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Lows, Highs of a Trip to Angel Falls

June 23, 1991|BARBARA MORRIS | Morris is a free-lance writer living in Alexandria, Va.

CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela — It's 9 o'clock on a moonlit evening, and in the Marco Polo Lounge of our cruise ship, the Captain's Gala is in progress. Outside, on the promenade deck, I am prostrate in a deck chair. My chiffon evening gown--my Captain's Gala gown--is crushed under a scratchy woolen blanket.

I don't give a hoot.

I am seasick.

When I raise my heavy eyelids, I see a row of 11 other gowned women. They don't give a hoot either.

As we offer up our limp arms to the ships's doctor for anti-nausea shots, he explains that the ship is both pitching and rolling, a phenomenon known picturesquely as "cork-screwing." This stomach-churning motion results when winds and currents clash as we leave behind the island-sheltered Caribbean waters and enter the Atlantic Ocean en route to Venezuela.

This shot better work, I think darkly. In 27 hours, my husband and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. This cruise, with its fascinating side trips--flying over Angel Falls in Venezuela and exploring a remote jungle camp--is our long-awaited anniversary trip. Now I'm wondering whether I'll be able to revive enough to enjoy it.

I moan piteously, but only the ocean hears me; my husband is in the lounge, happily scarfing up champagne and hot hors d'oeuvres at the Gala.

Ten hours later, I awaken to find that the ship has finally reached the "sweet waters" at the delta of the Orinoco River. What a change from the day before when we had skimmed through the sunlit Caribbean, island-hopping through the lovely Grenadines. Now the water lies flat--muddy brown and sluggish looking. The sky echoes the flatness in shades of dull gray. Overnight we have glided into a different world.

Our destination, 180 miles upriver, is the industrial center of Ciudad Guayana, the stepping-off point for our air excursion to Camp Canaima in the jungles to the south of the city.

Our guidebooks extol Camp Canaima, a secluded retreat on a palm-fringed lagoon fed by seven waterfalls and surrounded by orchid-filled jungle--a corner of the Garden of Eden. En route to this paradise, we are to fly over Angel Falls, the highest falls in the world, 15 times higher than Niagara. The view of the falls is the glory of Canaima National Park--if the weather permits.

The day passes peacefully. The setting is spectacular, although I am a bit disappointed at first. Enchanted by the language of the guidebooks--"exotic Orinoco River . . . sprawling jungles . . . spectacular mountains and unusual wildlife"--I had imagined an "African Queen" setting of overgrown riverbanks and chilling jungle sounds. Common sense should have told me that the mighty Orinoco would also be broad--so broad that field glasses are needed much of the time to see clearly the scattering of Indian dwellings on the riverbanks.

Nevertheless, as we steam silently through the broad, brown water, I have the adventurous sense of truly being off the beaten path. We had selected the small (250-passenger) Ocean Islander because larger cruise ships are unable to navigate the Orinoco.

The other passengers also seem to sense the remoteness, for conversation is pensive and subdued as we stare out at the jungle surrounding us.

Occasionally, there is a flurry of excitement when Warao Indians paddle their dugout canoes to the ship to pick up the plastic bags of clothing, cookies and apples that our crew tosses overboard. Apples are especially welcome because they're rare and expensive--the equivalent of $4 apiece at Indian trading posts.

My sense of otherworldliness increases as we go deeper into the heart of Venezuela and see no more than a dozen scattered "settlements" of three or four Warao homes built on stilts made from palm trees. The Waraos use the tall, strong and willowly palms to thatch their roofs and to make a syrupy brew. They also eat the grubs--considered a delicacy--that live in the trees.

The Waraos make their living on the river in large dugout canoes that they skillfully carve from a single trunk of the cedro tree. They barter for fuel and "store-bought" needs at scattered trading posts in the jungle.

At dusk, the cruise director alerts us to watch for parakeets, macaws and egrets heading for the trees to roost for the night. As if on cue, suddenly a flock of egrets swoops down from out of nowhere gliding and settling with a gentle flurry on a wide-branching tree. I gasp at the sudden beauty, for, in the fading light, each bird looks like a giant white rose on a lushly flowering bush. They are so thick in the branches that the tree itself becomes a huge, moon-white blossom glowing on the darkening shore.

The beauty is cut short when a swarm of mosquitoes as thick as the egrets attacks the ship and drives us, flapping our arms, into the passageways.

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