Saturday, December 5, 2009

Jungle Adventures on the Casiquiare in New Book

In 2005, the writers Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt travelled to the remote jungles along Venezuela's border with Brazil and Colombia to explore for themselves the mysterious Casiquiare Canal, a river joining the waters of the Orinoco River with the Amazon River via the Rio Negro. They travelled with Lucho Cherry Navarro, who organizes trips to the Casiquiare on a boat called the Iguana, which once belonged to the French oceanographer Jaques Cousteau.

The reason for their trip was to clear up some of the persisting myths surrounding the Casiquiare and to publish their findings in Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society.

In the end they came back with so much material that the only way to do it justice was to write up their travels in a book and so in October 2009 they published: "Along the River that Flows Uphill: From the Orinoco to the Amazon".

Recently, I caught up with Richard and Miriam to hear more about their experiences in Venezuela, especially their visit to the Yanomami village of Viruinave, on the Casiquiare, and their frightening brush with FARC guerrillas in Colombia.

The photos, shot on the Orinoco and in the Yanomami village of Viriunave on the Casiquiare, are all copyright to Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt.

Question: After publishing your first book together about US pilots in the frozen wastes of Tibet what made you opt for the heat and humidity of the Venezuelan jungle?

Richard: The book really began life as a magazine article. A few years ago - in 2005 - Geographical, the official magazine of the Royal Geographical Society in London, commissioned us to write an article about the Casiquiare, a strange river in Venezuela that is unique among rivers in that it is the only one in the world that manages to flow over a watershed - the watershed that separates the Orinoco and the Amazon river systems.
The magazine wanted an article about the peculiar geography of this river, because by flowing over a watershed, the river appears to flow uphill, and that, of course, is not possible.
Anyway, to write the article, we travelled by boat along the upper Orinoco and then down the full length of the Casiquiare to reach the Rio Negro, which runs into the Amazon near Manaus.
We then wrote the article. But so many things happened to us on our journey that when we came back we realised we had more then enough material for a book. So we wrote "Along the River that Flows Uphill".
It wasn't intended to be an antidote to our trip to Tibet - it just worked out that way.

Question: Was it a good choice for your second collaboration? Did you connect with Venezuela and find the adventure you were looking for?

Miriam: "Yes" is the short answer. We did connect with Venezuela - not so much with Caracas, which is where we flew to in order to begin our journey, but certainly with the rest of the country. I've been studying Spanish for several years now and I have to admit to a bias in favour of Spanish speaking people. We've travelled a lot in both South and Central America, and we've always had positive experiences.

Question: One of the most dramatic episodes in the book is your meeting with the Yanomami Indians both on the Orinoco River and the Casiquiare Canal. The image of the Yanomami fostered by anthropologists in the 1970s and 1980s is of a warrior tribe of "Fierce People". More recently, they have been seen as victims of exploitative missionaries, disease-spreading miners, vote-hungry politicians and those very same anthropologists. Did your understanding of the Yanomami change after spending time with them?

Miriam: We felt privileged to see the Yanomami, as it's highly likely that their way of life will radically change in the very near future. I should say that we visited the Yanomami only in villages along the Orinoco and the Casiquiare, where the river traffic brings them into contact with the modern world - we did not visit any of the nomadic tribes that live in the jungles of Venezuela and Brazil.
It was still possible to see how they used to live - especially along the Casiquiare, which is much more remote than the Orinoco - but at the same time we caught a glimpse of their future, as they adopt many of the goods that are already changing their way of life - things like plastic buckets, steel machetes, T-shirts and shorts. Until recently, everything they made and used was biodegradable, but now they're beginning to have a litter problem.
I can't say that the Yanomami we met lived up to their reputation for violence, although they were not an overtly friendly people. It's true, as we relate in the book, that we did have a run-in with a Yanomami Indian who threatened us with a poison-tipped arrow, but that was more our fault than his.

Question: The Casiquiare Canal was described in detail by the German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt who travelled from the Rio Negro to the Orinoco in 1800. Did you learn anything new on your trip to dispel any of the myths surrounding this "monstrous error of geography", as one geographer described it?

Richard: In the 18th century, no-one believed that a river could flow over a watershed, so the Casiquiare was indeed dismissed as a 'monstrous error of geography', as we say in our book. Humboldt was not the first European to travel along it - that honour belongs to a Jesuit priest called Father Manuel Roman who paddled the river in 1744 - but he was the first to report on his journey and be believed. Humboldt described the bifurcation - the point where the Casiquiare leaves the Orinoco - in quite dramatic terms, but in fact there's nothing really there to mark the spot. The Casiquiare just slides off to one side of the Orinoco and disappears into the jungle. There's no real fanfare.

Question: So how does the Casiquiare join the Orinoco to the Amazon?

Richard: A certain amount of confusion was created by the translated description of Humboldt's journey. He wrote that the Casiquiare "changes direction", which a lot of people assumed meant that it changed the direction of its flow - sometimes flowing out of the Orinoco and into the Negro, then sometimes reversing itself and flowing the other way. This is still a popular misconception, which you will find in many Internet searches for 'Casiquiare'. In fact, the Casiquiare flows in one direction only, and what Humboldt meant is that the river changes direction because it meanders, and that's quite a different thing.
As for a full explanation of its behaviour, we deal with that in our book.

Question: Humboldt describes his passage down the Casiquiare as one of constant torture from moquitos and black fly, the feared "jejenes", that leave a nasty, raised bloodspot under the skin. What was the most uncomfortable part of your trip?

