The group in the mini-bus were getting ready to leave when I got up, but I gave them my information so they can hopefully send me the pictures they took, and they gave me a sandwich so I had some breakfast. The swanky hotel, which in some ways reminded me of the lodge in the middle of Death Valley, had its own waterfall near to where I’d camped and, having not had a shower, I bathed there.
A few km down the road, I met a Swedish cyclist called Johannes heading the other way. He’d started in Lima, Peru and having gone through the Amazon in Brazil was now on his way to the airport in Caracas from where he’d fly home. He seemed to be missing the mountains and wasn’t so positive about either the Gran Sabana, or the part of Brazil that I’d be riding on my way to Guyana. He at least had the advantage of having the wind at his back, as I’d been riding into the trade winds pretty much every day since Valencia. He was often staying in hotels, with some camping thrown in. Having worked long enough to raise his kids to university age, he had more savings than me, and also not really speaking Portuguese or Spanish he said he found staying with people less enjoyable. He is already thinking of his next trip, and that’ll be “somewhere where they speak English”, possibly the Atlantic Coast of the US. You can check out www.cykelupplevelser.n.nu
I began to start seeing the tepuis (table mountains) that are so famous in this area. Tepui/Tepuy is actually the local word for mountain, but has grown to mean the special type of mountain found here. The tops of which are apparently incredibly interesting for wildlife because, being very steep-sided things have evolved in isolation. The problem was that they were doing a fantastic job of being covered by clouds.
Stopping at the first waterfall for the day, Salto Kawi (named after a red tree), I was offered a coffee by a lady living there. We spoke for a good while about life in the area and how it improved under Chávez, the first president that apparently cared about the indigenous communities. I learnt of the very tourist driven economy, and how outside of the 3 peak months of April, August and December it becomes a lot harder to make ends meet. When she heard I’d taught English, she offered me the chance to stay and live there for a month as her private English teacher in the hope that it’d help her with tourists. I’d had a similar offer up in Caracas – accommodation and all the drinks, food and entertainment I want for as long as I was willing to stay there and be a live-in teacher. I’d turned that one down, because I couldn’t see myself staying that long anywhere right now, and while the Gran Sabana is beautiful, it’s not quite where I could see myself living. Also, during the whole conversation I was constantly getting bitten. Damn sand flies.
The next waterfall along, Salto Kama, is my favourite waterfall in the area, and possibly to date. There’s the official viewpoint which gives a decent vista, but also, with a bit of paddling, you can be right on the edge of the waterfall and feel the water rush past you and plummet 50m into the river below – a very cool experience. I just wished I was could have got a picture from the viewpoint of me standing on the edge!
I’d originally figured I’d get to San Francisco, but as the sun was setting I realised how little reason there was to do so. I was in the middle of a beautiful expanse laced with rivers. For some reason it made me think of how I imagine Mongolia to be, but with more roads and fewer horses. I saw a small collection of traditional huts on the left hand side of the road by a river, and while there was a car in there, they were just leaving. It was perfect. It seemed to be a place for tourists, and during peak season it would have been packed, but, as it was, I had my own little seemingly abandoned village to camp in.
I found a hut by the river, and set the tent up with little but frog sounds and bird chirps for company. A long soak in the slightly cold river while stargazing and relaxing was a wonderful end to a day and I fell asleep so glad that I’d not pushed on to San Francisco. My favourite wild camping spot yet by far.
I rolled out of my tent in the hope of getting a picture of the sun rising over Mount Roraima, but there was a hill blocking the view. When I got past the climb, there were clouds over the mountain anyway. Less than 1km down the road, there was an official place to stop with camping signs. How good a choice I that I didn’t push on and pay money to have to share the experience with some strangers.
In San Francisco, I sat down in a little restaurant. There was a European backpacker there who spoke funny Spanish, and decent English, and was one of the first foreign non-cycle tourists I’d seen up to that point in Venezuela. She was a very… open spirit, and had been in Santa Elena the day before. She complained a lot about it, saying that the people were terrible and how it had been so loud. Then she’d arrived at San Francisco, but complained that it was also too noisy (Some Venezuelans like to have music pumping out of their cars – something the indigenous communities don’t really appreciate) and so was going to hike 10-15km to stay at another place near where I camped. She was hanging around because she’d signed up for a package to climb Roraima and rambled about how if she wasn’t a single woman she’d have done it by herself, but it was too dangerous and Venezuelans weren’t nice people. There was a local guy sat at the table with us, and I thought that it was completely wrong for her to be saying these things, especially when I received my food and she burst out complaining that the waitress obviously hated foreigners as she’d ordered two hours earlier and not got hers yet. I have no idea why she would wait two hours without pointing this out, or how she thought I wasn’t a foreigner. She argued and said that it was a bad lady, really very rude – the waitress was the local guy’s aunt – and so I disagreed with her but she wouldn’t listen. Poor her, having such bad experiences with the people when I’ve had such wonderful ones. I have to wonder if at least part of that isn’t down to her attitude.
