Wish You Were Here!
Bush Pilot in Paradise

While I was doing the Caravan amphib training for LTA, I had a chance to take a side trip on one of their excursions. Being a full service company they not only fly you to your destination, but provide the sail boat and guides to take you on your chosen outing. During the training I had a chance to visit Marguerite Island, but for this trip I decided to have a look at one of the less developed of the Caribbean islands known for it's wild life sanctuary. The Los Roques Archipelago National Park
Off the north shore of Venezuela, lies a loosely associated chain of islands that mark the southern reaches of the Caribbean Sea. If you fancy the majority of the Caribbean Islands as looking like an ancient sea scorpion, the Hispaniola Island would be the head, the Leeward and Windward Islands would be the bulk of the tail, and the southern sweep of the Lesser Antilles uplift would be the whip end of the tail.
On the far edge of the South American continental shelf, the island chain from, east to west, is made up of the islands Blanquilla, Orchila, Los Roques, Bonaire, Curacao, and the tip of the simile's tail, Aruba. It is the southern segment of the tail that intrigued me the most if no other reason than having read numerous promotional stories about the spectacular diving opportunities. Any diver worth their weightlessness in salt, would have had suspended dreams of plunging into the abysses of the northern Bonaire Basin. I know I have.
Diving the depths of Aruba or Bonaire, however, is still floating in my dreams. I did, however, get to visit a lesser known group of the far flung chain, called Islas Los Roques, which, according to my Berlitz Spanish cd-rom, means "island of the rock." How I ended up there is another story. I actually came to Venezuela to take a trip into the Orinoco Delta rainforest. When I found out that I was going to have some time on my hands for one day, I did what every red blooded tourist does. I went to the Sheraton hotel travel desk and queued in behind a group of British Airways crew members looking for a day trip. Early the next morning I found myself at the domestic airport with a booking in hand for the Los Roque Archipelago National Park.
The check-in at Linea Turistica Aereotuy's, or LTA for short, airline counter was confident, efficient, and somewhat unhurried. Myself and about 22 other day trippers were led away to a bus to board the four engine Dash 7 turbo-prop aircraft with the bright yellow sun tagged on the tail. Here we were joined by several others and before I knew it we were airborne. The pilot did an on time take-off from runway 09 straight into the sun. We then turned northbound to the islands lying less than 100 miles off the coast.
About 25 minutes later a group of coral cays and islands appeared on the horizon. My first impression was that of how big the group of islands were. There are more than 50 islands and keys situated above the extensive coral reefs circling a huge central lagoon comprising a total area of 221,120 hectares of protected natural park. Much more park than anyone could visit in a day.
From the air the blue azure water glistened in the mellow morning light. The Dash 7 Captain circled the only runway of the islands, built on the main residential island Gran Roque. I could only imagine the reason for circling was to shoo the goats off the landing area, or at least let the park officials know we were here. After landing we were checked in with the park rangers and paid a fee for the day. "If you want to play you have to pay." The fees go toward protecting the park's natural environment. Ecotourism is the big watch word for LTA and for Venezuela in general. Tourism in sustainable only if you protect what the tourists are paying to see. In this case, beaches, birds, and butterfly fish.
Our day trip consisted of boarding one of LTA's specially built catamarans for a short sail/cruise to several different islands, with stops for snorkeling and visits to sensational white sand beaches the Caribbean is famous for. As we strolled through the tiny fishing-come-tourist village on our way to the boat, I was already regretting not booking for the overnight stay in one of the picturesque inns Posadas. Alas, my schedule did not allow it, but I made a note in my journal for next time. "Stay in Gran Roque. Bring rum! Oh, and wife too."

