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Delta Days - Julie Vaughan

Her foot touched my finger. Lightly, almost imperceptibly. She withdrew, turned slightly and patted my finger again. Then she gingerly climbed aboard the back of my hand, strolled across and deftly stepped off the other side. What surprised me was how featherlight the spider was. As soon as contact had been made, my fear and reluctance melted away and turned to fascination.

The reddy-brown tarantula lives with its friends among the overlapping palm leaves rising inexorably to the ridge of the great roof that encompasses the Delta Orinoco Lodge. The lofty space below is filled with rustic furniture, potted banana trees and, at meal times, the chatter of visitors of many nationalities. The hall was built with the help of local villagers in only 45 days despite its great size.

The locals are Warao indians of the El Guamal community. The simple palm-thatched adobe houses, of which Delta Orinoco Lodge is a magnified echo, stretch along this branch of the Caño Mánamo river, the principal channel forming the western side of the upper Orinoco Delta. The Caño Mánamo flows 110 km north before emptying into the Atlantic at the Golfo de Paria on Venezuela's north-eastern shoreline.

We paddled our canoe past the Warao's huts and into a side channel. Water pineapples balanced on long thin stems rising from the surface of the water. The Warao use these, cooked, as fish bait. The piranas were more interested in meat. We fished a few from the otherwise still waters and were careful with our toes as they flopped around in the base of the boat. More often than not the hooks came up clean, stripped of the bait we'd carefully threaded onto them, cheated of the voracious fish congregating around us.

With a setting sun we made our way back to the lodge. Fires were dotted along the bank - the indians were cooking supper. Their staple is a type of pan baked bread made from grated yucca roots. A cake of drained shreds is pressed into the base of a pot, baked over a fire and the resulting bread set aside for daily consumption. The Venezuelan authorities provide the Warao with additional food intended for the children. When had arrived earlier that Saturday afternoon, balancing with difficulty across a bridge made from a crooked log, a large pot was steaming. It contained a chicken and yam stew. We shared some. The less than robust metal spoon had difficulty maintaining its posture as I attacked the yam, sticky and dense. The children were well-behaved. A plastic doll lay face down, akimbo in the dirt. Mothers in floral cotton dresses sat in the shade with babies on their laps.

Many of the small children attend the school sponsored by Tucupita Expeditions. There are around 22 regular students who are taught from 7:30 am to around 1 pm, when the boat turns up to ferry them to their riverside homes. There are also a number of transient students whose families come and go. A young woman from Tucupita, the capital of the province, is their teacher. The pupils arranged themselves along the bank as we chatted to her. They were more interested in 2 little girls in our boat coming home for the weekend from school in Tucupita than in the nosy westerners. There was a single classroom with a blackboard and chairs when we visited. Tucupita Expeditions are in the course of building a new larger schoolhouse across the river. Visitors to Delta Orinoco Lodge have the chance to contribute to the school's upkeep.

It was twilight when we returned to the lodge from our fishing trip, guided by the oil lamps lighting the wooden boardwalks between the lodge and individual cabins. The cabins are simple but comfortable, open on all sides but screened with full mosquito netting, each with shower and toilet. In the full moon which rose that night, the palms behind our cabin took on unnatural forms but to the front the river lay shining through the A-frame, palm-fringed silhouette of the cabin. The river is tidal, changing direction throughout the day. The same water hyacinth sliding one way at daybreak and gliding back by lunch, retracing its steps by dinner.

The full moon was out the following night too over the Simoina Camp. This is also a creation of Tucupita Expeditions. It is set deeper into the jungle interior of the delta, north along the Manamo, not far inland from the Atlantic skirting the delta's radius. At Simoina there is peace and tranquillity in abundance. The smoked glass waters of this "black" river reflect the piano player's fingers of the mangroves, stretching downwards. Scarlet dragonflies perch on aerial roots. Leaves lining the riverbed appear in shades of chocolate orange and ruby.

