Cambridge Columbus Botanical Study Venezuela 1990

I participated in two amazing expeditions when I was a student. The first involved investigating the effects of oil pollution on the coral reefs in the Gulf of Suez in Egypt and is described by a separate post. This post describes the second expedition where a group of four traveled to Venezuela for a botanical study in the Paria Peninsula. Writing this post has been very different as I had not been directly involved in its Expedition Report. For both expeditions, my photos were mostly slides which makes them less accessible. Reviewing the slides illustrated how photos end up just gathering dust and being forgotten unless they are somehow utilized or published, which motivates me to blog more, but it needs to start with a fun activity. While the issue of being forgotten applied to old slides, the same challenge exists with today’s digital photos which gather virtual dust deep in your hard drive. Preparing this post has been a pleasurable walk down memory lane, especially when the fog clears, and I recall specific memories so vividly. There is an element of reflection as I share some experiences from over thirty years ago which shaped me. The Expedition Report, which focuses on the official project activities and the scientific results, is linked (PDF and OCR). In addition to the expedition, I was blessed to undertake two epic hikes which are described in separate posts: Pico Espejo from Merida and the Auyan Tepui. Even having excluded those, this post is too long, but I couldn’t resist the walk down memory lane.

My first reflection is combined with a disclaimer. One of the most remarkable takeaways from projects like this is the kindness of strangers. When caught up in the hustle and bustle of busy life in the western world, people don’t have time for others. Or generosity is treated with suspicion. When life is truly difficult (i.e., Maslow’s physiological needs of food and shelter are a struggle), people have much more time for others and are warmly welcoming. I have forgotten some who showed us great generosity, though the report linked above does a good job. I continuously fail to be as generous as those who barely had enough food to put on their family’s table.

Preparations

My good friends Mark Dutton and James Mead had started planning this at the end of 1988, though academic pressures caused a delay until 1990. I joined them in March 1990 and Justine Freeth was recruited as the expedition botanist in May 1990.

Mark, Justine, Peter, and James

The goal was to undertake a botanical study in the Paria Peninsula National Park in North-East Venezuela, the area where Christopher Columbus was the first European to step on South American soil in 1498. Little field work had been done in the park, and it was under threat from local farming and large industrial projects. Some in-country partners were identified, so the planning began in earnest.

The Paria Peninsula lies east of Carupano, sticking out towards Trinidad and Tobago
The study was conducted around Cerro Humo using the villages of Manacal and Santa Isabel as bases. Organizations were promoting ecotourism in this area. After our field work was completed, we stayed with Hilary Branch, the author of the Bradt Publishing’s guide to Venezuela, and she included our description of the area in the next edition of her guide book.

With the projects aims established, fundraising began. Completing our final exams in May 1990 gave us time to focus on raising funds by seeking donations and employment. I worked for a house cleaning company called Poppies, where I either did a weekly clean, or (preferably) a deep spring-clean. The people I worked for at the company were fantastic and even generously made a donation to the expedition. However, I learned from some of the customers how NOT to treat others by the way they looked down on their cleaner… We managed to raise £7,000 (including personal contributions) in addition to lots of non-cash assistance. Even though this was 30 years ago, it amazes me how much was done with this amount of money and reminds me of what young people associated with universities can achieve.

This was our logo from the planning stage, and I am still impressed how it represents what we did. The mountain represents Cerro Humo which was often shrouded in cloud which leads to a particular environment called cloud forest. This was under threat from agricultural deforestation, shown on the left of the picture. The forest continued to the sea on the other side where industrial development was being assessed.
We kept track of our financial progress the old-fashioned way – with a marker pen. The different dotted lines represented what we had received and what had been pledged. We also received money in-country.
As a team, we did some practice field work.
Botanical work included smelling trees!
The planned direction of the study was to collect plant samples. This included epiphytes which are plants that grow high on the branches of trees, which required specially designed and manufactured 10-meter pruners. Above, Mark is assembling one on the college lawn.
James and Mark try out the pruners on a tree.

