Orinoco Moonlight Wafting
Riverdave’s Journal
November 19,1999

The Indian’s old lumbering dodge pickup clunked, groaned and then rattled to a halt in the middle of the road between Puerto Ayacucho and Samariapo in southern Venezuela. We were just a couple of miles short of the port where we were to begin our three day voyage up the Orinoco River to Tepui Autana, a large rock massif that is sacred to the surrounding Piaroa Indians. At ten o’clock in the morning it was already stifling hot.  Our Piaroa guide Ramon, jumped out of the cab, lifted the smoking hood and waved his faded New York Mets cap over the hissing engine.

The situation looked grim. If a trusted friend hadn’t arranged for Ramon to take us out, I would have sworn we had been taken.  Both my wife and I felt frustration rising, but were not all that surprised at what was happening.  Both of us had spent a number of years living in remote, third world settings and had come to almost expect this kind of delay.  Apologetically, the Indian said he was going to have to flag a car down to take us the last few miles to the port while he hitchhiked in the other direction to get help for his truck. 

It was an hour’s wait before Josie and I climbed into the back of another pickup with our travel bags and shortly found ourselves at the outpost settlement of Samariapo on the banks of the Orinoco River. After explaining our situation to the driver, he invited us to his home for lunch with his family.  Shrugging our shoulders with a “why not,” we agreed to walk with him a short distance across a field of weedy corn and banana stalks to an unpainted cinder block building.  The smell of batter fried fish and yucca met us at the door.  Several chickens scurried to get out of our way on a hard packed earthen floor.

After an hour of indulging in the hospitality of this kind family, our guide Ramon showed up at the door with a sheepish grin on his face.  Naturally, he turned out to be a close friend of our hosts and proceeded to help himself to the leftovers of our lunch still remaining on the table.  Finally Ramon brought our conversation around to more disturbing news.  The commandante at Samariapo was out of town on vacation and had not been present that day to issue permits for the sale of boat engine gasoline.  Therefore our Indian guide was not able to purchase fuel for our waiting thatch covered dugout.   

The problem in Samariapo is that the settlement lies directly across the Orinoco form Colombia.  Nearby drug producers in Colombia require gasoline in the production of cocaine. Consequently, the authorities of Colombia and Venezuela try to deny them access to the local supplies. In Samariapo, everyone must have permission from the commandante of the military outpost in order to purchase gasoline, be it for cars, boats or chain saws.  And no one leaves an unsupervised boat around with fuel in its tank lest it be siphoned off by drug producers.  So we were stuck in a remote border town at the whim of a local leader’s vacation. There was nothing else to do but wait ...

But Josie and I had brought one of our Sevylor inflatable wafts along just for an occasion like this.  Seizing the opportunity, we eagerly unpacked it and launched it upstream on Samariapo Creek, a tributary that wrapped around the settlement and fed the Orinoco.  The creek was shaded with tropical forest but in the sultry heat of early afternoon, not much was stirring except the rattle of an occasional kingfisher.  An hour’s glide on the creek was about all we could endure.  We returned to the little port, dipped in the cool river water and then loaded our travel bags onto our thatch roof boat and strung our hammocks to escape the mid afternoon sun. 

Nearby was a boat load of Yanomami Indians taking a siesta in their hammocks as well, waiting patiently for their gasoline that would propel them hundreds of miles upstream to their ancestral villages scattered along the tributaries of the Upper Orinoco.  The air was still and quiet, except for the rhythmic pulsation of crickets in tall grass along the shore and the occasional snore of a snoozing Yanomami.

