Rio Caroni, Bolivar, Venezuela
We were sitting around a glowing fire that heated our dinner and lit the amphitheater of jungle around us as we leaned back on boulders or pieces of fallen trees. It was Pedro Oliva, Ben Stookesberry, and me waiting for what we were hoping to be our final meal of tuna pasta. We struggled to make camp that day, and in some combination of effort, perception, and environment it seemed that we were as remote as I have ever been. We all began a life on the river in hopes of finding this, or something like it, and in this there is a strong bond between us, but there is the bond of our craft too, of the paddle. But it’s not just enjoyment and enthusiasm, or lifestyle; it is life itself.
We said goodbye to Andressa and cinematographers Daniel Quintela and Ronaldo Franco while loading 200 liters of gasoline into the motorized canoe, and I can’t imagine how they felt saying goodbye to the very last of the filming budget as we set off into the unknown. They certainly entrusted us with great responsibility to finish filming the show, but they made the Caroni dream come true for us when we needed it most. Before the trip, Ben showed me a stretch of river flowing through vast and untouched southern Venezuela. It was peppered with plenty of whitewater, but above all, access was going to include paddling “150 km”, which became our mantra early in the trip and kept us inspired to reach this end goal.
When we arrived at the first settlement of Pampatá-meru, it wasn’t just that 200 liters of fuel we rolled up the hill that made for a warm reception. According to Belisario, a local miner and tourist guide, it had been three years since the last tourist. Gold mining is certainly more lucrative than gringos, but Belisario is hoping that will eventually change, even constructing some small cabins and installing a satellite for internet. We were hoping that the 200 liters of fuel would be more of a bargaining piece, but it did little to lower the price of our next canoe leg.
Belisario had never actually visited the falls, but arranged for the only surviving guide, his father, to take us down in the communities largest canoe. It was a family affair with his three brothers joining us to help portage the 10 meter, solid wood canoe down the first rapids. They said that nobody had ever made the trip through the canyon, few had gone to the lip of the falls, and that we too should take the trail around. The high water, they warned us, was not ideal for a first descent. Three years since a tourist, and possibly a generation since anyone had traversed from this last beach to the next known settlement, about 40 km downstream, little could be said for certain what we were going into.
These upper reaches of the Rio Caroni flow through Canaima National Park, the second largest in Venezuela, and certainly one of the most isolated places on the continent. About 30km below Pampatá-meru are the falls of Eutobarima, a mystical and renowned falls where locals say the entire river flows under rocks and through a constriction less than a meter wide. Somewhat of a common happening, we arrived at the beginning of the falls in twice as much time as predicted by our Belisario. Are we getting soft out here, or just the first in a long time out here? It had rained for ten days straight and that morning, but the skies were clear and we all agreed it wasn’t going to rain. We all agreed that it was a crazy idea, but maybe just crazy enough to be right. We set camp just above water level, and woke to a calm morning, mist from the falls floating up the red wall across the river to shine on the trees and vines clinging in the cracks.
These first falls gave us an idea of what constricted whitewater would look like on the Caroni: massive. The river above had been wide with relatively low gradient, but here the forested banks steepened and transformed into sheer walls and bare rock banks where the river would peak during rainy season. It was supposed to be the dry season, but unusually wet weather had been pelting the upper watershed for weeks, and the flow was far from low. It made me wonder if we were in over our heads, but it was promising to be as good a measure of our own height as any. We used the scoured banks to reach the edge of the main falls of Eutobarima, where vision downstream was wholly occupied by a wall of mist and forested cliffs high above.
Did the river really go under rocks? The falls seemed to be ~35 meters from the top, and with the amount of water cascading from that height, it seemed unlikely, but with vision so limited there was really no way to tell. Places like this seem circular, cyclical, with so much mist rising above the height of the falls, linking the end to the beginning. I stood at the edge of the falls, a veritable abyss of rock and floating water, humbled by the immensity and mystery of the place. Life had brought us there, and it was as if this feeling would last forever, would outlast the falls and river and man. It was almost as if it would bring me along, as if I would outlast it all too. But it is a deceitful feeling that pulls us along through doubt and danger and joy, and we had to turn away and go toward the jungle to find a way around.
My machete was more of a blunt-impact tool and did little to clear a path for my 90 lb. kayak, but Ben’s clairvoyant downstream vision had us riverside and looking back up at the falls in short order. Paddling up toward the falls, we turned a corner to see a cavernous opening on river right. Hesitant to enter because we needed to make progress, and because it was dark and ominous, we slowly walked into the 30 meter tall entrance only to turn away with the echoing sound of what we could only imagine to be some mythical beast, some sphinx trapped in the dark. It slowed, and we entered again to find a deep, dripping cave with screeching bats and birds living in harmony in the dark. Neither were particularly happy to see us in their isolated cave, walking up the veritable mountain of droppings to get deeper, so we again turned downstream.
The river did not go calmly. It dropped violently in one continuous blur of class V+/VI, lacking eddies and plausible lines, forcing us to portage from nearly the first rapid. It was a true maelstrom that I would not recognize the true size of until two days later when we reached a point at which paddling long stretches became possible. For three days we paddled along the periphery of enormous and intimidating whitewater, rarely entering the main flow for fear of being swept out of control and over the next horizon. We made slow, but relatively safe progress walking around and over riverside boulders, passing any way we could. Occasionally relieved by manageable pieces of water where one massive rapid would end, we paddled the tumult until the next cascade. Many moments stand out from the Caroni, but the most conspicuous must be looking back up at these giant cascades falling from the sky and thinking that maybe it’s possible to run whitewater like this. Maybe one day someone will return to run the miles of continuous and unforgiving whitewater in this great natural cathedral.
The whitewater ended as it began, with the whole river falling into a constriction, fortunately one we could paddle through, then ran out through a canyon that seemed more Himalayan than anything. We were beckoned to the side of the river at the first small community below the canyon, and were welcomed with curiosity and termite pepper sauce and a drink of fermented yucca plant. Pemon is the indigenous language and only a few community members spoke Spanish, but their hospitality was universal. They helped arrange one final motor canoe ride to the next community with an airstrip, offering the only access to the region.
We owe a debt to all the givers and hospitable people along the way, not only on this trip, but on any and all adventures. People in these regions have not forgotten the art of hospitality, and even in the most challenging environment they take any opportunity to give. They will never write a blog or take a photo of their day-to-day, and we’ll likely never hear their stories, epic as they may be. But they have made many trips possible, and always more pleasurable. The Caroni experience and the people who helped along the way legitimized a whole trip, stamping on a huge exclamation point. We can see the river on a map, but there’s no guide to the experience out there. It validated every minute waiting for a camera, every grumbling about directions, and every mosquito bite along the way. From the massive whitewater to sitting in a fire-lit jungle cathedral to paddling next to my best friends, it was what we came for. A mystery, a sphinx, a real adventure.