Having gathered everything we were taking, we had to check whether we would be able to carry it all. The pictures below show that it would be possible, but I didn’t fancy any long treks like that!

Caracas: Permits, the Avila, and Hot Dogs

In October, we obtained our visas and headed to Venezuela. We required permits from the government, and this took longer than expected leading to an extended stay in Caracas. This was challenging as we had limited budget for staying in the city, and we did not know how long the process would take. Mark tried his best to navigate the bureaucracy and contacts we made in the British Embassy helped. The highlight of the city was the Avila National Park which is a mountain range lying between Caracas and the sea. While we greatly enjoyed hiking to the top, fit locals would run past us. There is a cable car which was not operating when we visited, and locals explained how the health of the cable car represented the health of the country.

Caracas was a large busy city.
James and Mark on their way to meet a ministry to get permits.
The views from the top of the Avila were fantastic when clear. One could see down to Caracas on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other.
We joined the locals on the buses to get around town, including queueing in the rain.
One of my fondest memories is eating “Special Hot Dogs” from a truck right by our hotel. The hot dog was made special by adding avocado, which I had not previously liked. I also fell in love with them when I saw that “special hot dog” was translated literally as “perro caliente especial” 🙂

Guaraunos: A Warm Welcome from Claus Muller

Finally, Mark secured the necessary permits. The project scope had changed from sample collection to a variety of studies and we remained eager to get into the field. We made our way to the home of Claus Muller in Guaraunos which became our staging post before heading up into the Paria mountains. Sr. Muller ran an ecotourism company and was eager to help us logistically and connecting us with the villages. I have vivid memories of his house which was built as a traditional indigenous structure. He also blessed us by letting us stay at his lake house.

Sr. Muller’s house built the traditional way. On our second night, we were treated to a roast pig. The main contributor to the dinner was tied to a tree all day. The pig could sense something was going to happen, and I will never forget the terrified squealing he made all day. He tasted good though!
As was typical anywhere we stayed, we slung our hammocks outside to sleep. Not shown in the picture is the mosquito netting. I remember the first morning waking up and seeing swarms of mosquitoes on the other side of my netting, and I was thinking how smart I had been. I then realized that they were taking their turns to bite me through the netting as I was leaning against it… Adjustment was required!
One my funniest memories from the whole trip was an incident with one of Sr. Muller’s cats. They were working cats to kill rodents so did not have names. On hearing some rodents in the rafters of his house, Sr. Muller expressed the frustration with his cats’ lack of success, grabbed this one, and literally threw her about 20 feet into the air onto the rafters with instructions to do his job.

As we were now in the countryside, the fauna biodiversity became apparent, from the small leaf-cutter ants to the water buffalo. Sr. Muller had introduced the water buffalo to Venezuela.

Our treat was staying at the lake house. However, we were eager to get on with our project.

Manacal: Our Home for a Month

Manacal was our project’s base for a month. It was a small village high up the mountain at the end of a rough dirt road where the villagers subsistently farmed the steep slopes to survive. It was often in clouds and the humidity was constantly very high. The houses were made with whatever materials were available and were barely standing. No one owned a car, so walking the road as we often did was common. We could stay in the village’s school for the project. The school was the nicest building in the town, having been donated by Polar, the national beer company. However, there were no funds for a teacher, so it sat unused.

The road up the mountain to Manacal was steep and badly eroded.
We took over the village school during the project which was perfect for our needs.
The classroom was perfect for hanging hammocks.
The school had a good outhouse which made life a lot more pleasant than it might have been!
The school had been built by a charity, but there were no funds for a teacher.
Village farm animals, like this family of pigs, would wander past us.
This donkey was in the field next door. It was cute until he started eeyoring every morning before sunrise… At least we did not need an alarm clock! As well as big animals, there were plenty of interesting insects (below) as we were living in a forest!

The local houses barely kept out the weather, built with bricks, corrugated iron, and wooden poles. No glass.

While the village had electricity, there was no running water. We followed the advice of the locals and used rainwater for washing and cooking. We would only drink water from a local spring, except when it turned cloudy after rain. It is a humbling wakeup call to have to carry water each day up a hill to your home. It is heavy!

