Saturday, August 21, 2010

Flying Low And Slow

By Pat Browning

Sometimes the only way in and out of a place is by plane. The Alaskan wilderness is a place like that, and recent horrific plane crashes there brought back memories of my own small plane ride through a South American wilderness.

I was with a handful of tourists in an Avensa DC-9. On a shore excursion from the Greek cruise ship Stella Oceanis, we flew in and out of a box canyon just for a look through plane windows at the highest waterfall on earth.

The Stella Oceanis – Star of the Ocean -- was berthed at Puerto Ordaz on Venezuela’s Orinoco River. Angel Falls was a fly-by on our way to Camp Canaima in the Guiana Highlands, a vast granite block lying south of the river and bordering Brazil and Colombia.

It’s only on looking back, and scrolling through off-color YouTube videos, that I realize what a treacherous adventure that was. The Stella Oceanis ran the excursion like a walk in the park. The flight to Angel Falls took 25 minutes. The pilot allowed us into the cockpit three at a time to take photos of the Falls as we flew in and out of Devil’s Canyon, a natural fortress with cliffs on three sides. We were barely back in our seats before the plane touched down in a jungle clearing that served as Canaima Airport. Smooth. Nary a wobble or bobble the entire time.

Canaima was another world. I was on assignment for TravelAge West, and wrote in my report: “On a good day, Camp Canaima is like the Garden of Eden with indoor plumbing. It’s on a magnificent lagoon, with Las Hachas Falls and the tepuis (table-top mountains) for a backdrop. There’s music with a latin beat in the bar, but on the beach the only sounds are the wind in the trees and the roar of the falls.”

Close by was a small Indian village and a jungle supermarket. I bought a blowgun in the supermarket, and some bead necklaces from women sitting along the beach path.

A little history: The famous waterfall was the jungle’s secret until Jimmie Angel stumbled across it while looking for something else. According to Wikipedia:

“They (the falls) were not known to the outside world until American aviator Jimmie Angel flew over them on 16 November 1933 on a flight while he was searching for a valuable ore bed.

“Returning on October 9, 1937, Angel tried to land his Metal Aircraft Corporation Flamingo monoplane El Río Caroní; atop Auyan-tepui, but the plane was damaged when the wheels sank into the marshy ground, and he and his three companions, including his wife Marie, were forced to descend the tepui on foot. It took them 11 days to make their way back to civilization, but news of their adventure spread, and the waterfall was named Angel Falls in his honor.

“Angel's plane remained on top of the tepui for 33 years before being lifted out by helicopter. It was restored at the Aviation Museum in Maracay and now sits outdoors on the front of the airport at Ciudad Bolívar.”

My cruise through the West Indies aboard the Stella Oceanis was the trip of a lifetime, but I hadn’t thought of it in years. This week I spent hours with Google trying to track down the ship. Seems it ended up with Royal Olympic Cruises, an amalgamation of Epirotiki and Sun Line Cruises and sailed European waters until its demise in 2002.

Where do old cruise ships go to die? To Kumar Steel in Alang, India, where they are broken down for scrap metal. Such was the fate in 2002 of Stella Oceanis – Star of the Ocean – a honey of a small ship that braved the waters of the world with style and grace.
Canaima Lagoon photo from; Photos of Angel Falls and Jimmie Angel’s plane from Wikipedia.

1 comment:

Mark W. Danielson said...

Fun post, Pat. What are the odds of a pilot being named Angel?

Flying is always an adventure, but like the sea, is terribly unforgiving. Every pilot is aware of the dangers. Some handle it better than others. The Alaska crash that killed Stevens and several others is a reminder that no matter how experienced you are, your next flight could be your last if you don't do everything right. Glad you had such an enjoyable experience on your flight and cruise.