taxi driver hadn't been before, it reduced him to a quiver!
At one time this was a German colony, completely isolated from the rest of Venezuela. Now however there is nothing actually German. No food, no language, the features on the buildings are painted. They write things in fake Gothic script (you can tell it's fake because it can be read by non-Germans). But it's all the usual junk food. Lots of grimcrack ornament shops, but not selling any thing that even looks German. There's a frenzy of construction going on to take advantage of the Caracas tourist trade. They're ripping the cloud forest to pieces building nasty fake Black Forest houses. It was the only place we saw that looked prosperous in Venezuela.
At weekends the place is humming. Through the week however you can starve, the restaurants all close, on some days even in the hotels. Prices for hotels are sky high. Acting on information we recieved we stayed at the Cabaña Breidenbach Bs 20,000 for a double, con baño. It was really swish, the best place we stayed in Venezuela. It's probably the best value in town. It's above the town, 1km along the road in from La Victoria.
However as a little Germany, it was disappointing to an Englishman never mind a German. Oh! Some of the cars sported "D" plates!
We finished our journey in Caracas. This time we found ourselves a hotel in a much nicer area close to the Plaza Bolivar.
Suitable travel guide to read in conjunction with this account:- Lonely Planet "Venezuela".
Go to "Wild Macaws".
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