Part of our entertainment at night was listening to the BBC World Service. Hearing the results of the day’s football derby between Manchester United and Manchester City sounded like an alien message when lying in a hammock inside Manacal’s school. But on 22nd November, there was a newsflash that Margaret Thatcher had resigned. The scene had strange similarities to when I was in a remote base in North Angola seven years later on 31st August 1997 and Princess Diana’s death was announced. Normally when travelling, I have found you are worried about missing things happening at home but so little changes. There are exceptions.

People

Before the project work, I will describe the people involved in the project.

Peter, Mark, Justine, and James. Our Henri-Lloyd waterproof jackets, provided at a generous discount, were essential with the daily rains.
Mark, our fearless leader! Our staying in the village was the local excitement so we often had visitors. While most of the time it was fun, sometimes we just needed to chill…
James was the first to realize that it was better not to wear the waterproof jacket when walking hard as you were getting wet with sweat anyway.
Justine sketching land use from an observation point looking across the valley at the village of Roma.
We found a fallen banana tree close to the trail where we walked each day. The villagers told us we could keep them and explained how we could ripen them in a plastic bag. They were a very welcome change from our staple diet of porridge/oatmeal and chocolate.
Chris Sharpe had advised Mark about the project from the outset. Chris lived in Venezuela and studied birds in the region. We could always rely on Chris to cheer us up when he visited.
James Pearce-Smith was a good friend of ours’ from college and visited for a while. He was very much the “Englishman abroad” and added to the fun.
To help us with initial orientation and to build local good will, we hired Cipriano (on the right) as our guide. We quickly learned that his metal water bottle was actually full of rum, and he wasn’t the most reliable. He helped our initial orientation so we could navigate the mountain independently.
An essential contact was Sr. Juan Bravo, the village’s commisario, who helped us immensely. The picture shows some of his family. His son in the middle had a terribly scarred leg from a snake when working his field. With no transportation in the village, we were extra cautious about snakes by always wearing boots and gaiters when hiking.
We were assisted by Carlos Monedero and Euro Segovia. They were experienced and accomplished scientists who worked for the ministry of the environment.
A group photo by the school. Sr. Claus Muller is on the left of the front row.

The Project Work

The fieldwork included four projects: (1) how vegetation changed with altitude on Cerro Humo, (2) investigation of Cerro Humo’s natural cloud forest, (3) mapping land usage on the southern slopes, and (4) a social study of the local communities. The first three projects required extensive hiking up the mountain daily, typically from 7am to 5pm, and then we needed to prepare dinner and write up results.

On this rare clear day, we could see the summit of Cerro Humo from Manacal. We would follow the ridge to get to the summit. There were few views from the upper slopes as the forest had not been cleared.

Project 1:
Above: Justine collects a soil sample, then James and Mark take pH readings.
Below: a sample of results showing the change in pH and mean annual temperature with altitude, and a representation of the tree coverage of a quadrat.

Cloud would frequently hug the forests.

Project 2:
Above: Surveying the cloud forest and having a lunch break. Crackers and chocolate were our daily lunch, and we actually got fed up with eating chocolate!
Below: A sample of results. Left shows the number of epiphytes that we found based on tree diameter and right shows the canopy coverage.

For Project 3, we needed accurate compass bearings for sketching across the valley. We had to use a tripod as we did not have a theodolite. However, we needed to improvise to move the compass away from the magnetic tripod, and we had plenty of empty oats containers as we ate huge amounts each morning for breakfast.

Project 3:
Above: The view across Roma ridge, and a representation of it by sketch.
Below: the first diagram shows a summary of the land use at various sites. “Hacienda” is cultivated forest with cacao or coffee trees and “conuco” is cleared field. One of the challenges with the sketching was working out the area when the view was at an angle. It’s lucky there were a couple of engineers in the team…

Mark was great at sketching the land use, but even better at posing for the camera!
This was one of my favourite shots from the field. On a rare clear day in the mountains, we could see the Gulf of Paria beyond Manacal. While we were enjoying the sunny skies, we could tell “it’s raining over there!”