Miriam: It was all uncomfortable!
Basically, we were travelling on a river boat through the jungle. There were always insects, especially when we got off the boat and went on land, and all of them seemed either to bite or sting. It was also the rainy season - we had to go then, because in the dry season, the Casiquiare shrinks in size and can only be effectively travelled in a canoe or some other small boat. That didn't mean it was always raining - although when it did, it rained in sheets - but it did mean the humidity was extremely high. So you always felt wet or clammy. You never quite got entirely dry.

Question: You also mention a brush with guerillas from the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in San Felipe, near San Carlos de Rio Negro? In the book you seem to respond quite calmly to the situation but was it scary?

Richard: That's right. FARC tried to kidnap us and hold us for ransom when we were foolish enough to stray over the border into Colombia. It was extremely frightening for both of us, but like a lot of events like this, it seems more frightening when we look back on it than it was at the time it occurred. Everything happened so quickly, and we were so focused on the best way to react that we didn't think through all the consequences. It's only now, when we reflect on what might have happened, that we appreciate how lucky we were to have escaped.
Over the past 20 or 30 years, FARC has kidnapped literally thousands of people. Most of their victims have been Colombians, which is why they don't get much international attention, and they are held in the most appalling conditions - literally chained to trees or to each other for eight, ten, twelve years. Maybe even more.

Question: You mention Lucho, the owner of the boat who took you from Puerto Ayacucho to the Casiquiare and Rio Negro, how did you get in touch with him and is the trip you took something that others could do?

Miriam: Before we went on our journey, we searched for possible guides on the Internet and in some of the more out-of-the-way guide books. Lucho is one, but there are others - people who, for a fee, will take you along the Casiquiare. It's possible for anyone to make the journey we did, but as we indicated, the time of year determines the size of boat you can travel on. In the dry season, you'll likely have to travel in a bongo - a kind of large, dugout canoe - and camp on the river bank. Only in the rainy season will you find a boat large enough for you to sleep on.

Question: One of the main problems of a long boat journey is boredom. How long were you on Lucho's boat? Did you ever fall out? What did you do to while away the hours?

Richard: We never had any problems with the other people on the boat. There were a lot of them, so the boat was crowded, but we all respected other people's space. We read a lot, and we wrote a lot - either the article we were there to complete, or in the journals we kept which later formed the backbone of our book. I suppose it could be considered boring, but the jungle is so strange, at least to us, that it's endlessly fascinating. Also, of course, we were able to get off the boat and visit a lot of communities along the way. This helped break up our journey, and also gave us a lot of good material for our book.

Question: For anybody who reads your book and wants to visit the Casiquiare, what advice would you give them?

Miriam: Plan well, and know what you're getting into. Consider going in a group of four or more, rather than just two. If something goes wrong you have more back-up.

Richard: Don't go into Colombia - at least not in the part near where Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela come together. It's almost entirely lawless, and to a large extent under the control of FARC.

Question: Richard spends much of the book lamenting the lost days of the great adventurers, especially his heroes, the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone. Now people can Google Earth any spot on the planet, are there still great adventures to be had?

Richard: There are always great adventures to be had. One person's great adventure can be just another day in the office for somebody else.
I think nowadays the thing to consider when planning an adventure is the amount of risk you might possibly face, and whether or not that risk is worth taking, given the reward you hope to get. This is something we had not really considered before, but our brush with FARC made us think seriously about the level of risk we were prepared to accept. That's one of the themes that runs throughout the book - you want to push the envelope as people say, but not push it to the point where it breaks.

To purchase "Along the River That Flows Uphill: Between the Orinoco and the Amazon" click here:


Victoria Cardenas said...

How Did you meet them? It's such an intesting story and well written too. Thanks for sharing it with us!

Tarquin Jones said...

Have you read "In Trouble Again: A Journey Between Orinoco and the Amazon"?

It's a similar journey by the travel writer Redmond O'Hanlon and for me it's one of the best travel books about Venezuela ever written.

O'Hanlon doesn't just get on a tourist boat down the Casiquiare, he goes on a real adventure, with canoes and a team of local Indians, and they go deep into the jungle.

He also provides detailed information about birds and wildlife on his journey.

I would recommend that anybody interested in this fascinating part of the world start by reading O'Hanlon's account.

I'm going to get this book and see how it shapes up compared to O'Hanlon.

Thanks for highlighting this book because I didn't know it existed and please, please, please keep bringing us new books about Venezuela.

I got the Torsten Krol novel The Dolphin People for my cousin, based on your recommendation, and I couldn't put it down (hope he doesn't mind his present being a dog-eared now!)

Alfredo said...

I am Venezuelan but I know nothing of these exciting jungle places with Yanomami natives and wild animals. I want to go very bad. You should write about how to do that for people like me. Is it far or many days in the boat? Do they have a bed or a hammock? Will the insects bite me?
Tell us everything to plan for such a journey in the Casiquare River.
You love my country very much Russell, I can tell from your blogs about the food and music and places.
I live in Filipinas and only go back to Venezuela every two years but I want to travel with you now.

Anonymous said...

For anybody wanting to follow the route of Humboldt along the Casiquiare all the details of the companies who offer the trip and how long it takes are all included in the new Bradt Guide to Venezuela by the author of this blog.
I have just completed the trip and it was truly amazing! I will never forget meeting the Yanomami people.
Thank you Russell for inspiring me to embark on this journey into the jungle to a part of my country that I had only seen before on the National Geographic Channel!