Paddling, we pushed our way along the jungle by-ways until they became so shallow that we could proceed no further. On foot we inspected medicinal plants and the red sap of the balsa tree whose buttress roots are struck with the blade of a machete to convey messages through the jungle fortress. Termites squirmed when their nests were disturbed - small and brown, not fat and white as I'd imagined. The old adage that there's no smoke without fire proved totally untrue as our guides rubbed palm wood sticks together, generated wafts of smoke but no flames. It was clear though that with perseverance, blowing the glowing fibres gently and keeping up the friction of one piece of dry wood against the other, a fire could be conjured into being.

Climbing coconut palms is not for the faint hearted. It's not the fear of shimmying up the smooth sweeping trunks, hands flattened against its sides, soles of feet too. It's rather the descent - a slide from a great height. We tried. The technique is, it seemed to us, to keep as upright as possible, allowing the weight to pass down through hips and knees onto skewed angles and feet in full contact with the trunk, and to avoid hugging the trunk for all you're worth. Having got no more than 2 metres up, we decided to save our souls and contented ourselves instead with gathering up the fallen nuts and loading them into the canoe.

The Warao of the delta are expert basket and hammock makers. Their raw materials grow all around them: cane and the leaves of the moriche palm, the indians' 'tree of life'. The moriche has a number of uses - its orange fruits the indians submerge in water, allow to mature and squeeze to form a drink. The fibrous coating of its leaves is stripped away from the green centre with a folding and flicking motion acquired through much practice. The strands of off-white fibre are then boiled, washed in the river and rolled by the women along their thighs (which fortunately are hairless) until a cord is formed. These cords are woven together into a mesh of great elasticity to form their hammocks, draped from beam to beam.

The neighbouring family was due to give us a musical demonstration. They play a sort of water pipe. Unluckily, we never did get to hear them in action since most members of the family, including the musicians, had decamped to the nearest medical assistance suffering from stomach trouble. Indian children often suffer from poor kidney function brought on by the cold on their backs, unprotected as they lay in their hammocks. Fortunately, so I was told, it can be easily cured by warming.

The temperature does drop at night. If you go, take a fleece in which to ensconce yourself in your hammock. Hammock sleeping requires a little acclimatisation. Momentarily, upon lying back, I felt the disorientation of drunkenness or small boats, usually presaging sea sickness. I mused whether sailors of old were doubly hardy individuals to sleep in hammocks on board ship, or whether the two sets of swaying motion counterbalance and neutralise the effect on one's stomach. The swaying soon subsided, however. Being a person who naturally sleeps on my front, I thought this experience would be a form of tortur, a taste of what it must be like to be unable to turn over in the late stages of pregnancy perhaps. The hammock holds you in its jaws but it's up to you to set those jaws by the spot at which your bottom lands in the net and the angle at which you sprawl across it. The tip from the locals is to lie slightly at an angle rather than in a direct line end to end. This seemed to work and to my great surpise I slept soundly, waking to find the mist rising off the river and a boat to drag me back to reality.

Julie Vaughan
Tel/fax: +(44)020 86753939
Email: roadfrommandalay@yahoo.co.uk


Orinoco or Bust - by Joe Aston

'Anna M' is anchored at last in a quiet stretch of water some 70 kilometers from the sea, among the many thousands of kilometers of water-ways threading intricately through tropical rain-forest that comprise the Orinoco Delta of Venezuela. It is the rainy season, and as I begin this story, the heat of the day has exploded into thunder and lashing rain. It is a strange story, how I have come to be here, instead of back in Ireland after the Spring’s expedition following whales to the Cape Verde Islands.

The story begins on the 25th May, a Sunday afternoon when we were taking some r & r at Foxy’s Wooden Boat Regatta, starting a light-hearted race at Jost Van Dyke Island in the British Virgin Islands. As we roared off to a good start with other boats in hot pursuit on each quarter, all on the starboard tack, another elderly schooner tacked in front of us. The ‘Windolee’ was trying to duck round our stern, but some trouble with a running stay prevented her from easing her main boom so that she could pay off. There was absolutely nothing I could do to avoid collision, and I watched, paralyzed with horror, expecting her hefty bow-sprit to crash into the ‘Anna M’s hull; but a wave just lifted it sufficiently to clear the deck, and only to break itself and the force of the collision as it smashed our rail and life-line.

