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Delta Days - Julie Vaughan top

Her foot touched my finger. Lightly, almost imperceptibly. She withdrew, turned slightly and patted my finger again. Then she gingerly climbed aboard the back of my hand, strolled across and deftly stepped off the other side. What surprised me was how featherlight the spider was. As soon as contact had been made, my fear and reluctance melted away and turned to fascination.

The reddy-brown tarantula lives with its friends among the overlapping palm leaves rising inexorably to the ridge of the great roof that encompasses the Delta Orinoco Lodge. The lofty space below is filled with rustic furniture, potted banana trees and, at meal times, the chatter of visitors of many nationalities. The hall was built with the help of local villagers in only 45 days despite its great size.

The locals are Warao indians of the El Guamal community. The simple palm-thatched adobe houses, of which Delta Orinoco Lodge is a magnified echo, stretch along this branch of the Caño Mánamo river, the principal channel forming the western side of the upper Orinoco Delta. The Caño Mánamo flows 110 km north before emptying into the Atlantic at the Golfo de Paria on Venezuela's north-eastern shoreline.

We paddled our canoe past the Warao's huts and into a side channel. Water pineapples balanced on long thin stems rising from the surface of the water. The Warao use these, cooked, as fish bait. The piranas were more interested in meat. We fished a few from the otherwise still waters and were careful with our toes as they flopped around in the base of the boat. More often than not the hooks came up clean, stripped of the bait we'd carefully threaded onto them, cheated of the voracious fish congregating around us.

With a setting sun we made our way back to the lodge. Fires were dotted along the bank - the indians were cooking supper. Their staple is a type of pan baked bread made from grated yucca roots. A cake of drained shreds is pressed into the base of a pot, baked over a fire and the resulting bread set aside for daily consumption. The Venezuelan authorities provide the Warao with additional food intended for the children. When had arrived earlier that Saturday afternoon, balancing with difficulty across a bridge made from a crooked log, a large pot was steaming. It contained a chicken and yam stew. We shared some. The less than robust metal spoon had difficulty maintaining its posture as I attacked the yam, sticky and dense. The children were well-behaved. A plastic doll lay face down, akimbo in the dirt. Mothers in floral cotton dresses sat in the shade with babies on their laps.

Many of the small children attend the school sponsored by Tucupita Expeditions. There are around 22 regular students who are taught from 7:30 am to around 1 pm, when the boat turns up to ferry them to their riverside homes. There are also a number of transient students whose families come and go. A young woman from Tucupita, the capital of the province, is their teacher. The pupils arranged themselves along the bank as we chatted to her. They were more interested in 2 little girls in our boat coming home for the weekend from school in Tucupita than in the nosy westerners. There was a single classroom with a blackboard and chairs when we visited. Tucupita Expeditions are in the course of building a new larger schoolhouse across the river. Visitors to Delta Orinoco Lodge have the chance to contribute to the school's upkeep.

It was twilight when we returned to the lodge from our fishing trip, guided by the oil lamps lighting the wooden boardwalks between the lodge and individual cabins. The cabins are simple but comfortable, open on all sides but screened with full mosquito netting, each with shower and toilet. In the full moon which rose that night, the palms behind our cabin took on unnatural forms but to the front the river lay shining through the A-frame, palm-fringed silhouette of the cabin. The river is tidal, changing direction throughout the day. The same water hyacinth sliding one way at daybreak and gliding back by lunch, retracing its steps by dinner.

The full moon was out the following night too over the Simoina Camp. This is also a creation of Tucupita Expeditions. It is set deeper into the jungle interior of the delta, north along the Manamo, not far inland from the Atlantic skirting the delta's radius. At Simoina there is peace and tranquillity in abundance. The smoked glass waters of this "black" river reflect the piano player's fingers of the mangroves, stretching downwards. Scarlet dragonflies perch on aerial roots. Leaves lining the riverbed appear in shades of chocolate orange and ruby.

Paddling, we pushed our way along the jungle by-ways until they became so shallow that we could proceed no further. On foot we inspected medicinal plants and the red sap of the balsa tree whose buttress roots are struck with the blade of a machete to convey messages through the jungle fortress. Termites squirmed when their nests were disturbed - small and brown, not fat and white as I'd imagined. The old adage that there's no smoke without fire proved totally untrue as our guides rubbed palm wood sticks together, generated wafts of smoke but no flames. It was clear though that with perseverance, blowing the glowing fibres gently and keeping up the friction of one piece of dry wood against the other, a fire could be conjured into being.

Climbing coconut palms is not for the faint hearted. It's not the fear of shimmying up the smooth sweeping trunks, hands flattened against its sides, soles of feet too. It's rather the descent - a slide from a great height. We tried. The technique is, it seemed to us, to keep as upright as possible, allowing the weight to pass down through hips and knees onto skewed angles and feet in full contact with the trunk, and to avoid hugging the trunk for all you're worth. Having got no more than 2 metres up, we decided to save our souls and contented ourselves instead with gathering up the fallen nuts and loading them into the canoe.

The Warao of the delta are expert basket and hammock makers. Their raw materials grow all around them: cane and the leaves of the moriche palm, the indians' 'tree of life'. The moriche has a number of uses - its orange fruits the indians submerge in water, allow to mature and squeeze to form a drink. The fibrous coating of its leaves is stripped away from the green centre with a folding and flicking motion acquired through much practice. The strands of off-white fibre are then boiled, washed in the river and rolled by the women along their thighs (which fortunately are hairless) until a cord is formed. These cords are woven together into a mesh of great elasticity to form their hammocks, draped from beam to beam.

The neighbouring family was due to give us a musical demonstration. They play a sort of water pipe. Unluckily, we never did get to hear them in action since most members of the family, including the musicians, had decamped to the nearest medical assistance suffering from stomach trouble. Indian children often suffer from poor kidney function brought on by the cold on their backs, unprotected as they lay in their hammocks. Fortunately, so I was told, it can be easily cured by warming.

The temperature does drop at night. If you go, take a fleece in which to ensconce yourself in your hammock. Hammock sleeping requires a little acclimatisation. Momentarily, upon lying back, I felt the disorientation of drunkenness or small boats, usually presaging sea sickness. I mused whether sailors of old were doubly hardy individuals to sleep in hammocks on board ship, or whether the two sets of swaying motion counterbalance and neutralise the effect on one's stomach. The swaying soon subsided, however. Being a person who naturally sleeps on my front, I thought this experience would be a form of tortur, a taste of what it must be like to be unable to turn over in the late stages of pregnancy perhaps. The hammock holds you in its jaws but it's up to you to set those jaws by the spot at which your bottom lands in the net and the angle at which you sprawl across it. The tip from the locals is to lie slightly at an angle rather than in a direct line end to end. This seemed to work and to my great surpise I slept soundly, waking to find the mist rising off the river and a boat to drag me back to reality.

Julie Vaughan
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