Santa Isabel. A Refreshing Stay by the Sea.

To complete our studies on the north seaward side of Cerro Humo, we based ourselves out of Santa Isabel for a short while. Santa Isabel is a small remote fishing village on the coast, only accessible by boat. The whole vibe was more upbeat than Manacal, probably influenced by a kinder climate and a better diet with fish. It was a refreshing change from the relentless rain and humidity.

Hiking over the mountain to Santa Isabel. We had all learned it was better to hike without a waterproof jacket which would cause a lot of sweating.
Santa Isabel is a small fishing village, only accessible by boat.
A fisherman mends his nets. Adding fish into the local diet and economy had a positive impact on the local quality of life.
Houses looked better and people looked happier than in Manacal.
This baby was not so happy. She was our host’s daughter. I have a vivid memory of seeing her sitting in a hammock with a steady stream of pee descending from underneath her hammock. Fortunately, it wasn’t a hammock we were sleeping in!
We joined the ladies of the village to do our laundry in the river.
The constant sea breeze made sleeping in the hammocks very peaceful. Great ocean views too!

Playa Puy Puy: Bringing in 1991

We completed the field work just before the end of December and were able to head to a beach for new year. A Venezuelan company had generously rented a 4WD vehicle for us which gave us some valuable independence. Playa Puy Puy was the idyllic Caribbean beach where we hung our hammocks from palm trees and listened to the sea. While that was certainly refreshing, I also remember the relentless mosquitoes and a very bad case of food poisoning!

Playa Puy Puy was beautfiful.
We set up camp on the beach in the shade of some palm trees.
What a great way to relax…
… and pass the time watching palm trees sway in the wind.
As evening approached, the relentless mosquitoes came out. By this time, we were used to our mosquito nets.
The year came to an end on New Year’s Eve at this beach. Unfortunately, some fish we ate gave us terrible food poisoning, so the new year was brought in a different type of “memorable way.”

Playa Mochima: An Insight into Schlumberger Lifestyle

Before leaving for Venezuela, I had applied for a field engineer job with Schlumberger which I had accepted, with the starting location being agreed later. There was a Schlumberger base close to us in Puerto La Cruz which we visited so I could get more insight into the job. An engineer took us to a rig site to see an operation, and I remember how he looked like he hadn’t slept for a couple of days, which was probably true, but he was acting as tourist guide. I vividly remember a truck load of 100 30-ft pipes being bounced off the flatbed and crashing into the dirt, with the handlers pushing them by foot. Terrifying. I also remember how one of the helpers fetched extremely tasty steak for everyone for dinner. After a relaxing and cleansing night in a local hotel (which Schlumberger paid for), we joined the base personnel for a day at the beach, where everyone headed to Playa Mochima. This seemed like a great lifestyle, but the tiredness of the engineer was telling. As I learnt a few months later, the life of a Schlumberger field engineer was very aligned with my parents’ motto of “work hard and play hard.”

This is the only photo that I have from our visit with Schlumberger. Going to the beach on company time seemed a good deal! I later realized that it was very well earned…

Around this time during one of the infrequent calls home, my parents told me that they had spoken to the Schlumberger recruiter in England about my initial assignment. The recruiter had explained how I would start in one of two places: either Morecambe Bay in northwest England, or the Middle East. My mother, who had grown up close to Morecambe Bay, had explained to the recruiter that I had not joined a large international corporation to live in Morecambe, so I would be heading to the Middle East. I knew an adventure was in store as the first Gulf War had been brewing since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait earlier that year. In the end, I spent most of my time in Egypt and Oman so wasn’t close to any fighting. To stay with the theme, our daughter Bailey was born when the second Gulf War was starting.

Another vivid memory is how close I came to missing meeting my family on St Lucia for a delayed family Christmas in mid-January. There was one flight a week and I arrived at the airport late for various reasons. The plane had already left the gate but I somehow managed to persuade them to drive me out to the plane and get on at the end of the runway! I don’t know what I would have done if I had missed it. Once I was on the plane, all went well. My family were very happy to see me but insisted that I have a bath first!

