A wild journey...
So, it was Carnival time 2008 in Venezuela, and for most of the locals, it is a time to head to the beach for the sun, sea, and rum....but for me and a friend, our destination was Los Llanos, the grassy wetlands of Venezuela, abundant with wildlife.
The Los Llanos area of Venezuela stretches for 300,000 sq kms, and is covered almost entirely by grass, with a network of rivers, many a lagoon and wooded areas. In all such an environment is a haven for a multitude of animals.
On the day for the adventure to begin it was a 5am start, but excitement had prevented much sleep previous to the wakeup call. The streets of Caracas seemed so alien at this hour, devoid of the intense volume of traffic that I have become adept to.
In all, the journey was roughly 600kms, and took 10 hours. For the most part of the journey, we were driving through the Los Llanos region, and we could easily spot a crocodile from the car. On our first sight of one such creature, we were assured that the wild journey had definitely begun.
We arrived at one among many Hatos in Los Llanos, just before 4pm. In fact, the timing was impeccable since we were just in time for the afternoon Safari trip. We received a warm welcome from Hato El Frio, with smiling faces all around. We promptly, dropped our bags into the colonial style room. The Hato provides all you need to enjoy a trip in Los Llanos, accommodation, meals, and of course the safari trips, all for a very reasonable price.
Cerveza and camera in hand, we jumped into the car, curious of what wonders awaited us. In a matter of seconds, voices were raised, and there was obvious air of excitement coming from our guide and the driver. We were not even 100 metres from the lodgings when the car pulled in, and we jumped out, to see something, I really had not expected to see.
My first sight of the deadly anaconda took my breath away. The snake was in the process of swallowing an iguana. I was fascinated to see a creature that arouses so much fear to be eating its dinner. After taking the time to photograph the snake at every angel possible, we moved on with the rest of the trip, driving at an easy pace through one of the many tracks.
It was late afternoon, and the temperature was blissful, the only sound was that of the massive population of birds inhabiting the Los Llanos area. For a person who tends not to be overly fussed for birds, I could not help but be totally impressed by the diversity of birds I was observing. The colours, the size, even the way they looked midflight. These birds were not even comparable to the British pigeon. The Coro Coro, was one of the most remarkable birds, the colour, a kind of red, looked simply spectacular in the sky.
As well as the birds, there were two more sights that were plentiful in these parts. The Capybara, an endearing and welcoming looking mammal, all be it, even a little strange looking, since its features are quite unique, the only mammal I could associate with was an oversized guinea pig. Then of course, there are the Baba crocodiles, and you will never tire of seeing these crocodiles, jaw open, waiting for their prey.
Other sites were considered to me much rarer, and I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to see them. And on our first outing, we saw one such creature, an anteater, very large in size, and with a grand, bushy tail. The animal looked equally as shocked as we were of this encounter, and after a few moments, it was over, and the animal disappeared, but it was a magnificent moment, when for just a few seconds, human and animal glare deeply at each other, but fear prevails curiosity, and the animal is gone.
We completed the afternoon, by imposing on the habitat of a small group of monkeys, howling in the trees. The evening belonged to the mosquitoes, so it was time to make a quick escape back to the Hato, for some wonderful home cooking. Meal times were another enjoyable part of our stay here, whereby all the guests congregate around one large table, and Mama, ensures we enjoy every last bite of her delightful cooking.
Immediately after dinner, we were invited on a night tour in search of Ocelots, Puma and Jaguar. Well, this would be a dream come true, and I was in that car as quick as possible. To be out on Safari at night is simply exciting, everything looks totally different. One of the most incredible things is the glare of eyes reflecting from the car lights. In the lagoons, you could see, so many, each belonging to a crocodile. Then, around each corner, and in the distance of the fields, the light would catch the reflection of yet another set of eyes, and each time, the adrenaline rushed, would I be so lucky? Unfortunately, not on this occasion, the eyes belonged to fox, deer, rabbits, but not the mystical cats of the Los Llanos region, numbers are sadly scarce, and sightings extremely rare.
After a big breakfast, we set off for another very exciting day, the mornings activity was something I had never envisaged doing. We stopped off at a very small and secluded beach, but this was no place to sunbathe. The waters were infested with Crocodile and Piranha and our task, to fish for the lethal creatures.
All around me, were the shrills of excitement as each person made a successful catch. Whilst we fished in these waters, every now and again, the nose and eyes of a caiman would surface. It was a stark reminder that we were in a volatile environment.
