The towering thunderclouds that had been swelling upwards into the enormous skies were finally putting on a show. Though the sun had set and night had fallen over Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo, the scene around us was as bright as day, illuminated by the bright white radiance of the world’s most reliable lightning storm.
Venezuela, which crowns the South American continent, and lists the longest Caribbean coastline and the world’s highest waterfalls amongst its accolades, is also home to the Catatumbo Lightning, the world’s most frequent and intense thunderstorm.
The lightning occurs nightly above Lake Maracaibo, the continent’s largest body of water close to the Colombian border. Ringed by the northern Andes, the lake’s position provides the perfect conditions for electricity.
“For lightning you need heat and humidity”, says Professor Graeme Anderson, one of the UK’s top lightning scientists. “These are in abundance in this part of the world. Add in the factor of the changing winds, caused by the cool air coming down from the surrounding mountains, and you are left with something very special”.
By day this sweltering water basin is virtually untouched by human hands, save for the lake-top fishing communities that dot its shores. The villages are accessed by speedboat from a forested harbour at the lake’s southern edge. Passing through jungled channels where howler monkeys (the world’s loudest terrestrial creature) shriek from their shaking canopies, we arrive at the lake itself. The perspective widens to reveal enormous skies in all directions, where the localized cumulonimbus storms clouds will explode, many kilometres into the troposphere, in this nightly show.
The villages consist of huts built atop the water’s surface, supported by stilts driven down into the ground below. The locals are accordingly adept with canoes, evidenced through their effortless paddling between brightly painted shacks on visits to their neighbours. The younger villagers, not yet old enough to operate full-size boats, sit bobbing in washbasins, capsizing one another in watery games of ‘dodgems’.
The country actually takes its name from these lake-top settlements. This region was the first land embarked upon by the Spanish explorers to the continent, who were put in mind of a ‘Venice Land’ upon sighting the communities. The name ‘Venezuela’ stuck.
For the locals, who rarely see nights without the lightning, the increasing interest from tourists is bewildering. “It’s nothing unusual for us”, says 17 year-old Daniel Bracho, “the lightning has always existed here. It’s funny to us that tourists come stay up all night to watch the storms when we sleep through them”.
Situated on the edge of one village, our hut is a simple affair. Guests can choose to sleep in hammocks or in the dormitory, the same room in which Professor Brian Cox was awoken shrieking during a filming expedition to the Catatumbo Lighting, following the appearance of an uninvited bat in his mosquito net.
Days are spent touring the region’s backwaters and making friends in the village, while by night the stars come out. The lightning show begins at around 2am, which gives the group a chance to gaze into skies populated with innumerable stars, before the first rumblings of thunder roll in off the lake to announce the opening act.
The storms build slowly, their sheet lightning inside the clouds illuminating the thundering source of the bolts, which draw great cracks through the space between the immense clouds and the choppy water below.
Storms on all sides build together, and before long the nighttime world around us has been transformed into an enormous strobe light. Palm-dwelling monkeys retreat into the denser foliage as the lightning bolts become uncountable. The chatter of the group turns to silent awe as the storms reach their zenith, with multiple streaks of lightning emerging together, their thunder reaching us in triplicate as we stand observing the world’s most intense lightning.
The storms eventually begin to subside, and before long dawn’s early light in the east announces the imminent arrival of the sun, whose soft golden light is soothing following the white-hot flashes which had been the previous source of illumination.
Crawling back to our hammocks to rest before the intense daytime heat makes sleep a sweaty impossibility, I begin to understand, as the thunder lowers to a distant growl, how the original inhabitants of ‘Little Venice’ are lulled to sleep so easily.
Tours to the Catatumbo Lightning run from Mérida, a popular town in the Venezuelan Andes. Various tour companies operate the trip, although Alan Highton (www.cocolight.com) offers the only two-night tour.