British Universities Kayak Expedition (2011)
Story and photos by Robert Moffatt
Paddlers: Jonny Hawkins, Sandra Hyslop, Joe Rea-Dickins, Arthur Norton, Sam Sawday,
The Paddler ezine Oct 2012: http://joom.ag/H48X/p36
I awoke to the sound of raindrops hitting the tarp above my head, the rushing sound of the river nearby and the incessant background noise of the jungle all around me. Under many circumstances this would be a lovely start to the day. Not so this day. This was day four in our small campsite shoehorned into a space we had cleared in the jungle with our machete. This was the day that we would run out of food!
Joe Rea-Dickins, Salto Aponguilao
As the team for the British Universities Kayak Expedition to Venezuela we had so far enjoyed a great two weeks paddling and exploring the steep mountainous rivers of the far north eastern tip of the Andes. Our journey began in a car park at the airport in Caracas, exchanging large amounts of 20 and 50 Euro notes on the black market for an even larger amount of Bolivars. Spiralling inflation and a lack of confidence in the Chavez regime has led to a healthy illegal trade in foreign currency which will see you earn almost twice as much local dinero compared to using an ATM. Having been forewarned of the dangers of Caracas we were understandably a little nervous at one by one stepping out of sight with a ‘security official’ to hand over large amounts of cash, fortunately he turned out (as we soon learnt was typical of many Venezuelans) to be entirely honest and happy to do business. Cash in hand it was time to load up our Land Cruiser and make a break for the mountains.
Our first stop was the rafting centre on the Rios Siniguise and Acequias near Barinas. Catering to a growing contingent of Venezuelans in Caracas and other major cities wishing to experience the thrills (and spills) of the river, several rafting companies have set up base along the river. Spending a few nights with the local raft guides provided us a great source of information, food and hospitality as well as some excellent sections to warm up on. Not that everything ran smoothly; it was only day two when we found ourselves having our first epic – walking out through dense jungle for 10km in the dark, after torrential rain caused the river to rise by four metres in just 15 minutes!
One of our main objectives for the first part of the expedition was to complete the first descent of the Upper Aricagua before the second descent of the lower sections. After driving up and down the valley and gathering wisdom from the locals, we came to the conclusion that the only route to the river was down a narrow, steep and rocky tributary. The remainder of that day was spent scraping over rocks, portaging through the dense jungle and roping down steeper sections in what resembled a canyoning expedition with heavily loaded kayaks in tow rather than a kayaking expedition. As night began to draw in we had covered only 300m and were faced with what appeared to be an even steeper section ahead of us. Ten minutes of ‘light pruning’ with a machete (running around like maniacs, hacking away at the undergrowth) provided us with a small patch of jungle in which to hammock up for the night, unsure of the scale of the task that awaited us the following day.
After a fitful sleep and a quick scout of our surroundings we realised what we were up against. Downstream the river entered a steep gorge, which we couldn’t scout, where the ground was too steep to portage and the river unpaddleable. Unable to continue downstream, and unable to hike up to the road we were left with one option – retrace our route. If the previous day had felt like hard work, what we were faced with now was a colossal challenge – canyoning upstream is hard work, doing it with six heavily laden creek boats is soul destroying. After a long day, we had made it back to the road bridge, with just enough energy and time left to swing wildly (though somewhat less enthusiastically than the previous night) at the jungle to clear another campsite. Having used the satellite phone to leave a message with our driver and guide, Ulysses and Roque, we were confident of being picked up in the morning, ready for a beer and a good dinner.
Jonny Hawkins, Yurani rapids
The nights are pitch black under the jungle canopy and, given our proximity to the equator, indefinitely long, but when the morning eventually arrived there was no message on the sat phone, and no sign of our driver. As the day drew on we tired of checking for messages and, having spent most of the day in our hammocks sheltering from the cold incessant rain, the novelty was beginning to wear off – we were cold, hungry and everything was thoroughly damp. Sandra’s 21st birthday came and went and we were still stuck in our small campsite in the jungle, living off the supplies we’d bought for the river trip, hypothesizing as to why we weren’t being rescued.
In all we spent four days waiting for salvation, but eventually Roque did return. It wasn’t until we had failed to show up at the take out after three days as prearranged that Ulysses and Roque began to worry and drove back up the river a short way to get phone signal. Completely unaware of our situation they had been living by a lake, drinking bootleg liquor and waiting for us to show up!
Sandra Hyslop, Yurani rapids
Once recovered from our jungle ordeal, we were again able to explore some of the rivers of the Andes, recording at least a couple of second descents including a return to the Aricagua to complete the second descent of the lower sections. As we were promised by the first descent team, we encountered continuous white water, surrounded by jungle and with two committing gorge sections to keep us on our toes. The upper section still awaits its first descent, and if it’s anything like the lower section, the lucky paddlers will be in for a treat!
Following on from our month in the Andean states of Barinas and Merida, we headed to the Orinoco for a week playing on the big volume (30,000 cumecs!) rapids and waves where we nearly commandeered an old Soviet era military helicopter for filming purposes. From here we drove east to the Gran Sabana in search of waterfalls and finally to the beach to enjoy the Pacific surf for the last few days before most of the team flew home. In all we spent two months in Venezuela, a country beset with political problems and security issues. All that we experienced was the generosity of the many Venezuelans who welcomed us into their homes, the magnificent beauty of the country and the fabulous variety and quality of white water kayaking to be found there.
Sam Sawday, Rio Canagua
How do I get involved in BUKE? If you are a student at a British University and would like to be considered for the selection process, keep an eye on the website (www.uniyaker.co.uk) where details of the application process will be posted prior to each event.