By Jorge Silva
In this small fishing village of Ologa lies a square kilometre that is struck by more lightning than anywhere else on the planet almost every other night of the year.
Nataly, my travel guide, grew up with it. She knows lightning very well. As she told me, some of the people living here have a very special relationship with the phenomenon.
Her father, Alan Highton, has been a guide of this remote area for 25 years, ever since he left his native Barbados to follow a woman he had met. Funnily enough, it was the love of a woman that brought him here, but when he saw the Catatumbo Lightning for himself he fell in love all over again.
Nataly was thrilled we were spending the night of October 23 in the Catatumbo area. She was certain that we would see “good lightning.” When I asked her why, she told me the date marked the 10th anniversary of her two-year-old daughter Kelly losing her battle against leukaemia, and the lightning was a special way the two of them celebrated and communicated.
I silently joined her emotional celebration. “To see the lightning we’ll a storm. We’ll need massive clouds but sometimes the lightning is hidden behind them,” Nataly tells me.
The first few hours of the first night were completely calm. The lightning strikes almost every other night of the year, but after a long wait I went to my hammock to sleep, thinking that this would be one of the nights when it doesn’t.
But at 2 am it woke us up with a roar, and would not cease until dawn. It was like a festival of stroboscopic fireworks. It arrived without rain – an electric storm that illuminated the clouds with different colours. The lightning would appear vertically, horizontally, branching out, like a river in the giant screen of the sky. It was a visual symphony.
To photograph something so fast, you have to do it very slowly, using shots of 1, 3 and up to 5 minutes – it’s that bright and fleeting in the middle of absolute darkness. Photographers will understand: ISO 100, f22. It is that luminous and bright.
I went to sleep at dawn, and as soon as I closed my eyes I would see the strobe and the powerful flash of the lightning again.
The second night was different. Unlike the previous one, which felt like we were watching a show on a giant screen, this time it was very close. It felt like the storm was directly above us. We were covered under the roof of the pier, but it was almost impossible to avoid getting wet. The rain seemed to come down vertically on us, and on the cameras.
The perfect silhouette of the lightning would appear from time to time in the sky, leaving us momentarily blind.
During the day, I got to see the daily life of the fishermen and their families – lives of hard work and struggle. Earning a living as a fisherman in the oil-rich Lake of Maracaibo isn’t easy. Fish banks have grow thin in the polluted waters of the lake and the shores are awash with residue from crude spills.
The lightning is so familiar for the fishermen, that some of them say they don’t even notice it anymore. Obviously, no one stays awake waiting for it to appear. I got the impression that they believe that nights are like this around the world.
On my last night, the lightning was more constant and it lasted for many more hours than previously. It brought us columns of lightning strikes that would descend from a black cloud in the horizon.
Nataly was excited and moved, and I was too. Her wish of having ‘a beautiful lightning’ on her sad anniversary had come true.