After that lady went away, I saw the head of the community, Jovencio. He’s a good friend of William, from Puerto Ordaz, and so I went to say hello. He had a couple of things to do but would then talk to me. I went back to my breakfast and chatting when Jovencio called me over. There was a Czech guy and his wife, who had a large tripod out and were taking pictures of locals, and I got to act as the translator between the three of them. The Sneijders (I lost the paper with their name and blog on) had arrived and asked permission directly from locals, but Jovencio hadn’t known. He wanted me to explain to them that as long as it was for personal usage, that was fine, but that they should have gone through him before doing so. He then went to Santa Elena for a meeting and said that if I was still around in a few hours we could chat later, which I agreed to.
The next few hours were passed talking with the Sneijders. It turns out that they were Harley riders and having started in Alaska and made it down to Argentina, were on their way back north. They gave me a map of Guyana and information about the road ahead and we swapped stories from the trip over a few beverages. They were a delight to talk to and some of the pictures they showed me made me very tempted to head down towards Patagonia and the end of the world, even though it hadn’t necessarily been on my to-do list.
After they headed off, I waited a couple of hours more for Jovencio to come. He turned up to speak with me for about 30-45 minutes, before having to vanish again, and was very open about indigenous life in the area. He seemed to expect that I had specific questions, but when I told him that I was interested to hear what he had to say, he hesitated and then started to talk. He praised the influence Chávez had had in the region, but even though it was something, it was a lot less both than had been asked for and what was needed. He also focused on the importance of balancing the need for tourism, and the money it brings into the community, with the preservation of the local culture and language. I wish I had recorded him speaking, as my new mp3 player allows me to, so I could have listened again and understood more clearly.
Having waited for so long, it didn’t leave much time until sunset to ride in. I wasn’t sure what was ahead, but figured I’d find something. Passing through a checkpoint, the national guard – after excitedly trying out my bike – introduced me to a Guyanese man, called Harry, because he could speak English. Harry didn’t say much that I could understand before I rode off, but at the top of a long climb ahead I was waved down and saw him there. He introduced me to his Guyanese friend, James, who owned a little store where I could stay for the night. They were both excited to meet an authentic British man, and questioned me about life there. Harry asked me questions, like wondering if Princess Diana had been killed (no), why the Falkland Islands are British (that’s just how the British Empire rolled) and if princes had to marry princesses (no). James, who seemed better read was more interested in the political situation and explaining his business plans and wondering if my sister could offer him some architectural advice for his new shop. I recorded a bit of us talking, so you can hear what a Guyanese accent sounds like.
I was up early enough to see light rising over the savannah and was ready to head out not much later. James mentioned a mother in Boa Vista, where I’d be passing a few days later, and that I could stay with her. He also mentioned other family in Sand Creek, Guyana, and headed that way armed with a note and a photo of him taken with 4 of the 30+ children he told me he has fathered. By 7:30am, I got to a small community and stopped to ask a couple of people drinking beer if there was a shop. After being invited to share 3 rounds of beers, I was pointed to place to get some biscuits.
The final easy-access waterfall of the area, Quebrada de Jaspe, was my last sight to see before Santa Elena. I was low on water and filled up my bottle enjoying the deliciously cool clean water. From there it was 3 hours of the ever present headwinds to Santa Elena where I found the culinary street and stopped for lunch. A hard rain fell and so I hung out thinking about my plan until a guy called Odin turned up. He was born in Venezuela, but has passed most of the last 20 years in Europe. He had a Norwegian passport for a good while, but now has a Danish one, which is where the name came from. He was in the area looking to make money to pay off debts he’d built up in Denmark. Having the European perspective, as well as speaking near perfect English, and the Venezuelan blood, meant that he could try to explain things that confused me, such as why so many people talk about Chavez as if he were still alive. He pointed out good things that had been done under Chavez, and even suggested that I should study at a university in the country.
When Odin asked me where I was planning on staying, and I said that I had no idea, he told me about his hotel. It was about $4 a night, the cheapest place in town. A low price, but probably round about fair considering the concrete floors, funny smell, barely functioning toilet, and broken fan. We spent as little time there as possible, and with Odin’s goal of starting a business we spoke to different owners. That included some people in the tourism industry, who were very upset with how cheap tours up Roraima were (about 1/3 of the price they thought they should be), and a guy in a little shop who suggested currency speculation during a 2 hour conversation that focused on politics and corruption.
Salto Kama 1
Salto Kama 2
Salto Kama 3
National guard ride my bike
Quebrada de Jaspe
View from where I camped
Near the end of the savannah