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Living on the edge

by Roy R. Morris

bajanstormchasersilhouetteBarbadian Alan Highton left the safety and quiet of his Navy Gardens, Christ Church home 30 years ago in search of fortune and adventure elsewhere.

As the crow flies, he did end up in a place, as Bajan would not “not all that far away” – but as far as the average Barbadian is concerned it’s a whole different world. And it is filled with real life adventure.

In 2010 a Barbados TODAY headline dubbed Highton the Anaconda Man – the result of what he does for a living. He conducts tours into the interior of Venezuela and wrestles large snakes for the benefit of tourists. He is at home in the wild, and points out that after more than 1,500 trips into the interior of the oil rich country he has not had any major scares.

Today, Highton is in the news again, with some of the world’s most respected and widely read publications highlighting his work, as he takes on a far more dangerous – yet beautiful – creations of Mother Nature. Recently Highton has paid a lot more attention to his encounters with a phenomenon known as “the everlasting storm” – Rel√mpago del Catatumbo.

He explained to Barbados TODAY this morning that he operates a tour camp that takes visitors to Venezuela’s Catatumbo River where with each blast of lightning the skies and water light up into an awesome display of Mother Nature’s raw power and beauty.

As one publication explained: “The unique atmospheric phenomenon generates an estimated 1.2 million lightning strikes a year and is visible from almost 250 miles away.

“Storm clouds gather in the same spot five-miles above Lake Maracaibo up to 160 nights per year, lasting for about 10 hours at a time.

“There are several theories to explain the continuous storms, including high winds which sweep across the lake forming clouds when they meet the Andean mountains. Others link it to the boggy marshes releasing methane gas.

bajanstormchaser“Either way it has become a proud symbol for the people of Venezuela and is referenced in the epic poem La Dragontea by Lope de Vega. It is also credited with scuppering a raid by Francis Drake on the city of Maracaibo in 1595 when lightning betrayed his ships to the Spanish garrison.

“The state of Zulia, which encompasses Lake Maracaibo, has a lightning bolt across its centre and refers to the phenomenon in its anthem. The storm also acts as a natural lighthouse for local fisherman who are able to navigate at night without any problem.”

Highton explained that while hundreds of visitors from all corners of the globe take his tour each year, there is hardly ever a Barbadian – and his wish is to change that.

“I really would like to share this adventure with Barbadians, but for some reason a lot of Bajans have this belief that Venezuela is this dangerous place,” Highton said.

“That is just not true. I have done more than 1,500 of these trips and I have never had any problems. The interior of Venezuela is the most beautiful and peaceful place you could ever hope for. No one has been hit on our trips although we have had some close calls. Most of those were me!”

For those who might never wish to make the trip, or who just don’t have the funds for the adventure, Highton has been using his camera to capture forever the beauty of the everlasting storm. And from National Geographic to the Daily Mail, Mirror and Times of London have been snapping up his photos for their worldwide audiences.

Explaining why he has been able to acquire such breath-taking photos, Highton told Barbados TODAY: “Just 20 kilometres north of my guest house, is the one spot on earth with the most lightning strikes – more than 180 per square kilometre per year.

“The lightning storms rage an average of six hours per night about 280 nights per year. The lightning rod at my guesthouse is hit a few times every month.

“The season of storms follows the Caribbean hurricane season, from April to November. If the hurricane season is an active one, we also get more and bigger lightning storms. I think we can actually predict the hurricane season by the intensity of the Catatumbo storms as the phenomenon picks up in May. This year has been a bit slow, but still spectacular. Lets see if that coincides with the hurricanes. I hope so!

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