As evening came, someone approached our boat and announced that the commandante had returned and that we would be able to get our gasoline in the morning.  Our guide Ramon explained that we would be spending the night in our boat docked at Samariapo and then begin our journey upstream in the morning.  I was agitated that we had been delayed an entire day.  Realizing that sunset would be upon us shortly, Josie and I again launched our inflatable waft, this time downstream on Samariapo Creek to get a better view of the setting sun.  As the creek approached its confluence with the Orinoco, it widened out.  This provided a most suitable vantage point to watch the sun settle in behind the distant hills west of the Orinoco.  Our creek blushed with lower spectrum colors.  River toads began to call ...
The waxing gibbous moon was above the eastern horizon as well.  With its soft glow we were easily able to continue paddling. We decided to take  the creek all the way to the confluence with the Orinoco and see what the river would be like under such favorable moonlight conditions. As we glided into the main channel, we began to hear the roar of the cataracts that start at Samariapo and continue as swirling whitewater for the next five miles.  All boats transitioning from the upper to the lower Orinoco must be pulled out at the port of Samariapo and hauled overland five miles to the base of the cataracts to continue. 

We approached the intersection with great care.  Upstream was the long, tree-lined Ratan Island with water pouring off small rapids towards us on both sides.  We found ourselves in a slow eddy just below the island that would carry us towards the top of the cataracts, but then circle back to the creek.  We discovered that we could ride this merry-go-round in our boat and safely stay away from the cataracts.

Soon it was dark and a gibbous moon shone brightly in the clear sky.  To our delight, we suddenly realized that the setting was unique.  Here we were being slowly wafted in an eddy on the Orinoco River just above its famous cataracts, with moonlight streaming down on the water all around us.  The roar of the cataracts was just to our north.  The eddy caused our boat to glide in a circular path about fifty yards in diameter. On the bank side of the loop we were swung under overhanging tree branches. Then we were whirled around out into open water towards Ratan Island.  Finally we would head towards the top of the cataracts but where jerked back by the eddy before we got too close to the rapids.  The entire loop would last about ten minutes. 

With my wife in the front of our inflatable kayak and me steering in the back, there was not much else to do but just relax and take in the most amazing moonlight wafting experience one could possibly imagine!  The air was sweet and the setting was innocent that night.  It was as if no harm could come of that place.  Paradise permeated the air. We counted ourselves most fortunate to experience this tropical nocturnal spectacle. We breathed in the rarified energy of the billions of ions tossed up our way from the cataracts just below.

After about a couple of hours of Orinoco moonlight wafting, we thought it prudent to paddle back up the creek to the port where Ramon would be waiting in his boat hammock.  Leaving behind the roar of the cataracts, we once again glided through the calmer creek. Frogs were scattered all along its marshy edge, their throaty calls sounding like the sputtering of outboard motors just starting up.

In the distance we heard the steady whine of a small boat engine approaching us with a light flashing in our direction.  Not until it had pulled up along side us did we realize it was Ramon.  He was in a state of heightened alarm  because we had not returned by sunset.  He had borrowed a friend’s boat and come after us, fearing that his two naive  American charges had probably become disoriented in the dark and slipped over the threshold into the cataracts.

Quite innocently we reported that all was well with us.  Relieved, he puttered back to the port and we followed in the dark at our usual slow pace.  I suppose he would have been in big trouble with the local commandante if he was responsible for losing two gringo tourists under his care.  He had been required to apply for special government permission just to allow us, as non-Indians, to visit this vast upper Orinoco region that was inhabited only by indigenous peoples. The commandante would not have taken kindly to organizing a midnight rescue team on the cataracts at the conclusion of his much needed vacation!

We arrived back at the port and crawled into mosquito netting draped over our hammocks.  Amidst the light of a flickering kerosene lamp, we could hear the low voices of the Yanomamis in the next boat.  Around our boats were several species of frogs and toads, filling the moonlit air with their riverine incantations.  I marveled as I realized that if the commandante of Samariapo had not been on vacation, this moonlight wafting trip would have never taken place.  What began as a frustrating vehicle breakdown and delayed plans because of a lack of fuel, was transformed into a magical evening of moonlight wafting and a lesson in how to “go with the flow“ when events are conspiring beyond our control ...
Photo by Riverdave - Riojoise wafts the Orinoco next to Ramon's dugout