The damage, though considerable, was not of a serious structural nature. Rob and Roxanne of the ‘Windolee’ were full of apologies, and urged us to come back with them to Benner Bay on St Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Isles, where they would make good the damage as quickly as possible at the Independent Boat Yard. So I was introduced to the Lagoonies, a little tribe of yachties who have found work in those parts, live aboard their boats about the lagoon there, with a strong social life centering on a couple of dock-side bars. This was grand, but the work dock in the heart of the lagoon where the mosquitoes thrive by night and the sun beats down by day is not the most pleasant of spots, and the arrangement of bits of wood into the beautiful form of a boat takes time. Myself and the crew went home to Ireland.

They had summer jobs lined up. I was back after 3 weeks when most of the work was done, though a week’s footering remained. It was June 30th when ‘Anna M’ was finally ready again. Now the received wisdom is that one should undertake the sometimes stormy passage from the Caribbean to the Azores in May or June, so as to arrive in Horta before the beginning of the hurricane season and the month of July. Besides which, there had been some other developments while I was at home, the most remarkable being that I had made contact through the internet with a certain Anthony who runs eco-tours in the Orinoco Delta. You may see more for yourself at . Considering my options, I thought that there might be an opening to work with him, bringing adventurous types from Trinidad to connect with his expeditions. Anthony had responded enthusiastically.

At this stage my funds were very low, so the only option was to head south as quickly as possible. Scouting for a crew among the Lagoonies, the only person who was interested in being my ship-mate was a girl called Andrea, who had been aboard the ‘Windolee’ when she hit us, and had rather fallen for the ‘Anna M’, whatever about her skipper. Anyway she understood my project and liked it, and we set sail together on the wind-ward slog to Antigua, through strong winds from a ‘tropical disturbance’ that delayed us for 2 days in Guadaloupe while it decided whether or not to develop into a hurricane, and then on by easier stages to Trinidad. Escorted by bottlenose dolphins in the light of a full moon, we raised the dramatic northern entrance to the Gulf of Paria, and after 2 nights in Chaguaramas were on our way across it to the Orinoco Delta.

Sailing those last 45 miles, one crosses also a very much bigger gulf. In Chaguaramas, one has an excellent dock with every facility of the modern world, to the highest of standards. The same modern world is still with you, in the form of some massive flaring oil wells, when you reach Pedernales; but humanly one is in an utterly different world. This is where Columbus finally, on his third voyage, hit the South American continent, concluding he had done so by the huge amount of fresh water emptying into the sea; too much, he realized, to be coming from yet another island. That was a black day for this continent, in the opinion of my new friend Anthony, who now boarded the ‘Anna M’ from a fiberglass skiff powered by two big out-boards.

Everything moves by outboard around Pedernales; there is no road to the place except the rivers. Not a car to be seen, only an out-board engine workshop on the wooden quay-side. So Anthony began to tell me of the Orinoco and its people, the Warao, which means the ‘Canoe People’, for they live constantly plying the waters of the Delta in their dug-out canoes. It is they who gave the name to the mighty river that sustains them, which means ‘Father of our Country’.

Here there are thousands of kilometers of waterways, threading through dense tropical rain forest. This northern part of the Delta has been somewhat tamed, by a massive dam which controls the flow of the river here. This had the advantage for the Warao that their homes did not have to built on high stilts any more, as they still do in the southern part of the Delta; they do not have the same floods to contend with. It has the advantage for cattle ranchers that large areas of forest could be cleared and the land drained. But who considered that the salt water would invade much more of the fresh water delta, and it is this upon which the Warao primarily depend, so that the changing of the habitat drove the Warao up-river, while there the cattle ranchers were impinging? Or who considered that without the floods to clear the channels, many of them would become choked with water hyacinth?

Those who power around the Caribbean in massive sleek speed boats, or choke every town in the developed world with large tin boxes belching fumes that are poisoning the planet, who consume and destroy everything in sight, tend to think they are more important than primitive people whose house is a roof of thatch on a structure of poles, whose principal technology is a dug-out canoe. They’re the guys who reckon to call the shots. But I am inclined to agree with Anthony that we might try reminding them, they don’t even appear to be happy, like the smiling Warao children who play so gracefully in their canoes. We might just also rise to saying, that if you guys reckon to go on smashing and grabbing to have your way, you’ll have to do it over our dead bodies!

