Friday, March 10, 2006

Where the snakes are 

Contrary to popular perception not all Venezuelan reptiles live in eastern Caracas. As this British reporter found out there are some to be found in the interior of the country (but of course, of a more benign type):

It can't be much fun being Eunectes murinus. When she's not being eyed up as a supplier of next autumn's range of handbags, the poor anaconda is being 'papped' by macho tourists hoping she'll play a cameo role in their holiday snaps. No wonder they have a notoriously nasty temper, especially with tourists and scary animals getting increasingly cosy these days.

When I was 10, the apex of adventure was the sticker on my dad's Cortina: 'We've seen the lions of Longleat!' Nowadays, every tourist tickles tarantulas, apparently.

But snakes are different. The green anaconda (right) averages about six metres in length and, at up to a record 545kg, weighs as much as 10 men. The longest recorded example was shot in Brazil, in 1960, and measured just under eight-and-a-half metres. I was told to pack a wide-angle lens and leave the grappling bit to the guides.

We're climbing the forest trail to the Angel Falls, in Canaima National Park, which is every travel agent's suggested serving of Venezuela. And quite right too: at 16 times the height of Niagara Falls, your first sighting of the world's tallest water chute is a moment of true skin-prickling excitement.

But with no convenient highway for hundreds of kilometres, the Angel Falls are no easy thrill. Once you've made the two-hour flight from Caracas southeast to Canaima, the popular cop-out is to bag a 45-minute fly-by photo opportunity. Arguably, that's a logical approach, given that the falls are named after Jimmie Angel, a prospecting nutcase who landed a light plane on the summit in 1936. The plane sank in a bog and he had to make the near-vertical descent on foot. His wife, who'd unfortunately jumped in for the ride, was presumably not impressed: it took them 15 days to get back to civilisation.

I chose a different route: a 4.30am-start, a four-hour canoe ride, a two-hour mountain trek, the whole shebang again in reverse and, come nightfall, legs like Bambi. It reads like a menu of misery, but I had been promised that it would be a much more meaningful option than flying. And to satisfy my own peculiar fixation, there was a chance of my first snake encounter.

Anacondas, it turns out, are rather partial to deer, but anything warm-blooded will do. Antonio reveals the fang-shaped scars on his arms and hands. He wears them like medals; they are proof of past skirmishes where camera-wielding visitors got lucky. This particular brand of boa's predigestive technique is to deck you with a hammer blow and then, while you're thinking, 'Now, where did I pack that antihistamine?', loop you in its infamous death curl. From there on, there's no violence. It merely tightens each time you exhale, like some horribly misunderstood lover. When you've stopped breathing, but are still technically alive, it unhooks its jaws and eats you. Headfirst.

Only two tourists have died on this journey in the past few years - thankfully (maybe) from heart failure. It's certainly not quite business-class, piloting a coccyx-coshing 65km through white-knuckle rapids and on through two tributary rivers of the Orinoco. Deep in the Devil's Canyon, a sweat-bath climb through the forest awaits, your goal being the point at which the water from the falls, most of it vaporised, lands on the mountain's partially exposed midriff. Worst of all, you don't even get knives and forks with your lunch.

What you do get is a moment of heady exhilaration. 'Look up there,' Antonio laughs. I shield my eyes from the sun and marvel at the waterfall's absurd height. 'No!' he urges, 'Up there.' Silly me: the true summit looms higher still, well above the cloud layer. I'm so amazed, I can no longer feel my aching feet.

For full-on ophidiophobia, I was told to fly back to Caracas and switch Cessnas, heading southwest for Venezuela's Los Llanos flood plain. While Canaima has anacondas, Los Llanos is anacondas.

On the map, the journey looks simple enough, but be warned: while not quite totally run on the traditional mañana principle, Venezuelan domestic flight timetables are operated in apparent secrecy and, for the most part, characterised by prolonged periods of inactivity punctuated by intermittent spells of things nearly happening.

The vast Llanos flood plain has a rainfall chart that makes Manchester look arid. With 1.5m of rain per annum and temperatures that can soar to 54ºC, its flora and fauna have gone into biological hyperdrive. On my first night at the Hato El Cedral ranch, a four-hour taxi ride from Barinas airport, I counted three different types of cricket, two rare spiders and a translucent frog. All in my shower tray. This is a bug-eat-tourist world, where ugly nocturnal dragonflies slide casually down the back of your neck while any square centimetre of untreated skin is instantly and ruthlessly located by mossies and midges.

But, boy, it's exciting. On this ranch alone, some 20,000 cattle jostle for space among 14,000 capybaras (giant rodents), more than 250 bird species and 2,000 crocodiles - some of them car-sized Orinocos. But I'm here for the snakes. For our first morning's hunt, Alex Nagy, the ranch's wildlife expert, shows me his special anaconda-rousing equipment: a pair of Hunter wellies and a stout stick. We drive out along one of the levees that radiate from the farm and stop at a point where he's recently spotted anacondas sidling up to a capybara and her plump clutch of young.

There's no mystery to it. He wades out into the marshland and starts probing. I watch from dry land, berating my phrase book's absence of a neat translation for that strangely appropriate Dad's Army line, 'They don't like it up 'em'.

But really, they don't. An hour's probing later, something hisses among the water hyacinths. Alex waits as it heads away from the bank and, dropping his stick, grabs the disappearing tail, dragging the beast onto dry land. Ramon, his assistant, goes for the head and, approaching from outside its field of vision, pounces on the powerful jaw muscles. Not wanting to spoil my walking boots, I wait at a reasonable distance and fumble with my B&Q tape measure. Between us, we have a go at getting a rough measurement, but the wretched tape runs out at 3m. It's hard to tell with the thing wriggling around, but there's at least another metre to go.

Still, it's all the convincing I need. Alex says one measuring 5.5m on the slither scale was recorded just days ago. It took three men to hold it down, so I'm glad it's not the same one. At the given command, they jump away and 'my' anaconda slopes back into the muddy water. In all the commotion, I realise I have failed again as a true tourist - my camera is still sitting in the truck. But I console myself with the thought that the scariest things are always slightly off-camera. And I'm happy. After all, I'm the one that got away.

Now, I hope this doesn't deter anyone from visiting Venezuela. I've been all over the Gran Sabana and many other parts of Venezuelas countryside and have yet to run into any anacondas. And anyways I don't think they are all that dangerous as long as you keep your distance.

Running into opposition supporters is unfortunately a ver real risk and can be quiet a traumatic, if not outright dangerous experience. Here are some tips for avoiding them:

1) In Caracas do not go east of the Chacaoito metro station

2) When traveling within Venezuela go by bus, not plane - airports tend to be crawling with them

3) Do not even think of getting into political convesations with store owners. They are so blinded with hatred towards Chavez due to his tax collection efforts they become very belligerent.

4) Do not travel to Margarita and DEFINITELY do not go to Los Roques.

Follow these basic precautions and you should be fine.


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