Friday 18 October

There is time before breakfast to take in the mini zoo behind the restaurant. There is a clan of capybaras – pig-sized rodents – lounging in the pond and a pair of beautiful parrots pose on the fence for the camera. Suddenly, Diane feels something tugging at her trouser leg. A bird a little like a large moorhen is aggressively setting about her, and is not discouraged in the least by her attempts to push it away. Feathers fly and Diane beats a hasty retreat!

Breakfast is late served and we are not away until well after eight o’ clock. We pass back over the rickety suspension bridge. For the next couple of hours Miguel has his work cut out weaving around potholes as we pass across the pancake flat plain of scattered trees, lakes, marshes and occasional cattle.

We arrive at “Hato el Frio” at about noon. Here we transfer to two open-back trucks with sun canopies for a drive into the nature reserve. Our driver apologises that midday is not the best time to see the wildlife. We find a troop of howler monkeys in the trees near to the ranch. Then we are off along a track across a marshy plain. There are too many types of birds to count, of all shapes and sizes and colours, and it is hard to maintain an air of rapt interest as our driver gives us the name of each one. But the capybaras are a different matter. They cluster in small groups, mostly in the water, looking as though they have life more-or-less sorted out. Apparently their hind feet are webbed to adapt them to their aquatic lifestyle. They are quite unconcerned about the trucks. A group that were lying in the road were most reluctant to move aside to let us past.

Further along, we come to an awful stench of rotting fish. During recent heavy rains, the park wardens had to breach the dike along which the track runs to allow water to flow from the lagoon on our right into the marshland the other side. Now that the water is drying up, large numbers of fish are dying through overcrowding and oxygen starvation. Frenzied piranhas make the surface boil as they gasp for air near to a sluice gate. Two large birds with vivid red colouring on their necks – jabiru storks – soar away, their bills full of fish. We get off the trucks to walk for a little way. The heat is burning, and the lagoon on our right extends almost to the horizon. A caiman skulks below the surface nearby.

Continuing in the trucks we come presently to where ranchers are sorting, branding, and inoculating their cattle. There is a steel construction in the middle of the corral with bars arranged to guide the cattle down a narrow passage and through a series of gates. We are encouraged to climb into the corral and watch from close quarters. It is hugely atmospheric – the cow smell, pushing and shoving, the clanking of the gates and the shouts of the herders, the crack of the whip, the fierce heat of the branding irons and the sudden stench of singed hair. As each cows pass through, a man with a large brush daubs red paint over the horns and another pushes his arm up the rear end to check for pregnancy!

We return to the bus and set off for San Fernando, on the banks of the River Apure, the only large town for hundreds of miles around. It is dark by the time we arrive. I have my first decent shower since leaving Caracas; it is cold but there is a functional shower-rose! Patricia reckons the hotel restaurant isn’t up to much, so we walk to a nearby Chinese for dinner. Sim is in her element and orders our meal in Cantonese. The waiter is almost over-eager to please, but also seems slightly intimidated at having a Cantonese speaker in his restaurant. The food is good, but he admits that they are more used to serving the Venezuelan version of Chinese than authentic.