But to get back to our story, I was bursting with curiosity to find out about the guy who was boarding my boat in Pedernales. He had very good English and he seemed like a North American; but as we all know, they are a very mixed bag indeed, which for me is a large part of the appeal of the place. As a Catholic, I am committed to the concept of a single human community, and cannot but regard the USA as something of a vanguard for this community, for all its and Columbus’ and my own and everyone else’s sins. We Catholics are after all not bad at recognizing some at least of our sins. But where on earth could this Anthony be coming from?

The answer emerged from his stories as a little boy cowering from bombs in Jerusalem and Amman. His roots are Palestinian and Muslim. Well, that’s fine by me; this is a great time for all those who really respect this planet, and value all its entire human and spiritual heritage, to show solidarity together. So anyway, Anthony left us a guide and zoomed off with his two big Yamahas, while the ‘Anna M’ followed gently under sail, till the wind failed and Mr Perkins had to do most of the work. Miles and miles of dense jungle slid past, humming and vibrating with the sounds of frogs and crickets, bedecked with many birds that I’ve never seen before, parrots and scarlet cranes and kites, with butterflies and dragon-flies. In the jungle live jaguars and pumas and monkeys, and in the river there are 2 dolphins species and also manatee besides the many fish, tarpon and cat-fish.

It was two in the afternoon, when we left Pedernales with the turn of the tide. In the dark we still went on, the river lit by frequent lightening. I heard an indignant snort from a dolphin who evidently did not appreciate our disturbance of his snoozes. Finally the way was more and more clogged with great rafts of water hyacinth, and we decided to rest for a couple of hours, till the moon would come up. On we went, till tiredness got the better of me as the tide turned and our progress became painfully slow. Another rest, a last effort in the morning, and at last we came to ‘El Campamento’.

So here Anthony and his brother Hani have been entertaining us at their beautiful lodge. Like the Indian houses, it consists of a palm-thatch roof on a structure of poles, though it is on a much grander scale, the centre ridge about 40 feet (11 meters) high. Below is a huge tiled floor some 40 yards long by 20 wide. At one end is a bar, at the other a kitchen, and in between there are clusters of comfortable chairs, or long tables with hard wooden ones, and verdant plants spreading broad leaves between them. As I have sat at Anthony’s lap-top to write this, a monkey has joined me to investigate, a vivid blue and yellow parrot has squawked the odd comment behind me, a few bugs have bitten me, and a cool breeze off the river has cooled me.

The house looks out on a broad wooden landing stage that runs its full length. On it a few dogs, a jaguar and a giant otter disport themselves. Beyond it is the river, and the ‘Anna M’ lying peacefully at anchor, and the bright tangle of trees beyond. Andrea has been dividing her time between fascinating the Indians with our little sailing dinghy and trying their canoes. We have been making our plans with Anthony and Hani. In a couple of days we shall go back down the river, and cross the Gulf again to Chaguaramas, and seriously set about looking for clients for our joint expeditions, from Chaguaramas to the Orinoco. I would like you to come, experience the beauty for yourself, and make another little statement about how you value our beautiful world.

Joe Aston
Orinoco Lodge, 7/18/2003
svannam@eircom.net


From Elizabeth Kline's Book "Guide to Camps, Posadas and Cabins": Orinoco Delta Lodge

By reservation only.

Continuing past Ubanoko (see above) on Caño Manamo, this facility built by Tucupita Expeditions is found on Caño Guamal, just some 300 m. off of the Manamo, + 1,5 hours from Tucupita by fast boat.\

Since its inauguration in 1993, this camp has grown tremendously, expanding from an extremely rustic, small facility with just one large churuata with open space to hang hammocks, separate bathroom some distance away, and a cozy dining-social area… to the largest and most appealing in the delta.

There are currently 37 individual cabañas (each with 2-3 single beds and private bath). The design of the cabins is particularly handsome: exterior walls with wooden base about 1 m high, then screening to the roof all the way around to allow breeze, light, the enjoyment of sounds of the jungle. However, privacy is created by the shaggy palm roof with an extremely long overhang to block the view of passersby into the cabin. Likewise, the bathroom area is separated by a solid interior wall on two sides, lined with ceramic tile on the inside. Good thick mattresses. Pretty matching sheets. Large towels.

