Monday 3 April 2017

Cruise aboard Ponant Le Soleal: Nature and nurture along the Orinoco River


Even the most worldly among us will most likely admit they cannot pinpoint the Orinoco River, yet this substantial waterway shares many attributes of its larger neighbour, the Amazon.

Its huge 25,000 sq km delta in Venezuela drains water at the rate of 36,000 cubic metres per second, not far behind that of Africa's Congo. It gathers this water from the same catchment as the Amazon and is joined to it by the Rio Negro way upstream in Colombia. Naturally enough, the ecosystems and animal species it contains are pretty close to that of the Amazon with plenty of birds, some pink dolphins plus the usual fishes, reptiles and amphibians.

First spotted by Columbus in 1498, it was later explored by Walter Raleigh while searching for El Dorado and Alexander von Humboldt, among others who went on to describe the flora and fauna as well as its potential for exploitation.

As per usual, curious locals surrounded Le Soleal as she lay at anchor off La Tortuga, one hundred or more kilometres from the coast. Instead of little brightly painted barges with tiny outboard motors, these villagers paddled dugout canoes hewn from solid logs and bore a much closer resemblance to the original indigenous inhabitants who would have greeted the earliest explorers.

Armed customs officials drew nervous glances from passengers as they mingled in the lounge, but all soon settled when our uniformed visitors relaxed with fresh sandwiches and coffee.

After clearance, Le Soleal proceeded upstream and began Zodiac expeditions into the narrower streams that flowed from the main channel. A night exploration was a little disappointing, but a cayman was captured by hand by one of the naturalists, Christophe. Not by me unfortunately. Otherwise we had our daytime fill of macaws, hoatzin, raptors and sundry LBBs. I could feel my inner twitcher rejoice at my first sighting of a hummingbird in action and I offer the blurry photographic evidence as proof.

Our expedition team, led by Raphael, also learned that the residents in this region were particularly badly affected by the current, very serious economic difficulties in Venezuela. What rudimentary settlements there were had no power and had often not seen doctors, dentists or teachers for several years. Yes, years. So a small humanitarian mission was quickly organised and sent to the nearby village of Manoa, a hamlet of perhaps 400 individuals, half of whom were children.

Led by Captain Debien, the ship's doctor, nurse and passenger, Bill Spilker, a retired medico from Texas, surplus provisions, simple medicines, clothing, footwear and even our half-used bathroom amenities were gathered and bundled together for careful distribution to the hundred or more locals and children present at the schoolhouse. Ponant had earlier provided discretionary funds for such an occasion, and these were used to buy school materials and other items mainly for children.

"They were in fair shape considering," Bill told me later on the ship, "but at least we know the most common ailments now and what to bring next time."

This event was not attended by passengers so as not to overwhelm the unprepared villagers, who were already in awe of this massive vessel in their midst. However it was clear that, following this inaugural exchange and warm civic greeting, a more regular and pre-planned interaction is likely between Ponant and Manoa in the future. Small perhaps, but nevertheless a meaningful encounter that may slightly improve the lives of some of these hardy, but isolated people.

For further information about Ponant's vast range of expeditions and destinations, see

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