Amazing lightning spectacle

Trip Start Sep 28, 2007
Trip End Jun 25, 2008

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Flag of Venezuela  ,
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

For our first organised trip in Venezuela, we went off to see the Maracaibo lightning. It is known as the almost constant lightning at night without sound but this is not true. It can be seen from a long distance away, where you can't hear the sound, so that is probably why that myth was born.

Leaving Mérida, we stopped to look at the arid region close outside with the vultures circling and the large cactus and the sugar cane factory. It was impressive to see the huge plumes of steam as the water was being driven off the sugar cane juice to leave a sticky substance like fudge that they scooped into rectangle moulds before it set.

We also stopped on the way at a coffee farm, and learned how they prepare the beans for export.  I didn't realise that beans are roasted in the country where they will be drunk.  

We stopped for lunch for yummy fried chicken (and less yummy yucca which a guy on the trip said tasted as he imagined candle wax would).

After a few more hours driving we were at the port town of Concho, where they sell the blue crabs abundant in Lake Maracaibo.

We went up the river seeing lots of hawks and  falcons, iguanas and red howler monkeys.

Once we got out of the river way and into the lake we saw fresh water dolphins, with their red bellies and oddly, a caiman. The fishermen taking us in the boat had never seen a live Caiman in the lake, only dead ones that had floated out from the rivers. The one we saw didn't look too well, he only made a quick movement when he hit his head on our boat. It made me feel sad and helpless like I'd felt watching the man die near El Valle. 

Lake Maracaibo is  the third largest fresh water lake in the world. It's not a true fresh water lake as it does flow out to sea, but the water is 95% fresh. Cruising along you feel like you could be out at sea.

Just before sundown we got to the little village on stilts where we would be spending the night, Congo.

When the Spanish discovered Venezuela they came in Lake Maracaibo and found villages on stilts, which is why they called the country Venezuela or little Venice. No one knows what happened to the original stilt village with the indigenous people, but more stilt villages were set up by freed slaves.

In Congo, there were lots of black people and they named it Congo in honour of their homeland.

Everyone uses boats (or other floating objects) to get around. Two small boys were bobbing along in cut out plastic containers and the next day we saw a woman paddling what looked like a folded up and plastic covered mattress.  'Go quick', the boys on our trip called out, as it looked like it could sink at any moment.

We spent the night in a rustic place and slept, a small amount, in hammocks slung around the deck covered in mosquito nets. They were very comfortable, but we weren't there to sleep, we were there to watch the lightning, if we were lucky.

Coming into the dry season,  the lightening is only guaranteed until mid November (we were there early December). The pattern in the wet season is red lightning just after it gets dark until about 10pm on one side and then 'big mama' as our tour guide called it, on the other. It begins anytime from about 1am and continues until it is light.

The lightening phenomenon is  thought to be caused by the unique combination of a large very warm lake (the water can reach over 30 degrees as it is not very deep and smaller lagoons in the area over 40 degrees) combined with the close proximity of two high  mountain  ranges up to 5000 metres. As the freezing air descends it meets the warm  humid air from the lake. The lightning is so constant that sailors would navigate by the red lightning, so it is also called the Maracaibo beacon.

At seven in the evening we all lined up to watch on little stools, looking like moviegoers. Sure enough,we started seeing flashes an orange colour. We saw a couple of volts but it was mild. We had dinner and retired to hammocks at about 10pm.

At 2.30am we were woken up by Alan our tour leader, as 'big mama' had started.

He is an amazing guy. He has done the trip countless times but is still super enthusiastic about it, always leaping up to grab his tripod and set up his camera. He has got into photography two years ago and has taken some fantastic shots. We'd seen his collection of best of on CD the day before, so I was keen to get some lessons from him. The best way to get photos of the lightening is to focus on the village lights in the distance and then set up the camera in the direction of the lightening,  opening the shutter for a minute. He got lucky. Two bolts occurred in the same minute so he has both on his picture. Our cameras are not up for that, but we got videos and the odd OK shot.

We were really lucky as from when we started  watching at 2.30am it built and built until at around 4am it was right over head, only about 5km away.  The myth about no thunder was blown out of the water, and I recorded some just to prove it.

The lightning created an eerie purple colour and was  mesmerising to watch, even as I became more and more tired.

It rained a lot while we watched the lightening, but close to daybreak, the rain stopped and Alan got  really excited again. The conditions were building for 'Freddy' as he calls it where the lightning is overhead and lights up the whole sky with horizontal volts. 'It's less than 10 minutes away,' he said, setting up his camera. But then it rained again. ''Oh no, the rain kills Freddy,' he said. We were disappointed but also grateful we had seen such a spectacle when it wasn't the season. I was also quite happy to slink off to my hammock to have an hour of sleep before breakfast.

After breakfast we went and explored the village of Congo. It cracked me up that outside the church they also had a plaza of about four metres square with a statue of Venezuela's favourite man, Simon Bolivar, in the centre. You'd have to boat to it, but there were a circle of seats to hang out on.

We went up the tower in the church and looked out.

We came back through the Catatumbo river and then on to a butterfly watching spot. Alan's other great enthusiasm is butterflies that his grandfather had taught him about.   In the secluded river passage he took us to, he had found a different subspecies of Morpho butterfly where the female is grey,  not the vivid blue. He is going to name it after his grandfather. 

It was  a beautiful spot. Very green with the water black from all the decomposing plants and a strong smell of methane from that.

First he caught an ordinary morpho to show us and then set about catching the queen as he calls the new subspecies. It flies five metres up in the channel, back and forth as though patrolling, but only in full sun. It has a very distinct flying pattern. Alan saw one coming but it fled into the jungle. After awhile another one came from the other direction but he missed it, but we saw the vivid blue colour of the male and it was funny to see Alan lunging with his net on a huge pole. It's hard not to look comical with a butterfly net I think.

Soon after we were back to the small port and in the truck headed back for Mérida, tired but largely satisfied with the trip.

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