Travel long haul: Learn a little respect for piranhas

You need to come to terms with one of the world's most fearsome fish when you canoe up Venezuela's Orinoco river.
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Catching piranhas along the Orinoco river is easy. All you need is a six foot stick from the end of which is tied a short length of line ending in a wire leader and a small baited hook. Thrash the end of your stick on the surface of the water for a few seconds (an approach that would send most fish diving for deep water but seems to attract this voracious predator). Wait a few seconds until something has snatched your bait before striking decisively. Simple.

The thing is, it is all a bit too easy. After hooking two or three in as many minutes it doesn't take long to conclude that the Orinoco must be full of piranhas - the species that ranks a close second in the fearsome fish league. Of course, horror stories of human flesh being stripped to the bone in a 30-second scarlet jacuzzi are largely unproven. But when you are up the Orinoco with a paddle it's a thought that gives you a real sense of purpose when it's your turn on bailing duty.

A boat trip along part of this mighty waterway is one of the highlights of a visit to Venezuela. Aside from piranhas and all the other fascinating flora and fauna found along the river and its environs, there is an opportunity to meet some of the indigenous residents and simply to enjoy being on one of the world's great tropical rivers.

It is also one of the longest. Rising in the highlands that form part of the border with Brazil in the far south of the country, the Orinoco wanders for 1,340 miles around Venezuela in a huge arc. Along the way, around 2,000 rivers and streams join its course, creating one of the world's most voluminous rivers that stretches 12 miles from bank to bank at its widest. It is, however, the river's most diminutive statistic that is perhaps the most extraordinary: along the entire length there is only one bridge.

Exploring the river independently, whilst not impossible, can be very expensive and not particularly practical. There are no passenger services to speak of, so most visitors join an organised tour. Travelling in small groups, these can range from a simple day-trip to a 10-day adventure following in the wake of influential 18th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt along the upper reaches of the Orinoco and unspoilt rainforests in Amazonas, Venezuela's southernmost state.

I joined one of the more popular tours, an overnight trip to the river's expansive delta where the Orinoco splits into a tangle of rivers, channels and estuaries before spilling into the Atlantic. Covering10,000 square miles, it is a hot and wet region of mangrove swamp, thick jungle and tropical forest full of wildlife and inhabited by a sizeable population of Warao Indians.

Most delta tours begin in the steamy river town of Tucupita from where you pick up a fast launch and head downstream to one of the camps dotted around the region. Once on the river the advantage of travelling with a organised group became clear as our guide swung the boat from one bank to the other, pointing out some of the wildlife that thrives along the river. At the water's edge, herons stabbed, kingfishers plunged and vultures waited, while out in the flow pink-and-grey freshwater dolphins nosed up out of the tea-coloured water. Now and again we would lunge alarmingly towards the riverbank, cut the throttle and glide to a halt under the overhanging trees to receive an ear bashing from a family of howler monkeys who bellowed down at us from high up in the canopy.

Everyone had a good laugh on arrival at the camp when instructed not to kill any tarantulas or snakes that might have strayed into the huts, but to simply put them outside. Somehow it didn't seem quite so funny when fumbling in the dark trying to light candles whose glow barely reached the floor, never mind the darkest corners.

But encountering creatures that creep, crawl, slither, jump and often bite is all part of visiting the Orinoco delta. Part of the tour took us on a short trek from the riverbank into the jungle, an environment so hot, humid and alive with such creatures as to be simultaneously fascinating and unbearable.

Again, having a guide proves invaluable. Without one, you could end up learning the hard way about scorpions, snakes, spiders, inch-long 24 hour ants (so called because their bite hurts like hell for that long), and trees whose trunks are armed with fearsome spikes. You will also, while collecting palm hearts for dinner and sweet water from the spongy core of a tree, learn how the jungle provides much of the necessary materials, medicine and nourishment needed by the Warao.

It is an equally absorbing experience, although far more comfortable, out on the river in a Warao dugout. Sitting low in the water with two people paddling and one bailing, you can slip quietly through flotillas of water hyacinths, examining the extraordinary flowers that dangle from water coconut and cannonball trees along the river's edge as toucans and parakeets flap between trees in the canopy overhead.

Whining outboard motors seem a harsh intrusion on this peaceful mode of river transport, but a fast motor boat is essential for covering distances and to outrun downpours. They enable you to travel deep into the eastern side of the delta inhabited by most of the Warao indians.

Venezuela's second largest indigenous group live along the river bank in palafitos, open-sided dwellings with palm thatch roofs raised on stilts. In a country where most towns and cities have all the trappings of late 20th-century living, they have continued to live the way they always have, fishing, making canoes, existing in harmony with the Orinoco. Most tours include a pre-arranged rendezvous with a Wa (canoe) arao (people) family.

Back at the camp, leisure time is spent lounging around in hammocks or fishing for piranhas and learning a little more about this respected predator from the camp staff. Averaging around seven inches, piranhas tend to travel in loosely organised shoals hunting primarily at sunrise and in the late afternoon. Although drawn to frantic splashing, it is fresh blood that attracts piranhas in large numbers and sometimes induces the feeding frenzy that has given rise to its somewhat fishy reputation as a man-eater.

The other common misrepresentation is to confuse piranhas with their vegetarian relative, the pacu, identified by a much smaller lower jaw and generally less threatening looks.

In the turbid waters of the Orinoco, however, by the time you make the distinction it may be too late.

Fact File

Getting there: Jon Winter paid pounds 439 for a flight from Heathrow to Caracas on Iberia via Madrid, booked through Trailfinders (0171-938 3366). KLM and Air France also fly there via Amsterdam and Paris respectively. The only non-stop flights are three times a week on BA from Gatwick.

Tours: you can book trips to the Orinoco delta from many places in Venezuela. Prices (about pounds 60 a day) include transfers to and from Tucupita (usually by light aircraft or DC3s).

Internet sites and Venezuelan specialists in the UK: www.orinocotours.com has information and pictures on numerous Venezuelan tours.

Venezuelan Specialists Geodyssey (0171-281 7788) and Last Frontiers (01844 208405) also offer a range of options.

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