Navigating the Orinoco

Credit: John Pahl

My friend, John, who certainly qualifies as working in one of the more unusual fields, has just returned from an unusual work trip to Venezuela and the Orinoco Delta. John is also an alumni of my natural navigation school and a reporter in the sailing world, see Captain JP’s Log. I asked him to do me a favour, to keep his senses alert and to see if he could glean any useful wayfinding scraps whilst out there. He did well, very well. Here is an excerpt from his ‘report’!

I tried to find out how the Warao people who live in the delta navigate and as I speak no Spanish and they no English (they have their own language and actually not all of them speak Spanish) I had to use our Venezuela guide as a translator. However English was her fourth language after Spanish, Italian and German and she was pretty tired at this point so could have completely missed the point.

Anyway I asked her to ask them how they navigate: did they use the sun and stars and if so how? The answer I got back (again take into account the Chinese whispers involved) was that they don’t.  What they do is keep very good track of where they are in the tide cycle. The Delta has a 2m ish range between high/low waters, and so from that and the direction of current (which is easy to spot as there are these plants that drift around on it) they can work out which is towards the sea and which upriver. This is their main navigational tool, and when on an island they use blazes and “their nose” (not sure if that’s literal or means sense of direction) to find their way to the nearest water and then use water flow direction.

That would make some sense, but would result in a topological map not a cartographic, which actually would be more useful. Even with knowing the sun was east/west I found the many curves and bends of the river disconcerting but in terms of getting from A -> B irrelevant: what matters is the channel and whether you are going up it or down it…

Great stuff, thanks John. You can read more on his website.

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