It should have been easy, a quick boat trip and a short hike to the tallest waterfall in the world. In a group of 20 people guided by a professional….what could possibly go wrong? Here I was however, in the middle of the Venezuelan jungle with 4 other people, in the pitch black, stumbling along with no flashlight, tripping over jungle foliage, wading through waist deep primordial sludge with no idea where I was going and a flash flood imminent.
Two days after Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s venerable leader declared President George Bush was “El Diablo” (The Devil) to the United Nations, my girlfriend and I flew to Caracas to embark on an eco trip. We’d stay in Caracas overnight then catch a couple of short flights inland to Canaima, a small village used by people traveling further into the jungle as a staging post. Everything went well and as we climbed into the dugout at Canaima, it seemed we were in for a nice leisurely trip up the river.
The river was low, forcing us to get out and pull the dugout through most of the rapids. This slowed us down and as we arrived at the base of thetepui, the plateau on which Angle Falls cascades down more than 3000 feet, the sun was low in the sky. Although the guide wanted to keep our group of 20 people together, a small group of European tourists decided to try to make it to the top of the hill so that we didn’t have to get up at 4 o’clock the next morning to make the 2 mile trek to the base of Angel Falls. I have extensive jungle experience and mentioned this was not a good idea but the others overruled me and so up the hill we trudged. I brought up the rear to help anyone who lagged behind so a small group of us arrived at the base of the falls last to find the Europeans already returning downhill. They had seen the magnificent falls for a couple of minutes, taken a few photographs and decided to get back to the dugout and across the river to the camp before sunset. This left my girlfriend and I with another couple and the guide, who stayed behind with us.
After viewing the falls for a few minutes, we decided to return downhill to the dugouts and the camp. The sky darkened very quickly. In the jungle, one minute its daylight, the next you are in pitch-black darkness under the tree canopy with no moonlight. After 15 minutes of hiking, we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. The guide assured us he knew where to go but after a few minutes I could tell he was unsure of the route. I checked the compass on my watch and it turns out he was leading us in the opposite direction from the camp. My Suunto watch has a compass, barometer, thermometer, and an altimeter as well as all the usual functions. Luckily and for no particular reason other than habit, I had taken a compass bearing when we left the dugouts and again when we arrived at the base of the falls and therefore knew in which direction we should be traveling.
With 4 people following me, I moved excruciatingly slowly back up the trail, working by feel alone and the intermittent use of my watch light. We were slipping in the mud, wading through waist deep swamps in the dark and stumbling over rocks, logs and tree roots. In the lead, I was constantly walking through huge spider webs and had insects and leeches crawling all over me. One in the group had new boots and large blisters developed, almost crippling her. I checked my watch’s barometer and saw we had a storm moving in quickly. We had to move faster to get across the dry riverbed that we had crossed earlier. At this point we were covered in mud and completely lost, banging our shins on tree roots and hitting our heads on overhanging limbs. Although we were heading generally in the right direction, we could miss our camp by 30 feet and never find it. At any moment, any one of us could have slipped and fallen down and ravine or been bitten by a venomous snake. The women were scared, crying and wanted to stop and rest but I knew we had to keep moving along these little used trails.
Arriving at the dry riverbed, the guide suggested we follow it because it would eventually lead us to the river and back to the dugouts. That’s when it started to rain hard. The rain fell in torrents, the likes of which we had never seen. I argued with the guide, telling him we needed to get away from the riverbed in case of a flash flood. After an argument, he conceded and we quickly crossed to the other side. Just as we reached the far bank, a huge wall of water came rushing down the riverbed, carrying logs and boulders along with it. We would have been swept away and killed instantly. Having escaped death by seconds, I used the light of my watch less sparingly now, not caring if I depleted the battery. I could tell we were at a lower altitude than when we had first realized we were lost but we were still a long way from where we needed to be.
For another 2 hours we trekked through the winding unused jungle paths, using my watch to light the way and maintain a bearing in the general direction of the camp. Eventually we came to the river near the dugouts and managed to see them on the other side of the river. Shining my watch light, whistling loudly and screaming, we managed to get the attention of another guide, who brought a dugout across the fast moving river to pick us up and bring us back to camp.
That night, sitting round the campfire drying our clothes and warming ourselves, one of the guides told us of a young couple who had become lost nearby in a similar way. They had fallen down a ravine. The fall didn’t kill them; they perished after lying injured and unable to move in the jungle for days. Nobody had been able to find them.