At Ciudad Bolivar we pause to examine Jimmy Angel’s plane, rescued from a tepui top from where he crash landed in the 30’s shortly after he ‘discovered’ and named Angel Falls. Of course the falls already had a name, Kerepakupai Meru, and they were well known to the Pemon people as a sacred place. But then this was a different era and one in which white guys got to name everything. Nevertheless, I do like Jimmy’s plane. It is a gem of an Indiana Jones aircraft, held together with rivets and good wishes and is exactly the sort of flying machine I would expect a gold prospector to own.
Next we plow south along the Trans-Amazonian highway which runs south as far as Manaus. Back in the 80’s when the road was being built it was not unusual for construction crews to be attacked with poison darts from remote tribes objecting to the rude invasion of their homelands. Even today police will pick up any drivers who have broken down after dark for their own safety.
Now the country starts to unscroll faster than I can keep up. Oil country gives way to hydro-electric country and giant pylons march relentlessly across country towards the city centres. Blast furnaces and steel mills squat on the horizon until the scenery gradually morphs into jungle.
Then we arrive in gold country. There is still a gold rush on in these parts. Independent miners still pan for alluvial gold in the rivers or exploit hidden mines deep in the jungle. Gold towns thrive along the route; dangerous little enclaves where the roads run with red mud, Landcruisers park nose to tail and the shop keepers will readily accept gold and raw diamonds in exchange for goods.
Every so often wild-man hermit miners emerge from the forest to stock up on provisions and visit the local bordello. It’s not unusual for a successful miner to spend upwards of $30,000 in a single weekend and robbery and murder are the local spectator sports. Pausing at one of these frontier towns to buy rum we stand out like a group of day old chicks in a box of pythons. Dangerous eyes follow our every move and we are all very glad to get back into the van.
This is a country that breeds some serious badasses. The man who owns the restaurant where we stop for lunch boasts a long history as a soldier of fortune and a presidential bodyguard and he makes Jason Bourne look like a social worker. On one occasion he thwarted an assassination attempt by three gunmen by sticking his fingers in the end of the gun and then killing all three assassins himself.
Tonight we have arrived at base camp, checking our gear and repacking rucksacks in preparation for the off tomorrow. Our tents are pitched at the top of a spectacular waterfall, dropping a hundred feet into a gorge where cloud hangs in the valleys like snagged wool. It requires only a stray brontosaurus to stomp through the bracken for the scene to be truly complete.