HOLIDAY DISASTERS

She set off to find Conan Doyle's `Lost Country', but soon realised that El Nino had got there first ...

ate December 1998, eight thirtysomethings set off on the vacation of a lifetime to explore Conan Doyle's Lost World of Venezuela - including Mount Roraima and a river trip to Angel Falls. A panacea for all the stresses of life, and an escape from the British winter and all the Christmas commercialism.

Trek preparations were not without logistical problems - such as an elusive alcoholic trek leader with no kerosene. The trek commenced. Conditions were basic but this was "adventure travel" and so we strode towards the plateau of the Lost World... with a spring in our step.

Overcoming minor trials - river, mosquitoes and sandflies - we reached the plateau soaked by the rain but exhilarated. The rain never stopped. Dry season it may have been but Venezuela was experiencing the El Nino effect. Wet socks, wet boots, wet clothes. We were muddy, smelly, bedraggled and hungry in a pretty barren landscape.

Christmas Eve. Following a hearty breakfast of arepos (solid yellow flying saucers, supposedly made of corn), it became apparent that most of the planned activities were impossible because of the unrelenting rain. After lunch (cheese and ham, again), the afternoon was spent staring across the plateau at weird rock formations or reading chapters from The Lost World. Later, after several tense rounds of Mornington Crescent, it was time for supper: chicken soup with sweet potato. The vegetarian option was chicken soup sans chicken. This culinary delight was followed by prunes stewed in strong Venezuelan rum. I doubt prunes have ever been quite as popular as with this group of cold, damp travellers encamped beneath a rocky overhang, huddled in sleeping bags and reading aloud by torchlight. We all slept soundly that night: Christmas Day dawned in the usual fashion - with hangovers.

Festive spirit abounded as we prepared to descend this god-forsaken stony plateau, cheered by prospects of fresh provisions and alcohol. Donning our still-wet clothes, socks and boots, we descended in the rain. When we finally reached base camp, the rain stopped and we revelled in the almost sunshine. Three more hours to evening camp. Then the great deluge commenced. When you thought it was impossible to rain more, it rained. Soon, all paths flowed as rivers. Water swept over our ankles and into our boots as we trudged silently onwards, our festive spirit considerably dampened.

When we finally reached the Rio Kukenan, it had become impassable. Several other trekking groups had been lucky not to be swept away as floodwater torrented down river. Our tents were on the other side.

While our guides contemplated this conundrum, we sheltered under a yellow tarpaulin and continued reading Arthur's adventures. Would he fend off the dinosaurs and win beautiful Gladys?

Our trek leader announced that we would have to swim the river. Looks of panic were exchanged. This was not the local leisure centre. Tarpaulin transformed into a luggage-carrier, we stripped off, and dived to our fate in the torrent. Somehow we all managed to reach our guides instead of being swept over into the rapids.

Still muddy, still smelly, still wet - but alive - we had another hour of walking and another river to cross before relative comfort. A camp site to ourselves. Christmas night under a clear starlit Venezuelan sky, drinking wine and rum around a camp fire, eating pasta with cheese seasoned with river grit. Reflecting upon our families far away, enjoying turkey, port and Noel Edmonds, we were content in the knowledge that in spite of everything, we had made the right choice - a Christmas Day to remember. Incidentally, Arthur lost Gladys. To a solicitor's clerk.

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