Wow, where to start. The last ten days have been some of the most special in my life, and as I sit here trying to explain to you just how memorable it was, I can’t seem to find words that would do it justice. It is very difficult to describe what was almost a spiritual awakening and sense of connection with mother earth, and that may sound daft, but that is truly how it felt. So let me see if I can give you a small glimpse into what is the wonder of the Catatumbo phenomena.
I was greeted by my host and guide Alan Highton. The gods were truly smiling down on me when they put his name and number on my internet screen that day last year. We had numerous chats over the months and he gave me all the info needed to make this trip happen, and also kindly arranged my hotels and internal flights in Venezuela. First class treatment all the way.
Alan met me at El Vigia airport and immediately I knew this was going to be a good trip. The warm smile and greeting would put anyone one at ease. We set off for the river where we were to catch the boat for the 2 hour journey to the Catatumbo. About 45 minutes later we arrived at the port and Alan disappeared briefly, only to return with possibly the best tasting beer I have ever had (mainly due to how hot it was and the beer was ice cold). We all bundled into the boats and set off for what would be a spectacular 3 days.
Lake Maracaibo is huge – the largest lake in South America and you get this sense of grandeur as you speed along the lake. We had left quite late and needed to get to the village before dark but this was a blessing in disguise. Along the way we got to see the formation of the storms that would bring us our lightening. Huge cloud columns filled the horizon with various shapes and forms. I just knew this was going to be fun when Alan turned around and pointed to a cloud and said it reminded him of some animal. Memories of childhood, lying on our backs and staring at the clouds looking for shapes filled my mind. This trip was to be full of those special and laugh out loud moments.
As the sun slowly said farewell, and the moon greeted us good evening, I was left utterly breathless at the beauty and peace of this great, vast body of water.
As the sky got darker we got a glimpse of our home for the next 2 nights. We unpacked and chose our bed for the night before settling into a nice meal, cold beers, and shit loads of insect repellent. I came well prepared as the mossies do love me and I knew there were going to be a few around. However I didn’t think the whole of the Venezuelan mossie community was going to descend on this one little house. Frigging hell I looked like I was having an epileptic fit most of the time trying to shoo them away. After dinner Alan advised everyone to get a few hours sleep before the lightening started as we would be up all night.
There was no way I could sleep in this place – with so much beauty and calmness, I didn’t want to miss one second of what it had to offer. I sat on the little pier/platform with my drink and thoughts, and nearly cried out of happiness. Red eyes of the Caymen glared back at me no more than 15 feet away in the water but I felt safe as Alan had reassured me that all was fine. Supposedly they are not into humans. I meditated, gave thanks and just took in all that beauty around me. And then it started. Those giant clouds that had formed earlier now started to display it’s light show and boy was it one big show. I reverted to that silly 10 year old who giggles and squeals with delight at something special. Poor Alan had to put up with many of those moments from me during this trip.
The Reuters film crew hurriedly set up their cameras as did the government guests. I however got special treatment from Alan as this had originally been a private trip and he wanted to make sure he still gave me as much attention as possible to get my images. As I have no experience filming lightening, he came in very handy as a teacher. He has been taking amazing shots over the years which have been seen all around the world and in the likes of National Geographic, so I couldn’t have asked for a more experienced mentor.
What happened over the next few hours and into daylight just cannot be explained. Surreal, achingly beautiful, heart stopping at some points and a feeling of empowerment, yet realising how small we are compared to this magnificent display before our eyes. You could not wipe the smile off my face from pure joy (except when I got another mossie bite). Man I am sure they were on steroids or something.
Cameras were put away briefly at dawn and it was time for breakfast and then on to a river safari into the jungles to see the many species of butterfly, of which two sub species were discovered by Alan and named after him and his grandfather, who had got him interested as a kid. More beauty around every bend on the river, with a number of sightings of rare butterfly and birds. There is so much to see in these almost virgin forests and waterways.
Back for lunch and then onto the little village of Congo (another village built on the water) to get images and visit the locals. Man what friendly people they were. Left as the sun was setting to get back in time for dinner and round number two of what the Catatumbo is good at – lightening.
Once again no sleep could be had and now we had gone about 36 hours without it. At one stage I think I was hallucinating as I started seeing strange forms running across the water. Our two Reuters film crew started taking on weird forms as well when they were in the distance and at one point I had no idea what I was looking at. But the thing that got me the most was how quickly things change there. One minute Alan and myself were lying on the platform looking up at this incredible sky, packed with stars so bright you didn’t need a light, and turned away to have a brief word with one of the guests and when we looked back again there was not one star in the sky. At that stage I thought maybe I was loosing my marbles, but I was assured that this was a normal pattern in the area. No sooner had that happened, there were a few flashes of light and then then stars were back. The rest headed to bed and I lay there staring into space once again. I was having a field day counting the shooting stars, and then what I thought might have been a comet as it was so big with this green trail behind it as it shot across the sky. Then came the lightening again.
I shot for a few hours and at about 4.30am it died down slightly so I decided to lie down and try get an hours sleep.
But as soon as I lay down my mind just kept racing and then I heard Alan calling me as a mother of a storm was about to happen. God bless that man as he knows this lightening like the back of his hand, and because of that, I got the money shot. I could have kissed him. I think I did some form of mad mans dance around him after I got those few shots and I had him to thank for that. It was now 48 hours of now sleep for us and we had the rest of the day to go. Amazing what adrenaline can do for a person.
Our last breakfast in the Catatumbo, then a sense of urgency to take in as much as possible before heading out later. Once again we all piled back into the boats and headed out to the Maracaibo lake. Alan had told me of the river dolphins and how they swim alongside. I had not yet seen them, but they didn’t disappoint, and a whole pod of them glided through the waters next to us. My mind went immediately to my good friend Rae, who has a special connection with dolphins and I wished she could have been here with me to witness them. We had stopped to chat to a group of people who were coming out to stay at Alan’s house on the water for a couple of days. They had been late in arriving so we passed them on the river. Once we bid them farewell, I closed my eyes and let my mind wonder while the warm breeze fanned my face. I must have been like that for a good 5 or 10 minutes and on opening my eyes I nearly flipped. I thought I had maybe died and gone off to another world. When I opened my eyes I couldn’t see water or sky. All that was in front of me was this brilliant white light. It was so freaky and took me a couple seconds to figure out what was going on. The sediment from the rivers creates this almost white hue in the water which was the same colour as the sky, so you could not see the horizon. One just blended into the other and it was a world of brilliance. There was no beginning or end and that was quite a trip. When I did understand what was going on, I was somewhat disappointed and wanted to go back to my original vision as it was such an intense moment. There were so many of these moments on this trip and I was hoping the rest of my journey through Venezuela would bring me something even a little bit close to what I had had.
Once we hit land, we headed off for lunch and then dropped the crew back at their planes and buses. It was now just Alan, Arsenio our driver and myself. We were both looking forward to a quieter trip.