Los Roque Boarding This from my journal as well as we waited to board the catamaran... "List of beach paraphernalia: disintegrated car battery, rusted tin cans, wicked looking fish bones, one plimsole, and a 'we are the world' coke can." A quick reality check made me remember where I was. In truth, I was in the heart of a 1000 inhabitant plus fishing village where what the tourists came to see was the fisherman's home. Their environment was this perfect place of heaven on earth. But, did they know that? Did they care? I wanted to find out.
The crew of the "Hurakan," our catamaran for the day, was a mix and match pair of guides, Gustavo and Anamaria, as well as the skipper and his mates. We boarded the Hurakan from a beach skiff, and the crew started early to coax their guests to relax. As the skipper got us under way, Gus, a barrel chested red faced machismo, put on his first show of the trip. He carried out the scene stealing acts of dressing up as the jungle king, and later cross dressing as a woman, with the best saved for last. Baby Huey, complete with diaper and the largest rubber nanny known to babies and thumb-suckers alike.

Gus an' GuitarI get easily embarrassed for other people, especially where they are seen to being doing something dumb for an even dumber group of tourists, just because that is their job. "Just how bad do you need the work, kid?" But, with Gus' high antics, I never felt the slightest trace of embarrassment on his or my part. I had this gut feeling that he did the show, lipstick and all, because, well....because he enjoyed it! He enjoyed being the ham, the slapstick comedian, the clown. On the ship of fools he was the king. And we were his subjects, his reason for being. A king for and by the people. And by the reaction of the people on the boat, they loved him too. All tensions and most inhibitions melted away in the heat of Gus' glowing exhibitionism.
Anamaria, the more reserved half of the crew, born of an Italian mother, was a doer. While Gus was carrying on singing and crying out his scene's dialogue in Spanish, Anamaria was doing. Something, everything. The skipper was setting the sails and getting us set up for the cruise, and soon we were on the open water of the lagoon. The day was spectacularly Caribbean idyllic. Soft blue sky with gentle clear blue waves slapping the sides of the pontoons. All sights and sounds of civilization faded away as we left the vicinity of the tiny village.

Ana the Doer
As I met some of my fellow tourists, I realized that many of those on board spoke either Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese with enough Spanish to get by. Those who didn't, spoke enough English, and we all managed to communicate one way or another. In this tiny speck of Caribbean, we had the meeting of at least 2 Germans, 2 Italians, 2 Americans, 2 Norwegians and their cranky baby, several couples from Argentina, several single Venezuelan girls, a Venezuelan couple with their little girl, and the prerequisite Japanese. Plus me the Canadian.
I did not remember many of them from our flight this morning, but it turns out LTA runs day trips from Marguerite Island as well. Plus, some of those with us were staying on Gran Roque island and were actually participating in their second day trip. The Italians had been there done that already, and their severely over-baked peeling red skin proved it beyond doubt. I resolved to be the one to inform the Italians that no one had yet found the cure for skin cancer, or severe sunburn for that matter.
Talking to everyone on board, I discovered that getting sunburn is kind of like being hungover. You can't possibly have a good time without suffering the consequences. I stuck to the tried and true method of abstinence. I covered up and stayed out of the sun as much as possible. I can safely say that the system worked, because other than the obviously immune crew, I was the only person who never got a sunburn. Now if I can only carry that practice over to hangovers. (Note out of my journal: "fat chance.")

Sailboat Harbour      As the smooth sailing catamaran neared our first stop, I felt the undertow pulling me toward the clear waters of the snorkeling bay. After anchoring the boat, Gus led the way to the bay. The tide was high, spilling over the protective reef, and stirring the waters more than usual. The visibility for snorkeling, however, was still excellent. Below us spread a catalog of the undersea world, including parrot fish, clown fish, and the reef hugging jacks.
After everyone else had gone back ashore, Gus led myself and the sunburnt Italian gal over the reef to the outside wall. Only then did I realize the tide was going out. Getting back inside over the reef proved lung sucking difficult and both Gus and the Italian machismo gal slapped each other on the back for their obvious bravado. My arms were too tired from the long swim to slap anyone. But, I must admit, Gus did warn me it would be difficult. I guess the French in me got the best of my better judgment after being challenged by the other two Latin derivatives.

Walk on the Beach

Article and Images by John S Goulet

Part Two follows....... Let the attitude indicator guide you there.
 

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Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
Virtual Horizons, 1996.