Always introducing creative changes, the founder-director-architect of the camp, Anthony Tahbou, is in the process of progressively replacing all of the cabins with a new design with cantilevered (rather than vertical) exterior walls (still with same combination of solid bottom and screen above, but giving the spacious rooms an even larger feel, and roof still of palm but with a more typically of Warao design. Designs painted on the wood floors add another appealing touch. He also replaced the former main social building with a truly spectacular enormous new palafito on the shore line with dining-social area, kitchen, and bar under, palm roof reaching a height equivalent to + 3 stories. This also has cantilevered walls and the interior spaces is subtly divided, by container with live banana trees and other plants into different spaces to give visitors many areas for seating, reading (there is a library with magazines and books in various languages), talking, connected to it is an extensive deck area with a built-in tables and benches (great for watching the amazing every-six-hours about face of the flow of the river-due to the ocean tides and rapid movements of floating bora (water hyacinth with showy purple flowers)… or by night, for star gazing. All the structures are joined by a network of elevated plank walkways and lined with kerosene torches to light the way by night. There is electricity in the cabins provided by generator from sunset to + 11 Pm Grounds have been beautifully landscaped with jungle plants.

By far, the best food I have eaten at any camp in Venezuela-and even among most restaurants. A great variety of menus that are not in any way the routine received at the majority of camps (which all seem to be stuck on a plain fried chicken or fish, served with rice and grated cabbage and carrots salad or spaghetti with some tasteless sauce devoid of spices). Just as an idea, even at the "rustic camp" of Simoina, a delectable "perico" (scrambled eggs with unions, sweet peppers) made with fresh shrimp was the feature for one breakfast (light years beyond expectations); in the main camp, beef with a delicious wine sauce, sweet and sour chicken…always with a different salad and vegetables, or perhaps sautéed potatoes with unions… and addictive freshly-made hot bread with every meal (even in the rustic camp), hats off to them for realizing the importance of visually appealing, varied, and tasty meals-even un a camp!!

Fauna abounds (where the songs of the birds and the unique sounds of howler monkeys serve as the morning wake-up call) in the surrounding area and they have acquired a number of "pets" which were baby animals found orphaned that they raised and which come and go as they please and live a natural life in the jungle and caños (including hunting for their own food now), but are tame around people (and constantly roam freely through the social area) due to their having been raised with love by humans. These include 3 nutria and a beautiful ocelot. There is also a cougar in a huge caged natural environment (since he IS dangerous!) and a giant anteater ("Oso" was roaming free when I was there in 7/2000, but they were planning on building a large corral for him-where he could live naturally and visitors could observe him, but he would be contained-since he was beginning to destroy the upholstered furniture with his powerful claws which could present possible danger to guests).

They have their own fleet of boats with new powerful motors to be able to move up to 120 people at a time (for this reason, coupled with the capacity/quality of their lodging, along with regular tourists, they have frequently served as the based companies making films in the delta and the scientific expeditions).

Another interesting alternative is to combine a stay at the main lodge with several days in their Simoina Camp; a very rustic (but thoroughly charming and comfortable) option beside a remote caño in the northern part of the delta. A series of palafito modules (a large one for the social/dining area, one for sleeping, the kitchen and the bathroom-with just toilets and sink; bathing is in the caño) joined by elevated boardwalks with; cap. for 20 in hammocks (recommended for of 2-5 days to enjoy a variety of excursions, min. 6 pax).

English, Arabic, Dutch, German, and Italian spoken.
Special discount for backpackers.
Price includes: transfer Tucupita-Camp-Tucupita, all meals, local tours.
NOT included, but available separately: alcoholic beverages, softdrinks.

Definitely the most attractive camp in the delta! Day tours to the main camp and Simoina are also available from Margarita.

Note: I fully expected to be swarmed with mosquitoes, especially with my visit in the rainy season. But, this was not the case! Even on a jungle trek and a night excursion by curiara in one of the tiny caños, there were virtually no nasty biting insects. Nevertheless, using repellent is still wise. Recommended cash or confirmable checks only.