I was having a little trouble with making a catch, the process took a matter of seconds and each time I pulled the wire back in, the hook was devoid of the meat used to catch the Piranha, and of course no Piranha. However, after some advice from an expert, I could feel the strength, of something pulling on my wire. I managed to reel it back in, and attached to the hook was the biggest catch of the day, and you know what they say....”It’s all about size”!! I was so pleased, and then I had the difficult task of removing the hook from its jaw. This bit was pretty frightening, as I could see all the incredibly sharp teeth, as the fish wriggled around. I managed it, and I felt so triumphant, this was a deadly catch!
Then in the afternoon, we set off with the aim of catching a Baba crocodile, in order for the team to weigh and measure, as part of their monitoring of the animals within the Hato.
On route, my eyes were met by one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Two brightly coloured parrots flew above our heads and landed in a tree, the privilege to see them in their natural environment, rather than trapped in a cage, made my heart skip a beat. Nothing angers me more than to keep a bird in a cage, it goes against the laws of nature, and to see these spectacular birds, flying free was unimaginable, their wild shrieks recognisable as that of the parrot.
We reached a lagoon swarming with Baba crocodiles; this was to be the spot where we watched the impressive process of catching an immense beast. It took a couple of attempts, but the rope was tightly fixed around the neck of a crocodile, then the two guys, put all their strength into pulling him out of the water. Once caught, they tied his mouth and covered his eyes, then bound his legs and arms, it did seem a little unpleasant for the guy, but necessary to ensure they are monitored properly, and afterwards, he seemed unphased by the ordeal. Whilst the crocodile was restrained, I was brave enough to touch the skin, and then I even had the possibility to lift him, with the assistance of one of the guys, let’s say, they are not light. But to be so close to yet another deadly species, took my breath away. Every day, I was experiencing once in a lifetime chances.
That night, we set the alarm for 1.30am, for another shot at spotting one of the rare Los Llanos cats. It was so exhilarating to be setting off in the dead of the night. I sat on top of the 4x4, in hope of a better chance at spotting something. In all we were out searching for three hours, every moment, the blood was pumping, and my heart beating faster. We did catch the sight of something rare; the female Caiman was on the nest, laying eggs. We had caught the massive creature, in the privacy of the night; this was a very lucky encounter. We observed for as long as she would allow, but in the end, she was clearly frustrated to have humans scrutinizing such an intimate moment.
It was time to head back to the Hato in order to catch a couple of hours of sleep before dawn broke, the cats remained well hidden. We knew for certain they were in the area because we had seen fresh prints that morning, but this dream was not to be.
The last day arrived but it did not go without one last piece of wild treasure. We set off in search of anaconda, and moments after setting off, we pulled up next to a lagoon, my eyes were drawn to the most magnificent sight of the whole adventure. Not only was it a massive anaconda, but it was twisted around something equally as deadly. This anaconda had wrapped itself around a good sized Baba crocodile. It must have been a recent battle, as the crocodile was still very much alive, but completely restricted by the anaconda, a slow and painful death was upon the crocodile. And it was as though the fierce creature knew that they were the last moments. The expression in its eyes displayed such comprehension of the impending situation that you couldn’t help but feel a little sorry that such an amazing being, was about to become the prey of another fantastic creature. This could not have been an easy battle, but the winner was the anaconda. Yet again, I found myself lost for words, this was nature, but it was an incredible part of nature, not the sort of sight seen every day.
A few hours later we went back to the same spot to check on the progress, anaconda and crocodile were in much the same position and the crocodile was still breathing life, though I think it was moving quickly towards the last few breaths. The sight was still astounding, and we were still lost for words, it is impossible to describe the vision with justice, but simply try to imagine two supreme predators, only one has devastated the other, yet, logic says that it is the wrong predator that has become the prey. The power of the anaconda should never be under estimated, and upon seeing that sight, I realised this. Especially since the day before I had seen two grown men wrestle a crocodile, smaller than the one now prey to this anaconda, such strength I could only fear. The night was once again upon us, and it was time to escape the mosquitoes.
Immediately after breakfast we went to see if the anaconda had begun to eat the crocodile, but we were met by something very disappointing, an empty space. During the course of the evening, the anaconda had taken what must have been, a lifeless crocodile, away to a more comfortable place where to begin devouring, most probably into the waters, we had missed it.
The time came to say goodbye to what had been one of the most superb experiences of my life. I felt sad to leave, and upon exiting the Hato, we were given one last glimpse of the beauty of Los Llanos. I could hear that distinct shriek, parrots. Not just two, but eight of the incredible birds flying in the trees above our heads, what a perfect way to bid farewell to a wild paradise.
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