A final memory was my return to Caracas. From the international airport I took a taxi to the city. On the outskirts of the airport, the taxi driver stopped to pick up a teenage boy, asking me if it was OK if we gave him a ride into town. I didn’t feel comfortable refusing. I dozed off on the way into the city but woke up feeling quite scared when the taxi was negotiating rough roads through the barrios (shanty towns) surrounding the city. This was where he was dropping off the boy, but I was fearing for my life. The experience emphasized the difference between the haves and have-nots.

Our Sojourn with the Branch’s and Getting Published!

On my return to Caracas, I joined the rest of the team who were staying with Hilary and Douglas Branch on their coffee plantation on the outskirts of town. Mark needed to close out the project with the scientists in Caracas and give some presentations of the provisional results. Hilary and Douglas graciously welcomed us into their home. Hilary wrote guidebooks to Venezuela and gave us great ideas about travels over the next month, and we shared the notes from our journeys which ended up in her future guides. Douglas was a fun host, always eager to share his passion for armoured tanks. They helped support the local community and locals would come for medical treatment. When one such local arrived with a bad cut on their arm, Douglas looked at me and said, “you know first aid, why don’t you look after this one?” Being trained is very different from treating someone, let alone a stranger. Anyhow, having cleaned the wound, applied a butterfly stitch and a bandage, the patient was happy!

My only photo of Hilary
My only photo of Douglas. Hilary and Douglas were so cool.

During our stay, we could explore Caracas once again from a more seasoned perspective, having been in country for several months. The Avila’s steep descent into the city remained a strong draw, though the contrast between the skyscrapers and the barrios was stark.

I loved visiting foreign lands and new experiences. I was happy to see how a pineapple grows!

It was exciting to be included in Hilary’s 1993 first edition of Bradt guide’s “Venezuela” with a mention in the Acknowledgements. Our published notes are so raw, and it is welcoming to see the publisher’s caution against gifts for children. I wander if anyone read our suggestions and followed in our footsteps to Manacal and Santa Isabel!

By the fourth edition of Hilary’s guide in 2003, the detailed description of Manacal had dropped out, but we were still in the acknowledgements.

The map of the area remained, and the Profile of Hike showing elevation and temperatures looks remarkably similar to a sketch in our report (see above). It is great that we were able to give just a little back after all the Branch’s generosity.

Reflection

That was the end of the field work and in-country reporting of the expedition and the team members started exploring other parts of Venezuela. Mark, James and I headed off to Merida to climb Pico Espejo in the Andes, and later I climbed the Auyan Tepui near Canaima. The end of this trip was a pivotal point in my life as I transitioned from a student to young professional. After returning from Venezuela, I ended up working in Oman in one of the hottest places on our planet while James headed south with the British Antarctic Survey for 2 1/2 years at one of the coldest locations on earth. Mark ended up emigrating to Perth, Australia.

My two expeditions established interests that have remained constant in my life. I have always been eager to explore other cultures, especially if it involves completing projects. My interest in hiking and scuba diving has persisted, and fortunately been more prevalent recently with our son Samuel. My continued desire to publish comes through in this blog! Revisiting these expeditions for this blog has reminded me of what is possible. I wonder what is next…

P.S. James shared with me a typed-up copy of my original notes about the Paria Peninsula which I have attached.

This page is linked to from my Venezuela home page.

Published by Peter Ireland

I am originally from England, and my wife Janet is from Louisiana. When we started Geocaching in 2002, we needed a name, and the Cajunlimeys were created, and that is the name I use for my blog. Even though Janet has no Cajun blood, her cooking is excellent! “Limeys” comes from the nickname for English sailors, who ate limes to prevent scurvy. We live in Houston, Texas, with Bailey and Samuel. We love adventures and want to share the experiences with others. When planning trips, I have found other people’s sites very useful, so I want to give back and add a different perspective.

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